CAPTIVITY

CHAPTER XXII

They started awake at dawn to the discordant laughter of a jackass in the gum tree above their heads. After a moment's struggle to locate herself Marcella sprang up and, running over the little plot of grass that fringed the creek, had another joyous swim. The morning was very still—uncannily still, and already hot. When they started out along the bank of the creek about six o'clock they felt the oppression almost unendurable, but in the motionless air the five trees that marked Loose End were very distinct, though rather like toy trees in a child's model garden.

The depression of the night had gone; neither of them mentioned it; they talked of trivialities until they halted for lunch and drank a billy full of lukewarm tea.

Louis had built a tent by spreading two of the blankets over bushes to keep off the sun-glare. But there was not much rest in the gasping heat and at last Marcella stood up, stretching her arms which the pack on her back was making stiff.

"I wonder if it would matter if I took all my things off?" she began reflectively. Then she gasped out: "Why Louis, where are the five trees?"

He sprang to his feet, staring about in bewilderment. The sun was above their heads, red and leaden; all round stretched the scorched scrub; the creek lay to their right but the five trees had vanished, swallowed up in a thick, dun-coloured fog.

"Lord, we're in for a dust-storm, old lady!"

"Will it hurt us?"

He dilated on the horrors of dust-storms, and how they buried people and choked the water-holes. It grew dark, not a breath of wind stirred the scrub, not a bird moved or twittered in the few trees fringing the creek.

"It may pass us by," said Louis. "They're often very localized. But if it gets us, be sure not to speak, or your mouth will be full of dust, and keep your eyes shut tight."

They plodded on. Once Marcella started violently as a parakeet flew by with a brilliant flash of pink and green wings and a screaming cry. They found it difficult to breathe. It seemed as though all the air had been sucked up behind the advancing wall of dust and sand. One moment they were walking in clear, though breathless air; the next the storm was upon them, stinging and blinding and burning as the particles of dust were hurled with enormous velocity by the wind.

Marcella gave a little cry of fear, and in the process got her mouth filled with dust as Louis had prophesied. Groping out blindly she found his hand, and they clung together. She would have given anything to be able to speak, for the horror of the ancient doom of Lashnagar rose up all round her and gripped her. But for more than an hour they battled in silence, unable to go either backwards or forwards. When finally the storm passed over, leaving them with parched throats and red-rimmed, aching eyes and blistered skin, it was dusk—the swift dusk of the sub-tropics.

Marcella wanted to stay and wash the dust away in the creek; Louis, remembering the food shortage, insisted on pushing on. But when darkness fell they were going blindly in the direction they guessed to be right for they could see nothing of the five trees. Louis got depressed. Marcella felt tired enough to be depressed too, but had to keep his spirits up. She was just going to suggest that they should give up and rest supperless for the night when they heard a faint "coo-ee," and even more faintly the plodding sound of a horse's steps. Louis excitedly gave an answering shout, and in a few minutes they saw a horse looming through the darkness.

"What a good job I've found you," came a boy's voice, and they saw a small figure standing beside them, reaching about to the horse's shoulder.

"Were you looking for us?" said Marcella. "And are we found? We don't seem to be anywhere."

"I was looking for the sheep. I came across twenty back there, suffocated with the dust. I don't know what he'll say when he knows! But it's a good thing I found you, else you'd have gone on all night."

He turned then, and they followed him. He said nothing more until after about two miles of silent tramping they turned the corner of a high fence threaded with wonga-vine, and saw the lights of a homestead. Marcella felt she understood fire-and sun-worshippers. She could cheerfully have worshipped the twinkling light.

A dog began to bark excitedly; half a dozen children, with one unsexed garment shaped like a bathing-dress each, turned out to stare at them. A man of fifty or thereabouts, with a thin, rather tragic face came along the low verandah built all along the front of the Homestead, and looked at them enquiringly.

"Were you in that storm, chum?" he asked. Louis nodded.

"Come right in! What, got a girl with you, too? Enough to finish you off! Mother!" he added, raising his voice, "Here's a young woman come to see us."

A little meek woman in a faded blue frock came out on to the verandah.

"Wherever have you come from?" she asked. They explained, and she seemed to do ten things at once, while they were speaking. Louis was irresistibly reminded of a music-hall prestidigitateur. She was giving directions for more chops to be put into the frying-pan, clean water to be fetched from the creek and put in a kerosene tin in "Jerry's room," a cloth laid over the bare boards of the already prepared table, and a tin of jam found from the store. Marcella felt at home at once. It was the simple, transparent welcome of Lashnagar again.

The architecture of Loose End was entirely the invention of John Twist. It consisted of a chain of eight rooms. As the family grew, another room was leaned against the last one. One of the boys at Gaynor's had been heard to express the opinion that Loose End would, some day, reach right across the Continent.... The middle and largest room had two doors at opposite sides. It was the living-room. The others, which were either stores, bedrooms, or fowl-pens, had a window in one wall—glassless, formed of trellis—and a door in the other. A boarded platform ran right round the house to a depth of nine feet and the roof of the rooms, projecting over the platform, kept out rain and heat. There was much corrugated zinc and rough wood, many kerosene tins and boxes in the make-up of Loose End, but all the rooms were miraculously watertight. The room into which Marcella was shown was a sleeping-room and nothing more. There were three hammocks slung from wall to wall and one camp-bed still folded up. But while she was apparently talking to Marcella, Mrs. Twist whisked open a tin trunk, put a white linen cloth on the little table in the corner and, running out of the room, came back with a small, cracked mirror she had borrowed from her own room.

When she came into the living-room, after strenuous work in removing the dust of travel, Marcella found that Louis had been taken possession of by some of the children, and been to the creek for a bathe. One of them—apparently a girl, since she was called Betty—had filled a jam tin with water and put in a bunch of bush roses; the big kerosene lamp hanging from the ceiling shone upon seven cropped heads, seven brown faces and fourteen bare, brown legs swinging from the bench on which the children sat. Fourteen bright eyes shining in faces polished with soap divided passionate interest between Marcella and the epoch-making pot of jam on the table. Mr. Twist told the guests to sit down; he made the tea while Mrs. Twist dished up an enormous tin full of chops and fried eggs, placing a china washing-basin full of potatoes beside them.

"We need such a lot," she said with a laugh. "I did have an enamelled soup tureen I used for the potatoes, but the enamel chipped off a bit and I thought it might hurt the children if they swallowed it. So now we put the potatoes in the washing-basin and wash up in the tureen."

While the meal was in progress they all talked at once. The children after their first shyness had worn off were entranced when they learnt that their guests had, only a few months ago, been in a real ship on the real sea. Marcella, in turn, was fascinated in watching the manoeuvre with which Jerry concealed the fact that there were not enough knives and forks to go round. He, being ten, was old and tactful; he cut up his meat and ate a few swift mouthfuls frowning into quietness the nudging and protesting brother at his side who wanted his innings with the knife.

"We seem to be a bit short of usables," said Mrs. Twist, complacently drinking tea out of a jampot. "It's all along of that bush-fire last year, when we lost everything."

"We ought to have got out our pannikins," said Marcella, "but we were so tired and hungry I couldn't think of anything but how nice it was to get here."

"You can't think how glad I am to see you," said Mrs. Twist. "I haven't seen a woman since little Millie was born two years ago."

There seemed a million things to talk about. When the last scrap of jam was satisfactorily disposed of, the seven children scattered in seven directions. Mrs. Twist and Marcella washed the dishes; Mr. Twist and Louis smoked on the verandah. A great collie walked sedately into the room and looked at the cleared table reproachfully. Betty appeared with an air of magic and found him a plateful of food. The children seemed to be attached to their mother by invisible wires. At one minute their voices could be heard, shrieking and calling to each other. The next, when she went along the verandah with Mrs. Twist, most of them were in their hammocks, falling asleep.

"I wish they were a bit older," sighed the mother, at the door of their room. Two merry voices giggled in the darkness.

"That makes you older, too," said Marcella softly.

"They're so many to feed, and there's only Jerry can do much to help father yet. We've thirty acres of gorse to clear—and it seems impossible to get at it. It ought to have been done two years ago, but the Government have given us grace when we explained about the bush-fire. We lost a thousand sheep then, you know. And the Homestead was mostly burnt down."

They went along towards the men.

"It's a hard life," said Mrs. Twist uncomplainingly. "But the children are well and happy."

That night they talked, sitting out on the verandah, the black wall of the darkness in front of them, the fire-glow behind. A hot, steaming rain had begun to fall, following on the wind of the dust-storm. It dripped softly and gently, bringing no coolness with it. Mr. Twist talked of the slices of bad luck that had bowed his shoulders, lined his face, and all but broken his spirit. The two women talked softly. Jerry, who, being almost a man, had been allowed to stay up, brought out his old gramophone. Many notes were merely croaks; but "Oh, Dry those Tears" and "Rock of Ages" were quite recognizable. He was very proud of the "Merry Widow" waltz that had been sent to him from his uncle in England, and kept repeating it until he was ordered off to bed. Presently, in the darkness, Marcella found herself telling Mrs. Twist about the coming child.

"Where are you making for, kid?" asked Mrs. Twist, who seemed sorry for her.

"Anywhere. We were told there was a lot of clearing going on up here, so I thought we might both get a job. I didn't want my baby born in the city."

They talked no more that night, for Mr. Twist said it was bedtime. They slept dreamlessly in their hammocks until five o'clock, when they were wakened by Scot the collie who, planting his forepaws on each window-sill barked furiously until he was answered by a shout from within.

The sky was grey and sullen, the hot rain was still falling; grass seemed to have sprung up from the sun-baked soil in the night and the slant-set leaves of the five gums smiled as they slid big drops on to their roots. The leaves of the wonga-vine that sheltered the rather scanty beds of the food-garden looked riotously alive and green; nasturtiums and sunflowers sent out by the uncle in England glowed like little gold lamps seen through a fog.

Breakfast was a repetition of fried mutton and flapjacks and tea. As soon as the children had cleared it away the smallest ones settled down to write on slates long lines of pothooks and hangers. Two of the boys spelt words laboriously from ancient "readers," and Jerry set out to look for the lost sheep again. Marcella was packing her swag a little sadly. She wished they could stay at Loose End. Obviously it looked as though Loose End could not support its own family without the burden of another. But Mr. Twist thought differently.

"What do you say to stopping here, ma?" he said, looking at Marcella through the trellis. "I've been talking to your boss and he's willing if you say the word."

Marcella straightened herself up and looked at him.

"I'd like nothing better," she told him simply.

"Right-o, then. That's settled," he said, and they discussed details. Rather shamefacedly he offered them five pounds a month and rations. He said they were worth more, but he could not afford it. If they liked to throw in their lot with his and try to make Loose End's run of bad luck change, he would share the good when it came. They accepted his offer without discussion. Then he asked if they would live at the Homestead or in a shepherd's hut about half a mile away, near the lake.

"It's not a bad little place. I had two shepherds before the sheep got drowned. Then it was no use them staying. I don't think there's much in the way of furniture—"

They looked at each other. In each other's eyes they saw a plea to be alone together in their new world, and said, in a breath, that they would live in the hut.

"Oh kid, I'm so glad," said Mrs. Twist when the men went off to see what damage the dust-storm had done. Marcella was extraordinarily happy as she was taught what to do in the Homestead.



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