|Chapter Title||13. ILL NEWS. 14. THE DEAD ALIVE.|
|Newspaper Title||Leader (Melbourne, Vic. : 1862 - 1918)|
|Trove Title||Nancy. A Story of the Fifties|
|article text|| |
NANCY. A STORY OF THE FIFTIES.
BY GEORGE GORDON MaCRAE,
CHAPTER XIII. ILL NEWS.
Nancy threw the front door wide open and ran gaily forth into the garden, just as the rosy dawn was announced in the singularly tremulous " timbre " of "the settler's clock." All Australian nature wakens at the sound —
the trees begin all ready to cast long, dark shadows on the blankety flat outside. The swarming cockatoos, with sulphur crests erect, and much screaming and fluttering, settle down like one vast sheet of snow on the neighbouring paddook. Their scouts the while posted in the surrounding tree tops, and interjecting hoarse cries of warning at uncertain intervals. The rosella flutes, and a gentle whistle salutes the ear, as after a prolonged and gracefully diving flight he alights at last on the garden fence, where he displays the golden glory of his bosom, his coral scarlet cowl, and his beaming cerulean shoulders. The sober plumaged mynahs and leatherheads chatter and "chirr" along with the grey coated wattle birds in the very topmost branches of the tailer gum trees about the cottage, while the warbling, woodland melody of the magpie, ( cheerful in the midst of melancholy ) affords the very sweetest matin song of all. It is John Arnold who picks up the paper this morning. He runs his eye slowly up and down the advertising columns, notes that the blacksmlth's cow, which he recognises from the brands and description, has got into the pound ; he turns over, and skims the leader, apropos of nothing at all, and leaving this uninviting pasture, rambles into the gossiping columns of purely local interest, which were surely the
forerunners of the "Town Talk" of our own day. Here his attention is arrested all at once by a certain heading. John Arnold cannot be said to read, he takes in the sense of the paragraph with fixed and staring, stony eyes ; his lips do not move mechanically, as they sometimes will when a man is reading to himself. He absorbs the sense of the text through his eyes right into his soul, and his souI is now only too fully seized of the story ; he slowly folds and refolds the paper into the smallest possible compass. This done, he places it most carefully in the inner breast pocket of his coat, feeling faint, he reels in his agitation at the gate and supports himself against the post for the present. " Have you seen tho paper this morning, father ? " cries Nancy. " I could not find it when I looked on the grass under the tree, and the coach must have passed half-an-hour ago, quite." John Arnold, with all the composure he oan command, remarks that " it is but seldom the coach driver misses throwing the paper over the gate, though that has happened oooaslonally." Nancy, who really does not care two straws about the Advertiser, with its puffery and poundages and potty gossip, bounds nimbly up the main walk to see to her bees and flowers, and without the very slightest suspicion as to her father's state of mind or the cause of that state. She sings as she flies along in all the early morning joy of an innocent young heart ; but every note of that voice, which at any other time had reflected all its happiness In her father's countenance, now only served to stab him in the heart. He left the gate, and walked like a man in a dream towards the old workshop ; when he encountered Nancy with a glorious collection of freshly cut flowers gathered up in her apron. " Whatever are you thinking of, dad ? You surely don't forgot, do you, that tomorrow is Christmas day, and Max is coming for me (for us, that is to say), and we are all going to chapel in the morning, and then home for the Christmas dinner, of course ? Only our own three selves, you know, and then, by and bye, in the afternoon, to your own favourite haunt, by the source in the Sassafras Gully. Max had such a nice kind letter from his uncle, and he says it has made him so happy, and he is going to bring the letter for us all to read together on Christmas day." John replied with a nod and a forced smile, and marched along straight into the workshop. " Yes ; it must be kept from her," he muttered to himself ; then, withdrawing the paper from his pocket, unfolding It and reading the passage carefully over again, he tore it into fragments, flung them into the fireplace, struck a match and applied it. In a few seconds the paper was a tiny heap of black and grey ashes. " Now, that's well so far. But why need I have destroyed it at all ? The fact cannot long remain hidden from her, as so many here take the paper that never took it before, and they all talk. How am I to break it to her ? and how, of all times, at the present, when her innocent young heart is so full of sunshine and joy ? Better that I should tell her myself than that any other should attempt it. She shall not go into the street today to be stoppod by some imbecile gossip and half killed or killed outright with the suddenness of tho shock."
Thus spoke John Arnold to himself. His heart was very heavy within him as he came out, pulled tho door to after him, and locked it. The table was laid for breakfast, the room decorated with flowers ; Darkie sits, washing his face with his paws, on the hearthrug, and generally trimming himself up for Christmas. John Arnold, with heavy steps and stern countenance, advances to his little library case, opens the glass door, and takes down a book. He seats himself in the big chair, regardless of Darkie, who offers a salute by rubbing his black satiny side up against him first one way and then the another, purring loudly and contentedly as the salute proceeds. John Arnold is to all appearance immersed in his book. He does not read, but keeps on turning over the leaves as if he did. She ( tho "she" of our first chapter ), enters perfectly radiant and so fresh, so beautifully neat that no one could have believed that it was herself who had so recently decorated the apartments and prepared the breakfast ; but Nancy, whose heart was welling over with joyous anticipation, would have still been wondrously beautiful even had she presented the outer signs of toil and fatigue. " Father !" she exclaimed, getting right behind the chair, leaning over it and kissing him fondly on the forehead, " have you not one single word for me about our decorations ? They are not all they are meant to be yet, but tomorrow I promise you you won't know the place, it will be so gay ; and I have asked Mr. Thomson, who is to bring us some ferns and musk, not to gather them till late in the afternoon, so that they shall be fresh and green for Christmas." With the distinct privilege of an only child — and that a girl — she took the book right out of his hands, which offer no resistance ; but, as she lays it on a side table and looks askance upon him, she is struck by the expression of his countenance, stern and sad, wearing all the outer signs of a severe mental conflict. " Oh ! father," she cried, springing towards him at the moment, " You are not well. Why did you not tell me before ? But you don't look so sick as sad. Tell me what the matter is — do ! Has anything happened ?" At these words from Nancy a heavy sigh escaped him in spite of all his efforts to command himself. In the midst of this simple scene of rural loveliness and beauty ; the roses reposing on their beds of fresh green moss on the window seats ; the glossy sprays of laurel trained artistically across the tops of the picture frames ; the mantelpiece one profusion of the richest and most fragrant blossoms, and the morning sunshine slanting in through the half open windows, the hum of the bees in the garden, the warbling of the birds in the shrubbery, ail those made John Arnold feel more and more what was the solitude of his position with that untold secret locked up in his breast. The beauty of his surroundings, the glory of the sunshine, the carol of the birds, were all to him as so many cruel mockeries, because they were so inappropriate to his present frame of mind. " Suppose now, darling," said John Arnold slowly and tentatively, as if feeling his way in the dark. " Suppose now, that I had met with a great misfortune, as great a misfortune perhaps as a man could be called upon to meet, how would it affect you ?" " Why ask, father ? you know I would be sure to feel it exactly as if it had happened to myself." CHAPTER XIV. The DEAD ALIVE. To the supreme shock succeeded a period of tearless silence - a strange condition of seml- oblivion to which neither smiles nor laughter were utter strangers. John Arnold had told her the whole story, but told it after a fashion possible only to the fondest of fathers and the closest of all earthly friends. It seems questionable had Nancy's mother been alive at this time whether even her well considered consolations would have proved more satisfying than the tender sympathy of John Arnold. Son draws to mother, and has
continued so to do from the very remotest ages, it is equally true that between father and daughter from the beginning of time has subsisted a subtle sympathy whose depths no philosophy of any age has ever been able to plumb. Lot us leave them here, father and daughter, each nursing an unspeakable grief, but each in a different way, and turn back once more to the everyday life on Borak. Certain newspapers, and very much so "up- country " journals, are not over remarkable for accuracy in their reports of the "sensational." (We did not use this word in the 'fifties,' but but never mind) ; and the Muddy Gully Times and the Borak Advertiser were not at all an exception in this way, as may be gathered from the narrative of a recent attack on the gold escort, at a place about 30 miles north of Borak. The paragraph, a highly spiced one, related the story in such a fashion that the surviving troopors scarcely knew themselves, and utterly failed to recognise the enemy. In or "on" Borak every man of the escort was well known, and many of the troopers were favourites - none of them more so than Max. So, when it came to be repeated from mouth to mouth, after sundry readings of the paragraph in the blacksmith's shop and in the bar of the Borak, not to mention the general store, that Max had been shot through the heart at the very commencement of the melee, it would have been hard to say whether sorrow or excitement had the freer rein. It was "in print," and therefore must be true. Alas ! the pity of it. Nothing else was talked of in the long, scrambling, one sided street that day, and the news travelled, as all ill news does, at the pas de charge, to the bark roofed huts perched up among the clearings on tho flank of the mountain, and downwards and outwards to the dwellers on the plain. Even the solitary jumbuok-man seated in the shadow of his hand-barrow watch-box out among the bracken, meditated upon it betwaen the long, slow whiffs of his black pipe, as his faithful lieutenant the Scotch collie dog kept watch and ward in his stead. The courage even of Mrs. Downes, of the general store, was somewhat dashed for the moment, though she was quite ready to aver later on, " that desperate men generally meet desperate ends." John Thomson, the Oracle, was perhaps one of those most shocked, but following out his usual method he found the " dispensation " ( as he termed it ) to fit in exactly like a piece in a puzzle map among the strange occurrences and events preluding the fall of Borak and the end of all things human. John Thomson, to tho world at large but a shoemaker who seldom travelled beyond his " last," hid beneath that weather worn " upper leather " of his ( none of the thickest either, be it told ) the spirit of one of nature's gentlemen, and though by no means given to salaaming or unnecessary salutation, he lifted his hat from his brow with instinctive reverence as he passed the closed door of the Arnold's cottage that evening — the silent homage of a simple soul to those within and now prostrate under their heavy load of sorrow. It was a wild, if not a wet, night at " The Borak," for there was a "hero" among tho motley and miscellaneous company - a man who had witnessed the "scrimmage" between the escort and the bushrangers from a tolerably safe distance and actually knew all about it or thought he did. The description, delivered ellipticaily between
sundry raisings of the glass to the lips and amid cheers and cries of encouragement, was not exactly couched in military parlance, but perhaps thus all the better suited to the general capacity of the audience, to whom was detailed the surprise prepared for the escort by the bushrangers and how those foolhardy wretches had fired upon it from an ambush in the scrub at the turn the road makes round the corner of Jackson's big paddock. How they had followed up their fire with a badly calculated charge, resulting in two empty saddles ; and which threw them into the midst of a lot of well mounted, well armed and properly appointed men, &c. Stainer, Max's corporal, who had already disposed of one of the attacking party and was in the act of flourishing his sabre prior to cutting down another, was treacherously shot through the back and fell heavily forward from his oharger a dead man. " There was a little more ' fireworks after this," modestly put in the narrator, " as well as a few dropping shot, but tho bushrangers turned tail and vanished in the scrub. Some random shots were fired after them and the rear guard of the escort detached in pursuit ; but owing to heavy clouds obscuring the moon and the roughness of the country, the rear guard hied back and joined the escort on tho main road and the whole body with drawn sabres tore along at a hand gallop till the station was reached. The escort had lost one good man in Corporal Stainer, whose body they had in the waggon. Two or three of the troopers had received scratches and flesh wounds, but the gold was safe. So, Sergeant Gaythorne and his men had given a good account of themselves in their first engagement. " But," put in a voice from amidst the small company and the terribly dense - tobacco cloud that overhung all, " but Sergeant Gaythorne himself is shot." " Not a bit of it. Don't you believe it. He engineered the whole affair, kept the men in hand, sent the fellows off in pursuit and brought the gold and his brother trooper's body into the station. Sergeant Gaythome will be tearing through Borak again tomorrow, and then you can see him for yourselves." The scene that succeeded waa festive and noisy, "she oak" and ship rum flowing like water and everybody wanting to shout for the hero that neither fought nor ran away. If there were not many aching hearts under the "Borak" rooftree towards the small hours there were many aching heads, but all this will be overlooked and forgiven, when one reflects that this was the very first revelation, the earliest development of the war-oorrespondent in our midst. To Be Continued.