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   Chapter 8 No.8

Tom Gerrard By Louis Becke Characters: 12059

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


Along one of the many densely-wooded spurs of Cape Conway, which rears its bold front from out the pale green waters of Repulse Bay, a young girl was riding a wild-eyed, long-maned and sweating bay filly, which, newly broken in, had been making the most frantic efforts to unseat its rider, whose dark brown hair, escaping from under the light Panama hat she wore, had fallen down upon her shoulders.

At the summit of the spur there was an open grassy space, free of timber, and commanding a view seaward, and along the coast north and south for many miles. Here the girl drew rein and dismounted, deftly whipped her hair into a loose coil, quickly took off the saddle, placed it, seat down, upon the ground so that it might dry under the hot sun, and then slipping the bit from the horse's mouth, let the animal graze with loose bridle.

"There, my fractious young lady," she said, "you can feed, and as you feed, I hope you will consider the error of your ways, and give up any more attempts to buck me off. You ought to know me better by this time."

From a leather saddle-bag she took out some slices of beef and damper, and leisurely began to eat, her dark brown eyes dreamily scanning the blue sea before her, and then resting on the green, verdured hills of Whitsunday Island, away to the northward, with little beaches of shining white nestling at the heads of many a quiet bay, whose shores were untrodden, except by the feet of the black and savage aborigines inhabiting the mainland. Far out to sea, and between Whitsunday Passage and the Great Barrier Reef, the white sails of five pearling luggers were glinting in the sun as they sailed northward to the scene of their labours in the wild waters of New Guinea and Torres Straits.

"I wonder how many of those on board will return," mused the girl aloud as she watched the little vessels-which looked no larger than swans. "How many will come back rich, how many disappointed and yet not undaunted, ever hopeful, ever daring, ever eager to sail once more, and face danger and death; death day by day and night by night for two long weary years. And yet-oh, I wish I were a man. I believe I am a man-a man in heart and will and strength of mind and body, and yet a woman. And for father's sake I ought to have been born a boy." She sighed, and leaning her chin on her hand gazed longingly at the tiny fleet and wished she-a man-were at the tiller of one of the luggers, listening to the tales of the bronze-faced, bearded pearl-shellers; tales of mighty pearls worth thousands of pounds, of fierce encounters with the treacherous savages of New Guinea, and the mainland of Australia; of fearful hurricanes and dreadful dangers ashore and afloat, and then peaceful, happy days of rest in the far-away isles of Eastern Polynesia; before the newly-discovered beds of pearl shell in Torres Straits lured them away from the calm seas and palm-clad atolls of the Paumotus and Manahiki and Tongarewa.

The grazing filly suddenly raised her shapely head and pricked up her ears, and listened; and, in an instant, the girl sprang up and took a Smith and Wesson revolver from her saddle. The blacks about Repulse Bay and Whitsunday Passage had an evil reputation, and many an unfortunate stockman or digger had been slaughtered by them when camped in apparent security; even within a few score miles of such towns as Bowen and Mackay.

With the filly she listened, and then smiled as she heard the sound of a horse's feet coming along the track through the scrub. In a few moments horse and rider appeared, and the girl slipped her weapon into the pocket of her short riding skirt.

"How do you do, Miss Fraser?" cried the newcomer as he jumped off his horse and hurried up to her with outstretched hand and an eager light in his eyes; "this is a pleasant surprise. I was on my way to see your father, and when riding along the beach below caught sight of your filly feeding on the bluff. I knew that it could be no one but you who would camp here, so instead of going on to Fraser's Gully, I turned off; and here I am."

"And I am very glad to see you, Mr Forde," said the girl, as she shook hands; "now, will you have something to eat? I have plenty of Fraser's Gully fare here-beef and damper-and I've tea and sugar in my saddle-bag."

"So have I. And now, whilst I light a fire, tell what brought you here to-day? To look at the sea-the 'ever treacherous sea'-I suppose, and 'wish you were a man,'" and the speaker smiled into the brown eyes.

"You are very rude, Mr Forde; the rudest clergyman I ever met Certainly, I've only met three in my life, but then--" Here the brown eyes lit up laughingly. "They were different from you."

"I have no doubt about it," and the man laughed like a boy, as taking up some dead sticks he broke them across his knee. "But you haven't told me how it is I am so fortunate as to find you here-fifteen miles off the track to Fraser's Gully."

"Oh! the old story. Some of our horses are missing, and I have been trying to pick up their tracks."

Forde, with an earnest look in his blue eyes, looked up from the fire he was kindling, and shook his head gravely. "You should not venture so far away, Miss Fraser. How can you tell but that whilst you are trying to pick up the horses' tracks that the blacks about Repulse Bay are not now engaged in picking up yours?"

"Oh, I am not afraid of any of the myalls{*} about Whitsunday Passage and Repulse Bay, Mr Forde. I really believe that if I rode into one of their camps they would not bolt. Poor wretches! I do feel sorry for them when I know how they are harried and shot down-so often without cause-by the Native Police. Oh, I hate the Native Police! How is it, Mr Forde, that the Government of this colony can employ these uniformed savages to murder-I call it murder-their own race? Every time I see a patrol pass, I shudder; their fierce, insolently-evil faces, and the horrid way they show the whites of their eyes when they ride by with their Snider carbine

s by their sides, looking at every tame black with such a savage, supercilious hatred! And their white officers-oh, how can any man who pretends to be a gentleman, and calls himself a Christian, descend to such an ignominious position as to lead a party of black troopers? If I were a man, and had to become a sub-inspector of Native Police, I would at least blacken my face so as to hide my shame when I rode out with my fellow-murderers and cutthroats."

* Wild blacks.

Her eyes, filled with tears as they were, flashed with scorn as she spoke. The clergyman looked admiringly at her as he put his hand on her arm.

"You must remember, Miss Fraser, that the wild blacks on this coast have committed some dreadful murders. How many settlers, miners, and swagmen have been ruthlessly slaughtered?"

"And how many hundreds of these unfortunate savages have been ruthlessly slaughtered, not only by the Black Police, but by squatters and stockmen, who deny the poor wretches the right to exist? We have taken away their hunting grounds! We shoot them down as vermin, because, impelled by the hunger that we have brought upon them, they occasionally spear a bullock or horse or two! Why cannot the Government do as my father suggests-reserve a long strip of country for these poor savages, just a small piece of God's earth that shall be inviolate from the greedy squatter, the miner, the sugar planter? And let the wretched beings at least live and die a natural death."

The clergyman's face flushed as he listened to her passionate words. "It is, I believe, impossible to segregate the coastal tribes of the Australian mainland. The cost of such an attempt would, in the first place, be enormous; in the second, the people of the colony--"

"The people, Mr Forde! You mean the squatters, the sugar-planters, the land-devouring swarm of 'Christians,' who think that a bullock's hide, worth twenty shillings, is of more moment than the welfare of thousands of poor, naked savages, whose country we have taken, and yet of whom we make beasts of burden-hewers of wood and drawers of water. Oh, if I were only a man!"

"But you are, instead, a beautiful girl, Miss Fraser."

"Don't pay me any compliments, Mr Forde, or I shall begin to dislike you, and work you a pair of woollen slippers like English girls do in novels for the pale-faced, ascetic young curates, with their thin hands, and the dark, melancholy eyes."

Forde laughed heartily this time, and held out his own hands jestingly for her inspection; they were as brawny and sunburned as those of any stockman or working miner, and were in keeping with his costume, which was decidedly unclerical. For he only wore his clerical "rig" when visiting towns sufficiently populous for him to hold services therein. At the present time he was clad in the usual Crimean shirt, white moleskins, and brown leather leggings, and the grey slouched felt hat affected by most bushmen. His valise, however, contained all that was necessary-even to the wreck of a clerical hat-to turn himself into the orthodox travelling clergyman of the Australian bush.

"Ah! I was only joking, Mr Forde, as you know. You are not the usual kind of 'parson.' That is why father-and everyone else-likes you. Then, too, you can ride-I mean sit a horse as an Australian does; and you smoke a pipe, and-oh, I wonder, Mr Forde, that you never married! Now I am sure that Mrs Tallis admires you-In fact she told me so, and Kaburie is a lovely station, and--"

The clergyman laughed again. "Thank you, Miss Fraser. I'm afraid I should not have courage enough to propose to a brand-new widow even if I was sure she would say 'yes.'" Then he added quietly, "There is only one woman in the world for me; and I have not even dared let her know I care for her. I want her to get to know me a little better. And then a bush parson is not a very eligible parti?

"Oh! I don't see why not, though I don't think I should like to marry a clergyman."

"Why?" He asked the question with such sudden earnestness that she looked up.

"Oh! one would have to visit such a lot of disagreeable women, and be at least civil to them. Take old Mrs Piper for instance. She gave fifty pounds towards the little church built at Boorala, and made your predecessor's life miserable for the two years he was in the district. She told him that she strongly disapproved of single clergymen 'under any circumstances,' and tried to make the unfortunate man propose to Miss Guggin, who is forty if she's a day, and poor Mr Simpson was only twenty-five."

"No wonder he fled the country."

"No wonder, indeed! Then there are the Treverton family at Boorala; very rich and highly respectable, though old Treverton was a notorious cattle duffer{*} in Victoria. Father says that Mr Treverton would have made the patriarch Jacob die with envy. He started from Gippsland with a team of working bullocks, six horses, and twenty-four cows and calves to take up new country on the Campaspe River, and, in six months' journey overland, his herd of cattle had increased to a thousand head-most of them full-grown, and by some mysterious agency they were branded 'T' as well! And the six horses had multiplied to an astonishing extent; from six they had grown to fifty, all in six months! And now Joseph Treverton, Esq., J.P., and Member of the Legislative Assembly, is one of the richest squatters in the North, and the Misses Treverton speak of their 'papa' as 'one of the very earliest pioneers of the pastoral industry in North Queensland, you know.'"

* Cattle stealer.

The girl's frank sarcasm delighted Forde, the more so as he knew that what she had said was perfectly true.

"Well, it is a new country, you see, Miss Fraser, and--"

Just then the two horses raised their heads and neighed, and Forde, going to the edge of the bluff, saw a horseman coming along the beach in a direct line for where they were camped.

"We are to have company, Miss Fraser. There is some one riding direct for the bluff."

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