― 270 ―

Chapter XV. Professional Practice.

THE bushranger suspended his touch;—the name of Helen so pronounced, agitated him in an extraordinary manner. His hand trembled; his weapon shook; for once he felt that his aim was uncertain, for his eyes also were blinded with a sort of mist.—The sleeping man spoke again.—The bushranger listened:—

“Dead!” murmured Trevor; “dead! murdered in cold blood! murdered! murdered!”

Brandon recovered his piece—meditated for a moment. Some thought seemed to convulse him; a deep flush came over his face:—he levelled his piece again:—

  ― 271 ―

Again the sleeping officer murmured—


Brandon drew back his piece with a hasty movement, much to the astonishment of Grough, who was at a loss to understand what these pantomimic actions signified; and without speaking, turned away and retreated to some little distance among the bushes. His companion followed him obediently. When Brandon stopped, Grough took the opportunity to ask him:—“Why he did not shoot the red-coat as he slept?”

Brandon made no reply for some time.—At last he said, “It is best as it is:—let him be left alone.”

He then remained plunged for some time in gloomy silence, without giving any intimation to stir from the spot.

But his companion, who was entirely ignorant of the motives which led his chief to spare the sleeping man's life, and who was equally unable to penetrate the feelings of Brandon in respect to the relations of the officer with the girl, was by no means inclined to remain inactive, or to

  ― 272 ―
delay their journey towards the Major's cave, where a store of rum had been deposited, in a secret place denominated in colonial phraseology a “plant.” Besides, this was a neglect of business, to the matter-of-fact marauder, altogether incompatible with his habits of dealing.

Here were two of their enemies at their mercy, and Mark was losing the opportunity of taking both their lives at a time when they could make no resistance, for they were both asleep; and what better chance could they have of shooting them comfortably through the head without danger to themselves? To let such a chance slip by, was monstrous!—He conveyed his opinion, in a gruff whisper, to Brandon:—

“If you don't like to shoot the young 'un,” he said, “there can be no harm in my shooting the old fellow! Besides, we want powder and shot, and his musket would be no bad grab!”

To this Brandon made no reply!—he was a prey to the most painful and conflicting sensations. On the one hand, his passion for the girl had so far touched that part of his better nature which was within him, as to cause him

  ― 273 ―
to recoil from murdering, in cold blood, even her favoured lover! And on the other hand, he was stimulated by jealousy, by anger, and by the desire of revenge for the injury which the Officer had done him in forestalling him in the girl's affections, to take the life of the hated rival who was in his power. Absorbed by these thoughts, he either did not hear, or did not allow himself to be disturbed by his companion's suggestion, but continued plunged in moody contemplation.

Grough, taking his silence for consent, moved quickly off, determined that the night should not pass away, as he mentally affirmed, “without some pleasure;”—so he resolved to shoot the corporal.

On such amiable thoughts intent, he edged away a little to the right, in order that he might take the poor soldier sideways, which would obviate the inconvenience of the glare of the fire, and allow him to take a better aim. He stationed himself, accordingly, in a convenient position, and, resting on one knee, was about to have a deliberate shot, when a slight

  ― 274 ―
air which caused the embers of the fire to sparkle more brilliantly, conveyed to his senses the smell of roasted meat!

Now Mr. Grough was, as he expressed it, more than usually “peckish,” having not only walked very far, but fasted very long; and the appetizing odour of the kangaroo's leg, which had begun to burn a little, altogether overcame his animal sensibilities! His bowels yearned, and the water rose to his mouth! For a moment he forgot his anticipated gratification of putting a ball through the corporal's head, in the present and more immediate temptation which irresistibly assailed him! He even feared to disturb the sleeper, lest his waking should delay the promised feast.

Taking advantage, therefore, of his early habits, and his ability in prigging, which even in his youth had conferred on him the title of a most accomplished thief, he bent his whole soul to the getting possession of the savoury “grub.”

It was astonishing to see with what lightness and softness the legs which supported that huge

  ― 275 ―
body could tread! Nothing but long practice in stealing and in housebreaking, could have taught the bulky brute to manage his steps so mincingly! And the feat too was so daring! To subtract the delicious morsel from under the corporal's very nose! There was fun in the exploit! What would be the old soldier's thoughts on waking? How piercing his disappointment! What a glorious “dodge” to put on him! Positively it was better than putting him to death! The Thief was in the pursuit of his vocation, and he was happy!

He stretched out his hand for the venison, and clutched the protruding bone; but it was almost red-hot, and he let it drop again. The noise, however, seemed to disturb the soldier.—Grough was ready to shoot him dead if he awoke; but he only gave a loud snort, and slept on.

On a sudden, a bright idea struck the thief. He spied the corporal's musket lying by his side, with the bayonet fixed—a supplemental weapon with which his own piece was unsupplied. It was also a better one than his own,

  ― 276 ―
and in cleaner condition, as he perceived at a glance. Dexterously removing the soldier's musket, he softly placed his own in its place, after removing the flint, which he deposited in his pocket.

The change, however, was not made so silently as to avoid disturbing the sleeping sentinel. The corporal suddenly opened his eyes, looked vacantly at the fire, placed his hand on the substituted musket, nodded his head—and slept again.

Grough waited quietly behind him till his snores announced that the soldier was fast asleep. He then directed the bayonetted weapon to the leg of the kangaroo, and carefully inserting its point into the fleshy part of the thigh, bore it triumphantly aloft, and marched away to rejoin his comrade.

In a few words he communicated to Brandon the exploit which he had achieved, and, as he eagerly devoured the venison, offered him the best portions. But Brandon refused to eat; and after his associate had satisfied his first hunger, he led the way back towards the

  ― 277 ―
cave in the hope of finding there, or on the way, some trace of the girl whom he had lost.

In the mean time, the hours of the night wore away; but it was not before the dawn that the corporal awoke from his weary slumbers. Surprised at the appearance of the morning light, the old soldier began to have some vague suspicion, either that the sun had taken it into its head, in that strange country, to rise in the middle of the night, or that he—the corporal—had been asleep!

As the one case was hardly less unintelligible than the other—for to sleep on his post was a breach of a sentinel's duty which it did not enter the worthy corporal's head that it was possible for him to be guilty of—he set himself seriously about resolving the enigma.

He remembered shutting his eyes to avoid the uneasy glare of the fire; but he remembered nothing more. It must be, then, that he had forgotten to open them again! Well, there was not much harm in that! That was not like going to sleep! A man, as the corporal argued, might forget himself occasionally,

  ― 278 ―
and be forgiven; but to sleep on his post—that was unpardonable! The corporal was sure that he had not done that!

Having come to this satisfactory conclusion—and the more so as it happened that there was no one at hand to question its correctness—the corporal opened his eyes wider; and then he remembered the kangaroo's leg, which he had set to roast previous to his oblivion: but no leg was there! The corporal opened his eyes wider than ever at this extraordinary circumstance, and immediately rose to investigate the affair.

In rising, he mechanically lifted up his firelock; for he followed the good old rule in a campaign, that “your arms,” as he said, “are always safest in your own hands.” “By the powers,” he involuntarily exclaimed, “I could have sworn that I fixed my bayonet last night! and by all that's holy, it's not in the sheath! And the firelock, too! what has come to the hussy? And there's no flint in the hammer! There must be Irish fairies here too! This is not my firelock! By the powers, it's like the

  ― 279 ―
child that was changed at nurse! And I'm changed too, perhaps, for anything I know! But I haven't been asleep — that I'll swear to!”

“Corporal,” called out the ensign from the bush hut, in a faint tone.

“Here, your Honour,” said the corporal, promptly, not a little relieved to hear the ensign's voice, for he began to think that he might be changed also. He was about to salute his reclining officer with a “present;” but a look at his musket put him so out of conceit with the tool, that he could not bring himself to perform the evolution with “such a thing.” He contented himself, therefore, with the minor military obeisance of bringing his open hand, as he expected, to the peak of his cap. But here again he was balked; for his cap, at that moment, was performing the office of a water-jug on the grass. The ensign did not observe his confusion, but in weak accents expressed his desire to move forward without delay in search of Miss Horton:—

“Lend me your hand,” he said, “and I will

  ― 280 ―
get up from this bed. I am afraid, corporal, you have had a weary night of it while I have been sleeping.”

The corporal said nothing, but handling his officer as tenderly as if he had been a child, he raised him from his Mimosa bed; but Trevor could not stand.

The corporal shook his head:—

“It will never do, your Honour, to be marching if you can't stand! Better be still a bit, and see what the sun will do for you when he comes out warm.”

“These spear wounds,” said Trevor, “are very stiff and painful.—Do you know if the natives poison their spears?”

“I never heard so, your Honour; but these are nasty wounds. You see, sir, the spear doesn't go in smooth and clear like the point of a bayonet—though a bayonet wound is ugly enough; — but the ends of them being of charred wood, and bluntish, they make a greater rend; it's curious, though, that they don't bleed so much as bayonet wounds; but they are apt to fester, I have heard say, and become

  ― 281 ―
very unpleasant to a gentleman that isn't used to being wounded. If we could contrive to make some water hot, and bathe them, it would do them good, and take some of the smart off. And now I think of it, I know a way that a Spanish friar contrived to make water hot without a pot to boil it in:—I'll do it for your Honour in a minute.”

So saying, the corporal helped his officer to lie gently down again on his bush bed; and having recourse to his cap, from which almost all the water had oozed away during the night, he made haste to the neighbouring stream to refill it; and when he got there he remembered the remainder of the kangaroo which he had shot the evening before, and which he had left the other side of the stream.

He found it just as he had left it, and with no slight joy did he amputate the other leg; taking care, after the amputation, to throw the remainder, consisting of the fore-quarters of the animal, over the branch of an adjacent tree. Thus laden, he returned to the fire; and first setting some meat to cook on the embers, he

  ― 282 ―
busied himself in preparing a warm embrocation for the ensign.

To effect this, he provided himself with his officer's handkerchief, and then taking the hot stones, on which he had set the vanished kangaroo's leg of the night before, he blew the ashes from them and dropped a couple of them into his capful of water. The stones hissed, and the water simmered, and presently became hot; and the worthy fellow then performed the office of a hospital-nurse, and tenderly fomented his officer's wounds with the warmed water.

The application of this simple remedy afforded Trevor so much relief, that he expressed his satisfaction, and his admiration also of the corporal's ingenuity, in the most glowing terms; and the strength of his officer's grateful expressions gave the corporal courage to relate his misadventure of the night.

“This is very strange!” repeated the ensign. “Your firelock has actually been changed without your being aware of it!”

“Not exactly so, your Honour, for I was

  ― 283 ―
aware of the change directly I missed the bayonet, and saw the rusty thing that somebody put in the place of it. But who can it be, your Honour?—not the natives? They never would have the gumption to do such a trick as that!”

“It must be the bushranger's work,” replied Trevor; “and he has done it, I have no doubt, to show at once his cleverness and his daring. But why he spared our lives when we were sleeping—”

“I wasn't sleeping,” interrupted the corporal, deprecatingly; “the fire blinded my eyes so, that I closed them only for a moment; and when I opened them again, the thing was done!”

“Why he spared our lives,” repeated the ensign without taking notice of the corporal's explanation, “is a mystery to me!”

“Why, your Honour,” replied the corporal, “the devil is never so black as he is painted; and these convicts, bad as they are, are not so bad as some people say. They don't want to kill, your Honour, for killing's sake. Let them

  ― 284 ―
alone, and they'll leave you alone—except when they want to rob you, or that, and then, in course, they must stand the scrimmage as well as they can.”

“There is something about this Mark Brandon,” resumed Trevor, meditating, “that is very remarkable.”

“He is the most remarkable big rascal,” replied the corporal, “in all the colony! That's what he is. But he was a gentleman once, people say, and if any one ever had the gift of the gab, they say it is he; and he is an uncommon favourite, by all accounts, among the women.”

“Indeed!” said Trevor, “and he has been a gentleman, has he?—Corporal, we must lose no time in looking for that poor girl! There certainly is something extraordinary about that bushranger!—I have seen him only once—when we were fighting the natives;—but it struck me that I had seen that face before. It was a countenance that seemed to have haunted me in my dreams. We must march, corporal, we must march!”

  ― 285 ―

But poor Trevor was so weak, that when he attempted to rise, he fell down again on his couch. The corporal pitied his young officer most sincerely. He “rummaged his head” every way, to contrive some means of remedying this new difficulty. But as there were neither wild nor tame horses to be had in those desolate regions, the poor fellow was at his wit's end to know what to do? For here was his officer wounded and unable to walk, and there was neither hospital staff nor commissariat to help them! And as to foraging—what was the use of foraging where there was no farm, or house, or cottage to forage on?

At last it occurred to him that as his officer was weak, the best thing was to nourish him; and as he had often heard the succulent virtues o kangaroo-tail soup extolled as the most nourishing thing in nature, he determined to try the efficacy of it in the present case. Fortunately he had secured the enormous tail of the late kangaroo, and he immediately proceeded to cook it in the best manner that he could; and as he could not make soup

  ― 286 ―
of it in his cap, he essayed that which appeared to him the next best way of transferring its virtues to the person of his officer, by broiling it most delicately on the embers.

The result of his experiment in the culinary pharmacopœia, however, was not such as to answer his expectations. Trevor had no appetite, and could not partake of the Australian luxury. He began to be hot and feverish; and the corporal beheld with alarm the beginning of a disorder, which, from his experience in wounds, he was aware was the forerunner of danger.

In spite of all the corporal's assiduities, Trevor's fever increased; and the poor corporal, almost abandoning all hope, in their distress and desolation, would sooner have encountered a whole regiment with bayonets fixed, then such an enemy as fever with no doctor to combat the insidious foe.—In addition to this, they were in hourly apprehension of being attacked by the natives.

In this wretched state, while the corporal almost abandoned himself to despair, the unhappy

  ― 287 ―
Trevor, in the intervals of his delirium of fever, was a prey to the far greater torture of the thought of Helen in the power of the bushrangers or the natives, while he was lying helpless on that which it seemed to him was the bed of death!