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III.

Jack disappeared shortly after his father's arrest on a charge of horse and cattle-stealing, and Tom, the prodigal, turned up unexpectedly. He was different from his father and eldest brother. He had an open good-humoured face, and was very kind-hearted; but was subject to peculiar fits of insanity, during which he did wild and foolish things for the mere love of notoriety. He had two natures — one bright and good, the other sullen and criminal. A taint of madness ran in the family — came down from drunken and unprincipled fathers of dead generations; under different conditions, it might have developed into genius in one or two — in Mary, perhaps.

“Cheer up, old woman!” cried Tom, patting his mother on the back. “We'll be happy yet. I've been wild and foolish, I know, and gave you some awful trouble, but that's all done with. I mean to


  ― 140 ―
keep steady, and by-and-bye we'll go away to Sydney or Queensland. Give us a smile, mother.”

He got some “grubbing” to do, and for six months kept the family in provisions. Then a change came over him. He became moody and sullen — even brutal. He would sit for hours and grin to himself without any apparent cause; then he would stay away from home for days together.

“Tom's going wrong again,” wailed Mrs. Wylie. “He'll get into trouble again, I know he will. We are disgraced enough already, God knows.”

“You've done your best, mother,” said Mary, “and can do no more. People will pity us; after all, the thing itself is not so bad as the everlasting dread of it. This will be a lesson for father — he wanted one — and maybe he'll be a better man.” (She knew better than that.) “You did your best, mother.”

“Ah, Mary! you don't know what I've gone through these thirty years in the bush with your father. I've had to go down on my knees and beg people not to prosecute him — and the same with your brother Tom; and this is the end of it.”

“Better to have let them go, mother; you should have left father when you found out what sort of a man he was; it would have been better for all.”

“It was my duty to stick by him, child; he was my husband. Your father was always a bad man, Mary — a bad man; I found it out too late. I could not tell you a quarter of what I have suffered with him…I was proud, Mary; I wanted my children to be


  ― 141 ―
better than others…It's my fault; it's a judgment…I wanted to make my children better than others…I was so proud, Mary.”

Mary had a sweetheart, a drover, who was supposed to be in Queensland. He had promised to marry her, and take her and her mother away when he returned; at least, she had promised to marry him on that condition. He had now been absent on his latest trip for nearly six months, and there was no news from him. She got a copy of a country paper to look for the “stock passings”; but a startling headline caught her eye:

IMPUDENT ATTEMPT AT ROBBERY UNDER ARMS. —

“A drover known to the police as Frederick Dunn, alias Drew, was arrested last week at —”

She read to the bitter end, and burned the paper. And the shadow of another trouble, darker and drearier than all the rest, was upon her.

So the little outcast family in Long Gully existed for several months, seeing no one save a sympathetic old splitter who would come and smoke his pipe by the fire of nights, and try to convince the old woman that matters might have been worse, and that she wouldn't worry so much if she knew the troubles of some of our biggest families, and that things would come out all right and the lesson would do Wylie good. Also, that Tom was a different boy altogether, and had more sense than to go wrong again. “It was nothing,” he said, “nothing; they didn't know what trouble was.”

But one day, when Mary and her mother were alone, the troopers came again.




  ― 142 ―

“Mrs. Wylie, where's your son Tom?” they asked.

She sat still. She didn't even cry, “Oh, my God!”

“Don't be frightened, Mrs. Wylie,” said one of the troopers, gently. “It ain't for much anyway, and maybe Tom'll be able to clear himself.”

Mary sank on her knees by her mother's side, crying “Speak to me, mother. Oh, my God, she's dying! Speak for my sake, mother. Don't die, mother; it's all a mistake. Don't die and leave me here alone.”

But the poor old woman was dead.

Wylie came out towards the end of the year, and a few weeks later he brought home a — another woman.

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