I pause here — I rather dread to go on. Although our course has been erratic and irregular; although we have had one character disappearing for a long time (like Tom Troubridge); and, although we have had another entirely new coming bobbing up in the manner of Punch’s victims, unexpected, and apparently unwanted; although, I say, the course of this story may have been ill-arranged in the highest degree, and you may have been continually coming across some one in Vol. II. who forced you to go back to Vol. I. (possibly sent back to the library) to find out who he was; yet, on the whole, we have got on pleasantly enough as things go. Now, I am sorry to say I have to record two or three fearful catastrophes. The events of the next month are seldom alluded to by any of those persons mentioned in the preceding pages; they are too painful. I remark that the Lucknow and Cawnpore men don’t much like talking about the affairs of that terrible six weeks; much for the same reason, I suspect, as we, going over our old recollections, always omit the occurrences of this lamentable spring.
The facts contained in the latter end of this chapter I got from the Gaol Chaplain at Sydney.
The Major, the Captain, and I, got home to dinner, confirmed in our suspicions that mischief was abroad, and very vexed at having missed the man we went in search of. Both Mrs. Buckley and Alice noticed that something was wrong, but neither spoke a word on the subject. Mrs. Buckley now and then looked anxiously at her husband, and Alice cast furtive glances at her father. The rest took no notice of our silence and uneasiness, little dreaming of the awful cloud that was hanging above our heads, to burst, alas! so soon.
I was sitting next to Mary Hawker that evening, talking over old Devon days and Devon people, when she said —
“I think I am going to have some more quiet peaceful times. I am happier than I have been for many years. Do you know why? Look there.”
“I shuddered to hear her say so, knowing what I knew, but looked where she pointed. Her son sat opposite to us, next to the pretty Ellen Mayford. She had dropped the lids over her eyes and was smiling. He, with his face turned toward her, was whispering in his eager impulsive way, and tearing to pieces a slip of paper which he held in his hand. As the firelight fell on his face, I felt a chill come over me. The likeness was so fearful! — not to the father (that I had been long accustomed to), but to the son, to the half-brother — to the poor lost young soul I had seen last night, the companion of desperate men. As it struck me I could not avoid a start, and a moment after I would have given a hundred pounds not to have done so, for I felt Mary’s hand on my arm, and heard her say, in a low voice —
“Cruel! cruel! Will you never forget?”
I felt guilty and confused. As usual, on such occasions, Satan was at my elbow, ready with a lie, more or less clumsy, and I said, “You do me injustice, Mrs. Hawker. I was not thinking of old times. I was astonished at what I see there. Do you think there is anything in it?”
“I sincerely hope so,” she said.
“Indeed, and so do I. It will be excellent on every account. Now,” said I, “Mrs. Hawker, will you tell me what has become of your old servant, Lee? I have reasons for asking.”
“He is in my service still,” she said; “as useful and faithful as ever. At present he is away at a little hut in the ranges, looking after our ewes.”
“Who is with him?” I asked.
“Well, he has got a new hand with him, a man who came about a month or so ago, and stayed about splitting wood. I fancy I heard Lee remark that he had known him before. However, when Lee had to go to the ranges, he wanted a hut-keeper; so this man went up with him.”
“What sort of a looking man was he?”
“Oh, a rather large man, red-haired, much pitted with the small-pox.”
All this made me uneasy. I had asked these questions, by the advice of Dick, and, from Mrs. Hawker’s description tallying so well with his, I had little doubt that another of the escaped gang was living actually in her service, alone too, in the hut with Lee.
The day that we went to Mirngish, the circumstances I am about to relate took place in Lee’s hut, a lonely spot, eight miles from the home station, towards the mountain, and situated in a dense dark stringy bark forest — a wild desolate spot, even as it was that afternoon, with the parrots chattering and whistling around it, and the bright winter’s sun lighting up the green tree-tops.
Lee was away, and the hut-keeper was the only living soul about the place. He had just made some bread, and, having carried out his camp-oven to cool, was sitting on the bench in the sun, lazily, thinking what he would do next.
He was a long, rather powerfully-built man, and seemed at first sight, merely a sleepy half-witted fellow, but at a second glance you might perceive that there was a good deal of cunning, and some ferocity in his face. He sat for some time, and was beginning to think that he would like a smoke, so he got out his knife preparatory to cutting tobacco.
The hut stood at the top of a lone gully, stretching away in a vista, nearly bare of trees for a width of about ten yards or so, all the way down, which gave it the appearance of a grass-ride, walled on each side by tall dark forest; looking down this, our hutkeeper saw, about a quarter of a mile off, a horseman cross from one side to the other.
He only caught a momentary glimpse of him, but that was enough to show him that it was a stranger. He neither knew horse nor man, at least judging by his dress; and while he was still puzzling his brains as to what stranger would be coming to such an out-of-the-way place, he heard the “Chuck, kuk, kuk, kuk,” of an opossum close behind the hut, and started to his feet.
It would of course have startled any bushman to hear an opossum cry in broad day, but he knew what this meant well. It was the arranged signal of his gang, and he ran to the place from whence the sound came.
George Hawker was there — well dressed, sitting on a noble chestnut horse. They greeted one another with a friendly curse.
As is my custom, when recording the conversation of this class of worthies, I suppress the expletives, thereby shortening them by nearly one half, and depriving the public of much valuable information.
“Well, old man,” began Hawker, “is the coast clear?”
“No one here but myself,” replied the other. “I’m hut-keeping here for one Bill Lee, but he is away. He was one of the right sort once himself, I have heard; but he’s been on the square for twenty years, so I don’t like to trust him.”
“You are about right there, Moody, my lad,” said Hawker. “I’ve just looked up to talk to you about him, and other matters — I’ll come in. When will he be back?”
“Not before night, I expect,” said the other.
“Well,” said Hawker, “we shall have the more time to talk; I’ve got a good deal to tell you. Our chaps are all safe and snug, and the traps are off. Only two, that’s you and Mike, stayed this side of the hill; the rest crossed the ranges and stowed away in an old lair of mine on one of the upper Murray gullies. They’ve had pretty hard times, and if it hadn’t been for the cash they brought away, they’d have had worse. Now the coast is clear, they’re coming back by ones and twos, and next week we shall be ready for business. I’m going to be head man this bout, because I know the country better than any; and the most noble Michael has consented, for this time only, to act as lieutenant. We haven’t decided on any plans yet, but some think of beginning from the coast, because that part will be clearest of traps, they having satisfied themselves that we ain’t there. In fact, the wiseacres have fully determined that we are all drowned. There’s one devil of a foreign doctor knows I’m round though: he saw me the night before you came ashore, and I am nigh sure he knew me. I have been watching him, and I could have knocked him over last week as clean as a whistle, only, thinks I, it’ll make a stir before the time. Never mind, I’ll have him yet. This Lee is a black sheep, lad. I’m glad you are here; you must watch him, and if you see him flinch, put a knife in him. He raised the country on me once before. I tell you, Jerry, that I’d be hung, and willing, tomorrow, to have that chap’s life, and I’d have had it before now, only I had to keep still for the sake of the others. That man served me the meanest, dirtiest trick, twenty years ago, in the old country, that ever you or any other man heard of, and if he catches sight of me the game’s up. Mind, if you see cause, you deal with him, or else — —” (with an awful oath) “you answer to the others.”
“If he’s got to go, he’ll go,” replied the other, doggedly. “Don’t you fear me; Moody the cannibal ain’t a man to flinch.”
“What, is that tale true then?” asked Hawker, looking at his companion with a new sort of interest.
“Why, in course it is,” replied Moody; “I thought no one doubted that. That Van Diemen’s Land bush would starve a bandicoot, and Shiner and I walked two days before we knocked the boy on the head; the lad was getting beat, and couldn’t a’ gone much further. After three days more we began to watch one another, and neither one durst walk first, or go to sleep. Well, Shiner gave in first; he couldn’t keep his eyes open any longer. And then, you know, of course my own life was dearer than his’n.”
“My God! That’s worse than ever I did!” said Hawker.
“But not worse than you may do, if you persevere. You promise well,” said Moody, with a grin.
Hawker bent and whispered in his ear; the other listened for a time, and then said —
“Make it twenty.”
Hawker after a little consideration nodded — then the other nodded — then they whispered together again. Something out of the common this must be, that they, not very particular in their confidences, should whisper about it.
They looked up suddenly, and Lee was standing in the doorway.
Hawker and he started when they saw one another, but Lee recovered himself first, and said —
“George Hawker, it’s many years since we met, and I’m not so young as I was. I should like to make peace before I go, as I well know that I’m the chief one to blame for you getting into trouble. I’m not humbugging you, when I say that I have been often sorry for it of late years. But sorrow won’t do any good. If you’ll forgive and forget, I’ll do the same. You tried my life once, and that’s worse than ever I did for you. And now I’ll tell you, that if you want money to get out of the country and set up anywhere else, and leave your poor wife in peace, I’ll find it for you out of my own pocket.”
“I don’t bear any malice,” said Hawker; “but I don’t want to leave the country just yet. I suppose you won’t peach about having seen me here?”
“I shan’t say a word, George, if you keep clear of the home station; but I won’t have you come about there. So I warn you.”
Lee held out his hand, and George took it. Then he asked him if he would stay there that night, and George consented.
Day was fast sinking behind the trees, and making golden boughs overhead. Lee stood at the hut door watching the sun set, and thinking, perhaps, of old Devon. He seemed sad, and let us hope he was regretting his old crimes while time was left him. Night was closing in on him, and having looked once more on the darkening sky, and the fog coldly creeping up the gully, he turned with a sigh and a shudder into the hut, and shut the door.
Near midnight, and all was still. Then arose a cry upon the night so hideous, so wild, and so terrible, that the roosting birds dashed off affrighted, and the dense mist, as though in sympathising fear, prolonged the echoes a hundred fold. One articulate cry, “Oh! you treacherous dog!” given with the fierce energy of a dying man, and then night returned to her stillness, and the listeners heard nothing but the weeping of the moisture from the wintry trees.
The two perpetrators of the atrocity stood silent a minute or more, recovering themselves. Then Hawker said in a fierce whisper —
“You clumsy hound; why did you let him make that noise? I shall never get it out of my head again, if I live till a hundred. Let’s get out of this place before I go mad; I could not stay in the house with it for salvation. Get his horse, and come along.”
They got the two horses, and rode away into the night; but Hawker, in his nervous anxiety to get away, dropped a handsome cavalry pistol — a circumstance which nearly cost Doctor Mulhaus his life.
They rode till after daylight, taking a course toward the sea, and had gone nearly twelve miles before George discovered his loss, and broke out into petulant imprecations.
“I wouldn’t have lost that pistol for five pounds,” he said; “no, nor more. I shall never have one like it again. I’ve put over a parrot at twenty yards with it.”
“Go back and get it, then,” said Moody, “if it’s so valuable. I’ll camp and wait for you. We want all the arms we can get.”
“Not I,” said George; “I would not go back into that cursed hut alone for all the sheep in the country.”
“You coward,” replied the other; “afraid of a dead man. Well, if you won’t, I will: and, mind, I shall keep it for my own use.”
“You’re welcome to it, if you like to get it,” said George. And so Moody rode back.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:10