First in the Field: A Story of New South WalesGeorge Manville Fenn
Produced by Nick Hodson of London, England
First in the Field, by George Manville Fenn.
Here we have another Manville Fenn book, full of realistic characterswho get into positions of great suspense--the usual formula for thisexcellent author.
The time of the story is the early part of the nineteenth century, andthe place is, for most of the book, a sheep and cattle station in NewSouth Wales. The owner is a former Doctor who had practised in London,and who had driven himself to illness with his work: the onlypossibility for him was a new outdoor life. There are various peopleworking on the farm, including three "tame" aborigines; old Samson,full of wisdom; Brookes, a younger farm-servant; and Mayne, known asLeather, who is a convict whose good behaviour so far has meant that hecan be trusted to work on a farm. There are also Mrs Braydon, and Nic'stwo sisters, Nic being the protagonist of the story.
Nic, who had been left behind aged ten in an English suburban boardingschool, is collected from there when he was fifteen, and brought out toAustralia on the Northumbrian, an East Indiaman. After an "uneventful"voyage, they arrive in Sydney. The main part of the book concerns thedoings of Nic and the farm workers on The Bluff, along with someupsetting interventions from the man farming a nearby sheep and cattlestation, The Wattles.
As always, a dramatic story, well worth reading or listening to.NH________________________________________________________________________
FIRST IN THE FIELD--A STORY OF NEW SOUTH WALES, BY GEORGE MANVILLE FENN.
"I say, don't, Green: let the poor things alone!"
"You mind your own business. Oh! bother the old thorns!"
Brian Green snatched his hand out of the quickset hedge into which hehad thrust it, to reach the rough outside of a nest built by a bird,evidently in the belief that the hawthorn leaves would hide it fromsight, and while they were growing the thorns would protect it frommischievous hands.
But the leaves opened out slowly that cold spring, and a party of boysfrom Dr Dunham's school, the Friary, Broadhurst, Kent, was not long inspying out the unlucky parents' attempt at house-building and nursery.Still, the thorns did their duty to some extent when Brian Green of thered head leaped across the big dry ditch, rudely crushing a great clumpof primroses and forcing them down the slope, for when thefreckled-faced lad thrust his hand in to grasp the nest a sharp prickmade him withdraw it, while this action brought it in contact with anatural _chevaux de frise_, scarified the back, and made a long scratchon his thumb.
"I wish you'd keep your tongue inside your teeth, Nic Braydon!" criedthe boy fiercely. "You won't be happy till I've given you anotherlicking. Look here what you've made me do!"
"I didn't make you do it," said the first speaker. "Why don't you letthe birds alone?"
"Because, if you please, Miss Braydon," said the bigger lad mincingly,"I'm not so good as you are. Oh dear, no! I'm going to take that nestof young blackbirds because I want them to bring up and keep in a cage.I'm going to transport them to the shed in the playground."
The first boy winced sharply at his companion's words, and the four ladspresent burst into a derisive laugh at his annoyance; but he smotheredit down, and said quietly:--"Then you may as well leave them alone, forthey're not blackbirds."
"Yes, they are, stoopid."
"No, they're not."
"How do you know?"
"Because I found the nest when it was first built, and saw the eggs andthe old bird sitting."
"Oh, that's it, is it? Oh, I say, isn't he a nice, good little boy? Hedoesn't want me to take the young birds because he wants to steal themhimself."
The others laughed in their thoughtlessness as their schoolfellow wincedagain, and Brian Green still hung on to the bank, sucking the scratcheson his bleeding hand and grinning with satisfaction at the annoyance hisinnuendoes caused.
"I say, boys," he cried, "they don't transport people for life forstealing young blackbirds, do they?"
There was a fresh roar of laughter, and the boys watched DominicBraydon, who stood frowning, to see if he would make some sharp retort,verbal or physical, and perhaps get thrashed again. But he concealedhis annoyance, and said quietly:
"That's a thrush's nest."
"You don't know anything about it, Convict," said Green.
The boy winced again; but he went on:
"Well, I know that. Blackbirds make rougher nests, and they're notplastered inside so neatly with clay as that is. Then the eggs aredifferent: blackbirds' are all smudgy, dingy green; those were beautifulblue eggs, with a few clear spots on one end. Yes, look," he cried;"there's half one of them."
As he spoke he leaped down into the ditch, and picked up a fragile,dried-up portion of an egg and showed it to his companions.
"Yah! Old Botany Bay don't know what he's talking about," said Green,dragging a hedge-stake from the top of the bank, and wrenching the upperpart of the dense hawthorn growth into a gap, through which he pulledthe nest with its contents, four half-fledged birds, looking, with theloose down at the back of their heads, their great goggle eyes and widegapes, combined with the spiky, undeveloped feathers and generalnakedness, about as ugly, goblin-like creatures as a painter could havedesired.
"There!" cried Green, dropping the hedge-stake and leaping back over theditch; "aren't those blackbirds? Oh, murder!"
There was a great roar of laughter, for the clumsy leap resulted in twoof the callow birds being jerked out heavily into the bottom of theditch, and upon their recovery one was found to be dead.
"Never mind," said Green; "three are better to bring up. Now then, inyou go, ugly."
He placed the bird in the nest with its companions, down by which itsnuggled itself at once, so that the three completely filled the bottom.
"Fits splendidly, boys. I shall make old Botany Bay get worms for meand chop them up to feed them."
"You ought to be ashamed of yourself;" said the first boy, frowning."You know you let those young starlings die."
"You ought to be ashamed of yourself;" retorted Green, "getting yourselfput in a school among young gentlemen. I don't know what the doctor wasthinking about to take a convict's son."
"My father is not a convict," cried Dominic angrily.
"Oh, isn't he, just. Transported for life. We know, don't we, boys?"
"Yes--yes," was chorused.
"Of course he was," cried Green. "You can't keep these things quiet.Pretends his father is a settler. Yes; the judge settled him for life."
The boy looked round for applause, and received it sufficiently to makehim go on with his banter.
"Just as if we weren't sure to find out the truth. Calls him asquatter. Yes; the government made him squat pretty quickly."
There was another laugh as the boys wandered on along the edge of thegreat common, where the quickset hedge divided it from the cultivatedland, high above which a lark was circling and singing with all itsmight.
"I want to know why the doctor lets him stop amongst gentlemen's sons."
"I know, Bry Green," said a mischievous-looking, dark-eyed boy; "it'sbecause his father pays."
"He wouldn't be here long if his father didn't," said Green laughingly.
"Unless he supplied the doctor with sugar and soap and candles and sodaand blue."
There was a roar of laughter once more, in which Dominic Braydon joined,and Green turned so suddenly on the last speaker that the young thrusheswere nearly jerked out of the nest.
"Do you want me to give you a wipe on the mouth, Tomlins?
" cried the boyangrily.
"Oh no, sir; please don't, sir," was the reply, with a display of mockhorror and dread; "only you said gentlemen's sons, sir,--and I thoughtwhat a pity it was Nic Braydon's father wasn't a grocer."
"My father's a wholesale dealer in the City," said Green loftily; "andit's only as a favour that he lets old Dunham have things from hiswarehouse at trade price."
"Ho, ho, ho! here's a game!" cried the dark boy, throwing himself downon the velvety turf and kicking out his legs in his delight.
"My father isn't a poor parson," continued Green contemptuously; "and ifany of you fellows like to call on me during the holidays, any one willshow you Alderman Green's big house on Clapham Common. We keep abutler, footman, coachman, and three gardeners."
"And the gardeners make all the beds," said Tomlins, at which there wasanother laugh.
"You're a little idiot, Tomlins," said Green loftily.
"Yes, sir; but I can't help it," said the boy meekly. "You see myfather never brought home turtle soup from the Lord Mayor's dinner so asto make me big and fat."
"You won't be happy till I've rubbed your ugly snub nose against thenext tree," cried Green. "Get up, you gipsy-looking cub!"
He stepped quickly as he spoke to where the boy still lay upon the greenand kicked him viciously.
"Oh!" yelled the boy, who began to writhe now in earnest as he foughthard to control himself, but in vain, for he rose to his knees at lastwith the tears coming fast, and then limped slowly along, sobbingbitterly.
"Serve you right," cried Green. "Teach you not to be so jolly saucy.Now then, none of your sham. I didn't hurt you much. Go on."
"I--I can't yet," sobbed the boy.
"Oh yes, you can. None of that. Here, carry these."
He thrust the nest of young thrushes into the boy's hand, and forced himto proceed, limping heavily.
"Look at the little humbug," cried Green, as they all went on, withDominic Braydon hanging down his head and gazing hard at the ground tokeep from darting indignant glances at the tyrant who had bullied andinsulted him till it had been almost beyond bearing. He felt a chokingsensation in the throat, and an intense longing to do something; but hisways were peaceful, and Green, was heavy, big, and strong. In addition,he was cock of the school, to whom every one had yielded for a long timepast; and Dominic Braydon had still fresh in his memory that day when hehad resisted a piece of tyranny and fought at the far end of the schoolgarden, where an unlucky blow on the bridge of the nose had half blindedhim and made him an easy victim to the enemy, who administered a severedrubbing and procured for his adversary a birching for fighting--it wasbefore caning days--and a long series of impositions for obstinacy, atrait the doctor said that he absolutely abhorred--Dominic's obstinacyconsisting in a stubborn refusal to confess who had beaten him. Thishis schoolfellows called honourable; but Green had other opinions, andset it down to the fear of getting another thrashing for telling tales.
But Green was not quite correct.
And so on this bright spring half-holiday the boys went on along theside of the common toward the dense furze clump, Green hectoring,throwing stones at everything he saw, from the donkeys and geese to theyellow-hammers which flitted along the hedge, stopping now and then totwitter out their quaint little song about "a little bit o' bread and nocheese," and looking as much like canaries as they could as they perchedupon some twig.
"I'll give you a bit o' cheese and no bread," cried Green, as he hurledstone after stone, but fortunately with the worst of aim. "Now then,you Tomlins, stop that miserable snivelling, and walk upright; you'renot hurt."
The boy hastily wiped his eyes, as he mentally wished that he was bigand strong.
"And don't you drop those birds, or I'll give you another," shoutedGreen, as he sent another pebble flying.
The boy stifled a sob, and followed limping.
"Lean on me, Bob," said Dominic.
"Thank you," sobbed the boy; and then in a whisper, "My hip hurts as ifit was put out."
"Not so bad as that," said Dominic in a low tone; and he helped the boyalong till Green looked back, saw what was taking place, and shouted:
"Now then, none of that, Convict. He's only shamming. Let him alone."
"Don't let him touch me, Nic," whispered the boy piteously; "I canhardly walk."
Dominic said nothing, but his brow was full of lines; and he looked downat the ground and supported his companion by tightly holding his arm.
"Do you hear?" roared Green, stopping now. "I told you to leave thatlittle sham alone."
"I'm not shamming, Nic," sobbed the boy in a whisper; "it hurtsdreadfully every time I move my leg."
"Oh, you won't, won't you?" cried Green menacingly. "I shall have togive you a lesson too, Master Braydon, and transport you into a betterstate of mind. Stand aside, will you?"
As he came up he struck Nic a back-handed blow across the chest, forcinghim backward and making Tomlins utter a cry of pain.
"Now then, none of that," continued Green. "Go on, and take care ofthose birds,--go on!"
The boy in his dread and pain, wincing in the expectation of a freshkick, staggered on for a few paces, and then with a cry of misery fellforward flat upon his chest.
"Mind those birds!" yelled Green, starting forward, and bending down heflung the wretched boy over on to his back so as to extricate the bird'snest.
But he was too late; the unfortunate callow songsters had been savedfrom a lingering death by starvation and imprisonment, the sides of theclay-lined nest being crushed in, and the breath out of the tenderlittle bodies.
They were quite dead, and in a fit of vindictive rage Green flew at theinnocent author of the mischief.
"You miserable little beast!" he roared; and his foot was raised todeliver a savage kick. "Get up!"
But instead of Tomlins getting up, Green went down. For, quick asthought, Dominic rushed at him.
"Let him alone!" he cried hoarsely; and the fierce thrust he gave sentthe young tyrant into a sitting position upon a cushion-like tuft risingfrom the closely cropped grass.
But that tuft was only cushion-like in appearance. There were geesefeathers about, but they did not form its contents, for it was stuffedwith keen, stiff thorns such as can grow to perfection upon a Kentishcommon; and if Brian Green had been an indiarubber ball he could nothave rebounded more suddenly than he did.
Raising the now empty nest he threw it with all his might at Dominic,and both his fists after it.
The nest missed; the fists took effect, alighting as they did uponDominic's breast and shoulder, and completely driving all thought ofconsequences out of the boy, who retaliated with such good effect that,as the lookers-on cheered and shouted encouragement, the fight ragedfiercely. Even Tomlins forgot his sufferings, and watched everyfluctuation of the struggle with an intense longing to see the schooltyrant effectually mastered and dragged down from the pedestal whence hehad so long dominated and ill-used all around.
The others shared his feelings, and a couple immediately constitutedthemselves seconds during the few minutes the fight went on fast andfurious, Dominic always being ready to dash into the affray after beingdragged up at the close of the wrestling bout which ended each round,while Green grew more and more deliberate, as buzzing sounds came intohis head, ringings into his ears, and it began to dawn upon him that NicBraydon had the hardest face he ever touched, and that it was of no useto keep on hitting it, for it always returned to be hit again.
At last, to the intense delight of the boys, it became evident that theresult of the encounter must be a sound thrashing for Brian Green, andNic's second kept on whispering to him to do this and do that to bringit to an end.
Then came a most exciting finish, in which Nic was following up blowwith blow, and Green, backing slowly away, guarding himselfineffectually, and growing confused and helpless, was wondering whetherNic had had enough, when the fight came to a sudden termination, andfists dropped down to sides, for the sonorous voice
of the doctor arosefrom close at hand with:
"Young gentlemen, what is the meaning of this disgraceful scene?"