Grif: A Story of Colonial Life
Chapter XV. Alice and Grif Meet Friends upon the Road
Chapter XV. Alice and Grif Meet Friends upon the Road.
With a dreadful fear at her heart, and her whole frame quivering under the pressure of a terrible excitement, Alice, with Grif by her side, walked swiftly on towards North Melbourne. The fatigue she had undergone the previous day seemed to have had no effect upon her. Poor Milly's death, and the letter which she still unconsciously held crushed in her hand, had strung her nerves to the highest pitch of tension. Poor Milly's death! As she thought of it, her eyes filled with pitiful tears. Her husband's danger! She shuddered at that; and she hurried on the faster. She heard a voice crying, “On! on! and save him! Delay not; you may be in time!” There are periods in life when the mind is so enthralled by an all engrossing idea, that the body is unconsciously strengthened to bear strains, that, if thought of, would appear impossible. Delicate as Alice was, she had within her now the strength of twenty women. Her first great tear had destroyed all sense of fatigue. Alice could not think of physical possibilities in presence of her devoted determination to save her husband. She must save him. “On, on!” the voice cried to her. Oh, pitiful heaven! if she should be too late! Despair almost seized her at the thought She possessed but a few shillings, the remains of the money Richard had left her. She yearned for means to take her to her father's station; and she page 195 looked round imploringly, as if she fancied that some good Samaritan, knowing her anxious misery, might come forward, purse in hand, to aid her.
“Have you any money, Grif?” she asked.
“Yes,” replied Grif.
She had about the same amount. It would be sufficient to pay for riding a quarter of the distance, perhaps, and then——why then she would be worse off than now. Her money gone, where could she obtain the means of completing her journey? No: they must walk and their little money must be kept for food. The letter mentioned the date when her father was to complete his purchase of the station. She rapidly ran over in her mind the intervening days, and she knew that she could accomplish the journey in time, if no accident happened to her and if her strength held out.
“Are you tired, Grif?”
“No,” he answered stoutly.
“How many miles can we walk in a day?”
“Twenty, p'raps, Ally; but, lord! it'll kill you.”
“I can bear anything now. I don't feel the least bit weak. You don't mind coming with me, Grif?”
“Mind? I'll walk my feet off, and not stop then, Ally, if you tell me to go on.”
So they walked on until past noon, stopping only once for rest and refreshment. Alice had impressed upon Grif the necessity of economy, and their purchases during the day comprised but a small loaf, some tea and sugar, and a tin billy. There were many people on the road, but each page 196 traveller appeared so wrapped tip in Iris own concerns, as not to have even a glance of wonder for so strange a couple as Alice and Grif. They chose tracks some little distance from the main road, so as to escape observation as much as possible. About mid-day they came to a refreshment-tent, where many a thirsty wayfarer was solacing himself with long drinks of cider and lemonade. They were crossing at the back of this tent, while a woman was drawing water from a well. Coming up to her, Alice saw that she was a Negress—an old woman, whose hair was turning white. When Alice asked her for a draught of water, the old woman said, “Certainly, my dear;” and, regarding Alice's slender form with some curiosity, she invited her into the tent. Alice thankfully accepted the invitation, and seated herself upon a stool in the back division of the tent. This portion was used as a bedroom. It contained a very clean-looking bed, made upon canvas, which was tacked to posts of strong “quartering,” driven into the ground; a snow-white quilt was spread over the bed. The walls of the room, which were simply of calico, lined with green baize, were embellished with two or three religious pictures, pinned or pasted on to the baize.
“You look tired, my dear,” said the old woman.
“I am not very tired,” said Alice. “I must not be tired; for we have a long distance to walk.”
“You are very young, to be walking in the hot sun such a day as this,” said the woman.
“Yes; but I have no choice. Come, Grif, we must go a few miles further.”
But the old woman would not allow them to leave page 197 without having eaten something. She insisted, too, on bathing Alice's feet. Alice almost wept at the kind treatment of the good old Negress; but she needed all her fortitude for her task, and she repressed her tears. After half-an-hour's rest, she rose, refreshed and inexpressibly grateful, and kissed and thanked the good woman as she bade her good-bye. They did not walk many miles further that day. Grif, with a peculiar instinct, discovered a sheltered nook where they could camp for the night. He had been thoughtful enough to fill his tin billy with water from the old woman's well, and he soon kindled a fire and made tea. After drinking some, Alice, thoroughly wearied out, fell asleep, while Grif, stretched upon the ground a short distance off, watched and slumbered by turns. It was a beautifully clear night—such a night as is only seen during the Australian summer. The soft wind swept gently over the sleeping girl, and the heavens seemed to look down upon her with kindliness.
She rose with the first flush of morning, and, strong in her purpose, she set out again upon her journey. She struggled on bravely, but she was a weak, delicate girl, and the fatigue she had already undergone was telling sadly upon her. Her limbs were weary, and her feet were very sore; and towards the afternoon she felt a deathly feeling coming over her. Her strength was giving way. The hot glare of the sun was too much for her to bear, and she sank at the foot of a tree in an almost fainting state. Grif, with a swelling heart, could scarcely keep from crying as he looked at her white face.page 198
“I must rest a little, Grif,” Alice said, faintly. “Can you get me some water?”
Grif, knowing that the creeks were nearly all dried up, looked round despairingly. But, a hundred yards or so before him, was a bullock-dray, toiling painfully along—so painfully, that its wheels squeaked and groaned, as if for pity.
“Stop 'ere half a minit, Ally,” Grif said. “I'll get some from the bullock-driver.”
And running off, he soon overtook the dray, and, almost breathless, begged for water.
“A nice thing to ask for,” grumbled the driver. “Why, it's worth more than champagne, such a day as this.”
“I don't want it for myself,” pleaded Grif; “but she'll die if you don't give me a little.”
“My sister,” said Grif, boldly. “She's bin walkin' all day, and she's dead beat.”
The man cast a queer look at Grif, and, stopping his bullocks, accompanied the lad to where Alice was lying. She had fainted.
“Poor lass!” said the bullock-driver, and, stooping, he raised her head upon his knee, and sprinkled her face with the water he had brought with him. Presently she opened her eyes, and gratefully drank from the panikin he held to her lips.
“Thank you,” she said. “I feel much better. I think I can walk on now.”
But, when she rose to her feet again, she staggered against the tree.page 199
“You're not strong enough to walk,” said the bullock-driver, who had been regarding her with compassionate curiosity. “Which way are you going?”
Learning that their roads lay for some distance in the same direction, he offered her a ride upon the dray; and this offer being thankfully accepted, he assisted Alice to the top of the dray, where she soon fell asleep. Grif walked by the side of the bullock-driver, who frequently looked at him, as if puzzled.
“So she's your sister?” he said, at last.
“Yes,” answered Grif, unhesitatingly.
“Are you in the habit of telling fibs, young man?”
Grif did not reply. He felt very grateful for the kindness the man had shown to Alice, and, for her sake, he did not wish to anger him. The driver did not pursue his inquiries, but contented himself with drawing Grif out upon other matters. When evening came, Grif helped to unyoke the oxen, which, with bells round their necks, were allowed to wander in the bush in search of food. Then they collected some brushwood, and kindled a fire. Tea being made, Alice was roused to partake of it. She thanked the man, who said—-
“It is I 'who should be thankful. It is a long time since I sat down to tea in a lady's company. You will excuse me saying that I look upon this adventure as one of the strangest I have ever met with. It is not from an impertinent curiosity, but from a sincere desire to serve you, that I am emboldened to ask why so young a lady as yourself should be compelled (for I suppose you do not do it from choice) to undergo such fatigue?”page 200
He paused as if expecting Alice to speak, but she did not reply.
“You may trust me,” he continued; “for, although I am a bullock-driver I am a gentleman.”
“I am sure of that, sir,” said Alice; “your kindness is a sufficient proof.”
“That may or may not be. I have lived long enough to have learned to distrust most things; especially smooth professions. But as I am a gentleman, and as bullock-driving is scarcely a gentlemanly occupation, I could have forgiven you for doubting it. You are a lady; I can see that. You are not this lad's sister?”
“Poor Grif!” said Alice, laying her hand upon his head. “He is not my brother, but he is my very dear friend.”
Grif nodded, and his eyes brightened.
“It is really so strange for a gentleman to be a bullock-driver, and I have seen altogether so many queer things in these colonies, that I can easily imagine a set of circumstances (although, of course, I should most probably not guess the truth) which might place a lady in your position. You will excuse me for speaking thus, will you not?”
“I should like to win your confidence. If my family were to learn that I am a bullock driver, I think they would go insane, some of them, at the degradation. My parents are at home; they mourned me as dead some years since; and I am dead—to them. Are your parents living I Forgive me,” he said, quickly, page 201 as her face flushed with pain; “I did not mean to hurt you. I will ask you nothing further. But I should like to serve you, for your face reminds me of a sister whom I loved, and who died young.”
“I think I could trust you, sir,” said Alice; “but it would serve no purpose, for you could not assist me. I will tell you, in return for your generous speech, that both my father and my husband are living; that it is in connection with them that I am travelling with this poor lad for a companion; and that my poverty compels me to walk, Let this suffice you, I pray.”
“It shall suffice me. I will not attempt to trespass upon your confidence.”
“Do not think any wrong of me, sir. I am unfortunate and unhappy, but it is through no fault of mine.”
“I can readily believe it. And now we will change the subject.”
They sat talking in the quiet night for an hour or two. Then the shafts of the dray were roofed and hung round with the tarpaulin, and a bed of dried leaves was made for Alice. Before retiring, she beckoned Grif, and they strolled a short distance from the bullock-driver, as he lay smoking his pipe. The cool air was delicious after the dreadful heat of the day. Alice felt very grateful. Notwithstanding her one great grief, there was a feeling of devout thankfulness at her heart.
“God is 'very good, Grif,” she said, looking up at the solemn splendor of the stars.
“Yes,” the boy replied; “I s'pose He is, if you say so, Ally.”
“See, now,” said Alice, “how He has sent a friend page 202 to us when we were in need. I think I should have died, if that kind man had not assisted us.”
“He's a good sort of a cove, for a bullock driver, and no mistake,” said Grif.
“Do you ever pray, Grif?”
“No; never knowed how to.”
“Kneel down with me, dear Grif, and thank the Lord for the good He has sent to us. When I think that, but for the simple act of kindness of that good man, I might be lying helpless, unable to pursue my journey, my heart is full of gratitude.”
They knelt down together, and Alice said a simple prayer, Grif repeating it after her. When, after a pause, they rose, Alice said,
“If I am in time to save my husband, I shall bless you all my life, Grif.”
“You've got no call to, Ally,” said Grif, half crying. “I'm not a bit of good, I ain't, and never shall be.”
“You are a dear, true-hearted lad, and Heaven will reward you.” And stooping hurriedly, she kissed Grif's cheek, and went to her bed of dry leaves.
Never before had Grif experienced such a delicious sensation as stole over him at this moment. He trembled with an exquisite pang of wondering happiness, and wrapping himself in a blanket which the bullock-driver had lent him, he lay awake for an hour, nursing the cheek which Alice had kissed. Truly, if she asked it, he would give her his life!