First in the Field, by George Manville Fenn.
Here we have another Manville Fenn book, full of realistic characters who get into positions of great suspense—the usual formula for this excellent author.
The time of the story is the early part of the nineteenth century, and the place is, for most of the book, a sheep and cattle station in New South Wales. The owner is a former Doctor who had practised in London, and who had driven himself to illness with his work: the only possibility for him was a new outdoor life. There are various people working on the farm, including three "tame" aborigines; old Samson, full of wisdom; Brookes, a younger farm-servant; and Mayne, known as Leather, who is a convict whose good behaviour so far has meant that he can be trusted to work on a farm. There are also Mrs Braydon, and Nic's two sisters, Nic being the protagonist of the story.
Nic, who had been left behind aged ten in an English suburban boarding school, is collected from there when he was fifteen, and brought out to Australia on the Northumbrian, an East Indiaman. After an "uneventful" voyage, they arrive in Sydney. The main part of the book concerns the doings of Nic and the farm workers on The Bluff, along with some upsetting interventions from the man farming a nearby sheep and cattle station, The Wattles.
As always, a dramatic story, well worth reading or listening to. NH
FIRST IN THE FIELD—A STORY OF NEW SOUTH WALES, BY GEORGE MANVILLE FENN.
"I say, don't, Green: let the poor things alone!"
"You mind your own business. Oh! bother the old thorns!"
Brian Green snatched his hand out of the quickset hedge into which he had thrust it, to reach the rough outside of a nest built by a bird, evidently in the belief that the hawthorn leaves would hide it from sight, and while they were growing the thorns would protect it from mischievous hands.
But the leaves opened out slowly that cold spring, and a party of boys from Dr Dunham's school, the Friary, Broadhurst, Kent, was not long in spying out the unlucky parents' attempt at house-building and nursery. Still, the thorns did their duty to some extent when Brian Green of the red head leaped across the big dry ditch, rudely crushing a great clump of primroses and forcing them down the slope, for when the freckled-faced lad thrust his hand in to grasp the nest a sharp prick made him withdraw it, while this action brought it in contact with a natural chevaux de frise, scarified the back, and made a long scratch on his thumb.
"I wish you'd keep your tongue inside your teeth, Nic Braydon!" cried the boy fiercely. "You won't be happy till I've given you another licking. Look here what you've made me do!"
"I didn't make you do it," said the first speaker. "Why don't you let the birds alone?"
"Because, if you please, Miss Braydon," said the bigger lad mincingly, "I'm not so good as you are. Oh dear, no! I'm going to take that nest of young blackbirds because I want them to bring up and keep in a cage. I'm going to transport them to the shed in the playground."
The first boy winced sharply at his companion's words, and the four lads present burst into a derisive laugh at his annoyance; but he smothered it down, and said quietly:—"Then you may as well leave them alone, for they're not blackbirds."
"Yes, they are, stoopid."
"No, they're not."
"How do you know?"
"Because I found the nest when it was first built, and saw the eggs and the old bird sitting."
"Oh, that's it, is it? Oh, I say, isn't he a nice, good little boy? He doesn't want me to take the young birds because he wants to steal them himself."
The others laughed in their thoughtlessness as their schoolfellow winced again, and Brian Green still hung on to the bank, sucking the scratches on his bleeding hand and grinning with satisfaction at the annoyance his innuendoes caused.
"I say, boys," he cried, "they don't transport people for life for stealing young blackbirds, do they?"
There was a fresh roar of laughter, and the boys watched Dominic Braydon, who stood frowning, to see if he would make some sharp retort, verbal or physical, and perhaps get thrashed again. But he concealed his annoyance, and said quietly:
"That's a thrush's nest."
"You don't know anything about it, Convict," said Green.
The boy winced again; but he went on:
"Well, I know that. Blackbirds make rougher nests, and they're not plastered inside so neatly with clay as that is. Then the eggs are different: blackbirds' are all smudgy, dingy green; those were beautiful blue eggs, with a few clear spots on one end. Yes, look," he cried; "there's half one of them."
As he spoke he leaped down into the ditch, and picked up a fragile, dried-up portion of an egg and showed it to his companions.
"Yah! Old Botany Bay don't know what he's talking about," said Green, dragging a hedge-stake from the top of the bank, and wrenching the upper part of the dense hawthorn growth into a gap, through which he pulled the nest with its contents, four half-fledged birds, looking, with the loose down at the back of their heads, their great goggle eyes and wide gapes, combined with the spiky, undeveloped feathers and general nakedness, about as ugly, goblin-like creatures as a painter could have desired.
"There!" cried Green, dropping the hedge-stake and leaping back over the ditch; "aren't those blackbirds? Oh, murder!"
There was a great roar of laughter, for the clumsy leap resulted in two of the callow birds being jerked out heavily into the bottom of the ditch, and upon their recovery one was found to be dead.
"Never mind," said Green; "three are better to bring up. Now then, in you go, ugly."
He placed the bird in the nest with its companions, down by which it snuggled itself at once, so that the three completely filled the bottom.
"Fits splendidly, boys. I shall make old Botany Bay get worms for me and chop them up to feed them."
"You ought to be ashamed of yourself;" said the first boy, frowning. "You know you let those young starlings die."
"You ought to be ashamed of yourself;" retorted Green, "getting yourself put in a school among young gentlemen. I don't know what the doctor was thinking about to take a convict's son."
"My father is not a convict," cried Dominic angrily.
"Oh, isn't he, just. Transported for life. We know, don't we, boys?"
"Yes—yes," was chorused.
"Of course he was," cried Green. "You can't keep these things quiet. Pretends his father is a settler. Yes; the judge settled him for life."
The boy looked round for applause, and received it sufficiently to make him go on with his banter.
"Just as if we weren't sure to find out the truth. Calls him a squatter. Yes; the government made him squat pretty quickly."
There was another laugh as the boys wandered on along the edge of the great common, where the quickset hedge divided it from the cultivated land, high above which a lark was circling and singing with all its might.
"I want to know why the doctor lets him stop amongst gentlemen's sons."
"I know, Bry Green," said a mischievous-looking, dark-eyed boy; "it's because his father pays."
"He wouldn't be here long if his father didn't," said Green laughingly.
"Unless he supplied the doctor with sugar and soap and candles and soda and blue."
There was a roar of laughter once more, in which Dominic Braydon joined, and Green turned so suddenly on the last speaker that the young thrushes were nearly jerked out of the nest.
"Do you want me to give you a wipe on the mouth, Tomlins?" cried the boy angrily.
"Oh no, sir; please don't, sir," was the reply, with a display of mock horror and dread; "only you said gentlemen's sons, sir,—and I thought what a pity it was Nic Braydon's father wasn't a grocer."
"My father's a wholesale dealer in the City," said Green loftily; "and it's only as a favour that he lets old Dunham have things from his warehouse at trade price."
"Ho, ho, ho! here's a game!" cried the dark boy, throwing himself down on the velvety turf and kicking out his legs in his delight.
"My father isn't a poor parson," continued Green contemptuously; "and if any of you fellows like to call on me during the holidays, any one will show you Alderman Green's big house on Clapham Common. We keep a butler, footman, coachman, and three gardeners."
"And the gardeners make all the beds," said Tomlins, at which there was another laugh.
"You're a little idiot, Tomlins," said Green loftily.
"Yes, sir; but I can't help it," said the boy meekly. "You see my father never brought home turtle soup from the Lord Mayor's dinner so as to make me big and fat."
"You won't be happy till I've rubbed your ugly snub nose against the next tree," cried Green. "Get up, you gipsy-looking cub!"
He stepped quickly as he spoke to where the boy still lay upon the green and kicked him viciously.
"Oh!" yelled the boy, who began to writhe now in earnest as he fought hard to control himself, but in vain, for he rose to his knees at last with the tears coming fast, and then limped slowly along, sobbing bitterly.
"Serve you right," cried Green. "Teach you not to be so jolly saucy. Now then, none of your sham. I didn't hurt you much. Go on."
"I—I can't yet," sobbed the boy.
"Oh yes, you can. None of that. Here, carry these."
He thrust the nest of young thrushes into the boy's hand, and forced him to proceed, limping heavily.
"Look at the little humbug," cried Green, as they all went on, with Dominic Braydon hanging down his head and gazing hard at the ground to keep from darting indignant glances at the tyrant who had bullied and insulted him till it had been almost beyond bearing. He felt a choking sensation in the throat, and an intense longing to do something; but his ways were peaceful, and Green, was heavy, big, and strong. In addition, he was cock of the school, to whom every one had yielded for a long time past; and Dominic Braydon had still fresh in his memory that day when he had resisted a piece of tyranny and fought at the far end of the school garden, where an unlucky blow on the bridge of the nose had half blinded him and made him an easy victim to the enemy, who administered a severe drubbing and procured for his adversary a birching for fighting—it was before caning days—and a long series of impositions for obstinacy, a trait the doctor said that he absolutely abhorred—Dominic's obstinacy consisting in a stubborn refusal to confess who had beaten him. This his schoolfellows called honourable; but Green had other opinions, and set it down to the fear of getting another thrashing for telling tales.
But Green was not quite correct.
And so on this bright spring half-holiday the boys went on along the side of the common toward the dense furze clump, Green hectoring, throwing stones at everything he saw, from the donkeys and geese to the yellow-hammers which flitted along the hedge, stopping now and then to twitter out their quaint little song about "a little bit o' bread and no cheese," and looking as much like canaries as they could as they perched upon some twig.
"I'll give you a bit o' cheese and no bread," cried Green, as he hurled stone after stone, but fortunately with the worst of aim. "Now then, you Tomlins, stop that miserable snivelling, and walk upright; you're not hurt."
The boy hastily wiped his eyes, as he mentally wished that he was big and strong.
"And don't you drop those birds, or I'll give you another," shouted Green, as he sent another pebble flying.
The boy stifled a sob, and followed limping.
"Lean on me, Bob," said Dominic.
"Thank you," sobbed the boy; and then in a whisper, "My hip hurts as if it was put out."
"Not so bad as that," said Dominic in a low tone; and he helped the boy along till Green looked back, saw what was taking place, and shouted:
"Now then, none of that, Convict. He's only shamming. Let him alone."
"Don't let him touch me, Nic," whispered the boy piteously; "I can hardly walk."
Dominic said nothing, but his brow was full of lines; and he looked down at the ground and supported his companion by tightly holding his arm.
"Do you hear?" roared Green, stopping now. "I told you to leave that little sham alone."
"I'm not shamming, Nic," sobbed the boy in a whisper; "it hurts dreadfully every time I move my leg."
"Oh, you won't, won't you?" cried Green menacingly. "I shall have to give you a lesson too, Master Braydon, and transport you into a better state of mind. Stand aside, will you?"
As he came up he struck Nic a back-handed blow across the chest, forcing him backward and making Tomlins utter a cry of pain.
"Now then, none of that," continued Green. "Go on, and take care of those birds,—go on!"
The boy in his dread and pain, wincing in the expectation of a fresh kick, staggered on for a few paces, and then with a cry of misery fell forward flat upon his chest.
"Mind those birds!" yelled Green, starting forward, and bending down he flung the wretched boy over on to his back so as to extricate the bird's nest.
But he was too late; the unfortunate callow songsters had been saved from a lingering death by starvation and imprisonment, the sides of the clay-lined nest being crushed in, and the breath out of the tender little bodies.
They were quite dead, and in a fit of vindictive rage Green flew at the innocent author of the mischief.
"You miserable little beast!" he roared; and his foot was raised to deliver a savage kick. "Get up!"
But instead of Tomlins getting up, Green went down. For, quick as thought, Dominic rushed at him.
"Let him alone!" he cried hoarsely; and the fierce thrust he gave sent the young tyrant into a sitting position upon a cushion-like tuft rising from the closely cropped grass.
But that tuft was only cushion-like in appearance. There were geese feathers about, but they did not form its contents, for it was stuffed with keen, stiff thorns such as can grow to perfection upon a Kentish common; and if Brian Green had been an indiarubber ball he could not have rebounded more suddenly than he did.
Raising the now empty nest he threw it with all his might at Dominic, and both his fists after it.
The nest missed; the fists took effect, alighting as they did upon Dominic's breast and shoulder, and completely driving all thought of consequences out of the boy, who retaliated with such good effect that, as the lookers-on cheered and shouted encouragement, the fight raged fiercely. Even Tomlins forgot his sufferings, and watched every fluctuation of the struggle with an intense longing to see the school tyrant effectually mastered and dragged down from the pedestal whence he had so long dominated and ill-used all around.
The others shared his feelings, and a couple immediately constituted themselves seconds during the few minutes the fight went on fast and furious, Dominic always being ready to dash into the affray after being dragged up at the close of the wrestling bout which ended each round, while Green grew more and more deliberate, as buzzing sounds came into his head, ringings into his ears, and it began to dawn upon him that Nic Braydon had the hardest face he ever touched, and that it was of no use to keep on hitting it, for it always returned to be hit again.
At last, to the intense delight of the boys, it became evident that the result of the encounter must be a sound thrashing for Brian Green, and Nic's second kept on whispering to him to do this and do that to bring it to an end.
Then came a most exciting finish, in which Nic was following up blow with blow, and Green, backing slowly away, guarding himself ineffectually, and growing confused and helpless, was wondering whether Nic had had enough, when the fight came to a sudden termination, and fists dropped down to sides, for the sonorous voice of the doctor arose from close at hand with:
"Young gentlemen, what is the meaning of this disgraceful scene?"
AFTER THE FIGHT.
Three boys began to explain at once; but the doctor, who was walking with his wife and two daughters, and had been attracted by the struggle going on, held up his hand.
"That will do! that will do!" he said in his most dignified manner and with his deepest-toned voice. "I have seen enough. Disgraceful! disgraceful! It would have been bad enough in the village lads and the farm labourers' boys; but in the young gentlemen of the Friary it is outrageous. Silence!" he nearly shouted, as Nic began to speak. "I tell you I saw enough. You, sir, were attacking Green with a violence that was nothing less than brutal and savage. I am shocked, quite shocked. Such conduct cannot be borne. Ladies present too, exposed to seeing your ruffianly violence."
"But, sir—" began Nic.
"How dare you speak, sir, after I have ordered you to be silent! Your half-holiday is cancelled. Back all of you to the Friary; I will see you on my return. Now, my dears, we will resume our walk."
The doctor turned upon his heels, and went off with his ladies talking in a loud voice about botany, the words Ranunculaceae and Caryophyllaceae being plainly heard as he stopped and picked a yellow blossom and a tuft of weed, the young ladies glancing back twice at the boys who had been guilty of so disgraceful a breach of scholastic etiquette as to have their fight take place upon an open common and let it be seen.
Nic stood arranging his jacket and torn-off collar, looking down rather dismally at Green, and wishing that he had not hit him quite so hard; for his adversary was seated upon the grass where there was no furze, embracing his knees and resting his brow upon them, softly swaying his head from side to side.
Tomlins was the first to speak, for the others were looking after the doctor, and were—especially the two seconds—wondering what the doctor would say when he came back, and how severe their punishment would be.
The fight had done the little dark-eyed fellow good. It was like so much liniment rubbed into his bruise to see the brutal tyrant of the school well thrashed; and feeling that with such a protector as Nic he had no more to fear from Green, he was not above giving expression to his thoughts.
"Never you mind, Nic Braydon," he said. "I shall speak out when the doctor has us up. It wasn't your fault, but bully Gooseberry Green's. He began it, knocking me about, kicking me—a brute. I shall tell the doctor everything just as it happened."
At this Green raised his face to dart a vindictive, threatening look at the little fellow, but he had not paused to think about the state of his face, which was comic in the extreme, and instead of alarming Tomlins made him forget his lameness more and more, and sent him into a fit of laughter.
"Here, boys, look at Gooseberry's phiz. He seems as if he'd been washing it and left it too long to soak! My! what a swelled head!"
The others joined in the roar of laughter, and Green's face was hidden again directly.
But Nic had not laughed. He was hurt bodily and mentally. There was a feeling of regret, too, uppermost, which made him resent this unseemly mirth as cowardly to a fellow enemy.
"You be quiet, Tomlins!" he cried.
"What for?" retorted the boy. "You haven't been kicked as I have. I shall laugh at Gooseberry if I like. He began it all, and he has got his dose, and serve him right. Here, let's get back. Old Dictionary turned his head just now. I say, Greeny, like to have another kick. I'm such a little one, I shan't hit you again."
"Wait a bit," muttered Green.
"Oh, certainly; I'm in no hurry. Only you may as well do it when Nic Braydon's here, because he can give you my compliments afterwards, and leave my card in each of your eyes. Poor old chap! I'm so glad you've been licked."
"Will you be quiet, young un!" cried Nic angrily. "It's mean and cowardly."
"Well, that's the stuff he deals in," said Tomlins. "He likes that better than anything else."
"That's no reason why you should," cried Nic. "Let him be, I tell you."
"Oh, all right, I've done; but I suppose I may say I'm very sorry for him."
"No, you mayn't," cried Nic. "Here, come on back, Greeny; we've had it out, but we needn't be bad friends. I'm sorry we fought; you'll shake hands, won't you?"
Green made no movement, and Nic drew closer and held out his hand again.
"Come on," he said; "I'm sorry now; shake hands."
But Green did not move. He sat there crouched together, till Tomlins went behind him.
"He's asleep," cried the little fellow. "I'll give him a job like he gave me, and wake him up."
Green spun round upon the bottom of his spine and faced his little tormentor, who started back with a cry of mock alarm.
"Here, hi, Nic!" he shouted. "Hold him back. He's going to bite."
Nic made a rush, not to protect Tomlins, but to seize him and drag him away.
"If you tease him again, I'll kick you too," he whispered. "Let him be; he's beaten. You don't want to hit him now he's down."
"Yes, I do," said the boy, struggling to free himself. "I owe him a lot, and it isn't safe to hit him when he's not down. Oh, I say, don't; you're hurting me."
"Serve you right. Come away."
"Here, boys, help!" cried Tomlins, making a grimace. "Convict's setting up for—Ah!"
He did not have time to finish his sentence, for Nic caught him sharply by the shoulders and gave him an angry shake.
"If you say that again, I'll serve you worse than Green did. No, I won't;" he said in repentance. "There, go on back."
The boy was silenced, and in a startled way joined his schoolfellows, while Nic once more went close up to Green.
"Let me help you up," he said. "Here, shake hands, Green. It was only a fight, and you might have won."
There was no answer, and Nic took his adversary by the arm, half forcing him to rise; but Green did not turn his head, nor raise his face to gaze in that before him, though he unresistingly allowed himself to be helped along the side of the hedge, so as to reach the lane that led to the high road and the village, at one end of which the park-like grounds of the doctor's establishment stood.
"He'll come round soon," thought Nic. "He's sure to feel sore after such a licking."
"I say, isn't old Convict a rum one," whispered one of the boys who had been seconds.
"Well, he always was," said the other. "What do you mean?"
"Why giving Green a licking, and then going to help him like that."
The other boy looked at the battered pair, and let them pass on in front, following afterwards with the others.
"It's the proper thing to do, isn't it?"
"Yes, with some fellows," said Tomlins, who was listening. "I should do it to either of you chaps if I'd licked you."
The pair looked at each other and laughed.
"Hark at Mouse Tomlins," said one of them.
"Ah, you wait. I shall get bigger some day, and then I shall do just as Convict Braydon does; but I shouldn't to old Green. You see if he don't hit foul before long, and serve poor old Convict out."
"Don't you be so fond of calling him Convict; he doesn't like it," said Braydon's second.
"Well, he shouldn't be a convict then," retorted the boy.
"And you shouldn't be a cocky, conceited little donkey," said the elder boy.
"But I'm not," said the little fellow, laughing; and then wincing and crying, "Oh, my leg!"
"And he's not a convict."
"But Gooseberry Green says his father is, and that he was sent over to Botany Bay, and that's what makes poor old Braydon so mad."
"His father and mother are both out there somewhere, because Nic told me so, and he says he's going out there some day; but his father can't be a convict, or else he wouldn't be at a good school like this. It's all Green's disagreeableness."
"I'm jolly glad he has got a licking," said the other, "though I seconded him; but I wish he hadn't spoiled our afternoon. If Nic Braydon would come too, I'd go and get into the Hurst. The doctor won't be back for two hours safe, and he's sure not to send for us till eight o'clock. Let's get him to come."
"Well, you ask him."
The boy hurried on and overtook the adversaries.
"Here, Nic Braydon, let him go on by himself. We're going to finish the afternoon together. We don't see any fun in going back yet."
Nic turned his face to his companion, who burst out laughing—a laugh in which he was joined by the others as they came up, Tomlins being the most facetious.
"I say, look at his open eye," cried the little fellow, "and the crack on his lip. I say, don't laugh, Nic; it'll hurt. Don't he look like enjoying himself!"
"Be quiet, Tomlins!" cried Nic's second.
"All right; I've done."
"I say, will you come, Nic?"
"No; I'm going to see Green back to the Friary."
"And then," cried Tomlins, "they're going to have a can of hot water and sponge one another, and make friends and live happy ever after. I say, wouldn't they both look nice in a glass case!"
Nic smiled in spite of himself; and went on back to the Friary, where the man-servant also indulged in a grin as he saw the battered, pair, who partook of their tea with pain, and looked thoroughly unpresentable when at eight o'clock they were summoned to the doctor's study to be lectured severely, Nic getting the greater part of the scolding, which ended with the ominous words:
"I will say no more, Dominic Braydon, for I don't like to come hastily to decisions; but I am afraid that I shall be forced to expel so evil-tempered, virulent, and quarrelsome a boy. Now retire, sir, to your dormitory. I will see you after breakfast in the morning."
Nic went slowly up to the room he shared with Tomlins and the boy who had been his second, feeling that the doctor was cruelly unjust in refusing to listen to explanations which he had on his side been extremely unwilling to make.
"Nobody seems to understand me," he said to himself; "convict, always convict. And, suppose I am expelled, what shall I do? what will my father say? It seems sometimes more than I can bear;" and for hours that night he lay awake, feeling no bodily pains in the fiercer ones of the mind, and always dwelling upon his position—quite alone in England, with father, mother, and sisters at the other side of the world, at a time, too, when it might take a year for a letter sent to bring back its answer; so that it was getting far on toward the early dawn when he ceased thinking about the far-away land of the convict and kangaroo, and went off fast asleep.
Constant dropping will wear a stone, says the old proverb; and if you doubt it, go and look at some step where the rain has dripped from gutter or eave, and see what a nice little hollow is worn. The constant dropping of unsavoury words wears the mind too; and these remarks and banterings about Australia and its convict life in the early days of the century began to have their effect upon Nic Braydon.
He was a good deal younger when his father, an eminent physician in London, awoke to the fact that he had been curing other people at his own expense, that he had worked and studied and been anxious over patients in his dingy house in Finsbury till he was completely broken in health; and he knew enough of his own nature to be aware that, if he kept on as he was, he would in a year or two be a confirmed invalid, if he were still living. In other words, he had worn the steel spring of life till it had grown thin in some places, and rusted and eaten away in others for want of use.
Then he said to himself like a wise man, "I advise others and neglect myself. I must be my own physician now."
He knew perfectly what he ought to do—take to some open-air life in a healthy country, where his avocations would give him plenty of outdoor exercise; and just at that time he met the newly appointed, governor of the penal colony of Australia at dinner. He heard a good deal about the place, went home and read, and inquired more; then, striking while the lion was hot, he sold his practice, house, and furniture, provided all that he could think of as necessaries, communicated with the government, and, after placing his son Dominic, then aged ten, at the Friary with Dr Dunham, he sailed with his wife and two daughters for the far-off land.
Now, Nic's notions about all this had grown a little hazy, while the teasings of his companions grew keener and sharper day by day, and mastered the facts; so that at last he had often found himself wondering whether there was any truth in his schoolfellows' words, and his father had, after all, done something which necessitated his leaving the country.
That seed did not take root; but it swelled, and shot, and gave him a great deal of pain, making him grow morbid, old, and thoughtful beyond his years. He became more sensitive; and when at last the doctor seemed to side against him, and treated him as he thought harshly, Nic began to find out thoroughly that it is not good for a boy to lose the loving help and companionship of father, mother, and sisters, and he grew day by day more gloomy, and ill-used as he believed, till at last, after the sharp reproof from the doctor about his quarrelsome disposition and ill-treatment of his schoolfellow Green, he began to feel it was time he set off to seek his fortune, never once pausing to think that the doctor had only judged by appearances. He had seen Nic attacking Green quite savagely, and not having been present earlier, and, truth to tell, not having sufficiently studied the inner life of his boys, he had looked upon Nic as an ill-conditioned, tyrannical fellow, who deserved the severest reproof.
So Nic thought it was time to seek his fortune.
Who was the miserable ass who first put that wretched idea into boys' heads, and gave them a mental complaint which has embittered many a lad's life, when, after making some foolish plunge, he has gone on slowly finding out that castles in the air, built up by his young imagination, are glorious at a distance, but when approached the colours fade? They are erected with no foundation, no roof; no walls, windows, doors, or furniture—in fact, they are, as Shakespeare says, "the baseless fabric of a vision."
So much by way of briefly moralising on the fact that for, a boy to make up his mind to go and seek his fortune means, in say nine hundred and ninety-nine thousand nine hundred and ninety-nine cases out of a million, trying to climb upward in search of a castle in the air, or tying a muffler round the eyes before making a leap in the dark.
So Nic wanted good advice, change, and something to drag him out of the belief that he was one of the most ill-treated young personages in the world.
But something came just a fortnight after the fight.
Nic's brow was all in puckers, his cheeks were pushed up in folds by his fists, his elbows rested upon his desk, and he was grinding away at a problem in Euclid—with thoughts of Green, Tomlins, the doctor, and a sore place upon one of his knuckles, which had partially healed up and been knocked again and again, all netted and veined in among right, acute and obtuse angles, sides, bases, perpendiculars, slanting-diculars, producings, joinings of AB and CD, and the rest of it—when one of the doors opened, the servant went up to the desk of the usher in charge, and the hum in the big schoolroom ceased as the usher tapped the desk before him.
"The doctor wishes to see you in the study."
Nic had started up, and now the wrinkles in his brow grew deeper, and then disappeared as if by magic, for he had caught sight of Green grinning at him with satisfaction in every curve of fat, self-satisfied-looking countenance; and putting on an air of calm indifference he moved toward the door.
As it happened he had to pass just in front of Green's desk, and the lad raised himself a little, put out a leg to cause a stumble, and whispered:
"Birch. Keep the door shut, and don't—"
Green was going to say "howl," but he illustrated his meaning by uttering a cry wonderfully like that sent forth by a cat under similar circumstances.
"What's that?" cried the usher.
"I trod on Green's foot by accident, sir," said Nic.
"Green should not leave his feet lying about all over the floor," said the usher, trying to be facetious, and then looking satisfied, for his joke was received with a roar, which was increased at the sight of Green's ghastly smile as Nic went out of the schoolroom.
"That's birch for him," he muttered, as he passed through the baize door, which shut out the noise of the school from the rest of the house; and the boy drew a deep breath as he crossed the hall toward the study, connected in his mind with scoldings and reproofs of the severest kind. "What have I been doing now?" thought Nic, as he laid hold of the handle after knocking and hearing a deep-toned "Come in."
Then he started and stared, for there was a fine-looking middle-aged lady seated near the doctor's table, who turned to look at him searchingly as he stopped short.
"I beg pardon, sir. You sent for me?"
"Yes, yes, Braydon: come in. This is Lady O'Hara."
"Yes, I'm Lady O'Hara. Look at that, now. A great strapping fellow! And he told Sir John that it was his little boy."
Nic stared, for this was spoken loudly, in a pleasant rich voice, with an intonation that decidedly fitted with the name.
"Yes, yes," said the doctor, who was smiling and very courtly; "but Dr Braydon forgot that his son has been with me over five years, madam, and he has grown bodily, and mentally, I hope."
"To be sure. Shake hands, Dominic. Why, you ought to be Irish, with a name like that."
"Lady O'Hara!" cried Nic excitedly, as he grasped the hand extended to him. "Do you know my father?"
"Oh, don't make jam of my fingers, boy, and I'll tell you," cried the lady, with a pleasant grimace. "Ah, that's better. Yes, of course I know him. He lives next door to us, about a hundred miles away."
The doctor chuckled, and Nic stared.
"Sit down, Braydon, sit down," said the doctor. "Ah! that's better," said the lady, in a fresh, cheery way. "Well, now, look at that, doctor. Here am I, come at his father's wish to take care of him, and he's big enough to take care of me."
"But—I beg your pardon," cried Nic—"you know my mother, madam?"
"To be sure I do, and the two girls; and here's a batch of letters I've brought."
"Oh, tell me, please," cried Nic excitedly, taking the letters with trembling hand,—"my mother and Janet and Hilda, what are they like?"
"Gently, gently," cried the lady; "where will I find breath to answer your questions? Why, the poor boy's like an orphan, Dr Dunham, living all these years away from home."
"Mrs Dunham and I try to make this my pupils' home," said the doctor, with dignity.
"Yes, I know," said the lady, smiling a broad, pleasant smile, and showing her fine white teeth; "but sure, doctor, there's no place like home. It's very pleasant out yonder with Sir John, but I long for wild old Galway, where I was born. Well, Dominic, and do you know what I've come for?"
"You said something about taking care of me, madam," stammered Nic.
"Ah, and don't stammer and blush like a great gyurl, and don't call me madam. I am a very old friend now of your dear mother, and I've come to take you back with me over the salt say—I mean sea, doctor, but I always called it say when I was a gyurl. I was in England a great deal after I was married, but the fine old pronunciation clings to me still, and I'm not ashamed."
"Why should you be, Lady O'Hara?" said the doctor in his most courtly manner, as he rose. "There, you would like to have a quiet chat with Dominic Braydon. I will leave you till lunch is ready."
"Oh, I don't know about lunch," said the lady, hesitating. "Yes, I do. Dominic here will lunch with us, of course?"
"Of course," said the doctor, smiling; and there was a curious look in his eye as Nic glanced at him sharply.
"Sure, then, I'll stay," said the lady. "But wait a minute: I shall be obliged to answer the question when we get back over the say. Did I say say or sea then, Dominic?"
Nic coloured a little.
"Oh, there's no doubt about it," cried the lady. "It was say, doctor. Now then, tell me: has he been a good boy?"
The doctor wrinkled his brow and pursed up his lips.
"Ah! ye needn't tell me. I can see—about half-and-half."
"Well, yes—about that," said the doctor.
"To be sure," said the lady; "and I'm glad of it. What's wrong with him?"
"Oh, I don't like to tell tales out of school," said the doctor jovially. "Not quite so much of a student as I could have wished. His classics are decidedly shaky, and his mathematics—"
"Look here, doctor: can he write a good plain English letter, properly spelt, and so as you can read it without puzzling because he hasn't dotted his i's and crossed his t's?"
"Oh! yes, yes, yes," said the doctor; "we can do that, eh, Braydon? But there's rather a long list of black marks against his name," he continued severely. "For instance, there has been a tendency toward fighting."
"There, that'll do, doctor.—Come and give me a kiss, my dear.—Sure, doctor," she continued, after Nic had obeyed, "he's coming out to a new country, where that part of his education will be of the greatest value to him."
"My dear madam!" cried the doctor, staring.
"Oh, I mean it, sir. It's a new country, full of savages, black and white, and the white are the worst of them, and more shame for us we sent them there, though I don't know what else we could have done. Dominic, my lad, do you know we're going to make a convict of you?"
Nic gave a violent start, and darted a reproachful glance at the visitor.
"There, leave us together a bit, doctor," she said quickly, "and I'll be bound to say when lunch is ready we shall both of us be as hungry as sailors with talking, for I've got to question him and answer all his."
"To be sure, to be sure," said the doctor. "Then, if you will excuse me, Lady O'Hara, I will adjourn to the schoolroom."
"There, Dominic," cried the lady as soon as they were alone, "now we can talk like old friends. But tell me what made you start and colour like a great gyurl when I talked of making a convict of you?"
Nic was silent.
"Won't you tell me?" cried the lady, smiling at him in a winning, frank way, which unlocked the boy's lips at once and made him feel eager to confide in one who took so much interest in him.
"Yes, I'll tell you," he cried: "it's one of the boys—the biggest. He has set it about that my father is—is—is—"
Nic nodded, and his brow contracted.
"And he nicknamed me Convict. And it isn't true, Lady O'Hara? Pray, pray tell me."
"About your father, Dr Braydon? Be ashamed of ye'self, boy, for ever thinking it. Your father's the finest gentleman in New South Wales, and the best friend that Sir John and I ever had in our hard life yonder."
Nic drew a long, deep breath. Something seemed to be swelling up in his throat, and he reached forward to catch hold of and retain the plump white hand, which returned his pressure.
"And so the big fellow called you Convict, did he, because your father's over the water!"
"And I see now: that accounts for the fighting?"
"I bore it as long as I could," he said eagerly; "and it began about something else."
"Sure, and why did you wait for that? You should have done it at once. I would."
Nic stared in wonder and admiration at his new friend.
"But tell me: did you give him a great big beating?"
"Yes, I'm afraid so."
"Then don't be afraid any more. It would do him good. There, I was thinking I was going to have the care of a tiresome young, monkey of a boy; but I promised your dear mother, and should have taken you back. But, do you know, Dominic, you and I are going to be great friends."
"I hope so," said Nic.
"I'm sure of it. There, I don't want to know any more about you. I only say that you're just the lad for over yonder, and your father will be delighted. Now, then: ask me anything you like."
"To be sure."
"Then what is my mother like now?"
"Look yonder," said the lady, pointing to a great mirror. "Now think of your face made thinner and more delicate, and with soft curls of silky grey hair, beside a very white forehead; and a gentle expression, not a hard look, like yours. That's your mother."
"And my father?" cried Nic eagerly.
"Look again," said the lady, "and fancy your face in thirty years' time, with dark grey hair, all in little rough half-curls, and a great many lines in the brown skin all over the forehead, and about the eyes."
"Yes," said Nic eagerly, as he stared at himself.
"And a look of a man who is strong as a horse; and that's all. No, stop: I forgot his birrd."
"His bird! Does he keep a bird?"
"The young ruffian! he's making sport of me," said the lady. "I said birrd: b-e-a-r-d, birrd. And it's all tinged grey and black. That's your father."
"And the girls?"
"Oh, just two bright sun-browned colleens, like you, only better looking. What next?"
"What sort of a place is it?"
"Place? Oh, there's a wooden house on a slope looking down a bluff at the edge of a great plain, from which you look over the Blue Mountains."
"Yes, they call them blue because they're green, I suppose?" said Nic, with a smile.
"And people say it's only we Irish who make bulls," cried the lady merrily. "No; they call them blue because in the distance they look as clear and blue as the loveliest amethyst. Ah! it's a beautiful place, Dominic, as you'll say."
The lady laughed softly.
"Yes, boy; it's big. There's plenty of land out yonder, and so the government's pretty generous with it. Here at home they count a man's estate by acres: we do it in square miles out there."
"Look here, Dominic," said the lady, after answering scores of questions, during what seemed to Nic the happiest hours he had ever spent in his life, "I've been thinking."
"Say Lady O'Hara, boy," cried the visitor petulantly; and then, with a sad smile full of pathos on her quivering lip, she added softly, "I can't tell ye to call me mother: my son died, Dominic, just when he began to know me; but look here," she cried, brightening, though the lad could see tears in her fine dark eyes, out of which she seemed to peer as from passing clouds. "Sure, I tell ye I've been thinking. Your father said it was time you left school to finish your education out there."
"Education?" faltered Nic.
"Oh yes; but not book learning, boy: hunting, and shooting, and riding, and stock-keeping, and farming, and helping to make Australia a big young England for John Bull's sons and daughters, who want room to move."
"Yes, I see," cried Nic.
"To be sure you do. Well, then, the ship sails in a month from to-day: so what's the good of your stopping here for a month?"
"But I've nowhere else to go," said Nic.
"Oh! yes, you have. You and I have got to be great friends—there, something more than that. I shall just borrow you of your father and mother till I have to give you up at Port Jackson. So, what do you say to my taking you away with me at once?"
"Don't shout, boy: this isn't the bush. Will you come?"
Nic sprang from his chair.
"Look at that, now!" cried Lady O'Hara, showing her teeth. "Hadn't we better have a bit of lunch first?"
"Oh! yes, yes, yes, of course. But, Lady O'Hara, will you take me?"
"Take ye? Why, what an ungrateful young rapparee it is, wanting to leave the home of five years like that!"
"Home!" cried Nic piteously. "Oh, Lady O'Hara, it hasn't been like home. I haven't been happy here."
"Sure, I know, boy, and it was only my fun," said Lady O'Hara, laying her hand upon the lad's head: "as if a boy could be quite happy away from all who love him, and whom, in spite of his thoughtless way; he loves! Then you shall come and live with me at the hotel, and help me do all my shopping and commissions, beside getting your outfit and the things you're to take out for your father. Come, Dominic, is it a bargain?"
"Do—do you really wish it?"
"Why, of course, boy, or I wouldn't ask you. Ah, here's the doctor and his lady. Sure, madam, I'm glad to make your acquaintance," said Lady O'Hara, with grave dignity. "Dominic Braydon and I have been arranging matters, and I should be obliged by your having his boxes seen to and sent off to-morrow."
"To-morrow?" said the doctor.
"Yes," said the visitor, in a quiet, decisive tone; "and as for your pupil—your late pupil—I shall take him away with me directly after lunch."
Both the doctor and his lady began to make excuses about the impossibility of Braydon being ready at so short a notice; and Lady O'Hara turned to the boy.
"Do you hear that, Dominic? You can't be ready in the time. What do you say?"
"I can," replied Nic.
"Of course you can, boy. There, doctor, I've come to take him, so now let's have lunch."
The lunch was eaten, and the doctor and Mrs Dunham having nothing more to say, Nic hastily packed up his things, and then ran to the schoolroom to say good-bye. Ten minutes later he was in Lady O'Hara's carriage, with the cheer given by the boys humming in his brain and a peculiar sensation of sadness making itself felt, though all the time his heart was throbbing with exultation, and the intense desire to go on faster and faster, far away from school, and to make his first plunge into the unknown.
Lady O'Hara did not speak for some time, but took out her little ivory tablets, and sat back in the carriage conning over the memoranda they contained, while her companion read and re-read his letters. Then, shutting them up, she returned the little book to its case and faced round.
"Well," she said, with a merry look, "have you done breaking your heart, Dominic?"
"Yes," he said gravely.—"I can't help feeling sorry to come away, and I'm afraid the boys liked me better than I thought for. It isn't so nice as I fancied it would be."
"No, I suppose not," said his companion; "nothing ever is so nice as we thought it would be. Like to go back for a month till the ship sails?"
"What!" cried Nic.
"I'll tell the man to drive back, if you like."
"You're saying that to tease me, Lady O'Hara."
"True, my boy, I was."
"And you know I wouldn't go back. All I want now is to get on board and start on our long journey."
"Ah, and that's, as I told you, a month hence. There, Dominic, you must mind I don't spoil you before I get you home. Now talk to me and tell me about yourself."
It was like a new beginning of life to Nic Braydon, and he lived for the next three weeks in a round of excitement. The principal way in which he spent his time was shopping with Lady O'Hara, who saw that he had a regular outfit of suitable articles of clothing, all of the most durable and useful make.
"You're not going to a land of filled shirts and dancing pumps, Dominic," said the lady; "you're going out to work as your father has done, and is doing now."
"I shall not mind work," said Nic sturdily.
"I know that, boy. But business. Now I think I've got through all the clothing—Sir John's, yours, and some that the doctor asked me to order. Now, what next?" she continued, turning to her tablets. "Oh, I see: a light gun that will carry shot or ball, a rifle for your father, and another for my husband. Then there are knives, axes, and fishing tackle. Really any one would think I was a man to execute such commissions. But I'm an old traveller, Nic, and have helped my husband over his wants for many, many years."
So that day was devoted to selecting guns, Lady O'Hara handling and testing the various pieces in a way that made the gunmaker open his eyes and Nic stare.
"You have a gallery, I suppose, where I can try any piece I select?"
"Oh! yes, ma'am—I beg pardon—my lady," said the gunmaker.
"Then I'll try those two rifles, and those three shot guns—no, those two. That other is only just long enough in the stock for me. It would not suit a man. Stop; you shall try it, Dominic. Well," she continued, smiling; "so you think it very unladylike for a woman to handle a gun, eh?"
"I—I did think something of the sort," said Nic hesitatingly.
"Of course you would; but I have often had to handle a gun, Dominic. A woman who goes out with her husband into all kinds of savage places needs to be able to use a piece."
"Then you have been in savage places?" said Nic.
"Often, my boy; and it is a dangerous place we are in now. And you'd like to ask whether I ever shot any one, eh?" she said, smiling. "No, I never did, and I hope I never shall. It was the power of being able to use a piece that has saved me from having to use it, Dominic. Wild people and ruffians don't care about attacking people who can defend themselves."
The gunmaker was ready with the charged guns, and he had led them into a long gallery with targets, where the lady astounded the man by her ability and knowledge of what a gun ought to be.
Then Nic had his first trials, and made so poor a business of it that Lady O'Hara said to him laughingly:
"Sure it must be a bad gun, with a crooked barrel. Let me try."
The reloaded gun was handed to her, and she raised it, lowered it, and raised it again and again to try the balance and weight.
"It comes up very nicely," she said, balancing it in her hands.
"It is really one of our best make, my lady," said the gunmaker.
"But my young friend does not seem to find that it shoots straight. Now then."
She raised it quickly to her shoulder, glanced for a brief instant along the barrel, and the white mark at the end of the gallery was speckled like a currant dumpling, while the gunmaker smiled with satisfaction.
"It was my fault," said Nic dolefully. "I suppose I can't see straight."
"Perhaps not," said Lady O'Hara drily. "How many times have you fired before?"
"Never till to-day, only little brass cannons," said Nic.
"And they're poor things for educating the hand and eye," said the lady. "Shooting looks easy, Dominic. You think you have only to pull the trigger; but it's like other things, my boy, it wants learning."
They walked back into the shop, where the guns and rifles selected were ordered to be packed with an ample supply of the best flints and ammunition in proper cases for the journey; and the gunmaker smiled his thanks, and wished for more masculine lady customers.
There were more peaceful purchases to be made, though. Cases of seeds were ordered, and the seedsman undertook to pack and send in the autumn a couple of bundles of fruit trees for experimental purposes.
"For I want your father to try and make a good English garden out there, Dominic," said Lady O'Hara enthusiastically. "Australia must become the home of many of our people; and though it is right on the other side of the world, we don't want it to remain foreign, but English."
Those four weeks went like magic, and when only two days remained the list of purchases was pretty well complete, and included horses, cows, and sheep of select kinds, and a couple of retrievers, setters, and Scotch collie dogs.
They had been twice to the East India Docks, from which the ship was to sail, and now another visit was to be paid to make sure that the various packages had been delivered on board, to see to the live stock, and to have another look at the cabin.
"There, Dominic," said her ladyship at last, "I think I may say that I have—that we have—done all our work. Now two days to pay a few visits, and then we go on board for our long, long journey. How do you feel—ready for the start?"
"Quite," said Dominic eagerly.
"That's right. We start with the knowledge that our home is ready made out yonder. What must it have been for the brave folk who acted as pioneers, not knowing what they were going to find?"
That was mental food for the night; but Nic's busy days precluded his being troubled with sleeplessness, and he lay down to dream of the far-off home, and woke to say, in his intense eagerness:
"Only one more day, and then—off!"
"But why not go on board to-night?" asked Nic.
"Because," said Lady O'Hara drily, "it will be better to leave it till to-morrow."
Nic wondered, and said nothing, but he knew afterwards. The fact was, he did not think about anything for long. There was too much to see and do. One thought crowded out another. This minute he would be wondering how the dogs were, the next whether cows were ever sea-sick, and this made him wonder whether Dominic Braydon, off on his first voyage, would suffer from that most unpleasant ailment. There were the new clothes to think about, and the guns. It happened, too, that while he was thinking about them Lady O'Hara, looking worried and tired, entered the hotel room.
"I hope that man sent the guns all right," said Nic.
"He did, for I received a note from him and a receipt for their delivery."
"I'm glad of that," said Nic. "I was anxious about them." Lady O'Hara looked amused. Then, watching the boy closely, she said:
"By the way, Dominic, I don't think I told you I meant that gun with the short stock for you."
"For me?" cried Nic, flushing with excitement. Then hastily, "Oh no, I don't want to shoot people."
"You may if they want to kill you or those whom you love, my boy. But in any case you may want to shoot snakes and the wonderfully beautiful birds which you will see in the bush. A gun is a necessity for a settler, and so are those."
She pointed to a parcel on a side table.
"Fetch those here, and open the paper."
Nic fetched the strongly done-up packet, opened it with trembling fingers, and laid bare a beautifully finished axe and a sheath knife of the finest steel, with stout buckhorn handle and leathern belt.
"Not drawing-room presents, my boy," said the lady, smiling, "but suitable for a young settler. There, you can squeeze those in your portmanteau; the gun you can have when we get over the sea."
"But, Lady O'Hara!" faltered Nic; "the gun—such an expensive one."
"Of course it is. Who'd buy cheap rubbish to take abroad? You want the plainest and the best that money can buy."
"Yes, but I meant—"
"That they were too costly to accept? Not a bit, my boy. We owe your father a deep debt. Didn't he doctor and save both our lives? And he's a dreadfully obstinate man to deal with; but I can do as I like with you, so now hold your tongue."
"But I must thank you, Lady O'Hara."
"No, you needn't. Now then, Dominic—dear, dear! three syllables to say every time I speak to you. What a tiresome, long name, though it does sound Irish."
"Latin," said Nic.
"Irish; and don't contradict me, sir. Sure I had an uncle in Galway, who was Dominick O'Hara, with a k to it. I shall call you Nic."
"Yes, do, please."
"I will. So now then, Nic, you haven't a husband to meet when you get over yonder—a fierce-looking governor, who barks at people; and when I get back he'll be asking me what I forgot to bring. Now, my dear boy, do tell me what I've failed to get."
"I can't," said Nic laughingly; "you seem to have bought nearly everything."
"Ah, ye're no use to me at all, at all, boy. I'm sure there's something I ought to have bought, and I shall remember it when we're hundreds of miles from land. I know: it was another pair of razors for Sir John!"
"But you bought those seven in a case, with the days of the week on them, Lady O'Hara."
"Sure, and I did, Nic. Good boy. You are of some use, after all. My poor head's nearly worn out with thinking, and I'm bothered entirely. Nic, I mean to go to sleep for a week as soon as we get on board by way of a good rest. Now then, do try and think for me, Nic; what was the other thing I forgot?"
Nic shook his head.
"I could think of hundreds of things that might be useful out there."
"No, you couldn't," said the lady shortly. "You've never been there, and you'd be taking out all kinds of things that would be just of no use at all, the same as I did when I first went. I've got something on my brain, only it's buried under a heap of other things. Well, never mind; it will shake up to the top at last when it's too late."
Lady O'Hara's head was bothered till the last moment, when the hotel bill was paid, the hackney coach and driver in his coat of many capes at the door, and landlord, landlady, and servants all waiting to bid the amiable, bluff-spoken Irish lady God-speed in her long journey to the other side of the world. Then the door banged; and, followed by a cheer, the coach was driven off, Nic feeling in a peculiar state of mind, a mixture of high spirits, low spirits, and pain; for Lady O'Hara plumped herself back in her corner, took out a handkerchief, covered her face, and burst into a fit of sobbing, rocking herself to and fro as she cried aloud till Nic could bear it no longer. He had been fidgeting and wondering what to say or do, growing more and more wretched, till, at the end of ten minutes, he laid his hand upon his companion's, and said simply:
"Oh, Lady O'Hara, pray, pray don't cry."
"Sure, and I won't," she exclaimed impetuously, as she hastily wiped her eyes; "but I couldn't help it, Nic. It hurts me when people are so kind and sorry to part from you, and ye feel that ye may never see them again. I'm afraid I'm a very silly old woman. Give me a kiss, my dear, and I won't cry another drop. There, it's all over now, and that's cleared my head. It doesn't feel bothered a bit. What's forgotten's forgotten, and I don't think my darlin' will be very cross with me. If he is, I shall call you to witness that I've worked very hard."
"That you have," cried Nic.
"There, the work's done, and we'll have a rest, and enjoy our voyage. And do you know what sort of a ship we're going in, Nic?"
"Yes; the Northumbrian."
"Of course; but do you know what she is?"
"That's true enough; but has nobody told you what we shall have on board?"
"Then I'll tell you now. We might have waited for the next, but that would have been for a month, and I want to get back home again, Nic; so, as Sir John's name was enough to get me what I wanted, I settled we'd go in the Northumbrian, which is taking out a lot of convicts."
Nic's brow grew rugged.
"But there's a big draft of the 300th Regiment and their officers too, and they'll take care of us, boy, so you won't mind."
"Oh! no," cried Nic, "I shall not mind."
In fact, he failed to see what there would be to mind, for it did not occur to him that it might be unpleasant and awkward for the governor's wife.
The bustle of departure had commenced when they reached the dock, and the quay swarmed with the friends and relatives of the company of infantry off on foreign service, while dock officials were busy issuing the orders which began to take effect a few minutes after Nic had seen Lady O'Hara into her cabin and hurried back on deck to gaze on the novel scene.
For hawsers were being secured round posts, men were leaving, a couple of boats were out ahead ready to tow, and soon the great three-masted vessel began to move slowly along by the quay to the great gates, with the soldiers cheering and waving their caps, and shouts and cries rising from those being left behind, till the gates were passed, and the long narrow channel between stone walls gave place to the river, with its tide at the height; the faces began to grow smaller and smaller, and soon the Northumbrian, with her littered decks and bustle and confusion, began to drop slowly down with the tide.
There was plenty to see as well as plenty to learn. The first thing was to be able to see in peace, and to do this Nic found he had to learn to get out of the way of the men busy lowering down packages, getting rid of the litter of the deck, and blunderingly making matters shipshape— blunderingly, for the crew, almost without exception, were suffering from the effects of their holiday ashore, and were working the mate and boatswain into a state of red-hot indignation at the slow progress made. The latter, too, a big, burly, red-faced man with stiff whiskers, was every now and then asking people how he could be expected to have clear decks when his ship was being turned into a farmyard.
This recalled the live stock on board, and Nic went forward to have a look at the cattle in their pens, where they were contentedly enough munching away at the hay placed ready for them, while the dogs, which recognised Nic, began to tug furiously at their chains, and made their eyes seem ready to start from their heads as they tried to strangle themselves by straining at their collars.
Nic was leaning over the pen in which they were chained up, patting and caressing them, when a gruff voice cried fiercely:
"Those dogs yours?"
"Not exactly. They're for Sir John O'Hara."
"Then I wish he'd got 'em. Who's to move with all these things on board?"
"What's, the matter, Buller?" said a bronzed man, coming up.
"Matter, sir? everything. There isn't a man aboard fit to pull a rope, and I can't move without breaking my shins over cats and dogs, and all this here Tower mynadgery. Is the skipper going to start a farm?"
"Get on, man, and don't make so much noise."
"Noise, sir!" growled the boatswain, for it was he; and he looked hard at a couple of officers in undress uniform, whose attention had been taken by the dogs.
"It's enough to make any one grumble. I'm 'customed to tea and rice and a few passengers. I don't understand all this—ship turned into a live-stock show, a barracks, and a farm all in one."
He went off growling, and the mate turned to the officers.
"A bit rusty, gentlemen," he said, smiling. "It will soon wear off, as we get shipshape."
"Sooner the better," said one of the officers, who turned to the dogs, and had a look at them before speaking to Nic.
"Yours?" he said.
"I have charge of them."
"Then you are a passenger?"
"Yes; I'm going out with Lady O'Hara."
"The governor's wife! Well, how do you think you will like the sea?"
"Oh, very well," said Nic. "Of course I shan't like it when it's rough."
"Nor anybody," said the officer, "eh, Harvey?"
"I shall not," said the gentleman addressed, as he pulled the setter's long ears.
"So long as it isn't rough. Well, as we are to be fellow-passengers all through the voyage, we may as well be friends and go through our introductions. Who are you?"
Nic told him.
"Going to join your people, eh? Well, that's pleasant. We are going to leave ours."
"Who are you?" said Nic, taking his new acquaintance's tone.
"I?" said the officer, laughing at the manner in which the question was put. "Lieutenant Lance, His Majesty's 300th Light Infantry. This is Ensign Harvey of my company. Both at your service, sir, and our company too."
"Thank you," said Nic, laughing; "but I'm not likely to need it."
"Unless the birds want to take flight," said the ensign.
Nic looked at him inquiringly.
"He means the gaol birds, youngster," said the elder officer, laughing, "if they rise against us. Not a very nice arrangement for your lady coming out in a ship like this."
"Is there any danger?" said Nic anxiously.
"No," said the ensign, rather importantly; "we shall see that there's not."
"Then you are here to guard them?" asked Nic.
"Bah, no! We are going to join our regiment. There is a warder guard. Of course, if there was any necessity—"
Nic looked rather startled, and the lieutenant said, smiling:
"There'll be nothing to mind, my lad. The winds and waves will trouble you more than the convicts; but they're not pleasant fellow-passengers to have, on board."
Nic did not think so the next morning, when, after guard had been mounted under the lieutenant's charge, just as they were getting well out of the mouth of the river, with the soldiers stationed at intervals with loaded muskets and fixed bayonets, orders were given, and the stern-looking warders ushered up the convict gang of fifty men from below to take their allotted amount of air and exercise in the forward part of the deck; for almost without exception they were a villainous-looking lot, their closely cropped hair and ugly prison garb adding to the bad effect.
Talking was strictly forbidden, every movement being carefully watched, and not least by Nic, at whom the prisoners looked curiously as they passed, one man putting on a pleading, piteous aspect, as if asking for the boy's compassion, and twice over his lips moved as if he were saying something.
But somehow, though the man was not bad-looking, and formed one of the exceptions to the brutally fierce faces around, his pleading look did not excite Nic's pity, but caused a feeling of irritation that he could not explain.
This happened again and again, when, attracted by the daily coming up of the men on deck, Nic found himself watching them, unconscious of the fact that he was watched the while.
Every now and then the chief warder, a stern, fierce-looking man with a cutlass in his belt, shouted out some order; and as it was obeyed by this or that man the boy soon began to know them as Number Forty-nine or Hundred and eighty, or some other number. One particularly scoundrelly-looking fellow, who made a point of catching his eye whenever he could, for the purpose of winking, thrusting his tongue in his cheek, or making some hideous grimace, and following it up with a grin of satisfaction if he saw it caused annoyance, was known as Twenty-five; a singularly brutal-visaged man with a savage scowl, who never once looked any one full in the face, was Forty-four; and the mild, pleading-looking man, who annoyed Dominic by his pitiful, fawning air, was Thirty-three.
"Well, sir, what do you think of them?" said a familiar voice one day; and turning sharply, Nic found himself face to face with the chief warder.
"Think? I hardly know," said Nic. "I feel sorry for them."
"Just what a young gent like you would do, sir. Pity's a good thing, but you must not waste it."
"But it seems a terrible thing for these men to be sent out like this."
"Seems, sir. But is it? You see, they needn't have been sent out. They only had to behave themselves."
"But some of them may be innocent."
"Yes, sir," said the warder drily; "but which of 'em? Look at that fellow coming round here now, slouching along, and never looking at anything but the deck. He'll never look you in the face."
"Yes, I've noticed that."
"Wouldn't pick him out for an innocent one, would you?"
"Well, no," said Nic; "one seems to shrink from him."
"And right enough too, sir. He got off with transportation for life; but I'm afraid he deserved something worse."
"Did he kill anybody?" said Nic in an awe-stricken whisper.
"Yes; more than one, I believe, sir: sort of human wild beast. I never feel safe with him, and we all take care never to have Forty-four behind us. Try again, sir."
"Well, this one coming now," said Nic. "He's rather common-looking, but he doesn't seem so very bad. One would think he could be made a better man."
"Twenty-five, sir. Well, he'll have every chance out yonder. He has only got to get a good character over his work, and the governor and them will soon let him go up country as a signed servant, and when he has served his time he can start farmer on his own account. Makes faces at you, doesn't he?"
"Yes," cried Nic eagerly.
"Ah, he won't now I'm here."
Nic smiled, for the man screwed one side of his face as he passed, thinking that the chief warder would not see, but he did.
"You, Twenty-five! How dare you? Extra punishment for that. Pass by, sir."
"No, no, don't punish him," whispered Nic. "He did not mean any harm."
"Not going to, sir," said the warder drily; "but one must keep them in their places. He's a comic sort of blackguard. Not much harm in him."
"I thought not," said Nic eagerly.
"And precious little good, sir," added the warder. "But he may turn out right. Housebreaking, I think, was his offence. When he gets out to the convict lines they'll teach him to know better; and some day he'll have a house of his own, if it's only a bark hut—gunyah they call 'em out there—and then he'll know the value of it, and be ready to upset any one who tries to break in."
"Then you have been out before?"
"Oh yes, sir. I know the country pretty well, specially the part where your father is. I've been there."
"And you know my father?"
"Oh no, sir. I never saw him. But it's a fine place, and you'll like it. I wish I was you, and going to begin life out there in the new land."
"Then you think I shall like it?" said Nic.
"You can't help it, sir. But if I was you I should be careful. You'll have a deal to do with the convicts."
"Oh no," cried Nic. "I am going straight up the country to my father's place."
"Yes, sir, I know; and that's why I was presuming to give you a bit of advice—that is, as a man who has had twenty years' experience."
"I don't understand you."
The warder laughed.
"I suppose not, sir. Well, it's like this. Your father has taken up land, and keeps sheep and cattle, I suppose?"
"And employs men?"
"Of course. He has said so in his letters. He is obliged to have several."
"And if he was in England he could engage farm labourers easily enough."
"How's he going to engage them out there, sir?"
"The same as he would in England."
"When there are none, or only a few, and they all want to be masters themselves? No, sir; you'll find there—with perhaps a black or two who can't be trusted to work, only to do a bit of cattle driving or hunting up strayed stock—that your father's men are mostly convicts, 'signed servants, we call them—that is, assigned servants."
"That's it, sir: men who are assigned by the prison authorities to gentlemen."
"Oh!" ejaculated Nic; and the warder smiled at his surprise.
"That's it, sir, and I say a good thing too. Here's a new country with plenty of room in it, and the judges and people at home sentence men to be transported for fourteen or twenty-one years, or perhaps for life."
"Yes, I know all that," said Nic, nodding his head.
"Then, sir, the law says lots of these men are not all bad, and they're sorry for what they've done; so if they are, and show that they want to lead a new life, we'll give 'em a chance. Then all those who have earned a good character in the convict lines and mean work are assigned to settlers who want labourers and shepherds and stockmen; and if they behave themselves, and show that the punishment has cured them of their bad ways, all they've got to do is to report themselves from time to time; and so long as they don't try to escape out of the country they can do pretty well as they like, and plenty of them out there are doing far better than they would have done at home."
"That's very good," said Nic.
"To be sure it is, sir; and that's why I say to you, be a little careful, and not be ready to trust the convicts. Plenty of them you'll find good fellows; but there are plenty more who are very smooth and artful, and only waiting their time. But you'll soon learn which are sheep and which are goats. Now, here's a chap coming round here— Thirty-three, sir. What do you say to him? He's got fourteen years for robbing his employers. Embezzlement they call it. Now, he's been a well-brought-up sort of man—good education, always well dressed, and lived on the fat of the land. He looks at you, I suppose, when I'm not here, as much as to say, 'Isn't it cruel to shut me up with these ruffians and murderous wretches? I'm a poor, innocent, ill-used man!'"
"Yes, that is how he always does look at me," cried Nic. "Yes, sir, and at everybody else; but if he was an innocent, ill-used man, he'd wrinkle up his forehead and look bitter and savage-like, ready to treat everybody as his enemy. That chap's a sneak, sir, and I've no hesitation in saying he deserves all he has got. Don't you listen to him if ever he speaks, and don't you break no rules by petting him with anything good from the cabin."
"I certainly shan't," said Nic. "I don't like him."
The warder turned sharply, and looked hard at Nic, as he said, smiling:
"You'll do sir. Dame Nature's made you a bit of a judge of men, and what you've got to do is to sharpen up that faculty, as people call it. I'm not bragging, but I've got it a little, and I've polished and polished it for twenty years, till I'm not such a very bad judge of convicts. You give me a gang, and in a week's time, if there's an innocent man, or a man who wants to do the right thing, or one who's been always wrong and could be worked up into the right, I'll pick him out. Here you, Twenty-five, I've got my eye on you, and you'd better make an end of those monkey faces, unless you want the cat."
"The cat?" said Nic.
"Yes, sir, with nine tails. That's the punishment for convicts who won't behave themselves, assigned servants and all. You'll soon know all about the lash when you get out to your father's station."
"I'm sure I shall not," said Nic indignantly. "My father is too humane a man."
"That's right, sir. You always believe in and stick up for your father; only recollect you're going to a new country, where there are thousands of convicts, the scum of our own land, and the lash is part of the law, and the law is very strict. It's obliged to be, for the protection of the settlers. See how stern we are here where we have them all under our eye. You're obliged to be harder where they're free like and scattered all over the country."
"Yes, you're stern enough," said Nic indignantly, "threatening to give a man the cat-o'-nine-tails for making faces."
The warder smiled, his hard, stern face lighting up as he gazed admiringly at Nic.
"Bah! that was only talk, sir, just as one would threaten a boy. Twenty-five's a man of five-and-thirty, but he's only got brains like a boy. I could make anything of him."
The warder nodded good-humouredly, and then his face grew hard-looking as an iron mask, as he shouted out orders to first one and then another of the men under his charge; while the soldiers, standing here and there, rested on their muskets, and looked grimly on at the evil-looking prisoners pacing the deck.
Nic walked aft with his forehead puckered up and his mind hard at work thinking of the home that he was going to, and feeling somewhat damped by the warder's words; and as he reached the quarter-deck he went to the side, after noticing that Lady O'Hara was talking to the officers, and resting his arms upon the bulwark he leaned there gazing away at the sunlit sea, flecked by the flying-fish which flashed out, skimmed along for some distance, and then dropped back into the water.
"Convicts—convicts," he thought. "What a place for Lady O'Hara it is here with these men aboard! Suppose they should rise some night— suppose they should rise at home where mother is, and the girls— suppose—"
"Why, how now, my thoughtful young philosopher? What are you thinking about?"
Lady O'Hara had laid her hand upon his shoulder, and the boy was silent for a few moments.
"Well, what is it? Not going to turn sea-sick, after behaving so well all across the bay."
"No," said Nic; "I'm quite well."
"Then what makes you look so glum?"
"I was thinking about the convicts."
"And a very unpleasant subject too, Nic. Don't think about them, boy. They used to make me ill when I first went out yonder. It seemed so horrible to have them mixed up so with one's daily life."
"Yes, that's it," cried Nic; "that's what I've been thinking. I suppose father will have some at his station?"
"Not a doubt about it."
"Well, it seems so shocking, and—and unsafe."
"Not a bit of it, my boy. That's just what I used to think, but I don't now."
"But I shall never get hardened to it, Lady O'Hara."
"Sure, I hope not, Nic. I don't like hardened people. You think by my words that I'm hardened to it. There, don't turn red, boy. I can read what you thought. I'm as soft as you. Sure, I wept all night when that poor boy died over there, and kept crying out for his mother when he was delirious; and it was no use to say to myself, he should have thought more of his mother and her teachings when he grew wasteful and dissipated and stole his master's money, for I couldn't help thinking that he was back in the old days and felt in trouble, and called for his mother; and who should a boy call to but his mother at a time like that?"
Nic sadly thought of how little he had seen of his, and the governor's wife went on.
"No, Nic, I'm not a bit hardened; I only look now at things from a sensible point of view, and say to myself, 'Here are these men who have done wrong, and the law has sent them out for a punishment; those who are very bad will be unable to do any more mischief, while those who have any good in them have chances given them to lead a new life.' Why some of them are getting to be well-to-do bodies, Nic, and married and have children, who will grow up better people in a new land. Don't you fret about the convicts, boy; but take them as you find them. When you have to do with the bad ones, keep them at a distance; and when you have to do with the good and repentant, just shut your eyes to the past and open them as wide as you can to the future. Sure, Nic, I'm the governor's lady with a title, and everybody's glad to be my friend, yourself included, my boy; but how do I know what I might have been if I hadn't been tenderly cared for when I was young? You'll like some of the transported people, Nic, my boy. I've got some out there whom I look upon as friends, and just because I see that they've put the past behind, and are doing what these sailor lads do here, keeping a bright look-out ahead. Yes, Nic, they're looking to the future, and so am I and you. What a place this world would be if we hadn't a future before us every one! There, you will not fret nor worry yourself about any dangers we are likely to meet with from the convicts now."
"Oh no," said Nic eagerly; "you have done me no end of good, Lady O'Hara. But—"
"Well, but what, boy? Out with it, and don't hesitate."
"Are they ever likely to rise against us over there, or here aboard ship?"
"Sure, I don't know, Nic," said Lady O'Hara coolly. "Very likely, my boy. They are always thinking about it, I know."
"But if they do?"
"Well, we shall just have to rise too, and teach them manners. We've got right on our side, and they haven't; so we are sure to win."
"But you don't seem at all alarmed, in spite of all that I have said."
"Sure, and why should I be, Nic, or you either? They may rise, and a hole may burst out in the bottom of the ship, and we may run upon a rock, and there may be a storm, and there are plenty of other maybe's, Nic. But let them be, my dear boy. You and I have got our duty to do, and let's do it, and while we're doing that, leave all the rest. Nic, boy, faith's a grand thing. I'm full of it, and ye're just a little wanting; so get it as fast as ye can; it's a fine thing in the making of a true man."
ON THE OTHER SIDE.
The voyage was long but uneventful. They sailed on, in fine weather, down and down into hot inter-tropical sunshine, and reached the Cape, took in fresh stores, and then sailed on south, so as to get into the region where the winds are chill, but blow strongly in the right direction, carrying the big ship onward in its course.
Week succeeded week in slow monotony, broken by a little rough weather, but that was all. The soldiers were drilled on deck till Nic pretty well knew the ordinary routine, and Lieutenant Lance laughingly asked him if he would like to take command. The convicts came up morning by morning and had their exercise in the old monotonous way; and Nic went round with the doctor to see the men in their quarters and visit patients. But there was no rising or mutiny, nothing to break the even course of the voyage but a little tossing among the huge waves that came rolling from the south-west, threatening to engulf the ship, but only dived beneath it, raising it upon a rolling bill, and then gliding onward to give room to the next. Nic saw the albatross till he was tired of watching its gliding flight. He fished and had very bad fortune, but better when he joined in with the sailors, who good-humouredly made room for him to help haul after they had hooked a shark, drawn the fierce fellow alongside, sent a loop down over its head right to the narrow part in front of the tail, and so got a double hold.
Then came the evening when all was excitement, for the skipper announced at supper that in all probability they would see land next morning, and a thrill ran through every breast.
He was correct: land was in sight at daybreak, and Nic was standing on deck to see it, hardly willing to be dragged away to breakfast, and back again with Lady O'Hara and the officers, all eager after their long, long voyage—for ships did not reach Australia in less than six weeks in the days of King George the Third—to see the land that was to be their home for many months, in some cases years, to come.
That afternoon they sailed out of the rough water between the great headlands into the lake-like expanse of the glorious harbour; and before long, after signalling, boats were seen approaching, their white sails glistening in the clear air.
"Smell, Nic," said Lady O'Hara, "home at last, boy! What do you think of the sunny land?"
"Think?" cried Nic huskily—"it is glorious! I never saw the sky so blue, the land so green, and everything so beautiful. But pray, pray don't talk to me. I want to try and make out whether my father is in any of those boats."
"I should say yes: in that," said Lady O'Hara, who spoke in a deep, subdued voice.
"Which—which?" cried Nic.
"That one, with the union jack at the stern."
"What, with the men in white?"
"Yes; it is the boat from the man-o'-war yonder. The governor is in it, please God; and your father, as his friend, will most likely be with him."
Just then one of the officers handed her a telescope, and went forward to order up a guard of men to receive the governor.
Lady O'Hara did not seem herself. She was no longer the bluff; outspoken woman, but appeared trembling and nervous, as she stood resting with one hand upon the rail.
"I can't use it to-day, Nic, boy," she said. "You try the glass."
Nic took it, rested it on the rail, had a long look, and focussed and re-focussed it, without avail.
"I—I can't see with it," he said huskily. "It is so dim. The glass is not clear."
"Try again," said Lady O'Hara; and Nic looked at her sharply, her voice was so changed.
But he raised the glass once more, and this time brought it steadily to bear upon the boat rowed by the man-of-war's men.
"Now, Nic, tell me what you see," said Lady O'Hara. "Some soldiers with muskets and bayonets. I can see the scarlet quite plain."
"Yes, yes: the marines. What else?"
"There's an officer just in front of the flag."
"Stop a minute. Yes, there's another: he seems to me a bigger man."
"It's so far off that I can't quite make out, and the glass won't keep steady; but I think he has a big white beard. Yes, and he has taken off his hat. His head is white."
Lady O'Hara half closed her eyes, and the captain, who was near, saw that a smile came upon her lip.
"But you see some one else, Nic?" she said faintly.
"Yes," said the boy in a very husky voice; "but it must be a seaman: there is some one in a straw hat."