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  ― 36 ―

IV

FAR away in the heart of Queensland, that great half-explored country which has acquired among Australians the dreamily suggestive name of the “Never Never Land,” two shepherds dwelt on the banks of a river which bordered an endless plain. Shepherding, in its old-world signification, is suggestive of green, soft pastures, clear, rippling brooks, a small flock of fat, contented-looking sheep, with gentle eyes and thick silky wool, and sportive lambs, tended and guided by one who carries a crook and is picturesque, and who weaves garlands of sweet-smelling clover.

But very far removed from such an occupation as that was the shepherding known to these world-forgotten men.

A succession of hot, rainless seasons had withered the once fertile plain, scorched the trees on its border, and licked up the shallow, sluggish waters of the river, leaving but an irregular chain of dark, pestilential pools, in which rotted the body of many a starved, thirst-slain animal. Hundreds of miserable wasted sheep lay panting, with extended tongues, on arid, dusty ground, or wandered listlessly about, dragging up the thick, yellow grass roots. Among a small clump of trees behind the shepherd's bark hut there was a very Golgotha.


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Scores of dying lambs had crawled to that poor shade, and there left their bones. And on all the lurid sun glared with relentless ferocity, and the burning heat was reflected back from the stricken plain into an opaque and brassy sky.

The two men who occupied the hut, one stretched on a sheepskin, his head supported on a folded coat, and the other sitting on the ground against the bark wall, were both young, and had been delicately nurtured. There was but little difference between their stories—the old story of dissipation ending in ruin. Then, when all was gone but pride and courage, the old world had been forsaken for the new. They belonged, in a word, to that too numerous class of “failures,” the more courageous and independent of which prefer a hard, rough livelihood abroad to a comparatively easy existence of polite mendicity at home. To such hardy “failures” the Colonies owe not a little of their backbone.

The man who sat against the wall was the older and slighter of the two. He had dark blue eyes and brown hair, and his face was tanned and half hidden by a short beard which grew high on his cheek-bones. His companion was a tall, grandly-built man, or rather the battered wreck of such a one. His form was wasted; his gold-brown beard was wild and unkempt; his cheeks were hollow


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and his eyes were dull. The former was Richard Bell, a younger son of a titled Ulster family, in the male members of which wildness was hereditary. His companion was Conway Osborne.

Conway had been in the colonies for nearly four years, during which he might have worked his way a considerable distance on the road to prosperity. But he was no ordinary “failure;” his downfall was due to no ordinary causes. His disposition had not sufficient lightness and elasticity to admit of his forgetting. With all his splendid manhood, his heart was as a woman's—tender, sensitive, and single—and the estrangement from his brother was slowly but surely breaking it.

He had lost the power of concentrating his energies, and was consumed by an eternal restlessness. His Australian wanderings had commenced in Victoria, where his recklessness and self-neglect had resulted in a severe attack of rheumatic fever, which prostrated him for many weeks, and from the effects of which he never wholly recovered.

In the back blocks of New South Wales he had known both hunger and thirst, and had suffered from sunstroke. Further and further north he aimlessly drifted, until he crossed the border into Queensland during one of the severest droughts the country had ever experienced. The whole colony was suffering under the distress; pastoral and


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agricultural interests were dead, and labour was at a premium. A great squatter king, whose monthly losses at that time might have been reckoned by thousands, sent Conway to try and find water and grass for some of his flocks. His mission was to save as many as he could, and Richard Bell was sent to assist him in that weary task.

Conway had been thus situated, seventy miles from the nearest habitation of man and ninety from a township, for three or four months, when two things happened to him.

He was stricken with a lingering, decaying illness—the combined result of rheumatic fever, sunstroke, exposure, heat, impure water, and hard fare, at a time when nature demanded gentle nourishment—and an old copy of a Brisbane newspaper was left in his hands by a passing traveller. Almost the first words to meet his eyes, when he opened the tattered, discoloured paper, were these:—

“CONWAY OSBORNE is earnestly requested to send his address to his brother at the Ferns, Herts., England.”

Upon reading that advertisement Conway had not hesitated a moment. There was now a possibility of that for which he had been pining for years—a reconciliation with his brother. He had


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no materials for writing, and he was too weak for the fatigue of a ninety miles' ride into Charters Towers, the nearest township. But Dick Bell had gladly undertaken the journey, and posted to Bertram a slip of paper simply containing an address—Conway Osborne, Post-Office, Charters Towers, Queensland.

It was of the expected letter from home that the two men were now talking. Conway was endeavouring to persuade his companion, who had ridden into Charters Towers but three weeks before for a fresh supply of tobacco, matches, tea, and other necessaries, and had found no letter waiting at the post-office, to make the journey again.

“I don't see the faintest probability of a letter arriving for another week or two,” reasoned Dick. “It's scarcely four months since we sent the address.”

“It is exactly four months and three days,” replied Conway. “I've counted every hour of the time. Do go, mate. I dreamt last night that there was a letter.”

“You dream that every night, I believe,” said the other, smiling compassionately. “I'd go in a moment, old fellow, if you were yourself; I'd ride five hundred miles for a letter that would set your mind at rest. But you're still so seedy that I hate to leave you alone.”




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“But see how much better I've been lately,” cried Conway, eagerly. “I've been knocking about the place to-day, walking as straight and as firm as an emu. Dick, I feel sure there's a letter, and that it will be the making of me. You know very well that it's not the weakness and pain in my bones that keep me down. Take my mare; she's bony enough, poor beast, but she's in better condition than your nag. There's plenty of ‘damper’ to last me, and you can leave both the ‘billies’ full of cold tea, in case I don't feel up to making it; and with two or three figs of tobacco I'll be as jolly as a sandboy. Now, you'll go for me, won't you?”

“Yes, I'll go, old fellow,” said Dick, after a thoughtful pause. “And I'll bring either a letter or a doctor,” he added to himself.

Two hours afterwards Conway was alone—alone in the parched desert with the starving flocks, unseen by any but the All-seeing Eye; alone in an atmosphere which stirred but to burn; enveloped in a silence which was rendered more startlingly impressive by the occasional fretful yelp of a dog, or the low plaintive “baa” of a dying sheep. To a dweller in cities such solitude would have been appalling, but Conway had grown used to it.

After Dick had gone he felt more cheerful than he had felt for months. Unusually free from the


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gnawing rheumatic pains, and with the hope in his heart as a sedative, he slept that night long and dreamlessly. In the morning he walked out for a little among the suffering animals, but the implacable heat soon drove him back to the shelter of the hut. There he lay for hours dreamily thinking, a little of the future, but more of the past. His thoughts dwelt in the far distant happy days, when he and Bert had been all in all to each other. For it was Bert, always Bert! They were children again at the Ferns—wild, neglected children—delighting in the chasing of butterflies and the seizure of birds' nests. And if, after a hard day's sport, he was tired, Bert took his hand and helped him home. They were boys at school again, and Bert helped him over the donkey's bridges which beset the path of the youthful student, while he pounded the bullies into jelly. He laughed aloud—so loud that a sheep-dog that lay in the doorway looked up in undisguised wonder—as in spirit he again thrashed the bargeman at Oxford and in his solitude he was merry over their doings on the Continent.

When he came to their first parting, and his meeting with Una, he arrested his thoughts by an effort of will. He would have none of that period, and of the weary days and years of pain that had followed. He would turn down those


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ill-written leaves, and set a great seal upon them. Rather let him go back to the beginning, and dream his dream over again, finding out and dwelling upon the thousand little interesting incidents which, in the rush of thought, had been neglected.

In such dreaming the first two days of Conway's loneliness passed unheeded.

During the afternoon of the third day there came an unexpected but blessed visitor. A small cloud arose in the eastern horizon; light and fleecy at first, but it rapidly grew until the heavens were hid in darkness. Then the lightning flashed and the thunder rumbled in the west, and a few great drops of rain were succeeded by a heavy downpour.

It was but a passing tropical shower of not more than an hour's duration; but the elements work vigorously in those climes, and by the time the clouds had rolled away, leaving the sky perfectly spotless, and the sun had come out again with unabated intensity, what had been dust was mud, and the pools in the river beds had grown larger and gained much in purity. The delighted dogs rolled in the cool, wet mud, the lean sheep baaed their gratitude to heaven, and the insects in the trees that had been long silent chirped a glad chorus.




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Conway walked out in the shower, and took comfort in getting wet. When he returned to the hut he found his sheepskin lying in a pool of water. An old bark roof that has borne a tropical sun for many months cannot be expected to remain waterproof. The young man's imprudence in getting wet and allowing his clothes to dry on him was rewarded in the evening by a return of the rheumatic pains, during the night by sleeplessness, and in the morning by symptoms of fever.

In the meantime Dick had arrived at Charters Towers within fifty hours of leaving the hut. He found, to his intense disappointment, that there was no letter for his mate. But learning from the postmaster that the English mail was due in Brisbane that day, and that packets by it would reach Charters Towers only thirty hours later, he determined to wait, on the chance of there being a letter for Conway. In any case his horse required a good rest before commencing the return journey. An accident on the railway line and a breakdown of the coach occasioned a delay of a full day in the arrivals of the mails at Charters Towers; but Dick felt he was amply compensated when a letter was handed him directed to Conway Osborne.

Then he lost no time in starting for home; and as he had been away for many hours longer than he had intended, he urged the mare to her best


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pace. When he arrived in sight of the hut he expected to see Conway looking out for him; but in that he was disappointed, and the anxiety he had felt, but tried to stifle on the road, was greatly increased. As he dismounted in the rear of the hut, he heard his mate's voice within, and both words and tone half awed and wholly alarmed him.

“Oh, why does he delay? Dick would not desert me; but he may have fallen on the road, and I shall die alone. God help me, and keep my senses from failing!

“ ‘Where shall we go for our garlands glad
At the falling of the year,
When the burnt-up banks are yellow and sad,
When the boughs are yellow and sere?' ”

The poor fellow was trying to allay the mental anguish, and to keep his brain from wandering, by repeating fragments of a poem by a bushman,note who in Victoria had been his friend.

“Dick, you've been a good, true mate; but if you don't come soon and bring Bert's letter——

“ ‘Where are the old ones that once we had,
And when are the new ones near?
What shall we do for our garlands glad
At the falling of the year?' ”




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“We're chums again, Bert and I, though the ocean rolls between us; and perhaps we'll take Dick into partnership, if he doesn't stay too long.

“ ‘But I go where last year's lost leaves go At the falling of the year.' ”

“Ah! Dick at last, thank God!” he exclaimed, as his mate appeared in the doorway. “And—yes, I see it in your face—you've brought me the letter.”

He tried to rise to a sitting posture, but fell back heavily again on the sheepskin. Dick saw that his eyes were hollower than ever, and lit with an unnatural brilliancy, and a chill of fear struck his heart.

“Yes, I've brought your letter, and some medicine and brandy,” he said, with a hopeless attempt to speak lightly. “I see you've not been taking care of yourself, and I must start to nurse you at once.”

“Give me the letter, Dick,” demanded the sick man, hungrily.

When it was placed in his hands, he gazed with dim, fond eyes at the well-remembered handwriting; and while Dick gently raised his pillow by adding a saddle-cloth, he covertly kissed the envelope.




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“Open it for me,” he pleaded, for his hands were trembling like an aspen-leaf.

When he had performed this service, and given the sufferer some brandy, Dick walked out of the hut to leave the brothers together, and stood in the sun, gazing at the distant mirage, but seeing nothing but a red darkness. Presently he heard the weak voice calling him.

“It's no use, Dick. I can't read it. I can scarcely see. You are so good—read it for me.”

Then Dick—the wild, intractable Dick Bell—sat on the ground by his friend's side, and, spreading out the letter, read in a husky and oft-broken voice:—

THE FERNS, 27 October 188—.

“MY DEAR LONG-LOST BROTHER AND CHUM,—

Ever since I last heard of you, I have been instituting unceasing inquiries, and making every effort to find you, for I feared that, having lost your fortune, you might be in want of the necessary, which I might possibly have the happiness of conveying to you in secret. But for the last twenty months, in particular, the impossibility of seeing you, and of holding your hand and imploring your forgiveness, has been a torture to me by night and day; for during that time I have known how deeply I have injured you.

“At last I heard that you had been seen and


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recognised in a country town in New South Wales, and then I directed that the advertisement, which I conclude you must have seen, although the address sent was not in your handwriting, should be inserted in all the Australian papers. When I received that address I almost decided to go to you instead of writing; but I thought it possible that you would see in the advertisement my longing to beg your forgiveness, and that your grand old brotherly heart being willing to take me back, you might have started for England, in which case I should have missed you. And so I have stayed at home at the Ferns waiting for you. But if it turns out that the mountain won't come to Mahomet—to effect which I enclose a bank draft in case you have not struck gold in Australia—then, most assuredly, Mahomet will go to the mountain.

“It was only on her death-bed that Una opened my eyes, and showed me how you and I had been parted by a lie. She died last Christmas year of inflammation of the lungs, brought on by a cold neglected in her mad race after pleasure. She could not have loved me very much, the poor child's nature was too vain and shallow. Her wickedness has given us years of pain, but if you will forgive my iniquity in doubting you—which must remain a life-long reproach within me—and take me back as your ‘old chum’ again, we will


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deal gently with her memory, Con, for God knows what imperfect creatures we all are.

“You will come back to me, Con; I know you will. Only one doubt—the shame of it burns me as I write—has ever come between us, and it was mine. But as you read this your brother's fault is forgiven. You are taught to forgive him seventy times—his one offence was equal to seventy; but your heart's forgiveness is big enough to cover it, and he will offend no more. Come to me; come to me without a moment's delay. I shall be counting each hour. Come to me, Con; I cannot live apart from you longer. All my own interests have been abandoned, and at thirty, without you, I am an old man.

“This is written in our old ‘barrack;’ there are two guns of yours on the wall, and a fishing-rod standing in the corner over there. The covers are teeming with partridges, and the stream is alive with trout. Make haste, old fellow, and come home! See here! I have a jar at hand of tobacco, our own particular mixture—your invention, you remember, at Oxford. Happy thought! we'll smoke a loving pipe together. There! I've charged my briar with it, and rolled up a pipeful in silver paper, which I'll flatten out and enclose with this letter. I fear it will be dust when it reaches you, but never mind that. Put it in your


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pipe and say, ‘Old Bert had behaved like a scoundrel to me, but I bury my just resentment, and from my soul forgive him, and with him now I smoke the Pipe of Peace.’ And when you have smoked it faithfully out, start up and come to me.

“And may God bless you, and guide you in safety home to

“Your ever-remorseful but ever-loving

“Brother and friend,

“BERT OSBORNE.”

As Dick finished reading he caught his breath in an irrepressible sob. Conway had listened with his face concealed by his poor wasted hands, weeping silently like a weary child.

“My pipe, Dick.” And Dick, knowing what was required of him, carefully opened the little silver paper, and poured the dry, dusty tobacco it contained into his mate's well-used clay pipe, pausing once in the delicate task to brush the blinding moisture from his sight with the back of his brown hand. Then he knelt on the ground, gently raised his companion, and, supporting him with one strong arm, gave him the pipe and struck a light for him. Weakly but eagerly Conway drew the smoke from the pipe of peace, and weakly and brokenly, but oh! so earnestly, he spoke to his mate the while.




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“Tell him—I smoked it, Dick—for you must go—and tell him everything——I know—you'll go, Dick—I don't want your word—you're so good—next in my heart—to my brother. He'll be—your friend. Tell him—how much I forgave him—as God—will forgive me—and how much—how much I loved him——The partnership's broken—but only for a time——Dick—mate—it's not very hard.”

The pipe of peace so faithfully and lovingly smoked fell from his hand, and more heavily the dying man lay in the arms of his sobbing friend.

“Bert—there you are—dear old fellow! You'll like Dick—and perhaps talk of me——I've smoked it all—right out—and we're—old chums again—Bert—real—dear—old chums for ever.”

A great, long-drawn sigh, and the tired life slipped away.

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