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Chapter IX A P.P.C. Card

WHAT a poor thing—this woman—at which the ages rail! Pray let us fashion a better and more miraculous gift from God and the spirit; from darkness, gloom, and dust! Empty the world of her airs, and her hair, and her loving, ironic, slightly wearied eye! Take her away, with her music, her wit, her strangeness, her frail body and her pain, her brave little feet walking beside us. Give us—the road without her! What a gimcrack companion for the grim road! Is it Galatea? Is it the draggled figure of Patience, come down from her monument, and defending us with arms meant for loving? Heavens! we scientists could fashion something with a less unexpected voice! What is it? What is it, with its head decked with gew-gaws, its dragging feet, its jewelled voice, its black and silver pearls? Is it a statue from the Pyramids? Is it Peron's Oura Oura from the Tasmanian forests? Take away her tragic face, grown thin with love: what does she mean by this for us! Cross those little arms? Away with the fair young head; it's been weeping! How strange! How unfortunate! Heaven and earth, evolve us something different!

When Sir William rode up on Saturday to Pitt's Villa, he found a little party at tea on the terrace. It was a close, breathless day. An unearthly sun flamed in the garden and woods. But the channel and hills were black-blue.

An old Mrs. Testwood; a minister, with a bitter mouth; and a young woman, with long copper-coloured ringlets, addressed as Henrietta, were sitting with Matilda before the windows. Sir William had fastened his horse at the door, and was shown in by the dour maid, who contrived in the short distance between front and drawing-room doors to convey a singular impression of familiarity and faithlessness. Matilda Shaxton, who looked exceedingly sad and pale, received him with a sort of gladness and took him to a chair between her own and that of old Mrs. Testwood. The latter only ceased her rapid, harmonious chatter when Matilda muttered Sir William's name, when, bowing elaborately if languidly, she resumed it without the faintest increase of emphasis. Old Craye, the clergyman, had ducked out of the mist of talk with a

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sort of daunted gleam. While the pretty girl with the copper-coloured ringlets pulled her shawl about her with a shrivelling timidity, and did not bow at all.

“Now would Miss Lecale be of use to you?” Mrs. Testwood was asking of the old clergyman. “She treads on everybody's toes, but, her tread being unintentional, leaves no bad impression. She is one of the most uncourtly ladies of my acquaintance, but for some reason the Hobarton world permits her tongue a licence for which it would ostracize another's. She is brave also. Nine years ago, when the Blacks were threatening the country between Hobart and Launceston, she brought all the girls home from school, at Ellenborough Hall, going herself in the fly-coach with the cavalry. Henrietta”—turning with a rustle of fringed shawl to the young woman—“you were one of the distressed Rebeccas!”

“Oh, indeed,” said Henrietta, flushing, “I shall never forget the terror of it. Some of the girls had pistols given them. She was just like a man—so brave and collected. The men were very reassuring. The most distressed of them were cracking jokes as they rode beside the carriages.”

The whole party was for a moment lost in reverie.

“I have already seen Miss Bullinger Lecale,” said the clergyman, in a gentle, acid voice. “She has somewhat lost her faith in subscriptions and indeed in the whole scheme. ‘The poor wretched creatures,’ she said, ‘do not want money or its equivalent. They are dying of home-sickness.’ The Bishop, she considers, should petition Government for their removal home.”

“Bishop Nixon has been Fidus Achates to the natives,” chattered on the old woman, “but he is stricken down with marsh fever. He has been a champion of Flinders Island.note But since he has been ill, the Blacks have sunk from people's minds.”

“If he be disheartened, what faith may we place in any one man's care of men?” said the clergyman. “Our health fails and our love sours for an instant. In that instant the devil of sternness or indolence is put in charge and some hideous wrong is done. Charity seems to demand machines of health—not men.”

“We are weak vessels,” smiled the old woman, with her crinkled lavender hands clasping her toy parasol. “Homer nods! Even that devoted ‘Father Clark’ of Flinders tells me how, one day, when not quite himself, he lost his temper with, and chastised, some women. Afterwards, he said, he went along the shore, trying to forget their piteous appeals. ‘They knew that I loved them, ma'am,’ he said.”

Sir William had become somewhat haggard and pale, as he

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sat by Mrs. Shaxton. He pushed his chair a little behind those of the two ladies.

Matilda's eager face was very small, and seemed almost lost in her hair.

“They—the natives,” she said, leaning forward, her neck rather sadly drooping, “have to rely on our mercy.”

“God has put them in our hands,” said Craye, “for some reason.”

“How can we deal with home-sickness?” said the old woman.

“We—we could lighten it,” said Matilda.

“Indeed—it might be lightened,” echoed the rather hoarse voice of Sir William Heans.

“Miss Lecale always said,” the sharp old woman muttered on over all obstructions, “that the ‘wretches would die out of some gentle ailment, just to aggravate us for calling them savages.’ I'm sure, from what I have seen, many of them are gentlefolk. I remember my mother reading to me from the Post, fifty-four years ago, when I was a girl of seventeen, how that they had won the hearts of D'Entrecasteaux and his Reign-of-Terror Frenchmen, by holding aside the bushes for them as they guided them into the Island. Was it not civil in them?”

(Sir William Heans had turned to Mrs. Shaxton, and was murmuring under the talk: “Grief in your voice—as I can't forget it—might have kept me away, madam. A grave reason has brought me up—or it seemed grave, before I sat here with these happy people.”

“Is there anything amiss?” asked Matilda, in a kind of crushed way.

“Amiss—oh no!” said Sir William, almost lightly. “Look—what a fantastic sea—what a sad sea—what a grim sea! I have never seen it look so strange. What would you do, Mrs. Shaxton, if you were situated as I am, and some one came and told you you could get out?”

She seemed to touch the tea-cups blindly. But her face was turned away from him. She seemed to ruminate, but he could not see what she did for her ringlets.)

Sly little Henrietta was saying, she did not think it would do to be lost among them, meaning the natives.

Mrs. Testwood answered, that she had been told by old Mrs. Mountgarret herself, how she had strayed as a girl from the Camp, in 1804, and been directed back from the forests by some natives. “It is these little refinements,” she continued “these humane doings, more than the terror of their stand, which made us women weep in the streets, when Monpeleata and the blacks of Frenchman's Cap walked in behind Mr. Robertson—eight Januarys ago.”

“Ah,” nodded the old clergyman, who sat with his back to the sea, “who will forget it, who saw it? I recollect some noble lines by ‘Hobartia,’ in the Hobart Town Magazine:

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They came like straggling leaves together blown,
The last memorial of the foliage past. …”

(“Would you bravely do this?” Heans leant towards Matilda on his plaid knees, and seemed to murmur, as if lost in his subject. “I cannot buy the schooner—The Emerald—Mrs. Shaxton. Captain Stifft must do it. My skipper—Captain Stifft—has narrowly escaped prison for some affairs of this kind, and, with heavy suspicion upon him—and these sharp fellows on me—our chance lies in not meeting. For me to be seen again with him is precarious. Fraser's Club, a mutual rendezvous, is full of convicts—many of them constables; registered rooms are not for secret meetings. Should he buy a ship, after he has again been seen with me—even if they do not see the money pass between us—I may be watched too closely. I fear I shall hardly trot my nag to Spring Bay.”

“Am I to give it—to him?” breathed Matilda.

“Can you?”

“Here—at this house?”

“No—not here,” said Heans, with a slight flush. “Some runner fellow may follow him.”)

They listened a moment to old Mr. Craye, who was reciting in a fine indignant sing-song: “The wounded were brained; the infant cast into the fire; the musket was driven into the quivering flesh; and the social fire, around which the natives gathered to slumber, became, before morning, their funeral pile——” But Miss Henrietta, who had espoused the side of the Colonists with unexpected fire, returned upon him pluckily with the tale of old Ibbens, who, having his wife and little children killed in his absence from home, followed the Eastern tribe, creeping upon them at dusk with his musket, till he had avenged their deaths.

(“There is danger after Mr. Daunt's inquiries?” Matilda said, half heedfully.

“Yes, with a fellow of poor Stifft's fame,” nodded Sir William Heans. “We met that day in the wood below your gate. We have been meeting there on my pass. We heard the sound of Daunt's horse and ran for it. Stifft hid in the wood. But for your letter, Daunt would have discovered the Captain and me in conversation. I am not certain whither Daunt's motives may be leading him. He may trace delay, but anything more, he does not! Latterly, Stifft and myself have had no open communication. We have been subtle as the grave. Yet—permit me—though a lady would not lightly be suspected of dropping a purse from her carriage to help an absconder; if a man like Captain Stifft came within touch of the house servants, there might be some after-clap.” He presently asked her if she would drop the notes from her carriage.

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“From my carriage?” with a slight look of straining. “Do I understand you——?”

“Yes, if you can and will. Time is limited. To be of any service it must be on the afternoon of next Tuesday. I have taken the liberty of writing down directions, and when and where Captain Stifft will wait.”

“On Tuesday?”

“Yes—on Tuesday—after three o'clock.”

“Someone, who saw him pick it up, might arrest him for stealing it.”

“I have explained that. He will run after the carriage with it, if he is seen. He will stand under an oil-lamp half-way up a lane ascending from Macquarie Road. You will face him as you turn into Davey Street.”)

“Ah, give them their due, ladies,” said the indignant old man. “They were treated shamefully. I was reading only yesterday in a back number of the Almanac: ‘Let them have enough of red coats and bullet-fare. For every man they murder, hunt them down and shoot ten of them. That is our specific—try it.’ …”

“Oh, but Mr. Craye,” cried Henrietta; “the little babies they speared! There was the child, brave Dolly Dalrymple, couldn't get through the door into shelter, because of the spear——”

(“Presently, if you will permit me, I will get up and go,” muttered Sir William Heans. “Where I pass through the drawing-room window, there is a small box on a fringed table. It has a picture in coloured woods. Is it not Tunbridge ware? I will put the money in that—if you will allow me?”

“Pray put it there,” she answered, at the same time smiling a little sadly at something Henrietta said. “I must think … I think I will help you.”

He too laughed; a kind of ironical laugh, for his face had grown pallid.

“How quietly, madam, you said those words!” he murmured. “When I'm a dying man, it will be there.”

“The danger—the danger!” she muttered. She had taken up her embroidery again, but her head seemed to tremble as she bent over it.)

“It is a sad fact,” said the inexorable Mr. Craye, “that the Blacks killed many of their own little children, during the war, that they might march the quicker.”

“Ah, Mr. Craye, there was pain on both sides!” said Matilda, possibly with an eye to Henrietta's heightened colour.

“I have always heard,” said old Mrs. Testwood, flowing in on the ebb, “that one of the causes of the estrangement was an incident which happened in the Government Paddock, where many tribes of Blacks, invited in by Governor Sorrell, were manœuvring before the whites. It seems a young native beauty,

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who had been much petted, suddenly threw a spear at Captain Hamilton—the aide-de-camp and a man of great dignity—narrowly missing him. When he complained to the Governor, for he was very angry, his Honour—as he was then, you know—sent the whole of the natives away. They retired, brandishing their weapons, furious at the discourtesy which they considered had been done them. … The native tribes never again accepted an invitation from Government, until, eighteen years after, Mr. Robinson brought in the dreaded enemy. …”

(“How the voice haunts,” said Sir William Heans quietly.

“Didn't you know it, sir?” said the bowed woman, sadly.

“No, I did not know it,” be said.

“Whither are you going, Sir William Heans?”

“Oh, we are going—how shall I tell it! Should the schooner be sound—some high-toned Chilian port, Santiago, Valparaiso! If she's leaky, as we fear, Gun-carriage Island, or the Babel Isles in the Sealer's Group, there to catch a seal-ship!”

“Did you know someone had spoken to Sir John Franklin about you——?”

“No, I did not. 'Pon my honour, I'm most thankful to them!”

“Stay—you had best consider of it—the life—here—before taking so terrible a risk. It is likely that her Ladyship or Miss Crackcroft will be requiring your services—in the Aborigines Society—or the new Circulating Library. Indeed, your surroundings would be happier——”

“No—no! I'm too old—too old. I'm grown—forgive me—beaten and close. … If Heaven will not let me choose—then nothing!”

“Ah—but what shall we do … if they——!”

“Don't say it”—looking downward with a harsh flush. “Say, ‘Friend, go in peace!’ ”

“Then—then,” she whispered, seeking the table with her fingers, “my hand must help you—Oh, God, pray Heaven, ‘in peace’!”)

The young lady with the brown ringlets, named Henrietta, warmly shifting her Indian shawl, was saying that when she was at school at Ellenthorpe Hall, a circular reached Mr. and Mrs. Clark recommending all owners of dwelling-houses to create trap-doors in the ceiling, by which the women might escape to the roof.

Sir William had risen, regretting with a somewhat drawn gallantry, and in a voice a little too excited, that he must interrupt so alarming a reminiscence. “Might he be permitted,” he said, “to give his casting vote to that young lady,” indicating Henrietta. He was certain that his friend in holy-orders stood in a false position—on the trap-door. There was a little reluctant clatter of laughter, and old Mrs. Testwood turned and looked at him out of her feathered poke, her glance strained and fetched from

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far, but intent, voluminous, and on the whole charitable. The Reverend Mr. Craye, rising ceremoniously, eyed him with a bitter little gleam; while the girl known as Henrietta blushed a little and smiled, but did not look towards him.

Matilda did not move from her place, but, when she had risen, and he had kisssed her hand, she said, quietly and gravely, “Am I to tell my husband the drawing is finished?”

Heans paused an instant, looking down over the terrace and sea as if he would reassure himself. “Pray tell Captain Shaxton,” he smiled, “that my drawing is concluded, even to his motto over the main door.”

The blue of mountain and sea had darkened, and the sun shone in patches on the descending landscape of the nearer slope like a light at night. Heans left Matilda, straining after him, dark-faced, if standing a little bowed, with her hands clasped upon her heart.

Striding towards the windows of the drawing-room, he stumbled upon the flag-stones, dropping his grey hat as he regained his balance. From within the glass, as he stooped, came subdued male voices. A step nearer and there was the red of a uniform, and Hyde-Saxton's broad, round face. His companion was Garion, of the mounted police.

Shaxton's mouth had a little melancholy drag at one corner, unusual to it, but he began laughing as Heans entered. “Ho-ho!” he said, “it's you, Heans! Here, Garion—Sir William Heans. Where's the drawing? Have you finished the drawing, Sir William?”

“Finished it! Yes, I've finished it,” said Heans, a little angrily. He had acknowledged the Lieutenant's somewhat steely obeisance. “When will you see it?”

“Oh, come, you're losing patience with me! You're giving me pepper! Has Matilda got tea there? Yes—I'll come into the office some day next week. Mark that. You must be sick of me. It really is highly civil of you. I'm nothing but a consummate puppy when I get going with those hero fellows. Now—you're a perfect pattern, Heans—aren't you—got all the possible virtues! I suppose you call it frittering away my time! Oh, now—you must have patience—like the woman in the tale—ho-ho!—who asked her husband what she ought to do when the men flattered her: ‘Give them time, my dear,’ he said; ‘it's only a freak of the moment!’”

He laughed, but there was something weak-winged in his bubbling merriment. His chuckle never entirely exorcised the hovering droop. He joked, but half-crossly, and in a subdued way, not quite like himself. There was a tinge of the puzzled pettish in it.

Matilda was heard calling from the terrace, “Wouldn't they join them at some tea?” Sir William, at that instant, said he must go, and bowing ceremoniously to both gentlemen, made

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through the chairs towards the door. Captain Shaxton, loudly laughing, ushered his friend through the French-window on to the terrace.

Sir William turned near the door, and crept back, yellow as death, to the red table. He fumbled some papers into the hand that held his hat, and as he drew back the lid of the pretty box and thrust in the papers, he glanced up. The terrace was gleaming with a wild light, and Matilda was receiving the two men with her sad face lit.