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9. CHAPTER IX.

THE BURNING OFF.

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Just as the party left the house for their walk, Mr. and Miss Herbert rode up to the front door, followed by a servant driving the spring-cart Isabel had asked for. Miss Herbert went in to take off her habit, but her brother joined the others to see the ‘burning off.’

Mrs. Vesey placed herself near Mr. Herbert, looking as if she expected him to offer her an arm. This, however, he did not do, and his face gradually gathered into a sarcastic expression, as the lady ran on in a light, clever strain about new operas, books, and improvements in England.

‘Really it is a pleasure to meet with some creature here who is not wholly crammed with bullocks and sheep; some one who can talk and take an interest in literary matters.’

‘I am sorry to say, madam, you have fixed on a very wrong person. I have been many years a settler, my principal study is how to cure the scab in sheep; if you can enlighten me, I shall be grateful.’

‘Dear me, how horrible! I wonder we don't all get wool growing on us here; we shall certainly be turned into legs of mutton; the burden of the song is sheep! sheep! sheep!’

‘Well, take care, Mrs. Vesey,’ said Isabel, ‘that you are not kidnapped for boiling down.’

Mrs. Vesey laughed, ‘Ha, I am hardly fat enough for that purpose; but really, Mr. Herbert, seriously now, don't you, as an unprejudiced man—now don't you think a Bush life dreadful; so lowering, all the little


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elegances of life gone, and one's manners growing rusty and colonial. I am sure I shall soon find myself covered in wool, and making butter, and scolding convicts, a regular bush-woman—and wont it be dreadful?’

‘My opinion is,’ said Mr. Herbert, drily, ‘that a vulgar person will be equally so, whether in the gay world or in the Bush. It is not making butter or playing waltzes that makes the difference. I am proud to say I have met with as graceful, gracious women in this country as in any other—women who, not being slaves to the many absurd conventional customs of English society, are not ashamed of their household duties, and exercise hospitality and goodness without fashion or show.’

Mrs. Vesey made no answer, but lifted her glass to her eye and glanced round slyly at the party. There was a smile playing round her mouth, as her eyes finally rested on Mrs. Lang, who was toiling along by the side of Mr. Vesey, in her flounces. Isabel's eyes also rested there, and met Mrs. Vesey's, and then came a deep blush, which only increased when Mrs. Vesey laughed and said, ‘Come, Miss Isabel Lang, why don't you return thanks for the eloquent defence Mr. Herbert has made. I am sure if I were a Bush lady I——’

‘Come along—come along,’ now shouted Willie and Jem, as they rushed by, and the cry was repeated by the gentlemen. They quickened their pace, and soon reached the spot. There lay the tall trees with leaves yet green on them—cut down in their prime or their early youth—the old dry trunk and the tender sapling alike laid low; and there were the heaps which the men had built up and were already setting fire to. The moon was up, and the sun looked red through the thick mass of dark iron-bark trees in the distance. There was the music of the evening breeze as it played on the spiral leaves of the swamp oak, and there was the crackling of the fire louder and louder, and the shouts of men as they called to each other.

It was an animated scene, and every one entered into it with spirit. Every one—even Mrs. Lang took up sticks or dry grass to throw on the piles—every one, but Mr. Herbert, who, leaning against a tree, seemed to enjoy looking on. Isabel, with her father and brothers, was the most active in piling up faggots. She ran to a burning heap and seized a fire stick to apply to the pile they had raised. As she ran through the air the stick blazed up. The boys clapped their hands and cried, ‘Run, Issy! run!’ and swift as the wind she flew and threw it triumphantly on the heap just in time to save her hand from being burnt.

‘More sticks, Willie! run for more,’ cried Isabel, ‘and this pile will beat all the others.’




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Mr. Herbert darted forward, and threw sticks and dry leaves; and Mr. Lang dragged a large branch, which they threw on it. Then, indeed, it burst forth in grand style—curling and crackling, and waving its long tongues of flame, throwing a strong glare on the eager and excited faces which stood around.

Several acres were now burning. It was a striking and a peculiar sight—the fires, the pale moon, with the tall, gaunt, white gum-trees and dingy iron barks in the distance, standing out in strong relief against the sky; and the group of young people, jumping to and fro; Isabel—still the busiest of all—here, there, and everywhere.

‘That'll do!’ said Mr. Lang, rubbing his hands.

‘I say, Herbert, this will yield me many a good crop, I hope—but, 'pon my honour, this heat is no joke;’ and he walked away.

Mr. Vesey was talking to one of the men, and learning the best way of clearing land. Mr. Fitz was talking to Kate, who had found a seat on a stump, and said she was tired of the fires. Presently they were all startled by a loud report, which was echoed round and round the bush, and caused a fluttering among those birds which had taken their places for roosting.

‘Ah!—it's down!—capital!’ said Willie. ‘Lynch has been at that big tree all day; and he made a bet he'd have it down to-night. He's a first-rate hand at felling wood, Lynch is.’

Mr. Herbert, followed by the boys, went up to the spot where the tree had fallen. The man smiled as they praised his work, and touched his hat respectfully to Mr. Herbert.

Mr. Herbert gave the man something by way of encouragement for his manly feat.

‘Thank your honour—good evening, sir.’

Mr. Herbert saw some of the party preparing to go: it was Mr. Fitz, who offered his arm to Kate, and Mr. Vesey and Mrs. Lang. The others still lingered.

‘O, don't go, Issy,’ said her brothers; ‘stay till the moon is bright, and till that large heap is burnt.’

Isabel was quite willing, and Mrs. Vesey said she should like to stay too, it was such a beautiful evening, and such a pity to be shut up in a room.

‘Who is that?’ said Isabel. ‘O, Miss Terry, I am glad you are come.’

‘And here's Mr. Farrant,’ said Mrs. Vesey.

‘Yes,’ said he, coming up to them; ‘I found this lady in the Vine Walk, and persuaded her to come and meet you. Dear me, this is really grand—look!’ said he, turning to Miss Terry, ‘look at that hollow tree, red hot


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to the very top, every branch, every leaf made of fire. How strikingly beautiful it is, seen against that mass of dark bush.’

‘What is it?’ said Mrs. Vesey.

‘One of the men have fired a hollow tree,’ said Isabel; ‘we have had such dry weather that it burns like tinder—see, it will fall presently; it totters now.’ And in a few moments was heard the crash of the fallen giant echoing round the bush.

The men were now resting from their work and lighting their pipes. Some returned home, others remained to watch lest the fire should catch the fence.

‘There is no illumination that I ever saw like this,’ said Mr. Farrant.

They stood looking at it for some little time longer, and then Isabel said—

‘Really we must go home; tea will be waiting.’

‘Will you take my arm after all your labours?’ said Mr. Farrant.

They proceeded at a brisk pace, the others following.

‘Come, Mr. Herbert,’ said Willie, ‘we are going.’

But Mr. Herbert did not move.

‘Who is that behind those bushes?’ said Mrs. Vesey, when they had walked on about ten minutes. ‘Suppose it should be a bushranger.’

‘Bushrangers don't go about at night,’ said Miss Terry.

‘O, it is only Pat, going to shoot opossums,’ cried Willie; ‘he always goes out on a moonlight night. He feeds his dogs on them, and he dries the skins to make himself a rug. He kills a dozen or more of a night sometimes; look! there goes one, hush!’

They looked up and saw an opossum with its sharp nose jumping from branch to branch on a tall tree close to the path. The dog that was following set up a loud baying, and in vain tried to climb the tree. Willie and Jem pelted the poor little thing with stones and sticks, though they were entreated not to do so by Mrs. Vesey, and after they had walked on they heard him hallooing, ‘I've got him down! now Rover for your supper, my boy!’

It turned out, however, to be a flying squirrel, so Rover was forced to have patience and lick his large jaws, for Willie, thinking Mrs. Vesey had never seen one, carried it by its hind legs for her inspection. The beautiful soft fur, and the peculiar formation of the animal, from which it derives its name of ‘flying,’ was duly admired.

A cloud now overshadowed the moon, and it was rather dark. Mrs. Vesey and Miss Terry hurried on and found Mr. Farrant and Isabel standing on the verandah. He was repeating some lines from the Ancient Mariner, Isabel listening. The rest of the party passed in, impatient for


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tea, Mrs. Vesey saying, as she took the chair Mr. Lang placed for her, ‘There is Mr. Farrant spouting poetry for the young ladies, and we left Mr. Herbert composing a sonnet to the moon, or to himself, I don't know which.’

Miss Herbert stepped out into the verandah, and she had not been there a minute before her brother also came.

‘John, why are you so late? Come, I want to know how we are to go to-morrow; are you going to drive Miss Terry, or how?’

‘I am quite indifferent, I am sure; just as you please,’ was the answer.

‘Well, then, I hope you will ride and keep by me, for there will be a deal of scampering and racing I know, as there always is with the Langs; it doesn't suit me at all. You must keep by me, John.’

‘Yes, I'll be your saddle beau, Mary. Mr. Farrant and Mr. Fitz will be more acceptable companions to the young ladies.’

Miss Herbert looked at him and said, ‘Why, what's the matter? You are very grumpy to-night, John.’ And they both went into the drawing-room.

Kate was sitting on a low stool by Mrs. Vesey, and behind them was Mr. Fitz, talking gaily. Mrs. Lang was growing hot in pouring out tea and complaining of her servants to Mr. Vesey, who, like many other new comers, in his heart attributed all the fault to want of good management, and explained the system he and Mrs. Vesey intended to act upon; to all of which Mrs. Lang replied—

‘Ah! sir, you don't know what they are!’

Mr. Lang was cutting up cake for his boys, and Miss Herbert was trying to hear what Captain Smith, who had joined the party, was saying about a notorious bushranger he had been hunting without success. Mr. Herbert stood leaning against the chimney-piece, with his hands behind him.

When tea was finished, music was proposed. Kate declined playing, pleading fatigue, so Isabel sat down at the instrument, and playing an old air, nodded to Mr. Herbert, and said: ‘Your favourite!’ Mr. Herbert did not speak, and after playing it two or three times, she asked Mrs. Vesey if she would take her place; but Mrs. Vesey said she must make her brother sing a certain comic song, which, accordingly, after the proper degree of hesitation, he did, and every one laughed, Mr. Lang loudest of all; he rubbed his hands and cried Capital, capital! beautiful, and encore, and the ladies begged hard for another. Isabel half moved a chair towards Mr. Herbert, and said, ‘You are tired.’

‘Not at all, I am obliged to you,’ with a stiff bow; but on glancing at her, and seeing that flushed cheeks and a look of uneasiness, he moved


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a little, and stood leaning over the back of the proffered chair, instead of the chimney-piece, but he did not speak. Then Mr. Farrant came up and asked Mr. Herbert's opinion of some letters which had appeared in the Sydney Herald suggesting a new way of fattening pigs, and by degrees Mr. Herbert was led into an animated conversation. The pigs led to a place in South America, where the people kill these animals merely for their fat, and find it a profitable trade. South America led to a voyage Mr. Herbert once made when a lad, in which his ship had chased some pirates, and before long every voice in the room was hushed, and the two boys had crept up behind Isabel's chair, listening with breathless attention to his vivid and forcible description of the chase.

When the story was ended, there was a general move for bed. Mrs. Vesey expressed her wonder how room could be found for so many. She had not been long enough in the country to know what indian-rubber houses the hospitable settlers have, how they stretch them out, and turn drawing-room sofas, and even dining-tables into beds!

‘Call me, my dear girl,’ said she to Kate; ‘call me early, or I shall never wake to-morrow!’

‘O, don't be afraid of that. No one ever gets any sleep in this house after four. Papa wears creaking shoes, and goes up and down the passage knocking and hallooing till every one is up.’

‘Another of the Bush fashions! Well, I hope you'll teach my brother Arthur to rise early; he seldom gets up till ten, he is a lazy fellow.’

Kate blushed as she said good night. Mr. Herbert held the door open for the ladies to pass out; Miss Herbert and Isabel were the last. He kissed his sister according to their usual custom, and instead of letting Isabel pass with the bow which had been bestowed on the others, he held out his hand; ‘Isabel . . . . good night!’ he said. But she read the meaning of the pause in his face. She knew he was aware of, and sorry for, his want of temper, and somehow she never liked her friend better than when he stooped to confess himself wrong. She cordially returned his handshake, and forthwith paid great and minute attention to Miss Herbert's comforts in her room.

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