previous
next



  ― 153 ―

Chapter VI Blind Abelia Sees Something

HEANS, from his breakfast-room window, saw Abelia searching for flowers among the bushes with trembling hands. Her grey figure, tight of sleeve and bodice, relieved only by white vandyke collar, long black apron, and smooth red head, moved with a blinking serenity along unkempt beds bordered with broken cement; here culling some small creamy thing from a gnarled tree that declaimed with every brandished limb it could ill spare its one rosette; there choosing among little armies of red valerian which fought and beat the grass unaided under a barren rockery.

Thus began for Heans a day pregnant with curious events. It was Sir William Heans' fate in these eventful hours to ask a surprising number of questions, and to have them answered with a remarkable grossness.

The house was built of smallish bricks, with windows and corners of immense uneven stones, curiously alternating in size with a cumbrous attempt at the Academic, and hewn sharp. The long narrow roof was only a few feet high and shorn off at either end without ornament with a stern and laconic expediency. Along the garden's eastern side, a wall of yellow freestone, turning yellow-green, ran from street to cliffs, and after a picturesque and elaborate plan darted up the latter, being breached about ten yards over the summit by an arch having a white door now fallen aside. Propped against this, the west wall, and the house-front, were several pieces of rude sculpture hewn from the same stone. Among these were two immense acorns and several of those curious pieces of architecture known as modillions. An immense ball of the same substance, four feet high, and smoothed to a nicety, stood on the left side of the main-door, on a wide sunken step of wood. It had a hard, grim look, as though the carver in his fancy had conceived, and wrought to a hair, a symbol of a world he hated. It might almost have been the actual block of Sisyphus. Over the door itself, a single welcoming hand projected


  ― 154 ―
from the lintel, also carved in stone. The same artist too, or one-whose manner was similar, had carved a figure on the black stone-fountain that broke the main path, half-way from the street. Once a beautiful, golden thing, from which silver splashed against the mountains (for the triangular ornaments on its five octagonal pillars were yet mustard yellow), it was now darkened and water-less, and offered as an acceptable substitute the vegetable waves of periwinkle, with which it was filled, and which threatened to engulf its central figure. This little black statue, mounted on a tulip-shaped pedestal ornamented with diagonal grooves, and evincing considerable ingenuity, if ignorantly moulded, could hardly have been intended to chime with a peace of bees and jonquils, for it was only malignant and threatening. It was the figure of an epauletted soldier, prone on a rock with head thrown back, eyeing the sky, at whose lips was an iron trumpet through which the water—with a rather violent fancy—must once have risen and dropped. But when the eye sought for some fine aspiring face, fitted to the conception, it was haunted by a mouth and brow wild with a hideous surprise. It may be that such water as had splashed back upon the sandstone face had exaggerated, if it had not entirely defaced it, to this strange look. If not, the notes of that wild clarion had never brought the help so dreadfully desired, any more than had the water which had fallen upon it washed away the look of terror.

It was Charles Oughtryn's opinion, not professing it, as he mentioned, to be worth much, being that of a man who “knew next to nothing,” that fountains and garden ornamentations built for frightening people “was a mistake, though noble; that gentlefolks was better provided in the garden with Italian ladies and the new-born young. However, he was not one to lower the condition of a place by misplacing a remnant of its fine days, however puzzling to the ignorant.”

Had you seen Oughtryn riding to and from his farm at Bagdad—his custom every Tuesday and Friday—you might have catalogued his peculiar figure, in a sort of black livery frock over-supplied with cloth buttons, tight black breeches lost in dull oiled jack-boots, and odd, curious, little chimney-pot, as something between a lion-tamer and a funeral attendant; his thin beard and stoutish figure completing the incongruity of his arrangements with the suggestion of a wilier Falstaff. In his garden, where it seemed his desire to ruminate in a dark green slop, slippers, and a Manilla straw, but where, from a gnawing sense of the fitting—especially since his prisoner had been assigned to him—he had his rare, grim attacks of path-hoeing and reproving with a bill-hook, when the results would show traces of a mind attuned rather to an antagonism of 100 feet gums and repelling mountain-sides of wattle and dogwood than wrestling blackberry and briar rose (when Abelia would hover on his flanks with a deprecating crying for the slain, combining the grieving of a distant relative


  ― 155 ―
with the matter-of-fact encouragement of the undertaker—answered with curious, shrill, wild shouts)—in his garden, the lion-tamer dissolved into a rather troubled elder, given to lapses of cards and worldliness, with very little belief in his associates, with a dislike for reading but a respect for “works,” but at the root of his being, a determination to perceive, if he could, the best in the standard—an obstinate reverence for things that have been named first, which bade him search them towardly rather than sceptically. It was this curious quality possibly which had so early gained him his “conditional pardon.” We have all met, once or twice in a life-time, with this singular nature.

Oughtryn had, according to his own account, been card-bitten when, as a convict-shepherd, he and three fellow solitaries had been gathered for defence into the hut of one of them during the Black revolt of 1816, and he expected to carry the sting to his grave. With him, however, it seemed less a living poison than an irritant. “Fraser's” and écarté acted as his dead-nettle rather than his bane, while the occasional exceptions incidental to thin-voiced companions and whist on Saturday evenings in a corner of the great room were irregular and seemed limited to meet a flux of “blunt” rather than some gnawing need or canker. He was a careful wastrel. As he put it, staccato voce, to Sir William: “He played only with pudding-ends.”

It is to be remarked that from the windows the west wall was almost hidden in shrubs, as was also the front fence of bars and masonry which met the decapitated gate-posts. Some yards along the house-front to the left of the door—which was six feet across, glassless, and sunk in the wall at most an inch—there stood an old sentry-box shaded by a tobacco-tree, between two fragments of sculpture: one a biblical group with the features defaced, the other a great corbel. This was Oughtryn's summer-house and here he stocked his cans and tools. In this also, since he had come to distrust his directness in dealing familiarly with his prisoner; since they had more than once disagreed with regard to the signing of the sunset pass; and because Sir William refused excepting on special occasions to “intrude himself” in the front garden, Oughtryn would sit, half in, half out, with the Courier, the Van Diemen's Land Almanac, or a piece of knitting, until Heans chose, or did not choose, to open his window two yards beyond, when, after the unaltering question “Complaints, honour?” had been answered, gossip, philosophy, or print would pass between them.

Though they would meet in the cave, Oughtryn seldom entered Sir William's portion of the house, and Sir William entered his only for an occasional game of cards in the great room with Six of the pawnshop, himself, and a floating member who was never, by the way, Mr. Carnt, who had not Oughtryn's approval, as one who'd “let a friend down” when drinking. The blind girl, and a sad, monumental, leisurely person with heavy


  ― 156 ―
hair—introduced as “the woman”—came, went, and held the ends together. Not that Oughtryn had been able to give over immediately, wholly, or unshared, his “gentleman's apartment” to Heans, to meet whose standard it had been piled and embellished into being. For the first months of Heans' service, he had haunted the stuffy passage between the kitchen and his creation, liable to rushes and intrusions, trampings, tiptoeings, and clarions of domestic regulation. But, in this way, no one learned more finally or more entirely than Oughtryn. Heans' high “good graciouses!” and “good heavenses!” his negative shocked laughs as if some one should apologise; his quick departures and jolly little “good days”; his long stable-absences, presently made plain to the builder how much he might enjoy of the cake his standard sense had prepared—his beautiful, much mahoganied cake, garnished with cushions of pink horsehair; with plaster ladies on the mantel-piece, three feet high, protecting doves; with a brand new marble lamp standing seven feet on the beaufet and vouchsafing on favourable occasions a peculiar far-off glow; with a life-size plaster figure of a Roman soldier, quaintly fitted with a drum and a pair of whiskers, wheedled out of old Asbold, the snuff-man, for an experience; with the terrible, tomb-like, high-and-mighty wardrobe of a writing cabinet and the armchairs, one of beads and one of iron covered with yellow graining and full of hidden springs for pinching the unwary finger (not indeed a chair to lightly rest in); with its strange china and its choked race-horses all galloping in tune, ready rung from the prisoner-auctioneer at a ring-dollar apiece; with the fine things mentioned and the fine things unmentionable, from the numerous embroidered mahogany-footed stools which macadamised the floor to the immense, blue, mosque-and-minaret bird cage in the window, containing one very small and slightly apologetic bird— these poor Oughtryn discovered must be renounced—lavished, into the limbo of “right done”—yes, better to cut the painter entirely, so difficult is it to keep a large traitor hand from patting about you as you enter, or an ignorant brain mild-tempered before the aggressive dignity of your own arrangements.

But “lavish” as he was with his arts and possessions, Oughtryn was a miser when his fears or his fetish were in question. It was not his view, though a vulgarian given that way, that a gentleman keeping in good smellage with the police should be seen too much at “dives” such as Fraser's; nor (as well for the first reason as another) should the notability and gentry approach the desperations in anything—such as drinking, for instance, or slopping about the blunt. In this certainty, he begged to be allowed one morning to discontinue the official wage he paid Heans, as dangerous, being an encouragement to black thinking in the police-spy, of whom he never feigned to any feeling but fear; and when that received no answer from Sir William's window, and Oughtryn did not chance to look round from his knitting (he


  ― 157 ―
was in the sentry-box) he had sworn a very ugly frightened oath that he would be persuaded by no feeling of veneration for his betters to sign more than one fortnightly night's pass out. And though, as time went on, it was suggested by the nameless woman that Sir William's health was being jeopardised by his closer confinement, yet Oughtryn frequently returned such extra passes as were conveyed to him, unsigned, with such written comment as: “You knows the traps is watching an old convict, honour”; or “The traps is sharp after Bully Suire—your honour will be pulled up constant”; or he would draw a manacle instead of his sign-manual; or if he were easy in his mind; for “he was as much bothered with devils as a black-fellow,” he would send a written message by Abelia, to the effect that he was reluctant to pass the gentleman out into danger and temptation, but offered to play him crib for it in “Captain Collins' Chamber.” As for the woman—he would say that he had never known one to hit off a man's health yet: she must slop over him too kind for manhood, or present him with a sour “hiceberg” whereon to lay a swounding head.

At the sentry-box also, certain favourable occasions (the peace of a close garden after rain—the unconscious consciousness of Abelia at her piano, or blinking near among the plants) had wooed even Sir William from his grievance, and set him off, burning with recollection, on some fineness of his past, till the window rang with huddled, stilted phrases, starting Oughtryn, in return, troubled brow and beard buried in knitting, on some bad narrative of the Black String, and his experience therein, or that other which gave it light, so wildly connected with his life, the Black War and the Bounty Five. How it began with the hanging of “Muskitoo,” the bad New Holland black, who led a hell-pack that adored him; Oughtryn had stood in the hills and seen him hung; Oughtryn heard the black women wail. “After that they'd spear the very dogs.” How fifty of them caught the Richmond “traps” in a valley, and set on them with stones, but were beaten with the bayonet. How a man ran forty-three miles from Swan Port for the Pittwater garrison, his hair turning grey. How they killed the lonely women. How Dalrymple Briggs, “the beauteous half-caste,” snatched in her speared baby, and beat them off with duck-shot, “near done up by their bursting through the chimney”; how the lady mother, Mrs. Jones, with her faggoted roof, won three hundred acres from Government, cowing them with a fire-arm and a cauldron— them twice in. How they'd creep up at dark, flinging lit wingwangs on the gentry's roofs, and a palsy hung on property. How they would suddenly pounce on the unprotected and lonely, till the whites got the scares and some died of terror.

How they had a funny hate for a red-coat, and how the escorts were doubled. How Hobarton shrank when Captain Thomas and Mr. Park were found. How he shared a bunk with Don,


  ― 158 ―
of Don's Battery: the hill he shot from, knocking them back with an old Bess. How he (Oughtryn) was shepherd to Captain Blythe, of Oatlands, and warning given by a burnt stick at Table Hill, when fallen asleep, he waked with his gun gone, in a ring of blacks. They were doubled up with laughter. Most they killed, but one or two they spared—him, he supposed, for the stupid sight.

Thus were a number of evenings spent, Sir William flapping a magazine, and fingering something lengthily in an old landscape which had been summoned up as a frame to a tale of stalking; Oughtryn, with beard buried in chest and bowed legs folded one inside the other, knitting and grumbling along in a high, tinny voice; sometimes, I fear, expectorating tobacco-juice; at others pausing, stroking his knitting, and staring round, pale-faced and plausible of eye, as if to fascinate his hearer—like some old garden-spider who has once pounced with rather poisonous consequences, and if somewhat stout for the kill, will spin you, from habit, a cunning, sinister, if vaporous net.

Sir William had just been thinking, as he watched Abelia on that eventful morning, how strange, how grim, that anything so frail, so vague of aim, trembling blindly to each flower, blown whither it would not, yet flutteringly determined, could instil into the midst of pain a flitting as of peace. There was peace indeed in that bare life—gentle and remote Abelia. She had a sort of habit of serenity.

As if to belie his thought, he saw her pause in the path that skirted the great shrubbery bed along the eastern wall. In it grew high baggy bushes, and fronting her, in particular, that leggy thing imported from the Amazon, with elephantine leaves, and sweet blue poisonous flowers. He was amazed and then startled to see the girl spring back and turn away as if to run to the house; but in her terror she went but a few steps, suddenly dropping her basket and creeping back again to the tree. He could see how distraughtly and yet how cautiously her feet took the ground. Some fancy about a reptile, thought he, some love affair—yet why does the child move back so shudderingly? There was indeed something repulsive in the great bush through whose black stems he could see the wall, with, near the ground, some half-lit crack or opening. Heans sniffed the air. He could smell the heavy perfume from his window. It was like the caress of a tiger—soothing, gentle, yet with faint reptilian hintings.

Oughtryn, he knew, had gone off early with few words, and in a black mood.

Now for fear the girl should come to harm—there was something fascinated in the way she returned upon her course—he snatched up his walking cane from behind the Roman, and climbed over the sill upon the path. That he might not interrupt Abelia


  ― 159 ―
rudely in some private endeavour, he sauntered at a slow pace along the house-front. Almost immediately he stopped, however, for the girl had seen him. She was in a bowed position, as if about to thrust her way beneath the tree, and now turned with the leaves about her head beckoning him away. He had never seen her so distressingly in earnest, and at the same time her face half-kept the wall as at the hint of something ugly and unpleasant there. Heans held up, swinging his cane in some annoyance and perplexity. The garden was quiet, its bushes crinkling with an occasional gust. Sunlight just gleamed on their slope: the opposite clouded in fine greens. His attention was suddenly drawn over the wall by a soft exclamation, moaning and guttural. This was followed by a rattle of talk very short and sharp. He had been accustomed to hear a strange childish jargon from that direction, and these were two grown voices. Some seventy yards over the wall were the pediments of the next house; a small gloomy institution situated on a bare green rise, where were maintained and educated the few children of the exiled Blacks.

Heans made slowly along his path and down that beside the wall. Abelia had actually crawled in beneath her tree. Its great leaves, though heavy, were sparse, and Heans, approaching and piercing them with shaded eyes, could see distinctly a hole or waterway in the wall and the form of the girl stooping before it. Something in the picture of the girl's figure before the cement-framed hole held some curious, half-recalled interest for him. He stopped. He could no longer see Abelia's figure. He immediately decided to follow her. He had advanced but four or five paces when, as if she had seen him, she came groping out from among the dank loose leaves, and met him with a mouth contracted with fear. Her restless lids were almost closed, and she sought to get her trembling hands upon him. When he reached her, she sank against him and seemed unable to stand. Her white face clutched its shred of serenity.

She pointed to the house and Heans guided or rather pulled her across the beds to the front. Beneath his window, she beckoned towards one of the carven stones and fell upon it, letting go of him immediately.

“What is the matter?” Sir William Heans asked.

“I'll speak now,” she promised, in her distracted way.

“Why, Abelia—nothing to frighten you, my dear?”

“Yes—yes,” she persisted. “I was coming—past the tree— with the blue flowers—when I saw something scarlet in its centre. It was so bright—I thought it might be some strange flower. But when I peeped inside, there was a break there in the wall above the opening, and the scarlet was showing through. Just then I heard a man speak very quickly. I saw it must be a soldier, and creeping in, I caught through the wall a man's red coat and the peak of hair on his collar. Below the crack was a hole for the runaway water. I thought I would be able to see


  ― 160 ―
who they were through the runaway” (she stopped, blinking before her, for an instant dumb), “and sinking down I saw them sitting before one another on the grass: a soldier, one of them, a large angry-speaking man, and the other the old nurse black-woman, Conapanny. She was holding out her hand and seemed to moan and pray for something—and he—he had his shoes and gaiters beside him, and was putting kangaroo moccasins over his stockings. But when Conapanny went on staring at him—begging and begging—he put his hand on his bayonet and said—oh, Sir William, the man said ‘If she made a noise he would stick her with his gully!’ ”

“Gracious heavens,” said Sir William, in a soothing voice, “my dear, I'm quite certain you misheard him!”

previous
next