A “hoydenish” girl’s plans come awry when she tries to play matchmaker for her sister.
Janet Arden laid down the “Sydney Mail” with a sigh. She had been looking at the illustrations of the American fleet, and reading an outline of the proposed entertainments of the visitors. She felt an intense desire to leave Kurrai, her quiet station home in Northern New South Wales, and mingle with the holiday crowds welcoming their oversea cousins. A vision came to her of the stately warships entering the Heads on a sunny morning, of the glorious harbour and city illuminations on a starry night, of the happy throngs surging hither and thither, herself amongst them, free from monotonous duties and together with one whose presence would enhance her delight.
“A penny for your thoughts,” cried a gay voice, and Miss Arden, coming back to reality, saw her younger sister standing in the open door leading from the sitting-room into the garden. Molly was 20, but looked 17 with her slender figure, softly rounded face, dimpling smile, small, slightly upturned nose, and general air of immature freshness. Her light brown hair bunched up into a net on the nape of her neck escaped in rebellious fluffiness, her eyes, the colour of wild lobelias, fringed by lashes a shade darker than her hair, were full of laughter; her short navy serge skirt had a rent in it, and bore stains of garden soil; the soft collar of her blue flannel blouse was unfastened, showing her full throat, tanned like the fair rosy cheeks by sun and wind. In one hand she held a trowel, in the other a bundle of violet plants, and there was a pleasant scent of damp earth and grass about her.
“I was thinking of all the gay doings when the American fleet arrives,” replied Janet, and then, taking in the details of her sister’s appearance, her clear brown eyes and straight featured face, expressed sudden disapproval. “Your skirt is torn, your blouse unbuttoned, and you’ve been gardening again without apron, hat, or gloves,” she said severely, conscious of her own neat black skirt, white silk blouse, and smoothly-coiled dark hair. “Really, Molly, it’s time you began to pay more attention to your personal appearance.”
Molly dropped the trowel on the carpet, and tossed the plants on the table beside her sister’s snowy needlework.
“I was going to ask you where to plant these violets,” she said, ‘but now let’s talk about the fleet.” She subsided into a comfortable chair; “let’s both go and have the time of our lives,” she concluded.
“You’re hopeless,” answered Janet, smiling involuntarily at the bright-arch face. “I believe there’s only one thing that might change you from a hoyden into a woman.”
“You mean if I got engaged to Geoffrey Dale,” replied the girl with a swift blush, “but I prefer my hoydenish freedom, thank you. What about going to Sydney,” she added, hastily changing the subject.
“I’d like it very much,” Janet stifled another sigh as she spoke, “but who’s to look after the house-keeping and take care of father and the boys?”
“I will,” was the quick reply; “I don’t really want to see the fleet, I’d rather go to Quirindi Carnival, and when I return you’ll have time to go to the Yankee festivities. You always say I should take interest in something be sides gardening and horses; well, here’s my chance. It is easy enough to run the house with two good maids; the boys are older than I, and dear old dad’s not hard to please.”
“That’s all you know about it.” Janet felt nettled, for she prided herself on her housekeeping, and believed she was indispensable to her family. “Things run smoothly because I know how to manage; your inexperience would make a nice muddle of everything. No, dear, thanks for your offer, I must remain at my post. Some day you, too, will understand the ‘spirit of self-sacrifice,’ and its compensations.”
“Wordsworth’s ‘Ode on Duty’,” scoffed Molly. “We learnt it at school; but the only lines that appealed to me were:
‘When love Is an unerring light, ‘And Joy its own security!’ ”
Her eye fell on the clock standing on the mantelpiece, and she sprang up with a cry of dismay.
“Geoff’s coming to ride with me at 3, and I’ve got 20 minutes to improve my personal appearance.”
She ran out of the room, trilling an air from “Mother Goose,” and Janet picked up the trowel and collected the violet-roots. Then she paused, gazing at the photograph of a pleasant-faced man on her worktable.
“If Molly would marry young Dale, and Aunt Mary would look after father and the boys, we might be happy, dear,” she said softly; “but, as it is, duty must come before happiness.”
Half an hour later, Molly, in a short, smart, riding-habit, and blue motor cap, was riding across the paddocks on a taffy pony, with silver tail and mane, which Geoffrey had broken in to carry a lady, and brought over for Molly Arden. Young Dale, who managed his father’s cattle station adjoining Kurrai, had been Molly’s “chum” since , her earliest girlhood, and though four years older, was regarded by her as “only a nice boy”. He was tall and well-made, with a strong face and quiet, deep grey eyes. He adored Molly, making no at tempt to conceal his feelings, but she answered his pleadings with the laughing excuse that she did not feel old enough to consider so serious a subject as marriage, and prefer red a “chum” to a lover.
When Taffy had been put through his paces, and pronounced perfect, Molly drew up to a walk.
“Now, I want to talk seriously to you, Geoff,” she said, turning her flushed, merry face to him.
“I’m ready,” was the rejoinder; “and please remember it’s leap year, as I’m forbidden a certain subject.”
“Silly boy, always harping on the same old string. This concerns Janet.”
“Oh,” exclaimed the young man, disappointedly.
“Partly myself also.”
“Janet’s dying to see the American fleet, but thinks I am not to be trusted with the housekeeping.”
“What a mistake!”
“If you’re laughing at me, I shan’t take you into my confidence.”
“I’m certain that you’re quite capable of housekeeping. You ought to know my ideas on that subject.”
“All right,” said Molly, hastily. “Now, listen, this is confidential; Janet would like to marry Mr. Lloyd, you know; he has a good Government billet in Sydney. He is deeply enamoured of Janet, but, though loving him, she thinks it her duty to renounce happiness, because I’m not only unable to look after the house, dad, and my big brothers, but also after myself. Since our dear mother died, four years ago, Janet hasn’t left home, and now that I want her to have her chance of enjoyment, she won’t go. Mr Loyd’s mother wishes him to marry Janet, and has invited her to stay with her during the festivities, but, no; my sister talks of self-sacrifice, and prefers moping at home. Now, I want you to help me think how we can persuade her to leave Kurrai in my capable hands, and go to see the fleet, when I’m sure she’ll return engaged and happy,”
“Why are you so anxious for her engagement?” asked her companion.
“She’s 26, and becoming alarmingly old-maidish. Fancy wanting me to garden in hat and gloves, and disapproving of my leaving gardening tools and plants in the sit ting-room. Besides this she is beginning to pet the cat, talks of getting dogs and canaries, and declares I’m a hoyden, who won’t become a woman unless — ”
She broke off suddenly in her careless chatter, blushing—
“Unless what?” asked Dale, gazing at her intently.
“Oh, nothing. It would be dreadful to have an old maid for a sister, and to think that I had been the cause of wrecking two lives because I’m a sort of female Peter Pan and won’t grow up.”
“You could soon convince her that she’s mistaken if you would only listen to me,” pleaded Geoffrey.
“Really, this is becoming quite an obsession with you; can’t you think of anything else?”
“No, I can’t,” he replied, with feeling, his eyes meeting hers with a look that startled her into sudden emotion. She laughed nervously to conceal ‘her strange agitation, and, putting her pony to a canter, rode on in silence.
“I know what to do,” she said all at once, as she pulled up again, “I’ll ask Aunt Mary to come and teach me housekeeping; Janet will be greatly pleased, and will not hesitate to leave home when she comes.”
“Will Aunt Mary leave her little spinster home to undertake the responsibilities of Kurrai?”
“Yes, if I explain matters; you know she’s a dear, and because she’s never married loves match-making. Let’s ride to Mallee township at once and interview her.”
“And don’t you want to go and see the Fleet, too?” asked Geoffrey, as he opened the gate leading on to the main road.
“Well, perhaps, but I’d rather go to Quirindi for the polo. I’ve had an invite from a former schoolmate whose father has a place up there.”
“That’s first-rate,” said Dale eagerly, “I’m going to play in one of the polo teams, so we could travel tip and return together.”
“That would be jolly,” agreed the girl, but, with a sigh, “Janet is sure to provide some tiresomely correct married lady as my chaperone. What team are you playing in?” The conversation turned to polo till they reached the township nestling in a fruitful valley, and riding up to Miss Mary Arden’s pretty cottage found her busy among her snowdrops and daffodils. The spinster’s gentle face, wonderfully smooth and pink for its frame of snow-white hair,- smiled a welcome to the young couple. Dale took the horses round to the yard, and when he returned to the garden Molly was just saying, “We’ve come to tell you something, Aunt Mary, and ask your advice.”
“I know, my dears,” replied her Aunt, beaming on them both, “I guessed it as soon as I saw you riding together. I hope you will be very happy, darling,’ she continued, kissing Molly, and holding out her hand to Geoffrey, added, “I congratulate you heartily and believe Molly could not have made a better choice; you have known each other since childhood.” Delighted astonishment was ex pressed in Dale’s face; startled confusion in that of Molly.
“But, Aunt Mary,” she stammered, suffused with blushes, “you— at least the— I mean —”
“I understand, my pet,” interrupted her Aunt, “it has only just happened; your bashfulness is natural. I’m proud and pleased to be the first to hear the good news. Not another, word till you’ve had your tea; then you shall tell me all, and have any advice I’m able to give.”
She took the overwhelmed pair into her snug drawing-room, with its cosy seats and old-time mementos; then bustled out to consult her maid about tea.
“Here’s a nice dilemma,” remarked Molly, sitting very straight and indignant opposite Geoffrey, “why didn’t you tell her she was making a mistake?”
“How could I know what you had told her. This might have been another plant to further Janet’s matrimonial prospects.”
“Telling Aunt Mary such a story! Never. Well, what is to be done now? Don’t sit there grinning like a native cat. Help me.”
Geoff, who had been trying to hide a smile behind his hand, composed his brown, clean shaven face into sudden seriousness.
“We cant’ tell your aunt she’s wrong,” he said, gaily; “she’d be hurt, and disappointed. Probably wouldn’t come to keep house for you.”
“No, and everything depends on that,” said Molly in a depressed manner; “she’s my god mother, and thinks she has a right to manage my affairs. Oh, dear, what a tangle. I can not undeceive her. We’ll have to let her think what she likes for the present, but, mind,” in a sharp whisper, as her aunt’s step approach ed, “it’s only make-believe.”
“Of course,” assented Geoff, no longer inclined to smile.
Aunt Mary entered, her face radiant with pleasure, followed by the neat maid, bearing the tea-tray, with best Crown Derby tea-set, and an iced cake that had been made for a church fete, but was now to grace a more important function. While the hostess poured out the fragrant tea, after the maid had re tired, Molly unfolded her plans concerning Janet, forestalling embarrassing questions. Aunt Mary’s cup of happiness overflowed at the prospect of another engagement.
“Of course I’ll come,” she said, cutting liberal slices of her delicious cake; “how sweet of you to think of your sister. Janet could not leave you under the circumstances, but you’ll find me an indulgent chaperon, my dears; though I’m an old maid, I’ve been young once, and know that a first love is the most perfect thing on earth. Perhaps I might even come to Kurrai altogether. My brother, your father, always wished me to do so, and when you both, leave home he’ll want some one to keep house for him. Neither of us will feel so lonely if we live together.”
Molly thanked her effusively, and, feeling horribly guilty, took her departure with her fictitious fiance as soon as possible, while Aunt Mary promised to come the next day, and talk matters over with Janet.
“I never was in such an awful fix in my life,” said Molly as they rode homewards.
“It’s pretty serious, isn’t it?” remarked her. companion placidly.
“I suppose you think I’m cornered,” snapped the girl, “but I’m not, so there. It’s all very, well for you—”
“Oh, is it?” interjected the man, and the flame that leapt up in his eyes seemed to scorch Molly, so that she averted her eyes, feeling hot and disturbed.
“I can’t tell Janet an untruth,” she continued fretfully, “and to-morrow Aunt Mary will come with congratulation. This is the result of unselfishness. Catch me meddling again with other people’s affairs.”
They had left the township, and after a short-cut through bushland, had come on to a narrow road between two barb-wire fences, when suddenly, through the silence of the waning afternoon, rose distant sounds of heavy hoof-beats, accompanied by a dull rum bling and a man’s voice rising in yelling desperation.
“Whatever is that,” asked Molly, edging her pony closer to Geoffrey’s horse. The riders stopped to listen, the horses pricked up their oars and shivered, while nearer and nearer came the galloping, rumbling, and yelling. A few moments later the cause of all this commotion became visible along the road in a cloud of dust. It was a bolting bullock team, coming towards them, dragging an empty dray. The six huge bullocks were plunging madly along the narrow lane tossing their horns and, muttering hoarsely. Behind them lumbered the heavy vehicle, and the distracted teamster, a speck in the distance, roared out use less imprecations, coupled with the names of the runaways.
“This will drive the horses mad,” faltered Molly, whose pony was already snorting and plunging, “and, oh, Geoff, the barb-wire so near.”
Dale knew that the danger was even greater than she imagined, but his face remained quite calm, and there was no emotion in his voice as he said,
“We must ride back to where the fence ends, and turn off into the bush.” He turned his horse as he spoke, and Molly, followed his example.
“Now ride for your life,” he said, and in an instant they were racing neck to neck back along the road towards the goal of safety, while behind them thundered the fast approaching horror. The horses responded well to rein and spur, but just as the end of the fence came In sight Molly felt her pony getting beyond her control. His blood was up, and the unknown terror behind him made him lose his head.
“I can’t hold him,” she cried, feeling that she would be carried straight on, instead of turning aside from the pursuing danger. Dale had, however, already realised what was happening. Holding his own horse tightly with one hand, and pressing him closely beside the pony, he caught its bridle with the other, jerking him round as they reached the turning, and in another minute they were both off the road, and into the bush. It was not a moment too soon, for just then the bullocks crashed past, keeping straight along the road.
Geoffrey restrained both the frightened horses, and Molly suddenly swayed in her saddle. Dale was off his horse, and had lifted her to the ground instantly. He thought she would; faint, but she recovered herself in a moment, though she clung to him shuddering:
“It’s all right, little girl; we’re safe,” he said; and, looking up, she saw the deep tenderness in his eyes, and the determination to repress words that might offend her, making his face white and rigid.
A strange mingling of fear and joy surged up in the girl’s heart; a sudden self-abandonment submerged her pride. Her face quivered, and a light came into her eyes that Geoffrey had never seen there before. Her arms crept round his neck, and her face was close to his as she whispered,
“I know now, I have always loved you, Geoff. It is no longer make-believe, bat reality, for us both.”
E C Morrice, “Molly’s dilemma“, Sydney Mail, 12 Aug 1908: 428.