Human affairs are subject to such an infinite variety of changes and complications, that any attempt to lay down particular rules for individual action, under peculiar circumstances, must prove a failure. Hence I consider proverbs, generally speaking, to be a failure, only used by weak-minded men, who have no opinion of their own. Thus, if you have a chance of selling your station at fifteen shillings, and buying in, close to a new gold-field on the same terms, where fat sheep are going to the butcher at from eighteen shillings to a pound, butter, eggs, and garden produce at famine prices, some dolt unsettles you, and renders you uncertain and miserable by saying that “rolling stone gathers no moss;” as if you wanted moss! Again, having worked harder than the Colonial Secretary all the week, and wishing to lie in bed till eleven o’clock on Sunday, a man comes into your room at half-past seven, on a hot morning, when your only chance is to sleep out an hour or so of the heat, and informs you that the “early bird gets the worms.” I had a partner, who bought in after Jim Stockbridge was killed, who was always flying this early bird, when he couldn’t sleep for musquitoes. I have got rid of him now; but for the two years he was with me, the dearest wish of my heart was that my tame magpie Joshua could have had a quiet two minutes with that early bird before any one was up to separate them. I rather fancy he would have been spoken of as “the late early bird” after that. In short, I consider proverbs as the refuge of weak minds.
The infinite sagacity of the above remarks cannot be questioned; their application may. I will proceed to give it. I have written down the above tirade nearly, as far as I can guess, a printed pageful (may be a little more, looking at it again), in order to call down the wrath of all wise men, if any such have done me the honour of getting so far in these volumes, on the most trashy and false proverb of the whole: “Coming events cast their shadows before.”
Now, they don’t, you know. They never did, and never will. I myself used to be a strong believer in pre(what’s the word? — prevarications, predestinations)— no — presentiments; until I found by experience that, although I was always having presentiments, nothing ever came of them. Sometimes somebody would walk over my grave, and give me a creeping in the back, which, as far as I can find out, proceeded from not having my braces properly buttoned behind. Sometimes I have heard the death-watch, produced by a small spider (may the deuce confound him!), not to mention many other presentiments and depressions of spirit, which I am now firmly persuaded proceed from indigestion. I am far from denying the possibility of a coincidence in point of time between a fit of indigestion and a domestic misfortune. I am far from denying the possibility of more remarkable coincidences than that. I have read in books, novels by the very best French authors, how a man, not heard of for twenty years, having, in point of fact, been absent during that time in the interior of Africa, may appear at Paris at a given moment, only in time to save a young lady from dishonour, and rescue a property of ten million francs. But these great writers of fiction don’t give us any warning whatever. The door is thrown heavily open, and he stalks up to the table where the will is lying, quite unexpectedly; stalks up always, or else strides. (How would it be, my dear Monsieur Dumas, if, in your next novel, he were to walk in, or run in, or hop in, or, say, come in on all-fours like a dog? — anything for a change, you know.) And these masters of fiction are right —“Coming events do not cast their shadows before.”
If they did, how could it happen that Mary Hawker sat there in her verandah at Toonarbin singing so pleasantly over her work? And why did her handsome, kindly face light up with such a radiant smile when she saw her son Charles come riding along under the shadow of the great trees only two days after Cecil Mayford had proposed to Alice, and had been refused?
He came out of the forest shadow with the westering sunlight upon his face, riding slowly. She, as she looked, was proud to see what a fine seat he had on his horse, and how healthy and handsome he looked.
He rode round to the back of the house, and she went through to meet him. There was a square court behind, round which the house, huts, and store formed a quadrangle, neat and bright, with white quartz gravel. Bythe-bye, there was a prospecting party who sank two or three shafts in the flat before the house last year; and I saw about eighteen pennyweights of gold which they took out. But it did not pay, and is abandoned. (This in passing, A PROPOS of the quartz.)
“Is Tom Troubridge come home, mother?” said he, as he leaned out of the saddle to kiss her.
“Not yet, my boy,” she said. “I am all alone. I should have had a dull week, but I knew you were enjoying yourself with your old friend at Garoopna. A great party there, I believe?”
“I am glad to get home, mother,” he said. “We were very jolly at first, but latterly Sam Buckley and Cecil Mayford have been looking at one another like cat and dog. Stay, though; let me be just; the fierce looks were all on Cecil Mayford’s side.”
“What was the matter?”
“Alice Brentwood was the matter, I rather suspect,” he said, getting off his horse. “Hold him for me, mother, while I take the saddle off.”
She did as requested. “And so they two are at loggerheads, eh, about Miss Brentwood? Of course. And what sort of a girl is she?”
“Oh, very pretty; deuced pretty, in fact. But there is one there takes my fancy better.”
“Who is she?”
“Ellen Mayford; the sweetest little mouse —— Dash it all; look at this horse’s back. That comes of that infernal flash military groom of Jim’s putting on the saddle without rubbing his back down. Where is the bluestone?”
She went in and got it for him as naturally as if it was her place to obey, and his to command. She always waited on him, as a matter of course, save when Tom Troubridge was with them, who was apt to rap out something awkward about Charles being a lazy young hound, and about his waiting on himself, whenever he saw Mary yielding to that sort of thing.
“I wonder when Tom will be back?” resumed Charles.
“I have been expecting him this last week; he may come any night. I hope he will not meet any of those horrid bushrangers.”
“Hope not either,” said Charles; “they would have to go a hundred or two of miles out of their way to make it likely. Driving rams is slow work; they may not be here for a week.”
“A nice price he has paid!”
“It will pay in the end, in the quality of the wool,” said Charles.
They sat in silence. A little after, Charles had turned his horse out, when at once, without preparation, he said to her —
“Mother, how long is it since my father died?”
She was very much startled. He had scarcely ever alluded to his father before; but she made shift to answer him quietly.
“How old are you?”
“Eighteen!” he said.
“Then he has been dead eighteen years. He died just as you were born. Never mention him, lad. He was a bad man, and by God’s mercy you are delivered from him.”
She rose and went into the house quite cheerfully. Why should she not? Why should not a handsome, still young, wealthy widow be cheerful? For she was a widow. For years after settling at Toonarbin, she had contrived, once in two or three years, to hear some news of her husband. After about ten years, she heard that he had been reconvicted, and sentenced to the chain-gang for life; and lastly, that he was dead. About his being sentenced for life, there was no doubt, for she had a piece of newspaper which told of his crime — and a frightful piece of villany it was — and after that, the report of his death was so probable that no one for an instant doubted its truth. Men did not live long in the chain-gang, in Van Diemen’s Land, in those days, brother. Men would knock out one another’s brains in order to get hung, and escape it. Men would cry aloud to the judge to hang them out of the way! It was the most terrible punishment known, for it was hopeless. Penal servitude for life, as it is now, gives the very faintest idea of what it used to be in old times. With a little trouble I could tell you the weight of iron carried by each man. I cannot exactly remember, but it would strike you as being incredible. They were chained two and two together (a horrible association), to lessen the chances of escape; there was no chance of mitigation for good conduct; there was hard mechanical, uninteresting work, out of doors in an inclement climate, in all weathers: what wonder if men died off like rotten sheep? And what wonder, too, if sometimes the slightest accident — such as a blow from an overseer, returned by a prisoner, produced a sudden rising, unpreconcerted, objectless, the result of which were half a dozen murdered men, as many lunatic women, and five or six stations lighting up the hill-side, night after night, while the whole available force of the colony was unable to stop the ruin for months?
But to the point. Mary was a widow. When she heard of her husband’s death, she had said to herself, “Thank God!” But when she had gone to her room, and was sat a-thinking, she seemed to have had another husband before she was bound up with that desperate, coining, forging George Hawker — another husband bearing the same name; but surely that handsome curly-headed young fellow, who used to wait for her so patiently in the orchard at Drumston, was not the same George Hawker as this desperate convict? She was glad the convict was dead and out of the way; there was no doubt of that; but she could still find a corner in her heart to be sorry for her poor old lover — her handsome old lover — ah me!
But that even was passed now, and George Hawker was as one who had never lived. Now on this evening we speak of, his memory came back just an instant, as she heard the boy speak of the father, but it was gone again directly. She called her servants, and was telling them to bring supper, when Charles looked suddenly in, and said — “Here they are!”
There they were, sure enough, putting the rams into the sheep-yard. Tom Troubridge, as upright, bravelooking a man as ever, and, thanks to bush-work, none the fatter. William Lee, one of our oldest acquaintances, was getting a little grizzled, but otherwise looked as broad and as strong as ever.
They rode into the yard, and Lee took the horses.
“Well, cousin,” said Tom; “I am glad to see you again.”
“You are welcome home, Tom; you have made good speed.”
Tom and Charles went into the house, and Mary was about following them, when Lee said, in so low a tone, that it did not reach the others — “Mrs. Hawker!”
She turned round and looked at him, she had welcomed him kindly when he came into the yard with Tom, and yet he stood still on horseback, holding Tom’s horse by the bridle. A stern, square-looking figure he was; and when she looked at his face, she was much troubled, at — she knew not what.
“Mrs. Hawker,” he said, “can you give me the favour of ten minutes’ conversation, alone this evening?”
“Surely, William, now!”
“Not now — my story is pretty long, and, what is more, ma’am, somebody may be listening, and what I have got to tell you must be told in no ear but your own.”
“You frighten me, Lee! You frighten me to death.”
“Don’t get frightened, Mrs. Hawker. Remember if anything comes about, that you have good friends about you; and, that I, William Lee, am not the worst of them.”
Lee went off with the horses, and Mary returned to the house. What mystery had this man to tell her, “that no one might hear but she”? — very strange and alarming! Was he drunk? — no, he was evidently quite sober; as she looked out once more, she could see him at the stable, cool and self-possessed, ordering the lads about: something very strange and terrifying to one who had such a dark blot in her life.
But she went in, and as she came near the parlour, she heard Charles and Tom roaring with laughter. As she opened the door she heard Tom saying: “And, by Jove, I sat there like a great snipe, face to face with him, as cool and unconcerned as you like. I took him for a flash overseer, sporting his salary, and I was as thick as you like with him. And ‘Matey,’ says I, (you see I was familiar, he seemed such a jolly sort of bird), ‘Matey, what station are you on?’ ‘Maraganoa,’ says he. ‘So,’ says I, ‘you’re rather young there, ain’t you? I was by there a fortnight ago.’ He saw he’d made a wrong move, and made it worse. ‘I mean,’ says he, ‘Maraganoa on the Clarence side.’ ‘Ah!’ says I, ‘in the Cedar country?’ ‘Precisely,’ says he. And there we sat drinking together, and I had no more notion of its being him than you would have had.”
She sat still listening to him, eating nothing. Lee’s words outside had, she knew not why, struck a chill into her heart, and as she listened to Tom’s story, although she could make nothing of it, she felt as though getting colder and colder. She shivered, although the night was hot. Through the open window she could hear all those thousand commingled indistinguishable sounds that make the night-life of the bush, with painful distinctness. She arose and went to the window.
The night was dark and profoundly still. The stars were overhead, though faintly seen through a haze; and beyond the narrow enclosures in front of the house, the great forest arose like a black wall. Tom and Charles went on talking inside, and yet, though their voices were loud, she was hardly conscious of hearing them, but found herself watching the high dark wood and listening to the sound of the frogs in the creek, and the rustle of a million crawling things, heard only in the deep stillness of night.
Deep in the forest somewhere, a bough cracked, and fell crashing, then all was silent again. Soon arose a wind, a partial wandering wind, which came slowly up, and, rousing the quivering leaves to life for a moment, passed away; then again a silence, deeper than ever, so that she could hear the cattle and horses feeding in the lower paddock, a quarter of a mile off; then a low wail in the wood, then two or three wild weird yells, as of a devil in torment, and a pretty white curlew skirled over the housetop to settle on the sheepwash dam.
The stillness was awful; it boded a storm, for behind the forest blazed up a sheet of lightning, showing the shape of each fantastic elevated bough. Then she turned round to the light, and said —
“My dear partner, I had a headache, and went to the window. What was the story you were telling Charles, just now? Who was the man you met in the publichouse, who seems to have frightened you so?”
“No less a man than Captain Touan, my dear cousin!” said Tom, leaning back with the air of a man who has made a point, and would be glad to hear “what you have to say to that, sir.”
“Touan?” repeated Mary. “Why, that’s the great bushranger, that is out to the north; is it not?”
“The same man, cousin! And there I sat hob and nob with him for half an hour in the ‘Lake George’ public-house. If Desborough had come in, he’d have hung me for being found in bad company. Ha! ha! ha!”
“My dear partner,” she said, “what a terrible escape! Suppose he had risen on you?”
“Why I’d have broken his back, cousin,” said Tom, “unless my right hand had forgot her cunning. He is a fine man of his weight: but, Lord, in a struggle for life and death, I could break his neck, and have one more claim on Heaven for doing so; for he is the most damnable villain that ever disgraced God’s earth, and that is the truth. That man, cousin, in one of his devil’s raids, tore a baby from its mother’s breast by the leg, dashed its brains out against a tree, and then — I daren’t tell a woman what happened.” [Note: Tom was confusing Touan with Michael Howe. The latter actually did commit this frightful atrocity; but I never heard that the former actually combined the two crimes in this way.]
“Tom! Tom!” said Mary, “how can you talk of such things?”
“To show you what we have to expect if he comes this way, cousin; that is all.”
“And is there any possibility of such a thing?” asked Mary.
“Why not? Why should he not pay us the compliment of looking round this way?”
“Why do they call him Touan, Tom?” asked Charles.
“Can’t, you see,” said Tom, “the Touan, the little grey flying squirrel, only begins to fly about at night, and slides down from his bough sudden and sharp. This fellow has made some of his most terrible raids at night, and so he got the name of Touan.”
“God deliver us from such monsters!” said Mary, and left the room.
She went into the kitchen. Lee sat there smoking. When she came in he rose, and, knocking the ashes out of his pipe, touched his forehead and stood looking at her.
“Now then, old friend,” she said, “come here.”
He followed her out. She led the way swiftly, through the silent night, across the yard, over a small paddock, up to the sheep-yard beside the woolshed. There she turned shortly round, and, leaning on the fence, said abruptly —
“No one can hear us here, William Lee. Now, what have you to say?”
He seemed to hesitate a moment, and then began: “Mrs. Hawker, have I been a good servant to you?”
“Honest, faithful, kindly, active; who could have been a better servant than you, William Lee! A friend, and not a servant; God is my witness; now then?”
“I am glad to hear you say so,” he answered. “I did you a terrible injury once; I have often been sorry for it since I knew you, but it cannot be mended now.”
“Since you knew me?” she said. “Why, you have known me ever since I have been in the country, and you have never injured me since then, surely.”
“Ay, but at home,” he said. “In England. In Devonshire.”
“I was your husband’s companion in all his earlier villanies. I suggested them to him, and egged him on. And now, mind you, after twenty years, my punishment is coming.”
She could only say still, “My God!” while her throat was as dry as a kiln.
“Listen to what I have got to tell you now. Hear it all in order, and try to bear up, and use your common sense and courage. As I said before, you have good friends around you, and you at least are innocent.”
“Guilty! guilty!” she cried. “Guilty of my father’s death! Read me this horrible riddle, Lee.”
“Wait and listen,” said Lee, unable to forego, even in her terror, the great pleasure that all his class have of spinning a yarn, and using as many words as possible. “See here. We came by Lake George, you know, and heard everywhere accounts of a great gang of bushrangers being out. So we didn’t feel exactly comfortable, you see. We came by a bush public-house, and Mr. Troubridge stops, and says he, ‘Well, lad, suppose we yard these rams an hour, and take drink in the parlour?’ ‘All right,’ I says, with a wink, ‘but the tap for me, if you please. That’s my place, and I’d like to see if I can get any news of the whereabouts of the lads as are sticking up all round, because, if they’re one way, I’d as lief be another.’ ‘All right,’ says he. So in I goes, and sits down. There was nobody there but one man, drunk under the bench. And I has two noblers of brandy, and one of Old Tom; no, two Old Toms it was, and a brandy; when in comes an old chap as I knew for a lag in a minute. Well, he and I cottoned together, and found out that we had been prisoners together five-and-twenty years agone. And so I shouted for him, and he for me, and at last I says, ‘Butty,’ says I, ‘who are these chaps round here on the lay’ (meaning, Who are the bushrangers)? And he says, ‘Young ‘uns — no one as we know.’ And I says, ‘Not likely, matey; I’ve been on the square this twenty year.’ ‘Same here,’ says the old chap; ‘give us your flipper. And now,’ says he, ‘what sort of a cove is your boss’ (meaning Mr. Troubridge)? ‘One of the real right sort,’ says I. ‘Then see here,’ says he, ‘I’ll tell you something: the head man of that there gang is at this minute a-sitting yarning with your boss in the parlour.’ ‘The devil!’ says I. ‘Is so,’ says he, ‘and no flies.’ So I sings out, ‘Mr. Troubridge, those sheep will be out;’ and out he came running, and I whispers to him, ‘Mind the man you’re sitting with, and leave me to pay the score.’ So he goes back, and presently he sings out, ‘Will, have you got any money?’ And I says, ‘Yes, thirty shillings.’ ‘Then,’ says he, ‘pay for this, and come along.’ And thinks I, I’ll go in and have a look at this great new captain of bushrangers; so I goes to the parlour door, and now who do you think I saw?”
“I know,” she said. “It was that horrible villain they call Touan.”
“The same man,” he answered. “Do you know who he is?”
She found somehow breath to say, “How can I? How is it possible?”
“I will tell you,” said Lee. “There, sitting in front of Mr. Troubridge, hardly altered in all these long years, sat George Hawker, formerly of Drumston — your husband!”
She gave a low cry, and beat the hard rail with her head till it bled. Then, turning fiercely round, she said, in a voice hoarse and strangely altered —
“Have you anything more to tell me, you croaking raven?”
He had something more to tell, but he dared not speak now. So he said, “Nothing at present, but if laying down my life ——”
She did not wait to hear him, but, with her hands clasped above her head, she turned and walked swiftly towards the house. She could not cry, or sob, or rave; she could only say, “Let it fall on me, O God, on me!” over and over again.
Also, she was far too crushed and stunned to think precisely what it was she dreaded so. It seemed afterwards, as Frank Maberly told me, that she had an indefinable horror of Charles meeting his father, and of their coming to know one another. She half feared that her husband would appear and carry away her son with him, and even if he did not, the lad was reckless enough as it was, without being known and pointed at through the country as the son of Hawker the bushranger.
These were after-thoughts, however; at present she leaned giddily against the house-side, trying, in the wild hurrying night-rack of her thoughts, to distinguish some tiny star of hope, or even some glimmer of reason. Impossible! Nothing but swift, confused clouds everywhere, driving wildly on — whither?
But a desire came upon her to see her boy again, and compare his face to his father’s. So she slid quietly into the room where Tom and Charles were still talking together of Tom’s adventure, and sat looking at the boy, pretending to work. As she came in, he was laughing loudly at something, and his face was alive and merry. “He is not like what his father was at his age,” she said.
But they continued their conversation. “And now, what sort of man was he, Tom?” said Charles. “Was he like any one you ever saw?”
“Why, no. Stay, let’s see. Do you know, he was something like you in the face.”
“Thank you!” said Charles, laughing. “Wait till I get a chance of paying you a compliment, old fellow. A powerful fellow — eh?”
“Why, yes — a tough-looking subject,” said Tom.
“I shouldn’t have much chance with him, I suppose?”
“No; he’d be too powerful for you, Charley.”
A change came over his face, a dark, fierce look. Mary could see the likeness NOW plain enough, and even Tom looked at him for an instant with a puzzled look.
“Nevertheless,” continued Charles, “I would have a turn with him if I met him; I’d try what six inches of cold steel between ——”
“Forbear, boy! Would you have the roof fall in and crush you dead?” said Mary, in a voice that appalled both of them. “Stop such foolish talk, and pray that we may be delivered from the very sight of these men, and suffered to get away to our graves in peace, without any more of these horrors and surprises. I would sooner,” she said, increasing in rapidity as she went on, “I would far sooner, live like some one I have heard of, with a sword above his head, than thus. If he comes and looks on me, I shall die.”
She had risen and stood in the firelight, deadly pale. Somehow one of the bands of her long black hair had fallen down, and half covered her face. She looked so unearthly that, coupling her appearance with the wild, senseless words she had been uttering, Tom had a horrible suspicion that she was gone mad.
“Cousin,” he said, “let me beseech you to go to bed. Charles, run for Mrs. Barker. Mary,” he added, as soon as he was gone, “come away, or you’ll be saying something before that boy you’ll be sorry for. You’re hysterical; that’s what is the matter with you. I am afraid we have frightened you by our talk about bushrangers.”
“Yes, that is it! that is it!” she said; and then, suddenly, “Oh! my dear old friend, you will not desert me?”
“Never, Mary; but why ask such a question now?”
“Ask Lee,” she said, and the next moment Mrs. Barker, the housekeeper, came bustling in with smelling salts, and so on, to minister to a mind diseased. And Mary was taken off to bed.
“What on earth can be the matter with her, cousin Tom?” said Charles when she was gone.
“She is out of sorts, and got hysterical; that’s what it is,” said Tom.
“What odd things she said!”
“Women do when they are hysterical. It’s nothing more than that.”
But Mrs. Barker came in with a different opinion. She said that Mary was very hot and restless, and had very little doubt that a fever was coming on. “Terribly shaken she had been,” said Mrs. Barker, “hoped nothing was wrong.”
“There’s something decidedly wrong, if your mistress is going to have a fever,” said Tom. “Charley, do you think Doctor Mulhaus is at Baroona or Garoopna?”
“Up at the Major’s,” said Charles, “Shall I ride over for him? There will be a good moon in an hour.”
“Yes,” said Tom, “and fetch him over at once. Tell him we think it’s a fever, and he will know what to bring. Ride like h —— l, Charley.”
As soon as he was alone, he began thinking. “What the DOOSE is the matter?” was his first exclamation, and, after half-an-hour’s cogitation, only had arrived at the same point, “What the DOOSE is the matter?” Then it flashed across him, what did she mean by “ask Lee?” Had she any meaning in it, or was it nonsense? There was an easy solution for it; namely, TO ask Lee. And so arising he went across the yard to the kitchen.
Lee was bending low over the fire, smoking. “William,” said Tom, “I want to see you in the parlour.”
“I was thinking of coming across myself,” said Lee; “In fact I should have come when I had finished my pipe.”
“Bring your pipe across, then,” said Tom. “Girl, take in some hot water and tumblers.”
“Now, Lee,” said Tom, as soon as Lee had gone through the ceremony of “Well, here’s my respex, sir,” “Now Lee, you have heard how ill the mistress is.”
“I have indeed, sir,” said he; “and very sorry I am, as I am partly the cause of it.”
“All that simplifies matters, Will, considerably,” said Tom. “I must tell you that when I asked her what put her in that state, she said, ‘ask Lee.’”
“Shows her sense, sir. What she means is, that you ought to hear what she and I have heard; and I mean to tell you more than I have her. If she knew everything, I am afraid it would kill her.”
“Ay! I know nothing as yet, you know.”
Lee in the first place put him in possession of what we already know — the fact of Hawker’s reappearance, and his identity with “The Touan;” then he paused.
“This is very astonishing, and very terrible, Lee,” said he. “Is there anything further?”
“Yes, the worst. That man has followed us home!”
Tom had exhausted all his expressions of astonishment and dismay before this; so now he could only give a long whistle, and say, “Followed us home?”
“Followed us home!” said Lee. “As we were passing the black swamp, not two miles from here, this very morning, I saw that man riding parallel with us through the bush.”
“Why did not you tell me before?”
“Because I had not made up my mind how to act. First I resolved to tell the mistress; that I did. Then after I had smoked a pipe, I resolved to tell you, and that I did, and now here we are, you see.”
That was undeniable. There they were, with about as pretty a complication of mischief to unravel as two men could wish to have. Tom felt so foolish and nonplussed, that he felt inclined to laugh at Lee when he said, “Here we are.” It so exactly expressed the state of the case; as if he had said, “All so and so has happened, and a deuce of a job it is, and here sit you and I, to deliberate what’s to be done with regard to so and so.”
He did not laugh, however; he bit his lip, and stopped it. Then he rose, and, leaning his great shoulders against the mantelpiece, stood before the fireless grate, and looked at Lee. Lee also looked at him, and I think that each one thought what a splendid specimen of his style the other was. If they did not think so, “they ought to it,” as the Londoners say. But neither spoke a few minutes; then Tom said —
“Lee, Will Lee, though you came to me a free man, and have served me twenty years, or thereabouts, as free man, I don’t conceal from myself the fact that you have been convict. Pish, man! don’t let us mince matters now — a lag.”
Lee looked him full in the face, without changing countenance, and nodded.
“Convicted more than once, too,” continued Tom.
“Three times,” said Lee.
“Ah!” said Tom. “And if a piece of work was set before me to do, which required pluck, honesty, courage, and cunning, and one were to say to me, ‘Who will you have to help you?’ I would answer out boldly, ‘Give me Will Lee the lag; my old friend, who has served me so true and hearty these twenty years.’”
“And you’d do right, sir,” said Lee quietly. And rising up, he stood beside Tom, with one foot on the fender, bending down and looking into the empty grate.
“Now, Will,” said Tom, turning round and laying his hand on his shoulder, “this fellow has followed us home, having found out who we were. Why has he done so?”
“Evident,” said Lee, “to work on the fears of the mistress, and get some money from her.”
“Good!” said Tom. “Well answered. We shall get to the bottom of our difficulty like this. Only answer the next question as well, and I will call you a Poly — Poly —; d — n the Greek.”
“Not such a bad name as that, I hope, sir,” said Lee smiling. “Who might she have been? A bad un, I expect. You don’t happen to refer to Hobart-town Polly, did you, sir?”
“Hold your tongue, you villain,” said Tom, “or you’ll make me laugh; and these are not laughing times.”
“Well, what is your question, sir?” asked Lee.
“Why, simply this: What are we to do?”
“I’ll tell you,” said Lee, speaking in an animated whisper. “Watch, watch, and watch again, till you catch him. Tie him tight, and hand him over to Captain Desborough. He may be about the place tonight: he will be sure to be. Let us watch to-night, you and I, and for many nights, till we catch him.”
“But,” whispered Tom, “he will be hung.”
“He has earned it,” said Lee. “Let him be hung.”
“But he is her husband,” urged Tom, in a whisper. “He is that boy’s father. I cannot do it. Can’t we buy him off?”
“Yes,” answered Lee in the same tone, “till his money is gone. Then you will have a chance of doing it again, and again, all your life.”
“This is a terrible dilemma,” said Tom; and added in a perplexity almost comical, “Drat the girl! Why did’nt she marry poor old Jim Stockbridge, or sleepy Hamlyn, or even your humble servant? Though, in all honour, I must confess that I never asked her, as those two others did. No! I’ll tell you what, Lee: we will watch for him, and catch him if we can. After that we will think what is to be done. By-the-bye, I have been going to ask you:— do you think he recognised you at the public-house there?”
“That puzzles me,” said Lee. “He looked me in the face, but I could not see that he did. I wonder if he recognised you?”
“I never saw him in my life before,” said Tom. “It is very likely that he knew me, though. I was champion of Devon and Cornwall, you know, before little Abraham Cann kicked my legs from under me that unlucky Easter Monday. (The deuce curl his hair for doing it!) I never forgave him till I heard of that fine bit of play with Polkinghorn. Yes! he must have known me.”
Lee lit the fire, while Tom, blowing out the candles, drew the curtains, so that any one outside could not see into the room. Nevertheless, he left the French window open, and then went outside, and secured all the dogs in the dog-house.
The night was wonderfully still and dark. As he paused before entering the house, he could hear the bark falling from the trees a quarter of a mile off, and the opossums scratching and snapping little twigs as they passed from bough to bough. Somewhere, apparently at an immense distance, a morepork was chanting his monotonous cry. The frogs in the creek were silent even, so hot was the night. “A good night for watching,” said he to Lee when he came in. “Lie you down; I’ll take the first watch.”
They blew out the candle, and Lee was in the act of lying down, when he arrested himself, and held up his finger to Tom.
They both listened, motionless and in silence, until they could hear the spiders creeping on the ceiling. There it was again! A stealthy step on the gravel.
Troubridge and Lee crouched down breathless. One minute, two, five, but it did not come again. At length they both moved, as if by concert, and Lee said, “‘Possum.”
“Not a bit,” said Troubridge; and then Lee lay down again, and slept in the light of the flickering fire. One giant arm was thrown around his head, and the other hung down in careless grace; the great chest was heaved up, and the head thrown back; the seamed and rugged features seemed more stern and marked than ever in the chiaroscuro; and the whole man was a picture of reckless strength such as one seldom sees. Tom had dozed and had awoke again, and now sat thinking, “What a terrible tough customer that fellow would be!” when suddenly he crouched on the floor, and, reaching out his hand, touched Lee, who woke, and silently rolled over with his face towards the window.
There was no mistake this time — that was no opossum. There came the stealthy step again; and now, as they lay silent, the glass-door was pushed gently open, showing the landscape beyond. The gibbous moon was just rising over the forest, all blurred with streaky clouds, and between them and her light they could see the figure of a man, standing inside the room.
Tom could wait no longer. He started up, and fell headlong with a crash over a little table that stood in his way. They both dashed into the garden, but only in time to hear flying footsteps, and immediately after the gallop of a horse, the echoes of which soon died away, and all was still.
“Missed him, by George!” said Lee. “It was a precious close thing, though. What could he mean by coming into the house — eh?”
“Just as I expected; trying to get an interview with the mistress. He will be more cautious in future, I take it.”
“I wonder if he will try again?”
“Don’t know,” said Troubridge; “he might: not to-night, however.”
They went in and lay down again, and Troubridge was soon asleep; and very soon that sleep was disturbed by dreadful dreams. At one time he thought he was riding madly through the bush for his bare life; spurring on a tired horse, which was failing every moment more and more. But always through the tree-stems on his right he saw glancing, a ghost on a white horse, which kept pace with him, do what he would. Now he was among the precipices on the ranges. On his left, a lofty inaccessible cliff; on the right, a frightful blue abyss; while the slaty soil kept sliding from beneath his horse’s feet. Behind him, unseen, came a phantom, always gaining on him, and driving him along the giddiest wallaby tracks. If he could only turn and face it, he might conquer, but he dare not. At length the path grew narrower and narrower, and he turned in desperation and awoke — woke to see in the dim morning light a dark figure bending over him. He sprang up, and clutched it by the throat.
“A most excellent fellow this!” said the voice of Doctor Mulhaus. “He sends a frantic midnight message for his friend to come to him, regardless of personal convenience and horseflesh; and when this friend comes quietly in, and tries to wake him without disturbing the sick folks, he seizes him by the throat and nearly throttles him.”
“I beg a thousand pardons, Doctor,” said Tom; “I had been dreaming, and I took you for the devil. I am glad to find my mistake.”
“You have good reason,” said the Doctor; “but now, how is the patient?”
“Asleep at present, I believe; the housekeeper is with her.”
“What is the matter with her?”
“She has had a great blow. It has shaken her intellect, I am afraid.”
“What sort of a blow?” asked the Doctor.
Tom hesitated. He did not know whether to tell him or not.
“Nay,” said the Doctor, “you had better let me know. I can help then, you know. Now, for instance, has she heard of her husband?”
“She has, Doctor. How on earth came you to guess that?”
“A mere guess, though I have always thought it quite possible, as the accounts of his death were very uncertain.”
Tom then set to work, and told the Doctor all that we know. He looked very grave. “This is far worse than I had thought,” he said, and remained thoughtful.
Mary awoke in a fever and delirious. They kept Charles as much from her as possible, lest she should let drop some hint of the matter to the boy; but even in her delirium she kept her secret well; and towards the evening the Doctor, finding her quieter, saddled his horse, and rode away ten miles to a township, where resided a drunken surgeon, one of the greatest blackguards in the country.
The surgeon was at home. He was drunk, of course; he always was, but hardly more so today than usual. So the Doctor hoped for success in his object, which was to procure a certain drug which was neither in the medicine-chest at the Buckleys’ nor at Toonarbin; and putting on his sweetest smile when the surgeon came to the door, he made a remark about the beauty of the weather, to which the other very gruffly responded.
“I come to beg a favour,” said Doctor Mulhaus. “Can you let me have a little — so and so?”
“See you d — d first,” was the polite reply. “A man comes a matter of fourteen thousand miles, makes a pretty little practice, and then gets it cut into by a parcel of ignorant foreigners, whose own country is too hot to hold them. And not content with this, they have the brass to ask for the loan of a man’s drugs. As I said before, I’ll see you d — d first, AND THEN I WON’T.” And so saying, he slammed the door.
Doctor Mulhaus was beside himself with rage. For the first and last time since I have known him he forgot his discretion, and instead of going away quietly, and treating the man with contempt, he began kicking at the door, calling the man a scoundrel, &c., and between the intervals of kicking, roaring through the keyhole, “Bring out your diploma; do you hear, you impostor?” and then fell to work kicking again. “Bring out your forged diploma, will you, you villain?”
This soon attracted the idlers from the public-house: a couple of sawyers, a shepherd or two, all tipsy, of course, except one of the sawyers, who was drunk. The drunken sawyer at length made out to his own complete satisfaction that Doctor Mulhaus’ wife was in labour, and that he was come for the surgeon, who was probably drunk and asleep inside. So, being able to sympathize, having had his wife in the straw every thirteen months regularly for the last fifteen years, he prepared to assist, and for this purpose took a stone about half a hundredweight, and coming behind the Doctor, when he was in full kick, he balanced himself with difficulty, and sent it at the lock with all the force of his arm, and of course broke the door in. In throwing the stone, he lost his balance, came full butt against Dr. Mulhaus, propelled him into the passage, into the arms of the surgeon, who was rushing out infuriated to defend his property, and down went the three in the passage together, the two doctors beneath, and the drunken sawyer on the top of them.
The drunken surgeon, if, to use parliamentary language, he will allow me to call him so, was of course underneath the others; but, being a Londoner, and consequently knowing the use of his fists, ere he went down delivered a “one, two,” straight from the shoulder in our poor dear Doctor’s face, and gave him a most disreputable black eye, besides cutting his upper lip open. This our Doctor, being, you must remember, a foreigner, and not having the rules of the British Ring before his eyes, resented by getting on the top of him, taking him round the throat, and banging the back of his head against the brick floor of the passage, until he began to goggle his eyes and choke. Meanwhile the sawyer, exhilarated beyond measure in his drunken mind at having raised a real good promising row, having turned on his back, lay procumbent upon the twain, and kicking everything soft or human he came across with his heels, struck up “The Bay of Biscay, Oh,” until he was dragged forth by two of his friends; and, being in a state of wild excitement, ready to fight the world, hit his own mate a violent blow in the eye, and was only quieted by receiving a sound thrashing, and being placed in a sitting posture in the verandah of the public house, from which he saw Doctor Mulhaus come forth from the surgeon’s with rumpled feathers, but triumphant.
I am deeply grieved to have recorded the above scene, but I could not omit it. Having undertaken to place the character of that very noble gentleman, Doctor Mulhaus, before my readers, I was forced not to omit this. As a general rule, he was as self-contained, as calm and as frigid as the best Englishman among us. But under all this there was, to speak in carefullyselected scientific language, a substratum of pepper-box, which has been apparent to me on more than one occasion. I have noticed the above occasion per force. Let the others rest in oblivion. A man so true, so wise, so courteous, and so kindly, needs not my poor excuses for having once in a way made a fool of himself. He will read this, and he will be angry with me for a time, but he knows well that I, like all who knew him, say heartily, God bless you, old Doctor!
But the consequences of the above were, I am sorry to say, eminently disastrous. The surgeon got a warrant against Doctor Mulhaus for burglary with violence, and our Doctor got a warrant against him for assault with intent to rob. So there was the deuce to pay. The affair got out of the hands of the Bench. In fact they sent BOTH parties for trial, (what do you think of that, my Lord Campbell?) in order to ge rid of the matter, and at sessions, the surgeon swore positively that Doctor Mulhaus had, assisted by a convict, battered his door down with stones in open day, and nearly murdered him. Then in defence Doctor Mulhaus called the sawyer, who, as it happened, had just completed a contract for fencing for Mrs. Mayford, the proceeds of which bargain he was spending at the public-house when the thing happened, and had just undertaken another for one of the magistrates; having also a large family dependent on him; being, too, a man who prided himself in keeping an eye to windward, and being slightly confused by a trifling attack of delirium tremens (diddleums, he called it): he, I say, to our Doctor’s confusion and horror, swore positively that he never took a stone in his hand on the day in question; that he never saw a stone for a week before or after that date; that he did not deny having rushed into the passage to assist the complainant (drunken surgeon), seeing him being murdered by defendant; and, lastly, that he was never near the place on the day specified. So it would have gone hard with our Doctor, had not his Honour called the jury’s attention to the discrepancies in this witness’s evidence; and when Dr. Mulhaus was acquitted, delivered a stinging reproof to the magistrates for wasting public time by sending such a trumpery case to a jury. But, on the other hand, Dr. Mulhaus’ charge of assault with intent fell dead; so that neither party had much to boast of.
The night or so after the trial was over, the Doctor came back to Toonarbin, in what he intended for a furious rage. But, having told Tom Troubridge the whole affair, and having unluckily caught Tom’s eye, they two went off into such hearty fits of laughter that poor Mary, now convalescent, but still in bed, knocked at the wall to know what the matter was.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:10