― 124 ―

Chapter VII. The Precipice.

THE corporal guessed right when he conjectured that Mark Brandon was on the look out on the high hill in the distance; but he was far from divining the ulterior object of the wily bushranger in taking a route which he had chosen for the purpose of better baffling his pursuers.

When he had committed that decisive act, the night before, and with his fowling-piece presented at his remaining associate, with his finger on the trigger of the second barrel, had offered him, in a tone determined but conciliatory, “peace or war,” the fellow-ruffian, taken by surprise, and without the possibility of effectual

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resistance, could do nothing but submit. Mark, however, modulated the tones of his voice so as to convey his own desire for peace; and as it was in his power, by a slight motion of his finger, to render it a matter of indifference which way he was answered, his comrade could not but consider that he was in some degree beholden to him for the life which it was in Brandon's power to take without parley on the instant.

Besides, the coarse and brutal Grough, who had nothing but his animal strength to rely on, was by no means inclined to quarrel with one on whose wit and contrivance he depended for escape from the colony. It was with undisguised satisfaction, therefore, that he received this earnest of his comrade's especial good will towards him in particular; and he expressed his acquiescence in Brandon's little arrangement in respect to the defunct Swindell with characteristic disregard as to there being one more or less in the world, so long as the latter part of the hypothesis did not regard himself:—

“D——n the fool!” he said, “it was no more

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than he deserved; what was the use of quarrelling, when they ought to hang together, and stand by one another, and as to the gal, he was ready, he said, if Mark would only say the word, to cut her windpipe, and have done with her, for she was only an encumbrance in the bush, and that would be the best way of settling the matter; for he had always remarked, he emphatically averred, that wherever there was a woman there was sure to be mischief, and especially where there was only one among three, which was always certain to give rise to words, even among the best friends; and so that the shortest way was to get rid of her;” and saying this, he made a step or two towards the hut, looking at Brandon, and with the same sort of air as a man would have about to kill a sheep.

But Mark, with a confidential wink, took him aside, and in a whisper explained to him that it was important that Helen's life should be spared, in order that she might be made use of as a hostage to be played off in their operations against the Major.

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He said that fathers sometimes had the most extraordinary affection for their daughters; and that no doubt, in the present case, the Major would offer them a large sum to restore the girl; but that his intention was to insist on his placing a boat at their disposal, well provided and stored, in which they could make their escape, as the condition for the restoration of his daughter.

To this project, which struck him as a remarkably clever one, and altogether worthy of the reputation of Mark, as being up to more dodges than any government-man in the colony, Grough at once assented, with enthusiastic expressions of approbation. “But he thought,” he said, and this opinion he expressed aloud, in order that the party concerned might have the full comfort of its suggestion, “that there was no use at all in keeping ‘that fat little man,’ meaning Jeremiah, any longer, for he only ate their grub, and tired them to look after; and that a stick with his knife—for it was a pity to waste powder and shot in the bush—would put an end to that trouble, in a way,” as he expressed

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it, “comfortable to the gentleman and to themselves.”

To this Mark said he had no objection, and that his comrade might gratify himself in that trifling matter according to his own fancy; but he recommended him to postpone the pleasure until the gentleman had done his work, and had carried the stores with which he was laden to the place of their concealment.

The unhappy Jeremiah, who, although bound and gagged, was not deaf, and who had the satisfaction of overhearing the amiable conversation of the two bushrangers concerning himself, expressed his personal disinclination to the arrangement by deep deprecatory groans, and by various convulsive rollings and tumblings on the grass, expressive of the emotions to which he was unable to give vent in speech, and which the facetious Grough, softened by his conference with Brandon, good-humouredly checked by a little knock on Jerry's head with the butt-end of his musket, bidding him “be quiet, and thank his stars that he had gentlemen to deal

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with, and not to frighten the kangaroos with his noises.

But Helen's mind was strangely disturbed with the recent catastrophe, and by the words uttered by Mark Brandon at the close of the altercation with the murdered Swindell, which more strongly than ever confirmed her in the opinion that she possessed a power over the bushranger, which she might be able to use to the advantage of herself and her helpless companion in distress.

It seemed clear to her that Brandon, in order to save her from the violence of the ruffian whom he had slain, had not scrupled to add murder to his other crimes in her defence, and for her sake! And this desperate act she considered could not but argue that Brandon's—what should she call it?—“desire to stand favourably in her opinion” had led him to sacrifice one of his comrades; thereby reducing his strength, and lessening his chances of success against the attack of his pursuers, who she had no doubt were on their track. It was also breaking faith with his comrades, rendering

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himself, as she hoped, suspected by the other, and liable to suffer by the same treachery which he had practised.

Still it was clearly in her defence that he had exposed himself to these risks—as she flattered herself; and she beguiled herself with the hope that, having this clue to the bushranger's motives, and this hold, as she thought, on his actions, she should be able to turn him to her own purposes, and persuade him to set her free. She also set her wits to work to engage him to set free Mr. Silliman, with whose aid she trusted she could not only offer more effectual resistance to violence, if violence should be offered, but perhaps even be enabled to overpower the two bushrangers at some unguarded moment, and so escape!

Such were the rapid thoughts which passed through her mind, as Mark approached her, after his brief conference with his unskilled but sturdy comrade.

Before Mark addressed her, he waited to hear her speak, in order that he might judge, either by the words that fell from her, or the tone in

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which they were uttered, of the mind and temper of the speaker. But in this expectation he was disappointed. Helen waited for him to begin.

He was obliged, therefore, to say something; and he commenced with what lawyers call a “fishing” observation:

“This is a rough deed for a lady to witness, Miss Horton.”

Helen, having in her mind her own plans, made answer with as much composure as she could assume:—

“It is a dreadful deed!—But at least I have to thank you for preventing the insult which that wretch contemplated.”

“All right,” said Brandon to himself. Then, as if penetrated with the extent of the risk which he had run for her sake, he continued:

“It was a dreadful deed, Miss Horton, and a desperate one; but there was no other way of saving you.—Had I been thinking of myself more than others,” he continued, “I should not have given my enemies the opportunity of adding that which might be construed into the

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crime of murder to the other excesses of which necessity has made me guilty. Might I hope that Miss Horton would bear favourable testimony to my motives, should this act be at any time brought against me?”

“It is of little use to talk to me of my testimony, while I am a prisoner in your power, with my hands bound thus,” said Helen, making an impatient movement with her arms.

“I am now able to fulfil my promise, and to release them,” said Mark, cutting the cords with his knife; “and I sincerely wish, Miss Horton, it was in my power to liberate you entirely, as easily as I now cut these painful bonds—not less painful for me to witness than for you to bear.”

“But what prevents you?” said Helen, hope glowing in her heart, and already contemplating flight; “you would be sure of the gratitude of my father and of myself; and if any intercession with the Government, on his part, could avail in obtaining your pardon—I am sure it would be strenuously exercised in return for your protection of me.”

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She used the word “protection” designedly, with the hope that it would stir up and aliment the desire which she felt the bushranger had, to be well thought of by her. But she was overmatched in her feminine cunning on this point by the masculine duplicity of her antagonist.

It was Brandon's object to carry her far into the interior, to some spot where he should be secure from pursuit; and under such circumstances, he had little doubt that he should be able to master her to his wishes: but he was well aware that, without her own consent, it would be impossible to force her much further forward, as the labour and the delay of carrying her on a litter through the bush would allow time for any pursuers on his track to come up with them.

It was necessary therefore that she should be deluded into accompanying them; and with this view he thought he could not do better than deceive her by the same tale with which he had cajoled the brute Grough, which indeed was a plausible one enough, and adapted to

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the enticing of her to accompany him in his progress onwards without opposition. For he could not disguise from himself, that with a girl of Helen's turn of mind, high spirited, as she was, any suspicion of his own ulterior designs might tempt her to resist on the spot, and to sacrifice her own life, rather than allow herself to be removed to a greater distance from the chance of succour.

He told her the same tale, therefore, which he had invented for his undiscerning comrade, not without some remote and vague idea of carrying it at some future time into effect, after he had accomplished his other purposes. And this plan seemed the more sincere to Helen, as it squared with the known desire of Brandon to escape from the island; and in the innocence of her mind she was far from having any idea of the extent of duplicity and villainy of which such a man was capable.

But with a view of testing his sincerity still further, and with the design to furnish help for her own escape, as well as that of her companion in misfortune, she proposed to the

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bushranger to unbind Mr. Silliman's hands, and to release him from the gag in his mouth.

To this also Brandon assented, as he had already determined to do so in order to enable Jerry to travel with his load the faster; although he took care to pretend that it was entirely in deference to Miss Horton's wishes that he consented to make the concession.

“It is necessary, now,” said Mark, “that we should seek for some place of securer retreat than this, from which we can treat with safety with your father: and if, as you assure me, there is no doubt of his complying with my conditions, your captivity will not be long. And, indeed, I begin to be ashamed that it has taken place at all: but if Miss Horton will condescend to reflect on the condition of my wretched bondage in this country, innocent as I am of all crime, except such as I have committed with her own knowledge,—if it can be considered a crime for a man unjustly condemned to endeavour to recover his liberty,—she will allow some excuse, perhaps, for the

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offence which I have involuntarily committed against herself, and of which necessity alone has been the unhappy cause.”

“What will happen,” asked Helen, “if I determine to remain here?”

“My comrade Grough, I fear, and indeed I have no doubt, would force you to go forward, by means which you could not resist—unless,” he said, “you would have me add another death to this night's account.”

Helen shuddered at this suggestion of further slaughter: besides, she trusted that she should have more opportunities of escape in motion than in resting where she was, and especially with a friend devoted to her interests and liberty in the person of Mr. Silliman; and seeing that it would be vain to desist, and that her best course was to feign an indifference as to her being taken further which she did not feel, she signified her consent, asking only for a few minutes' longer repose, in order the better to recruit her strength by travel.

This interval she employed in tracing with her blood, by means of a pin, those words on

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the glove which was fortunately discovered by Trevor.

The previous talk of the two men who had borne her for some miles on the way before they reached the scene of these transactions, had made her acquainted with the intention of the bushranger to retreat north-west into the interior, a part of the country with which the settlers were entirely unacquainted. She would not divest her mind of the conviction that her friends, when they discovered her abduction, would take immediate measures to follow to her rescue; and it was this hope that enabled her to support herself, and to preserve the equilibrium of her mind, under circumstances so trying and fearful to a young and delicate girl, on whom harm or insult had never before fallen.

In the mean time Brandon talked with Grough, taking care to instil into him the vital importance of preventing the girl's escape, and of the necessity of taking her along with them unharmed, and, as he endeavoured to make the insensible brute understand, without insult, in

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order to insure the compliance of her father with the conditions of her release; at the same time impressing on him the necessity of his so comporting himself, without proceeding to actual violence, as to strike a terror into the girl, in order to urge her forward as fast as possible, and to intimidate her from attempting to escape.

With all these instructions the obedient Grough expressed his utmost willingness to comply, being not only congenial with his own tastes and habits, but necessary for the success of the ultimate design of Mark, which Grough felicitated himself on seeing through with an acuteness which almost equalled Mark's own prolific invention in plots and stratagems.

In good humour, therefore, with himself and the state of their affairs, he gave Helen to understand that the musket which he carried was loaded with two balls, which it was his intention, he said, instantly to discharge through her head if she did not immediately “stir her stumps” and give no trouble.

Mark Brandon, in the mean time, having

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released Jeremiah from his fetters, and having intimated to him, though in more polite terms, his own determination to the same effect, that humiliated gentleman, somewhat reanimated by the release of his hands and mouth, reloaded himself with his burdens with a most pains-taking alacrity, and stood ready, as submissive as the beast of burden to which Grough compared him.

As they were about to start, Grough hailed Brandon:

“I say, Mark, where are the dollars which that fool Swindell had with him? Why, we are almost as big fools as he to go away without 'em.”

“No, no!” said Mark, who, as he used to boast, never “gave away a chance.” “If we take his dollars, it will be said that we killed him to rob him. Now I call this young lady and this worthy gentleman to witness that he met with his death by his own fault, in attempting a most atrocious violence; and, in short, that he was killed in self-defence.”

“Well,” said Grough, “just as you like.

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No matter how he was killed, to my mind: he is dead, sure enough. But I must do you the justice to say, Mark, that a cleaner shot I never saw! Why he died, as one may see, all in a hurry, without having time to say, good-by to any one! More fool he for tempting it!”

With this valedictory epigraph on his deceased companion, the ruffian gave a hint with the end of his musket to his prisoner to move on; and the bushranger gently propelling Jerry with a similar intimation, the party resumed their flight into the bush.

Their progress, at night, was unavoidably slow; and Brandon was careful not to hurry Helen too fast, as he wished to reserve her strength until the daylight when it would be more available, and when he should be able by a survey of the country to choose the course that seemed best for penetrating into that part of the interior. He did not care much for the delay; as he knew very well that the advance of a pursuing enemy, if there was any party on their footsteps, which he had little fear of,

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must inevitably be slower than his own, inasmuch as they would be obliged to walk more leisurely, in order to preserve the track, should they chance to find it, and to pause also occasionally to recover it when lost.

After he had proceeded a few miles, therefore, he halted, and waited for the dawn of day, to continue their flight. In this also he had the advantage of pursuers; for the faint light which is sufficient to allow a party to run away, is not enough for those who follow; as it is necessary for the latter to be able to see, not only the general face of the country, but the particular marks of the passage of those whom they are pursuing.

But Mark Brandon was not at all uneasy on that point. He was well acquainted with the difficulty of tracking travellers in the bush, in dry weather especially; and he had no suspicion of the clue which the ready-witted Helen had the ingenuity to devise for directing the course of her friends in pursuit.

In this the bushranger, with all his subtilty, failed to be a match for a feeble girl, who,

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relying on the promptitude of her father and her lover, was able to bear her present fate with a firmness which deceived the bushranger, and which he ascribed to a sort of indifference on her part, which sometimes pleased and sometimes puzzled him; but which was, in fact, owing to her strong reliance on her own courage and her own resources, and the speedy succour which she expected from those who she was sure would sacrifice their lives if necessary to save her.

As soon, therefore, as the first dawn of day spread sufficient light over the ground to enable them to pick their steps, the bushranger announced that it was necessary that they should proceed; and Helen, trusting that some lucky chance, now that her hands were free, would enable her to effect her escape, and desirous of blinding her persecutors by the semblance of a ready aquiescence in their commands, at once obeyed.

As to poor Jeremiah, he had nothing to do but to comply at once with the hint of the brutal Grough, who, poking him up with his

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musket, signified to him that it was time for him to rise from the grass and take up his load again. As to any resistance on his part, the horrible sight of the ruffian's loaded musket, and the vividness of Jerry's fears, which made him fancy that he could actually see the cartridge with the ball at the top of it ready to be shot out at the bottom of the barrel, put any such attempt entirely out of the question!

But as he stole a doleful glance at Helen, whom Brandon sedulously kept at some distance from him, she gave him a look which seemed to imply that she was not without hope in the midst of their difficulties.

In what that hope consisted he did not know; but there was a something in Helen's eye which indicated resolution and a sort of triumph, and which so elated him in his misery, that, in the exuberance of his sudden joy, he gave a sort of caper, much to the astonishment of Grough, who declared, that as the man was so fresh, he could carry a little more, and immediately added to Jerry's

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load his own knapsack, which, from the fear of overloading their package-horse, he had hitherto carried on his own shoulders. Thus admonished to conceal in future any outward exhibition of his feelings, the luckless Jerry trudged dolorously forward, preceded by Grough and Helen, and followed by Brandon, who from time to time incited him to move on faster by well-timed hints of his comrade's unscrupulous ferocity, and now and then throwing a little encouragement into his words, by protesting that the term of Jerry's labours was fast approaching, and that then he would have nothing to do but to enjoy himself and study the botany of the country.

In this order they made their way through a dense forest, from which they emerged into an open plain.

Had Brandon been aware that pursuers were so close behind him, he would not have risked discovery by venturing over a space on which he would be sure to be seen by any one in his rear. But depending on having so taken his course as to have baffled his enemies, he went

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boldly on, making, as his point, for a high hill on the other side of the plain, from the summit of which he calculated he should be able to obtain an extensive view of the country beyond.

In their passage over the flat and monotonous waste, Helen watched for an opportunity to make some mark, or to leave some trace of their road, to those who might be in pursuit; but in vain; she saw that she was so closely followed by Grough, and she felt that Brandon had his eye so constantly upon her, that she could contrive no expedient without betraying her purpose, of indicating her route.

But on arriving at the base of the hill, which was thinly covered with stunted-looking trees, known by the name of the she-oak, she pretended to stumble with fatigue, and catching hold of a fragile branch, she broke it off in her fall. Mark Brandon was quickly at her side, with many expressions of concern at her accident, which she ascribed to her excessive fatigue, which made her feel faint.

Mark immediately promised that they should rest as soon as they had proceeded a short distance

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up the ascent, and resuming his place near Jerry, left her to the superintendence of his fellow, adhering in this respect to the system which he had laid down for himself, never to appear near Helen in a position which implied his personal coercion of her, and which therefore could not fail to be offensive, and to disgust her with his presence.

Thus compelled and urged by the unceremonious promptings of the unpitiable Grough, she continued her weary course, holding the stick which she had snapped from the tree carelessly in her hand, and contriving to break off small pieces as she went on, which she dropped on the ground.

In this way they slowly climbed the hill, until at last they gained the summit, when, at the command of Brandon, her conductor stopped; and, to the infinite satisfaction of Jerry, the bushranger announced that it was his pleasure that they should rest there for some time, in order that Miss Horton might recover from her fatigue.

In pursuance of this intention, Mark immediately

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proceeded to cut down, with an axe which he carried, some of the boughs of the few trees which were scattered here and there near the top of the hill, and with which he rapidly and skilfully constructed a temporary hut, in which he invited Helen to repose herself. He next made a selection from the provisions carried by Jerry, which he offered for her refreshment, and which Helen, who was intent on escape, willingly accepted.

Brandon then began to examine carefully the appearance of the surrounding country, which his elevated position enabled him to do with advantage; and he noted especially all conspicuous objects towards the north-west, observing by the compass, with which he had taken care to provide himself from the Major's cabin in the brig, their relative points and bearings, as it was in that direction that he intended to bend his steps; not only because it was the interior of the island, but because it was a part of the country untravelled, and unknown to any but a few of the prisoners of the crown, who imparted the secret of their information to the select only

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among their friends, for the purpose of availing themselves of their knowledge of its localities on occasions such as the present.

The aspect of the country which the bushranger surveyed was, indeed, romantic in the extreme. Diversified by low undulating hills and plains, and interspersed with clumps of trees, the scene resembled an extensive park; while the height, from which he looked down on it, concealed its roughness and general character of solitude and desolation.

But it was not the beauties of nature, or the romance of landscape, which it was the present business of Brandon to study. His only desire was to ascertain what tiers of hills lay beyond him, and the openings which appeared in them for the passage of his party to the districts on their other side. Having ascertained this point to his satisfaction, he next turned his attention to the examination of the difficulties and obstacles which intervened.

He observed, stretching to the north, and losing itself in a circuitous course to the south-by-west, a narrow glistening line, which he was

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aware indicated water, and which he judged must be a rather considerable river. This river lay between him and the distant tier of hills, through an opening in which it was his object to penetrate; but as he could not see how to avoid it, he was obliged to trust to his own ingenuity to cross it safely, taking care only to choose as his line of route, a way as far to the northward as possible, without interfering too much with his direct course; as he knew that the nearer he went to the river's source, the narrower would be the stream, and the more easy to be passed over; while towards the coast, to the south, it would naturally become broader and broader, till it emptied itself into the sea.

Having completed his survey to his satisfaction, and formed the plan of his future route distinctly in his mind, he threw himself on the ground.

The wearied Jeremiah, exhausted with the weight of his afflictions, and of the heavy load of stores and provisions which he had borne so far, had sunk into a profound sleep, in which he had been quickly followed by the other bushranger;

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but Brandon, notwithstanding that fatigue and the necessity of constant watchfulness weighed heavily on him, did not dare to close his eyes.

But finding, after some little time, that the desire of sleep was beginning to overcome his senses, he suddenly and with an effort arose, and commenced pacing up and down at some distance, but within view of Helen's temporary habitation; sometimes taking a view of the country in the distance, and sometimes scanning the plain over which he had lately passed. Although he had no fear of being tracked and followed, not having any suspicion of Helen's significant hints for the information of her friends, he did not fail to keep a look-out in his rear, in pursuance of his favourite maxim.

On a sudden, as he threw his glance over the bare plain behind him, he saw, or thought he saw, some moving objects; but whether they were emus, or whether they were natives, he could not at that distance distinguish; but he kept his eyes fixed on them steadily.

Helen also, who was on the alert, had already

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observed through the boughs of her hut two specks moving on the plain beneath the hill, and which her heart at once told her were friends coming to her rescue. In the eagerness of her joy, she ran out of her hut to the edge of the hill, which in that direction was nearly perpendicular, and with clasped hands and strained eyes gazed on the living atoms on the earth's surface, which by almost inperceptible degrees continued to advance.

At that moment the bushranger caught the expression of wild joy which was visible in her looks; and there was a something in her eye which conveyed to him the idea that there was some secret intelligence, though by what means he was utterly at a loss to imagine, between his captive and the living creatures which he now made out to be human beings, who were following in his track.

Seizing Helen by the arm with his left hand, and pointing to the suspicious objects with his fowling-piece, which he held extended in his right, he asked in a tone of strong but restrained passion:—

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“Miss Horton, what do you know of those two men whom I see on our track? Have you betrayed me? Speak, girl! As you value your life, do you know them?”

As he pronounced these words, he shook Helen with convulsive passion, as he held her in his powerful grasp tottering on the edge of the precipice.