The Black Opal

Katharine Susannah Prichard

Preview: Issue 1 of 36

Part I


A string of vehicles moved slowly out of the New Town, taking the road over the long, low slope of the Ridge to the plains.

Nothing was moving on the wide stretch of the plains or under the fine, clear blue sky of early spring, except this train of shabby, dust-covered vehicles. The road, no more than a track of wheels on shingly earth, wound lazily through paper daisies growing in drifts beside it, and throwing a white coverlet to the dim, circling horizon. The faint, dry fragrance of paper daisies was in the air; a native cuckoo calling.

The little girl sitting beside Michael Brady in Newton's buggy glanced behind her now and then. Michael was driving the old black horse from the coach stables and Newton's bay mare, and Sophie and her father were sitting beside him on the front seat. In the open back of the buggy behind them lay a long box with wreaths and bunches of paper daisies and budda blossoms over it.

Sophie knew all the people on the road, and to whom the horses and buggies they had borrowed belonged. Jun Johnson and Charley Heathfield were riding together in the Afghan storekeeper's sulky with his fat white pony before them. Anwah Kaked and Mrs. Kaked had the store cart themselves. Watty and Mrs. Frost were on the coach. Ed Ventry was driving them and had put up the second seat for George and Mrs. Woods and Maggie Grant. Peter Newton and Cash Wilson followed in Newton's newly varnished black sulky. Sam Nancarrow had given Martha M'Cready a lift, and Pony-Fence Inglewood was driving Mrs. Archie and Mrs. Ted Cross in Robb's old heavy buggy, with the shaggy draught mare used for carting water in the township during the summer, in the shafts. The Flails' homemade jinker, whose body was painted a dull yellow, came last of the vehicles on the road. Sophie could just see Arthur Henty and two or three stockmen from Warria riding through a thin haze of red dust. But she knew men were walking two abreast behind the vehicles and horsemen—Bill Grant, Archie and Ted Cross, and a score of miners from the Three Mile and the Punti rush. At a curve of the road she had seen Snowshoes and Potch straggling along behind the others, the old man stooping to pick wild flowers by the roadside, and Potch plodding on, looking straight in front of him.

Buggies, horses, and people, they had come all the way from her home at the Old Town. Almost everybody who lived on Fallen Star Ridge was there, driving, riding, or walking on the road across the plains behind Michael, her father, and herself. It was all so strange to Sophie; she felt so strange in the black dress she had on and which Mrs. Grant had cut down from one of her own. There was a black ribbon on her old yellow straw hat too, and she had on a pair of black cotton gloves.

Sophie could not believe her mother was what they called "dead"; that it was her mother in the box with flowers on just behind her. They had walked along this very road, singing and gathering wild flowers, and had waited to watch the sun set, or the moon rise, so often.

She glanced at her father. He was sitting beside her, a piece of black stuff on his arm and a strip of the same material round his old felt hat. The tears poured down his cheeks, and he shook out the large, new, white handkerchief he had bought at Chassy Robb's store that morning, and blew his nose every few minutes. He spoke sometimes to Michael; but Michael did not seem to hear him. Michael sat staring ahead, his face as though cut in wood.

Sophie remembered Michael had been with her when Mrs. Grant said. … Her mind went back over that.

"She's dead, Michael," Mrs. Grant had said.

And she had leaned against the window beside her mother's bed, crying. Michael was on his knees by the bed. Sophie had thought Michael looked so funny, kneeling like that, with his head in his hands, his great heavy boots jutting up from the floor. The light, coming in through the window near the head of the bed, shone on the nails in the soles of his boots. It was so strange to see these two people whom she knew quite well, and whom she had only seen doing quite ordinary, everyday things, behaving like this. Sophie had gazed at her mother who seemed to be sleeping. Then Mrs. Grant had come to her, her face working, tears streaming down her cheeks. She had taken her hand and they had gone out of the room together. Sophie could not remember what Mrs. Grant had said to her then. … After a little while Mrs. Grant had gone back to the room where her mother was, and Sophie went out to the lean-to where Potch was milking the goats.

She told him what Mrs. Grant had said about her mother, and he stopped milking. They had gazed at each other with inquiry and bewilderment in their eyes; then Potch turned his face away as he sat on the milking-stool, and Sophie knew he was crying. She wondered why other people had cried so much and she had not cried at all.

When Potch was taking the bucket of milk across the yard, her father had come round the corner of the house. His heavy figure with its broad, stooping shoulders was outlined against the twilight sky. He made for the door, shouting incoherently. Sophie and Potch stood still as they saw him.

Catching sight of them, he had turned and come towards them.

"We're on opal," he cried; "on opal!"

There was a feverish light in his eyes; he was trembling with excitement.

He had pulled a small, washed oatmeal bag from his pocket, untied the string, tumbled some stones on to the outstretched palm of his hand, and held them for Potch to look at.

"Not a bad bit in the lot. … Look at the fire, there in the black potch! … And there's green and gold for you. A lovely bit of pattern! And look at this … and this!" he cried eagerly, going over the two or three small knobbies in his hand.

Potch looked at him dazedly.

"Didn't they tell you—?" he began.

Her father had closed his hands over the stones and opal dirt.

"I'm going in now," he said, thrusting the opals into the bag.

He had gone towards the house again, shouting: "We're on opal! On opal!"

Sophie followed him indoors. Mrs. Grant had met her father on the threshold of the room where her mother was.

"Why didn't you come when I sent for you?" she asked.

"I didn't think it could be as bad as you made out—that she was really dying," Sophie could hear her father saying again. "And we'd just struck opal, me and Jun, struck it rich. Got two or three stones already—great stuff, lovely pattern, green and orange, and fire all through the black potch. And there's more of it! Heaps more where it came from, Jun says. We're next Watty and George Woods—and no end of good stuff's come out of that claim."

Mrs. Grant stared at him as Potch had done. Then she stood back from the doorway of the room behind her.

Every gesture of her father's, of Mrs. Grant's, and of Michael's, was photographed on Sophie's brain. She could see that room again—the quiet figure on the bed, light golden-brown hair, threaded with silver, lying in thin plaits beside the face of yellow ivory; bare, thin arms and hands lying over grey blankets and a counterpane of faded red twill; the window still framing a square of twilight sky on which stars were glittering. Mrs. Grant had brought a candle and put it on the box near the bed, and the candle light had flared on Mrs. Grant's figure, showing it, gaunt and accusing, against the shadows of the room. It had showed Sophie her father, also, between Michael and Mrs. Grant, looking from one to the other of them, and to the still figure on the bed, with a dazed, penitent expression. …

The horses jogged slowly on the long, winding road. Sophie was conscious of the sunshine, warm and bright, over the plains, the fragrance of paper daisies in the air; the cuckoos calling in the distance. Her father snuffled and wiped his eyes and nose with his new handkerchief as he sat beside her.

"She was so good, Michael," he said, "too good for this world."

Michael did not reply.

"Too good for this world!" Paul murmured again.

He had said that at least a score of times this morning. Sophie had heard him say it to people down at the house before they started. She had never heard him talk of her mother like that before. She looked at him, sensing vaguely, and resenting the banality. She thought of him as he had always been with her mother and with her, querulous and complaining, or noisy and rough when he had been drinking. They had spent the night in a shed at the back of the house sometimes when he was like that. …

And her mother had said:

"You'll take care of Sophie, Michael?"

Sophie remembered how she had stood in the doorway of her mother's room, that afternoon—How long ago was it? Not only a day surely? She had stood there until her mother had seen her, awed without knowing why, reluctant to move, afraid almost. Michael had nodded without speaking.

"As though she were your own child?"

"So help me, God," Michael said.

Her-mother's eyes had rested on Michael's face. She had smiled at him. Sophie did not think she had ever seen her smile like that before, although her smile had always been like a light on her face.

"Don't let him take her away," her mother had said after a moment. "I want her to grow up in this place … in the quiet … never to know the treacherous … whirlpool … of life beyond the Ridge."

Then her mother had seen and called to her.

Sophie glanced back at the slowly-moving train of vehicles. They had a dreary, dreamlike aspect. She felt as if she were moving in a dream. Everything she saw, and heard, and did, was invested with unreality; she had a vague, unfeeling curiosity about everything.

"You see, Michael," her father was saying when she heard him talking again, "we'd just got out that big bit when Potch came and said that Marya … that Marya. … I couldn't believe it was true … and there was the opal! And when I got home in the evening she was gone. My poor Marya! And I'd brought some of the stones to show her."

He broke down and wept. "Do you think she knows about the opal, Michael?"

Michael did not reply. Sophie looked up at him. The pain of his face, a sudden passionate grieving that wrung it, translated to her what this dying of her mother meant. She huddled against Michael; in all her trouble and bewilderment there seemed nothing to do but to keep close to Michael.

And so they came to the gate of a fenced plot which was like a quiet garden on the plains. Several young coolebahs, and two or three older trees standing in it, scattered light shade; and a few headstones and wooden crosses, painted white or bleached by the weather, showed above the waving grass and wild flowers.

Sophie held the reins when Michael got down to open the gate. Then he took his seat again and they drove in through the gateway. Other people tied their horses and buggies to the fence outside.

When all the people who had been driving, riding, or walking on the road went towards an old coolebah under which the earth had been thrown up and a grave had been dug, Michael told Sophie to go with her father and stand beside them. She did so, and dull, grieving eyes were turned to her; glances of pitiful sympathy. But Snowshoes came towards the little crowd beside the tree, singing.

He was the last person to come into the cemetery, and everybody stared at him. An old man in worn white moleskins and cotton shirt, an old white felt hat on his head, the wrappings of bag and leather, which gave him his name, on his feet—although snow never fell on the Ridge—he swung towards them. The flowers he had gathered as he came along, not otilypaper daisies, but the blue flowers of crowsfoot, gold buttons, and creamy and lavender, sweet-scented budda blossoms, were done up in a tight little bunch in his hand. He drew nearer still singing under his breath, and Sophie realised he was going over and over the fragment of a song that her mother had loved and used often to sing herself.

There was a curious smile in his eyes as he came to a standstill beside her. The leaves of the coolebah were bronze and gold in the sunshine, a whitetail in its branches reiterating plaintively: "Sweet pretty creature! Sweet pretty creature!" Michael, George Woods, Archie Cross, and Cash Wilson, came towards the tree, their shoulders bowed beneath the burden they were carrying; but Snowshoes smiled at everybody as though this were really a joyous occasion, and they did not understand. Only he understood, and smiled because of his secret knowledge.

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