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Vicissitudes of Bush Life in Australia and New Zealand

Chapter XI

Chapter XI.

Well, Mrs. Campbell,” remarked Mr. Rolleston, as that lady was in the act of pouring out the tea, “there was really a serious danger at one time to-day of you and I being mourners.”

“Dear me, Mr. Rolleston, in what way? surely nothing has happened to the girls?” asked Mrs. Campbell, suddenly suspending her operations and looking up with a startled expression at Mr. Rolleston's words.

“Well, as it has turned out they are safe enough now, but I assure you that you have every reason to thank Mr. Farquharson there, that Mary is not now at the bottom of the Murray, where I at one time verily believed she was like to have gone, in company with that mad hussy of mine,” Mr. Rolleston deliberately replied; as he slowly sharpened the carving knife, preparatory to making an incision into a juicy leg of roast mutton.

“Merciful Providence,” replied the mother (almost letting the teapot drop out of her hand in her nervous agitation), “is it possible that the girls have been upset in the river?”

“Possible enough,” said Mr. Rolleston. “And as I have said, but for Mr. Farquharson and his good horse, who saved Mary, and Mr. Jamieson's black fellow and Lilly who rescued Rachel, both you and I, Mrs. Campbell, should have been page 72 broken-hearted mourners at this moment.” He then related the particulars of the accident.

“Truly,” said Mrs. Campbell piously, “it is to our Heavenly Father, the Giver of all mercies, that our first most fervent thanks are due, and after Him, to the instruments that he was pleased to make use of; and as such, to you now, Mr. Farquharson, a mother's thanks will be always due. And may God requite your noble devotion in what you have this day done.”

“Nay, Mrs. Campbell, what less than I did would any man in my place have done? while the pleasure I have experienced in being so instrumental in rendering such a service has been sufficient reward, I assure you, to me, for all I did. It would have been a pleasure to have rendered it to any one else, in a similar situation, but the pleasure is greater in that it was done to one of these ladies.”

After a while Mrs. Campbell's maternal fears subsided, and she even managed to laugh at the description I gave of the ladies' improved complexions after their ducking.

“Well,” remarked her husband quietly (on the affair being related to him shortly afterwards), “it may make them more heedful the next time they go into a canoe.”

Next day we were mustering, and exceedingly busy till late at night, so that on entering the house I found to my chagrin that both young ladies, who had returned that day by the other side of the river (crossing over on Mr. Rolleston's boat), had retired early to bed. As I had all day been looking forward impatiently for this evening's advent, when I thought the pleasure of their society would be enhanced by the interest occasioned by the late adventure, I felt naturally disappointed; but as the next day's programme was to be a repetition of that of the day before, I was up betimes, to see how my horse was faring; this was not Selim, who was at present spelling, having had quite enough of exercise lately. Ever mindful of George Lay-cock's counsel, I was always careful not to keep him overtasked at any time when I could possibly avoid doing so. Here, impelled by the same motives, I was soon joined by Lilly. Lilly, I should here state, seemed quite at home in Mr. Campbell's house, and, with the blooming damsel who acted as housemaid, he was to all appearances on a footing of the most amicable friendship. I had once heard Lilly declare of that maiden, that “she was the tidiest and most civil girl” that he had ever seen—no small praise from Lilly. While standing in front of the stable, to my surprise the two ladies suddenly appeared at the door of the house, and on seeing us immediately came forward to where we were.

They were both tastefully arrayed in light-coloured morning page 73 dresses, and Miss Rolleston, with her soft, jetty ringlets, and Mary Campbell, with locks whose golden tinge was heightened by the play of the morning sun, presented each a picture of attraction that I would fain have let my eyes linger upon, and I felt that if Miss Rolleston in beauty bore the palm from her companion, yet there was an ample margin left for independent attractions in the latter, in the sweetness and innocent grace of features that would scarcely admit of her passing unnoticed even by the side of her friend.

“Good morning, ladies; you have surely some faith in the freshening effects of the sun's earliest rays, that you are stirring so soon,” was my pleased salutation as I shook them each by the hand, to which they both laughingly responded.

“And how do you find the Murray waters agree with your health by this time, young ladies?” asked Lilly sarcastically.

“Oh, charmingly, Lilly,” replied Miss Rolleston. “Now really don't you think that both of our complexions have been greatly improved by our late ducking? but,” she added maliciously, “I see, Mr. Lilly, it is only Tiny's face for which you have any eyes.”

“Well, I dunno as it has done either of you any harm,” replied Lilly, affecting not to notice the latter part of Miss Rolleston's remarks. Then looking more kindly at the fair speaker, he continued, “It would have been a cruel shame for such a purty face as that to be lying at the bottom of the Murray”.

“Oh, thank you, Lilly, for the compliment; but then, I suppose this is what you would call in Ireland ‘a chip of the blarney,’” replied Miss Rolleston laughingly; then added gravely, “but it was just the wish to express the thanks that we had not the opportunity of speaking before, that brought Mary and me out so early this morning, for our escape was wholly due to you and Mr. Farquharson and the poor black fellow. Mary must answer for herself to Mr. Farquharson, to whom she was immediately indebted, but as a mark—only a slight one, remember—of what I feel for the service you then rendered me, Lilly, I want you to accept this gift, and wear it for my sake;” and before the astonished Lilly knew what she was about she had quickly lifted off his hat and passed a gold chain, to which was attached a valuable watch of the same metal, over his head. This watch and chain, as I afterwards was informed, she had obtained from her father for this purpose. “Nay, Lilly,” she said firmly, on his loudly protesting against the occasion for such a costly gift, “I desire you to accept this much from me.”

“By the hokey, if you raily mane it, I will take it, and it is proud I will be to wear such a gift for the sake of a lady like you; but it's not for the value of it, but because you gave it to page 74 me that I'll prize it, as I would have prized it for the same raison if had it been but a silver one, and which same would have been more suitable for the likes of me anyhow—not that I wanted anything at all, but just because you want me to take it; and as for what I did for you, Miss, shure I would do the same for a black gin, let alone for Rachel Rolleston, the sweetest and purtiest lady in all the Murray district.” In his unwonted emotion Lilly's feelings found vent in more of the latent Irish brogue than he was accustomed to use. For not only had Lilly been brought up in the neighbourhood of Dublin, where the dialect is purer than in other parts of Ireland, but, having been so long away from Ireland, the little brogue that had originally marked his speech had now almost disappeared.

In the meantime Mary and I were quietly conversing on the same interesting topic. “Mr. Farquharson,” she said, “as I am not wealthy like Rachel, and consequently have no gold watch and chain to offer you, I am afraid you will think my bare thanks but a poor return for your bravery in risking your life for my sake, and I know that without what you did I should not be here now, but lying at the bottom of the river; but though I can now only thank you,” she added feelingly, “I tell you that your kindness to me deserves more than I shall ever be able to repay.”

“I must have something, however,” I said, assuming a villaizjously mercenary look. “Mere thanks will hardly pay one for such an action as that. Consider the clothes that I spoilt in the wetting they got, and all that sort of thing. I am afraid, too, I shall have to get a new saddle.”

The poor girl looked so piteously embarrassed under the infliction of this banter that she apparently seemed not to know how construe it.

“I—I did not like to offer you anything, Mr. Farquharson, for fear of offending you.”

“Offending me indeed, young lady, let me inform you that my delicacy is not so easily offended,” said I brutally (for I was a brute to speak so, though but in jest, to the poor girl, whose face at this stage began to wear a shocked feeling; Miss Rolleston and Lilly at the same time looking at me with no small appearance of astonishment).

“What! do you think,” said I, suddenly seizing her hand and holding it firmly, “that it would offend me to promise that you would always be one of my dearest friends? No, no; so just give me this promise forthwith.”

“Your friend?” said the dear girl, her face, lately so distressed, now joyously brightening up; “is that all? I page 75 fervently hope that I shall always be a friend of yours, as know you will be of mine.”

“What a shame, Mr. Farquharson, to torment poor Mary with that mercenary assumption of yours,” cried Miss Rolleston. “I declare you looked as solemn as if you really meant what you said. It is you who are now in Mary's debt, to compensate for the momentary overthrow in her mind of the ideal of your character occasioned by your late words and looks.”

“Then I understand that my character did have the honour of an ideal conception in your and Miss Campbell's mind,” I quickly remarked, highly flattered at the thought. “Surely the knowledge of such a happy prepossession in your minds is in itself an ample return for the ducking I received on Miss Campbell's account.”

“If you so much value such opinions you had better not again endanger their utter extinction, even in jest.”

“I will certainly be most watchful over myself in view of such a penalty as that,” I replied laughing, then continued:—

“But, ladies, and you in special, Miss Rolleston, while overwhelming both Lilly and myself with thanks for the services we were so happy in being able to render you, what about the black fellow, without whose aid, in the first place, I fear that Lilly, stout swimmer that he is, would have had the job of diving for you ere he could have reached you? As for Miss Campbell, it was most fortunate that she managed to seize the paddle, or I fear I should have had to leave Selim's back on the same errand after her.”

“Oh, Bill,” said Miss Rolleston, laughing merrily, “Oh no, we have not forgotten him either. When I found time to inquire after him he was discovered out in the Murray, where the canoe was swamped, diving for his tomahawk that had, of course, been lost when the canoe turned over in the water. Over this loss he was sadly lamenting, with vengeful abjurgation of ‘no good lubra,’ by the lubra meaning Mary, and myself, to whose perverseness he rightly ascribed the loss of his precious tool. So he was brought up to the house and arrayed at once in a suit of clothes with blankets out of Mr. Jamieson's store, and was promised the gift of a grand new tomahawk from town into the bargain, and provided, besides, with such a quantity of provisions that the whole camp have been holding a grand corro-boree every night since. I am going to try and get him with his family to come and stay here from this time, and papa will see that the honest fellow shall not lack for anything.”

The ladies and I shortly after this walked towards the house, and just then, at a summons from her mother, Mary left us. Left alone with Miss Rolleston, I remarked in an page 76 assumed manner of carelessness: “What would you think were I to confess that my genuine pleasure at being able to render the late service to your young friend is slightly dashed with the regret that Providence did not order that it should he her who fell to Billy and Lilly's share of the rescuing, and you to mine; and that the sense of pleasure I felt when enabled to lay hold of Miss Campbell, was little in comparison to what that pleasure would have been had it been Miss Rolleston's precious life that then depended on my care?”

“If I were to imagine anything at all, it would be the entire freedom from selfish considerations your action showed, for had you been guided by any suggestions of ambitious policy, doubtless, as a wealthy squatter's daughter, I was the greatest catch of the two, and you might thus have been moved to bend your efforts in reaching me, who was well cared for already, and so poor Mary would have been left to perish, but as it was, your conduct was as noble as it was disinterested.”

This was spoken in a sudden gush of earnestness that seemed rare with Miss Rolleston, in whose playful humour this mood was seldom seen.

“You reproved me just now for my assumption of mercenariness with Miss Campbell, yet really I could be tempted to mercenariness in my desire for a reward from you, Miss Rolleston.”

“Well then, I must find you some suitable gift to offer in acknowledgment of your gallantry likewise,” she replied with a bright smile.

“Yes, but the reward I might covet might be of far greater value than you dream of.”

“Indeed, and might I ask the price at which you seem inclined to appraise your services?”

“Did a greater equality of station sanction the probability of my demand being granted, it would not be represented by piles of gold or of rubies.”

“What else?” she answered, looking intently at me as if to fathom my meaning.

“Your own fair hand perhaps,” I said with assumed pleasantry, but the involuntary tremble in my voice too surely indicated the earnestness of soul within.

The archer had caught the woman off her guard, and the shaft struck home—that is, it struck home to her vanity ere she had time to hide its effect. She evidently had been wholly unprepared for such an avowal, else she might have gaily turned the dart aside. As it was, she coloured for a moment, then rallying from her confusion, gaily smiled and tossed her head.

page 77

Evidently however she was not displeased, and I breathed more freely, for she was now conscious of my soul's longings. As to her own feelings, I was soon to learn that they were of too mercurial a nature to be long retained by any powers of attraction I at least possessed.

“Tush,” she playfully rejoined, “I thought you were too serious for such thoughts as these.”

“Yes, Miss Rolleston, so serious am I, that but for the unfavourable circumstances of my present position, I should steadily urge you for a response to these thoughts. Ah! if I could but hope that improvement in my circumstances might yet admit of the prospect of my some day daring to openly press my suit upon you, what rapture would be mine!”

“Ah! come, Mr. Farquharson; you don't mean to hint that you would wish to enclose in a household cage a poor little wild bird like me, whose sole desire is its own sweet liberty for years to come? But see, here is Mary coming, and if she hears us talking such nonsense as this whatever will she think of us?” and with these words she tripped lightly away, leaving me almost confounded in a sudden sobering of thought, at my utter imprudence in so suddenly committing myself by such an avowal to her.

A few days passed, during which Miss Rolleston seemed totally unaffected in any way, by her sudden insight into my feelings towards her. We laughed and chatted as before, or if, when opportunities served, I ventured to advance my irrepressible suit, she, now on her guard, simply parried it with the address of a woman well accustomed to similar scenes—neither wholly repelling me nor yet yielding to my attacks. Evidently pleased with my devotion, she smilingly listened to all my ardent protestations of love, but when I essayed to get on to a confidential footing with her, she eluded my designs.

Alas! it was too patent that Miss Rolleston, an heiress and spoiled beauty, was also an accomplished coquette.

Matters were in this condition, when one evening a stranger rode up to the house. He was tall and seemingly very muscular, though but sparely built, with a yellow bushy beard and good features, though showing, in the lines that here and there furrowed his face, the wear and tear of time or of passion. He might have been some thirty-five years of age or so, but it was difficult in his case to come to a very definite conclusion on this head. His eyes were quick and peculiarly restless. One arm he carried suspended in a sling, as if he had just suffered by a fall from his horse. This surmise seemed substantiated by the traces of soil on the shoulder of the disabled arm. His horse, though apparently of superior breed, appeared to be page 78 much jaded and travel-worn; everything seemed to show that the stranger's hurt had been occasioned by the stumbling of his beast.

This at least was the conclusion that I, who happened to be standing at the door when he rode up to the gate, came to. Dismounting, he came forward and introduced himself by the name of Marsden, and described himself as being in search of back country for a run. “I have penetrated the scrub,” he said, “betwixt here and Lake Hindmarch, that I left yesterday, but, happening to turn out of the proper track, I spent last night in the scrub, where I fortunately found some water, but of course no provisions for either man or beast. To-day my horse being jaded stumbled and fell with me and caused me to hurt my arm considerably, though I believe not seriously; there appear to be no bones broken.”

After calling Dick, the groom, to take the wearied horse to the stable, I introduced Mr. Marsden, on the terms of his own account of himself, to Mr. Rolleston, who courteously welcomed him and expressed sympathy for his hurt, and then, after a few minutes' conversation, led him into a bedroom that he might there refresh himself with a wash, begging him to consider the room as his own till he felt himself sufficiently rested to continue his journey. To this room his valise, that seemed of considerable weight, was then brought. After refreshing himself with a rest, wash, and change of clothes, he reappeared in the parlour by supper time, though still nursing his arm, from which, judging by the tender way in which he seemed to try to relieve it with the other hand, he was suffering some pain.