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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,


  ― 195 ―
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


  ― 196 ―
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!


  ― 197 ―
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.

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