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Title: Mistress Betty Carew Author: Mary Gaunt * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1402371h.html Language: English Date first posted: July 2014 Most recent update: July 2014 This eBook was produced by: Maurie Mulcahy Project Gutenberg of Australia eBooks are created from printed editions which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular paper edition. Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this file. This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg Australia Licence which may be viewed online.
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CHAPTER I.—BETTY IS BOUGHT AND SOLD.
CHAPTER II.—A VISIT TO SYDNEY COVE.
CHAPTER III.—SHE CHOOSES HER LOVER.
CHAPTER IV.—HOW BASS AND FLINDERS SOUGHT A GREAT RIVER.
CHAPTER V.—POOR BETTY.
CHAPTER VI.—WAS EVER BRIDE WOOED THIS FASHION?
CHAPTER VII.—WHAT SYDNEY SAID OF IT.
CHAPTER VIII.—MAKING THE BEST OF IT.
CHAPTER IX.—THE GOVERNOR'S DINNER PARTY.
CHAPTER X.—A SEARCH FOR PEACE.
CHAPTER XI.—BASS GOES EXPLORING.
CHAPTER XII.—WHEN BASS RETURNED.
CHAPTER XIII.—SIMON BURTON RETURNS.
CHAPTER XIV.—SELLING A WIFE.
CHAPTER XV.—WHAT WAS HER DUTY?
CHAPTER XVI.—MR. BASS TO THE RESCUE.
CHAPTER XVII.—THE BEGINNING OF THE END.
CHAPTER XIX.—ON THE WAY TO ELIZABETH FARM.
CHAPTER XX.—GEORGE BASS INTERFERES WITH THE INTENTIONS OF PROVIDENCE AND SIMON BURTON IS REVENGED.
On two days, it steads not to run from thy grave,
The appointed, and the unappointed day;
On the first neither balm nor physician can save,
Nor thee, on the second, the Universe slay.
THOMAS ROSEN'S farm lay further out from the township of Rose Hill, or Parramatta as it was beginning to be called, and the soft rounded hills covered with dense bush cut it off from the harbour. It was not even on the river itself but on a little reedy back-water that in summer was dry mud holes and in winter was long sullen reaches where the wild duck and the pelican and even the great grey cranes abounded.
The main building, built of logs, was mud floored and thatched with rushes, there was a mud chimney, and in the walls were loop-holes where a man might thrust a musket and so defend himself, should the natives, Indians, Thomas Rosen and his wife called them, prove troublesome.
The house had only three rooms, and round it, just within hail, were the shacks of the assigned servants, built chiefly of cabbage trees and grass and mud, for where there was so much to do laying out and fencing the farm itself there was no time to consider those who were merely goods and chattels. It was wild and lonely, on the very outskirts of the British Empire, but Thomas Rosen was well content. He had a grant of 120 acres, and if this settlement at Sydney Cove throve, as he had no doubt it would thrive, then if not he, assuredly these sturdy young colonists that called him father would be well-to-do one day. His day's work was done and he sat on a rude bench with his back to the house wall and watched the rings of smoke from his pipe curl up in the moonlight. A man in the uniform of the New South Wales Corps sat on the other side of the bench, and between them was a jug of rum and water and a couple of tin pannikins which each filled as occasion required. It was a hot evening, and the voices of children came up softened by distance from the creek, and just out of earshot a slim, girlish figure leaned idly against the feathery wattle tree, while from inside the house came the clatter of women's tongues and washing dishes.
"Well, Lieutenant," said Rosen, slowly, giving another suck at his pipe, "I didn't have nothen to do with bringin' her here, and I don't know what to do with the wench now she is here, and that's a fact."
The soldier leaned back, dropped his pipe, and laughed heartily.
"Why, bless me, Rosen, if I don't take her off your hands myself."
"Now, none of that, Lieutenant. The wench is a good wench, and shall be fairly done by. She's kin to me, too, through her mother and my mother, though her mother was up in the world and mine was down."
"But where are her father, and mother?" asked the puzzled soldier, for at the end of the eighteenth century girls of his own class did not usually come out to the new colony of New South Wales without any belongings.
"Her father's there in Dorsetshire, and her mother—God knows where her poor mother is. She was but a child when they wed her to Sir Geoffrey Carew. They told her her lover was dead, the press gang had taken him, and so when he came back five years later he had but to hold up his finger and she followed him. And by and by came word she was dead, and Sir Geoffrey took another wife, and as she grew up he couldn't bear the sight of the wench, she minded him that of her mother."
"The devil! Does she take after her mother in other ways?"
"She's a good wench," asserted Rosen again, "though she's not of our sort. He shipped her off to me by the Lady Hope in charge of one of the officer's ladies, and the poor thing's like a homing pigeon that's lost its way. She can't stomach our rough ways and our rough fare."
"A nice dainty lady," said the soldier. "You needn't have her on your hands a minute longer than you like, Rosen, I tell you."
"No, no, I didn't mean that. She's welcome if she does think we're rough. Her father pays twenty good golden guineas a year for her maintenance and thirty guineas a year has she for herself."
"And the last ship brought two hundred more mouths and no provisions, and the salt meat is near out, and we may not kill fresh, and the meal is low and we can't all live on vegetables and garden stuff. 'Tis a cooling diet certainly, but not to my taste," and he tossed off a lot of rum. "I think, Friend Rosen, your cousin had the best of you."
"She's a powerful pretty maid," said that settler, cautiously.
"Faith! What's the good of her prettiness if it's not marketable?"
"I did not say that. There's plenty will come to woo once they know she's here. Already there's Mr. Bass from the Reliance has been here more than once."
"Has he indeed? But Bass is poor as a rat, a beggarly sawbones, restless as a terrier, and for ever at the Governor for leave to explore and open up the country. If you give her to him he'll be lost some day in that blessed leaky little boat of his and you'll have the widow on your hands again."
"To sell again," said the settler slily.
"Sell, bless us, Bass won't bid. He ain't got a handful of coppers. Besides, he won't buy. He ain't that sort. He'll take the lady if she'll go with him and then you may whistle for your twenty guineas a year."
"And the farm a wantin' a many things," sighed the farm's owner.
The soldier took another deep draught and so did his companion. There was silence for a minute or two, then Lieutenant Williams wiped his moist lips on the back of his hand and leaned over confidentially towards his companion.
"Tell you what, I'm sick to death of a lonely life. The servant wenches care for nothing, and the farm is a hole not fit to put my nose in. I want——"
"No, no, t'would never do. The wench is a good wench."
"Not if I give you a hundred pounds down for that little sow I saw in the sty yonder?"
"No, no, Mistress MacArthur and Mistress Laycock would wonder——"
"At so big a price for a pig?"
"It would come to his Honour's ears and he would be confiscating the farm."
"What will you take for the pig? I have set my heart on it," and Williams poured himself out another pannikin of rum.
"The wench must be wed with ring and priest like her mother before her."
"To hold it as lightly as her mother before her?"
"No, she's not that sort, I tell you. She'll stick to her bargain."
"I'll tell you what, Rosen. I'll give you two hundred guineas for that little black sow the day she weds me," and he rose to his feet.
"You mean it honest?" said the settler.
"I swear I do. And the sooner I have to pay it the better I'll be pleased. Hard cash, mind. Luck's been with me of late. And now I shall go and do some wooing, and then, friend Rosen, you must give me a shake-down for the night, for the Indians might have something to say to it if I walk down through the woods to the barracks to-night."
"They don't go about much at night," suggested Rosen.
"There isn't another man in the settlement could pay two hundred guineas down," suggested the soldier significantly, and he strolled off in the moonlight in the direction of the girl.
She saw him coming and was on her feet in a moment.
"Cousin, cousin," she cried, coming towards the house, her skirts trailing over the dewy grass, "it is quite dark but for the moon and the children are by the creek still. Is it quite safe think you?"
"Well, I'm thinking it is," but he whistled shrilly nevertheless, and four little sturdy, bare-legged children came racing toward them.
"Mistress Betty Carew," said Williams, lugubriously, "will you never speak to your humble servant?"
She made him a mocking little curtsy.
"You will surely show some hospitality to your cousin's friend."
"Oh, surely, to my cousin's friend," and she captured a small boy as he ran past her and held him in her arms.
"To-morrow, perhaps, you will speak with me? You will allow me to escort you through the woods. There is a beautiful flowering——"
"To-morrow, sir," said she, "my cousin's wife and I wash the linen. The wenches here have small skill and I am good at laundering."
"We bake, and I can make bannocks better than the best of them."
"You are most kind. But Wednesday, Cousin Rosen is going down to Sydney Cove, and he has promised I shall go, too. I have not been to the settlement since I arrived, and I want some fallals."
Williams muttered something under his breath.
"Good-night to you, then," and he turned on his heel and Betty, lightly laughing, carried the tired little boy into the house.
Ah! when autumn dells are dewy, and the dew is ever still,
And that grey ghost called the twilight passes from the distant hill—
Even in the hallowed nightfall, when the fathers sit and dream,
And the splendid rose of heaven sees a sister in the stream—
Often do I watch the waters gleaming in a starry bay,
Thinking of a bygone beauty, and a season far away;
Musing on the grace that left us in a time of singing rain,
On the lady who will never walk amongst these heaths again.
"NOW here's a modest wench for you! Bless me! I haven't seen the like since I landed in this God-forsaken land! Look up my girl, and let's see those pretty dark eyes. I warrant they've a sparkle of their own."
Betty Carew looked up involuntarily and drew away with a shamed start. The little man in the scarlet uniform with the yellow facings and the blue breeches had actually laid his hand on her shoulder.
"Now, sir, now Captain," pleaded the woman beside her, whose wrinkled old face was hidden in the depths of a calico sunbonnet. "Please to let her alone. Mistress Betty is young yet, and she is not accustomed to the gay ways of the gentry, and the soldiers in these outlandish parts."
"And you're a first fleeter, I suppose, Granny! And pray what ship did Mistress Betty honour with her presence?"
"Devereux, you young dog!" A strong hand turned the little man round. "What the——, Mistress Carew, I humbly beg your pardon. Mr. Devereux shall mind his manners for the future or I will know the reason why. There he will apologise to you himself. Yes, you will Devereux," for that young gentleman was stamping his feet and looking thunders. "Oh! never talk to me of pistols! For the honour of the New South Wales Corps you will not insult a lady."
"No, I would not," said Devereux. "But I thought—I mean—I'm sure I beg pardon humbly, Madam."
Betty bowed gravely.
"There, be off with you and take care whom you make free with next time. Mistress Carew," said James Williams, "I am at your service. What can a poor lieutenant in his Majesty's New South Wales Corps do for you? Command me."
Betty looked up with a grave smile.
She was glad Williams had interfered, but she had been avoiding him, successfully she flattered herself, for the last week, and as she looked into his coarse, sensual face she rather thought she preferred the honest foolishness of the man who had accosted her with so little ceremony.
Again she bowed gravely.
"Indeed, sir, you have done all you can, and I am deeply obliged. Ann Collins and I are just waiting till the rush is over at the stores and then we have one or two things we wish to get."
"But I might——"
"No, I thank you. You can do nothing more." And as she looked demurely down on the ground it was evident even to James Williams, who did not take a hint easily, that she did not desire his company. She curtsied and putting her hand on Ann Collins' arm drew the old woman a little aside to sit down on the fallen trunk of a tree a little apart from the stream of people who were making their way to the biscuit coloured brick store house.
"The baggage," said Williams, aggrievedly, as he joined Devereux and a tall dark man who in his shirt sleeves, because it was March and the weather was still very hot, was leaning up against the wall in the shade of the store house. "There I rescue her from you, you dog, and she will have naught to do with me."
"She's a lady," said Devereux, feeling his shoulder tenderly. "Pest on you, Williams, what a grip you've got. Where the dickens did she come from?"
"Ah! All the settlement is asking that. She lives at Parramatta with one Thomas Rosen, a free settler who came out in the Bellona. He is a decent enough farmer and she is apparently one of the family, but she is not of his kind. Come, Bass, my gay medicine man, you've been in Parramatta lately, can't you tell us something of Mistress Betty Carew? You must know something even though wenches are not in your line."
"Faith!" said Devereux, looking at his companion's splendid proportions, "he's in the wenches' line, I should think."
Bass flicked his ear cheerfully but evidently he was not quite pleased at the turn the conversation had taken.
"Mistress Carew does not lightly dispense her favours," said he. "I am no more fortunate than the rest of you."
"The poor child does not know her power yet," said Williams.
"Child!" said Devereux. "It wasn't a child that looked at me."
"Maid, then," said Williams. "Come along and drink to the lucky beggar that gets her to wife."
And Betty, watching under the ample folds of her silken hood, drew a sigh of relief.
"I'm glad the're gone," she said.
"Why, my pretty? You'd think a pretty maid like you would be on the lookout for sweethearts. But I warrant Mistress Rosen will have plenty of young gentlemen coming up to do a little game shooting about the farm in the next day or so."
But Betty held her chin a little higher.
"They shan't come for me. I wouldn't speak to either of them."
"He's a pretty man, the doctor," said the old woman, slily. "And his manners are pretty too."
Betty did not answer. She let her eyes wander over the blue waters of Sydney Cove. The ground sloped a little toward the store, and though a road had been roughly marked out, at its side the grass newly grown after the recent rain was green and pleasant to the eye. Overhead there was never a cloud and there was not a breath of wind stirring, but the concourse of people, soldiers, and convicts, settlers, and even women and children who made their way to the Government Store trampled the sandy soil into dust which rose about their feet, and their voices reached Betty's ear as a pleasant murmur.
"The stores is low," sighed the old woman. "They do say to-day will see the last of the salt meat given out, and then Lord help us! There ain't no beasts to kill, and what's a hog now and agen. It's but a sop, dearie, but a sop."
The people began to disperse at last, and there came along this road a two-wheeled light cart drawn by four men in dark-coloured smocks and knee breeches. Another cart followed, another and another, all similarly drawn by convict scarecrows. They were harnessed like horses, and their frocks were stained and torn, and the stockings of those who wore such footgear were so ragged that the dusty bare feet of the others looked more honest and certainly neater. A private of the New South Wales Corps, musket in hand, walked by each cart, and the whole company were in charge of a sergeant. The soldiers' red coats and high stocks seemed uncomfortable and out of place in the glare of the sunshine, and the prisoners' faces looked peaked and yellow and thin, and they drew their heavy loads with difficulty. But the girl hardly noticed this. She was accustomed even in this short time to a tired half-starved looking convict; indeed, all the settlement was hard up for food.
"We can go now, Ann," she said, rising and shaking the dust from her skirts. Here come the carts for the Brickfields. Let us be quick before the store shuts."
"Ah, dearie, dearie me," said the old woman; "the poor fellows, the poor fellows," and she went so close to the leader in the nearest cart that their hands touched and the soldier in charge sang out to her:—
"Did you give him that tobacco I gave you?" asked the girl in an undertone.
"Ah, dearie, dearie me, my pretty. He's but a lad and his back all cut to pieces with the 500 they gave him for stealing a turnip from his Honour's farm. They work hard and go half-famished, and the gnawing of it, Missie, the gnawing of it. You don't know the gnawing of it."
The girl gave an impatient sigh.
There was so much misery around her and yet she had come into Sydney just to buy if she could a piece of sarcenet. It seemed wrong somehow, but she wanted the sarcenet.
There were only a few children round the door now on the lookout for any scraps that might have been dropped. One little party in ragged smocks were dressed to a line, and the boy at the head was commanding them, issuing his orders in a deep voice.
"Steady men, steady. Now, when I give the word. March! Left right, left right, left wheel. Steady, men, steady! You are going into the woods immediately to rout out the Indians. Now, steady."
He was only about eight years old, and Betty smiled down on the stern little face. It was a white face, too, for the summer had been long and their food was poor and unsuitable. She had a little packet of precious sugar in her bag and she undrew the strings and held it out to the boy.
"For all of you, mind, my little captain, fair."
"Oh, fair does, lady," he said gravely, and she lifted her smiling eyes from the child's face to meet the penetrating dark ones of George Bass.
"Permit me, madam," he said, offering her her pocket handkerchief.
"Oh, surely, could I have been so careless? And in this country where cambric is an unattainable luxury."
"I am fortunate," began Bass, who had put his coat on now and looked a finer fellow than ever. "Will you allow me."
"I only want some little thing from the store," hesitated Betty, because she caught sight of Williams' back in the doorway of the thatched hut next the store. She knew it for a tavern, and the back hardly looked sober. She wished with all her heart she had some one besides old Ann Collins as an escort.
"Madam," said Bass, gravely and courteously, "if you want any feminine fads now is your very best time, for his Honour himself has just gone in to take stock, and if you will permit me to escort you I shall esteem it an honour."
"Indeed," Betty hesitated, for Williams was coming towards them now, and he had toasted her so often, though she did not know that, that his step was not quite as steady as it might have been, "I doubt I was unwise—-"
"Permit me," said Bass, and he drew her hand through his arm. She looked straight in his face and the young man thought he had never seen such lovely dark eyes, such bright red lips, with the proudest little curl in them. He returned her look. Then he raised the big shady hat that he wore, for George Bass was ever unconventional.
"Permit me, Madam. Sydney is no place for a lady young and unprotected. Let me manage this for you, see you get your purchases, see you safe on board the Rose Hill packet, and then if you will it so you need never notice me again. I am your humble servant."
They were close at the door of the store now, and it looked dark after the brilliant sunshine outside. Behind she heard Williams' voice, thick and husky with the rum he had drunk, but Betty looked at her companion with a brilliant, trusting smile. Her fears had vanished now.
"That is not the way I treat my friends," said she, and the young surgeon of the Reliance felt his heart beat faster than its wont as he entered the store and found himself face to face with Governor Hunter.
"Hallo, my lad," said the bluff old gentleman, kindly. "What have we here?"
Inside the store was lined with logs, for the bricks had been built up over the old log building, and the interstices were filled up with mud. The walls were plainly to be seen, for the place was woefully empty. There were some big harness casks in one corner, some planks on trestles down the middle, on which were weights and scales, made a sort of counter, and in the far corner were a few, a very few bales of cloth and a box or two of boots and shoes.
"This, your Honour," said Bass, presenting Betty, "is Mistress Betty Carew, who, having lost her cousin in the crowd, has done me the honour to allow me to escort her and her woman hither."
The Governor, like the bluff old sailor he was, first bowed low over Betty's hand, and then put his own kindly on her shoulder.
"You're too pretty a maid to be straying about Sydney alone," said he. "No one would insult you, but still——"
"I am deeply obliged to Mr. Bass, your Honour."
The Governor gave Bass a dig in the ribs, which made that young man blush to the roots of his dark hair. Seldom was powder worn in Sydney in those days, whatever they might do in England.
"And what can the Governor do for you, Mistress Betty? I trust you want neither salt nor flour, for the last ounce of both is gone," and he sighed, for indeed he did not know but that the little colony was on the brink of starvation.
Betty blushed. She had not expected to present her request to the Governor himself.
"It was some sarcenet I wanted, your Honour," she said, "and the storehouse at Parramatta——"
"Did not contain such furbelows. Well, I doubt if the storehouse at Sydney does. Still, there were some stuffs sent out for Mistress MacArthur and the other officers' ladies. Here, Walker, Walker"—a man rose up from under the counter where Betty had not noticed him—"open me one of the bales there and let Mistress Betty see what manner of mercer's man the Governor of the colony makes."
There was no green sarcenet but there was some blue satin, and Betty chose that and some white muslin, hesitated over some dimity for a petticoat, the Governor, his secretary, the storekeeper, and George Bass looking on with deepest interest.
"You want the petticoat, my pretty," said Ann Collins.
"Yes, but"—Betty emptied five golden guineas on to the counter—"this is all I have, and I do not know——"
The Governor swept them back into her bag again.
"You will permit an old man," said he, "to give you these. He has never done such a thing in his life before, but for the sake of your sweet English face in this land of iniquity—Walker, do them up so as her woman can carry them and enter them to my charge."
"Oh, your Honour," said Betty, "I——"
There came a cry that was taken up and echoed again and again and grew apace.
"A sail! A sail! A ship! A store ship! A sail!" and a sound of rushing, hurrying feet, swept past the door.
"A ship!" cried the Governor, and he gathered up Betty's possessions and bundled them into Ann's arms. "Providence will sure never be so kind. It will be the saving of this community." And he, too, ran to the door and away down the rough track to the shore of the cove.
Gather ye rose-buds while ye may,
Old Time is still aflying,
And this same flower that smiles to-day,
To-morrow will be dying.
Then be not coy, but use your time;
And while ye may, go marry,
For having lost but once your prime
You may for ever tarry.
Betty had wandered away from the huts, and with her knitting in her hand was resting in the shade of the crest of the hill. Behind her stretched away park-like lands, away, away till they lost themselves in the great unknown wilderness that lay between her and all the civilised world. At her feet were the blue waters of the harbour, on her right hand, but hidden by a slight rise, the little town of Parramatta. The east wind fanned her cheek softly and brought a breath of the fresh ocean with it, and before it, coming up on the flowing tide, with white sails set, was the little colonial built launch that the people called the Rose Hill packet, or more familiarly "The Lump." She might be ugly and ungainly close at hand, but seen from this distance she lent the touch of life the picture needed. The sky was bright and blue, and the wonderful foliage, washed clean by the recent rain, showed to her eyes what varying tints the one prevailing green might put on. And then Betty sighed. It was beautiful, it was more than beautiful, but—but—why was she here? Her father had sent her away, he had given her no choice in the matter. She had been as much a prisoner as the other unfortunate wretches she had met on her way up here. True, she did not haul logs in harness, and she had thirty golden guineas a year, but she was lonely and far from her kith and kin. Thomas Rosen was kind and so was his wife, but, cousins though she called them, they did not belong to the class she had accounted herself as belonging to, and she was lonely, very, very lonely. She had crept away among the hills here to be out of the way of the clash of tongues and the splash and clatter that accompanied washing-day in the tiny mud-floored, thatched farm house. She stretched out her arms. The soft blue gingham dress she wore was folded softly over her rounded bosom, and, opening, showed her full white throat. Eighteen, and the blood of her passionate, loving mother was racing through her veins. What did she want? What does all lonely womanhood want at eighteen?
"I want, I want——" she sighed.
There was a rustle in the grass behind her, and she started to her feet, for she remembered the woods were lonely, and out of them might come all manner of unknown dangers, and the only sign of civilisation was the white sail of the launch. She wondered if they would hear her cry. White men or black, she hardly knew which she dreaded most.
Then the branches of the thick black currajong shrubs parted, and a tall man in somewhat travel-stained clothes stood bowing low before her.
"Mistress Carew," he said, "I hope I don't intrude on your privacy."
"Oh, you," she said with a sigh of relief and gladness he did not fail to note, "Mr. Bass," and she sat down again and he seated himself beside her, dropping his musket at his feet.
"How you frightened me!" she said.
"Frightened you! I would not do that for worlds, but is it safe for a young lady out here in the wild bush? There are the convicts, there are the Indians, and I know not what manner of wild animal. We have seen none as yet, but still——"
"And I didn't know whether you were an Indian or a convict, or a tiger, or—or—worse still." And she laughed lightly because she felt safe now.
"What does the worse mean?"
But she only laughed. "Never mind. Have you been shooting? Tell me what you have shot?"
"I have shot a big kangaroo and a brown bird with a beautiful tail something like a pheasant. Will you have the skin? I can cure it for you and the tail is beautiful."
"Will you? Oh, thank you. You are good. And what else are you doing? You can't shoot here. I have sat so still, and I have seen nothing but a little busy blue and black wren. And you mustn't shoot him. He is a tiny thing and he is under my protection."
"I will never shoot him nor any of his brothers for your sake. What else was I doing? I was going to your cousin's farm. I—I——" he stammered a little, "I wanted to see you."
"And you see me without going," smiled Betty, graciously.
"That is a bit of good luck for a poor sailor man who hasn't had much so far."
"And now you do see me?" asked Betty, with smiling happy eyes. She did not want anything now he had come, and she no longer wondered why her father had exiled her to a far distant land. She was more than content, though she did not know it herself.
"I came to say good-bye for a little," said Bass, thinking how softly pretty was the dark curling hair with the golden gleam in it that rested so lightly on her white forehead under her silken hood.
"Oh!" a little shadow came into her eyes and he noted it gladly.
"Will you welcome me back again?" he asked, eagerly, so eagerly she felt she had betrayed herself and looked away down the harbour.
"Why should you go?"
"It is an old promise. You would not have me break promises," he pleaded, as if she had the best right in the world to question his actions. "I promised Matt Flinders to go down the coast with him to look for a great river we have heard of, if he could get leave. I have looked for it anxiously till the last week or so, and now—and now he sends word all is ready, and——" George Bass stooped forward, took the slim white hand from which the knitting had dropped, and put his lips to it.
The touch of his lips sent a thrill through her veins, a flush to her cheek, and it brightness to her eyes.
"And now," she whispered. "And now?"
"I would give the world to stay here."
"How do you know you would be welcome?"
"I don't know. I only hope," and he kissed her hand again.
"But you won't be long?"
"No. In so small a boat we can carry so little, we must come back soon. That is the best of it." If Flinders could only have heard him.
"It—it will be dangerous," said Betty, with a sudden tightening at her heart that not a little surprised herself.
"No—no," he said, soothingly, tenderly, and there was a glow of delight and gladness in his heart he could not express. "We have been before. It is nothing—nothing. Worthless sailor-men are bound to turn up safe and sound."
"You are not a worthless sailor-man," said Betty, gravely. "You know I do not think so."
"Betty, my sweetheart, Betty, Betty." He had both her hands still; she looked away at the little launch that was in shoal water now, approaching its destination. "Betty, wouldst thou care if I never came back?"
She looked round then, and her soft brown eyes full of a growing fear looked straight into his piercing dark ones.
"Thou wouldst. Betty, my sweet love"—he had drawn her towards him till his arms were round her and her head on his breast—"Betty, Betty."
The shadows were growing longer and longer, and the sun had come right round till his long level rays were darting straight in their faces as if he would read the whole truth. A magpie on a big gum-tree overhead poured out his evening hymn, a flight of grass green parrakeets flew chattering across the narrow harbour, and George Bass gathered the woman he loved closer to him.
"I love thee, I love thee," he whispered.
"And I love thee," she answered back, so low he barely caught the words.
But he did catch them.
"My own little wife," he cried aloud, exulting.
Then another thought struck him.
"Oh, Betty! I am as poor as a church mouse," he said. "Dost thou mind? There should be plenty of chances of making our fortunes in this new country."
"I don't mind," she said, with the bravery of youth and love; "but what will Thomas Rosen say?"
"Has he any say in the matter? Your guardian——"
"He is my guardian. And he wishes—I know—he wants——"
"He doesn't want to marry you to anyone else, sure?"
Betty's hand tightened on his.
"He does," she whispered. "It will make no difference—but he does."
"Who? Who?" Bass's voice sounded stern.
"The worse," said Betty with a little laugh. "The thing I told you I feared worse than the tiger."
"Betty, my sweetheart!"
She certainly did not fear now with his arms round her.
"Lieutenant James Williams," she said. "You know—you saw—he has been up to the farm as often as you have—oftener, indeed, sir," she smiled roguishly, "and Cousin Rosen says I am to marry him."
"But, Betty, you will not. They cannot make you."
"No, no, indeed. They cannot make me. They will not do more than try and persuade. Besides, in a week you will be back."
"I will not go," said Bass, with a sudden premonition of evil; "when he knows how things stand Matt Flinders will let me off my bargain."
"And a fine lady love he will think you have gotten," said Betty, lightly touching his lips with her dainty fingers. "She begins by making you break with your friend, and cannot trust either herself or you for a week. A fine beginning, truly."
He found a way to stop her saucy lips.
"Then I am to go, Betty."
"Ah, dear, my dear," the sauciness was gone and her voice was all tenderness, "because I love thee, would I keep thee from thy duty. Besides, it is only a week, only a little week. God keep thee safe, dear, on the sea, and surely nothing can happen to me in a week."
"No," said Bass, thoughtfully, "what could happen? And yet I hate to leave thee."
"And I hate to let thee go. But go you must. You will love me better when you come back from the sea and find me safe and sound."
"I could not do that," he said fervently. "But I shall explain matters to Rosen to-night."
"We must go back," said Betty, looking at the sinking sun.
And they walked back through the darkening landscape together. Never before had George Bass appreciated its beauties so thoroughly, never before had he noted how gorgeous was the sunset, how sweet and tender was the drowsy croon of the little birds in the shrubs, how pure and musical the song of the black and white magpie, how shrill and joyous the skirl of the cicada in the bushes. A lovely land! A land where a man might build himself a home, a humble home maybe, but with his wife waiting in the doorway his coming at even, his children—his heart beat. He stooped and kissed her tenderly, reverently. Never was man happier than George Bass this autumn evening, never was woman more passionately loved than Betty Carew.
But that night when he was gone Thomas Rosen went down to Parramatta to the barracks, and there he found a soldier who for a consideration undertook to deliver a message to Lieutenant Williams before sunrise next morning.
"The doctor wants your ewe lamb," ran the message, and the man wondered that the settler should take so much interest in the farm stock of his neighbours. True, two lambs were valuable possessions in those days; anyhow, it was no business of his, and he was glad enough to earn a quart of rum.
There dwells a wife by the Northern Gate,
And a wealthy wife is she;
She breeds a breed o' rovin' men
And casts them over sea.
She wills her sons to the wet ploughing,
To ride the horse of tree,
And syne her sons come back again
Far spent from out the sea.
The good wife's sons come home again
With little into their hands,
But the lore of men that ha' dealt with men
In the new and naked lands.
THE MORNING of the 25th of March, 1796, broke bright and fair in the little town of Sydney, and Mr. George Bass, who had been moving quietly about the room in the new barracks which he shared with young Devereux—for he was glad to escape when he could from his cramped quarters on board the Reliance, slipped on a pair of long sea boots, crushed a sou'-wester on his head, flung a heavy cloak and his oil-skins over his arm, and with one glance at his sleeping companion softly opened the door and let himself out into the roadway. A sentry started up and confronted him.
"Who goes there?"
"Good luck," said Bass, impatiently.
"Pass good luck, and the best of good fortune go with you."
"That's a good omen," said the explorer. "I treat you for that when I come back safe."
There was a breeze blowing from the west, a gentle breeze, that set all the waters of the cove sparkling in the sunlight. The stir of busy life was beginning, for the sun was up over Flagstaff Hill, and all the cocks in the settlement were crowing. The air was fresh with the freshness of early morning, even the miserable mud huts of the convicts and the yellow brick tiled houses of the civilians and officers were glorified, and Parson Johnson's ugly wattle and dab church on the other side of the cove took on a beauty of its own. The Tank stream running a banker sang dreamily as it flowed between its green banks, and the song it sang to George Bass was of love and success, success and love. The little wavelets that rippled round the black sides of the old Reliance and beat against the rocky shore of the cove sang the same song, and his feet kept time to it as he swung along the road to the boat landing on the west side near the market-place and the Government storehouse. There were some she-oaks still standing there, though Governor Hunter threatened their lives every time he looked at them, and the wind, as it sighed through their needles, sang a different tune. It was a sad refrain, but Bass did not heed it. Love and success, the bright morning said to him, and love and success it should be. He would listen to no other tune.
A man and a boy were already in the little white boat, and as Bass sprang down the bank and into it, Flinders loosened the painter from a stump and pushed off with an oar.
"Never knew you late before," he grumbled. "George, my friend, this dangling after women doth not become thee."
Bass looked into the bright, clever, boyish face, and laughed.
"Just after sunrise, I said, and here I am. Peter, stow that cloak and oilskins under the thwart and see they don't get wetter than you can help. The boat's leaking like a sieve. Where's that tin pannikin? Stir yourself now and bale. We'll have a fair wind anyway down the harbour."
"We shan't catch it yet awhile," said Flinders, who was recovering his good humour now he was fairly off, looking up into the clear blue sky overhead, "but catch it we shall before we've done. The glass is lower than I've seen it in these parts yet."
"Prophesy me no evil things," said Bass, contentedly, taking the steering oar while Flinders shook out the sail.
Merrily danced the little Tom Thumb over the waters of the bay, and soon they had left behind them every sign of human occupation. These three were alone in strange seas in the tiny boat. They had passed through the frowning heads before they had their simple breakfast, and were sailing south into the unknown. For once Bass lent a deaf ear to Flinders' plans and hopes. He was building for himself a castle in Spain, building it broad and wide, building it tall and high, and the queen of that castle was a beautiful dark-haired maiden with glorious, thoughtful eyes. Ah, George Bass, who lived and loved, and was glad and miserable one hundred years ago, you are not the only one who has builded himself castles in Spain.
And all day long the little boat sailed southward. The boy sat on the bottom boards munching biscuit contentedly enough, and his masters took turns at the steering oar. The sun poured down on them, and the blue sky was cloudless. They seemed to be in the bottom of a depression, with the blue sky fitting down as a lid, fitting closely too, save where to starboard stood out the dark line of coast. A few gulls wheeled round them, but in all the wide sea there was never a sail.
Flinders was in extravagant spirits. All sorts of possibilities were in the air. They two, with this snippet of a boy, were helping to lay the foundations of an empire, they were laying the foundations of their own fortunes. If they found this river then this voyage of theirs in the little boat should never be forgotten, and the names of Bass and Flinders should be remembered when in years to come this new country should be great and powerful. And then he would pause, chaff his companion, and take a deep draught of water, for the heat was sweltering.
And Bass was unusually silent. For once he listened with but half an ear to his friend's talk of exploration and empire, to his hopes of wealth and fame. A new voice was speaking in his heart, and it was drowning all others. What were empire and wealth and fame to him, weighed in the balance with soft dark-brown eyes and a ripe red mouth? Nothing! No, not nothing, but only spoils to be laid at her feet.
And then the day began to draw in, and the little cask of water was empty.
"Water and biscuit and salt pork for breakfast," commented Bass, "biscuit and water and salt pork for dinner, and salt pork and biscuit and no-water for supper."
"We'll go ashore," said Flinders. "I reckon we're far enough south by now."
"Put your helm up, Matt. Slack away your sheet, boy."
But the breakers were dashing against the foot of the cliffs. There seemed no chance of their getting ashore without swamping the boat, though after sailing a mile or two they saw a place where evidently a little creek came down to the beach.
"I'll have to swim for it," said Bass. "Don't clear out and leave me now, old man."
He stripped, tied the rope that was attached to the cask round his waist; and threw it overboard.
"Sure you're all right?" asked Flinders.
"There's a buoy for me, anyhow. I can't drown. Here, give me a hanger in case of savages. Now then."
He let himself down quietly into the water, swam into the breakers, the cask bobbing after him, and the next roller carried him ashore. He waved his hand and disappeared, and for half an hour his companions waited. There was very little daylight now, the objects on shore loomed large and distorted, and Flinders was getting anxious when there came a hail out of the growing darkness.
"Ay, ay, right you are."
He made a flare with some cotton waste, and a moment or two later Bass had his hand on the gunwale, panting a little from his struggle through the breakers.
"Quick, then," said Flinders, taking the steering oar and helping him, "that last roller carried us too close in. It'll never do to be beached. The cask! Ah!"
The breakers had caught them, and the next moment they were high on the only little bit of sand the rocky beach afforded.
But not dry though. Provisions, ammunition, arms, clothes, were wet through and through with sea water.
The two men looked at each other for a moment; the boy picked himself up from the sand where he had been flung, and they drew the boat out of the reach of the waves.
"That decides it," said Flinders, as Bass scrambled into his wet clothes; "we'll stop the night here."
"We can't. The breakers are up to the foot of the cliff when the tide's in."
"How about the creek?"
"It might float a toy boat as far as I've been."
"Heigh-ho for a sailor's life! Cramped quarters for us this night as well as damp ones. Get in, Peter, you young beggar. Wait for the next wave. We must launch her."
It was as Flinders said, cramped quarters, and damp ones, too, and the night seemed intolerably long. Their oil-skins protected them somewhat, but as they roused each other to change watches they were both inclined to be a little sarcastic on the rosy pictures Flinders had been painting in the warm sunshine. But the daylight came at last, and they found themselves under the lee of Red Point.
"Too far south for the river Hacking spoke of, I believe," said Bass.
Flinders shaded his eyes.
"There's an Indian on the beach. I wonder if we can get anything out of him."
They went in as close as they dared. Bass produced a little mirror and a long string of beads, and held them out. The blackfellow was joined by another, and presently both plunged into the water.
"Oh, by Jove!" said Flinders, "I'm not bargaining for passengers."
"The water'll wash a little of the stink off," opined Bass. "In the interests of science, friend, I suppose," and he helped haul the dripping, shiny black figures aboard.
"Now," said Flinders, "if we wink an eyelid on the wrong side over we go. George, you're a better hand at their lingo than I am. Ask your friend with the nice piece of bone in his nose, and the charming head-dress of fish-guts, if there is a river anywhere in these parts."
They had evidently seen white men before, and as far as Bass could make out from the smattering of Botany Bay dialect he had picked up, and their broken English, there was a river to the south, and they offered to pilot them there.
"Pray heaven," said Flinders, "it be not far off."
It was not far off, but, alas, for their hopes of a mighty river, the stream was so tiny that the little Tom Thumb could barely float in it. They saw more blackfellows in the distance, and Bass promptly turned their visitors out, hanging a string of beads round each oily neck.
"Ten," counted Peter from his place in the bottom of the boat, "and they do say as they be the most outrageous cannibals."
"Well, they won't begin on you, Peter," said Bass, "a snippet like you ain't worth it. Matt, we must make shift to clean the muskets and dry the powder, cannibals or no cannibals. We'll fill our little barico again, too. I doubt that water I got last night was very brackish."
The creek was very pretty and wild looking once they got beyond the salt of the sea. Its banks were stony, covered with mosses and creepers, with ferns and flowering shrubs, but it was only a tiny creek, they soon saw, flowing from the lagoon at the foot of Hat Hill, and from among the bush and undergrowth peered faces, a spear poked itself through the ti-tree, a hand clasping a waddy lay on that stone.
"We must put a bold face on it," said Bass. "Go to sea again before we've dried our powder and our clothes I won't. Here's a nice flat piece of ground with plenty of sun on it. Out with you, boy. Here, my friend," he caught the stark naked gentleman whose head-dress Flinders had disapproved of, and thrust a broken oar into his hand, making signs to him that he expected him and his friends to mend it.
There was a tremendous yabbering as the blackfellows clustered round him, all talking at once.
"Now, Matt," he called hastily, still with his back to the boat and her occupants, "quick. Get out the powder. This hot sun'll dry it in no time, and the oar'll keep those follows going a bit."
Once the little company were hard at work he took up a musket and began to clean it. The powder was all spread out now, and so were all their spare clothes, and Flinders, too, started on his musket. The blackfellows looked round, then they dropped the oar with a sort of shriek that made little Peter shiver and run close to Bass. One or two spears were poised, and Flinders whistled.
"We're in a tight corner, George. What would Mistress Betty Carew think if she could see her lover now?"
Bass dropped his musket coolly. It would never do to seem afraid. There was a large pair of scissors in the pocket of the oil-skins that lay drying in the sun, and he picked them up and snipped off a piece of his own hair and hold it up for their inspection.
"Go on with your work, boy. If you are to die you may as well go before your Maker with a clean sheet."
Then he cut a lock from Flinders' dark head, and held that up too.
"Sacrificing my lovelocks in this wholesale fashion," said that young gentleman cheerfully, seizing the scissors. "Look at the beggars. Look at their rolling eyes and gleaming teeth. Here, I'll settle 'em," and he cut a very matted unpleasant-looking chunk of hair from the blackfellow nearest him.
The man gave a sort of howl, whether of pleasure or pain it was difficult to say, but young Flinders chose to consider it the former, and forcing the man gently to his knee's, caught him by his greasy beard and proceeded to clip it close.
"Are you getting on all right, George? The powder must be pretty near dry by now. Jove! you should see this beggar's eyes roll. Wonder what would be the effect of taking off a little—just a little snip, from his nose. Wouldn't it make him yell!"
"For heaven's sake, Matt! The position's critical!"
"It's all right, man. I'm resisting temptation. It isn't exactly the place for a scrimmage. Now then, No. 2."
It was ticklish work. Bass and the boy worked double tides, and Flinders clipped one naked savage after the other amidst a crowd of wondering spectators, and they knew it could not possibly last long. Bass put the clothes and provisions back into the boat before they were half dry, but half-dry powder would be useless. He filled the little cask with water. The sun was high in the heaven now, and the very rocks were hot. He looked up the creek, and he saw more dark figures stealing along through the brushwood. Then he felt the powder; it was dry at last.
"Matt," he called, with a sigh of relief. Flinders shut up his scissors with a snap, and one savage was turned off with his toilet but half complete. "Into the boat with you." The next moment they were in the middle of the tiny stream, as far away from their new friends as they could get, which was not very far, and the naked black figures bunched themselves together, and poising their spears, began a sort of mournful recitative, which ended with a yell that sounded decidedly defiant. Bass and Flinders each took an oar.
"Boy, toss them those beads on the thwarts there. That'll keep them going till we get out to sea, if we've luck. The best of these Indians is they never seem to be able to quite make up their minds to stick you as long as you look them in the face."
But it was not till they reached the open ocean that they breathed freely. They tossed their oars in board, Bass set the sail, and Flinders, wiping the sweat from his brow, remarked:
"Mistress Betty Carew has me to thank for her lover this day."
"Mistress Betty Carew," remarked Peter, who was coiling the anchor rope up neatly, "is away to the woods by now, I guess."
Bass gripped the sheet.
"What do you know of Mistress Betty Carew?" he asked, sharply.
"Oh, naught, sir, naught."
He put his hand on the boy's shoulder and shook him roughly.
"Sir, sir," pleaded the boy. "It was only Sim the Chute and Long-Nosed Bill said as Lieutenant Williams was bound to have her, if he had to carry her off to his farm at Toongabbee."
"Let him alone, George," said Flinders. "Will you pay heed to the gossip of convicts and common soldiers?"
"If it should be true," he said, beneath his breath, and an awful fear took possession of his soul.
"But it ain't likely to be true," said his companions. "Gad! explorers shouldn't have hearts, it hampers 'em dreadful. We'll have to get ashore somewhere for to-night. The wind's against us, and we're about done."
The pleasure of the voyage was gone for Bass. The boy's words frightened him. It might, as Flinders said, be only camp gossip, but he longed to be in Sydney again, to see with his own eyes that she was safe, to protect her if need be. But the wind was against them. There was nothing for it, as Flinders said, but to land and rest after their labours.
They beached the boat in a little sandy cove under Hat Hill, and making of her a breakwind, they covered themselves in their oilskins and lay down on the warm sand. Flinders and the boy were asleep as soon as their heads touched their rough pillows, but Bass lay and watched the clouds scurrying across the sky. In the wrong direction, south they were flying, and he repeated the words he had heard over and over again. He would never dare—he would never dare. He comforted himself with the thought as a star peered out from among the wild clouds—he would never dare. And yet it was quite feasible, in the state of the settlement at present, it was perfectly feasible for a cold, unscrupulous man to carry off the woman he admired, provided her relations made no fuss. Would they make a fuss? They would—surely they would. And he must sleep; he would never be fit for work; for him the night would never end, and to-morrow if he did not, and then he went over it all again. It seemed to him, when at last he had given up all hope of wooing sleep, that tricky sprite came to him, and it seemed but a moment before Flinders was shaking him by the shoulder, and he opened his eyes to see the cliffs above him looking dark and threatening in the first faint light of the morning.
And the wind was still against them, and the sea was getting up. Flinders proposed they should stay where they were, and explore a little way inland, but Bass would not hear of it. He was feverishly anxious to get back to Sydney and see with his own eyes that all was right. It might be only camp gossip, as Flinders said, but still he wanted to be sure of that. And so all day long they pulled against wind and sea, and at nightfall they reckoned they were only four leagues nearer home. Darkness fell, the clouds were racing across the sky, the wind shifted every few minutes, there were vivid flashes of lightning and deep growls of threatening thunder. Flinders turned the boat's head inshore.
"We must shelter," he said. "Out with the anchor, boy. This little cove'll shelter us from every gale but a southerly one."
And Bass was perforce obliged to acquiesce. It was madness to try and go any further.
The wind freshened. It was a gale now. The flashes of lightning grew more frequent and more brilliant, the storm clouds heavier, the thunder closer. Round went the wind, and when it was sou'-east Bass, with a feeling of exultation he did not care to own to, for this was a home wind, shook his comrade wide awake.
"Heavens! How you sleep! How can you! In this gale?"
"How can't you after such a day's work? Gad! Listen to the shrieking of the gale! The wind's shifted."
"Another point and we'll be ashore and the rocks are——"
A great green sea came rolling in; in the lightning flash it looked mountains high. Bass slipped the anchor, and in a moment it had caught them. Would it leave them on the point, or would they just clear it? The three held their breath, Flinders seized the steering oar and tried to guide the boat, and Bass shook loose the sail. The lightning showed them poised high on top of a great green precipice; to port were the dark frowning cliffs; they could just see the line of white breakers at their feet, and then the great sea swept them down—down into its depth, and another towered high behind them. Down, down, the following sea caught them, and as it tossed them up they saw by another lightning flash they had cleared one point. It was breathless work. Flinders strained at the steering oar and Bass sat with the sheet in his hand, easing it a little on top of the seas where they felt the full force of the wind. The boy baled as hard as he could, but still the seas slopped over the gunwales, and the frail little boat was more than half full of water.
"My land!" said Flinders, "but it knows how to do things in these parts!"
George Bass said nothing. For the first time in his life he feared death.
"I'll keep her nor' by east, George. We must run before it. I doubt we mayn't save our skins."
If he should drown now. If this great green wave coming behind should swamp them. If he should never stand among the currajongs and the oaks above Parramatta any more, never feel soft arms round his neck, never hold in his own——
"For God's sake George, don't let her jibe, man. Ease your sheet a bit more!"
Then came the rain. Regular tropical rain that came down in a deluge. It blotted out shore and sea, and wild sky over head. It grew darker and darker, and soon all they could see was the white tops of the waves, the breakers, and the dark line of the cliffs to port. The water lapped round their feet, and all their baling could not keep the boat dry. They grew used to it a little, the racing waves, the shriek of the wind, the roar of the waters, but it was near the end now, it was very near the end, they had been running before the gale an hour, and it seemed to Bass the little Tom Thumb could last no longer. Every race down the big incline he thought would be her last. More than once he thought the end had come, and he pictured the woman who, with weary, loving eyes, should stand on the crest of the hill and look down the reach of water for the lover who should never come back to her, who was lost, and no man could tell her how he died. Oh, the weariness of the long wait! The awfulness of the suspense! His heart ached for her sorrow and if——. Then he came back to this world, and Flinders was calling out that the dark loom of the cliffs was gone, and there was only the white line of the breakers. There came a sudden lull in the storm, as if it were gathering itself for fresh efforts. Bass pulled down the mast and sail, Flinders got her head to wind, and Bass seized an oar.
"Now, Matt," he cried, "it's neck or nothing," and he was surprised how cheerful his own voice sounded. "We must pull for the reef, man, pull for the reef. Bale, boy, for all you're worth."
They rested on their oar's a moment as a sea passed them, then in the lull that followed they rowed with might and main. Another pause, another lull, another pull, till every sinew ached, the moments seemed to stretch themselves into hours. One more tremendous wave—Bass gave up all for lost—and the boat was floating half full but safe in the quiet water on the other side of the reef and the gale was shrieking away harmlessly over their heads.
The worldly hope men set their hearts upon
Turns ashes—or it prospers; and anon,
Like snow upon the desert's dusty face,
Lighting a little hour or two—is gone.
"AND Mr. Williams has asked for your hand, cousin," said Mistress Rosen as she helped Ann Collins clear away the simple supper table.
"I'm sure he has honoured me greatly," said Betty, standing in the doorway and looking away down the creek. She said it absently, and there was a happy flush on her cheeks and a smile in her dark eyes. Mistress Rosen whisked off the coarse linen table cloth and scattered the crumbs all over the hard earthen floor.
"Ann, Ann, a whisk there and the dust pan. Nay, but cousin, Mr. Williams is a very proper man and a grand soldier, and Rosen thinks a deal of him."
"Oh, of course, he is very kind." But her words were dreamy. She was not thinking of what she was saying.
"Cousin!" Mistress Rosen brought her back to this world by the simple process of stamping her foot, she had no sympathy with idle dreams. "Rosen says you are to wed him or he will know the reason why."
"Wed who! Mr. Williams? I had rather be in my grave, Mary Rosen. Besides, I am pledged now to Mr. Bass."
"Rosen will never hear of it. Mr. Bass, with never a penny to jingle in his pockets. He'll never hear of it. You may make up your mind to that, cousin."
"I can wait," said Betty, serenely. "We are in no hurry."
"Ay, but Rosen is. Mark my words. He has said you shall wed Mr. Williams, and wed him you will. A chit of a girl like you must do as wiser heads think proper," and she filled a basin with warm water and began washing up her china carefully.
Betty stepped outside and watched the last rays of the sunset, and listened to the soft noises of the night.
Old Ann Collins came out with a pail to get water from the creek, for all the men were hard at work fencing, and she was the only woman servant the farm house possessed—women were scarce in those days. She passed close to Betty.
"Don't anger them, dearie, don't be angering them."
"No, I won't, Ann. But, after all, what could they do? Mr. Bass will be home before a week is over."
So she said to herself what did it all matter? What could it matter? They could not force her to wed Mr. Williams, and Mr. Bass would be back soon. A week at the very most he had said. So she stayed outside till it was quite dark, till the great swift, the Indians named the mopoke, began its mournful cry, and the little white owl that lived in the big gum tree that overshadowed the vegetable garden flitted across her path like a disembodied spirit. Then the gloom of the great woods that shut them in on every side began to oppress her, and she came back to the house, and, because in the living-room, the one oil lamp gave but a dim light, she went to the room she shared with Ann Collins and the two eldest girls and undressed herself, and lay down on her little low bed, and gazed out of the unglazed hole that did duty as window. By and by they would put glass in it, but they had none as yet, and as long as the nights were warm, they left the rough shutter open both for light and air. It was a rough nest for a delicately-nurtured lady. The floor was of earth, the walls were of rough unhewn logs, ceiling there was none. She could look straight up into the thatched roof. On the floor were some kangaroo skins, and in one corner was Betty's own great oaken chest, that had been her mother's before her, and that she had brought from England with her with all her small belongings in it. But she was more than content. What are small discomforts when one has all the world? She lay and watched the square of sky framed by the logs of the window, she noticed the bright points of the stars, she watched them pale before the rising moon. The two little girls came in and crept into the bed opposite hers and whispered their childish secrets to each other. And then came Ann, poor tired Ann, and laid herself down on one of the skins and drew a blanket over her. It was a primitive bed-chamber, but Betty thought nothing of that. She was happy, oh, so happy, too happy to sleep. But that did not matter. Youth and happiness can lie awake gladly enough. The others slept, she heard their soft breathing, the light went out from under the crack of the door; her cousin's wife had gone to bed and the day was done.
How bright the moon was. She was almost tempted to get up and go and lean out of the window and see what the landscape looked like. If she did not go to sleep soon, she would. A soft breeze stirred and brought to her nostrils the rich aromatic scent of the primeval bush. The moon rose higher and lay a white path of clear cool light on the floor. Then she dozed a little, and she wakened with a start. What was that? Surely nothing! But the square of window was darkened and the moonlight was gone from the floor.
Betty clutched her clothes round her, and a sudden terror took her. All the awful tales of murders done by convicts and the Indians flashed through her mind, and they were a lot of women and helpless. They were two men who had got through her window. Ann was sleeping, so were the children. Should she scream and make a dash for the door? Their servants had always been so trustworthy; they had counted themselves safe from all but the savages, and had counted on the convicts to guard them from them. But these were no savages. They did not even appear very much afraid. Their footsteps on the floor sounded quite loud. Perhaps there was some reasonable explanation. They must have mistaken the window. One of the two men trod on Ann Collins hand, and she awoke with a shriek.
"That's the old woman," said a voice, Betty recognised, with a thrill, as belonging to Mr. Williams; "gag her if she don't hold her tongue. Now, madam," and he laid a hand on her shoulder. It wanted but that to rouse her. She flung off his hand, sprang out on the floor and raised a shrill cry.
"Madam, madam, I will do you no hurt, I give you my word, but you must come with me."
The little girls, roused out of their slumbers, began to shriek affrightedly, and the other man thrust some sugar into their hands.
"Eat that," said he, "and hold your little tongues."
"But, Cousin Betty," sobbed the eldest.
"Cousin Betty must come with us and we'll do her no harm."
The door was thrust open now, and Mistress Rosen, holding a rushlight in her hand, stood in the doorway. She had heard her children's cry. The tiny light illumined her face and the flapping frills of her night cap.
By it Betty saw, too, that Williams had a labourer's smock over his clothes, and the man who accompanied him was clad in the same way. He was probably one of his assigned servants.
"What?" cried Mistress Rosen. "What? What?" But it struck Betty afterwards she did not seem very much surprised or terrified either.
"Madam," said Williams, most courteously, "I beg you not to be afraid. I assure you I mean no harm either to you or this young lady, whom I love, as I told your honoured husband, better than my life."
"Cousin, cousin," cried Betty, "it is a fine way to love to come to my chamber like this. Shame on him."
She looked very dainty and beautiful standing there in the moonlight in her long white nightgown, with her dark hair flowing round her like a mantle.
"She will not have me willy," said Williams, "then she must have me nilly. Go back to your room, Mistress Rosen. I will not harm you or yours, but I shall take away Mistress Betty Carew with me this night."
"Cousin, cousin," prayed Betty, "don't leave me. You can save me if you will. Rouse the servants. For God's sake—for pity's sake——"
"Don't forget, Mistress Rosen, your husband approves the match," warned Williams. "I will wed her, I promise you, just as soon as ever she will have me, but with me she must come this night. I will not have her slip through my fingers for any jackanapes of a penniless sawbones,"
"Oh, my God! my God!" wailed Betty, for she saw Mistress Rosen regarded the thing as a huge joke, and would calmly acquiesce in her being carried off.
"Oh, cousin, a proper man you've got," she said, "and it's high time you were wed. If you don't deal fairly by her," she threatened Williams, "I will tell his Honour you carried her off by force when my husband was away and we, being only women, could not stop you," and she turned and drew the door to behind her.
"Cousin, cousin, as you are a woman," prayed Betty. "But she might as well have spoken to the wind.
"Here you,"—Williams dragged the old woman to her feet—"get her some clothes."
"Ah, dearie, dearie me! Go quiet my lamb, Go quiet. Go quiet, my lamb."
There was no hope. They were all against her, and not five minutes ago she had been dreaming happy dreams of another man. Was it possible, could it be possible that her heaven could be so lightly lost?
"For pity's sake, Mr. Williams! For your mother's sake! What happiness can you hope for in a wife who hates you! For your own sake, if not for mine, then for your own sake——"
Ann had got out a long cloak from the oaken chest and was wrapping it round her with soothing, tender words.
"A gallant gentleman, my dearie, surely a gallant gentleman!"
Betty drew the cloak tightly round her, and drew back against the log wall. The door and window were both barred to her now, and she knew she was helpless in these men's hands. She was like a frightened bird beating its life out, terrified in a cruel hand.
"Children, little Molly, tell Mr. Bass when he comes back that I will never wed Mr. Williams. He may—he may——"
"Now, by Heaven!" cried Williams, suddenly catching her in his arms and holding her so that by no possibility could she escape, "I'll not stand that. If you won't marry me I'll take good care you shall marry no other man. You will be only too thankful to marry me before all is over. Will you come quietly now?" and he drew her arm through his and would have led her to the door.
She wrenched herself free from his grasp, and with a wailing cry of unutterable despair flung herself into the corner.
Williams, with an oath, picked up a blanket and drew it over her head, drawing it so tightly that she could not raise her hands, and any outcry she might make would be muffled. He did not want the convict servants to come to the rescue if he could help himself. A convict's word was not worth much, still it was better to do these things quietly.
"Now, you, Simon, where's that silk kerchief I brought? Ah, a nice soft binding for my lady. You cannot say I have hurt you. Simon, we can carry her between us now easily enough. Now, you Collins woman, hold your tongue."
Ann was rocking herself backwards and forwards moaning. "Ah, dearie, dearie me." She was an old woman and helpless.
"If this leaks out, it'll be the worse for you. If it doesn't"—he took a golden guinea from his pocket—"there are more where these come from."
Ann hesitated a moment. She had a real affection for Betty, but, after all, one man was much the same as another when all was said an done, and a woman must wed, so she clutched it tightly and paid no heed to the sobs and muffled prayers that came from beneath the blanket. Williams glanced across to the corner, where he could just see the dark outlines of the little girls sitting up in bed. "Their mother 'll settle them," he thought, and he put one arm round Betty, Simon came to the other side, and she felt herself carried into the living room and out into the open air. She would have cried out again now, but a heavy hand was laid on her mouth. Then she was lifted on to a horse and the blanket dawn so tightly for a few moments she had much ado to draw her breath, screaming was out of the question. The horse went down hill, she knew they were crossing the creek, she heard the splashing of the water beneath her, up a little hill again, and then the blanket was drawn quickly from her face, and she drew in deep breaths of the fresh cool night air.
"Now, madam," said Williams, quietly, but with a certain ring of triumph in his voice, "you may scream your hardest. There is not even a convict to hear, and I suppose you do not want to draw the savages upon us."
Betty, seeing that resistance at that stage was useless, said nothing. Her hands were still tied effectually with the soft silk kerchief, and she must have fallen from the man's saddle had not her captor held her in her seat. The man he had called Simon was leading the horse. They were, as she had supposed, on the narrow track that led to Toongabbee. All around them was the forest; the moonbeams were finding their way between the gum leaves, and the aisles between the trees looked dim and mysterious. Such a glorious night, so bright was the white light, so dark the shadows. The frogs were croaking loudly in the marsh below, the cry of the curlews came mournful and weird, like the cry of lost souls, and there was the whimper of wild dogs from the depths of the forest they were walking through. The man in front had a musket on his shoulder, and Williams, she noticed as she glanced down, had pistols at his belt. The steady tramp of the horse echoed loudly in her ears, and it seemed to be crying one thing, here was the end, the end, the very end of all her happiness. She only wished it was the end of her life. And she might have been so happy. She could have cried aloud, not because she was heartbroken and had lost all—she hardly realised that to the full yet—but because she might have been so happy.
"You are not comfortable," said Williams tenderly. "I will loose your hands. You will not run into the bush, for the savages will take you."
"I would rather the savages than you, ten thousand times," said Betty, bitterly.
"Then you may sit as you are, my lady. Go on, Simon."
What a weary, long ride it seemed, and she did not know what the end would be. The soft scented air that fanned her cheek bade her take courage and hope. No harm was done yet. All might yet be well. Then there would come a little scurry and a rush as if their presence had driven some tiny inhabitant of the wilderness from its resting place, and she too understood she was helpless. They were climbing a little hill now, and now the bush had stopped and there was a rough fence made of logs and fallen trees dragged together. Then she saw in the moonlight, that was bright as day, three thatched mud huts quite close to the track, and her heart beat madly. Baker's Farm; she knew it well; and Baker was a free man. If she could only make him understand who she was.
She waited till they were right opposite, and then she raised a piercing cry, "Help, help, help."
It startled even Williams, and before he could stop her she cried a second time, "Help, help, help," and she felt as if she were already free when the slab door was pushed open and a sleepy-looking shock-headed man stood in the doorway.
Williams reined up the horse sharply.
"These confounded wenches," he said. "You'd think murder was being done."
"Help me, sir," pleaded Betty. "He is carrying me off. Oh, for God's sake, sir——"
"One of my wenches," said Williams, curtly. "She's been up at Rosen's farm and won't come home. She may thank her stars I don't bundle her off to the gaol at Parramatta, and have no further bother with her."
The hopelessness of it all came home to Betty then. He was passing her off as one of the women he had to wait on him on the farm at Toongabbee, and no one who did not know her would believe her word against his. She might as well give up. Only the thought of the love in George Bass's eyes gave her strength for one last effort.
"If you should see Mr. George Bass, tell him Mistress Betty Carew—-"
Williams brought his hand down on the horse's flank with an oath.
"Now, by God!" he cried, "this is too much. Into the gaol you go, madam. Go on, Simon." And they went away down the track, leaving the puzzled settler scratching his head in the moonlight.
"A rum go," he said to himself, but it never occurred to him to interfere. He knew Williams, and thought he understood the whole matter.
As for Betty, she gave up in despair. She drooped her head forward wearily, and the wailing cry of the curlews told her that it was all over, her last chance was gone. The country began to be cleared a little. Here and there were stumps of trees, and the pretty undergrowth and trailing creepers were gone. The forest was a little more open, and clean cut against the sky line she saw the outlines of distant hills. Then a log fence or two and then a log house, set in a garden of vegetables and flowers. There were two square windows with lights behind them, and Betty prepared to shriek again when Simon turned the horse's head in towards the slip panels that did duty as gate. Williams laughed as he saw the discomfiture on her face. She knew then they had reached their destination.
There was the door to which I found no key;
There was the veil through which I might not see;
Some little talk awhile of thee and me,
There was—and then no more of thee and me.
THE HORSE entered the little garden briskly. He knew his journey was ended, and horses were valuable possessions in those days, worth far more than a woman, far—far more than a man. He would go to his stable and be well cared for.
Betty understood that, and wondered dully what would be her fate. Williams lifted her down, and brought down the butt end of a pistol on the slab door. It flew open at his touch, and a hard-faced woman stood on the threshold, holding a lamp up above her head.
"Now, Eunice," said Williams, half pushing, half carrying Betty into the room, and proceeding to unfasten her hands, "you will make this lady as comfortable as you can. She'll have to make shift with the clothes she has, we came away in such a hurry we hadn't time to wait for the others. I'll get them to-morrow. She is not to be allowed out of the house, and not to be allowed to write a letter. Do you understand?"
The room was as large as the Rosens' living room, but far more comfortably furnished. The mud floor was thickly covered with rugs made of opossum and kangaroo skins. There was a couch similarly covered in one corner, a big oak table pushed against the wall, three or four easy chairs, and over the chimney hung a pair of crossed swords and a couple of pistols flanked them. The walls were adorned with spoils of the chase, lyre birds' tails, dingoes' heads and brushes, and bright-coloured wings of parrots. The outspread wings of a grey crane almost took up one wall. A comfortable room as Betty had seen since she came to the colony. Her captor gave her time to take it all in, then he pushed open a door on his right, that showed her a bedroom very similarly furnished, only a big cedar chest took the place of the table, and the bed was covered with a dainty blue silken coverlet.
"This is your room, madam," he said, gravely. "You may rest assured no one will molest you."
Betty put her hand on his arm and began a wild appeal once more.
"Oh, sir, oh, Mr. Williams," and her voice broke with sobs.
He put his arm round her tenderly enough, and pushed her into one of the easy chairs.
"Now, Eunice, see to her. She is over-wrought," and he disengaged himself with a sigh of relief and returned to the sitting-room.
The woman came forward, loosened her cloak, went out and brought in a basin of warm water, washed her face, and began brushing out her long tangled hair. Betty submitted in silence. She was too weary to protest. Then the woman brought her a glass of wine and some slices of bread, and she took them too. The wine revived her somewhat, and she sat up and questioned her attendant.
"What is he going to do to me?"
The stern-faced woman shook her head.
"What can he want with me?"
The woman said nothing.
"You—you will help me?"
"It is late," she said, "will you get into bed? I have work to do in the morning."
"But you won't leave me," pleaded Betty. Eunice's face was hard and lined. She wore a brown calico gown with a piece of coarse white muslin folded as a kerchief across her bosom, and her iron-grey hair was neatly brushed back under a mob cap. Her dress and her manner were that of the ordinary convict servant, but the hard face looked as if it had seen many sorrows, and her speech was certainly that of Betty's own station in life.
"Don't leave me," she pleaded, clutching hold of her hand. "Don't leave me, will you?"
"I must. I have my husband's supper to get."
"Simon is my husband," said the woman in the same unmoved voice. Simon, as Betty had seen, was a young fellow not yet thirty.
"But you'll be close. You won't go far."
"I have to stay with my husband."
"Down at the stables."
"Is there no woman here?" There was a wail of utter misery and heartbreak in the girl's voice.
The woman shook her head.
"What are you making such a fuss about?" she said, and her voice was cold and hard. "He will marry you."
"I hate him—I loathe him."
Eunice Burton shrugged her shoulders.
"What does it matter?"
"It does, it does. Oh, I know you are different from these others. You must have been once. Don't you understand—don't you understand, even though you have married a boy who should be your son?"
"The ways of this country are different from the old world," said the convict woman quietly. "Marry Simon, of course I married Simon. I was too old to be his master's mistress. It was the easiest thing to do. A woman has to belong to someone in this new country, be she old or young, convict or free. The sooner you're married the better. You're pretty enough to queen it among the best of them down at Sydney Cove, and he will be proud of his wife. Come, I must go. I will leave you the light."
"I am betrothed to someone else," moaned Betty, and as she thought of George Bass her voice broke to at sob. "Oh, surely, surely you must have cared once in your life. Help me, now, help me."
A light passed across the sad face, and then it hardened again.
"I am only Mr. Williams' assigned servant. I am as powerless as you are. Make the best of it. One man's very like another man when you come to the end of your life. It is no good thinking of that other man. He's lost to you now, and you're lost to him. Your reputation is gone, and you must marry Mr. Williams. Be thankful he wants to marry you."
"I won't marry him. I won't."
"It will do the other man no good. Even if he would marry you now you only bring him a smirched name."
Betty's head sank lower and lower. She clutched the skirt of the woman's dress as if she would not let her go.
"If I could only get a letter to Governor Hunter," she said, thinking of the kind old man who had been so pleased to see her in the Government Storehouse not a week ago. It might have been years and years, but it was not a week as she counted time.
"Governor Hunter," echoes Eunice. "You might as well say the King himself. You can't send a letter into Parramatta, and Sydney is far away as heaven."
"If I could only get out I could walk."
"The road isn't safe for a man, let alone a woman. They outlawed black Cæsar last week, and he's bound to be revenged—he's sworn it."
"What would I care?" said Betty wearily. "It couldn't be worse than this," and she let her face sink into her hands.
"But you can't get out," said the woman quietly. "You may be very sure of that. You have as much chance of getting to Sydney as I have of seeing old England again, and that I shall never do."
"What shall I do? My God! What shall I do?"
Eunice Burton put her arms round the unresisting girl, and half carried her to the bed. Then she laid her gently down, and drew the clothes over her. It was late now, and the night had grown chilly.
"There," she said, "there. Go to sleep. Remember, there's many and many a woman would give a great deal for your chances in life. Make up your mind and take him quietly. The other? Well, if you really love the other it's the best thing for him too. Put a good barrier between you, for you just spell ruin for any young man if you marry him now. They will say—you know what those fine ladies in Sydney will say. Go to sleep now," and she passed a not unkindly hand over the girl's forehead, and slipped out of the door quietly.
Betty arose in a moment and followed her, but the door was fast on the outside. No strength of hers availed to move it. She crossed the room to a door on the other side, but that, too, was fast. She turned her attention to the shutter that closed the window, but it was stout and strong, there was no stirring it. She was effectually caged. Anybody could come in to her, but stay there she must till someone released her.
The excitement and anxiety were telling on Betty. She ached in every limb, and it seemed to her there was a weight weighing down her eyelids; the wine she had drunk might have been drugged, or it might have been very strong, but at any rate it was affecting her, and George Bass and her unwelcome lover were both fading away in an uncontrollable longing to sleep. She strove against it. There must be some means of escape if only she could keep her wits about her, and she stood in the middle of the room and tried to collect her senses, but the desire to sleep was so strong it overpowered all else. She lay down on the bed a moment. She looked at the lamp. It seemed far, far away, just a distant point of light; a feeling of unutterable content and restfulness came over her, it would be all right after all. What had she feared so terribly? And then her eyes closed, and she remembered no more till she was awakened by a hand on her shoulder, the room was full of sunshine, and the grim face of Eunice Burton looked down on her.
"So," she said, sarcastically, "you took my advice and made the best of it."
Betty sat up and rubbed her eyes. For a moment she realised neither where she was nor what had happened. Then it all came back with a rush, and she turned to the open door through which the sunlight was streaming.
The convict woman put her hand on her arm, and seemed to read her thoughts.
"Too late! Too late. Where would you go if you ran away now? You have spent the night in this man's house, and there is no one—no one," she repeated the word, "to say you have spent it alone. Here it is well on to noon, and your cousin has just come down inquiring for you."
"My cousin!" A ray of hope flashed into Betty's face.
"Don't build on him. He's come to see you safely married."
Betty thought of Mary Rosen's conduct the night before, and felt there was truth in the words.
"I—I have slept," she said, wonderingly. How could she sleep in the face of so great a calamity? "The wine? It must have been drugged."
"Very likely," said the woman grimly. "Never mind. Be thankful for a comfortable night. Take my advice and for the future make the best of every good thing that comes in your way. A comfortable sleep, good food and drink, there's many in this country, not to say England—well—well." For Betty was rocking herself backwards and forwards in a very abandonment of misery. We may learn to make the best of things at forty, to take the good and ignore as far as possible the evil, but at eighteen it is impossible.
The convict woman produced it bundle and began to undo it.
"Your cousin brought it," she said. "He said you left in such a hurry you forgot your things, so the moment he came home his wife packed him off with them. Come, now, where's the good of crying? Put on this pretty white dimity gown with the blue sash. Many's the woman would be glad to look so fair. 'Tis a warm day, and your wedding-day, too."
Then Betty rose up and dressed herself, and washed away all traces of tears from her face, and brushed her hair, and wound a blue ribbon through it, to match the one at her waist. There was a burning spot on each cheek, her eyes were bright, and Eunice Burton understood now why James Williams, lieutenant in His Majesty's New South Wales Corps, was risking something for the possession of this woman.
"I want to see my cousin," she said, and the waiting woman opened the door into the sitting-room.
Williams and Rosen were seated in arm-chairs smoking furiously.
"So here's the truant," said Rosen, uneasily. "A pretty pair, my faith, a pretty pair! A nice tale I shall have to write your father, Mistress Betty."
"'Will you take me home at once, Cousin Rosen?"
"Take you home? Gad! I like that. You tear over here at midnight, and before noon you want me to take you home again. I'll see you wed, and then your husband is responsible for such escapades."
Williams threw back his head and laughed, and his companion joined in, but Betty stood before them, grave and tall, with a stern look on her fair young face.
"Cousin Rosen, I did not come here of my own free will. You know that."
"The deuce! Mary tells a different tale. Do you think she would have sent me over here with your clothes if she had not known you were willing enough to be stolen away?"
"Muffled in a blanket, with my hands tied," said Betty, bitterly.
"Well, as Mary says," said Rosen, "it is not decent for a maid to be too willing."
"Nevertheless," said Betty, who suddenly felt that she was old, old and that all hope of happiness had gone for her, "I am telling you the truth when I say I would rather have died than come here. I am betrothed to Mr. George Bass, as you know right well."
"Come, now, do you think Mr. George Bass will have you once he hears where you have spent this night?"
"He will believe me," said Betty though her lips quivered.
"And do you think the fine ladies in Sydney town will believe your pretty fairy tale?"
"No, I do not," said the girl, quietly. "You have ruined me."
"And if Mr. George Bass believes you and weds you, do you think it will advance him much, or you much either?"
Betty's clasped hands were pressed against her bosom, and her eyes looked out of the open window to where the roses and the clematis were already trying to shroud from light the ugly log fence of the garden. There was a great and terrible longing in her heart for her lover, for his tender, strong arm, for the love in his eyes. She wanted to be protected, she wanted to be loved and cared for. These two men were sacrificing her youth and her happiness on the altar of their base desires, and she hated them both with a bitter hatred. Which she hated the most it would be difficult to say. They were sacrificing Bass too; she knew that. Oh, if he were only here to stand at her side to keep her and to defend her, and the longing was so great she could have cried aloud with the pain of it. She loved him, she loved him, and with the thought of her love came another thought. Since she loved him so, would she, too, sacrifice him? Would she bring him her smirched name? All the colony would know of this thing that had happened. Would they believe her stainless? No, she knew they would not.
"The settlement will say," went on Rosen, coolly, "he has married Mr. Williams' cast-off mistress, and they will say truly, I suppose."
Five-and-twenty would, perhaps, have bade them do their worst, would at least have had no hand in her own downfall, but eighteen only realised with a lightning flash that she would go to the world's end for George Bass, if he but asked her. That she would take little enough heed to his welfare or her own once he were by her side. And he? He would marry her, she thought, and ruin his prospects in life. Would she be his wife only to bring him shame? No, a thousand times no. They had ruined her, those two; her life was of little value now; she would drink the cup to the very dregs.
"I am not Mr. Williams' mistress; and what he wants with a wife who loathes him I do not know."
Williams tossed down his pipe, and was on his knees at her side in a moment.
"Mistress Betty will not be hard on an ardent wooer. Hear me swear," and he caught her unresisting hand and smothered it with kisses.
Rosen looked at the girl's cold, disdainful face.
"Faith, I'll be fetching the parson," said he. "I sent word he'd be wanted at Toongabbee before noon. I don't suppose he'll be far off now. Parson Marsden has as good a nose to smell a good fat marriage fee as any man I know."
When they were alone Williams rose to his feet and put his arm round the girl's waist. She made no movement, never took her eyes away from the log fence outside the window, and even when he stooped and kissed her lips she was quite impassive.
"Madam," said Williams, crushing her cold hand in his, "I swear I will make you a good husband. Madam, you will never regret the step you have taken."
"What satisfaction, can you have in a wife who hates you?" said Betty, bitterly.
"Once we are wed you will see I will find satisfaction enough," said Williams, "and you will find I am not a bad fellow," and there was a ring of triumph in his voice. "Oh, you will not hate me long!"
"I shall hate you till the day I die, and I hope that is not far off," said Betty, quietly, and then the door opened and admitted Rosen and the Rev. Samuel Marsden.
The parson was a little man in a ragged brown wig, with wandering, anxious eyes. A man of no force, but one desperately anxious to do his duty. Betty knew him well enough, but she hardly expected aid from him. Still she made one last appeal for liberty and happiness.
He made a ceremonious bow, and stood in the middle of the room, rubbing his hands.
"So, so," he said, smiling, "I am glad you have thought better of it, and have called in the aid of the parson to make all things square."
The colour deepened in Betty's face.
"They have told you lies, sir," said she. "Now, what will happen if I refuse to wed this man?"
"Tut, tut, you'd never be so foolish. Since he will marry you——"
"Mr. Marsden," interrupted Betty, with flashing eyes, "I am betrothed to Mr. George Bass, of the Reliance, and——"
"And I see you are here. Come, Mistress Betty, come, come, this looks like a faithless jade. But it is better to repent soon than late. I warrant she'll make thee a good wife, after all," he said, turning to Williams.
"I so flatter myself," said Williams, with becoming gravity.
"Mr. Marsden," began Betty again, in desperation. "He brought me here against my will."
"Tut, tut," murmured the parson, helplessly. "You cannot expect me to believe that, and your cousin here tells me that you have given him every encouragement."
"Will no one believe me?"
"Most certainly no one will believe thee."
Betty looked out of the window again at the clematis and the roses.
"Then you can do as you wish with me."
Williams raised her hand and kissed it reverently, then he put his hand in his breeches pocket and drew out five guineas and a ring, which he banged down on the table.
"There, parson, there's your fee and there's the ring. Now let's get through this business. Here's Eunice Burton will do for the other witness."
And so Betty Carew became the unwilling wife of James Williams, lieutenant in His Majesty's New South Wales Corps.
Each morn a thousand roses brings you say,
Yes, but where lives the rose of yesterday?
THE SUN was setting as the little Tom Thumb made fast to the Reliance. Bass and Flinders swung themselves on board to report themselves to Captain Waterhouse. They had found no great river, but had found and explored Port Hacking, and Flinders at least was well satisfied with himself, and in the highest spirits. Bass was keenly anxious to get ashore, and was greatly exercised in his mind how best to conceal that anxiety. Peter's words still rang in his ears,. but standing in the little cabin looking out through the port at the last rays of the sun as they turned to gold the waters of the little cove, he felt with Flinders that they were mere convict gossip, and he shamed Betty by in any way heeding them.
Still, still—well, he wanted to get ashore with all speed, and even though he had a wager on he hesitated to put his wants into words.
Flinders guessed though.
"And we may go ashore, sir?"
"I did not say so," said Waterhouse, smiling. "Won't you rest? You're a restless young devil, Flinders, but Bass here is staider and older. He don't want to go racketting. He wants to rest his bones."
"He does, he does," protested Flinders. "He has a wager on with young Devereux. Three gallons of rum and a ewe lamb at stake that he is not at the Rum Puncheon by eight o'clock this evening. We have mapped out the Port, sir, and if we found no great river it was because there was none to find."
"And you want to run ashore to-night?"
"Even so," said Flinders. Waterhouse looked at Bass a little curiously. His manner was hardly that of a man who goes to claim a successful wager.
"Devereux is unlucky all round," he said. "Here Williams carries off the girl he has set his heart on, so he says, so by all the rules of love and war he should have won the wager."
Bass put his hand up to his unshaven chin. "I must get rid of this beard," said he. "What a pair of ruffians we look," and the hand that touched the chin hid the anxiety the other might have read written on his lips.
"The girl of Devereux's heart," said Flinders. "Now, I wonder who that may be? There was only one girl——" And then he stopped and cast a swift glance at his friend's face. "We may go ashore, sir?"
"Till eight bells to-morrow morning. Not later, you understand. There is no time for going outside the settlement."
"Ay, ay, sir. We understand."
Back to the Tom Thumb and in a stroke or two Peter had rowed them to the boat-landing.
Bass was ashore first and Flinders was beside him. The dark had fallen, there was only the light of the stars, and in each mud hut there was a ruddy light that so marked out the line of the street. Flinders caught his companion by the arm.
"Where now?" said Flinders. "To take off that beard of thine?"
"You said yourself, the Rum Puncheon. I may as well win that wager. What do I care about the beard? It is right enough for a pot-house. Come, we're sure to hear the news there."
They passed the Government Stores and made their way towards the barracks through the market place. There were no houses here, it was quiet and dark and deserted, and the breeze that had arisen at the setting of the sun sighed mournfully through the she-oaks. Bass remembered how glad and hopeful all things had seemed the morning he had set out but so short a time back, and wondered why he feared. Some idle servants' gossip and some careless words about Devereux's lady love. Devereux's, the happy-go-lucky Irishman who peeped under every woman's hood if he dared, and thought himself in love with everything in petticoats from dainty Mistress MacArthur herself to the last bold-eyed minx fresh landed from the newly-arrived convict ship.
Flinders was whistling cheerfully at the top of his voice, but he held his comrade's arm sympathetically. He understood something of his anxiety. They paused in the darkness at an open door. A glare of light was flung on the road way and there came forth sounds of revelry. It was only a mud hut, but was somewhat larger than the majority. The hard earthen floor was sanded, there were rough forms against the walls, one or two stools, and a big table, and in the fireplace, though the night was warm, a fire that threw flickering, ruddy lights in all the corners of the room and made of little account the tallow dips stuck against the walls. Round the table, with mugs in their hands, were several subalterns of the New South Wales Corps and the captains of a couple of American ships lying in Neutral Bay. Bass noted Devereux, and long, red-haired Neil McKellar, Anthony Kemp, and William Beckwith, who was only a boy, and Thomas Laycock and James Lucas. They all rose to their feet as Bass and Flinders entered and greeted them with a shout.
"Hallo, my jolly mariners! So the cannibals didn't eat you after all! Here, Mother, Mother Harris. Another brew, if you please. Mr. Bass is going to stand treat."
"Devereux, my buck," said Laycock, slapping that young gentleman on the back. "You've lost your wager."
Devereux waved his hand solemnly. "'Tis nothing, nothing." He had already sampled Mother Harris' brew a little oftener than was consistent with perfect sobriety, and was fast becoming maudlin. "Poor unfortunate beggar! Lost his little ewe lamb—like beggar in Bible," and he held out his mug to be refilled.
Neil McKellar offered Bass a stool and Flinders found a seat against the wall alongside Anthony Kemp.
"Puir Pat," said McKellar commiserating. "He has na been himsel' since Mistress Betty Carew gave him the go-by."
"Mistress Carew," said Bass, coldly, "is nothing to him."
"He kens that weel enouch," said the Scotchman. "Williams 'll see to it that he keeps his distance now."
"And pray," put in Flinders, hastily, "what right has Mr. Williams to interfere?"
"The best of rights! A husband's rights!" shouted the crowd.
An angry denial rose to Bass's lips, but suddenly the cautious Scotchman beside him realised the situation and pressed his arm.
"Keep your ain counsel, mon, keep your ain counsel. Dinna give occasion to the scoffer."
"Come now," asked Flinders' voice, "we're all interested in the prettiest maid that's been in the settlement for many a long day. Tell us? Why has Williams stolen a march on the rest of us?"
"Why? Why? Faith, wouldn't we all have done that same if we got the chance?" said Devereux. "But Williams has got the hard cash, and so he has the maid."
Bass said absolutely nothing. What could he say? What right had he to ask questions concerning another man's wife.
"But you haven't told us," said Flinders, who guessed his anxiety, "how this came about?"
"None but the brave, none but the brave," hiccuped Devereux, with a sob.
"Williams," said Laycock, "simply stole her away. Three or four days ago he carried her off to his farm at Toongabbee. Some say the lady stormed and protested, some say she went willingly enough, and the pother was all put on. Anyhow, Rosen, when he came home, he had been spending the night at a neighbour's, went straight off to Toongabbee, taking the parson along, and he made things fair and square, tied the knot tight as Church and State could make it."
"They say the lady knows she has made a good match and is as merry as a cricket," said Kemp.
"They say she has never spoken a word, good, bad or indifferent," said Laycock, "and as Williams didn't bargain for a silent wife he is in a nice stew."
"They say she vowed she was pledged to you, my buck," said Lucas, bringing his hand down on Bass's shoulder, "and begged and prayed on her knees to be let off wedding Williams, but Rosen would hear of nothing else!"
"They say she has the devil's own temper, and Williams has got so sick of his honeymoon he has been blind staggering drunk for the last twenty-four hours."
"One thing is certain, though," said Flinders' incisive voice, "she's wed."
"Oh, she's wed. She's most certainly wed. There's no getting over that, She's lost to the rest of us. She's wed. Come now, Flinders, tell us what you've been about?"
Bass rose up and called for his reckoning. Stay there any longer he felt he could not. There was a general protest, but he waived it aside.
"Flinders will tell you all about our adventures. It was touch and go with us more than once. I must leave you now, gentlemen. I only got leave to win my wager," and he strode out into the fresh night air again.
There was no moon. The sky overhead was soft and black velvet, and here and there the golden points of the stars stood out bright and clear. The waters of the cove fell softly, gently on the shores. It was a peaceful Australian night.
A bitter curse broke from his lips. She had sold him then, this fair, sweet maid whom he had held so high, she had sold him. He wished the savages had slain him at Hat Hill. If only the waves had overwhelmed him at Port Hacking. He knew Williams would stick at nothing, but he could not wed her without her own consent. His pulses were beating. He could feel the blood rushing through his veins. There was a wild impulse in him to set out straight for Toongabbee and find if this horrible nightmare were indeed true. He passed the open door of a wattle and dab hut and the light streamed out on his face. Then a slight young fellow, who had been following him, stepped out and touched him lightly on the arm.
"Beg pardon, sir. Bean't you Mr. George Bass, of the Reliance?"
"I? Yes—no. What do you want with me?"
"My wife said as you might give me something for this note," and he held a folded sheet of paper towards him.
"Then your wife reckoned without her host. And who may your wife be, pray?"
He had some sort of wild feeling that he would say Mistress Betty Carew, but he did not. He gave a pull at his forelock and said:
"Eunice Burton, at your service, sir."
"And who many Eunice Burton be?"
"She is Mistress Williams' helper, please, sir, at Toongabbee."
Bass felt as if the man had struck him. Then he put his hand in his pocket, and finding a coin there handed it to him.
"Come to the barracks with me while I read it. It may be it will require an answer."
"I daren't, your honour. I'm away without leave. But I could meet you here in an hour's time if you make it worth my while."
It was too dark to read it in the street. Back to the pot-house he would not go, so he made his way to Devereux's room and got his servant to light a candle. Then he took out the note eagerly. He had never seen Betty Carew's hand-writing, but he never for a moment doubted it was from her.
It was headed "Mr. Williams' Farm, Toongabbee," and bore date March 30th. She had begun, he saw, "My dear Love," but the last word was scratched out and "Mr. Bass" substituted.
"I do not know how to write to thee," she began, in the tender singular. "They will tell thee I have wed Mr. Williams, but I owe it to thee and to myself that thou shouldst know it was not of my own free will. He came to my room at night and carried me off, and I cannot but think that it was with my cousin's good will. Then he brought me to his farm here, though I protested all I know. They gave me wine and I think it was drugged, and I slept and remember nothing till next morning, when my cousin came and said I must wed Mr. Williams, for my reputation would be gone else. Indeed, indeed, I did protest that I was brought against my will, that I loathed Mr. Williams and would rather be dead, and that I was betrothed to thee. But they would not heed me. I would not marry him till they told me, what Eunice Burton had told me before, that even if thou wouldst wed me now, and I think thou wouldst, I could bring thee but a stained and smirched name, and I would not shame thee, dear, for all the world. So I have put it out of my power to do so. I know that thou wilt grieve for me. But I pray thee do not grieve over much. It cannot be helped and some day, perhaps, I may die, and that will be a good thing for me.
"Thou wilt have thy work to do in the world, thou wilt work to explore this new country, and that will help thee, and there are other women, fairer and sweeter than I.
"Farewell, dear love. Only sometimes remember, for I would not darken thy life, that Betty Carew loved thee."
Then underneath was written:
"Do not answer this if thou lov'st me. Do not attempt to see me. Remember that I am another man's wife and dead to thee."
George Bass dropped his head in his hands and groaned aloud. He walked furiously up and down, for he was a man of action, and he felt his hands were bound. He loaded his pistols and half meditated going straight off to Toongabbee to call to account the man who had done this wicked thing. Then he remembered the messenger, and he snatched a piece of paper and wrote a passionate appeal to Betty, praying her to come to him, swearing he would guard and keep her, that nothing should divide them. He read it over, remembered she was another man's wife, and tore it up. How could he help her? How was it possible he could help her?
Devereux came stumbling in, drunk and maudlin.
"She sold us a dog, George, my boy. Gad! she sold us a dog. Williams 'll take it out of her, poor wench! Gad! we'll be revenged. Come to Toongabbee with me and we'll fight him."
He sank down on his stretcher bed. Bass snatched up his hat. He was in no mood for talking to-night, but before he had left the room Devereux was asleep.
The cool air outside seemed to calm him a little, and he made his way to the Rum Puncheon. Simon Burton stepped out of the darkness just before he reached it.
"Can you take a message?"
"Will you say—say——"
"To my wife, yes, sir."
"That I have received the letter and will do as the writer requests."
Bass hesitated a moment. This man was a convict, and an assigned servant. He could not discuss Betty with him, but he was a lover, and it seemed to him this could not be the end.
"I will pay you well," he hesitated, and George Bass was not the man to hesitate, "if—if——"
"There'll be nary another letter, sir, nary a one."
Then Bass gave him a five shilling piece and the man disappeared into the darkness.
Waste not your hour, nor in the vain pursuit
Of this or that endeavour and dispute.
Better be jocund with the fruitful grape
Than sadden after none, or bitter, fruit.
IF BETTY had found her wedding hard, if that final renunciation of her lover were cruel, it was as nothing to the long weariness, the days of heartache that came after. There was nothing to do, nothing; the long autumnal days when the heat of summer had gone and the cold of winter had not yet come, were perfect—to the daughter of the cold north they were a revelation in their cloudless glory—but there was a weight on her heart that would not let her enjoy them. She would not speak to her husband if she could help herself. She accepted coldly and disdainfully the many attentions he offered her, she crept away to her room as often as she could, and sat with idle hands in her lap staring out of the window, hardly seeing anything that was before her. He came once or twice and begged and prayed her to forgive him, vowed it was for love of her sweet face he had stolen her away, and that he only lived for her. He would do anything in his power, he said, to make her happy if she would only tell him what she wanted. But Betty turned her face away coldly. And finally he flung out of the room, cursing all women, and went away to the woods shooting kangaroo, and when he returned he sat and drank rum till he was wild with excitement, and then when he entered her presence she realised there were greater depths still to be sounded. She would have gone away as she had done before, but her presence did not awe him now, and he caught her arm and forced her to stay with him whether she liked it or not. She was his wife by all the laws of God and man, and if a man's wife should not stay with him, who should. And then she learned in very truth that this man, drunk or sober, whether she hated him or whether she loved him, was her lord and master, and she, his wife, was but a chattel and a slave. He sank into a drunken sleep at last, and then she crept away into the next room and looked out of the window at the gibbous moon rising silvery among the trees in the east.
She started with a sobbing cry when a hand was laid on her arm. She had been thinking of George Bass, and she thought it was he, and had it been, she would, she knew, have cast honour and every consideration for his welfare to the winds. Gladly, thankfully would she have linked her fate with his. But it was not. She saw in a moment it was Eunice Burton.
"Oh, Eunice! How you startled me. I thought you were in bed."
"So I ought to have been," said Eunice, grimly. "Heaven knows you're nothing to me."
"But you stayed because you thought he might do me harm. How good of you," said Betty, gratefully. "But I wish he had killed me. He stopped short of that."
"I stayed because I was an old fool. Come, you had best lie down and go to sleep,"
"I can't sleep, if you only knew. I can't sleep,"
"Nonsense. We can all sleep when the worst has come and there's nothing more to hope for. It's the gleam of light that may come that keeps us awake."
"And the worst has come for me, you think."
"The very worst. Make your mind easy about that, madam. There is nothing more to hope for. You may as well go to sleep."
Grim comfort surely for eighteen; but it answered its purpose as tenderer words would never have done. Betty allowed her stern handmaid to lay her down on the couch and draw a rug of opossum skins over her.
"Now, madam, you will sleep."
And to her surprise she did sleep.
When she awoke it was broad day; and her husband was standing over her, sulky and sodden and red-eyed from his late carouse.
"I am going to Parramatta and on to Sydney by the boat," he said sullenly. "I'm sick to death of your vapours. Captain Johnston has sent word he wants me, and I warrant there are others will be glad enough to see me back again."
Betty looked up at him with grave, wide-open eyes, but she said nothing, and he caught her by the shoulder and pressed all his weight on it.
"See to it you mend your ways, madam, by the time I come back," and he flung himself out of the room, and she heard him rating Simon Burton outside.
But oh! the weariness of those autumn days. There was nothing to do, nothing to hope for. Outside, Simon Burton and the men under him attended to the affairs of the farm, and indoors, Eunice waited on her mistress and kept everything spick and span.
Like the Rosen's homestead, the farm house only consisted of three rooms, one opening out of the other, a sitting-room, a bedroom, and a slip of a kitchen. It was not far from the road, but it was the farthest farm out at Toongabbee, and there were thirty acres of primeval bush between it and the nearest settler. They were close to the road, but it stopped there; it had been made no further; it was indeed only a track. This was the end of the world. There were no books, there were no papers, she had no needlework to do, and the only knowledge she had of the outside world came filtered through Eunice Burton, who told her what the men on the farm heard when they occasionally met another man from the farm down the road. The world, the great world, where men lived, and loved, and struggled, and died was far, far away, so far it might never have existed. The great brown kingfishers came and sat on the dead trees in the cleared paddock just opposite her windows in the early morning and waked her with their shrieks and sobs of laughter. They mocked her, she thought. The bright green parrakeets flew screaming across the cleared land from one patch of woods to another, the magpie poured out his hymn of gladness and praise. The sun rose up out of the trees in the east and crossed the cloudless sky and sank to rest in the west. Sometimes there was a flight of cockatoos, and the sun glinted on their milk-white plumage; sometimes it was a flight of grass-green parrakeets; and in the evening, just at dusk, the black swans, with a plaintive, mournful cry that went to the heart of the lonely girl, flew westward. She did not know where they were going, only they always flew westward into the unknown. There was no one to speak to but grim Eunice Burton and her husband, discontented young Simon. She did not know why these two had been sent out or why they had come together, only Simon was gravely kind to his wife, and accorded her such obedience as he might have given his mother. As for the men under him, they were stolid peasants, men of few words, whom England had sent out for some trifling offence that nowadays would be severely punished with a five-shilling fine. They worked all day, counted it a great joy to go into Parramatta for the weekly ration, and had an unreasoning fear of the savages they considered lurked in wait for them under cover of the woods that surrounded them. Occasionally one of these same savages would come to the farm, generally a stark-naked woman with a baby slung in a net on her back, a greasy, oily, unclean creature, who begged with a whine, "Gib it this one fella flour, mistiss."
She would not mind death, but the unknown horrors that might await her at the hands of the savages, she did fear, and so in all her walks she did not dare go without sight and sound if the farmhouse. Of course she might have run away. There was nothing to stop her, only there was nowhere to run to, no one to care apparently whether she lived or died. And the beautiful autumn days wore on, days when it should have been only a pleasure for a girl of eighteen to be alive. But Betty's face grew whiter and whiter, her step more listless. Where was the good of living, and she could not die.
"Shall I brush your hair, madam?" asked Eunice one evening in the middle of April, when the curlews were crying mournfully from the woods behind the farm.
"What matter?" said Betty listlessly, but Eunice let down the heavy coils with a tender hand. Her tongue was sharper, though.
"Madam," she said. "Do you think you are the only creature in this world that ever suffered?"
"I—I'm sure," hesitated Betty, awakening to the fact that she and George Bass were not the only people in the world.
"Do you think you are the only woman that ever was wronged?"
"I—Eunice, Eunice," moaned Betty, "what am I to do with my life? I am only eighteen, and maybe I shall live to be as old as you are. I am so weary of it all, so weary."
"And you may be weary again and again, and yet again, and yet have to go on living," and Eunice brought her lips together with a snap. "You are no worse off than hundreds of others in this weary land. You have plenty to eat, a soft bed to lie on, a woman to attend you. Do you know there are men who work in chains, who live in chains, who sleep in chains, who have scanty rations and no bed?"
"They are convicts," said the daughter of the ruling class.
"Ay, and for some trifling offence, some little thing that offends their taskmaster, a thing that you might do twenty times a day, they may be triced up and have their backs scored. Hunger and weariness is not sweetened by a bleeding back."
"And the women? Did you ever think what sort of a life is that of a woman who is hut-keeper to ten or twelve men? To marry the man you hate is a great joy in comparison."
"Eunice," protested Betty, "I was betrothed to another man."
"And some of those women left husbands behind, and some little children."
"But I have done no wrong."
"Ah, well, who shall judge? Who knows the bitter temptation? The pain is no less because of the wrong done."
"What do you mean? What do you want me to do?"
The woman was brushing her mistress's long hair very carefully, taking it strand by strand, putting into her work a tenderness that was not in her voice.
"Make the best of things. What is the good of kicking against the pricks?"
"What can I do?"
"Mr. Williams is coming back on Saturday, so they say in Parramatta. Make it pleasant for him. Greet him with a smile."
"Why should I?"
"Why should you not?"
"It is playing a part."
"He is your master. We all pose before our masters, whether we are convicts or free. And which of us is free? We have all played parts from the beginning, and we shall do to the end."
"I hate to be untrue."
"Untrue? Where does the untruth come in? No matter how much you loved your husband, you are bound to play a part before him sometimes. You would pretend that you were not weary when you were, that you had no pain when you had, that you were glad when there was a little ache of fear in your heart. Oh, yes, you would. You would do that just to pleasure him. Strong women like you do that. It is only the weak woman who flies to her husband for every worry, and soon wears out a man's love."
Betty put her hands up and caught the woman's hands. This was a new idea of life to the girl.
"That is for the man I love," said she.
"Then do the same for the man you hate. It is easier done, I assure you. Make the best of life for yourself. If you have to live forty years, and you will have no say in the matter, there is no need to live it in a horse-hair shirt."
"I am weary—weary."
"Make yourself sweet to Mr. Williams. Get him to take you down to Sydney. He will be proud of his beautiful wife, and you may queen it with pretty Mistress MacArthur and the rest of them."
"I would be shamed, and——"
"Shamed? You are his lawful wife, and a deal of trouble he took in the winning of you. Is it of Mr. George Bass you are thinking?"
Betty's face flushed scarlet.
"Not the best man in the world is worth mopping your life out about. You sit here and think and think of naught but him and what he has lost and what you have lost, and he is killing thought away in the mountains and exploring round every little bay in Port Jackson. He thinks of you at times, but he cannot think quite so much when he is noting the latitude and the soil, and the manner of timber he comes across."
Betty put her face down on the table and sobbed aloud. She did not want her lover to fret for her. She would not for worlds that his life should be as utterly miserable as hers, and yet—and yet she felt it was hard to be forgotten. Eunice Burton waited a little to see if she would stop, then she calmly left her, and Betty heard her dusting in the next room. Then she dried her eyes and accepted the inevitable. She would make the best of life. And when Eunice saw her again she knew that her advice would be taken.
No word was said between them, but when on the following Saturday Eunice laid out the white dress she had been married in, turned her hair back over a cushion, and wound a blue ribbon in it to match the sash at her waist, she smiled faintly at her reflection in the little looking-glass for the first time since that happy evening, years and years ago it seemed to her, when she had come back from her wanderings betrothed to George Bass.
She took a piece of embroidery and sat in the window so that she could watch the roadway, and again she smiled bitterly to herself. So she was watching for her husband.
He came at last. He was sober enough, and he tossed the reins to one of the men and entered. As he did so Betty laid her work aside and dropped him a sweeping curtsey. He looked at her for a moment in astonishment, he had not expected her spirit to be broken so easily. He took her hand and kissed it and then kissed her lips. She did not respond, but, she did not turn away.
"That's better," he said, with a sigh of intense relief. "So you have got on all right, no one has harmed you."
"You would not be so ungallant as to leave me, surely, if there was any danger," said Betty, with a remembrance of Eunice's words of wisdom. "No one has harmed me, and Eunice has been very good."
"But you have been dull?" he asked eagerly.
"I have been very dull," she assented, and then Eunice came in to lay the table for the early dinner, and Williams went outside to look around his farm, well pleased at the reception he had got from his wife.
I must abjure the Balm of Life. I must,
Scared by some after-reckoning taken on trust,
Or lured with hope of some Divine drink,
To fill the cup—when crumbled into dust!
Oh, threats of Hell, and hopes of Paradise!
One thing at least is certain—this life flies;
One thing is certain, and the rest is lies—
The flower that once has blown for ever dies.
"HIS EXCELLENCY THE GOVERNOR
has the honour to invite Mr. Williams
and his lady to dinner on Wednesday next,
the 30th May, at 5 o'clock p.m."
It was Betty's very first invitation to dinner, and it was written by the private secretary on a very small card indeed, because cardboard was very scarce in the colony; but Betty sat in the window of her little brick house that looked over the bay and read it with interest. They would go, of course. An invitation from Government House was a command.
Williams' house was only a small brick one with four rooms, but it commanded a wide view of the bay, and already within the palings that cut it off from the roadway were coming up English flowers. Since he had a convict to work for him, and it cost him no trouble, Williams had done his best to make the place homelike for his wife. And now she was to be introduced to Sydney society.
The gate creaked on its hinges, and a woman with her waist under her arms, and in a quilted hood, for the weather was a little sharp, came in. Betty's sitting-room door was also her front door, and she rose and opened it with a smile.
"Oh, Mistress MacArthur!"
"So you have your invitation, I am glad to see. Now I have come to see what you have to wear, for the bride is the guest of the evening, and you must do your husband credit."
Betty dropped her eyes. All Sydney had heard some garbled account of her wooing, and Mistress MacArthur would not have been a woman if she had not looked sharply to see the effect of her speech.
"I'm afraid," said Betty, "I have not much beyond white muslins and ginghams. They do not make much show. There is a yellow brocade of my mother's, but I have never yet worn it, and it is not in the mode."
"Ah, dear, who knows aught about the mode here? So long as it is handsome, it will set you off well Mistress Williams. There's that husband of mine who has ever an eye for a pretty girl, swears you are the handsomest girl in the colony, and the old Governor vows you are the sweetest."
What woman does not like to hear she is beautiful And yet it added another pang. If only—if only her life had gone right how happy a woman might she not have been.
And then they looked up the yellow brocade, and Mistress MacArthur turned over Betty's small treasures, and found some old lace.
"We will knot it round the top of the corsage. It will set off your nice white neck. We will put some yellow flowers in your hair. There are some yellow roses abloom still in Mr. Laycock's garden. Never was such a country as this for flowers, and he will be proud to give them."
"And you will be there?"
"Captain MacArthur and the Governor have quarrelled, you know. So we are not asked. I am sorry, but it can't be helped. He is a kind old man, but he is silly. Anyone with an eye can see that this is a grand country where men might live in plenty would they but work with a little judgment, but the Governor wants to manage things and order them as he would on board ship. He does not believe in private enterprise."
All of which was Greek to Betty, only she understood that Mrs. MacArthur was not going to the dinner, and she was sorry.
"But I'll come over at 4 o'clock to-morrow and help you dress," went on Mrs. MacArthur. "I do hope it will not rain. It will not be nice going through a mud puddle, and you know the roads are nothing better when it rains. Some day, I suppose, we shall have coaches here, but it will not be in our time."
And the next day when Mrs. MacArthur presented Betty to her husband, clad all in yellow brocade, with her hair piled high on her head, a yellow rose-bud or two nestling among its rich brown coils, he could hardly believe this handsome woman was really his wife. He was proud of owning such a woman, but he was in awe of her, too, and he did not like being in awe of his wife.
"There now, there, sir, here is a beautiful wife Eunice and I have turned out for you. I'll warrant you never knew before how lovely a woman you had stolen from the rest of them."
Williams, in his bright red coat with the blue breeches, looked uncomfortable. It was the joke of the day to taunt him with stealing his wife, and therefore the barb went straight home, though to do Mrs. MacArthur justice her speech was made innocently enough.
Government House was a two-storied building, the only two-storied building in the colony. Its roof was of tiles, and its walls of biscuit-coloured brick, and it was planned according to the simple architecture of the time, with all the rooms opening from one to the other. There were no corridors, no passages. First came a drawing-room about 30ft. long and 20ft. wide, then a dining-room not quite so large, and behind that again a little parlour where the Governor wrote and smoked and did his business.
He was a bachelor, and the drawing-room was bare to simplicity. The floor was covered with matting brought from India, and there were two or three stiff little tables, some equally stiff chairs, and an antique cabinet in a corner. On the walls were some sketches done by the Governor himself, but they were so small they were lost in the wilderness of wooden wall. A couple of flags draped across the chimney piece lent the bare room the colour it so sadly needed, and a model of the Sirius, Hunter's old ship, stood in one corner. The guests were few, the Judge Advocate, who was also the Governor's secretary, and a couple of officers of the New South Wales Corps and their wives, and Betty's heart beat fast when she saw him, the captain of the Reliance, and his surgeon, Mr. George Bass.
Bass had on a dark blue velvet coat, and the ruffles at his neck and wrists were of daintiest lace. He wore his hair powdered for once, and his dark eyes gleamed like swords. As for Betty she stood up among them like a queen, but the hand the Governor bowed over was cold as ice, and she wondered whether her voice would ever sound natural. There was a heavy frown on her husband's face, but she cared little enough for that. Dinner was announced, and his Excellency gallantly offered his arm, and led the way into the next room, where a long table was spread, and he seated her at his right hand.
It was a plain enough dinner, half a roast kid, the Governor carved himself, the Judge Advocate at the other end served a leg of pickled pork and peas pudding, and Williams at the side had before him a loin of roast pork. The vegetables and the fruits for the pies that made the next course came from the Governor's own garden.
The Governor filled her glass himself, and all the gentlemen drank to the bride, but Betty, with flushed face and shining eyes, could only think that George Bass was beside her, that he might, unseen by everyone, did he choose, take in his own the hand that was so close to his. And Williams, the other side of the table, thought of the same thing, and drank another glass of wine to drown care.
"Ah, my friend," said the Governor, taking wine with Bass, "I thought you had an eye on this young lady; if you had been all a sailor instead of only half one, you would not have let her slip through your fingers."
"It was my bitter misfortune," said Bass, in conventional tones, but his eyes met Betty's, and she read there the truth of his words.
The winter evening drew in before the dinner was over, and the servants brought candles, then the three ladies rose up and retired to the drawing-room, where only one corner was dimly lighted, for Government House had to be conducted on strictly economical lines, but it was not cold, though it was so near the middle of winter, and when Betty found the other two women were comparing notes on their babies—they had each one under a year old, and the topic seemed inexhaustible, she drew away to where one of the long windows was open, and stood there looking across the waters of the harbour. All the sorrow she had been fighting and conquering for the last eight weeks rose up again, crueller, harder to bear than ever. It was dark outside, only here and there on the water one or two ship's lights made long yellow streaks, and in the town the windows of the houses shone bright, but the darkness hid all outlines, and till the moon should rise there would be no other light.
The women inside were full of the one absorbing topic, and from the dining-room beyond came the sounds of revelry—with the departure of the ladies the fun had grown faster. Betty knew what that meant as far as her husband was concerned. Already he generally came home from mess more drunk than sober, and she found herself thankfully reflecting that the distance from Government House to her own was not above a quarter of a mile.
There was a step beside her, and she felt rather than saw that it was George Bass.
"Mistress Betty," his voice was trembling, and he would not speak her married name.
"Mr. Bass!" and she gulped down a sob, for she feared the women at the other end of the room would hear her.
He caught her by the arm, and drew her out into the garden. She made no resistance, only the sob she had before restrained burst from her lips, and he suddenly caught her in his arms and pressed her to his breast. She lay there passive, with her head on his shoulder.
"Oh, my love, my love! My God, my God!" and she felt that the strong arms were trembling.
And utter pity rose up in her heart. She had made him suffer. If only she could help him, and she could not, she knew she could not. She put up her hand and touched his face.
"Betty, Betty," he held her so tight his strong hands hurt her, "why did you marry him? Why did you put this barrier between us? I could have killed him, and then thou wouldst have been mine. Could'st thou not trust me?"
"I did, I did," sighed Betty. "But I know how it would be, and I loved thee too well, dear, to bring thee shame."
He swayed backwards and forwards, and she put her arm round his neck.
"I must go. Let me go. If they find me——"
"I cannot let thee go. I will keep thee always. I swear, dear, I swear. Dost thou not hear me?"
"Alas! Alas! I love thee, I love thee. I have done thee harm enough, now let me go. I must go for all you swear."
"The world is wide, Betty, so wide. You do not know. I will take thee away to another country, and there you shall be my honoured wife."
"Alas! alas. I could never bring thee honour now, and I will not go with thee, and thou must keep away from me."
There were hot, dry, tearless sobs in Bass's throat, and his face was pressed against hers.
"There is an American ship in Neutral Bay. It sails to-morrow morning. We will start afresh in a new country."
Betty's heart gave a great bound. To cut adrift now and at once from all her surroundings. The temptation was great, the arms around her were so strong, and she loved him so. An assent trembled on her lips. Then the ruddy light that streamed from the stern cabins of the Reliance caught her eyes. Would she for her selfish love take him from his ship, from the country where his name was already known, where some day she knew it would be honoured? There was more than love in the world for a man, and for a woman—well it did not matter.
"No, no, I will not go."
"Thou dost not love—thou dost not love me."
"I love thee more than thou knowst."
"Then come with me. To-morrow thou wilt be glad."
"To-morrow I shall be breaking my heart for want of thee," and her face was pressed close against his. The mere physical delight of being so close to him was, she felt, a greater temptation than all his pleading. "Help me, my sweet, help me."
The appeal in her voice made him hold her closer still.
"Help me," she prayed against all her desires, for every nerve in her body was thrilling with the longing to do as he wished, "help me to behave as a good woman should. Don't let me stain my good name. I am weak, and I love thee so."
Ah! what cared she for her good name! Only she knew she must not bring ruin upon him. For that reason she had married Williams. Would she make that marriage of no avail? And the plea went right home. For one wild moment he held her closer to him, he kissed her lips, her eyes, her hair, he drank in the fragrance of her breath, then he loosened his arms, and she almost cried aloud for him to take her back again.
"Thou art my honoured lady," he said, with a sob.
"Thou wilt know always," said Betty's trembling voice, "that thy welfare is nearest my heart whatever may happen." She caught his hand, and pressed it to her bosom. The next moment she had turned and walked slowly back to the other women, and before she had reached the rim of light she would have given all she was possessed of to undo what she had done.
What saith the present hour? Act,
Walk, upward glancing,
So may thy footsteps in Glory be tracked,
Slow, but advancing.
Scorn not the smallness of daily endeavour;
Let the great meaning ennoble it ever.
Droop not o'er efforts expended in vain,
Work as believing that labour is gain.
THE WORST of a great renunciation is the weariness that comes after. You have given up the desire of your heart, and there is nothing to take its place, only the utter desolation of life remains. And so it was with Betty. That very night, her husband, more drunk than sober, took her home, and then retired to finish the night at the Rum Puncheon, and she was left to dream of the delights she had put away from her. Eunice, looking at her mistress's white, worn face next morning, guessed how it had been with her, and knew that it was not entirely disgust at her husband's drunken carouse that had washed the colour from her cheeks. But she was a wise woman, too, and she knew that the most bitter woes cannot be always felt, that the most overpowering sorrow must sometimes be forgotten.
She let her mourn unrestrainedly for a day though.
"Did you forget, madam," she asked, as she brought Betty's warm water the day after, "that the little grey hen hatches to-day?"
Her mistress turned her face to the wall.
"I did not disturb her, but I saw a little yellow fluffy head poking out from under her wing. The earliest clutch in the colony." Surely this was great news in a new country where stock of all kinds had to be brought thousands of miles across the sea. It was Betty's first brood, too, but she only wished she were dead.
"Madam," said Eunice's brave voice, a little hard, but certainly with a ring of pity in it, "our great sorrows are never mended by taking no notice of the little interests of life."
"Oh, Eunice, what do I care for a clutch of chickens?"
"You have not seem them, madam. It will do you no harm to look at them, and even I was glad to see the little things. The goat has a kid, too, and there will be no lack of milk for the tea."
"We must send some over to Mrs. Laycock," said Betty, with the faintest touch of interest. "I heard her say the boy is growing so big, and it is so dear to buy."
She rose wearily. She looked at the goat, patted the new kid, and watched the little yellow balls of fluff peck at the crumbs of bread she flung to them. Then, since her husband was away at his military duties, she set the convict gardener to make a coop, and stood over him till it was finished to her liking. She was tired, tired, but she might just as well see that the chicks were properly reared, since she was there. It was all weary work, but at last, when Eunice summoned her to her midday meal, she was fain to acknowledge that the morning had not been quite so dreary as the one that went before it, when she had sat in the house and mourned—and yet nothing had altered in her life. She was still married to the man she hated, and the man she loved was away to the mountains, striving to put all thought of her out of his mind.
And then and there she made her resolution.
"Eunice," she said, suddenly, to the woman who stood respectfully beside her, "you are quite right. I see what you mean, though you have said nothing. I will do the best I can with everything that comes my way to do, even though I feel no interest in the doing of it."
"Ah, madam, the interest will come."
"Will it?" said the girl incredulously.
"It will, indeed. What you do faithfully and well, and are bound to be interested in."
"I will do what I have to do faithfully and well," said Betty, gravely, as if, as indeed she was, making a vow.
"Then," said the woman, "the unhappiness that comes to you will be none of your own making, and that is a greater consolation than you know."
"But there will be unhappiness?" said the girl.
"Most of us are born to it, and can no more escape our fate than the sun can help shining, but we can make the best of it."
And life for Betty was hard. Williams had admired his wife. He had thought her, and still thought her, the most beautiful woman he had ever seen, but he soon found that a beautiful woman is not all that a man most desires in a wife.
Honestly she tried to do her duty by him, more it must be owned for her own sake than his, but the antipathy she had conceived for him in the early days of acquaintanceship refused to wear off. Indeed, a close connection with him only deepened it. He was coarse, he was sensual, and though a woman may for give sensuality in the man she loves, it is the last thing to be condoned in the man she does not. That he was as often drunk as sober was perhaps a small thing, but he was cruel to all his subordinates, to the wretched convict men and women who were his servants, and who, whatever their sins, were at least men and women. He condoned nothing, he overlooked nothing; if he could find fault he did so, and if he found a fault, however trivial, the doer suffered, though he should lose all the privileges he had earned by years of toil and striving. He had a master who owned him body and soul, and who was absolutely without pity.
Nevertheless, Betty tried to keep such affection as she supposed he must have for her. She tried honestly, as she had promised, by every means in her power. And then she learned another and a ruder lesson. The unrestrained desire of a man for a woman is not love, nor anything deserving to be called by the name. He had wanted her, he had taken her, and now that she was his by all the laws of God and man he was wearying of her. He felt awed by her presence. He could not speak unrestrainedly before her, why, he could not have told himself; and there grew upon him a desire, every day more strong, to get out of range of those honest, clear-seeing dark eyes. Every little meanness, every cruelty of which he was guilty, he felt she knew, she read him through and through, she judged him, and she despised him. He had bound her to him against her will, and behold! she stood as far away as the equator from the poles. She made friends, too. Her beauty brought the men with one accord, from the bluff old Governor downwards, to her feet, and her gracious ways and many little kindnesses won her the women. Was a woman sick, was a child ailing, did they want milk or eggs, or a little precious flour, the wife of Lieutenant Williams was always ready to help if she could, and the general opinion of the settlement at Sydney Cove, freely and openly expressed, was that she was a thousand times too good for him, and that the rumour that he had won her by foul means must be true enough.
Down at the Rum Puncheon, when the liquor had loosened tongues, it was more than ever the fashion to taunt him with having stolen his wife. There was no surer way of drawing Williams, and the choice spirits made the most of it in a country where any excitement was welcome, and news of any sort was conspicuous by its absence. But if they had known how for every jibe and taunt he made his wife suffer it is likely they would have restrained their tongues a little. He did not actually beat her, but more than once when he was in his cups he had laid violent hands on her, and there were bruises on her arms and shoulders which, could they but have seen them, would have made every man in the Rum Puncheon challenge him, and fight him to the death. But only Eunice saw them, and she held her peace. There are some things that must be borne.
Then one night he reeled in but half sober, dropped down on the couch beside her.
Betty would have risen and left him, but he caught her hand.
"Madam," he said, holding it so tight she almost called out. "I am tired of your ways. What is a wife for if she do not make things pleasant for her husband? And let me tell you you are making them confoundedly unpleasant for me."
"You will remember," said Betty, unwisely, "that it was by no will of mine I am your wife.'"
"Nevertheless, you are my wife, and, by gad, madam, I am sick of your reproachful ways and your complaints."
"Complaints! Surely I have never complained. It would be worse than useless."
"The settlement complains for you, then. That peak-nosed Mistress Laycock has a tongue, and it is for ever going like a stone in a tin can. Madam, I'll stand it no longer."
"What can I do?" asked Betty, wearily.
"I don't know what you can do, but I know what I can do, and that is, send you back to keep house on the farm at Toongabbee, and back you shall go at the end of the week."
"Oh, please Mr. Williams," pleaded Betty, "I will not see you if you like, but let me stay here. I will not be in your way and the house must be cared for."
"Oh, the house will be cared for, never fear," said Williams, meaningly, "and you would be most confoundedly in my way."
"You will remember," Betty reminded him once more, "that it is by no will of mine."
"Hold your tongue, madam. You are worse than those confounded young rips at the Rum Puncheon. Tell your woman to pack your traps, and you'll both be ready for the packet to Parramatta on Saturday. Simon Burton must be wearying for a sight of that sweet young wife of his."
And up at Toongabbee the old loneliness began again, only it was not quite so bad as before. She had learned to take an interest in the events of the hour, however trivial, and now, as the wife of a man who seldom came near his farm, she felt herself virtually its mistress, and all the servants came to her for orders. It was a new position for the young girl, and the responsibility and the thought for others her chatelainship required took her mind away from her own sad thoughts. If she sat over the fire in the evening and watched the shadows on the wall, and listened to the wail of the curlews voicing her own loneliness and weariness, her own hopeless longing for the love and tenderness that should come into every woman's life, at least she was up betimes in the morning, and there were the fowls and pigs to be fed, the now little clutch of downy ducklings to be attended to, and the cows to be looked after. The farm increased, and the work grew with each improvement, and by the time the long days came again it was beginning to be something very unlike the wild bush farm to which she had come an unwilling bride. Of her husband she saw very little. Occasionally he came and stayed a couple of days or so, but he never even hinted that he wanted her down in the settlement again. For all that he cared, she thought bitterly, he might have left her her freedom and her happiness, and she gave no voice to the bitterness in her heart, only because she infinitely preferred to live here without him.
One day Mrs. MacArthur rode across from Parramatta with her little daughter in her arms to see Betty, who took her into the sitting-room, which had little feminine touches about it now, and nursed the baby, and cooed over it and pressed it to her breast, and had much ado to keep back the tears when she remembered she could only be thankful Fate had denied her so great a delight.
And Mrs. MacArthur saw those tears, though they were so hastily brushed away.
"My dear Mistress Williams, will you let an older woman speak somewhat seriously to you?"
"Why, yes," said Betty, smiling, "certainly I will."
"It is a private matter."
"Tell your mother, baby, dear, she may say what she likes to us. We are so conscious of her goodness we know she would not say an unkind thing, and if she did it would be for some kind purpose."
"My dear"—Mrs. MacArthur went at it with a rush—"is it wise for a young woman to be away from her husband week after week?"
Betty dropped her face over the baby, but the other woman saw the blood creep up her face.
"If you ask me, I do not think that it is."
"Because I have no choice in the matter. Mr. Williams has sent me here, and he has never hinted that he wants me back in Sydney again."
"But, my dear girl, with a beautiful face like yours, you should be able to do as you please."
Betty nibbled the baby's little fingers.
"Ah, baby, baby, sometimes a beautiful face is a great mistake. If mine is beautiful it has been a great misfortune to me."
"Well, what is wrong between you?" cried the would-be peacemaker.
There was silence for a moment. Then Betty spoke up.
"This is wrong between us," she said. "Surely you know he carried me off and married me whether I would or no; and now he is tired of his bargain, and I—and I—I always hated him. I tried—I tried to make things smooth at first, but it was no good, and now I think he hates me."
"No, it is not impossible. It is the bare truth."
"But, my dear, what is to be the end of it all?"
"Indeed, I do not know that," and she gathered the baby closer to her, as if she might draw comfort from its helpless softness, and slowly rocked herself backwards and forwards.
"My dear, my dear," said Mrs. MacArthur, pitifully, "if you were my daughter—if you were my sister——"
"What could you do for me?"
"Indeed, I do not know."
That was just it. There was nothing to be done. No outside kindliness or sympathy could help her materially. She had to get through her life somehow, and she learned early in life, as many another unhappy woman has to learn, to live from day to day, looking neither forward nor backward, taking interest only in the events of life as they come. It is not a bad way to live. Vain regrets help no one, happy dreams do not push us on in the world; but it is hard to learn the lesson before you are twenty, when life should hold no vain regrets and should be full of happy dreams.
She dreaded her husband's visits to the farm. However smoothly and well things might go on, when he appeared there was sure to be a hitch, as surely he found some fault with one of the farm hands, and the unfortunate man thought himself lucky if he escaped being sent down to the gaol at Parramatta, there to receive the punishment for his offence in the shape of as many lashes as the magistrate and Mr. Williams should think fit. They were rough, untaught, ignorant; but Williams had no consideration for them, and Betty soon learned that for her to beg for mercy was only likely to increase their punishment.
"You think you can rule them, madam, do you? Oh, yes, I know you have a mighty fine opinion of yourself, but the place would simply go to rack and ruin if I did not straighten things up a bit when I come up. The rogues know I keep a tight fist over them, and so we may depend on just a quarter of the work being got through."
"But it was not Crane's fault," pleaded Betty, "that the wild dogs killed those sheep. You yourself kept him out shooting wild duck, and——"
"Now, madam, will you hold your tongue. Is this farm yours or mine? Down to Parramatta the rogue shall go, and a few sharp strokes will teach him to mind his ways against I come again."
She left the room. She was as much slave in her way as Crane in his, and at least his time would be up in the next five years, while her servitude was for life.
On the whole Simon Burton, the overseer, succeeded in pleasing his master. He really was a capable young fellow, and as he was within a few weeks of his freedom, managed to put up with many an exaction he would otherwise have resented. Many a time Betty had been surprised to see Simon come out scatheless when either of the others would have been sent down to Parramatta, and as the days drew on she, too, began to count, as Eunice was doing, the days that separated him from freedom; and every time her husband came and went, and Simon had steered clear of all causes of offence, she rejoiced with them in her heart, though she might not do so openly.
"Only three weeks to-day to Simon's freedom," said Eunice, in the beginning of November, as she served her mistress's breakfast. "I am thankful that the New Year will see him a free man."
"And yet it can't make so very much difference," smiles Betty, sympathetically. "He will stay on here, Mr. Williams tells me."
"It will make all the difference in the world, with a master like—I mean it is always well to be free."
"Yes, indeed it is. Only three weeks now."
"And a great many things may happen in three weeks. I have always said I will not trouble, and here I am troubling again, madam."
"Poor Eunice! But I think it will be all right now. All the time I have been here Simon has never been punished—never once been near it."
"Yes, I know. But I can't help being anxious, so little would upset it, and it would break his heart if anything stopped him now."
"Poor Eunice!" said Betty again, "but I think it will be all right."
Neither of the women thought of counting on Williams' mercy. They only hoped that he would not come to the farm till the three weeks were up. He had not been for some time. It was quite possible he would not come.
But that very afternoon he did come, and then Betty, smiling to herself as she thought how identified with the farm she had become, told herself that it was more than probable that Simon would succeed in pleasing his master, as he had done many times before. But she sympathised with Eunice hardly concealed anxiety, for Williams, when he was out of temper, was no respecter of persons, and it seemed to Betty he was generally out of temper when he came to the farm nowadays. Still, for the first day things went fairly well, and on the next Williams, to the unspoken relief of them all elected to go down to Parramatta, and pay a visit to the MacArthur's. The very cows seemed to breathe more freely in his absence, Betty thought, and it never occurred to her that he had gone because he felt he must have a rest from the grave eyes that were ever upon him. He would not go back to Sydney, for he feared the chaff of his friends, who would say that his wife had tired of him early. And at Elizabeth Farm they talked of Betty, and the excellent manager she was, and how he should count himself blessed in his wife. Therefore he rode back to Toongabbee in no pleasant humour. It would be woe for any creature that crossed his path to-day.
And as ill-luck would have it the brown colt, the pride of the farm, had stumbled in a hole and snapped his leg. Simon had been riding him, quietly, carefully, he could not blame himself, for he was fond of the beast, but the accident had happened, and it did not take expert evidence to tell that the horse would never be good for aught again. He stood there in the yard, with head hanging, and the unfortunate man stood beside him, sadly stroking his muzzle. Betty felt sick with pity when she looked at them, and she was powerless to help. Williams would have no pity. He would have had none a year ago, and he was far worse-tempered now than he had been then.
"Put the poor thing in the stable," she urged, pityingly, and her heart sank as she looked at Simon's face.
"His leg's broke," said Simon, gruffly. "He'll never be good for aught again, and Mr. Williams saith he's worth well on to £150, but I don't think as he can be worth so much myself, but go you inside madam. Here comes the master."
"If I could help you, Simon," said Betty, wistfully.
"Madam, you only make things worse," said the man in desperation; and recognising the truth of his words she fled to her room.
Thither in a few moments came Eunice with a scared, white face.
"Madam! the master," gasped the woman, and Betty saw that for once her self-contained serving woman was shaken out of her usual calm.
"Yes, Eunice. Here, sit down and tell me."
"Madam, madam, Simon is a good lad for all is a convict."
"I know that. I know that," said Betty, impatiently.
"The master shot the colt, and made to send him down to Parramatta to receive 500 lashes."
"And Simon flew at him, caught him by the throat, and flung him against the fence, and now he is away to the woods to join the bolters and the Indians."
"He is better there than with a bleeding back. But, oh, Eunice, Eunice, I am sorry for you. He is a boy to you, but—but——"
"He was good to me in his way, and I cared for him—mine," wailed the woman. "Everything I care for—everything I care for there is a curse on," and she swayed herself backwards and forwards wildly.
The door opened, and in came Williams blood on his face, and his shirt front all blood and mud.
"Out of this, you baggage. Now, madam, you and I will have a reckoning for all your fine ways. I'll teach you to traduce your husband to that ill-conditioned Captain MacArthur, and that domineering piece of goods, his wife."
There's a Legion that never was listed,
That carries no colours or crest,
But, split in a thousand detachments,
Is breaking the road for the rest.
The ends of the Earth were our portion,
The Ocean at large was our share,
There was never a skirmish to windward,
But the Leaderless Legion was there.
THE WIND was from the north-east, and was blowing a stiff breeze. The sky was cloudless, and all the tops of the blue waves were capped with white foam. Every now and then a wave, bigger than another, toppled over the gunwale into the whaleboat, and the water washed uncomfortably on the bottom boards among the feet of the men. But the sun overhead was bright and hot as befitted a January day, and Bass, at the tiller, laughed at such misfortunes. What was a little salt water, more or less, to men who had come to explore new worlds.
To starboard was a low flat island. They could see the trees on it raised up by the mirage, a long, low dark line against the blue sky. The coxswain pointed at it with his thumb.
"Land, sir," said he, curtly. He was a sturdy old salt, who had served with Cook, and his eyes had looked on many new lands.
Bass put his helm down and brought her up to the wind.
"I expect," said he, "it's just an island, like the rest of them, but we may as well have a look at it."
One thing is certain in this world. No man may mourn over his private woes. The world goes steadily on, whatever the sorrows that come by the way, and the wise man marches with it. So George Bass, since he had lost his sweetheart and might not sit down at Sydney Cove and watch her misery or another man's bliss, had gone heart and soul into the exploration of this new country. In the winter and spring he had explored the mountains and the harbour, and now, in summer, when they might hope for fairer weather, he, with Captain Waterhouse's permission, had called for six volunteers, and with six weeks' provisions, had taken the whaleboat and was exploring the south eastern coast of New Holland for rivers and harbours. It was an outlet for his restless energy, and it was quite possible he might make some discovery that would bring him, if not fortune, at least fame.
He was inclined to the belief that there was a strait between New Holland and Van Diemen's Land, and by the trend of the coast it was quite certain that if there was no strait there must certainly be a very deep bay, and the strong swell that had come up from the S.W. the night before almost forbade the idea of a bay. He wanted to go racing on before this favourable wind and settle the question once and for all. The islands could have waited. But the quarter in the boat was somewhat cramped. The men looked eagerly forward to a run ashore, even though there were but loose sea sand and pig's face to be seen. It gave them a chance to stretch their legs. There was even a possibility of an invigorating bath in some fresh running stream.
The island was closer than it had seemed, so low did it lie, and Bass, shading his eyes, soon saw the white stretch of sand with the waves breaking upon it. Then he looked again. Surely——
The coxswain spoke his thoughts.
"Men, as I'm a sinner."
"Possibly Indians," said Bass.
But they were not Indians. As the boat drew closer it became apparent that these scarecrows who were dancing up and down waving their arms above their heads and going on with all manner of strange antics were certainly men of their own race.
"Shipwrecked," suggested Bass. He had not expected to find any of his own kind here.
"More like," said one of the men, taking out his quid and spitting deliberately into the sea, "it's some of they poor cove's as stole away the whaleboat last month."
They dropped the sail and ran the boat right up on the beach, and to Bass's intense astonishment, the first man who laid hands on the gunwale was Simon Burton, Williams' runaway servant. He knew him very well indeed, there was no mistaking him, though the spick and span young man was a tatterdemalion whose nakedness was barely covered by dirty rags. His hair was long and unkempt, and the lower part of his face was hidden in a bushy beard.
"Simon Burton, surely!"
"Yes, your Honour."
"How in the name of the gods did you got here?"
There were six other scarecrows as ragged as Simon Burton, and they crowded round the rough sea-worn sailors as if they were angels of deliverance.
"Did you run away with Muir's whaleboat?" asked Bass of Burton.
"Yes, sir, we did. Lord! it was mighty easy. There was fourteen of us and Brickfields Tom was the leader."
"The others? Oh, the provisions was low an' we were pretty cramped in the boat and then we landed here for a stretch and a sleep, and the curs sailed away and left us. They're bound for Chiny and the Dutch East Indies."
"They're a bit out of their course, I'm thinking. Now what am I to do for you fellows? There isn't a craft between here and Sydney Cove. What do you want to do?"
"Get back to Sydney Cove, I suppose," said Simon Burton, gloomily.
"What else is there for us to do?"
The sailors lighted a fire and brought ashore flour to make bannocks of, and the castaways contributed half a dozen mutton birds, while Bass served out a lot of rum all round in honour of the meeting. It was a lonely corner of the earth, and it was an event even to meet runaway convicts. Desolation breaks down all barriers. Still Bass, before he set out on a tramp round the little island, put a guard over the boat and warned his coxswain that a little carelessness might easily reverse the position.
Simon Burton walked a little behind him, and when Bass found he was following he called him up.
"Burton, what am I to do for you?"
"If you could spare a little tucker and a musket, sir," said Simon promptly, "and would put us on the mainland, I believe we could pull through."
"But that old chap. Six hundred miles along the coast to Botany Bay! A barren land, too, and the Indians not to be trusted! I don't see how you're to do it. That old chap—Davy, do you call him?—he'd knock up before he'd done half a dozen miles, and there's a boy there that's hurt his knee, he can't walk at all."
"Some of us'll go under," assented Burton, "but what else is there to do?"
"I'll tell you what," said Bass; "if the men consent—I'm bound to ask their consent, because we're short already—I'll share our provisions with you, and we'll make shift to take old Davy and the boy with us in the boat. It'll mean the gaol and probably the cat, but what else can I do?"
"God bless you, sir," said Simon, fervently.
"I haven't done it yet, and I can't do it till were on our way back. Not then unless the men consent," and Burton bowed his head with another murmured blessing. He had not met with much kindness or thought in his life.
By-and-by Burton spoke of his master, and was eloquent on the sufferings of his mistress. He was aware, as who in the colony was not, of Bass's former relations with her, and was sure of a sympathetic listener.
"He's a brute, sir, a regular brute. I wouldn't trust a dog along with him if I had my way. I don't think he ever laid hands on her, not to say exactly laid hands on her, till the night I ran away, but that night, Eunice told me, he just regularly beat her, he was that mad, and he took his riding whip to her."
Bass clenched his hands and set his teeth.
"She haven't anyone to help her, sir. Not a creature belonging to her as cares a dump what becomes of her." Simon looked wistfully at the young man, as if he would interest him if he could in this forlorn woman whom he knew he had once loved.
"I'll speak to Mistress MacArthur when I get back," said Bass. "She is a friend of hers, and will help her." And he was vexed with himself that he had said so much about the woman he loved to a convict servant.
That afternoon they left the island, and a week later they were back again. On the beach were the seven scarecrows, eagerly looking out for them.
"We'll take Davy and the boy," said Bass, "but you must clearly understand I must deliver them up to the proper authorities when we reach the settlement. You know what that may mean?"
They knew well enough, but their only alternative was death. Their necessity was dire.
"The rest of you I'll take across to the mainland."
The whaleboat's crew had not much to give, but what they had they gave freely. With their consent the precious flour was halved, with their consent the powder and shot was shared, and Bass gave Burton, who was the leader, a musket, and as the mainland drew closer each man thought of some other little offering. One parted with a neckerchief, another with a belt, and another with a clasp knife.
Very lonely looked the mainland of New Holland as they approached it. There was the long white beach with the waves breaking softly upon it, for the day was fine and still. Behind the beach the land rose a little, and on either hand stretched a hedge of dark green ti-tree. Far as the eye could see it stretched, and what lay behind it no man might say. The gulls that wheeled like flashes of light overhead made a mournful cry, it might almost have been a dirge. Four of the five men shuddered, in spite of the glorious sunlight, and looked wistfully and sadly at the whaleboat. They stepped ashore reluctantly. She was their last link with civilisation. But Simon Burton held his head high.
"We'll never forget your kindness, sir," he said, gravely, "and the kindness of all the men."
"Well, well, I wish we could have done more for you," said Bass, heartily.
"It is a poor look out you're thinking, sir. Death in the woods by starvation and the Indians, or the prison and the cat if we reach the settlement. But you've been powerful good to us, and maybe if you don't hear any more of us, maybe, we mightn't be dead, sir. It would scarce be healthy to proclaim the fact that we got through, if we do get through."
A light flashed into George Bass's eyes.
"I understand. I understand."
"And, sir, if I might be so bold, if you'd do a kindness to Eunice if you get the chance."
"I will, indeed, I will."
"And Eunice's mistress?" said Burton in a lower tone.
"Anything I can do to help Mistress Williams," said Bass, formally and coldly. "I will do," and Burton needed no telling that he would be better than his word.
Then the whaleboat pushed off, and as the men bent to the oars the five poor outcasts stood in a line on the beach, and there went up a cheer for Mr. Bass and his men. Behind them lay an unknown wilderness, between them and the only point of civilisation an unknown tract, full of dangers, but, so far, these explorers had been their saviours, and Burton made his little band cheer and cheer again. From the boat came an answering cheer, but the coxswain drew his hand across his mouth.
"Pore beggars! Pore beggars! I guess that's the last we see of 'em."
And there was not a man in the boat, from the leader downwards, who did not feel that they had left five fellow creatures to their death.
"A veil to draw 'twixt God His law
And Man's infirmity,
A shadow kind to dumb and blind
The shambles where we die."
IT HAD BEEN a breathless day. All the windows in the little town at Sydney Cove were gaping open for the sea breeze that had not come. The summer had been hot, but this first day of March the thermometer had been higher than it had ever been, and the officers of the New South Wales Corps, who were not as a rule given to looking upon Botany Bay as a Paradise, were more sure than ever that there was not a sheet of brown paper between it and regions which are not, as a rule, mentioned in polite society. Most of them were assembled as usual at the Rum Puncheon, but the long table and some of the settles had been moved outside as soon as the red hot sun had sunk out of sight over the ridge to the west, and those of them who had energy enough sat up with their shirts open at the throat, and their wigs, if they wore them, tossed on the table, while the rest sprawled in listless attitudes on the dried-up grass by the roadway.
Mother Harris wiped the perspiration from her forehead as she lolled back against the door lintel and left the fetching and carrying to her couple of assigned servants. The Rum Puncheon was doing a roaring trade, but she was too hot and exhausted to do more than superintend things.
"Hi, you, you pirate there!" called Williams, bringing his hand down heavily on the shoulder of the small half-caste boy Mother Harris employed to gather up the drinking cups, "leave mine alone; it's barely finished. That's the way Mother Harris tops up her score."
The boy shrank back with a smothered cry.
"Let the child alone," said Kemp, lazily. "Williams, you are a brute. There wasn't a drain worth mentioning in it. Fill up again and I'll give you a toast."
One of the men ran out at a hint from his mistress with a jug of rum and filled up the glasses and mugs that were held out to him.
"Are you all filled?" asked Kemp. "Gentlemen, I stand treat. Here's a toast now, but you must drink it standing, even though it is hot."
"Hardly the King himself——" began Devereux. But Kemp rose to his feet.
"Mistress Williams," said he, "the sweetest and most gracious lady in New Holland or in the Southerner Hemisphere for that matter."
Every man rose to his feet, but Betty's husband wore a face like thunder. There was no surer way to draw him than to praise his wife.
"Did I not tell you you should drink it standing in spite of the weather? Sweet Mistress Williams, and may her husband permit us to see more of her."
"Hip, hip, hurrah!" cried Devereux, and the others joined in.
Williams looked black.
"I'll thank you, gentlemen, to let my wife alone."
Williams half rose, and McKellar, who had no desire for the quarrel which the Irishman was always ready to provoke, hastily interposed.
"Did you hear, Williams, that Bass found your whilom head man, Simon Burton, away down the coast?"
"Devil take him," growled Williams. "He must be dead now, surely."
"Was you meaning Bass or Simon Burton?" asked Devereux, politely. "Because they do say Burton has sworn he'll do for you before he goes under himself, and as for Mr. George Bass, here's the gentleman himself."
Every settle was occupied by sprawling figures, but Bass flung himself on the grass and called for a drink.
"Williams has been asking tenderly after you, Bass," said Devereux, in whom the spirit of mischief was ever uppermost. "He wants to know what message his old servant sent him?"
The thunder on Williams' face was reflected in Bass's.
"Tell us about the poor beggars," interposed McKellar, hastily. "I doubt they'll no win through. It maun be an awfu' wild land, yon."
"Well," said Bass, thoughtfully, "they might, I think they might. I believe I might do it myself."
"But of course they'd not be advertisin' their presence," said McKellar.
"Faith, no man 'ud be hard on them," opined the Irishman. "Even his Excellency himself——"
"But if by chance his Excellency did manage to see them," said Laycock, "it would be to trice 'em up and several Botany Bay dozens for their pains, whether they were sick or well, no matter what extenuating circumstances."
The New South Wales Corps hadn't much opinion of kind old Governor Hunter.
"Oh, he," yawned Lewis, stretching his hands up above his head. "They might tell us something of that great city they say there is behind the mountains. White people they say there are, or with skins so nearly white that it comes to the same thing, and the women——"
Bass began to laugh.
"I've been about more than any of you," he said, "and I do not believe there are any people here but the Indians, and they are black as niggers and the women are——" He flung out his hand and intimated that he had no complimentary words for the women of the aboriginal inhabitants of New Holland.
"And that brings us back once more," sighed Devereux, theatrically, "to the beauteous lady we are cut off from. Williams, me bhoy, if ye do not value your wife's society yourself ye have no right to deprive us poor fellows of it. There's some of us here just thirstin' for a sight of her dark eyes."
The whole company were on the alert now, for if Williams looked ill-conditioned Bass's handsome face was dark with restrained anger. That Betty's name should be bandied about a tavern, that she should be pitied as a neglected wife, that she should be wife at all, was almost more than he could bear to think of, but again he might not shame her by interfering. He sought about for some casual observation to make to the man next him, and when he had found it the man next him paid no attention. Devereux had the floor and the ear of the company, and he was bent on baiting Williams.
"Now, Williams, me bhoy, will ye tell us? In a counthry like this, where women, blessings on 'em, are scarce, and a fair woman as rare as snow in summer, ye've got the fairest—by fair means or foul ye've come by the fairest, hasn't he, gentlemen?"
"Yes, yes," came the general chorus. It was getting dark now. Mother Harris had had a couple of pitched rope torches fastened against the wall of the tavern and by there yellow smoky glare, they burned steadily enough in the still hot air, Bass could see the eager, interested ring of faces. All he could say concerning the voyage to the south would fall on empty ears. They were listening to the Irishman. Anything about beautiful Mistress Betty Williams was sure to be interesting, and Williams was bound to lend zest to the entertainment by losing his temper.
"Go on, Pat, go on, Pat!"
"Ye all know how I suffered mesilf," went on Devereux, thoroughly enjoying himself. "There was me and me friend, Mr. Bass there"—Bass moved uneasily, but could hardly make up his mind to leave till he had seen now far this harum-scarum fellow would go—"and half-a-dozen av the rest of yez, whom I will not particularise, out of rispict for yez feelin's"—his audience grinned delightedly—"well, ye all know, ye had hopes, mesilf was well in the runnin', faith I feared no man but me long-legged friend, Mr. Bass, and then comes Mr. Williams and steals a march on the rest av us, an' there wasn't wan of us but would have sworn she hated him."
They all agreed with him, but only a mad-cap Irishman would have put the feelings into words. Williams scrambled to his feet, but Kemp and Rowley held him by the arms. He stammered and spluttered, but could find no words of protest, and the Irishman turned to him suave and smiling.
"Now, Williams, me friend, we've a proposition to make to ye. Will ye let us see your beauteous lady occasionally? She's wearyin', mured up at Toongabbee, the crathur."
Williams found his voice in a violent oath.
"You want to see my wife, gentlemen? Mr. Devereux chooses to play the clown for your amusement. Very well, I don't count him unless you like. You want to see my wife?"
"Yes, yes. Certainly," came from all round the circle, only Bass rose to his feet and stood a little apart, just out of the circle of light. He felt that he must hear, but he would take no part in the proceedings.
"Very well, then, gentlemen, you shall see her. It shall be your own faults if you do not see as much of her as ever you like. What is to-day? Thursday. Very well. On Saturday I go up to my farm at Toongabbee. Now I invite you all, such of you as can get leave, and you can all get leave, to visit us at the farm on Sunday next at 12 o'clock. I know some of you have pressing engagements at the cock-pit at the Brickfields, but I assure you you will find my entertainment the more amusing. Will you come?"
The company were silent with astonishment for a moment. It was all very well to chaff Williams on keeping his wife shut up, a prompt invitation to visit her dumbfounded them.
The Irishman found his voice first.
"By me sowl, that we will. Ye called me a clown, Mr. Williams, but I'm thinking the lady may need the protection of a gentleman, and I'll be there to see she gets it."
"True for you, Paddy," shouted the others. "We accept with pleasure, Williams."
Williams ignored Devereux's intentional insult. He had something else on hand.
"And can I count on Mr. Bass? I feel sure the proceedings will interest him deeply?"
Williams peered out into the gloom, and Bass thought there was a malicious, evil look on his face. He loved Betty; never in his life had he loved her more. He could not see her in the presence of this man, her husband.
"I regret," he said, coldly, "that I shall be away to the mountains before Sunday."
"Toongabbee," said Williams, with a trace of eagerness he tried to suppress in his voice, "is fair on the way to the mountains. Will you not pause and accept my invitation? I can assure you," he added, "that Mistress Williams particularly desires your presence."
Bass felt his heart give a bound, and then he felt Devereuxs hand on his arm.
"Say ye'll go, man. Better say ye'll go. There's some devilment behind, I'm thinkin', and the poor lady'll be the better av a couple av staunch friend's like you an' me beside her."
"Since you put it that way," said Bass, "I will delay my journey and will have much pleasure in accepting your invitation."
"And now let's drink to the lady again," said Laycock. "It's the first time we have had the honour of being entertained by her."
The others replied by a cheer that went ringing down the cove, startled the watch on board the Reliance, and made the Governor, who had been dining with Captain Waterhouse, wonder what devilment the N.S.W. Corps had been up to now.
"O let the solid ground
Not fail beneath my feet,
Before my life has found
What some have found so sweet."
IT WAS a black fellow's fire, that is, three sticks with their lighted ends close together, just enough to boil a pot of water. It was hardly chilly yet at night, so Simon Burton sat a little away from it, just out of range of the flickering light. He was back again some miles from his former master's place, with a tribe of natives, driven back by hunger and desperation. On some upright sticks were stuck steaks cut from the flank of a kangaroo, which hung in a tree near by, and once and again the man turned them, so that each side was equally applied to the glowing coals. There were no savages about, the men were off on a day's hunting expedition, and the bolter, having no particular liking for their unkempt, dirty women and children, he preferred to keep them at a distance. Therefore he was preparing his supper alone. There were drawbacks, of course, in being by himself, his hearing was not as keen as a black fellow's, in spite of the training of the last few months, and it was quite possible someone might come upon him unawares. A strange tribe of aboriginals who knew him not—that was very probable among these nomad people—a file of soldiers—that was hardly so likely, but still it had to be taken into consideration. And then there were unknown dangers. What terrors might not this unknown land hold hidden in her woods and dark recesses? He had not seen anything very terrifying, but that was no proof that it was not there to be seen, so he sat with his back to a tree-fern well out of the range of the light. Overhead the sky was also shut out by the thick foliage of the little gully; but one bright star pierced down between the greenery, and Simon Burton looked at it, and matured his plans. There were one or two other men in the woods, bolters like himself, and he knew they would take a hand.
Presently he heard a rustling among the fern, and then the soft coo of a wood pigeon, and a pigeon is not a night bird. Then there came the cry of the mopoke, and again the coo of the pigeon. He rose to his feet, and put his hand on his musket, for a hunted man must needs doubt everyone.
"All right," he said, and there stepped out into the open the neat form of Eunice, his old wife. She had a bundle on her arm, and he drew her out of the light of the fire, and she sat down and wiped her face.
"It is a good step, Simon, and I am tired."
"It won't be for long," he said. "McNeil and his men were round all the farms, and I darsen't go closer. I got word, so I stole away."
"Looking for bolters, they said. I hoped Crane could warn you. It's a weary life."
"It won't be for long," said Burton, again, grimly, "it won't be for long. Is Williams back?"
"He came to-day. And that poor girl's in a terrible state about it. I can see she is, though she has said nothing to me."
"Why didn't she run off with Mr. Bass, eh, Eunice?"
"Women of her sort," said the old woman, opening her bag and taking out scones and bannocks freshly baked, "take pride in doing right."
"But it comes to the same thing in the end, old woman? You come of that class yourself."
"Never mind my past, Simon. I've been a good wife to you."
"Right you are, old girl," he clapped a hand on her shoulder. "When I get clean away you'll have to make a bolt for it and join me."
She put her work-hardened hand on his gently. In her hard life his kindness had smoothed many a rough place for her, and she was more than grateful.
"Ah, no, Simon. You've been good to your old wife, lad, but I won't be a burden any longer. Lead a clean life, lad, once you're away, and when you have a young wife and children on your knee, think your old wife will be glad you are happy."
"You wouldn't be jealous of a young woman?" he asked curiously,
"Jealous? I'm an old woman, lad, an old woman. The Fates drifted us together, and you've been good to me, and I've been grateful, more grateful than you will ever know."
"You've been good to me; my word, you've been good."
"Then lead a straight life if you get away, lead a straight life for the old wife's sake a little, and for your own most of all."
"On my oath I wasn't guilty," said Burton. "I knew no more who broke the till in the shop than you did."
"And I was guilty," sighed the woman, "I was guilty. There is blood on my hands, and though he was a bad, cruel man, still his blood brought me no comfort."
"Nevertheless," said Burton, between his teeth, "I mean to kill Williams. It will hardly be murder, he is only carrion, and the earth will be well rid of him."
The little fire flickered up, and she saw determination written on his face. She was not very horrified. She had seen better men than Williams come to an ill-end, but she was anxious that her young husband's future should be fair.
"I do not think of him, only of you. It is not well to have blood on your conscience."
He finished his meal in silence, then rested his chin on his hand and looked into the fire.
"You, a lady born, and driven here. What devils men are. Pretty Mistress Williams will have a chance if I murder him. I can't help you, but you'd like me to make her life straight," he looked at her questioningly.
"Poor lamb, poor lamb. But, my boy, we can't think of others. Your own life is a little more than you can manage. Leave Mistress Williams out of it."
There came a call from the pigeon, and another from the mopoke, and two other men stepped into the open from out of the scrub and fern. Eunice recognised them as Crane, and the other man on the farm whom they knew as Orleans, though none of them thought it was his proper name.
"Blest if I don't think you might have gone a little furder," grumbled Orleans, "while you was about it. What a cove needs is exercise these nights?"
"You'll get it, my buck, trampin' through to Chiny next week," said Crane. "Is the missus comin' along?" he asked, looking at Eunice.
She answered for herself.
"No, no, I'm too old. I must stay where I am. I'm wanting you all to go away without bloodshed. Go away now. When you come to my age you'll be glad. Ah, more than glad, glad and thankful."
Crane looked across at Burton.
"Is she straight?"
"Are you straight?" said he, contemptuously. "If your mother had been as straight, maybe you mightn't have been here."
"I ain't done naught but lift a rabbut now and agen, an' I'm worked like a beast of burden. I takes it out of Williams' hide."
"Same here," said Burton, sullenly.
"Count me in," said Orleans.
Eunice saw she might as well try to stem the tide running into the harbour. Williams was a hard master. True, he was away a great deal, but he set tasks, and on his return one of the farm hands, no matter how steadily they had worked, was bound to be sent down to Parramatta to the triangles and the stocks. She did not wonder that they vowed vengeance against him; but in her heart she vowed that if she could manage it her mistress should not be involved in his downfall.
"He's back at the farm. He's going to stop over Sunday," said Orleans, "Let's sneak in an' stick a knife into him while he sleeps."
"An' be hanged for it the minute his wife gives a screech. No, we've got to get clear away to save our necks from being stretched. We'll put a fire stick in the stacks, an' in the roofs, and play hell generally."
"We'd better let the Indians do it," suggested Burton. "If they get the credit it might be handier for us afterwards."
"If you bring them in," said Eunice, startled, "they'll kill us all like savages. I've tried most things, but I'm not ready for the spear or the waddy yet."
"Never you fear, old woman," said Burton, kindly. "You hide anything you want in the log fence, and cut along here if you like, or away to McNeil's farm, and give information that the blacks have attacked the farm, the place's in a glow, and you're afraid everyone's speared."
"I'm not going to leave Mistress Williams. What about her?"
"She has been mighty good to us. Never a lash for us if she could help it. Eunice, trot her off to McNeil's along with you. That is if you're going. But if you'll join fortunes, remember I'm willing."
"No; I'm too old," said the woman, sadly, "too old. Only let me know. I have no mind to be roasted alive in my bed."
"Williams came last night. What say we raid the place on Monday morning just about dawn. If he's there, nail a cat-skin upon the barn, Crane, and I'll have someone on the look-out. If we don't meet again the early morning after I see that cat-skin on the barn we'll raid the place. And look here, mates, you get the muskets and ammunition before we put the fire sticks in, and see you don't burn the stores."
"We'll stick up Williams before we let the niggers run in. I'd like him to know I'd a hand in the job before we polish him off."
"My God, so would I," said Burton, striking his knee. "Though it'll be too late for repentance," he added, with a chuckle.
It was a bare enough plot, and had no intricacies about it. At nightfall twenty or thirty of the tribe that Simon had temporarily joined would camp close to the homestead, and at dawn he and his two mates would knock up the master, make him walk out into the open so that he could see them, tell him their grievances, and shoot him. They would then take what stores they wanted, and hand the place over to the blackfellows to be burnt to the ground. It must be burnt so that no trace of white man's work should remain. It might be supposed that both Crane and Orleans had perished in the flames, because there was no sense in proclaiming themselves absconders. The chances of their getting away would be greater if they were supposed to be dead.
The only thing that stood in the way was Betty. Not one of the men were inclined to hurt her, though Orleans and Crane seemed to think they might carry her off to the woods with them, a proceeding which both Burton and his wife opposed strongly.
"I tell you we've no quarrel with her," said Burton, angrily. "I'm not a savage or a beast, to fight with women. Oh, I know I helped carry her off, but how did I know that she wasn't willing as pie, for all the fuss. Besides, I didn't have much choice in the matter. It was her or me. Now I'm free to let her go, and I shall let her go. She's done me many a good turn, and you coves, too."
Finally they promised not to touch Betty, but they promised no more. She might get away if she could. They would not help or hinder her. Simon knew that was a great deal, and with it Eunice had to be content.
Then, as the night wore on, the men suggested they should go back.
"Come along, Eunice."
Burton put his hand on her shoulder.
"Stop with me a bit longer, old girl. Maybe it's the last time."
His comrades jeered, and walked on, and the woman rose to her feet.
"I must go, Simon. I've my work to do to-morrow, and I'm an old woman."
Simon put his arm round her.
"I know you think I'm wrong. But I must wipe off the score. I must, I must!"
"I'm sorry, dear, for you—for you. I've blood on my hands, and I know how bad it feels. It doesn't wipe off the score. It only puts him in the right, and you in the wrong for evermore. Burn the place and let him go."
"If I don't kill him the others will. It will be the same thing," said Simon, gloomily.
"Then stop them if you can."
"He would be better dead."
"He would, much better."
"Ah, well, God bless you, Eunice."
"And God bless you, lad, and send you a happy future and children on your knee."
He had never thought to be so sorry to part from his old wife, and he walked back to the farm with her, helping her over the roughnesses of the way. At the log fence he stooped to kiss her, and to his surprise found tears on her cheek. And Eunice was a hard woman.
"Why! Old lass!"
"It's something for you to remember, Simon, how good you've been to me; and I pray with all my heart you may find some woman will reward you for it," and she drew his face down and kissed him tenderly. Then she climbed the log fence and vanished in the darkness.
Scorn'd, to be scorned by one that I scorn,
Is that a matter to make me fret?
THE WEEK'S work was done, and Betty sat with folded hands and looked out of the window on to her garden. She was not all unhappy. Sometimes in the darkness and loneliness of the night she remembered with bitter tears that her lot was lonely and her life spoiled, but in the daytime her hands were busy and the cares of the farm were on her shoulders. And the farm prospered and was a delight to her. Only this very day Captain MacArthur and his wife had ridden over from Parramatta, ridden along the track that led through the scrub, and Captain MacArthur, who considered himself an authority on such things, had praised her.
Eunice, when she came along to lay the table for the evening meal, noted the half-smile on her mistress's young face.
"It was a pleasure," she said, "to have Captain MacArthur and his lady. It has made the day less dull."
"It was indeed," said Betty, eagerly—she wanted someone to share her pleasure, poor child—"and Eunice, did you hear him? He said he himself could not have managed with the materials I have, and he is going to make me a present of a ram, a ram from one of the sheep he imported from the Cape. And fancy, Eunice, he actually says perhaps one day we'll be sending wool to England."
"Ah, that will be afar day," sighed the older woman, patting down the cloth. "A poor little miserable place like this. But it's well to have hope, madam, and if you could sell the wool or the meat down in Sydney it would be something."
"And Mistress MacArthur is sending me a sitting of eggs, the cuckoo hen is clucking, and even if it is the wrong season, we might try and rear some chickens. The winter is never hard here."
"No, it is—madam," Eunice's tone changed, "I see the master."
Betty gave an involuntary gasp. If only her husband could be blotted out of her life. But she answered quietly enough, "Then you will prepare something extra for supper," and went gravely to the door to meet him, while Eunice scurried to the back to send a man round to take his horse. It was not well to keep the tyrant waiting. It was a strong bond between Betty and her servant that she divined these things without them being put into words.
Williams walked in, gave his wife a sounding kiss, which she neither resented nor returned, and then sat himself down on one chair and put his spurred heels on another. Betty stood quietly smoothing down the table cloth as Eunice had been doing a moment before.
"So they tell me you are dull here, madam," said her husband, roughly, looking her up and down.
Betty thought for a moment. Was she dull? Sometimes. But would she be any happier anywhere else, and to-day the visit of the hopeful MacArthurs, who had praised her and prophesied great things for her and for the colony of which she was a unit, had cheered her.
"They speak without my authority, then," she said. "I am not dull."
"Madam, I say you are dull," blazed out Williams, "or if you are not you certainly ought to be. Here you have not seen your husband for the last two months and yet you tell me you are not dull."
"But, sir," said Betty, confused.
"I tell you you have not seen me for two months. You should be dull without me. What manner of wife are you?"
"I did not choose to be your wife," said Betty, with dignity, "nor once I was your wife did I choose to be alone. You forced me to both of these things."
"We are going to alter that, madam. To-morrow you will prepare to entertain guests. Come now, give me a glass of rum after my long ride. There is rum in the house, I suppose, if there is nothing else in the place."
There was rum, and Betty brought it. But Williams declined all further conversation with her. Now and again she saw him watching her furtively as if he were almost afraid of her, but whenever she addressed him he answered with a monosyllable or oath, and she sat in silence till bedtime, then she asked:
"How many guests am I to prepare for to-morrow?"
"There will be Mr. Bass"—the blood flew to Betty's face, and she knew her husband saw it—"and Kemp, and Lucas, and Rowley, and Devereux, and as many more as like to come."
"But—but—I am sorry, but you know we have neither plates nor dishes, nor forks for so many."
"We have cups, then, or they'll bring them, and if you provide the rum and undertake there shall be no lack of entertainment."
And next day Betty resisted temptation. She was only a girl still, and dearly she would have liked to put on her yellow brocade to receive Mr. Bass in, but she told Eunice when she suggested such a thing that a white dimity with blue ribbons was good enough. Williams looked at her critically as she entered the room to put the finishing touches to her table.
"That is not a very modish gown."
"It is clean, and surely very suitable for a farm."
"Madam, I will not have my guests slighted. Have you nothing better than that? Eunice, your mistress does not do you credit."
"That is easily mended, sir."
And by the time the guests began to arrive Betty was dressed in the yellow brocade with a yellow ribbon in her hair, and Williams was certain that every man amongst them was looking with eyes of admiration at his young wife.
They came in a body, Bass and Devereux a little behind the others, for those two were uncomfortable, and Devereux suspected there was some devilment brewing in their host's mind. Bass was so unhappy it was all he could do to hide his anxiety from his comrades, and as for Devereux, he did not care if the whole world knew he feared lest his ill-timed chaff should have brought some disaster on the woman they all admired, and most of them pitied.
Williams met them at the door, and, tall and stately, his wife beside him, welcomed them gravely.
"I am only sorry, gentlemen," she said, "that I can only entertain you so roughly, but I am sure you will understand that on the outskirts of the world like this, it is difficult to do all one would for one's friends. You will please set down any shortcomings——"
"Faith, there will be no shortcomings when we look into Mistress Betty Williams' bright eyes," said Devereux, and Betty made him a sweeping curtsey and bade them enter while she called to the servants to take their horses. Williams might be owner of the farm, but Betty was most certainly mistress, and Williams, as he watched her and noted her dignified hospitality, learned that he might ill-treat his wife, might neglect her, and yet she rose superior to him in every way. These men, to all intents and purposes, were her guests, he was but a very unnecessary addition to the party. Every man, and especially Devereux, complimented her openly, the only man out of the eight who did not do so was Bass, and his tongue was as silent as the most jealous husband could have wished. He sat in the middle of the table, apart from either of them, and though he rarely looked at his hostess and addressed all his conversation to Williams, Williams found his silence more trying than the other men's talk. And he grew angrier as the meal proceeded.
Betty had said they were short of everything to provide a decent dinner, but the shortcomings were not so very apparent.
"Do you recognise your own plates, Mr. Laycock," she said, smiling to the quarter-master. "I was very short you must know, so when my husband told me we were to have the pleasure of entertaining you, I sent down to your farm and borrowed all I wanted. Mistress Laycock and I always borrowed from each other when I was in town, and as you were to be here I knew you could not be there. And I know Mistress Laycock is at the Cove."
"Never knew my own plates look so nice before," laughed Laycock. "They are honoured indeed."
"And why didn't you borrow of me?" asked Devereux.
"And me? And me? And me?" came a chorus.
"Gentlemen, you may thank your stars you are so far away, or there is no knowing what I might have been tempted to do in my desire to entertain you properly," laughed Betty.
She was happy for the time being. One glance at the silent Bass had told her she was not forgotten—she was as dear to him as she had been that night so long ago at Governor Hunter's dinner, and the open admiration of the other men deepened the colour on her cheeks and made her eyes glow and sparkle. There was the misery behind, of course, but just for the moment youth cheated itself into the belief that this was happiness. And Eunice handing round the plates in her clean white cap and kerchief sighed for the bright young life spoiled, as she looked from the sparkling face of the wife to the dour, ill-conditioned husband sitting opposite. The end was very near now. How should she save Betty without betraying Simon and the men who had trusted her?
By-and-by Betty rose to her feet. The dinner was finished, and she would leave them.
"By my faith, no," protested Captain Rowley. "Williams, you won't allow it. Surely we throw convention to the winds so far out of the world. Will not Mistress Williams stay with us a little longer? You will remember you asked us up to see her, and——"
"You shall see Mistress Williams again by-and-by," said Betty, with spirit. "Now she wants a little rest."
"You will return," said Rowley, who had taken a little more rum than was good for him. "We shall languish till you revive us with another sight of your bright eyes."
They were all on their feet now, and Williams had left the head of the table, come round to his wife's side, and laid a detaining hand on her shoulder.
"Mr. Williams?" she said, questioningly. She wanted to leave the room, but he paid no attention to her.
"Gentlemen," he said, "you all wanted to meet my wife. You have taunted me with keeping her shut up."
"Oh, faith, man," said Devereux, a hush had fallen on the company, "we don't repeat in a lady's presence the words that were spoken in jest over the wine. If we did, some of us—Mistress Williams sure understands that no word of disrespect——"
"It is not what Mistress Williams understands, but what I understand," shouted Williams, and she could feel the cruel fingers bruising her shoulder. "You wanted to see my wife. Here she is."
Every man bowed low. Not one but would have left the house there and then but for the beautiful woman who with flushed face and downcast eyes stood so proudly before them.
"You see her, the most beautiful woman in Sydney—in New Holland. You have taunted me with stealing a march on all of you in getting her, on all of you but Laycock, who is married already——"
"Mr. Williams," prayed Betty, in a low tone, "I, at least, have done you no wrong. I pray you let me go."
"Now, gentlemen, here's your chance. You all want her. You swore it on Thursday night last, and we all know the man who said least meant most. Now is your chance. I have played with more zeal than discretion of late, and I am short of funds, and here is my wife, the most beautiful woman in in New Holland, you have said it yourselves, she is up for the highest bidder. Absolutely no reasonable offer refused. You admire her so much, is there any one of you will give £500 down for her? Rowley, will you start the bidding? I know you've been wanting a wife this——"
There burst a cry of shame and dismay from Betty's lips. She looked round at the shocked faces. Bass's eyes were full of pity, and Devereux, who was beside her, hit up Williams's arm, and without another word she fled from the room.
Then the silence broke, and every man lifted up his voice and cried shame on his host.
He stood there sullenly, and looked round like a bull at bay.
"I will sell her. I will sell her," he repeated. "A proud baggage, she has but herself to thank for it. I will sell her for a twenty-pound note."
His guests were at the door now. They would not strike him in his own house. They could hardly tell him what they thought of him. Bass was already out in the garden calling loudly for his horse.
Devereux joined him.
"Laycock's trying to shame him," he said. "He's the only man that can speak in a way, seeing he has a wife of his own. Bass, man, will we go without a word to the lady?"
"What can we say?" asked Bass, fiercely. "He's a blackguard; but, Devereux, it's your confounded Irish fooling has started this."
"What can we do?" asked the voluble Irishman, dumbfounded for once.
"Do, do! Go and shoot ourselves in the bush there," said the other, fiercely. The shamed, troubled eyes of the woman he loved were haunting.
"And much good that 'ud do her," said Devereux, recovering. "Here, you," to the man who had brought the horses, "do you think for a silver shilling you could get me speech of Mistress Williams' own woman?"
"Mistress Eunice?" the man grinned and took the shilling. "Not if the master sees, but she could slip out in the road there, and behind that there tree," pointing to a huge, hollow gum.
"Quick, then, and I send you a bit of tobacco by her if she's here in five minutes."
But Devereux had nothing to say to the stern serving woman when she did appear. He only stuttered and stammered, and begged her to take his undying devotion to Mistress Williams, and to say he would go through fire and water for her, to all of which Eunice replied with a staid curtsey. Then Bass pulled him away.
"Here, mount," he said. "We must get out of this. It's stifling," and he thrust his horse's reins into his hands.
When the Irishman's back was turned he spoke to Eunice in an undertone.
"Can you get me speech of your mistress? I must speak to her."
The look of relief that flashed across the convict woman's face startled him.
"Will she come? When will she come?"
"I don't know, sir. I think she will come. I'll bring her as soon as possible. But you'll wait, sir, oh, you'll wait, if she can't come before dark?"
"I'll wait—all night if need be," said Bass. "I'll come in and take her," he added, making a step forward.
"No, sir! no, sir!" said Eunice, putting up her hand as if to ward him off. "There has been enough disturbance about her, and the poor child is terrified and shamed enough as it is. For God's sake do what you have to do quietly; but take her, sir, take her away with you. See you don't leave her behind you. Her life is not safe, I tell you."
"I don't think it is," said Bass, gloomily; "but suppose she will not come?"
"Take her, take her, with or without her leave," and he was surprised at the old woman's vehemence.
"I will, I will," said Bass, with conviction, as he looked into her anxious eyes.
"And you will wait here till she comes, even if it is midnight?"
"I will," said Bass.
And when the little band of officers of the N.S.W. corps rode back to Parramatta, discussing the unforeseen end of their day's outing, the punishment that should be meted out to Williams, and the best way to help his wife, Bass was not with them.
"Ah! God! for a man with a heart, head, hand,
Like some of the simple great ones gone,
For ever and ever by.
One still strong man in a blatant land."
BETTY stood in her room and listened to the clash of voices in the room she had just left, without understanding one word that was said.
"Shame, shame, shame!" rang impetuous young Devereux's voice.
"Williams, are you mad?" asked Laycock. "You have insulted your wife. You have insulted us. Do you want the lot of us to call you out?"
"And what good would that do her, if we killed him twenty times over, every one of us?" cried Devereux.
"And what's to become of the puir bit lassie?" asked McKellar's pitiful voice.
What, indeed? What, indeed? What could she do now? He had dragged her down to the very dust, and how was she to help herself? He had stolen away her freedom and her happiness for this, just to show the world how lightly he held her. For the rest of her days she would be branded, a woman whom her own husband had offered to sell at auction at her own table. Could anything ever wipe out that stain? And George Bass had heard, he had been there, even the love and pity in his eyes shamed her.
The voices in the next room died down as one by one the men went out, but still Betty stood watching them out of the window as they took their horses. Would she have the courage to go down to that deep pool in the swamp at the back of the hill there? Her life should be ended somehow. It ought to be. What right had she to live on?
Then came in Eunice.
"Madam," and there was no lack of respect in her voice, though she must have known what had happened.
Betty made a weary little movement with her hands, a movement of such utter hopelessness that the other woman forgot her position, and remembering only that she was another woman, put a tender arm round her shoulders.
"Child, child, you are only a child. It will pass away and be forgotten. There is not one man there that does not think you the purest woman in the land, that would not be proud to have you for his wife."
"Eunice, Eunice," Betty, too, forgot she was a convict, and dropping on her knees, put her arms round her waist, and hid her face against her; "what shall I do? Could I die, Eunice? Could I die?"
"Die, my child, no, no, you must not die. You are young, you are sweet and beautiful, and the world is before you."
"And I am tied to a man who will shame me all he can. Who has shamed me so I may never hold up my head again. Can I do anything, anything?" Her voice died away to a pitiful wail, and Eunice became aware that the door on the other side of the room had opened softly, and one of the men was making frantic signs to her.
"Wait, my child, wait," and she pushed the unresisting girl down on the bed, and stepped outside the door into the yard behind the house. There stood Crane.
"There's the cove as helped your man waiting to see you agin the holler tree in the road there," he said, hitching his thumb over his shoulder. "Slip out now, and the boss'll never see you."
The colour flushed into Eunice's cheeks, her old heart gave a bound. Here was her chance of saving Betty, only it behoved her to be careful. She must not give Simon and the other men who had trusted her away. There seemed to her a world of help in George Bass's kind, bright, dark eyes. She cast one look backward at the girl lying on the bed in a very abandonment of misery, then she threw a duster over her neatly capped head and went boldly out into the road.
Devereux spoke first, and she heeded him little—it was from Bass she expected to get help.
If she could only persuade him to carry her mistress off there and then. Not that he required any persuading. He was eager, anxious; there and then he would take her away if she would only go. But would she? Somehow Eunice doubted it. She could only promise he should hear of her or see her some time between now and dark, and impress on him as much as she could the danger to Betty if she were to spend another night in Williams' house. Bass would think the danger came from Williams, but what matter? The danger was very real and pressing, and when Eunice went back to the house it was with the comfortable conviction that whatever else happened her mistress would be safe.
As she passed she looked into the room where dinner had been served. Williams had a long duck-gun in his hand, and was examining the lock. There was a powder-flask and a bag of bullets on the table beside him. Was he going to shoot them all, or was he merely preparing to kill the afternoon duck-shooting on the swamp just a little beyond the farm? Surely even he would be ashamed to look his wife in the face, unless, indeed, he killed her, and then, thought the convict woman grimly, he would most certainly swing for it, officer and gentleman though he was. Then she passed into the bedroom.
Betty was sitting up on the bed, rocking herself to and fro. Eunice got a glass of water, and put a little rum in it. Dainty feminine restoratives were not very common in New South Wales at the end of the eighteenth century.
"Drink this, my pretty. It will steady your nerves."
"I don't want my nerves steadied," said Betty, but she drank it nevertheless. "I want to be dead, and I don't know how to die, because I'm afraid of dying."
"Ah, the dying will come easy enough when your time comes; but, please God, that is not yet."
"But how can live? Where can I go? Who in all the world wants me?"
"Plenty, madam." Eunice had dropped into the convict serving woman again, and addressed her mistress with grave respect. She was about to recommend a course that was open to question, and she would not have her think she thought the less of her for following it.
"Eh, plenty, madam. Here is Mr. George Bass waiting for you at the hollow tree in the road. And surely he has something to say to you."
"Mr. George Bass?" The deep red spot of colour that had been in Betty's cheeks spread over brow and throat, a shamed red. "Mr. George Bass, I could not look him in the face."
"He is a goodly gentleman, and well worth looking at," said the serving woman. "And you need not look. If I mistake not, it is he who is dying to look at Mistress Williams."
"He will think—he will be thinking——"
"He will be thinking naught but good of you. Madam, you will go," pleaded Eunice. "Your marriage vows—surely they were forced. I was witness to that, if a convict's testimony is worth anything," she added, bitterly. "Your duty to your husband—I cannot see you have any left for him."
"And my duty to myself?" asked Betty, with a sudden glimpse into the heart of things.
"I can't tell, I can't tell," said the old woman, agitating herself now. "Oh, my God! Would I lead you wrong! Would I tempt you! But sometimes in our lives there are happinesses offered us, and if we do not take them because of duty, do we not repent all our days! I would not have you repent, madam. Good life! I would not have you repent not doing the wrong, as I have done!"
Eunice was so startled out of her usual calm that Betty forgot for a moment her own troubles in her handmaid's agitation.
"You—you—Eunice? Surely no such evil thing has happened to you?"
"Worse, madam, worse, that I should live to say it! I was but fifteen, madam, when they married me to a man of fifty, who wanted me for the sake of my fair face. Oh, I was fair, madam, very fair, though you might not think it now. It was a hard life with him, madam, a very hard life. My two babies died, and I had nothing—nothing, and then, when I was five-and-twenty, there came along a lover. Oh, I loved him, my God! I loved him, right or wrong, I loved him; but I did strive to do my duty to the husband I did not love."
"Eunice! Eunice! Poor Eunice!"
"There came a day," went on Eunice, and she had forgotten she was a convict serving woman now; she was five-and-twenty again, and broken-hearted, "when there came a message from my lover, asking me to meet him by the cliff if it was only for a last farewell—my husband did not care for me, so I should do him little wrong if I went."
"You went?" said Betty, breathlessly. The woman was so desperately in earnest.
"If I had! If only I had! My messenger was only a boy new to the place, and my husband met him, and for pure devilry took the letter from him, and bade him tell the gentleman that the lady would meet him down in the Chine between two and three o'clock. Ah, dear! Ah, dear!"
"Your husband!" repeated Betty, horrified. "Your husband!"
"Ah, madam, it was death he sent him to meet in the Chine. When the tide flowed, the water came in there with a rush, and no man could withstand it, as anyone living on the coast would know, as my husband knew right well. 'You should have delivered your message yourself, Eunice,' he chuckled, that afternoon, ' 'tis but a cold mistress your lover will meet in the Chine.'"
"I would have killed him," burst out Betty, hotly.
"Madam, I did," said the convict, dropping into her old grave manner, "and because I had friends, powerful friends, I am not dead but here. I might as well have gone with my lover. I might as well have kept my hands free from blood."
"Eunice," said Betty, pushing back her hair, "I will see Mr. Bass. Things could not be worse."
"Madam, I pray you do not repent it; but indeed he is a gallant young man, and you owe no duty to Mr. Williams."
"No words suffice the secret soul to show
And truth denies all eloquence to woo."
BASS let the other men go down the track to Parramatta, and crossing into the bush that was opposite the farm, tethered his horse among the scrub and tree fern. Then he himself returned, and, sheltering among some black currajong shrubs which he called "may," kept an eye on the farm.
He did not like the position. In plain language, he was sneaking behind a bush just to get speech with another man's wife. If he had followed his own impulses he would have walked straight into the farm house, taken its master by the throat, and pommelled him within an inch of his life. He would have taken his life. He would gladly have taken his carcase and thrown it to the cawing crows that came scurrying across the cloudless sky to some banquet in the bush beyond. But would that mend matters? Certainly it would not.
Then he asked himself what he had come to do what he intended to do, how on earth could he mend so broken a life as that of the woman he loved. Fair, young, not yet twenty, admirable in every way, and yet though he loved the ground she walked on, how could he hold out a helping hand. Her husband's want of respect had shamed her, and his own boundless love could only shame her still more. He turned restlessly on the hard ground and cursed his fate aloud, but at last he would see her, and every drop of blood in his veins tingled at the thought of the touch of her hand; and when he thought of her warm lips against his he knew he would keep her and defy the world.
The only drawback was, it was such a small world, such a very small world, their very loneliness shut them in. On one side the primeval bush—how dense, how impenetrable Bass, the explorer, knew better than anyone else—on the other the sea, and between just a handful of people. And the thought that any man or woman of that little company should point the finger of scorn at the woman he loved was as bitter aloes in his mouth. That they should pity her even was intolerable, and he moved restlessly from side to side; he counted the pointed leaves on the twigs above his head in a vain effort to drive such a torturing thought from his mind. And yet the question would arise, What could he do for her? How help her? He asked himself the question over and over again. A great brown beetle droned over his head, a green one fell sprawling on its back on his hand, and a whole company of ants elected to crawl over his left boot, and Bass felt he had been there hours and hours, and that the day was never ending.
Away over the wide Pacific was Spanish America. Could he find a refuge for her there? All his British soul revolted from life in a foreign country, from cutting himself off from his own, and yet what else was there for her—for her and him? Would her presence not compensate? He looked up into the deep blue sky above his head and swore an oath to himself that it would more than compensate. And then, again, he knew that neither he nor she would find much in life away from their own countrymen. They were British to the backbone, and both would be exiles in a foreign land. He understood now, Bass, the intrepid, fearless explorer, why men and women had taken their lives together. Life would be intolerable without her, and yet with her it held small hope of happiness, and he covered his face with a groan, and then for very weariness began to take short views. Before night he would hold her in his arms, she would be his, and that should be happiness enough.
Suddenly there were footsteps, and looking out of his leafy screen he saw Williams coming out of his door, his gun across his shoulder. He was going duck-shooting, actually calmly going duck-shooting—after insulting his wife and his friends—was ending the day with a little sport. He was not mad or drunk then, as he had half supposed, simply wicked. Why did not someone rid the colony of such a man? Should he, Bass, join him, and should they fight the quarrel out here in the bush to the bitter end? He half rose, the temptation was great, and then he fell back in his place again. Would he be any nearer Betty if he killed her husband, even for her sake?
Behind Williams came the man Crane, carrying the ammunition, and Crane, as Bass clearly saw, somewhat to his surprise, saw him and recognised him. He looked away at once, but the flash of recognition was undoubted, and the blood mounted to Bass's face. This convict servant was aiding and abetting in an intrigue with his mistress. That was the only interpretation to be put on his silence. It would have been so natural to say in a lonely, untrodden place like this, "Here is your guest of the morning." He lay back and drank the bitter cup to the very dregs, hardly did the thought of the coming meeting with the woman he loved bring him pleasure.
By-and-bye Crane came back by himself and looked furtively at Bass, and Bass, because he could stand secrecy no longer, beckoned to him.
"The boss have gone duck shootin'," volunteered the man.
"So I supposed," said Bass, coldly. He was cudgelling his brains to give this man some reason for his presence here in the bush, never reflecting that he had never before considered it necessary to explain to a convict serving man his presence anywhere. But the man saved him the trouble. He sank his voice to a whisper as if he feared that the bush itself had ears, and said:
"Sim Burton says as you are a right 'un."
"Burton? Burton? Oh, yes, poor Burton. Of course, you know him."
"He says as you're a right 'un."
"I'm sure I'm very much obliged for his good opinion," said Bass, smiling. Here was a relief. This man, by some strange fate, connected him in his mind not with his mistress, but with the man he had landed on the coast hundreds of miles to the south. He did not ask the reason for this. He was only too thankful to accept the fact.
"He says as you're a good 'un, and would be glad to hear he's through."
"What?" Bass was all alert now. "My God! are you telling me those poor beggars got through?"
His voice rang so loud that the convict looked round fearfully.
"Are you sure?"
"Patterson was speared by the Indians," whispered Crane, hoarsely and fearfully. "But the other four got through. I seen Sim just now, an' he said as I might tell you, seein' as you was the right sort an' you helped 'em. They couldn't ha' done it without you an' your men."
"The devil they couldn't. Trice me up as an aider and abettor. My friend, you'd best not tell me too much about them."
"It's all right," grinned the man. "Two on 'em got away in the American barque as sailed last week, and Sailor Tom's that handy about the wharf nobody drops to him. He's bound to get away in a month or two. On'y Sim's in a hole, darsent show his face. Mr. Williams is that hot after him."
"He's forgotten," breathed Bass. He could not help being interested in the men he had saved, he would like to hear that Simon Burton was safe.
"Oh, no, he ain't. His sort don't forget. He's on the look out for Sim, and he'd give a hundred pounds to catch him. And his time up in three weeks when he had to run for it."
"Poor beggar!" said Bass again. "You saw him just now, you say."
"He come along here so his missus can help him times, and he's on the look out for the boss, too, you bet."
Bass said nothing. What could he say?
"Well, so long, master," said Crane, grinning, and he pulled his forelock respectfully, and his ragged brown frock vanished among the bushes. He was going back to the farm, and Bass lay waiting again. The time seemed to crawl. Suddenly he felt he could wait no longer, and he arose and went into the garden just as Betty, with downcast head, came out of the door. She was still in the yellow brocade, and her hair was daintily done, but the sparkle was gone from her eyes, the colour from her cheeks, and her face was woebegone. Bass could have taken her in his arms and cried over her, but something in her face forbade him.
"Mistress Betty," he bowed low and she curtsied, then human nature would have its way. "Oh, my love, my sweet love, wilt let me comfort thee?"
"I am ashamed, I am ashamed," she moaned, breaking down.
Then he took her to his breast out in the garden there, with all their little world looking on for all he knew to the contrary. He cursed himself for a fool that he had not done it in the presence of his comrades, that he had not fought her husband and slain him when he insulted her.
"Betty, thou art mine, thou art surely mine. Come away with me now, sweetheart."
His lips were on hers, and she lay like a tired child in his arms.
"I married him that I might not shame thee," she said, trying to draw herself away.
"Betty, sweet, thou canst not live with him now."
"Never any more," she said firmly, "never any more. But oh, where shall I go?"
He looked love into her eyes. He put his lips to hers again.
"No, no. I cannot, I cannot."
"Oh, if I could but get speech of Mistress MacArthur. She would tell me what to do."
"I will take thee to her straight." The gleam of hope in Betty's tired eyes made his own heart beat. If Mistress MacArthur should sanction their union, then, indeed, all the colony would follow suit.
The same thought struck Betty, and she drew herself upright.
"If she saw no wrong in it, if she would countenance us—sure I have tried to be a good wife to him and he offered me for sale—if she—if she——"
Bass was not quite sure whether Mistress MacArthur would give him Betty. He wished he were. But, at least, if Betty consented to go to Parramatta with him, it would go hard if he could not keep her, with or without Mistress MacArthur's countenance.
"Sweet, come, come now; come before Williams returns."
Betty put a tender hand on his arm.
"It is not that I do not love thee," she said, "that I do not thank thee for the goodness that sent thee here to comfort me——"
"It was no goodness," interrupted Bass.
"But—but I would be ashamed to appear before the MacArthurs with thee and tell such a story as I have to tell."
"But I will tell the story," said Bass, eagerly.
"Yes. Wilt thou go now and bring her back with thee?" asked Betty. "Bring her back to-morrow morning?"
"Betty, Betty, it is madness to say!" groaned Bass. "I have a mind to put thee on my horse and carry thee away whether thou wilt or no."
"Are all men alike?" asked Betty.
"But your woman swears there is danger," said Bass. "She implored me to carry you off at once."
"Poor Eunice," said Betty, "I believe she thinks I will kill Mr. Williams and repent it all my days; but I will not do that. What danger can there be? He will not kill me. He had too much wine to-day, that is why he shamed me. Why should he kill me and be hanged for it when I am not the least check on him? The whole colony knows that," he added, bitterly.
"Betty," said Bass, holding her fast, "there is this. You are mine, and I cannot have you in this man's house one moment longer."
She freed his hands gently.
"I am not thine, not until I see what Mistress MacArthur and the Governor say; but I will have naught to do with Mr. Williams. Bring Mistress MacArthur to-morrow morning, she cannot get before," she said, looking at the lengthening shadows and the sinking sun, "and I will go back with her, and I will thank thee, my dear love." Her eyes looked soft and tender, and though he begged and prayed she would promise nothing else. Short of taking her by force he could not get her to leave the farm. Once more he remembered how Eunice had implored him to take her away, to save her from some impending danger, and again when he spoke of it Betty waved it aside as a thing of naught.
"What danger can there be? Mr. Williams has gone duck shooting. He will not be back till dark. Eunice shall wait on him and I will keep my own room. He will not come near me, he will not even ask for me. Oh, yes, I know. I have not been his wife for twelve weary months without knowing exactly what he will do. To-morrow he will go away and forget me for a space."
"I cannot bear to leave thee," said Bass, his arms round her again.
"Nevertheless," said Betty, with a wan smile, "if you wish to see me again, you must go and bring Mistress MacArthur, bring her with the sunrise to-morrow, and then—and then——"
What she hoped, he did not exactly know, but she held up her face and he bent down and kissed her again. Then he tore himself away; and, watching, she saw him bring his horse out of the scrub, mount it, and gallop away at full speed down the track to Parramatta. And the sun was sinking fast behind the hills, and already could she but have known it, a native cat skin was nailed at the back of the barn, and Crane and his mate were gloating over the freedom that was coming, and on the revenge that should come before the freedom.
Would you that tangle of existence spend
About the secret—quick about it, Friend!
A hair perhaps divides the False and True—
And upon what, prithee, may life depend?
AT THE DOOR Eunice met her and consternation was on her face.
"He has not left you! My God! he has not left you!"
"Eunice," Betty held her head very high, "I think, Eunice, you forget yourself."
"Madam, madam, for God's sake, for pity's sake, you are never staying in this house?"
A burning blush covered Betty's face. She went straight to her own room and paused for a moment on the threshold. "You forget yourself, Eunice. Mr. Williams will be home presently. You must see to it that he has some supper."
"But Mr. Bass is coming back. He is surely coming back," she asked, eagerly, catching at this straw of hope. Betty looked at her. She was fond of her serving woman, but after all was said and done she was only a convict serving women. She had no right to question her about her relations with Bass.
"Eunice," she said, gravely, "see to Mr. Williams' supper. I will have mine in my room here," and she closed the door as if that settled the question.
Eunice stood for a moment regarding the closed door helplessly. What chance would this fair girl have when men's blood was up, and every moment the danger grew nearer. She went into the yard and stole behind the barn, and there tacked on, fur side out, was the wild cat skin, the signal. The end would come to-night, most certainly. There was no escaping it. Crane spit forcibly and looked at her and grinned.
A shout from the house sent her running back. Williams had returned, sullen and disagreeable, and their was nothing for it but to set out his evening meal as quickly as possible. He swore at Eunice, but took no notice of his wife's absence, and when he had finished he stretched himself out on the couch and closed his eyes, whether in sleep or not she could not say.
Then she spread a napkin, and by the other door took in a tray to Betty. The girl sat in an upright chair by the window looking out across the garden. The year before Mr. Cayley had given her some dahlias, and she was now looking at the gorgeous flowers. She had looked forward to their blossoming when first she saw the green leaves, but her husband had taken care to spoil all her simple pleasures. She ate her supper mechanically, and the sun was so low the shadow of the house stretched right across the garden. Eunice watched her and her heart sank. How should she help her? How could she help her? And the minutes were flying away. This man would certainly never see another sunrise. Then she took a desperate resolution. She went to the bedroom door with a face white as her own coif, and with knees that trembled under her. She felt that she must give Betty some idea of the danger that threatened, even though it cost her her own life, or Simon Burton's life, which was a far more important thing.
"Madam," she began tremblingly.
Betty rose to her feet, shocked at the sight of her servant's white face.
"Why, Eunice what's the matter? Are you ill?"
Eunice took the cue at once.
"Yes, madam, I am very ill I think. If you could spare a moment——"
"Sit down. Stay where you are," shouted Williams, rising to his feet and kicking open the door that was between them. "Let the old hag worry it out herself. They're for ever malingering, these convicts. Even if she die, it's no matter."
Betty looked at him contemptuously.
"Eunice looks ill," she said, "and she does not malinger. I must help her if I can," and she left the room with out another word.
But Eunice was not in the kitchen, and Betty crossed the yard to the little slip of a room she had shared with her husband. There on her bed sat the old woman rocking herself slowly backwards and forwards.
"Oh, Eunice! Are you in pain?"
"No, madam, no. But, oh, my pretty, will you go down to Mistress MacArthur's. Go to-night, go now."
"Eunice, do you know what you are saying? You must be dreaming if you are not mad. I dare not ride through the woods at night, even if Mr. Williams would allow me, which he certainly will not."
"Don't ask Mr. Williams, but go. Go now."
"Eunice, do you know what you are saying?"
"Only too well. Go now, for God's sake! For pity's sake!"
"Eunice, you must be ill. Tell me what is it?"
The old woman wrung her hands. "Ah, dear! ah, dear! was ever unlucky woman in such a plight? My dear, my dear, the place is doomed, and I would save you if I can. By the morning it will be too late."
A glimmer of light broke in on Betty's wonderment. Such things she had heard discussed as a possibility more than once. In a settlement where the bond outnumbered the free there was always one danger looming on the horizon.
"A rising among the convicts," she cried. "But there is only Crane and Orleans here now, and Mr. Williams is a trained man and more than a match for them."
"Yes, yes," said Eunice, eagerly. "Of course he is more than a match for them. But you had best be out of the way. It will be no place for a woman once the Indians come in."
"The blacks!" said Betty, and she put her hand on the old woman's shoulder. "Then it is a regular plot, and Simon Burton is in it."
"Oh, madam! madam!"
"Tell me, tell me now at once." Betty spoke authoritatively as became the mistress, and when the pity went out of her voice Eunice was herself again.
"I was a fool," she said, sitting up and looking at her with hard eyes. "A man cannot serve two masters, but I had got fond of you and would save you if I could. My duty was to Simon Burton, and I have betrayed him."
Betty softened a little.
"You have been good to me," she said. "And I can understand you want to help your husband. Eunice, indeed, I am more than grateful, but I must tell Mr. Williams that danger threatens him. I could not go away myself and leave him to be murdered. I must tell him. Help me to consider what we shall say. I do not want any one to suffer because he has been hard on them."
The other sat up with the weary resignation of old age.
"They trusted me and I have betrayed them," she said. "If you tell Mr. Williams I have betrayed them, there will be murder done, anyway. Crane and Orleans will be sent down to Parramatta to get a thousand lashes each, and shooting a man outright is nothing to that."
It was true enough. That would be their fate, a suspected conspiracy and a conspiracy were much the same thing as far as punishment was concerned, and the girl looked in shrinking horror at the alternative presented her.
"What can I do? What can I do?" she moaned.
"Let things be," said the old woman coaxingly. "Let things be. Ride down now and tell dainty Mistress MacArthur how your husband has treated you and see what she will advise. I warrant she is as clever a woman as she is a kind one."
"I can't. I should know you were killing him here, and though he has used me ill enough, I cannot be a party to his death."
"You said yourself, madam, he is more than match for the two men here."
"Ah, but not a match for Simon Burton, especially if he brings the savages in."
"You cannot wonder if Simon hates him," flashed out the old woman.
In truth, Betty did not. But, indeed, she had no desire to defend her husband, only she could not see him murdered without warning him. And Eunice understood her feelings thoroughly, and understood, too, that the feelings of the ruling class would prevail. She would never throw in her lot with the convicts. If anyone was to be sacrificed it must be the unfaithful servants, though they had been goaded into sin. She leaned back against the mud wall and looked at the girlish figure in the deepening dusk.
The sun had set and the darkness was sweeping down swiftly.
"I will try and get Mr. Williams to come away with me," said Betty.
"You'd best keep your breath to cool your porridge, madam," but Betty crossed the yard to the main building.
Her husband was looking out of the window, puffing great clouds of smoke, and he turned round as she entered.
"Why is not my supper cleared away, madam?"
"Eunice is not well," she said lightly, and he looked at her in surprise, for her tone was not that of an injured woman; indeed, she had forgotten for a moment the scene of the afternoon in the new and pressing danger. "She will be able to do no work, she must have rest. Will you take me back to town with you to-night?"
"What foolishness is this?" said Williams rudely. "I came here to rest in my own house. I do not propose to go down to the Cove to-night."
Betty put a light hand on his sleeve.
"You are not really tired of me," she said, archly, though she felt her gaiety rang false. But once he would have done her bidding. Would he now? "It was but a foolish jest that the wine carried too far that you played on me this afternoon. You owe me some reparation surely. I am weary of being here. Will you take me down to the MacArthur's to-night?"
Betty drew her breath in sharply. She had failed, she knew, she saw suspicion in his eyes.
He brought his hand down on the table with a sounding smack.
"Before God," he said, "I am sick to death of you and your fine lady airs. I curse the day ever I saw your face. You have brought me nothing but ill."
"I brought you not even myself willingly," flashed Betty, moved to deepest anger. Why could she not go away and leave this man to his fate? But she could not, and if she would save him and herself she would have to tell him the truth. It seemed to her the only way out of the difficulty.
She stood and looked at him a moment, then she drew herself up. Could she save Eunice and these two men, criminals though they were; would-be murderers though they were? They would have been peaceful hands under another master.
"I want to get away," she said. "I am frightened here. When I was outside just now I saw a little blackfellow slipping through the fence. He always comes to me for broken meats, but he did not come to-night and he slipped away when I saw him. That looks bad."
"It would," mocked Williams, "but it happens to be a lie. What are you lying to me for, madam?"
"I have never asked you to do anything for me yet," prayed Betty earnestly, "only take me away to-night."
"I'll be hanged if I do, unless you give me a better reason than that."
He had right on his side. Betty felt she was asking a most unreasonable thing, and yet how save him and how save his servants as well?
"There's something at the bottom of this," he said, angrily. "If the natives come we must defend my gear. Do you think I can afford to lose it?"
"If there are twenty or thirty of them, how could we?"
"Three men and two women under shelter against such poor creatures! Why, I could hold them single-handed, I believe," said Williams.
"Could you—can you trust the servants?"
Williams wheeled round, and Betty knew she had betrayed Eunice even as Eunice had betrayed Simon.
"Whew! So the wind is in that quarter. A convict rising, and you will have me get away and have them raid the farm. A nice wife I have gotten for myself. Here, where's that old woman?"
He put his hand on Betty's shoulder and thrust her back into the room, then going to the door he shouted aloud, "Eunice! Eunice!"
Betty suppressed an inclination to call out "Don't come," and then the obedience of long years of servitude asserted itself. Across the yard came Eunice as quickly as she could.
"What devil's business is this now?" asked her master. "Quick, make a clean breast of it if you don't want to find yourself in the stocks."
Eunice turned reproachful eyes on Betty, sad old eyes that said, "I have done my little best for you, and this is my reward."
"Eunice," she said, quickly, "knows nothing of it. What are you dragging her into it for? Surely I may be afraid without telling my assigned servant," she said, with an effort at haughty indifference.
"You may," said Williams, grimly, "but as I know you it is not likely. You're thick as thieves with Eunice. Do you think I haven't seen that? Come now, what's going to happen to-night or to-morrow morning?"
"Nothing is going to happen that I know of," said the old woman, apparently with dull indifference.
It had grown so dark that they could hardly see each other's faces.
"Bring a light," commanded Williams and she brought in a lamp from the kitchen, set it in the middle of the table, and stood where the light fell full on her face.
"Now, what is this?"
"Nothing, nothing." She smoothed her apron down. She would retrieve as far as possible her false step. However sorry she might be for her mistress, she could not throw in her lot with this man. Since Mistress Williams could not take the chance she had given her, she would have to dree her own weird.
"Nothing," said Williams, his anger rising; "nothing. We'll soon see if it is nothing." He picked up a heavy decanter by the neck. "Now, Eunice Burton, what about this convict conspiracy that neither you nor this wife of mine knows anything about?" and he held the decanter threateningly over her head.
"Mr. Williams," cried Betty, imploringly.
"What about this conspiracy?"
The old woman looked at the threatening decanter, quailed a little before it and then apparently made up her mind.
"I know nothing, sir, just nothing."
"What about this conspiracy?" asked Williams again, as if he had never heard her.
"Mr. Williams, Mr. Williams," prayed Betty, "that decanter is heavy. You may do her a hurt," and she put her hand on his arm.
He jerked it off easily, for he was a powerful man.
"That rests with herself," said he. "What about this conspiracy, Eunice?"
"Nothing, sir," she said again, and down came the bottle crashing against the side of her head, and she dropped like a stone.
A piercing shriek burst from Betty's lips, and she flew to the old woman's side and raised her head. She gasped once or twice, and looked at Betty with unseeing eyes. She had received her death hurt.
"She is dying, she is dying," sobbed the horrified girl.
Williams had gone a little further than he intended. He had only intended to scare the old woman, but the brute beast in him could not resist the blow when she defied him.
"She brought it on herself," he said, half-apologetically, "she most certainly brought it on herself. She's dead, madam. Get up and stop that snivelling."
She was dead, certainly she was dead, even Betty's ignorant eyes saw that, and she smoothed down her hair and closed her eyes. Only a convict serving woman, but Betty had grown to love her more than she knew, and it seemed to her that she had certainly brought her to her death. She had betrayed her, she had put her in Williams' power, and she rose to her feet with a shuddering sigh.
"What now?" she whispered.
"What now?" said Williams, recovering his equanimity, "well now, I don't mind taking horse, as you so kindly suggested a quarter of an hour ago, and starting for Parramatta"
"I see, I see," breathed Betty, scarcely above her breath, "a face at the window."
It was Crane's face, and it vanished as she spoke, but with one movement Williams put out the light, then went softly and closed the shutter, while Betty, alive to the danger of the situation, barred the door into the yard. The three rooms apart from the rest of the farm buildings were built for possible defence, and in a moment or two Williams and his wife were safe from anything the two convict serving men could do alone.
"The mischief is," said Williams, "they'll bring in all the bolters that have been hid in the woods for the last six months, to say nothing of the natives."
"What will they do?" breathed Betty, as her husband, having made sure they were safe for the present, felt about for tinder and steel and lighted the lamp.
"They will burn the place, they will kill me, and for you—well, madam, you may guess your fate."
They were facing death together, but they were as far apart as the poles.
"It is true fortitude to stand firm against
All shocks of fate, when cowards fight and die
In fear to suffer more calamity."
"THE HORSES are in the stable," breathed Betty.
"And much chance we have of getting them."
"There are only the two men. You are a match for them both. They have no firearms."
"How can I be sure of that?" said Williams. "Besides, the man who lies hid has the advantage, just as the man in the house has till they fire it."
There came a sudden knocking at the door, and they both started.
"Who's there?" called Williams.
"Me," said Orleans, and the servility had gone from his voice.
"Well, what do you want?"
"Mistress Williams," was the unexpected reply. "Many a good turn she's done us, and we're agoin' to burn you out in a jiff, as soon as the others come along; but we've no quarrel with her."
"And if I give her up?" asked Williams.
"She'll come to no harm with us. We ain't so sure of any other chaps that might come along."
"Why, she'll run away and swear to the lot of you," mocked Williams, and the other man laughed back.
"I reckon we can take care of that. Put her out of the door, and I reckon I'll take as good care of her as ever you done."
"You must give us time to think," said Williams. "She doesn't want to come."
"Then I reckon," said the mocker, "as it's the first time she ever hankered after your society. Plenty of time. I'll give you half an hour."
Williams turned and looked at his wife. She lay on the sofa with her face pressed against the pillows. She looked white and miserable.
"Do you want to go?" he asked, sullenly. "They evidently don't think there's the smallest chance for me."
"Your only chance is to get up and fight them now—now, while they are only two," said Betty, wearily. It seemed to her that she had gone through so much of late it would he quite an easy thing to die, provided only the death came quickly.
"How do I know there are only two of them? I am convinced I shall be killed the moment I go outside. The woods may be full of natives, with ears like hares. You yourself saw a boy slipping through——"
"That was a lie, to make you start for Parramatta. I understood from Eunice the attack was to be to-morrow. She wanted me to get away, and she would not have suggested that if the woods had been full of natives."
Still Williams looked doubtful.
"There is no trusting those people."
"There are only two of them, unless Crane has gone to bring the others, and say there is no longer need for delay. We could get away now."
"We might, but it is a terrible risk."
"Let me go, then," said Betty. "If you will not fight when I do believe only Orleans is there; let me go, then, if I can get away I might slip down to Parramatta and get help."
"You might do that," said Williams, thoughtfully. "But you'd be as thankful for my death as Orleans himself."
"Only," she said, "I would do my best to keep you from being murdered for my own sake. Do you think I want to have blood on my conscience?"
"We are doomed here," said Williams, pacing the room like a caged beast. "It is our only hope. Are you there?" he asked, raising his voice.
"Here," said a voice with startling suddenness, right under the window.
"Mistress Williams will collect her gewgaws and be with you in ten minutes. I will open this door and let her out."
"If you but show yourself in the doorway," said the warning voice, "I will let daylight through you."
"You have no musket."
"Stand in the doorway and you'll see."
Betty gathered together a few belongings, and a cloak and hood, for the night was just a little chilly. She had reached that stage in her life when nothing seemed to matter much. She could not be much more miserable and shamed than she had been as Williams' wife, and if death came, well, then it would come.
And yet, somehow, when she saw him standing there, waiting for her, she pitied him.
"I am sorry," she said, helplessly; "make a rush for it when you open the door." But Williams shook his head.
"If you can get away, or can in any way get news to Elizabeth Farm, I can hold out," he said. "But you will not."
"I will; indeed I will, if I possibly can. I will not live with you again—never, never. I will be a servant in Mistress MacArthur's house; I will do anything rather than live with you; but I will save your life if I can. Be sure of that, be very sure of that."
He looked at her face, but she turned away. She was leaving him to a lonely watch which would probably end in death, but he should never touch her lips again if she could help it, and something of her feelings he read in her face, for he stooped and kissed her hand.
"I suppose I haven't been the best of husbands, Betty," he said, "but you scorned from the first what many a woman would have been proud to have. Good-bye."
"Good-bye, and I will save you if I can." Then he opened the door and thrust her out into the darkness, and she heard it bang behind her.
She stood still a moment, and her heart sank, for she wondered what next. Then a hand was laid on her arm, and a voice said, not at all unkindly——
"Now, madam, this way. You won't have much of a dossing place to-night; by-and-by you'll be better off."
For a moment Betty considered should she try and break away, and Orleans seemed to divine her thoughts, for he held her firmly, and led her round to Eunice's little room off the mud building that did duty as a stable. There was not another man visible, and she felt that her theory was right. In all probability these two convicts were playing a game of bluff. Perhaps even Crane had gone off to the woods in search of Simon Burton to tell him the game had begun.
But she was wrong there. As the first man held her in the darkness, Crane came bearing a rush-light, guarding it from the wind with his other hand. They looked so peaceable and commonplace by its dim light that Betty, sitting on Eunice's rough stretcher, could hardly believe they were meditating rapine and violence. She knew, too, that the house must be unguarded, and that if he wished Williams might have got away easily enough.
"Jacky Bluecoat sit down alonga door," said Crane, as if he guessed her thoughts; "she'll make things lively one time quick if the lootenant tries to make a bolt for it."
"It seems to me he ought to be a match for all three of you," said Betty, for Jacky Bluecoat was only a lad. Still, he had the ears and the eyes of the savage, and his aid was by no means to be despised.
"But you see, ma'am, he ain't. Now, ma'am, we must just be lockin' you up, fear you'd give us leg-bail and off to Parramatta to get help. It's this cove's belief as you'd help him if you could get through; you had oughter to be jumpin' mad for joy at the chanst to get rid of him."
"For God's sake," pleaded Betty, "don't kill him, for your own sakes don't do murder. You haven't done much wrong yet; go away, and don't do murder."
Both men looked at her and shook their heads, and their faces looked hard and cruel.
"How often have we been triced up just acos he lost his temper. You've sent out ointment and rags, and that's why you're here, and we ain't agoin' to do you no harm, nor let any other cove so much as look at you; but we're agoin' to fasten you in here so as you shan't do us any harm," and sticking the rushlight, which was in a piece of wet mud, against the wall, Crane backed to the door, and Orleans followed him. The door was shut, and then Betty heard bars of wood being nailed across, because there was no proper fastening. She went to the window, but that had already been nailed up on the outside, and now there was nothing to do but to lie on the truckle bed and gaze up at the thatched roof, and wonder what next. It was a narrow slip of a room, bare mud walls, with nothing to break the monotony save the rushlight and one small mirror, and a dress or two of Eunice's. Once the wall between it and the stable had reached a man's height only from the ground, but Eunice had complained that the horses kept her awake, and so Simon Burton had built it up right into the roof. There was no escape that way, and if they forgot her, a more than probable thing, her doom was sealed. She lay down on the bed with a sigh. She thought of every possible plan of escape, and rejected them one by one. She wondered wearily what her future would be like supposing they did not forget her, and she almost envied Eunice her sudden death, and the candle seemed to go further and further away, the horse in the stable the other side of the wall was moving restlessly, and she felt her eyes closing, though it seemed strange to her that sleep should claim her at such a crisis. Surely so many lives hanging in the balance, and she was sleeping; why, black Tulip, the mare next door, had more human kindliness than that. She could hear her moving restlessly, something had frightened her; she was kicking against the wall, and Betty sat up, rubbing her eyes.
She actually had dozed, then, for though she could hear Tulip, she was not very restless, and she certainly had not kicked against the wall. If she had, would she kick a hole?
Betty rose to her feet as the thought overpowered her. There was only a mud wall between her and Tulip, and Tulip would carry her to Elizabeth Farm in half an hour. Did she want to be saved? Did she want to begin the weary round of life again? She had promised Williams to save him if she could, and, after all, she was not yet twenty. Surely life must hold some good thing in it for her yet. She thought of George Bass's dark eyes. Williams had freed her, surely, when he put her up for sale this afternoon, and the longing for life and action came back to her. She felt in her bundle for her little work bag, and drawing out a pair of scissors began to pick at the wall. A flake or two of brown mud fell off, and the desire for freedom grew hot in the girl's breast. She would escape if she could. But what if they should come in suddenly upon her? It would never do. She began to fear eyes at all the cracks and crannies, and she chose a spot to begin her work just behind one of Eunice's dresses, hastily noted that tinder and steel were on a box in the corner, and blew out the light. Then she listened till the night seemed to cry out, a wind came sighing round the eaves, and the straw in the thatch made a rustling sound. It might almost be on fire, it might be someone peering down. The scrape, scrape of her scissors rang out dangerously loud, and she tried to do her work more quietly. Then she brought all her common-sense to her aid, and remembered that the scissors could hardly make more noise than a gnawing mouse, and she would hear footsteps long before they would hear her. The powdered clay was covering the front of her gown, but she could wrap herself in the bedclothes at the first alarm, and she took off her shoes to facilitate the movement. As for the clay on the floor, she, every now and again, swept it under the bed with her hands.
Once she did hear footsteps stealthily crossing the yard, and a voice almost whispered——
"Are you all right?"
"Yes," she said, and then she added for effect. "Do let me out. I am afraid you will forget me and burn the stable."
"You bet your life, no," said the voice, and the footsteps went quietly back again. She wondered why they came so quietly. Did they suspect her of anything, or did they wish to keep Williams in ignorance of their actions. She wondered what time it was, but she could not guess, and the room was in pitchy darkness.
It seemed to her she had worked hours and hours, her fingers and her arms ached, and one blade of the scissors was broken before the other slipped into open space beyond the wall, and she knew the first step was accomplished. It was so easy, so very easy to scrape round that hole.
Then again she heard the stealthy footsteps, and she called out to know the time. Three or four nights might have passed, she thought, if she was to judge by her own feelings.
"I dunno," said Crane's voice, "well, maybe, it mout be three hours to the dawn."
"And what time——"
"You'll know soon enough," and the footsteps retreated.
She was working with feverish haste now. The mud was hard, but the sharp blade of the scissors cut round the hole easily enough, and though her nails were broken, her hands sore, and her arms aching, the hole was growing momentarily larger and larger. She could get her head through now, and it was only three hours to the dawning. And now she could get through entirely; she pushed her bundle through, and her cloak and hood, and taking tinder and steel and rushlight, was in the stable alongside Black Tulip. She put her hand up and stroked her neck. Tulip was quiet enough, that was not where her difficulty lay.
The half-door was open, and she could see the dark sky and the brilliant stars. It was a wonderful night, and the sky was powdered with them, clear, and bright, and silvery, if she could have chosen she would rather it had been darker.
She did not dare use her light, and how was she to find saddle and bridle without a light. How, indeed, was she to get a horse out of the yard without calling attention to her presence. She leaned against the door lintel a moment and considered, while her eyes looked out into the magnificent Australian night.
"Impossible, impossible," a cricket in the ground was shrieking out; the very rustle in the caves said, "Impossible, impossible." And yet how otherwise get help. She would not have dared face the dangers of the way alone and on foot in daylight. But now——
Well, there was no greater danger in going than in staying where she was. They had promised her life, but in the heat of the fight the chance was they might forget that promise, and assuredly if she did not go Mr. Williams would be killed.
And then she sighed. Because she felt such hatred and loathing for him she must save him. And Jacky Bluecoat was with them, and Jacky Bluecoat had ears like a hare. She could not hope to get a horse out of the stable. She might just as well try to get Williams out of the house unseen and offer him a mount. No, if she would be sure of saving him, then she must walk the seven miles to Elizabeth Farm. Seven miles through the woods, and it was only three hours to the dawning. What she had to do she must do quickly. She put on her shoes, they were thin-soled, light little things, quite unfitted for a tramp along a bush track, but ladies at the end of the eighteenth century were not supposed to go for long walks, and then she gathered her things together, and with her heart beating to suffocation, slipped the bolt and opened the stable door. The horse behind her turned at the sound, and she slipped outside and shot the bolt again quickly. And Jacky Bluecoat had the ears of a hare! She stood a moment leaning up against the stable wall, and her knees trembled and the beating of her heart made her ache in all her limbs. Then, very softly and quickly, because there was no time to waste, she crept round the stable wall. She turned the corner, and her courage grew. Yet if they caught her, they would assuredly kill her. She trembled when she thought what these men would do to her if they caught her betraying them. And for all she knew the little farm might be surrounded.
There was a bush fence made up of stumps and logs behind the stable; it ran right round the ten acres of cleared land, and the ground sloped a little towards it. Behind stood up the forest looming dark against the starry sky. So often had she looked out on it, gum trees and feathery wattle, and black currajong, that she called "may." Now they were all one dark blur, and the cleared space between the stable and the log fence looked light as day in comparison. There came the mournful cry of a black swan out of the sky above, and it made her start painfully. Was this the forerunner of the dawn? She had no time to waste, if death lay behind that pile of logs she must face it, and she darted over the rough ground that hurt her feet through her thin shoes, and climbed the fence. Another moment she was crouching on the dewy grass on the other side, hidden, she felt, in the darkness of the forest.
She looked back at the farm. The buildings loomed up in the darkness, still and silent. There was not a light, not a sound anywhere. Who could tell it was the scene of a tragedy, so commonplace it all seemed. A dead woman lay within those walls, a man awaiting death stood there on watch, and two others watched that he did not escape his fate. Betty gave a little sob, for the weary pass her life had come to, and then stowing away her bundle, which she felt it was impossible for her to carry, began with free hands to move slowly round the fence on her way to the track that led down to Parramatta and Elizabeth Farm.
"Our dangers and delights are dear allies
From the same stem the rose and prickle rise."
AND when Bass left Betty, he went straight to Elizabeth Farm as fast as a good stout horse could carry him.
The autumn day was glorious, the heavens were blue and cloudless, and the earth was clothed in green. A flight of white cockatoos flew screaming over his head, and a great kingfisher, a bird the settlers called the laughing jackass, shrieked and sobbed with laughter.
Bass was a man who noticed, and in spite of his own trouble his ears and eyes were open. The town was growing, and the beautiful bush was receding. The huts of the convicts were unbeautiful things, with thatched roofs and piles of rubbish at their doors, but the Governor's Farm at the end of the long street was already like a bit of England, and the leaves of the peach and apricot trees were yellow and red with the autumn tints. Up and down the streets strolled the soldiers in red, and a team of men in brown frocks were harnessed to a log which they were straining to bring down to the water's edge. The log was stuck right across the roadway, and the men pulled in vain while a convict overseer brought down his whip heavily on their ragged backs. Bass laid hands on the end of the log.
"One or two of you lift with me and get it straight. Why, man," he said to the overseer, "there's no need to haul all New Holland. That's what they're doing at present."
The man looked at him rather sullenly. These beasts of burden should haul as he willed, but on second thoughts he did not like to cross a man wearing His Majesty's uniform, and in five minutes the log was pointing down the road and the men were hauling with a "Hilly haully, hilly haully" that sounded utterly hopeless and dreary. In the stocks sat a man, and the cramp had got into his legs and he was moaning with pain, but Bass could not interfere here. He could only pass on. He was not so shocked as we in this twentieth century might be, but he did not wonder there were so many bolters. At least, there was freedom in the woods.
And at Elizabeth Farm, Mistress MacArthur sat on a low chair in the shade of the overhanging thatched roof that made a verandah, with her white-faced little daughter in her arms.
She held out her hand when she saw Bass walking up through her zinnias and Cape geraniums.
He bowed low over her hand. Now that he was here, he wondered how he had best put the case.
"You are very welcome, Mr. Bass. Do you see my little daughter. She has been sick. A catarrh or a fever? I know not which."
The mother looked anxious, and Bass touched the little white cheek with a kindly hand.
"It has left her now, I think, whatever it was. Plenty of milk and this good country air will set her all right."
"Do you think so?"
"I am sure of it," said the surgeon.
"You are so busy finding out new tracks to the mountains and new harbours, one wonders whether you remember how a child should be treated," said the mother, wistfully.
"It was part of my training, and I shall not forget, even though I find a way through the mountains to the country beyond," smiled Bass. "You must see for yourself she is on the mend."
She looked down reassured.
"Ah, Mr. Bass, I have been so anxious. I thought I should lose my baby, and my heart was like to break."
"Ah, madam, I sympathise, I understand."
She looked at him with a quick little smile, his voice was tender and sympathetic.
"And how comes it that a ship's surgeon, accustomed to tending rough sailors, can understand and sympathise with a mother's anxiety."
"Because, after all, love spells the same thing, madam, does it not, whether it be the love of a mother for her babe, or the love of a man for a woman," and Bass looked away down the garden at the distant blue hills.
She looked at him thoughtfully. "Tell me," she said, "tell me," and leaning up against the verandah post there he told her the whole story. His eyes glowed and he clenched his hands.
"I would have killed him," he said, "I ought to have killed him. If she had not been his wife I swear I would have. Mistress MacArthur, you will help her."
"Indeed, indeed, I will. Shame on him, he is not fit to live. Why did you not bring her to me?"
"She would not come," said Bass, "not with me alone. She is mine, mine," he said, "no power shall part us, but she—she thought if you heard the whole story you would—you would——"
"What can I do?" asked Mistress MacArthur, sadly. "She is his wife, fast as Church and State can make her, and even offering her for sale will not—Mr. Bass, Mr. Bass, don't look like that."
"I thought," said Bass, savagely, "that you, a tender woman, would understand. She is mine. If you will countenance our union the whole settlement will follow suit.'"
"I can't," she said in distress, "I can't, I can't. God knows I would help poor Betty to the best of my power, but I cannot say wrong is right even for you whom I respect and her whom I love."
"Then what is to become of her?" asked Bass, grinding his heel into the ground.
"Become of whom?" asked Captain MacArthur coming up, and then the whole story had to be gone over again. Bass listened impatiently while Mistress MacArthur told it to her husband, with many exclamations of pity and sympathy.
The older man listened in silence, then he swore an oath condemning Williams to the bottomless pit, and putting his hand on Bass's shoulder drew him away into the garden.
"It's out of the question, old man, quite out of the question. If she is to keep her good name among the women she can't go to you while her husband is alive. The men would be all right, it is the women who will point scorn at her long after the provocation is forgot. Let it alone, Bass, my man. Williams can't last long at this rate. He will drink himself to death in six months if one of his assigned servants don't save him the trouble."
Bass groaned. "I can't leave her there," he said.
"You shan't," said the other. "My wife will go down to-morrow and she shall be welcome as a daughter in our house."
Bass made an impatient movement.
"No, man, it is too late to go to-night. Look at the shadows. See how long they are. The sun will be down before we could get the horses ready. Leave it till to-morrow, and my wife shall go herself and tell her how welcome she is. And then when you have seen her safe, you may go away in the Reliance and come you not here till I tell you Williams has run his course."
Bass stood moodily silent, his back to the speaker. He was debating whether he in his turn should not carry Betty off and let the world do and say its worst. Perhaps MacArthur understood his thoughts. He put a kindly hand on his shoulder.
"Think how bad you would feel, man, if you took her away with you and heard next month that Williams was dead and you could have married her openly. Here, come into supper, man, and my wife shall talk to you."
And so she did, kindly and tenderly, while Bass gazed moodily on the ground and thought of Betty—Betty, who was slowly creeping round that fence, for she could not but remember that Jacky Bluecoat was on the look out. She did not crouch, for she rightly judged that it would be impossible to distinguish her from the house against the background of forest. What she feared was that they should hear her, or that she should meet someone hidden in the bush. It would not have surprised her if Simon Burton, or one of the bolters, or even one of his savage allies should be on the look out here. It would have been simpler to cut straight across the bush, meeting the road further down, but she was by no means sure of her bushcraft, and she felt the first wasted time would be the best. It would be very easy to lose herself in the thirty acres of uncleared ground that lay between Williams' farm and McNeil's, and so she chose the longer and more dangerous route round by the log fence. She tore her dress on a thorny shrub, she bruised her feet against a stone, and she trod on a sharp stick that made her feel sick with pain, but still she pushed on, and after what seemed to her hours she found herself on the track that led down to Parramatta. She had been so long feeling her way through the forest that once she was on fairly smooth ground she began to run, and she ran till she was opposite the slip panels on McNeil's farm, panting and breathless. Then she sat down, and the rush of blood in her ears made her fancy she heard footsteps pursuing her. She stepped back into the shade of the forest that came up to the track on one hand and lay flat down on the ground. She had a horror of snakes, but she had to risk them as she listened for the footsteps.
Certainly, certainly, there were footsteps, and her heart stood still as a man came up the track, the way she had come, and climbed the panels into McNeil's. How narrow had been her escape she dared not think. If he had been five minutes earlier or she five minutes later, she trembled as to what would have been her fate. Whether the man was Crane or Orleans, or even one of McNeil's servants she could not say, only it confirmed her in her determination not to ask help at any of the farms. McNeil, she knew, was not there, the chances were not one of the others were, and it would be worse than useless to trust any of the convicts. They would not give their own class away, and even if they did her no harm they would contrive to detain and delay her. She listened to the man's footsteps dying away, and then she rose to her feet, but she dared not trust herself in the middle of the track now. She crept along close against the fringe of forest, and when it was thinner she slipped in among the tree trunks.
And the time went on remorselessly. Surely it must be at least an hour since she had climbed through the hole into the stable, and she looked up into the starry sky in dread of the fading stars and the dawning. But they were bright as diamonds still, and their faint light showed her the track winding down among the trees. It was down hill now, down, down, down, and she ran a portion of the way again till her foot slipped, she twisted her ankle, and she sat down, involuntarily rocking herself backwards and forwards with the pain.
If she had sprained her ankle, now indeed was she undone. She rose up, and it hurt her to put her foot to the ground, still she could walk a little with a limp, with a pain that made her laugh and cry aloud, and there was a stream at the bottom of the hill. Perhaps if she bathed it, it would be better. Her own voice sounded so weird and unearthly in this desolate place she hardly dared sigh above her breath. And yet the night was full of sound, the wind sighed through the trees, every now and again she heard the sound of breaking twigs as if something were forcing a way through the trees and bushes. It might be the opossums, but she could not be sure, and the cry of the curlews, weird, mournful, hopeless, like a soul in pain, dominated everything. There was a quavering whimper of dingoes, too, now loud and clear, as if the pack were in full hunt, now dying away, and she remembered ghastly tales of human skeletons found with the bones picked clean. But before she reached the foot of the hill, she felt her ankle was better, it was only a twist after all. Still she paused to lave her hot feet in the water of the creek.
She grudged the time, but they were so hot and swollen she had to do something. There was no bridge, only a ford, muddy now after the long summer, and she took off her shoes and stockings and waded a little further up, where the water was clear and cool to her hot feet. Out on the grass again she lay down a moment to recruit her strength and to put on her shoes and stockings, for though they were torn now they were at least some protection from the roughness of the way. She rested as long as her impatience would allow, every moment she stayed it seemed she was giving away a life, a life she hated, a life that stood in the way of her happiness, and therefore a life she must strain every nerve to save unless she would have blood on her soul. She was so weary now, so utterly weary that had it been only her own life that was in question, she would have lain down and awaited death. George Bass seemed far, far away, the events of the afternoon farther away still. It was pain to put one foot before the other, it cost her a mighty effort, and yet she struggled on, for it was growing no lighter, and the dawning had not come yet.
And now the land began to be cleared a little. Here and there were fallen trees and stumps where the trees themselves had been cleared away and patches of cultivated land where the wheat had been reaped and the stubble burned, and where the weeds and grass were already springing after the recent rains. There were houses, too, convict shacks roofed with thatch, but she dared not ask help of them. There was no light in any of them, but once or twice she saw a man moving quietly about, and she shrank down for protection among the trees. She had heard that the convict population, being often short of rations, went about at night and stole from the gardens, and now she believed it. But no one saw her, or if they did they gave no alarm. Surely, now she must look as unkempt as the worst convict woman among the lot. But she knew her bearings now. She shivered as she thought she could see the waters of the river, for surely that must mean daylight; but, no, the stars were as bright as ever, and she turned off on the track that led to Elizabeth Farm.
And now she walked in the middle of the track. For one thing, she was too weary to fear anything, all her senses seemed longing for rest, but she must not die till she had arranged for her husband's rescue. Seven miles; she would have walked it surely in an hour and three-quarters, and that would give time for mounted men to ride to the rescue. Mounted men? But where would they get mounted men? One or two, perhaps, would have horses, but for the rest, they must walk, and then she felt it was no concern of hers, she had done her best, her very best, and again the thought of how she had grown to hate her husband, how dearly she loved Bass, spurred on her weariness and quickened her pace even as love itself might have done.
Up hill now, up hill, and her breath came in laboured pants and her feet were bleeding, but she was at the slip rails that led to the Farm, the stars were bright points of silver still, diamonds almost in their brilliancy, and her task was nearly done.
She crept through the slip panels, and the merino sheep that MacArthur had brought from the Cape rose up and scuttled away at her approach, and then a cock in the farmyard crowed and set her heart beating wildly. The herald of the dawn. But the stars were bright yet, bright and clear-cut as ever. She opened the wicket gate that led into Mrs. MacArthur's garden and let it shut behind her with a clang. She herself was safe at last, she need fear no one now, not on her own account at least.
But her head was swimming, and another fear grew upon her, would her senses last till she could make them understand? She must be brief, she thought, as she walked up between the zinnias and geraniums as her lover had walked only yesterday. The scent of the geranium leaf was strong in the dewy night air, and never after could she smell it without remembering the overpowering weariness that had laid hold on her that eventful night. But at last she was on the verandah, and she leaned up against the first door that she came to with the feeling that not for any gift that heaven could offer could she move one step further.
"Help, help," she cried, beating with both hands against the door, and for a moment there was no answer. "Help, help."
If the MacArthurs were not there, if some evil fate had taken them either to Parramatta or the settlement at the Cove, then, indeed, was she undone, and all her toil had been in vain, for she could walk not a step further. But surely Bass would be here! He had left her to come here, and the thought gave her comfort.
There was a stirring in the room. She could hear someone leap out of bed and hastily huddle on some clothes. It was barely a second, but it seemed to the girl like long hours. Then the door was pulled open, and she fell forward and was caught in someone's arms.
"Help! help!" It seemed to her her voice was only a whisper, but the arms that held her were strong and kind. She knew those arms, and let her head drop gladly with a sense of utter rest on George Bass's shoulder.
"The convicts and the natives attack the farm at daybreak," she sobbed. "Only Mr. Williams is there, and they will kill him if you cannot help him, and oh, it is close upon the dawning!"
There was only a faint night light in the room, but Bass required no light to tell him Betty's condition. She lay trustfully in his arms, and he held her close and covered her face with kisses.
"Oh, my God," he muttered, "it is surely the best thing that could happen!"
Who was he to interfere with the intentions of Providence? Was he to cut himself off from the woman he loved?
"Quick! quick!" she gasped, "I hate him, and I will not have his blood on my hands."
"No, no, my sweetheart, no." Then, still with his arms round her, he knocked at MacArthur's door.
"MacArthur, MacArthur, up man, up. There is a rising at Williams' farm and Williams in danger of his life."
There came the cry of a startled child, a woman's voice soothing it, and a man's sleepy response.
"What the deuce——"
"Up, man, quick, it is a matter of life and death!"
Then the door opened, and MacArthur, in his nightcap, a candle in his hand, stood blinking sleepily at them on the threshold.
"But God has wisely hid from human sight
The dark decrees of future fate,
And sown their seeds in depths of night.
He laughs at all the giddy turns of state,
When mortals search too soon and fear too late."
HE was soon roused to the seriousness of the situation. Betty was almost incapable of speech now, but Bass understood, and he made the matter plain. Williams' unpopularity was well known, no one wondered that he should be the victim, but still the thing must be nipped in the bud.
"Elizabeth," he called sharply to his wife. "You take care of the poor girl. Faith, it will be a happy release to her; but the rascals will have to swing for it, nevertheless. Bass, get on your things, man. I can raise six men I can trust, and we'll call in the soldiers from Parramatta, I'll send little Ned down for them at once."
Mrs. MacArthur had put on a wrapper, and Bass gave Betty very reluctantly into her care.
"She is mine," he said; "she is mine. Whatever happens, she is mine."
"Never fear, Mr. Bass," she said, tenderly, "I will care for her as if she were my own daughter.
MacArthur was getting into his clothes, and looking to his pistols in all haste, and his little son was rousing out the men. His wife put Betty down on the sofa in sitting room, and was standing over her, candle in hand. Bass stood beside her, looking down on the tired, white face and closed eyes. She was not insensible, but she was too weary even to open her eyes.
He stooped, and took her hand, and then dropped on his knees, unmindful of the woman beside him. He put his hot cheek against her hand, and then laid his lips upon it. He said no word, what could he say? Only Betty opened her dark eyes, and there was a world of love in them. So had she dreamed of him many a time, and her other hand touched softly his bowed head.
"You will do your duty, Mr. Bass, whatever happens, you will do your duty," said Mrs. MacArthur, and Betty's eyes closed again, and he rose to his feet.
The men were coming in to the room, and MacArthur addressed them.
"Seven miles, it's not a step less, and it does not want an hour to the dawn. We must start at once, and even then I fear we shall only be in time to avenge his death."
There were six men in the room besides Bass and MacArthur; they had been convicts once, but their time was expired, or close on expiring, and it was to their interest to keep the colony peaceful. Men who had expiated the very slight sins that sent them out in those days, and were anxious to live a new and clean life. MacArthur knew they could be trusted to serve him well and faithfully.
"Round by the road," said one man, "'tis seven good miles, but there's a way across through the woods. As the crow flies 'tis barely three."
And then Bass knew he should have gone straight back to the Reliance. He set his teeth, and his face grew white in the yellow candle light.
"Through the woods," said MacArthur, "I daresay, and once we get in, likely as not we may spend a week there. Is there anyone of you have bushcraft enough to get through?"
Bass set his mouth firmly. Why not let him die? He was a sailor, what did he know of bushcraft? Why, in God's name, should he interfere? And then came another thought, would he have any slur on his love, since she had toiled so hard to save this man, would he be less generous? But his voice sounded harsh and hollow in his own ears, and the men looked at him in surprise.
"I know the way," he said. "I will get you through by the dawn, though I doubt if we can do it before."
MacArthur looked at him curiously.
"We all know," he said, stepping to his side, "you have good reason for hating this man."
"Don't be afraid," he made answer, "I will do my best to save his life; but remember she's mine now, surely, by the laws of God and man."
Outside, Bass, at the head of his little band, armed with muskets, looked up at the bright points of the stars as Betty had looked at them, but he looked at them with knowledge. The dawning was not yet, and he had that unerring bushman's instinct that many a man since his day has possessed, that instinct that leads a man straight through the pathless bush to the point he wants to reach.
And the bush was very dense. Wherever land had been cleared and allowed to relapse into the original wilderness again the thicket was almost impenetrable, and even in the untouched bush, the creeper and the fern, the currajong and the gum-trees growing in this semi-tropical climate were in places so close that the men must needs march in single file. But their leader looked up at the stars whenever he got the chance, and walked on without a falter.
"If you are too late," breathed MacArthur behind him, "you gain a wife, George Bass."
"She is mine, I tell you, whether I am in time or no," answered Bass, savagely. "It will make no difference. I am taking you as straight as I can, John MacArthur."
"I believe you," said the other man; "but I could have wished for your sake that you were on board the Reliance."
"I wish it with all my heart," said Bass, and strode on in silence.
And now the dawn was at hand. The stars that had been watched so the long night through were paling before the coming day, the little birds were twittering, there was a sound of insects in the air, a magpie whistled half his song, paused made sure it was the morning, and finished clear and musical, then the great kingfisher took it up, and filled the air with his mocking laughter, and his mate answered from across the gully. The parrakeets in the gum-trees overhead began their chatter, and the light that was not of the stars was growing, growing.
There came another sound, and the sharp report of a gun broke in on the forest welcome to the returning day.
"I have led you straight," cried Bass, dropping back, "I will have naught to do with this man. Now, you lead, MacArthur. I will have naught to do with the saving of the man I hate."
"Nevertheless," said Captain MacArthur, "you have saved him," and there was a note of respect in his voice as he sprang forward. Another report of a gun rang out on the morning air, and the sound of men's voices shouting—there was need of a guide no longer.
But the voices carried in the still air, and it was at least five minutes before they were clear of the forest and on the track that led to Williams' farm. The east was rosy red, and the first gleams of golden sunshine were touching the trees with light. The farm buildings were clear before them, and the garden that Betty had taken such pride in. There were three or four men in brown duck frocks, ragged and torn, on one side of the house, and on the other about a dozen stark naked savages. They were all shouting at once; and their only care was evidently to keep clear of Williams' gun; that done, they had little to fear, and there was nothing to prevent them firing the thatch. The stacks were already in flames, but Bass noted that the stables were safe, and remembered the convicts' promise to Betty. They had kept it, then.
The little compact body of men rushing out of the forest was plainly visible to the attacking party, and for a moment they stood stock still and looked at them. It almost seemed as if some supernatural power had sent aid to Williams in his extremity.
"Fire!" cried MacArthur, and a volley poured harmlessly across Betty's garden, for probably the only man there who wished to kill was MacArthur himself. The blackfellows had thrown themselves down with the swiftness of their race, and were all under cover a second after they had seen the rescue party, and only the convicts seemed dazed. Then they, too, with a shout, rushed for the fence, and were over into the bush before the men could reload.
"After them!" cried MacArthur, "we must teach them a lesson."
"It is you they will teach a lesson to," cried Bass, "if you follow them into the bush. They are your masters there." Nevertheless they all ran on till the great log fence stopped them, and there was not a man, blackfellow or convict, to be seen.
Bass sat down on the fence, though he knew he risked his life, if one of them had a musket, or possibly there might be a savage throw a spear. But what matter? He had interfered with fate, he had stood between he man he hated and death, and he felt he was ready to die himself. Betty was his. Certainly she should be his; but it would have been so much simpler if they had only come on the scene half-a-hour later.
MacArthur wiped his hot forehead, for he had come at a good pace.
"He owes his life to you, Bass."
"Better let the men put out the fire," growled Bass. "There will be no fighting, worse luck." If he could only have worked off some of his anger and mad passion in a hot fight for life it would have been something. "It would be worse than folly to follow them into the bush."
"Yes, yes," acquiesced MacArthur, who somehow felt as if he had had all his hard work for nothing. So tame a conclusion was not to his liking. "Jackson, that stack's doomed, but take the men and see that the fire don't spread. Why the devil doesn't Williams show himself? There's no danger now."
As if he had heard him, the door opened, and Williams came towards them, holding his gun in his hand, and looking fearfully around him, for he had spent a night to try any man.
"I am sure," he said, advancing towards MacArthur and Bass, "gentlemen, I am deeply obliged to you. It seems a miracle your coming," gruffly.
"You have your wife to thank, and Mr. Bass here," said MacArthur, gruffly.
"I can never find words——" but Bass turned away, sick at heart. How he hated this man! Even the long night had brought no pallor into the drink-reddened face, but there were great blue circles round his eyes, and he was trembling still. He had stood on the very brink of the grave, and it had shaken his nerves.
It all seemed tame and stale, and flat and unprofitable. The men might get some excitement over putting out the fire; Williams might be thankful for his narrow escape; but MacArthur was simply bad-tempered and tired, and Bass was sick of the whole thing. They stood in the garden close by the door, and looked at one another in the broadening daylight, and Williams made no movement to ask them inside, because he was thinking of that woman's corpse that must be explained away. He had not thought of it all night, so great had been his fear of impending death, but now he reflected that Captain MacArthur was no friend of his, Mr. Bass was open enemy, and there was that body of his woman servant lying with the sheet over it, just as Betty had left it in the only sitting room. No wonder he hesitated. The sun had risen now, and the whole bush was full of the joy of the bird-life at the new-born day.
"Really, Mr. Williams," said MacArthur, testily, "I'm afraid we must trespass on your hospitality. The men have put out the fire, I see, and we are all of us hungry, not to say thirsty, for the last hour we have been forcing our way through the dense woods, and you have some notion of what that means."
"I am only too proud "—began Williams, and he broke off short, and pointed to the log fence.
The other two men turned quickly at the look of horror and terror on his face, and there stood Simon Burton—Bass recognised him in a moment, though MacArthur knew him only for a runaway convict, with a musket at his shoulder.
"He ought to swing for it," he said, in a loud voice, "but I doubt it, so I'll make sure he dies," and the next second the report rang out, and Williams had fallen backwards, crushing the sweet-scented Cape geraniums.
Burton disappeared at the shot, and MacArthur sprang on to the fence, calling to his men to follow.
Bass was at his side in a moment, though he protested all the while.
"It is madness, it is madness, MacArthur. We are no match for them in the woods."
There was a crashing sound among the branches a little ahead, the birds seemed to have hushed their song at the presence of angry men, and then there was a silence. The eight men all clustered together just outside the log fence, and there was no sign of any other human being ever having been there. They all looked at MacArthur.
"We must catch him for our honour's sake," said he, angrily. "Get on, men."
"Not altogether, surely," protested Bass. "It's inviting them to pot us."
"Separately, then," said MacArthur; "as Englishmen we must try. We can't see a man murdered in cold blood."
Bass turned a little to the left. He could hear MacArthur and his men beating the woods as they would beat for game, and he knew the game would fly before them. With the exception of MacArthur neither party was anxious to meet. For himself he walked on quietly, looking to right and left, for though he had no intention of either fighting or taking a prisoner, still he had no mind to be killed from behind a tree. The sunlight was filtering down between the pointed gum leaves, now making patterns on the ground, soft and yielding, untrodden by the foot of man or hoof of cattle.
His head in a whirl, and he told himself it would be a cruel fate if he should die avenging the death of the man he hated, and had wished dead many a time. The sounds of the hunt went further and further away, and suddenly some light sound different from the ordinary sounds of the bush made him start. He turned round the trunk of a gum-tree, and there stood Simon Burton, holding back a spear poised in the hand of a long, lithe, stark-naked savage.
The man looked at Burton, questioningly, and Bass, as he saw the convict shake his head, knew that he was at his mercy.
"Mr. Bass, you gave me my life once. I give you yours in return. But you had better keep clear of the woods a little."
"But, Burton—Burton, why don't you get quietly away?"
"I shall, now that man is dead," said Burton, quietly. "He will trouble me no more, and, mind you, Mr. Bass, he deserved his fate. Good-bye, sir, and good luck go with you."
Then Bass turned round and walked straight back to the farm, wondering if he was compounding a felony. He climbed the fence, and laid himself down among the sweet-scented geraniums, resting his head in his arm, like a man who has borne up to the breaking point.
And in an hour's time back came MacArthur and his following, one man complaining loudly because he had got a spear wound through his arm, and yet they had seen no assailant.
"You got off cheap," said Bass, rising to his feet.
"We must bring the murderer to justice," spluttered MacArthur.
"We can't," said Bass, with a certain forced calmness, for he felt he should not rejoice in any man's death, even though it was that of the man who had wronged him so deeply, "there is not one of your following but considers Simon Burton a deeply-wronged man, even I—well, I don't know that I'm not with them. We may go into the woods as often as you like, but we will find nobody, and I cannot be so sure that somebody will not find us. See to it, perhaps the man is not dead."
MacArthur walked towards the fallen man unwillingly enough. George Bass plainly turned his back. He would not look on his enemy's face, dead or alive, if he could help it.
"He is dead enough," said MacArthur, as if it had been a personal injury. "We might have spared ourselves that scramble through the woods. I declare I'm as full of thorns and grass seeds as a hedgehog."
But Bass said nothing. He had done his best, his very best; he had toiled to save his enemy, and fate had foiled him.
A little of this possibly MacArthur understood. He gave one glance at his friend, then he called Jackson.
"Three or four of you fellows carry Mr. Williams inside."
They came up smiling. They were well enough pleased at the turn events had taken, and they lifted up the dead man and carried him in, and laid him on his own bed.
Then MacArthur saw that other body on the floor, and called aloud to Bass,
"Come here, doctor, come here. There is another needs your skill."
And Bass came, and for the first time his hand trembled a little.
"Eunice Burton," he said.
"Aye, but is she dead?"
"She is most certainly dead, and she has been dead possibly ten or twelve hours."
"But how? Why?"
Bass looked a little more carefully.
"A blow on the head. A shrewd blow, too. She must have died at once." And he covered her face.
"The place smells of blood," said MacArthur. "Nevertheless, we must have something to eat."
"I will not eat here," said Bass, going out of the door. "You do not want me any longer. I shall go back to Elizabeth Farm and Mistress Betty Carew."
* * * * * * *
And in the spring-time they had a great wedding at Elizabeth Farm. Mistress MacArthur attired the bride in her own wedding gown that had been laid away in lavender for little Maria in the far future. Captain MacArthur gave her away, and the officers of the New South Wales corps toasted her loudly.
"Sweet Mistress Betty, the prettiest bride in the Southern Hemisphere, or any other hemisphere for that matter," proclaimed Devereux. "Sweet Mistress Betty Bass, and we wish her and her husband all good luck."
And they drank the toast with a chorus of cheers.
Bass and his wife stole away. The moon was high in the heavens, the river was like a silver shield beneath them, and the shadows were deep and dark.
"Sweetheart, sweetheart, at last." He held her so close in his strong arms it was almost pain. Her head drooped on his shoulder, and her lips met his in a very abandon of love, a woman's love, such love as she had not dreamed of when first she loved him eighteen months ago. Her arm went up round his neck, he held her so close she could hardly breathe, and she felt that heaven itself could hold no such rapture; life was worth living because of the gladness of it. Come weal, come woe, those moments of bliss could never be undone.
He held her a little away from him, and looked into the soft dark eyes that drooped a little before the passion in his.
"Dost love me, Betty?"
"I love thee, I love thee. Thou art all the world to me," and he kissed her again, her eyes, her lips, her dark hair, with the golden gleam in it.
"I am so happy, so happy," she sighed. "Shall we always be happy?"
"If it rest with me, sweet life, always, always. The worst has passed, surely we shall never be unhappy now."
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