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Chapter XVII.

“Thy bright, brief day knew no decline,
'Twas cloudless joy;
Sunrise, and night alone were thine,
Beloved boy!
This morn beheld thee blithe, and gay;
That found thee prostrate in decay;
And ere a third shone, clay was clay;
Casa Wappy!”

D. MOIR.

Staples was a man of English birth, who had come out with his mother from his native land, following the fortunes of a worthless husband, and father. Very rarely indeed [did he mention], of late years he had ceased ever to mention, that time, or those parents; but there had been years of hard struggling, and if the boy had collected little scholastic lore, he had an abundant store of craft, and a keen love of money.

From “little Jack,” he would rise to be “John Staples, Esquire,” was an early determination; for this he toiled, thought, and planned, and he had succeeded. When he married Miss Shettle, and became guardian of her orphan sisters, and proprietor of Wattletree Flats, he began to have correspondents, and to take a newspaper; and then came the much coveted “Esquire.” The first time the desired epithet was placed after his name, he carried the letter everywhere he went, and literally wore it out. Into every conversation, he introduced, “A gentleman wrote me from Sydney, t'other day,” and the letter was drawn out, ostensibly to read some passage about the weather: however he grew tired of this; and the general adoption of the title, rendered his displaying it no longer necessary to his pride.

He was a man who, once seen, could never be forgotten, his thin nose, hooked above his mouth, with a cautious, hawk-like expression; and his eyes, keen, clear, and anxious, suggested the presence of a cat, professedly sleeping, but with a sharp eye upon the partly open door of a cupboard, where mice are known to commit depredations.

As Staples's wealth increased, the love of enlarging his possessions increased in equal ratio, and for some time past, he had coveted the station of Jimbindoon, which lay between his property, and Murrumbowrie. He had sounded Tudor on the subject several times, and received an intimation of an equal desire on his part to retain it; which had for a while induced his cat-like nature to adopt a sleeping, forgetful posture: however, he watched his prey, and being aware that Mrs. Doherty had no children, or near kin, to leave her estates to, continued to hope.

As therefore, he rode on his way to Murrumbowrie, over the well grassed, and watered flats, and the fine timbered ranges, he resolved once more to try his success; and therefore appeared in the back yard, instead of at the superintendent's cottage.

Gertrude was in the kitchen, engaged in some household mystery, among jars and pie dishes, and attracted by the horse's tread, came to the door.

Staples alighted, and advanced; he was puzzled, for even in a long holland apron, and with hands covered with paste, the young emigrant did not bear a servanty appearance; her soft, light hair hung in curls round her neck, and as a ray of light streamed over the roof, and fell bright and golden upon her, she looked so fair, glowing, and delicate, that the involuntary exclamation was—

“Beg pardon, Miss; is the Missus in?”

“She is, do you wish to see her?”

He assented, and Gertrude led the way into the sitting room.

Mrs. Doherty was there, and recognised her visitor, and the young girl withdrew. The subject was a little awkward to commence upon, and Staples approached it by circles of conversation: the weather, of course, received due notice.

“Looks like a change, Mrs. Doherty,” said Staples, glancing out of window.

“Do you think so. How is the wind?”

“Well, it's full in the rainy quarter. It was very wet t'other day—rained very hard.”

“What, Thursday?” briskly.

“Yes, Thursday; but it took up nicely, again.”

“Yes,” rather impatiently.

“Pretty fair for the crops, Mrs. Doherty, if this weather lasts.”

“Yes,” in an irritated tone. These commonplace conversations always ruffled her: so she abruptly inquired—“Did you see the flocks, as you came over?”

“No, though the shepherds ought to feed them on the ranges more than they do: it's lazy work, you see Mrs. Doherty, on the flats, they don't want so much attention, with a dog, they are no trouble, a'most: but it injures the sheep, being always on one place; herbage gets cropt so low you see—then the flats are damp, I'd be afeard of the rot. But of course Mr. Tudor looks after them well.”

The tone in which the concluding sentence was uttered, would have conveyed to a stranger's mind, a most unfavourable opinion of the person in question.

“Yes, well,” reiterated Mrs. Doherty, with emphatic satisfaction.

“Oh! no doubt. I don't make a particle of a doubt,” in a deprecatory tone. Being fairly on the subject of the coveted possession, the visitor, using all due caution, revealed his wishes.

“What! you want Jimbindoon?” exclaimed Mrs. Doherty.

Staples admitted the fact.

“No, Sir,” returned she warmly, “I am not disposed to part with it, I could not spare it, it's my home station. What would become of the sheep?”

“I would purchase them also, if we came to terms; indeed Mrs. Doherty, it might be to your advantage to strike a bargain.” He backed up the remark by drawing from his pocket, a roll of very dingy notes, redolent of tobacco smoke.

“I am not in want of money, Mr. Staples, and I won't part with the land.”

The man rose.

“You may have to, some day,” he returned, whether in a general moralising manner, or with particular meaning, did not appear. Mrs. Doherty took the latter view, and retorted warmly that, “her affairs were in a very flourishing state.”

Staples withdrew with a pleasant ‘good-day,’ and hope that he had given no offence: but with a malicious twinkle in his eyes.

Mrs. Doherty presently went out into the kitchen, to communicate the cause of her displeasure to Gertrude. At the kitchen door she paused. Gertrude stood by a woman who was seated on a chair, her head on the young girl's shoulder, and one of her hands clasped between hers.

The woman was not weeping, and the tears that sparkled on her hand, had fallen from Gertrude's eyes. She was speaking in a low, quiet voice, with a short, gasping breath between each word.

“He was playing there, the poor lamb, and there was a whirlwind—you have seen the whirlwinds—and it tore off a bough from the big tree alongside of the hut, and it fell on him.”

“And is he much hurt?” inquired Gertrude, in a smothered voice: but the woman spoke calmly, with the calmness of a great grief.

“Yes, he is dying. I ran up for the Missus, and you.”

“I will come. Can you walk now, do you think?”

“Yes.” She rose, tottering. Mrs. Doherty advanced.

“She's fainted,” said the servant, in reply to her mistress's look of interrogation.

“You will go.”

“By all means, Gertrude. My bonnet—let me see, I am not sure where it is, child.”

“Never mind, I'll look.”

“Take the keys, and bring a bottle of wine; and child, there is an old table cloth, I think.”

“Yes Ma'am, shall I get it?”

“Do, linen rags are always useful.”

Mrs. Doherty's sun-bonnet never could be found, when it was wanted: sometimes it was left out in the barn, and sometimes thrown behind some chest of drawers; in fact, it never was where she considered she kept it, on the pegs, in the hall. Gertrude knew the case was hopeless, by past experience, of finding it in less than half an hour, and substituted a neat glazed holland of her own; and with a basket of hastily collected useful things, and cordials, she rejoined them.

“Will you take my arm, Mrs. Jackson?”

“No, Miss Gertrude, I can walk.” And she sped on before them, urged on by her child's danger, till the agonised spirit over-mastered the feeble body. The woman ran swiftly, and heedlessly over ploughed fields; and leaping across the narrow drain, connecting two large water-holes, and through the rough ground, covered with tussock grass, and clover, along the banks of the stream.

Her dwelling was the very farthest of the huts, which were built at intervals along the creek. Mrs. Doherty, though active, and light, was left far behind; and Gertrude, encumbered with her basket, panted by her side: but one object was before the mother, her dying babe; and distance, and obstacles were forgotten, and fatigue was unheeded: so when they came to the hut door, she was by the rough built up stand, on which the child lay. It was pale, and its eyes closed, but the downy cheek still looked plump, and baby-like, and the little arms thrown out on the patchwork quilt, were round, and full: there was a folded sheet thrown over the crushed little body, but the crimson tide had dyed the covering, and all that kind, and loving hands could do, availed not to stem it.

The doctor had been sent for, though all knew, before he could be found, life would have ebbed.

Now and then the lips trembled, and the child uttered in a faint tone, “Mammy, Mammy,” in its agony calling on her, whose bosom had ever been the pillow for its woes, in every childish trial.

“My boy, mammy's own darling!”—she tried to comfort it—she did not weep, for her grief was too great; when it was gone, when the faint breath was hushed for ever, she would weep, but not now.

“Where are we safe?” ejaculated a voice behind Gertrude. She turned quickly: there was one of the farm servant's wives, wiping the tears from her pale cheek. Indeed, the room was full of sympathizers. The father of the child had been summoned from his work; and he sat by the fire, on an old sea chest, in a desponding attitude; and though Jackson was a rough, ignorant, and it often seemed, an unfeeling man in his strength, and vigour, and contempt for the feeble; yet heavy sobs shook his frame then.

The women of the party had gathered round the child's rough couch; there was the old grandmother from a neighbouring hut, and her daughter with a baby rocking in her arms, for the child whimpered, and its cries disturbed the dying little sufferer.

The woman, whose words had startled Gertrude, crossed the room, and layed her hand on the shoulder of the man. “Look up brother,” she said, “it's the Lord's hand you know, you must not take on so.”

He shook off her hand, and replied angrily, “if it was your child, woman.”

“Good Lord take care of 'em! Where are we safe, indeed!” She looked round, as if afraid that the very slabs, and beams of the hut might prove traitorous.

“The Lord also will be a refuge for the oppressed: a refuge in time of trouble.” The words passed through Gertrude's mind; she longed to tell him of the sure refuge.

“We must all get a bit of a crush, some day or other,” remarked the old woman, with more philosophy, than appeared to consort with the excited feelings of the party.

“True mother,” returned the former speaker, who had a fraternising mode of address, “but that don't seem to comfort one always. It was such a beauty.”

The little trembling lips murmured again, “Mammy,” in such an entreating, longing tone, that it broke down every barrier of restraint, and for a few moments, a wail of grief rose from every lip but the mother's; she moistened its mouth with wine, and water, that Gertrude presented in a pannikin; her eyes never moved from its face.

The noise had aroused the babe, and it whispered, “Mammy, mammy—I can't leave you, mammy—I die, mammy.”

The mother fainted; and when she recovered, the babe had joined the little ones, of whom our Lord said “Suffer the little children to come unto me, and forbid them not”; and with her head laid beside her child, and its golden hair brushing her cheek, the woman knelt, and wept, and prayed, and the agony of her heart found relief.

“Sister, sister,” pleaded the other woman.

“Let her shed tears: it does her good,” interrupted Mrs. Doherty, removing a handkerchief from her eyes, which red, and swollen, bore witness to her sympathy.

“You're right, sister,” she returned, and sat down on the couch, and wept with her.

Mrs. Doherty left the hut: Gertrude lingered: she knelt down beside the mother; and throwing one arm lovingly round her, whispered “Hope thou in God, for you shall yet praise him, for the help of his countenance,”—“Dear Mrs. Jackson he will help you—try Him?”

“Oh! Miss Gertrude, I wish I was like you,”

“No, no, not like me:—but like Him. Do remember how he says; ‘call on me in the day of trouble, and I will deliver you.’ ”

“Ah that's some trouble: but it's dead! my boy—my little lamb.”

For awhile they mingled their tears in silence, and then she said again, “In every trouble. He is free from every pain and sin now; and you may go to him.”

In some of the higher regions of the country sudden, and tempestuous whirlwinds are far from uncommon: confined to particular localities, and sudden in their rise and termination, they rarely do more mischief than levelling our forest trees, or twisting off branches: carrying them up into the air, and casting them again to the ground: such had been the case, in the present instance: a whirlwind passed over the hut, and finding resisting objects in the branches of a high woolly-gum tree, wrenched off a considerable limb: which, being decayed through the centre, readily yielded to its force; and the jagged end had alighted upon the little creature as he sat in the shade of the tree, amusing himself with a few twigs, and flowers he had gathered, and humming, and talking to them in his baby way. The wounds were severe; and as no skilful assistance was at hand, had proved rapidly fatal.

Beautifully has it been said by the Poet, when speaking of the “child of our affection”

“Day after day we think what she is doing
In those bright realms of air:
Year after year, her tender steps pursuing,
Behold her grow more fair.
Thus do we walk with her, and keep unbroken,
The bond which nature gives;
Thinking that our remembrance, though unspoken,
May reach her where she lives.”

Over that mother, ever hovered an infant form, beckoning upward; ever whispered to her aching heart, the promises of reunion, till like a guardian angel, the baby hand pointed her to Christ, and bid her there seek hope, and rest. Thus the child lived for the mother, when others had in a great measure, forgotten it.

But to return from this prophetic stretching into the future, to the evening immediately following the child's death.

A deep gloom was cast over the farm; every heart sympathised with the parents in their bereavement.

Mr. Batally had declared it an awful thing, and turning to Gertrude, remarked in a moralising tone, that “In the midst of life, we are in death,” as a sort of acknowledgment of her religious character, which people seem to find it necessary to make upon such occasions.

“Shall I beg you, Miss Gertrude, to be my almsbearer, and give the woman this half-sovereign.”

“Thank you, Sir; but in her present trouble, I fear that would have little effect,” she returned, quite shocked.

“Well, as you like. Money is always useful.”

“True: but there are griefs where it is powerless to palliate.”

The gentleman assumed an air of polite incredulity, and turning to Mrs. Doherty, said in a careless tone, “by the bye, was not Mr. Staples here this morning?”

“Yes.”

“I should like to have seen him. I think I shall ride over there, one of these fine days. Rather originals, eh Mrs. Doherty?”

“I don't see much originality about them.”

“They struck me as being ‘colonial,’ at least.”

“Yes, there are a great many persons of that class in the colony.”

“Pretty well off, I dare say.”

“Very. Staples showed me a large roll of notes, this morning,” returned Mrs. Doherty warmly, thinking of the subject of their conversation, and what had called forth the ostentatious display.

“Did the old people cut up well?”

“The girls have handsome portions, if that is what you want to know,” retorted she, abruptly leaving the room.

Mr. Batally whistled, and then looking at Gertrude, burst out into a laugh, rather suddenly checked, as she did not join; “what a perfect crab-apple our worthy aunt is,” he substituted, instead.

“Mrs. Doherty is always kind to me, Sir; very kind, and good,” she replied, gravely.

“Well, well; I meant no offence. I suspect I do not occupy a place in her good books. What became of the cigars I left on the table, before breakfast?”

“I put them in the box on the mantle-piece.”

Lightly as Mr. Batally had thrown back Mrs. Doherty's insinuation, he was seriously weighing the gold, and the counterbalancing inconveniences, and objections to an ignorant and low born wife, but very wisely determined to await Mr. Tudor's return, as he hoped to gain some definite information, upon monetary affairs from him; which Mrs. Doherty's irritability precluded.

While the dew drops yet glistened upon the grass, and the Kingfisher poured forth his mellow notes in a matin hymn, Mrs. Doherty and Gertrude walked down to Jackson's hut: he was out, but his wife sat by the rough couch, busily altering an old black dress, her mistress had given her, and the tanned, quaint straw bonnet, lay on the table, its faded bows of green riband replaced by some crape of rusty complexion. She was pale and weary looking; with the heavy eye-lid of long weeping.

“Can I help you?” inquired Gertrude, when the first kind greeting was over.

“No, Miss, thank you—I've a'most done, the Missus's gown nearly fits me.”

“Where is Jackson?”

Her voice trembled as she returned. “He went up to the carpenter's bench. Mr. Tudor always has some boards there, and my Master says he's sure he'd spare him a bit for—”

“Yes, yes, he shall have all he needs.”

The mother turned away, and was very quiet for a few moments; and then uncovered the little corpse.

Poor Soul! she had sat up all night plaiting, and stitching the little frilled dress; the last she would make for her baby.

“I have a great favor to ask, Missus,” she said presently, when the coverlet was replaced. “May I bury my boy alongside the old Master? lonesome, but in the bush.”

“You may, and let Jackson put up some railings round.” Mrs. Doherty pressed her hand, and passed out.

“Miss Gertrude, will you set a white rose bush by it?”

“I will; if I can help you, let me know.”

“Thank you Miss, you're always kind to us; and you were fond of him,” and the woman wept: but softened tears, which do the heart good, for the spring was opened by the soft touch of kindness, which embalms the most trivial action flowing from the heart—

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