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WH4T BLACK MONDAY BftOUQrlJT ME.
(A Story in Three Chapters,)
"Lei go my hand; let it go," I cried, for the noise of the returning dray was to be heard clearly in the distance, breaking the awful silence of the Bush; and I knew that in a very few minutes more my uncle, aunt, and cousin Bryan would be at tne rail, waiting for me to lower it that they might enter. Moreover, I knew my aunt—irritable even at the best— would now, when fatigued after her day at market, be very angry indeed if she caught a glimpse of my companion, whom she thoroughly disliked. And yet he would hold my hand to the last second, begging I would promise to meet him next evening by our river-bank, to hear something very particular which he desired to say to me. At length, in an agony of terror, I said, "Yes, yes, anything, anywhere; only go;" when immediately, spite of my fretful struggling, he drew me suddenly towards him, and left a shower of hasty kisses on my cheek, before he hurried off in an opposite direction from mv coming relatives: not, however, before Aunt Winnie's quick eye had seen his retreating figure in the bright Australian moonlight. And having her suspicions confirmed by my flushed face and the awkward manner in which my trembling fingers were endeavouring to let down the rail, which at another time would not be a moment's work to me, exclaimed—
'' What is the matter with the girl i Are we to stand here all night?" And as Bryan, with a laughing glance, sprang down from the driving-seat, to assist me, she continued, "That was Tom Sexton, I saw leave you just now. If you vnll persevere in encouraging a scamp to follow you, at least let it be at a proper time; not at ten o'clock at night, when your family are from home. Where are the children?"
"The boys were teasing Lizzie," I stammered, calling her a " Gum Sucker,"* "so—so I sent them to bed. I thought it best.''
"Of course you did," replied Aunt Winnie, as we all moved towards the house. "You thought it best to —''
"Come, come, Winnie," broke in Uncle Harding; "let poor Mary alone. You know you often stayed up sweethearting, yourself. Surely you are not yet too old to remember it."
"No," she said, "I am not; but I do not like to see my dead sister's child throw herself
* A "Gum Sucker." This elegant Colonism means, hi mother-English, one born in Australia.
away; nor should you encourage her in the matter, Bob."
"Well, well, we will discuss all that tomorrow," he answered, good - humouredly. "Meanwhile, let us have supper, niece. I suppose you did not neglect getting that ready? We are all three tired and hungry."
"Indeed, dear uncle," I said, at length making an effort to defend myself, as—assisted by my aunt, who loved to have her finger in everything—I set the dishes on the table. "Indeed I did not meet him intentionally to-night." How my conscience winced as I thought of my recent promise to him 1 Jf But I fancied I heard the noise of the dray a short time before it really came. And I had scarcely had time to listen for a moment, when he passed from the log-farm, where he had been all day helping to stack.'?'
"Aye, so they were stacking there to-day? We will be at it next week, I suppose 2" "remarked Bryan, who had just taken his seat, and so made a diversion in my favour, which lasted until the meal was over, when aunt Winnie— saying, "■ Now I shall just take a peep at the young ones, and go to bed"—went off, leaving me behind to clear away, and prepare matters for the next morning.
"Ha, ha, Miss Mary I" laughed Bryan, as I bustled about, ". you were nicely caught. Although I did my best to screen Tom's retreat, mother was too sharp for me. However, I was partially successful. She did nor see the leave-taking as I did."
"And I also, I regret to say," remarked my uncle gravely; yet, seeing how painfully I was blushing, he added, "But, as I have already said, we can discuss this to-morrow; so no more jokes at your cousin's expense. Now, Bryan, say good night, lad, and get to rest."
With the simple, ready obedience of a child, Bryan—although a fine, handsome young man of five-and-twenty—arose at his father's bidding, and was quickly gone. Then Uncle Harding, laying his broad band on my head, said—
"Your aunt is right, Mary. I do not wish to speak badly of any one; but you are to me as my own child, and I will certainly oppose, by every means in my power, your marriage with such a ruffian as Sexton. Do not cry, child," he added, kindly, as my tears fell fast. "In a short time you will wonder how you could have ever expended even a thought upon such a fellow. Your aunt will be in a better humour in the morning. And in any case, I repeat again, you know she is always for your good."
For my good I knew she was, better even than ray dear uncle could tell me. I felt it deeply as I lay thinking, until nearly dawn, about the scrape into which I had got myself, and out of which I did not well know how to get. To be sure I see now my remedy was an easy one; but then I could not do so. The kisses left upon my cheek by Tom Sexton I would have washed out with my blood, if with them 1 could have washed out their memory. And my pillow became one of thorns as I tossed, in my hot indignation at myself that he should ever have had even the shadow of a right to imprint them there. And yet I could not deny to myself that he had, and that I myself had given it to him. I met him first a year before, on board the sliip in which, on the death of my mother, I had come out to my only remaining relatives, who had been settled for many years in Victoria. He was returning at the same time from London, where he had been disposing of some gold dust and skins, the original proprietors of which last, he assured me, had been shot in company with my cousin Bryan, with whom, as well as the rest of his family, he said he was extremely intimate, living as he did in their close neighbourhood. As I had never seen these friends of mine, his little anecdotes of them rendered his conversation very interesting to me. He was a fine, manly-looking fellow, too; a little rough, perhaps, in manner, but only just sufficiently so to make me—a romantic girl of nineteen — feel exceedingly flattered that his voice should grow soft and low when he spoke to me; that the strong arm which lifted the great things in the mighty ship as a child plays with a feather, should support me with such gentleness as I endeavoured, on a calm day, to walk on the quarter-deck, or drew my wraps closer to shelter me from a stiff breeze, or the threatened sweep of a great wave. I had been warned by my aunt, in a long letter of directions as to my conduct on board ship, while civil to all, to make no intimate acquaintances. But whenever I thought of this, I told myself that of course such advice could not apply to Mr. Sexton. On the contrary, it was certain that she would be very happy to know I was in the charge of such a friend. And so the weeks rolled on in a to me not unpleasant monotony, until I could scarcely remember how it had been with me before I knew him ; and certainly I never gave myself any trouble to think how it should be when with the voyage should end our companionship, as my uncle was to meet
me at Melbourne, and take me home to K
under his own care. I was not uneasy at this,
because I was quite certain that at K I
should see a great deal of my friend : he had told me so all through, and it never occurred to me to doubt him. So I went on dreaming vaguely, as girls do, of some impossibly happy future, in which he and I were the principal persons concerned, and was only startled from my dream two or three days after my arrival at my new home, when the first joy of my welcome was over, by ray aunt asking, in her quick way,
to which I was then unaccustomed, how it was that, according to what she had heard from my uncle, I had, contrary to her express wishes, become intimate with that Sexton, for whom no one had the slightest respect—a fellow who went off to the diggings like any common bushman, with his blanket strapped on his shoulder, and each time had squandered the proceeds of his last journey there in low dissipation, never giving his poor mother or sister-who kept a little school in Tylden— a single penny to help them on their way.
I was amazed, and, to speak the truth, incredulous. I told her how kind he had been to me, and insinuated that she must be either prejudiced or mistaken regarding him. She was unused to be contradicted, I to be controlled; and so, before either was well aware, "a very pretty quarrel," which resulted (as my uncle also insisted on my dropping all acquaintance with my late fellow-passenger) in my entertaining a sore angry feeling agaioBt my new-found friends, imagining myself to be a suffering angel, and Tom Sexton one of the most chivalrous heroes that ever existed out of the paper-world of old romance, where such wonderful personages usually live, die, and have their superhuman being. I could not believe anything against him. I pitied and grieved over him, met him in secret, and wrote to him, when I could not succeed in doing so, the most absurd rhapsodies of outraged affection, my cruel relatives figuring in the most uncomplimentary manner in my epistles.
And so the time passed on, until wearying of the restraint which his love for me—such as it was — had imposed on him, he at length threw off the mask, and proved himself, to my unwilling belief, all, and more than all, he had been represented to me. But when, after many efforts for his reform, I became thoroughly disgusted by his low vice, and thought to withdraw from my silly engagement, he turned on me with the unmanly threat that he had preserved the letters which I had always understood to have been destroyed, and would show them not only to my own family, but through the entire district if I dared to do so.
Oh the shame—the shame that burned my cheek as I thought of them! all their folly appearing before me now in the plainest colours, as it had never done before! as I thought of them paraded through the surrounding grogshops, laughed over and commented on by all the roughs and loafers of the neighbourhood; as I thought of uncle Harding's grave displeasure, of my aunt's bitter remarks, and the danger of Bryan's getting into a serious quarrel —as he most certainly would, if he heard my name spoken coarsely of j and I knew Sexton disliked him very much besides. Oh, what should I do f what should I do? So I questioned myself half through the autumnal night and at last sunk to sleep, putting off the evil day a little longer by deciding on meeting him, if I possibly could, according to my enforced promise, and begging once more fpr the return of those unlucky letters; after which, if he continued to refuse them, why I should then seriously endeavour to summon up courage to confess all to my uncle.
It was impossible for me to meet Sexton, Aunt Winnie kept me so constantly employed about the house, as if she suspected my anxiety to elude her vigilance for an hour or so. I could not be five minutes together from her presence when her shrill voice was to be heard calling out, "Mary, Mary; what are you mooning about, girl? Set to-morrow's bread, make some fritters, or when do you mean to have the boys' cloth caps made?"
Oh dear, dear! I would not live that time over again for anything—a time when I forced back the tears from my eyes lest my aunt's sharp glance should detect them; when my heart often stood still with terror lest Tom, in his impatience at my apparent defiance of him, should enter when I least expected, and produce tbe documents of which I was so thoroughly ashamed. And in my abject fright it was a true relief to me when, one evening towards the close of the week, when I happened to be alone in the kitchen, Bryan took the opportunity to hand me a small note, saying at the same time, in a low voice,
"I met the messenger bringing this to you, and thought it better to act the postman myself for this time. Only, of course, I know it is from Sexton." I took it from him mechanically, and without speaking, when, after a moment's hesitation, he added, "Mary, do you not think this underhand business very unworthy of you? I know I have no right to advise you."
"Oh, Bryan," I interrupted, " are you not as a brother to me?" He winced, and said impatiently—
"No, I am not your brother; on the contrary, we are comparative strangers. I should be sorry
any sister of mine . But I will not detain
you any longer from your letter. I will say, however, you should decide one way or tbe other regarding this man. Either dismiss him altogether, or brave my father and your aunt openly, and marry him. Your present line of
proceeding is most un"
"Oh, Bryan, do not say it," I cried passionately. "If you knew!"
"I do not desire to know," he replied coldly. "My mother is your most fitting confidant and adviser."
"And yet you have given me advice," I retorted angrily, " comparative stranger as you are. You have been hard and contemptuous to me. And, after all, you are right: you are not my brother, and have no right to mix yourself in my affairs. I shall do as I please about Tom. Things must go hard, indeed if I do not find
him more kind and just to me than my newfound relatives."
He went out without replying, leaving me in a most unchristian state of mind; and I sat sullenly by the stove, thinking of Sexton, and feeling in my anger that with all his faults no one cared for me as he did. My heart softened strangely towards bim; and I kept forming excuses for him in my mind, even against my own conviction of his worthlessness. Poor fellow, I thought; if he is wild, what is there so wonderful in it, thrown among reckless men from all parts of tbe world at those horrible diggings? Why was he alone expected to touch pitch, yet not be defiled? As to his neglect of his mother and sister, it was mere thoughtlessness: reprehensible, to be sure, but still mere thoughtlessness. And with regard to his threats towards myself, after all there was the old excuse for them—love, and bis dread of losing me. Perhaps I had treated him badly. If I had been less harsh, probably the faults into which be had recently fallen would never have occurred at all. I thought over the time on board the ship—the time when we first met, and of all his care of me, until, glancing over tbe note which had hitherto remained unopened in my hand, and finding it to be the usual halfthreatening, half-imploring request for an interview, I started up, and wrapping a shawl round me, walked out to grant it, utterly careless whether I was observed or not, and with a strong feeling of dislike towards Bryan in my heart, mingling a fixed determination to end all my perplexities by a marriage with Sexton at ones if he wished it, whatever might be tbe afterconsequences of such rashness.
With steps hasty as my resolve, I trod my way along the Bush track which led to the river; and in something less than a quarter of an hour reached the well-known spot, which was usually as silent as it had been in the first hours of the creation. Now, however, angry voices broke its stillness; and it was with a feeling little short of terror I heard that of my uncle raised in excited tones, as he exclaimed—
"None but such a scoundrel as you have always proved yourself to be, would be guilty of such conduct. A young girl's letters traded on in such a way—a young girl's, too, whom you profess to love I"
That Sexton was the person to whom these words were addressed, as well as that he was tipsy, I learned immediately from his voice, »s he replied —
"You are very free with your names. I wonder what you will call your niece when you read the loving way she writes of you, and the rest of you. Love her, indeed I" he continued. "Why once I compel her to fulfil her engagement, I don't care if I never see her again. Better be free than bound, any day. But she shall not throw me off like an old glove when she wishes. Likely as not I shall soon leave her where I found her, and try another turn at Bendigo or Ballarat; my cash is getting to run low."
Then my poor aunt, utterly subdued, spoke brokenly through a burst of sobs. "Oh Bob, Bob! My poor foolish wilful girl I Get those silly papers from him at any price. Ho says bis money is running low. Buy them from him; oh ! do buy them from him."
This speech wounded me more than all. That the discovery of my imprudence should have deprived Aunt Winnie of the faculty of making sharp speeches, gave me a clearer idea of it than even in my misery I ever had before; and my weak, wayward pettishness, which bad but a short half-hour before nearly betrayed me into life-long suffering, was now indeed fully convinced as to who were my true friends who really loved me, as Sexton exclaimed, in reply to this last petition—
"You are mistaken, old lady. Here are the documents in question;" and through the branches I saw him produce a tied-up bundle of letters as he spoke, " everyone of them; and they are not to be purchased by their weight in ten-pound notes, at least not until I have had some fun out of them, as I intend to entertain a few friends with a perusal of their high-flown sentiments this evening. I'll take care and teach Miss Whimsical what breaking an engagement means."
Oh, how humiliated I felt, listening to all this! Yet when I heard Uncle Harding speak again, to offer him a five-pound note for what he held, and receive only a scornful laugh by way of reply, my indignation gave me courage, and instead of lurking any longer in hiding, I walked boldly forward.
"Dear uncle," I said, "do not ask him for these papers any more. After all they are only very silly, and it will be more disgraceful to himself to use them than to me. The only thing I dreaded was the shame of you, or Aunt Winnie knowing about them. Now, as you do know all, I have nothing more to fear; let him do as he pleases, he is not worth your notice."
Bad and tipsy as he was, my sudden presence and words abashed him for a minute or so; but quickly recovering, he shouted—
"So the murder is out then. Fussy was to sit in the corner while the old folks tried to draw the lion's claws. I wonder where sweet master Bryan is; he should be here, too, to take his part in the play."
We listened in silence, while, growing more coarse and, as it would seem, more tipsy every moment, he concluded a violent tirade by crying out, as he shook the little packet above his head triumphantly—
"Now is your time to decide, Miss Mary. You have not a moment to spare; I cannot stay here all night. Which shall it be, the marriage or the grog-shop audience?"
"Neither," exclaimed Aunt Winnie, delight in ber tones (she confessed afterwards she had been for some time watching the opportunity), as, poising her active little figure on a log
behind him, she made a successful snatch at his prize, and the next moment—under the protection of my uncle—was tearing the recovered letters into shreds and casting them away for ever in a fluttering shower upon the passionless bosom of the stream.
I stood hastily winding up my bair before the small dressing-glass in our bedroom, while Katie stood idly looking on, praising its great length and beauty, with childish admiration. I had not time to notice her chatter, even if my thoughts happened to be disengaged, which they were not, as, in common with the other grown members of the household, I was going off to one of the outlying farms called Hawthorne-, about five miles farther in the bush, where the corn was to be stacked that day, no one remaining behind save my little companion and an elder brother, not yet strong enough to work. It was not to take care of the house they remained; there was not the slightest fear that any one would even enter in our absence; but to see that none of our cattle strayed into the next pasture, as we bad there, for the last few months, an exceedingly vexatious and dangerous neighbour. It was Sexton; for a year had already passed since the evening of the scene in which aunt had so unceremoniously snatched my unlucky letters from him, in a few weeks after which event he again disappeared from the neighbourhood for some time, but returned in about five months after with sufficient money to purchase a small stock of cattle, and rent by the year some grass-land, which was unfortunately to be let, next my uncle's place; ever since which time he h»d made himself as troublesome as only so close a neighbour malignantly inclined could contrive to do; endeavouring, too, in every possible manner to put a quarrel on Bryan, who just as sedulously avoided entering into one with him, and making my very life a burthen to me, as I felt that but for my imprudence and obstinacy his enmity would never have been called forth at all. Strange to say, Aunt Winnie did not revenge his ill-doings on me in the least as I it first feared she would. I believe her triumph in proving to me how right she had been in her estimate of his character, together with the still greater one of having AcrseWdeprived him of the source of his power, robbed her anger against me of its sting, although she still hated Sexton thoroughly. Uncle Harding was kind and considerate as ever, but Bryan and I never exchanged a word with each other, except when we could not possibly avoid doing so. I c°u''J not feel grateful to him ; on the contrary, I had an unreasonable feeling of annoyance towards him for the part he had taken in my affairs'".
felt it was not for my sake he had attempted to offer me advice, on one or two occasions, after my final quarrel with Sexton, and before that highly honourable gentleman had again flitted no one knew where; it was, as I told myself, lest one of his family should be compromised in the slightest degree by some wild act of Tom's in his indignation at what he believed a preconcerted plan; although the reader knows how far that idea was from the truth, when, by the merest accident, he met not me, bat uncle and aunt, at our usual trysting place. The utter contempt, too, of Bryan's manner to me, in the early part of that eventful evening, rankled in my mind, and precluded the smallest notion that he had any interest in me for my own sake; so I took care in my manner towards him to give him back scorn for scorn, and took even a bitter pleasure in listening to his every word, watching his every movement, that I might have the satisfaction of quietly going an opposite direction to whatever he seemed to think right or best to do; although, indeed, I cannot accuse him of ever expressing any interest, one way or another, in anything I happened to say or do at that time; and, perhaps, to confess the truth, I might have been more leisurely in performing my toilet on the present occasion; hut that I preferred walking with Uncle Harding to our place of destination to going with Aunt Winnie in the spring car, which he (Bryan) was to drive. It was Monday—the terrible day since known in the colony as Black Monday—and so fearfully hot, even at the early hour in which we set out, as to be almost suffocating: it was like breathing the air of a furnace, and yet, as we passed out, we could see over the fence Sexton very industriously employed burning stubble in his fields.
"If I could speak to that fellow," remarked my uncle, "I would advise him not to risk his own and his neighbour's safety, as he is doing. On such a day as this fire is a dangerous servant, and very apt to turn master; but, probably if I said as much, he would persevere the more; as it is, he will very likely be in the grogshop in half-an-hour."
I did not reply. To see him, even to hear his name casually mentioned, always gave me a feeling of guilt, which rendered it impossible for me to enter into conversation respecting him with any one; so we pursued our way in silence, under the shade of the mighty trees, and through the thick, low scrub, until the brooding stillness was broken by the sharp cracking of Bryan's whip behind us, as he called to the horse, or by the sound of his song, or cheerful laugh, as he chatted gaily to his mother, of whom he was very fond. They were very soon beside us, when, on my again declining —although really very tired after my long walk—to take a seat in the car, my three companions commenced a conversation about the business on which we were bound, which lasted until we reached Hawthorne, There is no occasion to
dwell upon the occurrences of the earlier part of the day, which were of the most ordinary character. Our work progressed rapidly, and the stacking was almost entirely completed, when, about two o'clock in the afternoon, the immense volumes of smoke driven in our direction, and which surrounded us like a dense fog, formed the first heralds of the fearful calamity which was already following rapidly in their track. More than two years have come and gone since that time, yet I often start up from my sleep at night, fancying I am in the midst of that terrible scene. In the midst of the suffocating smoke,with the swift red billows of fire rolling up towards us from three sides, leaving only that behind us leading to our own home free, that I am still standing as if paralyzed, gazing stupidly at it, until it at length made good its destructive way, and seized the corn, which, under the blessing of Providence, had been the fruit of my poor uncle's unwearying industry, and the means to which he looked for the support of his large family, as well as to pay off the liabilities to which a bush-farmer for many years must be subject, no matter how prosperous he is, or how promising may be his future prospects. Dear uncle, at the first cry of "the stacks on fire!" all presence of mind deserted him: he could do nothing, make no exertion to save anything; but walked up and down, wringing his hands, and declaring if he had a pistol he would shoot himself; while the two boys, younger than Bryan, cried like litlle children. Bryan, however, worked bravely, now flinging up great buckets of water as they were pumped up from the sunk-well by the workmen, now laying a guiding hand on the plough, which had been hastily yoked in order to turn up the earth around, and so check the progress of the flames. While Aunt Winnie, all her native energy coming out on the occasion, contrived to harness a horse to the great dray with her own hands, and kept calling to me all the time to fling a iarge pile of flour-sacks, worth nearly thirty pounds, into it, to try and save them, as they were not ours, but merely borrowed from the mill the week before. By degrees many of the squatters, chased from the surrounding bush by the advancing fire, joined us, but could do nothing but stand idly looking on, until a few of them found employment' in bearing poor Uncle Harding, who had fainted, to a shepherd's hut, a short distance off, and whither Aunt Winnie followed to attend to him.
I have often felt ashamed of myself since. I was too shocked to feel shame then at my own utter uselesBness; but a still greater horror was to arouse me from my stupor.
I do not know how it was, but like the strange things which follow each other in a dream, it did not seem singular to me, in the general confusion, that Frank, who had been left at home with Kate, should suddenly fling his arms round me, and exclaim, over and over again, through bursts of terrified sobs—
"Oh, Mary! save her—save her! I cannot