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Chapter XVI.

“O shame of reason, caught by veriest show!
Love is but simple selfishness;
Careless alike of alien weal and woe;
Intent itself to bless.

Therefore I am resolved, with stedfast mind,
To cut this gangrene from my heart;
And though its tangled knots, through all have twined,
To spare no quivering part.”

ECILA.

That a night of thought, rather than sleep, followed the conversation recorded in the last chapter, was what each tried to hide from the other. There were too many sad lessons in the tale, not to occupy Gertrude's mind; and make her offer up a prayer of thanksgiving, that she had been rescued from a like fate: “how similar it might have been,” she said, shuddering.

A weary day succeeding agitation, and sleeplessness, had tinctured every object with a dull hue. Mrs Doherty, as she always did when sad, wished Tudor was at home, and looked out along the path, to his deserted cottage.

Mr. Batally, who laboured under the delusion that his parting from Gertrude in displeasure, had been a source of the deepest sorrow to her, kindly extended a patronising familiarity; which was met with such a cold, almost proud reception, as threatened a depth beyond his philosophy: that women could be coy, pettish, or jealous, he could understand; but indifference, total, contemptuous indifference, was a state of affairs unknown to him; he was puzzled.

“What do you think of the Women's Rights movement, Miss Gertrude?” he inquired that evening, as they sat at tea.

“I have heard little about it, Sir.”

“But what do you think of women as doctors, and lawyers, and parsons?”

“I do not see why women should try to be like men,” said Mrs. Doherty, tartly.

“Miss Gertrude has not favoured us with her opinion,” he pursued, fixing his eyes upon her.

“I think women have much to reform, Sir, but not quite in the way they are doing,” she replied, timidly.

“How then?”

“They do not seem fit to battle with the world, as men do; but there is much yet to learn, and unlearn in their homes, and pursuits; the mind might be elevated, the heart guided, and the taste refined; the home have an influence of higher and sublimer things; and woman become a companion spirit for man—not contend with him. A Bloomer dress leaves as much as ever to do.”

Mr. Batally was perplexed, but bowed with a gracious smile, in acknowledgment of some vague sense he had of a compliment, she was paying to mankind, and him as their representative, on the present occasion.

Dr. Bower just then joined them, and was greeted in so cordial manner, by the females, that he was evidently quite flattered.

“And so you have lost Tudor,” he said, helping himself to a slice of meat from the ‘salt round’ on the table.

“Yes, we are so dull,” returned Mrs. Doherty, “I am quite pleased to see you, doctor; you must gossip me into spirits, again.”

“You have no want of good company either,” said he, with one of his satirical, bitter smiles, and turning an eye upon Mr. Batally, who sat coldly staring.

Mrs. Doherty pushed the bread tray towards him in a manner that jarred the cruet stand, and made the glasses jingle: and Gertrude was just supplying the cup, Marianne had brought in for the doctor. Dr. Bower's little grey eyes sparkled with a satisfied, malicious expression; but he addressed his remarks to Mr. Batally, with a running under fire of satire, too abstruse for that gentleman's observation, but quite intelligible to Gertrude.

The conversation appeared to have a natural bias towards national prejudices, whenever the doctor, and Mr. Batally met; and the latter soon dashed into the thick of the argument, while Mrs. Doherty warmed at once, and joined them. The conversation was conducted in peculiar style; each perfectly unconvincible, and quite incapable of supporting their predilections by argument. Mrs. Doherty lost temper; Mr. Batally indulged in sweeping censures; and Dr. Bower in sarcasm.

“It's no use for a new comer, to form such hasty conclusions,” said the lady, “you can't know anything about it.”

“The scenes, and persons being new, strike me; use has blinded your eyes,” retorted Mr. Batally.

Gertrude hoping to make a diversion, here inquired if Lakin was not gone to the Post; but unintentionally supplied fresh food for debate.

“Talking of new comers, there's Lakin as a specimen of sharpness,” said Mrs. Doherty.

“What of him?”

“What indeed!—He came out with a good outfit, and some eleven pounds of ready cash, went to a tavern to board, expecting something to ‘turn up,’ which means a fairy god-mother, or the philosopher's stone, I suppose; and being a goodnatured, soft creature, and disposed to drink, became socially inclined, and was soon surrounded by a lot of sharpers, and—”

“Done brown,” suggested Mr. Batally.

“Became intoxicated,” pursued his aunt, with some severity, “some one proposed his putting up his trunk, clothes, books, eleven sovereigns, and all, for sale; and poor Lakin who is always rather majestic in his ideas, when drinking, agreed to the proposal: the bystanders entered warmly into the joke, the box, and its contents were bid for, and when the poor creature awoke next morning, in his senses, with a head-ache, and heart-ache to boot, the landlord handed him one pound, which was the sum his possessions had fetched; and I hired him through a Registry Office, soon after.”

“He had but one suit of clothes, at that time, and was in great distress: but his pride forbade his riding upon a bullock dray, and he walked from Sydney here in glazed slippers.”

Mr. Batally's comments were not flattering to the sufferer; and the conversation falling back to the old theme, Gertrude, as soon as practicable, left the tea table.

There was yet some two hours before dark, and the weariness of the morning had, under the influence of uncongenial society, been seriously augmented. A run through the fresh air, and a talk with nature, promised relief; and throwing on her holland sun-bonnet, she started off to visit Mrs. Kenlow, and Kitty.

Under every burnt log, a fine tuft of violets, pink, blue, or white, had sprung up, scentless, and fragile, but pretty; all round the black, charred timber, the blue young leaves were forming wreaths, and the green blades of grass shot up, like a new sown field of wheat, sprinkled by butter-cups, and birds-eyes, and fungi of singular beauty.

Gertrude went on, filling her apron with treasures, and growing cheerful, and courageous at each step. The little flowers were preaching their own sermons, “with most persuasive reasons,” and the clear, bright, spring air bid defiance to weariness, and gloom.

Now dancing down some bank, or leisurely crossing a flat, pausing to watch a magpie feeding her brood, in the untidy nest of dry sticks, or peeping into the nest of the clamorous soldier-birds, to see the pretty pink, and purple speckled eggs, she pursued her way, till the sheep overseer's hut was reached, and then, after half an hour's chat, she turned homewards.

But a short distance from the hut, Charley emerged from among the trees, leading his horse by the bridle, and came forward, with extended hand.

“I am so glad to see you,” he said, but though the little face, that looked up at him, was kind, it was grave; and his gay manner suddenly changed.

“I heard you were returned, you have been longer than you intended, I think.”

“Yes, Miss Gertrude, I could not help it. Till Dick married, he and I went shares, for father made no will, he thought it would cause his death to do so; and just at the last, he was most time out of his mind; but when Betsey came home, she did not like my going halves, and was always pulling Dick over the coals; so I went to the Abercrombie: then one thing or 'nother kept me.”

Gertrude extended her hand, and was wishing him good evening, with something about hurrying home before it was dark: he took her hand, but said:

“I am going to walk with you a bit of the way. Gertrude, you mustn't run away so.”

They walked on, and he pursued. “We have come to a settlement now; Dick has behaved very handsome, and I am going to make a home of my own. I can't stand Betsey, her temper is so bad.

“I don't exactly know what I shall do; whether I shall take a farm, or a station. I've a mind to try a station, for I'm fond of an active life, and I think it would be pleasanter. I should put up a nice snug little place, and there would be nothing to do but look after the cattle, and take down a mob, once or twice a year, to Sydney. Don't you think it would be nice?”

“I am quite incompetent to judge: your brother could better advise you than I, Sir.”

The same quiet, grave tone.

Charley's bright smile vanished, and he said bitterly—

“You are like the rest of the women, they're all—” he would have said faithless, but remembered that he had never bound her by any promise, or even implied one; therefore she had broken no faith with him.

To Charles Inkersole, whose acquaintance with the softer sex had been limited to the coarse or ignorant, the fragile, sweet young girl by his side, was the very personification of feminine beauty; while dimly there crept through his uncultured soul, a sense that she was holier, and purer than any he had ever seen before: to himself, even he could not define what he felt; his mind was not disciplined, and his inner nature trained, and active—much that she valued, he would laugh at as nonsense—and yet there was a certain awe, which goodness ever unconsciously exercises, over even its enemies; and Charley was no intentional enemy of right; but he was a child of nature, such a one as springs up, and is now springing up, with some modifications of character, and circumstances, in hundreds of bush farms. Comely, tall, and vigorous, and often wonderfully moral, when the tainted stock from which they spring, be accounted: but quite ignorant of religion; out of the way of churches, and Sunday schools; taught to read, and write, and so on, by some ruined tradesman, or educated scamp, who settles down as “the schoolmaster,” in those isolated farmhouses; educates the boys, and girls, and perhaps drops (how can it be otherwise?) some deadly poison into the young mind.

Such had been the training of Charles Inkersole, and his brother: but beneath those bright, smiling eyes, was a waste, and the warm young heart, with its strong pulse, beat as free from restraint of right, and holiness, as when its wondrous machinery first stirred in the baby bosom.

But an unwonted pang shot through his heart then, and restraint gave way before a determination to know all, even the worst.

It was not till that moment, that Gertrude was aware how completely her love had departed. She received his offer unmoved; she could feel no emotion, at least none of love; it was vain, that he spoke, or looked burning words of affection, they fell like ice, upon the heart, and awoke no glow. She could not feel with him, and she wept bitterly, and long, she hardly knew why, her requiem over what had been, over the death of her girlish love, her first awakening to that magic touch.

She recalled the days, when she had longed and wearied for that word of love, now proffered her; when she had crept away to weep over a first disappointment, and first experience of life's bitter realities. The time was gone for ever, she had never known it till then, so imperceptibly had the waters of oblivion fallen upon her soul; she did not tell him, for that bitter experience, and those nights of weeping, had made her a woman, that she had once loved him, she simply said, “It was impossible, quite impossible; she never could be his wife.” And she felt as she spoke, that her dead love had no resurrection; for respect as a foundation, was wanting, and her own love of right had passed sentence upon it.

So they parted; and Gertrude felt that a Guardian Hand had been stretched over her, and saved her.

Dr. Bower was relating recollections of the Black Jack fever, when she entered, and illustrating it with the ‘swabbing,’ and ‘sky-larking,’ and ‘bullock dray,’ with a glance at Mr. Batally.

Dr. Bower's face always wore an almost idiotic expression of vacancy, when he was relating these interesting particulars, and his eyes used to fix themselves upon some object, evidently hundreds of miles away, till he came to the ‘bullock team,’ when he suddenly turned them upon some one present, and then went off again, to India perhaps.

Gertrude knew all his anecdotes by heart, and was prepared to prompt, if necessary; and Mrs. Doherty, although constitutionally too irritable to hear repetitions, always manifested a praiseworthy interest in the ‘Black Jack,’ and other little favorites of ghastly memory.

Mr. Batally lighted a cigar, and puffed shortly, and presently led off the conversation to the merits, and demerits of the Australians, a subject on which Mrs. Doherty, and Dr. Bower warmed immediately, in fact, they were rather touchy upon it, and bore the visitor's sweeping censures rather badly.

“This is well known,” remarked his aunt, “that the natives are a race, sensible, good mannered, and industrious, and that can't be said of all Englishmen,” and her fierce eyes were sufficiently full of meaning.

“Yes, the capacity of the Australian youth is proverbial,” said Dr. Bower. “I consider their development decidedly favourable to—”

Mr. Batally laughed, and begged Gertrude to take up the cudgels for him, or he would be demolished between his aunt, and her friend.

“I shall leave you to fight your own battles,” she said, with a quiet smile. “I have a very high opinion of the natives.”

“Of all, or individuals?” inquired the gentleman, with an unpleasant, meaning look.

“I believe, to have a good opinion of all, one must necessarily have the same of individuals,” she replied, calmly.

Mr. Batally played with his moustaches, but searched her guileless countenance, keenly.

“Very well answered, Gertrude,” said Mrs. Doherty.

“Can you defend the manners, and customs of these immaculate natives?” asked Mr. Batally, with his eyes, still fixed on Gertrude.

“In defence of my own; I must go and see after various little concerns,” she said smiling and rising, and when she returned, with a tray of glasses, and decanters of hot water, etc., the company had evidently pursued the subject past the point of mutual forbearance.

National prejudices are so little regarded, and so often insulted by the new comer, while he is of course so ignorant, and helpless in colonial ways, that there is some rankling feeling, pretty generally found between the two; which time the great planer, smooths down better than arguments.

Gertrude's timely interruption smoothed the ruffled humours of her companions, and Mr. Batally was, or thought he was excessively gracious, and bestowed some most enchanting smiles upon the corner where Gertrude sat, making up old clothes for a sick child at the huts, but unless she possessed the gift of clairvoyance, or spider's eyes, they must have been lost, for she stitched away most perseveringly.

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