“YOU Englishmen,” said the girl, “are such cowards.”

“You new chums,” began the tall young fellow with bad teeth, and light eyes that were a little too prominent. He mumbled the rest; he had caught an expression flitting over the Englishman's face, and he thought Kit might have been a little too sweeping.

“I'll finish it,” she said, throwing a contemptuous glance at the last speaker.

“You new chums think yourselves too jolly clever.”

“But I tell you, I saw them.”

“A mirage, and a heated imagination!”

“This is an inside station; there have been no blacks here for years,” said the older man, with the bleached beard and the big brown blotches on the backs of his hands.

“I saw them, just at dusk. I was lying low for a platypus, and my hound began to growl. There were a lot of them, armed, and no gins, or children, or dogs.”

“If I were on a new station,” said the man with the blotched hands, “I might think something of it; but

  ― 192 ―
this has been settled a long while, and one can easily be deceived at dusk, in that thick ti-tree by the river.”

“Pure imagination,” said the girl, and the man with the bad teeth grinned behind the Englishman's back. He had shifted his seat to curry favour with Kit, who despised him. Like every man within fifty miles, he was her slave; she was so plucky, so pretty, so witty, and had, in such a marked degree, the lithe grace of a bush-bred girl. Only the woman feeling was wanting; she would not tolerate attentions from any man, except such as a subject might offer to a queen, and these she took with an air of prerogative.

John Forest too had frankly fallen in love with her, and she hated him for it. She loathed him more than any man in Queensland. No one else had ever dared to propose to her. She felt that he had humiliated her. Except for the silky coils of glittering hair, twisted with careless grace low down on her neck, she looked from head to foot almost as much like a man as a woman.

Her dress was of light homespun tweed, with a short skirt and a loose boy's jacket. The silk cricketing shirt, which set off her fairness with its whiteness, was loose too.

Before the men turned in for the night, they went outside to look round. They could see nothing; it was a pitch dark night, and even the practised ear of a bushman could not detect an unusual sound, though there was not enough breeze to flap the tattered bark hanging on the stringy-barks round the house.

A couple of hours passed; Kit had not slept. She was a little uneasy, “I wish father was here,” she said

  ― 193 ―
to herself. He was a better bushman than either of the three men, and she could not help confessing that he would, as a mere matter of courtesy to their guest, have looked into the matter. Besides, while he was away, there was no one in the house but herself and the two maids. The bachelors' quarters, where the overseer, and the manager, and Mr. Forest, during her father's absence, slept, were, as is not unusual in Australia, a little way down the garden, and the men's hut for the shepherds and their cook was a quarter of a mile away, on the other side of the stables.

Looking out of her window towards the river, she could have sworn that she saw for a moment ever such a little light. Could this be a fire-streak? She had never seen one at a distance. She would have liked to dress, but thought it would be cowardly. She would have given anything to be able to defy her pride. She was glad that there was no light in the room for the mirror to show in the proud blue eyes a look that had never been there before. She was actually asking herself why she had allowed her hate for the Englishman to prevent her telling the manager with the blotched hands, or the overseer, to take the shepherds and the dogs and see that everything was all right. The dogs, which would bark at a 'possum going into the poor little kitchen-garden, had not uttered a sound.

False pride prevented the two Australians—the old colonist and the young colonial—from taking the Englishman's warning. They did not even take their guns into their rooms from the gun-room, and there was not a lock in the house.

But Forest felt that the house would be attacked, and determined to prepare. His tennis-shoes would

  ― 194 ―
make less noise than boots. He was fully dressed; he loaded his revolver carefully, and buckled on a belt full of cartridges—they might have rattled in his pocket. He laid his rifle, loaded, and a box of rifle cartridges on his dressing-table. On such a dark night it might knock against something if he had to fly from the house. The long Mexican knife, sharp as a razor, which he used for skinning kangaroos, was worth a dozen rifles for fighting his way out. Some inspiration made him look at his chimney, a brick shaft about a couple of feet square, which had never received its chimney-pot. He reckoned the chance of a native sliding down the chimney and taking him in the rear. That there would be an attack he was morally certain. He even went so far as to go and wake the others and entreat them to arm; but they simply said, “Blacks be damned!” and turned round sulkily to sleep again. There was no fastening to the house door, because there are no ferocious carnivora in Australia.

Forest sat on his bed, he dared not even smoke, lest the red crater of his pipe should guide a waddy to his head. Though not long in Australia, he was a man trained to sport all his life; so he had a vigilant ear; and even on that silent night there was sound after sound which made the sweat on his forehead run cold. First, there was scratch, scratch, scratch. Could it be the blacks? Though all he had ever heard of them pointed to a swift rush, silent or with blood-curdling yells, when the came up to the house, he could not help picturing to himself that they had changed their habits, and were playing the stealthy burglar, till a squeak and a skelter reassured him that it was the native cats, who were suffered to make their home

  ― 195 ―
between the ceiling and the bark roof, because they were such unremitting scavengers.

He heard the mocking peal of a laughing jackass; it was so human, it must be a signal. He waited for the crackle of flames—the black fiends of the early days loved to creep up to a homestead and fire it, and spear the half-stifled whites as they rushed out.

The dead limb on the big tree over his chimney groaned—the creak of these dead limbs, rotten as touchwood, barely able to support their own weight, is horribly human. That must be the manager or the overseer waddied in their sleep. Now the rush must come.

He heard a man move—it was certainly a man—he listened for all his life, but could scarcely hear for the beatings of his own heart, as loud in seeming as the puffs of the engine dragging its train up the zigzags of the mountains. He could feel the sweat running down his spine in that agony of listening. Nothing came but stertorous snoring; it could only have been the young colonial turning in his sleep.

All at once he heard another sound, and he knew—he had never been more certain in his life—that this sound meant something, though it was, if anything, less pronounced than the former sounds.

About one o'clock, as far as he could judge, after the long vigil in which minutes had seemed like hours, he heard the stealthy tread which told him that at last he was face to face with a supreme moment. He rose silently and stood beside the door, with the long knife, which he had learned to use where he bought it, in his right hand. He judged that a people so cunning in stalking would send a single assassin to despatch him.

  ― 196 ―
Only one man came. He struck him the fatal upward cut which, if the line is good, reaches the heart, no matter whether the victim be tall or short. He endured a moment of horrible agony. Would the man live a second—to cry out?—— The aim was true. He caught him in his arms and laid him on the bed almost in one movement, then he stole back to the door and listened for his life. There was evidently a crowd outside the house door. He could hear other voices at the windows, which he had taken the precaution of closing. The sweat rolled down his forehead. In desperation he thought of the chimney, and found that by putting his back and feet against opposite sides, he could walk up quite easily. What a providence that there was no chimney-pot! But how to get down unobserved and rescue or die for the girl who loathed and insulted him, but could not turn him from the idea that she was worth any amount of winning. One side of the house had neither door nor window; it faced the quarter from which the hot wind blew; the blacks, who had evidently taken observations beforehand, had left it unguarded. But to drop from the roof, even if he did not bring one of its bark shingles clattering down, meant certain discovery, and almost certain death. He felt something touch his side, instantly the keen blade was buried in it—in wood. It was a bough of the great stringybark, which overshadowed the house on this side. It took a terrible wrench, where every movement might dislodge a portion of the roof, to drag out the knife, but it put the idea into his mind of crawling along the bough and descending by the tree. Just at that moment, fortunately, the blacks found that there was

  ― 197 ―
a corpse on each bed, and rushed into the house. A worse fate was reserved for the high-spirited Kit and her maids. Forest darted to the big house to save them. He found Kit quivering with anxiety on the doorstep, but on her way to give them warning. There was no need to whisper what had happened.

“We must fly; are you ready?” He half expected her to refuse to go with him, or to waste precious seconds in preparations or perversity.

She simply whispered, “The river; take my hand; I know the way by night.”

“The horses,” he said; but as he spoke a broad flame leapt up from the stables, showing swarms of blacks all round, and at the girl's side a tall savage in the act of raising his waddy to brain her.