a treasure-trove of literature
treasure found hidden with no evidence of ownership
Title: Short Stories Volume 1 Author: John Arthur Barry * A Project Gutenberg Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1300761h.html Language: English Date first posted: February 2013 Date most recently February January 2013 Produced by: Walter Moore Project Gutenberg Australia eBooks are created from printed editions which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular paper edition. Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this file. This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg Australia Licence which may be viewed online.
GO TO Project Gutenberg Australia HOME PAGE
THE DELIVERANCE OF CENTRALIA.
AN ERROR OF JUDGEMENT
THE "HYSTING" OF MAGINNIS
THE OCCUPATION OF THE GROUP
THE RANEE'S RUBY
"FULL AND BY."
HOW DUNSTAN GOT HOME DRY
THE MYSTERY OF THE "MOUNTAIN MAID"
HULK NO. 49
HIS DEAD LUCK
LIFE ON A LINER
"IN HOC SIGNO"
"THAT BOY JACK"
AT MAT ARIS LIGHT
A WAR FLEET OF THE FUTURE
"The 'orse'e knows above a bit, the bullock's but a fool;
The elephant's a gentleman, the battery mule's a mule;
But the commissriat cam-u-el, when all is said and done,
'E's a devil, an' a ostrich, an' a orphan child in one.
'E'll gall an' chafe, an' lame an' fight—'e smells most awful vile;
'E'll lose 'isself for ever if you let 'im stray a mile,
'E's game to graze the 'ole day long, and 'owl the 'ole night through,
An' when 'e comes to greasy ground 'e splits isself in two."
When Centralia was first settled the inhabitants complained bitterly of the smell of the gidya that surrounded the town. But as the trees were cut down that grievance gradually passed away.
Then, for their sins, Providence transformed the city into a camel rendezvous for the rest of the continent, and also, shortly afterwards, sent them a big boiling-down works. But this last is only a detail and has nothing whatever to do with the story, although new arrivals, sitting down to dinner and catching a whiff of camel and putrid ''digester" combined, have been known to leave the district hurriedly.
When the first camels and their Afghan owners made their appearance the surrounding settlers were rather inclined to hail them with gratitude and plug their nostrils. They would be, at any rate, a relief—so it was imagined— to the tyranny and high tariffs of the European carriers. But the latter coalition at length smashed, the Centralians found themselves face to face with a monster that had taken full charge and declined to budge at any price. And the invasion still continued, until the "ships of the desert" might be numbered by thousands, and their stench was like that of a pestilence.
Likewise, every man journeying about the Centralia district, either in buggy or saddle, had the one set form of invocation before starting—"Hope I shan't meet those d——d camels to-day."
In such case a smash or a bolt, or both, was inevitable. At the mere smell of the camels, horses would rear up and snort wildly, a sight of the outlandish beast renders them frantic, and a bellow sends them dashing madly away.
The saddlers and wheelwrights alone were jubilant, for they had more work than they could attend to. Nothing seemed able to endure the presence of the ungainly brutes; and once, even, when the train from the capital left the rails just opposite to where a mob of them were pasturing on roly poly, there were not wanting people to connect cause and effect.
As the nuisance and the smell grew stronger, public meetings were called, at which the speakers inveighed against the "campbells," cammles," and "kammils," as they were impartially termed, and against their heathen drivers. But it was all of no use. They were too firmly established to be got rid of lightly. So long "strings" continue to file out of Centralia heavily laden, for the desert stretches to the north and west, and horsemen and men in vehicles continued to be crumpled up and shattered whilst the alien chuckled derisively. And no one for a long time hit on the only absolute remedy.
Upon a day, however, old Johnson, of Gunyahgoonah, driving into town in his new 80-guinea "Abbott" met a camel string in a tight place, viz., at the bridge spanning the muddy ditch of an Inland river, on which Centralia is deposited.
"Get out o' the road!" he yelled, as the horses pranced and tore after the usual fashion; "get out o' the road, you blasted black niggers? D'ye want to break me up?"
But the Afghans only smiled blandly, and urged their charges on. When within ten yards or so of the horses, the leading camel, in response to a shout, curled his upper lip over his long teeth until it looked like a well-rolled swag, and hissed and bellowed with all its might. Round whirled the horses, and off they dashed at a headlong pace for home. At the first log (an old girder left by the bridge-builders), the buggy capsized, sending poor Johnson kite-high, and landing him in a bed of well grown burrs. Luckily, his cuts and bruises were all on the surface, and he soon pulled himself together again.
"'Orse no good, sahib," remarked the leading Afghan affably as the train came up. "S'pose sahib buy two kaamel for buggee. That ver' good; no run 'way like— fool 'orse," whilst all the others grinned and chuckled, and appeared to think the matter one of the best jokes on record out of many such. Then Johnson arose, and for a time prayed with the heathen in the most picturesque and earnest style he was capable of.
And, as it was a common remark in Centralia that when "Snorter Johnson o' Gunyah, opened well out he was the red-hottest member in the Far West," some effect ought to have been produced.
But, in this case, the aliens only laughed more than ever at the dusty, hatless, blood-smeared unbeliever, who stood in the middle of the road and foamed at the mouth, and spoke with emphasis.
One horse was crippled, the new buggy hopelessly ruined, and Johnson vowed vengeance.
He knew it was useless to write to the papers, go to law, or convene a public meeting. All these things had been done by other sufferers, without further result than more money out of pocket; and he puzzled his brains for a long time in vain as to how to get upsides with the enemy.
Now Johnson was a man who hated to be in anybody's debt, so for many years he was positively unbearable about the station, and his overseer and all hands had a very rough time of it.
Once he thought he saw a chance, but it was blighted almost as soon as born. He was a J.P., and, sitting on the bench, he felt a thrill of joy when four Afghans appeared, charged with riotous conduct.
Fifteen years' penal servitude was the lightest sentence that occurred to him, and the senior sergeant could only check him by telling him that down below he would, if he persisted, be called an ultre vires; and, not liking the sound of the thing, he gave in. Eventually, as 150 of their countrymen succeeded in proving an alibi, the culprits got off scot free.
All these matters took root and rankled, and but that, one happy day, he had an idea, he would probably have taken a shotgun and the law into his own hands.
Johnson was by nature anything but a reading man; but in these days, when his vindictive feelings used to get him down and jump on him, he would sometimes snatch up a book and glance over it. One of these happened to be about the Indian mutiny. Turning the pages carelessly, his eye lit on a passage that made him cry "Eureka!"—at least, that's what he meant, only what he really said was "Hell!" It was only the old story of the greased cartridges. But it was new to Johnson, and gave him the idea alluded to above. Doubtless he would have taken his idea into Centralia, and tried its effect there if need had been. But luck saved him the trouble and danger inseparable from such a course.
Riding one afternoon through an unstocked and little-frequented paddock his horse suddenly stopped dead—stuck his fore-legs out like broom-sticks, chucked his head up and whistled fiercely, "Camels, by G—d," exclaimed Johnson, as he caught a whiff of the well-known aroma. Dismounting, and cautiously peering through a belt of thick scrub, he saw ten of the animals contentedly feeding on a patch of saltbush. They had evidently strayed from some camp on a T.S.R., not far away, and their head-stalls were still upon them. Galloping into the station, Johnson sent all hands out with orders to bring the camels home by hook or crook. Then telling the butcher to kill couple of pigs and render the fat down, he felt at last in a fair way to try the success, or otherwise, of his experiment.
Towards, evening the men returned with the camels, which they put in the stockyard, where also the butchering had taken place. Lumps of pork fat and entrails of pig lay about, and warm lard stood in a big pot.
Besides this, Johnson, with a new broom in his hand, took up his position and awaited developments. Close to him a couple of wondering men held a tall bad camel, who roared and at intervals tried to bite his guards.
The squatter knew well enough that it was only by the greatest fluke in the world his capture had been made, and that a very short time would elapse before the owners were upon the track of their property. Sure enough, presently up rose half-a-dozen Pathans—long-haired, bushy whiskered, villainous-looking, and of whom Johnson, to his delight, recognised a portion of the very band that had been the cause of his coming to grief. No sooner had they entered the yard, and were staring with gestures of disgust at the traces of the unclean animal everywhere apparent, than Johnson, dipping his broom into the pot, proceeded to liberally bedaub the big camel, whilst the Musselmen, promptly taking in the full horror of the thing, lifted up their voices in shrieks and yells of "Ya Allah!" Then, seeing Johnson still hard at work they made a rush, but drew back hastily to the cracking of stock whips around their legs, and the flourishing in their faces of pieces of offal. And one who received a sprinkling of the fat of the accursed animal girded up his loins, and, with a despairing cry, fled, as if the avenger of blood was behind him. And at this the others, who had drawn ugly-looking knives, put them away, and fell on their knees with loud cries of No! No!! NO!!! redoubled as another camel was led out for smearing.
"All right," said Johnson. desisting, "strikes me, somehow, that I'm top dog this time, you several sorts of condemned niggers!"
Then taking the head heathen by the arm he led him to a shed where lay the remains of the ruined buggy; also he showed him poor old Shot Plover's hide stretched out to dry; and, finally, presenting him a bill for £120, he gave him till morning to consider the matter.
That night all hands and the cook kept watch around the stockyard. And all night long the heathen argued the matter in all its aspects. At breakfast time, as they appeared still undecided, Johnson ordered another pig to be killed, and the screams of the dying porker helped them to a decision in the shape of an order for the money on an Afghan firm in Centralia. In a couple of hours they returned with the cash, the camels were let out, all except the anointed one, with which they would have nothing to do, and casting glances full of hatred at the jubilant squatter, the euchred Pathar took their departure muttering fiercely at each other, doubtless of future vengeance. But the Afghan invasion of Centralia was a busted-up contract in less a month. Pigs were at a premium; and the place literally reeked of pork fat, rendering it impossible for a true believer to stay in the town and keep his caste. So by degrees they took their departure; and the grateful people talk of presenting Johnson with a piece of plate—when the times are better, and reconstruction ceases to be a by-word in the land.— Pastoralists' Review
HE looked the wan and washed-out wreck of a very powerful man, and he walked with a stick, choosing the sunny side of the street.
It was a broiling hot day, too, and people beckoned him into the shelter of the broad verandahs. But for some time he only shook his head wearily.
At last the landlord of the "Wait a-while" held up his hand, and the man crossed over, and, sitting down, began to shiver.
An Overlander, going-out to the Georgina to lift a mob of cattle, was shouting. "Mine's rum," said the stricken creature, and he put away half-a-tumblerful, and seemed revived by the transaction.
"When did you come out?" asked the landlord. "Ain't out yet—not for good," replied the other. "I've got to go back in a couple of hours. They sez as I ain't got all that dashed weed outer my stummick yet. An' I don't b'lieve as I ever shall get it out. I don't mind the shakes so much. I 'ad them afore, up in the Territory. But I kind o' feels that pigweed a-takin root, an' a-growing, an' spreading all over my binjie inside."
"I know,' said the landlord, nodding comprehensively, "I swallowed a frog oncest, an' for weeks arter I could ha' sworn my binjie was turned into a pig swamp; an' I used to stop suddent an' listen for the croakin. Mental abration, the doctors calls it. Now, what you wants is plenty o' rattlin' good tucker—not the slops you gets up in the 'ospittle yonder. Arter a man's done a five weeks' perish on bloomin' pigweed an' a little tarrier dawg, his innards should be in a state o' such waccum as'd make 'em fit to tackle anythin' substanshul.''
"That's jist where you're out ov it, Boss," replied the convalescent fretfully. "The doctor sez as it 'ud kill me straightaway, to eat a bit 'o roast beef, an a mutton chop's sartain sooside. Every scrap o' that there weed's got to come away afore he'll risk any change o' dite."
"What are they feedin' you on, mate?" asked the drover.
"Arrer-root, an' say-go, an' tap-i-o-ky, an' such-like slush," replied the visitor in a tone of disgust. "An' I 'ad to promise faithful as I wouldn't take no solids, as they calls 'em, afore they'd 'low me out for a stroll. But," he concluded with a pathetic grin, "they didn't say nothin' as to liquors."
Somebody took the hint at once.
"That's good," remarked the patient, drawing a long breath, "bites all the ways down. Wot wouldn't I ha' give fer such a dazzler on that blasted hiland out yonder!"
"Spin the yarn, mate," said the drover. "I'll see you gets back safe to the 'ospittle."
"'Tain't much ov a yarn," replied the other, "you seen it pretty well all in the papers. Only they goes an' puts it in as I killed Dandy, which I'd sooner ha' died fust. 'Owever, as they're makin' a collekshun, I didn't kick up no row—'specially as the cove happolergised arterw'ards, an' sez as how he only put it in for heffect. Well, gents, 'ere's luck again, an' long life to us all; an' I'll tell ye the rights of the matter so as there'll be no mistake in the future!"
Well, I was makin' from the Paroo over on to the Warrigal. It were dry, so dry that the folks on that 'God-forsook shop telled me as I'd never git through for want o' water. O' course I was 'umpin' bluey an' leadin' ole billy, same's ever. It were a real 'ungry track. No use carryin' ration-bags. You goes up ter a station an' they chucks yer a bit o' meat, jist like a dorg—take it or leave it, an' be d——d. No flour, no tea, no sugar, no nothin' cept a few hounces 'o scraggy mutton. I never 'ad a bellyful but oncest, an' that was at a drover's camp. Drovers is about the only Chrischuns left in them parts. As fer squatters—yah! why them there 'omested lesseesers as they calls 'em 's better nor squatters! An' if 'is master went hungry, many's the night poor little Dandy 'ad to curl 'isself up agin me with a empty binjie on 'im. There wasn't nothin', you see, as he cud ketch afore we hits the rabbit country. Then 'e's all right. He'd slip inter a burrer, an' me watchin' atop with a waddy. Presen'ly, out pops mister bunny an' gits wot for. But I couldn't never tackle 'em—not if I was paid for it. You see, I'd bin at the game. So I does a small perish whiles Dandy gits mud fat. 'Owever, I doesn't mind much. You understan', I'm dead bent on gittin' out o' that Western country altogether. I were real full up an' brimmin' over, so ter speak, an' I meant to git away on to a ole' towri o" mine on the Moree side, where they never seen the sight o' mulga nor that stinkin' gidgee wots enuff to make a man turn 'is 'art up over yonder.
"So I jogs along, fair an' go easy; hot, dry weather, rabbits fer Dandy, an' when 'e's in luck, a 'an' full o' damper-dust an' a pinch o' tea fer 'is boss. But that ain't very often. The country out there ain't thickly poperlated, an' the station storekeepers is mos'ly 'ard'arted 'ermits wot ain't much better nor blackfellers.
"One night I camps on a sand'ill. I was dry; likewise pretty empty. "Water'd bin scarce along the road an' I didn't expeck another drink till I gits to a Guv'ment tank, some time nex' mornin'. An' at the larst station they'd told me straight as they didn't give nothin' to tramps—tramps, mind yer, a name as I'd never bin called afore in the country!
"'Owever, I makes one small Johnny-on-the-coals, whacks 'im 'an 'arf the larst drop o' water with Dandy, an' goes to roost.
"'Bout midnight Dandy wakes, me with 'im yap—yappin'—like mad. It were pitchy dark, an' I sets up in the blankets, but, o' course, couldn't see a stem afore one. But I feels, some'ow, as if things ain't O.K. There's cur'us noises goin' about through the night—croakin's an' little shreekin's, an a soun' like the wind a-moanin in a belar scrub.
"The fire'd burned down till it looked like a big roun' red eye a-starin' straight at a feller out o' the blackness. Afore I'd turned in I'd spotted a pile o' dead wood clost 'andy. I makes to'rds this, meanin' to chuck some on the fire. Lo, an' be'old yer, I 'adn't gone not a couple o' dozen yards when I'm splash splashin' over the rocks in water. Drorin' back to camp, I starts thinkin', an', as it turns out, pretty well hit the rights o' the bizness. It mus' be, I thought, that blasted spider's web o' cricks—the Bree, an' the Culger, an' the Warrigal, an' the Bokhira, an' the Irara, an' all the rest o' the push—that mos' times a feller can't git enuff to make a billy o' tea outer, a-comin' a-rampin' an' a-roarin' 'ot fast down from Queenslan', fit to bust their banks with stuck-up pride. Feast or famin', it is, over there. It were feast this time for them, an' famin' fer me.
"Mornin' were fine; but there wern't nothin' only water as fur's ye cud see, 'cept 'ere an' there a 'ump like wot I wos on.
"An' the water was risin' and risin', slow an' sure, all the day. An', one by one, them other 'umps all gits covered. So I slings my drum up in a brigalow tree as growed on my hiland, an' prepares fer the wust.
"One cumfut I 'ad. I seen my camp 'ad bin a ole sheep-station many year back. There was dung there yet, an' pieces o' rotten yards, likewise lashin's o' pigweed, an' a bit o' fat-hen, an' some penny-ryal; an' I knowed I was 'igh, mos likely as 'igh as I cud git, bar climbin'.
"An' sure enuff, the water, though it ruz near up to the fire, never come no further. I'd pegs in everywheres; an' all day, an' mos all night too, I'm watchin' them sticks. I never thought till arter the third day 'bout keepin' tally o' the time. But, then, I cuts a nick for each one on a branch o' brigalow. I boils the pigweed in my billy—brekfus, dinner, an' supper. It scours me 'orrible, an' I gits as weak's a kitten. Dandy, too, was fast losin' all 'is good rabbit condition. Fust job, o' mornin's, was to go roun' my hiland—'bout one hundred yards—an' brush varmin off—centerpees, scorpins, an' every sort o' bugs an' beedles as creeps' an' crawls. Oncest, at the fust, snakes, dead an' alive, uster come; an' I kills a big black feller, with a red belly, an' shoves 'im on the coals, an' tries to tackle 'im, like I seen the blacks do many a time. I only got a small bit down when my stummick, saz 'git up!' an' up it come, double quick. Then I tries Dandy, but it were no go. 'E wasn't mean enuff fer that.
"Many a time, when I'd got my belt buckled up till I wos like a bloomin 'ornet, I looks longin'ly at that poor little tarrier, an' Dandy 'e looks back agin, so much as to say, 'Alright, boss, 'ere I am, ready an' willin', if so it 'as to be.'
"But I couldn't do it. I 'adn't the 'art. There wasn't a faithfuller little beast in the world; an', when he'd look at me out o' them big brown eyes o' his'n, that pityin' an sad-like, mine ud begin to water; an' he'd drag hisself up an' lick my an's as lovin' as a Chrischun. You see I'd raired 'im from a pup. A feller out at Urisino, Sammy Wilson's place, on the Paroo, give 'im to me when he warn't so big 's yer fist, an' I carried 'im 'underds o' miles in my billy afore 'e cud walk. We'd bin together nigh on five year, an' I sez to myself as we might's well stop together now.
"At length an' at last I gits so thunderin weak that I've got ter crawl on 'an's an' knees to fill the billy to cook the weed. Then, to make the picnic completer, an' put the dead finish on it, I breaks out all over sores—great big fellers with a red spot in the middle ov em—as gives me gip if the leastest thing touches 'em. (Yes, Boss; mine's rum agen. I wont forgit this 'ouse when they gives me my colleckshun.)"
"Well, one mornin' I wakes up outer a kind o' duck's doze, feelin' somethin' cold an' 'eavy squattin' on my chest. It were poor little Dandy, stiff an' dead. An' gents, I wos that weak an' bad that I ain't shamed to say as I cried like a child over his body. That very mornin' I seen the water startin' to go down as if it meant it. Four weeks an' four days. But I was close up a goner; an I seen plain that, if I was ever to git away, there wasn't nothin' else for it, only one thing, though it went 'orrible agen the grain. But life's sweet, gents, an' never so sweet as when there's a chanst o' losin' it. So I whips out my Dover an'—well—there! That billy o' strong 'out soup saves my bacon. An' I makes another, an' another. Nex' day, leavin' my swag, I sez good-bye to Pig-weed Hiland, an' starts wadin', strikin' out fer the Guvment tank, where I know'd there was a fam'ly livin'. By gosh, that was a trip. Mud an' water, swimmin' an' wadin', deep an' shaller, I struggles and tears throught it till, that night, I hit's a bound'ry rider's hut, clean done up. There ain't nothin' there to eat 'cept an ole slush lamp full o' stinkin' fat. I scoffs that, wick an' all, as if 't'ad bin best Wollongong. An' then I lays down on the bunk, makin' sure its u.p. this time. An' there they finds me, a couple o' days arter, a rampin' lunytick, ravin bout Dandy, an' snakes, an' floods, an' such matters. (Thanks, mate, I don't mind if I does—fer the last one . . . The wardsman's a-comin' arter me, is he? Let 'm come, an' I'll knock 'is bloomin' ole head off 'im. I ain't a-goin' back to slops and low dite no more. Not if I knows it! Roll up, boys, my shout this time! I ain't got a thrum, but my name's in the papers, an' a colleckshun's comin'. . . . Let me at 'im, I tell yer! Whoop! No more orsepittle fer this chicken!)' — The Australasian.
EVERYBODY knew that old "Jimmy the Hatter" was doing well. He had been one of the first at 'Possum Gully. Also his claim was one of the best there. But what he did with his gold was a mystery. He was never known to sell any, and certainly none ever went down in the monthly escort. He was a sullen surly customer, hirsute, dirty, and ragged. And, spoken to, one received much the same answer as from a pig—a grunt. And he had but one chum. Nor did he ever seem to sleep. For when "Dutch Frank" And "Billy the Mouse," tired of puzzling their brains over the gold riddle, sneaked up to the bark humpy one stormy dark night, in an attempt to solve it, they were received with buckshot and blasphemy. As they retreated rapidly they could hear Jimmy laughing to himself.
After a time, having got most of the big pellets out, they made another attempt, reinforced by a half-caste Chinaman whose part was to take Jimmy in the rear whilst the others drew the attack in front. And apparently, for once, the old digger was caught napping, for they got right up to the door without hearing a sound. Then the still night air was pierced by a succession of horrid yells from the back of the hut. The front attack rushed away affrighted; and, at daybreak, old Jimmy appeared at the Commissioner's tent dragging along the maimed hybrid, who had fallen into a shaft sunk purposely for such an emergency, covered lightly with bushes and studded at the bottom with the business portions of broken bottles. After this incident no one thought it worth their while to visit the recluse, and he was left in peace.
But, after being missed from his claim for a week, some of the men at last went up to the old hut in the blind gully. It was empty; and the ashes on the hearth were cold. Across the ragged blankets of the bed lay Jimmy's mate, "Darkie," "high" and offensive, and with his back broken. "Darkie" was a big black snake with a red belly, who usually lived in a hole under the threshold of the door, and to whom of an evening the old man—sitting outside—was wont to play on an ancient and asthmatic concertina.
Not a sign of Jimmy could be found; nor any article of value, save an old silver watch that he was known to think very much of, and would never have willingly left behind.
Time passed, and 'Possum Gully became worked out, save for a few fossickers, who stayed on making tucker about the old claims.
One of these, an Irishman known from the country of his birth as "Tip," had been taken possession of by an idea. And in place of fossicking in the legitimate way of business, he started to fossick for old Jimmy's hidden treasure.
"That blashted ould Darkie stinged him. Then, Jimmy, he fetches the timpter of mankoind wan for his nob, an' starts out on the hot foot to plant his stuff afore he croaks. An' I'll bet he didn't git very fur."
This was Tip's notion, derided by all his mates; but he stuck to it to the extent of patching up the lonely decaying old shanty, and shifting into it—himself and his big she-cat.
And, although the floor of the hut had been turned over two feet deep by seekers of treasure, Tip dug deeper still, finding nothing. Then, certain that his original idea was the true one, he went further afield.
And to carry out the notion, and maybe give him some clue, he would go through the whole imaginary performance. Lying on the bunk, he would feign to wake suddenly, be bitten by the intruding snake, and then rush wildly out in the first direction that offered.
But it was all in vain. And many a night Tip, sitting by the fire, communing with himself, or talking to his sole companion, would wonder mightily whether, after all, old Jimmy had not made off with his pile, leaving the few things behind him as a blind. But always he would shake his head and mutter—"No; he's about. H'd niver ha' cleared an' left the ould watch as he thought the world on, an' that Billy the Mouse, bad cess to the thievin' on Adham, shuk, so he did. Ay, he's about somewheres, if I could only drop on him; bad cess to his bones, sez I."
Tip was beginning, in spite of his conviction, to get discouraged, when, one night, Cecilia—the cat—came in with something and began to play with it.
She was accustomed to carry lizards, mice, birds and snakes into the hut. This, however, was nothing of the kind. It was the skeleton of a human hand, whose loosened joints rattled in their dried and shrivelled ligaments as puss tossed and caught it.
As Tip picked it up and recognised it for what it was, he exclaimed "Begol, Sassaylia, me darlint, if ye can show me the shpot where ye found this thing ye shall live in purple an' foine linen all the resht of your days, an' not a man or the childher ye're expectin' will I deproive ye av. Glory be to God, but it's much the size an' look ov wan ov ould Jimmy's big paws, so it is." But Cecilia only purred and lifted up her great green eyes and rubbed her sleek black sides against her master's legs.
Then, for at least a week, Tip shadowed his cat; a fact which she appeared to realise and resent, and to take a malicious pleasure in leading him into all sorts of out-of-the way places where lay the favourite hunting grounds.
Between hut and creek was a well-worn track made by the carrying of water. It was a good step with a couple of full buckets; and about half-way lay a great hollow tree, against which Tip was accustomed to put his burden down and rest for a few minutes.
It was an old coolabah, the interior of which had been eaten out by fire, leaving little else but a mere shell. From this, as Tip one day leaned against, emerged Cecilia, carrying a small bone in her mouth. With a yell Tip stooped and gazed into the black cavity. He could see nothing; but he felt himself within measurable distance of a fortune.
Getting a long pole he tied a piece of stout curved wire to one end, and pushing it up the trunk raked it to and fro. Presently he felt he had hooked something. A strong pull, and sure enough out came "Jimmy the Hatter"—or rather what was left of him, but empty-handed; "A bag ov bones, jist," as Tip put it.
It took some little time, eager as he was, before Tip could summon resolution enough to take the place vacated by the skeleton. And he poked about with his crook for a fruitless hour first. But at last, screwing up his courage he crawled in. It was a tight fit, also a close and an evil-smelling one.
And, suddenly, he burst all over into a hot, tingling sweat as the thought crossed his mind that he would never get out again. He paused in his crawling, struck by an ecstacy of terror; his body seemed to his excited imagination to swell to enormous proportions, filing the big shell with a perfectly fitting human core. Digging his fingers into the crumbling charcoal and preparing for another frenzied push backwards, a faint mewing caught his ear, also answering maternal calls behind. Cecilia's kittens!
The next moment the mother herself stepped lightly along his back, and presently he saw her eyes glaring at arm's length in front. And the comfort of the thing! His scare subsided as by magic. His body seemed to resume its original proportions, and convinced by the passage of the cat that there was plenty of room, he crawled further, and presently, putting out his hand, he felt a nest of small warm furry bodies, and Cecilia's hot tongue, like a rasp upon his flesh.
But he felt something else also. Something solid and heavy, which, pulling to him, he made out to be a big preserved-meat tin, closed at each end.
The return journey seemed to last for ever. But emerging at last, wet through, and black as soot from head to foot, he found that his prize was as he supposed, a meat tin. One end had been only partially cut round, then pressed down again and a piece of basil tied tightly round it with strips of green hide. It was a 10lb. tin, and was full to the brim of nicely cleaned gold, both fine and rough. This was old Jimmy the Hatter's hoard.
Taking up the skeleton, Tip forked it back into the hollow, saying as he pushed the last bone out of sight—
"Sure, me bhoy, an' that's as good a berril as enny other for ye. Nigh on two year ye've kept me outer me money wid yer fantashtic notions o' privacy. Go back agin an' mek things for Sassaylia an' her childher to play wid."
Then Tip, first taking a liberal supply for present use, planted his newly-found fortune and set off for the township. But, disturbed by doubts, when half-way there he returned, took his treasure up, and made a fresh cache. He did this more than once or twice, the cares of the wealthy having gotten hold upon him.
Eventually reaching the township he soon got on a tearing jamberoo that lasted a week. Recovering, he came home to renew supplies, but he couldn't remember where his plant was. Think as he might, search as he might, not the least clue to its whereabouts entered his aching brain.
At last, in despair, and as a forlorn hope, he made a clean breast of the story to the priest, and had the skeleton interred with all honours in holy ground. But even this tardy expiation failed to bring back recollection.
As he still says, "It was too late, so it was. An', afther all, its well desarvin' ov the loss I am, wid me sneerin' an' jeerin' at the poor carpse, instid ov givin' the cratur daycent berril. Yez can all see, now, what'll come to a man, at times, jist bekase ov a wushy error ov judgmint."
As a lamber-down Michael Maginnis had few equals. And in all the wide north-west no rogue was better known amongst the nomads upon whom he preyed than "Mickey the Bull," as they called him—bull-headed, bull-voiced, bull-necked, and still reeking of Tipperary.
The name of his shanty was, of all names, the "Desert Rose," and an unspeakable daub, intended to represent that lovely flower, hung from a sapling in front of the door.
Where the house once stood is now an unsainted swamp, covered with mud springs—slimy, lukewarm, treacherous traps, that seem to smile as they dimple in slow fetid ripples over their everworking surfaces.
But the "hysting" of Maginnis is a modern legend still told by the western carriers and drovers at their camp fires; in station huts, when the euchre is finished for the night, and all hands draw up to the tea bucket for a drink and a smoke before turning in—told everywhere in that vast wilderness of ill-smelling gidyea, and red sand, and blight, and insects, and rabbits, and everlasting drought, and drear damnation, known vaguely as the "Far West."
The twin townships are forgotten, their place on map or gazetteer knows them no more. But the story of how "Mickey the Bull" was hoisted into the unknown by confined gases and brackish water will endure whilst mulga grows and crayfish burrow in the swamps.
For some months business at the "Rose" had been very poor; not a nomad worth mentioning as a cheque-bearer had put in appearance to be "gone though" secundum artem by Mickey and the "missus." And the publican was thinking seriously of shifting his lares and penates to a more promising district, when the twenty-ninth parallel came along and stopped him, and led eventually to his destruction.
Both Governments had nagged and growled at one another for some considerable time anent their common boundary, which was as crooked as a dog's hind leg—so crooked that it was a common matter for drovers, after duly paying customs duties on their stock crossing the border, to find themselves, utterly bewildered, back again in the colony they had just left.
To remedy this state of things a survey party was sent out to straighten the line up a bit.
Departmental orders were to make use of all the rivers they could find. But, to their disgust, they only found one, and its bed was mostly dry sand. Moreover, it ran due north and south, whilst the boundary was to run east and west. In this dilemma the leader, noticing that a certain parallel of latitude cut pretty straightly along the old boundary, decided to follow, and in the language of the profession, "determine" it. It ran mostly through country that was "neither decent scrub nor honest desert," but a mixture of the two. The few unhappy squatters scattered here and there in it either received them with open arms, as forerunners of a trans-continental railway, or with apathy, as harmless lunatics. Anyhow, no one interfered with them, and they journeyed along, making a great show, where there was timber, with pegs and red paint and broad arrows; and where there was none, piling up cairns of stones as big as a house; where there was no stone, making the track of the new boundary on the map look gay with red ink and blue.
And, at last, they came slap upon the "Desert Rose," exactly through the middle of whose bar the parallel ran.
When they explained their business and Maginnis realised that one half of his house and paddock would be in each colony he scratched his head, and roared, "Begob! how will I do at all, at all? If my shtock goes acrosht the paddick it's the dirthy duty ye'll be makin' me pay on 'em Whoy, be jabers, it's not able to rowl a cashk o' beer I'll be, from one side o' the house to t'other. Git away wid yez, ye thievin' shpalpeens, wid yer rotten owld par'lel! There'll be throuble if yez comes next anigh me wid the thing. The only way to shquare the contrack is to buy me out at wanst, wid a fair compensation thrown in. So I tells yez, widout any shenaneckin."
Now, the surveyor prided himself on the so far absolute directness of his line. A big "set-off" would, he considered, completely ruin the whole affair. Yet, could he in no way make this bullheaded Irishman understand that no damage would ensue either to house or ground.
However, the arrival presently of two nomads with large cheques put Maginnis in a better temper; and, on being told that possibly he might obtain compensation from, and would certainly have a vote in, each colony, he allowed the party to camp in his paddook and pursue their investigations.
And, by and by, becoming quite enamoured of the oddity of the thing, he made the surveyor drive a rod-painted peg in the middle of the bar floor, right on the boundary-line, with a broad arrow cut upon it. Also one of the party took down the old sign, and painted thereon something like a thick tightrope, upon which a bushman sat astride with a foaming glass in each hand, whilst underneath appeared the new title—"Parallel Hotel."
So Mickey was satisfied, and the survey party, with which we have no more to do, went on its way, as also did the couple of nomads, minus a total of £50, and plus a bottle each of home-made rum and an imminent fit of the "horrors."
In the course of time came the rabbit scare, and one Government, "clean" (as yet), after in vain requesting the other, very much "infested," to do it, began to erect a proof fence on the boundary. When the workmen came to the Parallel Hotel, Maginnis swore by all his saints that they should not go through his ground.
But the overseer, caring little about the line, merely told him to say which colony he'd like best to be fenced into, and then to shut up. And Maginnis gave in, and let them run the posts up to the verandah, and out again from the back of the kitchen.
"Be jabers," said Mickey, "I was on the par'lel afore, an' wid nothing to show for it 'cept an owld red peg. New, it's the rale par'lel itself I'm afther havin' for me to set on. It's betwixt and betune I am, goin' to me bed in wan counthry afther bein' all the day betwixt the two av 'em. An' there's the lasht o' the childer born in Quaneslan', an' the resht av 'em in New Sout' Wales, afore the blashted owld par'lel come along. Bad cess to it, sez I; wid some o' the fam'ly callin' theirselves Bananas and some Cornstalks, an' their parients neither one thing nor t'other. It's fair bothered I am in my head wid the confusin' av it, so I am!"
And, to clear his brain, Mickey took to drinking double tides.
And though, much to his disgust, one Government presently built a police station close to the house, he found that the advent of the parallel meant better business than he had ever done before. The constable in charge happened to be a strict teetotaller, and he objected strongly to Maginnis keeping open a second after eleven. For a few weeks Mick obeyed, and cleared out his guests, and shut up at the specified legal hour. Then a happy notion struck him. And one night the constable, amazed and indignant at seeing lights and hearing the sound of revelry well on for twelve o'clock, strode wrathfully over. There were a dozen bushmen in the bar, glasses and bottles on the counter, and Mickey grinning behind it.
"Aha," said the oficer, "I've got you this time, Maginnis!" and out came his note-book.
"Have ye finished, sargint, dear?" asked Mick, in his deep bass.
"Yes, worse luck for yourself, Maginnis," replied the other grimly.
"It's sorry I am to be puttin' ye to any inconvanience, sargint,'' said Mick politely, "but, sure, we don't be closin' till midnight in this counthry."
"Eleven," said the officer sternly; "d'ye think I don't know the law, my man?"
"Ay, sargint," boomed Mick, gleefully, "but we're all acrosht the border, darlin', this blessed minit. We're in Quaneslan' (pointing to the peg), an' glory be, as far from yez an' yer' laws as if ye wos at the Gulf itself,
And then the policeman, seeing that, indeed, everything and everybody was grouped in the other colony, retired to consider the situation.
But he could make nothing of it; nor, it seemed, could his superiors.
And business flourished, and on the strength of it, and his successful evasion of the law, Maginnis took to recklessly mixing his liquors, whilst encouraging his nomadic lambs to drink to the health of the "Par'lel."
We are taught that the way of the transgressor is hard. But the way of the man who begins to mix his drinks from his getting up to his lying down is steep enough for anything.
And so Michael Maginnis found it.
Time passed; and on each side of the fence sprung up a small settlement—almost, in fact, a township. Each had its couple of stores, its blacksmith's shop; and, of course, each began to talk of a newspaper. And people came to Mick's, not only from both sides, but from all over the district. It was a novelty, you see, to stand and drink with one foot in one colony and the other in another.
And, presently, Maginnis shut up the bar in the middle—the "betwixt and betune" one—and opened a couple—one in each colony.
And two sign-boards flaunted in the wind—on the New South Wales side that of the "Parallel"; on the Queensland, the "Diamantina,'' out of respect to the vice-regal lady who was once, in bygone days, said to rule at Brisbane Government House.
And when one bar was closed, and in darkness, the other was open long past the "wee sma' 'oors ayont the twal''— the police on that side numbering no abstainers.
So, for a while, the twin townships grew up together in friendly fashion around the nucleus of Maginnis, who throve mightily, and drank treble tides, mixing the drinks.
Presently came the trouble known as the "Big Strike." And Kihi (which was the name of the Queensland township) objecting to their camp, the strikers crossed the parallel and pitched their tents in Mamon (which was the name of the New South Wales settlement).
And all this is a matter of history.
But the thing bred ill-blood between the twins, and drove Maginnis crazy in the attempt to trim to both parties, or rather to three, reckoning the shearers.
And at last matters rose to such a pitch that it became unsafe to cross the parallel, and the rival colonies stuck each one to its own bar.
Moreovor, Kihi got a police station— a much finer one than Mamon—also an extra trooper, and plumed itself accordingly.
Presently, however, Mamon scored again, when its paternal Government sunk a bore in the main street; and its people smiled as they watched their brethren across the fence dragging their drink from a dirty waterhole in a dirty creek where sheep and cattle bogged and died.
Certainly the bore water contained about equal parts of salt and soda. But, anyhow, it was clear, and sparkled, and looked very good.
And Maginnis's brew was more in request than ever for qualifying" purposes. Bore-water and "Parallel,'' or "Diamantina" rum, or brandy, used to make the stoutest bushman gasp for breath, as it "bit" all the way down.
The P.G., in its wisdom, presently put a patent cap on the pipe of the bore, and gazetted Maginnis caretaker; and it also put up a ladder for him, so that he could ascend and "regulate the flow," or shut it off altogether, if he thought fit.
In time, to compensate the Kihis for having no bore, the rabbits came to Mamon, and ate every green thing. And, finishing the last shrub, and barking the last tree, they tackled the palings round the police barracks; also hybrids, true to the instinct of their cat part, climbed the roofs and made night hideous with cries and shrieks.
And the Kihi stock was mud fat, whilst over the border horses and cattle were as poor as wood, and all the sheep died.
But the Mamonites soon equalised matters by throwing over rabbits galore into the neighbouring colony, which retaliated by firing the Cornstalks' grass and poisoning all their dogs.
A new publican, too, arrived at Kihi and Maginnis, seeing that matters were coming to a crisis, took down the Queensland half of his house, and shifted the whole of his belongings to the other side of the fence, casting in his lot with the elder colony.
Meanwhile the war waxed bitterer than ever, and the border language, hurled to and fro, hotter and stronger. Even the police took sides, and shouted opprobrious names at their fellows across the parallel.
Undoubtedly, had not Providence interfered, there would have been bloodshed
The average yearly rainfall was about 7in; and, to anybody but a surveyor, the country was flat as a floor.
But in reality the two settlements lay in a saucer.
"Up above," somewhere, 27in of rain fell in three days, and all sorts of unsuspected depression came out in their true colours as roaring rivers, and emptied themselves into the saucer.
And the saucer filled, and filled, and filled; and one night its inhabitants stood on its edge, and stared at the moonlight falling on a great lake, with the big bore-tube standing up in its centre, grim and naked.
Suddenly a dark form was seen to ascend the ladder, and standing on its summit, embrace the eight-inch pipe.
"Who is it? '' asked the crowd altogether, whilst the figure answered the question with a roar like that of a scrub bull when a rival is in view.
"It's Maginnis!" shrieked a female voice, "an' 'e's got 'em agin! Mick, ye bloomin' idgit, come outer that. 'E's agoin' to turn the bore on," continued "Mother Maginnis," "as if there weren't enough cussed water about a'ready. Go an' fetch 'im, some o' yez. 'E's been orf 'is nut this larst couple er days.''
As she finished speakin there was a dull report, and four hundred feet of iron casing shot into the air like an arrow from a bow; up, up, with its burden, until, a cloud crossing the moon, it was lost to sight,
Mother Maginnis was the first to break the awed silence.
"My God!" exclaimed she, "Mick's hysted!" And, curiously enough, although lengths of piping were found scattered far and wide over the country, no sign of Maginnis ever came to light. His remains, however, may, for all that, be lying quietly in some brigalow scrub or lignum swamp. But the majority of nomads believe that he never came down—is, in fact, going still.
After a while, mud springs broke out, and swallowed what the flood left of Kihi and Mamon, together with the greater portion of the fence. And almost the only thing now remaining in the neighbourhood is the twenty-ninth parallel,
"BE jakers, I'm dhry," exclaimed Barney Brennan, as he sat on his log; "give me a dhrink, one of yez," he continued, to the three troopers who lounged near, "an' take these darbies off, if yez be Christians at all, at all."
One of the policemen brought a tin pot full of water, and Barney made a clumsy attempt to carry it to his mouth.
"Take the cuffs off him for a while," said the sergeant-in-charge; "there's no danger of his giving us the slip; he can't very well carry the lock-up away, and he's behaved himself decently so far."
Barney, a big, powerful Irishman, with a face showing more of fun than the fierceness he was generally accredited with, exclaimed, "Thrue for ye, sarjint dear, it is a heavyish lump; but if ye'll give me a taste o' baccy for the owld dhudeen here, I'll lift it for ye, big and all as it is!"
"Catch," said the sergeant, as he threw him a cake of negrohead.
Then Barry rose, and, as he did, there rattled off his knees a long, steel chain, slight, but very strong, one end of which was padlocked to its own part around his body, just over the hips, and the other similarly fastened to the heavy brigalow log upon which he had been sitting.
As he rose to his full height, it could be seen that the prisoner was a veritable son of Auak; and wonder ceased that such precaution should have been taken to secure the union leader—for such Barney was supposed to be.
The "big strike" was over; but some of its consequences remained to be dealt with. Barney was one of them. Inciting the hands at Piallah, leading the attack on Bilbee wool shed, kidnapping non-unionists at Curra Curra, was his record. And the authorities had, after a good deal of urging, consented to capture and put him where he would be out of mischief during the coming shearing. Not only was Barney a prominent unionist, but he was also an extreme socialist. "Everything in common share and share alike" was the doctrine he preached. But he was no loafer, and "rung" every shed he went into. Nor did he make any difference between union and "scab" sheds, signing either agreement without remark. In the former he kept the men up to the scratch and saw that they worked well and fairly; in the latter he used his coaxing tongue to such effect that the board was generally emptied after the first two or three days that Barney had been at work. It had happened thus at Piallah, where he and his escort were now camped on the downward journey, and Mr. Holmes, the owner, had been put to much loss and expense through Barney's exertions.
So far as his socialism went, he was consistent in that he spent his money as fast as he earned it—not in drink, but in loans to his fellows in camp and thus rarely had a penny to his name.
It may be easily imagined that the wire-pullers in town had made the uttermost use in their power of such splendid material for their purpose; and it was owing mainly to suggestions and hints direct from Unionists' head-quarters that the big, warm-hearted, impulsive follow found himself in his present uncomfortable position of scapegoat for all the evil doings in the district.
And, although not devoid of brains, it had not yot dawned upon him that he was a cat's paw and a fool. That knowledge was to come later, per medium partly for aimless wandering in broken country and a low diet; partly of *St. Helena.
Spitting on his hands, he stopped and, with an immense display of exertion succeeded in lifting the log about two feet off the ground, then let it drop again.
"Ah," said he, "I ain't what I used to be that's sartain. I seen the day I could walk away with a stick like that, fair an' aisy, an' no bones made. But it's too wake I do be getting on Gov'ment tucker, so it is."
"Ha, ha, ha!" laughed the policeman, "Your eyes were bigger 'n your belly that time, Barney, anyhow," as the prisoner seating himself again, commenced to cut up a pipeful of tobacco.
The police camp was situated close to Piallah wool shed, where, just at present, a few men were shearing stragglers. With their prisoner the troopers had decided to spell a couple of days and rest their horses. Mr. Holmes, the owner of the station, was one of the staunchest P.U. men in the district. It was an open secret, too, that he was financially embarrassed, and when Barney enticed his men away just when his wool was coming off nicely, he felt as if he could have shot him, on sight, with the greatest pleasure. To add to his troubles, there was one of the periodical droughts brewing, and artesian boring had failed, the water supply at the shed and in the adjoining paddocks was very limited.
But the squatter was a just man, and made allowances for the workers in his cooler moments that he denied to their leaders. In happier times Brennan had, season after season, been the "ringer" of Piallah, and Mr. Holmes was unfeignedly sorry to see so good a man in his present plight, although he had suffered much at his hands.
"At smoke oh,' a few of the shearers sauntered up to the camp. Amongst them Barney at once recognised an old mate—a unionist, working "scab." The man, as he caught Barney's eye, drew back. But, striding the length of his chain, the latter tapped him on the shoulder and whispered fiercely—"Make a divarsion as soon as it gets dark, ye turncoat villain! Get up a scruffle, d'ye hear? I'm toired o' this. If ye don't do as I tell ye, I'll be even wid ye, if I don't come out again for tin year. Moind that now!"
That night, as the sergeant was thinking about putting the fetters on his prisoner, from the shearers' hut, some 300 yards away, came a sudden sound of oaths and blows. Then a voice yelled: "Police! Murder!"
"They're after killin' one another over yonder," remarked Barney appreciatively, whilst the troopers made off at a run towards the disturbance, which proved, after much hearing of both sides, a mere purposeless brawl.
When they returned both Barney and his log were missing. It was pitch dark, and all they could do was to tear aimlessly around, calling upon shadows to "stand!" and cutting clusters of scrub off with revolver bullets.
* * * * * *
Meanwhile, Barney, carrying his primitive gaol on his shoulder with the greatest ease, held steadily on until he came to broken mulga ridges. At the foot of these he rested awhile and then entered them, imbued with fresh strength every time he thought of St. Helena and the seven years' "hard" that probably awaited him there.
Several times he tried to smash the lock that held him to the log; but it was too dark, and all the stones he could find were too soft.
At daybreak, exhausted, he crept into a thick clump of prickly needle-bush, and, after many attempts, succeeded in divesting himself from his tiresome companion. The loose chain he wound round his waist. He was too tired to do anything more than have a smoke and go to sleep.
His idea was to reach the coast if possible, thence to, by sea, work his passage into one of the southern colonies. To travel overland with such a personality as his, and escape detection was, he knew, hopeless.
Towards evening he woke with a terrible feeling of emptiness, hardly assuaged by a rabbit that he managed presently to knock over.
Bunnies, fortunately, were plentiful and tame, although very poor. But Barney suffered from thirst severely as time went on. Also, the weather grew dull; and whilst he plodded on imagining he was making a fairly straight course, he was in reality travelling in a circle—wandering at random amongst the rough stony country.
Gradually his boots wore to pieces, his clothes to tatters; he grew a bristly beard, stained with rabbits' blood; and on the fourth day he wanted to reach any place where he could give himself up and at once go straight to prison, chains and slavery being preferable to his present plight.
But he could not get out. He seemed entangled in a horrible labyrinth of ridges, each an exact facsimile of the last one. And an everlasting thirst got hold upon him and tormented him and would not be vanished, chew he ever so many roots.
On the fifth day, a tall, gaunt skeleton, with staggering bones, and parched lips and sunken eyes, he caught sight of an emu doing something with its head under a rock.
Sneaking up, he jumped on its back with intent to strangle it. But the creature threw him off in its ecstasy of terror like a feather, and went away like the wind.
Groping underneath the rock in a sort of dull curiosity, his hand encountered water—water cool and fresh. A little cavity, no longer than an average bucket in depth, it was that held it, but was, as Barney presently discovered, a spring that ever kept its level. And how the lost man revelled in that water, found only through one of those lucky chances by which at times lives are saved and fortunes won!
By this, having crossed his own tracks twice on a patch of red ground, he knew that he was bushed. If the weather had been hot he had died two days ago; but it still kept dull and cool, and for a while Barney made the spring under the big boulder his headquarters, venturing out with care, and trembling lest he should not find it again. His matches were exhausted long ago, and all he longed for now was the sight of a trooper's uniform or the black face of one of their trackers.
The next day, bethinking himself of the chain around his waist, which began to chafe, he lay down, and after hours of awkward beating broke the lock, and flung it clattering on the pebbles. Shattered stones surrounded him as he finished, and in some of them dull red gleams caught his eye. He took one up listlessly, and examined it. Then he sprung to his feet with a hoarse yell—
"Gowld, by the Howly Mother!'
But then he remembered that he was not in a country where the precious metal had ever been dreamt of as existing, and his spirits fell as fast as they had risen.
"Anyways, it doesn't matther," he muttered. "If I don't be findin' somebody, or somebody don't be finding me, I'll be peggin' out as sure's a gun—gowld or no gowld."
That afternoon the sun came out, and he made as straight a line westward as he could, half resolved to turn to the spring no more. And he had not gone two miles before he saw galvanised iron gleaming over the tops of the scrub below him.
* * * * * *
As Mr. Holmes, of, Piallah, sat in his office that evening a shadow fell across the open door. Looking up, and seeing the wild grim scarecrow standing there, he pulled out a drawer and produced a revolver.
"Be aisy with the pistil, sorr," said Barney, "It's a fade I'm wantin', sure enough, but not a lead wan."
"Good God!" exclaimed the squatter, "It's Brennan! Where the devil have you been to? My heavens! what a mess the man's in. Been bushed, hey? And starved, hey?" Then, in a voice of thunder across the yard, "Cook, give this fellow some tucker; hot soup first, if you've got any." Then to Barney, "There's a bathroom over there; go and have a wash whilst I see if I can't get some clothes out of the store for you. Go on now, you villain! You've given yourself up, remember. I'm a magistrate, and I take you in charge in the Queen's name. If you try to get away you're a dead man. How did the police miss you, I wonder? They found your log, though. Ha! ha! ha!"
"Not a word, you big scamp, or I'll shoot you," for Barney was beginning some incoherent sentence of thanks. But he was weaker than he imagined, and all at once he burst into a paroxysm of dry sobbing, whilst the kind-hearted squatter rushed over to the house and reappeared in a minute with a "stiffener" of whisky that, as the wanderer swallowed it, seemed to make a new man of him.
* * * * * *
"Gold, yes, it's gold right enough, Barney, my man!" said Mr. Holmes as, a couple of days afterwards, they stood on the spot where the runaway had spent so many weary hours. "And there's apparently, lots of it, too—a fortune I shouldn't wonder."
"Little or much, sorr," replied Barney, "you're in it."
"Thank you," replied the squatter. "But how about the socialist business? I'm not going into a spec. for the benefit of all the rag-tag-and-bobtail in the country!"
"I've been thinking' a lot, sorr," replied Barney with a twinkle in his eye, "sinse I was doin' the wild man. An' I belave we'll keep the firrum strikly as it shtands widout any Co. whativer. You're an honest man, Mr. Holmes, an' I knows that if I've got to go to Saint Helenay, as you says I have, that you'll look after my interests."
"I will, Barney,'' replied Mr. Holmes. "And in the morning I'll drive you into the township. I hope you'll get off light. You may depend on my doing my best; and I've got some influence at headquarters."
Barney not only got off, thanks to Mr. Holmes, with eighteen months, and without the "hard," but he was treated as a State prisoner, and "lived accordin'," as he himself put it, which meant that he was treated with all the consideration due to one of the partners in the wonderfully rich mine known at first as "Barneys Blow." But, as it was proved to be a "blow" that had come to stay, it's name was changed to the more imposing one of the "Golden Emperor," no shares in which are now purchasable at any price.
Barney got out of gaol after twelve months, on petition; married, and lives quietly in a northern city, whilst Mr. Holmes manages a big concern on what was once Piallah, known now as Emu Springs township. Amongst Barney's collection of curios figures prominently a big log of brigalow, a long steel chain, and two battered padlocks. But only his most intimate friends know the real history attached to these articles.
*Main Queensland penal establishment.
The small up-country pastoral township of Gummim Gummin (with the accent on the last syllable) was, as regarded the majority of its religion, most distinctly Presbyterian. Not Presbyterian, however, in the strict sense of the term as understood still in some old world communities, where to "whustle" on the Sabbath is a heinous crime; but a cheery, liberal, jolly Presbyterianism that made allowances, that gave and took, and trod on no man's corns, and never by reason of numbers, or a fuller treasury, professed itself better than the surrounding religions. Its members, too, were always ready to fraternise and lend a helping hand at R.C. bazaars, Wesleyan tea-meetings, conversaziones of the Established Church, or what not. In fact the religions of Gummin Gummin were a very happy family.
But, when the Rev. John Crawford, in answer to a mysterious "call" from somewhere, appeared on the scene, straight from a little Scotch manufacturing town where, of all the sad seven days of the week, Sunday was the saddest and gloomiest in its aspect of hideous desolation, things began to change at Gummin Gummin.
The new parson was a dour, earnest man, who, arriving with the fixed notion that his far inland gospel-field grew nought but long-neglected, sturdy stubble, girded up his loins and set his hand to the ploughs and started his horses without a moment's delay, helped in his congenial task by his sister and housekeeper—a grim, gaunt spinster of some forty odd summers.
And, all too soon, the Calvinistic soul of the Rev. John was shocked within him—also confirmed beyond a doubt in its previously formed ideas of the new sphere by, on the very first Sabbath, seeing old Jim Brown, the blacksmith, sitting calmly fishing on the bank of the river. That he had been to the morning service at the kirk was an aggravation of the sin. But worse was to come; for, later, one of the most influential of his flock, accompanied by three or four other brither Scots, all church members, passed him in a buggy laden with spoils of rod and gun.
And the minister pursed up his thin lips, and in stern features grew harsher and more forbidding than ever as he fully realised the magnitude of the task that awaited him in the stony, weed-overgrown field of Gummin Gummin.
That same Sabbath evening he preached a sermon that rather astonished his hearers, and gave them a foretaste of what was to come.
The annual Presbyterian bazaar was near at hand, an event long looked forward to, not only as a pleasant- gathering of friends and neighbours, but as one by which the church funds benefited considerably. Against anything of the kind, however, the Rev. John set his face most determinedly. Gambling of the worst description he called it—religious gambling. Would money gained in such fashion by cheatings and cajoleries; lascivious eyeings and oglings, or abject entreatings to buy trumpery, prove acceptable to the Lord did they imagine? And without the minister's consent there could be no bazaar. It was terrible to think on. But the iron will and grim personality of the man prevailed over all obstacles; and the maidens, with a tear, put away their macrame work, and poonah painting, and all the pretty trifles made and set aside for the occasion; no beaux, no raffles, no nothing this year, if the Rev. John could help it, for one of the daughters in Israel. And the matrons no more fortunate, sighed as they gave up all hopes of that pleasant stall-keeping, tea drinking, profit-making time so dear to their hearts and so valuable to their church. Sourly elated at his victory, the new minister, with his great bony jaw, clean shaved upper lip, and saturnine face fringed with grey whisker that met under the chin, marched to and fro, denouncing as deadly sins and vanities, leading only to damnation eternal, little every-day matters hitherto looked upon as simplest relaxations from the tedious monotony of life in a bush town.
Nor, strange to say, was he altogether without support. A few kindred spirits there were, reminiscent perhaps of early up-bringing, but, all the same, the last men in the community to be suspected of a longing toward a stricter life, who now rallied to the standard of intolerance. Mostly old people and free-livers, they saw in the Rev. John a leader who would ensure their salvation by works within a limited and reasonable period.
Miss Johanna Crawford, too, in the brief intervals spared from domestic and economic duties, was an able seconder of her brothers efforts; and her gaunt hard presence made itself felt as well as his in the households of Gummin Gummin.
The other religions looked on, at first in wonder, then in dismay, at the ordeal through which their one-time friend and ally was passing. But, undeterred by the fulminations of the Rev. John, who, not content to sweep his own house, must needs, after the manner of his kind, carry his broom into his neighbour's, they continued to hold their little festivals as of old. And, presently, as at long intervals had been their custom, the Roman Catholics announced a lottery, to be held for the benefit of the convent funds. Posters on walls and fences extensively advertised the thing. But this was the crowning glory; and the Rev. John grew nearly frantic, and, with his own hands, tore down the placards—blue, white, yellow, and green. This, together with a fiery denunciation of the good P.P., Father Mahony, as an arch-priest of the "Scarlet Woman," cost him money. An apology was demanded. But the Rev. John swore he would go to gaol first. The church militant may be made to pay, but not to apologise. Then the two bi-weekly newspapers, glad of the chance, threw open their columns to the combatants; and the fun grew fast and furious between the "Children of Light" and the "Children of the Devil."
The Salvation Army, too, was an object of the new minister's bitterest displeasure: and it retorted with drum and symbal, at every opportunity, until late into the night.
Gummin Gummin was stirred to its uttermost depths by a turmoil of fierce religious controversy respecting the One Way to Salvation, mingled with irreligious personalities supplied by the more un-regenerate of the different flocks, amidst which hurly-burly the Rev. John and his little band moved with the stern joy of fighting reformers.
Of those, perhaps the most prominent was old "Jock" McGrigor, the post and telegraph master of Gummin Gummin, whose eye and rubicund nose formed such a standing contrast to his lately-developed zeal that, at first, his pastor had been rendered a little suspicious of hasty and unprepared reformation. But Jock cast himself into the fray with such fervour and determination, and showed himself so strict and so vigilant in exposing backsliders that, at length he took high rank amongst the "unco guid"—those assured of their places in the hereafter by reason of their abstention from newspapers on the Sabbath, or writing of letters on the same holy day, or, in fact, doing anything whatever except praising God either at home or at kirk.
And, gradually, Jock became looked upon as one of the shining lights of his set, rising at six for family worship, winter and summer; never stirring out on the Sabbath, except to the kirk, and throughout the week striving with the unregenerate in faith, or reproving the peccant in deed.
If Miss Johanna Crawford had one failing more than another, it was love of money. Every penny spent was a penny grudged; and the storekeepers of the town dreaded her custom.
Her brother's stipend was a fair one; but, in addition, Miss Johanna not only sold the milk from a couple of cows that grazed in the manse paddock, but also all the butter she could make, all the eggs her hens could lay, all the fruit and vegetables her garden could produce, whilst her brother's diet consisted almost solely of oatmeal porridge, with an occasional slice of carraway seed cake as a treat.
Not that he cared much. Mortification of the body, so far as the luxuries of this world went, might possibly count for righteousness. And, as to porridge, well, he had always been accustomed to them, and to little else.
One day. Miss Johanna happened to pick up a slip of pink-tinted printed paper that some wanton breeze had blown into her garden. Reading, she saw that it was a sort of prospectus, issued by one of the ungodly, who signed himself "Ophir," and who, in seductive fashion, showed how, for the comparatively small sum of £1, might be gained the enormous one of £20,000, "a cheque for which amount, less the usual percentage, will be at once, on presentation of the winning number, placed to your credit in any bank you may name."
With a frown and a look of disgust, Miss Johanna cast the thing from her as if its very touch were contamination, and went on with her work of picking choice quinces for a customer in the township.
But all that day, and throughout the evening too, whilst a favoured few dropped in and wrestled in prayer for the sinners of their own and other flocks, and especially for Father Mahony, there ran through her brain in a kind of weird rhythm—"Twenty thousand for one; one for twenty thousand."
And all that night she tossed restlessly, struggling to keep her ears closed against the same tune.
In the morning, after her brother had gone to preside at a meeting in the school-house, having for its object the total abolition in Gummin Gummin of all lotteries and games of chance, whether held, or played, for goods, lucre, or mere pastime, Miss Johanna walked down the garden and picked up the piece of paper, all wet with dew as it was.
During those weary night watches, she had made up her mind, and the demon of avarice and gain, hitherto obliged to work in small and petty ways, now, with such a noble prize in view, took irresistible and full possession, and kept whispering in her ear the same old words—"Twenty thousand for one; one for twenty thousand."
Withdrawing a one-pound note from her hoard, she sat at her desk and complied with the conditions laid down respecting addressed and stamped envelopes, &c. As much as possible she disguised her hand, naturally a large and masculine one. And she realised to the full the enormity of the sin she was committing. But the last of the twenty thousand pounds sterling had gotten hold on her and swept away all scruples; albeit she sighed as she finished, and believed herself henceforth a lost woman. Still, either for good or ill, she possessed her brother's resolute will, and she posted her letters, never dreaming of turning back. Only she kept a sharp look-out for the postman.
Soon she received a numbered list of horses, whose names held no meaning for her. She had signed her application and enclosed envelopes with her initial only. Hence the letter was addressed "Mr J. Crawford."
Supposing that she had been out, and that John had received it, there was no clue to the writer afforded. Thus, so far as detection went, she felt comparatively safe. But to her horror and mystification, there presently arrived a telegram—"You have drawn 'Saturn.' Hot, favourite! Would advise you to lay off."
Then came another letter containing a ticket whose number, as she soon found, corresponded to that of Saturn, one of the horses on her list.
But this dreadful publicity exasperated and frightened her. And, suddenly, she gave a great gasp at the thought that, possibly, M'Grigor had seen and noted the wire. Evidently, however, she had won, or was about to win something. If she could only find out the meaning of those mysterious words!
Just then to the door came a small urchin, bearing a basket. His business was to purchase eggs. Help from this quarter appeared hopeless. But, in her present strait, Johanna would have appealed to a blackfellow for aid. So, cutting a small, a very small morsel of seed cake and giving it to the boy, she asked wheedlingly—"D'ye ken anything about horse-racing, laddie?"
"Naw, marm, not much,' replied the boy with a grin, as he half choked on the cake, which was old and dry.
"I thought ye might," continued Johanna, "because a friend of mine—a puir sinfu' woman—has written, saying that she's drawn a horse called 'Saturn' in ane o' they sweeps—Ophir's, I think the name'll be."
In a second the boy, dropping his cake, was a transformed excited creature.
"Why," he exclaimed, "'Saturn's Robison's horse! Nine stun six—hot weight, ain't it? But I'll lay he gits 'ome on 'em for the big money. You bet! My word she's a lucky un to dror 'im! Dad drawed him yestiddy in a sweep up the street. But, I think, if 'twere me," concluded the child reflectively, "as I'd lay orf a couple o' thou'. You see, a chap can't trust nobody to run straight these times."
"What do you mean by 'lay off'?" asked Miss Johanna eagerly.
"'Don'tcher know?" replied the infant contemptuously. "Well, if that don't beat all! Why, lay orf part o' the 'oof o' course, with the bookies—the fly blokes, down below—so, no matter how things goes, whether 'Saturn' wins or not, you'll git a whack, anyhow. Well, you are a chump for a parson's sister, an' no kid!"
Just then, catching a baleful glance out of Johanna's round green eyes, and fearful that he had allowed his contempt of her ignorance to appear more plainly than was permissible to good manners, he snatched up his basket of eggs and fled, leaving Johanna in a more mystified state of mind than ever.
Meanwhile, at the meeting, things were going all awry. M'Grigor, usually the minister's right-hand supporter, appeared to have completely changed sides; and, by every means in his power, was obstructing business, and throwing out veiled sneers and innuendoes connected, certainly, with gambling and betting, but not as regarded the purpose of that convention.
Overtaking the Rev. John that morning at the door of the schoolhouse, he had, first peering around to see that nobody was within hearing, said, with a knowing wink, "What price Saturn, old chap, eh? I s'pose I'm in for a bit. Good Lord, what luck to be sure! O! you sly old dog!"
"What d'ye mean, sir?" asked the minister, aghast after the first pause of astonishment. Then sternly, and with a look of disgust, and accent broadened by emotion—"I always suspectit sir, that ye drank. But hae ye nae mair common decency than to accost yer meenister in sic fashion? Gang awa hame, sir, an' pray the Lord to forgive ye the backslidin'."
"How well he carries it off!" exclaimed Jock, grinning admiringly. "Why, man don't ye see it's useless trying to gammon me? I suspicioned they Queenslan' letters frae the first; but the telegram was a clean bowl cut, so you needna be so highty-tighty about the matter. Give me a snack, an' I'll see it'll go no further; only don't put on frills. I can't abide frills, 'specially when I'm in the know.
Others arriving just then put an end to the argument. But M'Grigor was roused, and smarting under what he imagined to be the hypocritical dissimulation of the minister; and he seemed to take a delight in thwarting as much as possible every "motion" put by Crawford, until the latter's temper, never of the best, bade fair to boil over.
At this juncture the messenger boy from the post and telegraph office across the road entered with a telegram for the minister.
M'Grigor devoured it with his eyes, and as the Rev. John read it, and took off his glasses and wiped them and read it again, he grinned satanically; and moving closer, whispered, "Another wire frae Ophir, eh? Will ye let us in now? Are they wantin' ye to lay off? Come awa', mon; let bygones bide, and I'm wi' ye still."
Looking at him in a bewildered kind of way, the Rev. John handed him the message. It ran:—"Robinson wants £5000 to nothing or 'Saturn' won't start."
"Oh, the vagabones! the thunderin' blacklegs!" exclaimed M'Grigor below his breath. "Dinna give them a happenny! it's naught but a bit bounce! Just say I'm in it, an' leave it a' to me. I'll fix 'em for ye!"
"What's the mon talkin' about?" exclaimed the minister furiously and loudly. "Are ye daft, or are ye mair drunken than I believed outside a while gone?"
"No mair drunk than yoursel'," replied M'Grigor sulkily, whilst the others listened in wonder. Then seeing, as he thought, that the minister—as a man could afford to do with a fortune in view—meant to brazen the matter out, he turned to the committee, saying, with a laugh—
"Here, gentlemen! our minister's had a streak o' luck—drawn Saturn in Ophir's big sweep for the Melbourne Cup, an' he does na quite ken what to do about it. Wants us to advise him."
For a minute there was the dead silence of utter astonishment.
Then broke forth a unanimous din of—congratulation. And all present crowded around their horrified pastor—some shaking his hands vigorously; others clamouring for a sight of the telegram, or inveighing against the cupidity of owners.
In vain the Rev. John protested, and tried at the top of his voice to explain matters, and declare his innocence of this terrible thing that had come to him. His people were glad with a great gladness that at last he stood confessed mere flesh and blood like themselves, and that the tightly-drawn string of righteousness had snapped in twain.
Nor did one think of crying "fie! or "hypocrite!" on the near owner of £20,000, "less the usual percentage." Was not Saturn the greatest, surest, most perfect "cert." and "moral" ever heard of? And did they not—every man of them—know it, and have without an exception, their "little bit on?" At last, purple with passion and puzzlement, the minister broke away from them and made at top speed for his home.
* * * * * *
Next day Gummin Gummin was startled to hear that their pastor and his sister had left the town by the early morning coach.
And they never saw either of them again, Nor did Saturn even get a place for the Cup.—Australian Pastoralists' Review.
Here's a health (we must drink it in whispers)
To our wholly unauthorised horde —
To the line of our dusty foreloopers,
The Gentlemen—Rovers abroad!
THEY arrived in a large topsail schooner— two whites and a crew of Kanakas, and they at once took possession of the largest island in the Group, whilst the mild-mannered copper-coloured natives looked on in surprise offering no objections, but trying to steal things.
One of the white men was armed, but the other only carried a long rattan, with which he rapped the natives' knuckles, making them drop their pilfering and cry to Otavir marai lo—the man with the stick—for mercy.
The Group was a big one. And from the island, whose name was Volo, could be seen many others dotted about, varying in size from a haystack upwards, and down to tiny atolls, that looked like round cushions stuck full of needles, with their palms showing sharply against the far horizon.
Trade with the Group, there was scarcely any, because, not only were the natives too lazy to make copra, but, when recruited, they died like flies in a frost. Thus, they had made a bad name for themselves amongst the Queensland planters. A simple, child-like race, bar the natural propensity of such peoples to appropriate any article that took their fancy. They seemed to pass their time mostly in singing and in decorating themselves and their canoes with flowers. To the master of a schooner that put in shortly after their arrival to fill up with water one of the men said that his name was Smith; that he owned the vessel; that his companion, Brown, was his chief mate; and that they intended to settle permanently there. Whereat the trader sniggered to himself and muttered 'Gammon.' But it looked as if he were mistaken; for presently the vessel's cargo was discharged, a fine house commenced to go up in numbered sections, also huts were built and ground cleared. More, the trader and his men beginning to knock the natives about, and meddle with their 'Marys,' found themselves politely but firmly warned to leave the Group within twelve hours. Of two men probably no notice would have been taken but as they were backed up by a score of fierce-looking Kanakas who suddenly sported a Winchester repeater apiece, the rowdy visitors left at once.
As mentioned already, Volo was the largest of the Group. It was ten miles around it and sixteen across i. e., up to the top and down the other side; and it had a fine harbour, snug and sheltered. And presently Smith took possession formally by hoisting the British flag, whilst the Kanakas fired a salvo, and the natives cried, in imitation of the others, 'Gor sa' Kawin? 'ip 'ip ooreo!' and danced and sang to the National Anthem that Brown played on an English concertina.
The two men were contrasts. Smith was tall and slim, but compactly built and upright of carriage, close-cropped hair shot with grey, clean-shaven firmly-rounded chin, and a bronzed weather-beaten face, out of which looked eyes of blue-grey, mostly quiet and kindly eyes, but ones that, on occasion, darted swift fierce glances, telling of a nature hard and stern beneath when roused. At times you'll see plenty of men at the 'Traveller's' of much the same stamp, just come 'Home' for a spell from doing something somewhere about the wild places of the Empire.
Brown was almost as broad as he was long, bearded, and browned by sun and wind; a good honest animal sort of face, like a Scotch collie's. He was an immensely powerful man, always went about with his shirt sleeves rolled up, mossy breast bare, half-closed hands ready for any emergency, and a huge quid in his right cheek. A regular deep-water shellback, in fact, of the old school, whose motto was—'Obey orders if you break owners.' Nowhere could Smith have found a better working Prime Minister.
What land they wanted they paid the chiefs for in trade. They also offered the people wages to work for them at clearing fields for sugar-cane, coffee, and cotton. But their subjects only laughed at such a ridiculous idea, so they made shift with their own men, who were willing, able follows, except two presently dealt with.
'We shouldn't have brought those Rubiana boys,' remarked Smith one day to his lieutenant. 'They're jibbing already. The beggars would sooner be at their old game of lopping off heads than doing honest work.'
'Blow 'em,' replied Brown, 'I believe they'd been at it already. I smelled a smell last night as I were comin' past Molopia's hut, that rank as you could cut it with a knife. I fancy they sneaks off in a canoe now an' agen to some o' the ileyands round about an' makes a rise.'
Smith's brow grew black, and his eyes flashed sternly as he said, 'get a couple of pairs of handcuffs and come with me.'
Next morning a great bell that had been erected close to the flagstaff, and whose summons was understood, rang out across the calm waters, and from islet, eyot, and atoll came the natives, as usual, with songs and garlands of fresh flowers. Only the canoes of one distant community came on in silence, ungarlanded; raising the death wail as they reached the shore and bore three headless corpses up to the doors of the big house, and laid them at the feet of Olavai marai lo. Three heads, found hanging in a net to be smoke-dried up the chimney of Molopai's hut, fitted with exactness. Therefore, the shrift of the Rubiana men was very short. And as the flag carne to half mast the great bell tolled, the Winchesters cracked, justice was done, and King Smith's sovereignty became a matter absolutely beyond cavil.
About this time Smith opened up a one-sided sort of correspondence with Downing-street, addressed to the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs.
In this he set forth, amongst other matters, the peculiar value of his Group strategetically considered with respect to certain Powers; one, at least, of whom he was almost certain, had an eye to that annexation to which he himself urged.
But Downing-street only pigeonholed 'that man Smith's' letters, never deigning an answer. Still he persevered, forwarding his missives by odd sailers and steamers bound anywhere.
Long ago Brown had taken away the railete, the schooner, and returned with a handsome steam yacht, purchased in Singapore. He brought four machine guns and the same number of quick firing 4-s which latter Smith mounted in an earthwork commanding the harbour. Evidently there was no lack of money with which to complete the occupation of the Group. Young cocoa palms were platted and throve, and in a while, the natives, induced by example and an experience of the joys of barter, took to copra-making. The coffee and cotton plantations also flourished, the caves of some of the islands proved full of swallows' nests, the sea of beche de mer. So that, as time passed, trading vessels became quite a common sight at the anchorage, with, amongst them, often an odd junk or so from Singapore or Swatow.
And Smith was still king of the whole growing, but unauthorised concern.
But, presently, the power above alluded to, a small power with one seaport, old and decayed, remaining to it out of a whole empire of foreign possession awoke, and decided on having something to say in this matter of the Group.
Therefore, a crazy old wooden brig o' war was despatched from the decayed port to formally take possession of these Islands.
Smith received the captain and his officers very politely and showed them everything, descanting, meanwhile, on the future possibilities and advantages of the Group. He did not draw their attention particularly to the British flag, waving aloft, nor to the 4.7's q.f.'s gaping down at the brig from behind their iron shields, nor to the little devils of Nordenfeldts, nor to the smart looking men standing by, ready to work them. But, nevertheless, all these things were in evidence. And in the afternoon he treated his visitors to an exhibition of target practice, at which the gunners hit the buoy, moored two miles outside the brig, eight times out of every ten in as many minutes.
Now the brig's commander was a wise man. And, as he sat at a table furnished as he had seldom seen one, and quaffed Pommery sec of a vintage be had never tasted, he simply shrugged his shoulders, accepting the inevitable and his host's good things together, nor making an ass of himself.
And, after much capital wine, over the coffee, cigars, and Benedictine, his heart grew very open; and suddenly, pulling a huge manifesto from his pocket, he handed it to Smith, winking as he laced his cup with twenty-year-old eau de vie.
Smith read through his cigar-smoke that thereon was inscribed authority to the captain of the Sancta Maria to take instant possession of the Group; also to oust any unauthorised intruders he might find there. This was the substance of the imposing documents, which bore pendant seals that rattled, and whose capital letters glowed with colour.
Not to be outdone in politeness, Smith, as he returned it winked at his guest, who, smiling somewhat tremulously, replaced it in his pocket laid his finger to his nose, and muttered 'Sancta Maria!' Smith nodded, as if in acquiescence to an uncontrovertible statement; and then, the brig's officers joining them, the company spent a pleasant evening.
Next morning she sailed, carrying with her Smith's mail, a case of champagne, and sundry bottles of liquours whose fellows had helped much to strengthen the entente cordiale between ship and Island.
Now the Power whose representative had thus honourably retired possessed, in addition to a few old wooden ships, one enormous Clyde-built ironclad, reputed the most powerful afloat, which it had crippled the State revenues during some years to settle for. And Smith, whether or not his late guests was aware of it, knew all about this big ship that could, if she were so minded, blow the whole of this Group out of the water; therefore the despatches he sent to Downing-street per the Powers brig'o-war were worded somewhat differently to the others. Nor were they signed 'Richard Smith,' as usual. Nor were they, as usual, pigeon-holed.
* * * * * *
'Whew—ew—ew!' whistled the Right Honourable the Foreign Secretary as some one handed him a letter from the Group and drew his attention to the signature. Then he swore. 'Damn such fellows!' said he, 'they're always at it, as if our hands weren't full enough already. Africa, Asia, Polynesia—everywhere except the North and South Poles. Why don't they take the flag and stick it there, where there's no one's corns to tread on! So long as it was that man Smith it didn't matter so very much, but this alters the case—if it's true; and I believe it is. Though he was dead and buried years ago. Bowman, send over to the Admiralty and ask the First Lord if he can see me at once. Or, stay; I'm going to Prince's this afternoon to see the tennis. Write and ask him to lunch with me there.'
'Here's a private letter in the packet, my lord,' said an Assistant Private Secretary, handing it across the table.
It was short and to the point:—
'My dear Wessex—
'Tell St. George that I am not coming home and upset things. I'm quite satisfied and comfortable where I am. But tell him that I must have three ships at least—the Imperieuse, Empress, Sovereign, for choice—here by the end of July, or there'll be rows. You'd better annex at once. I've been writing about it long enough. Send me out full powers. If you don't I'll fight the Sanctissima Maria and play old Harry with the F.O. generally.—Yours as ever,—Pemberton.
'Well, I'm blessed!' exclaimed his Lordship, as he finished. 'No wonder foreigners call us mad! Here's a fellow clears out and leaves one of the oldest titles and one of the finest estates in England behind him; and no one gets a word for fifteen years to say what's become of him. And, all at once, he turns up one fine morning and shouts, 'Stand and deliver! Seize an archipelago and make me king of it, or you're a dead man!' Wonder what St. George'll say to all? I think I'll just step over and see him at once.'
The First Lord's red face grow redder still, and he staggered a little as he glanced over the note. 'Then,' said he, 'Yes: it's my brother George's writing, sure enough. Would any other man write such a letter? Poor old chap! After all these years to turn up in this fashion! God knows he's welcome to everything if he came home to-morrow! I have enough and to spare without touching his. But, you know, Wessex, we all thought him dead, and mourned for him as being so.'
'I remember, I remember,' replied the secretary, hastily. 'And how all people cried out, 'Cherchez la femme!' and couldn't find her. But the question is, now, what's to be done? As far as my recollection goes, he's just the man to do what he says he will, and fight that big ship of theirs until there's not a stone left on his confounded island.'
'Exactly,' replied the First Lord, turning over a navy list. 'But you know, Wessex, as well as I do that one can't move ships like those without spoiling reams of paper, making dozens of statements, and answering endless questions in the House. Hold on, though! Let me see! How could I have forgotten it? Why, they're already commissioned for that very station. How on earth could he have known that? Or is it only a coincidence? Yes (referring to memoranda); and they're nearly ready, too. By Jupiter, I'll hurry em up!'
'That's all right then,' said the secretary, rather grumpily, 'but what am I to do? Look at the trouble we're in now with that New Guinea business; and then there's that unspeakable man in South Africa. How about the Liberal Nationalists and the Exeter Hall people? You see, this is only a sample of what madbrained fellows like George are constantly forcing us into.'
'Tell you what it is, Wessex,' said the First Lord, who had been looking out the position of the Group on an Admiralty chart, 'Never mind the annexing just now. Establish a protectorate, and make George a High Commissioner, or something of the kind, at a nominal salary. There'll be no growling then. Say that you had to do it to prevent the other fellow stepping in and possibly closing our way to—um—ah—yes, China, in case of war with—let me see—oh, Japan will do. 'Why, my dear chap, if we can wipe the other fellow's eye—as George says we're sure to do, if we're up to time there's no end of kudos in the affair!'
The secretary looked doubtfully at the map. Then he laughed. 'Well, well,' said he, 'it's absurd of course. But I really don't see anything else for it. You do your share, and I'll do mine.' And the two old friends shook hands upon it, and went off together to see Layton knock the balls about at Prince's.
* * * * * *
Meanwhile the Power had got its great warship into fighting trim, and despatched it to the Group with orders to annex at all costs.
And King Smith and his Premier waited, drilling their gunners patiently, until they were able to hit a butter keg—in place of the customary cask—at a three mile range nine shots out of every ten.
'We'll give them Dagos rats, sir,' remarked Brown, 'afore they has it all their own way, even if our chaps don't come.'
'I think they'll come,' replied Smith, with a smile. 'The only danger is that they may not come in time.'
Not long afterwards, in the early hours of a dark morning, came sounds of ships from seaward; and, presently, lights gleamed, cables rattled, and the tall shores of the harbour rang to the shrilling of silver whistles and the clear notes of the bugle calls.
'At last!' exclaimed Smith, watching from his verandah and counting the lights. 'Get the new Flag ready, Brown—the big one and bend it on to the signal-halyards, all ready. Then, tell the men to stand by their guns. It will be daylight directly.'
Dawn showed three great black warships at anchor right across the bay. Round the Point of Palms, behind them, another great white war mass steamed slowly in. As the sun shook himself clear of the sea, and the trade wind arose and blew softly, and the Flag soared slowly to the summit of its lofty staff before the big house, so did three similar flags glide up the three ships' halyards to the sound of the drums and fifes playing that réveille that, night and morning, girds the world.
Then as the new-comer dropped her anchor, the three British ships suddenly burgeoned into mazes of vivid bunting; the crash of great guns seemed to shake the island; whilst, in the pauses between their thunderous notes could be heard the bands playing the National Anthem.
'Good! Very good!' remarked Smith approvingly. 'Those fellows know their business. But, by gad, a close shave all the same. Four hours later and the Sanctissima, yonder, would have had first call. Yes, Brown, twenty-one guns with the Q.F.'s; three-minute intervals will do. This occupation will be pretty complete then.'
—The Australasian Pastoralists Review.
IT requires a nice eye to tell the vessels of the "Island" line apart from each other. The fact is they are all sister ships, and from the gilt truck on their skysail poles to the gilt moulding along their clipper-built green sides there's not an iota of difference to the casual gazer.
They always lie, too, as close together as they can get in the South West India Dock, and they have a habit of never sending down their main skysail yard, which has gained them a name for "flashness" amongst their contemporaries. Once they traded regularly to the Antipodes, and you could always sight the blue flag and scarlet cross from corner to corner either alongside the wharf at Port Adelaide, the Railway Pier at Sandridge, Circular Quay, or at one of the clusters of jetties that front the Brisbane river.
But now they go anywhere that freights offer. Sailors cannot afford to pick and choose any more than steamers in these days.
They are smart ships, however, and the Isle of Bute was no exception to the rest of the line as she lay in the S.W.I, dock, one of a tier two deep.
Hauling-in was another of the fleet, the Isle of Rothsay, and Mr. Spring, chief officer of the Bute, sat on a skylight and watched her, whistling to himself. He was in particularly good temper that afternoon, having been lucky enough to, at Green's Home, ship a whole crew of Germans—not, thank Heaven, a British subject amongst them. Meek, submissive men, who wouldn't say boh to a goose. No saucing or sea cheek about them. Amenable to discipline; good, practical sailors; and, above all, as he put it pithily, "If it's got to be done, you can knock h—ll out of 'em an' they won't kick back at you like your Englishman does. Besides, they'll eat any mortal thing!"
It must not be inferred from this, however, that Mr. Spring was one of the ideal bullying mates of the sea novel. On the contrary, he was—until roused by skulking or some other heinous shipboard sin—a quiet, unassuming man, who liked to get his work done without trouble or growling. All the same, he believed in keeping a tight hand over his crew; and he found that, in this respect, of all nationalities, Germans answered his purpose best, Englishmen worst.
"Hullo!" he suddenly exclaimed, as the Rothsay drew slowly alongside, evidently with the intention of lying by her sister, cheek by jowl, till a berth was vacant. "What the deuce has old Weidermann got hold of now—man or monkey, or a bit of both?"
The figure he alluded to was sweeping the Rothsay's poop, and as the chief mate spoke it paused and looked up at him with two fiery eyes blazing out of a penthouse of grey bristles.
Face and arms were covered with short, stiff hair; on its low, receding forehead was perched a Glengarry cap, and, in a full sailor-rig of dungaree, it looked inexpressibly grotesque.
The mate laughed at it, and raising one of its ungainly arms that hung below the knees, it showed its tooth, gibbered angrily, and made an insulting gesture.
"Yah, you brute!" exclaimed Spring, and picking up a rope grummet he shied it at the thing, hitting it on the chest.
Like lightning came the broom, launched spearwise, and missing the mate's head by half an inch, it smashed to atoms against the further bulwarks.
Recovering himself, for he had fallen backwards in an undignified fashion, Mr Spring heard a warning voice say—
"Yohn, Yohn! Be goot, now! be goot." and a big bald head, surmounted with a tiny but gorgeous smoking cap, appeared above the booby hatch of the saloon.
"I don't like your friend, captain,'' said Mr. Spring, coming to the rail, for the Dockers had done their work, and the two vessels, the Rothsay with her yards cockbilled, lay touching. "He's nasty."
"Nod he," replied Captain Weidermann. "Gome on boart und have a drob of Kirchwasser, und I vill indroduce you."
"Send the beggar away first, then," replied Mr. Spring.
With a fat laugh the captain said, "Go below, Yohn, und glean oop der pantry," and at once the creature waddled off.
"You does nod onderstant der animals, mein fvrient Sbring," remarked old Weidermann as he led the way below. He's so goot as any dwo mens at der dop-sail halliards. Ach Gott! you should zee him in der bond of der main sail in a gale of vind. I've raded him A.B. 'Weidermann's A.B.,' der beoble gall him. Dis is his second voyage mit der Rothzay. Der stewart is azhore," continued the captain, as he rang the bell; "but you zall zee. Yohn is joost zo goot," And, sure enough, in stepped the great creature, so noiselessly that Mr. Spring started.
"Sbirrits and vater," said Weidermann to it. "Bud virst you gomes and begs dis gentleman's bardons for making dose oogly vaces at him—at once, zir!"
And the animal coming forward, stood in a bent posture before the mate, and humbly put his hand to his forehead.
"Goot! goot!" exclaimed the delighted skipper.
But Mr. Spring drew back with a gesture of repulsion as he caught the baleful glare from the bloodshot eyes of the simian.
"Where did you pick him up?" he asked presently, as, after deftly placing tumblers and decanters on the table, "Weidermann's A.B." withdrew.
"Ad Lorenzo Marques," replied the captain. "An English trader made me a bresent of him. But he is a Yerman sobject, all der zame. He vos gaught ad Koroko, which is our derridory. Der drader drained him from a shild. Yamarch, der vild beast man, offer me £100 vor him. Bud I nod bart mit him. Bresendly I deach him to speak, and to zing 'Die Wacht am Rhein.' Mein Gott, id vould be vunny!" and the joyful old skipper leant back in his chair and roared again.
"Um!" said Mr. Spring, "tastes differ. If he was mine I'd let Jamrach have him at once. I hate the brutes, They're as full of vice—and fleas—as they can stick."
"Nod Yohn," replied old Weidermann, eager in his pet's defence; "he is glean as me nor you. He washes his own glothes, und gombs his hair; eats mit knife and fork, works like a nigger—when his demper is goot—und behafes alsogedder as a Ghristian und a Yerman sobject. "Gott in himmel! he is der missing-lingk right enough! He is nod a paboon, for he bozess der rudimend only of a dail. Der naduraliste haf der idea as he pelong do an aldogedder new sbecies. Und he lofes me like anyding. But never mind, mein vrient Sbring, I zee you do nod lofe der animals. Gome on deck, and I will dalk ship to you as long as you blease,"
As they passed the pantry Weider mann's A.B. was washing plates and dishes with a swab in a pail of hot and greasy water.
With a flick he splashed Spring liberally and neatly.
The captain was already on deck, and, leaning in, the mate kicked the ape on the shins, at the same time punching him in the face with such force as to send him sprauling over the bucket.
"We're about quits now, you brute, I think," he muttered, as he wiped his clothes, and hastened up on to the poop. "But save me from any more German subjects like you! What a picnic a man would have with a ship's company of 'em!"
The next night the Bute hauled out into the river on the top of high tide, and the Rothsay took her berth.
"Good-bye, Sbring." shouted Captain Weidermann, as the ships were slowly swinging. "A bleasant woyage to you!"
And, by the lamplight, the mate could see the old skipper puffing at a big German pipe, whilst close to, mounted on the rail, stood "Yohn," awaiting the gentle impact of the Bute's starbourd bow, with a huge cork fender in his hands.
At Gravesend the captain of the Bute came on board, and at daybreak the good ship was half-way down the London River (sea-farers would not understand what "Thames" meant), outward bound for Melbourne, Newcastle, and Hong Kong.
* * * * * *
His German crew turned out as docile and omnivorous as even Mr. Spring could wish. And, in any case, the Isle of Bute was not a bad ship as ships go. Civil officers and good food of this kind left very little to complain of. Thus Hans, and Hermann, Peter, Wilhelm, and the rest of them, went about their work with the happy, full-bellied German stolidity that refuses to be hurried, blow high or blow low, but in the long run generally pans out fairly well. And in the dog watches they sang songs of the Fatherland with hoarse, guttural choruses, or shuffled clumsily on the fok'sle head to the sobbing and grunting of a big concertina—apparently a very comforable and contented ship's company, with not the whisper of a growl amongst them.
Lucky, also, were they in their skipper. And this matter at sea is the be-all and end-all, the head, tail, and body of the welfare or otherwise of every soul on board. Captain Allen was a quiet, gentlemanly man who studied the set of ocean currents and winds and temperatures; had written a practical treatise on the deviation of the compass, and so seldom interfered with the working of the vessel by his officers that, as long as matters went on smoothly, you would hardly know he was on board.
Taken in the light of the facts recorded above, the terrible occurrence shortly to happen seemed even to the most pessimistic an inscrutable mystery.
The Bute on this trip carried only a couple of passengers—naval men, who, after some years' stewing on a West Indian station, had chosen this manner of reaching their destination on one of the Australian cruisers.
One dark night, shortly after the Bute had caught the north-east trades, strong and steady, the second mate, turning out to relieve the chief, in place of, as usual, at once ascending the poop-ladder, crossed over to the quarter-deck capstan for something or other. But, before be reached it, he stumbled and slipped, in a puddle warm and thick, and the next minute fell headlong over a prostrate body.
It was that of Mr. Spring, dead stabbed to the heart. In the twinkling of an eye it seemed as if the whole ship awoke in a cry of horror, and that her whole company were hither and thither in wild, unreasoning dread.
And now the quiet captain showed himself the strong man that he really was.
Arming himself and the rest of his officers, he ordered lights to be brought on the scene; and the big bell at the break of the poop to be rung sharply.
But watch on deck and half-clad watch below, and every soul in the ship, were there already, so fast had the terrible news spread. And the great lamps gleamed on many pale awe-stricken faces as the captain rose from beside his dead officer, whose requiem the steady trade wind hummed and boomed in the echoing cavities overhead.
"Call the roll!"
The second mate obeyed. "Relieve the wheel!" was the next order of the captain's, uttered to one of the apprentices; and to another "Relieve the look-out!"
"Port watch to their own side! Star-board watch to theirs! Idlers to the front of the poop!" continued the captain. "More lights now! All knives and belts on the head of the capstan." Quick stern orders obeyed as soon as given.
Then the captain and second and third officers, aided by the two passengers, examined everyone closely and carefully. But they found nothing whatever that could give any clue to the dismal tragedy.
The watch on deck had been caulking for'ard; and the watch below asleep. Each man, on his own evidence, or that of a mate, seemed able to prove a conclusive alibi. Not a knife was missing or stained. No man had been ever heard to utter a threat to, or even bandy words with, the murdered chief. Indeed a look around at the horror stricken faces of the crew was almost enough to exonerate them.
The man at the wheel had not even seen the chief officer leave the poop; the night was so dark. A little apprentice, half asleep, had struck eight bells, and stumbled down and called the second mate then gone for'ard and roused the watch. But he had seen nothing. Nobody had seen or noticed anything—not one suspicious circumstance came to light. The whole affair, judged from an ordinary standpoint, appeared inexplicable.
"Go below, the watch," said, the captain at last, his voice hoarse with emotion as he added, "It's a fearful mystery, so far! But, please God, we'll clear it up when daylight comes!"
However, on the morrow, after long and minute search and investigation, including a thorough overhauling of the ship, fore and aft, bag and, baggage—for a heavy gold signet ring that the chief was never seen without was missing—the secret of the murder remained still unsolved.
And that evening, at dusk, they hove the ship to, and buried their chief officer.
Always an impressive and solemn ceremony, it was accentuated on this occasion by the uneasy feeling of fear and suspicion of things unknown that sat on each face like a mask.
It was wild and gloomy weather; and as the clear tones of the captain's voice rang out above the impatient shrilling of wind and wash of water, men cast quick, sudden glances of distrust aloft, around, and at each other, as if expecting something, they knew not what, to happen. And at last, two small boys, who, on the strength of brass buttons and a uniform, had begun to fancy themselves seasoned tars, burst into tears; for the dead man, in his own rough manner, had been very kind to the youngsters. Then the captain himself nearly broke down, and even the phlegmatic Germans' eyes began to twinkle suspiciously.
But, in spite of all this, a dark cloud of distrust arose between the men and their officers. The latter went always armed. Nor did any man dare to close his eyes, fore or aft, o' nights, during his watch on deck. And when wheel or look-out had to he relieved after dark, the men got into a habit of going in pairs; and to journey alone away aloft amongst the echoing glooms and shadows made the stoutest man of them all hesitate and look doubtfully around. Even in the bright sunlight there always remained that ragged red patch near the quarter-deck capstan, that neither sharp scraper nor holy-stone had yet got to the bottom of, and that men seldom passed without shooting glances askance at.
Nor, in the dog watches, as of old, was heard the sound of singing and dancing. Instead, they huddled in groups like sheep on great plains when the sun burns, and talked under their breaths with fear in their eyes. And the mighty power of a Fear, impalpable, indefinable, wrapped the Isle of Bute around as with a garment; and caused her people to dream evil dreams that made them spring shouting from their bunks and glare wildly at their mates as if in terror of the assassin's knife, when aroused by the once familiar touch on the shoulder, and the cry of "Sleepers, ahoy!" in their ears.
And, although matters were not quite so bad aft, still even there the dread of the Unknown prevailed, and no man felt secure or able to say to himself that his turn would not presently come.
Lieutenant Crosby, one of the two navy men, had volunteered to take poor Spring's watch until the Bute arrived at Cape Town and shipped another chief. And one breathless night on the equator, the sea like a lake, and the sails hanging in clewed-up folds as still as if carved in marble, he had been leaning over the taffrail watching the phosphorescent outlines of a large shark as he swam slowly to and fro in short turns from quarter to quarter.
Presently, walking aft, he saw, as he imagined, the captain, standing just for'ard of the mizzen rigging and looking intently seaward.
As he approached he called out, "Not much sign of wind yet, is there?"
The figure looked round, but made no reply. Then, to his horror, it sprang on to the rail, paused a minute, and, with a short sharp cry, plunged head first into the water.
"Man overboard!" shouted the officer. "Lay aft here and lower the quarter-boat," at the same time hauling a couple of buoys towards the spot. For a merchantman the boat was in the water with wonderful rapidity. But the men had hardly taken a stroke ere there came an awful scream out of the darkness almost alongside them, and the next minute they had hauled aboard the terribly-mutilated body of something that groaned and ground its teeth in agony.
"Yesu Christ!" shouted a sailor, as they handed it carefully up the gangway and on to the lighted quarter-deck. "It vos oldt Weidermann's A.B.! I vos shipmets mit him der wyge he comes on boardt at Lorenzo Marquez."
"Isn't that poor Spring's ring on his finger?" said Captain Allen. "Strikes me we've got what we've been looking for at last!"
Sure enough it was the ring. And at the brute's belt hung a big sheath knife stained from point to haft a rusty red.
As he lay dying on the very spot where he had struck his victim down, and somebody with a stifled exclamation dragged him away, he opened his bloodshot eyes, showed his great yellow canine teeth, scowled at the ring of pitiless faces around him, and died in horrible human-like fashion.
Later his lair was discovered in a empty iron tank in a far corner of the Bute's lazarette.
Such is the story of Weidermann's A. B. as told to-day on the ships of the "Island Line," that fly the blue house flag with a scarlet cross from corner to corner.—Australasian.
PART I. —M'Kenzie, of Karo, Speaks.
I'm only a plain sheep farmer myself; and all the year round, from one shearing to the other, I'm kept pretty busy with my own affairs. Worms, foot-rot, fluke, and dingoes, not to mention selectors, numberless Land Acts, and ever-increasing rentals, giving a man all he can do in these hard times to keep clear of the banks and mind his own business.
I don't make many new friends; nor do I take at once, as some folk do, to every fresh face I come across. Once, however, there happened the exception. That exception turned out to be the only bit of romance that ever came into my workaday, rather monotonous life. At least I've been repeatedly told that it was a romantic incident. I know I thought it a most disagreeable one. So many people are always bothering me for a history of the affair that to escape more bothering I will try and write the story. But for any shortcomings in the thing I am not going to apologise; as, with the exception of a letter now and again to one of the newspapers respecting some of the pastoral plagues above mentioned, I rarely put pen to paper. Still, I have a capital memory, and many of Harrisson's words will be his own.
In July, '79, I was down in Sydney for the annual sheep sales. Staying as usual at the Royal, I met a man who interested me. He had, he said, just arrived from India, and meant to stay some time in Australia for his health's sake.
We got on first rate together; although, unlike all the other men I knew, he couldn't talk stock a bit. However, there was hardly anything else he could not talk about; and, in fact, he was capital company.
He occupied No. 7, the room next to mine. Heaps of money, apparently, and a free hand with it; altogether what we colonials are accustomed to regard as an English swell on his travels.
Well, that year the sheep were a poor lot, regular culls, in fact; and I didn't buy any. And, finding that Harrisson hadn't anything particular to do in town, I asked him up to spend a month or two with me at Karo.
He accepted, and the evening he packed up I went into his room. He had a tremendous lot of luggage, but of course wasn't going to bring it all. As we talked he fell to showing me a collection of Indian curios that nearly filled one of the trunks—native swords, daggers, inlaid boxes, jewellery, and such like matters.
Presently, spying a common-looking little wooden case amongst the litter, I took it up carelessly, and, almost without thinking, opened it.
As I have said, it was evening, and there was a shaded lamp upon the table. Under this I sat; and as the lid of the little box sprung open a great red stream of fire shot out, seeming to turn the lamp light and all around it into blood.
In my surprise I dropped the thing, and out upon the carpet rolled what you'd have sworn was a dark-red, hot coal, as big as a pigeon's egg, or perhaps bigger, and much the same shape, only that one of the ends was sliced off. And there it lay, throbbing and glowing, and sending forth great beams of purple light whilst I sat staring at it. Then Harrison, who had been rummaging in one of his trunks, turned round.
For a moment he stood quite silent, also staring at the thing. I couldn't see his face. But when he spoke I thought his voice shook.
"Ah," said he, "so you've found the big ruby, have you? I was looking for it to pack up for our trip to-morrow. Property of that description is some-times safest in its owner's keeping."
"To tell you the truth," I replied, "It nearly scared me. A ruby, is it? Well, I've seen rubies before; but I never imagined anything of that sort. Why, it seems all blood and fire!"
"It's been bathed in both," said he, shortly. "Seas of them. Some day, perhaps, up yonder, I'll tell you a story about that stone. Meanwhile, I'll put it away lest it do mischief."
I was actually glad when he picked up the thing, and placed it in the box and shut the lid on its gleaming crimson splendour. And, incredible as it may seem, for a minute or so afterwards I saw things through a red mist that wouldn't disappear when I rubbed my eyes.
As we say in Scotland, the thing was "no canny"—at least, that was my private opinion, and one that I have not yet seen fit to alter.
Well, we went up to Karo, and Harrisson was delighted with the place. There was scenery there, and solitude; and he seemed to appreciate both.
But, though I was busy enough for the first week. I couldn't get that ruby out of my mind.
Counting a mob of sheep, I'd do what I'd never done in my life before—lose my tally with the glitter of it between me and them turning them all purple. Waking o' nights, I'd see the infernal thing dancing about all over the room.
Although a Scot, and therefore presumably superstitious, I wasn't going to be made a fool of in that way. And an appeal to the station medicine chest soon squared my liver up again. Still, I maintain that there was something uncanny about the big red stone.
And I determined, as soon as I had finished lamb-marking, to remind Harrisson of his promise. One day, after showing him some of our mountain scenery, we unsaddled, and hobbled our horses out for a pick whilst we set to work upon my old housekeeper's luncheon. Harrisson didn't drink tea—always very weak whisky and water. But if I miss my tea in the middle of the day I get a headache; so I boiled my quartpot. We were on a part of the run called Long Flat—a wide, grassy plain, sloping up into the hills.
"Now," I said, as we finished our snack and lit our pipes, or rather mine, for Harrisson always carried a cigar-case as big as Johnson's dictionary. "Now, Harrisson, let's have that yarn you promised me about the big ruby."
He gave a start, and looking up at the tall rocks said—
"Strange! I was just thinking of something connected with that story. This place reminds me of it."
It's said that there are two sides to every story. Possibly there are. One man's going to tell his side now. By and by another fellow'll chip in, and he makes a total hash of the first man's.
Which is the right side seems rather hard to say. Sometimes I think one thing, at others another. As time passed I grew to like Harrisson exceedingly, and for that reason I may be prejudiced in his favour.
At this day, as then, I have no better means of getting at the truth of the matter—even if I wished to, which I do not. I have neither time nor space here to go fully into the merits of either side. The reader may perhaps feel inclined to do so. In which case he will probably give his verdict in favour of the doctor's version. Most people would.
PART II.—Harrisson's Story.
"I think I told you," began Harrisson, "that, after special corresponding well-nigh all over the globe for a big English provincial newspaper, I presently found myself in Madras. Whilst there, I received instructions from my people to commence a series of articles on some of the most famous of the Indian palaces, monuments, and antiquities generally such as the Taj Mahal at Agra, the Jumna Musjid and Kootab Minar at Delhi; Kaiser Bagh and Chutter Munzil at Lucknow, and similar historic spots.
"Before I got through it was well into the hot season. I had intended to clear out in June; but July found me still at Northbrook's Hotel, Delhi, down with a rather severe touch of fever.
"It was the hot season. Heat! My dear fellow, in this country you don't understand the meaning of the word.
"Rockhampton! Normanton!" ( as I put in a protest). "Nonsense! I've met men out there who have lived in those places; and they confess that, comparatively, they are as the North Pole to a crematorium. But, as the old women have it, I am a little before my story.
"At Agra I had engaged a fellow as a sort of guide and servant combined. His name was Mohamed Yusuf. To save trouble I called him Joe. He was an active, well-built man, with features of a strong Jewish cast; spoke English fairly, and made himself so generally useful that I soon began to think I had found a treasure. One day, however, returning sooner than he expected from about my twentieth visit to the Tomb of Muntag Mahal, I caught Master Joe red-handed, busily overhauling the contents of one of my portmanteaus.
"At the moment I entered he was admiring a new revolver—one of Tranter's best—that I had bought in London.
"Looking round as the door opened, he jumped up, and without the least hesitation pulled every chamber point blank at me. Luckily it had never been loaded since leaving the maker's hands. Flinging the thing at my head, he made a rush for the door. Ducking just in time, I closed and knocked him down with a left-hander.
"But he was on his feet again in a flash, and, drawing a long knife, rushed towards me.
"Catching up a chair as he came on, I darted it at him, hitting him with one of its legs fairly in the mouth. With a howl of pain he spun round like a top; then making a spring, he went through the window into the hotel garden just as a crowd of native servants ran into the room. Of course there was a search, but he got clear away, together with thirty good English sovereigns that I had meant to exchange that very day for currency."
Here Harrisson paused and puffed at his cigar, absently watching the horses graze.
"Well." I asked presently, "Is that all? How about the ruby?"
"Fair and softly," laughed Harrisson. "I had to introduce you to Joe. He is what an artist might call the 'motif' of the story. But for him I should probably never have seen the thing—might, perhaps, be now rotting with those others at the foot of the Safid Koh. Anything in the flask? Thanks.
"Well, after getting over the fever, having carte blanche as to my movements, so long as 'copy' of interest was in view, I determined to go on to Cabul, and from there, if possible, to Herat and the Caspian.
"It wasn't an overcrowded route, even in these days of globe-trotting, and I counted upon getting plenty of material for my paper before arriving at Asterabad.
I remember some one at Simla, where I stayed awhile to, as you fellows would say, 'top up' after my illness, suggesting a trip to Lassa, and an attempt to interview the Dalai-Lama. But, on making a few inquiries, I concluded to stick to my own route. You can fancy my annoyance then, on reaching Peshawur, to find that one of our periodical 'little wars' was toward.
"All along the road I was being over-taken by troops hurrying up to the border. The mountaineers had been raiding on a large scale; and three native regiments and a British one were making for the terminus as fast as specials could carry them. Now, I am essentially a peaceful man, and when I was informed that the track to Cabul, always dangerous, was just at present deadly, I at once made up my mind to beat a retreat and try my Lassa plan.
"Wandering disconsolately around amongst a mass of excited Sepoys, commissariat people, and camp followers, elephants, mountain batteries, and camels, I suddenly ran against a man I knew.
"'Hello!' says he, 'What on earth are you doing here? Heard you were recuperating at Simla. Glad to see you O.K. again. Going back at once! Rubbish! Come with us to the front. Not a bit of danger. Only a few Pathans to be potted. Go back! My dear man, it's the best chance of seeing fun you ever had in your life. And think of it, my boy! There's not a 'special' in the camp. They're all sick, or funking, or something. I'll get you a permit from the General.'
"Thus my volatile friend, Captain Saumarez, 133rd Bengal Native Infantry.
"Well, hang me, if I wasn't fool enough to go with the column!
"For the first week or so it was a jolly sort of a picnic. Glorious scenery, ditto climate, splendid set of fellows, everything nice and pleasant as could be. The only drawback was that I couldn't find much to write about. Another week, and, if possible, I'd have gone back in double quick time. I hated to see people shot in broad day-light right alongside me, and nothing to show for it except a dead man and a little puff of white smoke away up in the hills.
"In my innocence, I had imagined we were bound for some place where there'd be a regular pitched battle that I could describe vividly, with the help of my binocular, from afar. No such thing. We'd be quietly marching along through the hills—Safid Koh, they called 'em—when, all at once, you'd hear a distant report, and a fellow 'd fall dead as a doornail, with a four-ounce, ball through him."
"Then a lot of Goorkhas—little chaps all mouth and big knife—'d swarm up the rocks like cats. Then there'd be more shooting. And so on through the day, and, at times, the night also.
"Now and again, perhaps, we'd come to a fort perched on a crag. A couple of companies would rush it on one side as its defenders, after firing a volley, flew down the other.
"For a full week, during which I never once saw the enemy, this kind of thing—'desultory fighting' Saumarez called it—went on. Yet everybody appeared satisfied and cheerful. We were, it seems, pushing the tribes ahead all the while, and, as time passed, I began to think I might yet reach the Caspian shores—with a good escort.
"But one morning we got to a place very much like this, only wider, an off shoot from the Kurrum Valley, I believe. Right at the top of it, stuck on a lump of rock, was the usual fort, which began spitting at us with a couple of nine-pounders directly the head of the column came in sight.
"Saumarez and another company commander with their men were ordered to attack it. Perhaps I was tired of the monotony of the non-combatant; perhaps I wanted to try my new revolver. I forget now. Anyhow, nothing would do but that I must go with them. I don't know what bit me upon that especial occasion. But so it was.
"At it we dashed jauntily enough, after throwing half-a-dozen shells inside, just to let them know we were coming.
"The fort stood right on top of a bare rock, and we rushed it in great style, only when we got in to find it empty but for three dead Pathana. But, coming at a quick trot over a tableland at the back of it, with banners waving, drums beating, and the sun flashing on as much bright cold steel as made me feel deucedly uncomfortable, were thousands of the Hill men.
"They weren't more than 300 yards off; and, without giving us a minute's law to get our wind, they let drive.
"Such yells you never heard in your life! And the bullets! Shouting, jumping in the air, firing, and flourishing great, ugly, half-grown swords, on they dashed.
"I heard the bugles sounding, and saw men falling all around me like apples in a windstorm. Whether the signal meant retreat or charge I never stopped to think, but ran with all my heart in my heels back towards our main column fully half-a-mile distant.
"I have an idea that everybody else was running, too, and in the same direction. Saumarez swore afterwards that was only my imagination. He says they retreated with the utmost steadiness until the enemy broke the formation.
"This may have been. But I doubt it! Else how came it that, one minute with a splendid lead of the whole crowd, in the next I was in the thick of the most bewildering and bloody pandemonium you can possibly imagine.
"Howling, chopping, hairy savages; crackling revolvers, clubbed rifles, cursing Tommies, shrieks, and groans seemed to be its principal ingredients.
"I've read in books—novels," here remarked Harrisson as he paused to pick a fresh cigar from his huge case, "about the 'fighting fever' and the fierce exhilaration of the fray. Maybe so, with some people. All I can say is that my sole thought and purpose, just then, was to get safely away and out of that awful hurly-burly of blood. Had I been a soldier, and accustomed to that kind of thing, of course I might have felt differently. As it was, I felt like a fish out of water—worse, a live one on a very hot gridiron.
"Saumarez had lent me a sword, and I had flourished it valiantly enough as we were running up to the fort. But now, in my utter bewilderment at finding myself in such a mess, I forgot all about it, and it hung sheathed at my side. I still clutched my revolver, but unconscious of the fact until out of the hacking, yelling crew a great hairy brute came at me full tilt, evidently meaning business, with glaring eyes and foam-flecked, tangled beard—a horrible sight. Bounding up, he shouted something, and whirling aloft a thing like a hay-knife, was about to bring it down on my head when I mechanically raised the pistol and shot him through the throat. The blood spouted out like water from a squirt, and with a scream of 'Ya Allah!' he fell backwards."
"'Well done, old man!' shouted Saumarez, who, it seems, was close to me, although I hadn't noticed him, his sword dripping crimson, and his revolver crackling even as he spoke. 'Bit tight,' he added, 'here's the 43rd coming up like 1 o'clock!"
"But at that moment the whole towering mountain range seemed to topple over and flatten me out. I dropped deadly sick, although I still heard, faintly and as afar off, the cheery bugles of the advancing regiment.
"When I came to myself everything was quiet. I was lying on a smooth rock, soaking wet, and some one was leaning over me, grinning, and with an empty pail in his hand. My head ached terribly, and, feeling the back of it, my fingers came away sticky with blood.
'"Salaam, sahib,' said the fellow. "Soon get right now. Rifle-butt break head. That all.'
"I stared vacantly at him, as he continued, still grinning wolfishly. 'Ai! Ai! Sahib logue no 'member poor Joe? Poor Joe that sahib knock um teet out at Agra?'
"No wonder I didn't recognise him! He had let his hair and beard grow to a great length. His clothes and skin were filthy; and altogether, he presented a striking contrast to my once scrupulously clean, smart looking rascal of a Khitmatgar.
"Sitting up, I saw that I was in a big cavern through one end of which I could see the sky and distant mountains. On the rock floor, around a fire, squatted a score or so of hairy, big-limbed fellows apparently watching a large pot suspended over it by a tripod.
"Not very far away from me lay a man bound hand and foot. By his uniform I saw he belonged to one of the native regiments, and from the stars on his shoulder-straps I guessed he was a Jemadar, or non-commissioned officer. Blood was oozing slowly from a wound in his side, and I thought him dead; especially as Joe, after a few words to his companions, went over and kicked him viciously and he still lay motionless. A couple of them now raised the prostrate body and propped it against the wall of the cave. Then I saw that the man was alive, for he opened his eyes and groaned.
"The next thing they did was to tear and cut every stitch of clothing from his back. These they brought to the fire and eagerly examined, recutting and tearing them into minute shreds as they apparently searched for something or other. Disappointed, evidently, they gathered around the soldier who had jammed himself between the shoulders of rock, and stood there like a statue of new copper, variegated by little red streams from the fresh cuts made whilst stripping him with their keen knives. His bonds were slack, and he kept one hand pressed over the wound in his side. But I could see the blood still oozing between his fingers.
"Then one of the Pathans addressed the soldier in a long speech, accented here and there by notes of interrogation. Of course, I couldn't follow him beyond making out an odd word at intervals. As he finished, the Jemadar spat in his face.
"At this the other rushed to the pot, and, taking it off the fire, set it at the soldier's feet. Then, dipping a bunch of green bushes in the contents, he sprinkled it over his body. The Sepoy gave no sign; but from where I sat I saw great brown blisters rising on the bare flesh, whilst a sickly odour filled the cave.
"Rising, I staggered towards the open air. But a dozen grimy hands thrust me back, and knives were shaken menacingly in my face as I resumed my seat and helplessly watched the torture.
"However, the end was near. Presently the victim's eyes rolled horribly, his body shook with convulsive tremors, and his head fell forward. The torturer ceased his sprinkling, and the others their catechising, kept up all through. Then, one pulling at the corpse, it fell with a thud upon the floor.
"Presently, as they gathered around me with threatening grunts and evil scowls, I caught the ominous words 'jehanum' and 'Kafir,' and began to think it was a case at last. But Joe, pushing the brutes aside, said something that seemed at once to satisfy, nay, put them in a good humour, for they laughed aloud. Then he brought a pair of English handcuffs, and, seeing no use in resisting, I allowed him to put them on.
"'Joe,' I said, as he finished. 'I'll give you 500 rupees if you'll show me safely back to the camp.'
"'Not for 5000, sahib,' replied the scoundrel, turning up his great bushy moustache and showing a cavity caused by a good many missing teeth.
"'By-and-by,' he continued. 'take you to the Chief of the Turis. You belong me. But he very anxious to get you. He give me good present. Sipahis kill him brother this marnin'. He skin you alive. Wait till you get to Solimani. You see fun then, Inshalla!'
"Then he left me, returning almost at once with a bowl of milk and pounded millet.
"'Eat, sahib,' said be. 'S'pose get tin—poor—no skin well.'
"I looked hard at him to find out whether he was joking or not. But, from the misty gleam in his snaky eyes, it was easy to see that he meant it; and, although both hungry and thirsty, I lost all appetite.
"'I'll see you hanged yet, you brute!' I exclaimed, 'if only for the way you served that poor fellow over yonder.'
"'By Allah!' he swore, 'An ass! a dog! a son of a dog! a traitor to his salt! a thief! Two year I look for him! Find him, at last, and now gone to jehanum, an' no tell.'
"'Tell what?" I asked curiously.
"'Never mind,' replied he, shutting up like a knife as he got over his excitement. 'None of the Sahib's business. Let him think on his own. Alla knows that even now his breath is in his nostrils'—and with this he departed, followed by the rest.
"Finding that my bracelets were a size too large, I easily slipped one hand out. Then I made shift to get to the entrance of the cave. But the only exit was down some 300ft. of sheer cliff into a dry nullah. There was no hope that way.
"It was getting late in the afternoon. Nothing met my anxious gaze save interminable ranges of tree-clad hills. Once, indeed, I thought I heard a bugle. But, as I stood listening for a repetition of the sound, a report from below came to my ears, and the next instant a flattened bullet fell at my feet from the rock overhead.
"This was evidently meant as a hint not to be inquisitive; and, taking it, I drew back into my prison."
PART III.—Harrisson's Story (Continued).
"On my way to investigate the further end of the cavern I had to pass the corpse of the soldier. It was lying on its side with the knees drawn up and one arm thrown over the face. Close-to stood the pot half-empty. Curiosity led me to sample its contents. Oil, still hot.
"Doubtless, I considered, people who could joyfully sprinkle a mortally-wounded man with such stuff wouldn't hesitate a moment at flaying a comparatively sound one.
"At the end of the cavern I discovered a flight of steps roughly hewn in the rock. Climbing them, I suddenly brought up against the point of a bayonet. Taking this as another hint, I descended. A nice fix I was in and no mistake.
"As I was thinking whether, when night came, I couldn't possibly find some means of descending the cliff, I heard a strange flapping noise close to where the dead man lay. Approaching, I saw that a great kite had sailed in, and now, perched on the arm of the corpse, was busy tearing off long strips of flesh. Picking up a bit of rock, I shied it at him, and with a harsh croak he flew out again.
A dirty old sheepskin rug was spread on the floor, and I was just about covering the body with it when the whole cavern was suddenly lit up as if by magic. Though the exit to mid-air, already alluded to, poured a flood of dazzling light which, at first, with the surprise of it, quite startled me.
"The sun, you see, had reached the level of the cave's mouth, and was sending his setting beams in.
"Turning again to the skin, which I had dropped, I saw close to the mutilated arm something that glowed and throbbed, scintillating in a haze of purple light.
"It was the ruby you saw at the Royal.
"For a while I scarcely liked to touch it. But, after a bit, I picked it up and had a good look at the thing.
"Saumarez's notion is that either the jemadar stole it, and finding it impossible to dispose of, had inserted it in some portion of his body, perhaps the fleshy part of the arm, and allowed the skin to grow over it, or that, regarding it as a powerful amulet, he had hit upon that trick for its preservation.
"Be this as it may, hearing the clank of a rifle butt on the rocky stair, I slipped the stone into my pocket. And I've been sorry ever since that I did so. Streeter offered me £1000 cash for it as a curio. Only for the hole bored in the thing, and the cut end upon which is engraved a verse of the Koran, and which spoils it as a jewel, he said he'd have more than doubled the sum. I've often seriously regretted that I didn't let him have it, for I've got a kind of feeling that it will bring me bad luck in the long run."
I laughed. "Sheer superstition, my dear fellow!" I exclaimed. "You wouldn't catch me humping a thing like that about if I knew it could be turned into so much ready money'."
"Do you ever have any Indians about here?" asked Harrisson, as I rose and took the bridles.
"Never," I replied. "It's too much out of the beaten track for hawkers of any description. Lots of 'em down on the plains, though. But come, let's catch our horses. You can tell me as we ride home how you got clear of the niggers."
"Well." continued Harrisson, "no one came near me that night. I ate my cold porridge; but you may guess I didn't sleep much. Once, I went to the entrance and looked down on the light of a fire far below. Once, taking off my boots, I crept softly up the steps, my hopes rising as I encountered no more hints. Just as I was thinking there might yet be a chance, I bumped against a massive iron gate with bars as thick as my wrist. Also, I heard voices on the other side.
At dawn a couple of the Pathana came, and signing to me to follow, we presently emerged into a sort of wattle and daub shed. In one corner of which was the descent to the cave. Outside a lot of tats—native ponies—were waiting. On one of these, with a sheep skin for saddle, I was mounted, and my legs tied under the animal's belly.
"I looked around for Joe. But he was not to be seen. After they had fixed me to their satisfaction we set off.
"First went four Pathana armed to the teeth; then myself, then four more following. All were riding. The fellow immediately before me held the end of a rope of twisted hide. The man behind me held the other end, in the middle was a slipknot, and I was in the slipknot. The track was very rough, and as the tats stumbled I was at times nearly cut in halves.
"As I told you, the bracelets were large, and I could throw them off at any minute. I was watching my opportunity to do this and make a bold dash for liberty as we went along, but that confounded rope hampered me awfully.
"For some time I saw no chance. But about midday we came to a small stream running through a little valley in the hills. Here they stopped to eat and to spell the tats.
"How my legs and back did ache, my head, too, was splitting. Altogether, I felt sick, sore, and sad. But it was evidently now or never; and I determined to make a run for it.
"Our camp was in a clump of rhododendrons, alongside the water, and apparently quite secure from observation. They had taken the rope from around my middle, and, whilst pretending to eat a crust of black bread that one of them flung me, I stretched my legs, and worked my wrists clear.
"I was sitting a little apart. The others, having finished their meal, were smoking. Presently a couple brought the ponies up; and the leader of the gang, approaching, grunted, and hit me pretty sharply over the shoulders with the blade of his lance as a signal to get ready.
"I'd left it rather too late; but my legs, even yet, felt awfully cramped. However, I had gathered myself together for a bolt when there came a crack from the bushes behind me, and, throwing up his arms, the Pathan fell flat on his face. Then, from all sides, came a swarm of little dark men, whom I knew, squealing and laughing as they pounced on my astonished guard, and in a minute had them tied up hard and fast, as so many Davenport brothers.
"Then a white officer, grasping a still smoking revolver, came forward, and shook hands heartily, introducing himself as 'Ross, of the 3rd Ghoorkhas.'
"'Whole army's out looking for you.' said he laughing. 'Saumarez is in a blue funk about you. First time these fellows were ever known to make a prisoner. Saumarez saw two of them lugging you away just before we came up. Lord, didn't we give 'em pepper.'
"'But how did you manage to drop on us like this?" I queried.
"'A lookout party on that peak, yonder, saw you an hour ago,' he replied. 'We were in sight also. They sent us a hello, and we just sneaked quietly up and surrounded you.'
"'I thought that chap lying there was going to hit you again.' remarked Ross, as, over the contents of a well-filled haversack, I told my story, 'so I potted him.'
"'And not much harm done either,' I answered, 'for if I'm not mistaken he's the fellow who did the torturing business I've been telling you about. Indeed, I believe all the beggars were present at the time.'
"'I'd like to shoot the lot!' exclaimed the lieutenant, but I daren't. General wants some prisoners. He's going to make them act as guides into the Solimani Hills, where there's another tribe to be taught manners.'
"'And if they refuse?' I asked, as I remarked the burning looks of hatred cast upon us from the prostrate forms around.
"'Then will they most surely die,' answered Ross grimly. 'But let's have a look at that ruby, before we make a start. I expect it's like so many of 'em out here—Brummagem.'
"I thrust my hands into my pockets; but it wasn't there. "'By Jove!' I exclaimed. 'I've lost it!'" Standing up, I felt something pressing painfully hard against my leg. Hastily pulling off my Wellington boot, out dropped the stone.
"You should have heard the prisoners when they caught sight of it! They called upon Allah, and every one else, apparently, that they could think of. In tones of the utmost amazement, and more than once I heard the name of Mohamed Yusuf, alias Joe, mentioned.
"'It seems genuine.' remarked Ross, as he returned it. 'And. judging from the row they make, those beggars appear to recognise it. A charm of some kind, I expect. Depend upon it that's what they were trying to get from the jemadar. I think I remember him—a 14th man, Shere Ali—and I believe a native of these hills. Curious find though for you to make in that way, wasn't it? If its the real article, you're in luck. Only I wouldn't show it too openly. I daresay that bit of red stone's cost many a man his life before to-day.'
"Well, I showed it to Saumarez, and one or two others," continued Harrisson, as we struck into the station track, "and they all considered that, although probably stolen in the first place from some shrine, it was fairly mine. One night, I remember, we got an interpreter to ask one of the captured Pathana what he knew about the stone. But we might just as well have asked the stone itself.
"This happened a little over twelve months ago," concluded my companion, "and I know you'll laugh, but I never seem to have got clear of Indians since. I've been travelling nearly the whole time; yet, wherever I am, some of them invariably turn up."
"Mere coincidence, my dear fellow," I said; "that, and the nervousness of an invalid together. For instance, you've been here, now, three weeks or so, and permit me to ask—'Whar's yer Injin?'"
After this, judge of my surprise and annoyance, on coming to the gate of the small horse-paddock, to find four Indian peddlers camped just outside it. They were the first I had seen at Karo during a residence there of ten years.
"What did I tell you?" remarked Harrisson as we rode past them.
He appeared strangely disturbed and anxious, and scarcely spoke during the remainder of the evening.
PART IV.— The Doctor Remembers.
I found my old housekeeper in a high state of excitement.
"I tell't 'em, Maister M'Kenzie," said she, "that I didna be wantin' ony o' their trumpery—bairns' tops, wee combs, bit cakes o' soap, an' the like. But they wadna tak nae for an answer; an' I couldna mak' them stir awa. They keepit the hale time speiring when the sarb an' the sarb's frien' wad be hame. An' when I tauld them that there was nane wi' sic names stayin' here, they but grinned in my face like the black heathen tykes they are."
Thus worthy Mrs. M'Gregor.
It appeared, also, that after they had ostensibly departed, Jim, the groom, had caught one of them in the garden, where even the excuse of fruit was lacking to account for his presence.
Dinner over, and Harrisson declining to accompany me, I strolled down to their camp.
They were sitting round a small fire—four swarthy, lean-limbed, lithe rascals, each with a strip of some scarlet stuff wound about his head.
As they caught sight of me they sprang to their feet, and, whipping the covers off their baskets, exclaimed, simultaneously,—
"Ah, Sahib, you want? You buy?"
"No." I replied; "but I want to know what you were doing at the house this afternoon, after you were told to go away. If I catch you inside that fence again. I'll set the dogs on you! Do you savee?'
"We no beggar! We no rogue!" replied a tall fellow with fiercely-curling moustaches, as he sulkily covered up his miserable wares. "We only ask the mem-sahib to buy. No buy, all right!"
For my sins, a travelling stock route runs through the station, and close to the homestead, so that they were on a public road, and past any further interference on my part.
However, presently, after a few muttered words amongst themselves, and an anything but pleasant glance at me, they shouldered their bundles and baskets and slouched away.
During the evening, a travelling life assurance agent and the usual doctor companion drove up to the station. Later on we had some whist. About 10, Harrisson, saying that he felt tired, went to bed, whilst we others gathered up to the fire for a final chat and smoke. "Friend seems in bad spirits," remarked the doctor presently. "I don't know him by name. But his face, somehow, appears mighty familiar.
"Have you ever been in India?" I asked.
"In India!" echoed he. "My Dear sir. I've hardly ever been anywhere else!"
"Twenty-five years—by gad, sir, I've got him now. I remember him. That was the clue— India!" "It was," went on the doctor, after a pause, "at the court of the old Ranee of Dubbulpore that I saw your friend. I've got a memory for faces like a stockman's for brands, and I'm absolutely certain of my facts. He was a sort of private secretary to the old cat; and, I think, was the Ranee's favourite amongst the whole crowd of adventurers that surrounded her. One summer she fell ill—nephritis—and, luckily for her, I happened to be at Bareilly just then. She sent for me, and, after a month's hard work, I pulled her through.
"Six weeks afterwards they sent a special to Agra for me to come again. But I wouldn't go; couldn't, in fact—cholera too busy. And, anyhow, as it turned out, her illness, this time, was mostly due to fits of rage. Somebody had stolen her favourite talisman—the big Dubbulpore ruby.
"By gad, sir," he continued, laughing, "the old hag started to make all her household a head shorter—ran regularly amok amongst the court. The Resident interfered; and I'm blessed if she didn't put him in irons and threaten to serve him the same way. Such a row you never heard of! I was lucky to be out of it!
"Then the Government stepped in— with a couple of regiments. Then, as a last resort, she took refuge in hysterics and, as I tell you, they sent all the way to Agra for me. Even if there had been no cholera, I don't think I'd ha' gone. Such a month as I went through before with that old villain would have killed most men! I only charged her 200 rupees for it all. And, would you believe it, she only gave me half, and told me that if I dared to murmur she'd have me beaten to death with ramrods! Oh, a nice old cup of tea was the Ranee of Dubbulpore!
"Hers, you must understand, was one of the so-called independent States with, like most of 'em, an English finger in their pie. So; what does she do next but sue the Government for compensation because of the loss of her jewel. She wanted a lakh."
"But why sue the Government?" I asked heedlessly, and immediately repenting myself of the question.
"Because," replied the doctor, "she would insist that her ruby was stolen by an Englishman."
"Did you ever see this wonderful talisman, doctor?" I asked, unconcernedly, after a short pause, during which the other sipped his grog thoughtfully, and the agent snored in his armchair.
"'Dozens of times,' replied he. 'As I told you, it was looked upon as a most powerful charm throughout the State, apart from its intrinsic value, which, no doubt, must have been considerable.
"'By Hindus and Muslims alike, attempts had often been made to steal it. So, to secure the thing, the old Ranee had a hole bored through it and wore it round her neck, hung on a stout gold wire. Every night it was taken off and laid on a tray close to her bed, so that she could put her hand on it at any time. It was about the size of a walnut, and of great fire and brilliancy. But the hole and the slice off the end to make room for the inscription spoilt it.'
"'A mighty and most potent tallisman, Hakeem," she said once, as I was admiring the big stone. 'Thousands, in the years that have passed, have died for its sake. A child of blood, Hakeem, ever thirsting for its food. It slew my father, and my father's brothers. It may slay me also. But I love it still. Truly a wonderful charm! But only for the Faithful, Hakeem. Only for the Children of Allah!'
"'And when the old woman fell very ill, and became frightened she was about to die, she would lie for hours holding it in her hand, mumbling over and over again the words cut on the end of it:— "Say I fly for refuge into the Lord of the Daybreak, that he may deliver me from the mischief of those things which he hath created."'
"'A very interesting little story,' I remarked, bothered and disturbed more than I cared to show. 'But I fancy its about a fair thing. Wake your friend, and we'll have a nightcap. You know the way to your rooms.'
"All that night it poured with rain.
"When the breakfast gong sounded, at 8 o'clock, Harrisson did not come to table.
"I sent Mrs. M'Gregor to call him. Presently she returned with 'He's nae in his room, sir,'
"Then she leant over my chair, and in a whisper audible at the far end of the garden—'An', sir, his bed's no been sleepit in in the nicht. The maist o' his things are there. But he's got his wee portmanty—the less ane o' a', ye ken—awa wi' him.'
"I glanced across at the doctor. But be was cracking an egg calmly, and his face was impassive as a mask.
"Later, after making sure that my guest really was gone, I told the doctor his story,
"'Well,' he remarked, as I finished, it may be true. All I can say is, that I am positive as to the man. Can't for the life of me remember the name he went by at Dubbulpore, but it certainly was not Harrisson.
"'If,' he continued, 'that is the Ranee's ruby he's got and he's known to have it, I wouldn't stand in his shoes for a trifle! Well might he seem nervous and afraid of Indians! Why, I heard that she swore by the Kuran, by the Ganges water, and by the Sacred Cow—old Hindu-Muslim that she was that, if it cost her her throne, she'd have it back. I believe that, after I left, she offered half-a-lakh and the pick of any billet in the State to the man who would restore her treasure. And, mark my words, sir, whether he stole it, or whether he got it in the way he says he did, they'll run him down, if it takes years to do it'
"I may be altogether wrong, you know," went on the doctor, as we watched the cheerless weather outside; "but my own notion is that he recognised me last night and lost no time in making himself scarce. Heaven knows he might not only have taken the miserable old cat's ruby, but cut her throat into the bargain, for all that I cared! But the fellow's been living for a long time in a constant state of dread. At the first glance I saw that his nervous system was all to pieces."
"But," I protested, anxious to put a word in on behalf of one in whom I felt no little interest. "I remember you told me last night that Mussulmen and Hindoos alike were always trying to steal the thing. Well, then, may not that soldier, Jemadar, or whatever he was, have been the thief in the first instance? Then, afraid of the consequences, when such a hue and cry arose, have secreted it as in Harrisson's story?"
"Well, yes," allowed the doctor, doubtingly; "he might, as you say, have done so. But where is Mr. Harrisson?"
To this question I had no answer ready just then; especially as I, all at once, called to mind that in the "wee port-manty," which in reality was a small Gladstone bag of crocodile hide, had been deposited the box containing the ruby.
PART V.—M'Kenzie of Karo Speaks Finally.
All that night and day and the next day it rained incessantly; and I began to get seriously uneasy. The creeks were rising fast, and, taking some men, I rode hither and thither over the country in the pelting wet, returning at dark, drenched and weary with our useless quest.
Although, as I fancy I've remarked before, anything but superstitious, a sort of presentiment of evil oppressed me—a secret, indefinable dread that something very terrible was happening. And, upon my word, I became quite ill under the influence of the miserable feeling that I couldn't put into words. This time it was no liver. All the drugs in the medicine chest couldn't have lifted off the qualmish sensations at my heart.
Of course the pair of visitors were still at Karo. And the little doctor, being a good-natured, chirpy sort of fellow, seeing my anxiety, tried to cheer me up.
"Deuced sorry I said anything about the dashed matter, now," he'd remark. "But you needn't fret so over it. He'll turn up right as a trivet presently. The next thing you know, you'll be getting a wire to forward his traps on somewhere."
But it wouldn't do. I knew there was something wrong. O' nights I'd see that cursed stone blazing away in the darkness over my bed. Why, I was so run down that even when they told me that the new dam on Gum Creek had burst I never bothered my head about it, except for throwing a stray blessing at the contractors. At any other time there would have been rows.
Still, it was some comfort to me to think that Harrisson could hardly be drowned, except by a piece of very hard luck. Nor was he a stranger to the run altogether, and likely to get bushed if he had strayed out of a night, as he sometimes did. I'm a dead believer in small paddocks, and Karo is subdivided accordingly. Also, there's a main, well-beaten road from station to township and railway terminus, fifty miles away. That he had left me willingly, in spite of the doctor's story, I utterly refused for a minute to believe.
Directly the weather cleared I had all hands out scouring the country far and wide. But without avail. Nothing had been seen of him at the township. Nor did we get any better results from inquiries in Sydney, or throughout the district.
About this time the doctor and his companion left; nor did I ever see them again.
Then I set the police and the black trackers to work. But not a vestige of the missing man could they discover. The Indian hawkers, too, about whom special pains were taken, seemed to have as totally disappeared.
The general impression, and one that gained ground as time passed and no clue turned up, was that in attempting to cross some of the rapid and swollen creeks around the station, Harrisson had been swept away and into the river. But I never quite believed such a thing possible.
And gradually, as weeks and months dipped into years, the memory of these matters grew dim; the uncanny stone had long ceased from troubling me, and I got to regard the affair as one of those mysteries never to be solved by human agency.
Still, for a very long time, at each visit to the capital, I never failed to make many inquiries, always with the same result. No, the luggage had never been called for. Nor had there ever been any reply to the advertisements I inserted.
Thus at last I ceased altogether to think about the incident. What, in these latter years, with strikes and failing banks, and hard times generally, I had quite enough on my mind.
But one summer the drafting yards, which at Karo are on a bit of a hill just out of sight of the homestead, caught fire and were burnt to ashes, Resolving to erect new ones on the circular plan, I and M'Gregor (my sheep overseer), with a couple of the hands, had been taping and plotting, and laying out the ground for the new yards.
"I doubt that fellow 'll hae to come doon, sir, remarked Mac, pointing to a great apple-tree whose gnarled boughs and thick foliage threw a splendid shade around. "It seems a muckle peety to fa' him. But he's richt in the line."
"Very well, then," I said. "down with it. It's a mere shell, green and healthy though it seems," and I pointed to where, some 10ft. from the ground, gaped a big hole, the fallen limb from which lay rotting to dust close to us.
As I rode away I heard the axes crashing into the wood.
When about half-a-mile from the spot, I was overtaken by an urchin—one of M'Gregor's—galloping barebacked.
"Please, sir," said he, "father says, will ye come back to the yards at oncest."
The great trunk had split fairly up in falling, and from a core of mould and decayed wood, the nest which myriads of white ants had builded in the course of years out of its heart, had burst forth yellow and grim, but nearly perfect, a human skeleton.
By the shock the bones were scattered in all directions. And when I arrived. M'Gregor, who was examining the skull, pointed significantly to a great fracture across the top of it. Presently, the boy, groping amongst the rubbish, found a ring that I recognised at once. But, despite a most careful search, with the exception of the lock and clasps of a small bag, nothing else came to light. That these bones were the remains of poor Harrisson I could have no manner of doubt; and I had them collected and coffined.
"If I chance to die here," he had once said to me, as we rode together. "I shouId like to be buried in such a spot as that."
On a green slope towards the Karo Creek stands a huge rock whose feet lie deep in wild raspberry vines and graceful bracken, and whose worn face glows warm with many coloured lichens and mosses. And under the shadow of this tall stone he rests, and with him the secret of his fate, and of the Ranee's Ruby.
Grey sky overhead, grey sea all around. Evening in the South Atlantic, about the 37th parallel. Clinketty-clank-gush! Clinketty-clank-gush! went the Urania’s pumps as the remnant of her crew toiled at the heavy brakes, whilst the captain sat on the poop-rail and cursed both men and ship—the former when they rested for a minute's spell, the latter when, burying her nose in the head sea, great masses of water came tumbling aft and swept the pumpers off their legs.
The Urania, a nearly new 600-ton barque, had, in her constant buffetings against the head wind that had fallen to her lot almost since leaving Gravesend, strained herself so badly that she made water enough to keep all hands busy two hours out of every four. Never was such an unlucky ship! Three months out, and as yet but three degrees to the south of the Cape of Good Hope.
No wonder, if only because of that alone, Captain Duggan's temper had become worse and worse, until at times he was little better than a madman. But there was something else—something that, in the night watches, would make him hurry on deck, and, standing on the taffrail, stare long and steadily astern into the darkness. Always a morose, gloomy-natured, unsociable sort of man, he and his chief officer, a smart, good-looking young fellow called Martin, had been at loggerheads almost since the Urania left port.
Then, one squally night, an able seaman fell overboard. With a surly oath the captain had refused to lower a boat, but Martin, defying him. called on four of the men, who, whilst their mates backed the foreyards, lowered the life-boat and pulled away. Then the captain, who had rushed below for his pistols, forced the rest of the crew to brace up the yards again, thus leaving the boat and her occupants to almost certain death.
Since that time the six survivors, including the second mate, who was also carpenter, and uncertificated, had led lives of incessant labour and hardship, hazed from morning until night and all night through by a leaky ship and a captain who seemed possessed of a devil.
Besides the captain, the only other person who now lived aft the so-called second mate having, in fear of his life, shifted into the foc'sle—was the cook and steward, combined in the person of a Gibraltar native, known for'ard as the "Scorpion," and supposed to be a sort of familiar of the skipper's, because the latter was often seen to converse with him, and by reason of his having been two voyages in the Urania.
Clinketty-clank-gush! Clinketty-clank-gush! But at last came the throaty, gasping sound that told the pumps "sucked," whilst the exhausted men leaned on the fife-rail around the mainmast and panted. "She's not dry yet," shouted the captain.
"Just sucked, sir," replied the carpenter.
"A lie—a d—d lie!" exclaimed the other, rising from his seat. "There's a foot left in her."
"Not six inches," replied the carpenter, hotly. "I've just sounded."
"Take that, then," roared the captain, as he raised his arm.
There was a sharp report and a flash in the gloomy air, and the carpenter fell to the deck.
In a minute the others rushed towards the break of the low poop; but, with a revolver in each hand, the captain kept them at bay, swearing he would shoot them at once if they didn't go for'ard, and that in any case he meant to do so before the passage was over. So, at last, after many threats on both sides, leading the carpenter (through the fleshy part of whose arm a bullet had passed), they splashed sullenly off along the water covered decks.
The foc'sle was a topgallant one, and its floor was as wet as the deck outside, the water slopping backwards and forwards from one lashed line of chests to the other with every lurch of the ship. There the carpenter had his oilskins and clothes taken off and his wound bound up.
It was nearly dark, and they lit the slush-lamp that swung from the ceiling.
"This game can't last,' said one, presently. 4 'We'll have to do somethin'. I votes we rushes the bloomin' ole tiger, an' ties 'im up out o' the way o' harmin' us. If we doesn't, mark me, there'll none on us six ever live to see Otago harbour."
Then a grizzled, weather-worn, elderly man shook his head dissentingly as he cut up tobacco on his chest lid. His name on the articles was Christopher Crick, but he was always called Kit, and he was a native of the West Country.
"No," said he, "that on't do. Thee's a fule, Bill. Doesn't thee know as that ood be mut'ny on the 'igh seas, as they ca's it? S'posin' us does that. There ain't a magistrit but what'll take his word agen ours, an' jug us for seven or eight year. An' that Scorpion's bound to back skipper up. If so, he'd swear black's white." And again Kit shook his head and rubbed tobacco between his horny palms, pondering.
"Any'ow," put in a third speaker, an African darkie, a very powerful man and a fine seaman, who always claimed Glasgow as his native place, but was the only alien amongst the six. "Any'ow, I tink we do sometin'. Can't stan' pump all day all night an' bein' shot to finish up wid. I hab de same opinion, on de whole, as Bill—better rush de ole man and put de irons on him. What you tink, Chips, sah?'' The carpenter, who sat on a chest, with one hand grasping the wounded limb, replied:—
"Well, Sam, since you asks me, I say knock him on the head afore he serves us all alike. As Kit says, true enough, if we seizes on him we're duty bound to get into trouble. There's one law for Jack and another for his skipper, as every fool knows. An' if you ties the ole man up, that yaller Scorpion 'ud ha' to go overboard. As for the skipper, he's a cold-blooded murderer as it is. What's the 'arm in doin' away with the likes of he? Look at the times we've had since he desarted the boat! Dogs! why dogs is nobs compared to we! Trick an' tie, lookout an' wheel, wheel an' lookout, pumpin' day an' night, the worst o' tucker, soppin' wet the whole time, and a bullet to look to at the end of it! Dogs is howlin' swells, come to think of it! Tell you what, mates, we done wrong for lettin' the murderin' ole brute bounce us that time the mate an' them left. We oughter bounced him, and took his pistils away, an' hove the ship to. He couldn't ha' shot us all. We was weak and cow-hearted as a crowd o' Dagoes. That's what we was. But it ain't too late, even yet, for to get satisfaction!" And the carpenter, as he finished, leant back, looking very pale and sick, whilst from his audience arose a deep, stern murmur of approval and endorsement.
"How'll we manage it?" asked a voice, presently.
But for a few minutes there was no reply.
Then Kit, who had finished his thinking and lit his pipe, rose and threw back the lid of his chest, and, after some rummaging, brought out a necklace of red-and-black beads, strung alternately.
"I got them," he remarked, as he cut the string, "from a coffee-coloured maid, one South Sea trip. Her said when her gave 'em to me as there was good luck went wi' 'em."
Carefully, as the rest watched him, he picked out five red beads and a black one, replacing the others in his chest, but first methodically re-tying the string. Then, taking off his sou' -wester, he threw the beads into it and began to rattle them after the manner of a man rattling dice, and, instinctively, the others knew what was coming.
"The black 'un does it," said Kit "Nowt can't be fairer. It be no use for all han's bein' in the job. One's enough. Less said be surest mended. Who'll draa?"
For a minute there was no response to the grim invitation.
Then, all at once, the youngest of the six, a stout, red-checked, strapping lad, known as "Geordie," because of hailing from Shields, stepped forward into the little circle of swinging, flickering lamplight, and said, "Hold 'em out, Kit, and shake 'em oop togither agen. Who's afraid? Not me!" And, plunging his hand into the deep son'-wester, he drew out a scarlet bead and stepped back, his face wanting all its fresh colour, to make room for the next man.
One after another they took their turns until only Sam, the darkie, and Kit himself had not drawn.
"Hi, hi!" exclaimed the African, as the latter, closing the orifice, shook the beads up again. "Me and you for it, Kit. Well, all I can say is, I hopes it am dis chile. Not very long agone sence de ole man gib me punch on de jaw—him ache yet," and putting his hand in he pulled out the last red bead.
Throwing open the sou'-wester, Kit took the remaining black one, looked at it a moment, placed it in his pocket, put on his hat, and went on smoking as steadily as ever.
No one spoke. There seemed no necessity. It was nobody's business now except Kit's.
"Who's got the fust wheel i' the middle watch to-night?" asked Kit, presently.
"It am mine," said Sam, almost in a whisper. "I relieves that yallar Scorpion ob a cook an' steward. He dere now—he take it to let Bill come an' pump this evenin'."
"All right, Sam," replied Kit, significantly. "I'll be takin' it instid o' ye to-night, remember."
Not for many years did Kit tell what happened during the first hour of that middle watch; not, indeed, until his grizzled hair was white as driven snow, and he lay dying, with a woman's hand in his, and a woman's tears falling for his sake.
Next morning, Antonio the "Scorpion" hunted vainly round the ship with the captain's early coffee and biscuit. Then, after a few enquiries, finding that no one knew anything, he sat quietly down and ate and drank it himself, keeping his thoughts strictly private. And still the head wind blew.
That day Kit, taking charge, made Antonio bring better food for'ard. Otherwise, there was no change. Not only did the men not shift their comfortless quarters, but they went through the daily routine of pumping and doing odd jobs just as usual. Curiously enough, the question of navigating the Urania had never entered into their calculations, so impatient and eager had they been to escape from their thraldom, and the chances of sudden death, ever before their eyes. But it was bitterly cold, and they knew by keeping up to the north-ward they would get into milder weather. This they did, making a fair wind of it for twentyfour hours. Then it drew ahead again, and, bit by bit, the yards were swung into their old places, hard up against the backstays, with the lee-rigging slackening into bights.
One day Kit brought charts out of the skipper's cabin and spread them on the skylight; and, grouped around them, he and his companions tried with great grimy fingers to make them speak. But in vain; there were lines and dots and figures crossing and recrossing. like the stays and braces over their heads, but, unlike those, utterly beyond their comprehension. Stare they never so hard, latitude, longitude, course, and position stared back at them blank and dumb.
"Never mind 'em, lads!" exclaimed Kit, at last, with a huge sigh of disgust. "If Chips, here, hain't scholard enough to make sense out o' the thing, it ain't likely us'll have the gumption to. We're bound to hit aomethin' i' the long run. When the weather gets warmer us 'll keep 'bout west by sou' again. That's where New Zealan' an' Australy do lie. I be pretty certain of that. An' I reckon they's too big to pass if us keeps a good look-out."
So matters went on quietly enough, the weather getting warmer and warmer every day; the Urania being kept nearly due north, with a little westing, and put about directly she broke off. And it was always "full and by."
The Scorpion, hisfirst surprise over, seemed to take his patron's disappearance as a matter of course, adapting himself without a word to his new masters.
Kit would allow nothing to be touched. Strange to say, both he and the carpenter were total abstainers. But to the other four they allowed the Scorpion to serve out a gill of rum twice a week.
The Urania in these days carried nothing but a topgallants'l. They were, Kit said, too short-handed to fly kites. His only plan was to fall in with some vessel, borrow a navigator, and perhaps a hand or so, and make as straight a course as possible to their original destination—Otago—and there deliver the ship to her consignees.
But Kit, had he known it, was keeping directly out of the track of shipping. He had brought the Urania well up into the Indian Ocean; and the days became hotter and hotter, whilst, light or strong, ever the wind seemed to blow from ahead. Not that it mattered much now, as no one knew where they were going, and a snip may as well be fallen in with close-hauled as running free.
One dark night, almost a calm, and everybody more or less asleep about the decks, the Urania bumped gently, then again and again. In a moment all was confusion. It was too dark to see anything, and the vessel kept on bumping as if in the midst of ice. "It ain't ice!'' shouted Kit, the first alarm over, "it's something gotten foul, an' is bumpin' o' the ship. Bring lights an' lower 'em over."
Binnacle and side lamps soon cast their red, white, and green rays on a curious spectacle. Everywhere was timber. Great logs, thirty and forty feet in length, completely surrounded the Urania. Some broodside-to, others end-on, and they seemed to form an unbroken platform around the barque. "Some timber drogher busted up," eaid the carpenter. "See, it's all squared and numbered," and he lightly swung himself down a rope on to the floating mass. "Kauri pine," he continued, after a brief inspection, "fresh as paint, an' fine stuff too. Only there's lots of 'em burnt like as if they'd come from a fire. I reckon, skipper, we'd best keep one o' these. It'll come in handy."
"All right," replied Kit, "if you be wantin' to keep you wits from rustin'. We'll rig a tackle an' heave un up in no time."
At this moment, out of the darkness, came a cry, a long, low, wailing cry, "Help! help!"
There was dead silence for a minute, every man listening with his heart in his ears. "Help! Save me!" sounded again, apparently no distance away across the timber.
"Shout, boys!" exclaimed Kit, setting the example, and swinging himself down alongside the carpenter, who was staring into the darkness.
Then, stepping out over the logs, holding one of the lamps, he shouted, "Where be 'ee? Can't 'ee come any furder to us?"
"I'm here, in a boat," replied the small thin voice. "But I'm too weak to come."
"It's a woman, by G—d!" exclaimed Kit to the carpenter, who had followed him. Then, in a half whisper, he asked, "Tain't like to be one o' them marmeds or a sort o' sea-pixie, is it, Chips?"
"No," replied the other, "it's flesh an' blood right enough. Somebody belongin' to the timber ship, mos' likely. Come on; but take care, for I shouldn't wonder if there ain't sharks all round us."
The Urania, her way clogged by the logs, lay quite motionless, her sails rising and falling in sudden flaps; and the two men passed warily from one great balk to another, guided by faint cries that reached them now and again. It was a perilous journey, and more than once one of them slipped, and fell on the slimy surface of the timber. Once, too, they stopped and looked back, seeing nothing but a few bright specks of light, and an awesome feeling came over them when they walked that they were walking over fathomless ocean depths, and that a sudden squall might be their undoing. Luckily the sea was smooth, the mass of wood fairly compact, and no sign of wind in the sky.
They must have travelled fully two hundred yards before they struck the outside edge of the raft, and presently found a small boat with, in it, a wild-eyed woman, who, as the light fell on her face, exclaimed, "Thank God!" and fell down all in a heap, fainting. "Why, it be but a little maid," said Kit, as the pair stepped into the boat, and he raised her in his arms. "Poor dear, poor dear; hers as light as—" he was saying, when an exclamation from the carpenter made him look aft. Two dead bodies lay there. One a man in the prime of life, the other a boy of fourteen or so. "Poor chaps!" said Kit. "Skipper an' his sonny, Like enough. Shouldn't wonder if the maid's his darter. SkulI her round outside o' eveythin', Chippy; we'll mebby get aboard clear to starbud. I'll tek the boathook an' see an' Fark some o' them logs out o' the road."
Scarcely had they, after much trouble, got on board than a strong breeze sprang up, and the Urania bumped and forced her way out of her strange company.
It was a couple of days before the girl recovered sufficiently to give any account of herself. And, in the meantime, the two bodies had been sewn up decently and buried. Her story was short. The vessel was the Mary Curtin, limber-laden, from Wellington, New Zealand, to Hamburg. About a week ago fire had broken out on board. The crew, all foreigners, in an estacy of terror rushed the boats and departed in the night, leaving her father (the captain), herself, and her little brother alone on the burning ship. Finding that all hopes of saving her were in vain, these three had taken the gig, into which the captain had put some provisions, water and a few instruments. Just as they were pushing off from the vessel, a spar fell and hit him on the head, and he never spoke again. Annis and the boy pulled until they were exhausted. Always delicate, the boy died four days later, leaving Annis alone with the two dead bodies. She remembered little more after that until, waking out of her stupor, she heard voices, and saw lights. And strangely enough, until she had drifted right on to it, she remembered seeing nothing of the timber island. Probably the ship had blown up after they left, and the cargo, drawn together into some current, had floated away in a mass.
Annis Curtin was about seventeen or eighteen, a sad-eyed, fair haired, pretty girl and as she told her story, murmurs of pity and sympathy broke from the sailors as they listened to things that none, more than themselves could better appreciate at their full value, reading between the lines of terror and bitter suffering.
But, as the days went by, her great grief became more subdued, and some colour returned to her pale cheeks. Kit and his men had spread an awning aft, and carried her bed out of the hot saloon berth on deck. And here they made the Scorpion wait on her "hand and foot," hustling him around to prepare delicacies—sago, arrowroot, and the like—which Kit, who had laid claim to the "little maid," administered with his own hands.
And though her influence could not, for a while, alter their luck so far as the everlasting head wind was concerned, yet it brought good fortune to the Urania. In the first place the leak stopped, and instead
of weary hours of pumping, a ten minutes' spell sufficed to dry the well out. Probably the cause of all the trouble had been a started butt, and the pounding and pushing of the logs had sent it into position again. Be this as it may, the Urania, much to the comfort of her men, was a tight ship. Then, as Annis gained strength, being naturally of a hopeful, sunny nature, instead of brooding over her misfortunes, she began, to the great delight of her rescuers, to take an interest in her new surroundings and in themselves.
Of course she had for some time perceived, without being at all able to guess at the facts, that she had fallen in with a sort of little sea-republic, in which Jack was every bit as good as his master. And, accustomed to the strict discipline of her father's ship, she found herself at a loss. But until they told her their story she asked no questions.
And presently, having told her as much as was good for her to know, and confessed that they were actually not only without knowledge of their present position, but steering for nowhere in particular, with a vague notion of hitting Australia or New Zealand, she, for the first time, laughed aloud.
And their delight and astonishment may be imagined when Annis told them that she could take the Urania into port. Her father, it seemed, had taught her navigation thoroughly and completely. And what a morning it was when she first appeared on the poop with that father's sextant and "shot the sun!" Close to her stood old Kit with a proud yet almost awe-struck look of proprietorship on his mahogany face, while one of the hands below watched the chronometer to note the time when she called "Stop." At noon, when she took the latitude, as she suddenly thrilled out—"Eight bells!" Kit gave agreat, gruff, involuntary "Ay, ay, sir," and, rushing to the bell, struck it very emphatically in token of the new departure.
Then Annis worked out their position, and told them that, all things considered, matters might have been worse; for they were only about 900 miles off their true course. "Weather fore and main braces," ordered she, with a charming air of mastership. "I'll make a fair wind for you, and one that shall stay; no more 'full and by!'" Then to Sam, at the wheel, showing an amazing extent of ivory, "Keep her south by east, my man!" "Ay, ay, sir," responded Sam as he whirled the spokes round, making a preternatural effort to look solemn.
Then she threw them all into consternation by bursting into tears, exclaiming, "O father, my dear father and Willie! If you were only here now!"
From the day Annis took command the luck of the Urania changed, and all things went well, with beautiful weather, and fair winds blowing so steadily that the six were emboldened to cover the barque with canvas, from main skysail to topgallant-stuns'ls, that rattled her along in great style. And one day Annis made her landfall, and bore up with a southerly wind for Otago Harbour, almost in sight of which it fell a dead calm. As they lay there, a long black flag of smoke came up behind them. "One o' them big butcher's shops, I reckon," said Kit, eyeing the approaching steamer through his glass. "Ay, her be a frozen meater, right enough. If she'ud only gi'e us a tow, now! But not much fear o' that, I s'pose."
The stranger was a huge, white painted mass, with pole masts and derricks, flying light, and down by the stern, her sharp nose seeming to sniff the air as she came thundering along. Presently up went her house flag. "Ay, ay," muttered Kit, as he recognised it, and the carpenter hoisted the Urania's. "No need to tell us. Seed un often enough in the docks at Lunnon; wi' their brassbound mates, an' skippers, an' flunkeys aft, an' crowd o' housemaids for'ard as can't tell the differ atween a marlin-spike an' a taw's'l-yard. Why, dang me, if he ain't a-comin' alongside!"
Suddenly Sam, who had mounted on the rail to get a better view, began to cut wonderful capers, and shout and laugh like a madman as he stared at the big steamer, now quite close to the barque, and lowering a boat.
"Look, Kit!" all at once yelled the carpenter. "There's Mr. Martin—hooray! And Tom and Jack— hooray!" And, taking off his hat, he flourished it wildly as the Uranias set up a great roaring cheer that would have done credit to sixty throats in place of six.
In a minute they had the gangway ladder over, and were crowding around their chief officer and his two companions, whose bones they had imagined long at the bottom of the sea. "No, Kit," said Martin, who looked still pale and weak; "We didn't pick him up; and we were ten days in the boat before the Taranaki found us. Of course, I guessed what had happened. Gone, has he? Well, it's no use saying I'm sorry when I'm not. Yes, Bill and old Tervetthick died in the boat. Indeed, the lot of us were pretty well done when the steamer sighted us. But who's your navigator, Kit?"
"The little maid," replied Kit. "Why her 've a-cleared out? She be in the saloon likely."
And there they found Annis, rather in confusion by reason of clothes that, although patched and clean, were still but remnants. But Martin and the chief officer of the Taranaki had eyes for nothing but the sweet, blushing face, whilst they tendered their compliments and congratulations. And presently, when the captain of the steamer heard the story, he passed a line on board; and next morning, when Annis came on deck, the Urania was at rest, and consignees, surprised and pleased at the recovery of a ship and cargo long ago posted as missing, waiting to see her. The story made a noise, and for a time Annis and her companions were the centre of attraction to the good folk of Dunedin, who liberally responded to the appeals made for the orphan left without a relative in the world, and for the crew of the Urania, not excepting the Scorpion, who, if he ever suspected anything, found it to his interest to hold his tongue.
Gradually the Uranias, with the exception of Kit, drifted away. But Kit stayed to see his little maid married to young Martin, ever a favourite of the old man's. And he still stayed when, with part of the goodly sum that the owners of the barque presented to Annis, her husband bought her a fine farm "up-country." And there Kit lived for many yeard, feeling no yearning for the sea.
But not until at the last, when he lay down to rise never more, holding Annis' hand, did he tell his secret.
"About two bells," said he, speaking slowly and with effort, "up he cometh like a raagin' lion. Says he, 'Where be ye a-gwine wi' the ship, yo soger?' I never says nowt, on'y stares straight at 'im i' the face. That maketh 'im wild, an' he whips out his pistil an' raps me ower the knuckles wi' the barril, an' says I, uncommon sulky, 'Sou-east by sou',' says I to 'im.
"'It's full an' by', you soger,' says he, 'Luff, an' let her come up!"
"The leach o' the gan's'l was a-shakin' then. But I wakes her up till she's pretty nigh a-back for'ard. Then he shoves me away fro' the wheel, a-swearin' as I wasn't fit to steer a barge. I seen he wanted to pick a quarril; but, not bein' in any pertickler hurry that special night, I lets him go his own gait. Presently he jumps up on the taffril, as he's used to be doin' them times, an' stares astarn into the thick dark wi' one han' shadin' his eyes, an' t'other un haugin' down holdin' the pistil.
"'Be ye lookin' for the lifeboat;, skipper?' I says, laughing-like, an' not wantin' to tek him unawares. An' wi' that he ups wi' the pistil-hand. But I were too sudden for he, an' ower he goeth schooner rigged into eternity wi'out a shreek or soun'!
"'Bain't I sorry, now as I be gwine too?
"'No, little maid, that I be not. Goodbye, dearie. God bless 'ee, an' don't 'ee forget to put crape on the bees i' the mornin'."*
*An old Devonshire custom still in vogue—the telling the bees that death has visited the household.
He never appeared to take much notice of his wife or her friends and admirers. And his one cry, in and out of season, was—"I won't be buried at sea." A hollow eyed, wan-cheeked, coughing skeleton, restless and irritable in the knowledge of the near approach of the Destroyer, Dunstan used to look over at the foaming wake with a shudder of fear, and mutter to himself—"Not there! Not there!"
The woman, his wife, was petite, fair, and very pretty, and the other lady passengers used to hate her, because she monopolised the men and, above all, the doctor—he handsomest man on board the s.s. Kaiwi. Late o' nights, long after the electric lights were out, the pair used to be watched by female vigilantes in dark corners of alley ways; also in the dispensary; and, once, it was even rumoured, in the doctor's cabin itself.
"Shameless thing!" hissed the women. "Devoted wife!" exclaimed the men. "Always hunting around getting medicine and stuff for her husband—poor devil"
But Mrs Dunstan seemed to care little for what anybody said. In his cold-blooded, cautious, Scotch fashion, the captain admired her; and with two such potentates on her side as the doctor and skipper, a woman, or indeed anyone, can do much as they please on board a ship.
Once, it was after Mrs Dunstan had been seen emerging from the doctor's cabin at midnight laden with bottles of medicine, a deputation of female passengers interviewed the captain. Formally they denounced the "goings on" of Mrs Dunstan and Dr Gordon as a scandal, and implored him if he valued the reputation of his ship to interfere at once.
They were all ladies of very uncertain ages, and the captain listened politely, but was without sympathy. In his time he had gone through similar ordeals.
But, in private, he gave the doctor a hint.
"It's all right," said the latter, with a conceited nod of his empty handsome head. "She's a smart little woman. And she's got money—whips of it. Dunstan can't last round the Cape. I'm sick of this life. When we're married I'll buy a place I know of in Kent, and you shall come and stop with us 'tween trips."
"Umph!" said the Captain, turning away with a sour smile on his hard features.
Unable to influence the skipper, the female deputation waited on Dunstan himself, and gave him their views on the situation. But in between coughing-fits he only swore at and reviled them for a pack of envious mischief-makers. Aggravated beyond the bonds of decency, the spokeswoman at last told him to his face that very shortly he would die and be thrown into the sea, and that his wife would be delighted to witness the ceremony.
Then Dunstan reviled them some more, and after a fashion to make them fly with fingers stuffed in their ears.
Besides keeping the ship well amused fore and aft, these proceedings had another effect, altogether unlooked for by their promoters. Hitherto Dunstan had taken little more notice of the doctor than in a professional way. Now he not only grew excessively friendly with him, but, rather to Gordon's annoyance, followed him about the ship, exhibiting a sort of clinging dependence on him that became at times quite ludicrous. Fool as he was, the Doctor had sense enough to feel this, and attempted to shake his persecutor off. Horribly sick, too, did the doctor become of Dunstan's eternal question day and night—"You won't let them throw me into the water, will you?" to which the only reply he ever gave was the same—"No, old man, don't be frightened, I'll keep you dry somehow." But, as the sequel proved, Dunstan kept himself dry, and presently, a fresh whim seized the invalid, and he talked incessantly and in the most confidential manner to Gordon about Mrs Dunstan.
"She's a good little sort, old chap," he , would say in the half-sneering, half-cajoling tone in which he always spoke to the doctor, ''a good little sort, no matter what those hags say; and I know there's no harm in her. It's hard to be tied to a sick man, you know. But I'm not selfish, and I want her to enjoy herself." And Gordon, following his companion's eye as it turned to where, amidst a group of men, his wife, a picture of warmth and comfort in her furs, sat in a deck chair, would catch a look on his companion's face that puzzled him, and might, had he cared, have given him cause for thought. Then Dunstan took to constantly coupling the doctor's name with "Lizzie's," and quite as a matter of course, until it seemed to Gordon that the man already tacitly guessed at, and acquiesced in, the fact, long settled in his own mind, as to who was to be his successor.
Some details of the pair's pecuniary affairs the Doctor knew and when Dunstan actually showed him a will, drawn up and signed before starting on what he felt would be his last journey, and allowed him to read it, and note the more than ample provision it contained for the widow-to-be, his exultation was boundless.
With all his good looks he had only just brains enough to be capable of mischief where a woman was concerned; and, excited and spurred on by Dunstan's scarcely veiled hints and innuendoes, and ghastly little jokes, he so far forgot himself as to one night actually discuss with him the future he had mapped out when "Lizzie" should be his wife.
They were in the middle of their second magnum of champagne—ordered and paid for by Dunstan—and as Gordon unfolded his plans the other swore, with tears in his eyes, that a better friend could no man have; also, that he felt easy now, not only as to "poor little Lizzie's future," but as to his own chance of dying a dry death.
Dunstan was a man who had travelled far and wide, and in his berth, to which he often invited the doctor, were heaps of curios brought out of the hold and unpacked for the latter's edification.
And one day, opening a little velvet-lined case, he took therefrom a beautifully cut flask of rock-crystal about the size of a pigeon's egg, and similar in shape, only square at the bottom. At intervals it was bound with gold bands, and close to the stopper of the same metal was a black pearl of large size and fine lustre.
"This should interest you," said Dunstan, as he held the flask up to the light, and showed it full of a bright, yellowish fluid. "It was given to me by Alang Husein, Rajah of Pasir-Salak, in Borneo, to whom I had been able to render some slight service. Watch how the stuff seethes and glows, always in a state of restless effervesence."
"What is it?" asked Gordon, after looking awhile. "That I don't know," replied the other. "But I do know its effects. Look here!" and pulling at the black pearl he drew out, attached to it as to a hilt, a curved steel thread made to fit into a gold groove that ran round the flask. "Now," went on Dunstan, as he unscrewed the top and lightly dipped the needle in the liquid, "you observe these, minute saw-like serrations. Well, the tiniest scratch on your skin, unfelt, really unperceivable, from one of these, and you're a dead man in three minutes," and as he spoke, holding the delicate little instrument gingerly between finger and thumb, he made playful passes at Gordon's hand.
"Bosh," replied the doctor, recoiling, however. "There's no known poison acts so quickly. Your Rajah Thingumbob's been stuffing you. All those niggers are liars, more or less."
On a settee between the two men lay a fine Angora cat belonging to one of the stewardesses, fast asleep, and purring as it slept. Bending over, Dunstan touched it lightly—the merest flick—on the tip of the ear with his tiny weapon. "Now watch," he said to the doctor, who had followed his movements with a face of sneering incredulity.
Suddenly the purring ceased; the animal awoke and shook its head violently. Then, jumping on to the carpet, it drew all its four paws in a heap together, arched its back, swayed to and fro for a few seconds, then fell over sideways dead having uttered no sound. Hardly a minute had elapsed since the giving of the fatal touch. Dunstan grinned at the doctor, who, with all the colour gone from his florid cheeks, sat staring as if unable to believe his eyes. Then, as he carefully wiped the deadly instrument on his pocket-handkerchief and replaced it in its groove he said, "Well, what of my friend the Rajah now? Simple, isn't it. I've often been tempted to physic myself in similar fashion. Only then you'd serve me as I'm going to serve poor puss here," wrapping, as he spoke, the kerchief round the stiffened body and throwing it through the open port. "Why, I could kill you," he went on, "or my wife, in your sleep, couldn't I? There's no pain much, I'm sure and you'd not have time to know what was happening. But don't be frightened. You've got to get me home dry, you know," and he grinned and coughed in ghastly fashion, never moving his eyes from his companion's pale face. But the doctor was shaken, and made no reply; only sat and looked, beginning also to faintly realise that the man whom he had regarded as merely a foolish, selfish monomaniac, was actually something else, something to be marked dangerous, and dealt cautiously with. And for several days after the cat episode he scarcely ventured near Mrs Dunstan, and flipped savagely overboard the dozens of little notes he found in his berth and underneath the dispensary window. Nor did he perpetually remark, as heretofore, to his friend the captain respecting the utter softness of the good thing he had in hand.
Dr Gordon had seen something in a man's eyes, and got a fright.
But gradually the impression wore off, and matters between himself and "Lizzie" fell back into the same old groove. Also Dunstan's cough grew worse, and the man himself visibly weaker.
About this time it was that Dunstan made friends with the refrigerating engineer, even going so far as once or twice to accompany him on his rounds amongst the cargo—an experience that did his health no good. Still, as he remarked, he had never allowed any consideration of that kind to hinder him in the pursuit of knowledge.
Part of the Kaiwi's cargo had been discharged damaged last trip because of, so experts said, too close packing. On this occasion alleyways had been left between the piles of carcases in chambers 1, 2, and 3; and these, at intervals, the engineer was supposed to traverse, thermometer in hand, noting temperatures. A cold job this, and one to be dressed up to. Dunstan insisted on going as he was, clad in tropical whites. The ship was crossing the Equator, and he said he wanted cooling. Perhaps, had they been aware of this last freak the doctor or Mrs Dunstan might have interfered. But the matter did not leak out until afterwards.
The big grey steamer was off the Western Islands, a fine bright morning, and the passengers' luggage on deck for the last time, when, all at once, a rumour of something terrible pervaded the ship, and speedily the news spread that, not only had the doctor and Mrs Dunstan been found dead in their berths, but that Mr Dunstan was missing. There was not a suspicious mark to be seen on either of the bodies, nor was there, to the lay eye, any sign of poison. It might have been a coincidence, certainly, so people said; but if 'twas, why then—. And the weather was very hot; so they buried them; everybody except the captain with the word "suicide" on their lips.
But the captain kept his own counsel. Not so long ago the doctor had told him the story of the cat, making light of the incident to show that he had not been frightened. If Dunstan could have been found, the skipper might have behaved differently, as it was he felt justified.
But not the remotest trace of Dunstan came to light, and the notion that he had fallen overboard became the popular one—jump they said he never could. However, the tragedy lent unexpected zest to the finish up of the passage, which was becoming monotonous. To the captain's disgust the cargo was again found not up to the mark—temperature too low, the expert said. But what caused the refrigerating engineer to lose his billet was the fact that when the Tilbury Dock lumpers came to No. 3 chamber, which was the furthest forward, they found a corpse doubled up amongst the other carcases, and frozen hard and stiff as a board. Now had the engineer gone his round properly, this could hardly have happened.
Also, clutched between the rigid fingers was a little crystal flask, unstopped and empty.
Asked at the inquest whether he had ever before seen the "exhibit," the captain replied truthfully enough that he never had.
But the secret of the ocean tragedy which, so far, he had but guessed, was no more a secret to him now than was the manner in which Dunstan had managed to get home dry.
ALTHOUGH the stone in the Mountain Maid Reef was apparently as good as ever, the returns showed a very perceptible decrease. This was a puzzle, and the manager could not understand it at all. No more could the newly-appointed sergeant of police, with whom he presently took counsel.
Watch the miners as closely as the pair and their subordinates might, they never could detect anything wrong.
But then the Maid was rich—so rich that at times a single shot would burst out a mass of specimens the least of which was more than equivalent to a month's mining wage; and if only one half of the 120 men employed regularly pocketed but one lump of the golden quartz it must affect the output very considerably.
And the times were ticklish. The Working Man swaggered and talked loudly about the bad end that Capital was to presently make. And the miners came to their daily labour as if conferring a distinct favour on their employers, and even began to talk about "a share in the profits"—a share that the manager shrewdly suspected they were already helping themselves to. Therefore, all things considered, it behoved the management of the Mountain Maid Gold mining Company, Limited, to move warily, lest everything be thrown out of gear, and their mine laid idle.
Meanwhile, the yields got steadily worse, shareholders began to growl as the shares fell, and rumours circulated that the famous lead was "pinching out."
And still the miners, with an air of aggravating unconsciousness, moved serenely up and down the steep incline—precipice, some people would call it—in the tram-cars that ran on the wire-ropes between the Maid, buried 2000 feet below in the deep gully, and the little township of Crestville above.
Also, on holidays and Sundays they began to sport massive, if
roughly made, rings of the precious metal on their fingers, and chains of the same material across their waistcoats; also strange faces of Semitic cast came and went to and fro the township with curious regularity.
At last, in hopes of affecting a radical alteration in affairs, Manager Morris, at the risk of mortally offending the touchy Irishy, who formed the majority of his hands, erected a change-house in which every miner, must leave the clothes in which he had been working amongst the golden veins below, and put on a fresh suit to go home in until his shift came on again. But men simply grinned at the innovation, and bandied loud jokes, one with the other, respecting those suspicious folk who generally turned out the greatest rogues in the end.
Curiously enough, the change-house system had scarcely come into operation when a vein of surpassing richness was struck, and Mr. Morris waxed jubilant at the expected heavy return.
"That, my boy," said he, slapping the sergeant on the back, "will bring us up to an average of four ounces all round."
To his amazement, when, at last, the stamps ceased pounding for the final clean-up, the result was the worst, comparatively, on record.
Sergeant Slafferty was not altogether without brains. But he was a new chum on a diggings, also handicapped with an abiding thirst and an excessive feeling of patriotism. Certainly, with the best will in the world, he tried to do his duty. Officially, and otherwise, he was amongst the men continually; still he never seemed able to get the chance to ask the question, for ever on the tip of his tongue—"What you got there now?"
To him the most intricate case of cattle-duffing or sheep-stealing would have been the merest child's play compared with this mysterious, impalpable shrinkage, of which he certainly was told, but could see nothing, and had to take absolutely on trust.
Eventually, and perhaps naturally, he began to lose faith in both mine and manager, and to believe, as the general public were commencing to do, that the reef was giving out, and that the suspected thefts were but inventions from the proprietary to hide the fact from the shareholders as long as possible. Certain minor officials of the Maid had, in strictest confidence, confirmed this view of the matter to Sergeant Slafferty, so that when the manager would remark—"We've struck another good patch, sergeant, at the 200ft. level. Let's keep a sharp lookout, and hope for better luck this time." Slafferty would only respond with a wink and a chuckle that bothered Mr. Morris.
And so, for a while, things continued. One good clean-up there would be, and the manager, taking heart of grace, imagined his troubles were over. Then would come two or three wretched ones; then a good one again. And in his heart he knew that nearly as much gold was being lost as would double his present average returns, and send the company's shares higher than they had ever been.
Various ruses and traps he had employed for the discovery of the guilty parties, but all in vain. In spite of a secret watch upon the change-house and another on boxes and tables; in spite of strangers put on and incited to vigilence by promise of substantial reward, even when a richer streak than usual was struck, the yield of that crushing was sure to be far below his lowest estimate. The manager was, too, an experienced and practical miner, one who had worked his way up, and imagined himself thoroughly conversant with every dodge and every trick common amongst the black sheep to be found both underground and on the surface.
It was whilst matters were still at this stage that Morris sent to the capital for a first-class detective. But the detective might just as well have stayed where he was for all the good he did. Either the men had received information from those illicit Semitic buyers before referred to, or they "piped" the disguised miner with the white hands and inquisitive face as he dawdled over the light job that the manager gave him; but certain it was that they discovered his identity at once.
"Seen the D., Bill?" he heard one ask the other. "Ay," replied Bill, "I seen 'im; and I'm desperit 'feared as 'e'll 'ave a suddent fall one o' these nights into Deadman's Gully if he don't clear. "We don't mind the owld sargant; but we'll have no city blokes gammoning round these parts."
Now the gully referred to was a drop of some 800 feet sheer, close to the workings. The detective looked down it, shivered, and, feeling himself at a disadvantage, took his departure the very next morning.
Then, as a last resort, Morris himself came to town and saw me. At that time I was running a private inquiry office; and after hearing the manager's story I decided to go up myself to Crestville, leaving my partner in charge of the business. Disguises, I judged, were not of much account. Still, a stranger arriving at a small township like this ought to have some raison de ëtre, so I arranged with a friendly firm of music-sellers to go as their agent and piano tuner. I chose this line, advisedly; not only because I really knew something about pianos, but because as I imagined there would be very small scope to display my abilities.
Never was I more mistaken. All Crestville seemed to be suddenly smitten with a musical mania; and from inmates of lordly brick villas and those of weatherboard cottages and slab "humpies" alike, orders poured in. It was a regular boom and my friendly firm were surprised to presently receive orders to the tune of some hundreds of pounds for instruments which, as they arrived, I was engaged to tune at £3 3s. each! and you may be sure that whilst so employed I kept my eyes and ears open.
It was whilst tuning Mrs. Slafferty's new "iron-framed trichord" that I recognised in the sergeant an old comrade in arms. Together, in the 4th Hussars, we had seen a good deal of service, and been under fire more than once.
Naturally enough we fraternised, and without telling him my real business, I heard the whole story of the Mystery of the Mountain Maid. "It's all rubbish, me bhoy," he wound up. "The lade's pritty nigh gone, an' they risin' the croi of 'sthop thafe!' when it ud be betther to tell the trute. They've got as dacent a set o' bhoys workin' for 'em as you'd see in a day's march, an' nothin' must do the company but to be casthin' slurs at 'em an' damagin' their characthers. Oim sick av it, so Oi am, wid their fushtclass detective, an' their spyin' an' trappin'," and the worthy sergeant gave a snort of disgust.
Shortly after renewing acquaintance with the sergeant I was tuning one of the new pianos in a miner's house when the sound of an animated conversation, carried on across the dividing fence, reached my ears.
"An' so, Mrs. O'Brien, ma'm," remarked the neighbour with ominous politeness, "it's the gran' new pianner yer havin' fixed up for Mary Jane, is it?"
"Yis, Mrs. Sullivan, ma'm," replied my employer, scorning to be outdone in good manners, "seein' as the blessed nuns do be sayin' that her does have the rale jaynius for music. So Pat, he says, as times is so good, he'd get her the besht pianner as money could buy. Ye ought to do the same, Mrs. Sullivan, maim, for yer Susan. It's the long fingers for a likely touch she's got.'
There must have been some hidden allusion in the innuendo past my comprehension. It, however, took instant effect; for its recipient screamed "Glory be, you owld rip, ye, an' if her fingers are long they're clane, an' that's more'n some people's are for all their pianners, an' gowld chains, an watches, an' earrin's on three notes a week!
"Wisht, ye wild omadhaun, ye!" exclaimed my woman. "There's the pianner man inside 'll be hearin' ye, if ye scrame like a shtuck pig that ways!"
"An' who cares?" yelled the incensed one, as her adversary retreated. "It's only them as has got the dhirty fingers an' the bad conshince as cares. Yah!"
Finishing my job, I paid a visit next door. It was a small cake and fruit shop, kept by a widow whose husband, having been killed in the Mountain Maid, was in receipt of a pension from the company. "Not," however, as she presently informed me, with a very grave face, "big enough to buy pianners on."
"Well, Mrs. Sullivan," I said, after a chat and the purchase of some sweets for the children, "I'm very sorry I can't do any business with you. I'm very sorry, too, to think that it's probable, if these losses we hear so much about continue in the mine, the company will hardly be able to keep on paying your pension."
It was a shot at short range. And that it took effect I at once saw by the expression of the woman's face, in which rage and fear were so clearly depicted, that I turned to go, feeling more words quite unnecessary; and making sure that something would result.
"Well, sergeant," I asked, as we sat that night, in his snug room at the barracks, "any clue yet to this mine business?"
"Divil a clue," he replied. "Nor am oi expectin' any, me bhoy, unless it's Morris himself, the schamer, as tips me the wink." He was rolling, as he spoke, a piece of paper into spill form for a pipelight, when suddenly he paused and pitched it across the table, laughing heartily. "P'raps," said he, "that's a clue, to blazes wid sich clues as thim!" Unrolling the dirty crumpled sheet of notepaper I read, "Dere sargint, its hatts as does the trik."
Just then the words conveyed no more meaning to me than they did to my companion. However, that they were a clue I was certain. Certain, also, that they were connected with my morning's work. So, whilst the sergeant busied himself at the sideboard, I took the liberty of impounding the note whilst apparently using it to light my pipe.
I had not yet visited the mine, being, in my own mind, pretty sure that the township was the best place for me to work out the puzzle in.
But next day, under the sergeant's wing, I got into one of the trucks that travelled down the wire tramway, and, not without misgiving was launched down the precipice at the foot of which was situated the Maid.
Perhaps it was the contents of the note in my pocket-book, over which I had puzzled my brain not a little, that caused me to take far more interest in the miners' headgear than in stamps, boxes, oscillating-tables, engines, and all the rest of it. And I could see that Mr. Morris privately put me down as an ass, whilst answering my questions. "Did," I asked him, "all his men wear those hard black felt hats at their work? "They could please themselves," he answered shortly. "Most of them did. Some of them, certainly, took them off when they got to their job underground, and put on linen caps. It was just as a matter of habit. He could hardly insist on a man leaving his hat in the change-house. Perhaps I thought they were smuggling gold up in their 'hard-hitters?'" This last with a sneer. I made no answer, but still that idiotic "It's hatts as does the trik" ran to and fro in my brain. Still, it seemed a wildly improbable thing. Stay, one of the surface men had just taken his hat off and placed it crown down beside him, and close to me. Touching it with my foot I rolled on to a heap of quartz, and picking it up with an apology, I replaced it. Only, so far as I could discover, a simple hard felt, exactly the same as one sees worn by work men in the city any day—no more, no less. And I felt disgusted as, turning away, I caught the manager's grin of derision, and saw that he had noticed my little ruse. Crestville was not a very large town. And I did not think there was a cottage hut, bumpy or tent that I had not seen, or even entered. But I was mistaken. Strolling one Sunday morning through a scrubby side street, I all at once came upon a large tent, from which proceeded the sound of a merry whistle. Looking in I saw a squat, elderly man sitting at a bench, busy doing something to a hat—a black, hard, felt hat. For a time I silently stood and watched him. Happening to move slightly, he looked up and ceased whistling, and—was it merely fancy, or did he give a start and make as though he would cover his work? I could not be sure, but, anyhow, here were hats to the fore again!
"Good morning," I said "I am only the piano-man, out for a walk. What are you doin'? Trying to make new hats out of old ones, eh?" and, as I spoke, I walked in and sat down.
"Nod quite dat," he answered. "It vos only Dan O'Brien gone und say he wand his had made sdronger mit anoder grown in him. Id is hard vork on der 'ead der mining, vhen de rock vall. Yah, id is zo," and he pretended to go on with his work; but, as I saw at once, it was only pretence.
Even then, as I sat there and filled my pipe and talked, the full significance of the thing never struck me as one would think it should have done. But, of late, I had given up the "hatt" theory, in great measure, as at all connected with "head-gear, and had turned my attention towards proper names, such as "Hatts" or "Hatz." Also, I was going to interview my friend, Mrs. Sullivan, again. Therefore, as I say, it was not until I had left the German and his tent some distance behind me that I suddenly stopped dead, and exclaimed to a native bear, sitting on a stump alongside the track, "By Jupiter! After all it is 'hatts as does the trik'!"
For three long hours I hid in the scrub and watched. And, at last, out, came my German—empty handed I was pleased to see—and took his way "up town" without even troubling to close the flap of his tent. Hardly waiting for him to disappear, I was inside and had the hat in my hands—finished, too, evidently. For once I was in luck's way! No doubt about it, my foreign friend was a tradesman, every inch of him! There was the false crown fitted to a T, lined and fixed so as to defy suspicion. And, as I ran my fingers over the true crown, they pressed a square slot that opened quite wide enough to receive a good sized nugget, or a handful of golden stone crushed small by a hammer or pick-head, and then flew back into its place again. At last the secret was out, and the mystery one no longer. Verily, it was "hatts as does the trik!"
Morris could hardly believe his ears when I told him of my discovery, and I think he was sceptical to the last minute; but I must admit he acted promptly and with determination. His professional reputation, as well as mine, was at stake, and we determined, to hazard both on the one chance.
Knowing the man we had to deal with, Morris went off to a large town not far distant, returning with a sub-inspector and eight, or nine police just as the night shift was coming off. As the constables took up their places, in the engine-room, I won't deny that I felt qualmish. Morris, too, looked pale and uneasy as the telephone rang down to the works the usual signal. "All clear?" and the reply came back, "All clear. Hoist away."
The astonishment and dismay of the six miners in the first truck as they stepped out, only to be surrounded by police and ordered to "Off hats," was actually ludicrous. Then, as they recovered, they showed fight; but the drawn revolvers brought them to their senses, and sullenly enough they "unbonneted," and cast their hats upon the floor.
And what rich hats they were! Not one was drawn a blank. Suffice it to say that the shift yielded amongst them nearly 100 oz. of gold. No wonder the lead was "pinching out!"
Slafferty had been despatched to apprehend "German Charlie;" and that worthy, presently turning Queen's evidence, enabled us to lay our hands not only on other miners, but on the receivers also. Thirty shillings each was what Charlie used to charge for his patent hats; all repairs, which were often needed, at the same price.
I don't think the sergeant ever quite forgave me for working up the case without his help, although he did not refuse the substantial douceur I offered him out of the handsome reward the M.M.G.M. Company made me. And I soon had the pleasure of noticing that their shares were doubled in value, and that dividends were being declared at very short intervals.
THERE was a big crowd of officers and men "looking for a ship" one damp, foggy morning at the old Tower Hill office in London. A barque for the Cape, two or three steamers, and a four-master for Calcutta filled up before I could get a show at all. At last "A second mate and eight A.B.s for the West Indies!" was sung out. Lots of seamen still hung about, but not a man except myself stirred.
"Now then!" shouted the doorkeeper again, "here y'are! Who's for the Cumberland—three pound a month, and a six months trip, all in the warm weather?"
"Not me," replied a big, gray-bearded, mahogany-faced seaman, drawing back. "I likes a light in my fok'sle, I does. An' I ain't takin' any stock in stinkin' ghostes wot can't leave a poor shellback alone in his watch below!"
This much I heard as, passing in, I found myself in the presence of the captain of the Cumberland and the shipping master.
"What's the matter with the men, Mr. Jackson?" the former was saying. "They simply rushed the other vessels, and now they won't look at mine."
"Oh," replied the other, "I expect some of them have got hold of the old story about the barque. I remember once or twice, years ago, the same thing happening. I should have thought, though, that by now the thing had died out. Probably one of the men outside has sailed in her and told his mates the yarn. It's said that to keep a lamp alight in her fok'sle's an impossibility—that—er—in fact, a ghost comes and blows it out." And old Jackson grinned and looked rather sheepishly at us.
"What rubbish!" exclaimed the captain—a pleasant-faced man of about 30—laughing heartily; "And I'm to lose my ship because a pack of idiots have got some old woman's story into their thick heads! Why, the Cumberland's been laid up for years, and has, they tell me, only just come out of dock after a good overhauling, as sweet and fresh and clean as a new pin."
"That's so," replied Jackson; "and the very reason she lay idle for so long is the one that stops the men signing in her now. Before your present firm bought her and altered her name she was known as the Carlisle, and was in the same trade as she's going to run in at present"
"The deuce!" exclaimed the skipper. "I've heard of her. But, Mr. Jackson, if the devil himself comes and blows the fok'sle lamp out every night, I'm going to sail her if I can get a crowd. And, at any rate, (turning to me), here's one to start with."
My business was soon finished; only, finding that I held a master's certificate, Captain Hebden offered me the position of chief in place of second mate, the man who was to fill the former billet having unexpectedly resigned at the last minute through his wife's illness. I liked this well, and signed without a question. Indeed, neither for Jack nor his masters were these the days for hesitation. Besides, I took to the frank, good-humoured face of my new skipper, seeing no sign therein of what fate had in store for him.
"Would you mind having a word with the men, Mr. Forbes?" he asked me presently, "and trying to reason with them a bit. Fancy an old ghost story like that getting hold of Jack at this time o' day to the extent of making him refuse a good trip and a comfortable ship when both are such scarce matters." So out I went into the dirty waiting-room, foul with tobacco, and thick with the rank smoke of the weed.
"Now, my lads," I commenced, without any preamble, and knowing my marks, "what's all this nonsense? Because some fools, a dozen years ago, hadn't enough sense to keep a lamp alight, are you going to lose money, and let the old woman and the kids go hungry? Come, now, I've signed as mate of the Cumberland; aren't there ten bullies, not afraid of their own shadows, that'll keep me company. I'll help you to trim your lamp, if you want help. I came in through the hawse-pipes, not through the cabin door, and haven't forgotten how to cut a wick yet, as well as turn in a deadeye, if need be."
At this there was a laugh; and I think if it had not been for the big fellow I have mentioned before I should have got my men at once, for I saw several pocket their pipes and shake themselves, preparatory to making a move. But the gray-headed sailor, stepping forward, and chewing viciously on his quid, said, quietly enough, "I'm one o' them fools, mister, as you're speakin' on. I sailed in the old tub ten years ago, when Hellfire Jack Brown was skipper on her. There was a curse put on her them days—not the trip I was aboard. P'raps it's off now. Any way, I ain't goin' to make one to find out. Mind ye, I'm not sayin' any thin' agen the barque, mates. Mebbe her 'd be better to han'le if she had double tawps'ls 'stead o' they big whole uns. But she's tight an' dry, or was in them days, an' no doubt she's right enough still. It was the bloomin' ghost as knocked us—none o' yer half an' half happaritions, but a gennywine forty-power stinkin' speciment. He came inter the eyes of her, in the shape of a blasted fog-bank, and doused the glim every time we lit it. An' cold—lor! you could 'ear our teeth a-rattlin'. An' stinkin' worser'n tanyard and bilge water mixed! Well, o' course we clears like redshanks; an' Hellfire trying to bounce us as we'd seen nothin'! But it warn't good enough. Then the old man hisself, down he goes. An' when he comes up agen he looks more'n sick, altho' he never lets on a word. Nor he didn't cuss an' haze us, as he used to do, any more. An' he doesn't hobjeck when we rigs a fores'l over the after hatch and camps there durin' the rest of the passidge. We wants our discharges at Kingston; he wouldn't give 'em to us. So we takes chokee instead, an' glad to git it. An' the ship goes round to Savannah la Mar; there the new crew clears; and there, never havin' got over the chill he catched in the fok'sle, Hellfire dies. It was four months afore a crew could be got to take the barque home; an' when she come into dock they was camped same as we'd been—on the after hatch. Wages out o' the port o' London is three pun' a month. An' if 'twere thirty pun, mates, Joe Harris (that's me) 'd think twice afore he shipped on that there Cumberland, halias Carlisle. Nor—"
"Come, come, my lad," I broke in impatiently, "belay all that. Your slack jaw's as long as the main-t'gallant halliards. One would ha' thought you'd had time to outgrow your fright since all that happened. I don't want any croakers in my watch. But I dare say some of these other hearties 'll come and help me keep the barque's fok'sle lamp alight. Why, hang me if it wouldn't make a man believe he's put back a hundred years to hear the way you talk! Now, then, you tarpaulins, I'll give you five minutes to come along and sign. I don't hanker after Dagoes or Lascars or Dutchmen; but the Cumberland's got to have her crowd; and, you know, I can get her one in five minutes over at Green's Home." And, so saying, I went, into the next room.
"You talked to 'em like a father, sir," remarked the old shipping-master approvingly. "We've heard it all through the side window here. If that kind of jaw don't fetch 'em, nothing will. And here they come!"
Sure enough, a dozen or so of my late audience came shuffling in, grinning and nudging each other, and cracking dim jokes in husky undertones. They were, too, I was glad to see, all British. For, inveterate growler as he is, and insubordinate at times, and apt-to give more trouble all round than the subservient "Dutchman," or the sneaking Dago, I confess to a strong preference for the British sailor-man, with all his faults. Blood's thicker than water, for one thing; and you know that when you've got a crowd of English speakers you've got something that'll stick to you and to your ship through thick and thin, and not crawl below out of the hurly burly, or holystone the decks with their knees and call upon Saint Antonio to do their work for 'em.
We got all we wanted out of the mob, including one to act as second mate and boatswain. And, business over, old Jackson came and had some lunch with us. During the course of the meal we got him to tell us what he knew regarding the legend of the lamp, which, after all, didn't amount to very much.
"One trip," said he, "the Carlisle had a real bad crowd. But amongst them was a half-witted sort of chap that old Brown had picked up to act as 'Jimmy Ducks' and slush about generally just for his tucker. Well, one night he neglected to trim the fok'sle lamp, and a couple or perhaps more of the brutes—regular packet-rats they were—kicked and pounded him, so that he presently died. They got scared then; and, giving out that he was ill, they kept the body for three or four days in one of the bunks. Then they hove it overboard, and swore the poor wretch had committed suicide. Well, that very night the lamp went out. Nor, despite all attempts—and, between ourselves I don't think they made many—could ever a lamp be got to burn in that fok'sle again. I remember one of the crew telling me that a single experience of the cold and stench combined when the apparition appeared was quite enough for any average man. Indeed, crowd after crowd either ran away or went to gaol sooner than sail in her; and what with delays and court work, the vessel used to eat her freights. So they laid her up for sale. But, until your owners bought her, no one would look at such a losing concern as a haunted ship. Why, it's over five years now since she first took up her quarters in 'Rotten-row.'"
"Well," said Captain Hebden as we rose from table to go aboard the barque, "surely the curse is run out by this, and the spectre laid. I suppose, Jackson, you never put any faith in such a cock and bull story, anyhow?"
But the ancient mariner scratched his bald pate doubtfully as he replied:—
"Well, I don't know, captain. I've seen some curious things at sea in my time. However, you'll be able to give me your opinion on the matter when we meet again. And I hope you won't come up the river, as I've seen the barque do afore now, with a spare main'sl rigged across a lower stu'nsl-boom over the after-hatch to serve instead of a fok'sle."
"Not much danger!" laughed Captain Hebden gaily. "If I can't follow my profession without being molested by nasty, freezing, evil-smelling ghosts—why, I may as well give it up. No, Jackson, I've got too many barnacles on my hide to be scared by anything in that line."
"So old Hellfire thought," retorted the other with a boding shake of the head; "but they say it killed him."
But the captain only laughed again, and, bidding the shipping-master good-bye, we made for the docks.
We found the Cumberland (the first sight of her for both of us) a sound, wholesome looking barque, strongly built after the fashion of twenty years back; square in the stern, and bluff in the bows; no double yards, donkey engines, patent capstans, or other modern fallals about her; but still a homely, comfortable seeming kind of creature of a ship, such as builders don't turn out of hand in these days of iron, steam, and steel. The stevedores were stowing the last of the cargo in the square of the hatchways. The riggers had the sails bent and furled, gear rove, stays and back stays well set up, and everything aloft ataunto; and with her shining white lower masts, brightly scraped upper spars towering to gilt-trucked royal poles, and the big spread of her square yards she looked, as the eye, coming down, took in her great beam, massive bulwarks, and shining brass work, a notable contrast to the sharp-nosed, gim-crack iron clippers that surrounded her. A tub the moderns might sneerlngly call her; but, very certainly, she was the sort of tub whose decks you might walk in slippers whilst their lee-scuppers were breast high with green seas. On her main deck she carried an enormous long-boat, fit child of such a buxom mother, and intended to cruise around the islands amongst the planters for rum, molasses, and sugar with which to return to the anchored barque, and fill up the capacious maternal interior. Technically, this boat was known as a "drogher." But it took a lot of room; and, in addition, there was a host of spare spars, big water-casks, &c., that gave the decks somewhat of a lumbered-up appearance.
We were to haul out at high water that night; and, even now, the men were straggling down, more or less sober, and dumping their round-bottomed bags and their chests into the dark hatchway that led to their quarters below.
I was kept too busy for a time to think of anything outside my work; but, after we brought up at the Nore with a westerly wind in our teeth, and I went aft to turn in for an hour or two, I laughed to myself when, glancing down the fok'sle scuttle, my eye caught the gleam of a brightly burning lamp, and my ear the dull, peaceful, rumbling notes of men's voices. Before daybreak the wind came round with plenty of westing in it, and, calling all hands, we got up our anchor, made sail, and wallowed away down channel with a wake like a paddle-steamer; steady as a pyramid, dry as a baker's oven, and with half-a-gale of wind roaring and hooting in the bellies of our topsails.
"Fok'sle lamp burn all right last night, Mr. Forbes, d'ye know?" asked the skipper at breakfast with a twinkle in his eye.
"Yes, sir," I replied. "At least, I've heard no complaint, so far."
"Ah," said he, laughing, "I thought that long spell in the docks would have taken all the energy out of the best and stanchest ghost going."
And until we got clear of soundings it really seemed as if the captain was right; for his sake I only wish it had been so. But then the trouble began in earnest; and if I hadn't so many available witnesses to back me up I don't know that I'd care about putting what happened to us into cold print. We had just cleared the Channel. It was four bells (6 o'clock p.m.) in the second dog watch, a fine, bright cold evening, with a jump of a head sea on, and the Lizard light barely visible on the port quarter. As I stumped the poop to and fro from binnacle to break—having just relieved the second mate to let him get his supper—happening to glance for'ard, I saw, one after the other, the watch below come bolting up through their scuttle as if propelled from a catapult. It was not yet so dark but that I could distinguish the passionate gestures with which they told something to the little group of the port watch, that at once surrounded them, before, racing aft, they bundled up the poop ladder, at the head of which I met them. In each of the five faces fear and bewilderment strove for the mastery, and all five bodies shivered and trembled as with ague.
"If you please, sir," at once began an elderly man named Jones, his brown face turned to a nasty slate colour, and his words jostling each other as they came out, "we can't stop down there," jerking for'ard with outstretched thumb. "We was just havin' our supper when a stinkin', freezin' THING comes an' douses our lamp. We all seen It, so there's no error. An' we all felt It—leastways the cold an' the stench of It. Poof! It's in my mouth yet!" And be spat over the side, imitated scrupulously by his mates. "No, sir," he went on, raising his voice as he saw me grinning at him, "we ain't no fools, an' we knows our work as sailor-men; but we ain't a-goin' to stand no such larks as them. Harris was right arter all. The ship's harnted; an' you can't expec', sir, as ornery flesh an' blood 'll put up wi' a bloomin' ghost as comes foggin' an' stinkin', strong as a whole churchyard full o' corpuses, into a man's fok'sle whiles he's a-eatin' of his bit of supper."
The fellow was perfectly civil, and I saw at once that, so bad a scare had they all got, the time had passed for an ordinary tongue-thrashing to have its usual effect.
"Ay, ay, Bill's right," remarked another in the pause that followed. "An' Mr. Forbes 'll remember his promise to help keep the fok'sle lamp trimmed." This speech was received with a deep growl of approval. It was the starboard watch good men all, and the last I should have thought to be easily frightened. And I felt puzzled. But clearly it was a time for action, not talk. The captain was napping, and I did not want to bother him about such rubbish; so, calling the second mate, who was smoking an after-supper pipe on the quarter-deck, I gave him charge of the ship while, followed by the men, I went for'ard and down the hatchway. Rather to my surprise, not a soul offered to accompany me.
"Now then," I asked laughingly, as I stood half-way down the ladder, with my head over the coamings, "isn't anybody coming to help me do Jimmy Ducks's work?"
None of the second mate's watch made answer. But one of my own men, a little fellow called Daniels, belonging to the Isle of Wight, replied cheerily:
"Ay, ay, sir. I'll come if old Nick hisself's there. Wheer another man's game to go I ain't afeard."
So down we went. It was black as pitch: and getting to the foot of the ladder, I struck a long wax vesta and glanced around. It wasn't a very cheerful place. Along one side ran twelve bunks, six on top, six below. Underneath them were lashed chests; on the opposite bulkhead hung suits of oilskins; on the floor was a wooden tub containing a big lump of salt beef, and another one full of biscuits; from a capsized hook-pot the tea had flowed in a dark stream; close to it lay a square bottle of vinegar, out of which the liquor still ran when each heave of the barque canted it forward; about the chests were scattered plates and pots; disorder everywhere testifying to a very hurried evacuation. All this I noted before my match went out, and while my companion struck another. Taking it from him, I approached the lamp that swung from the ceiling nearly amid ships. It was just the ordinary tin receptacle, full of oil, from which projected a couple of long spouts for the wicks, that one still sees in many "sailers'" fore-castles, where it has not been superseded by the kerosene-fed, closed "hurricane." Applying the match to one of the wicks, it "fizzled" and would not light.
"The idiots!" I exclaimed. "The cotton's wet as a soaked swab! They've been too d—d lazy to trim it! Bring the thing on deck, Daniels, and I'll get the steward to fix it properly."
Taking the lamp aft to the pantry, I left my companion sitting on the hatch, and whistling with a fine assumption of devil may-careness as the rest came round him.
"An' ye saw nothin'—nothin' at all, Dan?" I heard one of them say as I returned and lit the lamp under shelter of the hood that drew over the scuttle.
"Ne'er a thing," replied Dan calmly. "What should us see? Come on, you star-bowlines, an' finish yer suppers; the mate an' me 'll purtect ye while yer stows 'em away."
"Qarn!" replied one of the taunted watch in a tone of exasperation. "Why, blast me if I'm ever going to get warm again; to say nothin' o' the stink o' rotten corpses as is in my nose yet! Damp wick! Ho!" and the speaker snorted indignantly.
Hanging the lamp on its hook, it burned clearly and with a good bright flame.
"There, now," I remarked complacently, seating myself on a chest and filling my pipe; "what could be better than that? We'll stay awhile to make sure; and then we'll call those babies up there to finish their supper. And—" But, here, glancing at Daniels, I caught him staring open mouthed past me into the darksome corner right for'ard, known as the "eyes." Following his intent gaze, I saw, coming slowly towards us, a sort of thick mist shaped like a human figure with outstretched arms, while the air, hitherto warm and close, grew icy cold with a chill in it that seemed to freeze my very marrow. And as if this were not enough, a horrible stench pervaded the fok'sle—a grisly, putrid stink that brought corrupt and festering corpses into the mind's eye. As the Thing glided past a pricking sensation of horror swept through me; I broke out all over in a cold sweat, my teeth chattered like the rattle of a dynamo; and for a minute I thought I was going to faint. Then, all at once, came darkness and a comparatively clear atmosphere.
For a while, panting, spitting, and shaking with the awful cold, I couldn't speak. Then I called Daniels. Receiving no answer, I struck a light. But I was alone, Daniels had disappeared. Pulling myself together, I struck another match, unhooked the lamp, and slowly went up the ladder on deck, having received the worst scare I ever got in my life, and studying only how not to show it.
It was dark enough by this, and I nearly stumbled over a man sitting and groaning, with his back against the fore-hatch.
"It's Daniels, sir," said a voice: "Daniels a-throwin' up ov his soul-bolts, an' not by chalks so jolly cock-a-hoopy as he were just awhile agone, when he inwited of us down to finish our suppers."
Taking no notice of this, I said, as calmly as I could, to the clustered forms around, "That fok'sle of yours, lads, is a bit unhealthy just yet. It's the fumes from the new paint gets working in a man's brains, I expect. However, we'll have the matter cleared up presently. Now lie aft, and get a good nip of grog each."
Very thankful was I for the darkness that enabled me to escape the searching, inquisitive eyes that I could feel boring, as it were, into me. Afloat or ashore, the officer that gives way before his men is done—spent—has outlived his usefulness. And, had it been daylight, I could hardly have answered for myself, so heavy and unexpected had been the shock to me. In the lighted alleyway near the pantry I met the captain. At sight of my face he started back, saying, "Hello! You look as if you'd seen something that didn't agree with you! Or are you not feeling well? What's the matter?"
I told him my story. At first be laughed, and cracked a joke or two at my expense. But, seeing that I really was nervous, shivering, and unstrung, he became grave, filled me out a stiff nip of rum, and said, "This is awkward, Forbes. We've got no place to put the men. Of course, it's all imagination on your side as well as theirs. Somebody's playing tricks down there. When you feel better we'll try and settle the thing, you and I. In the meantime the men can have their supper aft here on the hatch. I'll tell the second mate to keep all hands there while we're away. Yes, of course, there must be something in it, or you wouldn't pitch such a story. But it's capable of rational explanation, I think. Just tell the steward to get the riding-lamp trimmed while I fetch my revolver. Put a pair of scissors in your pocket to cut the wick with, should it go out again; and when you're ready let me know."
Now, truth to say, I had but little stomach for a second edition of the business. Still, seeing the captain so alert, cheery, and confident put heart into me, making me half willing to believe that my imagination might have had some share in the thing. Therefore, by the time he'd fixed up his revolver, and I'd taken another stiffener of rum to warm my chilled body, I was ready for the adventure.
As we passed out the second mate was calling the roll at the quarter-deck capstan, and the cook was bustling about the after-hatch with plates and dishes by the light of a similar lamp to the one I carried.
"All present, Mr. Williams?" asked the captain, pausing a moment.
"All here, sir," replied the second mate. "except the men at the wheel and lookout."
"Call the lookout aft, too," ordered the captain. "He can keep it on top of the spars awhile, till we return."
This left us the whole fore-part of the ship to ourselves, and lonely enough it felt as we walked along the deserted deck and descended the fok'sle ladder.
A riding-lamp is globular in shape, of uncoloured thick glass, protected by rings of stout wire, can only be opened by unscrewing the bottom, and is impervious to wind or rain. It is a heavy lamp, made usually of copper, and is generally hoisted well up the fore-stay of a vessel at anchor.
Hanging it carefully on the iron hook in place of the other one, we sat down on a chest, close to each other, our eyes fixed steadily on the gloomy space for'ard, where the sides of the barque narrowed into the stem—the spot whence the Thing had appeared before. The last of the top tier of bunks, I knew, lay there; and I asked my self with a shiver if it might not be the one in which the corpse of the murdered man had been kept so long.
The air was close and stuffy, within it a predominant smell of new paint; the big lamp, swinging fore and aft to the motion of the ship, flung great blobs and splashes of white light athwart the dimness; now and again a heavier sea than usual would smite the bows with a sound as of giants slapping giants' cheeks; a huge polished cockroach crawled out from under a chest and investigated the dark stains of tea and vinegar on the floor; and the empty oil skin suits opposite us rustled and swayed to and fro in the shadow of the bulkhead like a line of hanged men swinging in a breeze.
I was anxious—anxious to justify myself in my captain's sight, and the time seemed endless. But not more than a few minutes could have passed ere the air grew cold. I nudged my companion's arm. On this occasion there was leisure for scrutiny, and, knowing what was to happen, I felt steadier and calmer. At first all that was visible seemed a thick, filmy filling of the dim fore-part of the fok'sle—something like fog or smoke of a dull-gray colour. Then, gradually advancing, it took to our eyes human shape, becoming still more opaque as it did so. And at this stage I heard the revolver click to full-cock, while the cold grew so intense as, in spite of us, to set our teeth rattling. The Thing, by now, was only some four or five feet from us, a little to the right, and approaching with a slow gliding motion. There were the head, trunk, outstretched arms, legs, all the members perfect, even to the fingers; but, otherwise, all a dull vaporous blank—featureless. And the shocking, rotting-corpse-like odour made us gasp again for breath.
"Get between it and the lamp, Forbes!" whispered the captain with a shake in his voice. But I hesitated, thinking I was close enough. Whereupon, without waiting, he started from my side, throwing himself right in front of the phantom, then some three yards from the lamp. In a moment I saw the form close on him; the long gray arms curled round his neck—the light and he were both blotted out, two pale splashes of flame leapt from the darkness, two dull reports sounded, and something fell heavily to the deck. Then the cold and the stench vanished, leaving me sick and shaking.
Striking a match, I saw the captain lying flat on his face, one arm underneath him, the other outstretched and still grasping the pistol. Raising him, I found that, though sensible, he was shaking as with ague; also that his clothes were as soaking wet as though he had been towed over board all day. Otherwise he was apparently unhurt.
"Shall we wait any longer?" I asked.
But, in place of answering, he staggered to the ladder, the water dripping in little rivulets from him, and his feet squelching in their boots. I had to take his arm to support him along the deck and to his cabin. Nor this time was any evasion of the dozens of inquisitive eyes possible; and all hands and the cook very soon had their tongues clacking, trying to guess what had happened to "the ole man" down in the fok'sle.
In spite of dry clothes and hot toddy, it was fully an hour before the skipper got over his shaking-fit; and even then he looked miserably ill and broken up. His fingers, too, constantly wandered to his throat, and he complained of a choking sensation there.
"Are there any marks about my neck, Forbes?" he asked more than once.
"None, sir," I replied, after looking.
"Well," said he, "I'll swear I felt them—ice-cold claws that gripped as if they meant to strangle me, and only let go when I fired. I'll never get over it, Forbes," he continued. "All the sun in Jamaica 'll not make me feel properly warm again It's in my bones. Fix the men up as well as you can. I don't think any of us will care to go back in this ship. I know I shan't."
Well, we managed to rig up a sort of fairly comfortable shanty by righting the great long-boat that reached across the main hatch from the galley to the main mast. And in this the crew lived for the remainder of the passage.
In spite of all reticence it got about that the skipper had fired at the Thing and grappled with it; and his looks emphasised the result. Indeed, by the time we reached Port Royal he had to be carried to the hospital, so ill was he. And there, before we finished discharging cargo, he died. I would have taken the Cumberland home could I have got hands. But not a man in the island would sign in her if offered £20 a month. Eventually she was sold, and dismantled, her decks ripped up, filled fore and aft with coal, and towed round to Morant Bay, where she still lies, known only as "Hulk No. 49."
Far away in front of us stretched, tier below tier, the rugged, thickly timbered terraces of the eastern slope of the tableland, away for hard on seventy miles, until, from the horizon, there flashed back in the sunlight something that looked like a huge eye staring across the world at us. This was the sea. It was Sunday; and on that, day we rested. Therefore my companion and myself had scrambled out of the deep, dark, moist gully, a mile below, to the top of the great scarred cliffs—last strongholds of the mountain land—that, grim and weather-worn, faced space, and the far-off ocean. Here, at least, we could breathe freely after the stifling down there; and gaze, or so it felt to us, half the earth over to that gleaming eye of sea beyond it.
Frank Halifax, my companion, was a new chum in this colony, although he had been up the country in South Africa. Advertising for a mate with a little capital to help me prospect these wild eastern ranges, he replied, and we became partners, he was a good-looking, nervous, rather melancholy fellow of about twenty-four, fairly well educated, unaccustomed to manual labour, and quite ignorant of digging. Somewhat reserved and self-absorbed in his manner, of his antecedents I knew nothing, save that he hailed from "The Cape." Nor did I particularly care to. Men in the bush often work side by side for years without knowing much more about each other than is comprised in an abbreviation of their Christian names. And, as Frank turned out a hearty and willing worker, we got on well together better, probably, than two experienced men would have done. Of experience I had enough for a dozen, so far as our business the search for gold was concerned at any rate.
Up to the present our luck had been of the vilest. Duffer after duffer had we put down, finding traces of half-a-dozen different minerals to one of that noble metal we were seeking. It was hard, dispiriting, monotonous work and the relief of coming up on to these bold and breezy bluffs out of the steamy foothills below them, inhaling the salt airs that swept to us from the sea, and gazing away across the world, was something to be looked forward to as a treat.
And this day, as we lay in the sun and smoked, my mate seemed inclined to be rather more communicative than I had ever known him. Unhooking a silver locket from his chain, he, after a long look, passed it to me, saying—"That's the girl I'm engaged to over in South Africa. Things were so bad there that I left to try and make enough to, presently, return and marry on. Doesn't seem much show yet! But I know it's only a question of time. It's been foretold that I shall make my fortune over here on the diggings."
The face was that of a rather pretty, dark-haired, dark-eyed girl, with roses in her hair, and a happy smile on her lips.
"She'll wait," he went on, "but I don't think it will be for long. My luck'll come presently. Her father promised I should have her as soon as I could show £300; and then he's going to give us a bit of a farm he has out in the Orange Free State."
"What makes you so sure about that fortune, Frank?" I asked, as I returned the locket.
"When I was a boy," he replied, "an old Swazi witch-doctor or sorcerer, famous for his predictions, not only with his tribe but the whites, foretold that in my twenty-fourth year, in a strange country, I should find my fortune at the end of a rope."
"Seems to me," I said, grinning, "that the prophecy is capable of several interpretations. Pity the sorcerer hadn't been a little more precise while he was about it."
"Isn't that enough?" asked Frank, excitedly? "what more could you want? It's as plain as possible. Here's the strange land; and, well, of course, our rope may not be the rope; but I shall be twenty-five next week. And everybody over there said there could be no other meaning in the thing except great luck at some foreign diggings. Indeed, that's what mainly induced me to come to Australia."
"Well, well," I replied, soothingly, "let us hope that the luck, or fortune, the old nigger spoke of may come to you soon; although I must still maintain that his riddle carries a wide margin."
Mists, woolly and white and damp, were rising from the sea, veiling that solitary, inland-pushing bay—our eye—as well as the scrub-covered foothills below us as we scrambled down through clumps of native myrtle interspersed with lawyer-vines and stinging-trees, on our return to the camp in the darksome gully shaded by giant ferns. Although half inclined to chaff Frank about his rope's-end, I refrained, seeing he took the matter so seriously. Having fads of my own that I object to people making fun of, I have learnt to, in a measure, respect such matters in my neighbours. Still, the whole thing seemed so idiotic, that, for the life of me, I couldn't help chuckling now and again at the notion. And, after I turned in, I amused myself by guessing in how many possible ways a man's fortune might depend on the end of a rope, finally falling asleep and dreaming that I was a diver, wading breast high in precious stones along the bottom of the sea, and connected with upper airs by one thin line, whose end I held in my hand. Our last shaft was down about twenty-five feet in hard porphyritic sinking, forcing us to always use gads, with now and then a shot. Hitherto, deterred either by the wild and rugged nature of the country, or from want of sufficient funds, few prospectors had given it more than a cursory trial. Nor, so far as we could see, was it likely to prove worth more. Of gold, at rare intervals, we had found alluvial colours, but no sign of any reef. Traces, however, of half-a-dozen other metals, such as tin, all the varieties of zinc and iron ores, copper, cobalt, &c., were everywhere apparent. Indeed, the whole area between the break of the table land and the sea appeared to abound with infinitesimal deposits of every metal except gold. Altogether a most puzzling and uncertain country in which to work!
Late that Monday evening we put a shot into an exceptionally tough corner. Lowering Frank down after a while, I presently heard him shout at the top of his voice—"My fortune! my fortune! my fortune!"
In a twinkling I slid along the rope and joined him on the floor of the shaft. And for fully a minute, even to my eye, old and experienced miner as I was, I thought there was reason in his cry.
All around, as the dynamite had thrown them up, lay lumps and fragments of yellow metal gleaming dully in the candlelight, and making the whole place look a veritable Tom Tiddler's ground. Picking a bit of the stuff up, my first surprise over, was—merely yellow mispickel, sometimes known as "new chum's gold." Hard, heavy, and brassy in the daylight, it has deceived many a tyro. Fancy, then, what the great heap of it appeared to Frank, piled high about his feet in glittering cubes and prisms. And never had I seen it so pure, nor in such quantities, free from admixture of all other metals. Evidently we had broken up a wide deep vein of it.
All this I was about to explain to my mate, when, looking at him, I paused, and thought better of it. He had fallen on his knees, and in wild and feverish hurry, was filling his pockets and the breast of his blue shirt with the useless rubbish, growling and muttering to himself the while like a hungry dog at a bone. "It's mine—all mine!" I heard him say. "Now who'll laugh at old Banyai-Zamba? Mine—all mine! Tons of it! Gold! gold! gold!"
I touched him on the shoulder. "It's mine!" he yelled, staring fiercely up at me. "All mine; if I had not been with you it would never have been found. You sneered at me yesterday! I heard you! Who laughs now?"
"Of course it's yours," I replied, "and you're quite welcome to it, my boy, only don't get so excited over the thing."
All at once, laughing hysterically, he rose and seemed to come to himself, saying, as he unloaded some of his cargo, "The sight of so much wealth nearly knocked me over. It was all so sudden. How you can take it so calmly I cannot understand. I think I'll go up and get a little fresh air."
But he was trembling in every limb, to say nothing of the weight he still carried in his pockets, and could no more straddle the shaft than fly. So I ascended, hand over hand, and wound him up in the bucket. He was pale and exhausted, and there was a wild, furtive, dangerous glare in his eye that determined me not to undeceive him yet. Indeed, in his present mood, I was pretty certain he would not have believed me. And, as he walked unsteadily to his tent, I noticed that he took a lump of the stuff from his pocket and mumbled to it, and put it to his lips, glancing back at me—black suspicion and doubt in his gaze—a sorry and a pitiful spectacle.
It was now dark; and when Frank came out to supper he could eat nothing and it was with great difficulty I persuaded him not to go below again that night. For a while he was down and sullen; then, poor chap, his thoughts took a pleasanter turn, and he rattled off what he would do with his money building such air-castles and planning such schemes as saddened me to have to listen to. Perhaps, then, I ought to have told him the truth. But observing the furtive gleam in the eyes that never met mine, and the trembling hand that cuddled the brassy lumps in his pockets, I decided to wait till the morning. He had not only got the gold fever, and that badly, but, in addition, the demons of greed and covetousness had also entered into his soul, working havoc there for the time being.
He soon returned to his tent and as I sat there alone by the dying fire, my imagination, the first time for many a day, began to play tricks with me.
The night was calm, and, as always in these depths, oppressive. From where I sat I could not see Frank's tent, but I knew that he was, probably, at that moment, gloating over his treasure, founding fresh plans on the strength of its false glitter, and letting those two demons rage afresh within him. And there seemed something ominous in the gloomy stillness of the deep gully, with its precipitous sides reaching skyward, and its dark, dank masses of vegetation closing me in on every hand. A second-quarter moon was rising over the cliffs, throwing strange, grotesque shadows around, transforming the tree-ferns into gigantic funereal plumes that seemed to nod meaningly at me; silvering the mound of earth from our shaft, and throwing it into relief against a black mass of myrtle till it looked like an open grave, with the tall standards as men lowering a coffin therein; whilst on the night air the rank, close smell of decaying leaves and logs rose with an odour of death in it.
Telling myself that, if I didn't mind, I should soon be as bad as my mate, I rose, covered the fire up, and turned in, not forgetting to place my revolver under the pillow, as I remembered that nasty look in Frank's eyes. Awaking at daybreak, I boiled the billy and called Frank to breakfast. Generally he was up first. Receiving no answer, I walked over to the tent. But he was not there. Then I ran to the shaft. The greenhide bucket lay on the heap of mullock where I had left it the night before but the rope ran taut from the windlass for some ten or twelve feet, as I could tell by the peg against which the handle rested, and that we used as a break or stopper. Peering over, I shouted. But at that early hour it was too dark to see any distance into the shaft and only the echo of my own voice came back to me. So, pulling out the peg, I hove up. A very heavy weight! A weight that turned me faint and sick with the mere feel of it. But I persevered until there jerked out of the gloom a man's shoulders, and lying over on one of them, and staring up at me out of protruding eyes, a ghastly distorted face with rope and iron hook sunk deeply into the neck below it. Poor Frank! His fortune had proved too much for him. But often since have I thought of that strange prediction. Perhaps death is fortune. Can it be that after all the vain, hot turmoil of life's struggle a man's best and only fortune is death? Was the old Kaffir right?
In mining stories, more or less accredited, it generally happens that, directly the diggers are upon their last pint of flour and their names at the store hopeless, the monster nugget turns up. Of course, even in fiction, there must be expectations, if only rare ones. We were amongst them. For some weeks we had been living on kangaroo, wallaby, and various other smaller marsupials to an accompaniment of boiled pigweed, and johnny cakes made out of crushed maize, a bag of which we had bought from old Tibbetts before we had sold our horse. Tibbetts was monarch of the region round about, and he kept the canvas store three miles from where we were working.
Had it not been for my mate, Frank Morley, I would have cleared out long ago. But he insisted that we should "hit it," sooner or later—and, more especially, in this last claim. So far, we had hit upon duffers and hard living. And, little by little, we parted with all our available property to Tibbetts. Then we got considerably in his debt; and then he shut down upon us. And the big nugget or rich reef that should, at this particular juncture, have turned up, did not. Still Frank, with a fatuous insistance that looked like mono-mania, stuck grimly to his one unprovable formula—"There's lots of gold here."
I said "grimly;" but, as a matter of fact, there never was a more hopeful, cheery Mark Tapley than Frank Morley. He was an Adelaide native; and I never saw him in a bad temper except once, when we were up on the Etheredge, and some fellow called him a "crow-eater," and got smoothed down for his trouble. "You can go, if you like," he said to me, laughing heartily at such an outrageous notion. "Don't let me keep you perishing here. But as long as I can move a finger I'll sink. The lead's on this very ground, narrow, perhaps, but rich. Lots of gold here. It'll be only go further and fare worse. Of course the beef might be fatter and the flour improved if it hailed from old Duffield's mill at Gawler Town instead of from some cocky's farm on the Fitzroy River. But we've seen worse times together; and you bet we'll come out of this all serene."
Well, a fellow doesn't care about leaving a mate that he's been with six years, through fair weather and foul, even if he is a bit "dotty," as I gradually began to think Frank must be, seeing that, until he had the dream (of which more presently) he could give no earthly reason for the faith that was in him.
And really, as he said, it was difficult, even if we left to know where to make for. Our clothes were in rags, our tools worn and crippled, and the whole outfit in pretty bad case.
And we had sunk shaft after shaft upon this and other claims, without ever bottoming on the "missing lead''—if a thing can be called missing that has had no former existence—or, indeed, upon anything more promising than blue rock, quite hard enough for us to pronounce "bed." We were the only reefers on the little field. Over at Tibbett's twenty or thirty men were scratching for alluvial in the gullies. On our arrival from the north we had done the same, and made a living. Then Frank got it into his head that the gold—which was rough—had come out of a reef on the small tableland where we now were. So we gave up gully-raking, which was at least tucker, and sometimes wages, and set to work to look for the reef, which was sinewy kangaroo and maize bread.
No one followed our example, being content where they were. In their opinion they were scratching in the bed of some ancient creek; and they held that the gold came from no reef in the neighbourhood, but had been washed down, perhaps hundreds of miles. And this notion, although the metal certainly was not waterworn in the least, they stuck to. But Frank kept to his theory, and got called a fool. They called me one, too, for following him. And no one guessed, isolated from the little community as we were, how terribly hard-up we had become, except Tibbetts. Otherwise we should have had offers of assistance in plenty. No man on God's earth had a greater heart for his luckless neighbour than the Australian digger.
We worked on for another week, and bottomed at thirty feet—an awful duffer. In some of our holes we had, at least, got colours. But this was even without that poor consolation.
Then, once again, I jibbed. Said I, "Let's go and try and get a job of fencing on the nearest station before we fall to pieces. Then, when we've earned a cheque and got our ribs lined a bit, we'll come back again, if you like, to this same old shop that you're so shook upon, and riddle it as full of holes as any sieve. What do you say?"
"One more shaft," replied Frank as he looked up from the roasted corn he was "dollying" to make the "coffee" for breakfast. "I'm convinced that it will be the lucky one. I've dreamt of the place three times running—a thing that never happened before. It would be madness to have it untried after that. Mark my words, there's lots of gold here, in spite of everything! We'll take the dogs out and get some meat, and make a fresh start tomorrow morning. If it's a duffer, which it won't be, I'll give in. Is it a bargain, old chap?"
Of course I agreed, although I'm afraid with a very bad grace. But there was no resisting Frank. When he chose he had "a way with him" that would have charmed a death adder.
It must be understood that the sinking all over was fairly good, and all standing ground. Had it been otherwise, we should have long ago been obliged to knock off for want of money to buy powder, fuze, and tools. As it was, candles even were a luxury not to be thought of. In their stead we were compelled to use slush lamps made out of iguana fat, with for wick the furry cone or catkin of the native honeysuckle.
Our boots were mostly kangaroo hide, and to conceal the shortcomings of our last moles, we wore high-laced leggings of the same material.
Also, our windlass rope was nearly done—a very serious matter this. But it was no use trying Tibbett, even had we felt inclined to, which we did not. So Frank had set to work plaiting one out of skins that promised to be a fair makeshift if not a very safe one.
That Monday morning, after faring with unwonted sumptuousness on wild-duck eggs, discovered during our hunting the day before, stewed kangaroo rat, and hominy, Frank led the way to the place of his dream—a spot right on the edge of the claim, where was a small outcrop of hungry-looking quartz. "This is going to be our last hole, old man," said he cheerily, as he struck his pick in the ground. "The last duffer, I mean. There's luck below here!" The sinking proved harder than we expected, and it was late in the evening before we got our windlass rigged.
"Good-looking stuff, already," said Frank, as the last bucketful came up, hopeful as usual, even thus early. But I saw nothing good about it; simply a firm red clay mixed with stones and gravel, that played the deuce with our sadly worn tools.
The next day our rope broke under the weight of the big iron bucket of dirt. It had long been a thing of shreds and patches, dangerous to work under. So we, having only Hobson's choice, put the new kangaroo hide one on, which, though it stretched alarmingly, held.
Still, for; the first few days, I felt uncomfortable, and used to flatten myself against the side of the shaft, and gaze doubtfully at the bucket as it swung aloft. But, as it seasoned it seemed to strengthen, and we took no further heed to it.
The country got harder; and all our time was now taken up at sharpening and drawing picks at hollow logs—our only substitute for a forge. They gave us charcoal and a draught; a hammer and a big iron wedge did the rest—after a fashion.
Day after day we kept pegging away in much the same kind of stuff—hard conglomerate—until we were down about sixty feet, when it changed to slate with a decided dip in one corner.
Morley was jubilant. It was the first slate we had seen. Also, there was a little, a very little fine gold in it. "Depend on it," said Frank, "that we'll hit the reef in the deep ground. What muffs we should have been to leave!"
"Our outfit won't carry us very far, Frank, if we get into deep sinking," I remarked.
"Well, if the worst comes to the worst," he replied, hopefully, "and we can only prove to old Tibbett that we've got a show, he'll perhaps tick us through." We had one visitor in those days.
Away in a deep gully an old hatter named Jordan had pitched his camp. He was a gaunt, tall, grey-haired man, had been a sailor in his day and could possibly have spun yards had he so pleased. But he did not talk much, preferring to sit and smoke and listen, whilst we did the talking. We smoked also, but no tobacco. Ti-tree bark chopped fine and mixed with old tea leaves, saved from the bottoms of quart-pots and billies, was our blend.
After the first evening or so ole Jordan sniffed the acrid fumes in a recognising kind of way. But he said nothing.
On his next visit he remarked casually, as he brought forth two big half-pound cakes of the best Virginia, "I was down to Tibbett's to-day, and got some 'baccy. But it's rather strong for me. It gives me the shakes almost as bad as bush grog. I want a quart-pot. I see you've got two or three lying about. Will you swap me one for this rotten baccy?"
Now, as we knew, he had a pot of his own; and if he had not, Tibbetts had dozens better than our old one. But we saw that he would be hurt if we refused, and, after some protest, accepted the one-sided, good-hearted deal. And we never noticed that the old man changed his brand, or that he ever became shaky. If anybody who smokes wishes to really enjoy a pipe let him try our "blend" for a couple of months, and then change suddenly on to some of Madam Esmond's "Three Castles," or any other renowned brand, and see what he thinks of it. We could hardly sleep for smoking, that night of the Jordan windfall; and certainly there were no mosquitoes dare venture into the tent. That was only one of the ways the old man took of showing us kindness, apparently trivial, but in reality priceless.
But as to our "show" he never offered to give an opinion, merely saying that he wasn't much good at that kind of business—knew, in fact, more about canvas reefs than golden ones—fibbing in this matter, as I had reason to presently find out. Long ago he had made up his mind that our quest was hopeless, but he did not wish to discourage us.
He was gully-raking all over the place, more than contented if he could only average "a weight" a day, week in, week out.
All at once we bottomed. Sitting on the mullock heap I heard the so familiar dull thumping of the pick below change to an unmistakable sharp, hard ring, as it hit something very solid.
"Hello!" I shouted. "What's that? Bedrock again?"
"I'm afraid so," replied poor Frank for once in very mournful, tones. "I'll send a bucket up as soon as get it clear. There's no wash, and it's as level as a table."
Not having expectations, I was not very much disappointed; but could see that my mate was bitterly. And I think even now with satisfaction that I kept back the "What did I say, right through?" that was tempting me.
"Heave away!" And up came the bucket—a heavy lift. Just as it got level with the logging, and had stretched out my hand to land it, snap went the rope. There was a crash far below, a groan, and all was silence.
For a moment I stood dazed and horrified by the suddenness of the thing. Then I peered down, shouting, "Are you hurt much, Frank?"
But there was no answer. The lamp was out, and there was nothing visible in the deep gloom at the bottom.
My first impulse was to go down the rope. Then I paused. Could I get up again? I was doubtful, for we had made our shaft too wide to "straddle," and the rope might break again with my weight, in which case the pair of us would be helpless?"
It was three miles to Tibbett's. Jordan's camp was only three quarters of a mile. But the chance of his being at home was a very faint one. However, I decided on seeing and made good time across some rough ridges to his camp. He was out. Leaving a hasty scrawl stuck to his tent-flap, I hurried back again feeling it impossible to go to Tibbett's until I knew the worst.
Throwing the spare turns off the windlass barrel, I hitched an end to one of the standards, and dropping the remainder into the shaft swung out and slid down slowly keeping myself free of the sides with my feet. All went well until within a few feet of the bottom when once more the faithless rope broke about half-way up, and came showering down upon me as I fell.
I fell on my knees unhurt, and with my out-stretched hands on Frank's body. Lighting what was left of the lamp, I examined him carefully. He was quite senseless but breathing heavily, and bleeding from a great cut on his head where, as I soon saw, the four-gallon oil drum (that we used as a bucket) had struck him. It lay empty close by and on its side was blood and hair. My hopes rose somewhat as I noticed this. If it had hit Frank with the full weight of the sharp bottom, it must have cloven his head in twain. But now, although as I felt the wound, it seemed a dismally deep rut. I had hopes of its not proving fatal. And I blamed myself for not going straight to Tibbett's. The nearest doctor was sixty miles away and the delay was maddening to think of.
Then I thought of Jordan. Would he come before dark? let must be four, o'clock now. Daylight lasted, at this midsummer time, until seven or after. Presently, the lamp went out. All the fat had been spilled and the wick crushed. It was very dark as I sat there with Frank's head on my lap, with no sound but his laboured, stertorous breathing and the buzzing of some blowflies, attracted by the smell of blood. Looking up I could see a crow, as black as jet, against the patch of blue sky, perched on the windlass barrel. He was peering down, and uttering at intervals a hoarse and ominous "quawk-quawk."
Half a life-time appeared to pass, as I sat and brushed the flies away; and watched and waited in a perfect agony of impotent impatience. But, at last, just as I was imagining all kinds of mishaps to Jordan, there came a darkening of the top, and his voice hailing.
By the greatest of good fortune he happened to have had a piece of new rope in his tent. This, on reading my scrawl, he had brought with him; and, soon, after several attempts, poor Frank was hove up and safely landed—a very ticklish job for one man, as I had, perforce, to stay below with what Jordan called a "gantline" to steady the body as it rose. As, at last, we laid him on his bed in his tent, and bathed his head, and forced between his lips some rum and water that Jordan had brought. Frank opened his eyes and stared at us. Then he said very gently, "I'm done, boys. Don't send for a doctor. It would be of no use; and we couldn't pay him. I shan't live many minutes. I can feel death close on me. It's not only my head. I'm hurt badly inside. It wasn't altogether the bucket. A big lump hit me on the chest and seemed to break something." All this in painful, gasping pauses.
Silence for awhile. Then he spoke again. "Bury me," he said, "under the big cherry tree, on the rise where the magpies whistle in the morning. Plant me deep, away from the dingoes. And (to me) Jack, don't forsake the claim. There's gold here yet—gold yet—go—," and with the word half formed on his lips in a terrible effort, he turned over dead, but true to the last in the belief that had only ended with his undoing.
* * * * * *
"Will you dig the grave?" asked Jordan later. "You know the place he meant, and I'll go over to Tibbett's and tell 'em."
I agreed. It was night by this time, but roasting hot, and with a full moon just rising over the hills, casting grotesque shadows amongst the stunted boxes and stringybarks.
The native cherry tree that Frank had mentioned grew nearly in the centre of the claim, and was an unusually large specimen. I was soon there, and, at what I considered sufficient distance to clear the roots, commenced to dig.
It was stony, and as I stopped every now and again, after throwing out a big boulder, to wipe away the sweat and apostrophise the mosquitoes that swarmed around my head in clouds, I almost wished that poor Frank had chosen some other spot—for instance, near one of our many duffers.
Such slow work, indeed, did I make of it that when Jordan returned with the news that Tibbetts and a few more would be over at daylight for the funeral, I was not down more than four feet out of the six I had determined on.
"Let's give you a spell," said Jordan; and I willingly allowed him to do so.
The moon was high now, rendering everything distinctly visible in a steady flood of white light; and I sat on a stone and cooled down, and thought regretfully and sadly of the lost comrade lying over there so quietly in the tent, and already beginning to miss the cheery voice and the spirit that no failure could daunt. I thought, too, of his last injunction not to leave the claim, and determined bitterly that, after the morrow, the miserable place should see me no more.
Meanwhile, Jordan was throwing out stuff at a great rate. Some of it fell at my feet; and, presently, as diggers invariably will, no matter how occupied, if they get a chance I took up a piece and mechanically scraped away the dirt and eyed it suspiciously in a dull purposeless manner.
"Jordan!" I yelled the next moment.
"Well," said he, "I'm not deaf."
"Look here!" I answered, handing him the piece of stone. His head was just level with the surface, and he took the thing and looked at it, and spat on it, and rubbed it. Then he leaped out of the hole, every bit as excited as I was, and the pair of us began to fossick about, forgetting aught else in the wide world. And we found many more pieces, all with the same dull yellow veins and knobs upon them.
"Big quartz and ironstone leader, going down vertical, and as rich as they're made!" at length exclaimed the man who knew nothing about reefing.
"Look here," holding up a specimen, that plainly showed the point of the pick in the gold, "at the sort o' stuff we've been stumping into. Why mon, ye micht ha' riddlit the whole claim wi' shafts afore ye'd ha' droppid on it. It's joost wonnerfu'—a meeraele, as ane might ca' it. It's his deid luck. Let's fill it a' up again. Puir laddie! we'll hae to fin' him anither restin' place."
At any other time, perhaps, the abrupt change in old Jordan's speech would have astonished me, for his everyday talk was perfectly free from any dialect whatever. But I took little notice of it then. Nor did I ever, afterwards, hear him return to what was evidently his native Doric.
For fear of prowlers, we filled in the hole again, and picked out an old shaft, close to the tent, for a grave. And, at daybreak, there arrived a few of the diggers from Tibbett's, with Tibbetts himself, in a cart, with a substantial coffin as a last present for an esteemed, if unfortunate, customer. Tibbetts, though hard at times, had a good heart. And he lost nothing, eventually, by that morning's work. The reef, discovered in such a wonderful manner, turned out even richer than it had promised when every piece of stone we had picked up in the moonlight held gold. But, through all the sinking, and cross-cutting, and tunnelling that presently took place, when the company was floated, Jordan and I managed to keep the cherry tree intact, although men worked by the dozen far below its roots.
And, when, at length, we struck the big main reef, three hundred yards away, at a depth of as many feet, we had poor old Frank's body taken up and buried in the spot he had chosen, whilst a surpliced minister made it holy ground, and nearly a thousand men stood bare-headed in the sunlight.
And, though the wild magpies no longer flute sweetly o' mornings near his grave as they used to do in the old days, still, if he can hear the battery stamps crushing rhythmically, the rattling of screens and trollies, and the measured pulsing of the big engine, he knows that his prediction has come true, and that, at last, though dead himself, his luck lives.—Australasian.
Tilbury; and a pale, wintry sort of sun doing its poor best to show out of a damp, grey sky, whilst some 700 of us jostle aboard the big black greyhound that in a few hours is to sail for Australia. We are left to find our own way about; but presently a "special tender" comes off, carrying three or four lords, a couple of countesses, and a stray baronet or two. And to receive this distinguished consignment the whole staff of the R.M.S. Artaxerxes turns out en grande tenue. Captain and officers and engineers, surgeon and purser, all glorious in blue and gold, are grouped at the gangway. As the nobility step on board the captain and his suite bow more or less gracefully, and the commander, putting himself at the head of the group leads them to their quarters.
It is rather an imposing procession until, arriving at the steps leading to the first saloon, an old lady is found sitting on the upper one with a bottle of gin and a big umbrella.
From the former she takes frequent sips; with the latter she fiercely repels the advances of the chief steward, who is almost tearfully imploring her to go away to her own part of the ship—the steerage. But she insists on blocking the gangway, and holds forth volubly about her son in "Austhralia," who is "a mimber av the House av Parlymint there this lasht tin year; an' is as good—ay, an'a lot better than any o' the quality on board; more by token, if these is a specimin av 'em.''
The steward tries to break her guard down, but receives a prod in the ribs that staggers him. It is simply horrible; and the skipper turns scarlet with rage.
But at last a host of stewards take the old girl in the rear, and, screaming and threatening by turns, carry her to her quarters. The whole ceremony of reception is, however, irretrievably ruined; and one guesses that there will be wigs on the green when the captain corners the chief steward. The decks are littered with baggage of all descriptions. Swarms of small children play around, and babies in arms squall vociferously. Passengers and their friends sit and stand about, gaze hopelessly at the murky sky and cheerless river, and take farewell drinks out of surreptitious bottles. Below, men and women dodder vaguely around, usually laden with packages, and, stopping tallow-faced stewards, ask—(1) Where their berth are? (2) When does the ship sail? (3) Will it be very rough to-night? (4) Is anything known of a small portmanteau?
A lady comes on board with a big cat in her arms, whilst her husband leads a poodle. "Where's my cabin steward?" is the universal cry.
"What number, mum?" asks the long-suffering one.
"Fust turnin' to the right, mum; second on the left; fust to the right agen!" and off he darts.
All through the long alley-ways you meet people carrying luggage and searching for their numbers. Some who should be in the first saloon find themselves in the second one, and vice versa, and the stewards and purser have a high old time all round. But, somehow, matters get adjusted before the Artaxerxes leaves the river and sets her nose down to the "Long Trail—the trail that is always new."
Next day happens to be Sunday and it is announced that the Honorable and Reverend Lord Charles de Courcy will "preside" at morning service. At this the saloon is fairly rushed. His Lordship is very nervous, and makes constant mistakes, until we begin to think that this must be his maiden essay. The singing, too, is most peculiar, everyone seeming bent on giving their own rendering. But, perhaps, this is owing to the pianiste, a lady from the Conservatoireat Leipzic, introducing variations into the hymn tunes. This bothers people. At last comes the sermon. The speaker strikes six different headings, loses the thread of each, harks back in confusion, fails completely to pick any of them up, and then starts more hopefully on a seventh.
He is resting one hand on the reading desk; and, presently, leaning too heavily on it, over it goes, and he with it, full length upon the floor, which is suddenly littered by half-a-dozen packs of playing cards, some draught men, and a few dice. A lady faints, and the confusion becomes general. Somebody picks up the preacher, who, with trembling voice, pronounces the benediction, and hurriedly disappears.
It seems that the stewards had taken one of the card tables out of the smoking-room to serve as a desk, and to increase its height added a large double draught-board, from whose interior had issued the untimely and irreverent deluge.
There are two lady passengers in the second saloon who presently give themselves airs, and begin to throw out hints offensive to their fellows, whom they term amongst other things "an inferior lot." They also publicly, announce that they have never before travelled second, and that such a thing should never, never occur again. They, too, make vague threats of yet exchanging into the first saloon. But they are presently, coram populo, promptly sat upon and silenced very effectually. Happening to hear once too often for his patience the familiar burden of their song, the purser one day remarked blandly—"Well, ladies, there will be, I am sure, no difficulty in accommodating you. We have plenty of room in the first now. If you'll kindly write me a cheque for the excess fare, I will order your luggage to be taken forward."
Then there is the "Duchess", who has £400 in gold sewn into her stays. Someone has told her that for each sovereign she will get 30s at Aden or Colombo. And she believes it. She it is who complains to her steward of the noise o' nights in the engine-room, demanding that it should be stopped. Every day she changes her dress three times, and each change more gorgeous than the last.
Doubtless we are a strangely-assorted lot! And, as time passes we break up into little parties of twos and threes and fours, never troubling to look abroad outside our own particular few. Each class is thoroughly isolated from the other by a barrier far stronger than that of distance—snobbishness. From the promenade deck of the second one can almost touch the people on that of the first, to which two small bridges run across. And over these the first and second-class passenges stare stonily at each other throughout the passage.
First-class passengers claim the right of access to any part of the ship; and, at times, one or two will stroll across the intervening space on to the deck of the second. But, having asserted themselves, they stroll back again very shortly. They speak to no one and nobody to them. Amongst them are a few dipsomaniacs going out "for the good of their health"—moneyed, but pitiable objects. And fancy alleged invalids coming on board one of these great liners for health's sake! It is exactly as if a person should go to the Australia Hotel, say, and eat four good meals a day; then, for exercise, walk up and down the big dining-room a certain number of times. Nor does the sea air count as a factor for health as against lack of exercise and occupation on board ship, combined with the stuffy misery of the nights passed in the cupboards called berths.
Little wonder is it that people die on the Red Sea passage! Here is a tropical breakfast menu: "Grilled beefsteak, mutton chop do., roulettes of lamb, sausages and mashed potatoes, roast round of beef, corned beef; hot rolls, tea and coffee." And weak men will conscientiously go through this list off Aden, and then come up and pant like thirsty dogs, and complain of headache, and curse the weather, and then go to the bar and swallow sodas and whiskys ad lib., and then die, wrapped up in ice. So the unfortunate Red Sea gets a reputation but little inferior to that which it must have held in Egypt after drowning Pharaoh, and his host. The women, too, are almost as bad as the men. They eat far to much, take no exercise at all, and indulge in spiteful contests of tight lacing, which end in fainting fits in all sorts of undesirable places. And they consume great quantities of mince pies, cabinet pudding, and jam tarts; and all day long they torment the doctor with accounts of their "symptoms," and call him a brute when he tells them the truth.
Tho billet of doctor's boy on board the Artaxerxes is no more a sinecure than is his master's. He is continually on the rush with white paper covered bottles of mixtures and boxes of pills; fore and aft the ship. If there is one thing more than another that people luxuriate in, it is cheap physic. And the hale and sickly both take full advantage of the opportunity.
At intervals there are concerts given in both saloons, to which formal invitations are sent and accepted. But these civilities lead to no entente cordiale between the two classes, whose intercourse remains infrequent, stiff and stilted as ever. Actually, our steerage passengers seem to enjoy themselves more than any of us. They dress how they please; they laugh, dance and sing when they please; and they seem to sleep pretty much where they please about the deck. Nor, as the purser could tell you if he wished, is poverty the cause of many of them being where they are. It is simply a sense of the general fitness of things that keeps them out of either of the saloons. And, after all, as one man who has a couple of thousand pounds in the purser's safe, put it—Our end of the ship gets to port much about the same time as theirs."
At Ismaila we lose our notables, or at least the majority of them. Probably they are going up the Nile. So time passes, and our microcosm, clamped up in its iron walls, is borne along to its destination, split up, like its greater prototype, into little cliques and parties, each with its scandal monger, each with its petty interests, its rivalries, jealousies, and heartburnings. Eat, drink, smoke; smoke, drink, eat; and the days wear by somehow, if monotonously. At Naples and Port Said we had most of us taken a run ashore, if only to stretch our legs; and so, presently, we do the same at Colombo, before settling down to the long steam to Australia. At the latter port, an Australian squatter invests expensively in alleged rubies, emeralds, sapphires, etc., brought on board by the wily Cingalese, who, penning one into a corner and looking around suspiciously, to see nobody is near, slowly, and with an air of mystery, produces a small packet of cut and coloured glass and quartz stones.
"Sah!" he says, "look, sah! Real prasus stones! No gammon! My word, worth ten pound, sah! My wife, lilly children, very sick, sah! You take 'em—take 'em all—two pound!" And then, hurriedly covering the rubbish up, he continues—"Yas, you take 'em, sah—quick, quick! But you no tell, sah. S'pose those other feller find out, they kill me! Quick, sah, put 'em in your pocket. Sydney, Melbourne, ten, twenty, thirty pound. You bet!" And our squatter, spite of all warnings, buys up the whole crowd.
"Get out!" says he; "think I don't know a real good thing when I see it? Look here, anything that'll scratch glass mus' be harder'n glass, musn't it? Well, then, it's a precious stone. Now, all these'll scratch glass. Look here, I got a bit on purpose to try 'em. But don't think I give the beggars their price. Not much? Now, here's a packet o' rubies. I beat him down to three pounds for 'em. He asked ten. I'll get twenty for 'em in Melbourne or Sydney But I've got another test. I put one of 'em between a couple of half crowns, and jump on it. If it don't smash it's genuine. My weight's 16 stone. No, if you chaps have been this track before, you don't know everything."
So our friend bought and bought until he must have spent at least £20. And, at last, any man who presumed to doubt the bona fides of his purchases became his personal enemy.
"Curious, ain't it, gents," remarks a quarter-master, in confidence, "but every trip them niggers gets 'old o' some bloomin' chump like 'im. Bli' me, if I 'aven't a good mind to paint my old karkiss an' go inter the biz meself."
As a rule, these gentry didn't trouble the steerage folk much. But one scamp made his way among them, and tackled an American passenger.
"No, said the latter; "no, John, I ain't takin' none to-day. I bin this way afore, my son."
"Sapphira, sah," continued the other, "ver' fine sapphira."
An' you're Ananias," replied the Yank, as, taking one of the "jewels" up, he cracked it like a nut between his teeth, and spat the pieces into the fellow's extended hand. "Quit then, the pair o' ye," continued he. "Guess I warn't raised in Boston for nothin'."
Lots of the passengers go ashore to the Cinnamon Gardens, and to try and get a glimpse of Arabi in exile. But this truthful narrative isn't a record of travel, or it would have told of Gibraltar, Naples, and Port Said, and what everyone did there, which is exactly what every one writes about over and over again, until the oft-told story becomes about as interesting as a guide-book,
The old Irishwoman, alluded to in the first part of this sketch as spoiling the ceremony of reception, presently also falls foul of a vendor of huge straw hats, bound with flaring yellow ribbon.
"Ver' nicee, missie," remarks the heathen, grinning amiably and thrusting the abhorred colour under her nose. "Ver' nicee; you try 'im. Two chillin. My word, you look real lydy when you put 'im on! Nicee cullah trimmin', missie. You try."
"Oh, ye thafe av the worrld!" shouts the enraged dame. "D'ye think, ye yaller omadbaun, that it's an Orange Prodestan I'm afther bein'? Be me sowl but it's betther manners I'll be tachein' ye, so it is!"
"Orangee, yas, real orangee, lydy, no gammon! nicee cullah—jes' the same 'at you wear when you 'ome to keep your 'air cool-a," replied the unsuspecting pedlar, insinuatingly; whilst, rendered quite furious by the laughter of the surrounding passengers, some of whom begin to whistle the "Boyne Water," the old woman—shouting at the top of her voice, "Be jabers, ye yaller divil in petticoats, it's yer own hair I'll be warrummin'! Ow! ye monkey-faced insulthur av a dacent faymale that's had twelve av a family, wid yer 'Oringee, oringee!"—seized a stick from the bundle of another hawker and laid it about the poor man's head to such purpose that, dropping the hats, he fled to his boat, whilst the victor jumped energetically on his goods, exclaiming at intervals, "Orangee! orangee! A haythen naygar, to dar' give Mary Maloney that blashted colour to smell!"
"Whist, Mistress Maloney, ma'am," interposed another old girl with whom the former had been at daggers drawn the whole trip. "If ye don't be wantin' the illigant things for yersilf, thin, be jabers, ye moight be takin' wan to yer son, the mimber for Austhralia, where, as O've been towld, the hate av the weather is such that grate oraythors an' pollyticians, loike what ye says he is, becomes sore distresht at toimes to tell the orange from the good owld grape. So they does."
This innuendo turned the flow of Mrs. Maloney's wrath in another direction, and soon the two old women were at it hammer and tongs, tooth-and-nail. Not much in themselves, perhaps, these little occurrences; but, all the same, hailed with the utmost joy and delight as serving to break the monotony.
At last, however, Colombo is left behind, and the passengers settle down for the long stretch across the Indian Ocean to Albany. Hitherto the sea has been smooth enough. Now there comes a heavy monsoonal swell from S.E., which makes the Artaxerxes roll 40 deg. each way, and spreads dismay and unpleasantness fore and aft. At table curious things happen. Thus the squatter, carefully lifting a spoonful of hot soup; involuntarily deposits it in the bosom of a lady sitting next him, instead of in his own mouth.
There has already been considerable friction between these two, she having circulated a report that he pocketed all the dessert to eat afterwards in his berth, whilst he has asserted that she, for an alleged married woman going out to join an alleged husband, ought to have more sense than roam about the decks after dark in the vicinity of the purser's berth.
The hot soup brings matters to a climax, and although a lady by Act of Parliament, she calls him a brute, a pig, a beast, promises that "John" shall "punch his head" directly they get to Sydney, and then has a fit of hysterics, during which a full set of false teeth are literally rolled out of her mouth.
There can be, even now, no possible doubt respecting the Arty's rolling capabilities; and there is a legend that on her first trip, and before she was fitted with rolling-chocks—i.e., broad lateral flanges of iron along her sides under water—the passengers had to be secured to their seats by straps and hand-fed by double relays of stewards.
Presently the cat and poodle already mentioned are returned as missing. The lady wails and sobs; her husband darts wildly to and fro about the ship threatening damages against "the company," whilst the quarter-masters wink at each other, and remark, "'Spect they must ha' rolled overboard, sir."
Now, quarter-masters do not like having to clean up after animals, unless they are well tipped for their trouble. Therefore, if you take dogs or cats on board a liner, remember the Q.M's., also the butcher, early in the passage.
And, like most things, the trip comes to an end in due course; and when at last we are safely landed at Circular Quay, people seem to lose much of that superfluous ego in their cosmos, that has been so apparent throughout the passage. Mrs. Maloney, and Mr. Moriarty part amicably after a glass at the Paragon; John does not punch the squatter's head; nor does any one sue the company for anything. In fact, there seems rather a disposition to talk affectionately of "the good old Arty," and everybody belonging to her.
Certainly, when, later, one meets him in George-street, the squatter has rather a long face. Between drinks the reason appears. Pulling out a parcel of his "precious" stones; he says—"I took the dashed things to Hardy Bros., and asked 'em to put a price on 'em. Well, the chap upstairs twigged 'em through his glass for a minute. Then, says he, 'Colombo?' And I said that was the very place. 'Well,' he said, 'we don't want 'em. I hope you didn't give much for 'em.' 'Nothing like their value,' I said; 'only about £20.' Then he hands them back with a grin, saying, 'You've been had, sir; they're worth less than as many shillings.'
"But you wait," concludes the squatter, "till I catch some of those hawking niggers about Gummagum bluey, and, you bet, I'll take it out of 'em. They're all the same breed; and I'll buy their darned outfit, and pay 'em back with these. So long!"
It was hot in Borderville. Ay, so hot that, you could see the pepper trees shrink and curl their leaves and visibly wilt under the fierce breath of the western heat wave.
"Hadn't you better wait till the rains, Jim, dear, till the rains come before starting?" asked a girl of her lover as the pair sat in one of the coolest spots in that township where all were hot.
"Might wait for a blue moon, darling," replied Jim Traynor, as his arm stole round Clara Maybury's slim waist, and his face approached her own. "If we don't make a push some other fellows will. From all accounts, it's a fortune if we can find it."
"Yes, if you can," said Clara doubtfully. "There! there! Jim that will do. It's too hot for that sort of thing," she continued as the young man's good-looking face, coming closer still, she gave him a slight push away.
"Oh! all right," exclaimed Traynor, rising; "considering this, may be our last meeting for many months I don't think you need be so jolly particular to a kiss more or less on account of the weather."
"You know it's not that, Jim," replied Clara Maybury, her rather cold blue eyes softening as she spoke; "but the heat makes one irritable and nervous. There, then, will that do? Oh! if you only have luck this time you'll take me away from this horrid place, won't you? Father has tried in vain once more to get an exchange."
"And little wonder!" returned Jim, grimly. "Fancy a manager from the mountain country on the coast, wanting to come here! Why, he might, just as well apply for a shift to Hades at once. Why, yes, of course, Clara, if this spec should turn up trumps, we'll get married quite suddenly, and never cry crack till we smell old Monaro's mountain land on our honeymoon. So cheer up, dearest, and let us hope in the good time coming."
But no color came into the girl's pale face as she allowed her betrothed to kiss her once more; neither shaping her passive lips to his nor moving her hands lying clasped before her on her lap.
"My God, Clara, you're as cold as ice to me." exclaimed Jim, with a ring of exasperated passion in his voice as he suddenly folded her in his arms and kissed her repeatedly, causing, at least, the fair cheeks to blush redly and the blue eyes to gleam with some of the light that shone in his own. Carried out of her usual calm contained self, she returned his caresses with almost as much fervor as even he could wish for; setting hts heart at rest by repeated assurances of her love. And, indeed, Jim Traynor, with his well set-up figure and handsome features, was a man any girl in Borderville would have been only too pleased to own as a lover, almost penniless as he was. Twelve-months ago, at the time of his engagement to Clara Maybury, the only daughter of the manager of the Bank of Carpentaria in that far border township, Traynor had owned a compact, if small, station some few miles out. But, in a luckless moment backing some bills for a friend, the inevitable in such cases overtook him, and he had to pay up. This so seriously taxed his resources that the long drought completely finished him. Finding himself practically homeless, he had offered Clara her liberty. This she had indignantly refused. Then Jim had turned his head to different things, dealing, droving, etc., but without making more than a mere livelihood. Now, a wandering bushman had given him and two others "the straight tip" as to the whereabouts of an opal mine far away to the West, across the desert country. The man had been n Traynors employ in the good times of Ngori station. And although just at present ill in the hospital, and consequently incapable of guiding him to the spot, he had sent for his former master, and professing himself mindful of many past little kindnesses, given him such explicit directions that Jim thought there could be no difficulty in discovering the exact place. Thus with a couple of other young men, sons of neighboring squatters nearly at the end of their tether through drought and rabbits, he was setting out to tempt fortune by a new road.
Manager Maybury—a widower whose only child Clara was—had openly advocated the breaking off of the engagement. But his daughter, who managed him, would not hear of such a thing. Still, how bitter the downfall of all her hopes had been when Ngori "smashed" no one but herself knew. Jim, perhaps, partially guessed. So far, however, no word of the might have been had passed between them. Only, and for the first time, that morning had the girl's horror of her environment, her longing to get away, found speech. Undemonstrative as she was by nature, she loved Jim Traynor as much as lay in her to love anybody, and was loath to have him venture into the wilderness on a quest that seemed to her more than doubtful. But at the same time she bitterly, if secretly, resented the loss of Ngori and all that it meant to her.
"Sling Traynor, Clara, and pick up with some fellow who can keep you—young Mills, for instance," had been hard-drinking old Maybury's advice. But Mills, Inspector of Roads and Bridges, possessed no attraction for Clara when it came to a choice between the two. And yet she was coldly angry—causelessly, unjustly angry as she told herself. For why should a man be such a fool to back bills for his friends, and thus throw away money that would have kept a wife in comfor? Mills, with his £500 a year, could do it easily. But then she loved the other man. And if this opal quest should turn out—but then she had heard of so many such ventures. Oh! if Jim could have only married her at once! at once! and taken her away from the terrible town and drunken father, and the squalor and heat and hideousness of the life.
Such were the thoughts that passed through her mind as almost mechanically she returned her lover's farewell kisses.
"Give me something for luck, darling," said Jim, as at last he rose to go.
Her mood had changed; and, perhaps, with some vague prevision of the future, she held him tightly to her and kissed him on lip and cheek. Then, taking a silver cross from her neck, where it had hung from childhood, she put it over his own.
"In hoc Signo," said he, as he read the motto upon it for the thousandth time, but on this occasion with a new meaning. Then caught by a passing fancy, he continued, half in jest but in earnest, "and by this sign, then, promise me, dear one, that until it returns to you you will give neither heart nor hand to any man." And he laughed lightly.
But, to his surprise, Clara kissed the cross passionately, and swore what he asked as if with an actual present sense of relief. Then, slipping the thing inside his shirt, she sat back pale and worn-looking.
The heat waves still danced along the white wide dusty street as Jim Traynor stepped out of the bank and looked up, and kissed his hand in farewell to the white face shrined in its wealth of yellow hair that gazed blankly out at him from the green blinds—a face for Rosetti or Holman Hunt, or Burne-Jones to have immortalised on their canvas. But one so incongruously out of place in a back-block township that even Traynor, in whom romance had little share, was startled and paused many times to look back upon the picture it made. Then, whilst he strode along, past the crackling roofs of the inland furnace in whose street no living being was seen save a few of Genghis Khan's camels nibbling the roley-poleys that a sudden willy-willy now and again brought off the open spaces that lay on every hand, Clara Maybury sat down to her piano and crooned softly to herself fragments of a song she had once heard, but forgotten utterly, till that moment:
Gaily bedight, a gallant knight,
Through sunshine and through shadow,
Rode along, singing a song, and looking for El Dorado.
But he grew old, that knight so bold,
And o'er his heart a shadow
Fell when he found no spot of ground
That looked like El Dorado.
Wearied at length, and losing strength,
He met a pilgrim shadow;
"Shadow," said he, "where can it be—
This land of El Dorado,"
"Over the mountains of the moon,
And down the vale of shadow,
Ride, boldly ride," the shadow replied,
"For there lies Eldorado,"
* * * * * *
"And so you are going out back again, Mr. Traynor, I hear," said Bessie Armour. "What are you after this time?" And the pretty barmaid at the "Royal" looked rather anxiously at Jim as she set glasses before himself and his two friends, Barclay and Harrison.
"Oh, the same old thing, Bessie, replied Jim. "Or rather—don't mind telling an old friend like you—we've got on the track of an opal mine, and are off to see if we can spot it."
Bessie sighed; and the fresh colour in her cheeks came and went. She was a pretty girl, brown-haired brown-eyed, and with a complexion unindebted to anything but cold water. More, she was what everybody spoke of emphatically as a "good girl," than which no higher praise can fall to one in her position. And she had loved Jim Traynor ever since she had first seen him, four years ago now, drive up to the door of the "Royal" one show time; keeping her secret as best she might, often with much effort. She had cried when the "smash" came, and Jim had kissed her and called her a kind-hearted little thing, and told her not to fret. Also, later, having made a good cheque out of some horses, he bought Bessie a gold chain and locket. Thus the pair became wonderfully good friends; aside it was even rumoured that they might some day make a match of it. Such things often happen and nobody any the worse. And it says much for Bessie that no one, even in the Western freedom of the bar parlour, ever, when her smash came, chaffed her, or, indeed, ventured to hint in any way that she had, to use the local phrase in such matters, "fallen in."
All the same, Bessie hated with a very wholesome hatred indeed that woman with the pre-Raphaelite face and figure who had worked her downfall.
As for Jim, he seemed, and probably really was, sublimely unconscious that anything was expected of him, or that he had, as the, word goes, "treated the girl badly." Certainly Bessie never gave anyone cause to say so. All the same, people spoke of the matter amongst themselves; and Mr. and Mrs. Curtis at the parsonage, and others, were, in consequence, cool to the young man. But Bessie had pocketed her pride and gone on loving him better than ever. And now, as she watched Jim, her eyes were heavy with unshed tears, for she know that he was bound on a long and dangerous journey across country that even Genghis Khan and his camel train fought shy of. So much she gathered as the three talked together in the hot little parlour adjoining the bar, whilst from the yard outside came the impatient stamp of their horses, packed and ready, awaiting what was sarcastically known as "the cool of the evening" in those parts.
"Well," said Jim at last, "good-bye Bessie. If luck's with us, you shall have a set of opals that there's not the like of in the west. A kiss for fortune, Bess, and then I'm off."
For a moment the girl hesitated. Then, throwing, her arms round his neck, she kissed, him twice, thrice, and bursting into tears, ran from the room.
"Soft-hearted little thing,"' commented Jim, in a rather surprised tone. "But we were always first rate chums, Bess and I."
"My God!" muttered Barclay, who was coarse. "And to think he can't see, or won't see, how gone the poor gal is on him, and all because of that white-faced——over at the bank."
"Sickenin', ain't it?" replied Harrison, who was of rather finer fibre. "Here she is, as full of love and affection for the fellow as she can be, and there's that Maybury girl with no more feeling than a black snake. And Jim must go and buck up to her! By jingo, but some chaps are blind as bally bats!"
And so out into the broad street, with the fading pepper trees along its sides; white clouds of fine dust rising under the horses' hoofs, fierce metallic clatter of cicadas from patches of torrid garden, and at the far end, right in the rider's track, a red globe of fire swinging low on to the tops of the stunted scrub. In one room a girl "serving drinks" with a breaking heart. In another, one who still murmured to herself:—
Wearied, at length and losing strength,
He met a pilgrim shadow.
"Shadow," said he. "where can it he—
This Land of El Dorado."
* * * * * *
Time passed, but the drought did not; and around Borderville the heat wave danced and quivered as of yore. All the people who could had gone away to cooler regions. But amongst them the Mayburys were not numbered. And misfortune had come to them in such wise that it seemed they might never in all their lives get away. Mr. Maybury, as a consequence of perpetual "boozing," had lost position in the bank, and now, with his daughter, was living in a little camp-oven of a cottage stuck right in the eye of the sun—a hut almost, adown whose chimney camels came and looked inquisitively, and through whose shrunken slabs the desert dust blew in clouds.
And the white-faced girl, with the eyes of steely blue, pale face, and great masses of maize-coloured hair, ate her soul out in the misery and squalor of the place, while her father loafed for drinks at the bar of the "Royal."
Twice Mills had proposed and twice he had been rejected. Jim Traynor had been gone three long months without giving any sign. And, abroad, Mr. Maybury publicly bewailed the fact that his wife should have ever borne him an undutiful daughter. At home he sat and cried miserably to her to go and marry Mills and his £500 per annum.
"What's the good of waiting, you fool! you fool! he wailed. "S'pose Traynor comes back, even—which he never will—he'll be a bigger broker than ever. Don't talk to me about opals! Rubbish! If he'd only kept Ngori, and not acted like a fool, we'd both ha' been out o' this cussed hole long since. Mills is going to get a shift next month to Armidale, and a rise, too. Why shouldn't we go with him? Oh, you ungrateful fool!"
And Bessie, looking on and serving drinks, and exulting in the other woman's misery as only a woman can, wondered, nevertheless, with much wonder why she hesitated. For the girl read Clara like a book and well knew that she was not made of the stuff that stands pressure of the kind she was being subjected to.
But the fact was Clara Maybury was frightened. Like many other slow-blooded, but lymphatic, people of her stamp, she was superstitious. And she had sworn on the cross to be faithful and true. "Neither heart nor hand to any man." Jim, she remembered, had only said it jokingly. Yet she, fool that she was, must go and swear it solemnly. Yes, after all, her father was right—she was a fool. But she could not break that oath. In Hoc Signo! And she shuddered as she thought of a dead man's presence haunting her length of weary days should she succumb to temptation.
* * * * * *
Time passed. And then, one day a camel train from the westward brought in two dazed and broke wrecks of what had once been sturdy bushmen named respectively Barclay and Harrison. And all they had to tell was told in a few sentences; native wells dry, dead horses; hunger, thirst, madness, and the mocking of the unsainted desert. But for some friendly blacks they never would have been able to make in to where they met the camels. As for Traynor—poor Jim—at one of their desert camps, delirious and crying upon a certain girl's name, he had wandered away through the night and when the others at dawn resumed their painful crawl through the heavy spinifex, there was nothing in sight. What could they do? It was death to stay and search. Better one die than three. It was was the law of the desert. Besides, he was lower and weaker than they. The failure to find the opal had preyed on his mind, and he was "worrying." Probably he had died the same night. That was the brief story told by the pair of ghosts the wilderness had given up.
And Clara Maybury shuddered again as in her dreams she saw that form struggling madly through the prickly spinifex, with hoarse groans of "Clara! Clara!" from its parched lips. Well, all was ended now for him; but not for her; Even death she held, could not absolve her from her oath. And still there was more of superstitious fear than of conscience in her dismal resolution.
* * * * * *
"That is all I have," Bessie Armour was saying to Genghis Khan, a night or two after the news came, as she pointed to a small heap of notes, a gold watch, locket, and chain, and other jewellery that she had brought to the Indian's' tent in a kerchief. "Take it, and lend me the camel. I'm going to find Jim, or know the reason why."
"A long journey and a hard one, my sister," said the other, stroking a big black beard meditatively, "with, possibly, disappointment at the end of it. But what saith our prophet, 'the way of a woman is as the way of a beating wave upon a rock.' Therefore shalt thou go. For again, is it not written that 'a kind word costeth naught, and yet may mean all good things to the giver thereof.' Therefore shalt thou go. For when I and my wife journeyed hither, and people saw that she was white, they mocked, all but thou, who hadst ever a pleasant greeting and friendly smile for one that thy people looked upon as outcast. Therefore, put up thy money and thy jewels. If any man can find thy lover it is Hassan Ali, who arrived with the train that brought the two others in. He shall go with thee. Thou shalt ride mine own beast, Ayesha, and may the blessing of Allah attend thee in thy quest."
* * * * * *
The shadow of a great rock in a weary land; faces black, but kindly, grouped around a fragile shelter of spears and skins, under which lies a man dying with his head in a woman's lap. All the western sky is aglow with clouds of hyacinth and jasper, amber, and streaks of vivid purple—a desert sunset. Two hobbled camels browse on the spinifex. The man's eyes are fixed intently skyward. Presently he murmurs, "tell her I loved her, Bessie. Tell her I said so with my last breath. And, Bessie, give her the cross you'll find lying on my heart. In Hoc Signo, Clara! Yes, yonder lies the opal field! But, too late! too late!" And he lay back dead.
* * * * * *
"I found him whilst you were sitting idle here," said a tanned and ragged woman, entering abruptly and standing in front of Clara Maybury. "I loved him! But you never did! You don't know what love is! He sent you this with his last breath. He sent you this, too!" And, as the woman turned to go, a silver cross and chain fell at Clara's feet.
That night Mills was coming for his final answer, before departing for his new station in the pleasant tableland of New England.
When the Doctor told Squatter Davey, of Buln Buln, that his wife wanted a sea trip, he set about giving her one in a way characteristic of the man. Nine men out of ten would have taken passage on board one of those floating palaces of dyspepsia known as "ocean liners," and gone for "a blow" to England and back again.
On his station of Buln Buln were enough old sailors to make a big dog-leg fence out of. And one of these, a Dane named Johnson, holding a mate's certificate, but cutting prickly pear for the past six months, he took with him to Sydney. There, with his help and advice, the squatter bought outright a smart eighty-ton cutter, almost for a song, fitted her out plainly but comfortably, and made all preparations for an extended cruise.
"I've been," said he "pretty well all over my native land, north, south, east, and west. Now I'll have a look around, and see what the outside of it is like."
Then, returning to Buln Buln, he sent five other seafarers down from the inland bush to form a crew for the cutter, newly named the Buln Buln, in place of homely "Mary Jane."
Johnson, with a handle to his name, was captain and sailing master. For chief, or, rather, only mate, he chose "Paroo Harry," "Bralga," so called from his exceptional length of limb, was cook, "Speewah," "Sailor Jack," and "Barcoo Tom," made up a complement of seasoned shellbacks of the old school, men who, after years of knocking about "deep water" in all sorts of rigs and services, had, at different times, taken to the great Bush, and there wandered far and wide, never expecting to see the ocean and the tall ships any more. But when the offer was made to them of manning the Buln Buln, they rushed it like a lot of schoolboys.
And if these old hardened sea-hawks were pleased at the notion of at least one last cruise, what shall we say of that Boy Jack's feelings at the idea of his first!
His mother, after some trouble, fearing that her son was undermining his health by too much study, had prevailed on his father to allow him to make one of the party. The father had smiled a little at his wife's anxiety, as, so far, the only occasion upon which he had heard of his youngest hope's attaining any particular distinction at his school was through shooting his master in the leg with an air gun.
It was, however, from no love of the sea that Jack (he was never John, even at his christening) was so delighted. It was more in hopes of being able to shoot a pirate or a wild and savage cannibal.
Thus Jack, although his eyes glittered when he heard the great news, simply shut himself into his room, and passed his time in furbishing up and sharpening a deadly-looking sheath-knife, and oiling and cleaning a big Colt's revolver, recently given him by a friend, in preparation for the coming campaign. Also, he might be heard at times crooning a little song that Speewah had taught him—
"Yankee sloop came down the river,
Blow! boys! blow!
And who, d'ye think, was captain of her?
Blow, my bully boys, blow!
Oh, Jim-a-long Joe, that big buck nigger.
Blow! boys! blow!
And what, d'ye think, he had for dinner?
Blow, my bully boys, blow!
Mosquito's heart and sandfly's liver!
Blow! boys! blow!
Time passed and the Buln Buln worked her way steadily north about; proving herself a capable and comfortable sea-boat, with a capital crew, able and willing, to use their own expression, to "Chuck the little hosker over their shoulders."
At Brisbane they stayed a week; Mrs Davey already benefited by the trip. So had "that Boy Jack," who, in a very short time, under the careful tuition of Johnson and the rest of his friends for'ard, was not only able to take his trick at the tiller, but to go aloft and shift over the gaff-topsail sheet, and out on the jibboom and help to stow the jib, standing his watch regularly with the rest. Still he was, so far, rather disappointed. The novelty was wearing off, and there were no adventures toward. And, all the time, Yam Smith was working his way along muddy Carpentarian shores eastward to meet the man coming westward across the Coral Sea from under the shadow of the Isle of Pines.
At Rockhampton, their next port of call, Mr Davey found a telegram awaiting him to the effect that his presence on matters of urgent pastoral importance was requested in Sydney.
He felt every confidence in Johnson, the boat, and crew and, therefore, experienced no uneasiness in leaving them for a short time. The Buln Buln was to go as far as Normanville, and there stay until his return, in about a fortnight or so; that being the last available port at which he could rejoin by one of the Q.S.N. Co.'s steamers.
As we turned from seeing his father off in the train, Jack felt ten years of added responsibility piled on to him, as Mr Davey said, "Now, Jack, I look to you to keep an eye on things. Take care of your mother; and let me find matters O.K. when I come back."
* * * * * *
A mangrove-fringed, muddy shore, a cluster of iron-roofed houses glittering in the hot sun; a sandhill with a look-out hut and flag-staff upon it; a long jetty running far seaward; a trim-looking cutter at anchor. Normanville, and the Buln Buln waiting for her master. On a thickly timbered point, facing the cutter, lay two men in the shade of the mangroves, gazing at the vessel with fierce, eager eyes. Drawn up on the banks of a muddy creek, hidden by overhanging boughs was a boat with the letters R.F. (Republique Francaise) painted on each bow over a laurel wreath.
Barefooted and bareheaded, their clothes in tatters, faces bearded, grimed, and villainous, they lay on a patch of warm sand, silent for a long time. At last, said one, in French, "She's just the craft for us. The Englishman is right. We three will stick together. He is a strong man, and knows things. When will he return?"
The other merely, grunted an assent to the first part of his companion's speech. The last question was answered by a man who, bearing a big bundle, and treading lightly, came upon the prostrate figures.
"I've been long," said he," but I had to be careful. In common with yourselves, I may be wanted, that there's much danger in that sleepy hole, where they only wake up once a month. Here are provisions, and rum and tobacco. Now eat, drink, and be merry, for to-night we leave this cursed land."
He spoke with an educated accent; and, by comparison with the others, looked like a lion beside a couple of lean and hungry jackals. Although not tall, his proportions were immense, yet he moved like a cat. Upon his breast a great tawny beard fell, one cheek bore the mark of an old scar, a long white seam from eye to mouth. A mass of light hair reached nearly to his shoulders; big, white, carnivorous teeth flashed between lips so thin as to form a line, straight and unbroken when closed; his eyes were black as night, and showed hardly any whites. Altogether a cruel face, and a remarkable figure—one about whom there were rumours in the Northern Territory, from whose gaol at Palmerston he had broken out, and tramped 800 miles to meet those other gaol-breakers from over-sea.
His first appearance had been at Yam Creek diggings; hence the name by which he was known. Wanderers in the Far North said he was the son of a lord, and disinherited heir to a vast estate. But all that was known of his past, for certain, was that he had spent many years at sea, was a most ugly customer in a row, had served one sentence for robbery under arms, and was due for another, owing to the shooting of a Chinaman on the diggings. Before his trial came on, however, he had given his gaolers the slip.
Only two days ago he had come across the men of the Commune, camped in a dreary Gulf bight, roasting shellfish, and half regretting they had ever left their New Caledonian prison.
As soon as Smith's eye lit on the cutter he had conceived the idea of seizing her and setting out for one of his old haunts amongst the beaches and lonely trading stations of the New Hebrides, a plan his companions had eagerly fallen in with. They knew too well what fate awaited them directly they showed their faces in an Australian port to be at all scrupulous as to ways and means.
"I've found out something," said Smith, as he disdainfully watched the others wolfing the provisions he had brought. "There's six, all told of a crew—enough to eat her. Also, there's a lady and a boy, who stay ashore at one of the hotels. Most nights the men come ashore, too, for an hour or so. But they're a very steady lot. The cutter's only waiting for her owner—expected round by the next steamer, due in a couple of days or so. To-night we'll watch the men ashore. The rest will be easy. What do you say?"
"Bon! bon" replied his hearers.
At sundown a boat pulled ashore from the Buln Buln. And from their lurking-place, the convicts saw, in the dusk, four men land and walk along the long jetty, their figures blackly outlined against the red remainder of sunset.
Meanwhile, that Boy Jack, generally ashore with his mother, had, as luck would have it, made up his mind to stay on board this particular night of all others. Heartily tired of waiting for those adventures, looming large at first, but growing ever fainter as time went on, he, to console himself, in some wise, had bought a "shilling shocker," dealing with scalps and gore to an extent perfectly enthralling.
And he lay on the starboard locker in the lamplight, and read, and, I grieve to say it, smoked "Old Judge," only pausing at intervals to mourn, over the degeneracy of the commonplace days in which Providence had cast his lot.
Overhead he could hear Johnson stumping the deck fore and aft, and in the little galley the rattling of pots and pans, as Bralga cleared up after supper.
Suddenly there fell on his ear the sound of something scraping alongside; then voices, blows, a heavy splash, and, the next moment, down the companion steps rushed Johnson, the blood spurting thick from a great gash in his breast. For a minute he stood swaying full in the flood of light cast by the big Rochester lamp, his ruddy Scandinavian features blanched a ghastly white, his blue eyes staring wide open. Then, without a word, he fell crashing at Jack's feet.
"That will do," said a deep, stern voice, as the hood was banged to; "that fellow's got more than he can carry. For'ard, now, and knock the pin out of the shackle, one of you, and let the cable slip. Come here, Louis, and give me a hand with the mains'l. Shift, you French lubbers, shift, or we'll have a crowd off from shore before we get under way!"
Standing there, dazed; but still with every sense in him thrilling, he felt the cutter lean over, and heard the splash of water along her sides; heard the creak of block and tackle, and the clank of winch-pawls, as the great mainsail was boom-ended; heard the rattle of hanks upon wire stay, and knew the foresail was going up—all these sounds coming to him as in a waking nightmare, whilst his fixed stare never left the dead face on the floor, the dreadfully changed face that, for "Master Jack," had ever borne a pleasant smile.
Presently came a rattle at the companion door, and the same deep voice said, Keep her head N.-½-W., until I see how things are below.
With a wild look around, Jack darted into his mother's berth! But, in a second, he was out again and, just as a leg landed on the first stair, he raised the little lazarette-hatch be-aft the cabin-table, and let himself noiselessly into the darkness amongst the stores.
"Hi, there, on deck!" he heard the man shout. Open the skylight and send down a rope's end. There's one too many here. Haul him up, and give him a passage." Then came a bumping noise that Jack knew must be made by poor Johnson's body being dragged on deck.
Thinking that, probably, a search would soon be made, he got through the small door that divided the lazarette from the main hold, where, on the ballast, were stowed the water-tanks, spare sails, and oddments. And, knowing every inch of the place, he snugged away under a heap of canvas. None too soon; for in a few minutes a light flashed in the store-room, and, peeping, Jack saw a big, bearded man, accompanied, by a small, dark one, step out into the hold. Swinging the lantern around, the former said. "She's only a yacht, Louis. No loot, no booty, nothing but stores—more's the pity! However, it's,the boat we wanted. And she's dirt cheap at two lives.
Right for'ard in the bows, was the forecastle, easily entered from the hold. Here, in a locker, Jack found some salt-pork, a round of fresh beef, and plenty of bread— enough provisions to last him for a week. But at present he was far too excited to think of eating. All he could do was to sit on a chest in the gloom amongst the cockroaches and listen to the creakings and groanings of the cutter's timbers, as she foamed along before a strong westerly breeze. In front of him hung a lot of oilskins, that switched backwards and forwards on the bulkhead with every lurch of the vessel, like a row of hanged men with sou-westers on, just discernible in the semi-darkness, lit only by a single deadlight in the deck above. And here he thought and thought, and made plan after plan, all equally futile.
By listening at the lazarette hatch he heard enough to know that the men in possession of the Buln Buln spent most of their time on deck.
According to his calculations, he had been below two days, when he made up his mind to, at all risks, discover what was going to be done with the cutter, and, if possible, to get hold of his revolver.
And, at what he thought must be about midnight, with a beating heart, he slowly lifted the little hatch wide enough to get his head up. The cabin was empty, and, like a flash, he was out and into his own berth, panting with excitement as he crouched on his bunk, and felt with trembling fingers for the revolver. It was there, and as he slipped back the breech-block and filled in the long, heavy 44 C.F.'s—six of them—his lips set, and a warm glow of pleasure seemed to fill his veins with fresh life and courage.
He had left the door ajar, fastened only by a hook and eye, and by the light from the cabin lamp he saw that the place had been well rummaged, but was unoccupied. His tin clothes-box lay on its side, with its contents strewed about the floor. The revolver he grasped so firmly was actually the only weapon on board. And the searchers had missed it! He was nearly sure, too, that the pirates, as he always called them to himself, had nothing but their knives.
Rising, he drew the curtains that hung before the door, leaying a narrow slit, through which he could see what was going on in the cabin.
Evidently he had made a mistake in the time, for the table was laid. It looked dark enough outside, but must, he now thought, be only supper time.
Whilst he watched, the smaller man of the pair he had seen in the hold came down with his arms full of dishes, the appetising odour of which made Jack's stomach sore after his cold fare washed down with cold water.
Presently the man with the big beard descended, and the two began to eat.
"Fifty miles east of Cape York, Louis," said the Englishman, "and the breeze still holding fairly. We'll begin to make our southing through the passage soon. We've done well. But I wish we'd found some weapons. You see, many of the natives of the islands hereabout are not the most amiable people in the world. Have you searched everywhere?"
"Oui, mon capitaine," replied the other, "and none anywheres do we find. No rifle, no gun, no pistolet. By gar, we have noting but de knives!"
"Well, well," replied the big man, "if we can only make Tanna, I know friends there who will soon supply us. Remember, we're right in the track of shipping now, and must keep a very sharp lookout. We're shorthanded, too, and it'll have to be trick and tie. But that won't matter so long as the weather keeps fine as it is. This isn't bad rum; very strong, though. Finished; well then you can go and relieve Anguste at the tiller, whilst I see to the side-lights before some d—d steamer cuts us down. Tell him to leave the rum and biscuits on the table after he's done, big ship fash. A nip now and again during these long watches won't hurt any of us."
And all the time the long barrel of Jack's revolver pointed steady as a rock across the brass catch of the door, straight for the speaker's broad breast. More than once his finger had pressed the trigger ever so lightly. He knew he could have shot him dead at any moment. But Anguste was at the other end of the table. To get a fair aim at him he would have to throw the door wide open and fire in the smoke. By that time the other pirate would be down. But for all this nice calculating of his chances he had nearly determined to risk it, indeed, raised his left hand ready to push off the hook as he fired, when, his eye catching sight of a small box underneath the table, a new idea flashed into his brain, and he allowed the pair to leave the cabin scathless.
Then the other scoundrel, named Auguste, came down, and Jack watched him eating, and drinking rum and water out of a big square bottle of "Mackay's Special." At last he, too, finished, cleared away the things with national neatness and despatch, placed a tray of biscuits alongside the bottle, turned down the lamp and went on deck.
Like a ghost Jack slipped out, and fell on his knees before the medicine-chest, lashed to ringbolts on the floor. Another minute, and he had found what he had often been accustomed to get for his mother—a good sized bottle labelled "Tinct. Opium." Another minute, and, pouring three-parts of its contents into the rum, he was back again to his berth.
"That ought to put the wretches to sleep, anyhow," quoth he, as he resumed his watch. "It it doesn't, well, then, I will have to shoot, and chance it. But I'd sooner take 'em alive. I wonder if the stuff 'll taste the rum too much?"
This question was soon answered. The big Englishman, coming in, poured out half a tumblerful, added a little water, and drank the lot off at a gulp, smacked his lips doubtfully, shook his head, took another dose without water, appeared satisfied, and returned to the deck.
One after the other, at intervals, the Frenchmen entered and helped themselves—Louis liberally, Auguste in moderation. The spirit was strong, fiery, and many degress over-proof. But the laudanum had evidently given it a "twang," for Louis, as he drank, muttered "Sacristi" and "Lonnerre de dieu!" whilst Auguste exclaimed, "Dam le rhum! it burn, and taste not anyhow!" and made extraordinary faces, at which, anxious and excited as he was, Jack grinned.
It was a fine starlight night and a cool breeze struck his hot cheeks refreshingly. Alongside the tiller lay the body of a man. The cutter had jibed, and the great main sail, coming up in the wind, again threatened every minute to bring the boom back. Stooping, Jack saw that the prostrate figure was that of the Frenchman, Louis. But where were the others? Could the boom have swept them overboard? Seizing the tiller, he put it hard up, slipping the rope used for the purpose over its head. As he turned his face for'ard he saw a form come towards him out of a dark patch of shadow by the galley. Stealthily, but with uncertain footsteps, it approached, until Jack recognised Auguste evidently suffering from the effects of the opiate, but not quite overcome. In his hand the lad could see a long bright knife. Doutless the Frenchman had been watching for some time, for he came on muttering wildly and incoherently, but plainly meaning mischief. He had reached the skylight, and with a hoarse growl of rage, and knife uplifted, was gathering himself together for a rush, when Jack, taking steady aim over his wrist, fired, smashing his shoulder, and the fellow went down like a log, and writhed on the deck, moaning, and saying lots of things that the lad, although his father paid five pounds a year extra for his French, could make nothing of.
However, running across, he took the knife, and shied it overboard, saying, Where's the other man—the big man with the beard?"
"Oh, oh!" groaned the other, "vous m'avez tue! Oh! Mon epaule!"
"Bother Paul!" replied Jack fiercely, putting his pistol to the fellow's head, and keeping a wary look out on all sides. "I didn't ask you for his name. Where is he, I want to know? No gammon, now! You can speak English all right, because I've heard you!"
"The capitaine, m'sier?" replied the other, between his groans and exclamations. "Da boom sweep him over de board. I for'ard; he stan' on de skylight, dere, as Louis fall at de tiller. He give a cry, but not come up never no more. Ah, Ciel! I die!" and he rolled over quite still.
"I don't think you're dead," remarked Jack, "and if you are its only one for poor old Johnson and Bragla." Then, after giving the fellow at the tiller a kick to make sure that he wasn't shamming, he went for'ard, finger on trigger, as far as the little forecastle. But there was no one there. Jack was master of the Buln Buln, with his hands very full indeed.
Returning, he unrove the signal-halliards and tied up Louis scientifically, not quite certain whether he was alive or dead. Auguste had bled a good deal, and was insensible, or shamming. So Jack, after roughly bandaging his shoulder, tied him up also. Not for nothing had he helped to rope colts in Buln Buln branding-yards. And he told himself he couldn't afford to throw away chances.
Then for the first time he looked around and out-board. To his surprise there was high land looming up on either side. In fact, the Buln Buln seemed heading directly for an island port. Jumping to the main sheet, Jack, exerting all his strength, at last got the boom amidships. Only that the wind had almost completely died away he could never have managed this.
Then, letting go throat and peak and gaff-topsail halliards, down came all the cutter's canvas by the run, and she rested nearly stationary.
For some time past Jack, amidst all the hurry, bustle, and excitement, had been dimly conscious of hearing a dull churning noise somewhere in air or sea. Now taking a spell and looking astern, he saw, through the darkness, a great green eye shining. Closer and closer came the measured, throbbing like the hurried panting of some sea monster, whose dim bulk he could just discern against the stars.
A steamer! And Jack yelled and shouted with joy, and fired off all the chambers of his revolver in quick succession, sounding like stockwhip cracks on the cool air of the tropical morning.
There was a musical jangling of bells somewhere, the churning ceased, and, before he realised it, the great mass was gliding gently up, and hailing, "Cutter ahoy! What are you doing there, acting the goat, right in the fair way? Clear out!" An order emphasised by a long blast of her syren.
"I want help!" shouted Jack, with a quaver in his voice, as the echoes died away. "I've got two pirates here! They stole our cutter, and—;" but here the long, heavy strain began to tell, and, despite his struggles, he broke down a little and choked. In a minute a great bright light flared out onboard the steamer, showing her towering black sides lined with faces from for'ard right aft; throwing the little cutter into strong relief, and disclosing Jack standing on the skylight, revolver in hand; below him, on the deck, the senseless bodies of the two men, one lying in a dark pool of blood—a picture, while it lasted, as dramatic as the most exacting artist could desire.
"Lower away the gig, and pass a line aboard to tow the cutter!"
And very quickly Jack and his captives were got aboard the Q.S.N. Co.'s steamer Arafura; the bells clanged again, away down in the engine-room, and, with the Buln Buln cutting two big ridges of foam behind her, the big boat set her nose north-about for the Gulf. And as Jack, very pale and faint, but striving mightily not to break down, stood in the saloon amidst a crowd of passengers, who seemed to be all talking to him at once, a very familiar voice said, in tones of such utter astonishment as made a silence, "Well, I'm damned, if it isn't that boy Jack!"
* * * * * *
It took all the surgeon of the Arafura's skill to restore the drugged man, Louis, to consciousness, so nearly had Jack, as he phrased it, "put a set on him." Indeed, the pair of rascals were but in poor plight when transferred to the Normanville hospital, whence they eventually emerged to, in absence of actual proof of murder, serve life sentences.
If Mr. Davey was astonished at the meeting, he was equally as proud when he came to hear the full particulars of his son's adventure.
And, of course, Jack was the hero of the hour with all the "Arafuras," from the captain to the cook's mate. But he put on no "side"—not even as much as he was fairly entitled to, and was, I think, prouder by far of his father's simple "Good lad! good lad!" and his hand-grip, as of one man with another, than of all the praise, petting, and admiration he received on every side when familiar in people's mouths as household words throughout the far north became the story of "That Boy Jack."
"It must be about five-and-twenty years now since the day I sat on the steps of the Sailors' Home in Singapore, stone broke. I'd been first mate of a ship called the Star of Africa, that the skipper'd managed to run slap on to a rock in the Straits of Sunda. It wasn't my fault, nor did I lose my ticket like the captain. All the same, I found it preciorus hard to get another ship.
"Owners as well as masters have fads and prejudices in this respect—not,perhaps, as regards a first time. But this happened to be my second wreck running. So my luck, you see, was dead out. Actually but for bananas I might have starved. Bananas and water fill up and satisfy right enough, only it takes you all your time to keep the supply going. Presently, as I sat there, digesting my second or third breakfast, out came the Master-intendant, and said he: 'Harding, if you stay here till the moon turns blue you'll never get a ship. But a billet's turned up that, perhaps, is better than nothing. The Dutch,' he went on, 'have built a lighthouse somewhere down yonder on the Bornean coast, and a second keeper is wanted; wages, eighty guilders a month and rations. It's the merest fluke that I happened to hear of it. Will you take it?'
"'Would a duck swim?'
"'All right, then, come along to Van Veldt and Co.'s office; they'll take you on my recommendation.' The Dutch agents did so without question. More, they paid me a month's wages in advance, and sent me in one of their steamers round to Batavia, where I was to get fresh orders. Arrived there, I was kept waiting a month. But as I had good quarters, and plenty to eat and drink, I didn't mind spending my 'dead horse' in this way. One day, however, I was told to get my belongings on board a little fore-and-aft schooner which had been loading stores for the newly-built lighthouse.
"We were ten days on the passage; and when we brought up at our destination, and I saw what I'd come to, I'd have taken ten days on bananas and water to get away again.
"From a thickly-wooded point a reef ran nearly three-quarters of a mile out into the Macassar Straits. At the extreme end of Mat Aris—as the point was called—stood the lighthouse. You'd ha' laughed! Imagine a sort of shed, shaped like one of those oval-topped meat safes, built on a platform resting on piles forty feet high. That was all. From the shed there ran a corduroy bridge, with a hand-rail, some thirty feet back shoreward, to another and a larger platform, where, in a large hut, we were to live. The only way to get down to terra firma was by ladders. At low water all you could see was mud; and dozens of alligators that used to come down a river close to for salt-water bathing. Eyerywhere, almost down to the sea, stood great trees, 150 feet high, growing close together—elbowing each other, so to speak; and, as if that wasn't enough, creepers, ferns, and undergrowth of all descriptions filled up every vacant chink between them. On this impenetrable face of woodland the efforts of the workmen and builders had merely left a slight scratch—even by a this rapidly greening over. Nature heals her scars in that country almost as soon as received. The light itself was merely a big lantern, carrying eight wicks, kerosene fed, and hung to the roof of the meat safe. That it had been badly wanted, primitive as it was, the remains of several vessels emphatically witnessed.
"My boss was there already, a cross-bred, surly-looking customer—father Dutch, mother Malay. She kept house for us—a skinny old hag, with a nose like an eagle's, and a bigger moustache than I could boast of in those days. Her son's' name was Peter—Peter Klopp.
"Presently the schooner went away and left us. And what a life it was! Nothing to do after trimming the lights of a morning, and sweeping bucketsful of moths out of the round-house, except sit and smoke, and look out across the Straits to Celebes—just a blue line of high mountains in the distance—sleep, eat, watch the ships coming and going, or pull faces at the monkeys up amongst the tall trees that waved their heads seventy feet above ours.
"At times the traffic was pretty thick. It was always peculiar. Junks from Swatow, bound for Amboyna and Ceram for sandalwood, swallows' nests, and beche de mer; "country wallahs" from Penang and Singapore, going round to Banjermassin for coffee and rice; steam tramps from Australian ports, loaded up to their gunwales with coal for Manila; and smart little top-sail schooners flying any flag that took their fancy, and ready to pick up any thing that wasn't too hot or too heavy for them, from a bushel of nutmegs to a holdful of 'blackbirds.' But, with the exception of a Dutch gunboat, the Bliksem, acting as a sort of sea-patrol, which called on us at long intervals, we had no visitors at Mat Aris Point.
"Peter and his old mother I soon discovered were confirmed opium smokers, and when they went in for a regular spree, and began to suffer a recovery, they made things hum in 'Monkey Island,' as I called it. Once I was fool enough to interfere and stop Peter from choking the life out of her. For thanks, the pair turned on me; but I managed to dress them down, although Peter nearly got his knife into me. And I can tell you," laughed Harding, pausing in his story, and rising to conjure again with the kettle and other adjuncts, "that two to one, with precious little room, and a break-neck fall if you're not too careful, isn't as funny as it might be."
Having replenished the glasses, and re-filled and lit his pipe, Harding proceeded:
"Well, after this I could see that the two had taken a down upon me; and as I, on my part, was heartily sick of the whole contract, I told the officer, who commanded the Bliksem, next time she called, that I wanted to leave; and that the sooner he found a substitute the better I should be pleased. For answer he called me an English schelm, which means rascal, and told me that I had agreed for two years—which was a lie—and that there I should stay. Also, that he'd make it his business to see that I didn't get away.
"Seeing that escape, for that's what it really came to, by water was not to be thought of, except by swimming—and the sharks pretty well put that out of the question—I determined to see what the land side was like. A muddy-banked river emptied itself just below the lighthouse, and this one day I started to follow up. But I didn't follow long. I don't believe I got a mile before I was mother-naked, and nearly bitten and stung to death. Every bush and shrub—nay, the very flowers—seemed to carry a thorn. And, what with fire-ants, mosquitoes, leeches, centipedes, stinging flies, and, worse than all, a blamed caterpillar that drops on to you off the leaves and stick hairs into you that break off in your flesh and fester, I can assure you it was the roughest picnic I ever had. Why, I almost thought I could hear the alligators chuckling as I made home again. Certainly Peter laughed, for the first time since we'd been mates on Monkey Island, when he saw the plight I was in.
"A day or so after this the gunboat sent her gig ashore again, and, from the hammock I had slung in my portion of the big hut, I could hear much laughter amongst the Dutchmen as Peter detailed my adventure. I heard also allusion to some other 'verdomde Engelander;' and a long talk about the light and bearings, the gist of which, for want of a more intimate knowledge of the language, escaped me. Next morning I saw Peter marching off along the narrow strip of bank that separated bush from sea with a tail block, over his shoulder; and, though wondering mightily what he could be up to, I wasn't going to show any curiosity. A tail-block, by the way, I ought to tell you, is the common block that you reeve a rope through, only to one end of it is attached a long tail of plaited stuff, usually by which it can be made fast to a spar or bolt, a-low or aloft. Very little gave me food for thought in those days, and I puzzled over this till Peter came back, and, rummaging amongst the stores, walked off once more with a coil of new ratline-line, and in the same direction.
"He did not appear at dinner, and as I finished my mess of rice, salt fish, and pickled mangoes, I said to the woman, 'What's become of Peter?' 'He's gone to set a trap for an orang-outang whose tracks he saw at the foot of the ladders yesterday,' she replied, grinning and leering. 'And,' added she sarcastically, 'if you don't believe me, go and look; only leave your clothes behind, most misbegotten of English fools.'
"Peter came home that evening, and in the interest created by a new visitor in those waters, and whose acquaintance I at once sought some means of making, the incident of the tail-block was completely forgotten.
"Dutch soundings, it appeared, having been found so unreliable as to bring a good few British vessels to grief, that Government, characteristically enough, had despatched a vessel to correct them, without giving the Dutch notice, or saying by your leave, or anything else.
"And although we, or rather I, was unaware of it, H.M.S. Badger had for some time been thus engaged at the upper portion of the Straits. Now she appeared off Mat Aris busy, in sporting parlance, wiping the Bliksem's eye, very much to the disgust of the latter's officers, whose specialty, if they possessed one, was supposed to be surveying.
"The Badger was a paddle-wheeled, brig-rigged old tub, sure enough. But she was British; and as I stared and stared through the glasses at the white ensign and the good red cross flying from her peak, I was often tempted to swim off to her as she puffed and churned away, fussing around after her boats like an old hen after her chicks.
"But when I looked at the black, three-sided fins sticking up at high water right alongside our piles, I felt my toes tingle, and thought better of it, trusting that some day she'd send a boat to give us a call, when I determined that go I would if all the Dutchies in the East Indies were to try to stop me.
"That Peter guessed my thoughts and notions I could see from the mean, yellow-brown, grinning face of him. And I'd try to get his dander up some times. 'Look at that, Peter,' I'd say. 'That's my country flag. There's no slaves underneath its folds, sweating and toiling, half-starved, and taxed to death's doors like there is under yours. Hip,hip, hooray! Rule Britannia and God save the Queen! and confusion to all half-breds!' He didn't understand all of it, of course, but he used to shake his fist at the Badger, and look as nasty as a hatful of snakes.
"Twice whilst I was on watch—as we used to call the initermittent, sleepy look-out we kept at Mat Aris—the Bliksem boat came ashore, and I could hear the officer and Peter each time having a long confab together. During the night the old wife always used to have coffee ground and hot water on the fire, so that we could make our own if we wished for a drink.
"One night, shortly after the Dutch officer's last visit, coming in and rousing Peter to take his watch, I brewed myself a cup before turning in. It tasted very bitter, and I didn't finish it; but almost before I'd time to undress I was dead to the world. I woke in a fright, dripping with sweat, and shaking all over. Now, in the lighthouse was a bottle of lime-juice I'd brewed myself; my throat was as dry as the lubricators of a collier's engines, and the thought of that drink tantalised me till I made shift to crawl out of my hammock and stagger along the bridge, to the little house, where also was a 'chatty' of cold water.
"To my utter astonishment, in looking up I saw that the light was out. Opening the door, I entered, and, half choking, felt for the water-bottle. It was empty. Striking a match, I saw that the floor was soaking wet. Putting up my hand to the wicks, they only frizzed and sputtered at contact with the flame. Also the spare lantern that we always kept ready trimmed had disappeared.
"Stepping outside on to the platform, I stared around, headachy and very shaky still. The night was black as pitch—one of those nights you often get out there, that feel almost like black velvet, and as thick. And there wasn't a star to be seen, as sometimes happens at the change of the monsoons. The jungle, too, was still as death; there was no sound on land or on the sea. The whole world seemed fast bound in sleep and darkness. Presently my eye, roving along shore, came to the gleam of a light some half-mile away, about on a level with where ours should have been, only much further inland—a big light I saw it was, as my eyes got the sleep out of them, and burning steadily.
"As I stared, puzzled beyond expression, I all at once heard the sound of muffled snorting and churning faint in the distance—a noise as if a shoal of grampuses were coming down the Straits.
"Listening and staring, there suddenly rose to mind fragments of the first talk I'd heard between Peter and the Dutchman about lights and bearings. Then, somehow, came a connection between that and the tail-block and the coil of ratline stuff. Then I don't know how it happened, but in a second (perhaps you've experienced something of the kind)—my brain seemed cleared of cobwebs, as if a broom inside had been swept across it sharply, and the whole plan lay before me plain as mud in a wine-glass. And I laughed; yes, sir, I assure you I did, for I saw my time had come at last. The puff, puff, and wheezy panting was sounding nearer; and, looking steadily and hard into the distance, I could see, a long way up the Straits, a shower of sparks like a swarm of fireflies, but which I knew marked the where-abouts of the Badger, burning Nagaski coal.
"She was approaching obliquely,over from the Celebes side, heading about west-sou'-west to pick up Mat Aria light; then, according to the sailing directions, she would straighten up west-by-sou', keeping the light four points to her starboard bow to clear the reef. Now, with the light in its present position, she would, if unsuspicious—and it was the merest chance that anybody on board observed the change—crash right on to the outer most edge of the reef, and go down in deep water, as others had done before her. It was a trap conceived with perfectly diabolical cunning and ingenuity, the site of the false light having evidently been determined most carefully and scientifically—not too far to excite the look-out's distrust, and yet near enough to prove effectual. Puff-puff, churn-churn, pant-pant. Another twenty minutes, and it would be all up with H.M.S. Badger. But, knowing exactly what to do—holding two honours and the ace, so to speak—I was as cool as a cucumber, and, except for that trembling about the legs, my own man again. That I had been drugged or poisoned by an insufficient dose I more than suspected. Just then, however, I didn't bother my head about that. I wanted to renew the light on Mat Aris. Round the caboose in which the latern used to hang, as I've told you, for all the world like a leg of mutton in a meat safe, ran lockers filled with tins of kerosene, waste, rope, oakum, and such matters. Knocking the heads of a couple of the tins in, I poured the oil over all liberally, saturating every thing. After this, a match was all that was needed, and before I was half way along the bridge the flames were six feet high. Just looking in her den to see that the old lady wasn't there, I went down the ladders like a lamp lighter, and ran along the bank towards where I knew the false beacon must be, swung high aloft in some tree.
"Over logs and stumps I stumbled, looking back now and again at the big, tall glare, till, rounding a point, the dense forest shut it from sight. Getting along somehow, I stopped at last, and listened. But I could hear nothing of the Badger. Inland, however, high overhead, hung the light. Pulling out my sheath knife, I made for it, head long through bush and briar. As I guessed, it was hung to a tree, and, feeling all round, I soon found the rope belayed to a root, and before you could say 'Jack Robinson,' I'd slashed it through, and was watching the lantern coming down by the run when a fellow jumped out of the dark, and muzzled me round the throat. 'Hello, Peter,' I said, as I returned the compliment, 'you see the coffee wasn't strong enough.' I hadn't time to say much, being very busy, for the brute, in spite of the opium, was stronger than I thought, and I weaker. Down we went, rolling over and over, whilst, to make things warmer, the lantern capsized, and, setting fire to the coarse grass, it blazed up all about us. Also the woman, with a big club in her fist, was dancing around screeching blue murder, but frightened to hit, so closely entangled were we. I still grasped my knife. I could see Peter's also gleam as we turned and writhed. Presently I felt a sharp pain in my shoulder, and knew I was stabbed. That made me real mad; and as we rolled away a bit from the fire, the hag made a smack at me, but, missing, caught Peter on the point of the shoulder causing him to drop the knife. He stretched out to recover it, and I got home on him till I felt the wooden haft jar against his ribs.
"He went limp all in a minute, exactly like one of those bladders the children play with if you shove a pin into it. Well, we'd rolled down a bank into a bit of a swamp, and when the hag saw what had happened, she gave one yell, and jumped fairly on top of me, and got her stick to work in great style. As you may imagine, I was by this pretty well knocked out, and I don't know how matters would have gone; only that a boat's crew of Badgers just then came on the scene, and dragged the hag off me, swearing, kicking, and striking right and left, until one of the men gave her a poke with a bayonet, when she suddenly calmed down, and started to raise the Malay death-wail.
"And she had cause to, for Peter pegged out before we got him on board. Mine turned out to be nothing much worse than a flesh wound, although I'd lost a lot of blood from it.
"As you may guess, the skipper of the Badger was in a pelter when he'd heard my story. Certainly I had no witness, and the hag kept her mouth as close as a rat-trap. But we got over that. There was a Malay interpreter on board, and he gave the captain a hint. So, when the woman heard that she was to be taken back to Perak, her native place, and there handed over to the tender mercies of the Sultan—at that time our very good friend—she made a clean breast of everything, Including the attempt to poison me with the juice of the klang-klang berries. Four hundred guilders was the price of Peter's connivance, and promotion to one of the Java lights. if the plan succeeded.
"This confession of the hag's was a bit of luck for me, and Captain Cardigan complimented me in presence of the ship's company on the way I'd behaved, having undoubtedly saved the Badger, whose officer of the watch was, steering by the false light when it suddenly disappeared." — "Chambers's Journal."
'Ask how the weather is now, and if there is anything in sight. We may as well rise and get freshened up a little.'
The speaker was a man in an undress naval uniform, who lounged on a sofa in what looked more like a very luxuriously furnished drawing-room than the cabin of a ship of war. Choice paintings adorned the inlaid panelling of the walls, thick carpets the floor; electric lights shed their soft lustre everywhere; books, musical instruments, groups of statuary, were scattered about the spacious and lofty apartment. The person addressed rose, and going to a microphone, of which there were several, fashioned so as to resemble ornamental brackets, presently replied:—
'The Chief Aerologist says, Admiral, that they are in calm, clear weather. Have experienced no wind to speak of. The cloud strata above us he adds, are rapidly dispersing. Heavy sea still on. Nothing whatever in sight.'
'Never mind the sea,' replied the Admiral, 'that will only wash us down a bit. I want to have a look at the sun. Let her rise. Connect, and tell the others.'
On this, the Chief Electrician pressed an ivory button, then another and another in quick succession. The former complete silence was broken by a faint sort of gigantic humming and buzzing somewhere in the bowels of the vast mass of steel, iron, and brass, known as the Russian warship Tsar, and presently a burst of greenish light, looking forlorn and squalid by contrast with the others, streamed into the room through a broad sheet of plate-glass in its ceiling.
'What depth were we during the gale?' asked the Admiral.
'Twenty fathoms—full submersion power,' replied his companion.
'Very good. Kindly ask the air people if the remainder of the fleet is visible.'
'Nicolaieff, Moscow, and Vladimir already up. The Demidoff is just rising,' was the reply.
'Thanks,' said the Admiral; 'then I may as well go on deck.' Leaving his couch he seated himself in a lift, and in another minute found himself landed in his conning-tower fifty feet above, with the salt sea breeze blowing in his face—a welcome change from the artificial atmosphere he had lately breathed. Even to his accustomed eye the scene was not without its interest.
At his feet stretched, shining wetly, the red and black painted bulk of the huge sea-dragon, its full sweep of 1000 feet broken only by two long, low structures, 150 feet in length by 20 broad, pointing fore and aft, ahead and astern; and by a similar tower equidistant from the one upon whose outer railing he was then leaning. The former objects were the shields of those triumphs of lethal mechanism, the famous ammonite guns; the other tower was for the special use of, next to the Admiral, the most important personage in the ship, the Chief Electrician, together with his staff.
On every hand lay the ocean, heaving its 'wandering fields of barren foam' skyward. Half-a-mile abeam to port three islands of metal appeared; to starboard one. All were steering swiftly, without roll or perceptible quiver even, due west. Nor on any of these submersible monsters was there visible sign of spar, flag, sail, or funnel. With the exceptions already noted they were perfectly bare. But from all, as from the Tsar, rose through what looked like short stout ventilators in the deck four gleaming cables thick as a man's wrist, made of the new metal alumia, thirty times the toughness of steel, a quarter of its weight, and flexible as gutta-percha, straining steadily aloft, up, up through the cloud-wrack out of sight to the great warships of another element.
Above, nor below, no whiff of smoke, no sound. These sea-shouldering whales of destruction and their aerial fellows did their spiriting gently—all their work so, in fact.
The brawling Steam King was dead, and Electricity was mistress of the world. Stephenson and his successors, at this so latter day, had become a myth. Even Davy, Oersted, Ampere, Ohm, and Faraday were blind gropers in the sight of the youngest student of the wondrous science which, whilst revolutionising the social aspects of mankind, had failed very completely to stay its desire of killing.
"Speak the Vladimir and ask Captain Suwanoff to dine with me,' signalled the Admiral to the other tower after a long look around.
Hardly were the words spoken when a cigar-shaped object came shooting along, sometimes just skimming the tops of the big Atlantic combers, at others invisible beneath them for minutes together. This was the submarine electric launch of the Vladimir, and as she swiftly approached and her impact and consequent destruction seemed inevitable, a circular section opened in the Tsar's side above the waterline, from which protruded a couple of steel arms that, as the launch lost her way, grasped her and drew her on board. In another moment the commander of the Vladimir joined his host in the tower.
'Two days of slow work,' remarked the Admiral as they shook hands. 'I wonder how long it will be before we get out of this quarter-speed submerged period. With all our boasted progress the old nut our grandfathers were so fond of trying to crack remains nearly as intact as ever, in this particular of slow-travelling under water, anyhow.'
'We are too heavy below to overcome the pressure at such a depth,' replied the Captain. 'I have heard, though, that the British Edward VIII., submersible power thirty fathoms, can do her eight knots at that distance down.'
'I don't believe it!' exclaimed the Admiral, in a tone that forebode insistence. 'Clever as they are, they cannot do impossibilities. I've seen the Edward, and she's heavier than the Tsar. But there, Suwanoff,' he continued, 'if we haven't quite cracked the nut, it's a far more comfortable fashion of getting out of bad weather than heaving-to, running before it, or steaming head to wind, as our benighted ancestors were forced to do. Presto! and in a minute you leave the war and commotion of the elements twenty fathoms overhead; and either lie snugly and silently at rest, or dodge slowly along. Let us not be ungrateful science has done a good deal for us.'
Presently the sun shone out brilliantly, and the Captain, glancing along one of the cables which led up beside the tower to where, far on high, could now be discerned a small dot black against a blue rift of sky, remarked; 'I fancy you are going to have more visitors. They're inclining the Chiefs line up yonder.'
'Yes,' replied the Admiral; 'I asked him to join us just before you arrived.'
A couple of minutes passed, and then, with a stately motion as of some huge descending bird, the central air-ship was observed to gradually lower until about half-a-mile distant, dead ahead, with cable at full tension. And presently along the rope some bright object was seen rapidly nearing the Tsar, and looking like a big shining spider running along the first thread of its web.
As it approached it proved to be a narrow steel car in which sat a man who, grasping a lever, thus regulated its speed down the gentle slope. Eight deeply grooved induction wheels—driven by a small motor—gripped the cable, whilst the latter, rigid as a bar, swayed slightly from side to side with the motion of the great fabric at its other extremity.
Jumping lightly off as he reached the deck, and lifting the car from the cable, the visitor ascended a light staircase leading to the tower, as the air-ship, at a given signal, again soared aloft.
'How are you, Professor?' said the Admiral, greeting the new-comer. 'And how goes it with your squadron up there?'
'Admirably,' replied the visitor, a young man of two or three and twenty; 'but that cyclone was a tearer and no mistake. Deep as your forts were, Admiral good a hold as you have, it would have staggered you had you not burrowed when you did. I really think,' continued the Chief Aerologist, laughingly, 'that, with all your comforts and luxuries down here, we sometimes have the advantage of you. With our engines at only medium ascension power, we just shot up over the storm-streak and from there kept pace with you, basking in the sunshine and the calm air whilst you groped through the watery depths so far beneath.'
'How would you like a cruise, Professor?' asked the Admiral presently, as the three left the gallery and entered the tower. 'You know,' he continued, 'that we are nearing hostile shores—are even now possibly within range (touching, as he spoke, a metal knob on the table). These Australians, Professor, are said to excel above all other nations in your own peculiar science. Although keeping well in touch, as respects other warlike matters, with older people, their clear skies and balmy atmosphere, it seems, afford advantages they have not been slow to avail themselves of for the practice and pursuit of aerostation in its every form. Hence, I believe their fleet of air-ships is one of the swiftest and best equipped in the world. It really,' he went on, 'is wonderful that we have not ere this been discovered, cautious although we were, you to stay at high ascensions, we at our lowest submersion ever since leaving Vladivostock. Now I think you had better disconnect, leaving but the one intelligence ship with each of us. Steer for the 'Heads' you see here, on this plan of the New South Wales coast line, at your highest possible point of ascension; and meanwhile we will try and wake up the sleepy citizens of Sydney a little.'
As the Admiral finished speaking, the Chief Electrician entered the tower.
A word as to this structure that the main personages of the Russian war fleet now found themselves in. Circular in shape, lofty and roomy, it was built of foot plates of a metal, or rather a mixture of metals, discovered in the middle of the 20th century, and named alumia. Of this composition a thickness of only 12 inches had, so far, proved impregnable against the most powerful existing ordinance—dinted and battered and crushed the plates might be, but never penetrated. Partially closed by a sort of hood when prepared for battle, hermetically so when about to sink, two large sliding doors now open on to the gallery already mentioned. The interior was fitted up as a study, and corresponded after a fashion to the ancient chart-room and conning tower combined of the cruisers of the steam age.
In the centre of the apartment, stood a massive table littered with plans, working models, the latest works on aerostation, electricity, &c. Upon the walls hung large and elaborate electromes of the most important Australian cities, showing every minutest detail of fortification, streets, and public buildings presented from different angles, and with every distance reduced to ranges calculated in parabolic curves. In a smaller room adjoining a telephonic student sat, ready to communicate with any portion of either fleet at the Admiral's wish. From the tower the latter and his assistant staff of one sub-chief of guns and one sub-chief electrician watched the progress of the battle, received reports from the single intelligence air-ships retained on such occasions, or transmitted orders to the Chief Electrician in his almost exactly similar tower at the other end of the deck. But to return.
The Chief Electrician was closely followed by the Chief of the Guns, also a most important personage, and like his colleague entitled to use the lift from the Admiral's private room. 'What distance do you make us from Sydney?' asked the Commander presently of the Chief Electrician, who was also at the head of the Intelligence Department.
'Five minutes ago,' was the reply, 'we were exactly 120 miles, 3 furlongs, 3 chains from their General Post Office.
'As I thought then,' answered his superior. 'We're just within nice range.' And, turning to the Chief of the Guns, he continued—'Kindly make your calculations, M. Popoff, and we will send them word that we are coming. In the meantime stop the fleet.' A signal to the other tower, and in a second the message ran through the connectors, and the great ships lay motionless.
'Base your calculations, if you please, M. Popoff,' said the Admiral, as the Chief of the Guns was leaving the tower—placing his finger, as he spoke, on a vast mass of buildings standing prominently out from an electrome of the City of Sydney—'so as to drop your infant about the centre of this establishment—their Federated House of Parliament. Let them,' he continued, 'have one of the full-power Demidoffs. If that doesn't astonish their Antipodean souls nothing will. A card from the Bear to the Kangaroo, eh?' And the Admiral chuckled at his little joke.
In another minute a silver bell rang in the tower.
'Shall we adjourn to the forward gun-room, gentlemen?' remarked the Admiral. Popoff has evidently finished his figures.
* * * * * *
A vast apartment, with deck of corrugated steel, this gun room, situated under the forward turtleback of the Tsar, and fellow to a similar one at the other end. To the eye of the uninitiated the one object intelligible amidst the bewildering array of instruments and machinery was an enormous cylinder, mounted on what were known as 'sensitive pivots.' It measured 120 feet in length and 18 in circumference at the breech; this monster gun, tapering to 12 feet at the muzzle, was technically known as a '36 8 Ammonite,' and it threw high explosive projectiles weighing 100 tons over an effective range of 200 curvilinear miles. Besides this, it was capable of, at close quarters, sending one of Norrie's steel 'conicals,' alumia-tipped, and weighing 180 tons, through a 12-foot wall of iron at 50 miles, as if it were a sheet of brown paper. A very terrible weapon indeed! The Tsar carried, in addition to two of these monsters, twelve smaller ones—six on each broadside, and so arranged as to be fired simultaneously. This was her whole armament; and, with the exception of the British warship already mentioned, she was the largest and heaviest armed vessel afloat. As the Admiral and his companion descended, bells were ringing in the lower regions of the great sea-battery, and officers, mechanicians, aud students were hurrying to their stations around the immense machine at whose yawning breech stood the Chief of Guns himself, with a paper in his hand, whereupon appeared a diagram of the corrected curve along which the flight of the missile was to be directed.
A number of military officers who had arrived from the quarters of the troops, of whom the Tsar carried 6000, formed a group by themselves, and gazed curiously at the, to them, novel preparations.
At a nod from the Sub-Chief of the Guns a clicking of electric motors filled the place, and the whole floor, or platform, began to rise, taking everything and everybody with it. Another nod, and a powerful gas-pump could be heard as with deep respirations it filled the chamber—large as a good-sized room—behind the projectile, already in position.
Now the floor became stationary, and the gun alone continued to ascend under the irresistible power applied through the sensitive pivots, it's vast, mass seeming almost endued with life as it rose majestically until just beneath the deck shields, which at a touch fell open in half-sections.
Like flies upon an elephant, the Chief and his staff ran hither and thither for a minute or so, with a push of a lever here, a touch of a spring there, until the gun rose clear of the deck, supported, apparently, but by a single bar of steel, thick, however, as a man's body.
Then the Chief, from his post on the breech, alternately elevating, depressing, steadying, controlling with the pressure of a finger the whole immense fabric; adjusting one set of instruments, gazing intently skyward through another, at length, for a second, stood motionless whilst a noise like the combined rush of a million rockets announced that the messenger of destruction had sped on its errand.
The motors clicked again, the floor moved upwards to meet the gun, and, without a sound, both sank into their former positions.
As the Chief stepped off the spiral staircase leading to the top of the breech a message which had just arrived from the central air-ship was delivered to him. It ran:—
'Still in view; direction, W. ¾ S.; velociiy, 110·6; initial acclivicy of parabola, 15: 12: 3.'
The Chief rubbed his hands, well pleased, and muttered to himself, 'Couldn't be better. Once over the upper curve of the crest and it's a certainty.'
'Now, gentlemen,' said the Admiral, as the sound of many instruments playing the national air of Russia came to their ears, 'dinner is on the table. To-day you will all give me the honour of your company.'
* * * * * *
(Extract from the Sydney Morning Herald of 8th December, 2080.)
'There is a hostile fleet on our coast. Yeterday evening, at 4 30, the Houses of Parliament were utterly demolished by a huge shell. Judging from the fragment, the Director-General of Artillery says that it is undoubtedly of Russian manufacture.
'He thinks it must have been one of the big Demidoff projectiles, advice relating to whose adoption by the Russian Government came to hand just prior to the Declaration of War.
'Most fortunately, both Houses being in recess, there was not a soul about the building except one of the caretakers, whose escape was truly miraculous. He, of course, suffered severely from shock, and remembers nothing until brought down from amongst the limbs of one of the biggest of the Norfolk Island pines fronting the northern entrance, into which he had been flung, fully 150 feet in height.
'Those on the water who chanced to be gazing shoreward simply saw the huge mass of masonry totter, heave up almost bodily, and then collapse with a horrible crash. There is scarcely a whole pane of glass left intact in the city proper, and many hundreds of people within a mile radius were severely bruised and injured by the violence of the explosion, which hurled them to the ground.
'That the shock was spread over a large area is evidenced by the number of questions received at the Central Observatory from places as far distant as Windsor and Parramatta. Experts are undecided as to the exact nature of the explosive used, but the general opinion seems to favour some preparation of ammonia with nitro-glycerine as a base. Notwithstanding the efforts of the firemen, the whole pile is still burning fiercely'
'Ten of the swiftest airships have been despatched to reconnoitre the enemy. They are under the command of Professor Smyth, M.C A. First Electric Commander Browne has taken charge of the batteries at the Heads.
'The Director-General of Artillery informs us that, although possessing no guns of such immense size as those from which proceeded our unwelcome visitor, he still "thinks that our 24 7in Carboys at the outer fortifications will be able to give a good account of any hostile fleet." In addition to the despatch of the air-cruisers, the Federated Australian ships Waratah, four 14·5 in. guns, 23 fathoms submersible power; Sydney, three 16·3 in. guns, 20 fathoms s.p.; Albury, five 18·9 in. guns, 20 fathoms s.p., together with the marine miner Groper, s.p. 15 fathoms, carrying a full supply of her deadly wares, have put to sea.
'Our commanders are under strict orders not to risk anything like a general engagement if the approaching force turn out as powerful as it is feared to be. But, if possible, they are to harass the enemy and bring him to the surface where the fire from the 24·7 guns at the Heads will take effect.
'The latter will open directly the first report comes through the connectors from the air-squadron, as the enemy's position is now accurately known, the chord of the arc taken by the Russian projectile having been calculated to the fraction of a foot.
'Mr. Thompson, A.A., the well-known authority and expert in aerology and electrics, having obtained permission from the War Department, will immediately despatch a dozen of his lately-invented electro-kinetic radiolos.
'These will be put on board the surface-motors Gull and Firefly, and be released when within sight of the invading fleet. Two of the first-class armoured air-ships—Sparrow-hawk, 4 guns, and Kookaburra, 4 guns—will accompany the motors.
'Excitement, both in Sydney and throughout the Federation, intense. Troops arriving rapidly from the inland states. Armoured trains patrolling the seaboard. Northern naval contingent signalled as off Tweed Heads. Southern ditto hurrying up the coast.
'H.R.H. the Governor-General, accompanied by his staff, has left the capital for the Heads by the six o'clock magnetic express.
'Fellow countrymen! Let us strike and fear not! We fight for our wives and our little ones, our country and our liberty!'
* * * * * *
The Russian fleet would have presented a curious, nay, an eerie and unnatural, sight to a 19th century eye, as on this especial morning it headed, at the full power of its mighty engines, for the Australian shore. The sunshine was brilliant, but from these sombre masses of black and dull red it drew no cheerful glitter of brass, or glass, or polished steel. In line abreast, they rushed irresistibly along at 35-mile speed per hour, the foaming banks of water pouring away from their bows with a sound like that of surf beating on some rock-bound coast. From each deck rose high in air, straining at its cable like some salient thing struggling for freedom, a solitary intelligence ship. On board the Tsar and her consorts the troops of the army of invasion were up for exercise and the decks were covered with bodies of men in different formations.
But all the pomp and panoply of old-time warfare were absent; no sound of trumpet or drum caught the ear; no glitter of rich uniform the eye. Like the vessels themselves, all was dull, sombre, threatening; above all, scientific.
Battles now, both by sea and land and air, were fought at long range indeed and in a silence broken only by the death rattle, or by screams of agony as men fell killed and wounded by hands fifty and a hundred miles away. War was a cold blooded business. No clouds of smoke obscured its horrors; no martial music cheered the distant combatants no roar of artillery or wild charge of excited soldiery awoke enthusiasm, or distracted attention from the butchery. But missiles, varying in size from long steel pencil cases, which, striking, scattered noiselessly to atoms in one's limbs and vitals, to others weighing tons, that swept athwart an army like a blizzard, whose very breath was sudden death, and bursting was a wholesale massacre, arrived apparently from nowhere, and found their billets by intuition.
A proficiency in electro-chemistry, geometry, and the higher mathematics generally, was a surer guarantee of victory by far to a nation than all the might of 'heaviest battalions.'
Every soldier was now a graduate of the deadly sciences. There was no reckless blazing away of ammunition as of old. Every shot, large or small, was the outcome of individual and elaborate calculation. Tommy Atkins, Johnny Kuss, and the armies of which they once formed types, were totally extinct. And in their shoes stood professors and students, the scientific children of an ultra-scientific age, using weapons to which the most deadly and finished products of the past century bore the same proportion that the flintlock musket of the one before it did to them.
Presently the Tsar's intelligence air-ship signalled 'Land in sight,' followed immediately by 'Central's launch coming. Fleet must have been engaged. None of them visible.' 'By the bones of Saint Casimir!' exclaimed the Admiral to the Chief of the Guns, who was with him in the tower, 'this looks serious! What can have happened to the Professor?'
'Here he comes to answer for himself,' replied the Chief, as the big electric launch of the Central airship (the Professor's own) arose from a dive, and appeared alongside. Many of her crew were evidently badly wounded, and all looked downcast and disheartened. 'Yes,' exclaimed the Professor, faintly; 'we were beaten hollow—utterly, in spite of our fifteen to their ten. We never had a chance,' he continued, as the instantly-summoned doctors dressed his and his companions' wounds. 'They circled round and above us like a flock of hawks, riddling us with a hail of bullets, whilst our heavier ships never got a shot at them. Their ascension power, too, is fully 20 degs. more than ours. Yes, we are the only ones who escaped out of the whole fleet. You were right, Admiral, we are no match for them in the air. They took us by surprise, too. We were just observing the entrance to their harbour, preparatory to dropping a few shells over the fortifications there, when they swooped down upon us out of a cloud-bank. We never had a chance.'
The Admiral had just opened his lips to reply, looking meanwhile very grave, when a sharp whistle sounded at his elbow. It was the 'Sudden danger!' signal from the air-ship—too late, however, to be of service. There was a plunge a cable's length away of some ponderous body. Another moment, and a mountain of water soared aloft as though it would reach the sky then, breaking, it fell on the Tsar with such force as staggered even that tremendous bulk. Many of the soldiers were still on deck, and hundreds of them were swept overboard, where, despite the exertions of a flotilla of launches, the majority of them were drawn into the seething vortex and drowned.
'Good practice,' remarked the Admiral, calmly, as he shook the water off his clothes, for a sea had found its way through the half-closed towerdoor. 'Good practice, but light metal—carboy, I should imagine. And that's hardly up-to-date. However, not to be lacking in politeness, we will return the compliment in full, and then get out of the way.'
Notwithstanding his quiet demeanour, the Admiral was very angry, also very wet.
In a second the message for 'General fire' was sent to the fleet, whilst the Tsar's gun-room bells, this time fore and aft, called the men to their work. Then one after the other, each taking time from the Tsar, the ships launched their titanic bolts against the unseen and distant city, and in obedience to the next order began to slowly disappear into the depths.
Hardly had the roaring hiss of the last discharge died away ere the aerial danger signal shrilled again, and came from aloft the message:—'Two air-ships in sight, bearing E.S.E. ten miles; ascension, 3·50. Six curious objects approaching fleet from N.E. Cannot make them out. Look like a school of whales from here.'
'What the deuce can they be!' exclaimed the Admiral, as he presently got within the field of a powerful magnetic refractor, and saw something resembling the hub of an enormous wheel coming along at a great rate, surrounded by a sheet of foam. In a minute or two he made out other similar ones steering straight for the nearly submerged ships. As the foremost of the things approached, the Admiral, gazing curiously at it, observed that the smother of foam was caused by the rotary motion of a number of very long narrow arms attached to the central base, the latter itself revolving with great rapidity, as like some monstrous sentient cephalopod it steadily drew nearer and nearer. Passing the Tsar so closely that the spray thrown up by it fell in showers upon her deck, the strange machine made straight for the Vladimir, whose towers were just awash. The Admiral looked after it doubtfully. In this age of science the Unknown was more to be dreaded than ever it had been.
Turning, he saw that another of the strangers would in a minute hit the Nicolaieff, whose towers were just about the same height as the Yiadimir's out of the water. It was a moment of suspense, mingled also with curiosity. A minute more, and almost simultaneously, the impact took place between the whirling objects and the fore and after towers respectively of the two ships. Instantly there was a terrific roar, the water rose in two gleaming pyramids, filled with fragments of iron plates, guns, and human bodies, whilst the Admiral, exclaiming 'Samova tchi istchik mouroff!' rushed to the Tsar's submerging lever, muttering as he pulled it to 'full submersion'—'What an infernal invention. Who would have imagined these people so advanced?'
(Extract from Special Edition, Sydney Morning Herald, 10th December, 2080.)
Although this is scarcely a time to sing paeans of victory, surrounded as we are by killed and wounded, and a city half in ruins, still that is no good reason why our meed of admiration and praise should be withheld from those devoted men who, with their every fibre thrilling to the Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori of Horace, took such a heroic part in the repulse and partial destruction of the Russian Fleet, giving the haughty Muscovite a lesson he will not be likely to forget in a hurry. The superior skill and bravery of our aerologists, together with Mr. Thompson's electro-kinetic radiolites, proved altogether too much for the equanimity of the Bear, who, with the loss of his air fleet, one warship, and partial destruction of another, is now (6.30 a.m.) steering rapidly northward, followed by the Federated Navy, which, probably, may give a good account of some more of the invading monsters before they clear our shores.
'As it is, even thus early, an open secret, we may not be thought premature in adding that H.R.H. the Governor-General intends to, in right of his prerogative, confer baronetcies on both Mr. John Septimus Thompson, A.A., and Professor Smyth, M.C.A.
'There is also a rumour abroad, not yet absolutely confirmed, anent the Director-General of Artillery and a peerage in the new creation.'
—John Arthur Barry, in Pastoralists' Review.
This site is full of FREE ebooks - Project Gutenberg Australia