THE CHRISTMAS CARD

“We shall think on Christmas morning
Of our dear ones far away,
Wafting them the tender wishes
That, alas! we cannot say;
Longing for their presence with us,
Eye to eye, and hand to hand,
On that day of happy meetings,
Joy and peace throughout the land.”

Christmas Day in the Australian bush! Not the sort of Christmas Day we
dwellers in bonnie Scotland or merry England are accustomed to. The
sun is blazing down in remorseless strength upon the parched ground,
where the few trees about the station cast so slight a shadow. Past the
foot of the straggling garden the little creek dances and ripples on
its way to the river, half a mile away, and, as far as eye can reach,
stretch the blue distances of bush in long, monotonous undulation.

“Wish he’d come,” says Ruby. “The pudding will be quite cold.”

On such a day as this it does not seem of paramount importance whether
the pudding be hot or cold. In fact, Christmas Day though it be, it
would be rather a relief to have a cold pudding than otherwise.

Ruby’s anxious little face testifies that such is not her opinion. She
has come out to the verandah, and, shading her eyes with her hand from
the white glare of the sun, gazes now this way, now that. The pudding
lies heavily upon her heart.

“Ruby!” comes a rather querulous voice from the room beyond the shady
blue blinds.

The little girl gives one last long glance in every direction, then
lets the shading hand drop, and passes through the open doorway of the
pretty cottage which is Ruby’s home.

“Isn’t he coming, Ruby?”

The yellow-haired woman lying on the sofa is Ruby’s step-mother. The
roses of the once pretty pink cheeks have paled to white, and there are
fretful little lines about the corners of the mouth, and a discontented
expression in the big blue eyes; but with it all Mrs. Thorne has
pretensions to beauty still.

“He’s not in sight yet, mamma,” returns Ruby, wrinkling up her brow.
She calls Mrs. Thorne “mamma,” for the fair-faced unaffectionate woman
is the only mother the child has ever known. Ruby was only a baby when
her own mother died, and “mamma in heaven” is a far less real personage
to her little daughter than “mamma” on earth.

“It’s very tiresome.” The lady’s tone is peevish, and she fans herself
languidly with a large fan lying by her side. “I can’t conceive what
makes your father so irregular at mealtimes. Do bring me something cool
to drink, Ruby, like a good child. This heat is intolerable.”

The “station” is built in a quadrangle, and across one corner of this
quadrangle Ruby has to go ere she reaches the kitchen. If it is hot in
the living room, it is ten times hotter here, where Jenny, a stout,
buxom Scotchwoman of forty or thereabouts, who for love of her mistress
has braved the loneliness of bush life, is busy amidst her pots and
pans getting ready the Christmas dinner.

“Dad’s not come yet, Jenny,” Ruby says as she reaches down a tumbler
and prepares the cooling drink which her step-mother has requested. “Do
you think the pudding will keep all right?”

“It’ll be none the waur if he’ll no be that long,” Jenny returns,
giving the fire a stir-up. “I’d no mind the cookin’ if it wasna’ for
the heat; but the heat’s maist awfu’. It near sends a body gyte. To
think o’ the Christmas they’ll be havin’ in Scotland too. It a’most
gars me greet to think o’ it a’, Miss Ruby, and us awa’ in this
queer-like place. It’s fine enough to say that fortunes can be made out
here; but I wad rather dae wi’out the fortune an’ stay at hame.”

“But, you see, this is home now,” Ruby says, stirring up her decoction
gravely. “That’s what papa always says when mamma gets cross. Mamma
doesn’t like staying here, you see. She says Scotland never seemed so
bonnie as when she’s away from it. And I’m Scotch, too.” Ruby gives her
head rather a proud little toss. “But I call this home. But of course I
don’t remember Scotland–hardly,” the little girl admits slowly.

The tumbler has received its final stir-up now, and Ruby carries it
through the blazing sun of the courtyard to her step-mother, still
lying on the sofa.

“I’ll fan you, mamma, while you’re drinking it, and that’ll make you
feel cooler.”

“Thanks, dear; you _are_ a good little girl,” her mother says, with an
approving pat for the small hand wielding the fan.

Ruby’s heart gives a great leap of joy. It is so seldom that her
step-mother speaks to her like this. Not that Mrs. Thorne is unkind
to her husband’s little daughter; but, wrapped up in herself and
her own ailments, she has but small sympathy to waste on others. Had
she seen the gladness which shone out of the child’s eyes at the
unaccustomed words of kindness, she might have spoken them oftener.
Though she loves her husband as much as it is possible for such a
nature to love any one, it has been a bitter trial to Dora Thorne,
reared midst the refinements of a Scottish home, to leave friends
and kindred for his sake, and to exchange the well-known, well-loved
heather-hilled land of her birth for the hardships and uncertainties
of the Australian bush. So perhaps it is no wonder that her time is so
taken up in commiserating herself that she has but little leisure left
to commiserate or sympathize with any one else.

Suddenly Ruby raises her head, a “listening” look on her face.

“That’s him!” she cries. “I hear him coming now!”

The child rushes out to the verandah, and again shades her eyes with
her hand. Through the sunlight, across the cleared space of grass which
surrounds the station, a horse and rider are coming. With the sunny
glare in her eyes, it is not until he is quite near that Ruby sees
that the approaching figure really is her father. Strangers do not
come often to Glengarry; but it so chances that now and again a stray
traveller on his way to the coast claims the hospitality of the station.

He swings off his horse at the garden-gate, flings the reins to Dick,
the stable-boy, and stoops to kiss the face of the little girl who has
run out to meet him.

“I thought you were just never coming, dad,” complains Ruby,
plaintively. “And Jenny’s afraid the pudding’ll be spoilt. It’s been
ready ever so long.”

“Here I am at last anyway, little woman,” laughs the big man, whose
brown eyes are so like Ruby’s, and whose voice is the sweetest sound in
the world to his little daughter.

He goes into the house, with the child hanging upon his arm, her big
eyes gazing up at him, reflecting every smile in the dear face above
her. The love between those two is a very beautiful thing, like that
sweet old-fashioned love of which we read, that it was “passing that of
women.”

“I thought you were never coming, Will,” says his wife, giving vent
to her thoughts in the same words as Ruby. “You do look hot, and
no wonder; for it is hot enough even in here. And I have _such_ a
headache.”

“Poor little Dolly!”

Surely a shade of regret passes over the bronzed face as he strokes the
soft golden hair with his big rough hand. He is reproaching himself
that he has not been unselfish enough, as many a man has, to face the
battle alone, instead of bringing this fragile little Dolly of his away
from the dear “kent faces” of the land where she was born, to brave the
rough life and hardships of the Australian bush. And before his eyes
uprises another face–a young, bright, dauntless face, with fearless
grey eyes–the the face of Ruby’s mother, who would have gone through
fire and water for the sake of the man she loved; but who, in her quiet
Scottish home, had not been called upon to do any great thing, only to
leave her husband and child when the King called her away to that other
land which is fairer even than the dearly loved bonnie Scotland she
left behind.

It is no one’s fault that the wrong woman seems to have been put in
the wrong place, that the fearless Scottish lassie who would fain have
proved her love for her husband by braving peril and hardship for his
sake, had comfortable circumstances and a peaceful life for her lot,
and that the fair-faced, ease-loving woman who came after her should
have had to brave those very hardships which the first had coveted.

To Ruby her own mother is nothing more than a name, and Scotland itself
not much more. She was only three years old when the new golden-haired
mother came home, and but little more when the reverses followed which
forced her father to seek his fortune in an unknown land over the sea.
And Australia is now, as Ruby has said to Jenny, “home.”

The child goes dancing off, and across the sunshine of the quadrangle
to tell Jenny to bring the Christmas dinner in. It is a dinner which is
much too hot for an Australian bush Christmas; but, if we happen to be
Scottish, let us be Scottish or die!

“I shouldn’t have brought you out here, Dolly,” the husband is saying.
He has said the same thing for the last half-dozen years; but that does
not mend matters, or bring the faded pink back to his Dolly’s cheeks.
But she likes to hear him say it, poor little woman. It shows that he
sympathizes with those not always imaginary ailments of hers.

“You’ll take me home again soon, Will,” she coaxes, clinging to him.
Unlike Ruby, far-away Scotland is still home to Dora Thorne. “Now that
you are getting on so well. Just for a little while to see them all.
Couldn’t you manage, Will?”

“No saying, darling,” he responds brightly. He does not think it
necessary to trouble this fragile little wife of his with the knowledge
that things are not going on quite “so well” at present as she seems to
fancy. “Next Christmas Day, God willing, we’ll try to spend in bonnie
Scotland. That brings the roses to your cheeks, little girl!”

It has brought the roses to her cheeks, the light to her violet eyes.
Dora Thorne looks as young just now as she did one far-off June day
when she plighted her troth to the man of her choice in the old parish
kirk at home.

“Do you hear what papa says, Ruby?” she says when they are all three
sitting at dinner, and the faintest breath of wind is stirring the blue
blinds gently. “That we are going to Scotland for next Christmas Day,
to dear bonnie Scotland, with its heather and its bluebells. I must
write to the home people and tell them to-night. How glad they all will
be!”

“O-oh!” cries Ruby, with wide-open brown eyes. Then, as another
possibility dawns upon her, “But am I to go too?”

“If we go, of course our little girl will go with us,” her father
assures her.

Christmas in Scotland! Ruby seems lost in a happy dream. Scotland! the
dear, unknown land where she was born! The land, which to mamma and
Jenny is the one land of all, far above all others!

“Will Jenny go too?” she inquires further.

The two elders look doubtfully at each other.

“I don’t know,” says mamma at length rather lamely. “Don’t say
anything to her about it just now, Ruby, till it is quite settled.”

Quite settled! In Ruby’s mind it is quite settled already. She goes
out to the verandah after dinner, and, swinging idly in the hammock,
indulges in the luxury of dreaming. Above her stretches the cloudless
blue of the Australian sky, for miles on her every hand lie the
undulations of Australian bush; but Ruby is far away from it all, away
in bonnie Scotland, with its rippling burns and purple heather, away
in the land where her mother lived and died, and where Ruby’s own baby
eyes first opened.

“It’s about too good to be true,” the little girl is thinking. “It’s
like dreaming, and then you waken from the dream and find it’s all just
a make-up. What if this was a dream too?”

It is not a dream, as Ruby finds after she has dealt herself several
sharp pinches, her most approved method of demonstrating to herself
that reality really is reality. No dream, she has found by experience,
can long outlast such treatment.

But by-and-by even reality passes into dreaming, and Ruby goes to
sleep, the rippling of the creek in her ears, and the sunshine of the
Christmas afternoon falling aslant upon her face.

In her dreams the splash of the creek is transformed into the babble of
a Highland burn over the stones, and the sunshine is the sunshine of
dear, unknown, bonnie Scotland.

“As I lay a-thynkynge, a-thynkynge, a-thynkynge,
Merrie sang the birde as she sat upon the spraye!
There came a noble knyghte,
With his hauberke shynynge brighte,
And his gallant heart was lyghte,
Free and gaye;
As I lay a-thynkynge, he rode upon his waye.”

INGOLDSBY.

Ruby always remembers the day that Jack came to the station.

It is the twenty-sixth day of December, the day after Christmas, and
Ruby, having busied herself about the house most of the morning, in her
usual small way, has gone down to the creek to do Fanny and Bluebell’s
washing.

There is no reason in the world why those young ladies’ washing should
not be undertaken in the privacy of the kitchen, save that Jenny, in
an inadvertent moment, has enlightened her young mistress as to the
primitive Highland way of doing washing, and has, moreover, shown her a
tiny wood-cut of the same, carefully preserved in her large-print Bible.

It is no matter to Ruby that the custom is now almost obsolete. The
main thing is that it is Scottish, and Scottish in every respect Ruby
has quite determined to be.

Fanny and Bluebell sit in upright waxen and wooden silence against a
stone, wrapped each in a morsel of calico, as most of their garments
are now immersed in water. Bluebell is a brunette of the wooden-jointed
species, warranted to outlive the hardest usage at the hands of her
young owner. She has lost the roses from her cheeks, the painted wig
from her head, one leg, and half an arm, in the struggle for existence;
but Bluebell is still good for a few years more wear. The painted wig
Ruby has restored from one of old Hans’ paint-pots when he renewed the
station outbuildings last summer; but the complexion and the limbs are
beyond her power. And what is the use of giving red cheeks to a doll
whose face is liable to be washed at least once a day?

Fanny, the waxen blonde, has fared but little better. Like Bluebell,
she is one-legged, and possesses a nose from which any pretensions to
wax have long been worn away by too diligent use of soap and water.
Her flaxen head of hair is her own, and so are her arms, albeit those
latter limbs are devoid of hands. Dolls have no easier a time of it in
the Australian bush than anywhere else.

It is not amiss, this hot December morning, to paddle one’s hands in
the cooling water, and feel that one is busily employed at the same
time. The sun beats down on the large white hat so diligently bent
above the running creek. Ruby, kneeling on a large boulder, is busily
engaged wringing out Bluebell’s pink calico dress, when a new idea
comes to her. She will “tramp” the clothes as they are doing in the
picture of the “Highland washing.”

Such an idea is truly delightful, and Ruby at once begins to put it
into practice by sitting down and unbuttoning her shoes. But the hand
unfastening the second button pauses, and the face beneath the large
white hat is uplifted, the brown eyes shining. The sound of horse’s
hoofs is coming nearer and nearer.

“It’s dad!” Ruby’s face is aglow now. “He’s come back earlier than he
thought.”

The washing is all forgotten, and flying feet make for the little side
garden-gate, where the rider is in a leisurely manner dismounting from
his horse.

“Oh, dad!” the little girl cries, then pauses, for surely this figure
is not her father’s. Ruby pulls down her hat, the better to see, and
looks up at him. He is giving his horse in charge to brown-faced Dick,
and, raising his hat, comes towards Ruby.

“Good morning,” he says politely, showing all his pretty even white
teeth in a smile. “This is Glengarry, is it not? I am on my way to the
coast, and was directed to Mr. Thorne’s as the nearest station.”

“Yes,” returns Ruby, half shyly, “this is Glengarry. Won’t you come in
and rest. Mamma is at home, though papa is away.”

Ruby knows quite what to do in the circumstances. Strangers do not come
often to Glengarry; but still they come sometimes.

“Thanks,” answers the young man.

He is of middle stature, with rather a tendency to stoop, and is of a
complexion which would be delicate were it not so sunburnt, with light
brown hair, dark brown eyes, and a smile which lights up his face like
sunlight as he speaks.

Ruby leads him along the verandah, where the flowering plants twine up
the pillars, and into the room with the shady blue blinds.

“It’s a gentleman, mamma,” Ruby gives as introduction. “He is on his
way to the coast.”

When Ruby has finished her washing, spread out all the small garments
to dry and bleach upon the grass, and returned to the house, she finds
the stranger still there. The mistress had said he was to wait over
dinner, so she learns from Jenny.

“Oh, there you are, Ruby!” her step-mother says as the little girl
comes into the room. “What did you run away for, child? Mr. Kirke
fancies you must have been shy of him.”

“Little girls often are,” says Mr. Kirke, with that smile which
illumines an otherwise plain face. “They think I’m cross.”

“_I_ don’t think so!” decides Ruby, suddenly. She is gazing up into
those other brown eyes above her, and is fascinated, as most others
are, by Jack Kirke’s face–a face stern in repose, and far from
beautiful, but lit up by a smile as bright as God’s own sunlight, and
as kind.

“_You_ don’t think so?” repeats the young man, with another smile for
the fair little face uplifted to his. He puts his arm round the child
as he speaks, and draws her towards him. “You are the little girl who
thinks such a lot of Scotland,” Jack Kirke says.

“How did you know?” Ruby questions, looking up with wide brown eyes.

“I rather think a little bird must have sung it to me as I came along,”
the stranger answers gravely. “Besides, I’m Scotch, so of course I
know.”

“Oh-h!” ejaculates Ruby, her eyes growing bigger then. “Tell me about
Scotland.”

So, with one arm round Ruby, the big brown eyes gazing up into the
honest ones above her, and the sunshine, mellowed by the down-drawn
blinds, flooding on the two brown heads, Jack Kirke tells the little
girl all about the unknown land of Scotland, and his birthplace, the
grey little seaport town of Greenock, on the beautiful river Clyde.

“You must come and see me if ever you come to Scotland, you know,
Ruby,” he tells her. “I’m on my way home now, and shall be jolly glad
to get there; for, after all, there’s no place like home, and no place
in all the world like bonnie Scotland.”

“Do you think that too?” Ruby cries delightedly. “That’s what mamma
always says, and Jenny. I don’t remember Scotland,” Ruby continues,
with a sigh; “but I dare say, if I did, I should say it too. And by
next Christmas I shall have seen it. Dad says, ‘God willing;’ but I
don’t see the good of that when we really are going to go. Do you, Mr.
Kirke?”

The sunlight is still flooding the room; but its radiance has died
away from Jack Kirke’s face, leaving it for the moment cold and stern.
Ruby is half frightened as she looks up at him. What has chased the
brightness from the face a moment ago so glad?

“When you are as old as dad and I you will be thankful if you can say
just that, little girl,” he says in a strange, strained voice.

Then Ruby knows that Mr. Kirke is sorry about something, though she
does not know what, and, child-like, seeks to comfort him in the grief
she does not know. She slips her small hand into his.

“I’m sorry too,” she whispers simply.

Again that flash of sunlight illumines the stern young face. The
child’s words of ready sympathy have fallen like summer rain into the
heart of the stranger far from home and friends, and the grief she does
not even understand is somehow lessened by her innocent words.

“Ruby,” he says suddenly, looking into the happy little face so near
his own, “I want you to do something for me. I want you to call me
Jack. Nobody has called me that since I left home, and it would make it
feel like old times to hear you say it. Don’t be afraid because I’m too
old. It isn’t so very long ago since I was young like you.”

“Jack,” whispers Ruby, almost shyly.

“Good little girl!” Jack Kirke says approvingly. A very beautiful light
is shining in his brown eyes, and he stoops suddenly and kisses the
wondering child. “I must send you out a Christmas present for that,”
Jack adds. “What is it to be, Ruby? A new doll?”

“You must excuse me, Mr. Kirke,” the lady of the house observes
apologetically as she comes back to the room. She has actually taken
the trouble to cross the quadrangle to assist Jenny in sundry small
matters connected with the midday meal. “I am sorry I had to leave you
for a little,” Mrs. Thorne goes on. “I hope Ruby has been entertaining
you.”

“Ruby is a hostess in herself,” Jack Kirke returns, laughing.

“Yes, and mamma!” cries Ruby. “I’m to go to see him in Scotland. Jack
says so, in Green–Green—-I can’t remember the name of the place; but
it’s where they build ships, beside the river.”

“Ruby!” her step-mother remonstrates, horror-stricken. “Who’s Jack?”

“Him!” cries Ruby, triumphantly, a fat forefinger denoting her
new-found friend. “He said I was to call him Jack,” explains the little
girl. “Didn’t you, Jack?”

“Of course I did,” that young man says good-naturedly. “And promised to
send you a doll for doing it, the very best that Greenock or Glasgow
can supply.”

It is evident that the pair have vowed eternal friendship–a friendship
which only grows as the afternoon goes on.

When Mr. Thorne comes home he insists that the young Scotchman shall
stay the night, which Jack Kirke is nothing loth to do. Ruby even
does him the honour of introducing him to both her dolls and to her
bleaching green, and presents him with supreme dignity to Jenny as “Mr.
Kirke, a gentleman from Scotland.”

“I wish next Christmas wasn’t so far away, Jack,” Ruby says that
evening as they sit on the verandah. “It’s such a long time till ever
we see you again.”

“And yet you never saw me before this morning,” says the young man,
laughing. He is both pleased and flattered by the affection which the
little lady has seen fit to shower upon him. “And I dare say that by
this time to-morrow you will have forgotten that there is such a person
in existence,” Jack adds teasingly.

“We won’t ever forget you,” Ruby protests loyally. “Will we, mamma?
He’s just the nicest ‘stranger’ that ever came to Glengarry since we
came.”

“There’s a decided compliment for you, Mr. Kirke,” laughs Ruby’s
father. “I’m getting quite jealous of your attentions, little woman. It
is well you are not a little older, or Mr. Kirke might find them very
much too marked.”

The white moonlight is flooding the land when at length they retire to
rest. Ruby’s dreams are all of her new-found friend whom she is so soon
to lose, and when she is awakened by the sunlight of the newer morning
streaming in upon her face a rush of gladness and of sorrow strive
hard for mastery in her heart–gladness because Jack is still here,
sorrow because he is going away.

Her father is to ride so far with the traveller upon his way, and Ruby
stands with dim eyes at the garden-gate watching them start.

“Good-bye, little Ruby red,” Jack Kirke says as he stoops to kiss her.
“Remember next Christmas, and remember the new dolly I’m to send you
when I get home.”

“Good-bye, Jack,” Ruby whispers in a choked voice. “I’ll always
remember you; and, Jack, if there’s any other little girl in Scotland
you’ll perhaps like better than me, I’ll try not to mind _very_ much.”

Jack Kirke twirls his moustache and smiles. There _is_ another little
girl in the question, a little girl whom he has known all her life,
and who is all the world to her loyal-hearted lover. The only question
now at issue is as to whether Jack Kirke is all the world to the woman
whom, he has long since decided, like Geraint of old, is the “one maid”
for him.

Then the two riders pass out into the sunshine, Jack Kirke with a last
look back and a wave of the hand for the desolate little blue figure
left standing at the gate.

“Till next Christmas, Ruby!” his voice rings out cheerily, and then
they are gone, through a blaze of sunlight which shines none the
dimmer because Ruby sees it through a mist of tears.

It is her first remembered tasting of that most sorrowful of all words,
“Good-bye,” a good-bye none the less bitter that the “good morning”
came to her but in yesterday’s sunshine. It is not always those whom we
have known the longest whom we love the best.

Even the thought of the promised new doll fails to comfort the little
girl in this her first keenest sorrow of parting. For long she stands
at the gate, gazing out into the sunlight, which beats down hotly upon
her uncovered head.

“It’s only till next Christmas anyway,” Ruby murmurs with a shadowy
attempt at a smile. “And it won’t be so _very_ long to pass.”

She rubs her eyes with her hand as she speaks, and is almost surprised,
when she draws it away, to find a tear there.

“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward
men.”

“May?” Ruby says. “I wonder who that can be?”

She turns the card with its illuminated wreath of holly and
conventional glistening snow scene this way and that. “It’s very
pretty,” the little girl murmurs admiringly. “But who can ‘May’ be?”

The Christmas card under inspection has been discovered by Jenny upon
the floor of the room where Mr. Jack Kirke has spent the night, dropped
there probably in the hurried start of the morning. It has evidently
been a very precious thing in its owner’s eyes, this card; for it is
wrapped in a little piece of white tissue paper and enclosed in an
unsealed envelope. Jenny has forthwith delivered this treasure over
to Ruby, who, seated upon the edge of the verandah, is now busily
scrutinizing it.

“Jack, from May,” is written upon the back of the card in a large
girlish scrawl. That is all; there is no date, no love or good wishes
sent, only those three words: “Jack, from May;” and in front of the
card, beneath the glittering snow scene and intermingling with the
scarlet wreath, the Christmas benediction: “Glory to God in the
highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.”

“Who’s May, I wonder,” Ruby murmurs again, almost jealously. “P’raps
another little girl in Scotland he never told me about. I wonder why he
didn’t speak about her.”

Ruby does not know that the “May” of the carefully cherished card is
a little girl of whom Jack but rarely speaks, though she lives in his
thoughts day and night. Far away in Scotland a blue-eyed maiden’s heart
is going out in longing to the man who only by his absence had proved
to the friend of his childhood how much she loved him. Her heart is in
sunny Australia, and his in bonnie Scotland, all for love each of the
other.

Having failed, even with the best intentions to discover who May is,
Ruby turns her attention to the picture and the text.

“‘Glory to God in the highest,’” the little girl reads–“that’s out of
the Bible–‘and on earth peace, good will toward men.’ I wonder what
‘good will’ means? I s’pose p’raps it just means to be kind.”

All around the child is the monotonous silence of the Australian noon,
unbroken save by the faint silvery wash of the creek over the stones
on its way to the river, and the far-away sound of old Hans’ axe as he
“rings” the trees. To be “kind,” that is what the Christmas text means
in Ruby’s mind, but there is no one here to be “kind” to.

“And of course that card would be made in Scotland, where there are
lots of people to be kind to,” the little girl decides thoughtfully.

She is gazing out far away over the path which leads to the coast.
Beyond that lies the sea, and beyond the sea Scotland. What would not
Ruby give to be in bonnie Scotland just now!

The child rises and goes through the house and across the courtyard
to the stables. The stables are situated on the fourth side of the
quadrangle; but at present are but little used, as most of the horses
are grazing at their own sweet will in the adjoining paddock just now.

Dick comes out of the coach-house pulling his forelock. This building
is desolate save for a very dilapidated conveyance termed “buggy” in
Australia.

“Wantin’ to go for a ride, Miss Ruby?” Dick asks. Dick is Ruby’s
cavalier upon those occasions when she desires to ride abroad.
“Smuttie’s out in the paddock. I’ll catch him for you if you like,” he
adds.

“Bring him round to the gate,” his young mistress says. “I’ll have got
on my things by the time you’ve got him ready.”

Smuttie is harnessed and ready by the time Ruby reappears. He justifies
his name, being a coal-black pony, rather given over to obesity, but a
good little fellow for all that. Dick has hitched his own pony to the
garden-gate, and now stands holding Smuttie’s bridle, and awaiting his
little mistress’s will.

The sun streams brightly down upon them as they start, Ruby riding
slowly ahead. In such weather Smuttie prefers to take life easily. It
is with reluctant feet that he has left the paddock at all; but now
that he has, so to speak, been driven out of Eden, he is resolved in
his pony heart that he will not budge one hair’s-breadth quicker than
necessity requires.

Dick has fastened a handkerchief beneath his broad-brimmed hat, and his
young mistress is not slow to follow his example and do the same.

“Hot enough to start a fire without a light,” Dick remarks from behind
as they jog along.

“I never saw one,” Ruby returns almost humbly. She knows that Dick
refers to a bush fire, and that for a dweller in the bush she ought
long before this to have witnessed such a spectacle. “I suppose it’s
very frightsome,” Ruby adds.

“Frightsome! I should just think so!” Dick ejaculates. He laughs to
himself at the question. “Saw one the last place I was in,” the boy
goes on. “My! it was grand, and no mistake. Your pa’s never had one
here, Miss Ruby; but it’s not every one that’s as lucky. It’s just
like”–Dick pauses for a simile–“like a steam-engine rushing along,
for all the world, the fire is. Then you can see it for miles and miles
away, and it’s all you can do to keep up with it and try to burn on
ahead to keep it out. If you’d seen one, Miss Ruby, you’d never like to
see another.”

Rounding a thicket, they come upon old Hans, the German, busy in his
employment of “ringing” the trees. This ringing is the Australian
method of thinning a forest, and consists in notching a ring or circle
about the trunks of the trees, thus impeding the flow of sap to the
branches, and causing in time their death. The trees thus “ringed”
form indeed a melancholy spectacle, their long arms stretched bare and
appealingly up to heaven, as if craving for the blessing of growth now
for ever denied them.

The old German raises his battered hat respectfully to the little
mistress.

“Hot day, missie,” he mutters as salutation.

“You must be dreadfully hot,” Ruby says compassionately.

The old man’s face is hot enough in all conscience. He raises his
broad-brimmed hat again, and wipes the perspiration from his damp
forehead with a large blue-cotton handkerchief.

“It’s desp’rate hot,” Dick puts in as his item to the conversation.

“You ought to take a rest, Hans,” the little girl suggests with ready
commiseration. “I’m sure dad wouldn’t mind. He doesn’t like me to do
things when it’s so hot, and he wouldn’t like you either. Your face is
just ever so red, as red as the fire, and you look dreadful tired.”

“Ach! and I _am_ tired,” the old man ejaculates, with a broad smile.
“But what of that? But a little more work, a little more tiring out,
and the dear Lord will send for old Hans to be with Him for ever in
that best and brightest land of all. Is it not so, missie? The work has
not come to those little hands of thine yet, but the day may come when
thou too wilt be glad to leave the toil behind thee, and be at rest.
Ach! but what am I saying?” The smile broadens on the tired old face.
“Why do I talk of death to thee, _liebchen_, whose life is all play?
The sunlight is made for such as thee, on whom the shadows have not
even begun to fall.”

Ruby gives just the tiniest suspicion of a sob stifled in a sniff.

“You’re not to talk like that, Hans,” she remonstrates in rather an
injured manner. “We don’t want you to die–do we, Dick?” she appeals to
her faithful servitor.

“No more’n we don’t,” Dick agrees.

“So you see,” Ruby goes on with the air of a small queen, “you’re not
to say things like that ever again. And I’ll tell dad you’re not to
work so hard; dad always does what I want him to do–usually.”

The old man looks after the two retreating figures as they ride away.

“She’s a dear little lady, she is,” he mutters to himself. “But she
can’t be expected to understand, God bless her! how the longing comes
for the home-land when one is weary. Good Lord, let it not be long.”
The old man’s tired eyes are uplifted to the wide expanse of blue,
beyond which, to his longing vision, lies the home-land for which he
yearns. Then, wiping his axe upon his shirt-sleeve, old Hans begins his
“ringing” again.

“He’s a queer old boy,” Dick remarks as they ride through the sunshine.
Though a servant, and obliged to ride behind, Dick sees no reason why
he should be excluded from conversation. Nor does Ruby. She would have
found those rides over the rough bush roads very dull work had there
been no Dick to talk to.

“He’s a nice old man!” Ruby exclaims staunchly. “He’s just tired, or
he wouldn’t have said that,” she goes on. She has an idea that Dick is
rather inclined to laugh at German Hans.

They are riding along now by the river’s bank, where the white clouds
floating across the azure sky, and the tall grasses by the margin are
reflected in its cool depths. About a mile or so farther on, at the
turn of the river, a ruined mill stands, while, far as eye can reach on
every hand, stretch unending miles of bush. Dick’s eyes have been fixed
on the mill; but now they wander to Ruby.

“We’d better turn ’fore we get there, Miss Ruby,” he recommends,
indicating the tumbledown building with the willowy switch he has been
whittling as they come along. “That’s the place your pa don’t like you
for to pass–old Davis, you know. Your pa’s been down on him lately for
stealing sheep.”

“I’m sure dad won’t mind,” cries Ruby, with a little toss of the head.
“And I want to go,” she adds, looking round at Dick, her bright face
flushed with exercise, and her brown hair flying behind her like a
veritable little Amazon.

That settles the question. Dick knows by sore experience that when
this little lady wants her own way she usually gets it.

“Your pa said,” he mutters; but it is all of no avail, and they
continue their course by the river bank.

The cottage stands with its back to the river, the mill, now idle and
unused, is built alongside. Once on a day this same mill was a busy
enough place, now it is falling to decay for lack of use, and no sign
or sound either there or at the cottage testify to the whereabouts of
the lonely inhabitant. An enormous brindled cat is mewing upon the
doorstep, a couple of gaunt hens and a bedraggled cock are pacing the
deserted gardens, while from a lean-to outhouse comes the unmistakable
grunt of a pig. Dick heaves a sigh of relief.

“He’s not at home,” he mutters. “I’m just as glad, for your pa would
have been mighty angry with me. Somewhere not far off he’ll be, I
reckon, and up to no good. Come along, Miss Ruby; we’d better be
getting home, or the mistress’ll be wondering what’s come over you.”

They are riding homewards by the river’s bank, when they come upon a
curious figure. An old, old man, bent almost double under his load of
faggots, his red handkerchief tied three cornered-wise beneath his chin
to protect his ancient head from the blazing sun. The face which looks
out at them from beneath this strange head-gear is yellow and wizened,
and the once keen blue eyes are dim and bleared, yet withal there is a
sort of low cunning about the whole countenance which sends a sudden
shiver to Ruby’s heart, and prompts Dick to touch up both ponies with
that convenient switch of his so smartly as to cause even lethargic
Smuttie to break into a canter.

“Who is he?” Ruby asks in a half-frightened whisper as they slacken
pace again. She looks over her shoulder as she asks the question.

The old man is standing just as they left him, gazing after them
through a flood of golden light. Dick looks too.

“He’s an old wicked one!” he mutters. “That’s him, Miss Ruby, him as we
were speaking about, old Davis, as stole your pa’s sheep. Your pa would
have had him put in prison, but that he was such an old one. He’s a bad
lot though, so he is.”

“He’s got a horrid face. I don’t like his face one bit,” says Ruby. Her
own face is very white as she speaks, and her brown eyes ablaze. “I
wish we hadn’t seen him,” shivers the little girl, as they set their
faces homewards.

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