She rode slowly down the steep siding from the main road to a track in the bed of the Long Gully, the old grey horse picking his way zig-zag fashion. She was about seventeen, slight in figure, and had a pretty freckled face with a pathetically drooping mouth, and big sad brown eyes. She wore a faded print dress, with an old black riding skirt drawn over it, and her head was hidden in one of those ugly, old-fashioned white hoods, which, seen from the rear, always suggest an old woman. She carried several parcels of groceries strapped to the front of the dilapidated side-saddle.
The track skirted a chain of rocky waterholes at the foot of the gully, and the girl glanced nervously at these ghastly, evil-looking pools as she passed them by. The sun had set, as far as Long Gully was concerned. The old horse carefully followed a rough bridle track, which ran up the gully now on one side of the watercourse and now on the other; the gully grew deeper and darker, and its sullen, scrub-covered sides rose more steeply as he progressed.
The girl glanced round frequently, as though afraid of someone following her. Once she drew rein, and listened to some bush sound. "Kangaroos," she murmured; it was only kangaroos. She crossed a dimmed little clearing where a farm had been, and entered a thick scrub of box and stringy-bark saplings. Suddenly with a heavy thud, thud, an "old man" kangaroo leapt the path in front, startling the girl fearfully, and went up the siding towards the peak.
"Oh, my God!" she gasped, with her hand on her heart.
She was very nervous this evening; her heart was hurt now, and she held her hand close to it, while tears started from her eyes and glistened in the light of the moon, which was rising over the gap ahead.
"Oh, if I could only go away from the bush!" she moaned.
The old horse plodded on, and now and then shook his head -- sadly, it seemed -- as if he knew her troubles and was sorry.
She passed another clearing, and presently came to a small homestead in a stringy-bark hollow below a great gap in the ridges -- "Deadman's Gap". The place was called "Deadman's Hollow", and looked like it. The "house" -- a low, two-roomed affair, with skillions -- was built of half-round slabs and stringy-bark, and was nearly all roof; the bark, being darkened from recent rain, gave it a drearier appearance than usual.
A big, coarse-looking youth of about twenty was nailing a green kangaroo skin to the slabs; he was out of temper because he had bruised his thumb. The girl unstrapped the parcels and carried them in; as she passed her brother, she said:
"Take the saddle off for me, will you, Jack?"
"Oh, carnt yer take it off yerself?" he snarled; "carnt yer see I'm busy?"
She took off the saddle and bridle, and carried them into a shed, where she hung them on a beam. The patient old hack shook himself with an energy that seemed ill-advised, considering his age and condition, and went off towards the "dam".
An old woman sat in the main room beside a fireplace which took up almost the entire end of the house. A plank-table, supported on stakes driven into the ground, stood in the middle of the room, and two slab benches were fixtures on each side. The floor was clay. All was clean and poverty-stricken; all that could be whitewashed was white, and everything that could be washed was scrubbed. The slab shelves were covered with clean newspapers, on which bright tins, and pannikins, and fragments of crockery were set to the greatest advantage. The walls, however, were disfigured by Christmas supplements of illustrated journals.
The girl came in and sat down wearily on a stool opposite to the old woman.
"Are you any better, mother?" she asked.
"Very little, Mary, very little. Have you seen your father?"
"I wonder where he is?"
"You might wonder. What's the use of worrying about it, mother?"
"I suppose he's drinking again."
"Most likely. Worrying yourself to death won't help it!"
The old woman sat and moaned about her troubles, as old women do. She had plenty to moan about.
"I wonder where your brother Tom is? We haven't heard from him for a year now. He must be in trouble again; something tells me he must be in trouble again."
Mary swung her hood off into her lap.
"Why do you worry about it, mother? What's the use?"
"I only wish I knew. I only wish I knew!"
"What good would that do? You know Tom went droving with Fred Dunn, and Fred will look after him; and, besides, Tom's older now and got more sense."
"Oh, you don't care -- you don't care! You don't feel it, but I'm his mother, and ----"
"Oh, for God's sake, don't start that again, mother; it hurts me more than you think. I'm his sister; I've suffered enough, God knows! Don't make matters worse than they are!"
"Here comes father!" shouted one of the children outside, "'n' he's bringing home a steer."
The old woman sat still, and clasped her hands nervously. Mary tried to look cheerful, and moved the saucepan on the fire. A big, dark-bearded man, mounted on a small horse, was seen in the twilight driving a steer towards the cow-yard. A boy ran to let down the slip-rails.
Presently Mary and her mother heard the clatter of rails let down and put up again, and a minute later a heavy step like the tread of a horse was heard outside. The selector lumbered in, threw his hat in a corner, and sat down by the table. His wife rose and bustled round with simulated cheerfulness. Presently Mary hazarded --
"Where have you been, father?"
There was a wretched silence, lasting until the old woman took courage to say timidly:
"So you've brought a steer, Wylie?"
"Yes!" he snapped; the tone seemed defiant.
The old woman's hands trembled, so that she dropped a cup. Mary turned a shade paler.
"Here, git me some tea. Git me some TEA!" shouted Mr. Wylie. "I ain't agoin' to sit here all night!"
His wife made what haste her nervousness would allow, and they soon sat down to tea. Jack, the eldest son, was sulky, and his father muttered something about knocking the sulks out of him with an axe.
"What's annoyed you, Jack?" asked his mother, humbly.
He scowled and made no answer.
The younger children -- three boys and a girl -- began quarrelling as soon as they sat down. Wylie yelled at them now and then, and grumbled at the cooking, and at his wife for not being able to keep the children quiet. It was: "Marther! you didn't put no sugar in my tea." "Mother, Jimmy's got my place; make him move." "Mawther! do speak to this Fred." "Oh! father, this big brute of a Harry's kickin' me!" And so on.
When the miserable meal was over, Wylie got a rope and a butcher's knife, and went out to slaughter the steer; but first there was a row, because he thought -- or pretended to think -- that somebody had been using his knife. He lassoed the beast, drew it up to the rails, and slaughtered it.
Meanwhile, Jack and his next brother took an old gun, let the dogs loose, and went 'possum shooting.
Presently Wylie came in again, sat down by the fire, and smoked. The children quarrelled over a boy's book; Mrs. Wylie made weak attempts to keep the peace, but they took no notice of her. Suddenly her husband rose with an oath, seized the novel, and threw it behind the fire.
"Git to bed! git to bed!" he roared at the children; "git to bed, or I'll smash your brains with the axe!"
They got to bed. It was made of saplings and bark, covered with three bushel-bags full of straw and old pieces of blanket sewn together. The children quarrelled in bed till their father took off his belt and "went into" them, according to promise. There was a sudden hush, followed by a sound like a bird-clapper; then howls; then a peaceful calm fell upon that happy home.
Wylie went out again, and was absent an hour; on his return he sat by the fire and smoked sullenly. After a while he snatched the pipe from his mouth, and looked impatiently at the old woman.
"Oh! for God's sake, git to bed," he snapped, "and don't be asittin' there like a blarsted funeral! You're enough to give a man the dismals."
Mrs. Wylie gathered up her sewing and retired. Then he said to his daughter: "You come and hold the candle."
Mary put on her hood and followed her father to the yard. The carcase lay close to the rails, against which two sheets of bark had been raised as a break-wind. The beast had been partly skinned, and a portion of the hide, where a brand might have been, was carefully turned back. Mary noticed this at once. Her father went on with his work, and occasionally grumbled at her for not holding the candle right.
"Where did you buy the steer, father?" she asked.
"Ask no questions and hear no lies." Then he added, "Carn't you see it's a clear skin?"
She had a keen sense of humour, and the idea of a "`clear skin' steer" would have amused her at any other time. She didn't smile now.
He turned the carcase over; the loose hide fell back, and the light shone on a distinct brand. White as a sheet went Mary's face, and her hand trembled so that she nearly let the candle fall.
"What are you adoin' of now?" shouted her father. "Hold the candle, carn't you? You're worse than the old woman."
"Father! the beast is branded! See! ---- What does PB stand for?"
"Poor Beggar, like myself. Hold the candle, carn't you? -- and hold your tongue."
Mary was startled again by hearing the tread of a horse, but it was only the old grey munching round. Her father finished skinning, and drew the carcase up to a make-shift "gallows". "Now you can go to bed," he said, in a gentler tone.
She went to her bedroom -- a small, low, slab skillion, built on to the end of the house -- and fell on her knees by the bunk.
"God help me! God help us all!" she cried.
She lay down, but could not sleep. She was nervously ill -- nearly mad, because of the dark, disgraceful cloud of trouble which hung over her home. Always in trouble -- always in trouble. It started long ago, when her favourite brother Tom ran away. She was little more than a child then, intensely sensitive; and when she sat in the old bark school she fancied that the other children were thinking or whispering to each other, "Her brother's in prison! Mary Wylie's brother's in prison! Tom Wylie's in gaol!" She was thinking of it still. They were ever with her, those horrible days and nights of the first shadow of shame. She had the same horror of evil, the same fearful dread of disgrace that her mother had. She had been ambitious; she had managed to read much, and had wild dreams of going to the city and rising above the common level, but that was all past now.
How could she rise when the cruel hand of disgrace was ever ready to drag her down at any moment. "Ah, God!" she moaned in her misery, "if we could only be born without kin -- with no one to disgrace us but ourselves! It's cruel, God, it's cruel to suffer for the crimes of others!" She was getting selfish in her troubles -- like her mother. "I want to go away from the bush and all I know. . . . O God, help me to go away from the bush!" Presently she fell asleep -- if sleep it may be called -- and dreamt of sailing away, sailing away far out on the sea beyond the horizon of her dread. Then came a horrible nightmare, in which she and all her family were arrested for a terrible crime. She woke in a fright, and saw a reddish glare on the window. Her father was poking round some logs where they had been "burning-off". A pungent odour came through a broken pane and turned her sick. He was burning the hide.
Wylie did not go to bed that night; he got his breakfast before daylight, and rode up through the frosty gap while the stars were still out, carrying a bag of beef in front of him on the grey horse. Mary said nothing about the previous night. Her mother wondered how much "father" had given for the steer, and supposed he had gone into town to sell the hide; the poor soul tried to believe that he had come by the steer honestly. Mary fried some meat, and tried to eat it for her mother's sake, but could manage only a few mouthfuls. Mrs. Wylie also seemed to have lost her appetite. Jack and his brother, who had been out all night, made a hearty breakfast. Then Jimmy started to peg out the 'possum skins, while Jack went to look for a missing pony. Mary was left to milk all the cows, and feed the calves and pigs.
Shortly after dinner one of the children ran to the door, and cried:
"Why, mother -- here's three mounted troopers comin' up the gully!"
"Oh, my God!" cried the mother, sinking back in her chair and trembling like a leaf. The children ran and hid in the scrub. Mary stood up, terribly calm, and waited. The eldest trooper dismounted, came to the door, glanced suspiciously at the remains of the meal, and abruptly asked the dreaded question:
"Mrs. Wylie, where's your husband?"
She dropped the tea-cup, from which she had pretended to be drinking unconcernedly.
"What? Why, what do you want my husband for?" she asked in pitiful desperation. SHE looked like the guilty party.
"Oh, you know well enough," he sneered impatiently.
Mary rose and faced him. "How dare you talk to my mother like that?" she cried. "If my poor brother Tom was only here -- you -- you coward!"
The youngest trooper whispered something to his senior, and then, stung by a sharp retort, said:
"Well, you needn't be a pig."
His two companions passed through into the spare skillion, where they found some beef in a cask, and more already salted down under a bag on the end of a bench; then they went out at the back and had a look at the cow-yard. The younger trooper lingered behind.
"I'll try and get them up the gully on some excuse," he whispered to Mary. "You plant the hide before we come back."
"It's too late. Look there!" She pointed through the doorway.
The other two were at the logs where the fire had been; the burning hide had stuck to the logs in places like glue.
"Wylie's a fool," remarked the old trooper.
Jack disappeared shortly after his father's arrest on a charge of horse and cattle-stealing, and Tom, the prodigal, turned up unexpectedly. He was different from his father and eldest brother. He had an open good-humoured face, and was very kind-hearted; but was subject to peculiar fits of insanity, during which he did wild and foolish things for the mere love of notoriety. He had two natures -- one bright and good, the other sullen and criminal. A taint of madness ran in the family -- came down from drunken and unprincipled fathers of dead generations; under different conditions, it might have developed into genius in one or two -- in Mary, perhaps.
"Cheer up, old woman!" cried Tom, patting his mother on the back. "We'll be happy yet. I've been wild and foolish, I know, and gave you some awful trouble, but that's all done with. I mean to keep steady, and by-and-bye we'll go away to Sydney or Queensland. Give us a smile, mother."
He got some "grubbing" to do, and for six months kept the family in provisions. Then a change came over him. He became moody and sullen -- even brutal. He would sit for hours and grin to himself without any apparent cause; then he would stay away from home for days together.
"Tom's going wrong again," wailed Mrs. Wylie. "He'll get into trouble again, I know he will. We are disgraced enough already, God knows."
"You've done your best, mother," said Mary, "and can do no more. People will pity us; after all, the thing itself is not so bad as the everlasting dread of it. This will be a lesson for father -- he wanted one -- and maybe he'll be a better man." (She knew better than that.) "YOU did your best, mother."
"Ah, Mary! you don't know what I've gone through these thirty years in the bush with your father. I've had to go down on my knees and beg people not to prosecute him -- and the same with your brother Tom; and this is the end of it."
"Better to have let them go, mother; you should have left father when you found out what sort of a man he was; it would have been better for all."
"It was my duty to stick by him, child; he was my husband. Your father was always a bad man, Mary -- a bad man; I found it out too late. I could not tell you a quarter of what I have suffered with him. . . . I was proud, Mary; I wanted my children to be better than others. . . . It's my fault; it's a judgment. . . . I wanted to make my children better than others. . . . I was so proud, Mary."
Mary had a sweetheart, a drover, who was supposed to be in Queensland. He had promised to marry her, and take her and her mother away when he returned; at least, she had promised to marry him on that condition. He had now been absent on his latest trip for nearly six months, and there was no news from him. She got a copy of a country paper to look for the "stock passings"; but a startling headline caught her eye:
IMPUDENT ATTEMPT AT ROBBERY UNDER ARMS. ---- "A drover known to the police as Frederick Dunn, alias Drew, was arrested last week at ----"
She read to the bitter end, and burned the paper. And the shadow of another trouble, darker and drearier than all the rest, was upon her.
So the little outcast family in Long Gully existed for several months, seeing no one save a sympathetic old splitter who would come and smoke his pipe by the fire of nights, and try to convince the old woman that matters might have been worse, and that she wouldn't worry so much if she knew the troubles of some of our biggest families, and that things would come out all right and the lesson would do Wylie good. Also, that Tom was a different boy altogether, and had more sense than to go wrong again. "It was nothing," he said, "nothing; they didn't know what trouble was."
But one day, when Mary and her mother were alone, the troopers came again.
"Mrs. Wylie, where's your son Tom?" they asked.
She sat still. She didn't even cry, "Oh, my God!"
"Don't be frightened, Mrs. Wylie," said one of the troopers, gently. "It ain't for much anyway, and maybe Tom'll be able to clear himself."
Mary sank on her knees by her mother's side, crying "Speak to me, mother. Oh, my God, she's dying! Speak for my sake, mother. Don't die, mother; it's all a mistake. Don't die and leave me here alone."
But the poor old woman was dead.
. . . . .
Wylie came out towards the end of the year, and a few weeks later he brought home a -- another woman.
Bob Bentley, general hawker, was camping under some rocks by the main road, near the foot of Long Gully. His mate was fast asleep under the tilted trap. Bob stood with his back to the fire, his pipe in his mouth, and his hands clasped behind him. The fire lit up the undersides of the branches above; a native bear sat in a fork blinking down at it, while the moon above him showed every hair on his ears. From among the trees came the pleasant jingle of hobble-chains, the slow tread of hoofs, and the "crunch, crunch" at the grass, as the horses moved about and grazed, now in moonlight, now in the soft shadows. "Old Thunder", a big black dog of no particular breed, gave a meaning look at his master, and started up the ridge, followed by several smaller dogs. Soon Bob heard from the hillside the "hy-yi-hi, whomp, whomp, whomp!" of old Thunder, and the yop-yop-yopping of the smaller fry -- they had tree'd a 'possum. Bob threw himself on the grass, and pretended to be asleep. There was a sound as of a sizeable boulder rolling down the hill, and presently Thunder trotted round the fire to see if his master would come. Bob snored. The dog looked suspiciously at him, trotted round once or twice, and as a last resource gave him two great slobbery licks across the face. Bob got up with a good-natured oath.
"Well, old party," he said to Thunder, "you're a thundering old nuisance; but I s'pose you won't be satisfied till I come." He got a gun from the waggonette, loaded it, and started up the ridge; old Thunder rushing to and fro to show the way -- as if the row the other dogs were making wasn't enough to guide his master.
When Bob returned with the 'possums he was startled to see a woman in the camp. She was sitting on a log by the fire, with her elbows on her knees and her face in her hands.
"Why -- what the dev -- who are you?"
The girl raised a white desperate face to him. It was Mary Wylie.
"My father and -- and the woman -- they're drinking -- they turned me out! they turned me out."
"Did they now? I'm sorry for that. What can I do for you? . . . She's mad sure enough," he thought to himself; "I thought it was a ghost."
"I don't know," she wailed, "I don't know. You're a man, and I'm a helpless girl. They turned me out! My mother's dead, and my brothers gone away. Look! Look here!" pointing to a bruise on her forehead. "The woman did that. My own father stood by and saw it done -- said it served me right! Oh, my God!"
"What woman? Tell me all about it."
"The woman father brought home! . . . I want to go away from the bush! Oh! for God's sake take me away from the bush! . . . Anything! anything! -- you know! -- only take me away from the bush!"
Bob and his mate -- who had been roused -- did their best to soothe her; but suddenly, without a moment's warning, she sprang to her feet and scrambled to the top of the rock overhanging the camp. She stood for a moment in the bright moonlight, gazing intently down the vacant road.
"Here they come!" she cried, pointing down the road. "Here they come -- the troopers! I can see their cap-peaks glistening in the moonlight! . . . I'm going away! Mother's gone. I'm going now! -- Good-bye! -- Good-bye! I'm going away from the bush!"
Then she ran through the trees towards the foot of Long Gully. Bob and his mate followed; but, being unacquainted with the locality, they lost her.
She ran to the edge of a granite cliff on the higher side of the deepest of the rocky waterholes. There was a heavy splash, and three startled kangaroos, who had been drinking, leapt back and sped away, like three grey ghosts, up the ridge towards the moonlit peak.