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Chapter I

Of chance or change, Oh, let not man complain!
Else shall he never cease to wail.


“But thy light footsteps there no more
Each path, each dingle shall explore;
In vain may smile each green recess;
Who now shall pierce its loneliness?”

As the sun drew near the horizon, its golden rays fell across the china-rose hedge, and under the broad verandah, where two elderly gentlemen reclined, smoking.

“Dell,” said one, puffing a blue cloud into the pure air, fragrant with mignionette, “what do you mean to do with your grandson?”

No question could more perfectly have chimed in with Captain Dell's present mood. He was thinking of the boy.

“I hardly know—make him a farmer, probably.”

“Bad—bad, Captain; farming don't pay like sheep.” Another expressive puff of smoke emphasised the assertion.

His companion erected his stately, athletic figure, and mused. Captain Dell had been a military man, who, early in the country's history, sold his commission, and tried farming. A rigid disciplinarian;—you saw it in the firm planting of his foot on the ground,—in the strong, large hand grasping the top of the stick, curiously twisted by being enfolded in the close twining stems of the sarsaparilla, as it grew in its native woods;—you

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saw it in the shaggy grey brows, drawn firmly together, and half hiding the clear, cool, blue eye, which never flinched before the gaze of any man; and in the straight, resolute lips. Yet he was a handsome man, and rigid in his code of honor as in his law of obedience.

“You are right, Rylston. I have not made riches here.”

“Send Gilbert to the station; he is young,—a few years there will make him a man, and he can take the place of Blackmore. I tell you, Dell, I don't like that fellow: by Jove, he should not superintend for me. My boys manage two of my stations for me. Tom is but twenty, and Will rather older.”

“You have a right to speak in favor of wool-growing; but Gilbert will never make a squatting king.”

Rylston laughed loudly and coarsely: a laugh of self-gratulation—of conscious wealth. His wide stations, his countless flocks, had won him the title of King Rylston: a title half in mockery, but sufficiently pleasing. The pastoral sovereign had risen from poverty and obscurity to his present position. His father had “left his country for his country's good;” but, like many in the early times, collected property, which—in a very peculiar will, at variance with all rules of grammar or syntax, and which had occasioned no small amount of confusion and legal investigation—he had bequeathed to his son. These advantages Seth Rylston turned to the best account, as far as verifying the adage of “money making money.” He had his friends,—for wealth can buy a certain spurious article which passes current under that noble name; and there were those who appreciated some natural good qualities, and on their account overlooked some positively bad ones. Among these was Captain Dell. He was not possessed of business tact,—a most essential quality in a dealing, trading community, like that of Australia; and he often experienced the advantages of King Rylston's kcenness in these particulars; but, after all, he could not succeed in introducing his wife and family into refined society. Mrs. Rylston could not rise with her circumstances, nor separate gentility from dress; so she purchased silks and jewellery, and thought herself a lady.

Being on a favorite subject, Mr. Rylston urged his advice, till the question was resolved into Gilbert's destination being the far-off cattle station;—he could back his argument with the weight of wealth.

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“Do I take him up with me, Dell?” he asked, passing his forefinger complacently over his huge grey moustache, and erecting his rather obese figure.

“No, thank you; I shall send him with Blackmore. He is in Sydney, and will come here on his way up.”

At that moment a quick half-sigh, half-exclamation of entreaty startled the gentlemen, and, turning, they saw a young girl behind them.

“Aunt Nancy sent me to tell you tea was ready, Grandpa,” she said quietly, but her cheek was flushed, and a shadow rested on her eyes, which made them darker than usual.

“Very well, Rachel; has Berty returned?”

“No, Grandfather.” The color deepened, and the lip quivered now, but she glided in at the open door.

In defiance of all architectural rules, Captain Dell had, as his means or inclination prompted, added to the original size of his dwelling,—here a long dining-room, there a library,—then a cluster of domestic offices, and so on, till every room boasted some three or four doors, beneath which—for bush-carpenters never manage to make things fit—the winter's winds whistled in chorus, rather to the discomfiture of the inmates. Yet it was a pleasant house, and a very happy household; for in the loving and venerating hearts around him Captain Dell found no opposition nor rebellion to awaken the harsher qualities of his character. His unmarried daughter and orphan grand-children seemed to appeal to his manliness, and such an appeal, however wordless, meets with a quick response in truly manly hearts; and perhaps he loved them all the more for their very weakness and need of his protection.

The irregular form of the building caused many nooks and corners: there were shady borders, which suited currants and gooseberries; and sunny walls, where figs and grapes ripened; there were seats shaded by Cape honeysuckles, and angles where the ivy held the walls with its many fibres. Altogether it was a pleasant spot; if the windows and doors were all of different heights and sizes, and the roof mossy and disposed to admit the rain in certain places where its odd points were intended to join, it bore throughout the signs of the hand of the “rough carpenter,” and he had evidently determined not to forfeit his name. A large orchard surrounded three sides of the buildings; —at once an orchard and vegetable garden, but not kept in any

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order, as it was under the charge of a very elderly man, with occasional assistance from the farm labourers; and they made a point of destroying all the results of their predecessor's work.

Old Skillbeck's gardening was a chronic evil, borne from habit rather than any more active reason. Pruning season found him in his glory; then with saw and knife he made a veritable slaughter in the vegetable world. There was a story current to this effect:—

“What are you doing, Skillbeck?”

“Pruning these yer young trees, Maister,” and the gardener snapped off the head of a plum sucker.

“That's a sucker; it is no good.”

“It will do no harm,” triumphantly returned he; and in this happy conclusion he passed his days among the orchard trees.

The room into which Rachel had preceded the gentlemen was one of the most ancient erections; the ceiling was very low; the stained walls were to all appearances tinted with brickdust, and perfect revolutionists in their independence of line and rule, swelling out into odd and capricious rises and ridges; the wide fireplace supported on its brick hobs a pile of logs, for winter was approaching, and a ruddy blaze richly tinted the ceiling and glowed on the dark cedar furniture. Aunt Nancy was already seated at the tea-board.

Rachel's eyes travelled uneasily from the face of her aunt to that of her grandfather, and, when the visitor addressed her, the tone of her reply and the expression of the eye wore a mixture of timidity and displeasure.

“How will you like your brother to turn a squatter, Miss Rachel?” inquired King Rylston, when there was a pause in the conversation.

“Not at all;—I would much rather he staid with us here.” The energy of her utterance startled the other females: Aunt Nancy lifted her eyebrows, and her other niece,—a girl nearly the same age as the speaker,—bent her head over her cup to hide the tears that sprang into her eyes, for she immediately comprehended the boy's destiny, and he was dear as an only brother to her.

“Rachel!” said the Captain severely, for her manner had been perhaps too energetic.

“I beg your pardon, Sir.”

“It was not to me you spoke,” he returned coldly.

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She looked at King Rylston in silence.

“Never mind,” he said, good-naturedly; “I like a little fire, —milk-and-water don't suit my fancy.”

“You won't send dear Berty to the station, surely, Grandpa, where we shall never see him,” begged she, with beseeching looks.

“And he will have no one to mend his stockings, and get him a nice dinner,” added Aunt Nancy, coming to her relief.

“Yes, Gilbert is to go;—and now, instead of making it a hardship, you had better endeavour to make him enter upon his life with spirit. You know he wants perseverance,—he is too impulsive. As for the little luxuries your aunt mentions, he must learn to do without them. I did without a mother's care from six years old, and Mr. Rylston, or any other gentleman, will tell you of how little real importance these things are to young men.”

Aunt Nancy poured the boiling water simmering in the kettle on the stand over her hand, instead of into the teapot, and saw everything through a haze; and her niece changed color, knowing from past experience that to argue with the Captain when his resolve was taken was worse than futile, as it only precipitated the course of the unwished event; whilst Elice trembled, and the quiet tears chased each other down her cheeks.

At that moment the baying of several dogs, the stamping of a shod horse, and a youthful voice speaking rapidly and gaily, announced the return of Gilbert Calder from his ride.

“All at tea!—am I so late?” he said, entering. “There, Rachel, are some flowers to draw,” and he threw a large and tastefully-arranged bunch of native flowers into his sister's lap, as he passed round the table to the vacant seat.

“Where have you been, Gilbert?”

“Down the gullies to get some bark for old Mother North; she is ill or something, Grandfather. I have been twenty miles since dinner, rummaging after the trees. I had to walk two or three miles. I tied the old horse up to a tree, and followed the creek; it is the wildest hole, I think, in the world,—a beautiful bush from the creek to the foot of the high rocks, hanging like a wall overhead. I filled my pocket-handkerchief with moss for you, Elice, but I dropped it somewhere.”

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“You lost your handkerchief?”

“Yes, Aunt.”

“Your new silk?”

“It was one of those with the red borders.”

Aunt Nancy elevated her hands and eyes in silent horror, wondering what would become of the boy when removed from under her careful eye.

Mr. Rylston began to expatiate upon the superiority of the plains over the mountainous country; he dwelt upon emu and kangaroo hunting across vast plains, where the horizon melted into the tints of the sky,—where the black man still trod his native land, powerful and independent. Gilbert listened eagerly, and it was some little time before he noticed the increasing agitation of the females.

“Why, what—” he then began in surprise.

“I have determined upon sending you to the station with Mr. Blackmore, and your aunt and the girls naturally feel some regret at parting with you,” explained the Captain, calmly.

The youth dropped his knife and fork, for a moment bewildered and uncertain. His ambition had ever pointed to the unfettered station life, but the sorrow of the loving hearts around him touched a cord which vibrated painfully.

“Don't mind,—I'll write, and come down sometimes and see you,” he said, rising from his chair, and, bending over his aunt, and trying to extend an embracing arm round the girls at either side of her, their fortitude gave way completely, and Aunt Nancy, offering an apology, hurried them away, and with desperate resolve attended to the courtesies of the tea-table, and lavished unheard-of quantities of sugar and jam upon her nephew.

Thoughtless and adventurous, and just entering upon manhood, Gilbert Calder looked forward to his future life with satisfaction, and spent the interval in riding round the neighborhood, bidding farewell to old familiar friends and places.

Busily the fingers of love and industry formed additions to his wardrobe; and as Aunt Nancy packed his valise, she forgot not the old silk handkerchiefs for whip-lashes, the warm flannels, the pretty comforter, knitted by Elice, or the purse sparkling with steel-beads, which Rachel, unknown to anyone, had sat up late of nights to make; and the kindly woman dropped a sovereign into it, though she wiped a tear as she said,

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“But, dear fellow, it will be no use to him there;” and down under his best coat she stowed a Bible,—not a new one, but an old companion and guide of her own in many a past hour. Here was the promise marked with trembling hand, when the letters had danced through her tears as she essayed to read them; and near it was a firm line, where Faith had set her seal; nor did she forget to write on the flyleaf, “Remember thy Creator in the days of thy youth;”—and then, after a prayer beside that valise, and when her tears had watered its contents, she felt better, and was quite courageous about the future.

The two girls, who were about the same age, and nearly two years younger than Gilbert, were infected with a similar feeling, and the farewell was uttered with more composure than could have been anticipated.

The route marked out by Captain Dell would have made Gilbert and his companions, Mr. Blackmore and a stockman, the guests of Mr. Rylston; but, for some reason, Blackmore deviated from this course, and when within a few days' journey of their destination, Gilbert's horse having become lame, he left him, and the stockman to act as guide, and by forced stages hastened on before them.

Vast and almost treeless on every side spread the plains, dotted over by herds of cattle, and here and there broken by slight elevations. A vapour, crimsoned by the setting sun, engirdled the prospect, and, like a mirage, assumed forms perplexing to the eyes of the travellers. By the deep creek communicating with the river grew pine and myall trees. An emu with rapid strides passing them, or a kangaroo bounding along in the distance, stirred up the Nimrod propensities of the youth, but, like his steed, he was weary.

Almost in silence they had ridden over the last part of the day's journey, and parted; Gilbert alighting at the door of the Overseer's residence, and the man taking his way to the stockmen's huts.

An aged man, sallow, careworn, and unshaven, with a high cap made of opossum skins on his head, came forward officiously to receive Berty.

“Where is Mr. Blackmore?”

The question was several times repeated, for Silas was, as he explained, “hard of hearing.”

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“He's not at home just now, Mister, but I'll see you be comfortable. Sit ye down, Mister;” and he steadied a three-legged stool on the sheets of bark spread over the earthen floor, and expedited his preparations for the evening meal.

The gorgeous tints of sunset had faded into grey as Gilbert reached the hut, and, as darkness follows immediately after sunset in Australia, the evening was rapidly growing dark. The hutkeeper stumbled about the room, adding fresh fuel to the fire, and restlessly arranging and disarranging everything moveable, muttering the while to himself; he went often to the door, and, shading his eyes with his hands, appeared to be endeavoring to penetrate the gloom. At first Gilbert supposed him a harmless maniac, and paid no attention to his movements; but by degrees his observation was arrested.

“I say, Silas,” he exclaimed, “what's up?”

“Eh, Mister! sad doings—sad doings!”

“What do you mean?”

“The blacks, ye see, Mister—they've speared a shepherd; he was going down the river the back road—” he came up close and whispered in the youth's ear. Berty drew back.

“I ain't deaf—speak out.”

The man looked timidly over his shoulder.

“Are you afraid of the blacks?”

“No, no, Mister; but Mr. Blackmore and the men have gone down to the camp. Sad doings—Lord ha' mercy on us!” He turned to arrange the logs on the fire again.

Gilbert demanded his meaning in vain; a suspicion of the truth flashed across his mind, and with a bound he crossed the room, and caught the hutkeeper by the collar, vowing vengeance if he did not tell the whole truth.

The threat had the desired effect: he found that the desertion of the station was not accidental, but that the Overseer and men had started, armed, to surprise and take deadly retribution upon an encampment of blacks, some miles up the river.

“But Oh, Mister, don't tell! I warn't to let ye know—don't tell!” and the old man sank in an abject manner at the youth's feet.

“Get up, get up—I must be off!” exclaimed Gilbert, wildly shaking the clinging hands from his feet, and bounding away.

In a few moments he was mounted upon the freshest horse

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he could find,—a tall, large-boned old stock-horse, with a gallop like a camel's,—and speeding as fast as whip and spur could urge him in the direction of the encampment.

The Superintendent, Mr. Blackmore, and some stockmen had started just before sunset upon their murderous errand. Two nights before a shepherd, wandering down the river in search of employment, had deposited his bundle at the hut door, and asked for a night's lodging; the next morning he resumed his journey, and the following day his body was found in the marshes formed by the backwaters of the river, pierced by spears. Blackmore swore he would teach the black-fellows a lesson; and now, in the dark silent night, with the stars gleaming from heaven above upon them, they were securing their horses to the stems of a cluster of oaks, and trembling in their guilt-stricken hearts, as the wind sighed mournfully through the wiry foliage, as if Nature bewailed her to witness the strife. Their guns were loaded with a deadly charge, and in silence they crept along the bank of the creek, in the shadow cast by the trees which margined it.

Already the smoke from the fires at the native encampment rose up before them, and the clatter of light-hearted gossip broke the stillness.

Some large trees, the roots of which had been left bare by some previous inundation, reared themselves in a rugged wall between the avengers and their prey. On hands and knees Blackmore wound his way up the drift-tangled elevation, drawing his gun after him, and closely followed by his companions. Cautiously they raised their heads to explore the scene. About half-a-dozen tents, formed of dry grass, bark, and green branches, were grouped upon a small point, almost surrounded by a bend in the stream. Little fires shot up their red tongues of fitful blazes, and sent showers of sparks amidst the darkness, as the wind rose in puffs, casting a light upon the wild scene. Men, women, and children sat or lounged about; some roasting fish on the coals, some sleeping, others chatting, and laughing with the clear, sudden laugh of the Australian black, a being so completely the slave of the impulse of the moment.

Blackmore raised his gun and took aim where there were clustered together the Chief and his young Lubra, with her babe nestling in her arms, just as the white babe sleeps in its mother's arms, with its downy cheek pillowed upon her bosom, in utter

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trustfulness. At that moment there was a noise, a clattering of a horse's feet in the distance, and a loud shout. Blackmore started, and, losing his footing, rolled down the bank, his gun going off as it came in contact with the roots of the trees, and slightly wounding one of the stockmen; the charge rattled among the branches of a pine, scattering its leaves upon them. A wild cry of terror arose in the encampment; several spears whistled above their heads, and the blacks plunged into the water, swam across the stream, and were quickly lost to sight.

Blackmore struggled to his feet to be confronted by Gilbert Calder, pale with agitation and fatigue, whilst his horse swayed and staggered, wreathed in foam, and the blood falling from its spur-lacerated sides. Gilbert was nearly seventeen, a tall, full-grown youth, with an eye capable of expressing so much meaning when aroused that few but felt its power. Now, us he gained breath, he thundered forth words of high displeasure, asserting the mastership, and stigmatizing the trio as murderers. Blackmore had been a soldier, and served under Captain Dell,—quitting military life at the same time, and following the fortunes of his officer. In some encounter, years before, he had received a ghastly wound across the brow and cheek, and, when agitated, his countenance was far from prepossessing. Those who knew him read in the distortion of his features that he would remember that scene for life; but he was too politic to say much, and all returned to the station in a sullen recognition of amnesty.

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