Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font  

First in the Field: A Story of New South Wales, Page 3

George Manville Fenn



  Constant dropping will wear a stone, says the old proverb; and if youdoubt it, go and look at some step where the rain has dripped fromgutter or eave, and see what a nice little hollow is worn. The constantdropping of unsavoury words wears the mind too; and these remarks andbanterings about Australia and its convict life in the early days of thecentury began to have their effect upon Nic Braydon.

  He was a good deal younger when his father, an eminent physician inLondon, awoke to the fact that he had been curing other people at hisown expense, that he had worked and studied and been anxious overpatients in his dingy house in Finsbury till he was completely broken inhealth; and he knew enough of his own nature to be aware that, if hekept on as he was, he would in a year or two be a confirmed invalid, ifhe were still living. In other words, he had worn the steel spring oflife till it had grown thin in some places, and rusted and eaten away inothers for want of use.

  Then he said to himself like a wise man, "I advise others and neglectmyself. I must be my own physician now."

  He knew perfectly what he ought to do--take to some open-air life in ahealthy country, where his avocations would give him plenty of outdoorexercise; and just at that time he met the newly appointed, governor ofthe penal colony of Australia at dinner. He heard a good deal about theplace, went home and read, and inquired more; then, striking while thelion was hot, he sold his practice, house, and furniture, provided allthat he could think of as necessaries, communicated with the government,and, after placing his son Dominic, then aged ten, at the Friary withDr Dunham, he sailed with his wife and two daughters for the far-offland.

  Now, Nic's notions about all this had grown a little hazy, while theteasings of his companions grew keener and sharper day by day, andmastered the facts; so that at last he had often found himself wonderingwhether there was any truth in his schoolfellows' words, and his fatherhad, after all, done something which necessitated his leaving thecountry.

  That seed did not take root; but it swelled, and shot, and gave him agreat deal of pain, making him grow morbid, old, and thoughtful beyondhis years. He became more sensitive; and when at last the doctor seemedto side against him, and treated him as he thought harshly, Nic began tofind out thoroughly that it is not good for a boy to lose the lovinghelp and companionship of father, mother, and sisters, and he grew dayby day more gloomy, and ill-used as he believed, till at last, after thesharp reproof from the doctor about his quarrelsome disposition andill-treatment of his schoolfellow Green, he began to feel it was time heset off to seek his fortune, never once pausing to think that the doctorhad only judged by appearances. He had seen Nic attacking Green quitesavagely, and not having been present earlier, and, truth to tell, nothaving sufficiently studied the inner life of his boys, he had lookedupon Nic as an ill-conditioned, tyrannical fellow, who deserved theseverest reproof.

  So Nic thought it was time to seek his fortune.

  Who was the miserable ass who first put that wretched idea into boys'heads, and gave them a mental complaint which has embittered many alad's life, when, after making some foolish plunge, he has gone onslowly finding out that castles in the air, built up by his youngimagination, are glorious at a distance, but when approached the coloursfade? They are erected with no foundation, no roof; no walls, windows,doors, or furniture--in fact, they are, as Shakespeare says, "thebaseless fabric of a vision."

  So much by way of briefly moralising on the fact that for, a boy to makeup his mind to go and seek his fortune means, in say nine hundred andninety-nine thousand nine hundred and ninety-nine cases out of amillion, trying to climb upward in search of a castle in the air, ortying a muffler round the eyes before making a leap in the dark.

  So Nic wanted good advice, change, and something to drag him out of thebelief that he was one of the most ill-treated young personages in theworld.

  But something came just a fortnight after the fight.

  Nic's brow was all in puckers, his cheeks were pushed up in folds by hisfists, his elbows rested upon his desk, and he was grinding away at aproblem in Euclid--with thoughts of Green, Tomlins, the doctor, and asore place upon one of his knuckles, which had partially healed up andbeen knocked again and again, all netted and veined in amongright, acute and obtuse angles, sides, bases, perpendiculars,slanting-diculars, producings, joinings of AB and CD, and the rest ofit--when one of the doors opened, the servant went up to the desk of theusher in charge, and the hum in the big schoolroom ceased as the ushertapped the desk before him.


  "Yes, sir."

  "The doctor wishes to see you in the study."

  Nic had started up, and now the wrinkles in his brow grew deeper, andthen disappeared as if by magic, for he had caught sight of Greengrinning at him with satisfaction in every curve of fat,self-satisfied-looking countenance; and putting on an air of calmindifference he moved toward the door.

  As it happened he had to pass just in front of Green's desk, and the ladraised himself a little, put out a leg to cause a stumble, andwhispered:

  "Birch. Keep the door shut, and don't--"

  Green was going to say "howl," but he illustrated his meaning byuttering a cry wonderfully like that sent forth by a cat under similarcircumstances.

  "What's that?" cried the usher.

  "I trod on Green's foot by accident, sir," said Nic.

  "Green should not leave his feet lying about all over the floor," saidthe usher, trying to be facetious, and then looking satisfied, for hisjoke was received with a roar, which was increased at the sight ofGreen's ghastly smile as Nic went out of the schoolroom.

  "That's birch for him," he muttered, as he passed through the baizedoor, which shut out the noise of the school from the rest of the house;and the boy drew a deep breath as he crossed the hall toward the study,connected in his mind with scoldings and reproofs of the severest kind."What have I been doing now?" thought Nic, as he laid hold of the handleafter knocking and hearing a deep-toned "Come in."

  Then he started and stared, for there was a fine-looking middle-agedlady seated near the doctor's table, who turned to look at himsearchingly as he stopped short.

  "I beg pardon, sir. You sent for me?"

  "Yes, yes, Braydon: come in. This is Lady O'Hara."

  "Yes, I'm Lady O'Hara. Look at that, now. A great strapping fellow!And he told Sir John that it was his little boy."

  Nic stared, for this was spoken loudly, in a pleasant rich voice, withan intonation that decidedly fitted with the name.

  "Yes, yes," said the doctor, who was smiling and very courtly; "but DrBraydon forgot that his son has been with me over five years, madam, andhe has grown bodily, and mentally, I hope."

  "To be sure. Shake hands, Dominic. Why, you ought to be Irish, with aname like that."

  "Lady O'Hara!" cried Nic excitedly, as he grasped the hand extended tohim. "Do you know my father?"

  "Oh, don't make jam of my fingers, boy, and I'll tell you," cried thelady, with a pleasant grimace. "Ah, that's better. Yes, of course Iknow him. He lives next door to us, about a hundred miles away."

  The doctor chuckled, and Nic stared.

  "Sit down, Braydon, sit down," said the doctor. "Ah! that's better,"said the lady, in a fresh, cheery way. "Well, now, look at that,doctor. Here am I, come at his father's wish to take care of him, andhe's big enough to take care of me."

  "But--I beg your pardon," cried Nic--"you know my mother, madam?"

  "To be sure I do, and the two girls; and here's a batch of letters I'vebrought."

  "Oh, tell me, please," cried Nic excitedly, taking the letters withtrembling hand,--"my mother and Janet and Hilda, what are they like?"

  "Gently, gently," cried the lady; "where will I find breath to answeryour questions? Why, the poor boy's like an orphan, Dr Dunham, livingall these years away from home."

  "Mrs Dunham and I try to make this my pupils' home," said the doctor,with dignity.

  "Yes, I know," said the l
ady, smiling a broad, pleasant smile, andshowing her fine white teeth; "but sure, doctor, there's no place likehome. It's very pleasant out yonder with Sir John, but I long for wildold Galway, where I was born. Well, Dominic, and do you know what I'vecome for?"

  "You said something about taking care of me, madam," stammered Nic.

  "Ah, and don't stammer and blush like a great gyurl, and don't call memadam. I am a very old friend now of your dear mother, and I've come totake you back with me over the salt say--I mean sea, doctor, but Ialways called it say when I was a gyurl. I was in England a great dealafter I was married, but the fine old pronunciation clings to me still,and I'm not ashamed."

  "Why should you be, Lady O'Hara?" said the doctor in his most courtlymanner, as he rose. "There, you would like to have a quiet chat withDominic Braydon. I will leave you till lunch is ready."

  "Oh, I don't know about lunch," said the lady, hesitating. "Yes, I do.Dominic here will lunch with us, of course?"

  "Of course," said the doctor, smiling; and there was a curious look inhis eye as Nic glanced at him sharply.

  "Sure, then, I'll stay," said the lady. "But wait a minute: I shall beobliged to answer the question when we get back over the say. Did I saysay or sea then, Dominic?"

  Nic coloured a little.

  "Oh, there's no doubt about it," cried the lady. "It was say, doctor.Now then, tell me: has he been a good boy?"

  The doctor wrinkled his brow and pursed up his lips.

  "Ah! ye needn't tell me. I can see--about half-and-half."

  "Well, yes--about that," said the doctor.

  "To be sure," said the lady; "and I'm glad of it. What's wrong withhim?"

  "Oh, I don't like to tell tales out of school," said the doctorjovially. "Not quite so much of a student as I could have wished. Hisclassics are decidedly shaky, and his mathematics--"

  "Look here, doctor: can he write a good plain English letter, properlyspelt, and so as you can read it without puzzling because he hasn'tdotted his i's and crossed his t's?"

  "Oh! yes, yes, yes," said the doctor; "we can do that, eh, Braydon? Butthere's rather a long list of black marks against his name," hecontinued severely. "For instance, there has been a tendency towardfighting."

  "There, that'll do, doctor.--Come and give me a kiss, my dear.--Sure,doctor," she continued, after Nic had obeyed, "he's coming out to a newcountry, where that part of his education will be of the greatest valueto him."

  "My dear madam!" cried the doctor, staring.

  "Oh, I mean it, sir. It's a new country, full of savages, black andwhite, and the white are the worst of them, and more shame for us wesent them there, though I don't know what else we could have done.Dominic, my lad, do you know we're going to make a convict of you?"

  Nic gave a violent start, and darted a reproachful glance at thevisitor.

  "There, leave us together a bit, doctor," she said quickly, "and I'll bebound to say when lunch is ready we shall both of us be as hungry assailors with talking, for I've got to question him and answer all his."

  "To be sure, to be sure," said the doctor. "Then, if you will excuseme, Lady O'Hara, I will adjourn to the schoolroom."

  "There, Dominic," cried the lady as soon as they were alone, "now we cantalk like old friends. But tell me what made you start and colour likea great gyurl when I talked of making a convict of you?"

  Nic was silent.

  "Won't you tell me?" cried the lady, smiling at him in a winning, frankway, which unlocked the boy's lips at once and made him feel eager toconfide in one who took so much interest in him.

  "Yes, I'll tell you," he cried: "it's one of the boys--the biggest. Hehas set it about that my father is--is--is--"

  "A convict?"

  Nic nodded, and his brow contracted.

  "The impudence!"

  "And he nicknamed me Convict. And it isn't true, Lady O'Hara? Pray,pray tell me."

  "About your father, Dr Braydon? Be ashamed of ye'self, boy, for everthinking it. Your father's the finest gentleman in New South Wales, andthe best friend that Sir John and I ever had in our hard life yonder."

  Nic drew a long, deep breath. Something seemed to be swelling up in histhroat, and he reached forward to catch hold of and retain the plumpwhite hand, which returned his pressure.

  "And so the big fellow called you Convict, did he, because your father'sover the water!"


  "And I see now: that accounts for the fighting?"

  Nic nodded.

  "I bore it as long as I could," he said eagerly; "and it began aboutsomething else."

  "Sure, and why did you wait for that? You should have done it at once.I would."

  Nic stared in wonder and admiration at his new friend.

  "But tell me: did you give him a great big beating?"

  "Yes, I'm afraid so."

  "Then don't be afraid any more. It would do him good. There, I wasthinking I was going to have the care of a tiresome young, monkey of aboy; but I promised your dear mother, and should have taken you back.But, do you know, Dominic, you and I are going to be great friends."

  "I hope so," said Nic.

  "I'm sure of it. There, I don't want to know any more about you. Ionly say that you're just the lad for over yonder, and your father willbe delighted. Now, then: ask me anything you like."

  "May I?"

  "To be sure."

  "Then what is my mother like now?"

  "Look yonder," said the lady, pointing to a great mirror. "Now think ofyour face made thinner and more delicate, and with soft curls of silkygrey hair, beside a very white forehead; and a gentle expression, not ahard look, like yours. That's your mother."

  "And my father?" cried Nic eagerly.

  "Look again," said the lady, "and fancy your face in thirty years' time,with dark grey hair, all in little rough half-curls, and a great manylines in the brown skin all over the forehead, and about the eyes."

  "Yes," said Nic eagerly, as he stared at himself.

  "And a look of a man who is strong as a horse; and that's all. No,stop: I forgot his birrd."

  "His bird! Does he keep a bird?"

  "The young ruffian! he's making sport of me," said the lady. "I saidbirrd: b-e-a-r-d, birrd. And it's all tinged grey and black. That'syour father."

  "And the girls?"

  "Oh, just two bright sun-browned colleens, like you, only betterlooking. What next?"

  "What sort of a place is it?"

  "Place? Oh, there's a wooden house on a slope looking down a bluff atthe edge of a great plain, from which you look over the Blue Mountains."

  "Yes, they call them blue because they're green, I suppose?" said Nic,with a smile.

  "And people say it's only we Irish who make bulls," cried the ladymerrily. "No; they call them blue because in the distance they look asclear and blue as the loveliest amethyst. Ah! it's a beautiful place,Dominic, as you'll say."

  "And big?"


  The lady laughed softly.

  "Yes, boy; it's big. There's plenty of land out yonder, and so thegovernment's pretty generous with it. Here at home they count a man'sestate by acres: we do it in square miles out there."

  "Look here, Dominic," said the lady, after answering scores ofquestions, during what seemed to Nic the happiest hours he had everspent in his life, "I've been thinking."

  "Yes, madam."

  "Say Lady O'Hara, boy," cried the visitor petulantly; and then, with asad smile full of pathos on her quivering lip, she added softly, "Ican't tell ye to call me mother: my son died, Dominic, just when hebegan to know me; but look here," she cried, brightening, though the ladcould see tears in her fine dark eyes, out of which she seemed to peeras from passing clouds. "Sure, I tell ye I've been thinking. Yourfather said it was time you left school to finish your education outthere."

  "Education?" faltered Nic.

  "Oh yes; but not book learning, boy: hunting, and shooting, and riding,and stock-keeping, and farming, and
helping to make Australia a bigyoung England for John Bull's sons and daughters, who want room tomove."

  "Yes, I see," cried Nic.

  "To be sure you do. Well, then, the ship sails in a month from to-day:so what's the good of your stopping here for a month?"

  "But I've nowhere else to go," said Nic.

  "Oh! yes, you have. You and I have got to be great friends--there,something more than that. I shall just borrow you of your father andmother till I have to give you up at Port Jackson. So, what do you sayto my taking you away with me at once?"

  "Lady O'Hara!"

  "Don't shout, boy: this isn't the bush. Will you come?"

  Nic sprang from his chair.

  "Look at that, now!" cried Lady O'Hara, showing her teeth. "Hadn't webetter have a bit of lunch first?"

  "Oh! yes, yes, yes, of course. But, Lady O'Hara, will you take me?"

  "Take ye? Why, what an ungrateful young rapparee it is, wanting toleave the home of five years like that!"

  "Home!" cried Nic piteously. "Oh, Lady O'Hara, it hasn't been likehome. I haven't been happy here."

  "Sure, I know, boy, and it was only my fun," said Lady O'Hara, layingher hand upon the lad's head: "as if a boy could be quite happy awayfrom all who love him, and whom, in spite of his thoughtless way; heloves! Then you shall come and live with me at the hotel, and help medo all my shopping and commissions, beside getting your outfit and thethings you're to take out for your father. Come, Dominic, is it abargain?"

  "Do--do you really wish it?"

  "Why, of course, boy, or I wouldn't ask you. Ah, here's the doctor andhis lady. Sure, madam, I'm glad to make your acquaintance," said LadyO'Hara, with grave dignity. "Dominic Braydon and I have been arrangingmatters, and I should be obliged by your having his boxes seen to andsent off to-morrow."

  "To-morrow?" said the doctor.

  "Yes," said the visitor, in a quiet, decisive tone; "and as for yourpupil--your late pupil--I shall take him away with me directly afterlunch."

  Both the doctor and his lady began to make excuses about theimpossibility of Braydon being ready at so short a notice; and LadyO'Hara turned to the boy.

  "Do you hear that, Dominic? You can't be ready in the time. What doyou say?"

  "I can," replied Nic.

  "Of course you can, boy. There, doctor, I've come to take him, so nowlet's have lunch."

  The lunch was eaten, and the doctor and Mrs Dunham having nothing moreto say, Nic hastily packed up his things, and then ran to the schoolroomto say good-bye. Ten minutes later he was in Lady O'Hara's carriage,with the cheer given by the boys humming in his brain and a peculiarsensation of sadness making itself felt, though all the time his heartwas throbbing with exultation, and the intense desire to go on fasterand faster, far away from school, and to make his first plunge into theunknown.

  Lady O'Hara did not speak for some time, but took out her little ivorytablets, and sat back in the carriage conning over the memoranda theycontained, while her companion read and re-read his letters. Then,shutting them up, she returned the little book to its case and facedround.

  "Well," she said, with a merry look, "have you done breaking your heart,Dominic?"

  "Yes," he said gravely.--"I can't help feeling sorry to come away, andI'm afraid the boys liked me better than I thought for. It isn't sonice as I fancied it would be."

  "No, I suppose not," said his companion; "nothing ever is so nice as wethought it would be. Like to go back for a month till the ship sails?"

  "What!" cried Nic.

  "I'll tell the man to drive back, if you like."

  "You're saying that to tease me, Lady O'Hara."

  "True, my boy, I was."

  "And you know I wouldn't go back. All I want now is to get on board andstart on our long journey."

  "Ah, and that's, as I told you, a month hence. There, Dominic, you mustmind I don't spoil you before I get you home. Now talk to me and tellme about yourself."