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Grif: A Story of Colonial Life

Chapter XVIII. A Night of Adventures

page 235

Chapter XVIII. A Night of Adventures.

Alice and Grif were within a few miles of Highlay Station. That morning, the wagoner, having brought them to within twenty miles of their journey's end, had bidden them good bye and God speed! They had walked during the day, and they were now resting in a clump of bush. Alice was very pale and thin, while poor Grif was absolutely clothed with rags. He looked dusty and tired; as indeed he was, for he had walked the whole of the way. His feet were bare; and they were much blistered. But he did not complain. He had sworn to Alice that he would be faithful and true to her, and he would keep his word.

“How tired you must be, Grif,” said Alice, looking at him, compassionately.

“I'm all right, Ally,” said the boy. “Never you mind me. So long as you get up to the station in time, I don't care a bit.”

“We are not far off. And now that we are so near, I am full of fears. Yet I should not be so, for Heaven has surely watched over us. What good friends we have met upon the way! How thankful I am! God bless the good men who helped us on the road!”

“Yes,” said Grif, reflectively; “they wos wery good coves, they wos. I'm thinkin', Ally, that wot the preacher chap sed wos right. He told me, wen I wos page 236 in quod, that men wos charitable and good; and they must be, a good many on 'em. Jist look at them two coves, the bullock-driver and the waginer. They'd got no call to 'elp us. It didn't do 'em a bit of good, as I sees, for they didn't get nothin' out of us. And there's this blanket the waginer giv us. I never got no one to giv me a blanket before.”

“There are good and bad in the world, dear Grif,” said Alice. “Your life has not been cast in pleasant places, nor amongst good people.”

“No; they're a bad lot I've bin amongst. That's the reason I'm so bad, I s'pose.”

“Ah, dear Grif,” said Alice, tenderly; “if all were like you”——

“They'd be precious queer, Ally, if they wos all like me. It's a good job for them as isn't. I tell you wot it is, Ally—it wos a mistake, altogether. I oughtn't to 'ave bin born, that's where it is. I wish I never 'ad bin. I wouldn't, if I could 'ave 'elped it.”

“Hush, Grif, you must not speak like this.”

“I can't 'elp it, Ally,” said the boy, fretfully. “If they'd come to me and sed, Now, will yer be born or not? I should 'ave sed, No, I won't!”

“It is by God's will that we are here,” said Alice, with tearful eyes. “There is a better world than this.”

“Is there, Ally?” asked Grif, eagerly. “Is there? The preacher cove sed there wos, but I didn't believe 'im.”

“Yes, dear Grif, another world where sin and sorrow are not known.”

“I wouldn't mind goin' there,” said Grif, musingly, page 237 “if it's all right. I'd rather be out of it, though, if it's like this one—that is, unless I wos a swell. I wonder if my dawg Rough's there! I should like to see old Rough agin. But lord! I don't expect they'd 'ave me among 'em. I'm a reglar bad un, I am!”

“There is One above us, Grif, my dear,” said Alice, resting her hand lightly on the boy's shoulder, “who knows your heart, and will reward you for your goodness. It is not your fault that you have erred.”

“Not as I knows on, Ally. I never bothered about nothin' else but my grub. I'm not so bad as Jim Pizey or the Tenderhearted Oysterman. Lord! he's a horfle bad 'un, is the Oysterman—ten times worse nor me. He'd steal a sixpence out of a blind man's tray.”

“I pray that our journey may end happily,” said Alice, “for your sake as well as mine. You are my brother, now and always. And now, Grif, I'll rest for a couple of hours, and then we will go on to my father's house.”

“All right. Ally. I'll watch, and call yer.”

And, spreading the blanket over Alice, Grif retired & short distance, and lay down. He meant to keep awake, but he was overpowered by fatigue, and presently he dosed off, and then slept soundly.

What was this creeping stealthily through the bush? The form of a man, with haggard, almost despairing face; with beating heart; with hands that trembled with a convulsive agony. The form of Richard Hand-field!

He had escaped from his vile companions. Strict as page 238 was the watch they kept upon him, he had eluded them; and now he was making his way to a hut, where he knew two stockmen dwelt, to give the alarm, and so, if possible, to save Alice's father. At every step he took, he halted, his heart in his ears; for he knew well that if he was caught by the gang, life was over with him. He was thoroughly acquainted with the locality. “They will waste some time in looking for me,” he thought, “and, perhaps, when they find I have escaped, they will fly from the neighborhood.” He yearned to do this one right deed for Alice's sake; and, then he cared not what befel. He had no hope of clearing himself from the charge of murder, which hung over him. The Tenderhearted Oysterman had confessed to having done the deed; the whole gang knew it; and Richard had pretended to admire the devilish cunning which had thrown the suspicion of guilt upon himself.

“Oh,” he groaned, as he rested for a while; “If I could but clear myself for Alice's sake! Will she believe that I am guilty of this horrible crime? If I could but see her before I die, and tell her of my innocence!”

Life had never before been so bitter and so sweet to him as it was at this time. It seemed as though he had but now realised the goodness and the purity of the woman who loved him. Never till now had he felt how much she had sacrificed for his sake. But the moments were too precious for him to linger. He dashed the bitter tears from his eyes, and crept along. But a few yards—for he saw a human form upon the ground. Who could it be? He crept up, and bending page 239 over it——Great Heavens! Was he dreaming, or was it a phantasm of Death? The earth and sky, blended together, swam in his fading sight. Then, he could see nothing but the white face of his wife, and he sank down beside it. He lost consciousness for a few minutes, and when he recovered, he rose and looked about him with the air of one waking from a bewildering dream. Hush! she was speaking in her sleep. He knelt by her side, and listened. He heard his name and her father's mingled strangely together. He heard her entreat him not to—horror!—was it murder of which she spoke? He took her by the arm, and cried, “Alice! Alice! awake!” With a scream of terror she awoke, and seeing her husband before her, she called him by the dearest of names, and, blessing God for bringing him to her, she fell into his arms, weeping. For a brief space only did she allow herself such happiness. The full memory of her mission rushed upon her, and she extricated herself from his arms, and asked, “Oh, Richard, answer me quickly—am I too late?”

Too late for what? He did not speak the words, but she saw them expressed in his face. And then she told him, rapidly, why she had come. In as few words as she could relate the story, she told him of Milly's death, and of the letter Jim Pizey had written to Old Flick. She told him how she had started to walk from Melbourne half-an-hour after poor Milly died; of Grif's accompanying her—he had awoke, and was standing by them, and when she mentioned his name, she took his hand and kissed it; of the good friends they had met upon the road: she told him all this, almost breathlessly. But he page 240 saw more than she told him: he saw in her care-worn face the anxiety and grief she had suffered for him—he saw in her patient, uncomplaining eyes, the perfect purity of her love—and he fell upon his knees, and, burying his face in her dress, he sobbed like a little child.

“Oh, my dear! my dear!” he cried. “How unworthy I am of your love!”

And then starting to his feet, he told her of the peril that environed him—how he had joined the gang (here he looked at Grif, and whispered to Alice that the boy's father was one of the bushrangers) only for the purpose of clearing himself from the dread charge of murder—how he had heard the Tender-hearted Oysterman confess the crime—and how he had escaped from them now, only for the purpose of saving her father.

“Thank God for that!” she exclaimed, pressing him to her faithful heart. “But, oh! Richard, how will you prove your innocence of this dreadful charge?”

“If I had a witness,” he said, “one who had heard the villain confess, as he confessed to me, laughing the while, that he stole my knife, and with it did the deed, for the purpose of trapping me—if I had such a witness, my innocence would be established. Oh, Alice, if I had such a witness—for your sake, my love! my darling! whom I have surrounded with shame and misery”——

“Hush! my dear! Heaven will send such a witness! I know it! I feel it!”

“I scarcely dare hope it Alice,” he said; “it is known to none but to the four men in the gang. And they will not tell, for their own sakes.”

page 241

“They may confess, Richard. I will appeal to them—implore them. I have a message to the man Pizey from poor Milly. I will see him, and beg of him for her sake, to clear you from the charge. Where's Grif?”

But Grif was gone. They called him, and searched for him, in vain. They could find no trace of him.

“He will come up with us,” said Richard. “Alice, we dare not linger. There is a stockman's tent in the hollow. I was going there to give the alarm. Come—there may be death to your father in every momemt's delay.”

Keenly anxious as Alice was because of Grif's unaccountable disappearance, she felt how precious was time for the life of her father. They moved carefully away from the track, and walked through the bush as quickly as possible.

“There are few but myself who would be able to find their way here,” said Richard. “But you remember, Alice, I was always fond of roaming about the station. You would scarcely believe how near to this spot is your father's house. It is only two miles, as the crow flies—I could walk straight to it, in less than half an hour. Hark! We are disturbing the crows? I used to call this Crow's Hollow. See, we are in a hollow, completely hidden by the ranges and the thick timber.”

It was in truth a dismal spot, and Alice shuddered as she heard the harsh cawing of the birds. Suddenly she stopped.

“Richard,” she said, “do you hear nothing?”

He listened, and shook his head. “Nothing but the crows,” he said.

“It's not a crow; Richard. Listen again. A child's voice!”

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And hurrying swiftly in the direction of the sound, they came upon a strange sight. Two boy-children were lying, as if dead, upon the ground, clasped in each other's arms, and one, a little girl, was covering them with her frock, which she had taken off for that purpose. She was the eldest of the three, and yet could scarcely be eight years of age. She was singing softly a child's ditty, and seeing Alice, she started up with a look of joy.

“If you please,” she said, taking Alice's hand, “we've been lost in the bush, and Johnny and Billy are so hungry and tired that they've fallen asleep.”

They were the stockman's three children, who had wandered from their home two days before. Alice took the girl in her arms, and the child cried as she did so, and begged for some food for Johnny and Billy.

“We've had nothing to eat, if you please,” she said “for oh! such a long time. Will you please take us home?”

“Alice!” cried Richard, seizing her arm with such force as to cause her pain. “Look! “We are discovered!”

Lights were moving in the bush, and the voices of men, calling to each other, were heard.

“It's Jim Pizey and the rest, looking for me,” he whispered, hoarsely, and trembling with fear—for her, not for himself. “If they find us, it is all over with us. They swore to kill me, if I attempted to escape; and you——Oh, Alice! say that you forgive me for the peril to which I have exposed you!”

“I do forgive you, Richard!” Alice said, kissing him. “Have you any weapon?”

page 243

He produced a revolver, loaded.

“Is it useless trying to escape?” she asked.

“Quite. See—they are spreading themselves out. We are lost. They have no pity, those men. Oh, my God!” he cried, in anguish. “This is worse than all!”

“If those men be the men you fear, Richard,” said Alice, rapidly, her limbs trembling, and a nameless horror resting in her eyes, “swear that you will kill me! Swear it, as you hope for mercy—as you hope to meet me in Heaven, when all our misery ended!”

“I swear it, Alice!”

“My poor husband! My dear love!” and she pressed him to her breast. “Forgive us, oh Lord! for what we are about to do!”

They stood hand in hand, their faces as the faces of the dead; while the little girl, clinging to Alice's dress, looked up at her in wondering fear.

Nearer and nearer came the lights, and louder grew the voices of the men.

“Here is a shoe,” one called out. “The children are somewhere near. We're on their track.”

“It is my father's voice! “cried Alice, as the sound reached her ears. “Richard! we are saved! They are searching for the children we have found. Do you hear? We are saved! Father! this way! this way!”

But the last words died in her throat, and staggering forward, she fell into the arms of her father, who had hurried to the spot as she cried. He recognised his daughter, and a fear smote him, as she lay motionless in his arms, that she was dead. The remorse which fell upon him overcame his surprise at her appearance, and page 244 even made him look upon Richard without astonishment.

“She has fainted from fatigue, sir,” said Richard; “she has been sorely tried.”

“Why is she here?” asked Mathew Nuttall.

“She came from Melbourne, sir, to warn you of danger which threatens you, and to save me from disgrace; but for this latter, I fear she is too late. Your house, at this moment, is surrounded by bushrangers.”

“Bushrangers!” cried Mathew Nuttall; “and there are only two women in the house!”

“We are stronger than the bushrangers,” said Richard. “There are but four in their party. We have no time to lose. We must make for the place without delay. See, sir, your daughter is recovering.”

She opened her eyes, and looked wildly round. Seeing her father, her memory returned, and she slid from his arms, and falling upon her knees at his feet, she said, imploringly—

“Forgive me, father!”

He raised her to his breast and kissed her. The tears that welled into his eyes were tears of purification His hard, almost unforgiving, nature was at length softened and subdued by the perfect goodness of a pure and faithful woman! He held out his hand to Richard, who took it, and said—

“We dare not linger, sir. The bushrangers may be there before us.”

“True!” replied Mathew Nuttall. “Keep a good look out, men, and follow me. We'll take these villains, dead or alive. See to your pistols. Alice, keep behind with the children. Now then, On!”