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Published in serial form in:
-Port Adelaide News and Lefevre's Peninsula Advertiser (S.A.) commencing Friday 24 August, 1894 (this text),
-The Kyabram Union and Rodney Shire Advocate (Vic.) 24 August, 1894,
-The Telegraph (Brisbane, Qld.) 31 March 1894,
-Evelyn Observer, and South and East Bourke Record (Vic.) 24 August 1894,
-North Melbourne Courier and West Melbourne Advertiser (Vic.) 26 January 1900,
-Riverina Recorder (Balranald, Moulamein, NSW) 7 March 1894.
CHAPTER I.—THE STONY
CHAPTER II.—A CONTINENTAL TORRENT.
CHAPTER IV.—FINKE CREEK.
CHAPTER V.—BACK FROM THE GRAVE.
CHAPTER VI.—A VALLEY OF DEATH.
CHAPTER VIII.—THE LABYRINTH.
CHAPTER IX.—THE CEMETERY.
CHAPTER X.—THE MIDNIGHT SHOT.
CHAPTER XI.—HUMAN DERELICTS.
CHAPTER XII.—THE OVERSEER'S STORY.
CHAPTER XIII.—THE COMBAT.
CHAPTER XIV.—A MOUNTAIN TRAGEDY.
CHAPTER XV.—TURNING HOMEWARDS.
CHAPTER XVI.—NARDOO STATION.
CHAPTER XVII.—JAMES O'MALLEY.
CHAPTER XXI.—THE WHITE VISION.
CHAPTER XXII.—THE BURIED SEA.
CHAPTER XXIII.—SUBTERRANEAN FISHERMEN.
CHAPTER XXIV.—THE STRANGE JOURNEY.
CHAPTER XXV.—ABOUT THE DEAD.
CHAPTER XXVI.—A COMMUNAL KITCHEN.
CHAPTER XXVIII.—THE WRITING ON THE WALL.
CHAPTER XXIX.—THE DISCOVERY.
CHAPTER XXX.—A LOVE STORY.
"Now lads, what say you; shall we make for the head of Finke Creek or turn back?"
"Push on of course. We will never get a more favorable season. There is plenty of grass and water, and what more do we want. Old Mills would never forgive us if we failed now after the expense he has gone to in fitting us out."
"I am with you Ted," broke in a third man, addressing the last speaker. "Let us make a name for ourselves and no doubt a fortune also when we have the chance. Twice we have been beaten back by unfavorable seasons, and now that we are this far and the country looking so splendid, why should we retreat without seeing what is beyond this salt delta."
"I am quite ready to go on, but I wanted your opinions on the point. We all know what a strange country this is. Twenty four hours brings the most extraordinary changes sometimes, and almost a step leads from an oasis to a desert. We are four hundred miles from the station now and it must be some hundreds of miles to the place we want to reach," answered the first man who was apparently the leader.
This conversation look place on the 5th of September, 1870, in one of the most desolate regions it is possible to conceive. The locality was about thirty miles north of Lake Eyre and in the western portion of that terrible stony desert in which the explorer, Stuart, and his party nearly perished in 1846. There were four men in the temporary camp, and their object was to seek out new pastures for squatter Mills in that practically unknown district lying about four hundred miles to the north-west of the Great Salt Lake region of which Eyre was the centre. Finke Creek took its rise almost in the centre of Australia, and it was surmised that at its source would be found fertile uplands or valleyed ranges with perpetual fresh water. That the season was favorable for such a quest could be noted even in that sterile desert in which the camp was pitched. In spots small patches of green vegetation were discernable which the six horses of the party were busy cropping. This in itself was evidence that the rainfall had been unusually heavy but further confirmation was given by numerous small hollows which were partly filled with fresh water. This being found in the desert was presumptive proof that further on the natural surroundings would be still more suitable for the exploration intended.
The leader of the pastoral expedition was named Edward Strangway and those with him were Michael O'Halloran, William, Daniel, and Thomas Stanley. It was Strangway who put the question of proceeding to his companions, and his surroundings were discouraging enough to excuse his query. Towards every point of the compass stony desolation stretched which even the tiny spots of green shrubs could not relieve. At midsummer, and during seasons of drought the prospect would be appalling and, as an experienced bushman Strangway well knew that the return journey would probably be exceptionally severe. Even the beneficient rainfall had failed to attract animal life to the basaltic waste, and the genius of silence seemed to brood over all.
The voices of the men as they engaged in conversation sounded unearthly on the solemn evening air. In that cemetery of nature hilarity or enjoyment appeared to be as much out of place as revelry in a village churchyard, and even the hardy explorers were impressed with their surroundings. They had no fire, for that barren district did not yield wood, and as they sat or lounged at the cheerless camp they spoke in low tones. Twice before they had made expeditions into the unsettled districts, and on the last occasion they nearly perished with thirst. No expense had been spared in fitting the party out, and so far as food and a few luxuries were concerned they were amply provided.
It will be readily understood, however, that with such land expeditions where the difficulties of transport are so great it is practically impossible to take along a large supply of water. The travellers must be dependent to a great extent on the country they traverse for that necessary of life. Consequently Strangway and his companions, from the indications presented to them of a good water supply were quite justified in their determination to push on. Finke Creek itself when reached would furnish abundance of water. This continental water-course ran into the Diamentina or Warburton river which emptied itself into Lake Eyre.
By a continental river or creek is meant a stream that does not reach the sea, and all those of Central Australia are of that class. Some of them are at certain seasons of the year swollen to enormous dimensions, and something of a mystery is attached to the gigantic volumes of water which are thus thrown into the lakes or marshes of the interior. Lake Eyre has a score of these streams running into it, and some of them, such as Cooper's Creek and the Diamentina Diver pour incredible quantities of water into that great basin. At Cooper's Creek, for instance, a flow of water two miles wide and twenty feet deep has been seen for weeks at a time going to the lake.
No doubt a great deal of this is taken up by evaporation under a torrid sun, but assuredly nine-tenths of it soaks into the earth.
Geologists are now convinced that Central Australia holds a vast underground sea at a considerable depth below the surface. Artesian borings along the route of the overland telegraph line, and at outlying stations prove this, and furthermore it has been discovered that at a certain depth the water is perfectly fresh.
Central Australia is in fact a vast basin much lower than the coast lines. On the eastern side there is an elevated plateau averaging two thousand feet above sea level, and comparatively near the coast. This slopes abruptly towards the centre of the continent.
On the western side the elevation is not more than one thousand feet, and the slope to Central Australia is consequently more gradual, and large streams except in periods of flood are not often met with.
As civilization extends back from the coast the subterranean sea of the interior will, no doubt be tapped by artesian wells, and as an authority on the subject says, the interior of Australia will not be doomed to perpetual sterility.
On that 5th of September, 1870, the four men who sat round their cheerless camp in the stony desert did not dream of such a transformation. At the most they thought that a few squattages might be formed inland. Waving fields of golden corn, the hum of industry, and the prattle of children which is now within measurable distance rising in those solitudes would have seemed to them like the fevered dream of a prophetic enthusiast. Yet even at that time, the great overland telegraph line from Adelaide to Port Darwin was being constructed, and on its course it tapped many fertile spots.
After a short silence the conversation narrated in the beginning of the chapter was resumed by Stanley, asking how long it would take to reach the western edge of the desert.
"Two days at the most if nothing unfavourable happens," replied the leader. "We should get to 'Big Creek' (Diamentina River) then."
"We may have some trouble to cross it if the rainfall has been heavy up north," interjected O'Halloran.
"Not unless it has been very recent," replied Strangway.
"It appears to have been, judging by the indications around here," broke in Daniels.
"Thunderstorms perhaps. If I don't mistake we will have one to-night, but they don't as a rule cover a large area," said Strangway, looking towards the west.
There was every sign that the leader's prediction would be fulfilled. An ominous looking pall of black clouds shrouded the western sky, and at times a lurid glow broke through them, but the storm was far away, as no sound of thunder could be heard.
"That may not come this way," Daniels remarked.
Even as he spoke, the first low growl of the celestial cannon could be heard, and it was evident the storm was approaching, and at a rare pace too. The party carried with them two tents and light frame work, on which to stretch them, and these which had been erected were more firmly secured.
The horses were caught and brought closer to the camp, where they were tied to some jutting rocks. Like experienced bushmen as the party were, the horses were placed at some distance from each other so that if by chance the lightning might strike one of them, the remainder would escape.
It was nearly nine o'clock when this was done, and the electrical storm was fast approaching. The night was extremely dark, and the sight presented weird and extraordinary in the extreme.
The desolate level waste with its occasional petrified projections, afforded a magnificent view of the warring elements, and allowed the storm clouds to sweep onward with tremendous speed.
As they got nearer the camp the whole western heavens appeared to be a sheet of fire, through which darted in serpentine curves brighter streaks of flame. The roar of the thunder was continuous and deafening, and it was soon apparent that the camp was right on the track of the storm. The blue light which illuminated the camp in ghastly fashion, showed the terrified horses vainly tugging at their secure fastenings in their attempts at escape.
"I don't like the appearance of this," Strangway cried to O'Halloran, who was next to him. "We are right in its track, and these tents may attract the lightning."
"Let us get away from them and lie on the ground some distance off," O'Halloran replied.
"Yes tell Daniels and Stanley what we are going to do," answered the leader.
This, O'Halloran did, but Daniels only laughed at the suggestion.
"No fear, I am going to stop where I am. What is the tent for if not to keep the rain off. There is not the slightest fear."
Leaving Daniels behind, the three men went about fifty yards from the tent, and lay flat on the ground, and in a few minutes the storm was raging over them. The wind was blowing in cyclonic fashion, but not a drop of rain fell.
A 'dry' thunderstorm is the most terrible and dangerous of all natural electrical phenomena, and in such a place the danger was increased.
O'Halloran had taken his position about thirty yards from the first horse, and the animal was frantic with terror. In the continual blaze of light he could see that it had almost freed itself from the rock to which it was tied, and he slowly made his way towards it. He had scarcely traversed half the distance when a streak of solid fire seemed to fall in front of him, and half blinded as he was, he saw the horse smitten to the earth. At the same moment the fire appeared to gleam past him, and he was thrown violently backward. For a full minute he lay half stunned, and then a cry from Strangway, who ran to his aid, caused him to look in the direction he pointed. The tent where Daniels lay was in flames. Staggering to his feet he followed the leader to the burning tent, where Stanley had preceded them. In a few moments they tore down the burning cover but they knew there was no hope for the inmate. Almost before they accomplished their task, the rain clouds burst and a perfect deluge swept upon them. Had it come ten minutes sooner it might have saved the tragedy. The water fell in sheets, and almost blinded them, but it soon passed over. As the roar of the fast departing thunder got lower and lower, the men got a light after some difficulty, and examined Daniels. He was as dead as the rocks around. His clothes were burned to a tinder, and his body charred and blackened to the hue of ebony.
As the storm swept away, Strangway rose to his feet, and looking after it said, "It has gone, but it carries a human life with it."
For a few moments Strangways' companions remained silent, and then O'Halloran said, "Yes, and a good life too. There never was a better or a braver comrade. Oh, why didn't he leave here when we asked him?"
"That wouldn't have saved him. His time had come and he had to die. There is no use struggling against fate." Stanley, who was a fatalist, interjected.
"Oh, that's nonsense," answered O'Halloran. "If a person believes that he or she will never make an attempt to save themselves, we should take all precautions."
The argument was cut short by Strangway saying, "Let us carry the body into the store tent. It looks as if the night would be wet."
Wrapping the corpse in the remains of the partly burnt tent the three men reverently carried their dead comrade to the other tent. The night was exceedingly dark, and to increase the discomfort rain fell heavily and persistently until long after daybreak.
None of the party, even if they had been desirous could get any sleep, as there was no available shelter. Shortly after daylight they excavated a grave for the unfortunate Daniels and laid his body in it. There was no time for sentiment, even if the explorers had been inclined that way, for they wanted to push on and get out of the horrible desert as soon as possible. They severely felt the want of a fire, and so far as they could see there was no wood in the vicinity. After placing a number of stones in a peculiar position so as to mark the last resting place of their late comrade they struck the ill-fated camp. The loss of the horse was not of much consequence though they would rather have had it as an extra pack. Rain fell heavily throughout the day but it did not interfere greatly with their progress. Fortunately for them the ground was not of that rotten nature so often met with in Central Australia and which during heavy rainfalls is the terror of the explorer or overlander. Shortly before darkness set in it was seen that Strangway's estimate of the desert limit was correct.
Away to the west could be seen the dim outlines of a low wooded range and this could be reached the following day. The best possible provision was made for the night's comfort, but it was cheerless enough. During the march a few dried shrubs and small roots, laid bare by the heavy rain, were found and brought along. With these a fire was made large enough to prepare tea and this hot beverage was exceedingly welcome to the travellers. The hope that next evening they could have as large a fire as they desired was also consoling. The night was almost as miserable as the preceding one, and with the first gleam of day the march was resumed.
The western boundary of the desert was reached a couple of hours before sunset and the party came out on a thinly wooded low range. A halt was immediately made and the luxury of a huge fire indulged in. It was the first they had for a week and as the recent heavy rainfall had soaked nearly everything they possessed, it was a perfect boon to them.
For two days they remained at this place in order to give the horses a chance to recover themselves. Food was abundant for the animals, and their masters also obtained a few birds and small mamalia.
On the third day a start was made for the Diamantina, and it was soon found that the route was not an easy one. The great rainfall had converted some of the open plains into huge quagmires, and in some cases they were absolutely dangerous to cross. The gaping rents in the earth, made during seasons of burning drought were filled with a soft mud, into which the horses plunged at the imminent risk of breaking their legs. To prevent this long detours had to be made, and what under ordinary conditions would have been one day's journey, occupied three. Numerous sheets of water were met with, and on these were invariably found wildfowl, which were very acceptable to the members of the party. The fact that the season had been an unusually wet one was proved by large numbers of young ducks, swan, and other aquatic birds being met with. In the arid interior this is not often the case, except where permanent water exists. As the Diamantina was approached it became apparent that it must be in flood. Numerous water-courses were met running towards it, and they were mostly carrying 'bankers.' With great difficulty several of them were crossed, but at last one was reached that carried an immense torrent. It was not deemed safe to attempt this, and it was decided to follow it down to its junction with the river.
About noon on the fourth day, after leaving the edge of the stony desert, the explorers suddenly came out on a bend of the river, and then for the first time, a strange sound like the rushing of wind through a forest fell upon their ears. There was only the slightest breeze blowing, and the few scattered clumps of stunted trees ahead were not agitated in the least.
"That sounds like a storm coming up from the west," O'Halloran said.
"There isn't a cloud on the sky. Perhaps there is a waterfall along this creek," returned Strangway.
"A waterfall?" broke in Stanley. "May be it's the river in flood."
"Of course, of course. That's what it must be. I have been told that such a sound as this accompanies these great floods inland," the leader said.
"We hav'nt had a chance to see any of them yet," was O'Halloran's reply.
"No, we would have been pleased to come on one last year," Strangway answered with a slight shudder, as the memory of his sufferings from thirst recurred to him.
As they proceeded there was no doubt left on their minds, that the sound they heard was made by water, and not by wind. It was not like the roar made by a cataract, but rather the steady irresistible flow of an immense volume of water with a very slight fall. It was near sunset when they came in view of the river, and the sight was truly grand and awe inspiring. They had struck a spot where the great Finke Creek junctioned with the river on the western side, and the huge water-course down which they had skirted, entered on the eastern bank almost opposite. A perfect sea of yellow waters rolled onwards before them. Waves rose and fell with rhythmical monotony, and masses of debris could be seen swept downwards. Far almost as the eyes could reach on the wide expanse, the centre of the current was noticeable, and where it met the two great streams which flowed in, cones of froth, caused by the fierce whirlpools were formed.
The water had encroached beyond the limits of the natural bed, and the gradual receding of shrubs or bushes marked its invasion. Finke Creek, on the opposite side, appeared to be at least a mile wide, and this gave the river an appearance of enormous breadth. To the explorers the sight was astounding, for previously they had not witnessed anything more than a swollen creek. The comparatively calm, irresistible flow of this gigantic volume of water, miles wide, and of great depth impressed them with a feeling of solemnity at the power it indicated.
"Where does it all go to?" Stanley asked.
"Into Lake Eyre, according to all accounts," replied Strangway.
"Yes, and several other great streams empty into the same lake, which has no outlet. That is the curious part of it," interjected O'Halloran.
"Most of it is surely stored up somewhere, and I dare say will one day be turned to use," answered the leader.
There was silence for a few minutes whilst the men contemplated the moving waters, and it was broken by Strangway saying, "We are in a fix here. I don't see how we can go any further. We are hemmed in on all sides except one, and that is the way back."
"This flood cannot last many days you may depend, and when it goes down we may be able to get across," suggested Stanley.
"We will camp then for a time where we are. That big stream yonder must be Finke Creek, the one we want to go along," Strangway said.
Stanley's suggestion was a good one, and it was at once acted on. On a low ridge near the confluence of the two streams, a site for the camp was selected, and it proved to be a very suitable one. There was plenty of timber about, and a rough hut was soon built. The logs and debris brought down by the two streams, some of which was stranded, was also a help to the party, and in a couple of days they had comfortably located themselves. The worst trouble they had was from the snakes, for even at that early season of the year they had been washed out of their winter quarters by the flood. Their extreme tenacity of life was shown in a marked manner, by the fact that some of them, which had probably been swept along for hundreds of miles yet showed considerable activity. For a week the party watched the flood, and each day it receded to a considerable extent. A thick deposit of mud was left behind, but though the sun shone out warmly no offensive exhalations arose. Settlement along the Diamantina in those days was practically nil, and animal life was scarce, so that few carcasses were left behind. On the tenth day the waters were flowing within their normal banks, and the steady flood compressed to those limits gave promise of lasting for a long time.
"We will have to cross by some means as soon as we can. If we wait for the water to lower enough for us to swim the horses we may be blocked here for months," Strangway said to his comrades.
"There is timber enough about here to build a ship. Could we not make a raft that would float us across. The horses could swim behind it," answered O'Halloran.
"Yes the attempt is worth making. If we stay here much longer we will have midsummer on us and we will not be able to push ahead. We have some rope and with those rushes we could easily bind the logs together. What do you think of it Stanley. You are an old seafaring man, are you not?" asked the leader.
"We ought to be able to make the south bank of the creek down there. The current does not seem very strong," replied the latter.
"If another flood comes down we will simply have to turn back after all our work," went on O'Halloran. "If it were not for the stores I would swim the stream myself."
As the three men were of the same mind no delay was made in making a start with the construction of the rude raft. There were a large number of dry logs about quite suitable for the purpose. Most of them had been washed down by former and higher floods, and they were very light. A quantity of hide thongs, and rope were amongst the stores, and with the additional aid of strips of tough green bark taken from a sort of eucalypti and some long rushes which grew close at hand, forty of the legs were bound together parallel with each other. A similar number were then placed across them at right angles, and underneath the whole four others were placed in diamond shape so as roughly to resemble the shape of a boat. The top was covered with kangaroo skins, after the interstices had been carefully filled with a composition made from grass, clay, and a gum which exuded from a mimosa thicket near the camp. Two broad rough oars were made and a couple of poles over twenty feet in length also placed on board. On being launched the raft was found to float beautifully, and a fortnight after the bank of the Diamantina was reached the camp was struck. About half the stores were placed on the raft and the remainder were carefully secured on the backs of the fine horses.
As the undivided efforts of the three men would be needed to guide the clumsy craft across it was decided to tie the horses to the end of the raft and let them swim after it. The place where they wished to land was about half a mile down the stream, and in that distance it was confidently expected that making full allowance for the inevitable drift they would be able to reach the opposite bank. Finke Creek was still throwing a considerable volume of water into the main course, but the latter was not now more than six hundred yards across.
The launch was made with little difficulty, but the horses did not take kindly to the passage, and they had to be almost dragged into the water. For some distance out the raft behaved beautifully and those on it were delighted at the apparent success of their idea. By the aid of the poles and one of the oars the eastern bank was soon left behind and the centre of the stream approached. The water there swept along with majestic force, and it seized on the raft as if it had been a cork. For a few minutes Strangway and his comrades did not notice that they were making little or no heading. Each man was too busily occupied with his particular duties to observe that the current was stronger by far than their united efforts and it was the more experienced Stanley who first gave the alarm.
"By heavens," he cried, "We are being swept away."
The unpleasant fact that the torrent was sweeping them down the stream was immediately apparent to them all. They were absolutely powerless to cross the centre of the current and they were astonished at the speed with which the water was running.
"Keep at it lads," shouted Strangway. "We may meet a break directly."
"There is no fear of that," answered Stanley. "The current will be stronger directly we meet the Finke Creek waters."
This prediction was soon fulfilled, for in a few minutes when they came into the additional flood of the tributary they were caught with irresistible force, and the speed accelerated.
"We must do something with the horses or they will be drowned," O'Halloran remarked.
"Let us cut them adrift," suggested Stanley.
"Then we will lose both them and the stores," objected the leader.
"They may reach the shore and we can afterwards pick them up," replied O'Halloran.
"Small chance of that I think," returned Strangway gloomily.
An effort was then made to get the horses close up to the raft but it proved futile, and after swimming for over two miles they were at length released. The first one cut loose at once headed for the west bank and made some slight progress towards it. This animal was followed by the others, but for a long time it seemed as if the current would overpower them. Gradually, however, they got out of its centre and at last reached the stiller water, and managed to get to the bank. For some time they remained motionless as if exhausted with their long struggle, and then they started along the river after the raft.
It is a remarkable fact which has often been proved by explorers, that in the solitudes of Central Australia horses will not voluntarily leave the presence of man. On numberless occasions this has been verified, and it shows how the barren, lonely wastes—want of food and precariousness of water supply affect these animals. The men on the raft noticed that the horses were following them, and it afforded a gleam of hope in their desperate condition.
"Our only chance," Stanley at length said, "Is that the river may run into some lagoon, or broaden out, so that the current will be lessened, and if so, we will be able to make for the bank and perhaps pick up the horses again."
"I am afraid the first place we will meet is the Great Lake Eyre, and goodness knows how we will get out of that place," responded Strangway.
"How far do you think Eyre is away from here?" asked O'Halloran.
"I believe it is nearly a hundred miles distant," was the reply.
"We must be travelling nearly ten miles an hour, so that we should reach it before to-morrow morning," broke in Stanley.
"The raft seems to be holding up, that is one consolation at any rate," said the leader.
It was now a couple of hours after noon, and the men being hungry, had their dinner. Fortunately they had placed the provisions on the raft, and if the latter held together they need have no fear of starving. The driftwood and debris had been washed down when the flood was at its height so that there was nothing in the shape of floating wreckage to interfere with them. When night fell they could still see the horses on the bank of the river following them down, and during the earlier part of the evening their neighing was heard. As the night crept on this ceased and they naturally concluded that the animals were exhausted. This was little to be wondered at when it is remembered that in addition to their terrible battle with the stream they must have followed the raft for about fifty miles.
The declining moon did not rise until a couple of hours after midnight, and up till then the occupants of the raft maintained a vigilant watch. About an hour before the moon rose they were sensible that the motion of their clumsy craft had altered, and when the light got brighter they knew that they had either entered Eyre or some great lagoon. The sweeps of the current was no longer apparent and they floated calmly and quietly along. The swirl of the water was also absent, and eagerly the castaways waited for daylight.
As the moon rose higher in the heavens they could see by its rays that far as vision reached there was nothing but water.
"We are surely in the lake," Stanley observed to Strangway.
"We should be if the distance I said was correct. Of course I have never been down here myself but it is generally understood that the length between the true mouth of the Finke and the lake is about one hundred miles."
"We will know in another hour," observed O'Halloran looking at his watch, "The sun should be rising by then."
When day broke a strange scene presented itself. They appeared to be drifting about on an inland sea. The beams of the rising sun tipped the heaving water with almost rainbow hues. Close by the raft it appeared almost green, whilst towards the east quite a chromatic scale showed out. The most distant was a deep yellow, and it gradually changed in color until the clear light green was reached. Far distant to the north, the low outline of land could be seen, but in every other direction nothing but an interminable waste of waters met the eye like unto the ocean itself.
"We have been swept out a long distance, but we must get back somehow. That yellow streak is where the river empties itself, and that distant land is the place we must reach," said Stanley, as standing on the raft, with his hands shading his eyes he carefully scanned the surrounding horizon. As he finished speaking, he took up one of the poles and put it into the water.
"Ah, it is not above ten feet deep here, and that will be a help to us. We can use these poles with some effect," he spoke aloud.
O'Halloran seized the other pole, and going to the end of the raft, he began to assist his companion in propelling or pushing back the raft.
"If we had come out in daylight all this could have been avoided," Strangway muttered, as he looked first at the efforts of his companions, and then at the far distant shore.
Whilst the two men worked at the poles, the leader busied himself preparing a much needed breakfast. There were wildfowl on the watery expanse, but there was no use in shooting them, as they could not be cooked.
"We will get a few when we are near the land, and can utilise them," Strangway said, as O'Halloran suggested taking a shot at some of the game.
Although there was no outward current apparently the progress made was very slow, but shortly before noon a slight breeze sprang up from the south, and Stanley with the remaining tent and the poles, managed to rig up a sort of a shoulder of mutton sail. More speed was now obtained without manual exertion, but as the wind veered round to the west during the afternoon, this method had to be abandoned.
"If we only had a stiff breeze from the south, we would soon be ashore," grumbled the leader.
"I hope the wind does not rise," replied Stanley. "On such a sheet of water as this, we would, most likely, be swamped. The waves would sweep us off this float."
"Yes," broke in O'Halloran in some alarm, "I never thought of that. A storm might rise at any moment, and the sooner we get to land the better."
As he spoke he took one of the poles and worked with energy to run the raft towards the land. As evening approached, they were still full three miles away from the land, and a new danger presented itself to complicate the position. The immense inrush of flood water had caused the lake to encroach a long distance on the surrounding country. Evidently it was some years since the lake had been so high, for a growth of tangled scrub was observed on the old bed—or rather the high water area. When within two miles of the water's edge, the raft was nearly snagged in some of this undergrowth, and as it was almost dark, on the advice of Stanley it was decided to 'anchor for the night.' The raft was secured, by having the poles forced into the bottom at either end, and the oar was similarly fixed on the side opposite the land. The situation was not by any means a pleasant one. Leaks were showing themselves in various places, and the stores had to be continually shifted, so as to prevent loss or damage by the water. During the night too, a stormy wind blew, and the three men were kept occupied in preventing the waves sweeping over the raft. Soon after midnight, it became apparent that the wind was increasing in violence. Fortunately it blew from the south, or the situation of the party would have been perilously desperate.
"We must chance being driven ashore. If not we may be washed over. The full force of the waves has not yet come," Stanley at length said, after an anxious silence.
"We may lose our stores," objected the leader.
"We are sure to lose them here, but if we are swept ashore we may save some of them," promptly answered the ex-seaman.
This argument was conclusive, and without more ado, the frail anchors were lifted out, and each man taking one took up a position on either side, at the aft end, and proceeded to guide as best they could their clumsy craft. The wind and waves forced it rapidly towards the land, and the latter occasionally broke over it, and on to the stores. These were secured as well as possible, and little damage was done them. They had begun to congratulate themselves on the success of their move, for they were fast nearing the shore, when a sudden shock threw O'Halloran into the water, and prostrated the other two men on the deck of the raft. In a few moments the waves had swung the craft broadside on, and later it became apparent that the shock had loosened the fastenings, and the logs were coming apart. The night was intensely dark, and for some moments neither Stanley or Strangway noticed the absence of O'Halloran. Calling to him for aid in righting the raft, and receiving no response, they soon discovered that he was missing.
"He must have made for the bank," Stanley called out.
"The raft is going to pieces. We must do the same," returned the leader.
"Yes, there is no use staying here. We can do nothing," was Stanley's answer.
The land could be seen, not far distant, looming like a black line on the horizon. The water they knew was not more than three or four feet deep, but the tangled undergrowth was to be feared. Seizing what lay nearest them, the two men dropped into the water, and, side by side made their way to the land. Contrary to their expectations they did not meet with the submerged scrub they expected to encounter, and in a few minutes they stood on dry land. The shore was not more than a hundred yards from where the raft had come to grief.
The first thing they did was to call loudly for O'Halloran, but no response came. This did not surprise them much, for it was quite likely he had mistaken the direct landing place, and had gone further east or west. Moreover the noise made by the beating of the waves on the land and the sighing of the wind amongst the pendulous leaves—or rather pendant fringe of the casuarina or she-oak, those aeolian harps of the Australian bush, almost drowned their voices.
"Let us make a fire if we can, I have dry matches and the light will soon bring Ted to us," Strangway said.
A fire was much needed by the two men, for in addition to being wet the wind blowing off the vast lake was exceedingly keen, and both the pastoral explorers were shivering in spite of their recent exertions. There was plenty of wood obtainable, and soon a pile was gathered and set on fire without much trouble. It blazed rapidly and threw a grateful warmth as well as a bright light around. Somewhat cheered by the genial presence of the fire the two men forgot their troubles for the moment, and whilst they waited for the return of their absent comrade, began to dry their dripping garments. Stanley was standing with his back to the blaze close to the end of a large log which projected from the burning pile when Strangway who was pushing the flaming sticks together suddenly seized and pulled him away.
"Look out! A snake," he cried to his surprised companion.
As the latter jumped away he looked round and saw that a large tiger snake which must have been ensconsed in the log had been forced out by the heat. It was soon despatched, but a sharp look out was kept for other reptiles.
"I wonder what has become of Ted?" Stanley asked after a long pause.
"He cannot be far away. Perhaps he has got behind a ridge and cannot see the fire. He will turn up at daylight," returned Strangway.
"It cannot be far from that now. My watch has stopped, I see," Stanley answered.
"The water has got to it, I suppose, but you can set it by mine. It will be daylight in half an hour."
The fire burned rather low before the day broke, but neither men cared to gather more wood in the dark in a place that was apparently infested with snakes, and they waited for sunrise. When is came they could see that the raft had struck against the stump of a tree on one side, and a broken limb near by prevented it drifting in. Apparently it was partly in pieces, as several of the logs of which it was composed were lying on the bank.
"We must go out as soon as possible and try what we can save. Some of the tinned articles will not be injured by the water, and we can easily dry the tent," Strangway said.
"Will we wait for Ted. He is sure to be about soon," answered Stanley.
"There is no need for that. I want to get those preserved meats so that we can have something to eat," replied the leader.
Without further conversation both men divested themselves of their clothing and proceeded to wade out to the snagged raft. It was reached without trouble and a search made for the required articles. Some of them still remained on the timbers but a portion was swept away. Stanley climbed on the raft to hand Strangway a box, and he was in the act of stooping to lift it up when he stopped rigid as one petrified and gazed through the rifted logs of the raft into the water. Divining that something was wrong Strangway climbed beside him and as he looked his eyes met the ghastly dead face of O'Halloran staring with wide open eyes from beneath the water through the opening in the logs.
The shock to the two men was a terrible one, for the sight was utterly unexpected. Neither of them had the remotest thought that O'Halloran was drowned. There was only about three feet of water at the spot and how he could meet his death in such a place and without their being aware of it was for a time a mystery to them. A short examination, however, showed how tragedy had occurred.
O'Halloran was thrown into water on the north side and before he could recover himself the raft had been swept over him. This would not necessarily have prevented him getting from under had it not been for the fact that the breaking up of the craft had entangled him in the loose timbers. In the darkness, and the noise made by the water his companions did not know of his plight, and indeed never suspected it.
Strangway looked for a few moments at the face of his dead comrade and then lifting the hatchet which he carried, he proceeded to cut adrift the logs which pinned the deceased under. He was at once assisted by Stanley, and in half a minute the work was accomplished. As quickly as possible they got out the body and showed an eagerness in the task which gave the idea that they thought by some miraculous means it might be found that life had not yet fled. It is needless to say how futile was the hope. Poor O'Halloran had for hours been past human aid, and as they grasped the rigid corpse their momentary dream of life vanished. They had some difficulty in getting ashore with their unexpected burthen, and neither of them uttered a syllable until it was laid down beside the fire.
"Well?" queried Stanley, looking at his companion interrogatively.
For a few moments Strangway did not reply to the monosyllabic question, and then speaking slowly and solemnly he said:—
"I have now made up my mind that come what may, I will explore the sources of Finke Creek. There is only one thing which will prevent me——"
"And that?" broke in Stanley.
"Is death. After losing two good comrades in the way we have, our plain duty is to push on. Whilst they were alive I was somewhat doubtful of going on, but now I have no scruples at all. Even if you left me Tom, I would go forward."
"You needn't be afraid of my doing that," warmly answered the ex-seaman.
"I know I can depend on you, and I think indeed, it will be safer for us to go on. It would be a great risk to try and re-cross the river just now, and by the time we return—if ever we do—it will probably be only a chain of water-holes. There seems to be a good prospect ahead, and if we can only secure the horses we may make an important discovery."
"We are on the right bank of the Warburton to get them, I think," said Stanley.
"Yes we may discover them for our route to the Finke Creek should lead us along the track which they have probably followed. Even without the horses we should succeed in reaching the place we wish to. If we returned now and reported that Ted and Bill had lost their lives and nothing resulted from the sacrifice, I don't know what would be thought of us. In fact, I would die rather than return under such circumstances," he concluded emphatically.
"I am with you heart and soul," simply answered his companion.
"We must go back and save what we can from the water. We will want all we will obtain," Strangway again said.
Casting a lingering glance at the still form near the fire, the two explorers went back to the lake and for half an hour busied themselves in recovering the stores. With few exceptions everything was found, and on account of the way it was packed, little was destroyed.
"That is something in our favor at any rate," said Strangway. "We will want provisions to go along the route."
"How can we get along without the horses?" asked Stanley.
"We must find them if possible. They cannot be far away," returned Strangway.
Going back to the fire they, for the second time in a few weeks, had to bury one of their comrades. It seemed that they were destined to misfortune in thus losing by death two of the party; but it sometimes happens that expeditions, which at the outset are unlucky, turn out well in the end. So the two men hoped it would be in the present case. After burying O'Halloran, the stores were carried to a place of safety, and secured, as it was decided to go in search of the missing horses, for at least one day. If they were not then found, the explorers would do the best they could on foot, and take only necessary provisions with them.
Going down to the banks of the Warburton, they skirted along it for about four miles, when a large open plain was reached, and to their joy, the horses were observed not far from the southern edge, quietly grazing. The packs were still on them, and in a few minutes they were secured. There was no trouble about that, for when the animals saw their masters, they ran neighing to them. As soon as they were brought back to the edge of the lake, the packs were removed, and a camp formed for the night.
Next morning a start was made for Finke Creek, which they intended striking about fifty miles above its junction with the Diamentina River. The country was mostly sandy, though in places a few belts of light timber were met. Occasional patches of spinnifex were encountered, but on the whole the route was a very easy one. Shortly before noon on the third day, Finke Creek was reached, and it proved to be a noble stream. The late rains had of course greatly swollen it, but the clear water showed it must have its rise amongst rocky ranges. At its junction with the river, it was a turbid stream running through clay plains, and receiving the muddy tributaries which flowed through them. Numerous wild fowl were on the creek, and along low ranges which ran close to it kangaroo were found. The explorers were thus enabled to obtain abundant food, and they quickly pushed on towards the head of the stream.
After a week's travel in a north westerly direction, the country became changed, and rocky peaks could be seen in the blue distance. This was evidently the source of the creek, and with their destination in view, they went forward with redoubled energy. On the second morning after sighting the ranges they came to a queer looking waterfall on the stream. The creek in fact ran from a sort of plateau or terrace behind a rocky peak right through the eminence, and on the lower side it fell about a dozen feet. There was an immense volume of water pouring through this strange aperture, and when the two men reached it they were as astonished to hear a series of extraordinary sounds coming from within. They were like the moans of imprisoned Titans, and they appeared to be constant, and to have frightened away the animal life that abounded lower down. Neither birds, kangaroo or other kinds of the lower creation could be seen for a considerable distance from the falls. The horses of the party betrayed considerable fear also, and it was with difficulty they could be got to proceed. At last they absolutely refused to go ahead, and dismounting, Strangway and his companion secured them to trees, and went on without them. When they reached the deserted place they could not see anything to account for the strange phenomenon. The sounds were weird and like the despairing outcry of some huge monster in extreme agony.
"What can it be?" asked Stanley.
"I cannot tell you. Let us make an examination of the hill. We may discover something," replied Strangway.
Both men were well armed with a rifle and revolver, in addition to which the leader carried a shot gun. Looking to the weapons to see that they were ready for action if required, the explorers carefully ascended the peak, and began a minute examination. Not a sign of life, human or otherwise was met with, but when the summit was reached a magnificent view lay outstretched before them. To the west, a spur of the hill branched off, and it ran in the form of a gradually ascending saddle-back range, until it met the magnificent line of hills, which the explorers had already noticed. The connection between the peak and the range proved to be a gigantic artificial hollow wall, with the top rounded, resembling a great subterranean circular tunnel, the roof cropping above the level of the ground. Along the base it was densely timbered with trees and a jungle of undergrowth. Northerly, the river came down from the ranges, and swept under the peak through a yawning gulf in the rock, but the noises which were now fainter were certainly not made by the inrush of water. At times they sounded like the distant boom of the ocean, dashing on a rock-bound shore, whilst again they seemed to change into a shriek.
"I can't understand this, unless there are caverns into which the water is rushing," Stanley at length said.
"The noise scarcely seems like that," replied Strangway. "If the water was falling into the earth it might make a sound something of the same sort. But that cannot be it, for the same volume of water seems to come out on the other side, as enters on this. Let us go back again and have another look at the falls," he concluded after a short pause.
Retracing their steps they again surveyed the southern declivity, but without being in the least enlightened. They could not help noticing that the sounds on the south were much louder than those on the north, but that did not help them to a solution of their cause.
"It's no use our remaining here," said Strangway, with a puzzled air. "Let us go back to the horses, and get round this place. We will only go as far as yonder range, and then we will start for home again. We have discovered some excellent pastoral country along here, and the headwaters of this creek are without doubt permanent."
"Yes that is a certainty, and some of those plains across to the east would make splendid pastures. We have at least found that Central Australia, so far as we have gone is not a barren waste," replied Stanley.
Without further conversation they retraced their steps to where the horses were tied, and which were evincing unmistakeable indications of fear. Releasing the animals, the travellers made a slight detour so as to avoid the peak, and afterwards made in the direction of the connecting spur which led to the range.
"We should reach the end to-morrow Tom, and since leaving Eyre we have had no reason to complain of our luck," said Strangway.
"It was confoundly bad up to that time though," was the reply.
"It might have been worse," came the sententious answer.
On coming to the belt of jungle at the foot of the connecting spur, Strangway expected to get a shot at a wallaby or a bird, but he was disappointed. So far as the men could see there was not sufficient footing on the smooth surface of the half rounded spur for a rock wallaby to get a hold, and the scrub at the bottom appeared to be deserted by animal life, even as the vicinity of the waterfall was.
"This is a strange place altogether. A while back we could get as much game as we liked, but there is nothing about here," exclaimed Stanley.
"I cannot understand it. There must be something which frightens the animals away. I could understand the noises at the falls doing so, but they are not heard about here."
It was Stanley who spoke, and he had scarcely finished when the same queer booming sound smote their ears, coming apparently from the vicinity of the rocky spur. The two men looked at each other for a few moments, and a shade of apprehension crossed their faces.
"We have only a few miles further to go, Tom, and we may as well finish our journey, but had I heard these sounds fifty miles further back, I would have turned back," Strangway said.
"Let us finish by all means. Sounds will never hurt us," Stanley replied in a defiant tone.
Just before sunset they reached the base of the range, and pitched their camp in a narrow, but fertile valley, at the end of which rose up a pyramidal block of huge rocks. A small rivulet ran down the centre, and there was an abundant supply of wood, and forage for the horses. Had it not been for the mysterious sounds heard during the day, the place would have seemed a perfect garden of Eden to the explorers, after their long travel through sterile tracts. As it was a gloom hung over both of them. Like sailors of the old time, when in the fogs and mirages of the trackless ocean, they fancied they saw the phantom of the Flying Dutchman, and heard the dread voice of the spectre on deck. Strangway and his companion had a presentment that something weird and uncanny was about to happen. They did not voice their fears, but after securing the horses close to the camp, they made the place as comfortable as possible under the circumstances.
As they lay down with their arms ready to hand, they were both inwardly pleased that on the morrow they would begin the return journey. For several hours, neither man slept, and it was well on to morning when slumber fell upon their tired bodies. The sun was streaming brightly on them ere they awoke. Stanley was the first to sit upright, and the rising sun streaming into the newly opened eyes, caused him to lose his vision for a few moments. As his sight grew stronger, he turned his gaze in the direction of the horses. They were there sure enough, and he jumped to his feet, for standing amongst them he saw the form of a man clad in a garb, the like of which he had never seen.
Like a statue the hardy explorer stood for a full minute, trying to locate the strange being he saw amongst the horses, but the more he tried, the more mystified he became. From the actions of the man he must be blind. He seemed to be groping around in a dazed sort of manner, as if uncertain of his position, and what the animals before him were. Stanley did not pause long, but going to Strangway he awoke him.
"What's the matter Tom," the leader asked, sitting up and rubbing his eyes.
For answer, his comrade pointed to the rude corral in which the horses were placed, and which were becoming somewhat restive. Partly blinded like his comrade by the strong beams of the rising sun, Strangway for fully half a minute could not see the startling object which attracted his friend's attention. Suddenly, however, his features lighted up in that strange manner typified when consciousness asserts its dominion over the mind, and for a full minute he was silent.
"What is it?" he at length gasped out.
"I don't know," came the curt response.
Seizing his rifle in one hand, and the shot gun in the other, Strangway stood up saying——
"This may be only some plot to do us harm. Don't forget the sounds we heard yesterday. That fellow is trying to carry off our horses, so as to make us more helpless, but he will die first."
As he finished speaking, he sank on one knee, and rose his rifle to take aim at the strange creature amongst the horses, but Stanley restrained him. The ex-seaman had had a longer opportunity of judging the human apparition than his companion, and taking his arm he said:
"Don't shoot, for I think the fellow is mad. If there was a plot to take the horses it would not be carried out in daylight, but whilst we slept. Watch the man for a minute or two. He appears to be blind."
Strangway thus adjured, paused, and the longer his observation, the more convinced he was that his comrade's opinion desired full consideration.
"Yes," he at length said. "Let us watch for a few minutes—or rather I will watch him, and you keep guard in the rear. There is something extraordinary about here you know, and we cannot be too careful."
Whilst Stanley turned to watch in the opposite direction, occasionally turning his head in the direction of where the horses stood, Strangway closely observed the unexpected intruder.
That personage seemed to be utterly oblivious of the fact that the two explorers were about, for all his attention was fixed on the horses. Occasionally he would stand and put his hands to his head, as if in extreme perplexity, and then he would advance as near as he could to the retreating horses. His apparent desire seemed to be rather to examine the animals than to capture them. That was patent from his method of procedure, and at length Strangway was so convinced that the man was daft that he decided to take some action.
At first he was deterred by the extraordinary appearance of the man's dress. Like a dream there rose before him pictures, which he had seen when a boy, of the supposed garb of prehistoric man, in days when the world was young. In the British Museum he had been shown the dress as remodelled from Archaic carvings—of an ancient Burmese, but though the style appeared something like the same, the colors were altogether different. Strangway was a man of action, and his mind was soon made up.
"Tom," he called to his companion, "let us capture that follow, and if he tries to escape we will shoot him. Is your revolver alright? as we may need all our weapons."
"Yes, I am ready to fight, but don't let us do so unless there is a real necessity," came the reply.
"I will not throw a shot away," answered Strangway.
Proceeding cautiously towards the spot where the horses were placed, with levelled weapons, the two men got within twenty yards of the mysterious newcomer, and the closer they drew the more astonished they became. The exposed parts of his skin were almost pure white whilst the hair and beard were nearly the same hue. It was not a natural white, but a kind of bleached color. The man wore no head covering, but a kind of gown was suspended from his shoulders, and reached to his feet. It was of a light brown hue—what is popularly known as a dirty white, and appeared to be closely plaited. This at first did not strike the two spectators so much, as subsequently, for they were too much interested in the movements of the man. He was still moving about in a half-dazed fashion amongst the horses, and at last Strangway, unable to contain his surprise, shouted—
The effect was electrical. In an instant the queer thing turned in the direction of the sound, and an expression of unutterable emotion flashed across his features. Strangway repeated the call and then with arms half outstretched the man came towards them. A small tree was in the road, but as he nearly reached it he turned aside, thus showing that he was not absolutely blind. He did not seem to be armed, and this fact somewhat re-assured Strangway and his companion, but still his uncanny appearance caused them no small amount of suspicious fear. Within half a dozen paces of the two men he stopped and gave a low cry. It was human at any rate, but quite unintelligible. As he thus stood, the feelings of the two explorers amounted to almost absolute terror. Had the newcomer been black or in fact had a tribe of aboriginals appeared, they would have been undaunted, but this substantial ghost, so to speak, was appalling to look upon.
The blanched whiteness of the face gave the impression that the bright red blood of mortal man did not course beneath such a skin, yet the apparition had just uttered a sound. Stanley had read somewhere of these monsters called vampires, and the appearance they were supposed to present. Instinctively the object before him recalled the vampire legend so far as the colour was concerned, but as he looked the ex-seaman softened, for in the expression of the face he saw neither cruelty nor thirst for blood.
"Who, and what are you?" again called Strangway.
As the voice sounded, the human apparition again advanced, and when within a couple of yards of the explorers, he saw them and stood irresolute. As they keenly scanned his face they could see that his eyes were almost closed, and blinking, as if the strong light of the sun hurt them. He appeared as if overcome with emotion, at seeing Strangway and Stanley, but was as dumb as the un-communicating muteness of a fish.
"Where do you come from?" Stanley queered.
The man thus addressed appeared to ponder confusedly for a few moments, and then as a gleam of intelligence lighted up his features, he pointed downward to the earth, and uttered something, which sounded like:—
If anything was wanted to confirm the explorers impression that their strange visitor was half diabolic in his nature, this supplied the point. And yet the more they saw of him, the less fear asserted itself.
"I can't make him out, Tom. I have read of fear turning a person's hair white in a single night, and if so, may it not have the same effect on the face."
"Perhaps," he added, with a sudden burst of inspiration, "this may be some lost white man, whose solitary wanderings in these lonely districts have made silly."
"Perhaps so," asserted Stanley, shaking his head doubtfully.
"He may be hungry too. Let us give him something to eat, if he will have it," continued the leader.
"Come and have something to eat," Strangway said to the silent man in front of him, at the same time pointing to the camp.
"You forget that he can scarcely see a couple of yards ahead. Look at his eyes," interrupted Stanley.
Strangway, with a muttered assent went close to the man, and again repeating his invitation, pointed to the camp.
The lack-lustre eyes followed the extended finger and then as the leader moved on the newcomer slowly followed. The camp-fire of the night was just smouldering, and as the explorer's queer visitor saw the smoke he seemed to be almost childishly interested in it. After gathering some wood Stanley placed it on the embers and it soon blazed up. The weird-looking man could not repress his feelings at this and laughed with simple glee at the sight. The merriment was the most human-like and natural which Strangway and Stanley had yet heard, and it considerably reassured them.
Whilst Stanley prepared breakfast his comrade watched the man opposite him who was intently gazing into the fire, and from that to the busy figure of the ex-seaman. It almost seemed to Strangway that each moment saw a change in the face of his visitor. At least he appeared to become more in sympathy with himself, and gradually his feeling of repulsion began to die away.
"Make some tea," he said to Stanley whose turn it was to prepare the meal.
A considerable quantity of tea had been carried by the explorers, but latterly the supply was getting low and it was only used occasionally. Whilst breakfast was being prepared Strangway intently studied his visitor but did not speak to him, and, indeed he even forgot to fill his usual morning pipe so intensely interested was he. A jam tin of tea was handed to the "vampire" as Stanley yet persisted in calling him, and after smelling it a couple of times and tasting it, he drank it off with avidity, and rising to his feet, walked a few steps to Stanley and held out the tin for more. That at least was sociable and convinced the seaman there was a possibility of his being wrong in his theory. Vampires were not supposed to be fond of tea. The tea was given and consumed, and then the tin seemed to be an object of absorbing interest to the newcomer. Some kippered herrings were also produced, and after a short examination were evidently relished by the semi-blind man.
"He is able to eat and drink what we do. That is a good sign, " Stanley said.
"I wonder if he can smoke?" Strangway remarked as he had just thought of his pipe.
Stanley did not reply for he too in the excitement of the morning had forgotten the soothing weed, and was busily engaged filling his pipe. When the two men began to puff the fragrant clouds of tobacco smoke which pervaded the morning air, it appeared as if an old forgotten perfume had fallen upon the senses of the man opposite them. He sniffed the air like a bloodhound just finding the trail, and after a few minutes he went to Stanley and with a beseeching look stretched out his hand.
"Get him one of the spare pipes Tom," Strangway said.
Through the untimely deaths of Daniels and O'Halloran there were several spare pipes left and with hearty good nature the seaman handed the imploring visitor his own lighted pipe and got a spare one for himself. The pale stranger instantly put the pipe to his lips and commenced puffing away as if his life depended on the operation, and his enjoyment was so evident that even a child might have noticed it.
"He likes a smoke, Tom," Strangway remarked after a few minutes watching.
"My word he does. He puts me in mind of the crew of the Santa Anna who were castaways on a Pacific island for three years. My skipper rescued them and they were berthed in the forecastle. In twenty-four hours there wasn't a plug of tobacco on board and we had to smoke tea leaves or anything we could fill our pipes with for the remainder of the voyage," Stanley answered.
When the pipe was nearly emptied Strangway went and sat beside his visitor who received him with a smile of gratified recognition. The explorer could not help remarking that the sight of the newcomer was getting better. He could now see the movements of the horses, and the animals afforded him quite a mine of interest.
"What's your name?" the leader asked abruptly.
The stranger was silent whilst his brows contracted and his eyes were filled with a look of intense perplexity.
"Where did you come from?" continued Strangway, expressing the question more by gesture than by words.
The strange man at once pointed to the earth, but gave no further response.
"Do you come from underground?" asked the leader with a laugh.
There was a slight inclination of the head.
"He is what we used to term a 'sub man,' or a fellow who lives most of his time underground," broke in Stanley. "In some of the British collieries there are men who spend twenty out of twenty-four hours in the mines. They are generally engaged looking after the horses, but," he added, "there are no collieries in the centre of Australia, so that this does not explain the mystery surrounding our interesting friend."
Stanley again asked the strange visitor his name repeating the question slowly and with an inquiring look. He was at length rewarded for the man's face seemed to light up with a ray of intelligence as he quietly replied, "Talmud."
"Talmud," repeated Strangway "that's a queer name. He must be of Hebrew descent," he continued, addressing Stanley. "Perhaps we have discovered the personal embodyment of the 'Traditions of the Elders,' and when he acquires a better knowledge of our language he may reveal to us hidden secrets of an ancient race of which we know nothing; I propose we encourage friendly relations with our strange, not to say uncanny visitor."
"He certainly has a look of intelligence, that at first sight I failed to observe," replied Stanley, "and I'm decidedly of your opinion in the question of cultivating his acquaintance, in the hope that time may solve the mystery that hangs over our distinguished visitor."
It was the 21st of December, 1870, when the meeting with "Talmud" took place, and it had an effect on Strangway and his companion which they could scarcely have anticipated. Their intention the previous night was to make a return start for distant Nardoo Station, and report to Mills the result of their pastoral discoveries. The presence of the pale stranger, however, altered their plans, as they both felt there was an extraordinary mystery attached to him, which might be solved in the locality. It seemed to them that the weird sounds heard at the waterfall and on the stony spur, were inexplicably interwoven with the queer creature, who had joined them. Each hour the latter remained, he appeared to grow more human like, so to speak. His intelligence was developing, whilst his eyesight was being restored in an almost miraculous manner.
"What say you to spending Christmas here, Tom? I have formed an idea that we may make a remarkable discovery about these ranges," Strangway said to his companion.
"I am thinking the same. In fact we have already made one strange find. What about the danger though?" Stanley answered.
"I don't know why it is, but I have lost my fears in that respect. There may be a few tribes of blacks in such a locality as this, but you know we care little for them. So far we have not been molested in any way by them. Certainly we have been very fortunate, and a week or two here should not alter our luck in that respect. They would be most likely on the plains too, and not amongst the ranges," the leader replied.
"I am curious also to examine these hills."
"Then we will stay say for ten days and start back on the 1st January," concluded Strangway.
This resolution was imparted to the stranger—or "Talmud," as the two explorers now began to call him. He appeared to half-comprehend it, and when he saw his companions proceed to make the camp stronger and more comfortable for the extra stay, he quickly joined with them in the work. That day they spent entirely in this work, and also making a small enclosure for the horses, as they could not be taken up the ragged ranges. On the following morning, the three men, taking with them enough provisions to last for a couple of days made a start on their exploring trip.
Talmud had improved greatly during that short period, and was now able to comprehend, not only most of the orders given him, but also to clearly speak a number of words. Both Strangway and Stanley noticed that he pronounced them with a peculiar accent. The pallor on his face, too, was becoming less, and this took away a good deal of the ghastly appearance he had at first presented.
The camp was situate almost at the base of the chief range, and starting away about two hours after sunrise, an altitude of five hundred feet was soon reached. The highest point seemed to be quite fifteen hundred feet, and as the men advanced the structure became more rugged and forbidding. Near the base rich vegetation grew and though in the valley below rocks could be seen, it was plain that they were merely detached boulders which had broken away from the parent mass and been precipitated into the lower area.
As Strangway and his two companions climbed unforeseen difficulties presented themselves. The steep ascent was covered with a loose detritus which crumbled under their feet and threw them back. Short shrubs grew on it but they afforded no hold, coming out of the loose soil at the first touch. So difficult was the assent that by noon, not more than half the distance had been made, and a partly level spot being reached, a halt was called. From their position the sun beat down upon them with great force and the perpendicular rocks afforded no shelter from its vertical rays. On the previous day a sort of "skull" cap had been given to Talmud by Stanley, as when first seen he had no head-covering. This was but a slight protection from the sun, but the ex-sailor was engaged plaiting him a sort of trimmed "cabbage tree" which would be more effectual.
"What is the matter with your face?" Stanley asked the stranger, as they sat around having some food.
Strangway looked up with surprise as the question was asked, and turning his eyes from the panorama below to Talmud, was startled to see that the ghastly white color had given way to a florid redness. The man addressed simply put his hand to his face and made no reply.
"He is sunburnt, don't you see," cried the leader, "and now Tom, I am beginning to see what the matter is. Our friend here has been living in a cave or somewhere like that where the sun could not reach him. He has been a captive amongst the blacks I suppose."
"Yes, there may be something in that. He told us he lived 'below' and it seems that he cannot have escaped very long. He will be as bronzed as you or I in a week or two," Stanley answered.
It was quite evident that Talmud was very much sunburnt, but painful though it might be it made him much more presentable, and his companions did not fail to note the change. After a short rest the upward journey was again resumed and fair progress made. On attaining a height of about one thousand feet it was found that the pinnacle peak was separated from the hill they climbed by a narrow gorge a couple of hundred feet deep. Dense vegetation grew in it, and as the sun was well down in the western horizon the whole place was in a sombre shadow. At top it was not more than three hundred feet from one peak to the other so that the gorge or canyon was almost inaccessible.
"This is an unexpected obstacle," observed Strangway.
"Yes, but we can get across it. Some of these clefts in the sides should lead us down," replied his companion.
"We must either go into the gully or back to the camp. We cannot stay here to-night as there is no water," the leader said.
The summit of the peak on which they stood was a bare dry rock, but in the gorge abundant water could be seen. At the bottom a small creek coursed along, and on the opposite side a number of tiny streams gushed out of the rocky sides and fell in fine spray in several instances over a hundred feet.
"I think we should go into the gully. If not we will never be able to examine these hills. It has taken us nearly all day to get this far," observed Stanley.
"Then let us find a path down."
Going along the side for about a hundred and fifty yards, a crevice, apparently worn by the action of the water was found, and headed by the ex-sailor, the decent was begun. As the sun sunk lower in the horizon, the gloom of the mountain gorge became indescribable. It made itself felt in a strong way on the nervous systems of the men, and had they been less courageous the attempt to descend would have been abandoned. It was a veritable valley of the Shadow of Death and when after half an hour's careful effort the bottom was reached, the two men looked round with shuddering wonder. The place had the appearance of a gigantic grave. It ran north and south, and looking along it, the gorge had even the shape of a titanic grave. The glimpse of blue vault far above only heightened the cimmerian gloom of the canyon, and the frowning rocks, which rose abruptly gave one the impression that they were on the point of crashing into the ravine.
An extraordinary growth of strange vegetation covered the bottom. It was such as the explorers had never yet seen in their extensive travels. A species of palm grew abundantly, whilst a tree, which grew in patches, presented a luminous appearance, which did something to relieve the gloom. As night fell, this tree glowed something like the fire tree of Western Australia, but Strangway who knew the latter, said the one in the gorge was of a different species. Many of the shrubs were a pale—exceedingly pale green, whilst others had leaves almost white in hue.
"We must fix ourselves up here the best way we can," Strangway said, "give us a hand Talmud to make our camp."
As the leader spoke, he turned to Talmud, and was surprised to see the change in his appearance. His eyes which had been partly closed during the day were now wide open, and keenly alert.
"Your eyes are like those of a cat. You appear to see better in the dark than when the sun is shining," Strangway remarked to him.
The only answer was a self-satisfied smile, and the next moment the strange man was engaged forming the camp with an alacrity greatly in contrast with his two companions. He ran through the dense vegetation to the stream and brought water, and after returning he gathered wood in places, that to Stanley and his fellow explorers seemed quite dark. By their watches, the explorers knew that it was not yet sunset, and after getting more accustomed to the place, their feelings of awe wore off, and they thought little more of their surroundings. They made a large fire, which as it blazed up, threw fantastic shadows upon the rocks, and as they danced with the flickering flames, they gave an air of ghostly life to the spot.
About eight o'clock, the darkness of the valley was intense, though on the western side of the range it was yet quite light. The three men were reclining on the eastern side of the fire silently smoking, when without a moment's warning Talmud sprang up to his feet, trembling in every limb, and almost overcome with intense terror. Pointing a shaking finger towards the dense thicket, some thirty feet away, he cried in a loud voice—
Strangway and Stanley jumped to their feet, grasping their rifles, and in an instant they were beside the terror-stricken man. Following his outstretched finger they could discern two eyes gleaming out of the darkness. Without waiting to see whether they were those of a man or a lower animal, a friend or a foe, Strangway rose his rifle and fired. If a man-of-war's broadside had been exploded it could not have made a more terrific effect.
It seemed as if a hundred rifles had been fired. Shot after shot was repeated for fully half a minute, and then as the men silently listened the report was taken up again and again, it being fully a minute before the last echoes died out. For fully half a minute the two men stood irresolute looking into the thicket. The gleaning eyes could no longer be seen, and Stanley was about to suggest a search when he and his companion were nearly petrified with fear by the sudden outburst of another rifle volley.
"What can it mean?" Strangway asked when it had died away.
Seamen are proverbially superstitious and Stanley could give no reasonable explanation of the phenomenon.
"Can it only be an extraordinary echo?" the leader once again queried as his faculties became more collected.
"I never heard an echo like that in my life," replied Stanley in a low voice.
At this point they were again interrupted by a repetition of the sounds though on this occasion they were much fainter and before they finally ceased they were repeated seven or eight times. Under other circumstances, the explorers might have sought a rational explanation for the occurrence, but in such a place, and bearing in mind what they had experienced during the two previous days, it was not to be wondered at that the dark cloud of superstition enshrouded them. Then, too, was the fact that they had probably slain a human being. Bushmen in those days cared little for the life of a black, and if it was only an aboriginal who had fallen before Strangway's rifle, it would not trouble him or his comrade much. As they looked at the queerly shining eyes of Talmud, distorted with terror, and reflecting the firelight, it occurred to them that it might be such a half-supernatural being as him whom Strangway had sacreligiously fired on. If so the weird volleying might be accounted for.
Strangway was the first to recover his self possession. Seizing a flaming wand from the fire, and with pointed revolvers he ran across to the thicket, and plunged the lighted torch into the spot where he expected to find something slain. The place was vacant, but the undergrowth showed signs of having been trodden on. As he moved the torch about the mass of dead vegetation which had been accumulating for centuries caught fire and in an instant the thicket was ablaze. This at first did not cause Strangway or Stanley much concern, but as they saw the fire spread with marvellous rapidity, and thought of the dense growth, alarm took the place of apathy. Fortunately for them the camp was pitched on a small cleared spot, but close around it was a deposit of dry vegetation. Calling on Talmud the two explorers ran back and commenced vigorously to increase the cleared circle. They were joined by the stranger, and as he plied his task his companions could hear him talking—apparently to himself—in a language or jargon such as had never fallen upon their ears before.
"What is he saying?" Strangway asked hoarsely, for a thick cloud of pungent smoke was now resting around them.
"Heaven knows. Some spell or incantation I suppose. I've been in nearly every country in the world and heard most languages of the earth, but never before did I listen to such gibberish," replied the seaman.
"Aye, gibberish indeed you may well call it," answered Strangway, as he stood for a moment and gazed round at the weird scene.
The situation was now becoming alarming. The fire rushed from thicket to thicket, as if a hundred incendiaries were at work spreading it. The stream of water was passed as though it did not exist, and soon half the valley was a roaring furnace of fire. The place seemed to act like a huge natural flue, and this was fortunate for the three men, as it caused the smoke and flame to rise almost vertically. The heat was becoming almost unbearable, but the area of burnt out vegetation, which had the camp for its centre was rapidly increasing. Below the covering of dried vegetation, there was a deep layer of half decayed, damp matter, and though this did not burn it smouldered, and gave forth a dense and suffocating smoke. Whilst the fire raged, which it did the whole night, this smoke was sucked upward by the great draught, but soon after-daylight this was changed. In saying daylight it must not be understood that those in the glen experienced its beneficial effect. Now and again through a reft in the smoke a gleam of sunshine could be seen striking the rocks on the great peak to the west, but it had little or no effect in the gorge.
An immense pall of smoke shut out its rays, and as the flames subsided, it became apparent to the men that their position was one of tremendous peril. Even if they could find the dangerous pass by which they descended it would be utterly impossible for them to ascend. Long before they could reach the summit they would be suffocated by the smoke. Amongst the vegetation was material which gave out an overpowering odor. Some of the fumes were aromatic, others pungent, whilst occasionally a whiff of smoke highly charged with carbonic acid would be encountered. It was this latter that was doing the harm. Like burning charcoal in a close room, it was eating up a good deal of life preserving oxygen. By some strange means it was consuming the vital air quicker than the supply came down, and Strangway, who knew a little of the subject, decided to make a move in the direction of escape. The decayed debris would smoulder for days or weeks, and it would be only courting death to try and remain until the conflagration was utterly quenched.
"We must get out of this, Tom or die," he said to the seaman.
"But what can we do. We can never scale these cliffs with that cloud of smoke hanging to the sides, from the bottom to the top," the latter returned.
"Let us move away from here and get into the creek. There may be a little more air there," the leader ordered.
This was gladly acted on. The heat of the place was absolutely terrible. It was in fact a great natural oven. The flames had heated the rocks on either side, whilst the smouldering rubbish at the bottom intensified it. This, coupled with the difficulty of breathing, rendered it almost impossible for animal life to exist in such a spot. There was no difficulty in reaching the narrow creek, and into it the men plunged. It ran rapidly towards the north, and this kept the water cool in spite of the furnace through which it flowed. For about an hour, the travellers remained in the stream. It was breast high, and the only inconvenience they experienced was from snakes, which had got into it to escape the fire. Thousands of these must have been killed by the flames and the smouldering undergrowth. In the short distance between the camp and the creek, half-a-score of shrivelled up serpent forms were met, and throughout the valley a perfect legion must have been destroyed.
"The gorge seems to get worse," Stanley remarked to his companion, after they were an hour or so in the creek.
"Yes. Could we not go along this course, and examine the gully. We might discover some way to get out by. It's no use remaining here to be suffocated," Strangway answered.
"The confounded place is swarming with snakes. The water seems to be full of them," returned Stanley, with a shrug of disgust.
"Let us get a couple of sticks if we can and we will be able to keep them clear of us. We must do something," replied the leader.
A couple of green saplings, which the fire had only charred were soon broken down, and with these a start was made to ford the stream. Indeed it would have been utterly impossible to traverse the gully in any other way. From side to side the bottom was a mass of smouldering fire, over which it was not possible to walk far. The difficulties and dangers of proceeding in the bed of the creek were also very great. Hundreds of snakes had sought refuge in it, and as many of them remained under water, the forders were not able to see them until they almost came in contact with the reptiles. The depth of the creek also varied, and in places it was nearly six feet deep. In order that the gunpowder should not be rendered useless, Stanley took charge of it all, and had it carefully strapped on his head. Strangway walked five or six feet in advance, and whenever he came to the deep water, he gave the signal to Stanley, who clambered on to the bank, and walked a few yards along it until the shallow places were again reached.
The seaman also carried the firearms, for neither he nor his comrade had yet sufficient trust in Talmud to allow him a weapon. The strange events of the preceding night—the man's evident horror of blacks, his first sighting the peering eyes, and his weird mutterings, further intensified the distrust. Outside this there was nothing in Talmud's manner or action calculated to show that he meditated injury to his benefactors. After great trouble and many narrow escapes, the seeming end of the gully was reached, and the party then saw to their surprise that the stream turned almost at right angles to the west, and ran into a still narrower gorge. This was apparently also filled with smoke, but without hesitation Strangway followed the water into the gorge. The rocky walls rose up within thirty feet of each other for fully three or four hundred feet so far as could be judged by occasional glimpses caught through the smoke rifts.
Nearly a hundred yards had been traversed in this direction, when a change was apparent. The smoke got lighter, and was seen to be much agitated. It rolled in upward clouds, and scarce ten feet had been passed when the cause was discovered. Without warning the three men emerged from the smoke cloud, and saw above them the blue dome of heaven. After filling their lungs with life-giving oxygen they looked round to see what had caused such a transformation. From out the cliff on the north side came a strong current of air through a huge cavern, and this swept the smoke upwards.
"We must explore that place. It may lead us out of the gorge without having to again climb that terrible gully," Strangway said.
"Yes, that air is coming from below certainly, and I don't care about facing snake gully again," answered Stanley with a slight laugh.
They had clambered out of the water which still continued on a westerly course, on to the elevated plateau of rock which formed its banks on either side. Scarce a vestige of vegetation could be seen in the west gorge which was, in fact, but a tremendous cleft in the high peak.
Looking into the mouth of the cavern it was seen that beyond a distance of twenty to thirty feet no light penetrated. The slope downwards was not steep and there would be no difficulty in getting along. By good luck Stanley had about half a tallow candle in one of his pockets and this was soon lighted.
"I brought this along in case we wanted a light last night, but we did not," he jocularly remarked.
The sloping bottom of the cavern was remarkably dry for such a place, but that was probably caused by the current of air which came through it. The roof was not more than ten feet high, and the width was fully the same number of yards. The slope was about one in a hundred, but after proceeding for nearly sixty yards it got so steep that the party had to scramble down it. This was maintained for about forty yards when a level floor was reached in a gigantic chamber. The feeble light of the candle could not penetrate the immense recess. The roof was invisible though vision extended to a height of fully fifty feet. After a close and lengthy examination the party concluded that the chamber was oval in form and they found that a number of passages radiated from it. Two of these appeared to ascend whilst the remainder took a downward slope.
"Which is the best way to go?" Stanley asked.
"I am puzzled to know," replied Strangway. "If we take the down slope we may be only going deeper into the mountain, whilst if we ascend we might get on the outside of the peak and make our way down. I——"
His answer was interrupted at this stage by Talmud who, wandering about in the semi-darkness as though it were bright sunlight to him, began his strange mutterings again.
"What the deuce are you talking about?" enquired Strangway fiercely for he felt annoyed at the queer manner of his new found acquaintance.
For answer the man only pointed towards the northern side of the great chamber. The two explorers looked in the direction indicated, but could see nothing save a wall of darkness.
"Let us see what he means. You know he can see better in the dark than we can," Stanley said soothingly.
Going slowly forward with the light it was seen that the stranger was pointing to one of the passages which led downwards.
"He wants us to go this way," observed Strangway.
"Yes," replied Stanley in a hesitating voice, "but if you take my advice you will not go. It may be only a trap to get us into his power."
"Ah! that is what I was thinking. We will now take this ascending passage and if he doesn't like to come he can stay," hotly answered Strangway.
In spite of the manifest disapproval of Talmud this course was adopted. He pointed several times to the passage he at first indicated and muttered volubly in his uncouth dialect. Then after a violent effort of self-control he again pointed to the place and almost yelled.
The only response to this was from Strangway, who said to him:
"If you don't like to come with us stay behind."
Repeating the word "out," several times the man sullenly followed. The passage through which the party went proved to be a winding one and in places very narrow. Occasionally the floor was rugged, but both the explorers noticed that in the centre a perfectly smooth floor had in some manner been worn.
"It doesn't seem to have been done by water," remarked Stanley.
"No, some animals maybe have made a track along here. That shows we have taken the right passage," replied Strangway.
After going over a hundred yards through numerous windings it was noticed that the slope was now downwards. Fully two hundred yards had been traversed when a difficulty again beset Strangway. The passage branched off into two and the question was which should be followed.
"I have it," cried the leader after a few moments examination. "This is the proper one to go along."
As he spoke he pointed to the worn track which ran along the left hand side passage whilst no marks could be seen on the floor of the other.
"Go ahead then," Stanley said approvingly.
The descent now became steeper and the passage appeared interminable. For fully half an hour the three men kept on until at last even Strangway began to manifest some alarm.
"I know we are right," he exclaimed, "but I believe this tunnel comes right out on the plain at the foot of the range."
"It will be all the better if it does," answered Stanley.
As he was speaking the party came into a huge vault, and it was seen that the dark colored rocks had given way to masses of granite. These reflected the light of the candle better and enabled the two men to obtain a wider range of vision. Like the first oval chamber this huge cavern had numerous passages radiating from it, but when Strangway resorted to his supposed infallible guide, namely the worn path, he found to his dismay that they all bore tracks of being continually trodden on by some animal. The floor of the cavern was also worn smooth, and to the surprise of the explorers they saw as their eyes got more accustomed to the light that portions of the granite wall were covered with weird and uncouth carvings.
"I think we had better go back again," the leader said at last.
"Can we get back?" asked his companion.
"Yes—I suppose so. Let me see; what passage did we come in here by? It was—well I think it was this one," Strangway concluded, pointing to a well worn tunnel.
"It's hard to say. They seem all the same to me," answered the sailor traveller, despondently.
In their helplessness they looked towards Talmud for aid, but apparently divining what they wished he shook his head slowly and muttered the one word:
The fact was the party was lost.
To be lost under any circumstances is bad enough. Losing oneself in a crowded city is not a pleasant experience. Even in such teeming seas of surging humanity a person feels a sense of loneliness. To be astray in the solemn bush is much worse; but to be entombed in the interior of a mountain full of labyrinthine passages is assuredly the worst possible fate to happen to any human being. This was certainly the position of Strangway and his companions. Talmud did not appear to feel his position so keenly as the two explorers, but he was not by any means at ease. Both Stanley and his leader were men of cool judgment, and even at such a crisis their nerve did not fail them. Without any fluster Strangway said:
"Fortunately we have a little food with us, but no water. We must be as careful of the food as we can, for it may take us some time to get out of here. I think we will be able to find water in some of these passages, and in searching for it we may get out again."
As he spoke, he began to divide the food, the portions being soon devoured, as none of the party had eaten anything since the previous night. As soon as the frugal meal was finished, Strangway started with his companions on a further search. Selecting one of the passages, which appeared to be most used they proceeded along it, and found that it at least was not the one they entered by. Every thirty or forty yards the passages opened out into immense chambers, large enough to hold hundreds of people. The formation was all granite, and the chambers appeared to have a good supply of air.
"This candle will not burn half-an-hour longer," Stanley remarked to his companions.
"Let us go back from this. We can all see it is not the passage we came by," Strangway cried in desperation.
Hastily retracing their steps, the great cavern was soon reached, and the leader plunged into the first passage they came to. This ran in a northerly direction, and sloped upwards.
"Ah! we are right now. What a fool I was not to know better. If we came here on a down grade, it must be an up grade that will take us out," exclaimed Strangway.
This was cheery news, and for some time the party plunged on. Suddenly there was a splutter, and the next instant, the party were plunged in gloom.
"Let us wait here for a while, and we will be able to see better," Stanley called.
For ten minutes, the three men stood, until the eyes of the two explorers were able to faintly distinguish objects. As they were about to proceed, Talmud stepped in front, and motioned them to follow him. He evidently saw perfectly well and his companions noticed it.
"Perhaps he may be able to lead us out of this place. He has cats eyes," said Strangway.
"I think we should have followed his advice in the first instance," replied Stanley. "Who knows but he may have been lost in these caverns for years and that that is the cause of his strange eyes and appearance."
Strangway laughed in spite of his position.
"How could he have been in a place like this for years unless he could live without food or drink. We cannot eat granite. In fact this place would prove a grave to anyone in a week," he said.
"Ah, of course, I had forgotten that," Stanley answered with a shudder.
"I can see light ahead," joyfully exclaimed Strangway.
Stanley had observed it at the same moment, and their hearts beat faster at the thought of release from their living tomb. Fifty yards brought them to a sharp turn in the passage, and one of the most magnificent sights man had ever witnessed burst upon them. A domed chamber seventy or eighty yards in diameter, and hexagonal in shape was before them. A strange subdued light, ever varying, shone in the place and irradiated the outlying passages. At first the light had a painful effect on the eyes of Strangway and Stanley, but as they became accustomed to it, no discomfort was felt. Following Talmud, they entered the chamber, and its peculiar splendour held them spellbound. They soon found that the entire place was composed of the finest rock crystals, or rather it appeared to have been cut out of one gigantic crystal by some cyclopian lapidary.
The faces and cubes were so arranged that they reflected the light from one to the other in the most perfect manner. Some of the crystals appeared to have drops of water enclosed within them, and this added to the effect. The floor was composed of the same pellucid material, but by some agency it had been 'frosted' or dulled. This at once attracted the notice of Strangway.
"How has this been done I wonder? It seems marvellous that anything short of human agency could have made this floor as it is."
"Perhaps it has been done by walking on it. Whatever made the paths we saw in the passage may have done it," replied Stanley.
"No, this has been done by hand and by design. I know a little about these things," Strangway answered.
Talmud did not seem to take the least interest in the chamber. He eyed it much as a person might a familiar street. For at least an hour the party remained feasting their eyes on the wonderous chamber, but at length the seriousness of their position forced itself on them, and they went on their apparently hopeless quest of finding the clue to the labyrinth. The passage which Talmud look led almost abruptly downwards, and after clambering after him for nearly two hundred feet the welcome sound of splashing water greeted the ears of the two explorers. A descent of about twenty feet brought them to a small spring, which trickled out of a rocky wall into a basin beneath.
Talmud had already partaken freely of the refreshing fluid, and his example was soon followed by his companions. After quenching their thirst, the hopes of the party were somewhat revived. Hitherto the vaults and passages had been remarkably dry, and the horrors of thirst which had been experienced by Stanley and Strangway in other days rose before them. They now decided to make another start. For what seemed a quarter of a mile, the subterranean walk was continued, and then a slight cry of alarm escaped Stanley, who was closely following Talmud. Some distance ahead he could discern a dull red glow like the reflection of a fire. As Strangway reached him he also noticed it.
"What can it mean?" he asked.
"It can't be a volcano or a slumbering crater surely," Stanley answered.
As Talmud kept ahead the two men followed in awe-struck silence. The ominous glow did not increase much in brilliancy, but still it was sufficiently startling to amaze the explorers. The passage was slightly curved, and as they proceeded, the reflection got larger. Fifty yards further on the full sight burst on them, as they came in view of a vast concave wall, which glowed like the live embers of a fire.
"It is another kind of mineral I see. It must be the rare red crystal, and like the other place this has not been all shaped by chance," Strangway said to his companion.
The effect of this second chamber, for such it really was—did not strike the observer as so brilliant as the first one. It was gorgeous enough, however, and for half an hour, the two men took in its rare beauties.
"Why its eight o'clock in the evening," Stanley exclaimed, looking at his watch.
"I dare say it is. We did not leave that awful valley until nearly ten o'clock, and you know how many hours we have been wandering about since," answered his companion.
"This passage seems to end here. Had we not better get back to the water?" asked Stanley.
"Yes, we may as well go that way. Let us ask Talmud what he intends doing?"
Both the men went to where Talmud was standing in apparently deep thought and Stanley said—
"What is the best thing for us to do? Can you lead us out of this place?"
The strange man shook his head in a hopeless way, as if he understood the meaning of the question, but was unable to give a satisfactory answer.
"We are going back to the water," Strangway added, pointing as he spoke in the direction of the spring.
Talmud made a gesture of assent, and seeing this, Stanley and his comrade led the way, whilst the other followed closely behind. The way was easily found, and filled with their by no means pleasant thoughts none of the men spoke during the return journey.
"I feel tired out," Stanley said when the spring was reached. "Let us have an hour's rest, and then we can go on again."
"Yes, night or day makes no difference to us in this place," Strangway added bitterly.
After another drink, a fraction of the remaining food was divided between the lost explorers, and then each man made himself as comfortable as he could in such a place. They were all utterly wearied out. Their experience of the previous night had been a terrible one. All through the hours of darkness they had been battling against the fire, and their escape from the dread glen was a most trying ordeal. What with the smoke, snakes, and the varying depth of water, the passage taxed the mental and physical abilities of the men to the utmost. Then the knowledge that they were practically entombed was like the last straw to their much taxed bodies. It can well be imagined therefore that the hour's rest asked for by Stanley should have stretched into nearly eight hours deep slumber.
Stanley, habituated to short watches by his seafaring life, was the first to awake and he saw in the dim light that his two companions still slept. Stretching himself wearily he rubbed his heavy eyes and was seriously inclined to renew his slumber, when something at the top of the passage caught his eyes. It will be remembered, that on leaving the first crystal chamber, the descent to the water was very steep. Now, where Stanley lay, he could see the summit of the abrupt slope, and as he looked upward, his wide-open eyes stared fixedly at a figure looking down from it. A figure! Rather a phantom. For several moments he gazed speechless with terror, for that he saw a ghost he never for a moment doubted. At length a low cry burst from his parched lips and it instantly awoke Strangway.
"What's that? Did you call me?" he asked.
He looked towards his comrade as he spoke, rubbing his eyes and yawning as one who has just awoke out of a heavy sleep. Stanley's lips formed the word—
It was only faintly whispered but in that subterranean gallery it reached the ears of Strangway. Sitting up, his eyes involuntary turned in the direction which his comrade's was fixed. The apparition was still there and was that of the usual orthodox ghost. A human figure with a human face was there, but it was the countenance of a dead man. The light from the crystal cavern shone to the top of the descent but that could not account for the unearthly appearance of the weird visitant. With the exception of the face and head, the figure was clothed from the neck to the feet with a gown of snowy whiteness and in folds which bore some resemblance to the gown of a Druid. Strangway was just as much taken by surprise as Stanley and for a moment or so he too was silent with emotion.
The slight noise he made had awakened Talmud who was some little distance further down the passage. The latter on rising was surprised to see the attitudes of his two companions and he moved towards them. As he did so he noticed they were both looking upward. He approached nearer and did the same, and as he did so he gave voice to a cry that re-echoed through the cavern and caused Stanley and Strangway to spring to their feet with alarm. The latter seized his revolver and stood upon his guard, but Talmud took not the slightest notice of him. With outstretched arms he began to call upon the figure at the top in the uncouth language which had so startled the two explorers on previous occasions. He ceased in less than a minute and to the unbounded astonishment of the two men the apparition at the summit began to speak in the same unknown tongue. This was kept up for a few minutes when Talmud turned to his companions and beckoned them to follow him up the ascent. He clambered up a short distance but on looking back and finding they did not respond he returned. After making a few furious gestures he paused, while his features worked convulsively and at length he ejaculated the word—
The fact was both Strangway and Stanley were afraid to follow Talmud. Hearing him converse with the apparition at the top of the summit, they naturally concluded he was in league with it, and that at last was about to put some diabolical scheme into execution.
"He wants to lead us to our destruction," Strangway said impetuously.
Stanley did not reply for a few moments and then said—
"It seems to me we cannot be worse off than we are. It would be as well to meet death at once than die here of hunger. Besides we are armed and they do not appear to be."
"Bah!" broke in Strangway contemptuously, "of what use would firearms be against such foes as these."
"If they want to kill us, can they not do it just as well here as anywhere else," again argued Stanley.
The point seemed to have some effect on the doubting Strangway for he replied—
"Yes I believe you are right. Let us go, and if there is treachery we must do the best we can."
Meanwhile Talmud was gesticulating and urging the two explorers to follow him. As they signified their assent, his face was illumined with an expression almost ecstatic. Clambering up the steep incline, he was soon followed by his companions and in a couple of minutes the three of them were on the summit. Stanley and Strangway looked round in an awe-struck way for the white spectre, but it was nowhere to be seen. Raising his voice, Talmud made a strange cry, and it was instantly answered by someone a short distance ahead. He then set off in the direction of the cry which was repeated at intervals. Passing through the magnificent crystal vault which, notwithstanding their extraordinary position, the two men could not help admiring, they entered the passage through which the vault was at first reached. Shortly after, they again found themselves in the gigantic granite cavern which had so puzzled them. Strangway glanced around but it was tenantless.
The strange cry again resounded and, entering the passage through which the sounds came, the explorers were not long in discovering that it was the same by which they had got into the labyrinth. This at once restored the faith of the sceptical Strangway and he began to have full reliance in the bona fides of his mysterious guide. Twenty minutes rapid walking led them to the first great chamber from where their troubles began. It was here the dispute between Strangway and Talmud occurred when the advice of the latter was neglected. As soon as this place was reached, Talmud appeared to take the guidance into his own hands. The voice of the unknown was no longer heard and Talmud at once plunged into the passage he had indicated on the previous day. This time his companions followed him without demur. It led down for a short distance, and then in a bend it commenced to slope sharply upwards. In a quarter of an hour a faint gleam of light was seen far ahead, and as the men advanced, there was no longer any doubt on their minds, that they were saved.
From the depths of the passage stars could be seen faintly shining. Within ten minutes, the three men emerged into the open air in a queer looking depression about thirty feet deep. The sun shone into it fiercely, and the disentombed travellers were nearly blinded by its effulgence. Creeping into the shadows of a small tree close at hand, they remained there for at least two hours trying to accustom themselves to the light. This did not take very long in the case of Strangway and Stanley, though for days afterwards their eyes were weak.
As soon as they could venture out, they easily ascended the small incline, and found that they were on the extreme summit of the great peak. The view around was magnificent. For nearly fifty miles they could see to all points of the compass. Far away to south-east stretched the country which they would have to traverse on the homeward journey that they proposed at once to undertake. To the west, the misty outlines of a vast sheet of water, now called Lake Amadeus was visible. This inland sea is perhaps the largest sheet of water on the continent, and lies across the dividing line between South and West Australia. Towards the end of 1870, it was at its highest flood. To the North the blue outlines of Mounts Udor and Leichhardt were dimly visible, whilst at other points small peaks interspersed with sparkling sheets of water or level plains could be seen. There was no doubt that the range on which they stood was the centre of an oasis in the arid desert of Central Australia. Looking nearer home the lower peak of range between which and their standpoint the hideous gully or glen in which they so nearly perished was situated. It seemed but a stones throw from them. As they were looking, Strangway exclaimed.
"By the by, this is Christmas Day."
"Yes I forgot all about Christmas, or any other day in that vault, where we were fixed up," candidly returned Stanley.
"There are some strange things down there to be yet found out. Talmud, there, could tell us a lot if he liked," Strangway remarked.
"He is like a man who has forgotten how to speak in the language he was first taught. Do you remember the struggle, he had, to say 'come,' when he wanted us to follow him from below," Stanley said in a musing tone.
"I wonder if he means to return with us. His friends seem to be in those caverns," answered Strangway. "We had better ask him that question, and by the way tell him this is Christmas Day."
Strangway went to Talmud, who was standing under the shade of an overhanging rock, and told him what Stanley suggested. A swift gleam of intelligence swept across his face, when he heard it was the 25th of December, and to the interrogation, as to whether he wished to accompany them, he nodded eagerly, and vehemently replied—
"Let us get back to the horses as soon as we can. We will have a job to reach the old camp to-day," Stanley said coming up to the two men.
The remnant of the food was consumed by the starving men, and Strangway looked round in vain for an animal or bird to shoot. Smoke still rose from the strange glen, and it had a peculiar odor, which would probably keep birds away. Leaving their elevated position, the three men made their way slowly downwards. They kept to the south for a short distance in order to get round the glen, but finding that they would have to camp out all night if they took such a round-about course, they decided to boldly cross it.
"The fire must be well burned out by this time, and the scrub and snakes will be mostly gone," Stanley argued, and Strangway agreed with him.
There was a descent of nearly five hundred feet, before the edge of the glen was reached, and the route was an exceedingly rugged and difficult one. In some places miniature precipices of from ten to twelve feet in depth were encountered, and the travellers had to drop down them as best they could.
About midday the glen was reached, and it presented an extraordinary appearance. The dense vegetation, which they had seen a couple of days previously had entirely vanished, and all that remained was a comparatively level black surface. The smoke and flames had made the sombre rocks, which formed the sides, an ebony hue, and even the rivulet which ran through the coffin shaped chasm, seemed to flow with ink instead of water through the reflection or shadow of the rocks. Smoke was still rising in various places and those on the summit of the glen noticed that it had a most offensive smell. The aromatic and pungent fumes were no longer present.
It was some time before a safe place to descend could be found, but Stanley at length managed to make the descent, and as he did so his companions followed. The sun being almost vertical, threw its beams into the gorge, and to some slight extent, relieved its sombreness, but when the explorers again found themselves at the bottom they experienced the same unaccountable fear which had beset them on the former occasion.
"I don't know how it is but I do not feel at ease in this place," Stanley said to his comrade.
"Neither do I for that matter. I suppose it is because the gorge is so gloomy and forbidding," was the answer.
"Oh no. You and I have been in worse places by far than this, but we took little notice of them. Look out there!" he exclaimed, as a large snake uncoiled itself from a cleft in the rock, and glided out, hissing at Strangway.
The latter did not have a stick, and none being at hand, he rose his gun and shot the reptile.
Strangway regretted firing so hastily, for again the extraordinary repetition of the echo throughout the cave was distinctly heard.
In the broad light of day, and considering it was only a snake and not a man that was shot at, the phenomenon did not excite so much astonishment or fear, but still it was sufficiently startling to cause momentary alarm.
"What the deuce can it be?" Stanley asked in amazement, as volley after volley was fired as if by a regiment of soldiers.
"I forgot myself or I would not have shot, but the snake seemed to be making straight at me. It is some natural illusion, I should say," answered the leader.
"Natural, do you say? There is nothing natural about it in my opinion," stubbornly asserted the sailor.
As they had a long journey before them there was no time for argument, and the party moved on. The creek was crossed with a slight wetting, and then they headed for the late camp in the glen. There was not a vestige of it left, and by the marks it had been removed by human hands.
"The blacks have been here since we left this place, you see," Stanley said.
"Someone has, no doubt, taken the few things away; they were of little use, however, so they are welcome to them," answered his comrade.
"We will have to watch them. They are considered treacherous man-eaters in these districts, you know, and I don't want to make a meal for any of the black rascals," the sailor said, with a smile.
He was leading the way to the pass on the eastern side by which they had descended two days previously, and as he spoke he turned to look at Strangway.
He had barely concluded when he tripped over something soft and fell headlong on to the black debris.
Jumping hastily up he turned to look at the object which had caused him to fall, and as he did so his heart for a moment seemed to stand still.
What he saw was the outline of a human body shrivelled and charred to half its original dimensions, but still human. In a second or two Strangway reached him, and was scarcely less surprised and bewildered at the unexpected sight.
"This must be the black you shot the other night," the sailor gasped, though recovering his composure he was glad to think it was nothing worse.
"I suppose so," the leader answered in a low voice. "I couldn't understand how he could have escaped. I mortally wounded him, and he got this far before he died."
"Perhaps he was burned to death when the fire broke out," suggested Stanley.
"I hope not. I would rather think my shot proved fatal than that he should have been burned like a snake in a log."
Strangway said this with quite a sympathetic ring in his voice. He appeared to draw a nice distinction between shooting an aboriginal and burning him to death. In the end, however, it would not make much difference to the defunct black.
They were about to pass the ghastly relic when a cry from Talmud riveted their attention. He was a little to the east of them, and as they went over they were absolutely horrified this time to see a second charred body lying like the first.
What could it mean? Talmud raised his head from contemplating the body at his feet and pointed a short distance away. Yes, there were one, two, three—why the place seemed to be littered with human bodies. The spectators felt unnerved as they looked around.
"There must have been a fight of a sanguinary character in this place," Strangway at length said.
"I don't think so. That is not the cause of all those horrible objects. You know the blacks carry away the dead from the battlefields—that is if they are not eaten."
"I cannot understand it at all," interrupted Stanley.
The men's eyes were now wandering over the place, and they could see innumerable black heaps which marked the remains of some mortal. There was not one or two but hundreds apparently. Half the glen appeared to be burthened with such relics.
Talmud did not seem so shocked as his companions, but he did not volunteer an explanation.
"I have it!" Stanley exclaimed. "I see it now."
"What is the cause, then?" Strangway eagerly asked.
"This place is a cemetery."
"A cemetery!" cried the leader. "I can scarcely think that, for you know the blacks would not choose a place like this—and besides they bury their dead in a different manner to this when they do bury them. These bodies are all straight so far as I can see, whilst the aboriginals double up the legs."
"Some tribes do that, but how do you know how the blacks of this practically unknown region dispose of their dead? The custom of burial differs, as you know, in different parts of the continent. Some tribes sun-dry the bodies on platforms, whilst others reduce the deceased to a mummified state over a slow fire. You may depend I am right. The tribe which uses this place for their cemetery lay the bodies as you see."
Stanley said this with such an air of knowledge and conviction that it practically silenced Strangway.
The latter, however, could not help saying, "It must be a very large tribe to have such a number of dead."
"You forget how fertile this region is—and perhaps some of these bodies are a hundred years old. There may be generations of dead here," said the seaman in an authoritative tone.
"A hundred years old!" replied Strangway, laughing in spite of the surroundings, "there wouldn't be much of them left here now."
"Wouldn't there be? I've seen bodies thousands of years old. Perhaps there is something in this gully which preserves the bodies."
This suggestion was unanswerable, and, eager to get away, the leader did not attempt a reply.
Making for the pass and picking his way carefully over the black mounds he was soon climbing out of the charred gulf followed by his two companions. The top was soon reached, and, after stopping for a minute or two to gaze into the valley of death, the final descent was begun with a sense of infinite relief. Fully a thousand feet of rough mountain side had to be traversed, and there was no time to lose if the permanent camp was to be reached.
The sun had set before the base of the range was reached, and it was almost dark when they arrived at the pleasant little gully on which the camp was situated. Going quickly down it for a quarter of a mile Strangway, who was leading, stopped.
"We must have passed it by some means," he said, looking around.
"It's a little further down. I know the place," replied Stanley.
After a couple of hundred yards or more had been crossed the leader again stopped and said:
"I knew we had come too far. Our camp is a long way back."
Turning abruptly he began to retrace his steps, keeping a little more to the north side. It was now quite dark, and as the moon would not rise for another hour the leader reluctantly called a halt.
"We have missed the place somehow and we had better wait for the moonlight. There is no use stumbling along in darkness like this. I am almost starved, too," he said.
"So am I," chimed in Stanley. "We have scarcely eaten anything for the last two days. We'll make a hole in the 'grub' when we get to camp," he added.
Talmud said nothing, but it was evident that he too was suffering from hunger. His face and hands also were giving him considerable pain. They were terribly sunburnt and in their worst stage. The only comfort the party had was in their pipes. They had taken an ample supply of tobacco with them, and as they sat down waiting for the moon to rise each of them began to smoke. This, in a measure, allayed their hunger, and there was no lack of water. As Stanley lay on his back looking at the stars he said:
"It's a glorious thing to be able to see the sky above one's head. I thought last night that I should never look upon it again. I'll never forget those wanderings in the awful passages."
"And yet," interrupted Strangway, "God's works beneath the surface of the earth may be even more beautiful than those on the surface. Take for instance those magnificent crystal chambers we saw in the caverns. What could be more beautiful! It is said that the bottom of the ocean is even more striking and splendid than its surface."
"Yes, that is all very fine; but give me the surface of the sea rather than the bottom. You see, I'm constructed to float, as it were, on the top of the ocean and not live among the fishes below. The same way with the earth. I have heard that there are gnomes, hobgoblins and such like who prefer residing in caverns and down underground, but give me the surface. You see, I'm built that way," the sailor concluded with a laugh.
During this conversation Talmud listened most attentively, and a strange, inscrutable expression rested on his countenance. He appeared as one whose brain slumbered whilst the body was awake. He was something akin to a somnambulist, but it could be noticed that his half-slumbering faculties were being gradually awakened. After a long pause Stanley suddenly asked:
"Who was that white cove that led us out of the cavern? You seemed to know him."
The strange man's face seemed pregnant with desire to speak, but though his eyes were eloquent of his feelings his tongue refused to form the words he was evidently seeking to speak.
"He did us a good turn, so that I would like to know who and what he is," the sailor went on.
"He might be one of those extraordinary hermits we read about," suggested Strangway.
"What would bring a white hermit to such a place as this? If he was a black hermit I could understand it," Stanley replied.
"Well, this is an out-of-the-way place to find a white man certainly. And really, Tom, he didn't look like a human being at all," added the leader of the party.
"I never got such a fright in my life," bluntly admitted Stanley.
The moon was now risen a short distance above the horizon, and, finding that no information could be obtained from Talmud, it was agreed to make another search for the camp.
Hunger was spurring them on and they went about the quest with vigor. The little gully was searched and re-searched but without avail, until at last Strangway said:
"We are only making fools of ourselves. Hungry and all as we are the best thing we can do is to lie down and wait for daylight. We can make a fire and rest until morning."
This course was really the most sensible to adopt, and Talmud soon gathered a pile of wood and the fire was soon started. Its blaze made matters seem cheerful, and in spite of the gnawings of hunger Strangway and Talmud were soon asleep.
It was agreed that the leader should sleep till midnight when he would relieve his comrade for the morning watch. They preferred doing this to giving a watch to Talmud, for the mystery which clung to him made them chary of trusting him too much.
He had that day even shown his faith in, and regard for, them in taking them out of the labyrinth into which they would never have gone had they taken his advice. Yet there was time enough yet to put their lives into his hands.
In the cavern, it is true, no watch was kept, but there despair had sway over them. Besides, the chief reason for keeping a watch in the open air was on account of a possible attack of blacks. They were known to be both numerous and treacherous in the locality, and if by chance they came across the whites asleep they would have no scruple or difficulty in spearing them. As a rule the aboriginals did not make night attacks, but still it was best to be careful.
About midnight Stanley awoke his comrade, and, lying near the fire, he was soon asleep.
Strangway took up his watch in a drowsy fashion. He was tired enough to have slept on till daylight, but being a good bushman he knew his duty too well to grumble. About one o'clock as the fire was burning low he got up and gathered a quantity of wood with which he replenished it. This exercise caused him to become wide awake, as it banished the drowsy feeling. As the fire blazed up he took his rifle and strolled round the camp outside the glare of the flames.
The moon by this time was high in the heavens and surrounding objects were plainly visible. The sides of the narrow gully were thickly timbered, and in places the scrub ran almost to the centre of it. It was whilst looking in an abstracted manner into one of these belts of scrub that he caught sight of two shining objects like that at which he had fired in the "glen of the dead."
The sight almost paralyzed him, for there was something weird and unearthly about it. In a moment the eyes, or whatever they were, had disappeared, but the one glance was sufficient for Strangway. He made a few steps nearer the fire, and then, remembering that it would be better to get on one side of the flames so that in the event of blacks being around he would not present such a mark for their spears, he turned aside. Getting into the shadow he sat down, keeping his eyes riveted on the scrub.
For nearly an hour he thus sat until the fixed gaze pained him. He was about to turn away again to the fire with the idea that his imagination had tricked him, when once again the basilisk-like eyes could be seen almost in the position he had first descried them. Either his excitement or that feeling which prompts a man to get first blow in, as it is called, actuated Strangway, for without raising his rifle he took a snap shot at the object. Mingled with the report a human cry was heard, and as Strangway rushed back to the fire Stanley and Talmud jumped to their feet in alarm.
"What has happened?" asked the former.
"That object we saw in the glen which I fired at is in that thicket. I think I've killed it this time," the watch answered with a slight shudder.
"Then, let it stay there until morning. It will bring bad luck if we go to search for it," Stanley said.
"Had we not better get away from the light of the fire. If the blacks are about they could easily spear us here. It's a black you fired at I am certain. Come back a little and load your rifle as soon as you can. It will be daylight in half-an-hour, and then you may expect an attack," Stanley added.
The advice was taken, and the three men withdrew into the dark circle away from the fire. Even there they were quite exposed to a hostile attack, for the moon shone brightly. Anxiously the minutes passed but no enemy appeared, and it was with a feeling of intense relief that the first silver streaks heralding the monarch of day were observed in the east.
In another quarter of an hour the light of the moon paled before that of the sun, and quickly the beams of the latter glowed upon the hill-tops and penetrated the recesses of the valleys. It was broad daylight before Strangway and his companions ventured to approach the thicket in which the former, at least, thought a dead man lay. He guided them cautiously to the spot at which he had fired, for it might be that a foe lay in ambush. It was reached, but the belt of scrub was deserted.
In a few moments the exact position of the object at which Strangway fired was located, for the grass was trampled down and the shrubs bent and twisted in places.
"You hit something this time!" Stanley called out from the thicket into which he had gone with a revolver in his hand.
Strangway was at his side in a few moments, and there on one of the shrubs was a splash of blood. Following it along it came out on the opposite side of the thicket and led over the open towards the queer spur which connected the waterfall hill with the great range.
"There is no use in following this. You have slightly wounded a blackfellow, that is all, and we would never come up with him. Besides, I'm very hungry," Stanley said.
"So am I. We will soon find the camp though. I am glad it was only a black that was watching us. You must be right about that glen affair," replied Strangway.
"Of course I am right. You didn't expect that it was the devil you shot, did you?"
"I wouldn't be surprised at anything happening in this locality. For want of human settlement it almost seems as if the place is the abode of spirits or phantoms," the leader returned.
"Perhaps so. This is about the best place they could come. You wouldn't like to have them bobbing up before you in every paddock at the station, would you?" Stanley enquired, with a laugh.
By this time they had reached the camp fire of the night, and they immediately turned from it in the direction of the range.
"We were not more than a hundred yards from this tree, you know, Stanley, and the horses' enclosure should be over there. I took particular notice of the bearings," Strangway remarked.
Taking a line from the tree he went towards the spot indicated, whilst his companions kept a short distance away to the right and left. A call from Stanley attracted the attention of the other two who hastened towards him. He was pointing to a heap of ashes.
"The camp is gone," he said, with an ashen face.
A citizen who comes home from his work and finds that his cottage has been burned down during his absence receives a shock he does not easily forget. He is surrounded by friends and neighbors proffering aid and succor and he has only to go a few yards for shelter. At the worst he suffers a momentary loss. Compare his position with that of Strangway and his companions. It was literally a matter of life and death with them.
They were eight hundred miles from the nearest white settlement, and that was only a lonely, outlying station itself, situate in the wilderness far from ordinary civilization. The horses of the explorers were gone as well as their stores and provisions. Save what they carried everything had been swept away as cleanly as if the camp had never existed. Save for the ashes of the fire it would have been almost impossible even to find the site of the camp.
Whoever had robbed the party had done so in a remarkable manner. The post holes had been filled up, and the timber used for the horse enclosure taken away. Extraordinary pains had in fact been used to throw the party off the place, but why it should have been done no one could say. For several minutes Strangway and Stanley looked silently at each other as if trying to comprehend the misfortune which had overtaken them. At last the latter found voice.
"We're in a fix, mate."
"Fix!" repeated Strangway, huskily. "Yes, it's a battle for life now. We'll have to grapple with death hand to hand, and the odds are all against us."
"Never say die. We have come out of many a bad time before, and why not again?"
"Yes, but we are twice as far away this time."
"The season is better, you know. That will help us," returned the seaman, "and the sooner we make a start the better."
"Let us search round here a little. We may find some of the horses or stores in the scrub," the leader remarked.
This order was immediately carried out, but it was resultless. Not even the track of a horse could be found so cleverly had they been carried away. Taking a last pathetic look at the scene of their misfortunes, Strangway called on his companions and turned eastward.
"Let us get to the river. It is only a couple of miles off, and we can find some game there. It's a blessing we have ammunition left," he said.
"Keep well down from that cursed waterfall. There is nothing to be obtained there," was Stanley's response.
Swiftly but silently the three forlorn men walked and in half-and-hour they had reached the fine stream called Finke Creek. They were about three miles below the falls whence the mysterious sounds were heard and there was abundance of wild fowl on the stream.
Strangway soon had his gun in use, and within five minutes he had secured two brace of black ducks. The birds were not at all wild, for they had probably never before seen a white man or heard the report of a gun.
Whilst the leader was getting the food the other two men had made a fire, and adopting the style of the native's oven they soon had the birds cooking. They were ravenously hungry and not at all epicures.
In an hour's time three of the ducks were taken from the ember ovens and they were eagerly devoured. They proved to be in excellent condition, and when the fourth bird was distributed and it had disappeared the party felt in much better spirit to face their terrible journey. After a drink the cry was "push on," and they set off along the stream until night came on.
More game was then obtained, for it was in abundance, and a comfortable site for the camp selected. They were now fully ten miles from the range, and two at least of the party felt a sense of relief at being some distance away from that mysterious locality.
As the night was very warm the fire was extinguished after the cooking was finished. This was done on an extensive scale, no less than six brace of fat duck being baked. This was to obviate delay the next morning, as from about an hour before sunrise until ten or eleven o'clock was the best time to travel.
During the middle of the day they intended resting from the intense heat. This time they would utilise in cooking a twenty-four-hours' supply. The night passed without anything occurring to alarm the travellers.
Strangway and Stanley had now shook off their distrust of Talmud and no watch was kept. Each man, however, slept, so to speak, with one eye open, and the least sound was sufficient to arouse them.
For five days good progress was made in this way and nothing of note occurred. The mysterious ranges had faded out of sight and with them the dread of the supernatural which seemed to press on the explorers. So far they had been fortunate in securing abundant food, though its sameness was beginning to tell on them slightly.
Their worst trouble was the want of boots. Talmud had none in the first instance. He was shod in a sort of wooden sandal, but when that broke up he had to take to tying kangaroo skins around his feet. A spare pair of boots for Stanley and Strangway had been stolen from the camp, and on these they relied to get back. Those they wore in the glen had been destroyed in walking across the smouldering fire. With the horses the wear and tear on boots would have been comparatively trifling, but without them it was enormous.
The first four days' tramp left nothing but shreds, and then, like Talmud, they had to fall back on hides. Not being used to them they soon got lame, and then they had perforce to make shorter stages. After a lapse of a week or two no doubt the feet would suit themselves to the altered circumstances like the soft hand of a man unused to manual labor will accustom itself to hard work after first blistering and then becoming horny.
It was the blistering stage that the feet of Stanley and Strangway were in on the first of January, 1871. That was the date they had chosen to leave the range, but now they were more than seventy miles away from it.
Shortly before noon on New Year's Day they formed their temporary or "cooking camp," as they called it, on the bank of a small lagoon which ran off the creek, and as usual began to prepare the food.
Strangway always got the game, and when the halt was made he went about fifty yards away in the direction that a large flock of duck were swimming. The banks of the lagoon were timbered slightly, but a thick undergrowth grew amongst the trees.
Stanley and Talmud had just made the fire and were scooping holes in the hard earth for the ovens when they heard Strangway calling loudly for help, and in a few minutes the report of his gun sounded. Seizing his rifle Stanley rushed towards the spot followed by his companion who carried the leader's weapon.
Stanley was a dozen yards in front, and had almost reached the scrub when seven aboriginals dashed out of it and flung their spears at him. He managed to avoid them all but one and that pierced through the calf of his left leg. He fired instantly at the foremost black, who fell dead, and at the same moment Talmud shot another.
The aboriginals were making off when Stanley used his revolver and wounded a third. Taking his knife he cut the front of the spear off, and then asked Talmud to pull it through from the back which the latter at once did. This did not occupy twenty seconds, and when it was done the two men ran into the scrub. They found Strangway holding on to the limb of a small tree deathly pale and with a formidable looking spear through his right side.
"I'm done for, lads," he said in a feeble voice. "These vermin surprised me or this would not have happened. It's a wonder, indeed, that I haven't half-a-dozen of these harpoons through me."
"You will pull through all right. It cannot have touched any vital part," said Stanley, who was cutting off the back portion of the spear which had been thrown from behind.
When this was done Talmud seized the barbed end and gently pulled it out. The wound was certainly a terrible one, and it seemed little short of miraculous that anyone could survive it.
Putting one arm round the wounded man, Talmud led, or nearly carried him, out of the scrub, whilst Stanley, whose injury was very painful, limped behind bringing the firearms. The blood which flowed from the wound was not copious, and this made it probable that it was only a terrible flesh injury.
Laying Strangway on the ground, Talmud signified to Stanley by signs and a few words of English that he had better sit down and reload the guns. The pain of his wound made this almost necessary, and when he did Talmud broke off the branches of some trees close by and tearing off the leaves made a rough couch which he covered with soft grass.
On this he lifted Strangway, who looked grateful for the act. He then bound up the wound with a fragment of linen Stanley had, over which he placed a portion of soft kangaroo skin, and when he had given his patient a drink of water the latter fell into a sleep—a natural remedy, better far than all the medicines invented or discovered by man. In the meantime Stanley had attended to himself after reloading the discharged weapons.
Amongst the articles saved was a hatchet, which was exceedingly useful. As soon as Talmud was done with his patient he got this and began to cut down all the saplings and small trees around and pile them up in the shape of breast-work for the camp which was admirably situated. It was at an angle of the lagoon and the creek and without swimming could only be approached on one side. With incredible energy Talmud made this into a miniature fort.
Whilst Stanley mounted guard in order to prevent another surprise, the white man of the range built up two walls of defence which were at least spear proof. One enclosed the camp itself whilst the other acted as an outer wall. If the natives tried to scale the outer wall with the intention of spearing the inmates of the camp they could be shot down without being able to effect their purpose.
When it was completed Talmud rigged up a rough seat for Stanley, where whilst resting his wounded leg he could still keep watch. This done, he filled the ovens and proceeded to cook the four ducks he had secured.
Strangway woke about night-fall, and while very bad it was apparent that he was not mortally wounded, though in such a position, without medical aid, or appliances, or proper food, the issue between life and death appeared very much in favor of the latter.
Talmud insisted in keeping watch all that night, though Stanley wanted to share it with him. The ex-seaman when he did lie down went to sleep almost immediately and did not wake until daylight. He had been quite worn out with the tramping and the loss of blood.
During the night no attack was made by the natives, though Talmud heard them removing their dead. One day succeeded another in this fashion; Talmud doing nearly everything necessary. There was no difficulty in getting food as ducks and swans swam around the camp.
At the end of three weeks Stanley was almost as well as ever, but the leader was still in a very bad way. It was a terrible struggle between life and death that was going on, but his splendid constitution at length prevailed and he began gradually to mend.
It was the morning of the 20th March—or two months and twenty days from the time of the spearing—that the camp was broken up and another start made for home. Strangway was still weak, but he insisted on going. He could not get over more than seven or eight miles a day, but that itself meant a long stretch when kept up.
For ten days they went along, and then an alarming change took place in the creek. It appeared to enter a sandy porous country and consisted of a mere chain of water-holes. At first these afforded both game and water, but as the party went along, to their dismay it was found that the water was slightly brackish. This had an injurious effect on systems already weakened by bad food, exposure, wounds and fatigue, but the men bore up bravely against it. The further they went in the direction of the white settlement the worse the water became until at last they began to look upon their escape as hopeless.
"Try for a clay-pan," Strangway said one morning to Stanley.
The latter was almost as feeble as the leader and his leg still showed signs of the wound.
Talmud heard the words, and, stepping forward, said, "Me?"
Strangway nodded, and the mysterious man at once set off towards a small clump of trees about three miles to the east. It was afternoon when he returned, and there was a strange light in his eyes.
"Come!" he simply said.
Staggering to their feet Stanley and Strangway, perishing with thirst, stepped out of the imperfect shade and slowly followed Talmud over the parched plain with the sun beating piteously on them. Scarce a mile had been traversed when Strangway sunk helplessly to the earth in the last stage of exhaustion.
"Go," he whispered, huskily, "save yourselves."
"No," both men said as they lifted him from the hot ground and tottered onwards. The shade of the trees was a slight relief, but when the edge was reached Strangway begged to be allowed to lie down and die.
Stanley was in the same hopeless condition, but Talmud with vehement gestures pointed ahead, and as the film gathered before their eyes it appeared to them as if a thin line cut the horizon a short distance away.
* * * * * *
"Hey, Morrison! Look! What the deuce—ah, I say, what are they?"
The speaker was Overseer Garfield, engaged in the erection of the great overland telegraph line between Adelaide and Port Darwin and the vicinity a few miles north of Mount O'Halloran. As he spoke he slid down from a Telegraph-pole and with his men ran forward to where three beings in the semblance of men were swaying and staggering together.
Evidently one (himself horribly emaciated) was trying to support the other two, but the effort was too great and the three derelicts sank on the ground together. The first man rose upon his knees and with glazed eyes looked, and then as he saw there was help coming he sank back in a swoon exhausted.
"A close shave that, Morrison," Garfield remarked an hour later, when with the ample means at hand the lost explorers began to revive.
"Yes, and it's only by the merest chance we are here to-day. If the blacks had not interfered with the line we would have been miles back."
"Yes, a close shave, no doubt. Indeed it is a question whether the tall man will get over his hardships!" exclaimed Dr. Whyte, who had just come up.
The South Australian Government took care that the equipment of the parties they had erecting the two thousand miles of telegraph line through an almost unknown land should be as perfect as possible. To traverse the Australian continent from south to north had been a task that had cost the lives of many intrepid men, even though their single aim was to cover the ground as rapidly as possible.
To erect substantial poles, stretch wires, and provide stations at certain intervals in such a wilderness with hostile blacks on every side was, therefore, an undertaking of great magnitude. That it was well carried out may be gauged from the fact that from first to last only seven deaths took place amongst those engaged in the work. Medical attendance was provided, and every care was taken to prevent sickness amongst the workmen. Dr. Whyte was attendant to the Flying gang, the duties of which were to see that all defects or accidents on the completed portion of the line were removed or repaired.
The tall man, whom the doctor referred to, was Michael Strangway, and his appearance was sufficiently bad to warrant the medical statement. The severe wound he had received from the blacks had a serious effect upon his constitution, and to this was added bad food and water and great physical exertion.
Stanley was also in a low state but not nearly so bad as the leader, whilst Talmud after his swoon soon recovered. Had it not been for him it is certain that both Strangway and Stanley must have perished. For the preceding three days he had sustained his unfortunate companions and took the brunt of the work.
Two hours after the dramatic rescue by Overseer Garfield and his party Dr. Whyte decided that the three men should be removed to the main camp some ten miles back. One of the transport waggons was obtained for the purpose, and by night-fall the camp was reached. There, for the first time in several months, the explorers received treatment suited to their condition, and next day Strangway and his comrade showed distinct signs of improvement. Nothing was wanting that could add to their comfort, and in a few weeks' time the three men had almost recovered from the effects of the terrible journey.
"How came you to be left in such a fix?" Garfield asked the leader.
"The blacks plundered our camp whilst we were away examining a strange mount in which Finke Creek takes its rise," was the reply.
"That must be the McDonnell Range. It's a queer district I have heard," answered Garfield.
"Yes, there is no doubt about that. It is the most extraordinary place I have ever been in."
"By the way, what is the matter with your friend?" Garfield went on, pointing to Talmud who was sitting on a log outside the hut.
"That is a mystery to me," replied Strangway, narrating to his friend the strange circumstances under which Talmud had been found.
"I believe I've seen that man somewhere. There is a striking likeness to a certain person; but it cannot be he as he was killed ten years ago by the blacks."
"Ah, where was that?" asked Strangway.
"In Stuart's second expedition across the continent, about two hundred miles north of our present location, there was an attack on the camp by the blacks and poor O'Malley was carried off. I think he was first killed and the cannibals carried off the body," replied Garfield.
"Have you spoken to Talmud about the matter?" asked Strangway.
"I have made reference to it indirectly but he does not seem to understand, and he is such a silent fellow."
"He seems to have forgotten his mother tongue. When we first found him he did not know a word of English, but he is rapidly picking up the language."
"I noticed that during the last week. He will be able to tell his own story shortly, I dare say," said Garfied.
"I am anxious to hear it, for I feel assured it will be one of the most extraordinary ever narrated by mortal man. I have good reasons for thinking so," interjected Strangway.
The conversation was interrupted by the entrance of Stanley, who said:
"I hear there is another 'break' down near the end of the line, overseer."
"Confound those ignorant aboriginals! They are giving us a great deal of trouble. They appear to have a particular dislike to the wires, and we are not allowed to deal with them as we should like."
"I know how old Mills, of Nardoo, would act if they interfered with his property. They would have daylight let through them in no time," laughed Stanley.
"The blacks, white ants and wind storms are our greatest obstacles in the work we have in hand, but no doubt it will come right ere long. When the line is completed to Darwin steps will be taken to prevent interference by the blacks, and our 'flying gangs' will be better able to grapple with the two latter drawbacks," replied Overseer Garfield.
As the latter went out of the hut to arrange a party to restore communication, Stanley said:
"When are you thinking of making a start for home, Michael? We could easily manage the journey now. We can follow the telegraph line to the south of Eyre and then strike off to the east. There will be little or no trouble now as the stages are placed at easy distances along the track of the line."
"I am ready to go at any moment," answered Strangway. "Say we make a start to-morrow morning. Have you spoken to Talmud about it?"
"Yes. He seems very anxious to push on."
"Then to-morrow we will bid our good friends adieu. I feel as strong as ever," replied Strangway.
"Will you not come along the track with us?" asked Garfield, entering the hut. "The breakage is only five miles back, and we can fix it up before nightfall."
"Yes, I will go with pleasure," answered Strangway, who was becoming wearied with inaction.
In half-an-hour Garfield with five line repairers and Strangway, Stanley and Talmud set off for the spot where the wires had been broken. This proved to be a place called Granite Glen. It was a deep and exceedingly wild gully running between spurs of Mount O'Halloran, and its crossing had been one of the most arduous tasks so far experienced on the route. The vegetation in places was exceedingly dense, whilst at others bare scarped masses of rock were piled up in fantastic confusion.
"We lost two men at this place," remarked Garfield to Stanley as they were dismounting from their horses at the edge of the ravine.
"How was that?"
"One of them walked over yonder cliff during the night time and his body was never recovered. The blacks killed the other. He was left in charge of the horses, and when we returned we found him stone dead with half-a-dozen spears in the body and the marks of nullas also."
"Did you do nothing to avenge the murder?"
"The authorities took action, but they were never able to trace his slayers. Since then no aboriginals have been seen in the vicinity; but they must be getting over their fear now apparently if this break is their work."
After securing the horses and leaving two men in charge, the remainder of the party went along to find out where the wires were down. The course led them past the cliff over which the man had fallen, and Strangway inquired how it was that the body had not been recovered.
"That is a question not easily answered," returned the overseer, "and at best we can only surmise the reason. We had our camp pitched where you see those ashes, and it was between nine and ten o'clock at night when Whittaker met his death. It seems that he had been sent from the station we have just left to bring a message here, and apparently he must have got lost or may have been delayed in some manner on the way. He left at three o'clock in the afternoon and ought to have returned at five. It was shortly after nine o'clock when we heard a cooee sounding from yonder hill and one of the men in our camp recognised it as Whittaker's voice. We had a very large fire burning here and it threw a bright reflection on the surrounding rocks and especially on the great cliff. We responded to the call, and could hear our friend gradually approaching by his cooees. I was sitting—or rather lying—just at this spot and facing the cliff, being engaged with my last pipe before going to sleep. Suddenly a terrible cry caused us all to jump to our feet, and as I did so I distinctly saw the body of a man falling down the cliff. The light from the fire outlined the doomed man distinctly, though of course I only had a momentary glance. Seizing our lights we ran to the foot of the precipice, and, fortunately for us, we knew the place or some of us might have gone to keep poor Whittaker company. There is a frightful abyss at the base of that rocky wall, though you cannot see it from here, and when we got to it there was neither sight nor sound of our comrade. During the darkness we could not do much, but at daylight we got a thirty fathom rope and I was lowered down. I will never forget the descent so long as I live," said Garfield after a pause, during which he beckoned his three listeners to follow him to the base of the cliff. "You will see," he went on, as the party neared the spot, "what a peculiar place it is."
This statement was perfectly true. Right along the base of the cliff ran a chasm of apparently profound depth. It was about four feet across and at least one hundred yards in length.
"It was down this place that Whittaker fell," resumed Garfield, "and into which I was lowered to search for the body. As you will see it appears to be a clean cut cleft in the rock, but it is not so in reality. When I was let down I took the largest lamp we had, and, after going between twenty and thirty feet, I found that I was dangling in mid air in an enormous cavern. Far as the light reached I could see the vast hollow stretching out in every direction. It extended under the cliff as well as as beneath where we now stand, but the most singular part was the great draught which swept through the place. It forced me underneath the ledge of rock and swayed me about in such a manner that had I not been well secured to the rope I should certainly have let go my hold. At a depth of one hundred and twenty feet I reached the bottom, and, after recovering myself, began the search for Whittaker. In descending I had done so at the spot where our comrade had fallen down, but, strange to say, I could not find a trace of him. At the spot I expected to find the body, I fancied I could discern traces which appeared to indicate that the locality had been scraped or washed, but it might have been only fancy. Disconnecting the rope from myself I determined to make a search of the tremendous subterranean chamber, as it was possible that by some providential means Whittaker may have escaped death. The lamp I carried threw out a fairly good light, and for half-an-hour I searched in a radius of at least a hundred yards from the rope. More than once I was startled at what seemed to me the shadows of flitting human beings. Imagination, I dare say, you will assert, and I try to think the same myself, but the effort is not a very successful one. At last I came to a place where a passage sloping down at an angle of about sixty degrees sank into the floor. I noticed that the floor was well worn, though by what I could not say. I was too frightened to venture down it and concluded I had better return. Making my way back to where I had fixed the rope to a jutting ledge of rock so that it could not be hauled up without my first undoing it, I received a shock that for a few moments rendered me speechless with astonishment. The rope was not there! With an effort I collected my thoughts and examined the spot. Yes, there was no mistake about it for I could see the marks where I had tied it on the rock, and I well knew that nothing short of human agency could have undone the knots I made. Recovering myself I began to shout at the top of my voice to those above, but they afterwards told me they could not hear the sound. Apparently it must have been lost in the gigantic cavern, for there it reverberated in the most startling fashion. I was becoming frantic at my terrible position, when I saw a dark body coming down the abyss, and in half a minute one of the men on top named Scholes had reached the floor of the cavern.
"'Thank God you are not killed!' he cried, as I ran up to him; 'but you must be badly hurt?'
"'Hurt! why should I be?' I asked in amazement.
"'Did you not fall back when we were hauling you up?' he asked.
"Even with the flickering light I could see that he turned pale. He slowly undid the rope from his body and placed it round mine.
"'Send it down the moment you reach the top,' he said.
"Handing him the lamp I was speedily swung upwards and arrived at the top in a half-dazed condition. The men stared at me as if they expected to see a battered corpse, and were surprised beyond measure as I walked to a stone and sat down. As I did so one of the party came running from the camp with some brandy, which I eagerly drank, for I felt unnerved. When Scholes came up I asked:
"'Why did you haul up the rope without me and before getting the signal?'
"'We got the signal, sir,' replied Scholes, 'and hauled up a heavy body for nearly a hundred feet, when it suddenly dropped off and we thought you were killed, or that it was the body of Whittaker that was not properly fastened on."
"They are signalling to us, sir," one of them said to Garfield at this juncture.
"Yes; let us go and I will tell you as we walk along. They have found the break over there and want instructions about it, I suppose."
"You may depend that when I heard this I was more astounded than ever," continued the overseer, resuming the narrative, "I had fastened the rope most securely, and I was convinced that there must be some strange reason to account for its being undone. Then the heavy body which the men had hauled up to a distance which I calculated would reach the roof of the vast cavern, what could that be? I remembered now that I had noticed what I took to be flitting shadows, and the only natural explanation I could give of the whole occurrence was that the place must be inhabited by aboriginals. Perhaps there was a secret entrance to the great chamber for assuredly the natives could not enter it in the way Scholes and I did. They had no ropes over one hundred and twenty feet long, but it was quite likely that such a place was accessible from the gully further down the glens. The strong draught was presumptive proof of this, and I ventured to suggest the explanation to Scholes.
"'No, sir. I don't think the ordinary aboriginal, at any rate, would live in such a place. They have a superstitious dread of such dark recesses as that.'
"'But what has become of Whittaker's body?' I asked.
"'There may be some wild animals below which have dragged it away and eaten it. That is the idea I have formed about it,' he answered.
"'But a wild animal could not undo a rope tied in the manner I left it; and besides an animal would not care to hang on to a rope to be hauled up a hundred feet and then let go,' I interrupted.
"'It does seem queer; but if a man dropped a hundred feet we would have found his body,' came the reply.
"'Why did we not find Whittaker's? He fell nearer three hundred feet,' I argued.
"'There is undoubtedly a mystery about it that I fear will never be solved. I wouldn't care about going into that place again,' Scholes went on.
"'Some of us will have to do so. I must send word on to the head camp and get help so that a proper search can be made for Whittaker. Suppose he is not dead and is lying in that dismal place insensible,' I said.
"'I quite agree with that. A proper search should be made, and if you like I will go back to the station with the news and bring help as quickly as possible,' said Scholes.
"This course was adopted, and shortly before three o'clock the same afternoon a party of ten men, well provided with ropes and lanterns, reached us. Four of them along with myself were lowered down and we began a most systematic search. With a number of spare lights we illuminated the cavern fairly well, and leaving one man to watch the lamps we spread ourselves about and made a minute search. To the south we found that the cavern extended for a great distance—how far we could not judge, for a quarter of a mile from the chasm we encountered a second abyss which barred our progress. This place seemed to be a tremendous depth, and far down we could hear a sound as if water was rushing along. Getting back to the descending passage which I had found in the morning, three of us determined to explore it. We were all armed and scarcely expected an attack in such a place. The chief danger was in meeting foul air or in being precipitated into a chasm. For some distance the underground way was perfectly dry, and it bore evident traces of being trodden by either man or beast. After going nearly two hundred yards a bend was met with leading to the south, and we could see that in this direction the rocks were honeycombed in an extraordinary fashion. After proceeding for fully a quarter of a mile we came on a scene which I will not soon forget. The passage suddenly opened out into a huge cave so far as we could see over 200 yards in diameter, and this was filled to within a couple of feet of the floor of the passage with water. On the western side we could see a bright stream falling into the basin, whilst what was apparently an outlet was visible to the south. The subterranean lake appeared to be of profound depth, and as our lights flashed on the clear surface it reflected back a thousand sparkling gleams which were indescribably beautiful. Finding our progress barred we were just turning away when an exclamation from one of the men caused me to look round. He was pointing towards the eastern side of rocks, which fringed the water, and as I turned I distinctly caught the outline of some aquatic beast which had come to the surface for a few minutes. It must have been of considerable size, for it caused a very perceptible wash against the rocky sides. From the hasty glance I caught of the animal I should describe it as being in shape not unlike an ordinary sea-porpoise, and in this I am borne out by the man who first saw it. For fully half-an-hour we stood on the edge of the underground lake watching for the re-appearance of the strange inhabitant, but we did not again notice any sign of animal life. Our surprise was materially increased on our return journey, for in several places we were confronted by walls of stone thrown across the passage. These were two or three feet in height, and at first we concluded that our companions left behind had been playing a practical joke on us. When, however, we encountered no less than five of these artificial barriers, we knew that it was not possible for our comrades to have done the work. The only possible object in putting the stones where they were could have been but to let us know that other human beings besides ourselves were in the cavern. I can assure you that the fact completely surprised us, and we built up all sorts of wild conjectures. We were all of the opinion that it was not aboriginals who frequented the place. It was suggested that there might be a superior race of blacks who thus lived, but this idea was scouted for it was most improbable that superior tribes would bury themselves in gloomy caverns beneath the surface and allow the inferior to monopolise the glorious sunshine. I confess I even built up a wilder theory which I now laugh at. We might have come in contact with the descendants of the early convicts who, fleeing from settlement, had sought refuge from both whites and blacks in the lonely ranges of the interior. Being unarmed they would naturally hide in caverns from the blacks, and gradually a generation would be evolved who might have a decided liking for such a subterranean life. Without tools and with the limited resources of the locality the easiest and most comfortable method of providing a shelter would be to become a cave-dweller even as the primal race of Colorado did. When we reached the main cavern we found our two comrades anxiously awaiting us. Our prolonged absence had somewhat startled them, for, like my own experience of the morning, they were convinced that strange shadows had made their appearance after we entered the passage, and curious sounds had also come from the place down which we had gone. It was now six o'clock, and as we could not find the least trace of poor Whittaker we were hauled to the surface. Next day I suggested that further search should be made, but the men point blank refused to re-enter the extraordinary cavern. It was even hinted that perhaps Whittaker had not fallen into the chasm at all and that the figure I had seen in the flashing light was only an optical illusion. I am, of course, quite certain that it was nothing of the sort, but a sad reality. From that time to this nothing has been seen or heard of poor Whittaker, and it is as certain as I am talking that he lost his life on that night and in that abyss."
"What could have become of the body?" asked Stanley.
"It must have been removed by those who live in the place," the overseer answered.
"But do you think it possible that people could exist in such a place. Where could they get their food?" Strangway interjected.
"It is almost certain that they have daily communication with the surface. These caverns would only be a place of retreat or residence even as an ordinary person's house is. They would bring their food in with them. At least that is my opinion, though who knows but that there may be a civilization beneath the ground quite unknown to us," responded Garfield.
"Yes," mused Stanley; "my comrades and I have seen things during the last few months which convince us that there are many strange events occurring that are not explainable by our ordinary knowledge."
"I intend as soon as my work with the overland line is finished to form a scientific expedition to properly explore these mysterious recesses beneath yonder cliff. It would be valuable, for instance, to know what sort of an animal we saw in the subterranean lake."
"Living in such a place it must be blind," interrupted Stanley.
"It was not blind I am certain, and that shows it must be able to reach places where light is found," came the reply.
By this time the table-land of granite was passed and the party descended into the thickly timbered glen. Occasionally a small open spot was reached, but the locality was mostly covered with a dense scrub. The break had taken place about the centre of the gully where a small water-course divided the dense thicket, and some of the men could be seen repairing it.
Overseer Garfield with Strangway, Stanley and one of the line men were walking together, whilst Talmud was six or seven yards in advance of the group. He had listened in silence to the overseer's narration, but it was plain that he understood every word said and was deeply interested in the story. As he walked ahead Garfield said to his companions:
"The more I see of your friend there," pointing to Talmud, "the more convinced I am that he is identical with a young man I knew some years ago—yet the idea is outrageous, for he must be dead these ten years."
"Who was he?"
"He was a member of McDonall Stuart's second expedition, and during an attack by the blacks a hundred miles from Mount Daniel he was killed."
"How do you know he was killed?" asked Strangway.
"I was a member of the party, and saw him speared just outside the camp. We were momentarily driven back, and when we recovered ourselves we made for the place where he fell but he was not there, and the blood-stained ground bore ample evidence of what had happened," explained Garfield.
"Where was he speared? You say you saw him after the spears were thrown?" queried Stanley.
"I noticed one sticking through his left shoulder. I cannot say if any others struck him. I will one of these days——"
The sentence was never finished by the overseer.
A warning cry from Talmud sounded above the conversation and at the same instant the whistle of a cloud of glancing spears was heard.
The little group had just reached the centre of one of the small clearings already mentioned when the attack was made, and a few moments sufficed to show that the aboriginals had mustered in strong force. At least fifty of them had sprung to the edge of the clearing with the spears already fixed in their meros, and in a few seconds a cloud of spears were launched at the party.
The natives were not more than thirty yards away, and could throw with the fullest effect.
Talmud threw himself flat on the ground, and as the missiles were launched at the four men behind him they swept harmlessly by. Quick as thought he drew the revolver he carried and ere the natives could get back to the cover of the scrub he shot one down. Overseer Garfield and his companions were not so fortunate. The former was a foot or so in advance of Strangway, whilst Stanley and the line man followed.
The attack was made so unexpectedly that Garfield had no time to escape the oncoming spears, three of which struck him in the body. To the consternation of Strangway he saw one of the weapons pierce through the overseer's left breast, and with a half-stifled groan the unfortunate man fell backward and rolled on his side with the spear sticking through him.
It was but the work of an instant for the white men to act on the offensive, and in a few seconds they began to pour a volley of revolver bullets into the scrub.
Talmud emptied his weapon in the same manner and then dashed forward as if in pursuit. As he neared the edge of the thicket a gigantic native sprang out armed with a nulla, and in a moment the white man and the black were engaged in a hand to hand struggle of the most desperate character.
As Stanley and Strangway ran up Talmud cried to them in a frenzied voice not to interfere, and they stood passive spectators of the extraordinary combat.
Talmud appeared to be endowed with phenomenal strength, and the native fought in the most courageous manner. While one used his nulla the other plied the revolver, and it was soon evident that the white combatant was getting the best of the fight. His superior wrestling skill enabled him to rain a shower of blows on the skull of the aboriginal, and it was only the thickness of the latter's cranium that prolonged the contest.
Talmud at length managed to deal his adversary a terrible blow on the forehead, and as the black lay motionless the strange white man jumped to his feet panting and exclaimed:
The firing had attracted the attention of the men who were repairing the broken telegraph line, and with all speed they made for the spot where it proceeded. They knew but too well the cause, for it was not the first time they had to repel hostile attacks. Before they reached the clearing, however, the natives had made their retreat. After the first discharge of spears they did not again venture into the clearing, and the revolver volleys must have wounded more than one of them judging by the crimson stains found in the scrub.
Not deeming it safe to venture into the thicket Strangway and Stanley stood ready to shoot down the first native who might appear, whilst the line men attended to Overseer Garfield. The latter was beyond human help, for one of the spears had pierced his heart and the hardy bushman had made his last trip.
After the hand to hand fight with the tall black Talmud stood with folded arms silently regarding the still form of his late antagonist. A crowd of conflicting emotions seemed to be surging through his breast, for he appeared quite oblivious to his surroundings.
When the main body of the men reached the clearing and began to search the scrub in quest of ambushed enemies, Talmud went slowly towards the body of the overseer, and it seemed as if a veil had been lifted from his mind as he fixed his attentive gaze on the dead man.
"What did you mean by that cry, 'At last!' when you killed yonder black?" Strangway asked Talmud as he reached his side.
After a pause the latter said: "Not yet—not yet. It is too soon to tell all."
"Why should it be too soon?" asked the leader whose curiosity was excited.
"I am not able to tell all yet. Wait for a week or two," the strange man replied in a hesitating manner.
Strangway had to be content with this reply, more especially as a start was being made to get the body of Overseer Garfield back to the station.
"What about these two bodies?" asked Stanley, pointing to the two dead aboriginals.
"The natives will return for them when they find we have gone away," answered the man who now had charge of the line party.
"Could not two or three of us remain behind and pop off a few of them when they came back?" asked one of the men vindictively.
"No; you know our orders. The punishment of the natives is a matter for others to attend to. Our duty is to get back to camp and notify the authorities of what has occurred," answered the new chief firmly.
Making a rude bier from the timber that was lying around, the body of the ill-fated overseer was conveyed out of Granite Glen to where the horses were located about a mile off, and from there all haste was made back to the station where Dr. Whyte was to be found.
The death of Garfield was the only fatality on the side of the whites, and indeed none of the others had been even wounded.
Talmud had a few bruises received in his desperate struggle with the powerful black, but they were of the most trifling description.
It was apparent that the cutting of the telegraph line was but a scheme to lead the men into an ambush, and had Overseer Garfield not been killed he would have been able to say who the leader of the blacks was. It might be said that he was none other than the gigantic and courageous aboriginal whom Talmud had killed, but until the latter spoke Strangway and his comrade would not learn the name and history of the black.
When the station was reached the doctor, of course, said that Garfield's death had been instantaneous, and as he was vested with coronial powers a formal inquest was held before burial. On the following morning a grave was made in a tiny plot of ground near the station that was selected as the cemetery, for the station was intended to be a permanent one.
The funeral was simple enough. A rough coffin was made during the night and at the grave half-a-dozen of the line men with Strangway, Stanley, Talmud, the doctor and a couple of rouseabouts constituted the mourners.
When Garfield had been laid to rest Strangway and his two companions decided to make a start for Nardoo station. If they did not get back soon it might be concluded that they had perished or were in extremities and a rescue party would be sent after them. This would only entail needless expense to Mills or lead to further loss of life, so that if possible it should be prevented.
The doctor asked the explorers to remain for a couple of days as he was going back as far as Lake Eyre, and to this they willingly agreed.
The route of the overland telegraph line lay to the westward of the great salt lakes, and Strangway and his companions would thus have an opportunity of seeing a new locality, as hitherto they had not been to the west of Lake Eyre. The plan they had decided on was to go south as far as Turret Range and then leaving the line strike eastward for Nardoo station which lay in the north-west corner of New South Wales.
The facilities for transport were ample, as in addition to a good camel service along the route of the telegraph track, numerous horses were to be had. Mounts were provided for the three men, and the 30th of May a start was made.
The party consisted of Dr. Whyte, Strangway, Stanley, Talmud, and four government employees, who were returning to the South as far as Farina. On the second day out Mount Browne was reached, and then by easy stages fair progress was made until the party entered Hanson Ranges. The route through these was a rather dangerous one as no proper road had then been made, and Whyte narrowly escaped with his life. He was turning a treacherous portion of a steep hill on horseback when his companions saw with dismay the precipitous ground on which the horse was walking slip away and carry both horse and rider over a cliff nearly fifteen feet deep into an old water-course below. Fortunately Whyte managed to spring off the horse just as it was going over the cliff, and though he could not prevent himself following, the fact that he was off the horse probably saved his life. The animal fell on its back and was killed instantly, whilst the doctor was carried over with several tons of debris and was almost smothered. Quickly as possible his companions released him from the uncomfortable position, and though he sustained a number of bruises no bones were broken and he was soon able to proceed. This adventure made the party more careful, and wherever a dangerous spot was noticed it was avoided.
On the 17th June Peake station was reached and a halt of a couple of days made. Three days later they arrived at Davenport River, and much to the astonishment of the party it was found to be in high flood. The other water courses had been practically dry, but the Davenport was carrying an immense body of water to Lake Eyre. A temporary bridge erected the previous year was found to have been swept away, and the only means of crossing was to swim the turged stream.
"We had better wait here a day or two. It would not be safe to venture the horses into such a torrent as that," Whyte remarked.
Strangway and Stanley had a lively recollection of their attempt to cross the Warbuton when they were swept into Lake Eyre, and they quite agreed with the doctor.
A detour of about twelve miles would take them to the head of the river where it rose in the Davenport Ranges, but as there was no particular hurry it was decided to camp for a few days and see if the stream would abate. To their surprise, after remaining four days on the north bank, the flood still kept up, and as provisions were getting low it was decided to turn the river at its head and cross the range whence it took its rise.
The telegraph line crossed the Davenport hills, but it would be necessary to go much further west than the track in order to round the stream. As they skirted along its banks next day it was apparent that the rainfall in the range must have been phenomenally great.
A vast body of water was still being carried down, and the clouds which rested on the mount showed that it was not mere thunder showers that was causing the flow. Early in the afternoon the party reached the foot of the range, and after a short consultation it was agreed not to attempt the ascent until the following morning.
"We could not hope to cross the hills before darkness set in, and so far as I can see it would not be very comfortable camping amongst them," said Strangway.
This was generally considered good advice and it was acted on, a comfortable camp being formed. Next morning it was seen that the mist still enveloped the upper part of the hills, but with ample daylight before them the party pushed on.
"The sun will soon disperse that vapour," the doctor remarked as he took a meteorological survey of the cloud-capped hills.
As they gradually ascended the eminence they became saturated with the moisture which hung around, and the further they climbed the denser the mist became. It was not quite noon when the summit was attained, and they were soon convinced that the southern slope was in an even worse condition than the north side.
The great Stuart Ranges to the south-west had apparently drawn the rain clouds and swept a portion down upon the smaller hills around. Davenport had got more than its share as in places it was heavily timbered and the vegetation had attracted the moisture. There was not a breath of wind blowing and the fog wrapped everything in its embrace.
After a time it was found necessary to get off the horses and lead them so as to avoid an accident. Of course there was no road, and in places the range was very rugged.
The chasms were filled with the deceptive white mist and more than once some of the travellers had a narrow escape from slipping into eternity. Such an occurrence as a mountain fog cap in that particular region is extremely rare and requires a combination of circumstances to produce it. A period of calms is the usual precursor, and the mists once produced will cling to the ranges until the rising wind disperse them.
"I would just as soon have tackled the river as face this," Stanley observed to the doctor, after a narrow escape from stepping over a rock into space.
"Yes, this is much more dangerous, but you see we are descending and may soon get out of the confounded fog," was the reply.
"Descending?—of course we are. The danger is that we may descend too rapidly," Stanley said, with a laugh.
At this moment a slight breeze fanned their faces, and Whyte exclaimed:
"We are right now. The wind will soon lift the cap and we will be able to push on. I am wet through, but it is no use making a camp here. We must get to the bottom."
It was soon apparent that the doctor's prediction was true. The wind began to rise and soon the vapourous mist began to eddy and whirl in wild confusion. The air became more keen and biting and the travellers, used to torrid temperature, wished themselves down on the plains.
"Do you not think we should halt for half-an-hour or so and wait for this mist to blow away?" Strangway asked Dr. Whyte as he came up to him.
"It will be best to keep moving considering the state we are in, unless we can manage to light a fire. We have got over the worst now and will soon be out of it Ugh! isn't it cold?" he concluded, as a gust of wind swept up a narrow glen driving the mist before it.
This expression of opinion decided the matter, and for another quarter of an hour the travellers kept on. The breeze which started so softly was rapidly becoming stronger and soon it was driving the fragments of the fog before it in streaks and veils of flying scud.
In the wooded belts passed through the drops of water were shaken from the leaves upon the travellers in showers of spray. They were now able to catch glimpses of the country below and began to congratulate themselves on the fact that their difficulties were passed.
"We should reach yonder plain by sunset," Stanley said to Strangway, who was walking beside him leading his horse.
"Yes, and the sooner the better. This is the worst day I have put in for a long time. It is not very cold, I suppose, for people down south, but I feel it freezing me," was the answer.
At this time the party were passing along a narrow gully which led to the plain. It was heavily timbered and the strong wind was screeching through the trees.
Dr. Whyte was nearly fifty yards ahead of the other traveller, and in order to get along quickly he had mounted his horse. The mist was now practically cleared, so that it was safe enough to ride.
Just as Strangway and Stanley had finished their conversation a tremendous cracking noise was heard, and as they lifted their heads they saw a huge gum-tree uprooted by the wind and falling directly on the doctor.
The doomed man made a frantic effort to urge the horse from beneath the falling tree but the animal seemed paralyzed with fear and would not move. Too late Whyte flung himself off and tried to escape, but ere he could get a yard away the sylvan giant crashed upon horse and rider alike.
For a few moments the spectators of the tragedy were so astounded with the suddenness of the occurrence that they could not move, but as they realised what had happened they rushed forward and climbed over the branches to where the doctor lay. Stanley was the first to reach the spot, and the first glance showed him what had happened. The doctor had been struck by one of the large limbs and was crushed almost out of recognition. He was quite dead, and all that could be done was to extricate the body and take it along to the nearest station.
Each man carried a hatchet, and they set to work at once to cut away the limbs. It took nearly half-an-hour before the work could be done, and in the meantime they ran no small risk themselves. The wind had increased to a gale, and in various directions large trees were being blown down. The unusual rainfall had softened the earth very much, and with the added top weight caused by the moisture the force of the wind was greatly aided. Whyte's death was mercifully instantaneous as he was dreadfully crushed and his neck broken.
"We must get out of this place as quick as we can?" Strangway cried, as the wind continued to increase in force.
Placing the body of the unfortunate doctor across one of the horses, Stanley and Talmud walked on either side of the animal and soon got out of the dangerous wood.
On the plain there was only a few stunted trees so that they were in comparative safety, and as night was falling the camp was formed under the shelter of a small ridge. With difficulty a fire was lighted, but more than once the gusts of wind which swept the plain scattered it and sent the blazing fragments careering along. The night was a most miserable one. The tents could not be erected as the wind demolished them.
The Douglas River station was not more than ten miles away, and shortly after daylight a start was made for it. The intervening country was very boggy and progress was slow, so that it was not reached until after dark. Next day the officials there performed the last rites for the deceased, and word was also sent to Adelaide of what had occurred so that another medical man might be sent up.
Whyte had been exceedingly kind and attentive to Strangway and his companions since their appearance at the telegraph line and they felt the sincerest regret at his untimely death. This was accentuated when they reached the Springs station a few days later and found that the object of the doctor's journey was to meet his affianced, a young lady named Bertha Rossow. She had travelled with her father as far as the Springs, and both of them were in utter ignorance of the fate which had overtaken the young medico during the journey.
It fell to Strangway's lot to break the news, and it was an ordeal that he will never forget.
The young lady was standing at the door of the telegraph operator's house when Strangway and his party approached the station, and not seeing Whyte she concluded that he was lagging behind in order to give her a pleasurable surprise. He was lagging behind, poor fellow, but not in the way she thought, and the reader can imagine the surprise she got when the fatal news was given.
After leaving Springs some trouble was experienced in crossing Warriner Creek which was also in flood. This time it was decided to swim it as going round the head was a dangerous experiment. This was accomplished, and two days later Turret Range was reached. At this place Strangway and his two companions decided to leave the friendly guidance of the telegraph line and strike off due east along the southern shores of the great salt lake in order to reach Nardoo station.
Before starting they got permission from the superintendent of the line to take a supply of stores as well as four horses, and on the 7th July they set off on their lonely journey thoroughly equipped. They had a rough idea of the sort of country they would have to traverse and this was a great aid to them.
On the second day out they came in sight of Mount Attraction, and so far their progress had been very satisfactory. The numerous water-courses running into Lake Eyre south had been found fordable, and this was a material help to them. In times of flood they would simply have been unable to get across the country and would have had to turn back. They frequently came in sight of the vast salt lake but did not approach close to the banks. A deposit of salt and mud extended for some miles back from the edge of the water, and this was extremely treacherous ground to get upon.
Before leaving Turrett Range station they had been warned to keep a good distance away from the lake as in places the soft mud was five or six feet deep and would engulf the horses if they got into it.
Leaving Mount Attraction on the south a course was shaped for Lake Harry, and before reaching the shores of this small sheet of water the travellers had experienced a most exciting adventure.
On the 14th of July they reached the west bank of the Frome River and found it higher than they expected. It was not what might be called in flood, but still a considerable freshet was coming down the channel.
Nearly midway across it was a small island, and, after a little examination, it was decided to make this a half stage and swim the horses through. The current did not appear to be strong, but when the stream was entered it was as much as the animals could do to make the island. It was only after the most strenuous efforts that they succeeded in landing in an almost exhausted condition.
The remaining portion of the passage was quite as bad if not worse than the stretch just passed, and in view of the horses' condition it would have been simply folly to make the second attempt.
"This islet seems a first-class place to camp," said Stanley, "and my opinion is that we should remain here until morning so as to give the horses a rest. They will be quite fresh then for the second swim."
"I am with you there, Tom," replied Strangway, "for the fact is we have no choice. If we put the animals into the water now they would never reach the other side."
That was true enough, and preparations were made to camp for the night. The island afforded both timber for fuel and food for the horses, so that no difficulty was experienced in pitching a suitable camp. It was formed on the eastern side of the islet on a small clearing about forty yards from the water's edge. The great sheet of muddy coloured water could be seen flowing steadily onwards to the lake, and as the moon rose and shone upon it the effect was very pretty.
The islet was a very low one and its highest part was not more than six feet above the level of the water. A careful search of its limited area showed that there was nothing to fear from blacks, as not a vestige of them could be found in the place. Consequently, it was arranged that no watch should be kept. Each of the travellers was glad to get a full night's rest as their journey so far had been an arduous one, and the night watches had made it still more severe.
Shortly after nine o'clock they stretched themselves around the fire, and, soothed by the soft wash of the flowing water, they were soon in a deep slumber. As the night wore on Stanley began to dream of desperate perils on the stormy ocean and in his sleep to re-enact some of the hair-breadth escapes he had encountered during his nautical career. He could hear the roar of surge on a treacherous coast and the shrill cry of the boatswain's whistle summing all hands on deck, and scenes of shipwreck and naval disaster swept through his memory in bewildering confusion. How long he thus dreamed he never knew, but he awoke with a start and with wide-open eyes gazed upon a scene such as soon brought him to his feet.
Within a few inches of where Stanley was lying the flood waters had crept up and it was his outstretched hand touching the cold fluid which had roused him from his slumbers. The moon was shining brightly, and he instantly realised that another great freshet must have come down the river.
Calling his companions, the camp was at once removed back to the highest point on the island, but that was not now more than two feet above high water mark. The horses were secured and tied close to the camp, and they evinced by their actions a knowledge of the danger which threatened them.
"It is three o'clock, lads, so that I think we are safe until daylight," Strangway said. "It does not seem to be rising."
"Yes, it is," replied Stanley, as the waters reached the late camp-fire and began to hiss amongst the glowing embers.
The stream was rising—and that, too, with rapidity—but with the great breadth it had to cover it was reasonable to suppose that if covered at all the islet would not be submerged before daylight. For three hours the men could only watch the encroaching waters, and when daylight broke the flood had nearly reached them.
"Let us pack the horses, for if we do have to swim for it we must take our stores along!" Stanley cried.
"Yes," interjected the usually silent Talmud, "the current does not seem to be swift, and I think we could get to the other bank."
It was very noticeable that during the past few weeks the strange man was beginning to speak English almost as well as his comrades. This was pleasing to Strangway and Stanley, as they hoped he would soon be able to tell them the story of his life which they naturally considered must be of an extraordinary nature.
"You think the current is not very strong?" Stanley asked.
"Yes; you see the flood has gone over the banks and a portion of the stream is running to the east in that old water-course," Talmud replied.
This was the case, and it decided the travellers to make an attempt to get off the now practically submerged islet. The stream was a quarter of a mile wide but it did not appear to run swiftly, probably through the fact that a diversion had taken place.
"Let us make the attempt, lads. We cannot stay here, even if the water does not rise further," Strangway said.
By this time there was not a square foot of dry land on the islet, and the force of the leader's remarks were patent. As he spoke he urged his horse forward—the men had mounted in order to keep out of the flood—and the animals willingly plunged into the stream. Instinct told them they could not long remain on the submerged islet, and the sight of the dry land at a comparatively short distance invited them on.
As Talmud had said the current did not show such force as might be expected, though it was strong enough to sweep the horses and their riders down for over half a mile before a landing could be effected. By a skilful arrangement of the stores they were very slightly injured, and the moment dry land was reached a halt was made and a huge fire lighted. The party were in need of food, and after breakfast Talmud and Stanley started off to see where the diverted water was flowing. They soon discovered that it was only half a mile distant and rushing down a narrow channel like a mill race. It formed a sort of delta from the main stream and cut off their progress to the east.
Moving their camp over to the second stream they decided to remain until the torrent subsided. In fact it was the only course they could adopt for the stream was thirty yards wide and ran with great force.
"I don't think we will have to wait long," Talmud remarked. "As soon as the main stream drops below the level of this entrance the supply will be cut off and it will go down as quickly as it rose."
This seemed feasible and the travellers, after making the camp on a small sandy hillock, patiently waited until they could cross. During the greater part of the night the rush of the waters resounded in their ears, and they went to sleep lulled by the sound.
When they awoke at daylight a solemn stillness reigned around, and it was seen with something of surprise that the deep water-course was almost empty. Save for a few water-holes and the marks of the flood there was nothing to indicate that a torrent had raced down the place so recently.
After breakfast the horses were again packed, and it was not long before a suitable crossing place was obtained. They were slightly surprised on turning a small hill to come upon a camp of blacks, but they proved to be perfectly friendly and were soon left behind.
"Now then, lads, for Nardoo station!" Stanley exclaimed.
Late in the afternoon the travellers reached Lake Harry and they were somewhat astonished to see a number of huge pelicans on the banks.
"I never knew there was fish in this place," Stanley said, as he saw the pelicans.
"Neither did I. But perhaps they are after frogs or other food," replied Strangway.
It was a rather unusual place to find such birds, but as they were of little or no use to the explorers they were not interfered with. The locality Strangway and his companions were now in was not unfamiliar to at least two of them, and as they knew it there was little difficulty in treading through the numerous salt lakes and lakelets which dotted the landscape.
If the water was fresh instead of saline the region would be an exceedingly fertile one, but as it is it may fairly be called a desert.
On the second day out from the flooded water-course Stanley nearly lost his life in crossing an apparently safe marsh which ran back from one of the salt lakelets. It appeared to be quite dry, but when near the centre the horse Stanley was riding broke through a thin crust which covered the treacherous spot and in a moment it was half buried. Its struggles only caused it to sink deeper, and when Talmud and the leader came up the situation was desperate.
Stanley had thrown himself off the animal's back and was half engulfed himself, for all around the crust had broken with the frantic efforts of the animal to free itself. Strangway and his companion had flung themselves from their horses when they saw what had happened, and when they came near the fateful spot the horse had half disappeared.
A rope was thrown to Stanley and with great difficulty he was pulled out of his unpleasant position.
"Our best stores are on 'Toby,'" he gasped, as he emerged from the slough.
"Yes; but what can we do? It is impossible to get near enough to the poor beast to take off the articles," Strangway said.
"We must shoot the horse," cried Talmud. "If not its struggles will cause it to sink completely out of sight and we will lose everything."
This was apparent and the advice adopted.
"It will be the more merciful also," added Strangway.
As soon as the animal ceased struggling it became almost stationary in the quagmire, and then an attempt was made to remove the stores. A couple of long poles were obtained and placed from the firm ground on to the horse's back.
Stanley, who could not be in a much worse plight, made his way on these to the pack, and in a few minutes the coveted articles were obtained and placed on the other horses. A long detour had then to be made, and when the treacherous marsh was crossed Stanley indulged in a thorough wash.
"That is one of the worst places I've seen in this district," he said.
"Yes. It gave no indication of its character, I suppose, until you walked on it?" Strangway queried.
"Not the least. As you know, in other quagmires that we have met a person could always tell what to expect ahead, but over there it was just a sudden plunge into the stuff," Stanley replied, ruefully.
On the following morning the head of Strezlecki Creek was passed and in the dim distance could be seen the filmy blue outlines of Mount Arrowsmith, behind which lay the magnificent Nardoo station.
"A couple more days and the wanderers will have returned," Strangway observed, with a smile.
"It will be a case of 'back from the grave' I think, as they will never expect to see us again, I am thinking," responded Stanley.
"Mills will be glad enough to see us after our long absence. We can give him some good information, too, especially that the overland telegraph line is under way," returned the leader.
Talmud was silent, though a considerable change was noticeable in him. His face, under the influence of the sun and the atmosphere, had become quite bronzed and the terrible pallor which had so astonished his companions had long since left him. Since the combat in Granite Glen when he slew the herculean black, the expression of his countenance had also improved. Previous to that day his face wore a hunted and vengeful appearance, but afterwards it settled into a more normal and placid cast.
As he rapidly mastered the English language he also got more at his ease—and, in fact, Strangway and Stanley were nearly forgetting the extraordinary manner in which he first made his presence known and also his peculiar aspect. His life was still enshrouded in mystery, but they ceased to question him about it, feeling that in good time he would tell them all if he cared to, and if not why should they trouble him. He had been instrumental in saving their lives at least twice, and they felt under an eternal debt of gratitude to him.
At noon on the second day after Stanley's adventure the three men stood upon a spur of Mount Arrowsmith and far away they could see the blue smoke rising which denoted the location of Nardoo homestead.
"Once more we have got back, though only half this time," Strangway said, as they were in sight of the station.
"We have a sad story to tell about Daniels and O'Halloran—but at least we can say that we have brought one life out of the wilderness," replied Stanley, glancing towards Talmud.
"Yes, and that life has been the means of bringing us back again," came the answer.
At the foot of the spur they camped for the night, and at daylight set out over the well remembered country. It was fine undulating land, and a permanent stream coursed through it. About three miles from the mount a curiously formed ridge of ironstone was reached and Stanley informed Talmud that it ran for nearly two hundred miles in an unbroken line towards Sturt's Stony desert.
"If we want to find poor Daniels's grave we would only have to go along this ridge as far as it runs and it would bring us to that desolate district," Stanley remarked.
"I hope I may never have to again cross that place. I would rather be among those strange hills at the head of Finke River than on the desert," Strangway returned.
"Give me the desert. There one can understand what happens, but in those hills it almost seems as if devils are at work. From first to last there was nothing but mystery about the place. I daresay you could tell us something about them if you liked," Stanley concluded, looking towards Talmud.
"Yes; I know something about the place, but not as much as I would like to. I may some day let you into the knowledge I possess," the latter replied and then relapsed into his usual silence.
"Hallo, there! What the deuce!—Can it be Strangway and Stanley and O'Halloran?" a cheery voice cried, as a boundary rider came out of a small clump of trees to the left of the travellers.
"How are you, Meston? It is Stanley sure enough, but O'Halloran is not with us. This is a friend who has saved our lives more than once since we left here," responded the leader.
"Ah! I'm glad to see you," the newcomer continued, grasping the hands of his friends. "We all thought you were 'goners' this time, and the 'boss' is in a deuce of a way. He has written to Bourke telling the authorities there what he fears, and I expect a relief expedition is formed by this time."
"This is Talmud, whom we met a long way from here, Meston, and he has rendered us good service," Stanley interrupted.
"But where is Daniels and O'Halloran ?" asked the newcomer.
"They have both gone under, I am sorry to say," answered Strangway.
"No; one was killed by lightning on 'Sturt's Stony' and O'Halloran was drowned in Lake Eyre."
"I thought there was hardly depth enough of water there to drown a man," interjected Meston.
"He got entangled in a raft on which we were wrecked one dark night, and that was how it happened. We will tell you the whole story as soon as we can," Stanley replied.
"You must have had an awful time of it during the long period you have been away?"
"Yes," answered Strangway, slowly. "We have seen strange things and gone through many dangers. More than I should like to face again."
"Have you found anything to suit the 'boss' where you have been?" questioned Meston, who seemed to be eager for news.
"We have seen one fertile tract, but it is a long way from here, and the intervening country would be most difficult to cross with cattle or sheep. But how have you been doing here since we left?" concluded Strangway.
"We have been doing pretty well. Last season was a regular beauty—plenty of water and plenty of grass, and, you know, that is all we want," was the reply.
"We had a little too much water at times and not enough at others," laughed Stanley.
As they were speaking the party moved on towards the homestead, and when they came to the last undulation which hid it from view a splendid spectacle presented itself.
Edward Mills, the owner of Nardoo station, was a pioneer squatter and one of the most intelligent and courageous of his class. He had pushed out to the extreme limit of settlement, carrying with him the most approved pastoral system. Having the pick of the country he was not merely content to allow his flocks and herds to roam at will over vast tracts of land, but he had subdivided his magnificent station into numerous paddocks and had not forgotten to test the agricultural capabilities of the soil.
Though he had what might fairly be considered a permanent supply of fresh water running through his land he did not solely depend upon it, for he was one of the first to sink an artesian well in the back-blocks. This yielded an abundant supply of water, and by providing wind-mills it was sent into the tanks in the various paddocks. By means of irrigation from the creek he was enabled to grow sufficient vegetables of the best sort for the station, and a quantity of fodder was also produced annually. Living in such a remote and out-of-the-way region his ambition was to make himself practically independent of the outside world should the necessity arise, and it must be said that he succeeded admirably.
Talmud was considerably surprised at the scene which lay before him. The station was two hundred and fifty miles west of Bourke, and at that distance he had not expected to see such signs of real civilized settlement.
"You look somewhat surprised," spoke Strangway.
"Yes; I did not expect to see such a complete homestead and station," replied Talmud.
"This is the best station for two hundred miles around."
As they came near the commodious and substantial wooden house where Mills dwelt an old man with snow-white hair was seen at the door watching the advancing horsemen.
"There's the 'boss' now!" exclaimed Meston, as he pointed towards the house.
The man, after looking for a few moments with his left hand shading his eyes, came out to meet the party, and though he must have been nearer seventy than sixty years of age his gait was as rapid and his step as springy as that of a man of forty.
"Welcome back, friends!" he exclaimed. "I thought harm had befallen you."
"I am sorry to say, Mr. Mills, that poor Daniels and O'Halloran have not come back," replied Strangway.
"Ah! what has happened?"
"They lost their lives a year ago through accidents which could not be prevented. I will tell you all as soon as possible. It was through no fault of ours that they have not returned," the leader answered.
"I am quite sure of that, you may be certain," the old man continued with a ring of confidence in his voice. "What has detained you so long? I hope you have not suffered much."
"Well, we have not led a very luxurious life all the time, I must say," replied Strangway, with a laugh. "We managed to reach the head of Finke Creek, and found the country around there well watered and fertile but it is not an easy matter to reach the place. Stretches of desert almost waterless have to be crossed, unless in the rainy season, and then the water-courses are impassable. I don't think we would have been successful in getting back did we not meet the workmen engaged on the overland telegraph line. And, indeed, then I think Stanley and I would have perished had it not been for our good friend here," Stanley concluded, pointing to Talmud.
During the conversation Squatter Mills had been intently regarding the mysterious white man as though he would read his inmost thoughts. When the leader of the late pastoral exploration expedition finished, the old man still looked silently at Talmud; and then going up to the side of his horse he stretched out his hand, and said:
"Welcome back, James O'Malley!"
Strangway and Stanley looked surprised at this strange recognition, and for a moment or two neither spoke. Then the latter said:
"This is Talmud, Mr. Mills."
"Oh, no it is not. If it is not James O'Malley it is his ghost," replied the old man.
The recollection that Overseer Garfield had mentioned the name of James O'Malley now recurred to Strangway, who looked inquiringly at Talmud for an explanation. Slowly the latter said:
"Yes; my proper name is James O'Malley, though when I first met you"—and he looked at Strangway and Stanley—"I could not remember it, nor, indeed, for many years previously. The story is a long one and I cannot tell it here, but, if you care, you will hear it as soon as possible. You will then know why my name was thus changed to Talmud. During the last few months it has all come back to my mind and I can see it as clearly as if nothing had ever happened to blot it from memory. Yet, how do you know my name, sir?" he concluded, looking towards Mills.
"Don't you remember meeting me at the north of Torrens in the beginning of 1860, the day that Stuart arrived there. You saved me from a treacherous attack of the blacks, and in the confusion that ensued through the subsequent flood, when I lost half my cattle, I had no chance to let you know who I was and thank you. You made an impression on my mind that day never to be effaced as long as life lasts. A couple of years after I heard you had been killed by the blacks during Stuart's second attempt to cross the continent from north to south and, of course, I believed it," answered Mills.
"I was supposed to be killed near a place, now called Alice Springs, on the overland telegraph route, but I escaped as by a miracle as you will see later on. Ah!" continued O'Malley, putting his hands to his forehead in a dazed sort of way, "that was a very strange time, indeed."
"Well, come to the house at once. Mrs. Mills is anxious, I am sure, to see you all," the squatter interrupted, waving his hands towards the homestead and leading the way.
Mrs. Mills was an elderly matron with a kindly face, and though nearly as old as her husband she still superintended the household affairs. The family consisted of two daughters, both of whom were married and lived in Sydney.
Of the four men who had started out on the expedition only one (Daniels) was married, and the awkward task of breaking the news to the widow of her husband's death had to be undertaken by Mills. Mrs. Daniels was employed at the homestead, and the news was not altogether unexpected. Six months previously those at the station began to exhibit anxiety as to the fate of the explorers, and when month succeeded month without tale or tidings being heard doubts developed into certainties, and it was regarded as a foregone conclusion that the men had perished. Mrs. Daniels was not, therefore, as greatly shocked and distressed as would otherwise have been supposed. The torturing uncertainty was, at any rate, at rest, and there was even a melancholy satisfaction in knowing that her husband had not perished from thirst.
After this unpleasant task was finished Mills sent a messenger on the long journey to Bourke to acquaint the authorities with the return of Stanley and Strangway, and also to give information as to the deaths of Daniels and O'Halloran and the remarkable finding of a member of Stuart's 1861 expedition. This latter intelligence created quite a sensation at the time, for it revived memories of the greatest of Australian explorers. In the meantime the squatter made the returned party as comfortable as he could. Strangway's quarters were fitted up for the use of the three men, and everything necessary for their comfort was placed at their disposal. They certainly needed a few of the accessories of civilization. When they reached Overseer Garfield's party they presented an absolutely savage appearance. Their boots had long before disappeared, and the few fragments of half-tanned skins strung together in rude incongruity which covered them were not half so aesthetic as Robinson Crusoe's costume.
A kind of rough head-covering made from plaited rushes and flags, which they had woven for some time before making the telegraph line, was lost when the first delirium of thirst assailed them, and that fact allowed the sun to work greater injury to them.
They did not, of course, know that such a work as the telegraph line was being carried on in the locality, and it was by mere accident that Talmud—or O'Malley, as he should now be called—stumbled on it.
At the telegraph station they were rigged out in clothes, and they also got boots which for some time they were unable to wear on account of their swollen feet.
The journey from Turrett station to Nardoo homestead had been fairly rough, and their costume when they reached the latter place was not one exactly suitable for Bond-street. Mills, however, had a good stock of boots and clothing at the station, and it was placed at the disposal of travellers.
"I will not trouble you to-day," Mills said to the men after they had dinner. "You need a good rest, and to-morrow we can have a talk about your adventures."
This was humane and gave the men a chance to look presentable next day. The station hands besieged them with questions, but they soon managed to satisfy their curiosity. During the afternoon Mills sent for James O'Malley, and said:
"Have you made up your mind yet as to the course you will pursue?"
"No; I have not thought about my future life yet. I am as one awakening from a dream, and I cannot collect my faculties yet."
"Why not stop with me, then? I owe my life to you and am most desirous of repaying in some measure the obligation I am under. I am a rich man with few to leave my wealth to, and you need never want for anything," the squatter said.
The offer was a most generous and unexpected one, and for a few moments O'Malley did not reply. At length he said:
"I have no desire to go back to crowded towns or cities where I feel I would be out of place, and perhaps quite unable to earn a living. When I left Dublin I was an orphan and, so far as I know, have no relatives in the world. All my friends are here and I gladly accept your kind offer; but, of course, you will allow me to make myself useful to you in some capacity."
"Yes; we can arrange that later on. There is plenty of time to talk about it, for at present everything on the station is in 'apple-pie' order. Now that you will stay I suppose you will have no objections to tell us the story of your ten years' disappearance in Central Australia," Mills concluded.
"Not the least, only I warn you it will sound stranger than the legends of the Arabian Nights—and yet it is perfectly true," O'Malley replied.
As they finished speaking they strolled out of the room towards one of the paddocks where a number of horses were kept. One of them was a splendid upstanding animal almost pure white and looked like a fine hunter.
Mills called out, "Arab!" and the horse, with a low neigh, trotted over to where the squatter and his companion stood.
"This is yours now," the old man said, as he patted the animal on the neck. "His name is Arab, and, as you see, he is an intelligent and well bred beast. You can use him as you please; and as I have asked Strangway to show you over the station he may as well be saddled up this afternoon and you can go over the lower paddocks."
As he concluded the old man took down a slip-panel and the horse followed him over to the stables where Stanley and Strangway were waiting. There was a couple of bay horses in the stable and these were allotted to the two men who, with O'Malley, were soon mounted and cantering over the home paddock.
"The 'boss' has given you his favorite, I notice," Strangway said, as he rode beside O'Malley.
"Yes; he has been very kind to me and asked me to remain here," was the answer.
"And I hope you have consented. We would all like you to stay," questioned both his companions, impetuously.
"I have—indeed I don't know where I could do better, after the queer life I have led during the last few years. I would feel like a fish out of water if I went back to live amongst crowds of human beings again."
"If ever you want to do so it will be easy enough now. The country between here and Bourke is fairly settled and beyond there the railway will soon whisk you into crowded centres," returned Stanley.
"Oh, I don't think I will ever bother about doing as you propose," laughed O'Malley.
As they trotted over the different paddocks it was clearly noticeable to what a height of perfection that far distant squattage had been brought, and O'Malley reflected that a few thousand such colonists as Mills would be sufficient to tame the continent. On returning to the homestead they were met by Mills, who greeted them with effusion.
"Well, what do you think of it?" he asked, with a laugh.
"It is splendid, sir, and a credit to you," O'Malley answered, warmly.
"Not alone to me, you must remember. The men and women who have assisted are entitled to no small amount of the credit. It is not everyone who would care to cut themselves off from what are called the pleasures of city life and bury themselves here for a mere living. You know I get the profits and have, therefore, a greater self-interest in staying here than the hands," Mills said.
"You also take the losses, sir, when they come along," interjected Stanley, with a laugh, "and that about balances your position and ours."
"If you are content so am I," the squatter said; and then turning to O'Malley, he asked: "Will you begin your narrative this evening?"
"I will, with pleasure."
After tea the squatter asked Stanley and Strangway into the sitting-room to hear O'Malley begin his narrative.
"If anyone has a right to hear it you are the persons. Had it not been for your pluck in passing on from Lake Eyre after the disasters which befell you we would certainly never have seen O'Malley again," he said.
It might be mentioned that Strangway and Stanley had given Mills a full account of their wanderings, which are already known to the reader, so that it is quite unnecessary to repeat the story. In addition to the two men the only other occupants of the room were the squatter and his wife.
At first O'Malley experienced a little difficulty in finding suitable words with which to express himself, but he was aided by his companions. As it would spoil the effect of the narrative to repeat the frequent interruptions, they are, for obvious reasons, not given here.
* * * * * *
"You will scarcely care to know much of my earlier history," began O'Malley, "and I will, therefore, not weary you with it.
"I was born in Dublin, in 1830, and whilst my parents lived I did not feel the hard pinch of want. The cholera of 1848 carried them to the grave within a few hours of each other, and then I had to shift for myself. At that time Ireland was the last place on earth to earn a livelihood, and I gladly accepted the offer of a shipmaster to begin a seafaring life on a merchant vessel trading to America.
"For several years I continued at this work, but when the gold discoveries began in Australia a great deal of shipping was diverted to this land, and it so happened that in 1855 I found myself before the mast on an Australian bound ship. I reached Melbourne towards the end of that year, and, like many other seamen, deserted to make my fortune on the gold-fields. I need hardly say that I did not do so, and in 1858 I shipped on an intercolonial vessel, under engagement to proceed to the Swan River settlement.
"The trip was a disastrous one, for as we were going through Nuyt's Archipelago a storm arose which drove us on that treacherous coast of the great Australian Bight adjoining, and the ship became a total wreck. The crew consisted of fourteen men, and with the exception of myself not a soul escaped. My preservation was almost miraculous.
"The frowning iron-bound coast towered up over four hundred feet, but by some means I was swept in by the rollers to the comparatively calm water of Port Bell, and, more dead than alive, was thrown by the raging sea on to the beach. It was just getting dark when this happened, and during the whole of the succeeding night I must have lain in a sort of stupor on the beach.
"A marine bird of carrion, hovering over me and making an occasional swoop to see if I had any life left in me, roused me from my lethargy and I sat upon the sands and looked round. I saw nothing from my position save the still surging billows and could hear them breaking with thunderous boon outside. After considerable effort I ascended the adjacent cliffs and the prospect was dreary in the extreme. The country I could at once see was absolutely unsettled. Not a trace of a house or a living animal, except a few sea-birds, was to be seen, and in vain I looked for ascending smoke which might indicate the presence of humanity.
"The only experience of travelling in Australia was the few trips I made in Victoria to the various gold-fields or rushes, and they were not calculated to make a person thoroughly conversant with bushcraft.
"I was exceedingly thirsty, but after a long search I could not find fresh water. Going down to the beach I gathered a few shell-fish and eat them ravenously. My clothes were hanging in rags through the struggle in the water, and I had no boots or hat. Going on the cliffs once more I made a frantic search for water, but it was again fruitless. The place was quite arid. Half mad with thirst and hunger I crawled back to the beach, and when I reached it I saw a cask rolling backwards and forwards with the lapping waves. Running into the sea I rolled it out, and with a wild joy recognised it as one of the water-barrels belonging to the wrecked ship. Seizing a rock I began to break it open in an agony of doubt. What if the salt water should have spoiled the contents?" I reflected. "To my unbounded relief I found that the water was fresh, and the deep draught I took greatly revived me.
"Another miserable night was spent, for this time I was conscious of the desperate position in which I was placed. I reflected on the best course to pursue, but could not decide. I well knew that, situated as I was, it would have been practically impossible for me to reach the outlying settlements of Eyre's Peninsula, and my only forlorn hope appeared to be in attracting the attention of some passing vessel.
"I did not know at the time that very few ships passed close enough to that coast to notice such a signal as I could raise—but what was I to do? Next morning, after a spare diet of shell-fish washed down by a liberal draught of water, I regained the summit of the cliffs, and, selecting a prominent point over-looking the ocean, tried to erect a signal.
"You can imagine the forlorn position in which I now found myself. I could not produce a fire, and I had no garment worth mentioning to make a flag of. I procured a long stick and fastened the remains of my coloured Crimean shirt on the end and then secured the stick in an upright position by means of loose stones.
"It was a miserable attempt but the best I could do, and my heart sunk within me as I noticed that a quarter of a mile away it was scarcely visible. I walked this day along the eastern coast in the hope that I might be able to sight some vestiges of settlement in that direction, but in this I was disappointed and at night I returned with bleeding feet to where the water barrel was placed.
"It was dark when I got back to the beach, but I now knew the locality well. As I was slowly going along, half dazed with hunger and exhaustion, I discovered what proved to be one of my late companions washed ashore high and dry. Life was quite extinct, and with mingled feelings of sadness and despair I passed on. I could not repress the thought that he was more fortunate than myself, for his sufferings at least were ended. Creeping back to my water-barrel I sat down in its shelter and, worn out as I was, slept in spite of the cold and hunger I was enduring.
"Daylight roused me and I at once recollected about my experience of the previous night. On going back I was surprised to find that it was the captain of the ship, and still more so to notice that his clothes were not much torn. It then occurred to me that the last I had seen of the skipper was to notice him go below and almost immediately after the vessel was dashed on the rocks and foundered. Probably the hull had saved him from being torn by the jagged rocks when the storm was at its worst, and since then the gradual breaking up of the craft had set the body free and it had been brought in by the current to where I found it.
"I was almost naked and I could not see any harm in stripping the clothes off, for they could not be of any use to the ill-fated skipper. The act was one I did not care about, but 'needs must when the devil drives,' and without further scruple I began to divest my late captain of his clothes. I noticed a sovereign belt around the waist and this I detached wondering what was in it and smiling at the thought that if it contained a million of sovereigns I would willingly exchange them for a loaf of bread or a pound of steak. When I examined the belt I found that it contained 170 sovereigns.
"After securing the clothes I washed and spread them out to dry, and then pursued my customary search for shell-fish wherewith to breakfast. Then I climbed the rocks to see how many ships might be lying in the offing attracted by my rude signal, but nothing save the limitless expanse of ocean undotted by a solitary sail stretched out before me. I thought on one occasion I caught the white gleam of a sail reflecting the rising sun, but the vision disappeared as quickly as it presented itself. Probably it was a far-distant vessel but vastly out of the range of my signal, unless it should come within the focus of a powerful telescope.
"During the morning the wind began to blow with violence from the south, and when I went back to the beach I noticed that fragments of the wreck were being washed in. The partly unsheltered port allowed the waves to rise so high on the beach that I had to shift my precious barrel of water further back. Whilst the storm was raging I made a grave for the late captain as well as I was able and secretly placed the body in it well above the reach of the water.
"From the quantity of wreckage which came in I concluded that the ship must have foundered close to the entrance of the port. As you will imagine I took a lively interest in watching the flotsam and jetsam that was thrown up, and at last I was rewarded by a small keg almost rolling at my feet as I walked along the beach. I instantly seized it, and, dashing it against an adjoining rock, knocked the head in.
"It contained, as I well knew, salt pork, and after my diet of shell-fish I devoured a quantity of it raw.
"The wreckage coming in gave me hope that I might be able to get enough stores to enable me to make my way back to settlement, and that night, despite my gloomy surroundings, I was almost cheerful at the prospect opened up. Anxiously I waited through the long hours of the stormy night for day to come, and when it did I found that quite a number of articles had been washed ashore.
"I made a feverish search amongst the debris and soon discovered sufficient food to last for several days. Most of it was impaired by the seawater, but I was not very fastidious and commenced packing up what I thought would be of use. The point which troubled me most was how I should carry along sufficient fresh water to last me out. I had not then heard of Eyre's terrible journey along the coast of the Great Australian Bight and how he managed to exist, or I might not have remained so long at the desolate harbor as I did.
"The country through which I would have to pass was not nearly so bad as that to the westward—and in fact many parts of it are quite fertile, as I afterwards found out. To me then it was a quite unknown desert inhabited only by fierce aboriginals.
"A portion of the ship's sails having been stranded, I managed to fashion out of it a sort of water-bag capable of holding about a gallon of water, and with that quantity I decided to venture on my journey, keeping close to the coast in the hope of meeting a vessel which might notice and take me off. On the following morning, with a supply of water and salt provisions sufficient to last me three days, I began the trip. Having no boots I rigged up a rough sort of covering for my feet out of canvas, and with a light heart set off towards the rising sun. I found that situate as I was I could not expect to make much progress.
"The load I had to carry was considerable, and the foot gear was not suitable for forced marches. I could not have made more than seven or eight miles the first day, but on the second I did better, and, to my relief came upon a small creek of fresh water which fell over a high cliff into the sea. This reassured me very much, and I now began to think that I would after all be able to get back to settlement. I had no means, as I said, of making a fire, and as evening approached I lay down in a small sandy hollow to pass the night.
"I had scarcely done so when, looking towards a low scrub of ti-tree which fringed a portion of the beach, I saw, to my horror, a party of fully thirty aboriginals approaching the spot where I lay."
"You were in a tight fix there, for you were, of course, quite unarmed," interrupted Squatter Mills.
"Yes; and I had heard such stories of their ferocity and cannibalism that I felt tempted to get up and run for my life," continued O'Malley. "I am sure I don't know what prevented me from doing so, for if I had it would probably have cost me my life. However, I lay quite still, and, to my infinite relief, I saw them turn away, and, proceeding down the creek for about a quarter of a mile, they camped beside it.
"As soon as darkness enshrouded the place I got out of the small hollow and quickly as I could made away in what I considered to be a south-east direction. For several hours I walked, until at last I threw myself on the ground thoroughly exhausted and slept. When I awoke in the morning I could not see or hear the ocean, but I took little notice of that feeling assured I would soon reach it.
"During my night flight I must have got inland, I naturally concluded. I looked in vain for the sun, but it was hidden by dense banks of clouds, and, taking what I thought to be the proper course, I went on.
"In a couple of hours I came to a small salt lake, and soon I became quite entangled in a perfect net-work of similar lakes. They quite confused me, and, after wandering aimlessly about for the greater portion of the day, I concluded that I was lost and decided to wait until next morning in the hope of getting a glimpse of the sun. Having no watch I wished to see the sun rise, and then thought I might be able to fix the direction in which I should at once proceed.
"I had now only about one day's food and my fresh water was nearly exhausted. As I sat near a clump of shrubs looking across the strange lake formation, I caught sight of a blackfellow peering at me out of the thicket not above fifty yards away. I jumped to my feet in mortal terror, and as I did so the black disappeared, probably more frightened than I was.
"I sometimes laugh," broke off the speaker, "at the fear I had of the aboriginals in those days. Since then I have had much greater reason to dread them, but the biggest tribe on the continent would not now appal me, even if they came in battle array. The poor natives I met on my journey along the coast I since learned were not even on the war-path, though that usually makes little difference if they wish to slay a white man.
"As soon as I saw the black I made a bolt," O'Malley resumed, "and seizing the first articles that came to my hand made off in the direction of the southern lake. It was almost dark at the time and I had several narrow escapes of plunging into the lakes. Everywhere I ran it seemed to my bewildered vision the gleaming saltwater met me, and at last I got utterly confused. Hour after hour I continued in this way, until at last the lakes appeared to fade out of memory and then I concluded I had got away from them.
"It must have been near morning when I ventured to rest. The moon, some time in the third quarter, had long risen, and though I was firm in my resolve not to sleep for fear of an attack, I had scarcely sunk down on the sand when slumber stole over me in spite of the efforts to keep my heavy eyelids open.
"A confused murmur of voices awoke me, and, strange to say, the sound did not alarm me, for I thought I was back again in the forecastle of the wrecked ship. I opened my eyes and looked round in astonishment, for there were several men and horses about, and I was lying on a sandy plain.
"'What's the matter?' one of them asked me, with a strong Scotch accent.
"When I saw that they were mostly white like myself my courage returned, and I soon told them who and what I was.
"'The best thing you can do is to go along with us now,' said the man who had first spoken. 'It will be awkward to send you back, though, of course, we will do that if there is anything the matter with you.'
"'I am all right,' I answered, jumping up; 'but where are you going, may I ask, and who are you?'
"'We are a small exploring party, who have come along the coast from Eyre's Peninsular, and are about to make a trip inland. It will be no child's play, but we are well fitted out. My name is Stuart.'
"'Of course I will go if you care to take me. I don't know anyone in Adelaide even if I safely reached the place.'
"'Then let us fix you out and give you a mount. Being a sailor you are not likely to be much of a horseman,' Stuart went on with a laugh, 'but you will soon learn. You sadly want a rig-out also,' he added, scanning my rags with a sympathetic eye.
"I was at once taken in hand, and within half-an-hour looked a very different man. Some good food and water were also given me, and I began to feel that exploring was not such a bad work after all. Within two days from the time that I so fortunately met the expedition we were back again at Port Bell, and my signal was still waving from the cliff.
"We searched the beach for wreckage but found little of value. I told Stuart about finding the belt of sovereigns, but he advised me to keep it until I returned to civilization and then I could consult the authorities as to what should be done with it.
"'Most likely,' he said, 'it belongs to the owners of the vessel and not to the captain personally, but that will be easily found out.'
"After a twenty-four hours' rest at port, Stuart headed due north, and on the second day we came within sight of a high mountain right ahead. Two days later we reached the base of the mount and formed a camp at it.
"Next morning Stuart, Finke and I made the ascent, or rather began it, for the range was over three thousand feet in height. In places it presented a bold face of rock hundreds of feet in height and we had to be very careful to avoid accidents.
"Finke, indeed, nearly lost his life by slipping back from one of these cliffs which he tried to scale. I was a few feet lower down than he and had both a good foothold and a firm grip of a projecting ledge and I managed to stay his fall until he gripped the rock I held. Had I not done so he must have fallen at least one hundred feet and inevitably have been dashed to pieces.
"Subsequently, we found an easier ascent to the summit, and the view therefrom was one of the finest I have ever seen. It was not beautiful, you will understand, for no peaceful villages or fields of corn dotted the landscape. It was a picture of nature in weird loneliness. Not even a finger post of smoke was visible to point to the proximity of man, but in all directions could be seen ranges, peaks, plains, and shining patches which showed where lagoon or lake lay sleeping in the sun.
"'We shall probably find all that water perfectly salt. What a difference it would make to Australia if these lakes and lagoons held fresh water,' I remember Stuart, saying.
"After taking bearings we descended and on the following day we pushed on in a north-easterly direction to where we noticed the reflection of water. It took us twenty-four hours to reach the locality, and then we saw an extraordinary sight.
"From one hill we counted eighty-six small lakes or lagoons lying within a comparatively limited area. They were either oval-shaped or perfectly circular, and as they sparkled in the sun like brilliants they presented a beautiful spectacle. We found that they were best viewed at a distance. When we came to the first one it was quite salt, and for a radius of about twenty yards round the edge a mixture of mud and salt lay into which we sank a foot or two. This deposit is an admirable meteoroligical indicator, as when there is dampness in the air the salt is not visible, but when dry the saline particles show out like white crystals. Along the sand-ridges separating the miniature lakes some fine specimens of the paper tree grew, but otherwise vegetation was almost absent.
"From here we made for Mount Paisley and then went south at a sharp angle to Lake Younghusband. Striking north again we, after several days, came in sight of the western slopes of the great Stuart range. On reaching Mulga Creek I became acquainted for the first time with that terrible scrub we have all so often seen since, I daresay. Of course before reaching that place we went through plenty of spinifex and mulga, but at the creek it was simply impossible to penetrate the thick scrub that grew on the banks.
"For several miles we travelled along the creek with the tongues of the horses lolling out for a drink, but neither they nor their riders could get to the stream. Several times the horses tried to force the rampart of vegetation, but they were quickly driven back. As night approached we tried to cut a passage through the spinifex scrub but could not do so. At last after a full ten miles' ride along the water-course we came to a spot where the scrub was less dense and matted and reached the much needed water.
"The poor horses were nearly famished, but as we had a little in our bags we did not feel it so much. Even the animals would not have been so much affected I think had it not been for the fact that they knew, Tantalus-like, the water was near them, yet they could not reach it. However, I do not think I need go further into this part of my history. I only narrate it so as to lead up to the almost incomprehensible events which afterwards occurred.
"Narratives of exploration should be interesting reading for Australians; but it is best to let the brave men who led the expeditions—that is those who returned—tell their own graphic story of their battles against natural surroundings in the interior of the continent. They form a noble and undying chapter in our brief history. Probably in centuries to come, when a swarming population shall cover Australia, the ordinary reader of these future times will look upon the sober narratives of the explorers as legends born in the dark ages of Australian history."
"There will be no squatters then, I suppose, to bear out the truth," laughed Mills.
"I wouldn't say that," replied O'Malley; "but I am digressing, and I know you want me to come to the later events.
"We returned to Adelaide, and I took part in the first transcontinental expedition with the brave Stuart in 1860. The natives attacked us most fiercely on that trip whilst camped in the centre of Australia. They seem to have gathered from all quarters to repel us, and I cannot even now understand how they collected in such numbers, or why they displayed such hostility. We must have been particularly unlucky in meeting them as we did, or—what I cannot believe—they had some method of making our coming known. At one time we were literally besieged by them, and none but an experienced and intrepid leader like Duall Stuart could have brought the party back as safely as he did.
"It was on the second expedition that fate overtook me, and to-morrow I will tell you the story as it is now late," O'Malley concluded.
"In the beginning of 1861 Stuart resolved to make another attempt to cross the continent from north to south," O'Malley went on, as he resumed his narrative on the following evening in the same company as before.
"The party was a good one and well fitted out, so that it was not at all likely the blacks would be able to check its progress. There were other influences more potent by far than the hostility of the aboriginals. These were climatic influences. The season was a particularly unfavorable one for the attempt, and it is a matter of history that it failed. Only six months ago I learned that in the following year the heroic Stuart made his third attempt to cross the continent and succeeded in planting, on July 25th, 1862, the British flag on the shores of the Indian Ocean."
"You only learnt that a few months ago?" Mills asked in surprise. "Where have you been for the last ten years?"
"That is what you will know when I tell you my story," continued O'Malley. "Probably I would never have known about it had you not sent out your friends here to seek for fresh pastures. The expedition reached about forty miles north of Mount Daniel after great difficulty, and there the first act in the strange drama in which I played a part took place.
"On the way we had been more than once attacked by the blacks, but the precautions we took were effectual in keeping them from doing much harm. Our greatest difficulty was with the horses. These the natives would try to stampede, and if they could not succeed spearing would be resorted to. Profiting by past experience we were quite able to defeat the ruses of the aboriginals in this respect, although it put us to immense inconvenience to do so. Day and night we had to keep the most vigilant watch, and it was very wearing on men exposed to such hardships as we had to endure. During the afternoon, as I said, we discovered a small supply of very indifferent water near the foot of the ranges in which Finke River takes its rise. It was in a small lagoon and was partly brackish, but it was the best we had found during the day and the camp was consequently pitched at it. There was a good deal of scrub in the vicinity, and some of the gullies which ran down from the ranges were thickly timbered.
"Our usual practice was to hobble the horses on the open ground during the night-time and keep watch over them, but as it was late when we reached the lagoon and there was not a clearing of sufficient extent around, we had to alter our plan. It was decided to form a cordon of fires round a small space where some salt-bush grew, and by keeping these alight during the night it was hardly possible that any aboriginals would venture to break through or even approach the spot. The numerous fires would give the impression that we were a large party, and the light thrown from them would aid in detecting the dusky forms of any of our sable enemies who would be bold enough to venture near them. There was an ample supply of wood in the locality, and we soon gathered up a large quantity for use during the night.
"Stuart used to arrange us into watches and he never failed to take one himself—in fact he would not ask any man to do what he would not do himself. We well knew that there was a fierce and dangerous tribe of blacks in the locality. At least when I say we well knew it I should correct myself by saying that we suspected as much, for during our previous trip we had a very severe brush with them. They were led by a gigantic native considerably over six feet in height and with a heart in keeping with his size, so far as bravery was concerned.
"In the attack made in 1860 on us this warrior repeatedly reformed his demoralised forces and led them again to the attack, and he appeared to have escaped from that contest uninjured."
"Was that the fellow," interrupted Strangway, "whom you slew during the fight in Granite Glen when Garfield was killed?"
"It was the same," tersely replied O'Malley.
"On the night I now speak of, my watch did not begin until three o'clock in the morning and I lay down for a much needed rest about nine p.m. I slept soundly until awakened by Stuart himself, who was to share the last watch with me. There was always two men at least on watch, and, as I told you, the leader took his turn the same as any of his followers. The retiring watch had replenished the fires and we had little to do for about half-an-hour. We strolled round the inner-circle of fires chatting about the coming day's operations and our prospects of success in reaching the northern coast, until it was time to heap more fuel on the waning fires. Then we started in different directions to do that necessary work. Stuart went to the right and I to the left. My route led past one of the small gullies running into the ranges I spoke about. At that hour I was not meditating an attack, and did not, in fact, take my revolver with me, though it would not have been much use had I done so.
"I had just thrown an armful of wood on the second fire when I felt a fearful tearing blow on my left shoulder, and I instantly knew that a spear had pierced me. I gave a loud cry and was in the act of running towards the centre of the camp when I caught a glimpse of several black figures around me, and the next moment I was knocked senseless by a blow from a nulla or waddy.
"What happened the next few hours I can only surmise for I was unconscious. I must have been seized by the blacks and borne away before rescue could come I suppose, for when I regained consciousness I was in a strange place and a score of natives sat around."
"I think I could tell you something about that," interjected Strangway.
"How could you know?"
"Overseer Garfield told Stanley and I that he was in the camp when it occurred—and in fact he partly recognised you shortly before he was killed," replied Strangway.
For a few moments O'Malley appeared puzzled, and then he said:
"I think I can account for that and the fact that I did not know Garfield. I just remember now that about that time there was an auxiliary party expected to join us, and no doubt during the earlier part of the night whilst I was asleep it entered the camp quietly so as not to disturb those who wanted rest so badly. The glare from the fires would attract their attention, and I have no doubt that Garfield may have been one of these newcomers; but, of course, as I did not see him I could not recognise him again."
"We wondered," broke in Stanley, "why you had forgotten him. He told us that when he heard the attack he ran to the place and saw you being carried off with a spear through your left shoulder. Every effort was made to recover you, but not a vestige of your attackers or yourself could be found."
"I quite believe that," resumed the narrator, "for this black chief had a devilish knowledge of the district, and with his followers could easily baffle pursuit.
"I was in terrible pain when I recovered my senses, for the natives had not attempted to withdraw the spear. They had simply broken off the projecting ends as they rendered it difficult to carry me along. My head also was throbbing as if it would burst, for I had received a terrible blow on the skull. The wonder, indeed, is that I survived the attack. As I opened my eyes and feebly gazed about I could not understand for a time what had happened, but as my mind became clear the recollection of the early morning attack rose before me.
"I wondered what the blacks were sitting around for, but I soon found they were only having a rest after the unusual fatigue of carrying me so far. I had been transported over seven miles, but there was still another stage of about five to cover.
"As the gigantic chief saw that I was recovering, he gave a hideous grunt of satisfaction and came towards me. He looked down on me with his fierce, glittering eyes and I could read as plainly in every feature the word, 'cannibal.'
"My fate was denoted by the baleful glitter in the eyes of the savage. I was to make a meal for the degraded wretches who sat around. I could not, of course, understand their language; but it was not necessary for some indefinable knowledge possessed me that I was doomed to furnish a cannibal feast. For a minute or two a wild thought of escape possessed me, but as I realised its utter foolishness I lay back and relapsed again into unconsciousness.
"The sun was well to the westward when I became sensible and found myself lying in the same place. The blacks had not moved and they were evidently waiting for me to be able to proceed to the sacrifice unaided. I determined to foil them in this if possible. If I was to die such a death as I expected I would certainly not aid my executioners in any way.
"When the chief, whom I heard some of his followers call 'Woosai,' saw that I had again partly recovered he came to me, and, seizing my arm, jerked me roughly up. The pain was terrible, but, suppressing the exclamation of agony which rose to my lips, I sank back again on the ground as if unable to stand. The savage again seized me with the strength of a giant and fiercely bounced me into an upright position, where I stood trembling with agony for the spear was rankling in the wound. The chief pointed ahead, but as I did not move he lifted his spear and stuck it brutally into my back.
"The pain and the force of the thrust caused me to stagger forwards a few steps and then I fell prone on the ground. Apparently seeing that I could not walk without support, the black giant called two of the warriors to help me on. They each took me by the arm, and half walking and half dragged I slowly made my way forward.
"The country was very rough and uphill, and, dim as my eyes were with the haze of pain which lay before them, I could see that we were making towards the high range our party had noticed the previous day.
"After getting over a couple of miles my legs began to fail me, and, seeing this, the savage chief again got behind me and amused himself with driving the point of the spear into my back. Tiring of this he would seize the projecting point of the broken spear which still penetrated my shoulder and give it a wrench which caused me horrible torture.
"I had often heard that the Australian blacks did not, as a rule, torture their victims; but no North American Indian could have been crueller during that journey than the native, called Woosai.
"The requisite pain kept me conscious for some time longer, but at last I collapsed and had to be carried bodily. I was not altogether unconscious, and the agony I suffered was beyond conception. I was jostled and scruffed about, and occasionally let drop heavily on the ground when a change of bearers was necessary.
"Suffering as I was the thought recurred to me that the treatment I was meeting with was a sure indication that my life would shortly be taken. I vaguely wondered why the blacks did not despatch me at once, as is their usual custom, instead of keeping me alive. Then the reflection recurred that the intention was to put me to death by torture.
"At last we came to a stream which ran under a hill of rock and came out on the opposite side in a deep waterfall."
"Ah!" exclaimed Stanley, "we know that place."
"Yes; you must have seen it, I daresay, as you were in the district," O'Malley replied.
"When we reached that spot I was laid down. Dusk was just falling, and I think I must have become insensible again."
"What a horrible experience!" Mrs. Mills said in tones of deepest sympathy. "How did you ever survive the ordeal?"
"The brutal torture rather," the squatter interjected in an angry voice. "By heaven, I wished I had been about at the time with my trusty Snider!"
"Yes; it was a terrible experience, and the very hopelessness of my position made it all the more awful," continued O'Malley. "I must have been unconscious for some time, for when I recovered it was perfectly dark—fearfully dark. I tried to stretch out my hands to feel around, but I could not do so, and I then found that I was bound securely. My arms and legs were both tied, and I actually laughed at the precaution for I was becoming delirious.
"The confused sound of voices now fell upon my ears but they were not distinguishable. I rightly guessed that the aboriginals must be somewhere not far away, and this was made a certainty later on. As I was lying in a sort of stupor the flash of lights caught my eyes, and, turning my head, I saw the hateful form of the black chief, Woosai, coming towards me. I could faintly discern also that I was in a kind of cave or subterranean passage, as there was a rocky wall all around.
"As the savage came up he gave a grunt of approval at seeing my miserable condition, I suppose. He was accompanied by another black, and I faintly gasped for water, for an awful thirst was upon me.
"With the loss of blood, the fearful journey and the fact that I had not partaken of a drink since the previous night, it was little wonder that my parched tongue and throat refused to articulate.
"As the natives would probably not understand what I meant, I opened my mouth and protruded my swollen tongue, but they both eyed me with an expression of savage exultation, and there was no hope there for me. Had I known that I was to die in a few hours I would probably not have been so anxious to quench my thirst, for its agonies might have reconciled me to death itself."
"You were to be killed, then?" Mrs. Mills asked, with a shudder.
"Yes. I afterwards learned all about it, though a couple of years elapsed before I was informed of the fact."
"But how, in the name of fate, were you saved? It seems to me that nothing short of a miracle could have got you out of such a fix. We know that Stuart's party did not rescue you, and it is almost impossible that any other white men would be in the locality," Mr. Mills asked, with curiosity stamped on every lineament of his countenance.
"Perhaps there was an attack made on Woosai by another tribe of blacks," mildly suggested the squatter's wife.
"Ah! I had forgotten about such a contingency as that," replied her husband, partly satisfied with the explanation.
"You will hear the whole story in good time, for I cannot anticipate it," O'Malley went on.
"The two blacks did not remain long. After the chief had gloated over me and roughly turned me about to see that I had not tampered with the fetters, they went back as they had come, holding their torches above their heads.
"Hour after hour I lay in that agonized state, and at length my numbed faculties were tardily aroused by what must have been a tremendous noise, but which fell upon my torpid ears as a mere whisper.
"The sense of hearing had almost failed me, and even that of sight was fast leaving, yet the latter was the stronger of the two and I could see amidst the glare cast by twenty torches a band of sable executioners coming up the queer passage in which I lay. They were followed at a short distance by the youths of the tribe, between fifteen and twenty, and further back came a number of females. Of course I need scarcely tell you that amongst the cannibal aboriginals of Australia the women are never permitted to eat of the human feast, but they are always invited to the killing of the victim, except when the latter is done on the field of battle. As I saw the crowd coming along all this rose before my mind in a most vivid manner, and I concluded that the end of my sufferings was approaching.
"I had often heard it said that just before death the faculties are extraordinarily active and clear, and from that morning I believe it. Almost comatose as I was, the knowledge rose before me that I was about to die, and, as far as I can now judge, it did not cause me any terror or regret.
"Woosai led the savage band, and I saw as they approached that they had smeared themselves with war-paint in the shape of clay. None of the warriors carried spears, but each of them brandished a formidable nulla, and somehow I thought it was a matter of perfect indifference to me whether they clubbed or speared me to death. No doubt I was losing the sense of physical feeling and that must have deadened the mental faculties. The men ranged themselves in line as well as the limited space of the place would allow, and next them came the youths who had not yet been admitted to the privileges of full manhood. Further back than the latter the women were drawn up in an Amazonian phalanx.
"Standing close to me—the proposed victim—Woosai began to talk and gesticulate in a loud and violent fashion. I knew nothing of what he said or meant, and perhaps it was as well I did not. It might have been that the white man had done him or his tribe some irreparable injury and he was seeking in his own way and according to his lights to avenge the wrong. At the same time I was not conscious of having ever injured him, or even any aboriginal of the continent, and my heart was filled with undying vengeance against him—a vengeance that blood alone could quench."
"And you settled the score in that fashion, did you not?" asked Strangway.
"Yes; ten years later I avenged the torture the chief inflicted on me, and after that I felt that a horrible memory had been swept away for ever from my brain," continued O'Malley.
"After a long harangue the chief walked round my prostrate form flourishing his club, and he was followed by those next him in rank or honor. A kind of hoarse rhythmical chant was meanwhile kept up not unlike the accompaniment to an ordinary corroboree, and each moment I expected the fatal blow to fall. I was kept in this fearful suspense for what must have been fully an hour; but at last the action of the chief convinced me that my end had come.
"He advanced towards me with his nulla raised on high as if to strike—and I am quite certain that was his object—but an extraordinary thing now happened. I was lying quite resigned to my fate, for pain had numbed my feelings, when an awful cry from the females, who were looking up the cavern or tunnel whilst the males had their backs to it and were facing the entrance, made all pause.
"From my position I could see the gins pointing back, and as the men turned they looked for a moment and then made a wild rush for the entrance. They sprang over me like antelopes, and in a few moments the cavern was quite empty.
"The chief, Woosai, was partly carried out, but he soon recovered himself, and, with a guttural cry, I saw him running back apparently to despatch me. During this time I could not understand the cause of the sudden flight and was amazed at it. Woosai was not more than twenty feet from me, when from out the solid rock it seemed to me stepped the strangest figure I had ever seen.
"The contrast to the sable chief was of the most startling character. A tall, thin man clad in whitish robes and with a face even whiter still stood beside me. In the semi-darkness his eyes gleamed like rubies, and the whole aspect was supernatural. The ghosts of our imagination were repeated in the figure, and as I looked for a moment on the apparition I closed my eyes and mercifully became unconscious."
Whilst O'Malley was talking Stanley and Strangway exchanged meaning glances, and the former at length said:
"Do you remember what we saw in the cavern, Strangway? There must be some connection, I should say, between O'Malley's saviour and that extraordinary being."
"Remember!" repeated Strangway. "Yes, as long as I live; it is burned into my memory."
"What are you talking about, lads?" asked Mills.
"A strange adventure we had in those same ranges our friend is telling us about. We did not mention it to you before because we could not quite understand it; in fact, we could not make it out at all and preferred to be silent about it as probably it was only mere imagination on our part," responded Stanley.
"It was no imagination, as you will learn," continued O'Malley. "How long I remained in that swoon I never knew, but it must have been a long time and the period was an utter blank to me. When I recovered I was conscious that an extraordinary change had taken place in my condition.
"At first in the weakness of my state I thought I must be in that other world beyond the grave of which we know so little, but from which there is no return."
"You were not there, it is quite certain?" interjected the squatter.
"No; but I was in a world almost—if not quite—as strange to us as the unseen spheres of spirits, and since that awakening I have been disposed to fully believe the saying, that there are more things in heaven and earth than is dreamt of in our philosophy. I have proved that the secrets of the earth at least are sealed to humanity in numerous ways.
"The light which surrounded me first attracted attention. It was not sunlight or moonlight I knew, but I could not define it; it was soft and balmy and filled me with a sense of profound calm. I next found, with something of wonder and gratitude, that the fearful pain which had previously afflicted me had disappeared. I involuntarily raised my hand to my shoulder to feel if the broken spear was there, but found, to my infinite relief, that it was not, but in its place was a soft bandage. Then as my senses fully awoke I began to narrowly scan the surroundings. The couch I was lying on felt remarkably comfortable, and I noticed that it was as soft and springy as an air-bed. I could not examine it at the time, but later on I did so and was surprised at the ingenuity with which it was constructed.
"Glancing round, the size of the chamber next demanded attention. It seemed to be limitless and looked as though I was lying in the open air, yet I well knew it was not so. I could see translucent beams and sheets of soft radiance in every direction, and the roof of the chamber appeared to reach the sky. I afterwards found out this was only an optical illusion but one that had a material object in view and rendered immense service to those who carried it out. My eyes quickly became accustomed to the strange light, then I noticed that I was the only occupant of the vast chamber.
"I might as well here explain that the place was not by any means vast but only made to appear so, and though simply done the effect both material and aesthetic was excellent.
"When I began to recover I saw that the place was really an oval cavern not more than forty feet in its longest measurement. The roof was about the same height, but, I can assure you, that a person lying on his back on a plain and looking up at the vault of heaven would not believe the latter to be larger than I did the chamber in which I awoke to consciousness. With little effort—a fact that surprised me even then—I got up on my elbow and peered around.
"The place was absolutely tenantless save by myself and I marvelled at it. My wounds felt as though almost healed and then it occurred to me that I must have been weeks in the unconscious state. I well knew that unless I was under the spell of some magician, or in the hands of a wonderful scientist skilled in the use of drowsy herbs, such nepenthe could not have come to me."
"And may I ask you," interrupted Mills, "if you had been in an unconscious state for long? Did you ever find that out?"
"Yes. Later on I discovered that I was nearly six weeks in a trance, or rather it could not be called a trance condition; for though my brain was asleep my bodily functions continued—and, in fact, when my mental and nervous faculties awoke I was almost cured of my terrible injuries."
"That is a most extraordinary thing," the squatter again said.
"Yet it is absolutely true, as you will hear," continued O'Malley. "After looking round the chamber for some minutes, I lay back on my couch and began to think the matter over. The only recollection I had of past events was the attack made by blacks on Stuart's camp and my capture and subsequent agonies. I could remember the influx of natives into the cavern where I lay and the strange antics they carried on, but no further could I get. The hideous form of Woosai was ever before my eyes, but as I continued to think the matter out memory began to weave the thread of circumstances, and at last like a flash of lightning the storehouse of my mind was illumined with the figure of the strange white man.
"I turned my head in alarm at the thought and beside me stood the extraordinary being whom I had before seen in the black cavern. As I gazed at him I made an effort to speak, but he made a gesture of silence and suddenly left me."
"As one mentally and physically paralyzed I watched the slowly retreating figure of the white apparition, for so far I could not quite comprehend that my visitor was a being of this world. The whole thing seemed so unreal that my doubts were scarcely to be wondered at, you will say. Waking from the long trance in which I had lain in a place such as my eyes had never before rested on and amidst surroundings appearing to me weird and unnatural, perplexity and wonderment were what might be expected. I saw the figure as it got farther away accelerate its pace, until in a few moments it appeared to almost fly across the seeming vast chamber, and then with a sharp turn to the right I lost sight of it.
"A few moments after two figures entered the place and came swiftly towards me. Of course it was the optical illusion of great distance which made the movements of my visitors appear so rapid. I soon discovered that their usual gait was slow and solemn.
"The second visitor was different from the first inasmuch as a long white beard depended from the chin, whilst the face of the first was quite bare. The garb, too, of the newcomer seemed to my unaccustomed eyes of richer material, though it was of the same style as his companions.
"On reaching my couch I was reassured by the kindly look which the two beings bestowed on me. There at least was no indication of cannibalism. The ghostly pallor of the faces was to me strangely impressive, whilst the eyes—more ruby than pink in color—considerably heightened the effect.
"Regarding me for a few moments, the second visitant took from his companion a small brazier-shaped vessel containing what I took to be white colored herbs, and by some means, which I did not detect at the time, ignited them.
"Swinging the vessel over the couch a smell not much unlike hysop stole upon my senses and I felt a delicious languor fall upon me. Gradually the figures standing by the couch became more and more indistinct, until at last they seemed to melt away in a white haze, and I remember no more.
"When I again came to my senses I felt stronger and my faculties were on the alert. As before I was alone, but the chamber was now somewhat familiar to me and I began to discern that it was something like a cavern or an oval room so arranged with mirrors that it extended into infinity. I sat up on the side of the couch which I found was set upon legs and sides of white rock. With an effort I tried to stand, but was so giddy that I was fain to seek the aid of the couch. Then I noticed that the clothing I wore when taken from Stuart's camp was gone and garments somewhat similar to those I had seen on the two mysterious visitants replaced them. They were not so loose nor quite so ample, but were soft and pleasant. I noticed that they appeared to be knitted or woven, and very skilfully so.
"I felt for the wound on my shoulder but it was almost healed, and though I pressed it hard could not feel any pain. This was, indeed, a marvellous transformation, and I sought to think what had happened. In vain I racked my brain. No theory I could advance or build up would account satisfactorily for my position. But a day or two previously as I thought Stuart's camp had been attacked and I wounded almost unto death and carried off a prisoner by cannibal blacks.
"The fearful journey to the side of the strange river where the waterfall was, rose in my mind, and then the scene in the cavern with the natives dancing and gesticulating around me were conjured up. I remember the flight of the blacks and the appearance of the white apparition and also my awakening. But what did it all mean?
"Common sense told me, through my wound being almost healed, that unless a miracle had happened the night attack on the camp must have occurred a month or more previously. Yet, what caused the blank in memory during that period?
"There were no famous hospitals or physicians in Central Australia to work such a transformation. Perhaps, I reflected, Stuart may have rescued me from the aboriginals and conveyed me south, but the absurdity of the supposition at once struck me. Such a tremendous journey could not have been made without my knowledge, and, moreover I knew what a British hospital was like.
"The mysterious place I was now in did not bear the remotest resemblance to such an institution, and neither did the queer attendants. Perhaps it was a phantom hospital with ghostly nurses and doctors that I was an inmate of. I actually pinched myself as this thought flitted through my mind to see if I were living or dead, but soon concluded that I was very much alive.
"After sitting in an upright position trying to think out the problem of my whereabouts for more than half-an-hour, the giddiness which at first afflicted me through being so long recumbent partly passed away. When I stood up the second time I could keep my feet, and as I made a few steps away from the couch the sensation of walking was quite a novel one. I made towards the apparently far-distant wall of the chamber, but as I went forward slowly it seemed to approach me rapidly. At first this was bewildering, but I soon grew accustomed to it.
"It was with no little surprise I found after taking a dozen steps that I had reached the wall of the chamber. A short examination convinced me it was formed of polished stone and arranged in peculiar convex surfaces. The stone—or rather the main rock—was, I should say, granite, but it was veneered over in a remarkable manner with thin flakes of crystal.
"I was trying to fix my attention on it to distinguish whether it was natural or artificial in formation, when a reflection caught my eyes and turning I beheld the two beings approaching.
"They reached the couch as I turned and stood there apparently waiting for me to return to it. Something in their mien, or mayhap a peculiar attraction, drew me back and slowly I went towards the spot and sat down on the side of the bed.
"Now that I was getting familiar with their faces I did not have the same repellant or repugnant feelings towards them. When I sat down they began to converse in a language which was even more strange and unfamiliar to me than themselves.
"It sounded more like the chattering of Hindoos from the Himalayan slopes than anything else I can compare to it. It was not, of course, possible that I should understand the words, but the gestures which accompanied them told me I was the subject of the conversation.
"The bearded man motioned me to lie down, and then his companion produced what I rightly took to be food. Placing a small portion of it in his mouth he handed me the remainder. It looked like ground seeds and was contained in a shallow vase of what I thought was glass, but which I afterwards found was a beautiful flake-rock crystal. The mixture was perfectly white and ground like flour.
"I was undoubtedly hungry, and as I ate the food the thought occurred how I could have existed so long—supposing the period was as I believed since my wound—without food. The quantity given me was very large, but I ate the whole of it and felt very much better.
"From something resembling a bottle of white glass I took a drink of water, and afterwards the tall man gave me a small fragrant of herb, or rather he placed it close to my nose, and as I inhaled the scent it had a somnolent effect. As I dropped off to sleep my visitors departed.
"When I awoke the first man whom I had seen was standing beside me, and he commenced talking in the same strange language which I had previously heard. He several times pointed towards the spot whence he and his companion used to enter and depart. I gathered from his actions that he was inviting me to accompany him, and sitting up on the couch I signified my willingness to do so.
"I felt perfectly strong now, and was indeed glad of a little exercise. Leading the way like a ghost I saw that at the side my visitors entered and departed there was a small exit. It was so arranged that it could not be noticed until mostly on it. From this a number of huge steps led downwards. There must have been nearly one hundred, and when the bottom was reached an immense space stretched out.
"A dull light penetrated the place, though how or where it came from I did not at the time know. It seemed to me that we must have gone about four miles through winding passages and vaulted caverns sometimes downwards and as frequently ascending, when almost without warning save for a queer noise I heard we came on the shores of a great subterranean sea. I was utterly astounded at the extraordinary sight. The waters sparkled almost as if the sun were shining on them, and even to my unaccustomed eyes vision was easy for fully a couple of miles around.
"A low beach ran round the watery expanse and the sands glittered as the slight waves rolled in upon them. As I afterwards saw, the beach was entirely composed of disintegrated granite and the bed of the buried sea was of the same material. The cup of my astonishment was, however, filled when I noticed that on the sea were numerous fantastically shaped canoes—or rather boats—like Malay proas, or the canoes used by many of the South Sea islanders. Some of these had one and others two or three occupants, who were clad in a light-fitting brownish costume."
"When we first saw you," exclaimed Stanley, recovering from his surprise, "you were dressed in the same manner, I think!"
"Yes," continued O'Malley, "the garments you saw on me were similar to those I noticed worn by the boatman on the strange sea, for afterwards I spent most of my time—as befitted one brought up to the sea—on the subterranean ocean, as I called it.
"I looked in vain for the opposite shores of the water, but as far as I could see it stretched further still. Walking down on the sands, my guide led the way to the nearest canoe—or rather he accompanied me towards it—for I was eager to know what its occupants were doing on that buried sea. As we reached the water I instinctively filled the palm of my hand with the fluid and tasted it. Guess my surprise to find that it was perfectly fresh."
"I can quite understand that. If it were not for some vast underground bodies of fresh water existing on the continent how could we get our artesian supplies," Mills remarked.
"But in these artesian wells the waters rise without being pumped. How do you account for that?" innocently asked Stanley.
"Because the reservoir from which it flows is on a higher level, of course," came the answer.
"But how can such a place as O'Malley describes be on a higher level than the surrounding country?" persisted Stanley.
"It is quite possible," Mills replied. "The place described may be underneath a high range—or rather midway in the mount—or it may be that such exists on a slope many hundreds of miles away from the central depression of the continent. If so you can understand what the fall would be, and how a bore sunk at the lower level would overflow if it tapped a stream which had its source at the high level further back the slope."
"Another proof of these subterranean fresh-water lakes is the fact that in some of the few artesian wells yet sunk small fish have come to the surface of species never before seen. They have been nearly white in colour and almost blind. When exposed to the action of the sun they have changed colour like a chameleon," Strangway added.
"I have seen that with my own eyes," the squatter emphatically added. "When I put down the well in the horse paddock at least half-a-dozen such fish came to the surface. They were perfectly blind, so far as we could see, but that would be accounted for by the probability that the narrow channel from which they travelled from the main reservoir would be quite dark. There are a couple of them over there," he continued, pointing to two dried piscatorial specimens on the mantle-piece. "We had them preserved."
"That brings me to a remarkable point in my narrative, and which I will detail to-morrow," concluded O'Malley.
"Can you not continue your wonderful story this morning?" Squatter Mills asked O'Malley at breakfast. "We are so anxious to hear it that we can scarcely wait until evening," he added, with a laugh.
"Yes, do," Mrs. Mills pleaded.
"Of course I will; but our two friends are not here yet," the narrator said.
"We will get them in a few moments," Mills replied, as he went out of the room for Stanley and Strangway.
When he returned with them they found O'Malley examining the fish which had come from the artesian well.
"I think," he added, laying them down, "that I have seen similar fish to these in the buried sea I spoke about last night. They are trout-shaped, though more elongated, but the ones I saw were not blind.
"When, as I told you, I saw the people in the canoes I was doubly astonished. First the surprise of seeing over a hundred human beings pale as my guide on the water in boats was almost overwhelming, and would probably have been quite so had it not been for previously seeing the two pale beings in my sick chamber, as I may call it.
"The next surprise I got was to find these men were—like Peter and James of holy memory—fishermen. As I eagerly watched the boat nearest me I saw that whilst some of them had nets, others used small reeds like spears, and the place seemed to team with fish. Some were of a reddish-brown colour, but the greater part were white. I signified my desire to see some of them at closer quarters to my guide, and he, making a signal to one of the boats, it came to the glittering strand. The occupants were two men not unlike my guide, inasmuch as they were clean shaved; but, as I have already said, their dress was somewhat different. They looked keenly at me with their dark pink eyes, but certainly did not evince half as much curiosity at my appearance as I did at theirs. They were almost as phlegmatic and fateful as an Hindoo or an American Indian.
"Stepping into the boat, which would have comfortably held half-a-dozen adults, the two men paddled out to the spot they had just left and again resumed their occupation. As I looked over the side of the small craft I could see dimly a fish occasionally swim by, but those in the boat with keener sight invariably speared them in the most dexterous fashion. Quite a number of fish lay in the bottom of the canoe. None of them were large, though some shaped like a salmon trout could not have been less than 18 inches in length.
"As I became accustomed to the sight I looked upward almost expecting that I would see the sun's rays streaming down, but that did not meet my vision. I could, however, not fail to notice that in a hundred directions there was what might be called reflected light, which to some extent illumined the seascape.
"I knew sufficient of the rudiments of optics to understand that in the first instance that light must have come from the sun, but how it was conveyed and distributed was long a mystery to me. Furthermore, I began to realise that the mysterious place I was in was almost as well ventilated as though it were on the surface of the earth. This was another riddle to me. Then how did these fish obtain their food? I picked up one from the bottom of the boat and carefully examined it. I found that it was in excellent condition, and later on when I partook of some it proved most delicate and palatable.
"Not understanding the language of the subterranean residents I was, of course, at a great disadvantage, as I could not make inquiries, but later on it was all made plain.
"Presently I heard a babble of sound about me, and I saw on turning my head that the fishers were all making for the beach or shore. Our boat was also pulled in and the two men proceeded to pack the fish into a kind of white rush basket. The scene on the beach at this time was one of great animation, as all the occupants of the canoes were gathering up their spoil and preparing to depart. I asked my guide in English what it all meant and where they were going, but he only stared blankly at me and said something in his own tongue which was as unintelligible to me as my questions were to him.
"As soon as the crowd had departed—which they did in a direction opposite to that in which we came—my mysterious guide went after them and I followed. Walking round the beach for more than a mile a broad passage—or rather high road, if it might be so called—was reached, and we turned into it until we came to another space. It seemed to be as large as the sea, which we had just left, in area, but, unlike the latter, there was no water in it. On the contrary I at once guessed that it was the site of a town or village, though no houses or public buildings in the sense we mean were to be seen. Hundreds of screens of various sober colours were dotted over the space, and in the centre was a large clearing. To this the crowd of fishermen made their way, and with my guide I followed.
"In a few moments after our arrival the tall, dignified man with the lengthy beard whom I first saw in the sick chamber made his appearance, and I noticed that he was treated by all with respectful reverence. From out the screens a large number of people gathered, and amongst them were women and children. The latter were quite nude but the females were almost as closely robed and veiled as the female followers of Mahomet. This was another surprise to me, for it was becoming evident that I had fallen in with a race whiter than the Caucasian yet with Oriental customs.
"Placing the day's haul of fish in the square, the bearded man stood in the centre silent, whilst in an incredibly short time the whole of the fish was distributed amongst the assembled crowd, and apparently on some recognised system.
"There was little noise or confusion, and in less than half-an-hour the fish was distributed and the crowd dispersed. Then the chief—for such even then I supposed him to be—came to my guide, and, after a short conversation, the latter led me towards one of the screens I have mentioned, about two hundred yards away. On lifting it I found that it contained a bed or couch not unlike the one which I had rested on in the sick chamber, and also a curious and beautiful granite table. This consisted of an oval slab and it was resting on legs ending in tiger's feet. I could not quite understand where these people could have got the original model from to sculpture these feet from, and as my guide silently left me I sat down on the couch and began to theorise again.
"In my young days I had read the adventures of Sinbad the Sailor and other romances pertaining to the then half-unknown Orient, and actually began to imagine that by some means I had been transported out of Central Australia and dropped in the land of Mahatmas and Genii.
"Strange people, it was currently reported, lived in the caves of Thibet and in the mountainous gorges of the Southern Himalays, and perhaps a modern Roc or a Blavatsky spirit had seized me from the clutches of the Australian blacks and taken me off."
"Were you not frightened of injury ?" asked Mrs. Mills at this juncture.
"I cannot honestly say I was. I don't know why I should not have been, but I daresay it was on account of the general manner and bearing of the queer people whom I was amongst."
"I suppose you were the centre of attraction and curiosity by the women and children in the Billingsgate market?" Mills said, with a laugh.
"No; they scarcely took notice of me, and then that was another sign to my mind of the eastern origin of the people. If they stared at me they must have done so surreptitiously, for I did not notice them, and their manner was full of decorum. Of course I am narrating my story just as events happened to me. I could easily anticipate by the light of my subsequent knowledge, if I choose to do so, but it would only spoil the history.
"As I was thus musing the screen was lifted and my guide entered with some beautifully cooked fish. It had been stuffed with some of the floury materials I had previously eaten. This was mixed with fragrant herbs and the whole then baked.
"I could not understand how this was done, for throughout my rambles I had not noticed the least sign of fire or smoke. I tasted the fish, which I found to be delicious, and as there was a large stone basin of fresh water in the place I made an excellent meal. In addition to the fish there were some flat, biscuit-shaped pieces of ground vegetable matter which tasted not unlike potato cake.
"When I had eaten the meal I again felt the drowsy languor stealing over me, and a few minutes later I was lying on the bed asleep. The fragrant smelling herb I have already spoken of must have been a powerful soporific, for my slumbers lasted until next day.
"I was already able to distinguish night from day, for the latter, though not dark was much more twilight-like than when the sun was shining. It was not long, in fact, before I could tell when a cloud passed over the sun, but at first I had to learn all these fine points.
"My guide, as I will call him, appeared shortly after I awoke (I daresay he had been watching me), and after a breakfast which would have cheered the heart of a vegetarian he led the way out and I followed. Passing through the centre of the town—for such it really was—he went on to the southern boundary of the sea. Turning down a steeply descending passage for about two hundred yards we suddenly emerged into one of the most magnificent baths I have ever seen or read of.
"An outlet from the buried sea or lake existed a hundred and fifty yards back and a broad cascade of foaming water came tumbling down into a great circular basin apparently formed of the purest white marble. I thought at the time that the basin was a natural formation, but I afterwards found it was not so—at least to some extent it was, but the marble had been obtained miles away and skilfully built into the natural depression. From the great basin radiated a number of smaller ones of all shapes and sizes, and the whole presented a most beautiful appearance.
"My guide pointed to one of the smaller recesses," continued the narrator, "and signified that he desired me to bathe, and I gladly availed myself of the luxury, for such indeed it was to me. It might be expected that in such a place the temperature would have been very low, but I did not feel it chilly. Whether it was that my body had become accustomed to the surroundings, or that the cold surface winds were excluded, I don't know, but both that and the many thousands I afterwards had were always delicious.
"Speaking of temperature, I may say that during the ten years I lived in this place I never experienced variations of summer or winter such as is met with overground."
"Do you mean to say you lived underground for ten years?" Mrs. Mills asked, lifting up her eyes in amazement.
"Yes, that is about the time I was with this strange and wonderful people I am telling you about. As well as I can judge I must have gone underground in March, 1861, and I was found by my friends here a few days before Christmas, 1870; so that I was actually nine years and nine months living below the surface of the earth."
"It was no wonder you pointed downwards when we asked you where you came from," Stanley interjected.
"I had quite forgotten my own language, though not the signs by which to convey it," came the answer.
"As soon as the bath was over my mute guide denoted to me by signs, which I could now readily understand, that he wished to show me more of the subterranean world in which we moved, and I followed him upwards from the fountain.
"Going back to what I may now call my habitation—that is the screen or unroofed tent—my companion motioned me to wait. In a few minutes he returned with a parcel, which I afterwards found was food, and then he set off due west. We passed round the lake on the opposite shore to the one from which I first viewed it, and from the landmarks and the distance travelled I concluded that it could not be less than seven miles across. This I found subsequently was a fair measurement for the great basin of fresh water. After passing the lake our route lay in an upward direction, and I wondered what new experience I was about to encounter.
"The light in places was very dim, but in others it shone out with startling brilliancy. The radiance from these latter places penetrated long distances, and I rightly concluded they were a sort of light distributing stations. The first chance I got I examined one of them, but as I could not get an explanation from the guide I did not thoroughly grasp how they worked, or on what principle they were based.
"It was plain enough that the chambers or concaved walls, as the case might be, were composed of crystals or highly polished stones of various colors so contoured as to catch the light in gigantic concave reflections which radiated towards curiously formed convex walls or arches. The first glance was sufficient to show that the work required not only enormous labor but no common amount of skill and knowledge in the science of optics.
"I believe we must have walked at least ten miles through interminable passages, chambers and caverns before I began to have an inkling of what was to be shown. I was coming into vegetation."
"Vegetation underground?" Mills interrupted.
"Yes, vegetation underground—and most luxuriant vegetation, too, I can assure you. Gradually the rocky floor gave way to soft earth, and as we proceeded, pale green—almost approaching white—stalks were met with.
"This time we had been going up a gradual ascent for nearly a mile, when without warning we came to a level plateau stretching away for miles. In all my life neither in the old land, America, or in this country, have I ever seen so fertile a field.
"Where the rank growth was not too high I could see that numbers of people were engaged at agricultural work. Walking on to where a rocky wall seemed to bound the northern part, I was sensible that the plateau was not a dead level, but sloped towards the east. In that direction I fancied I distinguished a gleam of genuine sunshine, for it partly blinded me. The plain was not nearly so well lighted as the great lake, and consequently the vegetable growth, luxuriant as it was, was uniformly white.
"When we reached the western or high side I could observe that numberless streams ran from it and irrigated the whole area.
"I had not been long in the field, for such I may call it, when I became sensible that the atmosphere was much warmer than the regions we had left. For a long time I was unable to account for this, but I afterwards found out the cause and it gave me perpetual uneasiness."
"What was it?" asked Stanley.
"You will hear directly. When I examined the growing crops I found they consisted of different sorts of plants and herbs. A quantity grew like asparagus, whilst other vegetables put me in mind of celery. The stalks were quite white and they were soft and palatable. Some of the taller growths resembled blanched maize-stalks, whilst rice was also noticeable in the wetter portions.
"In the most lightsome portions I was greatly interested in a tree not unlike the cocoanut-palm, but the fruit, though as large as a cocoanut, was perfectly soft. Indeed I was quite bewildered with what I saw, for its appearance was quite peculiar.
"Imagine a farm stricken with the curse of death and all its productions transformed into ghostly forms. You may laugh at the idea of a vegetable ghost, but all the plants and shrubs I saw in that place gave me the idea of a spectral existence. I plucked some of the plants and eat them to see if they were material, but though I found them excellent food I could not shake off the idea which possessed me in that respect.
"On the south side we came to a clearing in which a few screens were erected, and I thought at the time they were for the use of some of the permanent residents. I afterwards discovered that no one lived regularly in the field and that the men and women only worked for two or three hours daily in it. I could well believe this for the temperature was like an oven, and I marvelled much how it should be so.
"Both my guide and I felt the heat, and, after a hasty meal in one of the tents—which were used by the workmen occasionally—we made our way to the exit. So far as I could see there was no other way out of the field, and I was correct in thinking so. The road by which we came was the one used for carrying the produce away, and I believe the great field could grow food for two or three thousand vegetarians. As a matter of fact it did so.
"On going out of the heated atmosphere I experienced a distinct relief and was glad to follow my guide back to the little town which I began to see was the centre of the community. The bath was the first place sought, and after the ablution I was led back to my quarters and more food sent. There was no lack of salt at the place, and I soon after saw where it was obtained.
"For more than a week I did not again leave the town; but my guide was constantly with me, and I saw he was desirous of teaching me his language. He would point to an object and then repeat its name much the same as people living over ground might do, and I would speak the word after. Going amongst the people, too, I began to acquire a rude knowledge of the strange language, and as gradually lost my own.
"After this I spent fully six months going out almost daily with the fisherman on the lake or walking about the little town with my guide. I many times during this period saw the chief, and after a time was able to exchange a few words with him.
"Here I may mention the new name 'Talmud' was given to me by the chief, the idea evidently being that I was to represent the 'book' used by them to convey to the civilized world, of which he seemed to know only by tradition, a full knowledge of the inner workings of his strange people.
"As well as I can compute it must have been six months after my advent to the subterranean town that my companion, whom I had learned to call 'Anscra,' which was the best way I could pronounce his name, informed me by word and gesture that we were going on a rather long journey. Food sufficient for at least two days was packed up, and the two of us set off. Our route for a considerable distance lay along the road we had previously taken to the plantation. I recognised it at once, and it was really strange how simple it was to find one's way through winding passages and caverns after being once along them."
"It did not appear very simple to us in that confounded labyrinth we got into on leaving that horrible valley," Stanley remarked.
"The reason that I was helpless there is that I was never through them with my eyes open," returned O'Malley.
"But you knew a portion of the passage. You remember you wanted us to go down the right tunnel at first," answered Strangway.
"Yes. I knew that part, and later on you will hear the reason I did not have a knowledge of the other passages."
"As we came near the part where the steep ascent began," continued O'Malley, resuming his narrative, "Anscra turned off sharply to the right down a narrow way I had not previously noticed. This led downwards and was very narrow and comparatively gloomy. I daresay had I gone down it when first I joined the underground community it would have seemed utterly dark to me, and probably that was the reason the journey was so long delayed.
"I might say that in the six months my eyes must have suited themselves to the different light, for in that period I could see more than twice as far as when I first entered. For instance I could see right across the big lake—a distance of seven miles—though when I first beheld it two miles was the limit of my vision.
"We proceeded downwards for four or five hundred yards, and then the passage became level but just as gloomy as ever. For a long way we now walked in silence, until at length we came to a particularly rugged part of the passage. This was somewhat remarkable, for it was the first time I had seen any of the walks that were not perfectly smooth and regular. We were on a road that was apparently little used, and I could not quite understand it. At first I thought my companion was leading me to the burial place of the underground community; but I at once considered that a road along which dead bodies had to be carried would be kept in the best possible repair and well lighted also.
"As we stumbled along in the semi-darkness I fancied I could occasionally hear a strange noise like the sigh of a mighty giant. At last my guide halted and sat down on a terrace rock. He produced the food, and we both eat heartily for we had come many miles and the exertion was great. I tried to elicit from him where our destination was, but he only pointed ahead and said nothing that could enlighten me on the point.
"Stretching himself out on the rock, he signified for me to do the same, and for two hours or more we silently rested. As I lay, with all around quiet and the sound of our footfalls not echoing on the rocky passage, I could quite distinctly hear the muttered breathings or gasps which had first attracted my attention. Though I listened carefully I could not find a clue to them, and at last gave up the labour of guessing. I confess, for the first time since I had entered the place, I felt a little frightened. Only that I had full confidence in my guide I would have been greatly alarmed.
"At last Anscra arose and resumed the journey. I could now understand his reason for recuperating, for as we proceeded the road became much worse than it had been.
"After an hour of this arduous travel the passage broadened out and we were able to make better progress. Twice we came out into large spaces, the floors of which were covered with fantastic-shaped rocks. A passage led from the second of these chambers or caverns, and as we entered it I caught sight of a peculiar red glow at the end which startled me."
"Ah! we know what you are coming to now," ejaculated Stanley.
"I scarcely think you do," responded O'Malley, with a smile.
"Oh, yes we do; it is not likely we should so quickly forget the red chamber we saw in our underground rambles," returned Strangway.
"I should think not," added Stanley with a self-satisfied smile.
"Well, have your opinion, gentlemen," went on O'Malley. "As I was just saying a queer red glow caught my eyes. The great exertion I had undergone made me feel uncomfortably warm, and as I hastened after Anscra I was perspiring slightly. He had reached the end of the passage before I overtook him, and when I got to his side and looked in the direction whence the glow came a thrilling sight burst upon me."
"Yes; it is well worth seeing, I must admit," interjected Strangway.
"I looked for a full minute before I could comprehend it, but I did not need the eloquence of the fierce heat which beat upon me to realise what I was looking upon."
"Fierce heat?" queried Stanley and Strangway in the same breath.
"Yes, fierce heat, I repeat. What I saw before me was masses of rock which glowed dully red, and from which in a few small places jets of steam hissed out and were swallowed up almost immediately by the intense heat. It was really the interior of a partially extinct volcano which I saw, and the view was a tremendous one. It seemed to me that about a quarter of a mile from where I stood the rocks began to change color, until at a distance of half-a-mile they were a dull red with the heat. Above them was a cone-shaped vault at least two hundred feet in height, and this carried the heat upwards or it would not have been possible to approach the spot we stood at.
"We must have been seven or eight hundred feet below the summit of the hill, and the heat would almost lose itself penetrating such a distance. I could, however, now understand what caused the warm atmosphere in the underground plantation which, though a considerable distance away, must receive a portion of the permeating heat. In a few words Anscra explained to me that my supposition in that respect was correct.
"The heat was so great that we could not long endure it, but I remained long enough to grasp the dread beauty of the spectacle. Rocks thousands of tons in weight were glowing like rubies, and in places the crimson rocks were heaped together in gigantic and fantastic forms. Between them were spaces like huge 'glory holes' in a glassblower's factory, and the light flickered and scintillated like one often sees when watching an ember in a fire, though, of course, on a colossal scale.
"Anscra had often seen the place before and probably did not appreciate its beauties, as he soon turned away and I followed.
"As I turned away I felt that at any moment a catastrophe might take place that would overwhelm the underground community. If by any means a stream of water should find its way into that glowing mass a tremendous explosion would be the result. If so the convulsion of nature would in all probability destroy those strange people who had been so kind to me. Certainly the bulk of them were several miles from the slumbering volcano, but the convulsion which would ensue through a body of water pouring on to the hot rocks would change the face of nature most certainly and alter the structure for a considerable depth. Water is always at work wearing channels for itself, and who knows, I thought, how soon one of these subterranean streams might not precipitate itself into the volcano.
"These were the reflections which filled my mind as I stumbled over the rocks after Anscra, and I sincerely wished that I had not been enlightened on the point. From that time forth I was never perfectly contented in my new life, though previously I accepted my lot with resignation."
"I have not heard that there are any volcanoes in Central Australia," Mills interrupted at this point.
"Oh, yes, there are a number of extinct ones, according to nearly every explorer," Stanley remarked.
"In some few instances signs of a quite recent upheaval have been noticed—and, indeed, smoke or steam was observed by Wexford's party," supplemented Strangway.
"There is no doubt at all that numerous extinct volcanoes exist all over the continent, north, south, east and west," resumed O'Malley, "that is quite an admitted and notorious fact. Some of them, it is believed, are only slumbering—and, indeed, when I was with Stuart's first expedition we noticed either steam or smoke issuing from a distant mount in the vicinity of the place I am now speaking about.
"Stuart intended going to the range, but neither on that or the succeeding expeditions did he do so. That is so far as I am aware. There can be no disputing what I saw with my own eyes and had sensible proof of in half-a-dozen ways," O'Malley said, with emphasises. "The rocks are there at this moment glowing red, and though it is most likely they will gradually become cold I fully believe that for the next twenty years there is danger to be feared in that place.
"We did not get back to the settlement the same day, but after going about six miles rested for the night. When we reached the little town we found that death had made its appearance, the victim being an old man, who had been failing for a long time. Some idea of the health of these people may be gathered from the fact that this was the first death which had occurred since I entered the place. To the best of my knowledge there must have been fully two thousand people, old and young, in the settlement, so that the death rate was extraordinarily low. This is accounted for by their mode of life. There was nothing like excitement of any sort to be noticed.
"The system was practically communal so far as worldly belongings were concerned. The fish and vegetable food were shared in common, as was also the garments made by the women. Money was quite unknown, and even barter was not followed. The patriarch, whom I have mentioned, presided over the daily distribution of food, which was allotted on a certain basis to each household according to the number in it. If the food supply happened to be short—an event which I did not witness—each family received a proportionately smaller share.
"The amusements, such as they were, did not impress a European. As a matter of fact the daily work of each individual was so arranged as to partake of the nature of pleasure. During my long period at the place I did not notice a single musical instrument, and though some of the inhabitants of both sexes appeared to have musical voices, none of them sang—at least if they did I never heard them.
"I am digressing here, however, as I will refer to these matters later on.
"I expressed my desire to Anscra to witness the funeral rites of the dead and he did not raise any objection, though at first I expected he would. The simple race apparently had nothing which they wished to hide. The body of the dead man was laid out on a curious stone which stood in the northern portion of what I may call the town. This stone I found was always used for the same purpose. It was shaped like an oval table from a huge block of grey granite, and this was surrounded by the mourners, or as many as could conveniently get near the place, for it was evident the whole community claimed to be mourners.
"As I neared the spot with Anscra the groups parted to let us through, and I saw the patriarch, or rather the tall, bearded man, whom I then called by that name, standing beside the corpse. The body was covered in a close-fitting white shroud of material not unlike that which most of the living wore. At one end of the table were a pile of herbs, and these the chief proceeded to burn in a large censer, swinging it under the table. I then perceived that the latter was perforated, for the smoke rose through the slab and surrounded the body.
"During this time the old man spoke words which I did not understand. The fragrant herbs threw a strong perfume around in it. I could detect the strange smell which numbed my senses when in the sick chamber. It did not have that powerful effect on me now, though it made me drowsy and also the numerous crowd around. I afterwards learned that these strange people looked upon death as a long sleep, and it was to aid the deceased in his slumbers that the somnolent drug was used. The other constituents in the censer were plants of a preservative character, and I was told subsequently would keep a body from decay for a long period.
"After this ceremony a pile of the herbs were placed on a smaller slab beneath the table and ignited. These did not contain the 'sleep plant,' as I named it, but only the preservative ones. For twelve hours these were left to smoulder underneath the body and then burial took place.
"I was very anxious to witness the method in which the dead were disposed of; but in this I was doomed to disappointment, as I was not allowed to accompany the bearers. I discovered one remarkable thing in this connection, and one which gave me no small surprise. That was that the dead were buried in the open air. I mean by that to say that instead of incarcerating the body, placing it in a niche of the rocks or in a cavern, or burying it in that twilight region which the living seemed to love, it was actually taken on to the surface of the earth and buried where the rays of the sun could reach it."
"Ah!" exclaimed Strangway, jumping out of his chair, "I begin to see light now on something that puzzled me. I could never make out whose bodies these were we laid bare by that fire in that terrible glen amongst the ranges. I thought it a most extraordinary thing that any tribe of blacks should use so gloomy a place for their cemetery, and besides there must have been hundreds of bodies there."
"My opinion still is that these bodies were the remains of aboriginals," doggedly persisted Stanley.
"Not at all," went on Strangway. "Surely you remember how we got into these gloomy caverns trying to escape from the burning glen. That is proof enough of what I say. The water-way led almost directly into the entrance to these underground regions."
Whilst the two men argued O'Malley did not interfere, but when they concluded he said:
"I am quite certain Strangway's theory is the correct one, as I believe that the bodies were laid in the glen. Of course I did not know that on the evening we went into it, nor indeed when in trying to escape we got back into the caverns.
"It was only when, after our escape and when we got back to the valley, I smelt the odor of the herbs which I had so often seen burnt. That convinced me that we had discovered the burial place of the white underground race and unwittingly desecrated it."
"Desecrated it?" echoed Stanley.
"Yes. From what I know of that strange people they considered we had desecrated their cemetery, and they exacted a terrible penalty for it."
"What penalty?" again asked Stanley.
"There is no doubt it was they who destroyed our camp and removed every vestige of it in the hope that we would perish, as we very nearly did.
"You might easily have known that it was not the blacks who stole the horses and razed the camp. They would never do it in the way it was executed. You will remember that we could scarcely find the site of the camp. There was not the sign of a post-hole or the track of a horse, and the natives are too lazy or ignorant to act in that manner."
"But if they wanted to kill us for revenge why did they not do so when they had us in their power in the caverns. We were at their mercy there?" pertinently asked Strangway.
"They would not kill any human being directly—and, in fact, it is only for what they consider the greatest of all offences, that is the desecration of the dead, that vengeance is ever exacted.
"You must understand, as I have already told you, that death in their opinion is only a long sleep from which the deceased will one day awaken. They also believe that if the body is interfered with or desecrated after burial that the sleep will be eternal, so that you can imagine what they must have felt when they saw the whole cemetery swept by fire and shots fired in it."
"Their code must be pretty strict as regards direct killing when they allowed us to get out of their clutches," remarked Strangway.
"Yes; it is strict and faithfully observed, although they did not expect we would escape. The odds were greatly against us, you will admit, and nothing but sheer luck saved us."
"You did your portion towards bringing us back safely, at any rate," said Stanley.
"Yes; and perhaps I ignorantly brought the trouble on you.
"Upon coming out in the sunlight, after not seeing it for ten years, I was nearly blind and partly stupid, as you both know. My first thought on seeing the sunshine was about the blacks, for I thought your horses belonged to Stuart's party. That night in the glen when I saw the eyes gleaming at me through the scrub, I thought they were those of Woosai, the chief. When I cried out in my momentary terror and you fired I brought the trouble on."
"Had I reflected for a moment I would have known that the eyes were those of one of my underground companions."
"But what was he doing there?" asked Strangway.
"They only come on the surface during the night, and this man had come to watch and show his reverence to some dead friend or relative. Seeing our fire he would be attracted towards it and wonder what it meant there. As I was better able to see that evening in the dark than when the sun was shining I soon detected him."
"And the other person or thing I fired at on the night we were looking for our camp. What of that?" asked Strangway.
"There is no doubt it was another of the strange race. They would naturally send out scouts to see what we did when the camp was removed and you detected one of them."
"I must have wounded him, too."
"I daresay you did. They are only human beings, you know, and a bullet would go through one of them as easily as through you or me."
"And you think our descent into that confounded glen shaped like a coffin was the beginning of all our troubles and sufferings?" queried Stanley.
"Yes, I am quite sure on that point. Had we escaped that place our camp would have been unmolested and we might have got back with less than half the trouble."
"What did you say to that ghostly person we saw near the crystal chamber when we were lost?" asked Strangway.
"He was the patriarch or chief of the underground people, and I told him we had strayed into the place by accident and begged he would show us the way out. You will remember that he never hesitated, but soon brought us to the spot I knew.
"There are many other points I will explain as I go on, which to you seem incomprehensible, but can be easily cleared up," concluded O'Malley.
"The funeral, which I was not allowed to attend, look place at midnight. I saw it leave the little town, but, of course, when Anscra told me I was not to accompany it I did not do so. He afterwards informed me that no graves were dug in the burial ground. The dense mass of half-decayed undergrowth was lifted and the corpse laid in under it with a quantity of the aromatic herbs I have spoken of.
"For some months after this I did not make any expedition of note, but applied myself diligently to learn the language so that I might be able to get a history of the strange people I was amongst. In the meantime I picked up a good deal of information regarding various points. I noticed that the people were very cleanly and their sanitary arrangements soon attracted my attention.
"Confined in such a place it can easily be understood that bad smells or filth diseases could easily be engendered, but they were not allowed to. I spoke to my friend about it, and he agreed to show me what I may call the town tip. Next day he took me to a portion of the settlement which I had not previously been at. It was in the extreme eastern side and there were no dwellings near it.
"The distance from the market place was not above two English miles, but I noticed there was a fine road leading to it. When we came to where the rocks rose to form the side I saw that the road swept round the back of one of the mighty pillars. Following it down we soon stood on the edge of a boiling torrent of considerable dimensions. This was open where the road met it, but immediately lower down it rushed under an arch of rock at a terrific pace and disappeared from sight.
"I understood from Anscra that all the filth and refuse of the settlement—except a certain portion kept for manurial purposes, and sent to the plantation—was thrown into this torrent nightly and swept perhaps hundreds of miles away. This was an easy but a most effective method of getting rid of the dirt.
"Another point on which I asked information was the manner in which the food was cooked. I have said that I did not see any sign of fire or smoke in the settlement, and Anscra enlightened me on the point. Calling me one day about an hour before the time set apart for dinner—I may say there were only two meals a day—he led me to the northern end of the little town. We passed between two great pillars, which I at first thought bounded the settlement in that direction, and came to quite another part of the town. It was here I at once saw where the industries of the place were carried on.
"Near the centre of the immense vault were about a score of women and girls busily engaged knitting with small pointed sticks, and close to them were others spinning up the rough textured stuff most of us wore. I was afterwards told that the making of the garments worn by the head man and his successor, who was always nominated by the head long before his death, was a secret known only to three or four persons. I might state here that Anscra, my invariable companion and guide, was the second in command of the settlement and on the death of the chief would succeed him. If Anscra died just then the chief would name another successor.
"Passing these workers we went to the opposite side and entered another recess partly hid by a wall of rock. The odor which reached me before I entered the place prepared me for the scene that awaited us. All around were placed long marble tables some of which were covered with fish, whilst others had piles of vegetables both green—or rather white—and dried and ground into powder. A number of cooks and assistants were busily engaged here.
"At the end of this queer-looking place the ovens were fixed. These consisted of a long range of granite slabs so fixed that the heat in passing made them as hot as required. Some of these were hollowed out in places and filled with water, and in these the boiling was done. On others the biscuits I have already mentioned were being baked.
"The flour was made from a plant I said somewhat resembled asparagus. This was dried on hot stones and then ground up. Most of the cooking was done by baking, and it was astonishing to find that there was not the least offensive smell.
"When it is understood that fully two thousand persons were daily catered for in communal fashion, it will be seen that the most scrupulous cleanliness was necessary to attain this end. The kitchen, if I may so call it, was arranged in such a manner that the flues at the end of the oven, or heated slabs, carried not only the smoke and heat away but also any lingering bad air.
"There was a large supply of firewood near the place, and I was afterwards shown where this came from.
"Anscra told me that there was no distinction of diet in the settlement. All eat the same food, which was cooked in common by the state, so to speak.
"With the exception of the chief, who was vested with a little extra authority, each person was equal. I noticed strangely, too, that the females were as fully recognised as by the most advanced western nations. The reason of this I afterwards learned from the chief.
"A few days after this visit my guide asked me to accompany him on another trip and I readily complied with his request.
"Following Anscra into the portion where the kitchen and work-room was, he led the way to the eastern end and into a small but well-lighted passage. Of course I mean well lighted from their point of view. As we walked along I thought I could discern the hum of voices, and in a short time I was certain of the fact. In five minutes we reached a large cavern, and here was a curious sight. Nearly one hundred boys and girls were ranged round the place slowly chanting something after a person who appeared to be the master. The boys first followed the teacher, and then a woman addressed the girls in a similar fashion whilst the male portion rested.
"The sound made in the vaulted chamber was very great, and when the reciters ceased it echoed and re-echoed in an extraordinary manner. From what I could gather this was the viva voce method of teaching the children their history and also the moral duties which the people carried out. When both male and female scholars ceased I could plainly hear a strange buzzing sound which seemed to come from outside. It was steady and continuous, but at the time I took very little notice of it.
"Two years after I learned it was caused by a waterfall."
"Why, that must be the one at the head of the Finke River," interjected Strangway. "I am almost certain it is about there. I could not say absolutely, but it could scarcely be anywhere else as I can prove hereafter."
"Stanley and I heard queer sounds coming out of that peak and we could not make it out at all," the late leader of the exploring party again remarked.
"That is quite possible," resumed O'Malley. "The whole place was honeycombed and the sound made by the children would escape in some way no doubt. Water, you know, is a conductor of sound, and the cavernous echoes would probably be carried out by that medium.
"As Anscra and I went back he told me that the children were taught there so as not to interfere with the calm of the little town. I knew that the echoes in the great vaults where the people lived were very loud. If a person called out loudly it sounded like the report of a gun, and hence everybody spoke in a subdued whisper which was yet perfectly distinct.
"In some places, as I myself tried, a sound was repeated fifty or a hundred times according to the position. This was chiefly caused by the artificial arrangement of the roof and sides of the subterranean settlement. It must have taken scores of generations of workmen to put the vast ramifications into the condition which I saw them. The labor involved was prodigious, and I was quite puzzled to know where they got the immense stores of crystals and marbles used in the work.
"Whilst on this subject I must say that point was withheld from me. This was the place where the sunlight was admitted to be flashed and reflected on the settlement.
"I have told you that after the discovery of the slumbering volcano I began to grow restless and afraid of catastrophe. I could not conceal my anxiety from Anscra, though I tried hard to do.
"With keen penetration he deemed that I should like once again to seek the surface of the earth and lead the life which I was most accustomed to. Knowing this it was only common prudence, perhaps, that the real entrance to the strange underground settlement should be kept from me."
"Did we not find it when we were trying to get out of that glen?" asked Stanley.
"Oh, no. That was the way I came out by, but you saw that I knew nothing about the underground labyrinth. I was blindfold when I left the place I call my sick chamber, where I first found myself lying on the couch, until I reached that cavern near the glen. There my eyes were uncovered, and in company with Anscra we went along the passage and came out at the spot we did.
"My faithful friend then led me down the peak during the night until we came in sight of your camp and then he left me with ill-concealed emotion. I reached the horses just as the sun was rising, and you know the rest. However, I am anticipating. It must be patent that if anyone found the true entrance by which the sunlight enters he could follow the reflected light all over the settlement."
"Yes, unless they had some method of plunging the place into gloom," remarked Mills.
"They might have such a plan, but I scarcely think so as everything that reflects the light is of the most permanent character and could not easily be altered."
"Then the place is probably well guarded, and it would be death to anyone to enter?" suggested Strangway.
"From what I know of their teachings I do not think it likely they would kill anyone, but they might capture an intruder and take care he should never get out again."
"Perhaps some poor devil has met such a fate," remarked Mills.
"I have some reasons for believing that a European has been so treated," O'Malley said, solemnly.
"You have!" ejaculated his listeners in surprise.
"Yes. Later on I will tell you why—and I believe the discovery I made by accident covers one of the most gruesome stories it is possible to imagine.
"Let me now recur to where I was returning with Anscra from hearing the children taught. I asked him if there was any objection to my knowing the history of his race, and he replied that only the chief could answer such a question. I stated that I was anxious to know by what strong evolution an apparently noble race had become underground dwellers, and, seeing my interest in the question, he promised me that he would speak to 'Oenorb,' the chief, about it and try to get his assent.
"The following day he appeared and told me that Oenorb was quite willing to narrate the traditions of his people handed down to him as soon as I could understand the language sufficiently to comprehend the story. Anscra volunteered to place himself at my disposal as much as possible to facilitate matters, and for a year I worked hard to learn the queer and somewhat uncouth language. At the end of that time Anscra said I was advanced enough to fairly understand what the chief would tell me, and I looked forward anxiously enough to the interview.
"The language itself was not one easily comprehended, and the words in many cases were scarcely susceptible of translation into the English tongue. The following narrative, therefore, may contain many inaccuracies, but in the main it is substantially correct.
"The extreme difficulty of rendering the strange account into a modern tongue to suit modern ideas will be understood when it is said that the language itself was a corruption of a prehistoric vocabulary and the geography spoken of was probably antediluvian.
"I must have been about three years amongst my subterranean friends on the morning that Anscra ushered me into the presence of the chief who was to tell me the story. The old man was reclining in his house, or rather screened tent—for it was no different from most of the others—when I entered. He told both of us to be seated on a sort of lounge which was placed at the end of the screen, and then he began in a manner I did not expect:
"'I want you to know first that had it not been for me you would have been killed a long while ago. I found you in a cave with savages about to slay you and I came to the rescue. With care you were taken away and brought back to life, and, knowing this, I put it to your heart that anything I tell will not be revealed to the injury of our race.'
"I hastened to assure him that I was not so ungrateful as to injure my benefactors in any possible way, and I sincerely felt what I said. He must have read my heart, for, without further comment he went on—
"'Ages ago. So far back that the world has changed mightly since our race began. Then if life were long enough you could walk from here due north until you came to everlasting ice. There was no water where all is water now.'
"From this I might break off for a moment to say that the old man spoke of a time when Australia was undoubtedly a part of Asia. Anyone looking at a map will see the chain of islands which lie between the northern coast of Australia and the peninsula of Siam in Asia.
"'There were animals then as large as yonder rock, and men towered nearly twice as high as me. The cradle of our race was amongst mountains that reached the skies, and for thousands of lives in duration they dwelt amongst the hills. Then they could look upon the sun and not be afraid, or upon the moon when it shone at night. But a change came. Barbarous people came upon us from the north. They were as black as us, for our race was not then pale, and they were more numerous than the fish in yonder water. Thousands were killed in the struggle which followed, but our ancestors were forced back and back, year after year, until the great 'Velu,' our then chief, gathered together the remnant of his people and came to where the sun burned fiercely.
"'Many generations passed away in these hot lands, until at last the enemy again discovered us and they were more numerous than ever. Then there was more fighting, which our people did not like, for they were peaceful, and at last 'Tezor,' the mighty, a second time took his people and travelled far south. They were a long time thus marching, but at last Tezor, who was in advance, sighted a land that he thought was far enough away.
"'At sunrise he went to the top of a high mount with his wives and relatives and chiefs to see where he would build his city. All his people stopped below on the plain. Suddenly those on the hill heard an awful cry from below, and looking down saw the ocean sweeping over the land. Not a man or woman or a child of all the multitude on the plain were saved. Before the eyes of Tezor they were engulfed in the waves.
"'The sea did not rise so high as where the leader and his chiefs stood, and for days they mourned over the loss of their nation. Then when the waters dried up they descended on the opposite side so that they should not see the graveyard of their people. They went on until they came to a spot which they liked, and there they decided to build up another nation. For a long time they were not molested, except by huge beasts which they easily killed, for they were warriors, and they placed the records of these achievements on the rocks. Seventy generations have come and gone since that time, but great changes took place in the meantime.
"'A fierce race found out the descendants of Tezor and bid fair to sweep them off the face of the earth. From one place to another the remnant of the race was driven, until but a mere handful of men and women were left. The chief of this little band was named 'Bonin' and his wife was called 'Video.' They went from one place to another to save their lives, until at last they began to prefer death they were so hunted by a fierce black race who lived on human flesh.
"'It is thirty lives ago since Bonin and Video with their little band came to near the place—very near the place in which I am now speaking. They thought that by travel they would get out of the reach of their foes, but it proved otherwise. On every side they were beset, and it seemed like as if the race that came from the far mountains which reached the skies would become extinct like the huge animals they once hunted.
"'It happened that one day Video in looking for water came across a number of her enemies camped amongst the hills. Running from them through some jungle she fell into a deep well but her fall was broken by the vegetation which grew down its sides and at the bottom, so that she was not hurt. She could see a tiny gleam of light from where she lay, and as she could not climb up the steep sides of the hole she crawled towards the light. When she reached it she saw a great open cleft between the mountains, and on one side a huge cave opened out. Crossing over to this Video fearlessly entered the cavern and walked along it as far as it was possible. At the end she found it branched off and the passage went downwards, and this road she took. It ran a long way but her path was lighted by the light which came from fissures above. At last into a great cavern she stepped and before her lay a sheet of water almost like the sea she had heard of. Video tasted and found it was not salt, and then she began to mourn that she would never see her husband again.
"'For hours she wept, and then starting up began to search the place but found that it was too dark to see as night had fallen. When brightness again came she walked about until she examined nearly all the passages; but at last she came to one brighter than the others. Going along it Video noticed that the sides and roof shone like precious stones, and she was pleased. Far ahead she could see a brighter light still, and on going to the place the wife of Bonin saw the sun far above in the sky. It was a hard climb out but it was accomplished, and she found herself on the top of the mount.
"'Down below to the left a cloud of smoke rose up and the hunted woman well knew that it came from the camp of her enemies. She went cautiously towards the place to make sure that it was so, and when near was filled with horror to see her husband tied to a tree not far from the great mound on which a score of their black enemies sat.
"'They are going to kill and eat Bonin,' she said to herself, 'and why should I live without him!'
"'She had her sharp axe in her hand, and, being used to the wild bush life, she crept stealthily up to the tree to which Bonin was tied ready for the sacrifice. In an instant she cut the bonds, and, whispering to him to follow her, she darted off through the bushes up the mount.
"'As Bonin turned to run the cannibals saw him and set off in pursuit. He and his wife had a good start and they were fleet of foot, but Bonin despaired of escape, and as Viedo looked back she saw that he was faltering. Calling on him to come she slackened pace until he was abreast, and she then told him that she had a secure hiding-place for him. Thus encouraged he again ran with all his speed, but the delay nearly cost him his life.
"'One of the savages had far outdistanced the rest, and in a few moments he was almost beside the flying couple. Video saw this, and, grasping the bronze axe, with all her strength she struck the savage on the back of the neck just as he was about to grapple with Bonin. The blow nearly severed his head and he fell lifeless, whilst the fugitives sped on.
"'In a few minutes they reached the mouth of the cavern, and headed by Video the two went rapidly down it and the woman led her husband down the white passage to the lake of water. The savages did not know for certain that Bonin and his wife had gone into the cavern but they suspected that they had, and for some days they kept watch near the mouth waiting for them to come out. The chief fully expected them to follow, but it happened that these savages would not venture into deep caves or underground passages, and this fact, as you will see, was found out by the agency of a woman.
"'For twenty hours the two remained near the lake in hiding, determined to die on the water rather than be re-captured by the cannibals, but not the sign of an enemy was seen.
"'Let us seek for another way out of this,' Video said to her husband at last; 'our foes will watch the way we came in by, for they seem afraid to follow.'
"'Half the day was spent in searching, and at last an outlet was found quite distinct from the other which led them into the valley.
"'If we could only find the remnant of our race we might be able to live in peace in those caves,' Bonin said, as they searched the deep valley.
"'Next day they again came out of the cave where they had retreated during the night and resumed the search, and before long to their joy they found their brethern. There were but few left and these were at once led to the strange abode.
"'At first it seemed a dreary abode, but when it was found that they could sleep in security and were not in constant terror of their lives then they began to love it. In the lake were found plenty of fish as there is to this day, and gradually the little band began to make improvements.
"'For a long time all that could be done was to make the place secure from attack, or at least to strengthen it as much as possible, and this work was carried out with skill by Bonin and his wife, who gave him good counsel. Nearly all the entrances were blocked up in the most effectual manner, and those not so treated were altered so cleverly that only those who knew the secret could find the way in or out. Whilst the women fished in the lake the men did this work, and occasionally a short raid was made outside to get some animal food, for in those days our ancestors eat meat.
"'When it was found that the savages, who had so long oppressed and destroyed our race, were afraid to enter caverns, it became no longer doubtful as to what should be done. Outside enemies swarmed, for they were enraged at the escape of their prey, and they were so dangerous that at last it was no longer safe to venture out at all. The band, however, by this time were becoming quite used to their new mode of life, and they had a variety of fish food.
"'In many places also where the sun streamed down cracks or crevices in the rocks a growth of vegetation had sprung up, and some of it was found eatable. These plants were carefully collected and cultivated until they formed a welcome addition to the food supply. You have seen some of them in the plantation. Bonin also in his wanderings gathered many kinds of strange seeds, and these have been the means of perpetuating valuable medicinal herbs and scrubs which have long since become extinct on the surface. You have yourself experienced the efficacy of two or three of them used for wounds; but there are others for various sicknesses which you have not seen.
"'As one generation succeeded another this settlement was built up. The white passage, as it was called, through which Video found her way out when she rescued her husband from death was almost entirely composed of crystals. As time rolled on these were placed, as you see, to reflect light, and more than two hundred years were occupied in the work. Beds of marble were found later on in a spot you have not yet seen, and this was also pressed into service.
"'Gradually even the streaks of sunlight which came through the fissures were blocked in order to make the place more secret, and in the course of generations a race was developed that could not look upon the sun. The heated ground, where the plantation is, was irrigated and made capable of growing abundance, but great difficulty was experienced in getting sufficient light to it; but at last even that was accomplished.
"'We are now, as you see, a peaceful and happy community, more contented than any of our ancestors. As Video saved the race we honor and respect women, as you must notice. The chief is both priest and leader. He marries by his simple word, and what he says is the supreme law. For more than a hundred years there has not been a single dispute, and the people are so healthy that there are a number of men and women here who are more than a century old.
"'The descendants of cannibals, who nearly destroyed our race, are those wretched blacks who now run in terror from our people. By that you will see that living underground has not degenerated but rather improved us, whilst the surface race must have gone back a great deal.'
"Have you no religion?" I asked, as the old man concluded. "Do you not worship a great Being?"
"'We love one another in life, and as we would do for ourselves so each of us would do for the other. Surely there can be no greater religion on earth than that. When we awake from our long sleep we believe there is another, and even a better, life awaiting us; but we do not in this life pretend to say or describe what it may be,' he answered, simply.
"I must again explain," said O'Malley to his auditors, "that owing to the strange language used by Oenorb, and the fact that at least half the expressions he used have absolutely no equivalent in the English language, the short sketch I have given you is necessarily hazy and mutilated."
"It appears from what I can gather," remarked Mills, "that these underground people claim direct and uncontaminated descent from a quite prehistoric race. If that be so they have brought down a prehistoric language, and no modern one could hope to furnish equivalents for the greater portion of it. The fact that they appeared to be in continual warfare with other surrounding races would also point them out as a conservative people not likely to be influenced by other sources save their own traditions."
"That is quite so. From what I can gather the original ancestors lived somewhere along the Himalayan Mountains, probably near the western boundary of modern Burmah. After long ages of residence there Scythians or Tartar hordes may have pressed down on them and compelled an evacuation of their ancient birth-place. This must have been in far pre-Christian days, for the old chief talks of the exodus coming down to a place about or under the equator, and he infers that at the time Australia and Asia were connected.
"There is no doubt they were at one time; but it must have been at an extraordinary remote period, unless the severance is due to a great convulsion of nature. The traditions imply that the latter cause did result.
"The sea running over the land and engulfing the bulk of the race which the chief witnessed from the hill, apparently took place on the northern shores of Australia. No mention was made by Oenorb of boats used in crossing; but there I should think tradition is at fault, as how did the curiously shaped canoes and boats come on the underground lake. They appear to have been imitations of proas, or, at least, small craft used by some of the Pacific islanders."
"I don't think that would affect the case much," Mills argued. "Some races must be creative and not initiative. Besides, if Oenorb's people crossed or came to this continent, as he says, there would scarcely be such people as South Sea islanders. He says that Video found the caverns thirty lives ago. Taking a life to mean a generation or thirty years, that would mean nine hundred years ago or about the tenth century of the Christian era. He also says that it was long ages previous to this that the first chief brought his people to the south land, so that he must claim an enormous antiquity."
"Would their complexions and habits not show that these people have been living in caves for hundreds of years?" asked Strangway.
"I don't think so," replied the squatter, thoughtfully. "You have told us that when you first saw O'Malley he was as pale as a ghost, and yet he had only been underground for ten years."
"But his eyes were not pink or red," objected Strangway.
"That, of course, would go to support your argument to some extent. Unless originally a race of Albinos it would take some few generations to change the color of the eyes in that fashion," returned Mills.
"Perhaps they were originally a race of Albinos," suggested Stanley.
"That is most improbable. No such freak as a race of Albinos was ever yet known. A few instances frequently occur amongst all peoples, black as well as white, but by intermarriage with normal people the peculiarity is not handed down. I daresay it might be in the course of centuries possible to produce quite a race of Albinos by compelling them to marry only amongst themselves, but scientists even doubt that," the squatter answered.
"If these people were originally a race of Albinos they would to some extent be a marked body and liable to the incessant attacks spoken of," suggested Strangway.
"But Oenorb distinctly said they were, if not black, at least, brown coloured," resumed O'Malley. "I am quite convinced they are the descendants of some Asiatic race who in past times were compelled to seek refuge from their enemies in caves which they made so strong or bewildering that their foes could not follow them. You must remember also that the work I saw done in these strange galleries, grottos and huge chambers to my mind clearly shows that it required successive generations to execute it. I am convinced that with the small band in the beginning and the rude tools at their command hundreds of years were so occupied.
"Again Oenorb has traditions of the mammoth and the huge animals which once roamed Australia, and the few words he says on the latter are fairly correct. He mentions that some were of huge bulk, but they were easily killed by the warriors. This would be true of the giant sloth, and to some degree of the other extinct animals. None of them, it is asserted, had the ferocity or strength of the present lion or tiger, though there were, judging from the fossil remains discovered, a species of lion and tiger on this continent.
"Then, too, he speaks of the strange rock drawings sometimes found on the northern coasts of Australia. What prehistoric race drew these uncouth and monstrous sketches? It must have been men cœval with the animals they depicted and assuredly not the present aboriginals.
"According to Oenorb his people did not get south of the continent—indeed not lower than the centre—and no such drawings have been found on the southern coasts or in the caverns. I firmly believe that in these subterranean dwellers I saw the descendants of that prehistoric race, whose monuments are sometimes found in the Indian Archipelago," concluded O'Malley.
After a pause he went on:
"I mentioned to you that whilst in the caverns I made a gruesome discovery, and I will now narrate it.
"After I had been seven years in the place I abandoned all hope of ever getting back to the sunlight. Years before Oenorb and Anscra told me that if ever they saw any of my own race in the vicinity they would lead me to them. I well knew that it would be simply madness for me to attempt a journey to white settlements of my own people from the place I was.
"Half blind, as I was, unarmed and ghastly looking, without food or means of travelling, I would either have fallen a victim to the first blacks who saw me, or my bones would bleach in the desert through hunger or thirst. I knew that I was not more than a dozen miles from the spot where I had been taken from Stuart's camp, and could, therefore, locate my position. My only hope of escape was to be handed over to the care of men like you, who would succor and lead me out of the wilderness, or, at least, aid me until my helplessness had disappeared."
"I was nearly shooting you when I first caught sight of you amongst the horses," laughed Strangway.
"I daresay I looked an extraordinary creature enough, so that you can see how wise it was not to turn me adrift alone. At the end of six or seven years I had practically given up hopes of rescue, as I have said, for what white men would come into that out-of-the-way region? Anscra noticed my resignation and therefrom more liberty was allowed me. Previous to this period I could not go beyond the town, except to the lake, unless a companion was with me; but soon I was allowed full freedom, and, consequently, made some discoveries.
"One morning I left my tent or screen very early and was attracted by the sight of the last body of scavengers, as I may call them, going towards the torrent I mentioned into which the refuse was flung. I thought I would fill in the time by accompanying them and see the operation.
"When I got to the wall, round which the sewer-stream ran, I stood for a few minutes watching the men shoot the rubbish down. As I turned away my eyes caught sight of a small dark recess in the rock to my left, and going to it I peered in. It was much darker than any other portion of the underground settlement I had yet seen, but objects could be faintly distinguished. I climbed into the darksome place and could immediately detect that the passage was seldom or never used.
"Going along it for about three hundred yards it suddenly inclined upwards at a pretty sharp grade, but I could now see better and kept on. At last I came to a spot where a rugged rock barred the way, but at the summit I noticed that there was more light and it was plain that the underground gallery continued at a higher level. With a great effort I scaled the rock and then found I was in one of these oval caverns so numerous in that queer region.
"It was not so large as most of the others, and though not so gloomy as the passage I had just traversed it was darker than usual. The most remarkable thing about it was the number of passages radiating from it. I counted no fewer than eleven, and they were fantastically arranged. In places two openings appeared side by side like the tubes of a double-barrelled gun, whilst again the dual openings might be in vertical fashion—one above the other. Some of them were large whilst others had a diameter only sufficient to allow a man to crawl on his hands and knees.
"I was almost on the point of turning back when the desire for novelty possessed me and I decided to continue my explorations. You can easily understand that to a man like myself, used to an active travelling life, the sameness of the underground existence became distasteful to me after a time.
"For years I had thought that, with one exception, no part of the subterranean settlement was concealed from me, and now, perhaps, I had discovered the place I wanted. Selecting one of the largest galleries, or rather passages, I boldly entered it and found that it almost immediately turned off with a sharp curve. This puzzled me, for I thought it must cross or interfere with some of the other passages which branched off so numerously from the cavern. After going fifty yards I found that this was so, for two other tunnels entered the one which I went.
"Further on more passages were encountered, and soon they all focused into a smaller cavern. This was an exceedingly pretty grotto—one of the prettiest I have ever seen. It was diamond-shaped and quite light. This was caused by a gleam of sunlight which came from a small fissure in the roof. Either this crevice had been overlooked by the underground dwellers when they excluded the sunlight, or the place had not been visited for a long time and the erosion of time had caused it.
"At first I concluded that I must be near the summit of the range, but as I reflected that it could not be long after sunrise I saw that the crevice must come from the eastern side of the hill, probably from a precipice or the sunbeams would not strike it. It was the first time in seven years that I had a glimpse of the sun, and, throwing myself on the floor of the cave, I looked at the dancing beams for at least an hour. Occasionally I saw a flying insect come in and flutter for a moment like a speck of gold in the light.
"I gave myself up to memories of the outside world as I lay there, but gradually the golden streak of light got thinner and thinner, until finally it flickered out and disappeared as the sun rose towards the zenith. It seemed to me as if the happiness of my life departed with it and the gloom that filled the chamber was an index of the shadow on my heart.
"I mentally resolved that I would come to the place every morning and watch the sunbeam, as it would be a little solace to me. Then the idea struck me that I might be able in that unused portion of the settlement to find some outlet whence I could accustom myself to the daylight, after which I could endeavor to make my way back to white settlement for this I had now firmly resolved to do.
"Getting to my feet I again commenced to explore the place. The opening through which the light came pointed east, of course, and taking the passage that led that way I went on. It was a dismal enough tunnel, and in more than one place branched off in a most confusing manner. As I was going by one of the side galleries a speck of light arrested my attention. It was a considerable distance away, but eagerly I went towards it filled with with a new hope which I could not express. The passage was low and narrow in places, so much so that I had to creep on my hands and knees to get through. As I approached the light assumed larger proportions, and, after passing the last contracted spot, the tunnel opened and became of considerable dimensions.
"This was another break of sunlight I at once saw piercing through a crevice, and I now mentally congratulated myself that I was on the right road to the outside world. This golden messenger from beyond the caverns was much larger than the one I had seen in the diamond-shaped grotto, and I at once glanced up to see the aperture through which it came.
"It appeared no larger than what a man's clenched hand could get through, but the broad reflection it threw on the wall of the tunnel showed that the aperture must get larger as it went back. It was not more than seven feet from the floor, and by piling up the loose stones I would be able to reach and probably enlarge it.
"Turning from it for a moment my gaze fell upon the cheerful light on the rocky wall. I was partly blinded at first, but soon I began to see familiar characters dance before me. I laughed loudly at my foolishness. The sight of a sunbeam has unsettled my mind, thought I.
"Yet still the characters danced and gradually they resolved themselves into letters and then to words, and this is what I read:
"JOHN WARBURTON, "Mulwa Station, "June—, 1864."
Squatter Mills jumped from his chair with an exclamation of surprise.
"What!" he cried. "John Warburton of Mulwa Station? Why, he was lost in 1864. You must remember that, Strangway?"
"Of course, I do. He was one of a party of three sent out by Affleck, of that station, to explore beyond the salt lake district. His two companions returned towards the end of the year and very nearly got into trouble about Warburton, who was missing," replied Strangway.
"Yes," added the squatter; "they could not give any intelligible account regarding Warburton. All they could say was he disappeared I think on the 3rd of June near the Grey Ranges, as the hills about the source of the Finke River were then called. It has been thought to this day that foul play occurred. One of the party named Bouvet, a Frenchman, had a very violent temper, and it was surmised he came in conflict with Warburton."
"Indeed when the man's disappearance was communicated to the South Australian authorities by Affleck," supplemented Strangway, "the trooper, who was sent to the station to make enquiries, very nearly arrested Bouvet and Hickey. He sent in a most damaging report, but it was not acted on."
"The difficulty of proving murder in such an out-of-the-way district was so great that the government knew it would be useless to proceed against the two men and nothing was done, but they had to clear out under the awful suspicion," said Mills.
"What account did they give?" asked Stanley.
"They stated that on the morning of the 3rd of June, as well as I can recollect," returned Mills, "that Warburton went to the top of the range to view the surrounding country. It was not far from their camp, but as he did not return towards evening they went in search of him. As night fell they fired their rifles and made a large fire, but he did not come. For three days subsequently they kept up a close search without success. The scrub and precipices were examined, and at length they had to give up the quest. They concluded that he had either been surprised and killed by the blacks, or had fallen down some chasm which they could not find."
"He might have wandered off on his own account if the camp was not to his liking," interjected Stanley.
"He was never heard of again, at any rate; and if he did so his fate is uncertain," concluded Mills.
"I think I can elucidate it," continued O'Malley, with a shudder. "When I saw these characters rudely scratched on the rocks I was for a time paralyzed with astonishment. Who was John Warburton? I asked myself, but no answer came. How could he get to such a place? I next thought. If he could reach the spot why should not I be able to get out? Of course, I knew that none of the strange pale-race could have written the scrawl. That was quite out of the question, and then came the reflection only to be instantly dismissed that he might have been someone like myself amongst these people.
"I recollected that I had been in the place since 1861, and no other European could well have been there without my knowing it. The last solution I could find, and the most pleasant, was that a Britisher had penetrated the cavernous depths to the spot where I was in June, 1864.
"I began to reproach myself at this that I did not visit this unused portion of the queer settlement long ago and I might be back again amongst my own people. Of course I was not allowed to go that way, and this jealousy of my movements I began to see a reason for. This was the direction, undoubtedly, by which I could get away when I pleased, and perhaps after all Oenorb and Anscra were not sincere when they professed willingness to give me liberty when I pleased. I was ungrateful enough to forget that they had saved me from a horrible death and skilfully nursed me back to life and that keeping me in the underground settlement was only from a desire to prolong my life.
"After looking at the characters until they were fairly burned into my memory, I commenced to pile up the loose stones around me until I could easily reach the small aperture by which the sunlight entered. Getting a heavy piece of granite I commenced pounding away at the place, until to my unbounded pleasure I saw fragment after fragment fly off and the opening quickly get larger. In half-an-hour it was of a size sufficient to allow a man's body to pass through.
"I was nearly blinded by the flood of light which poured in, but keeping my eyes nearly closed I made the pile of stones higher, and standing on them was able to pull myself into the lighted passage. It was only large enough to crawl along and the light was most puzzling to me, but I persisted in the task buoyed up with the hope that I was going to make a great discovery.
"For about thirty yards I painfully crawled with my eyes almost closed until I was sensible. I had almost reached the end of the cleft. A couple of yards more and my right hand, which I had stretched out before me, went into space. I stopped and for some minutes could see nothing, but at last with my hands over my eyes I peered forth. All I could see was the face of a precipice going sheer down.
"I don't suppose I could distinguish more than fifty or sixty feet in depth and about the same upwards, but that was sufficient to convince me that the place I was in was only a small opening in the face of a great precipice. Far down below I supposed there were trees, but my eyes unaccustomed to the new light were powerless to penetrate so far.
"A soft wind blew upon me, and I could distinguish in it a different odor to that which came upon the light draughts below. The all pervading scent of eucalypts pleased me and for a time even caused me to forget my disappointment at not finding an exit.
"How could John Warburton have come by this passage on the face of a giant precipice I asked myself, and then I became almost infuriated at my own simple ignorance. Fool that I am! I exclaimed aloud. Of course he could not have entered this way. He could not squeeze through a hole in the rock three inches in diameter. My powers of reasoning appeared to be forsaking me.
"As the sun gradually passed over the cliff the shadows below enabled me to see much better, and about a hundred feet below I could catch in my vision the outlines of trees. Here, at least, I could come and catch a glimpse of the outer world even if I could not get away myself.
"As I lay breathing in the balmy air it struck me that 'John Warburton' must have entered by some other way than this, and I would go back and search for the entrance by which he did come. This was not an easy matter to do for I had to go backwards, the passage being much too narrow to turn in. As I went back the light failed considerably, but this was a positive relief to me and I could actually see much better than at first.
"I soon reached the main passage and again examined the mysterious writing. It had apparently been laboriously cut with some sharp and strong instrument. I picked up various pieces of the hardest stone I could find about the place and tried to imitate the scrawl, but found that I could not make the the least impression on the adamantine rock.
"With the greatest effort I could only blur the face of the stone, whilst the writing was cut into it. This was another proof that 'John Warburton' had a knife or other steel instrument with him, and was not one of the 'pale faces,' as I will call the underground residents.
"The subdued light which came through the larger aperture I had made enabled me to see with great distinctness, and I resolved to penetrate still further into the passage. Turning from the inscription I went forward nearly thirty yards when I caught sight of something unusual ahead of me. Instantly I felt a dread, and as I went on the outlines of a human skeleton appeared clearly before me. I stood dumb for like an inspiration the truth flashed across me. This must be 'John Warburton.'
"After the first few moments of dreadful surprise—for in such a place and so unexpectedly the ghastly relic was sufficient to appal most people—I went to the remains. It was a bare skeleton I saw, but beyond doubt the skeleton of a European, judging from the fragments of clothing which lay around.
"I knelt down, though with repugnance, and began to search. In a few moments I found a rusty pen-knife and a wooden pipe quite empty. The clothes were rotten, yet on searching the pocket of the coat which still hung together I found the remains of a letter. The greater part of it was quite undecipherable, but the signature to it was 'M. A. Warburton,' and I could judge by the concluding lines that it was from his wife in Adelaide—that city being named in it. I also discovered seven shillings and two copper pennies, but beyond these there was nothing save the mouldering garments.
"This man must have perished from hunger, I thought. There was plenty of water to be got, and the clothes being on the body and its appearance did not indicate that thirst brought about the decease of Warburton, for he it must undoubtedly have been. Weak with hunger he must have lain down in that spot, which indeed to him was a tomb, and died.
"Could the 'pale-faces' have been ignorant of his presence? I asked myself, and repeatedly answered it in the negative. The only conclusion I could come to was that the unfortunate man had discovered the secret entrance to the settlement, which they would not even show me, and that he had been left to wander about in the labyrinth until death put an end to his wanderings.
"I was certain that the entrance was watched night and day, and any intruder could easily be led astray in the dark and multitudinous passages. Not being allowed to kill directly, this course would be adopted."
"It would be much more merciful under such circumstances to kill a man at once and not allow him to starve to death in darkness and solitude," said Mills, indignantly.
"Yes, no doubt it would; but they have their customs and laws, which are not easily broken through.
"After looking on the gruesome sight for a time I decided to get back to the town. I had seen enough for that day at least, and my anticipations of a pleasant future in that part of the subterranean settlement were much clouded.
"Going back I took another look at the inscription now so eloquent with meaning, and, engrossed with sad thoughts, turned away. For ten minutes I continued, until at last I considered the main passage should be at hand. Going ahead steadily I noticed I had taken the wrong turning some distance back and retraced my steps to a side tunnel which led, as I judged, in a westerly direction. I continued down this for nearly one hundred yards, until to my astonishment I saw it was a cul de sac ending in a solid wall without a turning to right or left. Confound my stupidity! I exclaimed, savagely, as I went back. I have no more sense than a child!
"For the third time I made the attempt to get into the main passage leading to the diamond grotto but again failed. I was now getting alarmed, and concluded to go back to the horrible passage where the skeleton lay and make a fresh start from there. This I felt sure would be a very easy matter, but I did not find it so.
"I tried to take careful bearings of my position, but in doing so was utterly bewildered by the number of dark cavernous openings which faced me in all directions. If I could only get back to the inscription or the grotto I felt the rest would be easy to accomplish, but the more I rambled the more utterly befogged I got. At last it began to dawn upon me that I was lost, but I tried to laugh the unpleasant reflection away.
"After seven years' residence underground I should be as well acquainted with such passages as an old gnome. For fully an hour I wandered about expecting to strike the right place at last, but did not do so. I was standing at the two passages debating with myself which I would take, when at the entrance to one I saw what seemed to be a gun lying.
"A gun here! What can it mean? Then an idea crossed my mind and I went over and picked it up. It was covered with rust but the stock was in good repair, and there cut in large letters I saw the name—
"I had forgotten that the dead man would probably have a rifle with him," went on O'Malley, "and the sight of the weapon gave me a shock, as it revived the memories of former times. Surely I could not be far away from the spot where the inscription was, I thought, and carrying the rusty rifle I went along the passage at the mouth of which I found it.
"This got darker and darker as I proceeded, but I could still see dimly. It ended like others, either in a wall of rock or by becoming so small that I could not get along. I retreated and went madly up to the first entrance I came to. Fortunately for me I was able to distinguish objects more plainly in it or I would not be alive to-day.
"As I walked rapidly in a perfect fever of excitement I saw a few yards ahead what seemed to be a cleft or chasm. Checking myself I went cautiously to the edge and looked down but could not fathom it. A strange sighing sound came up as I listened like the ceaseless murmur made by a sea-shell when it is placed to the ear. What could this be? A man-trap most likely, I reasoned.
"Going back a few yards I got a large fragment of rock and dropped it down the narrow chasm. I listened intently for several seconds before a smothered sound reached my ears, which told me that the stone had fallen into water.
"The chasm must have been four or five hundred feet deep and a stream of water flowed at the bottom. I was quite convinced of that as I sat up and a cold chill swept over me at the thought of the fate I had so narrowly escaped. Caution was necessary in traversing these tunnels I could at once see. I went back from here and cautiously explored several other galleries, but without satisfactory results. It was many hours since I had anything to eat, and I was feeling faint with hunger after my unusual exertions, and this added to the horror of my position.
"I guessed it must be near midnight, but still wandered hopelessly on until my preternaturally acute ears caught the sound of rushing waters down the passage I was going. As I neared the place I saw that I had come upon another of these fearful clefts on the floor of the passage similar to the one mentioned. It was certainly of the same character but immensely larger.
"I shivered as I looked over the side, for down below I could see the black waters rushing on with resistless force. This queer well must have been at least twenty feet in diameter, being nearly circular.
"As I looked round I noticed with surprise that the rocks were carved into all sorts of monstrous forms which looked hideous in the peculiar light. The sight unnerved me, and, exhausted as I was, I went back a few yards and sunk down on the floor of the passage to try and rest. I must have gone into a deep sleep, for it was nearly noon the following day when I was awakened by someone shaking me, and, starling up, I saw the white figure of Anscra standing beside me.
"For a few moments I could not realise what had happened, but as my gaze fell upon the uncouth figures of men and beasts—or rather what was probably intended for such—the discoveries of the preceding day flashed upon me.
"What place is that? I asked Anscra, pointing to the horrible chasm. He signified that he would tell me something about it some time, and then I lifted the rifle and showed it to him. Without a word he took it from my hands, and, going to the edge of the abyss, flung it into the dark waters. Moving back he called on me to follow him, and, seeing that he was not disposed to be communicative, I did not urge questions but gladly did so—in fact I felt a thrill of joy, for I was beginning to think that I would meet the same fate as Warburton.
"It gratified me to think that my pale friends whom I so cruelly doubted should have sought for me—indeed it was my own fault that I got into such a tight place.
"I found on going back to the town that food was waiting for me and everything had been prepared for my comfort.
"Since the preceding sunset over a hundred of the most expert men had been out seeking me, and most of them were in the quarter to which I had strayed. Anscra told me that he despaired of finding me as the night wore on, for he concluded that I had fallen down one of the horrible chasms, so that will give you some idea of what a fearful labyrinth I got into.
"At the place where I was found it appears that no one but the chief or his successor was allowed to go near it, and my faithful friend told me the following story or legend of the reason. I cannot of course repeat it as he told it, but will give it in my own way.
"'For many lives after Bonin and Video founded the settlement underground none of our race ever went in the direction where you strayed. There was enough work to do around the lake to keep all employed and the room was more than sufficient for them.
"'As time went on and the people increased the men began to explore all the passages and caverns lying back from the main settlement and many strange discoveries were made. In numerous places the sun came down, and wherever it was possible these cracks were stopped up. The young men, who were active, were employed on that work for some of the places were hard to reach.
"'For years this went on, but there were always fresh discoveries being made. It is not more than five lives ago since the last of these sunlight streaks were stopped and two young men named Cudie and Rowab spent their time at the work.
"'Now, it happened that they both loved a maiden named Ellice, but the girl looked with most favor on Rowab. The chief, who decides all marriages, perhaps did not know this—or if he did it was not allowed to sway him from what he thought was his duly. Therefore when Cudie spoke to him of marriage with Ellice he said that it should be, and when Rowab also spoke to him in the same strain he replied that it should not be.
"'Rowab and Ellice were brought up to obey, and they did not dare say ought against the wishes of their chief and ruler. Yet they eat their hearts out in secret sorrow, for they loved each other with a love great as the mountains from which their race sprang. Sometimes they spoke together, for in this place we are one community and the freest social intercourse is allowed. For a time this went on, until one day the chief told Cudie and Ellice they would be married on the morrow.
"'Rowab and Cudie were working near where you were found on that day and in the evening Cudie was seen returning alone. He looked sad, and, going to the chief, he told him Rowab had gone to his long sleep.
"'The chief could not at first make it out, but at last Cudie said that Rowab had tried to throw him in the black cavern, and in the struggle which ensued Rowab and not Cudie had fallen into the rushing black waters. The people were summoned together, for it was serious news.
"'It was the first time in the history of the settlement that such a thing had happened. Never before had there been a fatal quarrel like that—and besides where was the body? If that were not recovered, and the proper rites paid it, Rowab would sleep on forever and could not attain the other life.
"'Only a few of the people had ever seen that horrible place, but when the chief had told them what had happened they all followed him to see what could be done. The passages for a long way behind the chief were filled with people, and when the fatal spot was reached it was hard for many to get to the awful chasm, at the bottom of which the waters flowed.
"'When the chief looked down he saw that it would not be possible to get the body of Rowab, for the great stream flowed under the rocks and no one could live in it.
"'Close behind the chief came Ellice and she looked as one might who lay on the 'Dead Stone.' She got close to the edge of the abyss and looked long and earnestly into the depths as if she could see the form of the man she loved below. Suddenly her eyes brightened as she gazed, and the next moment a white body fell into the chasm and disappeared beneath the water. It was Ellice. No one spoke, for they were filled with horror, until the chief raised his voice and ordered the people back to the town. Then he followed sadly, whilst behind him came Cudie almost broken hearted.
"'Now, the chief thought the matter over for many days, and then he sent for Cudie and said that he had found a way to keep the graves of Rowab and Ellice sacred so that they might wake again. This plan was that Cudie, who was skilled at rock cutting, should carve out of the soft rock, figures over the pit to frighten away intruders and prevent the graves of Rowab and Ellice from being desecrated.
"'Cudie began his task, and he had to do it alone. For a long time he kept at the work, and only the chief and his successor were allowed to go near the spot. At length the time came when the last figure was completed, and the chief went up to see it finished. When this was done Cudie asked him if he was sure Ellice and Rowab would awaken once more now the guardian figures were completed, and the chief answered that he was.
"'As the latter was turning away now quite satisfied, Cudie gave a step forward, still holding the tools which had wrought the work, and plunged into the place which held his sweetheart and his friend. Since then no man or woman save the chief and his successor is allowed to go near that spot.'
"This was the substance of the story told by Anscra," concluded O'Malley.
"Do you know the legend opens up a very interesting question. If there is any truth in it—and I believe there is——" remarked the squatter, "these strange carvings and hieroglyphics occasionally found might lead to important discoveries. Without doubt they have not been drawn for pleasure, for the work must have been very laborious, and certainly they were not executed for profit. There were few millionaires in those ancient days who would have given fabulous prices for the rock drawings or carvings. In all probability then they were made for some such purpose as Cudie did his. They may mark the spot where some great man or woman died, or perhaps they are the outcome of certain religious beliefs."
"My own opinion," replied O'Malley, "is that they are in some way connected with the dead. In all ages and in all countries the greatest monuments we have are attributes to the dead. From the pyramid to the Taj Mahal the noblest works of man are merely tributes paid to the majesty of death. The ruder races of the earth, either through want of skill or paucity of members, have not been able to raise such memorials as the pyramids, but some of these stone carvings are perhaps older than Cheops itself. We Christians place representations of angels—when we have the money—over the graves of our dead to protect them, and why should not the pagan try to frighten away with hideous sculptures enemies who might desecrate the graves. Of course to Europeans such a course excites ridicule and would be more calculated to lead to ridicule as it would attract the curious, but the pagan is different. He worships hideous figures of wood or stone, and the uglier they are the more powerful he believes them to be."
"But your underground people were not pagans," interrupted Stanley.
"The leaven of paganism must have been in them. Indeed, the pagans have good and noble qualities which could be adopted with benefit by those who call themselves higher and more civilized," replied O'Malley.
"Well, O'Malley," spoke Mills, breaking in upon the argument and cutting it short, "you have had a strange and terrible experience during the last twelve years, such as falls to the lot of few men. How you survived it all is almost a miracle."
"Yes; I sometimes think so myself," came the answer in a curiously abstracted manner, as the friends separated for the night.
The months sped on at Nardoo Station and success smiled upon its worthy owner. Shearing time, with its bustle and animation, had come and gone, and the routine of the station was again entered upon.
Mr. and Mrs. Mills were exceedingly kind and attentive to James O'Malley, for outside the fact that he had once saved the squatter's life, his eventful history and the sufferings he had undergone touched them with sympathy.
A newspaper reporter had come all the way from Bourke to interview him about his ten years' sojourn in the solitudes, but O'Malley was absolutely reticent. He told the pressman that his mind had been a blank during that long period, as the terrors of his position made him temporarily insane, and the reporter went back and wrote a horrible account of the effects of solitude on the human brain.
He asked his friends not to say anything about the history he had given them—at least not for a time—as he had a dread of being interviewed and made a fuss about. They respected his wishes, though Mrs. Mills often desired to send the narrative in written form to her daughters.
On one occasion Mills had to make a trip to Sydney and he pressed O'Malley to accompany him; but the latter steadfastly refused and unmistakably showed that he did not want to be in crowded cities.
"I would like to know what is the matter with O'Malley," said Stanley to the squatter when he returned. "I can't make him out at all. He is moping about all day and half the night, and sometimes I hear him muttering in a language that I suppose he must have picked up amongst the subterranean people."
"No doubt he has not yet recovered from his strange adventures. We must let him have time. That is the great healer of all sorrows and sufferings," answered the old man.
There was no mistaking the fact that a change was coming over O'Malley. He grew more morose and silent and absented himself from his friends as much as possible.
The squatter did not bother him much about his strange fits as his idea was that time would work a cure, but Stanley and Strangway often rallied him upon the change.
"You thought a new life was opening before you when you got to Nardoo and away from those awful ranges, and now you almost seem as if you would like to get back again," Strangway said.
A wan smile from O'Malley was the only answer to the question.
"Now then, cheer up, old friend and mate," Stanley would say, slapping O'Malley on the back in burly seaman fashion, but the kindly appeal fell flat in most instances.
"Do you think," said Mills to O'Malley nearly a year after his advent at Nardoo, "that we could find a profitable squattage near the junction of the Finke with the Macumba River?"
"Yes, I am sure of it. There is magnificent water and food there," replied the strange man with animation.
"I am thinking of making the trial at all events. Strangway has made a favorable report of that district, and I have a couple of hundred young cattle I could well spare from these pastures," Mills answered.
"I know the country about there is magnificent and I strongly advise you to try the experiment. It will be profitable, I am certain," came the reply.
"I would like you to take charge of the expedition. I know that Strangway and Stanley would gladly give way to you," spoke the Squatter.
"I would prefer to go under the leadership of Strangway. He is a splendid fellow, and knows more about the management of flocks and herds than I do. I have no experience to speak of about that particular kind of work, and you know for ten years I did not see a horse, steer or sheep," added O'Malley.
"There is a good deal of truth in what you say, and after all each of you will be equal. I am glad you advise me to try that district, for I have been long thinking of opening up that part of the country," Mills responded.
"If our friend, who has spent so much of his life near that region, is agreeable to go, why certainly I am. It is my business, and after all I would rather be on the trot than running about a station half idle," Strangway said.
"There will be little fear of any disaster overtaking you this time, Strangway, as you will be fitted out in a style you never were before."
"I am not the least afraid of anything now. I know the country too well for that. The only place I would decline to face is those confounded ranges where we found O'Malley," answered Strangway.
"Ah! by-the-bye you must take the leadership. O'Malley has positively refused it, for he says he prefers you to be in command. I am sure you will all work well together. There will be Stanley, O'Malley and the four boys I am sending to look after the cattle."
Stanley was quite agreeable to join the party when he found his two friends were in it, and in a couple of weeks a start was made with 200 head of cattle on the journey. O'Malley was mounted on the magnificent steed given him by Mills, and all hands set off from Nardoo station with great eclat.
The journey was about 300 miles. Those at the head had an intimate knowledge of most of the country. The south-western portion of Sturt's stony desert was skirted and abundant food and water were found for the greater portion of the journey.
Near the junction of the Finke and Macumba Rivers Strangway squatted. The fresh waters of Finke Creek ran through the land, and the natural facilities were even better than at Nardoo station itself.
A temporary homestead was erected and everything prepared for the permanent occupation. When this was done Strangway and one of the men rode over to Coglin station to send a telegram to Mills that all was well and a good squattage had been secured. They were absent a couple of days, and when they returned Stanley had a story to tell them.
O'Malley had not been seen since the previous morning.
"Where did he go?"
"The last I saw of him was riding over the plain yonder," answered Stanley.
"What! Going towards those haunted ranges?"
A week later the operator in charge of the Alice Springs station reported that he had seen a man some days previously mounted on a white horse cross near the station and make for the McDonnell Ranges, from which the Finke River came. He hailed him, but the strange man took no notice and soon disappeared in an adjoining glen.
* * * * * *
"Ah!" said Squatter Mills when he heard the news, "these strange people bewitched that man in some mysterious way."
He was probably right for O'Malley was never seen again.
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