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Chapter XXIII. The Captives.

THE scene before her eyes was of a description to strike with terror a far stouter heart than that of the gentle Louisa.

At a little distance, on a loose piece of rock, sat her sister Helen, with her hands tied behind her; over her mouth had been tied a silk handkerchief, which, however, had slipped down, so that she was able to breathe freely. By her side stood a most repulsive looking man, with a musket which he held pointed towards her in a threatening manner; and he seemed ready at the slightest cry or motion to discharge its contents through her head. Even in that time of mortal peril the heroic girl, though deadly pale, seemed calm and collected;

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and although her beautiful head and neck, fixed and motionless, resembled rather a piece of marble statuary than the living flesh of a human being, there was a flashing light from her eye which revealed the stirring thoughts that agitated her within.

Not far from her sister, and exhibiting the very personification of surprise and fear, was the wretched Jeremiah, prostrate, on his knees, gagged, with his hands bound behind him, and turning his eyes sideways, with an expression which, had it not been for the horrible reality of the danger, would have been ludicrously doleful, towards a man who stood guard over him with a musket, the muzzle of which touched his ear, and who, with his finger on the trigger, seemed momentarily inclined to relieve himself from the fatiguing restraint of such a posture by a gentle touch which would free him in a moment from the trouble of guarding his prisoner.

“Mark is a long time away,” said the man who was guarding Helen, to the other; “we are losing time.”

“He is settling the young one,” said his

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companion; “I thought I heard a squeak just now.”

“That's the shortest way,” replied the first; “but she was a nice gal.” Here he exchanged a peculiar wink with the other, nodding his head and setting his eye at Helen, a signal which she could not avoid perceiving, and which the other responded to by a peculiar grin.

Mark in the mean time had gone to the cave for the purpose of getting possession of the money which the Major had taken from the vessel, and which the bushranger wisely judged might stand him in good stead at some future time. Jeremiah, in the excess of his terror, and stimulated by the propinquity of a loaded musket to his head to tell all he knew, had let out the secret that there was a large sum of money deposited in the cave, consisting of sovereigns and dollars, but as their concealment had been effected before he had joined the party, he had been unable to state more than the money was deposited somewhere.

Mark had no doubt of being able to terrify the youngest daughter into confessing where the treasure was concealed; but to his surprise he found

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the cave vacant; and after a hasty search for the money, which he was unable to find, he made up his mind at once that his only chance was to get the secret out of Helen: and as time pressed, and as the absence of Louisa was an alarming incident, he hastily returned to the spot where Helen and Jeremiah were held in durance by his companions.

The appearance of Mark Brandon redoubled the terror of Louisa, who now gave herself up for lost, expecting every moment that the searching eyes of the ever-watchful bushranger would spy her out amongst the rocks, and that she would be suddenly dragged from her retreat to share the fate of her sister! But, fortunately for her, Mark passed in such a direction that she was hidden from his view as she lay crouched down in her hiding-place, and she saw him proceed straight to Helen.

Making a sign to his companions, which it seemed they well understood, he took the place of the man who had been mounting guard over Helen, and who, in obedience to some brief directions which Mark gave him, stepped to the margin

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of the bay, with his face towards the north, on the look-out for enemies from that quarter, in which might be seen the smoke of the burning vessel.

Mark Brandon, with his fowling-piece carelessly thrown over his arm, with admirable coolness commenced his operations.

He was burning with impatience; but he felt that his object was not to be attained by violence. He resolved, therefore, to put in practice all the arts of his deceptive tongue, for which he was so famous among his fellows, and which had often helped him out of difficulties when all other resources failed him. But he took care not to let his impatience be visible.

In this position the parties remained for some little time; and Louisa, seeing that her sister was in the power of the dreaded bushranger, strained her ears to catch the words which presently he began to speak in a quiet but earnest tone to Helen.

From his attitude, which was in the highest degree respectful, and from the tone of his deep clear voice, which, though earnest and determined, was mild and low, it might have been

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supposed that he was soliciting some favour from a young lady of his acquaintance which he had a right to demand, but which he nevertheless requested with a polite deference to her sex rather than insisted on as a matter of right which he had the power to enforce; but the appearance of his companion with his cocked musket close to Mr. Silliman's ear, and the fowling-piece which Mark held in his hand, was an overt demonstration of possible violence which contrasted strangely with the bland manner of his address.

“Miss Horton,” he began, “I am quite ashamed to say anything that could imply a doubt of a lady's word; but you must excuse me if I cannot understand how the spot where your father has deposited the dollars that Mr. Silliman there speaks of can be unknown to you! Your frank and immediate communication of the fact, permit me to say, will save much trouble to all parties—and to yourself, perhaps, some inconvenience.”

Helen made no reply.

“It is quite useless,” pursued the bushranger, “to pretend ignorance of this matter; besides, if I were willing to forego this prize myself, my companions

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would not agree to it: so that you see, Miss Horton, your best course is an immediate avowal of the truth. That man,” he continued, “who has his musket at your friend's head, is one of the most audacious persons you can possibly conceive, and there is no saying what lengths he might go to in his passion, for it would be impossible for me to control him. Jem Swindell,” he added, raising his voice and addressing his associate, whom it would be difficult to say that he very much calumniated, “take your finger from the trigger of your musket; it might go off at a start, and that would be a pity, for we don't want to inconvenience the gentleman more than we can help; besides, the report might give an alarm, which is best avoided. Mind how you let the hammer down in putting it on half-cock, for it might slip, and then the poor gentleman would receive the contents of your barrel through his head, which is far from my wish: but keep it in the same position, Jemmy, that you may be ready.”

It is impossible to describe the agony of poor Jeremiah as his sentry, at the intimation of Mark

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Brandon, whom he inwardly thanked in his heart for the considerate suggestion, made the little arrangement with the lock of his musket which removed the immediate apprehension of having his brains blown out by any sudden impulse or accidental agitation of the finger of the inexorable Jemmy, who, despite the pleasing familiarity with which Mark spoke to him, was one of the most ferocious-looking rascals that ever took to the bush.

But as Helen's eyes were naturally and involuntarily turned to the position and danger of her harmless acquaintance, she could not but be aware of the peril to which he was exposed, and, by reflection, of the immediate danger in which she herself was, and how entirely they all were at the mercy of the desperate men who had them in their power. The thoughts which agitated her mind were visible on her countenance.

Mark observed the change which appeared in her features, and he congratulated himself that his little contrivance to impress on her unostentatiously but forcibly the desperate condition of her affairs had succeeded. He pursued his arguments, therefore,

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briskly, without giving time for her agitation to subside:—

“You may believe me, Miss Horton,” he resumed, “when I say that I should be most sorry to see you placed in the position of your friend there; but what can I do? You see my companions are two to one against me, and the money they will have, even if they proceed to the last extremities; and if a man in my situation might presume to offer his respectful deferences to a young lady of personal attractions and accomplishments such as you possess, I would entreat you to believe that your life is what I would endeavour to preserve, even at the sacrifice of my own. But as I said before, they are two to one, and all that I can do is to endeavour to prevail on you to reveal the place where the money is deposited, without obliging my comrades—who I confess are rather rough in their manners—to use the most dreadful means to compel you.”

The artful words of the bushranger, whom the constable had not inaptly described as “the most carnying devil that ever got over a woman,” began to have an effect on Helen; and she could not

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suppose that the man who addressed her with a demeanour so respectful, and with such a propriety of language, could be the unprincipled ruffian that he really was.

Besides, his mode of proceeding was altogether unlike what she had pictured to herself under such circumstances, and what she had feared at his hands. Instead of the boisterous threats and the instant violence which she had anticipated, she was met with the most bland expressions and the most earnest desire apparently to save her from personal insult. Seeing, however, that Mark Brandon was in this complacent humour, she thought that she might turn it to account.

Her principal anxiety at the moment was for her sister. Knowing Louisa's gentle and timid nature, she feared that in her terror she would reveal and submit to all rather than encounter the dreadful death which would be threatened by the bushrangers. The point for her, therefore, was to gain time, in the hope that her father or Trevor would send assistance. But she little thought of the consummate art and duplicity of the mind with which she had to contend.

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Mark Brandon, on the other hand, was quite as much alive as she was to the importance of time; but as he had ulterior designs, which she could not penetrate, it was only in pursuance of his plan that he now endeavoured to arrive at his object, that of getting possession of the money, by the mildest means: and he had his reasons for treating her with a deference and attention approaching almost to gallantry—his loaded fowling-piece always excepted—which, had Helen been aware of, would have made her shudder, and would have put her effectually on her guard against his insinuating expressions.

It is to be observed, also, that Mark Brandon had had the address to make his companions secure Helen's person and bind her hands, so that he avoided coming into personal collision with her in a way which, he was aware, could not fail to be extremely disagreeable to a young and delicate girl, and which was sure to make her regard her aggressors with aversion and horror. According to his own expression, he did only “the genteel part of the business,” leaving to minor and subordinate hands to execute the practical parts of the

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ruffianism; and, as has been before remarked, having certain ulterior views, not only as to the money, but also with respect to Helen, which he did not allow for the present to be apparent, he was anxious that she should not conceive any irreconcilable hatred towards himself; but, on the contrary, that she should regard him as an unfortunate and perhaps ill-used man, who was the victim of necessity, and who was desirous to alleviate the hardships of her fate by all the means in his power.

Such were the relative positions of these two parties: the one, with the ardour and hope of youth and innocence, fancied that her own purity was a sufficient shield against the refined duplicity and the consummate villainy of the other—on whom it may be said the spirit of a Mephistopheles had been infused to aid him in his iniquitous designs.

Helen wished to gain time, and with that view she endeavoured to prolong the conversation:—

“I thank you,” she said, after some little reflection, “for the good intentions which you express towards me; but if you are sincere,

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why do you allow my hands to remain bound behind my back, which,” she added, “hurts me?”

“It is a severity that I could not have brought myself to practice,” replied Mark: “but as it is done, if I was to attempt to remove the cord it would excite the suspicions of my companions; besides, under the circumstances, I assure you it is best for yourself that your hands should be confined, for if you were entirely at liberty, your high spirit, which I so much admire, might prompt you to make attempts at escape which could not possibly succeed, but which would stimulate one of those men to commit a violence on you which I should deplore as much as yourself. You must consider the confinement of your hands, therefore, as a protection against yourself and your own courage; although, if it was not for the presence of my companions, I assure you I would release them on the instant; and, indeed, to see you in such a position gives me more pain than I can possibly express. But you will permit me to observe to you that you have it in your own power to put an end to it by informing me of the place where the money is concealed.”

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While Mark was making this little speech, in which he endeavoured to convince his victim that her hands were bound behind her back, and that she was reduced to her present state of helplessness entirely for her own good, Helen was revolving in her mind the remarkable circumstance that he made no mention of her sister Louisa, who knew as well as herself where the money was deposited.

It struck her that, perhaps, Louisa, alarmed by the lengthened absence of herself and of Mr. Silliman, had ventured from the cave in search of them, and so had escaped being molested by the bushranger. The possibility of this immediately inspired her with hope. Her sister, she considered, when she failed in finding them, would endeavour to join her father. In that case not only would Louisa be saved, but the news of their being missing would certainly cause her father to despatch some of the soldiers to look for them, and by that means they might be delivered from the power of the bushrangers.

These thoughts urged her the more strongly to endeavour to gain time: and as Mark Brandon

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seemed inclined to treat her with respect, she bent her whole soul to the invention of expedients for prolonging the conversation. Her anxiety for her sister furnished her with a ready subject.

“I am waiting for your answer,” said Mark Brandon.

“How was it,” said Helen, “that my sister did not tell you where the money was concealed?”

“Your sister,” he replied, with the slightest possible hesitation and embarrassment, which Helen, however, did not fail to observe, “said that she was not acquainted with the spot.”

“That could not be,” replied Helen, “because she assisted to place it there.”

“Where?” said Mark.

“What have you done with my sister?” said Helen, anxiously and imploringly. “I will tell you nothing till you let me see my sister.”

“She is in the cave,” replied Mark; “you can see her there if you will. But time passes, Miss Horton, and it is necessary that you should understand that I cannot continue this conversation any longer. We must have the money, or else you will find yourself in the hands of my companions,

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who, I fear, would not treat you with the respect which I observe. It is very painful to me to be obliged to insist thus peremptorily; but for your own sake I entreat you to tell me at once where is the money?”

“I will tell you nothing,” said Helen, firmly, “before I know what is become of my sister.”

“In one word, then, Miss Horton, I will tell you the exact truth.—I did not see your sister in the cave: doubtless she had fled into some part of its interior which I had not time to explore. So far as I am concerned, therefore, your sister is quite safe. You may easily be satisfied that what I tell you is true, by reflecting for a moment, that had I seen your sister I could not have failed to persuade her to tell me what I wanted to know; that is, without using any violence towards her, which is as far from my wish with her as it is in regard to yourself. But again, I say, Miss Horton, that my comrades will not longer be trifled with in this matter. If it only concerned myself, I would not care; but those two others who are engaged with me would not have the patience which I have had. Be so good as

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to say, then, whether you have made up your mind to be taken possession of by Mr. James Swindell, yonder, or whether you will be reasonable, and let me know at once that which they will make you tell at last. Jemmy, my man,” he continued, raising his voice a little, “I know what you look at me for, but I can't help it; the young lady will not let us have the money. Yes—I know what you mean; you mean to say that she wants a little of your persuasion.”

“What shall we do with this chap?” said Jemmy, with a ferocious grin, cocking his musket again, and putting his finger on the trigger; “settle him at once; or suppose we stow him away with a stone round his neck at the bottom of the bay, yonder? He wouldn't get out again easily, I fancy. Now, Mark, we have had enough of this. If you have finished your jaw with the gal, let me take a turn; I warrant I'll bring her to her senses in no time. Fair play, you know, Mark, among friends: you must n't mind her squeaking out a bit.”

“Stay,” said Helen to Mark Brandon. “Promise me that no harm shall be done to us—to

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Louisa,—nor to me,—nor to Mr. Silliman, and I will tell you.”

“You may rely upon my word,” said Mark. “If harm was intended, it would have been done already. All that my men want is the money; and, considering their condition, you must allow that their desire is excusable. Now—tell me—speak!”

Helen paused for a short time. She perceived that now, more than ever, time was everything. She felt assured that Louisa had escaped; and in that case it was most likely that she would fly in the direction of the soldiers. Under such circumstances she thought that a subterfuge on her part was allowable; and for the sake of gaining time, which to them was life and liberty, and perhaps to her even more than life, she told Mark Brandon to look in a recess on his left hand as he entered the cave, and there he would find two bags—the small one of gold, and the other, large and very heavy, of dollars.

Without losing a moment, Mark summoned the man on the look-out, who bore a most murderous aspect, to resume his position by the side of

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Helen, and having whispered a few words in his ear, the obedient myrmidon presented his musket at her head—an action which he followed up, as soon as Mark was out of hearing, by a most diabolical threat, which made her wish for the return of his less ferocious principal, who was, however, notwithstanding his polished address, by far the greater villain of the two.

Mark's absence was not long. Although he was much disappointed, and inwardly was savage at not finding the treasure where he expected, his extraordinary mastery over his passions when it was to his interest to conceal them enabled him to preserve towards Helen a demeanour which, although expressive of his discontent, was not indicative of revengeful or hostile feelings towards herself. According to his plan, to which he firmly adhered, he left the threatening and violent part of the proceedings to his subordinates.

“It is of no use,” he said, addressing his companions, “to wait any longer; the money is not to be found. You must determine for yourselves what to do. But the money is there, sure enough, if we could only find it.”

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“But,” said the man who had the custody of Helen, and swearing a terrible oath, “have it we will, or else” . . . .

“Of course,” said the bushranger, “you will use no violence.”

“I tell you what it is, Mark,” said the man; “all this gammon is very well between you and the gals, but it won't do for us. The long and the short of it is, we must draw lots for her; that's fair bush play. Jemmy, put your ball through that chap's head, and have done with it. I'm tired of this. What do you say, Jemmy?”

“And so am I too,” said Jemmy. “Come, Mark, let us know what your game is. We may settle this chap, I suppose, without more ado. But as to the gal, I'm of Roger Grough's mind—let us draw lots for her; and as to the other young one, why the two that lose can draw lots for her afterwards.”

“Stay,” cried out Brandon, as Jemmy was coolly going to put his threat in regard to the unfortunate Jerry in execution, “let us give them another chance. Now, Miss Horton, you see how things are; I can't keep my companions from

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having their will. It is for you to say what shall be done: but you must decide at once, for I can't interfere any further. Where is the money?”

“I will go with you to the cave,” said Helen, who had prolonged the result to the last possible moment, and who now saw that any attempt at further evasion was useless; “I will go with you to the cave, and show you where the money is lodged. Only promise me,” she said, hesitatingly, “that you will not use any violence.”

“I promise,” said Mark.

“And I will go with you,” said Grough, “to see fair play. No offence meant, Mark, my boy; but the cave, and the opportunity? All on a level in the bush, you know, Mark, and fair play's the word; no gammon with us: better draw lots before you go.”

“No, no,” said Mark, who had his own reasons for wishing to be alone when he made prize of the gold and silver; “there's no time for that nonsense. Do you keep a good look-out, Roger, towards the smoking vessel; we may have the soldiers down on us before we are aware, and then we shall have to run for it. Let us only

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get the money; we can have the other at any time.”

So saying, he proceeded with Helen, still with her hands bound behind her, in the direction of the cave.