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Vicissitudes of Bush Life in Australia and New Zealand

Chapter XVIII

Chapter XVIII.

Thus closed one of the brightest Christmas Days I have known, and that still shines like a bright memory through a somewhat cloudy past.

But morning came, and I knew my fair guests must leave me to my solitary bachelor life again, and I knew how desolate I should feel when I returned after bidding them farewell and entered my house again, and should say with the poet,

“How dark and silent are my halls!”

On the return journey to Menindie the bullock dray was dispensed with, the ladies thinking that they had had sufficient experience of such tedious means of locomotion on the day of their arrival, and preferring the more expeditious mode of riding back on horseback. But as there had been no more side-saddles taken up with them from the Murray than those used by the ladies on the previous day's picnic and stock-riding expedition, Mrs. Campbell and Tiny not having contemplated their necessity for themselves, or the idea of returning from the station to Menindie by any other mode of conveyance than that by which they had come, we, after some scheming, rigged up two saddles of sheep skin and bullock hide for the two young gentlemen, Miss Rolleston and Miss Campbell readily undertaking to mount the saddles the young gentlemen had used on the previous day. Meanwhile the black fellow had page 122 been despatched in search of the horses that had strayed from the main body, and, these being found, the black mare Mavourneen was saddled for Mrs. Campbell, while Tiny was provided with another old stager who would have scarcely been disturbed by the firing off of a cannon from his back, let alone the sight of a lady's riding habit fluttering by his side. Though, by the way, Tiny had no riding skirt, but for the sake of decorum a sheet was pinned round her dress and answered just as well, all laughing good humouredly at the figure she thus cut.

Mary, however, again rode Selim, to whom she seemed to be greatly attached, ever and anon patting his neck affectionately as they went.

On the road I observed Marsden on several occasions keenly inspecting Selim's points then, leaving Miss Rolleston's side when he observed her engaged in an animated conversation with Miss Campbell about their mutual city friends, he rode to where I was, and, pointing towards Selim with his riding-switch, abruptly remarked, “A good horse, sir; what value would you be disposed to put upon him?”

“More, perhaps, than you would be inclined to give,” was my somewhat stiff reply.

“Indeed, sir,” he replied with an incipient sneer slightly curling his lip.

“What sum do you imagine it would take to balk me of any fancies that I choose to indulge in?”

“Of that of course I cannot judge, nor yet does it matter, Mr. Marsden; as it is not my intention to part with my horse upon any consideration, further parley on the subject is needless.”

“Straightly answered and to the point,” was his blunt, offhand reply, and then more slowly he added, “and from witnessing your action yesterday I make no doubt that when you say and mean a thing you have sufficient determination to stick to it.”

“Perhaps I have,” I answered curtly, for I was always on my guard against this man; there was a mystery about him that seemed impossible for me to fathom, and until I had done so I could not trust him.

Lilly, who was riding alongside of me, and whose eye appeared to be constantly on this man when near him, here broke in with the remark, “You appear to be a good judge of a horse, Mr. Marsden; where did you pick up that one you are riding, if it is a fair question?”

“Perhaps not quite as fair as you may think, sir,” replied Marsden with one of his sternly sarcastic smiles; “but in the present instance it may be answered fairly. My horse, ah! he is a good one! I bought him when in Melbourne, in the yard there.”

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“I didn't think that wealthy squatters were in the habit of parting with their favourite horses,” replied Lilly drily.

“Indeed, you seem to be shrewd in your judgment, sir; but what has that got to do with my answer?” asked Marsden quickly.

“Well, I ought to know that horse of yours,” replied Lilly in the same dry tone as before, “but I never thought that Mr. Tyson on the Murrumbidgee was so hard up as to be obliged to sell his best horse.”

Quick and piercing was the frowning glance with which, for an instant, Marsden regarded Lilly, but, as instantly the strong-nerved man recovered himself. “Mr. Tyson, my dear sir, may, or may not have his scruples on these points— I have not heard of them, nor do I care about them; let it be sufficient for you to know that I purchased this horse at Tattersall's sale-yard in Melbourne, and a pretty considerable figure, too, it cost me,” and with these words, uttered in a tone of stern decision, he rode forward, and joining Miss Rolleston, they both rode for some distance in advance of the party, and, still preserving this distance, for the rest of the way in close proximity, and with heads bent towards each other, they appeared to be engaged in deep and earnest conversation, until we had arrived almost within sight of our destination. Then, suddenly giving their horses the spur, they both disappeared round a turn of the road where it entered a belt of timber, and on the rest of the party doubling this point and riding on a little further, we found Miss Rolleston with a grave and almost sad countenance, waiting alone.

“Why, Rachel,” exclaimed Miss Campbell, laughing, “here you are, are you, why, I thought that you and Mr. Marsden had run away with each other. Wherever has he got to now?”

“Mr. Marsden,” replied the other, “has pushed on.”

“Gone away?” cried several in a breath. “What a strange thing to do, without saying a single ‘good-bye’ to any-one!”

“It is his way,” replied Miss Rolleston, “he says he hates having to go through the formula of leave-taking at any time; it does not suit with his blunt way of doing things.”

“Well, I never,” remarked Miss Campbell. “Where is he off to now? but as he intends purchasing that back country, I suppose we shall soon see him again at the Murray.”

“Yes, he told me he was obliged now to ride to see a person who was expecting him at Wentworth; but there, please question me no further, for I don't feel disposed to give any more answers on the subject.”

As we were now within about a mile of Menindie, there was page 124 nothing more said about the matter. Miss Rolleston's grave look continued as she rode on in thoughtful silence, no one liking to inquire into the cause of it, though we naturally laid it down to Marsden's departure, for his influence over her had been apparent to us all.

Lilly, on hearing Miss Rolleston's account of Marsden's sudden leave-taking, made no audible remark, but I observed a bitter, meaning smile pass across the fellow's keen face. As he often remarked, he could see through a stone wall as far as most people, and with reference to the stone wall of Marsden's real character, I too soon had ample reason to verify Lilly's claim to this faculty.

On arriving at Menindie, there was but little time to spend in further conversation, as Captain Caddell, with his little steamer, was impatiently waiting for his passengers.

On shaking hands with Jessie Campbell, and looking into her open countenance, where no trace of a shadow of care could be seen lurking in the pellucid depths of her frank blue eyes, I could not help thinking of the badinage between her and her friend on the previous evening, and of the happy random shot, by which she had been so completely baffled by the latter. Viewing her thus, a strange thought for the first time crossed my mind as to the bare possibility of the fulfilment of the prophecy; and in speculating on the idea I discovered myself deliberately analysing my feelings, with reference to such a possible event. Further on, however, the reader will know what the result of the analysis even then seemed to show. Meanwhile, however, the commotion in my heart on Miss Rolleston's account was such as occasioned me to smile sadly at the idea. But, shaking hands cordially with her, I bade her farewell, with the hope of our meeting again before long.

With all the others I parted on terms of the highest esteem; but, in doing so with Miss Rolleston, who still looked sad and thoughtful, I could not repress a feeling of dismal foreboding.

Poor Rachel Rolleston, so young and so beautiful, and with so much of genuine worth, weakened it is true, by romance and enthusiasm, so free from vanity, yet with so many foibles, that had the effect of weakening her judgment! Poor Rachel Rolleston! Why was it your fate that your bright life of innocent enjoyment should so soon be eclipsed by the clouds of darkness and despair?