IF you came to the homestead of Billabong by the front entrance, you approached a great double gate of wrought iron, which opened stiffly, with protesting creaks, and creaked almost as much at being closed. Then you found yourself in a long, winding avenue, lined with tall pine-trees, beyond which you could catch glimpses, between the trunks, of a kind of wilderness-garden, where climbing roses and flowering shrubs and gum-trees and bush plants, and a host of pleasant, friendly, common flowers grew all together in a very delightful fashion. Seeing, however, that you were a visitor by the front entrance, you could not answer the beckonings of the wilderness-garden, but must follow the windings of the avenue, on and on, until the wild growth on either side gave place to spreading lawns and trim flower-beds, the pine-trees ended, and you came round a kind of corner formed by an immense bush of scarlet bougainvillea, and so found the house smiling a welcome.
Very rarely were any doors or windows shut at Billabong. The kindly Australian climate makes the sunlit winter air a delight; and if in summer it is sometimes necessary to shut out heat, and possibly intrusive snakes, as soon as the sun goes down everything is flung wide open to admit the cool evening breeze that comes blowing across the paddocks. Billabong always looked as if it were open to welcome the newcomer.
It was a red house of two storeys, looking lower than it was because of its width and the great trees that grew all round it, as well as because of its broad balconies and verandahs. From either side the garden stretched away until hedges of roses blocked the entrance to orchard and vegetable patches. The house stood on a gentle rise, and in front the trees had been thinned so that across the smooth lawn you looked over stretching paddocks, dotted with gum-trees, and broken by the silver gleam of a reed-fringed lagoon. There was no other house visible—only the wide, peaceful paddocks. The nearest road was two miles away, and it was seventeen miles to the nearest town. Perhaps, seen from the front, Billabong might have seemed a little lonely.
But, in fact, no one ever dreamed of coming to Billabong by the front. There had, of course, been a few exceptions to the rule; as in the case of a new Governor-General, who had been brought in state to see it as a typical Australian station, and had greatly annoyed the inmates by bringing his dogs in to luncheon and feeding them with bones on the dining-room carpet, which happened to be a Persian rug of value. The Billabong folk looked back to that visit with considerable disgust. Sometimes other strangers found their way to the great iron gates, and up the avenue; but not often. Occasional callers did not come to Billabong, since the owner and his motherless children were not ceremonious people, and in any case, no one drives seventeen miles in the Australian bush to pay a call of ceremony. Those who came were prepared to stay, and were more immediately concerned with the disposal of their horses than with any other consideration; so that it followed that the chief entrance to Billabong was known as “the back way.”
The tracks alone would have told you that. As you came up from the outer paddocks, the gravel of the drive was smooth and untouched save for the gardener’s rake; but the other tracks, deep and well trodden, swept round beside the garden and turned in to the courtyard of the stables—big, red-brick buildings, looking almost as large as the house itself. It was always cheerful and exciting at the stables, for all the dogs took charge of you directly you arrived, and made vigorous remarks about you, until they were quite sure whether you were a person to be trusted. “Swagmen”—the bush tramps of Australia—loathed the Billabong dogs very exceedingly; and the dogs returned the feeling in a lively fashion, so that the progress of a swagman from the outer gate to the security of the back yard was apt to be fraught with incident and marked by haste. But if your respectability were evident, the dogs became merely enthusiastic, inspecting visitor and horses with well-bred curiosity, and finally accompanying you to the gate with demonstrations of friendliness, and parting from you with regret.