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Aunt Grieves' Silver by Lucie E. Jackson

 

When Kate Hamilton's father had been dead six months, and Kate had had time to realise that the extensive sheep station belonged to her and to her alone—that she, in fact, was what the shearers called “the boss”—then did she sit down and pen a few lines to her aunt in England—her father's only sister. She did not exactly know what possessed her to do it. She had never at any time during her nineteen years corresponded with her aunt; it was her father who had kept up the tie between his sister and himself. But notwithstanding that she was now “boss,” perhaps a craving for a little of the sympathy and the great affection with which her father had always surrounded her, had something to do with her wishing to get up a correspondence with his sister. Whatever the reason the impulse was there, and the letter was despatched to the England that Kate had never seen except through her father's eyes.

A few weeks later she received an answer that filled her with surprise.

After a few preliminary remarks relating to the grief she felt at the news of her brother's death, Mrs. Grieves wrote as follows:

     “Your cousin Cicely and I cannot bear to think of your
     being alone—young girl that you are—without a single
     relative near for comfort or advice. I have made up my mind
     to start for Australia as soon as I can arrange my affairs
     satisfactorily. There is nothing to keep us in England
     since Cicely's father died last year, and I long to see my
     brother's only child. Moreover, the voyage will do Cicely
     good, for she is very fragile, and the doctor warmly
     approves of the idea. So adieu, my dear child, till we
     meet. I shall send a cablegram the day before our vessel
     starts.

                     “Your affectionate aunt,
                     “CAROLINE GRIEVES.”

Kate's face was a study when she had finished reading the letter. Surprise she certainly felt, and a little amusement, too, to think that she—an Australian bush-born girl—could not look after herself and her affairs without an English aunt and an English cousin travelling many thousands of miles across the water to aid her with their advice.

Hadn't she been for the last three years her father's right hand in the store, and in the shearing-shed, too, for that matter? Didn't she understand thoroughly how the books were kept? For this very reason her father, knowing full well that the complaint from which he suffered would sooner or later cause his death, had kept her cognisant of how the station should be managed. And now these English relatives were leaving their beautiful English home to give her advice upon matters that they were totally ignorant of!

Kate sat down with the letter in her hand and laughed. Then she looked sober. It would after all be pleasant to see some of her own relatives, not one of which—either on her dead mother's or her father's side—did she possess in Australia.

Yes, after all, the idea, on closer investigation, did not seem at all disagreeable, and Kate took up the letter again and read it with pleasure this time.

Even if she had wished to put a stop to the intended visit, she could not have had time, for three weeks later she received the cablegram:

     “We are leaving by the steamer Europia.

She really felt a thrill of joy as she read this. She could now calculate upon the day they were likely to arrive. The days flew fast enough, for Kate had not time to sit down and dream over the appearance of the travellers. The “boss” was wanted everywhere, and she must needs know the why and wherefore of matters pertaining to account-books, shearing sheds, cattle-yards, stores, and everything relating to the homestead.

“It is good you were born with your father's business head,” said Phil Wentworth, with a scarcely concealed look of admiration.

He was the manager of the station at Watakona. Mr. Hamilton had chosen him five years before to be his representative over the shearing-shed and stores, finding him after that length of time fully capable of performing all and more than was expected of him. He was a good-looking young man of thirty, with a bright, cheery manner, that had a good effect upon those employed at the station.

“Not a grumble from one of the men has ever been heard since Wentworth came here as manager,” Kate's father had often said to her. “So different from that rascal Woods, who treated some of the men as if they were dogs, and allowed many a poor sheep to go shorn to its pen cut and bleeding from overhaste, with never a word of remonstrance.”

And Kate bore that in mind, as also some of her father's last words:

“Don't ever be persuaded to part with Wentworth. He is far and away the best man I have ever had for the business.”

At last the day came when Mrs. Grieves and her daughter Cicely arrived at Watakona.

There was a comical smile on the manager's good-looking face as trunk after trunk was lifted down off the waggon, and Kate's aunt announced that “there was more to come.”

“More to come!” answered Kate, surprised. And then, bursting into a laugh, “Dear aunt, what can you have brought that will be of any use to you in this out-of-the-way place?”

Mrs. Grieves smilingly nodded her head. “There is not one trunk there that I could possibly do without.”

And Kate, with another smile, dismissed the subject.

But not so her aunt. When they were all seated together after a comfortable tea, she began in a whisper, looking round cautiously first to see that no one was within hearing:

“You are curious, Kate dear, to know what those trunks contain?”

“My curiosity can stay, aunt. I am only afraid that what you have brought will be of no use to you. You see, I live such a quiet life here, with few friends and fewer grand dresses, that I fear you will be disappointed at not being able to wear any of the things you have brought.”

Cicely, a pretty, delicate-looking girl, laughed merrily.

“They do not hold dresses, Kate. No, I have not thought to lead a gay life on a sheep station in Australia. What I have brought is something that I could not bear to leave behind. Those trunks contain all the silver I used to use in my English home.”

“Silver! What kind of silver?”

“Teapots, cream ewers, épergnes, candlesticks, to say nothing of the spoons, forks, fish-knives, etc.,” said Cicely gaily.

“You've brought all those things with you here?” cried Kate, horrified. “Oh, aunt, where can I put them all for safety?”

Mrs. Grieves looked nonplussed. “I suppose you have some iron safes——” she began.

“But not big enough to store that quantity of silver!”

Kate spent a restless night. Visions of bushrangers stood between her and sleep. What would she do with that silver?

“Bank it,” suggested Phil Wentworth the next morning, as she explained her difficulty to him in the little counting-house after breakfast.

Kate shook her head. “Aunt wouldn't do it. If she did she might as well have banked it in England.”

The manager pulled his moustache. “How much is there?”

“I haven't seen it, but from what Cicely says I should say there are heaps and heaps.”

“Foolish woman,” was the manager's thought, but he wisely kept it to himself.

When, however, the silver was laid before her very eyes, and piece after piece was taken from the trunks, ranged alongside one another in Mrs. Grieves's bedroom, Kate's heart failed her.

“Mr. Wentworth must see it and advise me,” was all she could say. And her aunt could not deter her.

Kate's white brow was puckered into a frown, and her pretty mouth drooped slightly at the corners as she watched Mr. Wentworth making his inspection of the silver. She knew his face so well, she could tell at one glance that he was thinking her aunt an exceedingly foolish woman, and Kate was not quite sure that she did not agree with him.

However, the silver was there, and they had to make the best of it, for Mrs. Grieves utterly rejected the idea of having it conveyed to a bank in Sydney.

“The only thing to do,” said the manager gloomily, turning to Kate, “is to place it under the trap-door in the counting-house.”

Kate looked questioningly at him. He half smiled.

“I think that the only thing you are not aware of in the business is the fact that the flooring of the counting-house can be converted at will into a strong lock-up. Come, and I will show you.”

The three women followed him. To Cicely's English eyes the entire homestead was a strangely delightful place.

Rolling to one side the matting that covered the floor of the counting-house, Mr. Wentworth paused, and introducing a lever between the joining of two boards upheaved a square trap-door, revealing to the eyes of the astonished English ladies, and the no less astonished Australian “boss,” a wide, gaping receptacle, suitable for the very articles under discussion.

It looked dark and gloomy below, but on the manager's striking a wax match and holding it aloft, they were enabled each one to descend the short ladder which the opening of the flooring revealed. Beneath the counting-house Kate found to her amazement a room quite as large as the one above it, furnished with chairs, a table, and a couple of stout iron safes. Upon the table stood an old iron candlestick into which Mr. Wentworth inserted a candle lighted from his wax match.

“You never told me,” were Kate's reproachful words, and still more reproachful glance.

“I tell you now,” he said lightly. “There was no need to before. Your father showed it me when I had been here a year. Indeed, he and I often forgot that the counting-house had been built for a double purpose,—but that was because there was nothing to stow away of much value. Now I think we have just the hiding-place for all that silver.”

It was indeed the place, the very place, and under great secrecy the silver was conveyed through the trap-door, and firmly locked into the iron safes.

So far so good, and Kate breathed again with almost as much of her old light-heartedness as before.

In spite of her doubt of the wisdom of bringing such valuables so far and to such a place, she and Cicely took a secret delight in a weekly cleaning up of the silver, secure of all observation from outsiders. It was a pleasure to Kate to lift and polish the handsome épergne, and to finger the delicate teaspoons and fanciful fish-knives and forks.

“What a haul this would be for a bushranger!” she said one day, as she carefully laid the admired épergne back into its place in the iron safe.

Cicely gave a gasp and a shudder. “You—you don't have them in these parts, surely!” she ejaculated.

“If they find there is anything worth lifting they'll visit any homestead in the colony,” returned Kate.

“But oh! dear Kate, what should we do if they came here? I should die of fright.”

“Yes, I'm afraid you would,” said Kate, glancing compassionately at the delicate figure beside her, and at the cheeks which had visibly lost their pink colour. “No, Cicely, I don't think there is any chance of such characters visiting us just now. The first and last time I saw a bushranger was when I was fifteen years old. He and his men tried to break into our house for, somehow, it had got wind that father had in the house a large sum of money—money which of course he usually banked. I can see dear old father now, standing with his rifle in his hand at the dining-room window, and Mr. Wentworth standing beside him. They were firing away at three men who were as much in earnest as my father and his manager were.”

“And what happened?” asked Cicely breathlessly, as Kate stopped to look round for her polishing cloth.

“Father killed one man, the two others got away, not, however, before Mr. Wentworth had shot away the forefinger of the leader. We found it after they had gone, lying on the path beside the cattle-yard. He was a terrible fellow, the leader of that bushranging crew. He went by the name of Wolfgang. He may be alive now, I don't know. I have not heard of any depredations committed by him for two or three years now.”

“And I hope you never will,” said Cicely with a shudder. “Kate, have you done all you want to do here? I should so like to finish that letter to send off by to-day's mail.”

“Then go. I'll just stay to lock up. You haven't much time if you want Sam Griffiths to take it this afternoon.”

Cicely jumped up without another word, and climbed the ladder.

Kate lifted the case of fish-knives into the safe, and stretched out her hand for the other articles without turning her head. She felt her hand clutched as in a vice by fingers cold as ice. She turned sharply round. Cicely was at her side with lips and cheeks devoid of colour.

“Good gracious, Cicely! what is the matter? How you startled me!” said Kate in a vexed tone.

Cicely laid one cold, trembling, finger upon her cousin's lips.

“He has seen us—he has been looking down on us,” was all she could articulate.

“Who? What do you mean?” But Kate's voice was considerably lowered.

“The bushranger Wolfgang. He—he has seen all the silver!”

Kate broke into a nervous laugh. “I think you are dreaming, Cicely. How do you know you saw Wolfgang? And how could he see us down here?”

“It is no dream,” answered Cicely in the same husky whisper. “Kate, as I climbed the ladder quickly I saw the face of a man disappear from the trap-door, but not before I caught sight of the forefinger missing off the hand that held one side of the trap-door. Kate, Kate, it was Wolfgang. He has been staring down at us.”

Kate looked up wildly at the opening above. It was free from all intruders now. She locked every article into the safe without uttering a word; then said, “Come.”

Together they mounted the ladder; together they latched down the trap-door; together they left the counting-house.

“Tell Sam to ride to the shed and ask Mr. Wentworth to come to me at once—at once.” Kate gave the order in a calm voice to the one woman servant that did the work in the house.

“Sam isn't in the yards,” was the answer. “He told me three hours ago that he was wanted by Mr. Wentworth to ride to the township for something or other. He was in a fine way about it, for he said it was taking him from his work here.”

Some of Kate's calm left her. She looked round at the helpless women—three now, for her aunt had joined them.

“Aunt,” she said, forcing herself to speak quietly, “I have fears that this afternoon we shall be attacked by bushrangers. Unfortunately Sam has been called away, and he is the only man we have on the premises. There is not another within reach, except at the shearing-shed, and you know where that is. Which of you will venture to ride there for help? I dare not go, for I must protect the house.”

She glanced at each of the three faces in turn, and saw no help there. Becky, the servant, had utterly collapsed at the word bushranger; the other two faces looked as if carved in stone.

“Kate, Kate, is there no other help near?”

“Not nearer than the shearing-shed, aunt.”

“I daren't go. I couldn't ride that distance.”

“Cicely?” Kate's tone was imploring.

“Don't ask me,” and Cicely burst into a flood of tears.

“We must defend ourselves, then.”

The Australian girl's voice was quiet, albeit it trembled slightly.

“Come to the counting-house. Becky, you come too. We must barricade the place. I'll run round and fasten up every door. They will have a tough job to get in,” she murmured grimly.

How she thanked her father for the strong oak door! The oaken shutters with their massive iron clamps! It would seem as if he had expected a raid from bushrangers at some time or other in his life. The counting-house door was stronger than the others. She now understood the reason why. The room below had been taken into consideration when that door was put up.

It was three o'clock in the afternoon. A broiling, sun-baking afternoon. They were prepared, sitting, as it were, in readiness for the attack they were momentarily expecting.

It came at last. The voice that sounded outside the counting-house door took her back to the time when she was fifteen years of age. It was a strange, harsh voice, grating in its harshness, strange in being like no other. She remembered it to be the voice of the man that had challenged her father that memorable day—remembered it to be the voice of Wolfgang.

Like an evil bird of prey had he scented from afar the silver stored under the trap-door, just as he had scented the sum of money her father had hidden away in the house.

“It's no use your sheltering yourselves in there,” said the voice. “We want to harm no one—it's against our principles. What we want is just the silver hidden under the counting-house, and we want nothing more.”

With one finger upraised, cautioning silence, Kate saw for the twentieth time to the priming of her rifle—the very rifle that had shot Wolfgang's chief man four years before. There was no need for her to caution her companions to silence. They knelt on the floor—a huddled, trembling trio.

If only Kate could see how many men there were! But she could not.

“It will take them some time to batter in that door,” thought she, “and by that time, who knows, help may come from some unexpected quarter.”

“Do you dare to defy us?” said the voice again. “We know you are utterly helpless. Sam has been got out of the way by a cooked-up story, ditto your manager. They are both swearing in the broiling township by now.” And the voice broke off with a loud “Ha! ha!”

At which two other voices echoed “Ha! ha! ha! ha!”

Kate strained her ears to catch the sounds. Were there only three, then, just as there had been three four years before?

Then ensued a battering at the door, but it stood like a rock. They were tiring at that game. It hurt them, and did no good. There was silence for the space of some minutes, and then the sound of scraping reached Kate's ears.

What were they doing now?

It sounded on the roof of the counting-house. O God! they were never going to make an entrance that way!

Scrape, scrape, scrape. The sound went on persistently.

Kate's face was hidden in her hands. Was she praying? thought Cicely. Then she, too, lifted up a silent prayer for help in their time of need.

Kate's voice whispering in her ear aroused her. “Come,” she breathed.

And with one accord, without a question, the three followed her silently.

The room beyond the counting-house was up a narrow flight of stairs. It used to be called by Kate, in derision, “Father's observatory.” Through a small pane of glass in this room she could see the roof of the counting-house.

Sawing away at the wooden structure upon which he was perched sat Wolfgang himself, whilst the man beside him was busily engaged in removing the thatch piece by piece.

Kate waited to see no more. Raising her rifle to her shoulder she fired—fired straight at the leading bushranger.

She saw him stagger and roll—roll down the sloping roof, and fall with a dull thud to the ground below.

She could only lean against the wall, and hide her face in her trembling hands. Was he dead? Had she killed him? Or had the fall off the house completed the deed?

She felt a hand on her arm. Becky was standing beside her. “Give me the rifle,” she breathed. “I can load it.”

With a faint feeling of surprise at her heart, Kate handed her the weapon with fingers slightly unsteady. She received it back in silence, and mounted to her place of observation again.

Wolfgang's companion was crouching. His attitude struck Kate disagreeably. His back was turned to her. What was he looking at?

She strained her eyes, and descried, galloping at the top of his speed, Black Bounce, and on his back was Phil Wentworth. Behind him at breakneck pace came six of the shearers—tall, brawny men, the very sight of whom inspired courage.

Wentworth's rifle was raised. A shot rang through the air. Then another. And yet another. Bang! bang! bang! What had happened?

Kate, straining her eyes, only knew that just as the manager's rifle went off, the bushranger on the roof had fired at him, not, however, before Kate's shot disabled him in the arm, thus preventing his aim from covering the manager.

“Thank God, thank God, we are saved!” she cried.

And now that the danger was over, Kate sank down upon the floor of the “observatory,” and sobbed as if her heart would break.

Becky—her bravery returning as the sound of horses' hoofs struck upon her ear—slipped from the room, leaving Mrs. Grieves and Cicely to play the part of consolers to her young mistress.

It appeared that a trumped-up story, purporting to come from one of his friends in the township, had caused Phil Wentworth to go there that morning, and that on his way he overtook Sam Griffiths, who grumpily asked him why he should have been ordered to the township when his hands were so full of work at home. This led the young manager to scent something wrong, and telling Griffiths to follow him home quickly he rode straight back to the shed, and getting some of the shearers to accompany him, made straight tracks for the house.

Mrs. Grieves and Cicely had by this time had as much as they cared for of bush life, and very shortly after announced that the Australian climate did not suit either Cicely or herself as she had hoped it might, and that they had made up their minds to return to England.

“I hope they intend to take their silver away with them,” said the manager when Kate told him.

She replied with a laugh, “Oh yes, I don't believe aunt would think life worth living if she had not her silver with her.”

Poor Aunt Grieves! the vessel she travelled by had to be abandoned before it reached England, and the silver she had suffered so much for lies buried in the sands of the deep.

As for Kate, she subsequently took Philip Wentworth into partnership, and he gave her his name.

 
 
 

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