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  ― 18 ―

Chapter II

A Bitter Schooling.

What is [a girl of eighteen] to believe in, if not in this vision woven from within?’—George Eliot.

‘WELL, Jen,’ said her stepmother, in a tone in which amusement and vexation struggled for the mastery.

‘Well,’ repeated the girl.

She never had many words at her command.

‘Are you goin' to marry him, Jen?’

‘Who?’

‘Who? Why, the sergeant, to be sure. You didn't think I meant Black Dave, did you? No gal as calls herself respectable 'd so much as look at Black Dave;’ and she put on an air of mock modesty that for a moment deceived the younger woman.

‘You've no call——’ she began hotly.

‘There, there!’ said Mrs. Carter soothingly; ‘there, don' you an' me row! Jen, though, it'd be a mighty fine thing for us if you'd marry the sergeant.’

‘He never asked me,’ said the girl, taking refuge in the stereotyped answer that comes first to all women's lips.

‘Never asked you? Oh no. He's swearing to hisself now that he'll never come here no more, but he ain't gone farther than Pard Derrick's claim. Give him a cooey, an' he'll be back an' do the job!’

‘I hate him! I hate him!’

‘Lawks! what's that matter? You'd get used to him. Men is all pretty much alike once they's spliced. Black Dave 'll beat you black an' blue once he's got the drink in him.’




  ― 19 ―

Jenny looked up with a shrinking terror in her eyes. Her whole thoughts and her whole heart were given almost unconsciously to Dave Anderson, and yet here was the only woman whose opinion she could ask prophesying sorrow and woe to her. She believed in Sal Carter, too, believed in her thoroughly; and indeed, according to her lights, Sal Carter had been good to her husband's lonely daughter.

‘He won't,’ she protested; ‘he wouldn't never hurt me. He's quite different to me to other folks.’

‘Oh, bless your sweet innocence! When you're his missus, you'll be a bit worse nor any other woman. He'll beat you, sure enough. You take my advice an' marry the sergeant. It's just the ways of men.’

‘Everybody don't.’

The sun was right across the counter now, and the row of tin pannikins thereon caught and reflected his rays like silver; and without the hum of busy life was louder than ever, as each man made preparations to end the day. Mrs. Carter evidently bethought herself that her brief spell of idleness was rapidly drawing to a close, and stretched herself along the flour-sacks her husband had vacated, to make the most of it.

‘Every man doesn't?’ she repeated. ‘Lord, yes! they do, if they can.’

‘Dad don't beat you.’

The other woman settled her arms comfortably behind her head as a support, and surveyed with complacency her feet shod with good substantial carpet-slippers somewhat down at heel.

‘No,’ she said dryly; ‘I rather reckon he don't.


  ― 20 ―
But he beat your mother, I'll bet. Come, didn't he, now?’

When her father found this wife too much for him, as not infrequently happened, he was wont to enlarge on the many virtues of his late helpmate—virtues which Jenny remembered had not been so present to his mind when she was with him. Whether she was a good wife to him or not, there was no doubt about it he had found occasion to beat her very often; and she hung her head as the remembrance of her mother's tired, tear-stained face rose up before her.

‘There, there!’ said her stepmother, not unkindly, ‘I didn't mean to vex you, Jen. Lord! in course he beat her. Like you she was, I guess; thought a sight o' him, an' he took it out o' her. Men is all alike if you let 'em. You take my advice, Jen; marry the sergeant, an' keep a tight hand over him.’

‘But—but—I hate him!’ repeated the girl helplessly.

‘Hate, pooh! 'tis next door to lovin' him, an' it's a mistake any way.’

‘How do you know?’ asked the girl timidly.

The subject interested her, as when did it not interest a woman?

‘Know—know! Well, I ain't lived in this world nigh on twenty-seven year without knowin' somethin' about it.’

‘Oh! but you don't—love dad.’

‘Sweet on him? Lord! no, never was. He'd a-led me a nice life if I'd a-been. He was mighty sweet on me when we got married; but I—Lord, no! I wasn't set on him no ways. What sort o' time 'd I ha' had if I had been?’




  ― 21 ―

Thinking of her own mother, whom her childish recollections pictured as being ‘mighty set’ on the brute she called husband, Jenny acknowledged to herself that her stepmother was right. She certainly managed her husband better than her predecessor; but dumbly in the girl's untutored mind there struggled for utterance the thought that comes to all good women once in their lives. Surely, surely there was something higher and better in this world than to take a husband she did not love, and manage him. But she was so ignorant she hardly knew how to put her feelings into words; she hardly understood the feelings herself.

‘But—but,’ she asked, and though Jenny bent low over the child in her arms, the woman who had tasted of life's bitterness to the very dregs read in the hot flush that mounted to her forehead of whom and what she was thinking, and pitied her from the bottom of her heart, ‘ain't it no good ever to be set on a man? Not when he's mighty bad on you?’ There was a wistful ring in her voice. For one man she would have given all she possessed, her very life; and was it to be of no avail? ‘Ain't it no good?’

‘Well, Jen,’ and there was a gentleness in Sal Carter's voice none would have given her credit for, ‘honour bright, I don't think it is. When a man's set on a gal, he jest lays right down and she tramps over him; and when a woman's set on a man, well, 'tis t'other way about. 'Tain't right, somehow, but so it is.’

‘But sometimes,’ hazarded the girl, ‘they're set on each other.’

‘Never more'n a week—no, a day at most. Then


  ― 22 ―
one gets the upper hand, and t'other goes to the wall. Don't you go to the wall, Jen; you marry the sergeant.’

The girl looked down at the sleeping child in her arms, and passed her hand tenderly over its little face. Tears gathered slowly in her eyes, hung for a moment on her long lashes, and fell on to her sunburned cheeks. Was the world so hard a place to live in as all this? Was this woman right? It had been her mother's experience; it was this woman's experience. Must it be hers, too?

‘I'd work my fingers to the bone to make him happy,’ she sighed.

‘You bet you would, an' then he wouldn't be happy, if you mean Black Dave. Give over thinkin' about him, Jen; he ain't worth it.’

Sal Carter dropped her head back on the flour-sacks, and let her arms fall limply down beside her. A softened look crept over the bold handsome face, and the dark eyes looked sadly out of the doorway. Somewhere in her life, too, there was a tender memory. She, too, had been a girl like this one; not always had she thought to be Buck Carter's wife, content to rule her husband and keep a grog shanty on a diggings camp. A cricket hidden under the earthen floor called shrilly to his mate, and another answered from a few feet distant; the whole place was filled with the sound, and Mrs. Carter listened intently. Her eyes wandered to the row of tin pannikins, and their brightness, as the sunlight fell on them, dazzled her eyes. A row of pannikins in a low public-house; she had been accustomed to them all her life; but she, too, had hoped for better things.

‘Hark to the crickets, Jen. My father used to say


  ― 23 ―
if you listened and listened, an' they both stopped at once, you'd have your wish, maybe.’

‘There, they've stopped, an' I wished. Will I get it?’

‘Maybe, specially if you wished for Black Dave. Oh, Jenny, Jenny! give over thinkin' about him. He ain't no good, deed an' deed he ain't.’ Jenny raised her head angrily. ‘There, there!’ said her stepmother soothingly, ‘you an' me mustn't quarrel, must we? Look here’—she rose up, and, crossing over, put her hand kindly on the girl's shoulder—‘Jenny, you won't mind telling me—are you mighty set on that chap?’

The girl raised her face for a moment, and the other woman saw that her eyes were swimming with tears; then she caught at her skirts with one hand, and hiding her face in them, burst out sobbing.

‘I can't help it, I can't help it! an', Sal, Sal, he ain't so bad, 'deed he ain't; an' he says I'm all he's got.’

Her stepmother stroked her hair with no ungentle hand.

‘Poor lass! I'm main sorry for you; but, Jenny, it's truth I'm telling you. Don't ye be trustin' him too far. 'Tain't good for any man, least of all Black Dave. I'm frighted for you sometimes out on the hills at night. Don't you trust him, Jenny.’

But the girl sobbed on; what for she could hardly have told herself. Black Dave filled all her heart, Black Dave was all the world to her; but the greatness of her love did not prevent misgivings from arising, and this well-meant advice did not tend to calm her. If this man was not all her fancy painted him, then indeed was the world a blank to her.




  ― 24 ―

‘So—so it's as bad as that. Will he marry you, Jenny?’

‘I—I don't know,’ sobbed the girl. ‘He didn't never say. He ain't got no place to take me to, on'y a bit of a bark hut in the gully there.’

‘And when a man wants a girl he makes shift to get some sort o' a place to take her to,’ said the other woman thoughtfully, winding a lock of the yellow hair round her fingers. ‘Tisn't as if you'd been kept so mighty fine you couldn't stand roughin' it a bit;’ and she looked round at their rough surroundings. ‘Take my advice, Jenny, he's foolin' ye, an' if I was you I'd have naught to do with him.’

‘If you was me, Sal’—and Jenny in her agitation pressed the baby so close to her breast that he stirred uneasily in his sleep, and she had to rock herself backwards and forwards till he was quiet again—‘if you was me, you'd just love him ever so, an' long an' long fit to break your heart. Sal, Sal, don't a man never want a woman like that?’

‘Oh, whiles, if he can't get her; once he gets her, it sorter wears off. That's why I'm wantin' you to have the trooper; he wants you bad, Jenny. And—and, Jenny, he's respectable, mighty respectable. I dunno how 'tis, but in the end I'm thinking it pays to be respectable.’

‘An' on'y yesterday,’ sobbed Jenny, ‘you was tellin' me of your sister Nan, the one as married a trooper down Deep Creek way on Murderer's Flat. She runned away with Bullocky Charlie, an'—an' you said she was a long sight happier for all she never went to church with him.’

‘I clean forgot her,’ said Mrs. Carter dubiously; ‘but then, she didn't go much on Charlie, neither.


  ― 25 ―
She was drove to it, she was, and Charlie was main set on her. An' she ain't over-happy, neither, though he is good to her. Don't you ever go with a man, Jen, as ain't pretty nigh mad after you; if he ain't that before he won't be afterwards, you can bet.’

The girl drew a long sobbing breath.

‘Sometimes Dave's mad for me.’

‘Oh, whiles, when you're by. But, Jenny, you mark my words: you're too fond o' him to get any good out of him if he was the best man in the world, and we know he ain't that.’

Jenny hid her face in her stepmother's skirt again. The world's ways were cruelly hard as expounded by this teacher, and, worst of all, she had not lived with this woman for the last five years without knowing that she wished her well. So, like many another who can find more words to express her pain, Jenny put her face down and sobbed on helplessly. The ways of the world were too much for her. Was there no comfort anywhere? was it of no avail to be honest and true?

Mrs. Carter answered her unspoken question.

‘Jest about your age I was when Ben Higgins—Fly-away Ben they called him—came makin' up to me. Handsome! there was a handsome man for you, if you like, with hair the colour of that rope in the corner there, and eyes as blue as them new chiny plates in the kitchen. But he didn't take my fancy at first, the other girls thought too much of him, an', when he saw that, nothin' would do but he must have me, an', for all I held my head so high, I gave in after a little. Lord, Lord, I was that happy, never thinkin' I'd end up nursin' Buck Carter's brats for him away out here in the ranges! An' then the


  ― 26 ―
minit I began to look for his comin' it seemed he began to cool off.’

The girl moaned a little.

‘One day hot an' mad after me, the next just as cool as you please. Oh, Lord, Jen, it pretty nigh broke my heart! And then he got sick, an' me slavin' to look after him, though there was but the shadow of a promise between us. They hunched their shoulders an' laughed, the men did, those days, when they see me goin' by, thinkin' of nought but that my boy might die. If he had—oh, if he had’ (the woman's voice rose almost to a wail), ‘I'd ha' been a better woman this day, mebbe; but he didn't. He got well, an' swore there warn't nobody in this world like his Sal, an' he wouldn't never forget it. But the days went on, an' one day he was hot—for all the men wanted me, but not as much as at first, because they counted I sorter belonged to Fly-away Ben—and then, again, he was cold; I couldn't ha' told how, but he raised up a kinder wall between us. And then I heard as he was after another girl; an' I asked him, an' he said Mag Smith wasn't nothin' to him. An' I was that happy till I seed 'em down by the creek that very night. I was off my head with the shame of it, I think. An' I took a knife to him next time I came across him; but he was stronger nor me. Besides, hadn't I nursed him when I thought he was dyin', an' how could I hurt him? But he just laughed at what I said. He wasn't worth thinkin' about, says he, which was true enough, and I went out heart broke, Jenny. It was like kickin' agin a brick wall. An' your father come along, an' I took him, an'—an'—— There's the baby wakin', Jenny. Give him to his mammy. Well, there's always the childer,


  ― 27 ―
thank God, though whiles I'm thinkin' they're a plague!’

The girl gave the baby to his mother, and drew her hand across her aching eyes.

She was fond of her stepmother, and, not thinking much of her father, she had often wondered how so good-looking a woman had come to marry him.

So that was the story. And would a like fate be hers? No, no, a thousand times no!

Yet deep down in her heart she knew there was some truth in what her stepmother was saying—some truth, deny it as she would, in the lesson she tried to teach. Her simple language held no words in which she could show her love for this man they called Black Dave, no words to show why it seemed to her that love must needs be all-embracing, must demand nothing in return. Before her the lives of the only two women she had known intimately stretched out in their dreary hopeless length, and dumbly, with all her strength, her soul protested against a like fate for herself. In all the busy, teeming life around her, was there no man would make the woman who loved him truly happy? Surely all the world was not bad.

She drooped her head drearily again, for in all the world there was but one face for her, and already doubt was creeping in on her first bliss.

The woman beside her put the baby to her breast, and found comfort in the little helpless hands that wandered aimlessly across her bosom.

‘Jenny,’ she began, ‘you think I'm that hard, but——’

A man in a red shirt and moleskin trousers all stained with yellow clay rushed in.

‘Give us a drink, missus, quick! Lord sakes! you


  ― 28 ―
don't mean to say you haven't heard? Someone's shot German Max over there on the track just on the rise of the hill! His bullocks are strayin' round there still.’

Jenny started to her feet.

‘Who?’ asked Mrs. Carter, ‘who?’

‘Who? Well,’ with a half-glance at Jenny's scared face, ‘they do say Black Anderson had a hand in it, and I'll take my colonial oath they ain't far out.’

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