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Title: A Draught Of Life
Author: Fred M White
* A Project Gutenberg Australia eBook *
eBook No.: 1200931h.html
Language: English
Date first posted: February 2012
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A Draught Of Life

by

Fred M White


ILLUSTRATED BY FRANK GILLETT


Published in The Windsor Magazine, Vol. XLVII, Feb 1918, pp 319-324


NOW, every man has a story to tell once in his life, though, as a rule, it is the one thing he is shy of talking about, and therefore the world is all the poorer by a certain amount of decorative fiction. Sometimes this story is a sort of solo, and sometimes forms part of an orchestra, so to speak; but in this particular instance it was a duet or a duologue, according to the point of view of the critic.

Ned Buckley and Patrick Macardie were great friends. They had been at school together; they were fond of the same sort of literature, beginning with Fenimore Cooper, and grading, by delicate stages, up to Stevenson—in other words, two healthy-minded public-school boys with a decided taste for adventure. And so it came about naturally enough that, before they settled down in life, this love of adventure had to be gratified; and it was gratified, as this veracious narrative will show.

They are getting on in life now—in the early forties, as a matter of fact—a little inclined to added girth, a little prone to ease in the evenings, and taking no more risks to-day than an occasional half-crown wagered on a golf match—that is, respectable citizens with a substantial stake in the country, men leading honest lives more or less luxuriously in the bosoms of rising, families, and taking a languid interest in current topics of the day. They wear top hats most of the week, Harris tweeds on a Saturday, and they are rather inclined to somnolence on Sunday afternoons; and though they are very great friends indeed, having business habits in common, one or two sharp observers have noticed that they do not particularly care to be alone together, unless they happen to have a golf club or a gun in their hands. And this is the cause of it.

About fifteen years ago, by sheer good luck, or so it seemed, Buckley and Macardie dropped on to what looked like a good thing. Now, a "good thing" in the English vernacular, means anything from a racing tip to the discovery of a hidden gold mine. And it was this last item that they seemed to have stumbled on.

It matters little or nothing how it came their way; it matters little or nothing how the plans fell into their hands; nor do difficulties and dangers appeal much to men well on the sunny side of thirty. At that time they were looking for something to do, something outside the ordinary City routine, and when, one summer holiday in Paris, they came upon a ragged and tough individual, who sold them certain information in return for the few francs which were necessary to purchase sufficient absinthe permanently to terminate a picturesque career, they did not stop to go into details, but decided to proceed to the southern extremity of the Red Sea at once.

They had health and strength, and love of adventure, and sufficient means to carry the thing through to a finish, which, indeed, might mean their extermination, but they were not troubling much about that. So therefore they found themselves, a few weeks later, skirting inland along the borders of Abyssinia, in search of their goal. And, for once in a way, they found it. It was indeed "all right." Not only was it "all right," but they had it entirely to themselves—they and about a score of carriers who had been impressed into the service. It was a lonely and desolate spot, three hundred miles from the coast, in a fair enough country, wonderfully wooded and sufficiently watered, which was rather an important matter in a torrid climate that was not very far removed from the arid and sandy desert. By the time their work was done, the provisions were running short, and signs were not wanting of a spirit of insubordination amongst the natives.

Buckley was a little hot-headed and impulsive, and he had a way of his own with the natives which those simple children of Nature were disposed to resent. They resented these methods still more when one evening they broke into the stores and abstracted a couple of bottles of whisky, with which they proceeded to drink themselves into a state of temporary madness. Then there were alarums and excursions, accompanied by a fusillade of revolver shots, resulting in the death of one or two of the natives, and the precipitate flight of the rest. Indeed, they fled so far that they never came back again, so that the two Englishmen were left entirely alone, nearly three hundred miles from their base, with an unreliable compass, and the very faintest idea as to where they were.

They had taken no particular precautions to mark their route, leaving that entirely to their native servants. They had a certain amount of provisions, and therefore a day or two elapsed before the peril of the situation began to dawn upon them.

They were scores of miles from the nearest human being, on the edge of a sandy desert, and with barely sufficient food to bring them down to the coast again. They had located their mine all right, and in ordinary conditions would have been mightily pleased with themselves, had not starvation at the end of a few days stared them in the face.

"Well, my boy, we're up against it, sure," Macardie remarked. "It'll be a big thing to get back to the fork of the river, but it's got to be done."

Buckley nodded gloomily. He was feeling none the more amiable because the whole catastrophe was entirely his own fault.

"How many days to get there?" he asked.

"Well, four at the least," Macardie said. "And then we haven't finished. We could manage then, in a way, because the canoes are there, and there are plenty of fish in the river. But there's another thing that's worrying me."

"What's that?" Buckley asked.

"Water, my boy, water. We haven't got enough to last more than another day, and, so far as I remember, we are two long marches from the nearest water-hole. Oh, it doesn't sound much, but that's going to be our trouble."

Macardie spoke cheerfully enough, but his heart was sore and heavy within him. They tramped on most of the afternoon under a torrid sky, dragging their provisions with them as best they could, till they came at length to a rocky spur in the foothills, where they pitched camp on the edge of a dense forest. They could see that here and there the trees had been torn away by tropical storms of wind and rain, and underfoot in the sheltered hollows the dead leaves lay knee-deep. Here and there was a flat plateau of living rock, where the foliage lay as level as it would have done on a billiard table. And away in the distance somewhere—though how far away they could not say—was the continuous sullen roar that could have come from nothing but a great waterfall. But it was a long way off indeed—they had heard it now for an hour or two in an increasing volume of sound, and, so far as they knew, a couple of days might have been between them and that mighty stream which represented to them almost more than life itself.

"We have got to find that," Buckley said.

"Oh, we've got to find it right enough," his companion replied, "and I guess we're going the right way. It might be a week off yet, and if it is—"

"Then we are done," Buckley remarked. The situation was beginning to get a grip upon him. He had more imagination than his mercurial companion, and he was. thinking just then of the precious pint or two of water that remained in the last of the skins. They sat down presently and made their camp for the night. They rose in the morning under a brazen sky, with a torturing sun blazing overhead, so that they were glad enough to remain there till late in the afternoon, when they pushed forward in what appeared to be the direction whence that volume of sound came. And when they settled down for the second night, still on that plateau of rock, with a flat valley between the rising banks, they divided a small cup of water between them, and sat down to the pretence of a meal.

They were fully alive to the danger now; they had gone mile after mile in almost sullen silence, glancing uneasily at one another, and both a little inclined to be quarrelsome. Their lips were getting dry and cracked, their tongues were swelling in their mouths, and tobacco had become a mere mockery. They would have to finish their water in the morning, and then— Well, they did not care to think of that. They did not care to think of the gold mine and all the dazzling prospects that it held out. They would have sold it cheerfully at that moment, and have held it well marketed, for a glass of the cold water that was so near and yet so far away.

And in the morning they finished their last precious drops of liquid, and turned their blackened and weary faces in the direction of the distant waterfall. It was getting nearer now—near enough to encourage them and put new life into those tired limbs of theirs—but then they had heard it for days now, and every hour was of vital importance. All that day not one word had passed between them as they plodded doggedly along. To eat was impossible. They laid out their food, looking at it languidly, and turning away from it with a sort of horror. The more mercurial Macardie had made a bold attempt to swallow a piece of biscuit, but the effort almost choked him, and he spat it out again. Buckley watched him with a curious sense of irritability that amounted to positive dislike. Then they exchanged a glance that was almost murderous.

They were very near the border-line. It wanted nothing but one word spoken at that moment to set them flying at one another's throats; but then speech was almost as impossible as food. And all the time in their ears was the maddening, luring roar of that waterfall. They could picture it near at hand, falling into the cool stone basin below; they could see themselves sunk to the mouth in it, cooling their parched throats with long, delicious draughts, and laving their weary bodies in it. It was torture, refined and exquisite, torture that was wearing on their fevered brains and driving them to madness.

They pulled up presently, dead beat to the world, on the ridge of rocks, and flung themselves down under the shelter of one of the great forest trees. Behind them the forest stretched away mile upon mile, and on the other side of the valley the sinister woodland was equally thick and forbidding. These two fringes of wood were not more than sixty or seventy yards apart, with a shelf of rock on either side trending sharply down into the flat valley, level as a pavement and feet deep in the leaves which the winter storms and gales had reaped from the forest. They lay there on a thick, smooth carpet that had something almost maddeningly monotonous about it. A quarter of a mile or so further on the ledge of rocks made a bold sweep round, so as to form a kind of natural amphitheatre, a lifting shoulder of basaltic rock that looked almost sheer in the distance.

Buckley passed a black tongue over his dry lips.

"It's over yonder," he whispered; "it's over beyond that ledge of rock."

Macardie regarded the prospect with a lacklustre eye.

"I dare say," he said listlessly. "I'm done. We are both done. I could scream. I don't know why, but I'd like to lay hands on myself—yes, or on you, for the matter of that. Just listen to it!"

Buckley clapped his hands over his ears—anything to shut out the siren call of those falling waters. They were calling close at hand now, but to all practical purposes that life-giving stream might have been a thousand miles away.

And they were utterly beaten. Flesh and blood could stand it no longer, and for all the water in the world they could not have gone another mile. And all the time that alluring music was in their ears, mocking them with its madness until they both broke into weak, hysterical laughter, and in thin, cracked voices began to sing. But their mirth was so horrible and mocking that presently they ceased.

"What's the good?" Buckley whispered. "We've done all men can do. Here, get out that bottle of brandy."

Reckless as he was, Macardie shook his head.

"What's the good of that?" he whispered. "You can't drink neat brandy, man. You'd never swallow it; and, if you could, it would only drive you mad."

"We are both mad now," Buckley said. "I am. Here, stand on one side! I'm going to have that brandy, if I kill you for it!"

Macardie struggled to his feet. So weak was he that he could only stagger in the direction of his friend and catch him feebly round the waist. And there they struggled together—if struggle it could be called—like two new-born kittens, like some immature animals in pain. They fought on, first one and then the other on top, until they were too exhausted to continue the struggle. They lay down side by side, not more than a foot apart, glaring insanely into one another's eyes. And then Buckley broke out into horrible tears.

"Give it me!" he implored. "Let me have it! We'll share the bottle between us, every drop of it, then we shall go to sleep and wake no more. We've disappointed those chaps long enough; they're waiting for us!"

As Buckley spoke, he pointed with a shaking forefinger to three or four great black objects wheeling round slowly and majestically in the brazen sky overhead. And there was no reason to tell Macardie what they were. He had seen them up there in the zenith for two days past—seen them in the evenings on the branches of the great trees, waiting with a certain dogged patience that was perhaps more terrible than any open attack by the great vultures would have been. For they knew—they knew how near the inevitable end was, and the beating of their wings was a sort of hideous requiem.

Macardie shook his fist feebly.

"Ah, you devils," he said, "you're waiting for us, are you? Well, you'll not have long to wait now. But you'll not have that brandy, Buckley. You've got to die like a man, so you can just make the best of it."

Buckley snivelled like a scolded child. His nerve was utterly gone now; he was a mere rag of manhood, and it was not for him to know that his companion was in little better case. But he dried his eyes presently, and lay there quite still, staring up hopelessly into the brazen sky. And then both of them, worn out and exhausted, fell asleep—an uneasy sleep, full of strange, haunting dreams, with no rest behind it, and no cease to that hideous torture until the sun rose again.

They rose simultaneously, gazing at one another with hopeless eyes, like a pair of human scarecrows, almost past speech, with lips that were cracked and blackened, and swollen tongues protruding through their teeth. They were almost too exhausted to move now—Macardie past motion altogether, so that when presently he saw his companion drag himself in the direction of the stores, he could do no more than follow him with a gleam of hatred in his bloodshot eyes.

He saw Buckley take the last bottle of the precious brandy from the case and withdraw the cork. Then, almost in a spirit of bullying bravado, Buckley crept back to his companion's side and held the bottle close to him.

A queer sort of angry snarl came from Macardie's lips as he shot out a hand and grasped the bottle by the neck. He was past feeling or caring now; it was all the same to him, only that the gleam of triumph on Buckley's face roused him to a sense of passing madness. He did not want the fiery stuff himself—he only wanted to prevent the other man from drinking it. He gave one wrench, the bottle came away in his hand, and with a final effort he threw it over the ledge of rock, so that it fell down the slope on to the flat surface of leaves below, and there it disappeared.

With a strength born of sudden rage, Buckley rose to his feet and disappeared over the edge in search of the bottle. He was too weak to make his way down, and so he rolled from top to bottom, until he came, with a crash, on the hard flat rock below, with its covering of leaves, where he disappeared altogether, vanished out of sight as if those leaves had been no more than a crust over some bottomless pit.



A quarter of a minute went by, half a minute, with no sign or sound from Buckley, And then, with a feeble glimmer of reason, Macardie dragged himself to the edge of the rock and looked down. He could see nothing of his companion, nothing but the carpet of leaves, that seemed, before his dim and hazy eyes, to ripple in some strange way, as if the whole surface had been disturbed by a passing wind. Then came the miracle.

Out from the middle of the mass of leaves a hand shot up, then another one, and followed the upper part of Buckley's body, just as if he were standing on a hard floor in a sea of dead leaves that reached far above his waist. Then he waded, with his chest pushed forward, towards the uplift of the rock, and presently came hand over hand up the slope, shouting and singing joyously on his way.

Just for a moment it seemed to Macardie's dazed vision that here was another form of madness. It seemed to him that Buckley's eyes had cleared wonderfully, and that his dry and cracked lips had become amazingly moist; and Buckley's clothes seemed to cling about him, and moisture was running from his shoulders. Oh, madness, beyond all question!

"Here, wake up!" Buckley cried, in a voice that was strangely strong and natural. "I've found it. And it's been there all the time. We've been marching side by side with it for two or three days. Come along!"

"What is it?" Macardie gasped. "You are wet."

"Of course I am!" Buckley shouted. "It's water down there—a stream of beautiful clear, cold water, but so smothered with leaves that you can't see it. What we thought was flat rock was nothing in the world but thick leaves floating on the stream. And here were we, trying to cut one another's throats, sheer mad for the sake of a drink, and it's all down there, waiting for us ! Here, come on!"

In his new strength Buckley lifted his companion in his arms and staggered down the slope again. He plunged Macardie through the sheet of leaves, right down in the cool depths below, where he drank his fill and revelled in the delicious coolness of it. Then, when the first feeling of ecstasy had passed, they climbed up the slope and made a hearty meal; and after that they tasted, for the first time for days, the delights of tobacco.

"It's quite plain," Buckley said. "You see what it is. We struck this stream at a right angle, and we naturally took that deep water for a great pocket of leaves lying in the valley between the hills. Well, we know all about it now, thank Heaven. This river runs under the amphitheatre yonder, through natural caverns, and pitches down on the other side of the range into the valley beyond. Hence the waterfall we've been listening to for days. Now, look here, this is a pretty bit of stream, and it's any odds, if we follow over the bluff yonder, we shall find a fertile valley on the other side. And where you find fertile valleys and big streams, you are pretty sure to find human life as well. That's our game, Mac. The river runs down to the coast, of course, and with any luck we'll strike it yet. And we've struck something better than that."

"What's that?" Macardie asked.

"Why, a shorter, simpler, and safer way of reaching our mine, of course. Just one more pipe, and then we'll push on. A close call, wasn't it, old man?"

And that is the adventure. And that is also why it is never mentioned between Macardie and Buckley, and why they are a little reticent and uncomfortable when they are alone together.


THE END

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