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   Chapter 1 No.1

Tom Gerrard By Louis Becke Characters: 14330

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


"Hallo! young lady, what on earth are you doing here?" and Gerrard bent down over his horse's shoulder, and looked inquiringly into the face of a small and exceedingly ill-clad girl of about ten years of age.

"Nothing, sir, I only came out for a walk, and to get some pippies."

"And where do you get them?"

"Down there, sir, on the sand," and the child pointed with a strong, sun-browned hand to the beach, which was within a mile.

"Eat them?"

"Yes-they're lovely. Jim and I roast them in the stockman's kitchen when auntie has gone to bed."

"And who is Jim?"

"Jim Incubus; I'm Mary Incubus."

"Mary what?"

"Incubus, sir."

Gerrard dismounted, and tying his reins to a stirrup, let his horse graze. Then taking his pipe out of his pocket, he filled and lit it, and motioned to the child to sit down beside him upon a fallen honeysuckle tree.

"What is your auntie's name, my dear?" and he took the child's hand in his.

"Mrs Elizabeth Westonley."

"Ah! I thought so. Now, did you ever hear her talk of an Uncle Tom?"

"Yes, sir," replied the child, wonderingly, "he's a cattleman in the Northern Territory."

"Well! I'm the cattleman, Mary. I'm the Uncle Tom, and I've come to see you all."

"All the way from Cape York! Why! Uncle Westonley says it's two thousand miles from here."

"So it is, my dear," and the man stroked the child's tousled chestnut hair caressingly; "quite two thousand miles," and then as he looked at her pityingly he muttered something very uncomplimentary to Aunt Elizabeth.

"Are you really my uncle Thomas Gerrard?"

"I am really your Uncle Tom Gerrard, and you are my niece Mary. Your mother was my sister, whose name was Mary."

"Uncle Westonley likes you."

"Does he?" and the young man's kindly grey eyes smiled as he stroked his pointed beard. "Good old Ted!"

"Who's Ted?"

"Your Uncle Westonley, of course. Don't you call him 'Uncle Ted'?"

"Oh, no!" and the child's big eyes looked startlingly into his, "I call him 'Uncle Westonley.' Aunt Elizabeth said I must never say 'Uncle Ted,' as it's vulgar, and she won't allow it, and uncle says I must be obedient to her."

Gerrard put out his right arm, drew her to him, and looked intently into her face. In her dreamy, violet-hued eyes, with the dark pencilled brows, and the small delicate mouth, he saw the image of his dead twin-sister, Mary.

"Poor little mite!" he again said to himself pityingly, as he looked at her coarse though not ill-kept clothing, "Lizzie always was a cold-hearted prig, and always will be to the end of her days-even in her moribund moments. How could she let this child wander out so far away from the station." Then he took two or three great puffs at his pipe. "How far is it to Marumbah, little niece Mary?"

"Five miles, sir."

"Don't say 'sir.' Who taught you to say 'sir'?"

"Aunt Elizabeth."

"But you must not say 'sir' to me. I'm your uncle. And you must call me 'Uncle Tom.' Understand?"

"Aunt Elizabeth insists on my saying 'sir' to gentlemen."

"Does she now? Well, my dear, you must never say 'sir' to me-I'll ask Aunt Elizabeth not to insist on your calling me 'sir.' You see I shouldn't like it I want you to call me 'Uncle Tom.' Lots of people call me Tom. Some of 'em call me Tom and Jerry-short, you know, for Thomas Gerrard."

"Aunt Elizabeth says you're godless and wild."

"Does she really?" and the grey eyes twinkled. "That's only her way of talking, you see. 'Godless and wild' doesn't mean anything very bad when Aunt Elizabeth says it It only means-well, nothing particular. When you are older you will understand."

"Yes, sir."

"Uncle Tom!"

"Yes, Uncle Tom."

"Now, Mary, what about these pippies? Will you let me come with you? I'm awfully fond of pippies-can eat bushels of 'em."

"Yes, Uncle Tom," and the child's face lighted up, "oh! I wish Jim was here too. Are you his uncle, too?"

Gerrard rubbed his cheek thoughtfully. His sister Elizabeth had no children, and he wondered who Jim could be.

"No, I don't think I am. When did he come to Marumbah?"

"Uncle Westonley brought him from Sydney about-about six months ago."

"Where is he now?"

"At home, with Aunt Elizabeth. He's been fractious, and is being punished."

"Being punished?"

"Yes, he's locked up in the spare room."

"What did he do?"

"Put a saddle on the brindle bull calf, and tried to make it backjump."

"Did it?"

"Oh, yes, beautifully, and Jim had his forehead cut, and a lot of blood came."

Gerrard laughed as he put down his pipe, "And what did Uncle Westonley say?"

"Uncle Westonley is away in Sydney," said the child gravely, and as she spoke her eyes filled with tears.

Gerrard understood. "Well, never mind, Mary; now you and I shall go and get these pippies."

From his saddle dees he took a pair of green-hide hobbles, lifted off the saddle with its valise, hobbled the horse, and then holding the child's hand in his, set out towards the beach.

"Now, Mary, you and I are going to have a great old time. First of all, you are going to show me how you get pippies. Then we will come back and cook them, and have some tea and some damper as well, for I have both in my saddle-bags, and I have a wood duck too, which I shot this morning. Did you see it?"

"Yes, Uncle Tom; and your gun, too. Jim loves guns."

"Does he, my chick? Jim must be a man after my own heart."

"What's that, Uncle Tom?"

"Oh, I'll tell you some day. Now come along for the pippies. You show me how you get them, and I'll show you how I get them."

Holding his hand, the child led him down through the wild, sweet-smelling littoral scrub by a cattle track to the beach, where before them lay the blue Pacific, shining under the rays of the afternoon sun. The tide was low, and the "pippies" (cockles) were easily had, for they protruded their suckers out upon every few inches of the sand. Gerrard, booted and spurred as he was, went into the water, dug into the sand with his hands, and helped the child to fill the basket she carried, and then, realising that she was excited, and being himself determined upon a certain course of action, he walked slowly back with her to where he had left the horses.

"Mary, dear, just sit down, and listen to me. I am not going to Marumbah to-night, and you must stay with me. We shall be there early in the morning."

"Oh, Uncle Tom! Aunt Elizabeth will punish me."

"Don't be afraid, chick-she won't. I will explain everything to her in the morning."

In a few minutes he had lit two fires, and when the coals were glowing on one, and the child was attending to the roasting of the pippies, he was boiling a billy of tea on the other, and laying out some cold salt beef and damper from his saddle-bags.

"Come, chick, you and I are going to have a great time to-night, as I told you, pippies and wild duck, and tea and damper, and after that is over you shall be tucked up in my blankets, and sleep until we hear the bell-birds calling to us in the morning."

"Aunt Elizabeth--"

"That's all right, chick. Aunt Elizabeth will have nothing to say about it. I'll settle with he

r. Now, sit down on that blanket-I daresay you're hungry, eh?"

"Please, Uncle Tom, let me go home, Aunt Elizabeth--"

"We'll go home, chick, when the bell-birds and the crockets begin to sing. And Aunt Elizabeth won't say a word to you." He smiled somewhat grimly to himself, "don't be afraid of that. You and I are camping out tonight-like two old mates. By-the-way, where do you sleep at Marumbah?"

"In the little room, just off the saddle-room."

"And Jim?"

"Oh, Aunt Elizabeth doesn't like him to sleep in the house, so he sleeps in the stockman's spare room."

"How old is he, chick?"

The child bent her head in thought for a moment or two. "About ten, I think, Uncle Tom. He is really and truly such a good boy-Uncle Westonley says so, but Aunt Elizabeth says he is godless and an 'incubus.' What does incubus mean? I am one too."

"Nothing, nothing very much, little one," said Gerrard, as he held the breast of the wild duck he had plucked over the glowing coals of his fire; "you see, your Aunt Elizabeth doesn't mean to be unkind to you-it's only her way of saying that you and Jim are troublesome at times. And I don't think she will call you or Jim 'incubuses,' any more after to-morrow. Now, let us have something to eat. See, it is nearly dark."

They ate their supper to the murmur of the ever-sounding surf upon the beach, and then Gerrard spreading out his blankets under the shelter of a spreading wild honeysuckle, covered the child over with a sheet of waterproof cloth to keep off the dew.

"I must say my prayers, Uncle Tom." "Yes, dear," he said softly, "but you needn't get up. Can't you say them lying down?"

"Oh, no, Uncle Tom. That would be very wrong, and denotes laziness, Aunt Elizabeth says. Do you say your prayers lying down?"

"Yes, chick," was the prompt response, "generally when I'm lying down at night in the bush, looking up at the stars. And I daresay it does 'denote laziness,' as Aunt Elizabeth says. But at the same time I think it really doesn't matter to God whether one is lying down or sitting up, or on one's knees when we pray to Him."

"Oh, Uncle Tom! Are you quite sure?"

"Dead sure, little woman-as sure as ducks are ducks-especially when little girls are tired."

"Then I'll say my prayers lying down."

She clasped her two little sunbrowned hands together and said the Lord's Prayer, and then paused.

"Shall I say the extrack?"

"The extrack?"

"Yes, the extrack from the Catechism. Aunt Elizabeth composed some of it."

"Oh! she composed some of it, did she? Yes, by all means say 'the extract.'"

The child closed her eyes again, and began very slowly:

"'Before I slumber, O Lord, I comment myself to Thy care and protection, however unworthy and thoughtless my conduct has been during the day now closed.'" ("That's Aunt Elizabeth," muttered Gerrard under his breath.) "'I will try hard to hasten my rebellious spirit,-no not hasten, but chasten-I always say that wrong, Uncle Tom-to reverently submit myself to all my governors, teachers, spiritual pastors and masters: to regulate my conduc', and demean myself with all humility; to keep my hands from picking and stealing, to recollect that I may be called this night before, Thee to answer for my many sins and transgressions.' That's all Uncle Tom."

Gerrard listened with the utmost gravity.

"That's all right, Mary; but I think it is a bit too long a prayer for very little girls. Now, by and by, I'll teach you a new prayer."

"A new prayer! Oh, that will be nice! Sometimes Uncle Westonley let's me pray for Bunny."

"Who is Bunny?"

"My native bear. I'll show him to you to-morrow. You see, when Uncle Westonley comes to see me at night, after Aunt Elizabeth has heard me say the Lord's Prayer, and the extrack, he lets me pray for Bunny because he is full of ticks, and Jim says hell die. I say 'dear God, don't let Bunny die, freshen and preserve him in Thy sight, and make him whole.' I got that out of a book, and Uncle Westonley says it will do very nicely."

"Couldn't be better, little woman. I think it's a grand prayer."

"But, Uncle Tom, Bunny has been sicker an' sicker, and won't eat anything but the very youngest, weeniest gum leaves, and Aunt Elizabeth says he's a hideous little beast. And Jim and me love him to death."

"Don't worry about what Aunt Elizabeth says," and Gerrard bent down and kissed her. "I'll try and cure Bunny for you. I know a heap of things about native bears and ticks, and know exactly what to do."

The child smiled delightedly into his face,* "Oh! Uncle Tom, you are as kind as Uncle Westonley, good-night."

"Good-night, little woman," and then the man laid himself down upon the sandy ground beside her, with a certain resolve in his mind.

At six o'clock in the morning, he rode up to Marumbah Station with little Mary held in front of him. Mrs Westonley, pale-faced, austere, and much agitated, met him as he dismounted.

"Oh, dear, Thomas! Just fancy you finding the child and bringing her home! I sent out Toby, the black boy, to look for her, and I suppose he is looking for her still-the naughty--"

"That's all right, Lizzie, don't get into a fluster," said Gerrard placidly, as he dismounted and kissed his sister, "Toby did find her-that is, he found her and me comfortably camped for the night. He's coming along presently with my packhorse."

Mrs Westonley turned angrily upon the child, and was about to deliver a lecture, when her brother placed his hand upon her arm and drew her aside.

"Look here, Lizzie, I'm your guest, and I'm also your brother; but if you bully that unfortunate youngster, I'll just get into my saddle again, and ride off without putting my foot over your threshold."

Mrs Westonley's pale, clear-cut face flushed deeply. "I never expected such a remark as this from you, Thomas."

"And I never expected that you would have treated your own sister's child as you have done," was the stern reply; "I found her five miles from here, wandering alone. Have you no love or sympathy in your heart, or compassion for children, because you have none yourself?" and the grey eyes flashed.

Mrs Westonley gazed at him in astonishment, and twined her hands together in mingled anger and fear that this brother-fifteen years younger than herself-should so dare to speak to her.

"The child is a great trial--"

"Aye, an 'incubus,' you call her, the poor little mite. But I hardly thought you read novels."

"I read novels! Never! What do you mean?"

Gerrard drew her inside the house, and patted her cheek, ready to forgive.

"Oh, I did read a book somewhere about a stepmother or an aunt or something of the kind, who was always talking about some unfortunate child committed to her care, as an 'incubus.' Now, that's all I have to say. I love the kid already. She has Mary's eyes and Mary's voice, and, if you don't want her I do. When will breakfast be ready, old girl?"

"Eight o'clock," said Mrs Westonley faintly, wondering if she were awake or dreaming. Who but this handsome, sunburnt brother would dare to lecture her, and then wind up by addressing her as "old girl"!

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