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Chapter XXIX.

And though these scenes may seem to careless eyes,
Irregular and rough and unconverted,

And in primeval mystery, still in use,
A meaning, and a purpose may be marked,
Among them, of a temple reared to God.

P.J. BAILEY.

Friendship hath pass'd me like a ship at sea.

FESTUS.

“CAN I see the Missus?” The speaker was an old woman, and she had addressed Gertrude.

“Mrs. Markarld is in Sydney.”

“Then the Master.”

“I am afraid not; he is in his study, and he never sees people upon business after dinner.”

“But I must see him or her.” The tones were so passionate that Gertrude paused, and enquired if anything had occurred.

“Oh! yes young lady, my son's in trouble, and what shall I do, at all, at all.”

“Do not fret, I will speak to Miss Markarld,” she returned kindly, for the woman had commenced sobbing with violence.

“Yes, any of them,” she exclaimed eagerly.

Gertrude withdrew to the little room opening with glass doors into the garden, where the invalid usually sat.

“I can't be troubled,” she said, when Gertrude delivered her message.

“The poor old woman seems in great distress,” the girl ventured to plead.

“Well, yes, you may tell her to come in.” The woman's tale was rather incoherent, and prolix.

“Do I understand that your son has killed this man who claims his wheat field?”

“No, no Miss, he an't killed—the murdered man an't dead, he's only hurted.”

“And what do you expect me to do?”

“Dear miss you can do everything, if the master, God bless him, would not commit my boy.”

“But he won't be the only magistrate.”

“His influence is everythin,” urged the mother.

Miss Markarld's family pride was at stake, and she promised to speak about it, and with many protestations of everlasting gratitude, the petitioner withdrew.

Miss Markarld sought her father immediately, and aroused him from a sleep, which circumstance did not tend to lessen his displeasure: “the young man” he said “deserved all that might befall him; he was always quarrelling with his neighbour, about their boundaries; and if he would impress his assertions with a cudgel, he must suffer the penalty of the law.”

His daughter was not disposed to take this view of the subject, her sympathy had been awakened by the distress of the mother; a distress augmented by the consideration that she was entirely dependent for subsistence, upon the labours of this only child; and she could not work she had said, extending her yellow trembling hands.

The agitation reduced Miss Markarld to the sofa, and Gertrude became her nurse.

“I wish you would go and see that poor creature, and take her something: she may be in distress,” remarked Miss Markarld. Gertrude expressed her willingness to be her alms bearer; and a large basket was filled with clothing, and provisions, and one of the female domestics appointed to accompany her; for the distance was long and solitary.

There are few objects less pleasing than a log hut, erected in the midst of a field, or two, and bordered round with slanting trees, many of them killed, to lessen their shades; no garden, scarcely an out-house, it was just one of the extremes of these cases where the widow lived; within and without “it would do as a make-shift”—appeared to be the received maxim. The log walls did without plaster, and the cracks were stuffed with straw and rags; the wooden shutters occupied the place of glass, and the earth spread over with ashes, did for a floor.

They found the old woman crouched down by an expiring fire, groaning and rocking herself; she was quite alone, and very miserable.

Gertrude had naturally a peculiarly soft and pleasing voice, a tone which bespoke her truly feminine character, and modulated by sympathy, her words sounded to the lonely mourner, like the whisperings of Angels: she bade her hope, and pointed her to a higher than earthly hope; and when she said good bye, she was looking less disconsolate.

The matter terminated as such cases frequently do: the transfer of a couple of fat pigs from the injurer's sty, to the yard of his neighbour, wonderfully lessened his wounds; and he began to remember that he had certainly been in fault; so venial had the offence become, that a fine was quite adequate to it, and the old widow received her penitent with rapturous joy. Miss Markarld however was not satisfied; she did not know, but suspected the truth; she would have had mercy stretched to any lengths, but falsehood and bribery displeased her—she had felt her kindly sympathy meritorious, and this humbled her. That evening Gertrude read to her from the Bible, and she saw a tear glisten on her cheek as she read.

“And I will bring the third part through the fire, and will refine them as silver is refined, and will try them as gold is tried: they shall call on my name and I shall say: It is my people: and they shall hear them: I will say, The Lord is my God.”

“These people,” she said after a pause pursuing her reflections aloud: “I meant to do them good. I have perhaps; but such things disgust me—however, they are not worth thinking about”—with this consideration she was just dismissing the subject, when the servant entered to say, a young man wanted to see Gertrude.

“Are you sure it was me?” inquired she, in some surprise.

“Yes. ‘Miss Gonthier,’ he said.”

“Send him in,” said Miss Markarld lifting her head from the pillow.

“The door opened, and Mr. Ben appeared, Gertrude bowed, and briefly explained who he was. Mr. Ben was evidently gratified at the distinction of being introduced into Miss Markarld's own parlour, and crossed the room on the tips of his toes, with a movement of the head like a crane drinking: and fell into a chair, dashing his hat beneath it.

“Did you wish to see me?” Gertrude enquired when all suitable sanitory particulars had been dwelt upon.

The visitor drew a three-cornered note from his pocket, and presented it with a low bow. It was from his aunt.

“Will you say that I am much obliged, but shall not be able to come,” she said. The note contained a tea-drinking invitation.

Mr. Ben was in no humour to go. Gertrude sat in trembling anxiety, as he chatted, and laughed alternately, with Miss Markarld and herself; only wondering that the young lady did not exhibit that haughty demeanour she frequently assumed; at length Gertrude ventured to hint that Miss Markarld was so unwell, she would be fatigued; and unwillingly the elated poet departed. Always afterwards, he used to speak of his “friend Miss Markarld,” and when he was “spending the evening at Markarld Park;” it was capital, from which he drew small change, for a considerable time.

“What an extraordinary creature,” remarked the invalid, sinking back upon the pillows, when the door closed upon their visitor. “Who did you say he was.”

Gertrude again explained; this time more fully, “with what a flourish he left the room.” Miss Markarld said with a merry laugh, it was contagious, and Gertrude joined her.

“He has disturbed our reading, and it is now late; but Gertrude, I think I shall get papa to let me go to the Shoalhaven again, we were very happy there. I have been worse ever since we returned. I know that I shall die soon,” she burst into tears, and wept bitterly.

It was indeed too true in all probability; her mother and sister were still absent, but Dr. Norris strengthened by her wishes, decided her immediate departure, and Gertrude again left the Park, as her attendant.

That second visit was very different to the former one; no more riding, and boating; she had not strength for it.

Mrs. M'Donald piled up a large arm-chair with pillows, and she was laid among these, Gertrude always near her—every one felt for the sick girl. Jean M'Donald would leave the yard to carry her a mug of warm milk; and the younger children hushed their noisy plays; their mother was a treasure to Gertrude, she could not have done without her.

One bright evening they sat watching the cows returning from their pasturage, to the milking-bails, when David presented himself, loaded with ferns, and branches.

“Why Dav,” ejaculated his mother, whose presence there, was accounted for by the basin of broth she held in her hand.

“I brought these bushes miss from the gullies you used to go to see—I thought you might like them.”

Miss Markarld was delighted. “We'll go up there again soon David—I am much better; the very things I am so fond of; you really are a good boy.”

David appeared perfectly satisfied, and retired. The invalid had the branches twisted about the verandah, and the boy took care she should never want fresh ones.

Miss Markarld was much more amiable than formerly, though still extremely irritable; and Gertrude's task was a difficult one, but she had higher than human help, and that supported her.

“You must be well in time to see the blacks' stockyard,” remarked Mrs. M'Donald.

“What is that?”

“They make a bridge across the stream—a sort of dam, with branches; and stop the fish as they are returning to the sea—my gude man will take you up in the boat, to see them.”

“The fish ascend the river to spawn, I suppose.”

“Yes. There are a good many taken—if the blacks were only provident, and salted them, but pure souls they have no-where to store them. But Miss Gertrude ye'll just tak the broth, for I maun gang to the butter.”

This stock-yarding of fish promised to be something new, and to the mutual satisfaction of all parties, Miss Markarld was able to ascend the river in the boat, to where the embankment was erected.

The moon shot out from behind a branch of dark clouds, that now as she rose above them, turned to a pure silvery grey; the high points of the mountains stood out in grand and bold relief against the sky; the vales retired into the deepest shade, and the more prominent parts assumed the shape of turrets of silver—every little wave was dancing in light around the boat. On either side of the river, rose the high Swamp oaks, casting a profound shadow at their feet; and the sighing of the wind through their foliage, sounded as if this shade-mantle were rustling in its fall from their high shoulders. Loud and clear the blue pigeon cooed, and the wild cattle lowed, on the mountain side.

Mr. M'Donald was a powerful man, and the boat sped on rapidly; as they proceeded they caught the distant sound of native voices; those clear wild yells in which nature's children delight—now a shriek of young creatures sporting, then a laugh, or a prolonged “coo—e,” reverberating from height to height: then there was the light of distant fires, shooting up as a fresh supply of dry flood-drift, or bark, was thrown on the embers.

“Mr. M'Donald,” whispered Miss Markarld in an alarmed tone.

“What is it Miss—are ye no weel?”

“Quite well—but is it safe?”

“The water is deep here, there's no fear. David you'n no pulling fair my laddie.”

“I am not afraid of the water, it is the blacks.”

Mr. M'Donald assured her there was no danger, and that he had sent word that they were coming, by some “gins” who had been at the farm that day; in order that the natives might be prepared for them.

Notwithstanding this assurance, and the stalwart arms of the farmer and his son, both females were trembling; the scene was so very wild; and as they approached the “stock-yard” they could distinguish the dark figures gliding among the trees, now lifting the fish from the glowing embers, now casting on a fresh supply, as those in the enclosure cast them on shore.

The farmer raised his voice in a loud shout, which was replied to by numerous voices, and presently the boat shot into the light of the fires, and her crew landed: all the natives were now on shore, some already Boa-constrictor like, had fallen asleep after their feast; others, yet surrounded the fires.

Piles of fish lay ready for use; heads, fins, and tails, were scattered round. A very Babel of tongues broke the forest's slumbers; women talked, and scolded; and children romped, and cried.

The visitors did not stay long, they had a long distance to return home; and the farmer was fearful that his delicate guest would suffer from the evening air; though she was enveloped in shawls and rugs.

The fishing and feasting might last for several days; the natives from some distance were assembled, and altogether it was a nearer approach to the days antecedent of the Europeans, than any thing the party had previously witnessed in Australia.

“Mr. M'Donald, can you sing and row?” Miss Markarld inquired.

“Weel Miss, praying dinna hinder working, not singing either.”

“Then will you sing a hymn?”

The farmer struck up a psalm, and David joined in; and so they proceeded homewards; and were in the very best of moods, to appreciate Mrs. M'Donald's hot oatmeal porridge, after their aquatic excursion.

Every member of this homely family appeared united and happy, in spite of hard work, (and bush settlers do work very hard,) and many cares; for M'Donald had often to think how to make pence into pounds; and his wife had not parted with two from her little flock, without many bitter tears; and even now those treasured memories were ever with her; yet they were evidently a happy family, and none could mistake the source of this content. It did Miss Markarld much good to be among them.

“They that honor me I will honor,” it is written, and we find it so—how different are the pious, to the irreligious poor; and through every station it is so.

But once again they were to return to the Park. Mr. Markarld's second daughter was about to be married, and her sister must be present at her nuptials. This young lady was so frequently from home, as to scarcely appear to be a member of the family; she rather visited at the Park, than lived there.

The whole establishment was in a state of confusion. Gertrude's services were imperatively required; and so limited was the time, and so much to be done, that leisure moments were at an end. Owing to her absence and incessant occupations, she had not been into town, nor heard from her friends there, since Mr. Ben's visit; she knew that Dr. Jeleware was practising at some locality some miles distant.

Often as she sat working through the long evening hours, her thoughts reverted to her life at Murrumbowrie, and the friends she had loved so fondly there; none since could take their places, she did not wish it, she guarded their memories with a jealous care, which would permit of no intrusion; and who could supplant them? No one, she returned proudly, she had found no second Mr. Tudor, and she did not expect to do so; indeed she would not have allowed that any one was equal to him—if she were in any trouble, he was ready and able to help her, if she wanted information, he would give it so clearly and simply, that she understood it directly. No, there was certainly no one like him, and then in the midst of her pride and satisfaction at this reflection, a tear would course down her cheek, to think she should see him no more. She had other sources of sorrow at this time; Miss Markarld would leave home with her sister; they were going to a neighbouring colony, and the change of climate was to be tried for her health. She was the only member of the family who treated Gertrude with affection; their wanderings together, had produced an almost friendly feeling, and the young girl's tears flowed, as she bid the sisters farewell.

Once again she retired to her garret work-room, and cheered her solitude by occasionally inviting the gardener's little Maggie to come and play with her; and again, the long looked for treat, was the hurried walk in to see Miss Lenny and her other friends. Still she heard nothing of Kitty Kenlow, who had taken the place of a connecting link between the past and the present; she could not bear to think that tie was severed, and she, cast indeed alone upon the world; and yet not alone, for He has said, “Lo! I am with you alway.” She held to these promises, and preserved as much cheerfulness as possible. Although her duties as nurse had been fatiguing, it had been a happiness to feel some one dependent on her, some one to whom her presence was essential; now it was so to no one.

Gertrude was just endeavouring to erase Mr. Ben's last attempts at versification, when her door opened, and the gardener's wife looked in.

“Have you my little Maggie Miss Gonthy,” she enquired hurriedly.

“No I have not had her up here to-day, I am so very busy.”

“Where can she be,” the mother said, and Gertrude echoed “where can she be?” Both ran down stairs, and searched the cottage, the garden, and the deep pond among the fruit trees; but it was not in any of these places; and the mother in her alarm, shrieked aloud till the whole Park rang with the name of her child.

Mr. Markarld dreadfully shocked, and indignant at such a low tavern-like sound, rushed out of his study, where, however, he never studied, and Mrs. Markarld appeared pale and nervous, and the young ladies and young gentlemen in their several degrees of horror, at such an unwonted liberty.

“I tell you my child's lost; it's gone, gone,” repeated the woman with a haggard and startled air.

Gertrude was more collected, and explained the case; and the search re-commenced. Night set in, while they were unsuccessful. Oh! the agony of those long hours of darkness, men carrying lanterns were hurrying hither, and thither, and horsemen scoured the country for miles; for the received opinion was, that the child had wandered a long distance. “They will,” said a woman to Gertrude, “my Willie followed the road to town, a good mile, or more—and this blessed babe is gone, the Lord only knows where.”

“But it can hardly walk.”

“They do crawl on wonderfully. I knew a child—” but her account was cut short by another woman eager to unfold her store of reminiscences; Gertrude broke away in the midst, and ran on; frequently some of the seekers met her with an anxious enquiry if it were found; but the sad response ever was in the negative. At length morning dawned, and with renewed energy the search was prosecuted, every one examined where another had preceded them, the house and garden were deserted; for as the day advanced, the circle spread, and scattered to a distance, that would rather seem the range of a race-horse, than a baby; for fleet indeed must have been her steps, if she had wandered so far in that time; that the babe could scarcely walk, only served to perplex them, and the parents conceived the idea that their treasure was stolen. There had been a few aboriginal women about the Park the previous day begging, and the mother, perhaps with the prejudice to colour so common, cast the stigma upon them.

“Where are they encamped?” was asked, and the reply was, about two miles distant.

“Shall we go there?” Gertrude asked.

“Yes, yes,” eagerly ejaculated the mother; and they turned their steps in the direction indicated—several women joined them; though all but the mother were convinced of the innocence of the natives.

“Our blacks never do such things,” said a young Australian woman, with a confident air.

“I don't like them blacks, they are always treacherous, and my Maggie was such a beauty.”

The encampment was reached at length—a few branches supported by forked sticks, were the only covering from sun, or rain, that they had erected—as is usual in the day, the camps were nearly deserted; all being abroad hunting, or begging—a few lean dogs ran out of the tents, barking vociferously; and then a sable face or two, peered from under blankets by no means fastidiously clean, or opossum skin cloaks, and then there was a brisk clamour of voices.

“Hi you Misses, you bin come from Mr. Markarld's,” said one. “Misses poor old man this Misses: him berry bad,” pleaded another. The latter words were addressed to Gertrude by an aged woman, shrivelled and care-worn, till she looked like a mummy.

“Is he ill?” she inquired, advancing.

Upon a tattered blanket was extended an infirm, and evidently dying man. A little fire was burning near him, and the black tin can of tea simmered by it—he turned his large dark eyes upon her, with a look which awakened her deepest pity.

“Are you in pain?” she inquired feelingly.

He did not speak, but the aged partner of his life whispered to her, “I believe him tumble down Misses.”

Gertrude understood the peculiar mode the aborigines have adopted of indicating death; and she knew that it was pre-eminently distressing and shocking to them, to mention death, or the dead by name, or in a direct manner—she could only say “she hoped not,” and bid the woman come to the Park, and she would request Mrs. Markarld to give her some food for him.

The propensity of gossiping and news-carrying, is fully developed in the colored native population of Australia. They wander from house to house gathering, and keenly observing the most trifling word, or circumstance; and then around the evening fire detail their gleanings of information, for the general edification, and amusement. The loss of the child had reached the encampment, and several of the party were engaged in the search—the manner of the few women they encountered was perfectly truthful; and even the mother admitted, that theirs could not be the cruel hands which had torn her child from her.

They had to return with the hopes that the babe had been found during their absence, but this hope was dissipated as they approached the Park, and met others like themselves unsuccessful.

Gertrude again returned to the gardener's dwelling, which had been deserted at the first alarm. It was a weather-board cottage, raised on blocks of wood, about two or three feet in height; it had been banked round with stones and earth, excepting in one place, where a stone had given way; it was a small hole, but large enough to admit a slender body with difficulty. Could the child be in there? under the cottage in that low dark cellar? she would try. “But there may be rats there,” urged one. “And perhaps the air's bad,” added another; for several prevented by fatigue from further walking, had returned with her. No matter, she would try. They brought her a lighted candle, and after some difficulty she entered, holding the light before her, and crawling among, and behind the blocks supporting the division walls, was lost to the sight of the eager heads filling the small aperture, to the perfect exclusion of air.

With a prayer for help, she groped along; but presently, accidently struck her candle against a post, and extinguished it, and was left in total darkness; but not till she had seen the object of her search, and raising it in her arms, she crept back, till the glad sight of a feeble ray streaming in as one head was moved, to give place to another, guided her to the entrance, and she uttered an entreaty for air. The babe was saved; it was weak with uttering cries, which had reached no human ears, for they who sought it so distractedly, were far from it, and with hunger, for it was late in the afternoon of the previous day, that it had been lost. When Gertrude gained the free air and sunshine, she fainted, and revived in a very exhausted state: while she lay ill, however, Mr. Ben took the opportunity of appearing before the public, in the character of a contributor to one of the papers, and penned a florid account of the affair; liberally throwing in such additions as added piquancy to the details; he dwelt upon the heroism, unparalleled bravery of the lonely girl; and added the full horrors of this second Black Hole; the rats and poisonous vapours; and described the fair skin blackened by dust, and the final fainting, the illness, themes admirably treated, and followed by a poem of forty-eight, four-lined verses; which that “heathen of an editor” entirely omitted; and Mr. Ben and his friends felt convinced from that circumstance, that much valuable information that would elevate the minds of the people, was kept from them by that man.

Others beside Mr. Ben praised Gertrude; indeed Doctor Norris, who, after being called in to prescribe for the child, had to attend to her, was so lavish of his praise, that Mr. Markarld began to feel uncomfortable; it seemed to abridge his dignity, to have this pale-faced sempstress made so much of; it almost reflected upon the exertions of others in the cause; he was not in the habit of being at variance with self-love, and he grew restive, and intimated to Mrs. Markarld, that she must part with that girl, for she was set quite above herself.

“But she is such a useful person, I never had any one do so much work,” pleaded his spouse.

“She must go if you please Mrs. M.”

The loud tones as usual silenced all further opposition. Gertrude however was ill, and could not be moved; but she was informed that her services would not be required after a certain time. Why? she wondered, for the action that she had performed, was in her own eyes without merit, and only to be rejoiced in from its results—little Maggie was rapidly recovering; this was a rich reward, it compensated for anything she had suffered.

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