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Chapter IV

There is not anything in this world, perhaps, that is more talked of, and less understood, than the business of a happy life.


Aunt Nancy was busy in the dairy, enveloped in a large holland apron, and, skimmer in hand, passing round from dish to dish with a countenance of quiet satisfaction, such as might arise from a successful baking of pastry, or churning; Elice had adorned the sitting-room with fresh flowers; and Rachel hardly completed those mystic touches which add elegance to homeliness, and order to disorder, when Captain Dell, for whose return in their several ways they were preparing, arrived.

His daughter had known Mr. Osman; indeed he was a distant relative of her mother's, nor were the girls strangers to him; his decease was, therefore, a source of sincere concern to them, and they had many anxious questions to ask respecting his illness and death, and the sorrow of his son. There were tears of kindly sympathy in the eyes of the females as they followed the Captain's narrative, forgetful of cooling cups of tea and the merits of cake and tart.

“I have rarely met with a young man whose character pleases me so much as this Leigh Osman,” said he, pushing his cup away, and lying back in his large arm-chair: “firm and steadfast. I have no fear for him, though to an ordinary person, I should say the thing was impossible. Nominally, he possesses much; literally, nothing—A fine boy.” The satisfaction in the tone as he uttered the latter words provoked a smile from his audience.

“What's he like, Father?”

“A woman's question, Ann. He is not handsome at first sight, but after a while I thought he had rather a fine countenance.”

“And he was sorrowful—you could not judge fairly.” Aunt Nancy's kind heart was much affected at the picture she had drawn, and she bustled away after some household concerns. Rachel brought her grandfather's spectacles and a pile of letters, and then the two girls worked in silence as he perused them. One roused him exceedingly, and he paced up and down the

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room, uttering a sound not unlike canine growling, and explaining that the cause was more complaints from Blackmore.

“Nothing is the matter with Berty, I hope?”

“No, Rachel, no;—always some complaint from that fellow. I'll drum him out to the Rogue's March one of these days;” and the pacing and canine accompaniment were renewed, for he had paused before the young girls as they sat at their little work-table, engaged in some skilful plaiting and tying ribbon round straw bonnets;—such a fair picture of youthful womanhood they presented, uncorrupted by the vain desire for admiration, but carnestly saying with the Psalmist, “I will go in the strength of the Lord God. I will make mention of Thy righteousness, even of Thine only.” The picture might have smoothed his ruffled humour, had not Captain Dell been perplexed—a mood very trying to a person of decision. Every month came a letter from the Superintendent Iaden with bad news; not Job's messengers were more woful in their declamations: troublesome blacks, sour herbage—everything that could decrease the value of the station; and on this source the Captain mainly relied; as he had admitted to his friend King Rylston, he was not rich.

At that moment a most hideous sound startled them. It was the bray of a donkey.

“It is Hyram, old Hyram,” exclaimed all in a breath, and, moved by one impulse, went out to see him.

Hyram was one of the fraternity of vendors of small goods; much of the interest attached to him was due to his asinine companion and pack-bearer, a donkey being an animal sufficiently rare to occasion much curious staring among the youthful population. Moreover, Hyram's little black donkey, with its long meditative countenance and unwonted indulgence in ears, was so suggestive of rides at Margate and Kensington Common, and of village greens and lanes, that the British folks had a friendly feeling towards it.

Hyram's donkey, relieved of its burden, was standing with closed eyes and drooping head, as if it had not brayed or moved for hours, when the parlour guests joined the group of servants eagerly watching the unpacking of sundry valuables. Captain Dell had merely assured himself that it was Hyram, and then returned to the sitting-room; but his grand-daughters were disposed to remain.

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Hyram was a little fellow, with a sallow complexion, and a most notorious bargain maker; it was impossible to escape without making a purchase if once the unwary came within reach of his voluble tongue; and strangely enough, and although at the time quite convinced that they were making wonderful bargains, it afterwards appeared their purses were emptied; it was vain to repeat that they were not in want of such things.

“It's a bargain, a perfect bargain—put it by till you do want it; ‘a store's no sore,’ mine dear,” or “Mish,” as the case might be, if his customers were the servant girls or their young mistresses.

Upon the present occasion Hyram had a new argument to adduce in temptation.

“Just for a keepsake, for I'm going to the Diggings, and you won't see me any more, mine dears. Here's a beautiful car-ring; there, now—see how it sparkles!—real, real crystal.”

The young ladies ran away smiling, and Jane Wilson, the housemaid, bought the crystals (?).

The sun was setting as Blackmore and Gilbert Calder reined in their horses, and turned to take a look across the plains stretching away hundreds of miles before them, and now bathed in a flood of crimson vapour; scarcely a tree broke the sameness, which even the presence of some hundreds of cattle could not enliven; a few, disturbed by the horsemen, were lowing in a calm, clear tone, that added a pleasing accompaniment to the scene.

“It's a fine station,” at length exclaimed Berty, proudly, as he gathered up his reins to proceed.

“Yes, rather,” admitted Blackmore, smothering a sigh of envy; “but it may be mine soon,” he muttered, and slowly followed the young man.

Amidst a Babel of yelping dogs and eager blacks Berty sprung lightly to the ground, and, giving his horse to the hutkeeper, entered the hut.

“Ah, what's this?—Sam back with the letters!” was the pleased exclamation, as a pile of letters and papers occupying one corner of the rude table greeted him. “They will keep,” he added, as the man placed a large tin teapot by his side, and Blackmore, delaying to speak with the man from the back stasion, or rather the outpost in the rear of that, found him

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engaged in the perusal of the letters. They had not sent to the post for six weeks, and, cut off from all communication with the world, except the few stockmen who occasionally visited them from neighbouring stations, old as the newspapers were, their contents were eagerly desired, while the letters—the only links between them and distant friends—were exceedingly precious.

Gilbert was just commencing the fourth side of Rachel's crossed letter when a passionate oath from his companion startled him.

“What's up, Captain?” he demanded.

“A fool, a perfect fool, — me!” muttered Blackmore, carried away by his strong emotions out of his usual caution.

“That's something new—but what is it?” said he, leaning over to reach the letter the Superintendent had thrown upon the table. “Whew!” he whistled as he read it. It was from his grandfather, and ran thus:—“Dear Sir, the receipt of your last communication strengthened an idea I had formed of selling the station and stock. I accordingly took the mail to Sydney without delay, and proceeded to the auction rooms of Messrs. —— & Co., intending to place it in their hands, but was so fortunate as to find a purchaser in Mr. ——'s office. I have therefore closed the bargain, and on the 4th of next month you will please assist my grandson in delivering up to Mr. Kensett, the present proprietor, the stock depasturing on the head and swampy plain stations, and assist him, or his agent, in mustering and branding the same; and all such as may be strayed and recoverable of horned or horse stock, &c., &c.” Here followed various business details, ending by desiring Mr. Blackmore's attendance on Captain Dell to close all open accounts between them.

“It's done, and can't be undone,” he remarked, with a short laugh, half bravado, half bitterness. Blackmore had sufficiently recovered composure to desire to conceal from Berty the amount of his disappointment, and he stood shielded by an open Herald, his livid lips drawn in on his teeth, his eyes horribly oblique, and his fingers clutched so tightly upon the paper that he severed the piece; the torrent of his wrath had turned from himself to Captain Dell, and fain would he have had those iron fingers riveted round the old man's throat.

“I say, Mate, what's to be done?” said Calder, at length.

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“Deliver up the stock and station,” he returned from behind the paper, in a tone of frightful stillness.

“I know, but I'm sorry—are not you?”

“He'll be sorry,” retorted Blackmore, even lower.

“Well, let's have some supper—there is no use in fretting,” said Gilbert, sighing, and folding up his sister's letter. Blackmore glided from the room, and plunged his head into a bucket of cold water before he rejoined him.

“I had a dip after the dust on the plain; it was very thick to-day,” he said, in his old manner, as he drew a wooden bench to the table; only for the distortion of his features and excessive paleness, no one would have suspected the presence of the fire within.

Gilbert felt sad: an uncertain future lay before him; he dreaded to break the seal of the Captain's letter to him, and slowly sipped his tea and cat his boiled beef and damper. Blackmore spoke of the day's ride, the cattle—anything to appear at his ease; cating voraciously, although the victuals seemed as if they would choke him, and his eye became so distorted that, to prevent his seeing it, Gilbert was driven to the dreaded letter. As he anticipated, Captain Dell referred to his intentions with regard to himself, and barely mentioned the sale of the station. “A friend of my solicitors,” thus the wrote, “made me an offer to receive you into his countinghouse; he is a shipping agent. Your future, then, lies before you. Firmly and perseveringly apply yourself to your business, and success must follow. After delivering the stock to Mr. Kensett you will come at once here, and I will accompany you to town. I have made every arrangement.”

Calder passed his brown hand across his brow, that his companion might not see how utterly the contents of Captain Dell's letter chagrined him; but, taking advantage of the hand intercepting the young man's vision, Blackmore bent forward and fixed his flashing eyes keenly on him, tracing with a greedy interest his every thought and feeling. The drooping attitude and half-smothered sigh sufficiently informed him that Gilbert would submit, though unwillingly; he could not decide how unwillingly; he was unable to come to any definite conclusion; he never had been able to determine how far he could trust Berty; he had, to use his own expression, “turned him round his little finger,” yet something whispered to him that he

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might go too far, and arouse some latent nobility he could not understand, but dreaded with a sort of superstitious fear. Presently Calder took up a Melbourne Argus to read, and Blackmore withdrew his eager eyes, and offered to fill his companion's pipe. “I am just going to have a draw,” he said, indifferently, and was shortly engaged. When he had seen Gilbert smoking and reading, and knew that he would not move till pipe and paper failed him, he opened the door and stepped out, stumbling over the prostrate form of a sleeping native at the door, and, with a savage kick of his heavy boot on the upturned face, the base coward stepped out into the darkness of a moonless night. He paused; the low sobs of the black at the hut door, the shrill screams of myriads of frogs in the river, and the distant howling of a wild dog,—these were all the sounds without; within whispered the voices of sins, whose name was Legion; of disappointed hopes and greeds,—of frustrated plans,—of hatred to self, to all the world; there was none to watch him, and he stamped and cursed; in a frenzy of anger and malice he tore the sod with his nailed boots; he struck his clenched fist against his brow, and, till nature spent itself, was a maniac. Then came reflection—a brute power of self-preservation; and, sinking down by the river's side, he pondered on his future plans. There was much to do, almost single-handed: Calder least of all might assist.

How strikingly did the calm peace of night contrast with him! even in that dark, starless night, the presence of God—of purity—pervaded the silence, unbroken save by his lesser creatures. Well exclaimed the Rev. Blanco White, “Mysterious night!” and its hidden power struck forcibly upon the coward heart of Blackmore. He started up to flee from—himself. In the stockmen's hut therefore we leave him.

Hardly had Blackmore closed the door when Calder laid down the Argus and pipe, and, resting his head on his hands, sank into a train of bitter reflections.

For years his life had been a mere animal existence of constant activity and motion: his days began at sunrise, and ended almost with its setting; had been passed on horseback, through rain and sunshine, in the fiery breath of summer, and the chill blast of winter; the one occupation had been to guide his powerful horse over the plains, to head the galloping herd of cattle, to pursue the obstinate, panting for unchecked liberty,

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up and down the low hills;—to breast the streams and wade the marshes, bending over his horse's neck, his full eye fixed on the panting beast, marking its frothing sides and tongue lolling from its open jaws, till its strength was spent, and it stood in a cluster of bushes or reeds, and defied, with raised head and horns, his further advance; then, danger adding zest to the wild game, he swung his long hide whip round his head, and cracked it with a report like that of a rifle, urging on his well-trained dogs to attack,—never relaxing the keen observation, that he might swerve aside at each furious charge, till the worn beast was dislodged and again in motion across the plains. Such had been the pursuits of Gilbert Calder,—pursuits where the physical, and not the moral, was strengthened by exercise into iron power; and when wearied, the day's work over, and the tin mug of tea and coarse viands discussed, once more renewing the pipe of tobacco, he flung himself upon the rude couch to read such works as the store of Isaac Smith supplied, —most frequently the light, polluting pages of some fiction, steeped in an impure and improbable dye of romance.

Calder was a thorough bushman; he could find his way anywhere through pathless plains and woods, with the instinct of a savage; he could track the stray beast or lost traveller, and none surpassed him at the branding yard. What would these avail him in the shipping office? The question startled him, and suggested others:—Had Captain Dell a right to dispose of him so unceremoniously? For a moment he determined to seek employment as the superintendent on some station, and pursue a life for which alone he felt fitted.

His experience of town life had not endeared it to him. Naturally he was not fond of such pleasures, but, under Blackmore's guidance, he had drunk with him the poisonous cup, and memory recalled the wasted hours, the feverish hand, and aching brow with which his visits to town had been marked. The confined space, its dusty, smoky atmosphere, so unlike the limitless freedom of the plains, were distasteful and revolting; he had not the comparatively innocent, careless heart of childhood, which had sweetened his school-days, and a dim consciousness of his deficiencies struggled through the darkness round his soul.

How few parents aid their children to reflect,—how few cultivate the spirit. Is it wonderful, then, that the world presents

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us with a large proportion of moral dwarfs? Calder had nothing within him to oppose the pressure of outward adverse circumstances; the uncompromising morality of Captain Dell had found no response in the warm gushing of his impulsive heart, and the first whisperings of an unsatisfied soul, which was suddenly deprived of its opiates, oppressed him. The immortal soul!—to which the physical at such moments bears no affinity, and whose voice—whose cravings, as of the starving beggar, importune with such a vivid agony upon that being who seeks nothing beyond himself for its requirements. Those pleadings, seeming to Calder a part of the new life before him, were insupportable; he sprang to the keg of rum, always forming a part of the station's stores, drew out the plug, and, holding a pannikin below, measured himself a deep draught; then, already staggering from its effects, flung himself on his bed and sank into a deep sleep. Again the animal was made to supersede and subdue the spiritual, while that spirit whose influence alone can meet the needs of the soul, was disregarded; for the craven heart shrinks from a knowledge of its own baseness, and its obligations to its God.

Gilbert Calder, as he lay there in the oblivion of drunkenness, was no type of the Australian youth, but the result of a want of spiritual culture, such as every land bears too many specimens of. The freedom and the circumstances of station life present no moral guards for such: no returning Sabbath, with its warning voice of church bell, and organ peal, hymning solemnly songs to heaven, is there. How much need, then, that the young man be prepared before he leaves the home of his childhood or the school desk, to be the companion of stockmen and blacks!

A few weeks' hard riding, and Gilbert's station life terminated, and, with Blackmore, he started on his downward journey.

Evening was drawing in when the travellers reined up before Mr. Rylston's door; the cordial hospitality of the settler met them in the warm greeting, and presently they entered a rather long room, where already several other travellers were assembled,—gentlemen on their way to Sydney from their stations. One was a merchant, making his annual visit of inspection; two others, squatters,—men of very different character and culture from their host; and, despite a little roughness in

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costume and superabundance of beard, they were evidently gentlemen.

King Rylston's palace,—as, to have all in what artists call “keeping,” we should say,—was a wooden building of a very rough description, and far from well furnished. Mrs. Rylston, with a glossy red face, and an odour suggestive of fried bacon and potatoes floating round her, was bustling about the room, trying to be very genteel; for she could not be contented to appear the homely, good-natured woman she was, but, in conformity with the modern spirit, was desirous of passing for what she was not, and so laid herself open to many jokes and satirical remarks. The new comers, however, met with a very cordial reception, for Gilbert was a favorite, and Blackmore never failed to pay court in a rather extravagant form where there was, even in prospective, a prospect of gain accruing to himself.

The Misses Rylston did not agree with the received opinions of young ladies, as modelled in boarding-schools; excelling rather in the dairy, or equestrian pursuits, than at the piano and embroidery frame. The gentlemanly element infused into the circle was so successfully exercised, that all parties were soon at their ease, and conversation flowed in a careless strain; and the elegant manners of one or two of the squatters were as successful in the slab dwelling as in the more refined city drawing-room.