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Billjim by S. Le Sotgille

 

Nestling in the scrub at the head of a gully running into the Newanga was a typical Australian humpy. It was built entirely of bark. Roof, back, front, and sides were huge sheets of stringy bark, and the window shutters were of the same, the windows themselves being sheets of calico; also the two doors were whole sheets of bark swung upon leathern hinges.

The humpy was divided into three rooms, two bedrooms and a general room. The “galley” was just outside, a three-sided, roofed arrangement, and the ubiquitous bark figured in that adjunct of civilisation.

In springtime the roof and sides of this humpy were one huge blaze of Bougainvillæa, and not a vestige of bark was visible. It was surrounded by a paling fence, rough split bush palings only, but in every way fitted for what they were intended to do—that is, keep out animals of all descriptions.

In the front garden were flowers of every conceivable hue and variety, from the flaring giant sunflower to the quiet retiring geranium, and stuck to old logs and standing dead timber were several beautiful orchids of different varieties. Violets, pansies, fuchsias and nasturtiums bordered the walks in true European fashion, and one wondered who had taken all this trouble in so outlandish a spot.

At the back of the humpy rose the Range sheer fifteen hundred feet with huge granite boulders, twice the size of the humpy itself, standing straight out from the side of the Range, giving one the idea that they were merely stuck there in some mysterious manner, and were ready at a moment's notice to come tumbling down, overwhelming every one and everything in their descent.

On the other three sides was scrub. Dense tropical scrub for miles, giving out a muggy disagreeable heat, and that peculiar overpowering smell common, I think, to all tropical growth. No one could have chosen a better spot than this if his desire were to escape entirely from the busy world and live a quiet sequestered life amongst the countless beautiful gifts that Dame Nature seems so lavish of in the hundred nooks and corners of the mountainous portion of Australia. In this humpy, then, hidden from the world in general, and known only to a few miners and prospectors, lived Dick Benson, his wife, and their daughter Billjim. That is what she was called, anyway, by all the diggers on the Newanga. It wasn't her name, of course. She was registered at Clagton Court House as Katherine Veronica Benson, but no one in all the district thought of calling her Kitty now, and as for Veronica—well, it was too much to ask of any one, let alone a rough bushman.

The name Billjim she practically chose herself.

One evening a digger named Jack L'Estrange, a great friend of the Bensons, was reading an article from the Bulletin to her father, and Kitty, as she was then called, was whiling away the time by pulling his moustache, an occupation which interfered somewhat with the reading, but which was allowed to pass without serious rebuke.

In this article the paper spoke of backblocks bushmen under the generic soubriquet of Billjim. And a very good name too, for in any up-country town one has but to sing out “Bill” or “Jim” to have an answer from three-fourths of the male population.

The name tickled Kitty immensely, and she chuckled, “Billjim! Billjim! Oh, I'd like to be called that.”

“Would you though?” asked her father, smiling.

“Yes,” answered Kitty; “it's a fine name, Billjim.”

“Well, we will call you Billjim in future,” said Dick; and from that day the name stuck to her. And it suited her.

She was the wildest of wild bush girls. At twelve years old she could ride and shoot as well as most of us, and would pan out a prospect with any man on the Newanga.

She had never been to school, there being none nearer than Clagton, which was some fifteen miles away, but she had been taught the simple arts of reading and writing by her mother, and Jack L'Estrange had ministered to her wants in the matter of arithmetic.

With all her wildness she was a good, kindly girl, materially helping her mother in the household matters, and all that flower garden was her special charge and delight.

Wednesday and Thursday of every week were holidays, and those two days were spent by Billjim in roaming the country far and wide. Sometimes on horseback, when a horse could be borrowed, but mostly on her own well-formed feet.

She would wander off with a shovel and a dish into the scrub, and, following up some gully all day, would return at night tired out and happy, and generally with two or three grains of gold to show for her day's work. Sometimes she would come back laden with some new orchid, and this she would carefully fix in the garden in a position as similar as possible to that in which she had found it, and usually it would blossom there as if it were thankful at being so well cared for.

When Billjim wasn't engaged making her pocket-money, as she termed it, her days would be spent with Jack L'Estrange.

Jack was a fine, strapping young fellow of twenty-three, and was doing as well on the Newanga as any. Since the day he had snatched Billjim (then a wee mite) from the jaws of an alligator, as Queensland folk will insist upon calling their crocodile, he had been l'ami de la maison at the Bensons', and Billjim thought there was no one in the world like him. He in return would do any mortal thing which that rather capricious young lady desired.

One evening, when they were all sitting chatting round the fire in the galley, Benson said:

“Don't you think, Jack, that Billjim ought to go to some decent school? The missus and me of course ain't no scholars, but now that we can afford it we'd like Billjim to learn proper, you know.”

Jack looked at Billjim, who had nestled up closer to him during this speech, and was on the point of answering in the negative, when less selfish thoughts entered his head, and he replied:

“Well, Dick, much against my inclination, I must say that I think she ought to go. You see,” he continued, turning to Billjim and taking her hand, “it's this way. We should all miss you, lass, very much, but it's for your own good. You must know more than we here can teach you if you wish to be any good to your father and mother.”

Billjim nodded and looked at him, and Jack had to turn his eyes away and speak to Mrs. Benson for fear of going back on his words.

“You see, Mrs. Benson,” said Jack, “it wouldn't be for long, for Billjim would learn very quickly with good teachers, and be of great use to you when Dick makes that pile.”

Mrs. Benson smiled in spite of herself when Jack mentioned “that pile.” Dick had been going to strike it rich up there on the Newanga for over seven years, and the fortune hadn't come yet.

“I suppose you're right,” she said, “and I'm sure Billjim will be a good girl and study quick to get back. Won't you, lass?”

“Yes'm,” answered Billjim, with a reservoir of tears in her voice, but none in her eyes. She wouldn't have cried with Jack there for the world!

So after a lot of talking it was settled, and Billjim departed for school, and the humpy knew her no more for four long years.

Ah! what a dreary, dreary time that was to Mrs. Benson and Dick. Jack kept her flower garden going for all those years, and Snowy, her dog, lived down at his camp. These had been Billjim's last commands.

Dick worked away manfully looking for that pile, and succeeded passing well, as the account at Clagton Bank could show, but there was no alteration made at the “Nest,” as the humpy was designated.

Jack passed most of his evenings up there, and on mail days was in great request to read Billjim's epistles out loud.

No matter who was there, those letters were read out, and some of us who knew Billjim well passed encouraging remarks about her improvement, etc.

We all missed her, for she had been used to paying periodical flying visits, and her face had always seemed to us like a bright gleam of sunshine breaking through that steaming, muggy, damp scrub.

One mail day, four years very near to the day after Billjim's departure, the usual letter was read out, and part of it ran so:

“Oh, mum dear, do let me come back now. I am sure I have learned enough, and oh! how I long for a sight of you and dad, and dear old Jack and Frenchy, and Jim Travers, and all of you in fact. Let me come, oh! do let me come back.”

Upon my word, I believe there was a break in Jack's voice as he read. Mrs. Benson was crying peacefully, and Dick and French were blowing their noses in an offensive and boisterous manner.

A motion was put and carried forthwith that Billjim should return at once. Newanga couldn't go on another month like this. Quite absurd to think of it.

The letter was dispatched telling Billjim of the joyful news, and settling accounts with the good sisters who had sheltered and cared for her so long.

Great were the preparations for Dick's journey to the coast to meet her when the time came. So great was the excitement that a newcomer thought some great reef had been struck, and followed several of us about for days trying to discover its location and get his pegs in!

Every one wanted to lend something for Billjim's comfort on the journey out. No lady's saddle was there in all the camp, and great was Dick's trouble thereat, until Frenchy rigged his saddle up with a bit of wood wrapped round with a piece of blanket, which, firmly fixed to the front dees, did duty for a horn.

“It's a great idea, Frenchy,” said Dick; “but, lord, I'd ha' sent her the money for one if I'd only ha' thought of it, but, bless you, I was thinking of her as a little girl yet.”

'Twas a great day entirely, as Micky the Rat put it, when Billjim came home.

Every digger for miles round left work and made a bee-line from his claim to the road, and patiently waited there to get a hand-shake and a smile from their friend Billjim, and they all got both, and went back very grateful and very refreshed.

Billjim had turned into a pretty woman in those four years, and I think every one was somewhat staggered by it.

Jack L'Estrange's first meeting with his one-time playmate was at the Nest, and it so threw Jack off his balance that he was practically maudlin for a week after the event.

When he entered the door he stood at first spell-bound at the change in his favourite, then he said:

“Why, Bill—er Kate, I.... 'Pon my word, I don't know what to say. Oh, Christopher! you know this is comical; I came up here intending to kiss my little friend Billjim, and I find you grown into a beautiful woman.”

“Kiss me, Jack?” broke in Billjim; “kiss me? Why, I'm going to hug you!” And she did, and Jack blushed to the roots of his curly golden hair, and was confused all the evening over it.

The four years' schooling had not changed Billjim one iota as far as character went. She was the identical Billjim grown big and grown pretty, that was all.

But something was to happen which was to turn the wild tom-boy into a serious woman, and it happened shortly after her return home.

It was mail night up at the Nest, and Jack L'Estrange was absent from the crowd that invariably spent an hour or two getting their mail and discussing items of grave interest. Being mail night, Jack's absence was naturally noticed, and every one made some remark about it.

However, old Dick said: “Oh, Jack's struck some good thing, I suppose, and got back to camp too late to come up. He'll come in the morning likely.”

This seemed to satisfy every one save Billjim. She turned to Frenchy, and said:

“Do you know whereabouts Jack was working lately?”

“Yes,” answered Frenchy. “He was working at the two mile, day before yesterday, so I suppose he's there yet.”

“Yes,” said Billjim, “I suppose he will be.” But Billjim wasn't satisfied. When every one was asleep she was out, and knowing the scrub thoroughly, was over to Jack's camp in a quarter of an hour. Not finding Jack there, she made for the two mile with all speed, for something told her she knew not what. An undefinable feeling that something was wrong came across her. She saw Jack lying crushed and bleeding and no one there to help him! Do what she would, dry, choking sobs burst from her tight-closed lips as she scrambled along over boulders and through the thick scrub. Brambles, wait-a-bit vines, and berry bushes scratched and stung her, and switched across her face, leaving bleeding and livid marks on her tender skin. But she pushed on and on in the fitful moonlight through the dense undergrowth, making a straight line for the two mile.

Arrived there, she stopped for breath for a while, and then sent forth a long “Coo-ie.” No answer. “I was right,” thought Billjim, “he is hurt. My God! he may be dead out here, while we were there chatting and laughing as usual. Oh, Jack, Jack!”

Up the gully she sped, from one abandoned working to another, over rocks and stones, into water-holes, with no thought for herself. At last, there, huddled up against the bank, with a huge boulder pinning one leg to the ground, lay poor Jack L'Estrange.

Billjim's first impression was that he was dead, he looked so limp and white out in the open there with the moon shining on his face, but when her accustomed courage returned she stooped over him and found him alive, but unconscious.

She bathed his temples with water, murmuring:

“Jack dear, wake up. Oh, my own lad, wake up and tell me what to do.”

Jack opened his eyes at last, as if her soft crooning had reached his numbed senses.

“Halloa, Billjim,” he said faintly. “Is that you or a dream?”

“It's me, Jack,” replied Billjim, flinging school talk to the four winds. “It's me. What can I do? How can I help? Are you suffering much?”

“Well,” said Jack, “you can't shift that boulder, that's certain, for I've tried until I went off. It's not paining now much, seems numbed. Do you think you could fetch the boys? Get Frenchy especially; he knows something about bandaging and that. It's a case with the leg, I think.”

“All right, dear,” said Billjim; and the “dear” slipped out unawares, but she went on hurriedly to cover the slip: “Yes, I'll get Frenchy and Travers, Tate and Micky the Rat; they all live close together. You won't faint again, Jack, will you? See, I'll leave this pannikin here with water. Keep up your pecker, we shan't be long,” and she was gone to hide the tears in her eyes, and the choke in her voice. “It's a case with the leg” was too much for her.

She was at Frenchy's camp in a very short time. Frenchy was at his fire, dreaming. When he saw who his visitor was he was startled, to say the least of it.

“What, Billjim the Beautiful? At this hour of night? Why, what in the name of...?” were his incoherent ejaculations.

And Billjim for the first time in that eventful night really gave way. She sat down and sobbed out:

“Oh, Frenchy.... Come.... Poor Jack.... Two mile ... crushed and bleeding to death, Frenchy.... I saw the blood oozing out.... Oh, dear me!... Get the boys ... come....”

Frenchy's only answer was a long, melodious howl, which was promptly re-echoed from right and left and far away back in the scrub, and from all sides forms hurried up clad in all sorts of strange night costumes.

Some shrank back into the shadows again on seeing a woman sitting at the fire sobbing, but one and all as they hurried up asked:

“What's up? Niggers?”

They were told, and each hurried back for clothes. Frenchy got his bandages together, and fetched his bunk out of his tent.

“We'll take this,” he said; “it's as far from Jack's camp to the two mile as it is from here. Now then, Billjim, off we go.”

Her followers had to keep moving to keep near her, loaded as they were, but at last they arrived at the scene of Jack's disaster.

Jack was conscious when they arrived, and Frenchy whipped out a brandy flask and put it in Billjim's hand, saying:

“Give him a dose every now and again while we mend matters. Sit down there facing him. That's right. Now, chaps!”

With a will the great piece of granite was moved from off the crushed and bleeding limb. With deft fingers Frenchy had the trouser leg ripped up above the knee, and then appeared a horribly crushed, shattered thigh. Frenchy shook his head dolefully. “Any one got a small penknife? Ivory or smooth-handled one for preference,” he demanded.

“You're not going to cut him?” queried Billjim, without turning her head.

“No, no,” said Frenchy; “I want it to put against the vein and stop this bleeding. That'll do nicely,” as Travers handed him a knife. “Sit tight, Jack, I must hurt you now.”

“Go ahead,” said Jack uneasily; “but don't be longer than you can help,” and he caught hold of Billjim's hand and remained like that, quiet and sensible, while Frenchy put a ligature round the injured limb and bandaged it up as well as was possible.

“Now, mates,” he said, as he finished, “this is a case for Clagton and the doctor at once. No good one going in and fetching the doctor out, it's waste of time, and then he mightn't be able to do anything. So we must pack him on that stretcher and carry him in. Everybody willing?”

Aye, of course they were, though they knew they had fifteen miles to carry a heavy man over gullies and rocks and through scrub and forest.

So Jack was carefully placed on the stretcher.

“Now you had better get home, Billjim, and tell them what has happened,” said Frenchy.

“No, no, I won't,” said Billjim; “I'm going with you;” and go she did, of course, holding Jack's hand all the way, and administering small doses of brandy whenever she was ordered. “La Vivandière,” as Frenchy remarked, sotto voce, “but with a heart! Grand Dieu, with what a heart!”

It was a great sight to see that gallant little band carrying twelve stone of helpless humanity in the moonlight.

Through scrub, over rocks and gullies, and through weird white gum forest, and no sound but the laboured breathing of the bearers. There were twelve of them, and they carried four and four about, those fifteen miles.

Never a groan out of the poor fellow up aloft there, though he must have suffered agonies when any one stumbled, which was bound to occur pretty often in that dim light.

Slowly but surely they covered the distance, and just as day began to dawn they reached the doctor's house at Clagton.

In a very little time Jack was lying on a couch in the surgery.

After some questions the doctor said:

“Too weak. Can't do anything just now.”

“It's a case, I suppose?” asked Frenchy.

“Yes,” said the doctor; “amputation, of course, and I have no one here to help me. Stay, though! Who bandaged him?”

“I did,” answered Frenchy; “I learnt that in hospitals, you know.”

“Oh, well,” said the doctor, quite relieved, “you'll do to help me. Go and get a little sleep, and come this afternoon.”

“Right you are,” said Frenchy. “Come on, Billjim. Can't do any good here just now. I'll take you to Mother Slater's.”

Billjim gave one look at Jack, who nodded and smiled, and then went away with Frenchy.

For three weeks after the operation Jack L'Estrange lay hovering on the brink of the great chasm. Then he began to mend and get well rapidly.

Billjim was in constant attendance from the day she was allowed to see him, and the doctor said, in fact, that but for her care and attention there would probably have been no more Jack.

Great was the rejoicing at the Nest when Jack reappeared, and the rejoicing turned to enthusiasm when it was discovered that there was a mutual understanding come to between Billjim and the crippled miner.

Micky the Rat prophesied great things, but said:

“Faix, 'tis a distressful thing entirely to see a fine gurrl like that wid a husband an' he wed on wan leg. 'Twas mesilf Billjim should ha' tuk, no less.”

But we all knew Micky the Rat, you see.

The wedding-day will never be forgotten by those who were on the Newanga at the time.

The event came off at Clagton, and everybody was there. No invitations were issued. None were needed. The town came, and the miners from far and near, en masse.

Those who couldn't get a seat squatted in true bush fashion with their wide-brimmed hats in their hands, and listened attentively to the service; a lot of them never having entered a church door in their lives before.

At the feast, before the newly married couple took their departure, everybody was made welcome. It was a great time.

Old Dick got up to make a speech, and failed ignominiously. He looked at Billjim for inspiration. She was just the identical person he shouldn't have looked at, for thoughts of the Nest without Billjim again rose before him, and those thoughts settled him, so he sat down again without uttering a word.

Jack said something, almost inaudible, about seeking a fortune and finding one, which was prettily put, and Frenchy as best man was heard to mutter something about “Beautiful ... loss to camp ... happiness ... wooden leg,” and the speech making was over.

At the send off much rice flew about, and as the buggy drove off, an old dilapidated iron-shod miner's boot was found dangling on the rear axle of that conveyance.

That was Micky the Rat's parting shot at Jack for carrying Billjim away.

Clagton was a veritable London for that night only. You couldn't throw a stone without hitting some one, and as a rule an artillery battery could have practised for hours in the main street without hitting any one or anything, barring perhaps a stray dog.

Things calmed down at last, however, and when the newly married returned and, adding to the Nest, lived there with the old couple, every one was satisfied. “Billjim” remained “Billjim” to all of us, and when a stranger expresses surprise at that, Billjim simply says, “Ah! but you see we are all mates here, aren't we, Jack?”

 
 
 

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