Meanwhile, way down the long white road between well-ordered vineyards and scattered homesteads nestling in orchards, sped Marian and Alan behind the fretting Billy, and with them a silence that neither seemed inclined to break. There were not many women even in that district of horse-women who would have sat calmly and care-free beside Dundas, knowing Billy’s reputation. Where a city-bred girl would have clung with white knuckles to the side-rail, Marian sat with loosely folded hands, letting her body sway with the swing of the dogcart.
Billy’s breaking-in had been peculiar. His forebears had been remarkable more for speed than for good temper. George MacArthur had acquired him as a yearling, and under that gentleman’s able tuition he had developed more than one characteristic that made sitting behind him more exhilarating than safe.
MacArthur, grown tired of buying new dogcarts, sent Billy to the saleyards, and insisted that the auctioneer should read a guarantee that described Billy as perfectly sound, and an ideal horse for a lunatic or anyone contemplating suicide, and it was under this guarantee that Alan purchased for a couple of sovereigns what had originally cost MacArthur fifty guineas.
Alan used to say, when asked why he retained Billy, that to get rid of him would deprive him of the joy of a royal progress. “You have no idea how polite people are to me when B.B.B. gets moving. I’ve seen a dozen vehicles pull off the road the moment I came in sight, and stand still till I passed them.”
To-night Alan was driving with special care, for his freight was very precious. He felt, too, a pride in the fact that Marian had trusted herself to his care without hesitation. It was only when the first struggle was over, and Billy had settled himself into his real gait, that he turned to the girl beside him. “Now, he is not so bad as he is painted, is he?”
Marian laughed. “No horse could be as bad as Billy is painted, not even Billy himself, but he is splendid!” Then, after a pause, “but I think it is almost criminal to have spoiled such a horse in the first place.”
“Don’t believe it,” answered Alan. “I’ve studied Billy carefully for three years now, and I’m quite convinced that his habits are a gift. MacArthur only cultivated them, just as a fine voice is cultivated.” Marian looked straight ahead, and said, “I’ll admit that in this instance he could not have had a more able tutor.”
Alan looked round at the calm, disapproving face, and smiled. “Et tu, Brute,” he said, quietly.
She turned quickly. “Do you stand by Mr. MacArthur?”
“Inasmuch as he is my friend, yes; more so now than usual, perhaps.”
She turned his answer over in her mind a moment. “Yes, I suppose you would,” she said.
“What does that mean — approval or otherwise?” he asked.
“I only meant that I thought that you would be very loyal to your friends, right or wrong. But, at the same time, in this instance I don’t agree with you.”
“God made him for a man — let him pass. Steady, Billy! That’s only a cow.” There was a full and lively thirty seconds until the horse had recovered from his attack of nerves.
Then Marian took up the tale. “That’s all very well, but is it fair, I ask you? Suppose, now, that I carried on a flirtation with the groom at the Star and Garter, which God forbid, for methinks he is passing fond of beer. Would your charity stand the strain?”
Dundas made a mental comparison, and chuckled. “I’d take the strongest exception to your taste, apart from conventions.”
They had turned off the white main road, and the clatter of Billy’s hoofs was muffled in the dust of the unformed track they followed, that twisted in and out among the big timber. The moon splashed their path with patches of black and silver, and in the deep hush of night they moved as through a dream landscape.
Alan spoke slowly. “I laughed, but God knows I did not mean to, Maid Marian. It is not good to hear you slander yourself, even in jest. To me the idea was worse than sacrilege.” He changed the reins swiftly over to his right hand, and covered the soft slender hand on her lap with his. For a moment it shrank timidly and then lay still. For a little while he held it, and then, bending forward, he raised it to his lips unresisting. For one instant her eyes met his and told their secret. “Oh! Marian, Maid Marian,” he said softly. Momentous words were on his lips, but words decreed by fate to remain unuttered in that hour.
For the moment he had forgotten everything but the girl beside him, and the right hand relaxed its hold, and as it did a hare darted from the shadow of a log and flashed under Billy’s nose. There came a swift jerk on the reins, and Alan recovered them in a flash, but too late.
He set his teeth and strained his eyes into the patchy light to catch the first glimpse of dangers to avoid. Only once he turned to Marian. The rush of air had swept her hat back on her shoulders, and her hair was a flying cloud about her face. But in her eyes there was no trace of fear. “Don’t mind me, Alan; I trust you absolutely.”
But for her presence he would almost have enjoyed the excitement, but the thought of danger to her turned his efforts to tightlipped savageness. He sawed Billy’s leathery mouth as he had never done before, when, to his delight he felt Billy’s mad rush falter. For the first time he had won in a straight-out fight, and though they took the curve on one wheel, by the time they came in sight of the white gate in the lane Billy was snorting angrily, but behaving like a normal animal otherwise.
“I am sorry, so sorry, Marian. That was my fault,” he said soberly; “I should have watched Billy more carefully.” The girl turned slightly and rested her hand lightly on his sleeve. “Please, don’t blame yourself, Alan. I want you to believe me when I tell you that all the time I felt perfectly safe, and I wouldn’t have missed it for anything.”
Alan laughed grimly. “Precious little honour to me that I did. It is the first time that he has ever given in so soon.” He reined Billy to a standstill at the gate, and as he did so a voice came from the shadow of the avenue beyond. “Is that you, lassie?” and there was a glow of a cigar in the darkness “Father!” she whispered. Then aloud, “Yes, father, Mr. Dundas has brought me home.”
The owner of the voice came forward into the light. “Oh! Dundas, come in. It’s not too late for a glass of wine.” Billy stirred uneasily and backed a little. “I’m afraid I cannot to-night. B.B.B. does not approve of late hours.” He pressed Marian’s hand tenderly as she rose. “Good night, Maid Marian,” he said softly. “Good night, Alan. Oh! be careful going home,” came the whispered answer. In a second she had jumped lightly to the ground. Billy half turned, and bored at the reins fretfully. Standing where the light fell full on her face, Marian looked up at him smiling. “Good night, Mr. Dundas, and thank you so much for the drive.” Alan waved his hand as the dogcart turned with a jerk, and the next moment he was pelting down the lane homeward.
Marian stood beside her father watching the two twinkling red stars as they disappeared in the distance. “Now that,” said her father, “is a man, but I’m blessed if I like the horse. How did he behave on the way?” Marian slipped her arm round his shoulder, and looked up laughing. “If you will tell me whether you are referring to the man or the horse, I might be able to answer,” she said. “Oh, lassie!” he said, taking her hand, and looking down at her fondly, “I think I’ll inquire about both.” Marian drew his head down and kissed him. “Daddy dear, as a judge of men and horses, I can honestly say that neither could have behaved better.” Which, when one considers it, was a truly feminine answer. Nevertheless, she lay awake that night smiling happily with her thoughts.
Fortunately for Alan, Billy’s performance had taken the edge off his appetite for bolting that night at least, for with his thoughts in a state of chaos he paid little attention to either road or horse. That one glimpse of Marian’s eyes as he had raised her hand to his lips had been a revelation, and he knew, although no word had passed between them, that he had awakened in her the love that until then he had known nothing of, and the wonder of it held him spellbound.
He spent a longer time than usual rubbing Billy down after his arrival at “Cootamundra,” and when he had finished he brought his hand down with a resounding whack on the back of the contentedly munching pony. “Billy, you little devil; I don’t know whether I ought to shoot you, or pension you off on three feeds of oats a day. I must ask Marian.” He walked over to the homestead, and looked at its darkened solitude distastefully.
He unlocked his door, but in attempting to light his lamp found that it was empty, and spent five minutes striking matches to find a candle before he could refill it. He splashed his clothes with kerosene, and before he had finished his task he had declared to all his household gods that “batching” was a rotten game.
Erle Cox, Out of the Silence, Melbourne: Robertson and Mullens, 1947 (first published 1925), pages 53-58
[Editor: Changed “come in. it’s not” to “come in. It’s not”.]