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page 49


Twenty years back a Yorkshire man who had been a convict built a slab hut in the gum scrub and fed and rested the ponypost passing from Launceston to Hobart Town on the Main Road. Stages were uneven then and this one, midway between Clent and Bredon, grew popular; later the Captain and James Sorley took over the slab hut, which was becoming a nucleus for bushrangers, made a comfortable inn of it, and established a blacksmith's forge alongside. In the next year they cut more scrub, obtained permits from the Government, and put down a small mill plant to handle the vast reserves of black wattle bark on the hills. Labourers came then, and so Trienna was born, much as other townships were being born up and down the country.

But it suited the bush-rangers still, being just at the foot of wild country thick with bush and sodden with creek-filled gullies and ragged with naked rock. And Henny, that mysterious old witch who had come out in an early ship, had her road-house for ticket-of-leavers only two miles away. The road-house was supposed to be under close supervision from the military post in Trienna, but there were a hundred dark trails through the scrub to it where silent riders might pass. And a hundred dark caves in the hills behind where rum barrels could be hid along with such other things as guns, absconding convicts, goods stolen from the big houses, and even bushrangers themselves.

No gentleman sat at home in these days without his pistols to his hand, and none rode out unless they were loose in the holster. Comyn men, Sorley men, taking their families to church in Trienna on Sundays, looked first to their primings, and Mab rode on ahead of the Comyn coaches, to open the gates. A gang down from the Western Tiers or over from the coast generally liked to announce its coming by laying a murdered man where he could be easily found.

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But there were no dead men this Christmas morning, and barouches, gigs, and riding parties came up through the dust and the hot sun to the trampled grass round the bare wooden church where the townsfolk waited already for the bell to ring. It was a matter of pride for the township folk to be there to greet the quality coming in from the big stations with their house servants and "Government men" behind them. "Government men" was the new name this year for the ticket-of-leavers, and there was a scatter of them in Trienna too, working in the bark-mill. Mab and the Captain knew everybody by name; and maids bobbed shyly in a flutter of flowered calicoes and fluted bonnet frills, and men in thick tight cloth with monstrous collars and cuffs pulled forelocks sheepishly, with many grins. The Captain had a word and a coin for all; Susan inquired of the matrons after babies, and the Christmas spirit was well and jovially established before the blacksmith's son began to pull the bell.

The quality chattered and laughed in little knots and groups; their spread silks and lace bonnets gay as peacocks; their high bright stocks and strapped trousers and curly-brimmed beavers a dazzle to township eyes. Madam had a wicked little curtain to her new bonnet, and Ellen Merrick a striped silk and Mrs. Keyes, who had been up three nights with a sick maid, looked in dovegrey like the gentle saint she was. The Keyeses had come up from Tane Hall the night before to sleep at Clent. Baxters were there from Snake Hill, Corrigans and Boyles, Beverleys from Tingvalley, whose towers rose at the end of a grassy street near the mill, Maclures from New Barns, Ushers from Ancient Way. All stout men of substance in the country, but the Captain especially meant Keyes and Beverley when he wrote to the papers about "backbones of this new land of ours" and "the brightest intellects of our time."

Robert Keyes's keen intellect had been able to do nothing with the Colonial Office, all the same, and those who had not seen him since his return were asking in disappointment, "But couldn't you make them understand?"

"They do not wish to understand," said Roger Keyes. "Gentlemen, we must be prepared to go on as we are."

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"Damme!" burst out the Captain in his turkey-cock phase. "Gentlemen, we must be prepared for war!"

"How do you propose we should do that?" This was Baxter with his burly sneer; and Conrad Beverley, the fair-bearded Viking, said gravely: "Comyn is right. We must find a way to put an end to this injustice."

"Infernal injustice," amended the Captain, growing redder. "Are we, who have settled and developed the country at the risk of our lives and the lives of all who are dear to us, never to have any say in the government of it? Are we to submit forever to the foisting upon us of England's offscourings, to pay forever for their upkeep, to lie down to sleep each night in the knowledge that our roofs may be burned over our heads before the morning?"

The Captain enjoyed letting rhetoric run away with him, but the men nodded gravely. There was a good stiff element of truth in it.

"I lost six head of cattle and had a man peppered in the leg last week," said Corrigan. "The police say Collins's Gang is down from the hills again. Baxter had a mare stolen; didn't you, Baxter?"

"She was on the out-station flats," said Baxter. "They haven't been near my house yet." He looked across at his three daughters. "But one never knows," he added.

"None of us knows," said Roger Keyes, with his dark, delicate smile. "I am losing sheep. I suppose we all are, and with so many poor devils walking the roads we must expect it. They can't help themselves, when it just means a climb through a fence and a knife-slash. And they can always sell the skins."

"There were ten beggars at my door this Christmas morning," said Beverley. "Each of us here might wring ourselves dry for them, and it wouldn't do any good."

"We have given too much," cried the Captain, who emptied his pockets along the Road every time he went out, and always would. "Now we must make a stand. We have a precedent. America stood. She took steps to rule herself."

"Quite. We are hardly America's size…. Here are the Sorleys at last, and the bell has stopped ringing."

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As they crowded into the hot bleak building Mab saw only Julia, fresh and pink as a bunch of roses, with a white lace veil to her bonnet. But Madam saw a black young man who, Louisa was gasping in her ear, was heir to a baronetcy and had come up from Hobart Town on last night's coach. "To see Julia," whispered Louisa, who always drove her nails home. "Don't you think him very handsome?"

Madam sailed to her seat in the tall pew, knelt, and through white kid fingers had a good look at this Captain Berry. His trousers of large pale checks were so tight that he did not kneel. His gay double waistcoat with the glittering fob was finer than Oliver's, and he had a pair of magnificent black whiskers above his throttling neck-cloth. Now the rustling, the opening of prayer-books ceased. Captain Berry put the knob of a gold-headed cane in his mouth and stared out of solemn black eyes at the Captain who, with one arm not yet in his surplice, was crying, "Let us pray," while the clerk pushed him up into the pulpit.

"So that is what James would be at," thought Madam, piqued. James also intended to establish a family, did he? But, ma foi! With that so imbecile young dandy and snub-nosed Julia what a family it would be! Madam raised her voice defiantly in the first hymn. To the very end of the road Sorleys would be led by Comyns.