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24. CHAPTER XXIV.

STORMS WITHOUT AND WITHIN.

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The walk to Diamond Creek was on of the prettiest about Langville. The trees grew more gracefully in groups, leaving open glades, as it were, between. Then, again, the path led through more tangled scrub—here a banksia, popularly called bottle-brush shrub, with its crimson blossoms; there a low yellow-flowered bush, almost covered with a rich purple creeper; while the ground was studded with bright blue harebells, assuming a more star-like shape and appearance than their drooping sisters in the northern hemisphere. By the creek itself, which was scarcely ever known to be quite dry—whence, perhaps, its appellation of Diamond—grew numberless pale green shrubs, drooping over its banks, with clumps of swamp oaks intermixed.

There was much laughing and chatting among the young people, though Mr. Lang perpetually recurred to the sore subject, and tried to make Mr. Fitz agree with him that convicts were not like other people, and that nothing but the lash had any effect on them.

Mr. Fitz rather took the other side of the question, which irritated Mr. Lang still more; and then both his wife's and eldest daughter's dresses swept the ground—a thing, he said, he never could abide. ‘In the name of common sense, what was the good of wasting so much good cloth? was it to sweep the roads with?’ and so on.

Mrs. Vesey ran off to get a nearer view of the conical ant-hills which abounded in this part of the Bush. She was wishing one of the boys had a tomahawk to cut one in two, that she might see it inside. Willie


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said it was very hard to cut, and persisted that he had heard of a man turning one into an oven. Kate laughed and said it could not be; and then the boys ran to appeal to Isabel if Mr. Herbert had not said so. Isabel confirmed their tale—an ant's nest, one of this peculiar kind, had been converted into an oven by some enterprising squatter.

‘There's a very threatening cloud,’ said Willie; ‘we shall have some thunder before long.’

‘Well, truly, it feels ominous; there really seems not a breath of air!’ said Mrs. Vesey, seating herself on a fallen tree. ‘I shouldn't like being overtaken in a thunderstorm in the Bush. By-the-bye,’ said she, suddenly rising, ‘if there is a chance of it, we ought to be going at once.’

‘No; stay the night, pray do!’ was repeated on all sides, while Mr. Lang looked around, and ‘didn't think it would break yet awhile.’

‘I am a shocking coward in a storm,’ said Mrs. Vesey.

‘O, so am I!’ exclaimed Kate. ‘But Issy doesn't mind it at all; I think she enjoys it, and she stands romancing at the window and saying, ‘How beautiful!’ ‘How sublime!’ quite in Herbert style.’

‘Kate, how can you say so?’

But Kate was in unusually high spirits, and she persisted in turning the joke against her sister, repeating many ancedotes at which Mr. Vesey was especially delighted. He laughed, and clapped his hands, and declared that he had always said Miss Isabel Lang was a ‘what's-its-name, character, and all that; and it was good fun, and on his word and honour, he never met with such a girl—never!’

But a distant roll, and a sudden slight shivering among the boughs, broke off the merry talk. It was coming indeed. Willie was right, and with every clap or flash he looked triumphant, and repeated, ‘I said so!’ while Kate lost her fears in her pleasure at the unavoidable detention of the Vine Lodge party; and Mrs. Vesey screamed more than once as the lightning flashed. Then it appeared to be going off; the claps were fainter, the intervals between the flash and the noise longer, and the wind seemed about to make wild work; already it could be heard rushing up the valley, and then all at once the tall trees swayed about in their topmost branches, leaving the underwood as yet untouched, while the birds uttered a warning shrill cry. Then the wind seemed to stoop and rush with a sweep nearer the ground, taking everything in its way by surprise, and dying off in a low whisper among the wiry swamp oaks.

On reaching the more cleared parts, several head of cattle were seen.

‘Hallo, how is this?’ shouted Mr. Lang. ‘Run, boys; see if the rail is down;’ and when Mr. Lang came up to see them he heard that it


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was down. Nothing could be more annoying. There were at least twenty or thirty bullocks let in where he particularly wished they should not be. ‘Who left the rails down?’

The boys denied having been there, and they said it was very likely that ‘Magpie,’ a certain knowing bullock, had raised the rail with his horns. It would not be the first time he had done such a thing, and of course all the others would follow.

Mr. Lang was very angry, and declared it couldn't be, for he had ordered pegs to be made for the rail; he knew very well it was one of the two-legged brutes who took a pleasure in doing all the mischief they could.

Isabel, who with Miss Terry had outwalked the others, here waited. ‘I am almost sorry to go home. I never saw such an awful sky, I think,’ said Miss Terry. ‘Look, Isabel, at that dense blackness, and yet before it there seems to hang a sort of lurid veil of light. The lightning is playing behind it. Isn't it wonderful! Then look there opposite; how far off—far removed from this battle—that deep blue sky looks! and those great rolling masses of clouds! The storm is on both sides, and it will meet. It will be terrific.’

Isabel looked, but gave no answer. Miss Terry cast a quick glance at her, at which Isabel coloured up. ‘Isn't it vexing?’ she said. ‘Some fresh disagreement, evidently! Just as I thought I had contrived so wonderfully well to establish peace and bring him back. I fully expected to see him to-day! Miss Terry, you must really beg him to humour my father a little—he might a little!’

‘To whom are you alluding, Isabel?’

‘Now, don't pretend, when you see how hurt, how vexed I am! I can't be so philosophic as you are. You don't deceive me though by your elaborate admiration of the storm.’

‘Isabel! I don't understand.’ But any further conversation was stopped for the present.

The rest of the party coming up, they all passed through this rail, instead of going the longer and prettier way by which they had come. At the end of the next paddock there was another slip-rail, leading to the farm buildings. A man had just climbed it, and was going away; then, seeing the ladies, Isabel being still foremost, he turned, laid aside his tomahawk, and proceeded to take down the rails.

‘A pretty fellow you are!’ exclaimed Mr. Lang, setting his teeth fast together, and making an inclination with his head in the direction of the other slip rails. ‘And so you couldn't put the rails up again, eh? but you must let all those wretched beasts into this reserve paddock.


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Just like you, for a lazy, good-for-nothing vagabond, not worth your salt.’

‘I didn't either take down or put up the rails! I didn't come by that way!’ said Lynch, sullenly.

‘ 'Tis false!—you did. You always come that way. I'll—I'll stop your tea and sugar, sir! You are an ill-conditioned, insolent fellow! Go and drive the bullocks out,’ adding an oath; and he raised a walking cane and flourished it over the man's head in a threatening way.

One dark look, and in another second the man had picked up his tomahawk, grasping it fiercely.

‘What d'ye mean by that look, sir? Come, come! that wont do,’ said Mr. Lang, hardly able to utter his words from passion, and irritated all the more by Lynch's now unrestrained insolence.

Again he swung his cane within an inch of the man's shoulders. One dreadful oath, and the tomahawk was raised.

‘Two can play at that game, and if you will have it, you shall. 'Tis a long bill I owe ye, man!’

But Mr. Fitz, who had come up to them, sprang forward and caught the man's arm just in time. Mr. Vesey also came to his assistance; while Isabel clung to her father, trying to drag him away. Lynch was white with rage, but he did not resist, and after the first half-uttered vows of revenge, he made no further reply to the gentlemen's advice that he would go quietly back to his hut and make an apology by-and-bye; and they would try and persuade Mr. Lang to overlook the whole affair.

The father pushed his child away, telling her to mind her own affairs, and muttering his determination to ‘get that man on the road-gang.’ Then he suddenly turned and offered Mrs. Vesey his arm, still speaking in an excited manner. She excused herself from accepting his help, and dropped behind with Kate; and the party silently returned to the house.

By this time Mr. Lang had recovered himself, and he joked his wife at looking frightened, saying, she ought to be more accustomed to these little skirmishes, having lived all her life among such people. Then he talked of the weather, and said it would be a stormy night, shouted and coo-ee-ed to Miss Terry and the children, who had lingered behind, and had only now reached the lawn, having escaped the scene at the slip-rails. They ran, and they had hardly gained the verandah when a vivid flash, all forked and jagged, was instantly followed by a loud clap of thunder. The whole sky seemed full of the electric fluid,—the deep rattling roll of the thunder was incessant. The servants dared not cross from the kitchen to the house; the timid hid themselves behind doors, and the stoutest heart felt it to be awful!




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There was wild work among the elements that night; many a tree was smitten and scathed; at last the lurid flashes became less vivid, and the thunder rolled more deeply, as if further off. But as the dark heavy clouds broke up, the wind came. How it howled, and boomed down the chimneys; how the dead trees which had been barked for cleaving, crackled and crashed as it swept through them, while above the rushing sound might be heard the sharp fall of some giant more brittle and more exposed than the rest. It was, in truth, a wild night, as Mr. Lang often remarked to his wife, and it was not till just before dawn that he could sleep. Very troubled and anxious were his thoughts; his anger had long passed away, it had had its vent, and was now forgotten; but he lay scheming and planning in hopeless perplexity how to clear himself from pressing difficulties; how to provide for his family, and keep them still in the situation to which his industry and fortunate investments had brought them; to preserve all those numerous comforts and luxuries with which he had surrounded them, the fruit of years of labour and toil, yet to be honourable and just in meeting his liabilities. Were it only himself it would be nothing; he could begin life again; but his wife and his children, his daughters especially, anything, everything must be done to save them! It was cruel to think of taking them from Langville. He began to consider his wife's oft-repeated assertion that Kate was sure to marry well, and he wished she would make haste about it. If she were settled, it would materially soften the blow to his wife; and as for Issy,—he paused at the thought of her name, and with a long-drawn sigh, bid God bless her.

At the time when the storm raged highest might have been seen, by the lightning's flash, a man at the door of a hut heedless of the danger, almost unconscious of the thunder. He stood motionless for some time—motionless save a quivering which every now and then seemed to seize his limbs. He did not once look up, not once did the lightning stir him, but amid the din of the tempest he heard a low voice which spoke to him from within the hut. At first he appeared not to heed it; then there was a sudden tightening of the lips, or a darker frown, a heaving of the bosom, a stamp of the foot; now his face was turned away, then again inclined towards the speaker, as if listening; and all this—every movement and every gesture—was seen plainly by ‘Gentleman Bill,’ as he sat in the shade of the wall, himself unseen; while the pale, almost livid features of his companion were distinctly marked and brought out with every flash.




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‘No, no; 'tisn't in human nature to stand it! I declare I'm sorry for ye, Jack. To think of you being under Dan so soon again, and he'll be all the harder, after the welcome he got here that day . . . . Ah, well! what must be endured . . . . No,—what is it! What can't be cured must be endured! and your back's hard as horn by this time, I suppose. Two roads, however, still lie before ye; the triangle, or the Bush. You see, I came back here to see yourself. 'Pon my soul, I did! and for no one thing besides; believe me or not, as you like! I wanted to tell you; to give you . . . .’

‘If you've aught to say of ‘her,’ just have it out, will ye? If—if—I thought—Bill, you'd played me false, and meddled to take her off me, I'd . . . . I needn't say it, though!’ said Lynch, turning round and taking a step nearer to Bill. At the last threat his eyes seemed made of fire, and there was something so fearful in his suppressed concentrated passion, and his stalwart frame stood out so big and strong against the stormy sky, for he was just between the open door and Bill's sight—that the little cunning man felt somewhat troubled, and wished himself safe out of that hut.

‘Bless us, what a fuss! Be quiet there!’ he said, quietly, and making an effort to stifle his chuckling laugh, as much excited by nervousness just then as by his usual enjoyment in working up a frenzy in others. ‘I certainly did coax the little maid down to Allen's; and what if I did? She'd have been killed outright at home. I found her black and blue; not able to walk;—and in the Bush. Didn't I tell you she was at Allen's?’

‘You did so. But when I went there after work, she was gone. Couldn't get no account of her at all; and Bill, folks do say that——’

‘Folks! let 'em say! What do they say? or what don't they say, for that matter? But be more civil, or I'll take no more trouble to bring you news.’

‘Speak out, unless you wish me to do you some harm, man!’

‘You are put out, Jack! Well 'tain't pleasant I should think to be con-templating that pleasant little accident—so, I'll be patient. If you'd take a smoke, 'twould ease your mind uncommon. Fine thing 'baccy is for the temper; Quakers smoke on the sly always. Well, well, don't hitch about your shoulders that way. I'm coming to it—easy, easy; after all, I've not much to say. Surely, Jack, you don't go for to say you really pin your faith to any slip of a female, now, do ye? Why man, they're every one of them alike. You think Nelly prefers you. Ay, ay, so she did. You're right there. But put her in the way of something better; what then? Nelly likes smartery—all girls do! A pretty ribbon, or a gown; and Jack Lynch was a poor sweetheart that way.’




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‘Will you hold your cursed nonsense?’ Lynch growled.

‘Bless the fellow! Mustn't I use any figuring speech! I'm just a polishing off and ornamenting the facts; for seeing how you are in a devil's humour, perhaps you'll go ramping mad, if I speak too sudden. But keep quiet there, Jack! and I'm coming. Well, last time I saw Nelly, she had a fine new gown quite the go, and a blue ribbon, as blue as her eyes. My! she looked dainty jolly! Ay, ay, thinks I, and where did that smartery come from? So says I, ‘Nelly, my darling, got any message for any of your beaux, down away; because,’ says I, ‘I'm going back soon.’ ‘Beaux, indeed!’ she said, so scornful; ‘No, Bill, I've no message, and no beaux;’ and off she walked, as fine as my lady. ‘But for Jack,’ says I, ‘poor Jack;’ following her, you see. ‘I've something very particular indeed, I want to tell Jack,’ she says; ‘but it mustn't be yet, not yet. Only Bill, you may say, I'm got into a very good place indeed, and am like to do well, and I hope he'll do well,’ says she, quite proud like. 'Pon that, somebody spoke to me, and when I turned away again, she was gone. I searched everywhere, I asked of every one, I couldn't see no more of her. Only they said as for certain she was in company with some up country drays, going to live at some place.’

‘And where was this, where you saw her?’

‘Where? Ah! Jack, you're the sharp 'un! Well, 'twas just near that public, stands back a little from the road, called the Camp House. But where she was going is just what I don't know, you see.’

‘That's false—you do know; you are too sharp not to find out that for your own curiosity.’

‘All I made out from the people of the inn—and you may go and ask for yourself—was, that one of the draymen was a pretty, likely youth, and seemingly uncommon sweet on the girl, and she was all as friendly with him. Now, don't go and shake your big fists at me, or any one else. 'Twont do no good, man! Whistle her down! Not worth a thought—an idle jade! I turned right away, at the risk of my own business, to come back here and give you scent! That's what I call acting honourable, and like a gentleman! Now do as you like—only—now 'tis come to this here point with you, if I were you, I'd let no consideration for her keep me from just following my own way . . . . If'—he presently continued, finding Lynch made no remark, ‘you had a mind to go through they infernal lashes, just on account of keeping straight for her—well—I couldn't advise you no ways to it—after what I've seen.’

Lynch left his post at the door, and took his seat on a low stool, burying his head in his hands with his elbows on his knees. There was


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a long silence. Bill grew tired of it, and the darkness prevented him from watching Lynch. He moved towards the door, and looked out. ‘Stormy night, I guess!’ Then still standing there as Lynch had done, still smoking his pipe, and leaning against the side-post, as if too weak or lazy to stand unsupported,—he spoke of a friend of his, who had taken to the Bush. He had come across him quite by accident, he said, and was almost persuaded into joining him. It might be a short life, but at all events, it was free, and had plenty of stir and fun. Full of adventure! ‘Fancy my chum sending a message to some old crony of a rich settler who had offended them, that he was a marked man! meaning they meant to shoot him; so deuced cool, the sending him fair notice!’ and he chuckled. ‘That's the way, Lynch, depend on it. Clear off all old scores; enjoy liberty, instead of such slavery and crawling life. Pah! and if the end should be unpleasant; but 'tis easy to avoid that by fighting desperate at the last. But, take it at the worst, man, one death's as good as another. Die game! eh, Jack! Why before that comes, you'd ride free and like a conqueror, terrifying every one; and make a name, ‘Lynch, the celebrated bushranger!’ eh, Jack. But I say, there's no end to this firing up yonder; some mischief will come somewhere. I'm tired, and by your leave, I'll just turn in; I'm going to sleep in Andrew's hut. So good-night, old fellow! Cheer up, and be hearty.’

Bill stepped out lightly, but turned to look once again at that bowed, still figure. Then a vivid flash dazzled him, and he quickened his steps to the other hut, where soon, wrapped in a rug, he was fast asleep. Lynch was alone; bitter thoughts and suspicions crowded on him, while those memories he had before rejected, returned not now, in this his dark hour of need. After the first rush of opposing and confusing feelings, only one idea, one purpose remained. It grew, and strengthened rapidly. When at last he raised his head, all was over, all resolved. He got up, and looked out. It was quiet, as far as human life was concerned. Every one was gone to his rest. He marked that the thunderstorm had passed, but that the wind was in all its fury; and he said to himself that it would be dangerous work among the trees. He picked up his hat, over which he had nearly stumbled, as it lay on the floor, then felt for his clasp knife, and fastened a small tomahawk into his leathern belt. He took out from his bed a red handkerchief, which he knotted round his throat with a bitter scowl; felt on the shelf for a box of matches, and a small piece of tobacco; and then he went to the door, but paused there for a moment—looked back, as if listening, and pressing his hand to his forehead, he passed out. He shut the door carefully, placing a stone


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before it to keep it close. Once he waited, and even uttered a low whistle, but checked it almost directly, and with a look as if some bitter recollection had crossed him, setting his mouth in a way which gave a very forbidding character to his face, and breasting the wind with strong, firm steps, he very soon passed out of the cleared part of the Langville estate, and plunged into the Bush.

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