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CHAPTER V.

THE CONSULTATION—MIDDLE-AGED GENTLEMEN GET TIRED OF ADVENTURES AT LAST—THE TRACK REGAINED—AN EXTEMPORE DINNER AND FRESH OYSTERS—A NEW HORROR.

THE diligent constable examined with great care all the parts about, but there was no trace of footsteps. The snow was now disappearing fast, but there was enough on the ground to show the mark of the foot. The sun shone brilliantly and warm, and we stood round the spot for some minutes looking into the water, as if by some miracle we should see the track of the boat. The magistrate was the first to break silence.

“Where's the nearest boat to be got?”

“Nothing to be had nearer than Pitt-Water,” said Sanders, “and it's all a chance if there's one there; but if we had a boat, what could


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we do with it; how could we tell which way they have gone?”

“They might have made use of some boat to cross over to the land on the other side,” said the magistrate, “for the purpose of baffling our track; in that case, the track would be visible on the other side.”

“To be sure,” said Sanders; “how was it that I didn't think of that? If it was not for the shoals and the mud, we might swim it with one of the horses; but there's no help for it; we can't get on without a boat of some sort.”

“Then we must lose no time about it; can you show me the shortest cut to the township at Pitt-Water?”

“Let me alone for that,” said Sanders; “I should like to know the place in Van Diemen's Land that I couldn't show you the shortest cut to.”

“Then come with me, and perhaps Mr. Thornley will lend you his horse, that we may get over the ground the quicker.”

“One word with you,” said I, “before we go further. I don't quite like this new adventure,” I added, drawing the magistrate aside;


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“to tell the truth, I am tired of being dragged into new scrapes; as soon as one ends another begins. Besides, we are not prepared for a lengthened pursuit, and my head is not right; that knock on it from the life-preserver has left a sensation which is anything but agreeable; and we are not armed.”

“You have your double-barrel.”

“But you have no arms, and the constables have nothing but their sticks. Sanders, have you got any weapon about you?”

Sanders exhibited the huge stick which served as his walking staff.

“I don't mean that; have you got any fire-arms?”

“You don't see any, do you?”

“No; that's why we ask.”

“Do you think,” said Sanders, “that an old hand would ever engage in anything that looks like business without his tools?” and opening his waistcoat, he disclosed two small pistols in a concealed pocket on each side of his waist-coat.

“And your mate?”

“He has nothing but his staff. But Lord


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bless you, Sir! it seldom comes to that. I carry mine for caution's sake, but it's seldom necessary to show 'em, even. You see when a man's pounced upon by a constable, he's cowed like, because he thinks that an officer has a right to take him, and his mind is used to feel that he can't resist an officer; it's a habit like that loose characters get. So, while he is nonplused, we just take him gently, and clap the darbies on him, and then we have him like bricks.”

“That's all very well,” I continued, walking a few steps aside, “but really I don't see that I am called on to expose my life in this matter. Had we not better let the police magistrate take it up? He is clever, and used to these things. Besides, I don't see the necessity of taking the matter into our own hands; it is an affair for the authorities to interfere in; for if the girl is the daughter of the Yorkshire George Shirley, and the Gypsey's tale is true, she is an important personage, and it's a matter for the Government to take up.”

“All very true, my dear fellow,” said my friend, “but it's the time. While we are going back, and going about the business formally,


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these rascals may convey the girl away, or, God knows, murder her, perhaps.”

“I rather think,” said I, “they have some motive for not killing her, or they would have done it before, and not have incumbered themselves with her in this chase;—to marry her, maybe, to some one. But we have no time to indulge in surmises on that point, nor would it be of any use to us to resolve it at this moment. The matter in hand is to consider the propriety of our taking on ourselves the finding of the girl.”

“As to that,” said the magistrate, “my mind is made up; I can act in any part of the colony, my commission being made out for the whole of the island, though for convenience sake we are all appointed to particular districts, and we are expected, of course, not to meddle with matters beyond them unnecessarily. But I consider this a case of necessity, and a pressing one, and I think it my duty not to neglect it. I must in fairness allow that I like these excitements, but I am differently circumstanced to you, who have a family. But wait here, at all events, till we return to relieve you; this spot ought not to be left unwatched; and indeed I want your horse, if you have no objection,


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to mount the constable as a guide, as he is the only one among us who knows the road.”

“Well,” said I, “if it must be so, it must; but I must say frankly, I am tired of these expeditions. I'm wanted at home, and I've had enough of them.”

“I see,” said my friend, “you are not romantic.”

“Not I! I'm a plain Surrey farmer turned into a settler, and as to your romance, I leave that to young fellows like you. I would rather have half-a-dozen mutton-chops just now than any dish of romance that you could cook up for me.” And so saying, I sat myself down by the side of the water, with the other constable for my companion, and the magistrate and Sanders cantered off in the direction of Sorell-Town, the nascent metropolis of Pitt-Water.

I was almost tired out, when a shout from the opposite side of the inlet attracted our attention, and I sprung to my feet. I saw the magistrate on horseback, standing on the high bank. He took off his hat, and waved it, from which I concluded that he had some good news for us; but I could not tell what for, it was too far for


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his voice to reach us. My companion thought he could distinguish the word “boat,” but to me it seemed only the usual “cooee,” the colonial way of throwing the voice to a distance. But my companion was right, for presently afterwards we discovered a boat making its way to us through the intricate passages of the inlet, for it was now almost low water, and the numerous shoals made the navigation very difficult. As it was, we had to plunge into the mud before we could get into the boat, and we were obliged to make a long round before we could reach the shore. While we were making the passage, I asked the man in the boat, for there was only one, what the news was.

“No news,” said he, “except that I hear you are in pursuit of two men and a girl who passed over here in the morning. I was down here looking after some fish, when I saw them just about where I took you up, and they said they wanted to cross over, and they offered me, that is, the gentleman did, a couple of dollars if I would put them over. I thought it odd to see the girl with them, but it was no business of mine.”


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“What sort of a girl was she?” I asked eagerly, for this was the first person I had met with who had seen my troublesome charge.

“Oh! just like other girls, but I didn't see her face; but she seemed very tired and sick, poor thing! One of the men carried her in his arms, and I think she had been crying a good deal; but she didn't cry in the boat; she seemed afraid of the man in the black coat. She can't be more than six or seven years old, I take it; and what their game is I don't understand. However, it's no business of mine.”

“Much fish hereabouts?” said I.

“Fish! bless you, the waters hereabouts are as full of fish as they can cram; but they are poor things for eating, most of them. As you get farther up the inlet, the creeks and little ponds that the tide leaves are full of fish; and the ground-sharks are as thick as they can swim.”

“Ground-sharks! that's unpleasant. How big are they?”

“Not big enough to do much mischief; they're most of them as big as a large cod-fish—some bigger—weighing a matter of ten, or


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fifteen, or twenty pounds. The natives eat 'em, but they're rank things to my taste.”

“How do the natives catch them?”

“They don't catch them at all; they spear 'em with their long thin spears; and then they put them over the fire a bit, and eat 'em half raw; but they don't seem to like 'em much. It's only when they can't get other food. And now, masters, this is as near as I can bring you; the mud is awkward, but it isn't above leg-deep, and the bottom is hard enough when you get there. But if you are good climbers, I can run you right against the cliff yonder, and so you may get on shore dry-footed.”

Receiving my assent to this latter proposition, he ran his boat to the bank accordingly, and with a good deal of difficulty I and the constable scrambled to the top. We found the magistrate and Sanders waiting to receive us, with another man on horseback, and on the ground was a huge basket which they had brought with them. A bush-fire of dead wood which they had kindled was burning briskly.

The snow had almost disappeared, but there


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was still sufficient for a keen eye accustomed to the bush to distinguish the sunken traces of the party we were in pursuit of.

“You see,” said the magistrate, pointing to the almost obliterated footsteps, “we are on the scent, but they have got the start of us, and the snow is nearly melted, for it doesn't remain long on the ground in this country.”

“Upon my word,” said. I, “I think I must decline going any further. I am so weak and faint, that really I am not fit for a bush excursion; and I must confess I am so vulgar as to want something to eat.”

“We have thought of that,” said Sanders, “there's the prog; we wouldn't break into it, but waited till you could join us.”

“Now, my lad,” said the magistrate, “produce your provisions.”

The stranger, who had the appearance of a respectable servant, immediately spread on the log of the tree on which we were sitting a white table-cloth; and arranged plates, and knives and forks.

“I wish I could get a drink of something,”


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said I, “but I suppose there's no water here-abouts but what's brackish.”

“Water! who thinks of water?” said the magistrate, gaily; “here's a bottle of Barclay's own stout. Who has got a corkscrew? Here's a job! no corkscrew! It's strange how people will go about without a corkscrew, the only thing that is ever useful, and never to be had when wanted. Oh, you have got one, my lad, that's very clever of you. Here, Thornley, drink. There's nothing like porter in the bush, only it's not to be had everywhere. You see, I did not forget you.”

“What have you got to eat?” said I, considerably refreshed with my draught; “I had but a scanty breakfast.”

“Then you shall make the better dinner. Bring him out, lad! There's a splendid fellow! A goose is better hot, perhaps, but I think we can manage him as he is;—allow me,” helping me to a leg and a wing, and allotting the same portion to himself;—“and as to our friends the constables, they may solace themselves with that cold shoulder of mutton.”


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“I'll have a dig at the mutton in a minute,” said Sanders; “but I shall treat myself to a few oysters first.”

“Oysters! Is the man distraught with fasting? You're not near Billingsgate-market, friend. What puts oysters into your head?”

“I'll put the oysters somewhere else in five minutes,” said the constable; “you don't know whereabouts you are;—this little bay is full of oysters, as I'll soon show you. Scroggs, my boy,” said he, to his mate, “will you have some natives?”

“I don't mind if I do,” said the accommodating Scroggs; “a few dozens of oysters sharpen the appetite.”

Without more ado, the two constables took off their shoes and stockings, and stripping their trowsers high up their legs, they borrowed a large cloth from the lad with the basket, and waded into the water thirty or forty yards. Reaching down their arms, they soon filled the cloth with oysters, and brought them to us, rattling them down in a great heap, and went back to the water for a fresh supply.


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“Here, my lad,” said my friend, “chuck some armfuls of these into the fire to roast, while we pass away the time with the others. Who's got an oyster-knife? That's another thing that people never think of carrying about with them, though they never know when it may be wanted, as you see. —Oh! you've got a knife; handy knife this. There, lad, hook out the oysters directly you hear them crack, or they'll burn. No bad fare, my friend, for the bush—cold goose and oyster-sauce. I say, this knife puts odd ideas into my head. Suppose this most respectable gentleman, John Shirley, Esq., was to use the same sort of tool on the poor little girl—eh? There, don't lay down your knife and fork—I only hinted it. Take some more goose, a leg and a wing are nothing for a hungry man. Don't spare the oysters, plenty more where those came from. I'll join you in another glass of stout.”

“With all my heart" said I, feeling better and stronger for my meal; "and, after all, it would be a pity not to make an effort to recover the poor girl. I shall never forget the agony of the Gypsey when he talked of her before he


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was dashed to pieces over that horrible precipice.”

“Come, you feel in better heart now, and all ready for another start; eh? We must make our men despatch and get ready for our march; we have brought a couple of muskets with us, and lots of cartridges; and you see my Sorell-Town acquaintance has lent me this fowling-piece, shot-belt, and powder-horn, all complete. I found a party just sitting down to dinner with malice prepense against this late goose—peace to his remains! But I soon explained matters to them, and they despatched this lad on horseback with the provender. The lady of the house was so interested about your young heroine, that a little persuasion, I think, would have induced her to join us in the pursuit. Come, Sanders,” he continued, raising his voice, “another batch of oysters! Why, man, you'll grow shelly if you take in so many of those crustaceous delicacies! Holloa!—what's the matter with the men? They have thrown down their load on the beach, and are standing aghast at something. Look, Thornley.”


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I turned my head, and beheld the two constables anxiously and fearfully examining something that they saw on the beach. We hastened to the spot; and Sanders, pointing to the spot that had attracted his attention, said, to our dismay, in a more feeling tone than I had given him credit for: —

“I fear they have done for the poor child, Sir;—this is sadly suspicious.”

We looked—and in the shade near the base of the overhanging cliff, we saw the marks of trampling feet, and the white snow was crimsoned with large drops of blood.

The sight of the blood filled us all with the most anxious apprehensions; and even the phlegmatic Scroggs was moved at what appeared to denote the sad catastrophe of the little girl's murder.

“I've knocked many a bullock on the head,” said he, “and cut many a sheep's throat, and never cared for the sight of the blood—it was natural, and it's what animals are used to; but —— me! if I ever felt like this before—it's enough to turn one sick—after eating oysters,


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too! I couldn't have cut the throat of that little girl now—though I've never seen her—but a child's a child—no, not for a hundred dollars—no, nor a thousand neither. Poor little thing! how she must have scriggled!”

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