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  ― 180 ―

The Heart-Breaking of Anstey's Bess.

I.

IF ever there was a woman who had a splendid chance of settling herself in life, it was Anstey's Bess—otherwise Elizabeth Sandy, No. 24-175, per Arab (1). Not to say anything at all of the proposals of lesser men—not even dwelling particularly on the honour done her by Jorgen Jorgenson, former Governor of Iceland and present magistrate's clerk at the neighbouring township of Oatlands, who would have wedded her without (so he informed her) “a paper thruppenny”note of dower—when Mr. Thomas Anstey's free overseer, Franky Manning, laid his honest heart and his hundred-acre grant, with all appurtenances thereon, at her feet, she was tendered an exceptionally fine opportunity of making a match. Nevertheless she refused.




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“I am quite comfortable here, thank'ee, Mr. Manning,” she said, “an' the master and mistress are kind, an' I'm desperate fond of the childer. An' I'm as happy as I want.”

“But you can be as happy as all this and be your own mistress too, Bess,” pleaded the stalwart Manning. “Won't ye think better of it? I'll treat ye kind!”

“I don't doubt that, Mr. Manning, an' I don't say as it's not a fine chance, but—it's no use. I've made up my mind to stay here till I die, or ——” She paused, as though she had already said too much.

“Or what, Bess?”

“Never mind!”

“Till ye get your freedom!”

“Yes, yes—my freedom!” But the exclamation was hurried and confused. As well it might be, for the explanation was not true.

“But the master says as ye'll not apply for your ticket, Bess, and ye won't get a ticket, much less a pardon, without asking for it. Are ye too happy here to ask for freedom?”

“That's it, that's it.”

“No, Bess, there's something else, I'm sure. You're not so happy but that freedom won't make


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ye happier, specially if ye get with freedom a home of your own.”

“No, no! It's no use, Mr. Manning. Besides, why, you ought to marry a free woman, not me—a lag.”

“D—— the lag—saving your presence, Bess! And even supposing Mr. Anstey couldn't get your pardon just for the asking for it, my love—the love of a square man, though p'r'aps I say it as shouldn't, Bess—will clear your record as though ye'd never been sent out.”

“Ah, that's good of you to say it, Mr. Frank; but you wouldn't like your—your childer to be pointed out for a lag mother's childer.”

Her wooer brought his great hand to his thigh with a resounding clap.

“Who'd dare to raise a word against my wife? I'm a free man—I'm rich now as men go—I'll be richer by and by. No, none dare say that against your children if they were mine too, Bess! Don't be afraid of that, my dear! Come, Bess, say ye'll have me, and I'll beg Mr. Anstey to ask for your pardon at once. He'll get it, sure. I've been a good servant to him, and so have you, Bess. Now, say yes!—there's a good girl!”

The woman, still comely and fresh-featured for all


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her thirty-six years, with thick coils of reddish-brown hair, deep-arching eyebrows and milk-white teeth, showing the self-respect so seldom retained by the “assigned female,” bent her face into her hands. The appeal stirred her, and her whole being quivered with the struggle between the craving to say “yes” and the knowledge she ought to say “no.” The ration print-dress of the convict-woman did not always cover the sensibilities of the drab, though Governor Arthur thought so.

Manning waited. He would not further harass her by so much as a glance, so while she pondered he gave a glance to the field adjacent to that in which they were standing. Something there attracted his attention. The ploughing-“teams” were stationary, and instead of the creaking and jingling of the gear, he heard angry voices in excited threats. One voice sounded above the rest, and as he distinguished it, he turned sharply to her.

“Bess, I can't wait any longer, now—though there's still time to say ‘yes,’ dear. The men are rowing again—wherever that young scoundrel Davies is there's bound to be trouble if I am not by. I'll come again to-night, Bess—unless”—he paused to grasp the hands which were now clasped on her bosom—“unless it's ‘yes’ now, Bess?”




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It might have been into ears of stone that he poured his words. Her hearing was intent for another voice than his—that much he understood, for there was straining in her eyes and in her attitude, and the colour came and went in quick rushes to and from her cheeks.

“Bess, Bess, what is the matter? What is it? Are you ill?”

“No—yes! Oh, go away, Mr. Manning—an' don't talk to me of love while that—while that's there!” She threw out her hands as though to push him away.

“What d'ye mean? While what's there?”

“Go, oh, go! Don't you see he—they are fighting! Go, do go—or mischief'll be done, Mr. Manning!”

It was quite time for him to go. From the adjoining paddock came cries of his name, mingled with bitter imprecations, and the group of convicts reeled stormily. He rushed towards the fence which separated the paddocks, and, as he clambered over, looked back.

The woman was prostrate on the sward. He could see the convulsive movements of her hands as they clutched at the grass-tufts.




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II.

He could not go back to her, though he troubled greatly, in his simple, strong fashion, that he could not. The fight was proceeding, for the combatants were so enraged that they did not see his coming, and unless he interposed literally with his whip of authority, the contest might end in the infliction of serious injury, if not in murder.

“Stop, there—stop, Davies—New!” He cut at the combatants with his lash of rawhide, and struck them into silence and a sullen inactivity.

The ploughs at work were two, and, meeting on parallel furrows, a dispute had occurred between a man of each team. To each plough were harnessed eight convicts of various ages and statures. Beside Anstey, of Anstey-Barton, only one settler—Bisdee—flagrantly defied the System's economy by indulging in such weak extravagance as to put eight men to a plough. Most land-tillers holding assigned labour displayed a judicious regard for the methods most in favour with the authorities, and employed no more than four. And the Ansteys and the Bisdees were equally opposed to the System in another respect—each discountenanced the sharp


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pointed goad so generally used by the other settlers. The solitary instrument of persuasion permitted by either gentleman was the strip of untanned hide, and this solely on the ground that its use was necessary to prevent the shirkers throwing the strain of the draught on the willing workers.

“What's this all about?” demanded Manning. “You, Davies, again! Have you forgotten that I said I'd have you up before Mr. Anstey if you quarrelled again this week?”

Neither of the offenders answered, but Davies, in response to the special inquiry from himself, shrugged his shoulders contemptuously. He was a youth apparently in his eighteenth or nineteenth year, and, save for the scowl, evidently habitual, on his face, would have been handsome.

“Answer, I say!” repeated the overseer.

“Well, if you must know, that —— cur, New, there, lied. That's all. And”—a studied impertinence was in his tone as he continued—“as I'm not an officer of the field police, or a free man, I didn't believe in lying, and I hit him!”

“That tongue of yours will get you into serious mischief yet, Davies, if you don't take care. But that's no answer to my question. What did New say?”




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“Ask New himself—I decline to repeat a lie even at second hand. But——”

“But what?”

“I warn him that if he dare say to you, in my hearing, even now, what he said before, I'll strike him again, even if you flog me the next moment!”

“This is rank insubordination, and even Mr. Anstey himself wouldn't pass it over. New, tell me what you said. You needn't care for the lad's threats.”

“Care! The fellow—a wizened-featured, stunted Londoner. Wot should I care for 'im? H'im as good as 'im hany day. An' this his wot hi ses, sir ——”

“New!” The boy, Davies, threw into the word at once both a challenge and a warning.

“New!” mimicked the other. “That for you!” He made a vulgar gesture as he spoke. “This his wot hi ses, Mr. Mannin'—I axed 'im 'ow many kisses 'e give to that 'ere Bess for all th' grub she brings 'im. An' then 'e 'its me, an' hi 'its back!”

“What Bess—what woman?” cried Manning. Rude and uncultivated as he was, he shrank from the possibility that the name which fell so lightly from the wretch's lips was that of the woman to whom he had given his love.




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“Vy, Bess that's hup to the 'omestead—Anstey's Bess, o' course!”

Each “team” was harnessed in pairs by swingle-trees. Davies, the “off-leader” of one, while New was speaking, and while Manning and the cluster of convicts were intent upon that fellow's words, had stooped and unhooked the swivels which held his own chains to the bar. A length of nearly three feet of inch-links was thus loose in his hand, save that one end was attached to the leathern bazil which encircled his waist. Before New could complete his jibe at the expense of Anstey's Bess, the lad had swung the unattached iron into the tell-tale's face.

Manning, momentarily staggered by the association of Bess's name with this wastrel of the convict-gang, was recalled to himself by the assault. Although Davies had gathered the length of chain once more in his hands as if to wield it again as a weapon, Manning rushed on him, and, dropping his own whip, seized the youth's wrists.

“I've put up with your conduct long enough, Davies,” he exclaimed, “but this is going too far. Mr. Anstey shall know of this.”

The boy made one ineffectual attempt to free himself from that mighty grasp, and then, owning


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the mastery, but still defiant, looked the overseer full in the face, and exclaimed: “A fig for Anstey! A fig for you! A fig for anybody and everybody in this cursed country—a country of lags who ought to be free men and of free men with the spirit of lags.” Then, as Manning, still holding the lad's wrists, called to take the handcuffs from his, the overseer's pocket, he went on: “Oh, damn you, Manning—I'll get even with you for this! I've sworn on the lag's Biblenote I'll do for any man who forces the darbies on me!”

The bracelets snapped on the wrists through which the blue veins were still visible beneath the sunburnt tan.

III.

The teams—one man short in each—resumed their ploughing. Tragedies might be enacted, hearts might break in the process, but Anstey's grants had to be prepared for the spring sowing and the autumn harvest. Up and down, one working to the east side of the paddock, the other to the west, scoring with the same furrows the chocolate earth and their


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own hearts. No task so tore the natures of convicts as that of hauling the plough. Much of their work seared, but the flesh closed over the cicatrices; but the ploughshare cut a wound that rankled for ever, because the work was beasts' work. Yet Anstey's plough-“teams” should have been happy in knowing that, though their work was that of the lower animals, their food was still that of the man. Anstey was unlike C——, who sleeps in Melbourne cemetery in sure and certain dread of a terrible resurrection, and under twelve hundred pounds' worth of lying marble. C——, moved by a sense of the appropriate, fed his plough-cattle on oatmeal and water. “The fodder of beasts for beasts' work” was his maxim—and his grand-daughter will be presented at Court this year.

For two days the “teams” worked each a man short. Then the proper allowance of draught was renewed. The number of eight was restored: Davies and New came back. They had been into Oatlands. Davies was reticent with his fellow-cattle. But New was discursive enough for both.

“'E was impident to the beak, an' jawed the hoverseer, an' 'e ses that 'e 'ud risk Jack Ketch to 'av 'is go for Mannin'. An' Mannin', he only larfs, an' begs the beak to let 'im orf easy for a-strikin'


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me, an' 'e never ses no word at all about cheekin' 'im, so the beak lets 'im orf with ten. Vy”—he grew indignant at the prospect of the probable increase in crime which would follow upon such an unusual instance of magisterial leniency—“that ain't no pun'shment at all! If 'e killed me, 'e'd 'av got orf altogether!”

Nevertheless, those ten strokes, lightly laid on the back though they were, had stamped themselves indelibly on Davies' features. And an old hand, who for a generation had been enjoying the protection (tempered with discipline) of Government, and who knew the convict nature well, prophesied ill because the lad never laughed now. There was something taking about the boy—something impressive, too, to a creature like this Michael Ferris, who was servile always, from inclination as much as from policy, in his haughty opposition to authority.

And the old convict dreaded what might be.

This man was sent with a message to the homestead by Manning a week after Davies' return to the “team.” And while waiting for the can of tea which he was to carry to the field, the old fellow took an opportunity of saying a word to Bess. Anstey's was ruled by Bess in all things, edible and potable.




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“Mrs. Sandy, a word wi' yer, mum, please, an' 'scuse the liberty as I'm taking, mem, but the men do say as wot yer—yer take an int'rest like in young Eddie Davies——”

“Oh!” cried Bess, taken off her guard by the suddenness of the remark, “what is the matter now—is he in more trouble?”

“Not yet, missus, but I'm afraid he will be—he's so sullen like, and broodin'. He never larfs. An' w'en fellers, espeshally younkers, go like that, arter kissin' of Madame Cat-o'-nine-tail—w'y, mem, theys go to the bad, slick!”

“Oh, tell him not to brood—no, stay!” Then, fearful she had revealed a feeling for the lad's welfare that needed either instant contradiction or a further unfolding, she paused and looked anxiously at the old transport. He read her glance, and put his finger on his lips.

“I'm mum, mem—I do anything for the younker, as he gives me 'baccy w'en he has it, an' I know as the stuff must come from you!”

“Then—then tell him to keep awake to-night.”

The old man delivered the message; and he was loyal to his promise. He mentioned the circumstance to no one. But he would have been more than human if, when the “teams” were stabled for


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the night in the huts by the home-paddock, he too had not resolved to keep awake.

Six men to a hut—the Ansteys characteristically so construed the official regulation which required that in any apartment of smaller dimensions than 12 feet by 12 feet, there should not be lodged more than twelve assigned servants. (The System would have died prematurely had the Ansteys' methods been the rule. As they were not, it was only the convicts who died in advance of their time.) The old transport was in the same hut as Davies. Even Mr. Thomas Anstey gave no second thought to an arrangement that shut up for ten hours gentry who would have rightly adorned Tyburn tree with babes in vice. It was so usual: it did not shock even him.

As midnight drew near, old Ferris woke from a snatch of sleep. Stirring in his ear curiously, was a bird's tapping which mingled with the sigh-laden breathing of the sleepers and the creaking of the pine-planks as the men turned restlessly in the bunks. He raised himself upon his elbow noiselessly and peered into the darkness. A movement in the bed-place opposite his own—Davies'—directed his gaze; and to his surprise he saw a breadth of moonlight


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flash into the room as a plank in the wall was apparently withdrawn. A body stopped the aperture for an instant, and then the sudden reappearance of the light, and the sound of a thud outside, told him that Davies—it could be no other than the lad—had temporarily escaped from the hut. Ferris stole quietly to the bed-place, which had just been vacated, and listened. The speakers had placed themselves against the wall so that the shadow of the building covered them, and thus Ferris heard every word.

IV.

“Well, mother,” he heard the boy say, in low tones that were utterly wanting in tenderness. “So you've found time to come, have you? It's two weeks since I've seen you to speak to! Is it that your son has been flogged that you've discarded him?”

“Hush, you cruel boy—have I not done enough for you to show you how I love you!”

“Always the same cry—what you've done for me! Isn't it your duty to do something for me! Did I ask to come into the world?——”

“There's no time for useless talk. I came tonight,


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because I could not come before. Manning suspects something. I'm sure he thinks ——”

“What?”

“That there is something between me and you. He watches me closely—I never come near the hut now ——”

“Don't I know that? Have I not been compelled for a fortnight to live on this cursed pigs' food, while you at the house feasted on the fat of the land, and would not take the trouble to bring me the crumbs from your table!”

“Wicked, wicked boy!” There was a catch in the woman's voice as the serpent's tooth nipped her.

“No snivelling now! Have you brought any grub or tobacco with you?”

“Yes—there 'tis at your feet. God! to think I should steal like this for you, an' meet with this reward!”

“If you've come to weep over the prodigal and nothing else, you can go back again. What if you did take my trifling breach of the law upon you and get lagged—what then? Lots of mothers would ha' done the same for their sons, and never thrown it into their teeth afterwards. And if you were lagged for me, wasn't I lagged for you? Didn't I


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follow you as quick as I could—‘Missed my Mammy, oh!’ as the song says——”

“Eddie, oh, Eddie, you are breakin' my heart! An' if you've nothing to say beyond this, I'll go, without sayin' what I came to say!” Forgetting the need for silence, she burst into sobs.

“Fool!” said the ribald. “Do ye want to rouse the huts with your —— sniffling. What did you come to say? Out with it!”

“Only this—that Mr. Manning—wishes to marry me.”

“Marry you! Not if I know it!” said the lad, after a second's surprised silence. “He's my master now—by law, and that's the only authority he'll have over me!”

“I don't intend to marry him—because of you. I won't deceive the good man, for good man he is——”

“What a taste he has—to wish to marry you! And what a match—the good, kind-hearted Overseer, with his hide-whip, and Anstey's Bess, the lag housekeeper with the lag son.”

There was a rush of steps, and then Ferris heard another voice join in the conversation. He was at no loss to know whose it was.

“This has gone far enough, you wretch, Davies!


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I've heard nigh every word you two have said. Ah, Bess, why didn't you trust me—why not have told me this ungrateful scamp was your son?”

The woman sobbed now unrestrainedly. That was her only answer. But her son answered with that defiant brazenness which seemed part of his nature.

“Because she wasn't proud of me! That's why, Manning. So you want to marry her, d'ye? Well, you can have my blessing, if that'll help you!”

“Silence, sir—don't forget I'm your overseer!”

“I don't consider any man my overseer who follows convict women about at midnight, for he'll only be overseer so long as Mr. Anstey doesn't know it.”

“Silence, sir—or else I rouse the huts and order you to be chained up!”

“Do—do! But no, you daren't—you're only a coward, Manning, for all your bigness. But I'll rouse the huts.” And before Manning could stop him, he beat upon the walls of the hut and shouted with all his might. The uproar was increased by the cries of the now hysterical woman, and by the curses of the overseer. Within two or three minutes the forms of the startled inmates were visible on the verandah of the homestead; and there were cries


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of “What's up? What's the matter?” from the assigned men's lodgings, which were, of course, locked. The impression was general that Brady's bushranging gang (then in the district, at Peter's Pass) was in attack. From the aperture whence Davies had emerged the faces of all his hutmates were now peering. Ferris had no longer a monopoly of the spectacle, which by this time was exciting.

Manning had seized the young reprobate and had forced him to the ground, and upon the struggling bodies Bess had thrown herself, fearful that the only two beings she cared for in the world would do each other mortal injury. Nor was she without cause for her fears. There was a gleam of a knife-blade in the moonlight, and Manning fell back, venting, in the instant in which he loosed his clutch on the youth, a shrill cry of pain. By the time Mr. Anstey—who, in his haste, had seized a fowling-piece—reached the spot from the house, the overseer lay unconscious, while blood poured from a stab in his chest. The transport, Davies, leaned against the wall recovering his breath, and Bess stood, dazed but erect, with a hunter's skinning-knife in her right hand.

“Bess—Manning!” exclaimed the settler as he


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recognized first the woman and then the supine man. “What does this mean?”

Bess passed her free hand over her forehead, and then, looking steadily into her master's face, made answer—

“I've—stabbed Mr. Manning, sir!”

And but one of the men who peered from the opening in the wall could have sworn differently, for he only had clearly perceived whose hand had struck the blow, and whose hand had withdrawn the blade from the wound.

V.

In the confusion of the event, it did not occur to Mr. Anstey to inquire what Davies was doing outside his hut at that hour. Not suspecting the relationship of the young transport to Bess, he did not doubt the truth of her avowal, although he was shocked at it. Leaving to a later and more seemly time the investigation into the circumstances, he bade Davies help a couple of free servants, who had come from their quarters, to carry the injured man to his room, where the wound was roughly bandaged till the military doctor from Oatlands could arrive. Bess, Mr. Anstey locked in her own apartment, first taking the knife from her.




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The next morning the wounded man was incapable, in magisterial opinion, of giving a lucid account of the affair. His wound though not vital was a sufficiently ugly one, and weeks would have to elapse before he either could resume duty or be in a fit state to give formal evidence against the prisoner. Sitting as a magistrate, Mr. Anstey formally remanded his once-trusted housekeeper to Oatlands. She would give no explanation of the occurrence, and the family who had so befriended her, and whom she had so faithfully served, saw her taken off to the township by an escort of field police. It was a problem the Ansteys could not solve—how she, so tender and true, should have attempted to murder their overseer, who, attached as he was to them, was, as they well knew, more deeply devoted to her. Good Mrs. Anstey had done all she could to promote the match; and Bess's refusal had perplexed her mightily. And now the entanglement that bound the two was not the sweet intricacy of the lover's knot, but the gruesome ties which link the victim to his murderess.

The night after the outrage the plank in the hut-wall was withdrawn once more, and Davis, aided by Ferris, dropped through the aperture.

“It's as good a thing as ye can do, ye young


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whelp, ye! Ye'll get scragged in any case, and I'd rayther ye'd be scragged for bold fightin' in the bush than fer a cur's trick of puttin' the knife in on the sly!” So old Michael whispered.

The lad heard him in silence.

“An',” went on the old man, “won't ye leave a word for the woman who bare ye?”

“Tell her the best thing she ever did for me was the loosening of this plank. She did it for my kisses—I did give her one or two—but I always intended to bolt to Brady through it. And tell her the best thing she can do is to marry Manning if he gets better and she's not hanged. Then when the —— traps are hot on my heels, I'll always have a safe corner. Tell her that—and good-bye.”

VI.

Bess was not hanged. At the Hobart Assizes she would have pleaded guilty had not the Court, very informally, and under protest from Crown-Solicitor Stephen, heard a statement from Michael Ferris, transport, and Frank Manning, free upon-arrival. But her son was—a couple of years later—on the final break up of Brady's gang.

Polite Mr. Dougherty—the Turveydrop of the


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scaffold—who as the law's finishing school-master put the last touches on young Davies, stepped behind the coffin (which he had just delivered to Bess) to breathe a word of consolation to Overseer Manning who accompanied her.

“I never did for a likelier lad, Mr. Manning, never! An' it's a pity, sir—I know all the story, Mr. Manning—he was so fine a lad. Had he been uglier, then all o' her heart 'ud not ha' gone into that shell. She'll never marry yer, Mr. Manning—although 'twud be a good match, sir! She ain't no woman to marry wi'out a heart; an' hers is in pieces alongside o' that stiff in the coffin. Thank'ee, sir—the gould 'll do instead of his clothes!”

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