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Chapter XVIII.

* * *Death is in that chamber!
Startle not with echoing sound, the strangely solemn peace.
Death is here in spirit, watcher of a marble corpse,—That
eye is fixed—that heart is still—how dreadful in its stillness.

M. F. TUPPER.

That “we know not what a day may bring forth,” is an axiom which daily finds confirmation; and that that Thursday, that Thursday from which, for the future, all events could be dated, and all periods defined, was no exception, was often in after years, a subject of wonder.

Bright as ever, the sun rose in the clear, cloudless sky; loudly as ever, the blue crane screamed to his mate, in the reeds by the the creek; sweetly the kingfisher sang, and lightly the magpie chatted; and man, ever busy, and toilsome man, went forward on his path of labour, till the evening.

Mr. Batally slung on his shot belt, and took his fowling piece, for a day's sport, and Gertrude, and her handmaid submitted the snow-white linen from the bleaching ground to the smoothing effects of the mangle. Every thing was as usual.

Afterwards, for the time came when all these things were noted down, and remembered, and the brain racked for minutiæ; afterwards, a dread feeling of how perfectly as usual every circumstance had been, visited them. No warning preceded, no signal of distress, but the solemn words, “for in such an hour as ye think not,” sounded in each affrighted ear.

“Did Mrs. Doherty call?” said Gertrude, pausing to smooth out a fold in a table cloth.

“Not as I heard, Miss; I think it's the wind in the crack there, I did hear something before,” and Marianne went to work with double zeal, till the two baskets were piled with nice folded linen; and then, with their load, they passed into the house.

“My gracious! what ails the Missus?” cried Marianne.

Mrs. Doherty lay extended on the floor; they lifted her up, laid her on the sofa, and bathed her pale face; she was strangely cold, and rigid, and one small blue bruise marked her brow.

The woman ran for Mrs. Kenlow, and Kitty, and then all that each could suggest, or do, was done; but the hands grew more rigid, and the thin features yet thinner.

Lakin, and some one or two others, were sent on horseback to search the country for Dr. Bower; whither he had gone, no one could tell; properly speaking, he had no home; the place he called his residence, was fifteen miles distant, but he was always travelling from one patient's house to another's.

Doubt, and fear, and a strange mysterious awe, gained strength. Gertrude wept bitterly, then aroused to try some new thought of remedy, then, when it failed, covered her face with her hands, and wept again. All the women on the farm came in by degrees, and one sat down in Mrs. Doherty's chair, and another opened the cupboards to search for spirits, to bathe her head! another routed over her bedroom for blankets, and pillows; and every one seemed intent on acting as mistress, and wasting as much as possible in a given time.

Mr. Batally returned, and showed some real feeling, and even suggested to Gertrude the propriety of starting himself in search of the doctor; but remembered that he should not know where to look, so it was no use.

“But do you think she is dead?” he added.

Gertrude almost shrieked “Oh no, surely not!—What could it be?—she was quite well at breakfast time—Oh, Mr. Batally!” and she sobbed.

He took both her hands in his; but even then, she withdrew them from the familiar free pressure; and turned away, pained anew by the want of sympathy.

“Oh! if Tudor were here,” escaped her lips, unconsciously.

Mr. Batally frowned, and replied rather coldly, “Even he could not raise the dead.”

“THE DEAD!” awful words, and how? what had broken the pitcher at the fountain, and cut the thread of life?

Each felt that Death had been in their midst, and taken, as each said, the very last one they would have thought of, and that very confession urged with potent reasoning, “who shall go next?” not the most likely, not the sickly, and infirm, perhaps it may be the young, and strong, it may be THYSELF.

What a suffering night it was, watching for the return of the messengers, and the doctor, although hope was almost gone, reason had long forbidden it, but affection hoped against hope.

The busy little crowd had dispersed; only Mrs. Kenlow, and one other remained with Gertrude, beside the pale, rigid body, which lay among blankets and hot bricks, cold and chill; the whole party were painfully tired, and started, and trembled at each sound; there was a dog that had been tied up to prevent his following Lakin, that would whine, and shake his chain, and every time he did so, the watchers all sprang up, and said in an undertone, “listen! hush!” and then Gertrude's forehead would sink down on the pillow again, and her occasional low, deep sob only broke the deep silence.

But when next day, Dr. Bower did come, he brought no relief, for not as they supposed had she had a fit, and bruised her forehead by the fall, but that bruise was the cause of death, and that blow had been dealt by other hands than her own, and now came the questions, Who? and Wherefore?

Dr. Bower was the Coroner, and he intimated his intention of holding an inquest, and endeavouring to elicit the apparently hidden motives, and cause of Mrs. Doherty's death; and Gertrude wrote a long letter to Tudor, as collected, and consolatory as she could, for she knew how deeply he would feel this blow; and then one of the men was sent on horseback, with directions to press on after the superintendent, who was then on his way to the Abercrombie, from whence he would visit all the stations in succession, before returning to the home shearing.

Dr. Bower had also despatched messengers for the nearest magistrate, and when he, and a few persons to assist in forming a Jury, arrived late that afternoon, a vigorous examination commenced. Nothing could be elicited. Gertrude, and Marianne had retired to the laundry shortly after breakfast, and not left it until they discovered Mrs. Doherty dead; both remembered the sound they had heard, and agreed that it was not like a call, or cry; might have been some one speaking loud, but was not very distinct, as the laundry door was closed; and as the wind sometimes made a noise, when blowing that way, in passing through the cracks in the door, they had paid no attention, and did not remember to have heard it again. Any one might have entered, and left the house without their knowledge; the laundry window did not look out in the yard.

Mrs. Kenlow, and Kitty were also sure that the parlor exhibited no signs of violence. Mrs. Doherty appeared to have risen from her chair, and fallen about a step from it. There was but one mark as of a blow, dealt from above, and by a powerful hand. No robbery had been committed, nothing to account for the awful deed. No one knew of her having any enemies; she was generally liked; bore the name of a good mistress, and an honourable woman; and though often sharp, and cutting in her remarks, was kind, and generous. Lakin had been engaged in the barn, and the dairyman had been assisting him in tying up bundles of straw, so that the domestic servants were not about the house.

The perfect simplicity of these details, only mystified the case, since it plunged the murderer in deeper obscurity.

“Who will be benefitted by her death?” inquired the magistrate.

Every eye was turned on Mr. Batally, but he did not shrink from the inquiring, and alarmed gaze, and readily accounted for his whereabouts. In company with Dr. Bower, he had left the house, to seek some wood ducks, he had informed him of, down the creek, and they had walked for about a mile conversing: then their roads diverging, Mr. Batally had proceeded down the creek, and Dr. Bower taken the bush road. Farther down he had met, and spoken to the shepherd, from him heard further tidings of the game, and proceeded five miles along the stream; afterwards, on his way home, he had again fallen in with the shepherd, and shown him the result of the day's sport; from thence he had come home to find his aunt a corpse.

No suspicion could rest upon him; and considering his selfish disposition, and indolent dissipated life, he was as moved, and saddened as any one could expect; indeed, he paced up and down the verandah all day, with a cigar in his mouth, and his hands stuffed in his pockets, and he even forgot to pay Gertrude any compliments; perhaps she was so pale, and heavy-eyed, that her looks provoked none.

“I believe we must leave this perplexing affair as we found it,” said Mr. Rattnet the magistrate.

“I fear so,” returned Dr. Bower, “time may turn up something.”

“What do you think our deceased friend did about a will? Is she intestate, think you?”

“I am quite ignorant; Gertrude, my dear, do you know anything of this matter?”

She had heard Mrs. Doherty say her husband had made a will, years before his death, and she must see about something of the sort, next time she went to Sydney, and she mentioned the legal hands in which Mrs. Doherty's papers lay. Here again was no clue to the murderer.

Night had set in, and Mrs. Kenlow assisted the girls in preparing accommodations for the gentlemen, and at Dr. Bower's request, remained with Gertrude, whose strength was prostrated by the continued agitation, and alarm, to an extent necessitating care, and medical skill.

In the parlour, Dr. Bower, and Mr. Rattnett sat over a glass of hot spirits, and water, and relieved from the presence of Mr. Batally, who had retired to rest, discussed the circumstances more fully.

Mr. Rattnet was a small man, with a very red face, and grey hair, inclined to start up in a crest at the back of his head, and he usually stood, or walked, with his hands under his coat tails, and upon occasions of committing some thief, or other evil doer, or when presiding at a public meeting, and such grand occasions, had a habit of using a crimson silk handkerchief, with a loud, trumpeting noise. He always spoke as if he was stating upon oath, and was considered as eccentric, and kindhearted a man as the country could produce.

He had evidently been struck with Gertrude's propriety of demeanour, and deep distress, and his remarks turned on her.

“What will become of this little girl, doctor?” he inquired.

“I cannot tell; Mrs. Doherty kept Gertrude much about her, and valued her exceedingly. She is a very superior person, and interesting.”

“Particularly so: she cannot remain here.”

Dr. Bower looked at him shrewdly, and remained silent.

“What! you think she may?” questioned Mr. Rattnet, bringing out the red handkerchief with a great flourish.

“I do not say she will.”

“You think she will: of course we understand you are not speaking definitely; that is your impression,” replied Mr. Rattnet, who had laid the emphasis on the wrong word.

“It is my impression that she will not,” returned Dr. Bower, in a dry, decided tone.

“Hum! has she friends in the colony?”

“None. I shall speak to her on the subject; if I do not greatly mistake the girl, she will leave here immediately, and seek employment elsewhere.”

Mr. Rattnet paced up and down, with his hands under his coat tails, and then returned to Mr. Batally's prospects. He indeed appeared likely to inherit all his aunt's effects; and it eventually proved that Dr. Doherty had left his property to his wife, and at her disposal, but should she die without heirs by a second marriage, or will, his property was to revert to his nearest relative; this by subsequent deaths, Mr. Batally had become. Suddenly therefore, he was lord of Murrumbowrie, and all other of Mrs. Doherty's properties, and possessions.

Going back to the days immediately following her death, there reigned a deep, sad gloom, only broken in Gertrude's case, by the support of religion, and a feverish desire to see Tudor again; but he came not, and the corpse was consigned to its resting place, the little enclosure on the hill side, where Dr. Doherty, and the infant Jackson reposed. Round this solemn spot the mourners, and spectators gathered, while a minister procured from a distance, committed the sacred dust to its narrow home. But the soul? Oh! who may answer that question! and the reality of its immortal nature weighed at least upon one present.

Still Tudor came not, nor news from him; and Gertrude, who had removed to the Kenlow's cottage, prepared to leave Murrumbowrie, with the additional sorrow of not bidding him farewell, the only being she had to look up to, and to love. She prayed, and longed for his coming, with a warmth she cared not to investigate; her kind, able protector, and adviser, he who had ever watched over her, was perhaps hundreds of miles away, and quite unconscious of her wishes. She knew it, her confidence never wavered, and she tried to frame reasons for it; the rivers might be swollen—he might have left the Murrumbidgee before the messenger arrived there—he might even be ill. Any thing, but not untrue, never for one instant, did she doubt him. Others looked for him, and wondered; but none questioned his readiness, or ability.

But Gertrude must go, a thousand reasons impelled her to do so; and leaning on God, she found courage, and comfort in Him who comforteth us in all our distresses.

After a funeral, however simple the preparations, there follows a period of inaction, when the actual loss is perhaps more fully, and keenly realized than before; such a period set in gloomily over Murrumbowrie. The incidents, or rather want of incident, connected with the subject, were worn threadbare by constant discussion, and only the future movements on the farm, could offer any theme, sufficiently exciting to deserve comment.

Gertrude meanwhile was making hasty preparations to depart to Sydney: they were indeed simple, and wanted but little time to complete. Mr. Batally paid her the sum due for her wages; the generosity of Mrs. Doherty had left no want unsupplied, and therefore her little purse was rather heavy.

Among the neatest, and most thrifty of womankind however, it is impossible to start on a journey, without finding some previous exertions of the needle indispensable, and the young girl sat at the window, in Mrs. Kenlow's dwelling stitching quickly, though with dim eyes, and drooping head, taking an occasional glance over the prospect without, a farewell look. It was a dull scene at the best; great stiff stringybark trees all round, or where they had fallen before the axe, the stumps remained, bleached white, or charred, by some bush fire, to a sombre hue; in fact just then Gertrude thought it looked not unlike a graveyard: the grass was brown and dry, and the trees, every hue but green; their scanty branches casting little shade.

The hut stood in the midst of the forest quite alone, not even a garden, beyond a few cabbage plants, at a little distance, in an enclosure formed of dry branches and logs; she had become reconciled to the appearance of such bush huts in a great measure, but it struck her saddened senses just then, as particularly dreary, and wanting in taste; a rose, or honeysuckle trained up the rough grey slabs composing the walls, would have beautified the building not a little; and even Mrs. Kenlow's white curtains failed to add grace to the square openings in the wall, named windows, and which were closed by rough shutters; so much do outward objects depend, in their aspect, upon our own feelings in viewing them. “The world is what we make it,” some one remarks.

Just then, there was a sound of horses' feet, at rather an undignified trot, suggestive of an inexperienced rider; and a distressful female voice was heard calling—

“Miss Gertrude dear, are ye there? stop the baste, or I shall get an ugly fall anyway,” and emerging from behind Kenlow's cabbage garden, there was Mary M'cMaster, in the full glory of a horse, and man's saddle, on which she sat sideways, with a shawl ingeniously twisted round her dress, to form a riding habit.

With a cry of joy, Gertrude bounded to meet her, and the old horse being satisfied that he had brought his burden to the right destination, suddenly stopped, and snapping his bridle out of her hand, began eagerly to crop the grass, as if that were his particular business there. To say that Mary was mistress of her horse, would be exceeding the precise truth, and after some little arguing, the matter was compromised by her alighting there, and suffering the old creature to follow the bent of his own inclinations.

“Sure Miss, dear,” cried Mary, between laughing, and crying, “I'm so glad,” and she clasped Gertrude in her arms, sobbing “I'm so glad.”

“What distressed you so then, Mary?” returned she, as well as she could, for she was similarly affected.

“I'm full up,” explained Mary, laying one of her large, red hands expressively above the regions of the heart, and then with another warm salute, she began to disentangle herself of the shawl.

“Will the horse not stray, Mary?” inquired Gertrude, busy in taking out sundry pins, which had confined her train.

“He's tired, poor baste, and small blame to him.”

“How did you find your way from the gullies?”

“Pether came wid me as far as the house. Oh! Miss, dear, the poor old Missus! When I heard it, I just set me down and cried; bless her, she was a good cratur—and Pether said you were going to Sydney; ‘faith an’ it an't true,' says I.”

“Yes it is, Mary, I shall start to-morrow.”

“Get along wid ye,” interrupted Mrs. M'cMaster, indignantly, “no, ye don't: come over to my place, Miss Gertrude dear. Ye shall have the best I can get ye; and our people will wait on ye like slaves; it's but a cabin, but Jack shall build ye a room, and—”

“My kind, good girl, I thank you most sincerely, but I must go—I could not live on the earnings of you, and your husband; but I have not asked after M'cMaster.”

“He's hearty; but Miss Gertrude—” here Mary whispered, and looked very mysterious, as from some remote corner of a huge receptacle of her treasures, she drew out an old glove, with the worn fingers knotted up, and a strip of leather, which had done service as a boot lace for her husband, securing the wrist part; accompanied by many ominous nods, Mary produced sundry tobacco-blackened shillings, and half crowns, and eagerly pushed them into Gertrude's hands.

“There, there,” she cried, “that 'ill help ye, an' the blessing of God go wid ye, wherever ye go, Miss dear,” and the generous creature was turning to gather up her shawl for a hasty departure. But Gertrude was sobbing on her shoulder, though she firmly refused the treasure, and finally carried the baffled Mary into the cottage.

Mrs. Kenlow, and Kitty welcomed her cordially, and the black kettle was hung over the fire, to heat water for a cup of tea, and the particulars of their former employer's death, discussed meanwhile.

When Gertrude went out to look after the horse, Mrs. Kenlow informed Mary that Gertrude was going to town to be married.

“Charley's in Sydney, and he told me only a few days before Mrs. Doherty was murdered, that he was going to marry her. She don't say nothing about it, she says her journey to town is to get a place; girls you know are shy about these things.”

“In course,” responded Mary approvingly, “So I am not to let on, ye tould me.”

“No, no; we don't say anything, seeing she has the whim.” Here Mrs. Kenlow suddenly exchanged the confidential tone and attitude, bending towards Mary, for a very upright posture, and unconcerned look, as Gertrude entered, who at once seeing that her presence had interrupted some private communication, immediately withdrew again.

However, during the rest of her visit, Mary was very mysterious, and a broad smile more than once followed a look at Gertrude, on the mention of her journey.

Mary could not return home till the morrow, and willingly consented to accept Mrs. Kenlow's hospitable offer of a domicile.

Mrs. M'cMaster led rather a solitary life in the gullies, and this probably disposed her to make full use of the present opportunity; whatever was the impetus, her conversational powers, and subjects appeared inexhaustible; and when Australian themes failed, she travelled over British reminiscences.

There is something affecting, and beautiful in the emigrant's term for his native land, invariably it is mentioned as home; how many an association gathers round the word, and dispels the idea of distance, and total estrangement, while battling with the difficulties of life, and the inconveniences and trials of colonial existence; there is still the resting place—the home—as if the parental hearth were near, round which might again gather, those who were the companions of childhood: even the expression is often found adopted by the native born, for many a dear and treasured tie binds him to the land of his fathers; but the full force of the word, comes only from those whose memory has embalmed the word with ties, which time cannot break; and recollections that even with age, gain strength and clearness.

Mary could not have put this into words, but she felt it none the less, because she had not defined its outlines; and while Mrs. Kenlow baked thin dry cakes, bearing the rather tough name of “Leatherjackets,” upon the glowing embers, and Kitty subjected some cream to a vigorous whisking by means of a tin bowl, and a bunch of twigs, and presently displayed the result in the shape of a pot of pure sweet butter, Mary talked with Gertrude of “what they do at home in the country parts:” and although their countries were divided by the Irish Channel, the subject was not without mutual interest.

Kenlow and three large dogs here joined the party, and kept the room in some confusion at least, for Spring the kangaroo dog had thievish propensities, and he sat erect, dozing before the fire, with one eye fixed on Kitty's churning, and the other two, who were “surprising after a native cat, or a possum,” as Kenlow used to remark, were boisterously demonstrative of their presence, and expectancy of donations.

“My word, I do believe I'll kill them dogs” predicted Mrs. Kenlow with a flourish of a broom stick, in a general correcting kind of manner.

“I wouldn't take a fi' pound note for any of 'em—there—” returned Kenlow snapping his fingers at his favorites, which stirred them all up into a loud baying and pawing.

Kitty meanwhile spread the table, and the pile of ‘leatherjackets,’ baked to a cheerful brown were buttered, and filled the room with an inviting fragrance.

“You must eat hearty Gertrude, this is your last tea at the farm,” said Kenlow.

The reminder was unnecessary, though the invitation was exceedingly difficult to fulfil. The parting with her kind though humble friends was trying, additionally so, as it severed the last link, which bound her to Murrumbowrie, and the few so fondly loved, who had been her companions there.

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