|Chapter Title||THE ASHBY FAMILY.|
|Newspaper Title||The Port Augusta Dispatch, Newcastle and Flinders Chronicle (SA : 1885 - 1916)|
|Trove Title||Benbonuna: A Tale of Thirty Years Ago|
A TALB OF THIRTY YEARS AGO.
CHAPTER IV. THE A6HBT FAMILY.
BT BOBBBT BBUOX.
In order to make it all plain sailing to my readers, I should inform tbem that three years previous to the opening of of this veracious story, Mr Ash by, of Benbonnna, then a widower with an only daughter of fifteen, took a trip round the colonies for the benefit of bis health and spirits, which had been affected^ by the loss of his wife, snd that while staying at a Sydney hotel be had met a Miss Isabella Hawley, who had just arrived from England to join a brother, only to learn to her great grief and distraction, that he had died suddenly in the far interior. Now there is nothing so touching as the tearful grief of a woman. What masculine heart, however callous, can witoess it unmoved, especially if the mourner be young and. -handsome ? In faot, the younger and handsomer she is, the deeper is the sympathy her tears evoke, especially when the sympathiser is a susceptible man of fifty. Poor Mr Ashby, he seemed to feel that he could have taken her to his fatherly bosom as a daughter, and comforted her in parental fashion ; and having'lately suffered so sad a bereavement himself, it was very natural that he should respectfully condole with the fair mourner and proffer her bis good offices; and it was also natural that she, in her lonelineBB and sorrow should thankfully accept the sympathy and support so generously offered, especially as she felt that in return she could render Buch real service to her disinterested friend, who must need tender care and nursing in his delicate state of health. The result was that Miss Hawley made Mr Ashby's life a pleasant one—BO pleasant, indeed, that be began to look forward with dismay to the time he should lose this " ministering angel," and be delivered over to the tender mercies of strangers again; and finally be same to the conclusion that she was indispensable to his comfort—his existence, he called it And she ? Well, •he modestly admitted that his generosity bad tonched her heart, and that she loved him.—They were married. How proud Mr Ashby was of his handtome young wife, and how devoted she wis to him; for, to do her justice, she certainly did try to make him as comfortable as possible—and of course herself at the same time—being evidently nnder the impreBBion that her husband's pocket was equal to any strain she might put upon it —for was be not a lordly squatter, to whom everyone bowed down and worshipped? But there are squatters and squatters; and Mr Ashby, though fairly well to do, was not by any means a plutocrat, and notwithstanding hia infatuation, he had still a grain ot sense left and knew the length of his tether, and BO it fell out that in sbout six weeks from her marriage day Mrs Ashby, after making the acquaintance of her step-daughter Mary by a call at the " Young Ladies 1 Seminary" in Adelaide where the latter was getting the finish put on her education, found herself at Benbonuna. To tell the truth Mrs Ashby was some what surprised and disgusted when her husband apologetically introduced her to the lordly squatter's mansion with which the first Mrs Ashby had been contented, and which was in fact the three-roomed pine hut in * which Hawley was now domiciled. But the young wives of middle-aged men usually have their own way, if they manage properly, and by dint of a judicious admixture of coaxing and grumbling Mrs Ashby soon found herself the mistress of a brand new stone house, with French windows and s stylish verandpfa, and comfortably furnished withal—then the only house of the kind in the far North.
The first Mrs Aehby had been content to dwell quietly on the station, which in faot Bhe might be said to have managed, as she had been an energetic, thrifty woman, whilst her husband was an easygoing fellow, who, but for his wife, so his friends averred, would never have had a shilling to call his own. The second Mrs Ashby was fond of excitement and company, and would undoubtedly have compelled her husband to reside in town, but that she was not long in making herself acquainted with all his affairs, and was far too sagacious a women to kill the goose which laid the golden eggs, and which was likely to lay still larger ones if not interfered with. But Mrs Ashby was not popular with her own sex, and after awhile, as the few ladieB who dwelt within a hundred miles of the station did not visit her, and were only coldly civil to her for Mr Ashby's sake when he took her for a drive round the neighborhood, she contented herself with the attentions of the young bachelor sheepfarmers and stockowners, who for a short time were her fervent admirers; but by and by they found her too expensive an intimate, insomuch, as without actually asking for any present, she Bomehow con trived to make them feel mean if they did not bring her some article of jewellery on every return from a trip to Adelaide. To do the yonng fellows justice, they would not have cared how much jewellery they gave her (Be it understood that Bhe was propriety itself) ; but they did not care to be levied on, and hesideB, what with the presents tbey made to other ladies in Adelaide, what with the race horses they backed, the hazard they played, the billiard matches, devil's pool, poker, and champagne, they generally returned poor as CincinnatnB to hiB plougb ; and with such depleted pockets MreABhby's expected toll became an embarrassment during their last day or two in town, and to evade it they not unfrequently returned to their homes by routes which did not entail a call at Benbonuna. Mr Ashby, poor man, at first felt the blood tingling in his ears at this present accepting; but, under his wife's domination he soon ceased to notice anything she did, or at least so it appeared, and besides, he was rapidly becoming a confirmed invalid, and after a time was seldom seen on horseback. A station will not manage itself, and the affairs of Benbonuna suffered from neglect, for though old MacGregor, the masculine moiety of the " married couple" that "did for" Government house, was a very correct counter of sheep, and was also better practically acquainted with pastoral matters than his master, still he WSB a man of no education and bad no authority among the station handB, with whom he had so long fraternised, and who, while perfectly friendly with him, would argue as to how everything was to be dote instead of obeying orders, and when his back was turned would say among them selves, " Who the blank is he ? He's no better nor ourselves." Such was the state of affairs, when about two years and a half after her marriage, the brother whom the bride bad so bitterly mourned as dead turned np unexpectedly—as people not unfrequently do in Australia after they bsve long been posted as missing. Mrs Asbby should of course have been overjoyed at such a bappy appearance ; but if the virtuous and not at all romantic Mrs McGregor is to be believed, this was not quite the case ; for she certainly told old Mac, and be told everybody else on tbe station, that when the brother and Bister met it appeared as if they were having a violent quarrel, or, as Mao elegantly forased it," It lenked as if there wur the W (0 P*^ w' 0 4 P itob
No doubt Mrs McGregor would have gone into more voluminous details, but unfortunately for the curious, she was not aware of the advent of Mrs Ashby's brother till, happening to go into tbe sitting room to see (he " Meestress" abcut some household matter, she found the apartment empty—Mr Ashby being as usual at that time of the day, 3 p.m., in his room, either asleep or reading. Looking through the window Mrs Mac saw, fastened to the horserail, two travelstained horses, and beyond tbem, out of distinct ear-shot, her mistress and a strange dark man engaged in what seemed a very serious controversy—her mistress voluble, persuasive, and in tears—tbe man sullen and repellant. Mrs Ashby must have quickly noticed that they were observed, for Bhe apparently induced her companion to enter tbe creek bed, down tbe bank of which tbe pair disappeared. What was Mrs Mac to do—go boldly out to her mistress about the household matter aforesaid ?
No 1 bold and destitute of. nice feelings of delicacy as she waB, the old Scotchwoman knew Mrs Ashby too well to attempt such a course. She had tried conclusions wtih her mistress on her first arrival, and had been utterly and ignominiously worsted. Should she tell Mr ABhby what was going on outside ? The answer to the first question exactly fitted tbe second. How then should she satisfy the curiosity that was consuming her vitals? Happy thought, the fowls must be in want of water, and the fowl house was situated over the crest of tbe bank and commanded a full view of the bed of the creek ! Not a minute had elapsed before Mrs Mac issued, sun bonnet on head and water bucket in hand, from the back of the house, and walked steadily to the rude log shed which did duty as a fowl bouse. She looked neither to the right hand nor to the left, and on entering tbe netted enclosure went through the motion of filling the already well-filled watertrough, and than entered the hen houBe as if in search of eggs. Once inside the door Bhe threw off ber careless, unobservant de meanor, and in an instant ber keen grey eye was glued to a chink in the wall, through which ebe saw well, tbe bonlder-strewn bed of the creek, the great grey Btems of the gum trees, and garrulous crow, which, flying to the top of a patriarchal tree,was evidently ouriously observant of something at its foot, but which something was quite hidden from Mrs Mac. by the huge pile of drift timber lodged against its trunk by the last great flood. Only fancy the dire disapointment of the worthy Scotchwoman, who, though she had never heard of the transmigration of souls, would willingly at that instant have become a crow, if by such means she might have seen what her " braw meestress waur dooin' ahint yon tree wi' yon dour callant." How hot and excited she became, for though her senses of Bight and hearing were rendered useless, her burning curiosity was fanned by strong currents of imagination into a fierce flame, which almost Bcorched the prudence out of her, and drove her to go forth on some pretended errand along tbe creek bed. She would doubtless have done this bad not ber curiosity so paralysed her invention that she could not devise even the most palpably shallow excuse for such a proceeding ; and so she waited like a terrier at a rat hole, with eager, expectant eyes. What could they be doing behind those logs, and when would tbey return to the bouse ? were tbe qnestions which possessed her mind, to the exclusion of everything else, including the not unimportant question of how was her bread getting on in tbe camp oven ; and so deeply was she absorbed in hf-r exciting watch that she jumped as if she had received a galvanic shock when a voice exclaimed from tbe ben house door, " White Iubra, Missee Ashbee want 'em you long a house." " Meestres Ashby ? How ye startlet
me, Jenny! I didna hear ye comin'," exclaimed Mrs Mac to a buxom young Iubra, decently clad in an old calico dress —and nothing else—who laughed with all her eyes and extensive mouth at tbe Scotchwoman's astonishment as she answered, "Yessee, Missee Ashbee." " Why she sit down long a creek ? inquired Mrs MAC, using the aboriginal " pigeon" English, as most bush people do in their intercourse with the natives. Jennie's eyes wandered curiously from Mrs Mac to the chink in the wall, and then back to Mrs Mac, as she answered decisively," No ; she come long a kitchen and she yabba, ' Jenny, where 'em ceok ?' So me yabba,' You bin walk long powles ;' and she yabba, ' You tell 'em come long house.' Me think Bhe plenty smell 'em bread." " My breid ! an' I'd forgotten it a' the gither—but why did ye no see till it Jenny ?" exclaimed Mrs Mac reproachfully —for she was a thrifty housewife—as she hurried towards tbe kitchen, wondering as she went, notwithstanding her anxiety about the bread, as to bow " they could have got back to tbe house without her seeing them." The solution of the problem was, however, simple enough ; had her thoughts not been so exclusively fixed on that gum tree, behind which she was sure the objects of her espionage had been concealed—or else, why was that crow so inquisitive ? But crows, though undoubtedly of a most curious disposition, have a far keener appetite for the wretchedest of carrion than for tbe choicest of scandals, and tbe bird in question was simply watching a "crawler" (a sheep too sickly to follow tbe flock) which had wandered into the creek and was lying on the lee side of the drift wood, while its black friend up in the branches speculated aB to what time might elapse before its eyes should be transferred from their sockets to bis own crop, thus showing that there is nothing like personal interest in a fellow creature to secure attention to it. Mrs Ashby and tbe stranger had not approached that drift wood, but had turned up a break in the bank, and having concluded their conference, bad returned to the house from the head of the watercourse, unobserved by tbe watcher in tbe hen house, screened as they were from sight by tbe crest of the bank. On reaching tbe kitchen Mrs Mac hastily overturned the camp-oven full of blackened bread on to the flag stone floor, and then, rigid as a pike staff and with the air of a grand inquisitor, marched, corner of apron in hand, into the sitting room, where she beheld tbe stranger " settin' i' the maiBter'e airm cheer, wie a bottle o' speerits afore bim, and leukin as black's the deil." Mrs Asbby, on the contrary, wore a most affable expression, her face was radiant as the summer's sky from which a thunder cloud has just passed ; she graciously explained to tbe housekeeper on her entry, " Oh, Mrs MacGregor, here is my dear brother, whom I have so long thought dead, come all the way from Sydney to see me. t wish you would make haete and get him something to eat; he must be famished !" Mrs Mac curtsied stiffly to the dear brother—who, however, took not the slightest notice of her—and found it hard to reconcile the scene on the flat, and the stranger's surly behaviour, with the joy that ought to be paramonnt on so felicitous an occasion. She eimply said, " Verra guid," and turned to do as she was bidden. " Stay, Mrs MacGregor," Baid her mistress, " You had better have a glass of spirits, it will do you good this cold day." (It waB in August, and there was a fire burning on the hearth.) " Thankee, Meestress Asbby, I will take » wee tbnoale fu," assented Mrs Map,
slightly unbending, and taking off a stiff glass of whisky tbat her mistrebs poured oat for ber, without a wiak, auil with exceedingly little water, after nodding deferentially to her two superiors, and saying, " Yer veera guid baiitii I" Ttie lady acknowledged tbe salute with " Thank you, Mrs MacGregor." Tbe gentleman merely saying, " Can't Bhe tell someone to put my horses out 1" 4 0 yes Stephen, of course," eagerly exclaimed Mrs Ashby; adding " Just tell Jenny to take them, Mrs MacGregor "Well," thought Mrs Mac as she departed, " He's mair like a bushranger nor onytbing else, glourin' there like a toyke wa' a sair waim. He canna be richt fa bis head. I hope he's no gauu to bide here. Jenny," she added to tbe black, who with her head thrust through the back door, was listening with all ber ears " tak they horses an' pit 'em alang o' feed," supplementing the order with the information, " That one MestreeB Ashby's
brither." " A h ! what for him come up ?" " Ye'd better speir yourself, Jenny, for 1 dinna ken ; an' noo ye'd better walk along o' they horses." Jenny reluctantly departed to do as she waB told, going first to take a deliberate view of the new-comer through the sitting room window, from which she was quickly Bent about ber business by Hawley himself, who came out to remove tbe saddles from the horses aud to give tbe Iubra directions as to " bow many rings"—or what length of bobbles—she Bhould give them after leading to tbe place where they would be left to seek their own grass. After giving these orders he somewhat graciously asked the young lubra's name, the being a comely damsel, albeit not of the fairest. "Me Jenny, me poor pellow Iubra. You got 'em bacca ?" promptly asked the dusky belle in a perfect beggar's whine supplemented by a most persuasive smile. Jeuny was evidently not the first Iubra Hawley had met, for he pinched off hulf a plug of negrohead and gave it to her. She took it with an eager movement that was almost a snatch, asking as tlio tobacco toucbed her hand, '* You goc 'em pipe ?" " Not to give you, so just you walk I" was Huwley's decisive answer, aa he turned back to tbe house, while Jenny, who was evidently accustomed to ttie business, led off the horses, producing a pipe and matches from her pocket as she went, it being an established rule witn tbe blacks to ask for any thing they think may be given them, no matter now much, or how uiauy of the sauie article th&y may possesB. 'l'he inevitable chops having been cooked, Hawley did ample justice to them and Mrs MacGregor noticed that though he became less sour in demeanor, be kept his eye on her aB she moved about, with a cold searching look that she greatly misliked without being a bio to say why ; she noticed, too, that Mrs Ashby, insteau of sitting in her usual place, had tasen a chair beside ber brother, and that they seemed to drop a more serious conversation for casual remarks pn indifferent subjects while she remained in the apart - meut. When Mr Ashby at length appeared from his room, his wife gushingly introduced her brother, who, she said, had been out on a private exploring expedition iu search of new country ; his horses had died, he had been unaole to make his way back to tbe settled districts owing to ail the surface waters having dried up ; and in consequence he had been obliged to remain with a tribe of natives, who adopted him and would not allow him to leave them, till after two years aboriginal life, he had succeeded in making his escape and finding his way to Sydney, where lie learned that his sister, after mourning for him as dead, had married a South Australian squatter. (To be continued).