Meanwhile, Jack and his next brother took an old gun, let the dogs loose, and went ’possum shooting.
Presently Wylie came in again, sat down by the fire, and smoked. The children quarrelled over a boy’s book; Mrs. Wylie made weak attempts to keep the peace, but they took no notice of her. Suddenly her husband rose with an oath, seized the novel, and threw it behind the fire.
“Git to bed! git to bed!” he roared at the children; “git to bed, or I’ll smash your brains with the axe!”
They got to bed. It was made of saplings and bark, covered with three bushel-bags full of straw and old pieces of blanket sewn together. The children quarrelled in bed till their father took off his belt and “went into” them, according to promise. There was a sudden hush, followed by a sound like a bird-clapper; then howls; then a peaceful calm fell upon that happy home.
Wylie went out again, and was absent an hour; on his return he sat by the fire and smoked sullenly. After a while he snatched the pipe from his mouth, and looked impatiently at the old woman.
“Oh! for God’s sake, git to bed,” he snapped, “and don’t be asittin’ there like a blarsted funeral! You’re enough to give a man the dismals.”
Mrs. Wylie gathered up her sewing and retired. Then he said to his daughter: “You come and hold the candle.”
Mary put on her hood and followed her father to the yard. The carcase lay close to the rails, against which two sheets of bark had been raised as a break-wind. The beast had been partly skinned, and a portion of the hide, where a brand might have been, was carefully turned back. Mary noticed this at once. Her father went on with his work, and occasionally grumbled at her for not holding the candle right.
“Where did you buy the steer, father?” she asked.
“Ask no questions and hear no lies.” Then he added, “Carn’t you see it’s a clear skin?”
She had a keen sense of humour, and the idea of a “‘clear skin’ steer” would have amused her at any other time. She didn’t smile now.
He turned the carcase over; the loose hide fell back, and the light shone on a distinct brand. White as a sheet went Mary’s face, and her hand trembled so that she nearly let the candle fall.
“What are you adoin’ of now?” shouted her father. “Hold the candle, carn’t you? You’re worse than the old woman.”
“Father! the beast is branded! See!—— What does PB stand for?”
“Poor Beggar, like myself. Hold the candle, carn’t you?— and hold your tongue.”
Mary was startled again by hearing the tread of a horse, but it was only the old grey munching round. Her father finished skinning, and drew the carcase up to a make-shift “gallows”. “Now you can go to bed,” he said, in a gentler tone.
She went to her bedroom—a small, low, slab skillion, built on to the end of the house—and fell on her knees by the bunk.
“God help me! God help us all!” she cried.
She lay down, but could not sleep. She was nervously ill—nearly mad, because of the dark, disgraceful cloud of trouble which hung over her home. Always in trouble—always in trouble. It started long ago, when her favourite brother Tom ran away. She was little more than a child then, intensely sensitive; and when she sat in the old bark school she fancied that the other children were thinking or whispering to each other, “Her brother’s in prison! Mary Wylie’s brother’s in prison! Tom Wylie’s in gaol!” She was thinking of it still. They were ever with her, those horrible days and nights of the first shadow of shame. She had the same horror of evil, the same fearful dread of disgrace that her mother had. She had been ambitious; she had managed to read much, and had wild dreams of going to the city and rising above the common level, but that was all past now.
How could she rise when the cruel hand of disgrace was ever ready to drag her down at any moment. “Ah, God!” she moaned in her misery, “if we could only be born without kin—with no one to disgrace us but ourselves! It’s cruel, God, it’s cruel to suffer for the crimes of others!” She was getting selfish in her troubles— like her mother. “I want to go away from the bush and all I know. . . . O God, help me to go away from the bush!” Presently she fell asleep —if sleep it may be called—and dreamt of sailing away, sailing away far out on the sea beyond the horizon of her dread. Then came a horrible nightmare, in which she and all her family were arrested for a terrible crime. She woke in a fright, and saw a reddish glare on the window. Her father was poking round some logs where they had been “burning-off”. A pungent odour came through a broken pane and turned her sick. He was burning the hide.
Wylie did not go to bed that night; he got his breakfast before daylight, and rode up through the frosty gap while the stars were still out, carrying a bag of beef in front of him on the grey horse. Mary said nothing about the previous night. Her mother wondered how much “father” had given for the steer, and supposed he had gone into town to sell the hide; the poor soul tried to believe that he had come by the steer honestly. Mary fried some meat, and tried to eat it for her mother’s sake, but could manage only a few mouthfuls. Mrs. Wylie also seemed to have lost her appetite. Jack and his brother, who had been out all night, made a hearty breakfast. Then Jimmy started to peg out the ‘possum skins, while Jack went to look for a missing pony. Mary was left to milk all the cows, and feed the calves and pigs.
Shortly after dinner one of the children ran to the door, and cried:
“Why, mother—here’s three mounted troopers comin’ up the gully!”
“Oh, my God!” cried the mother, sinking back in her chair and trembling like a leaf. The children ran and hid in the scrub. Mary stood up, terribly calm, and waited. The eldest trooper dismounted, came to the door, glanced suspiciously at the remains of the meal, and abruptly asked the dreaded question:
“Mrs. Wylie, where’s your husband?”
She dropped the tea-cup, from which she had pretended to be drinking unconcernedly.
“What? Why, what do you want my husband for?” she asked in pitiful desperation. She looked like the guilty party.
“Oh, you know well enough,” he sneered impatiently.
Mary rose and faced him. “How dare you talk to my mother like that?” she cried. “If my poor brother Tom was only here—you—you coward!”
The youngest trooper whispered something to his senior, and then, stung by a sharp retort, said:
“Well, you needn’t be a pig.”
His two companions passed through into the spare skillion, where they found some beef in a cask, and more already salted down under a bag on the end of a bench; then they went out at the back and had a look at the cow-yard. The younger trooper lingered behind.
“I’ll try and get them up the gully on some excuse,” he whispered to Mary. “You plant the hide before we come back.”
“It’s too late. Look there!” She pointed through the doorway.
The other two were at the logs where the fire had been; the burning hide had stuck to the logs in places like glue.
“Wylie’s a fool,” remarked the old trooper.