I sauntered with my friend through a busy street in B—, and our conversation taking a serious turn, I expressed myself somewhat as follows:
Each has his different bend of spirit; each his peculiar aptitude for receiving instruction. To some, the country with its shade and sunshine, singing birds and flowering hedges, is a mentor of mighty truths. To others, the city with its human hum, and groaning tread wheel, ever turning, is a preceptor teaching of life, death, and eternity.
“And to which class do you belong?”said my friend.
“To the latter,” I replied. “Not, perhaps, so much by nature as by circumstance. I have dwelt in the city until its many tones seem to me to blend into one cry, ‘Come over and help us,’ and the cry draws out my sympathies, and my sorrow, too; for what is individual help to the mass?”
“Well, as you please. I will take my pastime in the country and leave you to moody lncubrations, amid dingy houses and smoky chimney-pots. Give me rural scenes and sentiment!”
“Will you deny that sentiment is to be found in the city,” I hastily inquired, yet half dreading a reply, knowing that my friend was strongly addicted to sarcasm.
“Surely not. Only I’d leave you to seek it.”
“Agreed. I promise to find it in any corner you may choose.”
“There, then,” he promptly answered, at the same time pointing to a piece of pork out-hanging from a butcher’s stall.
“In pork!” I feebly ejaculated, perceiving the case was a lost one.
“Well, perhaps, not exactly in it, but attach sentiment in ever so weak a form to fat pork, and I’m your humble servant for ever.”
He triumphed, for I sought in vain.
Since then I have travelled all round the world, and that which I could not find at home I have found in the Antipodes. Now, judge between me and my sarcastic friend. The scene is Hobarton.
It had been a cold rainy day, and now was a damp cheerless night; for, though the rain had abated, the clouds still looked sulky, and the sky gave no promise of moon or stars to light me home through the bush. So to be independent of both, I took a lantern and set out. My way lay through the uncomfortable bit of uncleared land, to the left of Newtown.
Every now and then I had to draw up before a charred trunk of a tree, and each time, though accustomed to the interruption, the same suspicion presented itself — namely, that a Ranger was advancing to meet me. Nor did my lantern assist me to a full definition of the figure, for in bringing its light to bear upon the trunk, the long black arms only seemed to stretch more determinately towards me.
In England such trees might be considered of the ghost-tribe; here, where fears are too much pre-occupied to think of supernatural appearances, a charred stump is not only a charred stump, but very often something more, especially if it be large and hollow.
Well, I safely passed two, four, six stumps, and then remembering that there could not be many more, I bravely stepped out, breaking the unpleasant silence, or still worse cranch of my feet on the gravel, singing:
“My lot is cast in that blest place,”
to the tune of the Old Hundredth. My air and voice were decidedly defiant, until I neared the last stump, then I became sensible of a quaver in the latter.
The coming stump, or rather the stump to which I was coming, was the most awkward of the lot — a thorough specimen of diablerie — on the top of a hideous-looking trunk, was perched a large round knot, bearing a resemblance to a human head. All this I knew, and was prepared for; but, in spite of being prepared, my heart and I stood still together before it. The black head wore a feather — a bright red feather — which blew furiously about in the wind. As I watched it, a hand emerged from the hollow and drew it in. Then came a voice from within.
“You can pass on.”
I hesitated, when the permission was repeated.
“What are you!” I demanded, recovering my self-possession.
“Nevermind, pass on; I’m harmless as yourself.”
I glanced at the muzzle of a gun which peered through an aperture in the trunk, and doubted its accordance with peaceable intentions.
“Who are you?” I again demanded.
An answer in person was given; a man jumped out from the hollow and stood beside me.
“Don’t let me see you!” I cried out; “don’t put it in my power to witness against you.”
“Look at me, I am no absconder,” he replied.
I looked and saw a tall, grotesque figure, which I immediately recognised as belonging to an old man of Hobarton who gained his living by shooting small game in the neighbourhood. He doffed his opossum fur-cap, and bowed respectfully when his eyes met mine. I could not help laughing, so ridiculous had been my former fears. He seemed hurt; for, bending on his gun, he said:
“Ah, it’s no laughing matter that brings me here! Bessie’s my game to-night — poor, fond, young crayture, to leave her father’s house, all for a cross word, which he has the right of nayture to speak to her.”
He reminded me of King Lear; his long white hair blew about on his head, as the red feather had done from the top of the trunk, and for some moments he was too absorbed in grief to speak, and when he did, it was in short, broken sentences, as though all the world should know his Bessie. I gathered that she had left him a few days ago, and that his suspicions led him to watch for her from this spot.
“That bit of a kerchief,” said he, “I stuck out from the pole, for if she passed she’d know it was mine, and meant for peace, and there was a word tied up in it begging her to come back.”
He drew the kerchief across his eyes, and in it I acknowledged the former feather. Then, wrapping it around his throat, as if preparing to settle for the night, he bade me leave him. This I objected to do, and told him he was tempting Providence by exposing himself to the damp of the bush.
“Rheumatics take the damp!” he said. Then, fixing a searching eye on me, he added:—” Have you ever lost a child? Then I have, and by worse than death. Leave me, and the only favour I beg is, don’t notice me when you meet me in town.”
“But how about poor Bessie? I must hear if you find her.”
“Ay, ay!” he nodded, and coiled himself back into his tree ere I could offer further opposition.
A few days after I saw him in Argyle Street, but forbore to remark him. With my face set steadily in front, I was about to pass by, when he made a full stop before me, took off his fur cap, and waited bareheaded till I should speak.
“Is she found?”
He seemed delighted that I pounced on the subject without preface. It convinced him that Bessie was the all in all engrossing occupation of other thoughts than his.
“She’s heard of, and I know her whereabouts. I’d rather have seen her dragged dead out of the river! A dead child ain’t half the pain of a living one gone astray. A dead child can’t come back if she’d fain, therefore a living one that won’t is worse!”
A sentiment to which I could not say nay, for the testimony of ages is in its favour.
“Ah! I’m not so much a stranger in the colony,” he went on to lament, “as not to know where these things end; and if once the government brown gets upon my Bess, she’ll be none the better for it, and there’s them as will gladly make her worse, out of spite that she’s free to what they are. I tell you, sir, there ain’t been no blot on our family for six generations back, and at home, for all that I’m poor to the back-bone, my word’s as good as a bond. If my hands are seared, it’s with work, and not with dirty actions! And my children was all counted fortunes in themselves; now I’m come out here with the last just to break my heart over her!”
His breast heaved, and what more he would say was lost in a smothered sob. To turn him to a more cheerful view of the case, I said:
“Well, but we must look to the brighter side, it may not be so bad after all.”
“Not so bad! Let the worst come to the worst, or the best to the best, ain’t she forgotten her Catechism and her Bible? When I was young, I was taught to honour my father and mother. But, I tell you what it is, sir,” he lowered his voice, and spoke confidentially, “come what may, I don’t blame the girl too much, for the sin lies at our door. We’d no business, my missus and me, to leave England in our old age — ’twas pride from beginning to end. First, I could not trust the God that made me to provide for me when I got old; then, I wanted to see Bessie a lady. They told me that, out here, her bonny face would get her a rich husband, and now it’s more like —”
He broke short, and then said:—
“Perhaps you’ll step in and see missus, she’s in a world of trouble, and it tells hard upon her, poor soul!”
We had all this while been walking, and when we had gone a little further we came to one of those hut-looking buildings still to be seen here and there in Hobarton. The door of this hut was locked, and Munro had the key in his pocket. Seeing my surprise, he remarked:—
“‘Twas by her own wish. The neighbours come twitting of her with their pity, so says missus to me, ‘Lock me in, John, and then I can’t open to none of ’em.'”
We entered a wretched little room, exhibiting every token of poverty and dejection. It looked like a bereaved house, for there was neither sign of a recent fire nor of a mid-day meal, though it was past noon. All this my eye apprehended at a glance, while my attention riveted itself on an old woman who sat with her head buried in her arms, which rested on an open Bible lying before her on a small table.
“Missus,” said her husband. But she answered not; she was in a dead sleep, sleeping the heavy sleep of sorrow. “Poor soul,” whispered Munro, “I left her fretting over that text—’ The way of transgressors is hard.’ ‘Oh, John!’ says she to me, ‘will Bessie’s case ever come to that?’ ‘God knows!’ says I, and then she laid down her head, and very likely she’s stayed there since.”
He motioned me to sit on a bench, and then, at my invitation, he also sat down, when the silence that ensued gave me an opportunity to make many observations, each of which strengthened my opinion of the poverty of the Munro family.
“Don’t let me keep you from your dinner,” I said, in order to discover whether he had any in prospect.
He appeared uneasy for an instant; then, with rather a grim smile, he replied. “Sorrow an’t an appetiteable sauce.”
I strongly suspected that other causes than sorrow kept him from eating, and longed to offer him some money to procure a meal; but there was a certain dignity in the handsome old Englishman that held back my purse, and made me feel that a case of distress cannot always be relieved by money. He seemed to read my thoughts, for said he:
“I don’t deny it’s hard times; and if you were pleased to lend me a loan ‘t would be more than a kindness, for I’m sadly gone back along; since Bessie went away, my time’s been spent in seeking for her, instead of in bringing down pigeons.”
He resolutely refused the trifle I proffered, but finally agreed to receive it as a loan, to be paid in weekly instalments of game.
“Well, I’m glad your debt will oblige you to use your gun again, for the exercise will help you to forget your trouble,” I unfortunately said, in taking leave of him.
He gave me a look that might have been quizzical but for the tone that accompanied it:
“Them that’s got grey hair in their head can’t ride the old soldier over trouble in that way.”
The following week I found a pair of bronze-wing pigeons and three common parrots lying on the hall table; they were marked, “paid for.” Beside them lay a little three-cornered note, which ran thus:—
Honored Sir,—Bessie is log’ng at the Blak Bear in Golburn Street. She won’t see me, but verry like she will speak with a stranger, when you cold tell her that if she don’t want this forrin mold to cover her poor old father and mother she will come home again to them that’s her tra friends, to say nothing of him that’s her God in heaven. So no more from Mr. and Mrs. Munro, from your humble servent, John Munro.
Interpreting this into a request that I would go to Bessie, I set out for the Black Bear, and asked if one Bessie Munro lodged there. After some hesitation, it was admitted that she did, but was too ill to see any one. I perceived this to be a falsehood, and was turning in my mind how to accomplish an interview, when a portly, forbidding looking woman came from behind a large folding screen that divided the tap-room from their private apartment.
Not knowing the answer I had already received, she inquired my business; and, on being told, she deliberately stated that Bessie had only that minute “ran out on an arrant.” A foolish smile passed from face to face, and taking advantage of the confusion, I said, in a voice of authority, ”Will any person have the goodness to call Bessie Munro: I shall begin to think she is detained against her will, unless I hear to the contrary from her own lips.”
“And that you shan’t!” cried the portly woman. “She’s a quiet, indefensive lodger, and she shan’t be defied in my own house. I took pity on her when they that bore her drove her to doors”
“Hush! no more of such falsehoods. You know Bessie’s history as well as I do,” I said: on which the woman dashed like a tempest behind the screen, and, led by an irresistible impulse, I followed her into the private room. There, standing on tiptoe, and listening with every eager feature, was one of the most beautiful young women I have ever seen. Possession was in my favour; so having obtained a footing I kept it, in spite of the landlady’s abuse. I advanced to the young woman, and said:
“You need not tell me you are Bessie Munro; your likeness to your father has already told me that. I am come to beg you to return to your home; both your parents are willing to forgive you: it is in your power to make them very happy again.”
“Oh, sir! I could never face them again; mother might forgive me, but father says he’ll break his gun across my shoulders if ever I darken his hut again.”
“It’s a lie!” I had cried before I could refrain: and then, to vindicate the assertion, I read Bessie her father’s note. She wept bitterly.
“Oh, sir, the madness of the first wrong step!” she choked out between her tears.
“It is a madness more curable than the second step: take it in hand at once, Bessie; I am willing to help you.”
“Thank you, sir; but, I assure you, till this moment I’ve refused to see my father because I heard he only wanted to see me to disgrace me, and of course I’ve too much pride for that.”
“There!” injected the living tempest blowing at us from the corner. “There!” The tone seemed to mean, ”Are you satisfied now you’ve heard for yourself?” But unheeding its fury, I went on to implore the unhappy girl to go back with me.
She then said: “At any rate, sir, it’s quite true that he hid out in the bush to shoot me if I went along.”
“Yes, that’s as true as Gospel. My maister saw him lying out by Newtown, and says he, ‘Why, Munro, what be doing here this time o’day? there’s no game flying now.’ ‘Old Nick take the game,’ says he, ‘I be out after that girl.’ ”
I recounted the story of my first interview with Munro, and Bessie again melted to tears. She seemed truly miserable, between a sense of duty and affection on the one side, and indecision and fear on the other. At last she exclaimed:
“Do beg her to let me go!”
”Beg her! She can’t detain you: what claim has she on you?”
“Ay, tell him what? But I don’t want you: go and see how clever it is to get back a lost character!”
“Who dares to say I’ve lost my character?” cried Bessie, indignantly.
“We shall see! One doesn’t go into government to learn nothin’, I suppose?” sneered the landlady.
“Come, come, I’m not here to listen to quarrels. Bessie, bethink yourself; will you go with me?”
“It requires resolution,” she said, ahrinkingly.
“And for the want of that, will you be guilty of a crime?”
“Give me time, sir, give me time,” she hurriedly replied; and with that unsatisfactory result I was obliged to depart. Poor foolish young creature, she perceived not the toils thickening about her; and for one wild freak of temper was likely to incur a fearful penalty.
I called several times at the Black Bear, but without success; she was never to be seen, and I had almost given up all hope of a second interview, when one day, in returning through my former route, who should I espy but Bessie sitting on the very trunk where I had first met her father.
“You, Bessie! It looks bad to see you out this time of night.”
“I am waiting for you, sir: I’ve never been able to find out your name, nor where you live, and as I saw you go up along, I tried to run after you, but as I couldn’t overtake you, I rested here till you came back.”
”And what do you want of me, Bessie?” I spoke curtly and somewhat austerely, in order to set a due value on my services and due censure on her obstinacy.
“I want you to tell them, sir, not to be uneasy after me: for there’s no manner of call for it, I’m as respectable as when I left the hut.”
“Bessie, you are both wilful and rebellious; do you call that respectable? If you are saved from destruction it will be in spite of yourself. What does a young woman expect if she stays out to such an hour? look, it is eight o’clock, a fair hour for England, but not for out here.” I showed her my watch by the lamp-light, she glanced at it, and blushed deeply.
“Sir, I will tell you all, and you’ll see I’m not so bad. I don’t wish to go back to father and mother till I can repay them for the trouble I’ve cost ’em, and that I hope to do soon, for I’m engaged to Joe Sadlers, a successful digger; I’ve kept honest company with him, and he’ll marry me after a bit; he’s gone up the country now this very evening to see about settling near Longford, and when he comes back ’twill be so pleasant, and I shall go straight to father.”
I knew enough of diggers to make me tremble for her; but to shake her faith in her betrothed was impossible. Joe Sadlers was not a digger of the common order: others might betray her, he never. We walked and talked till we reached the main road; there Bessie discovered that she had left her handkerchief at the tree. I told her it was not worth returning for, but she confessed that she had also left her lover’s last letter there — and lluit she could not think of losing.
I could neither dissuade her from returning nor accompany her back, as urgent business bade me go forward; but she seemed to have no fear of being left, and cheerily wished me good night.
Two days afterwards, I was passing the court of justice, with a little spare time at command, and being somewhat of a hanger-on at these places, I entered to hear what might be on. I had no sooner set foot in the court, than a female voice screeched out:
“There he is! there he is! He’ll tell where I was at eight o’clock on Tuesday evening;” then stretching her arms towards me, she cried, “Save me! save me, sir!”
When the commotion consequent on this outcry had ceased, it was explained to me that Bessie was apprehended on suspicion of having stolen the cash-box of the Black Bear till, which was safe at eight o’clock, and missing ten minutes after. The suspicion was the greater from the fact of the empty box having been secreted in the trunk of a tree from the direction of which she had been traced.
Being duly sworn, I gave evidence, and the result was an alibi too clearly proved for disputation. I led her from the court; and when we got free of the crowd I asked where she meant to go. She turned a bright, tearful look on me, as much as to say, can you ask; so I shook her hand, and departed; for there are scenes where a stranger should not intermeddle, and such an one I knew would take place in the hut. But in an hour my curiosity overcame my judgment, and I found myself tapping for admittance at Munro’s. He opened the door, stared at me, and then turned his head, while I entered; but we neither of us spoke. Bessie knelt by her mother, bathing her withered hand in contrite
tears, and Munro commenced a desperate rattling of knives and forks, whilst his wife looked up with a face of grateful gladness. I could form no words befitting so tender a scene, so took up the Bible and read the parable of the prodigal son.
They bore it with firmness until I reached the 23rd verse: “Bring hither the fatted calf, and
kill it; and let us eat, and be merry; for this my son was dead and is alive,” &c.; when the
father burst out:
“Us hadn’t got no fatted calf; but mother’s boiled her best bit of pork, and with HER here to eat it, it’s a feast fit for angels.”
Bessie needed not another warning that her father’s roof was her safest shelter, nor did she again leave it until a fine young husband took her home to a snug little farm in the interior.
But this husband was not Joe Sadlers; of him my suspicion proved correct; he was a villain, and at the time of Bessie’s marriage he was fulfilling a sentence on the roads for the robbery at the Black Bear.