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Chapter XIV. Conscience.

THE veteran slept soundly;—but there was one who watched; and who on that night first began to feel, in the remorse of conscience, that sharp and corroding pain which “murders sleep.” The watcher was Mark Brandon.

Stung to the soul to find himself deprived of the girl — his cherished scheme destroyed—his chance of making Helen his victim or his hostage lost — he ground his teeth, and clenched his hands—furious as a wild beast that has lost its prey—with mortification and rage!

He had been a witness to the fall of Trevor,

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and to his retirement into the dense mass of thicket at a short distance from the river, after the retreat of the natives; but he was unable to tell what had passed within the scrub afterwards, as the bushes were so thick as to screen from view all within their recesses. But he had observed the corporal in his search, as he passed over a clear space between the scrub and the wood; and he judged from his manner, that he was looking for traces of the Major's daughter and her companion in misfortune. From this he had drawn the conclusion, that the girl and Mr. Silliman had not been found by the soldiers, amongst the bushes where he had been suddenly parted from them on the first attack of the natives.

Having made this discovery, it struck him that the natives had carried the white man and woman away as prisoners—to feast upon them perhaps at their leisure; for he could not bring himself to believe that they had left the white people unharmed, after their own losses in dead and wounded.

Prompted by a strong passion for the girl, and

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urged on besides by the consideration of her importance as a prize which he might be able to render useful in his dealings with her father for her ransom, he determined to follow on the track of the natives, with the hope that some lucky chance—some panic fear on the part of the natives perhaps—might again place her in his power.—He communicated his intention to his associate.

“Ten thousand devils take the girl!” exclaimed Grough; “if it hadn't been for her, we should not have been in this mess—without prog and without liquor!—Wherever there's a woman, there's sure to be mischief!”

“But you would not have the poor girl left to the fury of those savages?” said Brandon, somewhat offended at his associate's callousness.

“D—— her!” replied that unamiable individual; “let them scarify her—or eat her—or do what they like with her:—it's all the same to me!”

Mark felt that he was on a wrong tack; he shifted his helm dexterously:—“It's not the

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girl that I was thinking of,” said he; “but it's the gentleman — our packhorse — our bush-donkey, mate.”

“D—— him too. Let the black fellows roast him too—he's fat enough!”

“Why, Grough, how is it you don't understand me? it's neither the one nor the other that I care for; but it's the brandy, man, and the provisions, and the tobacco.”

“And d—— him too again,” exclaimed Grough; “he has got my dollars!”

“To be sure! Not that they would be of much use to us in the bush; but it's the brandy and the prog! A sup of brandy, now, is just what we want to keep up our spirits.”

“Come along,” said Grough; “let us go after them! That little fat fellow will be pitching into it most gloriously, now that he has got it all to himself—that is, if the natives don't pitch into him first. When you talked of the gal, you see, Mark—why, that wasn't worth while;—but the liquor! that's quite another thing! So I'm your man, if there were a thousand natives to fight for it.”

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Mark took him at his word; and without further delay, they put themselves on the track of the natives, which they easily found, and continued their course until the dark prevented further progress. But after they had remained lying on the grass for a short time, to the great discomfiture of Grough, who, from having nothing to eat and nothing to drink, was in an excessively surly humour, Brandon began to have misgivings as to whether he was on the right scent for the girl.

He considered that it was a most unlikely thing for the natives to leave any one of their white enemies alive during such a skirmish; and it was altogether contrary to their practice, so far as he had heard, to encumber themselves with such prisoners. After all, he thought, either Helen and Silliman had been killed, or if they had been able to avoid that fate, they had escaped in another direction; and in that case, he calculated, they would make right for the cave on the shore of the Bay, from which they had been taken.

Impressed with this idea, he determined to

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retrace his steps and endeavour to overtake them; for, as he guessed, they would not be able to make rapid progress in the Bush, even if they should be able to find their way at all through a strange country over which they had only once passed. He communicated his suspicion to Grough, who at once acquiesced; and after cursing himself, with sundry energetic oaths, for being such a fool as to suppose that the natives would trouble themselves with white people as prisoners, he uplifted his huge carcass from the ground, and prepared to follow Brandon:—

“To be sure,” said he—“more fools we, for thinking anything else! The natives would smash in their skulls with their waddies—and that was too good for the like of them! The cave's our mark—and there we shall find the liquor that we buried, if we find nothing else. My mouth just now hankers after a glass of rum, as a black fellow after a roasted piccaninny! Rum for ever!”

As Brandon had been careful, according to the practice of experienced travellers in the Bush, to take bearings of the principal objects

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in his line of march, he had no difficulty, although in the night, in finding his way back to the sugar-loaf hill from the neighbourhood of which he had started, and near which the fight with the natives had taken place. In this course it was necessary for him to pass by the place where the ensign and the corporal were reposing for the night; but he had another and a powerful reason for wishing to visit again the spot where he had left Helen.

Brandon's passion for the girl was most powerful and absorbing:—she was a girl after his own heart—bold, brave, ready-witted in difficulty and in danger, and resolute in her determination. She was handsome withal—lofty in her bearing, tall and commanding in her figure, and with the air of a heroine of romance. If his lot, he thought, had been cast in happier circumstances, the companionship of such a woman might have spurred him on to noble enterprises, and have saved him from the commission of many a deed of crime! He had even flattered himself with the idea, that, even as he was—sunk, degraded, proscribed—a felon,

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and a murderer—the girl had been inclined to regard him favourably; and he had indulged in the hope that, possibly, she might be reconciled to a life in the wilderness with him, by whom she would have been worshipped as the goddess of his idolatry!

When, therefore, he discovered, as he did in their passage from the hill across the river, that she had been deceiving him all the time;—and that, in fact, she, a girl, had outwitted him, the wily bushranger—it was with mingled feelings of disappointment, of wounded pride, and of deep mortification and pain, that he became convinced that Helen regarded him with abhorrence, and had found out some secret means of directing the pursuit of her friends to her rescue.

Nor did the sight of one of the two whose death he had resolved on, tend to lessen his resentment; for that one was young, handsome, an officer, and doubtless had been actuated by more than ordinary zeal in hazarding himself in the bush with only one companion, in so desperate a service as the capture of the man

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the most dreaded in Van Diemen's Land. That young man, then, his jealousy whispered to him, was the favourite admirer of the girl; and it was for him, and for his sake, that she had contrived to give a clue to the path of her retreat.

This thought stung him so sharply, that he stopped in his walk; started! and stamped his foot with signs of the most violent emotion! His excitement moved even the insensible Grough to ask him, with as much concern as he could throw into the brutal tones of his coarse thick voice:—

“If a black snake had bit him?”

“Worse than that, man!”

“Crush it, then,” said Grough, “under your foot; if a cretur has bit you, and no help for it, have your revenge!”

“I will!” replied Brandon.

They both now moved on more rapidly. As they drew near to the dense scrub, Brandon enjoined strict silence to his companion, and advanced with his usual caution.

It was easy to ascertain, by the light of the

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fire, which the corporal had kindled close to his officer's sleeping place, the precise spot where the two soldiers had established their bivouac; and the thickness of the bushes served as an effectual screen to prevent either party from seeing the other, until they came almost face to face. Brandon whispered to his fellow not to make the slightest noise, and to follow him.

The bushranger then crept stealthily forward till he reached a thick bush fronting the fire, on the other side of which the corporal was sitting, with his firelock lying by his side. The bushranger regarded him attentively and saw that he slept—or seemed to sleep; for, as Brandon's own habits taught him, it might only be a feint to throw enemies off their guard. Grough had already put his musket to his shoulder with a deliberate aim; but Brandon, by a sign, checked him.

By the light of the moon he saw a rough sort of bush-hut at a little distance from the fire, which fronted its entrance. He guessed that the wounded officer was there—perhaps not

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alone? The girl might be with him! Brandon was seized with a feeling of condensed hatred and spite, which mastered all other considerations. “The snake,” he muttered to himself, “has bitten me with its poison—and I will have my revenge!”

Retreating from his position to some little distance, he made a circuit through the bushes, and got behind the officer's hut. He observed through the partial openings, here and there, as he went, that the sleeping soldier retained the same position.

“If it's a sham,” he thought to himself, “it is well done!” Grough made signs to shoot him; but Brandon, by a determined gesture, forbade it.

They arrived close to the bush-hut. The bushranger peered about, and presently found a small opening, through which he could see the occupant's face. It was that of the officer; it was very pale, and had a youthful and delicate appearance. He was sleeping, and he was alone.

By the light of the fire which shone directly

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upon him, partially obscured only by the body of the corporal, Brandon observed in the young officer's hand, which was placed on his breast, a woman's glove!—The truth was revealed at once! Here was the lover of the girl—the favoured lover—with the love-token in his grasp!

Again the same sharp pang shot through the bushranger's frame, and he felt stung as if by a corporal and substantive dagger stabbed into his entrails! All the rage of the demon was roused within him! Slowly and silently he raised his fowling-piece to his shoulder, and covered the sleeping man's brain with the murderous barrel! His finger was on the trigger! He was about to give the fatal touch—when the sleeping officer turned, and said something in his sleep.

It seemed that he was suffering under the painful excitement of some feverish dream.

Clasping the glove to his heart, he murmured:—