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Grif: A Story of Colonial Life

Chapter XVII. Mrs. Nicholas Nuttall's Nerves Receive a Shock

page 225

Chapter XVII. Mrs. Nicholas Nuttall's Nerves Receive a Shock.

Mrs. Nicholas Nuttall was in a high state of glorification. It was the clay before Christmas, and she and her family were on a visit to their rich squatting relative. The promise that Alice's father had extracted from his brother Nicholas had been strictly kept. Nicholas had not told his wife that his brother had been a married man, although he himself knew it, and had, indeed, discovered that Mathew had a daughter living; but he knew his brother's character so well, that he had not ventured to speak upon the subject. For months, Mathew Nuttall had not allowed the name of his daughter to escape his lips; but, in truth, although he endeavored to disguise the fact even from himself, he was far from being happy. Since the night on which he had spoken with Alice upon the sea shore, he had not seen or heard of her. All that there was of human love in his nature he had once delighted to lavish upon her; and now that his resentment at her marriage with Richard Handfield had had time to cool, he half repented of his harshness. It might have been that, had she written to him, or directly asked his help, he would still have shut his heart against her. But her very silence pleaded for her. Like a smouldering fire, with no breeze to fan it into name, his anger was dying out. It was but one Christmas since that his home was lighted by his daughter's smiles, and made happy by her presence. page 226 She was a light-hearted girl then; and he remembered, though he strove to shut out the remembrance, his neighbors’ looks of hearty admiration as she played the hostess at the Christmas gathering. He remembered the pride which had filled his heart at the thought that that fair and graceful girl was his daughter; he remembered that Christmas—but one year back—as the pleasantest time in his life. Now, what was he? A lonely, miserable man. And Alice? When he remembered her sad appeal to him, her pitiful voice, her drooping figure, as she stood before him on the sea shore, he was filled with remorse. But for his pride, he would have gone to her and forgiven her. He constrained himself, however, to shun the expression of such feelings. Indeed he took pains to hide them from his relatives—-especially from the woman portion of them: he could bear anything but pity or sympathy.

Mrs. Nicholas Nuttall was in her glory. Her arrival at the station had filled her with lofty aspirations. Immediately she set her foot upon it, she, as it were, mentally took possession. The sight of the broad-stretching pasture land, dotted with sheep and cattle, afforded her ineffable satisfaction. At length, she could see realised the dream of her life. But two nights previously, she had lulled herself to sleep by chattering of her ambition.

“Nicholas, my dear,” she said; “I like the look of this place so much, that I think I shall make up my mind to stop.”

Accustomed as Nicholas was to the vagaries of his page 227 better half, he could not refrain from saying, “But we are only here on a visit, Maria.”

“Precisely so, Mr. Nuttall. I do not need you to tell me that. But do you think that life has not its duties?”

“What on earth do you mean, Maria?” asked Nicholas.

“Ah! You may well ask, Nicholas, for you have not been troubled much. But I thank my dear mamma for the example she set me—it strengthened me for my duties. On the day that I married you, I made up my mind to bear, with patience and resignation, whatever trials you might put upon me; and I have borne them,” said the little woman, heroically, “as a wife should. Have I not, Nicholas?”

For the sake of peace, Nicholas said, “Yes, you have been a very good wife, Maria.” He would like to have added, “or would have been, if you hadn't nagged so.” But he dared not utter such words: he wanted to go to sleep.

“Yes, life has its duties,” pursued Mrs. Nuttall; “and one of its first duties is Money.”

Nicholas pricked up his ears.

“Money is, undoubtedly, one of the first,” she continued. “Position is important, but I think Money is before it. Besides, Money gives Position. Therefore, I think I shall stop here.”

Nicholas lay still, knowing that his wife would explain herself presently.

“I am thankful—truly thankful—that I see my children provided for. They will be spared such trials as their mother has gone through; and, as a mother who page 228 knows what she has suffered, I rejoice. How much is your brother to give for his new station, Nicholas?”

“Twenty-two thousand pounds, Maria.”

“Very good. Although, if my advice was asked, I should say, ‘Put your money out at interest where there is no risk, and where you can always clap your hands upon it.’ But, of course, my advice is not asked. And he is to pay down in cash—how much, my dear?”

“Ten thousand pounds.”

“Very respectable. There is nothing that looks so respectable as being able to pay down, say, ten thousand pounds, when you are called upon. It is but justice to say, that it reflects distinction upon the name of Nuttall, to pay down ten thousand pounds in cash; and (putting out the question that I might express myself differently if my advice was asked) I really have not much objection to the money being laid out this way.”

“It wouldn't much matter if you had, Maria. Mat knows whether an investment is good or not, and generally takes his own advice.”

“Precisely so. Things are not far advanced enough for me to go to your brother, and to say, ‘Brother-in-law, I do not think this is a judicious investment; let the money remain out at interest, until something better offers.’ Things are not far advanced enough for that yet. When the proper time comes, I shall, of course, do so if I think it necessary.”

“You don't mean to say, seriously, Maria, that you believe Mat would care a farthing rushlight for your advice on any of his speculations?”

“Setting aside the vulgar expression of a farthing page 229 rushlight—although you you might remember, Nicholas, that we are in a country where such things are not known—I do mean to say that, when the proper time comes for me to interfere, I have no doubt that my brother-in-law will pay me more respect than you have ever done, and that he will place a proper value upon my judgment. For, I say to myself, To whom does my brother-in-law's money belong? Clearly, not to himself. If he had a family of his own, it would belong to them. But he has no family of his own, and, therefore, it belongs to us, as the next of kin. Is not that the proper phrase, Nicholas? Marian shall not be in a hurry to marry. With her prospects, she may pick and choose from the highest in the land. Ah! If I had had such prospects when I was a girl——You have no occasion to kick me, Nicholas; I will not submit to such conduct, sir.”

“I didn't kick you,” said Nicholas; “I only turned round.”

“Another sign of good manners! Turn round, indeed! But you shall not put me out of temper to-night, Nicholas. I shall go to sleep with the happy consciousness that I have done my duty to my family, and that, by my efforts, they are at length provided for.”

Two days after this conversation, the worthy lady was taking her afternoon walk, with a green silk bonnet upon her head, and a white silk parasol in her hand—which articles of feminine vanity, be it observed, were the objects of much admiration and envy on the part of a Native, known as Old Man Tommy, who, basking in the sun, was feasting his eyes upon them. Mrs. Nicholas Nuttall was not at all offended at the admiring looks of page 230 the Aboriginal. It is surprising how lenient we can be to the defects or failings of those who minister to our vanity! In Mrs. Nuttall's eyes, the savage was a very shrewd and estimable person, and she strolled by him two or three times, as if unconscious of him, but really to reward him for his good taste. While she was thus occupied, Marian ran up to her, almost breathless, and cried——

“Oh mamma! such a dreadful thing has happened! A stockman's wife has lost three children—such dear children! We noticed them yesterday, you know. The men have been out all night looking for them, but have not found them. The poor woman is in such a dreadful way! She says they have lost themselves in the bush, and will starve to death. And I've got a message for you, and one for Old Man Tommy”——

“Me Old Man Tommy,” said the Native, rising, and throwing his dirty blanket over his shoulders.

The girl started back, half frightened.

“You no frightened Old Man Tommy?” he said, “What you want?”

“You go—find children—lost in bush—you go—join them,” and Marian pointed to a little knot of men in the distance.

“Ah!” grunted Old Man Tommy “Piccaninny lost in bush. Me go find him,” and he was walking away, when artful cupidity caused him to turn back.

“You give Old Man Tommy white money, me find piccaninny?”

“Oh, mamma!” exclaimed Marion, “give him some money. He will be sure to track them! uncle said so.”

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“I'm sure I shall do nothing of the sort,” said Mrs. Nuttall, indignantly. “Give money to a savage, indeed!”

“Me take hat,” said Old Man Tommy, looking covetously at Mrs Nuttall's green silk bonnet. Mrs. Nuttall started back.

“There, mamma!” cried Marian. “If you don't give him money, he will take your new bonnet.”

Old Man Tommy's eyes twinkled, for he understood every word that was said. Mrs. Nuttall, to preserve her bonnet, took out her purse, and extracted a shilling.

“There, bad man!” she said, dropping the coin into his skinny palm. “Now, you go.”

Old Man Tommy grinned, and with a leap, he raced off at full speed.

“I'm so glad he's gone,” said Marian. “All the men on the station have joined in the search. Uncle's gone, and papa, too. Uncle told me to tell you, that perhaps they would not be home to-night.”

“Good gracious, Marian! You don't mean to say that we shall be left alone all the night?”

“Yes, mamma, uncle said it was very likely; and we are to see that the windows and doors are locked. I hope we shall not be left alone, mamma; for if they come back, they will have found the dear children, and I shall be so pleased.”

“Well,” said Mrs. Nuttall, as they walked to the house; “how your papa, at his time of life, can go poking about in the bush all the night, after a pack of children, is beyond my comprehension. But he always was a mystery to me, Marian. When you marry, I hope you will get a husband you can understand. page 232 Your father will come back with rheumatics, as sure as his name's Nicholas!”

There was, however, nothing for it but resignation, and Mrs. Nuttall made herself as comfortable as she could, under the circumstances. Excepting herself and Marian, there was nobody in the house but the cook, whose husband had also joined the search party.

“The natural anxiety of a wife,” said Mrs. Nuttall, when the candles had been lighted, “entirely destroys any idea of sleep. Suppose we have a game of cribbage, Marian.”

Now, it must be confessed that cribbage was a game of which Mrs. Nuttall was profoundly ignorant. She knew that there were so many cards to be dealt to each; that two cards were to be thrown out by each for crib; and that there was a board with holes in it, and pegs to stick into the holes. She had also (without knowing exactly how they were to be applied) certain vague notions of “fifteen two,” and “one for his nob.” Her knowledge of the mysteries of cribbage extended no further. And it was a proof of the wonderful confidence the little woman had in herself, that, in an off-hand way, she should suggest cribbage as a means of passing the time, just as though she was mistress of the game.

They played for about an hour. It was nearly ten o'clock, and Mrs. Nuttall was growing fidgety.

“There,” she said, throwing up her cards; “I'll not play any more. You're so stupid, Marian, that you can't win a game. How could your papa be so foolish as to leave us alone? Oh, dear me! Don't you hear some one moving in the house?”

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“No, mamma,” said Marian. “You are getting quite nervous.”

“Nervous, miss!” exclaimed Mrs. Nuttall, packing the cards. “I am surprised at you! Why, you are as bad as your papa! Me nervous, indeed! I should like”——

The sentence was not completed. The cards dropped from her hand, and she fell back, trembling, in her chair. For at the door stood the apparition of a man, his face covered with black crape. Marian screamed and rushed into her mother's arms, where she lay almost senseless from terror.

“Don't be frightened, ladies,” said the apparition; “don't be frightened. Strike me petrified! but I'm as gentle as a dove, and wouldn't hurt a chicken! Only don't you scream again, or we'll have to gag your pretty mouths. Come in Jim: the garrison's deserted.”

At this invitation, another apparition, his face also covered with black crape, entered the room. Mrs. Nuttall's heart beat fast with fear, but she had courage enough to say——

“Oh, please, good gentlemen”—when the second apparition interrupted her.

“None of that gammon. We're not good gentlemen—we're bushrangers. Is there any one in the house besides yourselves?”

“No, sir,” said the trembling woman, contradictorily; “only the cook.”

“Where are all the men? Come—answer quickly.”

As well as she was able, Mrs. Nuttall explained the cause of the men's absence.

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“All right, Oysterman,” said Jim Pizey we're safe enough for the next hour or two. We'll turn the place upside down in that time. Let there be a good watch kept outside. The first thing we'll do will be to have something to eat. Now, just you look here,” he said, addressing Mrs. Nuttall; “we ain't going to have any of your nonsense—none of your screaming, or anything of that sort. We won't hurt you, if you're quiet. Do you hear? Get us something to eat—the best in the house—and some brandy. Make us a cup of tea, too. I should like to drink a cup of tea made by a lady.”

That Mrs. Nuttall should come to this! But she made the tea, and placed meat and bread upon the table, and waited upon the bushrangers, too, while they ate and drank. When they had finished their meal, Jim Pizey said—

“Now, boys, no idling. To work—to work. Come, old woman, just show us over the house. Which is the old bloke's private room?”

But before Mrs. Nuttall could reply, a whistle was heard.

“Strike me dead!” cried the Oysterman. “That's Ralph's signal. The men are coming back.” At this moment a shot was fired outside, and was followed by a scream of pain. “Look here,” he said rapidly, to the women, “if you stir from this spot, by the living Lord! I'll shoot you! Stay you here, and don't move, for your lives!”

More shots were heard; and, cursing fiercely, the bushrangers hurried from the room, locking the door upon the terrified women.