― 138 ―




It was during the very time that Isabel had retired to write her note, and indulge in a little thought, that a horseman passed through that part of the bush which led by a short cut from Langville to Bengala. Here the trees stretched their branches wider than usual, from their being more cleared. There were fine specimens of those giants of the eucalyptus tribe, gaudy with their flaunting streamers of coloured bark. Here and there a dark, grim iron bark reared its head, while close beside it was a low clump of sober myrtles and tea shrubs. The graceful growth of the exocarpus, or native cherry, gave a touch of relief to the unvarying height and straightness of the forest trees. Then there were the plants, sought by children, bearing a pleasant berry called ‘five corners,’ with blossoms like a fuchsia; while a rich vetch-like creeper, covered whole masses of underwood with its bloom of amethyst. By this was a banksia, or bottle-brush, and other plants too numerous to name. Add the flight of brilliant coloured parrots which were ever crossing the sight, and the intense depth of blue sky, and it will give some notion of the scene. Though all these things were less noticed by the rider than the distant groups of half shy horses, or some of the wild cattle which roamed, it was said, through this extensive forest at will, and only found a boundary in the sea-shore. The gentleman in his loose and light shooting dress, sitting his horse easily, if not carelessly, whistling at times some pretty waltz, was somewhat a pleasing object. If not strictly handsome, there was an ‘air’ about him, and an expression of good humour, which

  ― 139 ―
at a first sight would be apt to attract, though a narrower inspection might discover indications of something not quite so agreeable.

It was no other than Mr. Fitz, who rode on upon an errand of Mr. Vesey's; and as he idly whipped the branches, or pushed aside his small Manilla hat, his eyes wandered quickly here and there, showing more habit of observation than reflection. Not a lizard, or an ant-hill escaped him. Suddenly his horse shyed on one side, and he uttered an exclamation which soon changed to words to this effect:

‘By Jove! Here's a Bush nymph, by all the powers. Aye, aye, I've seen that face and head before, or I'm not the man I think.’

Then after stroking and quieting the startled horse, he leant over the saddle, and said in an off-hand, easy, somewhat flippant tone,

‘Good day! It is so rare to meet any one hereabouts, that I was nearly as much taken aback as—as my horse! Hem. . . . Is there anything the matter, Miss . . . I forget your name, though I know I have had the pleasure of seeing you before. Not ill, I hope?’

This was addressed to a girl who was seated on a stump, rather withdrawn from the track, and sheltered by a tree. She was bent together, and seemed to be crying bitterly. She did not answer him, but raising her head, gazed on him with mournful surprise, mixed with fear. As he suddenly dismounted and approached her, this look of fear increased, and she made a movement as if to run away, but the soft tone of his voice apparently stopped her.

‘Although I do not know your name, I am sure I have seen you. Don't be afraid of me, my poor girl! Ah! no one who has once seen that face, and that hair, could forget it! You are one of Mr. Lang's people, eh?’

‘That I am not!’ she answered quickly, and again burst into tears, to hide which she stooped her head, and her long yellow hair fell like a veil over her.

‘Indeed! Dismissed, I suppose. Too pretty, perhaps! Come now, suppose you confide in me. Look up; am I anything very grim and formidable? Tell me if I can help you.’ And he seated himself by her, giving his horse a long rein, to allow of his cropping the grass.

She stopped crying presently, and stole a look at him. Apparently this begat confidence, for she pushed back her hair, and looked demurely down on the ground.

‘Have you far to go?’ he asked.

‘No further than where I am;’ and again the tears sprang forth.

‘Come, tell me all. Do you know your way home? Have you lost yourself? Perhaps you can't find your way home?’

‘No, that I can't.’

  ― 140 ―

‘Where about is it?’

‘Where? Nowhere on earth, I'm thinking!’ she said wildly. ‘But ride on, sir; ride on your way. It is ill keeping you here on a bootless errand. Ride on!’

Then she caught up her hair, and began quickly to weave it into a rich plait, winding it round and round her head. He watched her, and talked to her in a quiet and soothing way, trying, indirectly, to ask her history. She cast shy and stolen glances at him from time to time, which gradually became more confiding and less frightened. It did not require much art to win poor Nelly's confidence; and as he now diverted his eyes from her, and was apparently looking on the ground, and playing with his whip, she ventured to observe him more at ease. A few kind words, slightly touched with a little flattery, opened her heart, and her tale was soon told. Her dead mother, the stern father, the cruel step-mother, her best and first friend, Jack Lynch, and Miss Isabel, Lynch's troubles, and desire to get the ticket, even Venn's hated advances,—by degrees he heard, and understood all.

Then he began to speak, and he talked of hope. He had some interest with Mr. Lang. He had very little doubt but that, somehow, they could get the ticket or leave for the marriage. He was intimate with the ‘great folks’ in Sydney, who had power to grant such leave, and to make the prisoners free. This case should be stated. As for herself, he bade her take heart and hope. Numbers of people would be only too glad to get her as a servant. In fact, now he thought of it, he himself would very soon want some one to wash, and bake, and mend his clothes, sweep his hut, and keep it tidy. He was going to live at a station, somewhere up the Hunter. Would she like to come and do all this? No one should interfere with her, or serve her ill.

She looked up delighted, but then her eyes grew dim. ‘She couldn't leave Jack to go so far as all that. She was the only comfort poor Jack had; she would not desert him.’

‘But when once you are there, I shall do my best to get ‘Jack’ there also. I shall propose an exchange with Lang, and as you say he is not favourite, no doubt, for a consideration, I can get him assigned to me. Do you understand? And then—there will be no difficulty. I can grant leave to marry, or get the ticket.’

She grasped his arm as she looked eagerly at him, till tears rolled down her face. She was breathless with excitement.

‘Will you consent?’ he said, smiling.

‘Will I——? O, 'tis my dead mother will watch over you, and bless you. 'Tis herself will bring the blessing, and the good word of the

  ― 141 ―
blessed Virgin and all the saints! And you'll see, and they'll see, that I can work; and Jack will be a clever man, as he is, sir. He can fell trees agin anybody, and he can plough, and do a many things about a place. He's a clever chap is Jack Lynch, and he's the man will know how to get things neat and handy about him—that is, when his heart is aisy like. Bless you, sir, for a kind-hearted gentleman!’ And rising, she folded her arms across her bosom, and with a touching grace, dropped a low curtsey.

He was pleased, and he would not let her go yet. He talked of their future plans, till her whole face was bright and beautiful with joy. Meanwhile he advised her to go home and do whatever her parents desired, anything, except to marry Venn. That she must resist. He advised her to take the offer of being child's maid to a woman near the settlement, which she said her father had thought of; and he promised to keep his eye on her. If any one dared to ill-treat her, he should come down upon him, and he would send her word when she could journey to his station with the drays. After some more assurances of protection on his part, and repeated blessings on hers, they parted. She went home, and he proceeded to deliver his message. Her voice, clear and sweet, was raised into snatches of song, and reached him for some time. One thing gave him rather a turn, for just as she dropped her last curtsey and left, and as he rose from the hollow tree on which they had found a seat, a long snake crawled out and glided swiftly across his very path. He vaulted into the saddle with a shudder and rode on fast. On the whole, his ride had added to his already good spirits, and when he returned to Langville, he was even more than usual, the ‘life of the party.’

The little settlement or township of Bengala consisted, as said before, of a few straggling slab huts which had one after the other risen round the temporary church. One or two large and well-grown trees which, favoured by the clearing around them, spread their branches out wider than the usual run of the eucalyptus tribe, gave a picturesque appearance to the place. The broad, ill-made road swept round outside Mr. Herbert's paddock, and his house and other buildings were all in view, the undulating cleared land about the farm being bounded by shelving hills, wooded of course with the everlasting blue and white gums. There was a store kept by the schoolmaster's wife, and a blacksmith's shop; the remaining huts were occupied by persons who had come for the chance of work, one being a shoemaker, another a currier. The Macleans had just taken up their residence in one of the poorest of these habitations. The roughness of the building was now, however, much hidden by the abundant growth of a water-melon, which had thrown its long but short-

  ― 142 ―
lived branches quite over the roof.

It was early morning, the dew still lying refeshingly on the melon leaves and on the little patches of grass beneath the trees. Everything was fresh as yet, and feathered musicians came to relieve the chirping night choir. Cockatoos in heavy flight were already on the wing. ‘Lories’ and bright ‘green leeks’ fluttered about the gardens; while the peculiar crack of the stockman's whip gave warning to the scattered bullocks that their rest was at an end. There was an animated meeting between mother cows and their calves, after their night-long separation; while Mr. Herbert's swineherd, or ‘pig boy,’ might be seen driving his squeaking, grubbing herd to the ‘flats,’ where they were to pick up a repast for themselves.

Mrs. Maclean was putting aside the remains of their breakfast while her husband was sharpening a knife, casting stern looks, meanwhile, on Ellen, who was seated on a low stool, her head buried in her hands, and crying bitterly. She had returned, as advised by her new friend, Mr. Fitz.

‘And sure ye're a disgrace to the woman who bore ye—a wild, headstrong young colt—that needs a stiffer bit and bridle nor ye get. And I'd be ashamed if I was your own father there, that wouldn't give you a rare good beating this minute, and see who would be master!’ said Mrs. Maclean, in a harsh, high-pitched voice, every now and then clenching her fists at the girl, as she came at all near her in the course of her domestic occupations.

‘Will you obey your lawful father's commands, I say?’ demanded Maclean himself, in a severe manner. ‘Will you give a fair answer to the man—or will you not?’

‘Not if I am torn by dogs or beaten to death!’ said the girl, raising her face, and speaking in a low, determined voice.

‘Say that again!’ said he, rising quickly, and seizing a whip which stood in the corner.

‘You may take my life! I don't care! and it ain't the first blood has been spilt by one that owns your name!’ answered she, quickly.

‘What do you mean?’ shouted Mrs. Maclean, giving her a severe cuff, and looking frightfully angry, and then pouring out a torrent of abuse and wicked words.

‘You leave her to me this time, missus,’ said the father, hardly less excited than his wife.

‘I shall give her one chance more, and then if she don't conform, she may . . . . .’

‘Father, let me be! let me stay here—starve me, if you will, work me like a slave, I'll do it,’ the unhappy girl said, ‘but don't ask me to have

  ― 143 ―

Something in the man's face, as she looked up at him pleading for mercy, turned back the tide of her full heart, and the earnest, imploring expression, which had for a moment succeeded the taunting, excited look was instantly changed into one of dogged sullenness. One low, half-suppressed scream, and her hands tightly pressed on her head as if to shield herself while the whip whizzed over her.

‘None of your gammon or promises about work; you'll take the man at his word, or . . . .’

‘I never will! never! never! . . . .’

The words were repeated in agony again and again, while the infuriated man beat her cruelly, goaded on by the shrill croakings of the woman, who, if report said true, would not have been sorry were the whip to give a fatal blow.