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Vicissitudes of Bush Life in Australia and New Zealand

Chapter XII

Chapter XII.

The stranger's manners were evidently those of a person accustomed to good society. This was seen by the easy, yet dignified manner in which he acknowledged his introduction to the ladies, his courteous demeanour to the latter, and his well-sustained part in the general conversation at the supper-table. In spite of this there was still something about him that seemed vague and unsatisfactory. Every now and then, and that often after one of his happiest remarks, an unquiet shadow, a look of suspicion, flitted across his face, so marked that on these occasions I could almost imagine him to be acting a part, as of a person who was other than what he represented himself to be.

Quietly watching him (for somehow a strange curiosity page 79 strongly compelled my interest in the new comer), I noticed him, on the sudden slamming of a door, almost bound from his seat, and glance nervously around, whilst a sudden, fierce expression would contract his browns, as instantly all agitation would subside, and with quiet equanimity he would resume the conversation that such a trivial incident had almost interrupted.

Inquiries about his injured arm seemed distasteful to him, and Mrs. Campbell's kind offer of inspecting and bathing it he hastily and resolutely declined, remarking that it was a mere nothing. Then recovering his composure, in a more courteous manner he added, “Excuse me, madam; I have seen the world, and some rough service in it, and it has tutored me to make light of such a mere scratch as this. In India I have hunted both the tiger and wild boar, and on such occasions, when we did not always escape scatheless, to notice a trifle like this would have only provoked the laughter of my companions and my own.”

Yet with all this show of courage, I noticed, that just as he spoke he involuntarily raised his hand to his disabled arm as if he had been visited by a sudden twinge of pain.

“You have been in India, then, Mr. Marsden?” remarked Mrs. Campbell, with some interest.

“Yes, madam, I was in the army there for over two years.”

“Indeed, Mr. Marsden?” asked Mr. Rolleston. “May I ask how you liked soldiering? I should imagine the life to be as uncomfortable as it is hazardous at times. What regiment were you attached to?”

“Uncomfortable enough,” replied Mr. Marsden, with the unquiet expression I have referred to suddenly clouding his face at the question with which Mr. Rolleston concluded his sentence, and which he parried by the hasty manner in which he seemed to attend to the first part of it, “but as for its hazard, why, young fellows such as I was then seemed to consider that one of the charms that compensated for the lack of comfort; but,” he continued rapidly, as if desirous of diverting the conversation from a channel that was distasteful to himself, “for myself, on the whole I found the restraints of regimental duty and barrack life so irksome that I sold out, and for the last few years (here he laughed) I have been endeavouring, by an idle, wandering kind of life, to dispense with the remnants of a rather plentiful crop of wild oats that I seem somehow to have inherited with my temperament, and that even the occasional excesses of barrack life were insufficient to eradicate. Now, however, thinking it high time to take up with some definite mode of existence, the idea of a pastoral life, with its picturesque vicissitudes, in some undiscovered back country page 80 seems to fit in with my notions of freedom. My military experiences proved so distasteful to me in that respect, that I have conceived such a prejudice against it that I seldom care to speak about it.”

The latter part of Mr. Marsden's sentence was emphasised in the manner that a man of determination uses when he resolves that his hearers shall not mistake his meaning, and clearly implied his desire to let us know that furth er reference to this part of his career would annoy him, so, as a change of subject, Mr. Rolleston remarked:—

“I own some back country that I have lately had thoughts of disposing of; it is excellent pasture land, and with but a moderate outlay of capital in the formation of dams, a permanent supply for sheep could be obtained. If you think that the land will be likely to suit you I shall be most happy to ride over with you one day, when you will have an opportunity of judging for yourself as to its qualities.”

“I shall be just as happy on my part to take advantage of your offer to at least see the property. Indeed, I should prefer to settle in or about your neighbourhood, as the appearance of the country hereabouts pleases me,” Marsden replied.

“Then I must contrive to amuse you here for a few days, till you have recovered sufficiently from the effects of your accident, and then we will ride out and have a look at the country.”

“With the pleasing prospect of the society of these ladies, the task of amusing me will be but a slight tax on your resources, Mr. Rolleston,” replied Mr. Marsden, laughing and bowing to Mrs. Campbell and the two girls.

“I am afraid your anticipations of our powers in that respect may be too sanguine,” replied Miss Rolleston smiling, while Mary shyly cast down her eyes.

Whether out of consideration to the stranger's hurt or not I cannot say, but I observed that Miss Rolleston's manner to him seemed to be pervaded with a deeper tone of respect than was usual with her.

It might have been a lover's jealousy, but I had noticed from the time of Mr. Marsden's first entrance into the house that Miss Rolleston appeared as if fascinated by the influence of some secret spell in that gentleman's manner as she listened with rapt attention to his words, seldom venturing on a remark of her own accord, and merely speaking when addressed, a most unusual thing with her as far as my short experience of her manner went.

This feeling with Miss Rolleston appeared to deepen rather than to lessen as the days went by. Perhaps I was led to page 81 notice this more attentively because of the rarer opportunities that fell to me for těte-à-těte conversations with her now. Her attentions appeared to be wholly engrossed with this stranger, and as if the attraction was mutual, he seemed to chiefly devote his remarks to her.

I have frequently observed that there are some men who appear to be gifted with some mesmeric influence, by which they are able to exercise a powerful charm over nearly all of the opposite sex with whom they come in contact, and it was evident that Mr. Marsden possessed this gift in no small degree to judge by the influence he appeared to be so soon able to exert over Miss Rolleston. In less than a week, with this gay, skittish maiden, who on other occasions never seemed able to give a serious thought to anything, it was plainly evident he was on terms of even confidential friendship.

Yet, though more reserved towards me, her kindness to me had not lessened, and so much was this the case that she appeared to deprecate the suspicion of her partiality to the stranger, which she instinctively felt was present to my mind.

Two weeks rolled by and the time for our return to our station became imminent, duties there now imperatively demanding my immediate supervision. The interval had been actively employed among Mr. Rolleston's cattle, in daily mustering and draughting, for the selection of a herd, which with our late purchase were intended for the Darling Station.

By this time Miss Rolleston's and Mr. Marsden's prepossession for each other was so confirmed, that they were almost constantly in each other's society. Mary Campbell was of course generally present, but perfectly isolated on these occasions, so much were they engrossed with one another.

Mr. Marsden's arm being now almost recovered, four days preceding that fixed for the departure of Lilly and myself with the cattle, it was resolved that, in company with Mr. Rolleston and Mr. Marsden, we both should ride out to the land that Mr. Rolleston was desirous of parting with.

This land lay about forty miles from the Murray, away through the heart of the mallee scrub, through which thin strips of open country were occasionally interspersed.

We at length turned into Mr. Rolleston's back run, which we found to consist of a large stretch of open country, mostly flat, but occasionally undulating with sand hills, all covered with excellent salt bush pasture. Through the midst of it a pleasant little stream of water flowed just then, which, however, in the drought of summer was reduced to isolated water-holes at long intervals along its channel. As it was, Mr. page 82 Rolleston merely occupied this country as a winter run, and for this purpose there were huts and yards that were then occupied by some half-dozen shepherds and their flocks.

We spent a day riding through the run, camping on both nights with one of the shepherds, having gone out provided with our own blankets for this purpose. On the third day we started on our return journey. Mr. Marsden appeared to be fully satisfied with the run; that is, if assenting words unaccompanied by the slightest look of interest in any of the qualities of the country, that Mr. Rolleston was sedulously pointing out to him as they rode along, can properly be said to express such satisfaction.

The morning on which we started for home was bright and inviting, but as the day advanced the sky suddenly lowered, and became quickly overcast with a dark covering of highly-charged electric clouds; and before mid-day we were overtaken by a fearful thunder-storm, during the course of which forked lightning played around us in startlingly vivid flashes, accompanied with such deafening claps of thunder, that the sky at times appeared to be fairly rent above our heads.

The sun became wholly lost to our sight, and although Mr. Rolleston carried a compass, through some inadvertence in marking our route correctly on starting, we, ere we had suspected it, had been inclining several points out of our proper way. It was Lilly indeed who informed us of this startling fact, by the sudden declaration that we were off our proper course.

Our situation was now anything but enviable, for the rain was coming down in torrents, whilst the roll of the thunder was something awful. But allowing Lilly to take the lead, we struck off at a sharp angle towards our right.

In this direction we had not proceeded very far, when the continued cawing of the crows attracted our attention. As in the bush such sounds are, in general, indications of a shepherd's hut, or of some dead carcase (for these are carrion birds), we immediately shaped our course in their direction, in the hope of finding some sheep tracks, if nothing more, that might guide us to some hut in the neighbourhood.

At length, where the mallee seemed to open slightly, we saw a number of crows, both on the scrub branches and on the ground, and looking more intently to see why they were collected there, we noticed an object that filled us with horror.

It was the carcase of a black fellow. But, though an aborigine, his clothes, and especially the cap lying beside him which was distinguished by a yellow band round it, plainly intimated that he was one of the more intelligent natives retained in the page 83 police force for their valuable services in tracking criminals. His body seemed partially decomposed, and his features mutilated by the ravenous birds round him, his eyes having been picked out and holes dug into his ears and face. Yet even with this disgusting mutilation, the manner of his death was still apparent by a hole in the middle of his forehead, evidently the track by which a bullet had entered his brain. His own revolver was seen lying close to his body. On examination, it was apparent that this weapon had been used, as one of its chambers was empty.

After attentively looking at him for some moments, Lilly remarked,

“I know him!”

“Indeed, Lilly,” replied Mr. rolleston, “who is he?”

“Black Billy the tracker.”

“Black Billy, Black Billy,” I mused, trying to recall a name that I seemed to know had been recently familiar in my ears. “By-the-bye, is that not the same, Mr. Rolleston, that you read of the other week in the paper at Euston, in the report of the bank robbery?”

“True,” he replied, “and doubtless the brave fellow met his death by one of the bloodthirsty scoundrels whom he had overtaken here.”

Some instinctive feeling caused me here to glance at Marsden. He was calm and silent; but, with folded arms and sternly-contracted brow, was gazing at the black, mutilated corpse.

And as I looked upon that strong man, whose features bore the impress of a ruthless will, I could not help thinking how kindred to the electrical tempest that was then reverberating overhead, seemed the passion that for some cause appeared then to darken that brow, and to gleam so luridly in those eyes.

But whatever might have been the cause of his seeming inward commotion, the words that here, in answer to Mr. Rolleston's remarks, he let fall, betrayed no conscious connection with that and the fate of him whose corpse he was then contemplating. “Doubtless it was so; the man who was fit to commit such a robbery as that was not one who would be inclined to hesitate much in suffering a black fellow's life to stand in the way of his escape.”

The scornful manner in which this remark was uttered seemed to imply how little he, at least, would have hesitated in a similar situation.

After gazing for some minutes longer on this shocking spectacle, we resumed our journey, conversing as we went on the probable details of this tragedy.

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Whatever speculative surmises had formerly tormented me regarding the mysteriousness of Marsden's character were now doubly intensified since witnessing his demeanour when viewing the black man's corpse, until wild suspicions began vaguely to fill my mind, to which I had not the courage to give form. One of our party, however, had less conscientious scruples on that score.

Reining his steed level with mine, and allowing the two others to draw slightly ahead, Lilly remarked, inclining his head towards Marsden:—

“Do you know who that cove is, Mr. Farquharson?”

“Well, only what he says of himself, that he is a gentleman on the look-out for a run.”

“He wants no d—d run,” muttered Lilly; then a little louder, “It's my belief, Mr. Farquharson, that that cove knows more about that dead black fellow than he cares to let on.”

“What makes you think that, Lilly?” I replied, not a little startled at hearing him so suddenly give form to my own train of thoughts.

“Never mind what makes me think so, but I tell you it takes a smart man to throw dust in my eyes. I have noticed that cove ever since he came to the station, and there is something about him that I don't like, and it's my belief that he knows something more than he cares to tell about how yon corpse came to be lying there, and about that bank robbery too, I reckon.”

I was the more inclined to pay attention to Lilly's suspicions, startling though they were, as I had had so many previous experiences in verifying the almost instinctive accuracy of his impressions in reading the characters of strangers. He was naturally shrewd, and from his own antecedents among the society of convicts and his knowledge of the traits peculiar to that fraternity, no disguise of manner could ever baffle his instant identification of any such characters that he came in contact with: that is, “old hands,” as those who have once been convicts were styled in Australia, And often have I been indebted to this discriminative faculty of his in my selections of operatives for the station.

Lilly went on:—

“Besides, see how all this agrees with the accounts of the bank robbery. Black Billy was away on their track. Well, they were supposed to have gone towards the Northern Territory, but that would not prevent an old fox from doubling and coming in this direction. Well, now, didn't that customer there say when he came to the station that he had come through the scrub from Lake Hindmarsh? But as much of that yarn is true as he chooses to make you suppose. One thing is certain; he came page 85 from the scrub. And another thing is certain, that Black Billy had tracked one of these bank robbers to that scrub, for there's the fellow's corpse to prove it, else what would it be doing there; and we know that the paper said that Black Billy was on the track of these fellows—and a plucky fellow, too, the same Billy was, although he was black: I knew him. Again, that fellow came to the station with his arm in a sling, and you know Billy had fired off one shot anyhow, as there was one of the chambers of his revolver empty, and what would you say if that shot wasn't the cause of that cove's arm being in a sling, and that it was that same gentleman's bullet that put yon hole in Billy's nut; did you notice the determined and savage way in which he looked at the corpse?”

Here was indeed a concatenation of circumstances that would have justified any magistrate in granting a warrant for Marsden's arrest for this murder at once.

But yet again, the counter evidence in the appearance of things against such a conclusion was so strong as to render the idea highly improbable. As, for instance, the idea of a common bushranger and murderer taking up his abode in a squatter's residence on the banks of the Murray, where he was apt to be visited any day by a passing trooper; the very thought seemed preposterous. Besides, the education and gentlemanly bearing of Marsden himself were so utterly out of harmony with a bushranger's character, that after a minute's startled reflection I said: “Nonsense, Lilly, you must be dreaming. There is something queer in these coincidences, I grant you, as well as in Mr. Marsden's mysteriousness, but the man is a perfect gentleman, so that it is impossible that your suspicions can be right.”

“Very well, Mr. Farquharson, we shall see,” was Lilly's quiet rejoinder. But, though affecting to think thus, I was still so far from feeling assured, that I resolved on the first favourable opportunity, ere I left for the Darling, to communicate Lilly's suspicions to Mr. Rolleston and so put him on his guard as to Marsden's possible character.

Shortly after this conversation, that was of course carried on in a tone inaudible to our companions, the rain ceased, and the thick vapours began to roll aside, revealing a blue sky in which the sun appeared now well on on his journey to the western horizon, and by his position we found that Lilly's surmise that we had drifted to the left was correct. It was not until sundown, that, wearied and soaked to the skin, we had the satisfaction of dismounting from our no less jaded horses at Mr. Rolleston's stable door.

Soon afterwards, a dry change, a blazing fire, and a cheerful supper, made us forget all our uncomfortable sensations, excepting page 86 the vision of that mutilated body, that haunted my memory at least all that night and for many a day afterwards; and the startling thoughts suggested by Lilly's words as to Marsden's possible connection with that deed of blood, acted not a little in increasing this disturbed state of mind.

While our supper was being discussed, the occurrences of our late journey were duly detailed, with the account of our discovery of the body of the murdered black fellow; a detail which shocked the ladies, especially Mrs. Campbell, much.

I noticed that Marsden, for whom I reserved the chief part of my attention during all that evening, not only sustained his own share in the conversation, but was even unusually communicative and chatty. As usual, his eyes and remarks seemed chiefly for Miss Rolleston, and her glances in return sparkled with singular animation as she listened to his vivacious description of the manner of his future home out in this back country. About that he said, “I am now resolved to come to terms with Mr. Rolleston”.

“I assure you, Mr. Marsden,” remarked Mr. Rolleston pleasantly, “that I, for my part, will throw no difficulties in the way of a speedy arrangement of this matter. By-the-bye, the police must be communicated with about this discovery of the black fellow's body: I expect it must be Black Billy.”

“I believe it must be his body,” here put in Mr. Campbell, “I read in the paper to-day that the police are beginning to suspect foul play, as he has been missing so long.”

“As I am going to Melbourne to-morrow,” remarked Marsden quietly, “I will report the matter to the police as I pass through Swan Hill.”

“Surely you do not think of going off so soon,” replied his host; “remain a few more days with us, you must be tired with your three days' ride.”

“Nay,” replied the other, “as I should like to bring our present negotiation to as speedy an issue as possible, and as that cannot be done until I have been to town, where my affairs are likely to detain me for a month or so, I should not like to put off starting for a single day longer than I can avoid; I trust however, at the very furthest, to be with you again ere Christmas.” After this, he again so entirely monopolised Miss Rolleston's attention, that I felt myself thorougly non-suited, and in quiet disgust, after passing a short time in conversation with Mary, I left the room, and walked about outside.

The storm was now over, and where its blackness and fury had lately reigned supreme the moon was shining calm and splendid, Meditating over the strange occurrences of the day and the patent hopelessness of my passion for Rachel Rolleston page 87 in the presence of such a dangerous rival, I paced for some considerable time to and fro before the house front.

Still, for the sake of the love that I cherished for her, I was animated by a chivalrous desire of being able to repay her coldness by a service that might prevent her from ruining her happiness by an alliance with a man whom I instinctively felt was unworthy of her. Somehow my mind recoiled against harbouring the suspicions of downright villany that Lilly did not scruple to charge him with; but I did feel assured that he was not what he represented himself to be, but was sailing under false colours, and consequently was of suspicious principles, and much did I wish that it might be my fortunate lot to unravel the mystery that enveloped him, that so I might be enabled to give the thoughtless girl a timely warning against his wiles.

Musing thus, I walked past the kitchen (that, as I have said, was almost attached to Mr. Rolleston's house—that is, it was connected thereto by a covered passage), and the door being open I glanced in, and had an opportunity of appreciating how well Lilly was enjoying himself in his quarters there.

As I have said, with Tiny, the comely-looking serving girl, he was on the best of terms. At that moment the table was covered with heaps of linen clothing of every sort, that had already undergone the operation of washing, and were now being subjected to the equally necessary process of ironing and mangling.

On glancing in I was amused to note how Lilly was employing himself. I have already particularised his ingenuity in any matter he took in hand. I had no idea, however, that among his list of accomplishments was that of a launderer. But there stood the honest fellow, with a smoothing iron in his hand, busily passing it over the plaits of shirt fronts and other articles of linen finery in a manner that elicited Tiny's unqualified admiration and amused astonishment. I may state that this young maiden in general was rather shy and demure in her habits, and to see her thus on terms of the most chatty familiarity with Lilly was a proof of the discretion of his manner towards her.

It was now time, I thought, to return inside, and as I passed the sitting-room window on my way to the door, my feet were suddenly riveted to the ground by the sweet, clear ringing voice of Miss Rolleston warbling the melodious strains of one of Burns' sweetest lyrics, “Ye Banks and Braes of Bonnie Doon”. This exquisite song she sang with a simple heartfelt pathos that fairly entranced me, and especially the last two lines—

“And my fause lover stole the rose,
But ah, he left the thorn wi' me”;

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which she appeared to repeat in such a strain of foreboding sad ness that it rang in my ears for many a day after.

Poor Rachel Rolleston!