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Chapter XVIII. The Escape.

FIRST one, and then another native coiled himself up under his breakwind for the night. Jerry waited till the general silence gave evidence of the whole tribe being fast asleep. The night was cloudy; a favourable accident for his enterprise, as the natives have a superstitious fear of the dark.

Jerry stole noiselessly from his covert, and looked cautiously about; all seemed safe; he could not distinguish any one on the watch. The fires before the natives' low bark-huts were burning brightly at a little distance; the rest of the bush was involved in deep obscurity—rendered

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more gloomy by the contrast of the light of the burning logs. He knew the ground well; and endeavouring to prevent the slightest rustling of the bushes, or the least sound from the cracking of the dry sticks in his path, he bent his way to the spot where Helen had been placed apart in preparation for her marriage with the black chief.

He threaded his way successfully through the thickets; he heard no one stirring; his plan seemed to prosper; and for once Fortune seemed to favour him. He reached Helen's resting-place without hinderance or accident. She was ready at his touch; and without speaking they set out together.

Helen could not disguise from herself the extreme hazard of the step they were taking, nor the perils to which they would be exposed in the bush; but death in any shape was preferable to a marriage with the old black fellow. She had many times endeavoured to communicate to the woman, that, if they would take her back to the town of the white people, a great

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reward of axes and nails would be given to the tribe; but they either could not or would not understand her. Their present desperate flight, therefore, was her only alternative.

Neither was Mr. Silliman less determined to brave all rather than encounter the endearments of that hideous old woman! to say nothing of his being dieted occasionally on half-broiled opossum, and gum-tree caterpillars! Besides, there was a spice of romance in him, after all; he was good-natured, and did not want courage, although he was without the habit of exercising it in action; and to be knight-errant to “Miss Helen” was a high privilege, and a stimulant to heroic deeds. He felt proud of himself as Helen followed him in silence through the forest.

They were not without some plan, however, in their flight. They had previously agreed that the point to which they should direct their steps, in the event of their being able to elude the vigilance of the savages, should be a high hill, on the top of which a tall and remarkable

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tree presented the singular appearance of a ship in full sail. Besides, they knew that the breadth of the island was but small, and that by keeping towards the east they must at last come to some district inhabited by settlers. The obscurity was so great, however, that they could hardly make their way through the forest. It was a painful journey, but hope supported them; and the fear of the fate from which they had escaped, was greater than the fear of the dangers which they encountered.

As soon as they had got to such a distance from the natives' fires that they thought they might talk in safety, Mr. Silliman endeavoured to support Helen's courage by representing that they could not have more than seventy or eighty miles to travel at the most—for the island was only an hundred and fifty miles wide—before they came either to the high-road leading from Hobart Town to Launceston, or to some settler's farm, or stock-keeper's hut. He assured her, also, that there were no wild beasts on the island, except a sort of hyena,

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which had never been known to attack a white person.

What Helen most feared was snakes; and she often shuddered as she trod on some soft substance bearing a resemblance to the feeling of their moist cold skins. Her shoes had been worn out some time since; but she had contrived for herself a pair of mocassins, made of kangaroo-skin, which she found much more easy for bush-travelling than shoes. Jerry had accommodated himself in a similar manner; and a light wind having dispersed the clouds overhead so as to allow the stars to lend their light for their guidance, they were able to proceed at a pretty good pace. As they increased their distance their spirits began to revive.

Helen had retained possession of the small pocket-pistols found in the knapsack, together with the powder-horn, and a little bag containing about a dozen bullets. She had never allowed them to quit her person, and with these weapons they resolved to defend themselves to

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the last; but they were too small to be efficient except at close quarters. Besides these means of defence, Jerry had the axe, which on the day of the ceremonial he had been allowed to appropriate to himself. Thus provided, they considered they could make a tolerable resistance,—for a time, at least;—and, at all events, they had made up their minds that it was better to die fighting in the bush, or any way, than be at the mercy of the natives.

With this resolve, they continued their way through the wilderness the whole of the night, until they were both compelled to stop from exhaustion. But even as they stopped, the rising sun began to gild the snow-white tops of some high mountains, which they observed behind them to the north-west; and presently the light of day appeared to cheer them. They saw no signs of the natives, and they flattered themselves that they had not been missed. In this hope, however, they were mistaken.

They reckoned that they had proceeded at

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least twenty miles during the night; but it was afterwards known that they had not gone mere than ten, so deceptive is travelling in the bush, especially when forests have to be traversed. Trusting to this calculation, Mr. Silliman thought that Helen might safely repose herself for some hours, for her fatigue during the night had been very great. But after resting a short time, she declared her readiness to proceed.

Before they set out, however, they carefully examined their pistols; Helen had one, and Mr. Silliman the other. They would be but a poor defence, he felt, against the natives, if the whole tribe should pursue them with hostile intentions; but for his own part, he resolved to sell his life dearly, and defend Miss Horton with his axe to the last; and it was not long before his courage was put to the test.

They were now traversing wide plains, not inconveniently covered with trees. This sort of country continued for about eight miles in

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the direction which they were travelling. Thick scrub and an exceedingly dense wood then intervened between that point and nearly the water's edge of a broad and rapid river, which was the same crossed by them on the raft, and the one which the Bushranger had swam over when he lost the Major's horse, and received his wound.

But of these circumstances they were ignorant; they directed their course by the sun, without knowing anything of the part of the country over which they were passing, and which had never been explored by the colonists. The events of this day, however, were destined to give that district a memorable celebrity.

They had already reached the entrance of the scrub which approached the wood bordering on the river, when Helen, casting her eyes back to take the bearings of some remarkable objects, to assist them in preserving a straight line—a practice abroad, when she was in Germany, which had been taught her

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by her father—fancied she saw a moving object behind them. As they had seen many kangaroos in their way, she disregarded it at first; but the object continuing to advance, she pointed it out to her companion, and they were not long in perceiving that it was a native; and in a minute or two more they could distinguish that it was the old woman from whose affectionate home Mr. Silliman had ungallantly eloped the night before.

He was by no means, however, in the humour to comment jocosely on that circumstance, as the matter was too serious; for her appearance betokened the propinquity of others of the tribe. It was evident that she was on their track; to hide themselves, therefore, was hopeless. The best plan was to push forward, and try to discover some cave the entrance of which they might be able to defend with their tiny fire-arms against the attack of the savages. With this intent they kept on their course to the thick forest of trees beyond the scrub.

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The weather had been remarkably dry for some weeks, and that day was fine, but the sun was very hot. Mr. Silliman had been congratulating Miss Horton on the former circumstance, and had been expressing his regret at the latter; but the sight of the old woman put a sudden stop to all such complimentary expressions. She perceived them, they were sure; for as they plunged into the thickets, they saw her raise up her arms in a threatening manner, and Helen observed that she held in her hand the firesticks, usually carried by the natives in all their excursions.

They saw no one with her, though they could not hope that she was unaccompanied; and they were aware that she walked much faster than they did. But without waiting to discuss the amount of the danger, they pressed forward, and reserved their breath to accelerate their pace; they would willingly have made it a run, but they were too tired for that exertion. In the mean time, the old woman continued to gain on them. As they reached

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the entrance of the wood she overtook them, and they were obliged to stand at bay.

Planting herself in their path, she stood before them, and commenced a vehement harangue, supported by the most energetic gesticulations; and although they could not understand a word that she said, they guessed that she was exhorting them to return, and was threatening them with the vengeance of herself and of her tribe, if they refused. She frequently pointed to the country behind them, which they construed into the information that all the savages were on their way to overtake their prisoners, and that they would presently be upon them.

Seeing that her intended husband paid no regard to her remonstrances, she was about to return on her steps, to urge her black companions to hasten forward to recapture them; but as this by no means “suited his book,” as Jerry said to Miss Horton, he proposed that they should seize the woman, and if necessary put her to death. Helen hoped that would not

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be necessary, not only because she had a strong disinclination to take the life of a native, but because the death of the woman would serve still further to exasperate her countrymen. But it was necessary to do something decisive to stop her.

Mr. Silliman beckoned to her to come back to them, as she turned round to threaten them once more. The old woman stopped; but with the instinct of savages, she saw a something in his eye that was unfavourable to her; and she hesitated. He advanced towards her; she retreated; and was about to run off, when to alarm her, he fired off his pistol, and she fell immediately to the ground; but it was only from fright.

Without losing a moment he rushed on her, calling out to Miss Horton at the same time to come and assist him; and before the woman could recover herself, he tied her hands tightly together. At this treatment, however, her terrors as to what more was to be done to her becoming excessive, the old woman set up a shriek

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so horrid and so shrill, that both Helen and himself feared that it could be heard by the other natives a dozen miles off, and Mr. Silliman was obliged to have recourse to the expedient of stuffing her mouth with some of the long coarse grass, which was abundant under their feet. He considered it prudent, also, to tie her legs together, so as to give them time to get some distance ahead, before she could give information of them.

Helen remarked that the fire-sticks which she had let fall had inflamed some dry twigs which stood near, at the foot of a decayed tree whose charred appearance gave evidence of its having already suffered from fire; and she feared that it might serve as a guide to the natives in their pursuit.

But Mr. Silliman observed that it did not matter, as the presence of the old woman proved that the natives would have no difficulty in tracking them. To remove her fears, however, in respect to the fire attracting attention, he attempted to put it out; but the

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unusual dryness of the season had rendered the materials so inflammable that the fire had begun to burn fiercely, and had already ignited the charred trunk of the tree under which it had been kindled.

Not wishing to lose time, and as the extinguishing of the tree which was on fire was beyond their power, they abandoned the attempt; and [leaving the old woman on the ground securely fastened, they hastened on through the wood. But the trees were so close together, and the dead timber which covered the ground was so thickly strewed in their way, that their progress was necessarily slow. However, they toiled diligently through, rejoicing that they had managed so well to escape the danger threatened by the old woman; but a new peril now beset them, from an enemy more savage and devouring than the natives themselves, and one with which mortal strength had little chance in coping.

From the increasing light, and the crackling

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of burning timber in their rear, they became sensible that the forest was on fire; and from the strong smell of smoke which now assailed them, they knew that such wind as there was, blew directly from the fire towards themselves.

They had no idea, however, at the moment, that a fire in the woods of Van Diemen's Land was so fierce and so rapid in its progress; but they were soon to learn, by bitter experience, another, and the most dreadful of all the perils of the bush.