previous
next



  ― 107 ―

Nell's Letter.

SHE had been standing at the open door since her brother's early breakfast. The breakfast-things were still on the table, just as Bob had left them; but her own tea was now cold, and her bread and bacon remained untasted. Before her lay the dreary panorama of ridge and gully, clothed with poverty-stricken gum-trees, which is common to the northern slopes of the Blue Mountains. The persistent monotony of the sky-line was broken only by the barren effort of Mount Hay towards individuality; and at this distant land-mark Nell was frowning through the sunlight, her eyes set in an unseeing stare.

She was thinking about a letter. It was not one she had received, for she had never received a letter in her life; but one she felt she must write. Was it not nearly six months since Jim had gone away?—yet no word had come to her of his doings or intentions. It was nearly summer again, and she had told herself all along that with the summer Jim would certainly return. Not that she blamed Jim; for it was absurd to suppose that Jim could know of her trouble, seeing that when he went away she did not know of it herself.

She passed her hand wearily over her brow, for she had been thinking deeply, and she was not used to thinking. She felt that the letter would be difficult to write. Of course it was for Jim—her hero, Jim—who never laughed at her blunders; yet even with Jim it would be hard to choose her words. For Nell, though simple, was not stupid. She was instinctively modest; and then she knew she must not hurt Jim's feelings, or say anything that might be taken as an appeal to his generosity. Because Jim was a gentleman, a real gentleman, whose words or actions must never be called in question.




  ― 108 ―

So, having thought it all out in her own little way, Nell went inside and cleared away the breakfast-things. Then she took the bottle of violet ink, and the pink paper with the blue lines, and the ornamental pen with the impossible point. She spread them laboriously before her on the table, and sat down with her back to the light to accomplish an act of common justice to her lover. Pausing often for inspiration, she tried hard with her stiff little fingers to keep the wayward, spluttering pen within the limits ruled for it. Dip succeeded dip in the narrow-necked bottle, blush followed blush over her freckled face, sheet after sheet of the pink paper was spoilt and thrown aside; and before the task was done the afternoon had come and the writer was nearly exhausted. When her name was duly signed she rose and stretched her limbs, cramped by the unaccustomed labour. As she moved about the room, preparing for what should have been her mid-day meal, she was able to look back upon her efforts with something approaching complacency; having, as she hoped, explained the situation without affront either to Jim or to herself.

When she had taken some tea and food, she drew from her pocket a crumpled old envelope. It contained a collar-stud and other trifles, relics of Jim, and bore the address:

MR. JAMES O'LYON,

POST OFFICE,

COOKAWARRA.

This envelope she had found on the floor after one of Jim's visits. She had preserved it as a keepsake; but now it was the only link between her narrow life and the great outside world into which her lover had withdrawn.

So Nell copied the address upon a tinted envelope, tidied her wavy hair, and set out with her letter to the town, carrying an old shawl over her arm, though it was not cold and the sun was still high. It was with a feeling more nearly akin to happiness than she had enjoyed for some time, that Nell followed the winding track from the selection to the town and back again. That night she


  ― 109 ―
prepared her brother's tea and endured his ill-humour with comparative serenity, comforted by the thought that everything would soon be right.

Six weeks had passed, yet no answer had come from Jim. In spite of herself, Nell was losing heart. Since the despatch of her letter, she had walked daily to the post-office to enquire for an answer; trudging the three miles and a half into the town with faint hopes, and the three miles and a half back again with ever-deepening despair. At first, on fine days, the walk was not unpleasant; but, as weeks went by and the sun grew hotter, the exertion began to tell upon her. Her head was always dizzy, and sleeplessness was wearing her down. There came a day when she fainted on the road, and lay some time unconscious. She crawled home with difficulty, and next morning she felt too weak to rise from bed.

So far, she had succeeded in hiding her trouble from her brother; but in her weakness and helplessness she made up her mind to face the worst, and tell Bob all about it. So the following morning, when Bob was breakfasting in moody silence, she commenced her faltering tale. It was some time before her brother grasped the situation; but when at length he did understand, he vented his passion in a torrent of abuse. He even struck her; for brutal and vulgar minds, when by accident they find themselves on the side of respectability, forego none of the privileges of the position. When he thought his taunts had begun to lose their sting he left her. On his return at night the house was empty. Nell was gone.

The train sped on through the night. It was just daylight when Nell, shaken and feverish, left the carriage at Cookawarra. For many hours she had not tasted food; her head throbbed; and she could scarcely stand. The station-master noticed her. “You seem ill, miss,” he said; “would you like to sit down in the waiting-room for a few minutes?”




  ― 110 ―

Nell thanked him, and turned to follow, then tottered and fell. When she came to, she was lying on a sea [?] in the waiting-room, and the station-master was holding a glass of water to her lips. “Are you better now?” he asked kindly. “Yes, thank you,” she said feebly. He left her for a moment, and returned, saying, “Sit still a while, and rest yourself. I've brought you the paper to look at.” She thanked him wearily and sat up. He went out, closing the door behind him, and when he had gone Nell took up the paper, and almost immediately her eye met this paragraph:

CAUGHT AT LAST.—When going to press we were credibly informed that, owing to the praiseworthy endeavours of Constable Bolger, the notorious swindler, James O'Lyon, has again been brought within reach of the law. He is now in the lock-up, and will be brought up at the police-court this morning. A full account of the proceedings will appear in our next issue.

With a terrible jump at her heart, Nell realised what this meant to her. She was helpless, homeless, almost penniless, and her darling Jim was in prison, charged with—she knew not what—some terrible mistake—of course the charge was false! But how long would it take for Jim to clear himself? And what should she do in the meantime? Instantly she made up her mind to go straight to the lock-up, and to see Jim, if only for a minute. Poor old Jim!

So she enquired her way from the friendly station-master, and slowly walked down the quiet street, gazing absently about her. At last she reached the lock-up. It stood by itself on the other side of the town—a rough, wooden building, bare and forbidding. A short distance away was the constable's house, enclosed within a neat fence along which honeysuckle grew thickly. Nell walked boldly in and knocked at the door. No one answered, and she knocked again. Still there was no answer, and Nell bethought herself that it was little past five o'clock. If she disturbed these people they would be offended, and she must avoid giving offence if she wished to see Jim. She walked aimlessly out through the gate, and round the corner of the honeysuckle hedge, casting many wistful glances at the lock-up She would sit down and rest—her head ached so. She heard the distant jangling of cow-bells, the cry of magpies, and all the sounds of early morning, while from the honeysuckle overhead


  ― 111 ―
came a perfume which she inhaled greedily. Then a drowsiness overtook her, and she slept.

Constable Bolger had been obliged to postpone the official overhauling of the prisoner's person, and it was about eight o'clock in the morning when he came out of the lock-up with a letter in his hand. It was, of course, the constable's duty to read over any papers found on a prisoner, so, bracing himself to carry out the work he had so well begun, he seated himself upon a comfortable garden chair beneath the honeysuckle hedge. Having carefully lighted his pipe and spread out his feet to the sun, he devoted his attention to the letter, which was queerly written on pink paper with blue lines, in wayward violet characters.

It is certainly a very funny composition, for Constable Bolger rolls about on his seat as though a fit were imminent. Now he has read it through, and looks round for someone with whom to share his enjoyment. Surely that is Banks—there, by the lamp-post! “Holloa there, Banks!” roars Bolger. “Coo-e-e! Come here; I want you.”

Banks seems deaf, and the constable roars again. On the other side of the hedge a tired girl opens her eyes, and tries to rise. But her head is whirling—she seems to have no power over her limbs—she will lie down again—in a little while she will feel better.

“Now, then, just listen to this!” chuckles the constable when his friend is seated comfortably beside him. “Listen to this! ‘My own, dear, beautiful Jim.’ Eh? All right; it's only the cows. Never knew Jim O'Lyon, did you, Banks? ‘My own, dear, beautiful Jim.’ That's him in the lock-up now. He's a dear, beautiful daisy is Jim: but wait. ‘I hope this finds you in as good health as it leaves me at present.’ Hope it does, so help me three buck niggers ‘Since you went away it has been cold mostly O, Jim, what beautiful days them was before you went away.’ My colonial troubles! Them was eight-hour days, them was! ‘I'm not so happy as I was, because Bob does go on so with drinking and


  ― 112 ―
swearing and such like, and there ain't no one to say what you used to say.’ No; strike me ugly if they can any of 'em put it so genteel as the irresistible Jimmie! ‘I lay awake at nights thinking of you know who.’ O, my oath, Jim knows who right enough! ‘O Jim, if you was here I could tell you, but writing ain't the same, somehow.’ Ha, ha, ha! Why, what's the matter, man? What? Cry out? Why, it's only them cows laughin'. It would make a snake laugh! Sit down. It's nothing! Listen! ‘But I've told no one that you love me.’ James has her on a bit of whipcord this time, and no mistake. Just listen here! ‘O, Jim, sometimes I think what mother would have said, but if she had known you she would say it was all right, 'cause you are a gentleman and knows best. But, O Jim, do come and see me again in summer same as you did before.’ Not quite. Probably James will have other things to do this summer! ‘With heaps of kisses.’ Rows of ’ Ha, ha, ha! Why, what's the matter, man? What? Cry out? Why, it's only them cows laughin'. It would make a snake laugh! Sit down. It's nothing! Listen! ‘But I've told no one that you love me.’ James has her on a bit of whipcord this time, and no mistake. Just listen here! 'O, Jim, sometimes I think what mother would have said, but if she had known you she would say it was all right, 'cause you are a gentleman and knows best. But, O Jim, do come and see me again in summer same as you did before.’ Not quite. Probably James will have other things to do this summer! ‘With heaps of kisses.’ Rows of ’ Not quite. Probably James will have other things to do this summer! ‘With heaps of kisses.’ Rows of ’ Ha, ha, ha! Why, what's the matter, man? What? Cry out? Why, it's only them cows laughin'. It would make a snake laugh! Sit down. It's nothing! Listen! ‘But I've told no one that you love me.’ James has her on a bit of whipcord this time, and no mistake. Just listen here! 'O, Jim, sometimes I think what mother would have said, but if she had known you she would say it was all right, 'cause you are a gentleman and knows best. But, O Jim, do come and see me again in summer same as you did before.’ Not quite. Probably James will have other things to do this summer! ‘With heaps of kisses.’ Rows of 'em; just look! What! Going? Well, so long!” And Constable Bolger went inside.

On the other side of the fence a worn, pitiful figure lies still, very still. The cows are beginning to feel the growing power of the sun, and graze closer in the shadow of the honeysuckle. One great brindled beast comes and sniffs at the sleeping figure of the girl, then calmly crops a tuft of grass which her head is almost touching. She does not heed it; the hoarse, hollow sound of the bell upon its neck does not seem to disturb her slumber.

She lies so very still.

W. B. YOUNG.

previous
next