In a long white robe before the mirror of her dressing table Doris Bryce stood flashing a silver-backed brush through her long, thick hair. Her lord and alleged master had already reached the stage of peace and pyjamas, and was lying with his head already pillowed. There was rather more than the shadow of a frown on the comely face of Doris, which, Bryce, wise in his knowledge of his wife, affected not to see. There had been a few minute’s silence, during which Doris had tried to decide for herself whether she had heard aright or not.
At last! “You really said that, Hec?”
“Yes. What difference does it make?”
“You mean to tell me you asked Alan why he didn’t get married?”
“Well, I didn’t ask any questions. I merely suggested that he ought to.”
“Well!” said his wife, pulling a fresh handful of hair over her shoulders. “All I’ve got to say is that you are an absolute donkey.”
“My dear girl!”
“Suppose you were fishing, and I came and threw stones beside your line?”
Said Hector soothingly: “I might say, dear, that your action was ill-advised.” A slight shrug of her shoulders showed him that his correction was not being received in a spirit of wifely submission. “You must remember,” he went on, “that I stand ‘in loco parentis’.”
“‘In loco grandmother’.” Doris had put down her brush, and commenced to plait one side of her hair.
“Well, if you like it better, ‘in loco grand-parentis.’ My Latin has got a bit rusty; anyhow, I can’t see for the life of me what difference it makes.”
Doris disdained to answer. “Perhaps,” she asked coldly, “you can remember what he said to your beautiful suggestion?”
Bryce eyed her in silence for some moments, calculating how far he might risk a jest. From experience he knew the cost of miscalculation. “I must confess,” he ventured, “that his answer came as a shock. Alan owned up that he was already married.” His voice had a nicely-toned seriousness.
“Hector!” Her arms dropped. “You don’t mean to say —” Words failed her.
“Yes, my dear. About six wives, he was not quite sure, and several hundred porcupines. A regular young Solomon.”
There was a look in Doris’s eyes as she turned away that made Bryce feel that he had rather overdone it. “I think I have told you before that I do not want to hear any of the club jokes. I suppose that is meant for one.” Her voice was anything but reassuring. “Perhaps you will tell me what you mean.”
“Well to tell the truth, Doris, he didn’t seem to take kindly to the idea.”
“Not likely when it was pelted at him like that,” was his wife’s comment. She stared at her reflection thoughtfully. “He will come in to dinner on Sunday, I hope?”
“Yes, of course,” answered Bryce, pleased to be able to give one answer that might mollify a somewhat irritated wife.
“Ah, well, I have invited Marian Seymour to dinner on Sunday as well. I told her you would drive out and bring her in in the car.”
“Good idea, Doris. It will be bright moonlight in the evening, and we can go for a spin after we take her home.”
Doris, who had stooped to remove her shoe, straightened up, and looked at him helplessly. “Good heavens! What a man! To think I’m married to it!” She turned up her eyes as though imploring heavenly guidance in her affliction. “Hector, if I thought there was the remotest possibility of your suggesting driving her home, I should most certainly jab your tyres full of holes. It’s beyond my comprehension. They say you are the cleverest business man in the district, but in ordinary matters of domestic common sense you are just hopeless.”
“Now, what in the name of all that’s wonderful have I said?” asked the injured man, groping for light.
“Must I put it into plain cold English?”
“Well, my good woman —”
“For goodness’ sake, Hector, don’t say ‘good woman.’ You know I hate it.”
He did know, as a matter of fact, and that is why perhaps, he used the expression. “Well, Doris, may I ask you to be a little less complex?”
“A little less complex! Instruction for the young!” she said bitingly. “Alan Dundas will drive in to dinner on Sunday. Marian Seymour will be driven in by you to have dinner with us on Sunday. Do you follow that much?”
“I have already absorbed those two ideas,” said Bryce mildly.
“Well, as you have already remarked, it will be bright moonlight when it is time for them to go home. Your car will have something wrong with it’s engine —”
“But, my dear, it hasn’t anything wrong.”
“It had better have then.”
Bryce hastily remarked something about sparking plugs.
“Then, as I said, your car will not be fit to take Marian home in, so it will be necessary for Alan Dundas to drive Marian Seymour home, a distance of five miles — in fact, nearly six — in the moonlight, and,” she concluded, “I know the seat of Alan’s dog-cart is not very spacious for two. Perhaps you see now?” and she tossed her head disdainfully.
Bryce spoke slowly. “And Alan called me a Machiavelli! Good Lord! Well, as you please. These manifestations are beyond me.”
That afternoon Dundas watched the dust of Bryce’s car until it died away along the track, and after setting his domestic affairs in order returned to his “condemned clayhole.” For some time he stood on the edge of the excavation staring thoughtfully into it, but in spite of appearances, his thoughts were far from pick and shovel. Had Doris Bryce only known, she need not have condemned her long-suffering man on her own somewhat biassed and self-satisfied feminine judgment, for Hector’s sledge-hammer diplomacy had undoubtedly given the owner of ‘Cootamundra’ an unexpected mental jolt that for the time being had left the smooth running of his thoughts somewhat out of gear.
For a long ten minutes Alan stood and stared, then pulling himself together abruptly he scrambled down, and drawing his pick from its cover began to make up for lost time. He worked himself mercilessly in spite of the breathless, sweltering heat.
The greater part of the afternoon had gone before he paused, after clearing up the bottom, to survey the result of his labour with pardonable satisfaction, and he estimated that a couple of weeks’ clear work would see his property the better for a serviceable waterhole. Then, taking up his pick, he struck heavily at a spot on the face some two feet below the surface level. The result of the blow was both unexpected and disconcerting. Hard as the clay was, and braced as his muscles were for the stroke, the jar that followed made his nerves tingle to the shoulder. The pick brought up with a loud, clear ring, while two inches of its tempered point and a fragment of clay flew off at a tangent and struck his foot. Alan swore softly, but sincerely. He picked up the broken point and examined it critically. Then he stooped and inspected the spot where the blow had taken effect. Then he swore again wholeheartedly. “Rock, and I suppose the only rock on the whole dashed place, and I’ve found it.” However, he was not the sort to waste his time in growling, so set to work carefully and scientifically to discover the extent of the obstacle, and the longer he worked the more puzzled he became.
His usual stopping hour passed. The shadows of the trees and homestead grew to gigantic lengths and grotesque shapes, but the rim of the sun was touching the distant timber belt before he finally flung down his tools.
In the fading light of the evening, Dundas strolled back to the hole again. He had hurried over a meal that he usually took at his leisure. He had brought with him a cold chisel and a heavy hammer, and after throwing off his coat he jumped into the excavation. There was just enough light for his work, and he selected a spot for an attack. Holding the chisel carefully against the uncovered rock, he brought the hammer down on it again and again with smashing force, bringing a flash of sparks with every blow, until at last a corner of the tool’s edge snapped with a ring, and whirred into the dusk like a bullet. Alan examined the dulled and broken edge with a frown, and then peered at the spot on which he had been striking. The stone showed neither chip nor mark. Not the faintest scratch appeared on the hard glass-smooth face after a battering that would have scored and dented a steel plate. Just as wise as when he started his investigation, he returned the ruined chisel and hammer to the tool shed, and went back to the house.
The book Dundas selected lay on his lap unopened for half an hour. The pipe he lit hung between his lips, cold after a few pulls, and he stared into the dark through the open window. Finally he pulled himself together and sat up.
At last he stopped, at peace with himself and the world. Close beside him and just where the light fell from the open window, a vine shoot from the verandah had sent down a tendril, and along the tendril, doubtless attracted by the light, appeared, cautiously feeling its way, a fat black vine caterpillar. The insect arrived at the end of the tendril and reared up as if seeking assistance to continue its journey. Dundas watched it idly. With absurd persistence it reached from side to side into space. Then, speaking half aloud, (habit formed of his solitary life), he addressed his visitor.
“My friend, can you tell me this? I have to-day broken up ground that I am absolutely sure has never been broken before, and yet below the surface I have come on rock that is not rock. It is a rock that I am prepared to stake my life on came out of a human workshops and not nature’s. Perhaps you can tell me how that human handiwork comes to be embedded in virgin soil that has never been stirred since time began. No, Mr. Caterpillar, the smoothness of that rock, which is not a rock, does not come from the action of water. I thought so myself at first. No, and again, no. It is human work, and how did it get there? Give it up? Well, so do I — for the present. I’m off to bed, old chap, and I’m very much obliged for your intelligent attention.”
Ten minutes later darkness and silence held the homestead.
Erle Cox, Out of the Silence, Melbourne: Robertson and Mullens, 1947 (first published 1925), pages 33-39