Story type: Literature
I had come a long journey across country with Glenn, the squatter, and now we were entering the homestead paddock of his sheep-station, Winnanbar. Afar to the left was a stone building, solitary in a waste of saltbush and dead-finish scrub. I asked Glenn what it was.
He answered, smilingly: “The Strangers’ Hut. Sundowners and that lot sleep there; there’s always some flour and tea in a hammock, under the roof, and there they are with a pub of their own. It’s a fashion we have in Australia.”
“It seems all right, Glenn,” I said with admiration. “It’s surer than Elijah’s ravens.”
“It saves us from their prowling about the barracks, and camping on the front veranda.”
“How many do you have of a week?”
“That depends. Sundowners are as uncertain as they are unknown quantities. After shearing-time they’re thickest; in the dead of summer fewest. This is the dead of summer,” and, for the hundredth time in our travel, Glenn shook his head sadly.
Sadness was ill-suited to his burly form and bronzed face, but it was there. He had some trouble, I thought, deeper than drought. It was too introspective to have its origin solely in the fact that sheep were dying by thousands, that the stock-routes were as dry of water as the hard sky above us, and that it was a toss-up whether many families in the West should not presently abandon their stations, driven out by a water-famine–and worse.
After a short silence Glenn stood up in the trap, and, following the circle of the horizon with his hand, said: “There’s not an honest blade of grass in all this wretched West. This whole business is gambling with God.”
“It is hard on women and children that they must live here,” I remarked, with my eyes on the Strangers’ Hut.
“It’s harder for men without them,” he mournfully replied; and at that moment I began to doubt whether Glenn, whom I had heard to be a bachelor, was not tired of that calm but chilly state. He followed up this speech immediately by this: “Look at that drinking-tank!”
The thing was not pleasant in the eye. Sheep were dying and dead by thousands round it, and the crows were feasting horribly. We became silent again.
The Strangers’ Hut, and its unique and, to me, awesome hospitality, was still in my mind. It remained with me until, impelled by curiosity, I wandered away towards it in the glow and silence of the evening. The walk was no brief matter, but at length I stood near the lonely public, where no name of guest is ever asked, and no bill ever paid. And then I fell to musing on how many life-histories these grey walls had sheltered for a fitful hour, how many stumbling wayfarers had eaten and drunken in this Hotel of Refuge. I dropped my glances on the ground; a bird, newly dead, lay at my feet, killed by the heat.
At that moment I heard a child’s crying. I started forward, then faltered. Why, I could not tell, save that the crying seemed so a part of the landscape that it might have come out of the sickly sunset, out of the yellow sky, out of the aching earth about me. To follow it might be like pursuing dreams. The crying ceased.
Thus for a moment, and then I walked round to the door of the hut. At the sound of slight moaning I paused again. Then I crossed the threshold resolutely.
A woman with a child in her arms sat on a rude couch. Her lips were clinging to the infant’s forehead. At the sound of my footsteps she raised her head.
“Ah!” she said, and, trembling, rose to her feet. She was fair-haired and strong, if sad, of face. Perhaps she never had been beautiful, but in health her face must have been persistent in its charm. Even now it was something noble.
With that patronage of compassion which we use towards those who are unfortunate and humble, I was about to say to her, “My poor woman!” but there was something in her manner so above her rude surroundings that I was impelled to this instead: “Madam, you are ill. Can I be of service to you?”
Then I doffed my hat. I had not done so before, and I blushed now as I did it, for I saw that she had compelled me. She sank back upon the couch again as though the effort to achieve my courtesy had unnerved her, and she murmured simply and painfully: “Thank you very much: I have travelled far.”
“May I ask how far?”
“From Mount o’ Eden, two hundred miles and more, I think”; and her eyes sought the child’s face, while her cheek grew paler. She had lighted a tiny fire on the hearthstone and had put the kettle on the wood. Her eyes were upon it now with the covetousness of thirst and hunger. I kneeled, and put in the tin of water left behind by some other pilgrim, a handful of tea from the same source–the outcast and suffering giving to their kind. I poured out for her soon a little of the tea. Then I asked for her burden. She gave it to my arms–a wan, wise-faced child.
“Madam,” I said, “I am only a visitor here, but, if you feel able, and will come with me to the homestead, you shall, I know, find welcome and kindness, or, if you will wait, there are horses, and you shall be brought–yes, indeed,” I added, as she shook her head in sad negation, “you will be welcome.”
I was sure that, whatever ill chances had befallen the mother of this child, she was one of those who are found in the sight of the Perfect Justice sworn for by the angels. I knew also that Glenn would see that she should be cordially sheltered and brought back to health; for men like Glenn, I said to myself, are kinder in their thought of suffering women than women themselves-are kinder, juster, and less prone to think evil.
She raised her head, and answered: “I think that I could walk; but this, you see, is the only hospitality that I can accept, save, it may be, some bread and a little meat, that the child suffer no more, until I reach Winnanbar, which, I fear, is still far away.”
“This,” I replied, “is Winnanbar; the homestead is over there, beyond the hill.”
“This is–Winnanbar?” she whisperingly said, “this–is–Winnanbar! I did not think–I was-so near.”… A thankful look came to her face. She rose, and took the child again and pressed it to her breast, and her eyes brooded upon it. “Now she is beautiful,” I thought, and waited for her to speak.
“Sir–” she said at last, and paused. In the silence a footstep sounded without, and then a form appeared in the doorway. It was Glenn.
“I followed you,” he said to me; “and–!” He saw the woman, and a low cry broke from her.
“Agnes! Agnes!” he cried, with something of sternness and a little shame.
“I have come–to you–again-Robert,” she brokenly, but not abjectly, said.
He came close to her and looked into her face, then into the face of the child, with a sharp questioning. She did not flinch, but answered his scrutiny clearly and proudly. Then, after a moment, she turned a disappointed look upon me, as though to say that I, a stranger, had read her aright at once, while this man held her afar in the cold courts of his judgment ere he gave her any welcome or said a word of pity.
She sank back on the bench, and drew a hand with sorrowful slowness across her brow. He saw a ring upon her finger. He took her hand and said: “You are married, Agnes?”
“My husband is dead, and the sister of this poor one also,” she replied; and she fondled the child and raised her eyes to her brother’s.
His face now showed compassion. He stooped and kissed her cheek. And it seemed to me at that moment that she could not be gladder than I.
“Agnes,” he said, “can you forgive me?”
“He was only a stock-rider,” she murmured, as if to herself, “but he was well-born. I loved him. You were angry. I went away with him in the night … far away to the north. God was good–” Here she brushed her lips tenderly across the curls of the child. “Then the drought came and sickness fell and… death… and I was alone with my baby–“
His lips trembled and his hand was hurting my arm, though he knew it not.
“Where could I go?” she continued.
Glenn answered pleadingly now: “To your unworthy brother, God bless you and forgive me, dear!–though even here at Winnanbar there is drought and famine and the cattle die.”
“But my little one shall live!” she cried joyfully. That night Glenn of Winnanbar was a happy man, for rain fell on the land, and he held his sister’s child in his arms.