The Gilpins, A Story of Early Days in Australia, by William H G Kingston.
The story opens with a couple of school-leavers discussing what they will do with their lives. One of the boys, a Gilpin, whose father is a hard-working farmer, is determined to go along the same route, but in Australia, as he and his brother have often dreamt of doing.
They reach Australia, and an incident on the Quay in Sydney, where they save a family from destruction in a carriage whose horses have bolted, makes them valuable friends, leading to an appointment as managers, or overseers, of a cattle and sheep station somewhere out beyond the Blue Mountains. The previous manager had let the place get run down, and was actually rather a crook. Some of the other workers on the station were as idle and crooked as he. Not surprising as most of them had been sent to Australia for some offence in England. A few of the men were decent enough. There is such resentment among the idle men that they prevail upon some aborigines to attack the buildings and set them on fire, a plan which is foiled by one of the better workers.
Eventually the great Australian bubble bursts (the Australian economy is always a bit overheated) and the Gilpins are ordered to slaughter the cattle and sheep. They discover a source of salt on the station, so they are able to salt down some of the meat, which was otherwise going to waste.
Using the opportunity of buying valuable stock cheaply, they acquire the station and start the business again. They rescue a drowning man, only to find he is the other schoolboy in the conversation that starts the book. We will leave it to you to find out what his adventures had been.
It takes about 3.5 hours to read this book.
THE GILPINS, A STORY OF EARLY DAYS IN AUSTRALIA, BY WILLIAM H G KINGSTON.
Arthur Gilpin and Mark Withers walked down the High Street, arm-in-arm, on their return to their respective homes from the well-managed school of Wallington.
They were among the head boys, and were on the point of leaving it to enter on the work of active life, and make their way in the world. They had often of late discussed the important question—all-important, as it seemed to them—"How are we to make our way—to gain wealth, influence, our hearts' desires?"
"For my part, I cannot stand a plodding style of doing things," said Mark. "It is all very well for those without brains, but a fellow who has a grain of sense in his head requires a more rapid way of making a fortune. Life is too short to be wasted in getting money. I want to have it to spend while I am young and can enjoy it."
Arthur was silent for some time. At length he remarked, "It strikes me, Mark, that the object of making money is that we may support ourselves and families, and help those who are in distress. My father often says to James, and to me, and to the rest of us, 'I don't want you, when you enter business, to be thinking only how you can make money. Do your duty, and act liberally towards all men, and you will have a sufficiency at all events, if not wealth.'"
"Oh! your father's old-fashioned notions won't do in the world, and certainly won't suit me, that I can tell you," answered Mark, in a scornful tone.
"My father is considered a sensible man. What he preaches he practises; and though he has a very large family, no one calls him a poor man," argued Arthur. "He says that, considering how short life is, it cannot be wise to spend the time, as many men do, in gathering up riches and setting so high a value on them. But here comes James! Let us hear what he has to say on the subject."
"Oh! of course, James has got the same notions from your father that you have, and I am not going to be influenced by him," answered Withers.
James, however, was appealed to, and answered, "Even if we were to live for ever in this world, I should agree with Arthur; for, from all I see and hear, I am convinced that wealth cannot secure happiness; but as this world is only a place of preparation for another, it is evident folly to set one's heart upon what must be so soon parted with."
Withers made a gesture of impatience, exclaiming, "Come, come, I won't stand any preaching, you know that; but we are old friends, and so I don't want to quarrel about trifles, when we are so soon to separate! You stick to your opinion, I will stick to mine, and we'll see who is right at last."
"If this matter were a trifle I would not press it, but, because I am sure that it is one of great importance, I do press it upon you most earnestly, though, believe me, I am sorry to annoy you," said Arthur Gilpin.
"Oh! I dare say you mean well," answered Withers, in a contemptuous tone. "But don't bother me again on the subject, there's a good fellow. You, James, are so above me, that I don't pretend to understand what you mean." Saying this with a condescending air, he shook hands with the two brothers, and entered the house of his father, who was the principal solicitor of the town.
The two Gilpins walked on towards their home. Their father possessed a small landed property, which he farmed himself. He had a very numerous family, and though hitherto he had been able to keep them together with advantage, the time had arrived when some of them must go forth to provide for themselves in the world. James and Arthur had long turned their thoughts towards Australia, for which part of the British possessions they were preparing to take their departure. Mr Gilpin, or the squire, as he was called, was looked upon as an upright, kind-hearted man. He was sensible, well educated, and a true Christian; and he brought up his children in the fear and admonition of the Lord.
A year passed by: a long sea voyage was over, and James and Arthur Gilpin stood on the shores of Australia. Two other brothers, with their sisters, remained to help their father in his farm at home. James and Arthur had left England, stout of heart, and resolved to do their duty, hoping to establish a comfortable home for themselves and for those who might come after them. Their ship lay close to the broad quay of the magnificent capital of New South Wales. They had scarcely been prepared for the scene of beauty and grandeur which met their sight as they entered Port Jackson, the harbour of Sydney, with its lofty and picturesque shores, every available spot occupied by some ornamental villa or building of greater pretension, numerous romantic inlets and indentations running up towards the north; while the city itself appeared extending far away inland with its broad, well-built streets, its numberless churches, colleges, public schools, hospitals, banks, government buildings, and other public and private edifices, too numerous to be mentioned.
The Gilpins, as they were put on shore with their luggage, felt themselves almost lost in that great city. They were dressed in their rough, every-day suits, and looked simple, hardworking country lads, and younger than they really were.
Large as Sydney then was, it was still diminutive compared to what it has since become. Founded by criminals, it was unhappily as far advanced in crime and wickedness as the oldest cities of the old world, though efforts were being then made, as they have ever since continued to be made, and, happily, not without some degree of success, to wipe out the stain. The two brothers stood for some time watching the bustling scene before them. Huge drays laden with bales of wool were slowly moving along the quay towards the ships taking in cargo, while porters, and carts, with ever-moving cranes overhead, were rapidly unloading other vessels of miscellaneous commodities. Irish, Negro, Chinese, and Malay porters were running here and there; cabs and carts were driving about, and other persons on foot and on horseback, mostly in a hurry, evidently with business on their hands. There were, however, a few saunterers, and they were either almost naked black aborigines, with lank hair, hideous countenances, and thin legs, or men with their hands in their pockets, in threadbare coats and uncleaned shoes, their countenances pale and dejected, and mostly marked by intemperance. Many of them were young, but there were some of all ages—broken-down gentlemen, unprepared for colonial life, without energy or perseverance, unable and still oftener unwilling to work. The brothers had not to inquire who they were. Their history was written on their foreheads.
"What shall we do next?" asked Arthur.
"I should like to get out of this place as soon as possible."
"So should I, indeed," said James; "but we must go to an inn for the night, ascertain where labour is most wanted in the interior, and how best to find our way there."
"You and I can scarcely carry our traps any way up those streets; perhaps one or two of those poor fellows there would like to earn a shilling by helping us," said Arthur, beckoning to some of the above-mentioned idlers.
The first summoned walked away without noticing them, another stared, a third exclaimed, "Egregious snob! what can he want?" and a fourth walked up with his fists doubled, crying out in a furious tone, "How do you dare to make faces at me, you young scoundrel?"
"Pardon me, sir," said James, quietly; "my brother made no faces at you. We merely thought that you might be willing to assist in carrying our luggage."
"I assist you in carrying your luggage! A good joke! But I see you are not quite what I took you for; and if you'll stand a nobbler or two, I don't mind calling a porter for you, and showing you to a slap-up inn to suit you," said the man, his manner completely changing. "You'll have to pay the porter pretty handsomely, my new chums! People don't work for nothing in this country."
While they were hesitating about accepting the man's offer to get a porter, thinking that there could be no harm in that, a country lad, Sam Green by name, who had come out as a steerage passenger with them, approached. As soon as he saw them he ran up exclaiming—
"Oh, Master Gilpins, there's a chap been and run off wi' all my traps, and I've not a rag left, but just what I stand in!"
Sam was, of course, glad enough to assist in carrying their luggage. James apologised to the stranger, saying he would not trouble him.
"Not so fast, young chum!" exclaimed the man. "You promised me a couple of nobblers, and engaged me to call a porter. I'm not going to let you off so easily! Down with the tin, or come and stand the treat!"
The Gilpins were rather more inclined to laugh at the man than to be angry; certainly they had no intention of paying him. Perhaps their looks expressed this. He was becoming more and more blustering, when a cry from several people was heard; and looking up the street, an open carriage with a pair of horses was seen dashing down towards the water at a furious rate. There was no coachman on the box, but that there was some one in the carriage James discovered by seeing a shawl fluttering from the side, and by hearing a piercing shriek, uttered apparently as if then, for the first time, the lady had discovered the imminence of her danger. In a few seconds the carriage would have been dragged over the quay and into water many fathoms deep.
"Stop the horses! Fifty—a hundred—five hundred pounds to whoever will do it!" shouted a man's voice from within.
Right and left the people were flying out of the way of the infuriated steeds. There was not manhood enough left apparently in the idle, dissipated-looking loiterers who were standing near. Two or three took their hands out of their pockets and ran forward, but quickly returned as the horses came galloping by them. The young Gilpins heard the gentleman's offer.
"We don't want that!" cried James. "Come on, Arthur!"
They sprang towards the carriage, one on each side; and then turning, ran in the direction it was going, grasping the head-stalls of the animals as they passed, but allowing themselves to be carried on some way, their weight however telling instantly on the galloping steeds.
Sam Green had remained standing by the luggage, having made up his mind that the suspicious-looking stranger would decamp with it, if left unguarded. When, however, he saw that the horses, in spite of his young friends' efforts, would drag the carriage over, unless stopped, he started up, with his hands outstretched before him, uttering with stentorian voice a true English "Woh! woho!" and then, with an arm from which an ox would dislike to receive a blow, he seized the heads of the horses, already trying to stop themselves, and forced them back from the edge stones of the quay, which they had almost reached. Undoubtedly the horses had been broken in by a trainer from the old country: Sam Green's "Woh! woho!" acted like magic; and the pacified though trembling animals allowed themselves to be turned round, with their heads away from the water. While the elder Gilpin and Sam held them, Arthur ran to open the door, that the lady and gentleman might alight. The one was of middle age, the other very young—father and daughter, Arthur surmised.
"My brave lads, you have nobly won the reward I promised," said the gentleman, as he lifted out his daughter, who, pale and agitated, still, by the expression of her countenance, showed the gratitude she felt.
"I am sure that my brother and I require no reward for doing our duty," answered Arthur, blushing as he spoke. "Besides, without the aid of that other lad, our fellow-passenger, we should probably have failed."
"What! I took you for labouring youths, I beg your pardon," said the gentleman, giving a glance of surprise at him.
"Our intention is to labour," said Arthur, unaffectedly.
"Ah! you have the stuff in you to command success," said the gentleman. "But I must request you to accompany me for a short distance, as my daughter prefers walking; and if I once lose sight of you in this straggling city, I may not easily find you again."
"Thank you, sir," said Arthur; "we have our luggage with us, and must go to an inn; but if you will favour me with your address, we will call on you before we leave Sydney."
While they were speaking, the coachman, in consequence of whose carelessness in letting go their heads the horses had run away, came up, and released James and Sam. Not a word of scolding was uttered—the gentleman thought a moment.
"Here, Sykes, lift that luggage into the carriage, and drive these young gentleman home; leave them there, and come back for Miss Fanny and me to the club."
In vain the young Gilpins expostulated.
"I am a determined person, and will have it so," said the gentleman.
Before they looked round, Sam had stowed away their luggage in the carriage, greatly to the disappointment of the bully, who had, it seemed, been watching for an opportunity to make off with a portion. The stranger then, almost against their will, forced them into it; and writing a few lines on the leaf of a pocket-book, gave it to the coachman. "Come, my friend, you must go in also," he added, taking Sam by the arm.
Sam drew back, and, touching his hat, exclaimed, "Noa, sir—noa, thank ye. It 'ud ne'er do for me to ride wi' the young squires; I know my place better nor that."
A mob such as Sydney, of all British ports, perhaps, can alone produce, had by this time collected round the carriage. Sam's remark produced a loud guffaw laugh from among them, and a variety of observations came rattling down on him, such as "Go it, young Touch-my-hat; the nob will pay you—he's a nigger with a white face. I wonder where he was raised? His mother was a dancing mistress—little doubt of that."
Sam's temper had been irritated from the loss of his property, which he very naturally concluded had been stolen by some of his tormentors. He now looked as if he were going to give way to his temper. Instead of so doing, however, he turned calmly round with his double fist, and said slowly, "I'll tell you what, young chaps, a man who respects himself keeps his own place, and when he meets a gentleman he'd think himself without manners nor character if he didn't touch his hat to him. Did any on ye ever see two gentlemen take off their hats to each other? Well, then, I have; and I should just like to know which was the worst man of the two? I'll say another thing—I have mostly found that when I have took my hat off to a gentleman he took his off to me; and I wonder if his friends laughed at him. But I suppose some of you are great nobs yourselves, and know all about what nobs do."
Having thus delivered himself, Sam, giving a contemptuous glance at his opponents, slowly mounted the box by the side of the coachman. The gentleman, who had walked on with his daughter, bowed to the Gilpins as they passed.
"I am afraid that, from taking us to be ploughboys, he now believes we are young noblemen in disguise," observed Arthur. "This is a very different style to that in which we could have expected to have entered Sydney half an hour ago."
"Perhaps he thinks more of the service we have rendered him than we should," answered his brother; "however, it's a curious adventure, certainly."
"Well, muster, there be rum jokes in this town o' yours," observed Sam to the coachman, after keeping silence for some time.
"There be, young man," was the laconic answer; "and rum things done."
In this Sam agreed, informing Mr Sykes—for this, he ascertained, was the coachman's name—how he had lost his property.
"Be thou the young man who stopped the 'osses?" inquired Sykes.
"The young squires did it, and I helped 'em," said Sam.
"And saved my bacon," observed Sykes.
"I say, Muster Sykes, what's the gen'l'man's name?" asked Sam, discovering, perhaps, by the tone of the coachman's voice, rather than by any perceptible change in his mask-like features, that he was not ill disposed towards him, and preparing therefore to be confidential.
Sykes informed him that his master's name was Prentiss, that he was a large squatter, that there were other brothers all well off, and an old father; and that, take him all in all as masters went, he was not a bad one. Sam, in return, told him all about himself, and all he knew about the Gilpins, by which time the carriage had reached the door of Mr Prentiss's residence, in one of the best parts of Sydney. It was a handsome house; and a respectable-looking servant-woman, after a few words from the coachman, showed the Gilpins into a well-furnished dining-room, their luggage being placed in the hall.
"You'll go with me, young man," observed Mr Sykes to Sam; "you'll be more comfortable than with the gentry."
To this Sam agreed; and drove round to the back of the house, where he was introduced to Mrs Sykes, who lived over the coach-house, and numerous Masters and Misses Sykes, thin, sallow, and remarkably precocious young people, the eldest not being more than ten. Among this hopeful family Sam in a few minutes made himself a great favourite.
The young immigrants waited the arrival of their host with no little curiosity, for they knew less of him than Sam had contrived to learn. In a short time, however, the servant, placing a tray with meat, bread, fruit, and light wine, begged them to refresh themselves. This occupied their time till the arrival of Mr Prentiss. Perhaps James was disappointed at not seeing the young lady when her father entered the room. Mr Prentiss put out his hand, cordially welcoming them to Australia and to his house; and, begging them to make it their home during their stay, he quickly drew out from them a statement of their plans and wishes. "You can make a fair start," he observed. "You have the five hundred pounds I promised, very nobly won, too; and I may give you a few hints besides as to the purchase of stock. You will, of course, become squatters—by far the best business for young men of enterprise and activity. What do you say to it?"
"We should like nothing better, sir," answered James. "But—I speak again for my brother as well as for myself—we cannot accept payment for performing a mere act of duty; your advice and assistance may be of the greatest value to us, and of that we will gladly avail ourselves. The young man who helped us to stop the horses must, of course, speak for himself."
"Well, well, I admire your independence and high feeling," answered Mr Prentiss. "I doubt, however, that you will find many in this country to consider that you are right; but perhaps I may be of service to you in the way you desire. You, of course, will make my house your home while you remain in Sydney; when you wish to commence your life in the bush, I will send you up the country to my father and some brothers of mine, who will put you in the way of a fair start. Your young shipmate fairly earned a portion of the reward; he also deserves my gratitude. He looks as if there was work in him, and to such a person I can be permanently of use. Unhappily, numbers of men come out here—they may be counted by hundreds or thousands—who will not work, or who cannot work; nothing suits them. They come with pockets full of letters, expecting first-rate situations with nothing to do. How can such people be assisted to any advantage? Give them money, and they squander it; place them in situations of trust, and they are dismissed as incompetent, or they throw them up as uncongenial to their tastes. All we want in this magnificent country are people who will try to work, and if they do not succeed in one thing, will turn their hands to something else. There is ample room, I say, for persons of every possible description, provided always that they belong to the 'try' school."
Mr Prentiss insisted on taking his guests round the town to visit its lions; and greatly surprised they were to see the wonderful progress it had already made. "Wool has done it all! Well may the golden fleece be our emblem!" he observed.
At the late dinner hour they were introduced to Mrs Prentiss and two daughters—the young lady they had before seen and a younger sister. All awkwardness soon wore off, and they felt themselves perfectly at home. Mr Prentiss had a conversation with Sam, the result of which made him supremely happy; his satisfaction was not decreased either when, two days afterwards, Sykes brought him his bag of clothes.
"Don't ask questions, young man," he observed, as he handed them; "there are few of the old hands I don't know, and I guessed who had your property."
Pleasant as the two young Gilpins found their stay in Sydney, they did not disguise their anxiety to be off into the country; and their new friend accordingly made arrangements for their journey.
A dray, similar in construction to that used by brewers in England, but drawn by oxen, and laden with all sorts of stores, such as are required on an Australian farm—tea, carpenters' tools and agricultural implements, groceries and casks of liquor, clothing and furniture—was making its way towards the north-east from Sydney. There was the bullock-driver in charge, with his chum, a newly hired hand, and Sam Green, who walked or sat on the dray; while the two Gilpins rode alongside on horses, provided by Mr Prentiss. They were dressed more in the Australian style than when they landed, and in a way much better suited to the climate. The road had been excellent for a hundred miles or more, with numerous villages near it, and a large proportion of houses of entertainment, so that they had no want of accommodation when they halted. They had now for some time left the high-road, and though there were inns, and occasionally villages, and farms, and stock stations, they had sometimes to depend on their own resources, and to bivouac in the bush. This the young immigrants found by far the pleasantest part of their journey. The oxen were turned loose to graze at leisure; sticks were collected, and a fire lighted for boiling the tea-kettle and cooking the damper. The old hands troubled themselves very little about their night's lodging; they, like Sam Green, were satisfied with the bare ground under the dray if it threatened rain, or anywhere near it if the weather was fine. A small tent had been provided by Mr Prentiss, which, with some ticking filled with dry grass, gave the Gilpins a luxurious lodging for the night. They could scarcely go to sleep on turning in for their first real night in the bush, from the novelty of the scene and the prospects opening up to them. Before dawn they both started up, awoke by the strangest and most discordant sounds.
"What can it be?" cried James.
"An attack of the blacks," said Arthur, rubbing his eyes. "But no! Listen! They are birds, I verily believe; but the strangest birds I ever heard."
He was right: there was the hideous, unearthly cry of the laughing-jackass, called often the bushman's clock; the screaming cry of thousands of parrots flying here and there through the forest; there was the cackle of the wattle-bird, the clear notes of the magpie, and the confused chattering of thousands of leather-heads; while many other birds added their notes to the discordant chorus, and speedily banished sleep from the eyes of their hearers. The stockmen started to their feet, and hurried off to bring in the oxen and horses; a fire was lighted, tea boiled, breakfast discussed with considerable rapidity; and, before the sun was up, the party had recommenced their journey along the dusty dray-track—for as yet it deserved that name rather than a road. The scenery was varied, and often very beautiful when viewed under a clear blue sky and bright sun. The beds of streams were frequently passed, but they were either dry altogether, or occasional holes only with water in them could be seen here and there along the course, or, if nowhere dry, they were easily forded. The Irish bullock-driver, Larry Killock, told Sam that, in the rainy season, these were often foaming torrents, rushing on with terrific noise, and sweeping away everything they meet.
"Many a poor fellow has been drowned in trying to cross on horseback where, perhaps, he went over with dry feet a few days before," said Larry.
"That's after the snow melts," observed Sam.
"Snow! man alive! It's a small matter of snow comes down from the sky in this beautiful country, except, now and then, on the top of the Blue Mountains out there; though, as for frosts, it's cold enough on the high ground in July and August, when the south wind blows, to make a fellow blow his fingers to keep them warm, and to think a blazing fire and a blanket pleasant companions."
Sam thought that Larry was quizzing him, but still he did not like to accuse him directly. "It's a strange country this, then, muster, I'm thinking," he remarked cautiously.
"Strange! It is a strange country, faith!" answered Larry. "It is summer here when, by all dacent rules, it should be winter; the south wind is cold, and the north blazing hot. There are creatures with four legs which have ducks' heads; and birds, with long legs and no wings, as tall as horses; while some of the animals stow their young away in a bag in front of them, instead of letting them follow properly at their heels, as pigs and ducks and hens do in the old country. The trees shed their bark instead of their leaves; and it's only just surprising to me that the people walk on their feet instead of their heads, and that the sun thinks fit to rise in the east instead of the west; and it's often when I wake in the mornin' that I look out expecting to see that he's grown tired of his old ways, and changed to suit the other things in the land."
Sam, who could appreciate an English style of joke, was unable to make out whether or not the Irishman was in earnest; but he thought it wise to wait till he could learn the truth from his young friends, when they camped in the evening.
"It's only just come out, ye are?" asked Larry.
Sam told him all about himself, as he had told Sykes, expecting an equal amount of communicativeness in return. "You've been some time in the country, master, I'm thinking? How did you come out?"
Larry looked at him with a twinkle in his eye. "Faith, that's just a sacret between myself and them who knows all about it," he answered, with a laugh. "It's my belief that the big-wigs across the fish-pond had just an idea of the mighty great value I'd be to the country, and sent me out free of all charge to myself and family intirely."
The scenery improved as the travellers advanced, and contrasted favourably with the dusty, stony, and worn-out region through which they had passed nearer the capital.
"Horrible farming!" observed James; "if such were practised in England universally, the whole country would become a desert in a few years."
Sometimes they passed through scenery like that of a park in England, with open green pastures sprinkled with clumps of trees; some deserving the names of woods, others consisting but of a few trees. The greater number were Eucalypti the evergreen gum, and stringy-bark trees; but on the banks of streams and on the hillsides, and sometimes in rich, alluvial valleys, such as are found in the northern hemisphere and in less sunny climes, were to be seen flowers, of great size and beauty, such as flourish only in greenhouses in England; while a great variety of the orchis tribe, and geraniums, both large and small, were found in great profusion. The trees, the names of many of which were given by Larry, bore little or no resemblance to those of the same name at home. Among the most common were the box, wattle, and cherry; but undoubtedly the most prominent everywhere in the landscape were the old gum trees, and the huge iron stringy-bark trees, which, now with shattered and weird appearance, had braved the fierce storms of winter and the hot blasts of summer for centuries. Many strange birds flew by overhead, and still stranger wild animals started up from beneath some sheltering bush, and ran off along the fresh glades, all reminding the new-comers how far distant they were from the home of their childhood.
The old settled district had been left far behind before the animal they most wished to see started up near them. He was a large creature, full five feet in height as he sat upright under the scant shade of a venerable gum tree, contemplating apparently the scene before him. His long tail was stretched out on the ground behind him—an important support, and his little fore-paws tucked up in front. James and Arthur were ahead of their party, and so quietly had their horses trod over the soft ground that he did not appear to have heard them. They possessed guns, parting gifts from Mr Prentiss; but, not being required as a means of defence or offence, they had been left in the dray. The kangaroo ("an old man" Larry called him) at length, hearing a sound, turned his mild, intelligent countenance towards them, and as he did so instantly gave a spring forward, startling them by its suddenness and the extent of ground it cleared. Away he went, moving with similar springs, at a rate fleet as that of the deer. In vain Larry and the men with the dray shouted and ran after him with their guns. He was out of range before they could lift them to their shoulders. Larry said that possibly a mob might be come upon before long. In another hour or so, as they were travelling along a somewhat stony ridge, a large number of creatures were seen in the fertile valley below them. Some were lying stretched at length on their sides, some were frisking about, round and over each other, and others were sitting up, sedately watching the rest.
"Hurra, now! There's the mob I told you of!" shouted Larry. "If we had but the dogs and the master's rifle, we'd have more kangaroo steaks for supper than we'd eat in a week."
He could scarcely restrain himself from leaving his bullocks and giving chase; he made a start indeed, but checked himself in time, seeing that the probable result would have been the upsetting of his dray and the destruction of most of its cargo. The young Gilpins with Sam found their way down the hill, hoping to ride down one of them; but the quick scent and keen eyes of the animals discovered their approach, and in an instant all were up on their feet and tails ready for a start—the mothers picking up the young joeys and putting them into their pouches— and off went the entire herd down the valley, springing along in the most curious fashion, till they were out of sight.
Sam Green's open eyes of astonishment were very amusing. "Well! I always did think that animals had four legs, and there they go just two and a tail, a-skipping like grasshoppers over the ground. Well, well, well!" he continued ejaculating till they disappeared. "There they go; there they go! There's nothing I won't believe after that!"
Their adventures as they travelled on were to be singularly few, they thought. Now a dingo or wild dog, now a toombat or opossum, made its appearance, and created matter of interest and inquiry. One evening, after they had camped on the borders of a wide plain, containing fine sheep-runs, which they were to cross the next day, the brothers led on their horses to find better feed than appeared near at hand; and, having tethered them, they sat down to talk over the future, and to commune with themselves. Their heads had been resting on their hands for some time, when Arthur, looking up, saw a creature approaching from a distance. That it was an emu they guessed at once. They sat still, afraid of frightening it away. It stalked leisurely on towards their horses, not noticing them. Its head seemed fully six feet from the ground, at the end of a long neck; its legs were thick, to support its fat, tub-shaped body, of a brownish-black colour. Reaching the horses, it stopped, made a curious noise, which sounded like "Boo!" in their faces, and which caused them to start back. James and Arthur, thinking that their steeds would have broken their tethers, jumped up, when the emu, having satisfied his curiosity, turned round and trotted off, at a pace which showed that he had no fear of being pursued.
Towards the close of the day the travellers, after crossing an elevated down, saw before them a silvery stream running through a wide valley towards the east, its banks fringed by a variety of trees; while not far from them, amid a grove of fruit trees, appeared a pretty dwelling-house, with a verandah running round it, and near at hand, barns, sheds, stables, and other outhouses. A closer inspection showed them that there were carpenters' and blacksmiths shops; indeed, it was a complete farm establishment on a large scale.
As riding on, in advance of the dray, they reached the door, a stout, hearty-looking old gentleman came out to meet them, and welcomed them in the most cordial manner. Their horses were quickly unsaddled and turned into a paddock, and they themselves conducted into the house, and introduced to the members of the family as late arrivals from the old country. All welcomed them; and they were soon seated at a well-covered supper-table, surrounded by the various inmates of the house. The young strangers were surprised to find that the letter of introduction they brought had not been read, and that the kindness they were receiving was quite independent of anything that might be said in their favour. It was not till the next day that the old Mr Prentiss alluded to it. "We received you, young gentlemen, as strangers," he remarked; "but I little thought how much I owed you for saving from injury, if not death, those so dear to me."
James and Arthur Gilpin agreed that their "lines had fallen to them in pleasant places." They were treated as members of the family, and, what was of the greatest consequence to them as intending settlers, they were shown all the operations taking place on the farm. As they gave diligent attention to everything they saw, they rapidly acquired a sufficient knowledge of agriculture and of the management of sheep and cattle, as practised in Australia, to enable them, with their previous experience as farmers in England, to commence farming on their own account.
While, however, they were in search of a station to suit them, Mr Prentiss received an application to find a gentleman capable of taking the management of a sheep and cattle farm, about a hundred and fifty miles off. "Quite in our neighbourhood, as we measure distances in this country," he remarked. He proposed to the young Gilpins that they should accept the post. "You will be allowed to keep a proportion of sheep and cattle on your own account, and receive wages for looking after those of your employer, so that you will gain in both ways. You will find also an established system by which, if it prove a good one, time and labour may be saved. I would gladly find you employment, but this will be far more to your advantage. It was hoped, I believe, that one of my own sons would take it."
The brothers at once agreed to accept the offer.
The Gilpins no longer felt like newly arrived immigrants when they found themselves on their way to Warragong, the station of which they had undertaken charge. They were far, however, from being over-confident of success, or of pleasing their employers; but they had resolved to make up by diligence and perseverance for their want of experience, and Mr Prentiss assured them that he had no doubt of their doing well. Sam Green had thrown in his lot with them, and though receiving good wages from Mr Prentiss, he begged that he might be allowed to accompany them on the chance of their being able to give him permanent employment. Knowing by this time the value of a thoroughly trustworthy servant in Australia, they were very glad to accept his offer. They, as well as Sam, had been furnished with excellent horses; and, much to his own satisfaction as well as theirs, Larry Killock was sent with a light cart to convey their luggage and various luxuries, which had been provided through the kindness of Mrs Prentiss. A native black, partly civilised, and able to speak broken English, accompanied them as guide, and formed the fifth person of this party. He either travelled in the cart or ran on foot beside it.
"I should think that very few settlers begin a life in the bush with so many advantages as we possess," observed Arthur, as he rode on with his brother, a little ahead of the cart; "we appear to have jumped over all difficulties, and to have arrived at a point which many only reach after years of toil."
"I am not quite certain that it will prove to our permanent advantage," answered James. "I would rather have begun as we proposed, and worked our way upward; we should the better be able to encounter difficulties or mishaps which may occur."
"Well, I vote we do not grumble with our good fortune," said Arthur, laughing; "we shall have plenty to do, depend on that."
There was no great variety of scenery in that part of the country over which they travelled, but for the want of it the beauty of the climate, and the sense of present freedom which they enjoyed, made ample amends. Without luggage they might have performed the journey in three days, but with the cart, twenty or, at the most, thirty miles could not be got over in the day. Even supposing that they could have found their way alone, it would not have been altogether safe to leave the cart without protection. Bushrangers were occasionally, though rarely, heard of, and would probably, if they fell in with the cart, make no scruple of running off with it, and perhaps murder the driver. Any wandering blacks from the interior might also pillage the cart, and most probably kill poor Larry.
Larry had been entertaining Sam Green with an account of the depredations committed by such gentry in the bygone days of the colony, when the Dick Turpins, who had obtained a short-lived celebrity on the highway of Old England, laid the settlers in this new land under contribution; and the white stockmen shot down the black natives with as little compunction as they would kangaroos; the blacks, in retaliation, murdering them or any white men they could meet with. Larry, observing the wide-mouthed interest created by his narratives, went on till poor Sam began to wish himself safe out of the country again. They were crossing a wide plain, with a light soil thickly covered with grass. A cloud of dust was seen to the right of the direction in which they were travelling; it increased in extent, and rose higher and higher.
"Be them the niggers coming to murder us?" asked Sam, in a fright.
"If them are niggers, they're big ones, my boy, anyhow," answered Larry, evasively.
A dull, regular, pounding sound was heard, and at length dark forms were seen issuing from the cloud of dust—a few first, and then more and more, resolving themselves into bullocks, black, white, and dun, galloping on and bellowing with might and main. Horsemen appeared on either side, like officers on a parade, and with their long whips, which they kept on cracking like pistol-shots, they kept order among their unruly charge. Shouting and shrieking, they galloped round from the rear to the side to bring back any beast which showed an intention of straying away, their dogs sagaciously rendering them assistance by barking at the heels of the animals, and turning them back into the herd. What with the thunder-like bellowing of the cattle and the tramp of their feet, the shouting of the drivers, the cracking of their whips, the barking of the dogs, the dust from the ground, and the steam from the creatures' backs, as, lashing their long tails, they tore onwards, jostling each other in their course, their sharp horns lowered for the charge, the approaching herd appeared like some vast army of savage monsters, rushing on to meet their foes in battle. To draw up out of their way was impossible, and the travellers soon found themselves surrounded by the herd; the creatures, however, turned their horns aside, while the shape of their own heads and the width of their backs prevented them from running them into their companions in front or on either side, in spite of the seemingly confused way in which they were hurrying on. The herd had passed, when two of the principal drivers, who, in spite of their rough dress and hair-covered countenances, appeared to be gentlemen, drew up and saluted the Gilpins with "Good day, friends; whither bound?"
"To Warragong, to take charge of the station," said James.
"I wish you joy," remarked one of the strangers; "you will have no easy task, I take it. A sad scoundrel has had the management of it for some time, as we know to our cost, having once employed him. I am afraid, also, from the sort of men he always gets about him, that you will have no small trouble with them." The strangers informed them that they were bound south to the Port Philip district, where there was a great demand for cattle.
As the evening was approaching, the parties agreed to camp together. Fires were lighted, the triangles erected, and the pots were soon boiling, while the quickly made damper was placed under the ashes to bake for the coming meal. None of the party, however, could keep their seats by the fire long, without being often summoned to their feet, and sometimes to their saddles, to drive in the straying bullocks. It seemed as hard work to keep them together when resting as to drive them forward, but neither master nor men were disconcerted; they rushed here and there with shout and song and laughter, till they had brought back the straying cattle, and then they sat down by the fire, or rolled themselves up in their blankets, as if nothing had happened. The Gilpins were sorry to part from their new friends, whose frank, hearty manners had won their regard. The morning meal of tea, damper, and pork having been discussed, they rode off in opposite directions.
"Not pleasant information this, our friends gave us last night," said Arthur. "What can we do?"
"Wait events," answered his brother; "forewarned is forearmed. We will keep our knowledge to ourselves, though it will be necessary to advise Green not to trust to any of the men, so as to be led into mischief by them. Perhaps the accounts of their misconduct may have been exaggerated."
Travelling in Australia has its disagreeables as well as its agreeables: there are heavy rains and fogs and sharp winds in winter; and in summer, scorching blasts and stifling heat, and biting or stinging insects, flying, and crawling, and hopping, and dust and smoke from bush fires and the burning trees, and want, at times, of water; but, notwithstanding these occasional drawbacks, so delightful is the perfect freedom to be enjoyed, the pure, bright atmosphere, and the general healthfulness of the climate, that in the opinion of most people the advantages very greatly preponderate.
The brothers had expected to reach the station in the afternoon, but an accident to the cart caused some delay, and the sun set before it appeared in sight. Their black guide, however, assured them that the intervening country was tolerably level and easy, and that as there were certain woods he knew well, and a river on the other side, they could not miss their way. Accordingly they pushed on, though it became so dark that they began to wish that they had camped at the usual hour. Suddenly, as they reached the confines of a wood, their horses snorted and started, and refused to proceed—those in the cart very nearly upsetting it by turning rapidly round; and, had not Sam caught their heads, they would have galloped off in an opposite direction. Directly afterwards, a bright light burst forth from the wood and a spectacle appeared sufficient to make even a stout heart, with any tendency to superstitious feelings, tremble. From among the trees, just beyond the light, appeared, flitting in and out, some twenty or thirty blanched skeletons, throwing their bony arms and legs with the greatest rapidity into every conceivable attitude. Now they disappeared in the darkness, now again they darted into light; round and round they went, now seeming to sink into the ground, now leaping into the air, and often turning head over heels. All the time not a sound proceeded from the phantom-looking dancers. The Gilpins could scarcely help fancying themselves under some delusion. They rubbed their eyes.
"What is it?" exclaimed Arthur. "Horrible! most horrible! Do you see the skeletons?"
"Indeed I do," answered his brother; "but such things cannot be—are not—at all events."
Sam Green had hitherto been engaged with the horses; he now came up to the point where the hideous spectacle was visible, and no sooner did his eyes rest on it than he exclaimed, "Run, squires, run! If it was mortal foes I'd stick by ye; but that's more than any mortal man can dare to face. Oh! this is a terrible country, where the people cannot lie quiet in graves, but must needs go skipping about without any flesh on their bones."
"The hoighth of ondacency!" cried out Larry, in a voice which showed very little, if any, alarm. "Murra, go and tell your ugly countrymen that they are frightening the horses, and that they must turn their other sides to us till we have passed."
This order was given to the guide, who ran fearlessly up to the spot where the skeleton dance was proceeding, and no sooner did he reach it than the whole vanished like magic.
"It's only some black fellows dancing a Corroborry," said the Irishman, laughing; "you needn't be in such a mighty tremble, Sam. We haven't the shred of a ghost out here; there may be some in the old country, but they're not fond of the salt sea, and couldn't cross it, not if they were paid for it, except they came out at the expense of the Government, like some other honest gintlemen I've heard spake of."
The horses, however, were still very unwilling to proceed, and it was some time before they could be coaxed past the suspicious spot; they then set off at increased speed to get away from the object of their dread. The party pulled up for the black, who came running up. "No good people," he said, in a low voice; "come here, do bad."
The Gilpins, hearing his remarks, endeavoured to discover the reason of his supposing that the party of natives they had just passed were badly disposed, but could elicit no further information from him. It was more than an hour after this that a glimmering light appeared ahead, which Murra, the guide, assured them must proceed from the station. It appeared to be somewhat above them on the hillside, and they soon afterwards found themselves ascending slightly towards it. They had not got far, however, before several large dogs flew out, barking furiously, towards them. They and Larry shouted loudly to the hut-keeper to call the animals off, but no one appeared, and, the dogs contenting themselves with barking, they proceeded on to the hut, from the window of which the light gleamed out. The dogs, still loudly barking, at length roused up a couple of rough-looking men, who staggered out of the door, and, one of them holding a lamp, stared stupidly at the travellers, at the same time that, with loud oaths, he shouted to the dogs to be quiet.
"Oh! you are strangers," said the least tipsy; "well, you shall have a stranger's welcome in the bush; and so you may just go and turn out your horses, and then come and get what you can inside."
"We've come to take charge of the station," said James, rather nettled; "so, my men, I rather think that it is your duty to see and make yourselves useful to us."
"Ho! ho! Pretty sort of masters you'd make over us!" cried the man, holding up the light in their faces. "To my mind, you'd better go back to them that sent you."
This was even a worse reception than they had expected; but, perceiving that the man was very drunk, they saw that it would not be wise to irritate him.
"Well, my man," said James, calmly, "we have pushed on here in the hopes of being welcomed, but all we will ask now is a supper and a night's rest."
"As you speak us fair, we'll treat you fair, whoever you may be," said the man. "Come in; the kettle is boiling, and there's a damper or two ready under the ashes."
The cart having been placed close to the hut, the horses were unharnessed and unsaddled and turned out to pick up their supper, and the whole party were soon collected in the hut. The interior showed evident signs of a late debauch. There was a rough table in the centre covered with tobacco-ashes, a broken black cutty, or pipe, some battered tin mugs, and a couple of empty spirit bottles on their sides, while under it lay a couple of men fast asleep, and another in the corner. Some kicks from the shoe of their more sober companion, who had brought the newly arrived party in, roused them up; and he then proceeded to eject them, telling them to go to Bateman's hut, where they would find shelter. Grumbling, they staggered out, except two, who were too far gone to move. The hut was, as might have been expected, in a very dirty and untidy condition—so dirty, indeed, that the Gilpins were contemplating camping outside, when Larry, going out, reported that a storm was brewing, and proceeded forthwith to bring the contents of the cart inside. A plentiful though roughly cooked supper was soon on the table to which all hands did ample justice. The hut was a long, narrow building, with the entrance door towards one end, where the mud-built fireplace was formed and the table stood. In the further end were some bunks, or standing bed-places, and the stores were piled up. Larry placed the articles he had brought in the cart across the hut, so as more effectually to screen off the inner end. He and the hut-keeper, whom he addressed as Jonas Knoll, appeared to be old acquaintances, but very few words passed between them. For the first time since they had landed, the Gilpins lay down to rest with a feeling that they were not as safe as they would have been in their own home in England.
Before Larry lay down, after the hut-keeper had gone to sleep, they observed that he put fresh grease into the lamp and trimmed the wick. More than once James awoke and looked around; everybody in the hut appeared to be sleeping soundly. The two stockmen and the hut-keeper especially were snoring loudly, and not a sound from the outside was heard. "It is wrong to be giving way to fear," he said to himself. "These coarse fellows have been indulging, according to their tastes, in a debauch, and were annoyed at being interrupted. They would scarcely dare to harm us even if they wished it. We must keep a tight rein on them and a careful watch on their proceedings, without allowing them to discover that they are especially observed, and we shall do well."
The next morning the hut-keepers and stockmen belonging to the headquarters of the station made their appearance, sobered, and tolerably respectful in their manner; though there was an expression in their eyes and a tone in their voices which made the young managers believe that it would take but little to make them break out into open mutiny. They were, however, surprised at Larry's changed manner. There was an impudent swagger in all he did, and when ordered to perform any duty, he invariably replied in a way which made his companions laugh, though he executed the order with promptness. He seemed to be on familiar terms with all the people on the station, and to be a favourite among them. The brothers at once saw that there was much to do, and many alterations to be made in every direction about the station. The huts were in a dilapidated condition—the one intended for their residence was so dirty as to be scarcely habitable; the stock-yards required repair; and, worse than all, the books were so badly kept that it was almost impossible to ascertain the number and state of the stock, either of cattle, sheep, or horses, or of the stores. The overseer was absent—gone to a distant run—so they took possession of the books, which had been left carelessly out, with the intention of verifying them with the actual state of things. Having made the necessary extracts, they locked them up and started on horseback, accompanied by Sam, whose practised eye was likely to prove of great assistance in numbering the flocks of sheep and herds of cattle which were to be inspected. They had not made their intention known, and, just as they were starting, they summoned the most civil-looking of the stockmen, and ordered him to mount his horse and accompany them as a guide. As every flock is named, they had no difficulty in indicating the flock they wished to visit; but they did not tell him till they had got some way from the station, so that he would have no opportunity of communicating with his companions should he suspect their designs. Arrived at a run, they immediately called the shepherd, and ordered him to make his flock pass before them, when they took careful note of their numbers, appearance, and general condition. Having done so, they put spurs to their horses and galloped off to the next run. As they had a pocket compass and had been furnished with a rough map of the country, they had no difficulty in assuring themselves that their guide was conducting them aright. The shepherds and stock-keepers looked puzzled, and as not a single remark of approval or disapproval was uttered, they could not make up their minds how to proceed. Several of them would have given much to peep into the notebook which those quiet-looking young men held in their hands. Refreshing themselves and their steeds at a stock-keeper's hut, they returned home late in the evening, satisfied that a large amount of rascality had been going forward, and that it would require great judgment and determination on their part to put matters to right. The next day and the following were employed in the same manner. Each day confirmed them more and more in their opinion. For the present, however, they could only watch the proceedings of the men under them. They could not dismiss the whole of them, nor could they ascertain who were the most guilty. That the overseer was a great scoundrel they had no doubt, and they therefore agreed that he must at once be got rid of. James had written an account of the state of things to Mr Prentiss, but doubted whether to entrust it to Larry Killock, who had so completely identified himself with the other men, that they thought it probable he might give it to them to read, and so put them on their guard. They were still in this state of doubt when the time arrived for Larry to take his departure. They were sitting in the hut at supper, the work of the day over, no one but Sam being near, when the Irishman put his head in at the door. Looking round, and assuring himself that they were the only occupants of the building, he approached them with his former civil manner.
"It's all pretence, yer honours," he whispered, with his hand to his nose. "They're big rascals, every mother's son of them; and I'd give my right hand to be allowed to stop, if I thought that they'd be doing you any mischief; but I don't think they'll dare to work you harm. The worst of them hasn't come yet, and when he does, he'll try to make you believe that he's the most honest man alive. But, whist, there's some one coming. If you'd have the goodness to kick me out of the hut, and call me an impudent thief of the world, it would keep up appearances."
The brothers heartily thanked the Irishman; but were not obliged to fulfil his last request, as he managed to run out of the hut before any one appeared. The following evening, while they were sitting as before, at supper, a horse's hoofs were heard approaching, and soon afterwards a man of middle age, dressed in the usual rough costume of the bush, unceremoniously entered the hut, and, eyeing them with a scrutinising glance, drew up a stool and seated himself at the table.
"The new managers, I presume, Mr —- I beg your pardon—I forget your name," he began, in a supercilious tone. "You have stolen a march on me, and I conclude that I am to be superseded."
"That probably will not rest with us," said James. "I suppose that if the trustees of the property find that we can manage it to their satisfaction without help, they will not consider themselves justified in retaining your services."
The overseer, Mr Basham, as he was called, was very unlike the person they expected to see. The shape of his features was remarkably good, though the expression was unsatisfactory; his figure was light and wiry, and capable of enduring considerable fatigue; and his manners were those of a gentleman, marred somewhat by rough companions and the hard life he had led. He saw at once that the young men with whom he had to deal, though inferior to him in knowledge of the world, possessed an uprightness and firmness of character with which he could not trifle. He would much have liked to have entrapped them by offering them a share of his profits, but that plan, it was evident, would not answer with them. Still he trusted that some way might be found of securing what he had obtained, if not for making more.
"Well, well, gentlemen, I have always been an unfortunate person, and so we'll drop the subject, and discuss what is taking place in the great world."
Without more ado he did turn the subject, and showed that he was a man of considerable information, and had received a superior education. This only made him the more difficult to deal with. Though he was now free, they suspected strongly that he had been a convict. They could scarcely believe that with his abilities he would not otherwise have been employed in some higher position. After their inspection of the runs, they had been engaged for a day in turning everything out of the hut, and in having it thoroughly cleansed. They then re-arranged the furniture and contents, according to their own taste. For several days after Mr Basham's return they saw him hunting about the hut in search of something, and at last he asked them if they had seen his books. James at once replied that he had, according to the direction of the trustees, taken possession of them, and should keep them till he received directions to the contrary. He shrugged his shoulders as he observed, "My hard fate again! And so, I suppose, if anything goes wrong, those books are to be brought as evidence against me, though I may be as innocent as the babe unborn." There was a sinister expression in his countenance as he spoke, of which he was probably unaware, but which convinced the young managers that they must be careful how they dealt with him till they could receive authority from Sydney to dismiss him.
In spite of all their vigilance and activity, things continued to go on wrong. Sheep disappeared, carried off by dingoes, or by the native blacks; the shepherds asserted that cattle strayed, and could not be recovered; and two valuable horses, intended to be sent to Sydney, for shipment to India, were missing. More than once the brothers were inclined to wish that they had commenced as squatters on their own account in a small way, with only a few honest men around them; yet, having undertaken their present task, they were not the men to shrink from it. They came to the determination, however, not to embark any of their own small capital till they had got everything to rights, and men under them in whom they could place confidence. At length the looked-for authority arrived to dismiss, not only Mr Basham, but any of the men who might behave ill, or be suspected of malpractices; it being suggested that, as trustworthy men were difficult to procure, it would be injudicious to proceed on light grounds, at the same time, as proof positive would in many cases be impossible, it would not be necessary to wait till it was found. This was throwing a large amount of responsibility on their shoulders, but they determined to do their duty. Mr Basham received his dismissal with great coolness; but again his features assumed the expression the Gilpins had before observed. He claimed as his own a couple of fine horses, and, placing his personal property on one of these and bestriding the other, early the next morning he rode off, the last glance of his cold, grey eye leaving an impression which for many a day remained fixed on the minds of the brothers.
The Gilpins found that the superintendence of a large station did not afford a bed of roses. All day long they were in the saddle, overlooking twenty stockmen and shepherds, examining the herds and flocks, and often themselves doctoring any which were found diseased or injured. This they were obliged to do, in consequence of the ignorance or carelessness of the people in charge of them. These, with few exceptions, had been convicts. Of those who had been convicts, some were still working out their sentences with tickets-of-leave, while others, who were free to go where they liked, were too old and destitute of energy to venture on a change of occupation, and remained as before, hut-keepers or shepherds. At each inferior station there was a hut with a hut-keeper, whose duty was to look after the hut, to cook the provisions, and to tend the sheep or cattle brought for any special purpose into the fold or pen. The office was usually held by some old convict or other person unfit for hard labour. Though occasionally there is enough to do, it is considered an idle, lazy life.
The brothers often rode together to the stations, to assist each other; but they had lately, for the sake of covering more ground in the course of the day, taken separate districts, that the stockmen might be kept constantly on the alert, not knowing any moment when the active young managers might pay them a visit. Notwithstanding this, cattle and sheep continued to disappear as before, and they came to the resolution of making every man responsible who lost an animal, and stopping his wages till it was replaced. One day, after a hard morning's work, Arthur Gilpin found himself approaching the rear of a hut, on an out station, at the extreme end of the territory over which the cattle ranged—the whole being considerably larger than many a German principality. The ground was soft, and his horse's hoofs making no noise, it was not till he got in front of the hut that the dog, ever found as its guardian (either well-bred deer-hound or cur of low degree), came bounding up towards him, barking loudly. In this case the animal was a remarkably handsome deer-hound, of a size and strength sufficient to drag him from his horse. The hut-keeper was seated in a rough sort of easy-chair, and was apparently fast asleep.
"Hillo, my man, call off your dog, or he and I may do each other an injury," shouted Arthur; "he is a noble brute, and I should not like to hurt him, if I could help it!"
The man started up, a book dropping from his hand. "Come back, good Brian; come back, sir!" he cried out. "I must apologise, Mr Gilpin, for not hearing you; but I was overcome, I believe, by the heat," he added, as he took the horse from which Arthur had just dismounted.
As the stock-keeper unsaddled the animal, Arthur's eye fell on the open page of the book from which he had been reading. It was a superior edition of Horace, well used.
Roughly clad and unshorn and haggard in his looks as the man was, Arthur could not but conclude that he had once moved among the educated classes of society. The ever-ready damper and pot of tea were produced; and Arthur, having satisfied his appetite, made the usual inquiries about the station. Everything seemed to be satisfactory.
"You appear to be fond of reading," said Arthur, glancing at the Horace, which had been placed on a shelf among a few other books.
"Ah! a friend of my early days. He serves to beguile many a weary hour," answered the hut-keeper, with a sigh.
Arthur did not like to ask questions. "We brought a few books with us into the bush; I shall be glad to lend them to you," he said.
"They will be most acceptable, sir," said the hut-keeper, his countenance brightening; "my own stock is small, and I have read each volume over and over again till I know them by heart. I believe that if a chest of new books were to reach me, like the half-starved wretch who suddenly finds himself in the midst of plenty, I could sit down and read till my eyesight or my wits had left me."
"I can enter into your feelings," said Arthur kindly. "The life you lead must indeed be dull."
"Ah! it might be far worse, though," answered the hut-keeper; "poverty out here can scarcely be said to pinch. I often ask myself what might it have been, or what certainly would it have been, had I remained in London till my last shilling was gone. To rot in a poorhouse or to sweep a crossing would have been my lot, or there might have been a worse alternative. I had enough left to pay my passage out here. It was a wise move—the only wise thing I ever did in my life. My expectations on landing were foolish, and before I could realise them I had the chance of going to gaol or becoming a hut-keeper." The last remarks were made as he stood holding the rein of Arthur's horse.
Arthur rode round the run, inspected the flock, and had to pass near the hut again on his return homeward. The hut-keeper, Charles Craven he called himself, was on the watch for him.
"I must have a word with you, Mr Gilpin," he said. "You are the first man I have met since I landed on these shores who has sympathised with me. I would do something to serve you. First, I must warn you never to be unarmed, either in your hut or out of it; and especially advise you and your brother, when you ride out, always to keep together. Many of the hands on the station are exasperated with you for your style of proceeding, and they think that if they could get rid of you they would have things their own way."
Thanking Craven for his advice, Arthur pushed on towards home as rapidly as his grey would carry him. He was relieved on finding that James had just before arrived. He told his brother of the warning Craven had given him.
James was at first inclined to laugh at it. "The scoundrels dare not injure us!" he exclaimed. Then he remembered Basham's revengeful looks, and the surly manner of several of the hands, and finally agreed with his brother that it would be wiser to go armed, and keep together.
They had removed the hut-keeper to another post, and placed Green in charge of their abode. This would have been necessary, if for no other reason, for the purpose of having it kept clean and habitable, which the dirty habits of the former occupant rendered impracticable. The exact situation of the hut has not been described. It stood on a hillside, the ground immediately round it cleared, but with bush both above it and on either side, extending to a considerable distance. In some places the trees were fine and lofty, in others only stringy-bark or low bushes. A river passed in front at the distance of less than a quarter of a mile, full and flowing in winter, but after the heats of summer consisting of a succession of water-holes connected by a trickling rill. During the shearing season the river was a scene of the greatest animation, as all the flocks from far and near were driven up to it, that the sheep might be washed before being deprived of their fleeces. After a sudden downfall of rain, the quiet stream became a roaring, boiling torrent, sweeping onward with terrific force, now forming a wide lake, and, once more confined by high and narrow banks, whirling along with rapid eddies; and at spots, where a few hours before a person could pass on foot, the current would test the strength of the strongest swimmer or most powerful horse to cross; at other times it relapsed into a state of silence, not without much picturesque beauty of a tranquil character. The hut commanded a view of the river, but it, as well as the sheds, sheep-folds, and stock-yards, were placed far too high above it to be reached by the widest inundation it could cause.
Arthur did not forget his promise to Craven, and, as soon as he was able, he rode toward his hut with several books in his pockets. The hut-keeper was very grateful, and expressed himself in a way which showed that he was really a gentleman and a man of feeling. The brothers, as they rode away, agreed that it would be but an act of common kindness to ask him to visit them, and that they might send another man to take his place.
Craven considered a moment. "No; I had better not," he answered; "the men about here look upon me as one of themselves, and if I were seen with you, I should no longer be trusted by them. They are mischievously inclined; and if I can turn them from their purposes, or give you warning of their intentions, and help, if needs be, it will afford me the satisfaction of believing that I have been of some little use in the world."
They could not but agree with him, and expressed a hope that an employment more suited to a person of his education might be found for him.
Craven gave a sickly smile. "You are young, and think change is easy," he said. "The sapling is quickly bent, but when an old tree has long grown in the same direction, it cannot be straightened again. Supply me with books and tobacco, and, a few years hence, perhaps, a pair of spectacles, and I shall have no desire to quit these wilds."
"Perhaps you will change your mind," said James, putting out his hand, which the broken-down gentleman shook warmly.
Many years had passed since his palm had pressed that of an equal in intellect and education. It seemed to raise him out of the state of hopeless apathy into which he had fallen.
The hut at headquarters had greatly improved in appearance since it had become the residence of the Gilpins. There were three glazed windows, and it was partitioned off into a bedroom, a sitting-room—where books and papers could be arranged on shelves and kept clean—and a kitchen, which served as dining-room and hall. A good-sized storeroom had been built at the back, with a door opening into the kitchen. They and Sam Green were the only inmates of the building.
It was late at night, the Bible had been read, and family prayers had been offered up—when two or three were gathered together that custom was never departed from in that rude hut in the wilds of Australia— thanksgivings for past, petitions for future protection. Sam had thrown himself on his bed in a corner of the hall, and his loud snoring told that he was fast asleep. The brothers had been reading in their sitting-room, and were on the point of retiring to bed, when a slight tap was heard at the window. They thought it was some night bird attracted by the light, and took no notice. A louder tap was heard; Arthur opened the window.
"Wisht! mister, dear; just let me in, for I've something to say to ye," said a voice, which he recognised to be Larry Killock's.
"I will let you in by the door, Larry, unless you like to jump through the window," said Arthur.
"The quickest way's the best," was the answer, as Larry leaped through the opening, adding, "shut the shutters, lest any one's eyes should be looking this way." Larry was out of breath, and looked faint and weary, as if he had come a long distance.
"What brings you here, Larry?" said Arthur, in a tone of anxiety, which it was natural he should feel.
"It's bad news I've to tell yer honours; but if I'd had to lose my life, I'd have come to tell it," he answered. "No matter how I found it out, but I did find it out, that the people on the station, just because you have put a stop to their robberies and rogueries, have determined to do away with you. As villains is mostly cowards, there's none of them dares to bell the cat themselves, and so they've engaged some of them black fellows—the thieves of the world—to do the job for them. It was to be done quickly, and I came along, ignorant entirely if I'd be in time or not to save yer honours' lives; but they've not killed you yet, and we'll see if we can't be a match for them." The Irishman went on to say that the plan proposed was to set fire to the surrounding bush, and that while they ran out, as they naturally would, to stop the flames from approaching their dwelling, by cutting down the surrounding grass and bushes, they were to be knocked down with boomerangs by the blacks, and their bodies dragged into the fire.
The brothers immediately decided what to do. Waking up Sam and telling him what they had heard, they bade Larry take care of the house and make a good supper; and, reaping-hooks and axes in hand, they sailed out to clear the ground of all fuel capable of bringing the flames up to the hut. Beginning at the back of the building, they worked away energetically, gradually extending their circle till they had cut down and raked away all fuel, almost up to the woods, when they heard Sam's voice calling them—
"Come back, come back! the black fellows are close upon us! I wasn't comfortable in my mind, and went out to listen. I heard them calling to each other, and their dogs barking."
Although they believed that the bullock-driver's anxiety or fears might somewhat exaggerate the danger, they felt that it was, at all events, prudent to retreat to their hut. All remained quiet: they were beginning to hope that the alarm might be a false one. Arthur again went out, and as, rifle in hand, he was pacing as sentry round the hut, he saw a bright light burst forth above the trees, half a mile or so off to the south-west. He watched it for some minutes; it increased, extending on either hand, the forked points of the flames appearing high above the intervening trees. There could be no doubt that the wood was on fire. Thus far the information obtained by the bullock-driver was correct. There was too much reason, therefore, to fear that their destruction would be attempted by the savages. He hurried into the hut to consult what was best to be done. Their horses were at hand; they might mount them and ride away from the danger; but such a proceeding was not to be thought of. If, however, they were not secured, they would be carried off by the blacks. Arthur and Sam accordingly went out and brought them up to the hut; there was just room for them to stand in the kitchen by removing the table; the door was then closed and barred. None of the party, however, felt inclined to wait inactive till the conflagration reached their neighbourhood without knowing what progress it was making. There was no window at the back of the hut.
"We will make holes in the roof," said Arthur; "we shall be able to see through them what is going on, and if we are besieged in our fortress by the savages, we shall be the better able to defend ourselves and annoy them."
A stool, placed on the top of the table, enabled them to reach the roof, and by stringing some boards to the rafters, they found convenient standing places. The square holes cut in the shingles forming the roof gave them a look-out. There was enough in the spectacle they beheld to try the courage of the stoutest hearted. In front of them, that is to say, at the back of the hut, was a narrow neck of forest, which was as yet intact, but above the branches—between the stems which stood out in bold relief—the flames were seen raging furiously, devouring, as they advanced, everything in their course, both to the right and to the left. Strange sounds, too, were heard: there was the roaring, hissing, and crackling of the fire, and ever and anon a report like that of heavy guns, as some tall tree was riven in two by the intense heat which surrounded it; the air also came like a blast from a furnace, laden with smoke, ashes, and often sparks, which threatened to ignite the dry roof of the building. The danger was increasing, for the flames were advancing towards the confines of the wood nearest them. Now the fire, snake-like, would be seen creeping along the grass, then catching hold of some bush, which would speedily be wrapped in its deadly embrace; next the lower boughs of the trees would catch, or the dry wood and twigs round the stumps, and upward it would mount triumphant, roaring and crackling—the slighter trees falling prostrate before it; the older and thicker still withstanding its fierce assault, though left branchless and blackened, with all vitality destroyed.
As yet the hut remained uninjured, though a semicircle of fire raged furiously close to it, and here and there, where a bush still stood, or some tufts of grass had not been closely cropped, the flames made advances, and, winding along the ground, rose up, flickered, and died. From the first outbreak of the conflagration various animals had been seen crossing the open ground, as they escaped from the burning forest. Birds innumerable, of varied plumage, aroused from their roosting places, flew by, some uttering discordant screams of terror, many, with scorched wings, falling dead before they reached the hut. As yet no human beings had been seen.
"I trust that the savages will not venture to attack us," said James; "only in the last extremity could I feel justified in firing at them."
"Arrah! it's but little of that sort of treatment they have received since the white man first put his foot on their shores," observed Larry. "I've heard tell of their being shot down by scores at a time, like vermin. Many and many's the black fellow I've seen killed, and no notice taken of it, and no thought by the man who did the deed, any more than if he had fired at a wild beast."
Arthur interrupted Larry's remarks by exclaiming, "There they are, though, and in no small numbers too, just coming round the edge of the burning wood to the south-east!"
The rest of the party looked in the direction indicated, and there, seen clearly by the light of the flames thrown on their dark bodies, armed with spears, clubs, and boomerangs, was a numerous body of savages. They appeared to be looking cautiously about, as if expecting to find their intended victims engaged in extinguishing the flames round the hut.
"The black chaps are no cowards, Mr Gilpin. We shall have a fierce fight of it, and our three firearms won't do much against all them, I'm thinking," observed Larry.
"There are still more of them coming!" exclaimed Arthur; "and see! there's a fellow has just joined them who looks like a chief. They are pointing this way. We may look out to be attacked in a few minutes. We may fire surely, James, if they come on? A few shots will probably send them scampering off. They have no firearms among them."
"Not so sure of that, yer honour," said Larry. "Look, the fellow you called the chief has a gun of some sort, and he is showing it to the rest to encourage them. He handles it like a man who knows the use of it, too."
In spite of the overwhelming numbers of the enemy, the little garrison resolved to maintain their position. Little could be gained by flight, and all their property would inevitably be destroyed should they desert the hut. The risk they ran in either case was very great. They might pick off some of the savages, but there were so many that they might easily surround the hut and burn it to the ground.
"If we had two or three more fellows with us, we might bid defiance to the whole mob," said Arthur.
"To my mind, if we was to shoot down that chap with the gun in his hand, the rest would show us their heels," observed Sam Green, who had not before spoken since the appearance of the savages; "they none on 'em shows much stomach for the fight."
Sam's remark was correct. The savages were evidently aware that the defenders of the hut possessed firearms, and even the chief showed no inclination to expose himself. From their movements, however, it appeared that they were about to make a rush towards the hut. At that instant the tramp of horses' hoofs was heard approaching, and a voice cried out—
"Open the door! Be quick! Let us in!"
James and his brother, who had been watching the savages from the roof, jumped down at the moment that a rifle-ball whistled by.
"That bullet was never fired by a black chap," said Larry to Sam, as they also descended from their perches to receive the new-comers. The Gilpins, without hesitation, opened the door, and Craven with a stranger appeared, just dismounting from their horses, whose foam-covered bits and reeking backs showed that they had ridden at no slow rate.
"No time for words. If you have room for our poor brutes, take them in; if not, they must run their chance outside," he said. "Here, we have brought arms and ammunition. We knew that you would be hard pressed, and have come to share your fate."
"Come in, come in," said James, leading in the horses, who, trembling with fatigue, were quiet enough.
The new-comers had brought a rifle, a musket, and two fowling-pieces, with powder-flasks and bullets. This reinforcement raised the confidence of the little party in the hut. The blacks, discovering Craven and his companion, made a rush to intercept them. They sprang in after the horses; but before the door was closed, a shower of darts and boomerangs rattled against it, and again a shot was heard, and a bullet flew by among them. Those inside hurriedly closed the door; but, almost before the bar could be replaced, the blacks were thundering with their clubs against it. James had been strongly averse to shed blood, even the blood of savages endeavouring to destroy him and his companions, yet there was no longer any other alternative; the blacks must be driven off, or they would burn down the hut. It became James's duty to take the command, and to give the word. Loop-holes were speedily cut in the walls.
"Be ready, friends; pick off the leaders, each of us those more immediately in front as we stand. Do not throw a shot away. Fire!"
Three of the blacks were seen to fall to the ground, the rest ran back in disorder, two of them wounded. This gave the defenders of the hut time to reload and to make some fresh loop-holes. The blacks were again met by the chief, who was seen urging them to return, though he showed no inclination to place himself in danger. Craven, seeing the look-out places in the roof, proposed getting up there.
"I think that I might bring down that fellow if I could get a steady shot at him," he said, taking up his rifle. "The fellow has disappeared!" he exclaimed. "I cannot make it out, yet the rest obey him, for they are coming on again, and with fire-brands, too. We must beat them, or they will roast us."
The spectacle was indeed appalling. There were from fifty to sixty blacks, each with a burning brand in his left hand and a spear or club in the other, all leaping and shrieking in concert, as they sprang on towards the hut. The defenders waited till they got within thirty paces, and then all together fired. The result was the same as before. Several fell, others ran howling back wounded, the rest, throwing down their brands, followed. Another volley was sent after them, in the hope that it might induce them to abandon the attack. Craven reloaded, and sat watching at his post. The crack of his rifle was again heard.