― 185 ―


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

  ― 186 ―
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?”

  ― 187 ―

“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.

  ― 188 ―

“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

  ― 189 ―
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.