― 144 ―




The sun rose higher and higher, and in the hottest parts of the roadside the locusts made their sharp saw, heard by all and seen by none. A guana lay on the top rail of the fence, with its crocodile-like mouth wide open, basking in the fervent heat; then at a noise of some one coming, it ran quickly up a tree, its long tail looking like a snake as it curled round and round. A stockman, with his short-handled and long-lashed whip, dismounted, and removing the upper bars of the fence, made his horse jump the rest. After replacing the bars, he vaulted nimbly into the saddle, and with a sharp but furtive look, scanned the bush on either side, then rested his whip-handle on his knee, and appeared to think, while his horse shook his head at the troublesome grasshoppers that hopped and chirped so incessantly, bounding even to the face of horse and rider, and causing both to feel the sharp and stinging blow. The man rode on leisurely till he came to thick scrub, and then he seemed to look warily around, and listen. He pulled up at last, and gave a long whistle, in imitation of a curlew's cry; again and again this was repeated, and then a slight movement was seen in the bushes, and a girl half raised herself from her screen.

‘Jack, I'm too stiff to move towards ye!’

The man quickly dismounted, and leading his horse, stepped towards her; but the horse was restive, and would not advance, which caused delay. In the meantime, Ellen raised herself quite, and on seeing who it was, said in a vexed weak voice, expressing more than mere

  ― 145 ―

‘Bill! why I thought you were Jack Lynch himself, and sure I heard his whistle.’

‘His whistle, Nelly! why, it's any man's and every man's whistle, for all I see; but sure I thought you were some lame foal or wild beast among the bushes here. Whatever are you hiding here for? Lucky I didn't ride over ye!’

‘Maybe 'twas no luck at all! But ride on, ride on. I am just sitting here because I choose it,’ said she, leaning back again on the stone she had chosen for a back cushion.

‘That wretch of a woman has been playing off on you again, I see! Why do you submit to it, Nelly? Were I you, I would cut and run!’

‘And where would ye run to?’

‘Where to? why to a hundred places! Bless me, there's plenty of places for you to go to if you will seek them. I heard say you were going to Allen's—and a better thing you couldn't do now; and then, I say, Nelly, I saw a friend of yours last evening. Says he to me, ‘Do you know one called ‘Nelly?’ ’ ‘Aye, and so I do,’ says I, and then he tells me he has engaged you to be his servant, only not being ready just yet, he wants you to bide quiet here for a bit. You can't do better than wait at Allen's.’

‘I shan't go there, so hold your tongue, Bill! I know who wants me to go there, and who is thick with Mrs. Allen, so I do.’

‘Well! I speak for your good, I am sure! Come, Nell,’ he added, seating himself beside her, and leaving his horse to bite a little grass; ‘come, now, keep up your spirits. You might make your choice of all the men on the farm.’

‘And that same is just what I have done, Bill.’

‘Well, I know you have, and I'm willing to help you to it. But you see all depends on that ticket, Nelly. That ticket must be had, and then all is trotting ground.’

‘Ay! the ticket, the ticket!’ she repeated absently.

‘Well—and the way to get it is for Jack to keep out of punishment, and you know, everybody knows he's a chap of hot blood, and not apt to take things quietly, and when he sees you moping about and knows how bad you're served and how they speak of you, it aggravates him. Ho, there! keep quiet, Peter, I say!’ The horse, however, was worried with flies, and not inclined to obey till after a good deal of patting and coaxing, when he again betook himself to cropping any tender bud within reach. ‘Well, you see, Nelly my dear, as I was saying, there's the ticket must be had, and to gain that—peace and quiet work; and now we are hut mates I have means of knowing something of his mind,—the burden of

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his song is, That girl! that girl! if she would get a place and keep it.’

‘He didn't say the like o' that, Bill; don't think to blarney me.’

‘He did, though—a hundred times over he said it. Now just keep your pretty face out of his way for a while—go to Mrs. Allen's; and let him go straight to his work with only his own burden to bear.’

She did not see his side look—so keen, so subtle, so quick in its scrutiny of her whole bearing—not a sigh, not an impatient gesture, not a shudder of pain, slight and suppressed as it was, escaped him. He saw the weals, the swollen face, the acute agony it was to move at all, and he had also seen her in her beauty, with her hair plaited and braided, and her slight but rounded figure set off by a neat dress; he had heard her songs—she was called by the men Lynch's skylark, and he knew the love of that man for her, and he knew how she was desired and sought by another. His whole nature prompted him, not to love her, not to win her for his own pleasure, but to thwart and circumvent others, to plot, to triumph in secret at the success of his own cunning, and at the same time to receive the bribes which Venn and now another had offered for his help. It was quite an exciting event, and he resolved that the highest bidder should win the prize.

‘Poor girl!’ he said, ‘poor child! you are ill; but just—can't you walk, d'ye think? Do try—I'll help you. Come to Allen's—you know 'tis not far off this. I'll warrant she'll give you something to do you good now; and you'll cheat the old sinners yonder, and do Jack's heart good this night when I tell him where you are. 'Tis his first wish you were settled to some work, and could hold up your head against the world. And the ticket'll come, Nell, see if it don't.’

She drew back as he attempted to put his arm round her.

‘Let me alone!’ she said, bluntly; then, after a pause—‘ 'Tisn't much faith I put in you or your words, Gentleman Bill; you've boasted too much of your own sly doings. But I don't know but what your words are true now. Are you sure Jack would be easier if I was to go there?’

She looked at him as if to read his answer in his eyes, but he did not raise them.

‘Not a doubt of it,’ he answered; ‘and I must go, so if you want my help, girl, make haste.’

‘I have seen others at the place!’ she said, musing; ‘ 'tis a plot, 'tis a plot,’ she exclaimed, presently. ‘But oh, dear me, oh, dear! and I am an unfortunate girl!’ and she began crying like a child.

‘Easy, my dear heart, easy;’ and this time he did put his arm round her, and held her fast. ‘Come along, my sweetheart! You must, or you'll die outright here.’

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He forced her to rise; she did not resist, but the moving caused her to groan—'O, Jack, could I see thee, I'd die the next minute with pleasure! Leave me here! leave me, I say!’

‘No, no, you shall be put to bed, dear, and see what a kind woman she is, and to-morrow you'll be as blithe as a bird again. . . .’ And so coaxing, and soothing, and helping her, with one arm supporting her round the waist, and the bridle slipped over the other, he led her on; now bending down the intruding boughs which bounded back again so as to lash poor Peter's face not a little, now looking from under his eyelids at her, or marking his way in the thick and tangled forest.

Faint and weary, and sobbing still as if her heart would break, she reached Allen's hut, too miserable and ill to note the nod of secret intelligence that passed between her conductor and the woman who was sitting outside the door at work.

They laid her on a bed and gave her something to drink, and soon the heavy long-drawn breath of the sleeping girl reached Mrs. Allen and Bill, as they talked in the outer room.

‘All right,’ said he, chuckling. ‘As for him, this to him,’ and he put his fingers to his nose in that fashion which signifies utter contempt for some one.

The woman nodded, and said, ‘Ay! Ay! but don't blab, you know.’

In another moment he was galloping fast through the bush, to make up for lost time. Having ascertained that all the horses were right, he returned home just in time to find his hut-mate Lynch finishing his dinner.

‘Here's baccy for ye,’ said he, turning out two or three figs of tobacco; ‘a smoke will do ye good, man, and I'll treat you. How long since you got a bit up yonder?’

‘Never since that hound got into the store; 'baccy I don't look for, not I; but for fair rations I do, and I declare that the road-gangs can't fare much worse than I do. For what I get is no good to me, it aint fit for a slave!’

‘Why don't you complain to Lang himself, eh?’ asked Bill, with one of his side looks, and low inward laughs. ‘If it were only to keep up your strength for the clearing work, he would wish you to get good meat, I should say. However, here, this is meat and drink;’ and he put some tobacco in his hand. Lynch eagerly took it, and soon the hut was full of its fumes, while Bill eat his beef and damper, and set his hysonnote on the fire.

‘Good, eh? None of your colonial weed, that! true Virginny 'baccy; and if’—he stopped to indulge himself in a long glance—‘and if you

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only knew where it came from, it would be all the sweeter. I got it from a particular friend of yours.’

Lynch did not vouchsafe an answer.

‘By the way, Jack, that girl is fairly crazy about you. Bless me, if I was in your shoes, would I do as you do, that's all? I had the perticular pleasure of seeing her pretty face to-day at Allen's hut. She's settled as child's maid there. Look out for the new ribbons and such like, for Mrs. Allen loves a bit of finery. And a good thing for the girl it is to be in a place; but, as I said before, why don't you take her?’

‘Why, indeed!’ said Lynch, scornfully, and treading his heavy shoe on the hundreds of unfortunate ants who were swarming out of a log Bill had just thrown on the fire. ‘You know why as well as I do!’

‘Well, I'd see if I wouldn't out-do the tyrant. Gad, and if he wont let ye marry, a man of spirit has a way before him. Rather than be crossed in my will in such a matter, I would give the slip to any master, and once in the arms of the forest, why, man, you and Nell can snap your fingers at parsons and banns! There's Rob-heavy, a chum of mine, we came out in the same ship; he's not blest with my easy disposition, and he got discontented, and had the pleasure of being sent to the road-gang; he got tired of salt beef and hominynote and hard work in the broiling sun and his leg ornaments, and what did he and another do but manage to slide off quiet into a thick scrub, where the soldiers couldn't find 'em, and then 'twasn't difficult to get their irons knocked off; for depend on it the feelings of the country is in favour of brave fellows like them. And now where are they? Why, scouring the country, dressed as well as a gentleman, helping themselves to the best horseflesh in the colony, and——’

‘Hunted like wild beasts, to come to the gallows at last!’ said Lynch, gloomily, though he had evidently listened with interest.

‘Well, and if so, a short life and a merry one! Die game, and you are a hero! or live on, and be beat, and starved, and worn down like an old dog! But different men have different tastes. For my part, you see, I had enough in that line at home; I rather took up the steady walk here; I bowed and scraped to an old lady and got my ticket. I shan't be long here, though; I am getting tired of the place; I shall soon see and get my ticket made out for somewhere down the country.’

Lynch smiled, as he said in a sarcastic way, ‘Change of air, I suppose, for your health!’ Then taking up his woodman's axe, and followed by his dog, he went to his work, which was felling trees, in which he excelled.

Bill laughed, and laughed again, and stroked his chin as he watched

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‘It will take! it will work! Ah! your big bumptious spirits are the ones to deal with. I care not which of 'em gets the girl, but if I hadn't this little bit of business on hand I should get melancholy, I know. Venn thinks he's sure of her now, and Jack is sure to break his head, and then——’