previous
next



  ― 18 ―

Chapter III

Tremblers beside the grave,
We call on Thee to save,
Father divine!
Hear, hear our suppliant breath,
Keep us, in life and death,
Thine, only Thine!

—Mrs. Hemans.

The letter which had called Captain Dell from home announced to him the serious, and it was believed fatal, illness of a relative; and the hurried journey was performed with all the dispatch which the rough roads in the interior admitted of. Some days had, however, passed before he hung his horse's bridle upon the post in front of Mr. Osman's residence, and crossed the threshold with as noiseless a step as his habitual firm tread permitted him to assume.

He had entered a large room, evidently the dining and common sitting room. As usual in country dwellings, the dark boards were uncarpeted, several large dogs being rarely absent from the domestic circle; the furniture was plain and mercly necessary, only the superfluity of a case of books. The Captain took a chair, and quietly surveyed the scene presented through the open windows. The barn and stables were in sight, and fields beyond, where a team of bullocks was slowly dragging a grating roller over the clods,—the cattle straying round the broken fences,—the labourers' slab huts falling at an angle which threatened their speedy prostration, but for sundry props. It was completely one of those scenes so often witnessed on an Australian farm, where labour is scarce and wages high, and consequently insufficient for the requirements of the establishment.

There was a chilling air of something wanting, which struck the beholder; whether it was the presence of the master, or servants, or money, he had not time to define before a door opened, and a young man presented himself.

“Captain Dell?” he said, interrogatively. The other acknowledged his identity. “I am truly glad to see you, Sir,” said he, with sincerity. “I feared you would have come too late to see my poor father, and he is most anxious to see you.”




  ― 19 ―

“He is no better, then?”

A peculiar expression of countenance answered; but he was calm, evidently by a strong effort. “You will take some refreshment, and then see him.”

“No, I will see him at once—I hate delays.” His companion gave a quick look of appreciation, and led the way to the apartment of the dying man.

He had fallen into a light uneasy slumber during his son's brief absence, and the Captain took the chair which, from its position near the head of the bed, had evidently only just been quitted by the young man.

Osman crossed his arms upon his chest, and stood regarding the sleeper in silence; there was a calm upon his countenance, springing so evidently from a higher source, and from a well-ordered mind, that no sorrow however bitter, no circumstance however perplexing, could long disturb it; the eye and mouth both spoke of a highly sensitive disposition, alive to every emotion; the brow was full and round, suggesting the idea of a weight of thought, which cast a shadow over the otherwise clear blue eye; he had manifestly gained self-control not without ||a struggle,—the strong mind and moral development combating with an excessive delicacy and warmth of feeling. In personal appearance he was deficient in the prominent national characteristics of the Australian: his stature was not much beyond the medium, and slender; and his complexion had rather the pallor of deep thought, though well embrowned by the sun, than the glow of the country young man, who, ever on horseback, breathing the fresh air and braving dangers, has a vigorous appearance.

Two years previously he had left Europe, and the University, where already his days and nights of mental toil were reaping him a golden harvest; or where, rather, he stood, sickle in hand, about to gather the fruits of his labour;—recognized as a “clever young man,” and pronounced one who would make a name for himself, when the news of his father's failing health and embarrassed affairs necessitated his abruptly forsaking all to return to him; the trial had been severe, the sacrifice complete. He had to all appearances calmly, even willingly, laid aside book and pen, and thrown himself into the gap, hands and head unceasingly working; but the estate was encumbered past all hopes of speedy recovery. The very unsatisfactory


  ― 20 ―
returns of the farmer were barely sufficient to pay interest, and absolutely nothing could be amassed towards liquidating the debts. In this position, before his son's return, Mr. Osman had borrowed largely of Captain Dell, and now he lay on his death-bed, and the debt unpaid.

The Captain's eyes had wandered from the sick man to Leigh; he quietly and keenly scanned his character as developed by externals; he saw the drudgery he had undergone, in the hard brown hand; and the long pressure of care, in that patient gravity which only grows with time. The result of the scrutiny was highly favorable to the object of it. Captain Dell was not a religious man,—this part of his new friend's spirit he could not sympathise with; but he could in the fine sense of honor and the sturdy determination to do and conquer. His attention was recalled to Mr. Osman by his saying, “Dell, is not that you?”

There was a cordial grasping of hands. “Dell, I have wished most earnestly to see you—there is that money—I can't pay it, not a pound of it.”

“You will look to me, Captain Dell. At some future time—it may be long before I can do it—but you shall be paid.”

“I am perfectly satisfied. Do not let that trouble you, Osman—your son shall settle with me.”

“Thank you, thank you, Captain.—Poor boy!” The latter words were uttered in a low tone, expressive of the deepest sympathy. The father felt the thorny legacy he bequeathed to his son, and perhaps the latter feeling predominated over the relief which a moment before he had experienced,—so quickly do sorrows trip up the heels of pleasures in this rough world of ours. At this moment a head was popped in at the door, with a face usually enlivened by a veritable grin of light-heartedness, but now somewhat lugubrious, and the owner of the head inquired after the state of the master. The trifling interruption broke in upon the silence which had fallen over the party.

Captain Dell was too much of a utilitarian to allow precious moments to run to waste, and he turned the conversation to matters of business from the retrospective character it had begun to assume. He knew that his dying friend was dilatory and easy to an excess, and wished to assure himself that all was done that could be to prevent further entanglement in his


  ― 21 ―
disordered affairs, and to permit the property to descend to Leigh as peaceably as might be; and when these matters were adjusted, he suggested to the young man that it would be well for his father to see a clergyman; for all recognise the necessity of religion for the dying, and have a vague impression that they will “make their peace with God at the last.”

“Mr. Mills has visited him several times during his illness, but he has not waited till this moment to prepare to meet his God.” Leigh spoke gravely, but with a deep satisfaction that it was so; and his companion, with a commendatory remark, rose to leave the room.

Daylight faded into dusk, and the tall shadows crept out of the corners where the sun had chased them, and stretched their long arms across the room, shaking from their shoulders a black mantle, which opened noiselessly over each object, like grim undertakers hanging the room in sable.

Leigh's eyes were fixed upon a portrait above the fireplace; the eyes of his father appeared to gleam with a quiet sorrow from the canvas upon him; the drapery and columns which the artist's fancy had placed round the figure faded in the darkness, but still he saw those eyes, with their fixed, grave expression; the light grew dim upon the gilded frame, and the outlines of Captain Dell's figure stood out strong and black against the window, but he did not move;—perhaps he would not for hours, had not a voice without called his attention.

“Can't ye let things be done dacent?” it said.

Leigh crossed the room, and looked from the window; a man stood near, a black gallon bottle clasped in either hand; he was evidently on his way to the huts to institute a wake. Leigh opened the window.

“No drinking—I'll have no noise at the huts.” The tone was peremptory, and the man vanished into the kitchen, from whence the disputing tones of the old female domestic had previously called forth his expostulation.

Leigh turned again to the portrait; the brief interval had deepened the grey to black, and his father's eyes were hidden from him, even as a few hours before the veritable eyes had closed on all earthly. The pall fell over the Present, and hid the Future; and even their hearts' beating sounded with a dull muffled tone as they sat in that dark room, with the silent dead near by.




  ― 22 ―

Captain Dell was not the man to indulge in sentimental musings, but there were subjects for serious reflection, and the hard outlines never altered—the crossed legs, the large hands folded upon the broad chest, and the lips shut closely. Leigh had even more to think of—the son, the Christian, the man of business; in the three characters the subject passed through his mind; his attitude was calm and unconsciously graceful; only the absolute quiet betokened the sorrow which pressed heavily upon his heart.

Slowly from behind the distant mountains the moon uprose, touching with silver the heights, whilst the vales sank into deeper obscurity. Presently the moon had climbed the vaulted roof of heaven, and poured from her vestal lamp a chastened brilliancy that penetrated even into that room where the dead lay. He knew how it would glide in as the soft breeze waved the blind; how, like a messenger of life, it would steal up beside the curtained bed, and light the rigid figure; and he knew how it would even seem to move in the coruscations of that beam, whilst ever the gentle moon looked down upon the whole story of man's life. “Man that is born of a woman is of few days, and full of trouble.”

‘Tis day—a thing of common hours,
Of darkness faded into light;
And time glides on to closing flowers,
To dews, to silence, and to night.

Expected life has been descried,
The life that linger'd is no more;—
One barque is launch'd upon the tide,
And one is stranded on the shore.—R. HOWITT.

Then the Captain spoke. “Leigh,” he said, “you had better come down with me: a few weeks at my house would do you good.”

“I can hardly leave home, I believe.”

“You must endeavour to do so. Ann is an excellent housekeeper, and has all bright and comfortable, and the girls are always cheerful.”

The young man inwardly repeated his words, and the picture they presented was so at variance with his home and future, that he decided—“No, it would not do, it would unnerve me.”

“I thank you most sincerely,” he said, “but I have a certain


  ― 23 ―
task to perform, and till that object is obtained—and it must be a long and arduous struggle—I shall take no pleasure, relax no nerve. But the time may come—I hope it will—when I shall make the acquaintance of these ladies I have heard my father speak so highly of.”

“Well, you are right, I believe; but remember the invitation stands open.”

The clouds still lay like a dewy bank along the eastern horizon as Captain Dell buttoned up his overcoat, and, taking his stout walking-stick—not to support him, certainly, for the firm planting of the foot betrayed no decaying energies—left the house to take a survey of his host's territory, extending over some distance. The Ranges, as the farm was called, was, as its cognomen indicated, a series of hills and dales, the former wooded by the mimosa and lightwood, and the universal gumtrees, and in places densely scrubby, by an undergrowth of peppermint and willow brush. The visitor ascended and descended with laudable perseverance, determined to thoroughly master his subject, and understand the young man's position; he had, in fact, taken a strong hold upon his fancy, and he was not habitually disposed to accord his good or bad opinion without well studying the character.

From the Run he proceeded to the fields; nature had worn that cheerless air which a scrub fire blackened by recent conflagrations always presents, but the fields told a yet more painful tale: the rough fencing was broken and falling in many places; the fields were cropped by weeds, for want of constant tillage.

Mr. Osman had been ever disposed to sacrifice the future to the present; finding Leigh a talented boy, and possessing literary tastes, he had involved his estate to give his only child the advantages of a high mental training. The boy little knew, as he hung over his book with such absorbed devotion, that difficulties multiplied upon his kind parent, and that the once light-hearted man had become the keen calculator and economist; not miserly—he was too gentle and generous for that.

Long before the Captain had marched round the melancholy ruins of sheds and barns—how sad in their decay! as greatness and nobility even in ruins are grand, so littleness becomes pitiable—he had weighed the load which lay upon his new friend's shoulders, and which only long years of patience might remove.




  ― 24 ―

At present Leigh was absorbed in the solemnities of his father's obsequies, and the deep grief for his loss, only looking the future steadily in the face, with an earnest “God direct me!” He did not search out the bitterness it might contain; he knew it was there, and he prepared to encounter each difficulty as it arose, and conquer. He locked up his folio, and with it buried the pursuit of literature;—not the love of it; that was a part of himself, and must live with him; and then he went on his way, stifling the aspirations and hopes of the student, and resolving to centre his aims upon that battle-field which the Ranges presented; yet, as a Christian, rising above that strife to a higher and purer hope and desire.

“We shall see you some day?” Captain Dell spoke as he gathered up the reins, and leant one hand on his horse's shoulder, about to vault into the saddle.

“Yes, certainly, if I live: I must become acquainted with your family.”

The old man's eyes sparkled as he returned, “You must—you would like Rachel: she could understand you.”

Often afterwards, when among those who could not understand him, Leigh recalled the parting words of the fine old Captain, but the former idea of mirth seemed to dispel the half-wish to accept the invitation; not that he was an enemy to cheerfulness, but it had no promise of sympathy with him then. It is so a part of our natures to desire to be understood! Have we a sorrow, we seek to communicate its cause to another, and even in so doing lessen its poignancy; and the pleasure diminishes which has none to reflect it. To be constantly surrounded by our fellow-creatures, yet in our inmost natures alone, is a heavy trial, particularly to the sensitive; no wonder, then, that occasionally Leigh Osman found himself dwelling upon the idea which the Captain presented to him.

previous
next