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Chapter XII. Mr. Silliman Dances “The Polka” with a Kangaroo.

SNAKELIKE and with tortuous windings, keeping a sharp look-out in his hazardous course, and stopping from time to time to catch any sound that might betray his proximity to his enemies, the bushranger edged his way to the top of a sheltered height, from which he could command a view of the valley below.

At a glance, he found his suspicions confirmed; he distinguished the red coats of the soldiers, and the peculiar dress and air of the constables. He counted nine; and in one of them he had no difficulty in recognising the hated person of one of the most active and intelligent officers of the colony, well known for his activity and courage,


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and one usually selected by the government authorities for the pursuit of runaway convicts in the bush. Mark knew him well, for on more than one occasion he had come into personal collision with him: and he ground his teeth, and clutched the shrub by which he was holding, as he looked down at his old enemy, who, like a pertinacious bloodhound, was on his track.

The party sat listlessly about the fire, and seemed, as he thought, to be waiting for information to be brought by some scout, for they frequently looked in the direction of the south; but the storm which still raged violently, although it had ceased to rain, was a sufficient reason why they should remain under shelter for a time; and the bushranger judged that as they would be too prudent to divide their strength, they would remain where they were till the lulling of the waters should allow them to put to sea in their boat. He descended from his post of observation and set out on his return to the spot where he had left the mate.

He saw at once that the game to be played was to delay any outbreak on board till the pursuing


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party, missing the vessel, and supposing it to have escaped to sea, should return home and report their failure; but this was a difficult task to accomplish. The fears of the major for the safety of his daughters, and the determination of the mate and of the incensed sailors to resist further violence, were fairly aroused; and he felt that anything to be done could be effected only by the most consummate address and stratagem.

The first thing, however, was to make the major and his crew believe that the natives were likely to be on them in force, and so to induce them, for the sake of the common safety, to act together, and to postpone their hostile intentions of retaliation till a safe opportunity. In this scheme accident favoured the bushranger in a way that he least expected.

The romantic Mr. Silliman found his spirit considerably damped by the supplemental wetting which he got in the boat before it was sheltered from the broken seas, at the entrance of the channel, but it was with a tolerably heroic air that he stepped on shore, and placed his foot on the land of his adoption. The novelty of his sensations


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excited him to deliver his sentiments to the company on the occasion, and he was about to hail the land of Van Diemen in a short and neat speech, and had lifted up his leg, in his enthusiasm, to assist his arm in an appropriate flourish, when he was hailed by the constable:—

“Hold hard, sir!—don't put your foot down yet: keep still; and keep your leg up; hold it up a little longer.—There! it's going quietly away now.”

“What is it?” exclaimed the alarmed Jeremiah, with his arms outstretched, and with one foot in the air, in an attitude which, however becoming it might be in assisting a sudden burst of oratory, was both embarrassing and ludicrous when continued beyond its appropriate purpose;—what is it? what's the matter?”

“Only a black snake,” said the constable, quietly; “I thought it would have been at you, for you are standing right in the way of its path, and a bite from a black snake is an ugly affair, I can tell you.”

“A man of ours was bit by one of those ugly reptiles,” said the corporal, “up at Sidney, in the


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bush there; and in a few hours his body was as black as your hat, and so gone that you could scarce distinguish his features. They're nasty creatures those black snakes! the diamond ones they say are as bad, but at any rate they are not so bad-looking. Take care, sir, where you sit,” he added to Mr. Silliman, who was about to seat himself on a low piece of stone convenient for the purpose; “those stones are sometimes full of scorpions.”

“Scorpions!” cried out Jerry, who had an unspeakable horror of that mysterious reptile which he had never seen except in a bottle of spirits, and of whose powers and venomous disposition he had the greatest dread: “are there scorpions in this country?”

“Lots! You can hardly sit down in the bush without getting into the midst of them. Just pull up that stone and you'll soon see if you have lighted on a family.”

With the assistance of a stake which was near him, Jerry presently upheaved the block of stone on which he had unwaringly seated himself, and, to his infinite dismay, beheld some scores of those


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lively indigenes of the country, who, considerably isturbed by the unceremonious uplifting of their habitation, scudded to and fro with their abominable tails curled over their backs, and eyeing their enemy, as Jerry thought, most viciously.

“Upon my word, this is a nice party to come among, and a pleasant reception do I have in this new country! I think I had better move farther off.”

“They are nasty disagreeable things those scorpions,” said the constable, “in the bush especially; and it's wonderful what quantities there are of them in this country; but they are seldom large, at least those that I have seen; I never saw one bigger than a good-sized bluebottle, and I never heard of their doing any body any harm, except stinging them a little. They're not near so bad as the tarantula spiders; those creatures really are ugly beasts, and venomous too.”

“How big are they?” asked Jerry, by no means gratified at this enumeration of the inhabitants of the Paradise which he had promised to himself: “anything like the spiders at home?”

“Lord love you! Spiders at home! why, the


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spiders at home are nothing to the spiders here; the tarantula is something like a spider! There,” said the constable, spreading out the fingers of his brawny hand on a bit of ground bare of grass— “There, suppose a greenish body as big as a chestnut, with hairy legs reaching out as far as my fingers—that's a tarantula spider!”

“How very disgusting! And pray what do the creatures live on?”

“Oh! all sorts of insects;—they do say that they will sometimes catch small birds: but I can't say I ever saw them do it. You generally find them living two together like man and wife, under a stone, where they make themselves a chamber; and they grow monstrous big sometimes. I have often seen them on the blue gum trees, so I suppose they find food on them to their liking. It's a remarkable fact,” continued the constable, who was fond of showing his knowledge of colonial customs and productions, “that the tarantula spider will always drop on your face if it has the opportunity; I have often thought why it was, but I never could make out the reason; may be the white man's face resembles some surface where


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they catch their food; some think that it's the motion of the eyelashes that attracts them; but whatever it may be, they do it, that's all I know. I declare—if there isn't one of them just above your head, on that dead branch, just agoing to make a drop on you!”

As he spoke one of the spiders so described and vituperized, as if in retaliation of the abuse which had been so copiously lavished on its species, and invited perhaps by the temptation of the broad round cheeks of Mr. Silliman, who was lying on his back in a position of luxurious repose, dropped slap on his face, and embracing it with its long hairy legs presented an admirable specimen for the cabinet of a naturalist. But the thoughts of the terrified Jeremiah were by no means inclined to take that scientific direction. On the contrary, he roared out most lustily, as he hastily brushed the creature from his face, and regained his legs with almost unexampled activity.

In truth, the afflicted Jerry was almost at his wits' end with his succession of misadventures; he had been chucked into the sea; rubbed into life again by the medium of salt-junk; assailed by


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snakes; infested with scorpions; and now was pitched on by an ugly tarantula for his feeding-ground!

“What's coming next?” he cried out, “I can neither sit, nor stand, nor lie, but something attacks me! I shall be driven out of the island!”

“I have observed that before,” said the constable; “those spiders have a fancy to drop on the face; I suppose it resembles something they are used to feed on.”

“Much obliged to you,” said Jerry, as he pinned a pointed stick through the bloated body of the spider, whose size and ugly appearance fully answered the description of the constable; “but I'll thank you not to make a meal of any part of my precious features. I'll put an end to your fun at any rate,” he continued, smashing his enemy up with the stick; “and now,” he ejaculated disconsolately, “what to do I don't know! for stand or sit where I will, it seems I am sure to put my foot in some mess or other. “Would there be any harm,” he asked, “in taking a look over that hill yonder? Any natives about here?”

“Oh! there are no natives on this side of the


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island,” said the constable; “they like to be where there are plenty of trees for the opossums and grass for the kangaroos. You can take a spell over the hill if you like; go straight on and keep us in sight;—there's no fear of the natives so far down as this, they seldom come to the coast at this end; but don't go far away, or you may lose yourself; a stranger soon loses himself in the bush in this country.”

“Who will go with me?” asked Jerry; but the men were exhausted with pulling at the oar, and no one was inclined to accompany him; the adventurous Jerry therefore was obliged to go alone. “I shall know my way back,” he said, “by the smoke of our fire;” and so saying, he ascended the hill to get a view of the country, and was disappointed to find that he could see nothing but another hill before him.

He descended, however, to the bottom, and found himself in a deep gulley or cleft between the hills. He had already received considerable alarm from a horrible-looking animal poking his nose out at him from a thicket: the animal was quite black, of the size of a little pig, rough and of


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ferocious aspect, popularly known in the colony by the name of a “devil,” that being the most appropriate appellation which could be hit on in a hurry to convey the combined idea of its savageness and ugliness.

In trying to avoid it, Jerry stumbled over a wombat, a creature about as big as a badger, and considered good eating by the natives. The cry of terror which he uttered scared them both away, but he began to repent him of his adventurous expedition.

Winding his way to the right, he came to an open space of green grass clear of brush and stones, and to his inexpressible delight beheld a living specimen of the animal whose likeness he had often gazed on in books with wonder and admiration,—a real, live kangaroo!

It happened that on this occasion he had fallen in with a male of the largest species, known popularly in the colony as a “Boomah.” The animal stood nearly six feet high on his haunches, and was feeding with much relish on the young sweet grass. As it hopped leisurely and lazily to a fresh place, Jerry had the opportunity of admiring


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the length and thickness of its immense tail which protruded in a straight line from behind, forming a triangle with its two legs, and affording a firm support to its body as it sat upright.

Struck with the size and beauty of the creature, the enterprising Jerry was seized with an irresistible desire to appropriate the magnificent piece of venison to himself; and having read that the kangaroo is a timorous beast, he thought he should have no difficulty in becoming master of its person, if he could only get close enough to the animal to give it a knock on the head. Had he been near enough to observe the principal claw on the kangaroo's hind legs, about five inches long, as hard as an iron spike and tolerably sharp at the point, he might have paused in his valorous design; but as this weapon of offence and defence was unknown to him, he had no idea that there could be any danger in a personal encounter with a kangaroo.

Armed with a stout stick, therefore, he advanced, slowly and cautiously, endeavouring to reach the animal from behind in order not to give it the


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alarm, and calculating that one smart blow on the head would stun the creature, so as to render it an easy prey. In this way he approached within ten yards of the boomah, when suddenly raising its head from the grass the creature turned round and sat up on its haunches, gazing on Jerry as it seemed with not less curiosity than Jerry gazed on the kangaroo.

Whether it was that it mistook the adventurous cockney for one of its own species, or that it was desirous on its own part to investigate the new specimen in natural history which Jerry's person presented, the creature was apparently desirous to make acquaintance with the strange animal, and making a little hop it alighted close to its new friend.

Astonished at this unexpected familiarity, and catching sight of the middle claws of his hind legs as the kangaroo made his fraternal approach, Jerry made a corresponding hop backwards.

Confirmed in his opinion of relationship by the dexterity with which Jerry executed this movement, the boomah wagged his great tail and made another advance, which was met with a similar


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movement backwards on the part of Jerry, and in this way they performed a circle round the green sward, much to the amusement, it is to be presumed, of the kangaroo, but by no means satisfactorily to Jerry.

Far from being gratified with the performance of this “Kangaroo” Polka, he was, on the contrary, very angry to find himself chasséed in so peremptory a manner. Watching his opportunity, therefore, he raised his stick and dealt his partner a blow on the head which made the kangaroo shake it with visible dissatisfaction; but incensed it seemed to meet with so ungracious a return for his acts of courtesy, the huge boomah made a bound to Jerry, and embracing him with his fore paws was about to apply his terrible claw in the way in which those animals rip up in a moment the strongest dogs, when Jerry set up so fearful a cry, that the creature, after making a few hops with him in his paws, let him go with affright; and Jerry, rejoiced to be released from the formidable hug of his new friend, without looking behind him, and expecting every moment to feel the kangaroo's great toe at his back, rushed down


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the hill and tumbled over head and heels to the bottom.

Opening his mouth to give vent to a great breath, and his eyes to look about him, he suddenly found the barrel of a horse-pistol thrust into the former, and with the latter he beheld, to his horror and amazement, the features of the bushranger! who, not less surprised to behold the man who had been tossed overboard, but more practised in concealing his emotions, intimated to Mr.Silliman in a calm, distinct voice, whose tones were suitable to the politest and most agreeable announcement:—

“If you move or make the least noise, I'll blow your brains out!”

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