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man to all appearance was well nourished, and looked
as if only an hour or two ago he must have seemed an



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30 BOB martin's little girl.

unusually stalwart fellow. There was no sign of vio-
lence to be seen about him as he lay; but the searcher's
hand came away from the dead man's side with blood
upon it. It had never before fallen to his lot to see a
man who had died by violence, and he felt a horror of
the poor dead body which he found it hard to conquer.
But his curiosity, mixed, perhaps^ with some humane
feeling, forced him on, and with some ado he turned
the corpse on its face. The cause of death was in-
stantly apparent. The broken shaft of a black fel-
low's spear came h) sight, and the head of it, driven
more, deeply by the fall, still projected from between
the shoulders. Hetheridge laid the body in decent
posture, and covered the face with a coarse jack-towel
which hung behind the door.

AH this time the unheeded child had cried lustily;
but he now turned to it. It lay upon a rough cot,
with almost naked limbs. By its side was a rough
stone feeding-bottle, -with a wooden plug in its centre,
packed in with a rag of newspaper, and at one end a
mumbled teat of wash-leather, still soft and wet from
its last contact with the infant's lips. Hetheridge
knew little enough of babies and their ways, but the
first thing to be done was obvious. He thrust the teat
gently between the infant's lips, and the crying ceased
instantly ; the chubby hands grasped at the bottle, and
the moist and rosy lips sucked away at it with intense
and immediate satisfaction.

And now what was to be done? The next halting-
place was more than a score of miles away. It was
imperative to reach it before nightfall, and inadvisa-
ble to travel until the heat of the day would be some-
what assuaged. With many a backward or sidelong
glance at the body on the floor, broad daylight as it
was, Hetheridge foraged about the hut, with little re-
sult in the way of discovery. He found tea and a
quantity of coarse brown sugar, and remembering to
have seen outside a blackened and battered billy sus-
pended from a crooked branch stuck in the cleft of a

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BOB MARTIN S LITTLE GIRL. 3I ,

charred tree, he returned into the open air to make
preparations for a meal.. A well-worn track led him
to a creek, and there he washed and .refilled the vessel.
Returning, he lit a fire below it and sat down in the
doorway until the water should boil. The presence of
the dead body gav£ him ^n erie feeling, but the shadow
was cool and' gave a pleasant refuge from the devour-
ing heat of the sun. The horse had already strayed
under a flat thatch, supported by the side of the hut
and a stick at each outer corner, and had disposed of
a half-bucket of tepid water which had been brought
up for domestic purposes earlier in the day.

Dead quiet reigned everywhere — a silence so pro-
found that it seemed to demand to be listened to until
a thousand humming and singing noises swarmed in it.
Beyond the space of blackened logs the bush glittered
desolate in the dreadful sunshine, each polished leaf
seeming to return the light lil^e a mirror. The gaunt
shabbiness of the great pale-gray trunks looked un-
speakably dreary. The land sloped upward before the
door of the hut, and for mile on mile the blue-gray
masses of foliage, grayer and bluer as the distance
grew, loomed before the watcher's eyes, until the feel-
ing of his own remoteness from the world began to
terrify him. Even the presence of a child was some-
thing to him, though not much. It was at least a
living thing and human in the midst of that oppressive
solitude, with death at the heart of it.

Hetheridge rose from the upturned tea-chest on which
he had been sitting, and stooped over the infant on its
cot. The little creature crowed and gurgled at him
and held up a hand. He put a doubtful finger into its
grasp, and the child held on firmly to it and crowed
again. Hetheridge knelt by the side of the cot and
scanned the baby with more interest than he had felt
in any such mite of humanity before. The callow lit-
tle head was covered with hair of a pale golden color,
like the finest spun silk. The cheeks glowed and the
eyes sparkled with health. The wet lips glittered,

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32 BOB MARTIN S LITTLE GIRL.

and beyond them shone two or three tiniest beginnings
of teeth. The baby's eyes were large knd bfown.
There was: a look of Ellice in them, the man thought,
with the first touch of tenderness which had assailed
him for this many a day.

"I shall have to carry the brat on, I suppose?" he
muttered to himself. "It's an infernal nuisance, but
I suppose it can't be helped."

His face belied his words, though it did not come
easy to him to look kindly. He was ashamed of him-
self for feeling kindly, as men who have been very
long accustomed to putting all gentleness out of their
thoughts are apt to be. He felt bound to rebuke him-
self for a sentiment so unaccustomed.

" the kid!" he said, therefore. "What am I to

do with a squalling brat not twelve months old?"

The baby accepted the anathema with a new gurgle
of delight, and held closer on to the man's index fin-
ger. Hetheridge knelt in a state of total embarrass-
ment. The unexpected flatteries of a duchess could
scarcely have disturbed him more. But circumstances
forced his hand, and he felt bound to make some an-
swering advances. He chucked the soft chin with
the forefinger of the hand he had at liberty, and made
a feeble attempt to imitate some meaningless sound of
endearment such as he had heard nurses address to an
infant charge. The child laughed once more, but at
that instant the thought of the dead man lying so close
behind him came upon him with as swift a terror as if
a sudden hand had been raised against his life. He
rose abruptly to his feet, and ran out into the open air;
and once more the solitude was horrible to him. The
child, startled by his sudden movement, wailed again;
but five minutes went by before he could find courage
to re-enter the hut.

The day wore on a little, and the heat became a
trifle less intense. Hetheridge reharnessed the horse,
and before setting out researched the hut to find pro-
vision for the child. In a corner of the room on the

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BOB martin's little GIRL. 33

floor, and under the shadow of a home-made table, he
found a basin of goat's milk, from which he replen-
ished the child's bottle. He found, also, a hammer
and a few tacks, and by the aid of these, with a piece
of drapery torn from the child's cot, he rigged up a
sort of awning between the splash-board of the buggy
and the seat, and beneath its shelter he bestowed the
infant. He had already driven a hundred yards from-
the lonely shanty, when an impulse which he did not
trouble to define impelled him to retrace his way and
close the shutter he had thrown aside and the door,
thus leaving the dead man to a darkness and silence
which seemed in some vague way proper and becoming
to him.

When, a little after sundown, with only light enough
to feel his way by, he reached his next halting-place,
he told the story jof his discovery, and two of the sta-
tion hands were instructed to ride over with mattock
and spade, with orders for the decent interment of the
body. Hetheridge learned no more of the dead man
than this: His name was Martin. He and his wife
had dared the wilderness together. A child had been
born to them in the great solitude they had chosen as
their abiding-place. The mother had died nine months
later, and the man from that* hour had toiled on alone
until death at the hand of some skulking black fellow
had laid him low.

The squatter, whose guest Hetheridge was that
night, had a wife — a buxom, amiable soul, whose
heart went out to the orphaned child as soon as she
had heard its story.

" There's room in the house for more than one," she
said, indicating a sturdy little sun-browned fellow of
her own ; " and in a year or two they'd be companions. "

"She's mine," said Hetheridge, almost fiercely.
"I've neither kith nor kin, nor chick nor child. I'm
not likely to marry, and I'm worth a quarter of a mill-
ion, maybe more. I'll make myself answerable for
the child."



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34 BOB martin's little girl.

He went on next morning, and in a day or two found
himself within touch of civilization. In a week he
reached home, with a young person of unexceptionable
antecedents engaged as care-taker for the orphan waif.
Hetheridge's respectable housekeeper — a woman who
confessed to middle age, and who might honestly have
confessed to sofnething more — bucked at the intrusion
of this unknown feminine quantity, and resented the
presence of the baby. Hetheridge, who by this time
had returned to his usual stern gloom of manner,
pointed to the door.

"That's the way out," he said. "You can take it,
Mrs. Brown, or do my bidding. Either course is open
to you, and whichever you may take it'll be a matter
of the most perfect indifference to me."

"I was bred," began the lady, "in the Preesbeetee-
rian church "

"I don't care," returned Hetheridge, "one hang
where you were bred! You can do my bidding, or
you can leave my house. You can take your money
out of that, and bring me the change."

He slammed a little handful of hastily-counted bank-
notes upon the table, and flourished a hand of master-
ship above them. The Presbyterian lady temporized.

" I'm no saying " •

" You're not wanted to say anything," responded her
master; "you can stay or go, just as you please; only
make up your mind about it without loss of time."

"Ye' 11 forgev me, perhaps," demanded the cautious
dame, "for asking whose the child is?"

"The child's mine!" her employer snapped at her
with a show of temper unusual to him.

" Aweel," said the housekeeper, " in that case "

She slid the notes across the table toward her em-
ployer.

"And what might be the pretty little creature's
name?"

Hetheridge glared at her for a moment without re-
sponse.



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I BOB martin's little GIRL. \ ^^

"The name?" said the housekeeper. "We'll be
wanting a name to call her by."

"Her name?" said Hetheridge, passing a hand
across his forehead, as if to smooth away some trou-
bled fancy. "Her name? Didn't I tell you that?
Her name is EUicel"



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• CHAPTER IV.

For miles and miles — as far, indeed, as the eye
could see — the country was covered with a sparse open-
growing scrub which rarely rose higher than a man's
shoulder. The district was void of water, the heat
was broiling, the dry earth gaped. A solitary swags-
man toiled along a faintly-defined track which ran
with many zigzags through the whole length -of this
barren and prodigious wilderness. His bare arms, his
huge hands, his exposed chest and neck, his very beard
and hair were sunburnt. His face was so darkened
by exposure to sun and air that at a first glance his
nationality might have seemed doubtful; but his eyes
were of a bright and cheery blue, and where the sun
had Jeft any color to speak of in his beard the tinge
was yellow. The man's swag was heavy, and the way
broken and toilsome, but he marched on with an ap-
parent unbroken cheerfulness. The desert rose and
sank before him in long undulations, and presented an
eternity of sameness. Not another insect appeared in
sight, but he moved in the midst of a whirling pillar
of flies which, with the indifference bred of long cus-
tom, he stoically disregarded. ,

After long hours of marching, he reached the top of
a knoll which he had alternately lost and sighted since
early morning, and there stood a moment to press the
streaming perspiration from his forehead with the palm
of a sunburnt hand. Then he drew a great breath,
brushed aside the cloud of insects for a clearer view,
and waved his right arm with a gesture of greeting.
Two miles away, or thereabouts, lay a homestead with
tilled fields about it, and here and there a patch of
green. These scattered patches looked each no larger

36

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BOB martin's little GIRL. 37

than a handkerchief from that distance, but they were
wonderfully rich and vivid by contrast with the sur-
rounding yellows and bluish-grays; and as they grew
in size with his nearer approach the wayfarer kept a
constant eye upon one or the o.ther of them, absorbing
all the refreshment they afforded.

In the fenced yard, beside the homestead which th«
wayfarer reached some half-hour after his first sight of
it, a burly man sat in the shadow and smoked his pipe.
A fat hog slumbered at his feet, and now and then the
burly man scratched the porker's well-fleShed ribs with
a bit of lath. The swagsman, leaning his brown arms
on the fence in the baking sunlight, looked on at this
scene of sweet domesticity in silence for a full minute.
The burly man heard his footstep, and was conscious
of his presence, but never raised an eye. He scratched
his hog, and the hog responded to this friendly atten-
tion by a grunt of sleepy contentment. There was
something almost idyllic in the scene, and the swags-
man seemed loath to break upon its sentiment

"I say, mate," he said at length.

"Hullo!" the burly man responded, still placidly
scratching the placid porker.

" You'd have a call, I fancy, four weeks ago to-day.
Man in a buggy. Had a kid with him, A little girl. "

"That's so," said the burly man, looking around for
the first time. , "What about him?"

"He came from out Yallala way," says the swags-
man, nodding his head to indicate the direction from
which he himself had travelled.

"So he said," the burly man responded.

" Went straight on ?" the swagsman asked.

"Straight on," said the burly man. "Have a
liquor ?"

"Cold tea?" said the swagsman interrogatively.

" If you like," the other answered.

The swagsman straightened himself with a little air
of effort, and walked to the gate. His host opened it
and motioned him toward the shadowed verancia, and

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38 BOB martin's little GIRL.

himself disappearing into the house, presently returned
with a great billy of cold tea, two tin pannikins, and
a black bottle. He made a second entry, and came
back with a bowl of coarse brown sugar. The swags-
man threw down his burden and sat upon it, smearing
the sweat from his face \^rith the inside of his great arm.

"It's warm," he said, fanning himself with his tat-
tered felt broad-brim.

" So's hell," the burly man responded, and filled the
pannikins. " Have a stick in it?" he asked, holding
up the black bottle to illustrate a metaphor already
clear to his companion's understanding.

"Not a stick," returned the swagsman; "a twig if
you like and a little 'un at that."

The host handed the bottle, and, drawing the cork
with his teeth, the visitor helped himself less modestly
than his speech had seemed to promise.

"Smoke?" said the host, holding up a plug of very
black tobacco.

The visitor nodded, and drawing a short well-blacked
clay from his waistband, knocked out the ashes it con-
tained into the palm of his great hand; then drawing
forth a heavy clasp-knife shredded a portion of tobacco
from the proffered stick and filled his pipe. He set
the old ashes carefully on top and pressed them down
to the last grain. The host watched him with an air
of approval, and nodded when the packing of the pipe
was finished.

"It lights easier that way," he said, with great
gravity; '* and, besides that, it's a saving."

Then he in turn filled his own pipe, and the two
smoked and sipped in silence for several minutes.

"Chap you're after," said the host, "may be a long-
ish way ahead by this time."

"Yes," said the other; "a longish wa)^ most likely.
I shall come across him, though, I've no manner of a
doubt. Did you put him up here?"

"Yes, he stayed the night."

" You saw the kid ?" the visitor asked somewhat



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BOB martin's little GIRL. 39

eage>Iy. The other nodded. "Pretty little kid,
wasn't she? Prettiest little kid I ever saw, /think."
The host nodded again. "Look here, mate," the vis-
i£or continued, leaning forward: " Did #he chap hap-
pen to mention his own name?"

" What do you happen to want him for ? " the host
inquired.

"Well, I'll tell you," said the swagsman; "it's like
this." He laid down his pipe upon the veranda, and
assumed the air of one who is about to be prolix and
specific, but checking himself, suddenly asked: " Did
the chap that brought her say anything about the kid?
Did he say who she was, or how he came by her ?"

" I heard that after," said the host. " Got the news
from Yallala. He never said a word."

"That's queer," said the swagsman; "but I'll tell
you all about it. It's like this. Bob Martin was the
kid's father. Me and Bob was mates for years. We
came out in the same vessel. There was a little gell
aboard — Irish gell. Bob took a fancy to her; so did
I. We tossed up who should have the first word with
her; Bob won. He asked the gell; she took him.
We was mates all the same."

The host nodded to signify entire attention, then
sipped at the cold tea and whiskey, and went on smok-
ing.

" Poor Bob was done for," the visitor continued, " by
some thundering black fellow. You've heard of that.
This chap," with a sideway nod, to indicate the ol)ject
of his search, " drops in by chance, as a man might
say, pretty nigh at the moment. He's got the human
nature to take care of the kid; but mind this!" — he
beat one hand heavily into the palm of the other — " he
hasn't got the gumption, nor yet the common-sense, to
ask if the kid has got a natural protector; and here
you see him! The mother's dead. Poor Bob's gone
to glory. Very well ; I'm to the fore, ain't I ? Who's
the kid to belong to if it don't belong to me? That
stands to reason, don't it ? Me and Bob was mates at

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40 BOB MARTIN S LITTLE GIRL.

home before Australia was much thought about. We
was mates out here. The kid belongs to me,* if it be-
longs to anybody! There's nobody in the world —
mind that, matey — as has a better rights to her than I
have."

He was quite resolute and angry by this time, and
when he had finished he tossed off the remaining con-
tents of his pannikin as if to say that he had spoken
his last words upon the theme and defied argument.

" Well, yes," the settler answered; " that sounds rea-
sonable." He turned his head sideways to the door
and bellowed " Sarah " in a deep reverberating bass.

In answer to this call, a portly woman appeared
with arms floured to the elbow. She nodded in friendly
fashion to the stranger, and stood to listen.

" This day four weeks ? " said the settler. '* What
was the party's name ? "

"Hetheridge was the name he gave," the woman
answered; "John Hetheridge."

" That was the name," said the settler; " Hetheridge;
that was the name, to be sure; John Hetheridge.
Melbourne he said he was going to, didn't he, Sarah?"

"Yes," the portly woman answered. "Melbourne
was the place he named."

"Thank you kindly, missis," said the swagsman.
He repeated underneath his breath: " John Hetheridge, .
Melbourne," twice or thrice, as if to -fix it on his
memory, and then rising to his feet, threw his swag
over his shoulder and prepared to be gone. " Potter's,
my name," he said, by way of farewell; "Sam Potter.
If I should be long away, you might drop across a
mate or two of mine who'd like to know what's come
of me. You might take the trouble to remember me
and say I've gone down Melbourne way on a bit of a
fossick after Bob Martin's kid. They'll understand
that, any of 'em. Good-day, mate. Good-afternoon,
missis; and once more, thank you kindly."

He had gone a hundred yards, perhaps, when he
turned. The settler and his wife were shading their

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BOB MARTIN S LITTLE GIRL. 4I

eyes to watch him, and he roared back to ask how far
it might be to the next station.

''A good twelve miles/' was the answer, and with
a final wave of the hand he turned again to resume his
way, and in a while was lost to sight behind an inter-
vening ridge.

When, a fortnight later, a trifle more sunburned and
mahogany-colored than ever, Sam Potter carried his
swag into Melbourne, nobody thought it worth while
to turn to look at him. He and his kind in aspect
were common enough in the Victorian capital at that
time of day, though it is not improbable that his in-
trusion on " The Block" at, say, four o'clock on a fine
afternoon of the present year might cause something
of a flutter of surprise. Sam hailed up a portly citi-
zen with a " Coo-ee" and a ** Look here, matey !" and
demanded at hazard to know the address of John
Hetheridge.

"St. Kilda, somewhere," said the man addressed;
"can't remember precisely. Ask about St Kilda."

An outstretched arm indicated generally the route to
be taken, and the swagsman tramped on through the
town, and on again into the country, pausing for an
occasional inquiry, then among scattered, handsomely-
built houses, many of them approached by raw and
half-made roads, and surrounded by the mere begin-
nings of gardens. The man paused and looked about
him in perplexity, for the streets were lonely. By
and by a nurse-girl came round a corner with a richly-
attired child in her arms.

"Coo-ee!" cried Sam. The girl turning and halt-
ing at his call, he strode up to her. " I want to find a
man named John Hetheridge as lives hereabouts," he
said. As he spoke his eye fell upon the child's face,
and he started in astonishment. "My word," he said
under his breath, "this beats all! Why, little Bessie,
this is a providence!"

"You're mistook, young man," said the nurse-girl
withdrawing haughtily. "This ain't no Bessie."



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42 BOB martin's LITTLE GIRL.

"Mistook be blowed!". returned Sam Potter; "I
know better. That's my kid — my old pal Bob Mar-
tin's daughter. Where's that Hetheridge live? You
haven't got the kid without knowing that, I reckon."

"Your kid indeed!" returned the nurse, contemptu-
ously, surveying the dusty, way-worn figure up and
down; "that's a likely story."

"Show me John Hetheridge's house," said the way-
farer, "and bring little Bessie along indoors. I'll
show you how likely the story is in two-two*s, or,"
nodding his head with threatening sagacity, " maybe
in a little less than that."

"That's the house at the corner," said the nurse-
maid, and, inspired by a natural curiosity, she followed
in his footsteps.

The nurse-maid was fresh from Cockneydom, and
unused to the republican freedoms of Victoria; so that
when the patched and dusty man walked to the front
door, and sounded a peal on the knocker, she felt as
though the foundation of her world were crumbling.
A man-servant answered the summons, and demanded
to know what was wanted. ^

" John Hetheridge lives here ? I want to speak to
him."

"What's your name?" the servant asked.

"Potter — Sam Potter. He won't know it; but he's
welcome to it."

"What's your business?"

"I'll keep that for your boss, young man. Tell
him I want to see him." The servant retiring into
the hall, Sam followed and instinctively wiped his
dusty boots upon the door-mat. He made a singularly
elaborate business of the matter, and was still engaged
upon it when the servant returned. A moment later
he was ushered into an apartment of compound aspect,
furnished half as an office and half as a lounging-room.
Hetheridge was seated at a knee-table, and looked up,
business-like, as the visitor entered. The servant
closed the door, and the two were left alone.



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BOB MARTIN S LITTLE GIRL. 43

"Well, my friend/' inquired the master of the house;
" what can I do for you ?"

"Your name's Hetheridge?" said Potter. "John
Hetheridge. Six weeks ago last Tuesday you was up
country twenty mile beyond Yallala, or thereaway?
It was you as found my mate, Bob Martin' s body ?" To
each of these queries Hetheridge answered by a grave
nod. "Very well, then. I'm Bob Martin's mate.
The kid you took away from Bob Martin's shanty's
mine. I claim my rights over her. I'm her natural
protector."

"Well," said Hetheridge, dryly; "you'll have to
prove your relationship."

He laughed a second later, Potter's face fell so
ludicrously.

" Relationship ? You mean kin ? — blood kin ?"

" Certainly," said Hetheridge. " Without that you've
no more right to the child than I have."

"Now, look here, matey," said Sam Potter, balanc-
ing a weighty argumentative forefinger in front of
him; "there's things as stands to reason and things as



Online LibraryDavid Christie MurrayBob Martin's little girl → online text (page 3 of 29)