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The Stories Of Ernest Favenc, Volume I:
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Date first posted: Jan 2023
Most recent update: Jan 2023
This eBook was produced by Terry Walker, Roy Glashan and Colin Choat
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British-born and educated at Berlin and Oxford, Ernest Favenc (1845-1908; the name is of Huguenot origin) arrived in Australia aged 19, and while working on cattle and sheep stations in Queensland wrote occasional stories for the Queenslander. In 1877 the newspaper sponsored an expedition to discover a viable railway route from Adelaide to Darwin, which was led by Favenc. He later undertook further explorations, and then moved to Sydney.
He wrote some novels and poems and a great many short stories, reputedly 300 or so. Three volumes of his stories were published in his lifetime:
The Last of Six, Tales of the Austral Tropics, 1893
Tales of the Austral Tropics, 1894
My Only Murder and Other Tales, 1899
His short stories range from bush humor to horror, supernatural to strange, and to the privations of late 19th century exploration in Australia's unforgiving inland. His first two short story books (consolidated into one volume, as there is considerable overlap), are available free as an ebook from Project Gutenberg Australia.
—Terry Walker, January 2023
A PARTY of four of us—three whites and a black boy—while out on a prospecting trip in Western Australia, were induced by likely auriferous indications to push into the interior, far beyond the head of the Gascoyne. We were well equipped, and were especially lucky in the season; so we agreed, although the gold indications had failed, to go on and, if possible, work our way right through the unknown country to Kimberley. We were all experienced bushmen, and, as our horses were in good condition, there was nothing very hazardous in the attempt.
On Sunday, November 22nd, 1891, we were camped at a native well of fairly fresh water, where there was a patch of good feed for the horses, and about a mile away a small salt lake, on which were swans, geese, and other wildfowl. We determined to spell for a week in order to recruit, and, at the same time, do so without encroaching on our rations, as the game in the lake would support us.
With the exception of the flat on which was the good grass I mentioned, the country was desolate and barren in the extreme, sandy, and covered with spinifex. From a low sandhill not far from our camp a range was just visible to the northwest. It was to this point we determined to steer when we again started How far away it was, we could not determine, but it was a considerable distance, as we could only see it before sunrise and after sunset during the short clear twilight. Dan, the black boy, who came from the coast and did not understand the phenomena of the plains, used to declare that it was no range, but a cloud; and in spite of all our laughter about a cloud remaining always in one place, and always of the same shape, he stuck to his opinion.
At the end of the week we started. From various indications we imagined that we should find it dry ahead, and took what precautions we could. We left as soon as our horses had had their morning drink, and all day rode through an unvarying tract of spinifex plains and low sandhills.
By a great stroke of good luck, we came towards evening to a grassed flat between two sand ridges, where a passing thunderstorm had left a little water in a clay pan. This was just enough for our wants; but, strange to say, even from the top of the sand ridges we could no longer sight the range, although so much nearer to it. This could easily be accounted for by the formation of the country; but Dan, of course, put it down to his cloud theory. From the time we left the salt lake we had not seen a living thing of any sort, not even a lizard.
Next morning we started in the same direction, but still the country remained unchanged. Shortly after mid-day we ascended a sand ridge somewhat higher than usual, and simultaneously all pulled up at the sight in front of us. About two miles ahead was the range we had been steering for, hitherto shut out by the high ridge we were standing on.
A grim, bare, rocky range, with level but somewhat serrated summit running north and south: between us and it was a sand plain, without a vestige of vegetation on it stretching right to the rock at the foot of the range. The whole, under the fierce vertical sun, was so blinding and radiating, that involuntarily we put up our hands, as though shading our faces from the open door of a furnace.
"We'll tackle that later on," said Westall, one of my companions.
We agreed, and retraced our steps to where there were some miserable stunted gums affording a little shade Here we turned out and boiled the billy Whilst we had our meal, after relieving the horses of the packs and water-bags, we discussed our movements, and agreed to ride over to the range and examine it, leaving Dan to mind the other horses.
It appeared, certainly, as though we would have to push back to the salt lake during the night. In the afternoon we rode to the range across the belt of bare, blistering sand. It was granite, and beyond its barrier-like formation and surroundings there was nothing uncommon in it.
I turned to ride slowly one way, and Westall and James went the other. In about half an hour I returned to the point where our tracks struck the range, but could see nothing of my companions. I waited some time, and then rode slowly on their tracks. Soon I met James coming back.
"Where is Westall?" I asked.
"Oh, he turned back," he replied; "there's nothing to do, unless go up the range on foot; but Westall said he would go on a little further."
We waited, and as we did there came to our ears an awful cry of agony for help, that simultaneously we both shouted in reply, and pushed forward as fast as the sand would permit. It must have been a terrible cry to have reached us, for seemed to traverse nearly a mile before we came upon Westall—up to his waist in sand, and his horse, from which he had thrown himself over the saddle, in the same. Which bore the most agonised expression, man or horse, it was impossible to say.
The horse was incapable of movement; but Westall could till move his arms. They were in a dry quicksand, and the sand was burning hot. James seemed paralysed; but I, who heard of such things, jumped off, calling him to do the same, and commenced frantically to unbuckle my reins and slip my stirrup-leathers, in response to the despairing yells for help that came to us.
While still engaged in this task, the horse, with a scream of pain, disappeared. As fast as we could, we worked; then, approaching as closely as we dared, we threw the substitute for a rope to the wretched man, now nearly up to the I armpits.
It was too short. We threw ourselves flat, and felt the uneasy mass of burning sand immediately in front, and thought we could trust it. James got on his knees and tried another cast. This time u was successful. Westall caught the stirrup-iron at the end, and I, too, rose to seize the leather, when, as if determined not to lose its prey, the sand began to heave and work, consequent on the submergence of the horse, and Westall, who must have been mercifully dead with the sudden increased pressure, disappeared.
"Save yourself!" shrieked James; "it's got us."
If by magic, the sand beneath became tremulous and yielding. I was nearest the range, and throwing myself flat once more, commenced to roll toward it. James instinctively started to his feet to run, and was caught, as were the horses.
I reached the range, clutched the burning rock, and dragged myself on it. When I dared look, I wonder I did not go mad. James was digging his hands in the hot sand, striving to drag himself out; and the horses!—one stood quiet, trembling only, while the sweat rained down; the other strove and struggled, and whinnied piteously. And I had to sit there and watch it all, utterly helpless. The only thing I could do was to throw myself in and perish with them. But such a death! I turned face down, and covered my eyes, and tried to stop my ears.
Once I looked. The devilish sand seemed alive with fury or joy, shaking and quaking, and boiling almost. James must have been dead, for he was lying forward with his head on his arms. One of the horses was the same, the other was quiet; and I turned away.
When I looked again, everything had disappeared, only the glowing sand was still full of motion. I was alone.
When at last I regained some mastery over myself, the sun was sinking low. The treacherous, horrible sand was quiescent; but determined to wait until far into the night before seeking a passage; meanwhile, I commenced to make along the rocks to the spot where we struck the range, as being the safest place to attempt it. But I reflected—the hellish thing having been once set in motion, it may be days before it settles down again; meanwhile, Dan will either come to look for us, and perish too, or return to the old camp at the salt lake, and leave me to perish by a more lingering death than that my companions met with.
As this comforting thought struck me, I came upon what seemed a confirmation of my fears. Three skeletons lay on the rocks, and further off I saw the remains of two more natives who had been entrapped like I had. Perhaps a whole tribe had gone under. Surely if they could find no means of escape, what chance had I?
It was more than once I approached the edge of the rocks, meaning to dare the fatal passage; but my courage failed me. The range, as I said, was bare, smooth rock, and I had weighty object with which to test the condition of the sand. At last I thought of the dead bodies, and although the task was sufficiently repulsive, I managed to accomplish it, and dragged them to the edge of the range, and pushed them out on to the quicksand. They lay there unengulfed. Apparently, the way was open.
Still, I was too frightened to trust myself on my feet, and rolled the whole way across to the firm ground. When I got up and looked back, the two bodies had disappeared. I waited for no more, but hurried back to camp.
I explained what had happened to the boy, and he at once became terribly alarmed, and showed the greatest anxiety to leave such a dangerous neighbourhood. We reached the settled country after some days—that is to say, I reached it, for Dan disappeared before then. It will easily be understood that his disappearance was necessary, as if left to tell some garbled tale he might have been the cause of suspicion that I had murdered my mates; our experience having been too startling for ordinary belief.
For non-Australians, the "jackasses" in the last paragraph are kookaburras, birds popularly nicknamed "laughing jackasses" at the time.
TWO men—two swagmen—met on an outback road, about an hour or two before sundown, and they squatted down for a smoke, and exchanged confidences.
"You'll strike Hungry Hartford's place about sundown, and I don't envy you. You'll get tucker, such as it is. A pint of weevily flour; it it's beef, you'll get the New England tongue, or it it's mutton, you'll get a scraggy piece of the neck and shoulder. As for the tea, it's all stalks, and as for the sugar it's black with age, and no sweetness in it."
"There should be a law," said No. 2, "compelling squatters to furnish decent rations. How can they expect a man to travel on such cag-mag?"
"I quite agree with you," said No 1. "They talk about their Early Closing Acts and their Sunday closing, and their this, that, and the other, but how about our rights and privileges? Blow me, if they're regarded in the least. We should have a swagman's member in Parliament."
"We should," said No. 2, "and if I could make a rise I'd go in on that ticket; I can talk as well as most of them."
"You can, Bill, a deuced sight better than most. How would it be to get up a subscription through all the travelling fraternity, to subscribe to a fund to put you in Parliament."
"It might be done, Jim; but they'd all fight over who would be treasurer. Well, so long. I suppose I must put in an appearance at Hungry Hartford's, or I shall get no tucker, bad as it is;" and No 2 resumed his swag and his way.
While discussing Hungry Hartford's rations that night the conversation he had just had kept running in his head. Why should he not put up for Parliament? He was as well educated as the general run of members; he could talk fluently, and had any amount of assurance. On reflection, he seemed to possess the usual qualifications, and, thinking over it, he got into his rough bunk, and fell asleep.
"MR. SPEAKER, standing as I do here on the floor of the Parliament House of a great and coming nation, with the dust of honest tramping on my boots, and the taste of bad rations in my mouth."
These were the words that awoke him, and he found himself in the gallery of a large hall, looking down upon a gathering of legislators, one of whom was then addressing the Speaker. The figure of the speaking member was arrayed in the rough dress of a swagman, and at his feet lay his rolled blanket; and then he noticed that there were others amongst the assemblage who were dressed as swagmen and had their swags lying at their feet; but somehow, to his practised eye, these men did not look quite the correct style of thing. But, strangest thing of all, the man who was addressing the House, was himself. It is not often that a man is privileged to look upon himself in the flesh, and this was Bill Denner's strange experience.
His double was still speaking:
"I have the honor to represent a large and important section of the community, and in the same of the community of swagmen, of sundowners, as they are more poetically called, I claim that this bill, authorising a swagmen, when his billy or waterbag leaks, to obtain a new one from any station owner, should be brought forward at once. That it will pass, considering the intellectual status of the legislators of New South Wales, I have not the slightest doubt. Which of you—I ask the question with confidence in tho answer—would like to be stranded on the burning plains of the West, with a leaky billy and a waterbag with holes in it? Not one of you. Then why should these poor men have to suffer the dangers and disadvantages of such a misfortune. I leave the matter in the hands of the House, satisfied that the feelings of humanity, of justice, and of common altruism, will lead to this most necessary bill being at once passed."
Now, during the latter part of this speech Bill Denner had felt a strange kind of compulsory feeling creeping over him, insisting on him going down and interviewing his double. He rose from his seat and passed down the stains, seemingly by a mere act of volition. His feet carried him round, whether he would or no, to a front entrance, and there he came face to face with the other Bill Denner.
The attendants and others took no notice of him, seemingly did not see him, but his counterpart recognised him at once, and seized him eagerly by the hand.
"So you hare come at last," he said. "I'm very glad; I'm getting sick of the job; but I've put you in a good place, old man. Lord, what fun it has been! Mind you keep up to the mark." He took Denner's arm as he spoke and led him outside.
"But," protested Denner, "don't it seem strange for people to see two men be much alike together?"
"Lord, man, no one can see you as long as I have your body. Come along to a quiet place and I'll tell you all I've done."
The pair went on till they came to a small pub with an empty back room, and they went in and sat down. The double rang the bell.
"Bring two long beers," he said.
"Two?" said the girl, inquiringly.
"Yes, two. I expect a friend here shortly." The girl brought them in. Then, when she had left the room, Denner poured one down his dry and dusty throat.
"Now fire away," he said.
"Well, you remember when you went to sleep in the traveller's hut at Hungry Hartford's station. In point of fact you went off in a trance, and I—"
"Was I buried?"
"Yes, you were buried right enough, and Hartford was very mad at your choosing his station to die on. So they didn't bury you deep, and I soon had you out, and thought I'd have a bit of fun in your body. As soon as I appropriated your body I found out what you had been thinking about, and the idea suited me down to the ground. Now, thinks I, if anybody can engineer this job I can."
"But who are you?" demanded Denner.
"Oh, one of the fourth spirits, who are allowed to play these pranks. I went into the thing con amore, and I very soon was returned as a member, ostensibly for Mudville, but in reality in the swagman interest. You'd be astonished how the idea took. The member of the Swagman's Interest became at once an important member of the House. I have got three bills through already—the Improvement of Rations Bill, the Disinfecting Travellers' Huts Bill, and the 4 o'clock Tea Bill, by which any traveller arriving at a station can demand afternoon tea if he comes early. The idea got so popular that other members commenced to copy the notion, and also my dress; but they can't do the real thing, as perhaps you have noticed. Anyway, they commenced to bring dogs in the House to make the thing realistic, but such a series of free fights followed that it had to be stopped. The dogs would fight, and then the members they belonged to would accuse one another of kicking their dogs, and more fights would follow. Now, I have put things in good working order for you, go ahead in the path I have marked out for you, only don't make a mess of things after I have had so much trouble in putting them right. Now, I'll tell you how you stand. I've saved a bit of money for you, living as I have done, and I can't take it with me, for I am going back to the spirit world, here it is, £75; take it, and pocket it. Now, mind your follow my advice, and stick to the path I have chalked out. Good-bye, there is somebody calling me, I must go. Your lodgings are at 47 Duchess Street; the rent is paid for this month. Good-bye, take care of yourself, for you are a noted man, and a celebrity in Sydney political circles."
Denner felt a sharp twinge of pain, and then he was sitting in the seat occupied by the stranger, and he was alone. Wondering much, be picked up the swag on the floor, and hoisting it on his shoulder, made a start out into the street to discover 47 Duchess-street.
With the money in his pocket, he had the sense to avoid the pubs, and reached his lodgings in safety. They were clean and tidy, and he was evidently a much respected man there, and was addressed as Mr. Denner, which was an innovation in a swagman's life.
He went to bed early, and next morning read in the paper the brilliant speech made by Denner, M.L.A., the night before, and he found himself styled the democrat of democrats.
Things went smoothly at first, for he stuck to the advice of his mysterious friend, and kept to the beaten path that was laid out for him. He received a deputation of swagmen, who, after presenting him with a testimonial for the benefits he had already obtained for them, requested him to introduce a bill to enable all swagmen to be provided with bicycles, at the expense of the State.
Gradually, as time went by, there crept over him a fatal longing for a tall hat. He resisted the fascination as long as possible, but at last it grew too strong, and he yielded to it. He bought a tall hat, and in the solitude of his room he tried it on. He looked in the glass, and shuddered. It was impossible to wear a top hat with his swagman's shirt and moleskins; no, he must have his hair and beard cut, and invest in full political rig; a frock coat must follow, or the old dress be retained—a compromise was impossible.
Fearing much, but led on by a fatal impulse, he indulged in the change of garments. As he stood before the glass, and noted his different appearance he seemed to hear an echo of mocking laughter in the room.
When he entered the House that night he was met with covert sneers and weak jokes. His speech fell flat, and as he looked upward he met the reproaching gaze of many swagmen in the gallery.
Next morning the papers alluded to him as the reformed swagman or the transfigured democrat. From thenceforth his influence departed. Representative swagmen called on him to resign, and, as a final effort, he travelled down to the backblocks, there to address a meeting of his constituents. There was a large gathering, and a very indignant one, and he quailed as he saw a vista of swagmen of all ages and sizes, all angry, all indignant, and all crowding up to the balcony with missiles in their hands.
"Call yourself a democratic swagman," they roared, "and wear a top hat and frock coat! Ugh!"
And then a shower of missiles of all sorts were rained on him, and he felt himself struck on the head. He started, and the whole scene disappeared from view.
HE was lying in the travellers' hut at Hungry Hartford's, and the grey dawn was slowly stealing through the chinks in the slabs.
"What a dream ."' he muttered. "No, I don't think I'll try to get into Parliament as the swagmen's member. Doesn't suit me."
He rolled up his swag and marched off along the road just as the jackasses were beginning their morning song.
I HAD long been interested in hypnotism, and as I fondly imagined, understood the science as well as a man without practical experience could. That was the trouble. In theory I was perfect, but as yet my practical experience, was limited to two attempts—both, I am bound to admit, failures. At this juncture my wife came to my rescue. She is of a mild and gentle disposition, and takes great interest in my scientific researches; but it never occurred to me that she could act as a subject for my experiments until after a conversation we held one day on the matter.
'There is a singular development in connection with hypnotism just recorded in this journal,' I said.
'What is it, Willy?' she asked.
'That if the person hypnotised thinks of some particular character, whether of history or fiction, whom he or she admires, they assume that character under the hypnotic influence. Further, that the hypnotiser can imbue the patient with the notion that he or she is some historical personage. But that,' I added, 'was known before. The first part of the paragraph is, however, novel.'
We talked over it for some time, and presently my dear wife said shyly—'Willy, suppose you try and hypnotise me. I will think of some favorite character. But mind, dear, you will not make me do anything foolish, will you?'
I assured her that I would not, and we commenced the experiment. To my astonishment it was a complete success.
'Now, Lucy,' I said, 'tell me who you are?'
The next moment I got a terrible blow in the face that nearly knocked me down. 'The most infectious pestilence upon thee!' said my wife. 'Hence, horrible villain! or I'll spurn thine eyes like balls before me; I'll unhair thy head!'
And she proceeded to do so by hauling me about by my beard, for I had no hair to speak of.
On she went: 'Thou shalt be whipped with wire and stewed in brine, smarting in lingering pickle!'
Good heavens! My gentle Lucy, who shrieked at a mouse, was transformed into Shakespeare's Cleopatra. As well as I could under the difficult I circumstances I removed the influence, but my wife had no sooner caught sight of me than she fell back on the sofa in a faint, with a cry of alarm.
No wonder. The first blow had caused a rush of blood to my nose, and the second one had swelled my eye, whilst being hauled about by the beard had left me slightly dishevelled. I must have been a pitiable sight indeed.
'Oh, what has happened?' she moaned,
'I'll tell you directly,' I said, behind my bloodsoaked handkerchief. 'I must go and stop this bleeding; it's only my nose.'
I went to my bedroom, and when the bleeding had somewhat stopped I told her what had happened.
'Is Cleopatra, as portrayed by Shakespeare, a favorite character of yours?' I asked.
My wife rather shamefacedly confessed that she did admire the domineering character of Cleopatra.
Here was a surprise. I should have thought that my wife would have admired one of the mild heroines of Jane Austen, but this disclosure took my breath away. It only shows how you can be married for years and yet not know one another's character. However, we agreed to drop the experiments at present, but the thing had given me an idea.
We were not too well off, but I had expectations from an old aunt. So too unfortunately had another nephew, an idle scapegrace of a fellow, who would squander all she left him in a year or two. But, most unjustly, my respected aunt had rather a weakness for him, and naturally I felt very serious about my inheritance at times. Why shouldn't I make sure, invite my worthy relative to stay with me, persuade her to let me hypnotise her, and while in that condition make her promise to make her will in my favor, to the exclusion of the other unworthy nephew?
I mentioned the idea to my wife, and she and I arranged the details of our plot. I found, on consulting all my authorities on hypnotism, that a promise given under the hypnotic influence remained binding until the patient was relieved of it by the hypnotiser. Instances were cited of confirmed drunkards promising to refrain from drink, and adhering to the promise; and of course I thought all these cases true. This was satisfactory. If I could only hypnotise the old lady my future was safe.
My aunt always enjoyed a visit to us. She was fond of her meals, and my wife was a capital cook; so she came readily on my invitation. I must admit that her visits were not an unalloyed blessing, for she took every advantage of her position, and was as exacting in her demands as one woman could well be. However, when there is money at stake, one puts up with that sort of thing, although my wife used to have a good cry every night in the seclusion of our room. Indeed, I felt at times half inclined to hypnotise my wife, and let my aunt have a little experience of her in the character of Cleopatra.
However, my way was partly cleared for me, for my aunt was deeply interested in the subject of hypnotism, and therefore I began to talk about it, and the successful (God forgive me) experiments I had made. We had a series of mock hypnotisms, and my wife acted her part well, for I was careful not to make the hypnotism a realism.
The old lady rose to the bait, and expressed a wish to be hypnotised. It was a nervous moment. What if I failed?
Fortunately, the old lady, my respected aunt, was a willing subject, and it was not long before I got her off into a real hypnotic trance; and I proceeded to question her on the subject of her will. She answered readily enough, and I found out that beyond a poor £500, the whole of her property was left unreservedly to her favorite nephew James. I told her that must be altered at once, and the name of William inserted instead of James. I hesitated whether I should allow James anything, but generosity prevailed, and I let him stand in for the £500.
I restored my respected aunt to her senses, and she expressed herself as much pleased at the success of the process. She stayed with us a little longer, and I repeated the mesmeric passes, and thoroughly fixed the will subject on her mind. We parted on the most affectionate terms, far more affectionate than ever we had been before.
A fortnight passed, and one day I received simultaneously a letter and a telegram. I opened the telegram. My dear aunt had suddenly expired in a fit of apoplexy. Surely we had not overfed the dear creature? The letter was from her, written the night before her sudden and lamented death. In it she upbraided me in a furious manner; said that I had made her a laughing stock and a show. She discarded me for ever, and I need not expect one penny of her money.
My wife and I gazed at each other in dismay. What on earth had occurred?
This is what happened, as I found out afterwards. That villain James heard somehow, through one of my servants I suppose, about the hypnotic experiments going on, and he laid a deep and artful scheme. There was at this time a mountebank performing in the town, who had a lot of miserable hired subjects whom he used to make perform all sorts of ludicrous and disgusting tricks under the pretended mesmeric influence.
To this entertainment James insisted on escorting my aunt She asked to be taken out after a short time had elapsed, and appeared very pre-occupied and silent.
'James!' she said, when they got home, 'I have been staying with William, and while there he hypnotised me. Do you think he made a show of me, like that man did with his patients?'
'Not a doubt about it,' said the villain.
'What! Made me eat tallow candles and stick pins in myself?'
'Yes.' In fact, I know, he did from one of the servants.'
My aunt nearly had a fit. Then she dismissed James, and wrote two letters—one to me, and one to her lawyers.
The next morning James turned up again, determined to drive the nail home, and told her a list of my atrocities that he pretended he had heard. He had just described how I called up the servants and made her dance a hornpipe before them, when suddenly she choked, turned red, and went off in a fit of apoplexy from sheer rage.
James had overdone it.
When the lawyer arrived she was dead. I shall never forget how James and I glared at one another while the lawyer opened the will. The hypnotic suggestion had held good, and James had cut his own throat. William got everything but the £500 which James got.
'I congratulate you, Mr. William,' said the lawyer. 'Your aunt only inserted your name about a fortnight ago.'
I have given up hypnotic experiments. I am quite satisfied about the matter.
THE river had long ceased running, the water holes were few and far between, and the cattle had worn long, dusty pads in and out to their feeding grounds, gradually working further and further up the ranges that bounded the valley through which the river ran.
The drought showed no signs of breaking up. True, thunderstorms gathered, and grew black and threatening; but in the end they melted away in idle bluster; a few heavy drops of rain, a flash or two of lightning, some heavy peels of thunder, and then a storm of drifting, blinding dust. All day the whirlwinds stalked over the burnt country, tall, revolving black columns; and, all night the stars shone out of a cloudless sky, bright, clear, and pitiless.
No moisture was in the air in the early morning, no dew spangled the tussocks of white, dry grass, that here and there survived—all was desolate under the cruel sun that lorded it all the day. The station horses were too poor to work, even if there had been anything to do, but sit down and wait for the rain, which, seemed as though it would never visit that portion of the earth again.
It was on an out-station in North Queensland that two men were doomed to keep each other company during this dreary period of heat and enforced idleness. The elder man managed to pass the time fairly well, plaiting green-hide into whips, bridles, and hobbles; the younger, whose tastes did not lie that way, after one or two ineffectual attempts to learn the knack of it, gave it up, and read the two or three tattered novels on the place for the tenth or twelfth time.
'Bob,' he said one morning, 'I shall assuredly go mad if this lasts much longer. What do you say if we take a trip up to the head of the river?'
'What for?' asked Bob.
'Just to see where it comes from. You remember when we followed it up to a gorge twelve months ago, and were blocked by a waterhole. That hole must be pretty dry. now, and we can get up higher.'
'What's the good,' muttered Bob, tugging at his plaits; 'only knocking horses about for nothing—and they're as fat as fools now; aren't they?' he added sarcastically.
'Oh! if we go steady, it wont hurt them. I'm dead sick of staying here doing nothing; we might find something interesting.'
'Pooh! This river just heads from the coast range just like all the others. There can't be anything new about it.'
'I don't know. That range seemed very curious to me, and I've had a hankering to get through that gorge ever since we were up there. Will you come?'
'Oh! I suppose so. We may as well do something to earn our rations. You can run some horses up from the four-mile bend this afternoon. I saw their tracks there the other day.'
The next morning the two men started, taking a packhorse with them, as they anticipated being away at least three days.
THREE days passed, and three hungry dogs at the out-station looked vainly for their return, and consulted together as to the feasibility of going out calf-killing. Three more passed, and the lean and famished dogs held a council of war, but could decide nothing, until one of them hit on the happy thought of shifting their quarters over to the head station, eighteen miles away.
In consequence the residents there were astonished by the advent of three famished spectres, who were recognised as three out of the four dogs belonging to the out-station; the fourth had gone with the two men. Something was wrong evidently, and the manager and another man started over at once, well-armed, thinking the blacks might have raided the place.
It was dark when they arrived; but the slab hut, with its grey roof of bark, stood there, silent and lifeless, with no sign of any tragedy having taken place. There was a half-moon, and the night was bright and clear. They dismounted, and, knowing the secret of the clumsy latch, opened the door and entered. The manager struck a match, and surveyed the empty interior. As if the light had aroused something, a long, dismal, melancholy howl arose from the river, about a hundred yards away. Again and again it sounded, and the two stared at each other, until the match burned the superintendent's fingers, and he dropped it hastily.
'Surely that wasn't a dingo?' he asked. 'Didn't sound like one; but what else was it?'
'Blessed if I know. 'Twasn't a man, anyhow. Try if you can find the slush lamp; we'll make up a fire and boil our quarts.'
The lamp was trimmed, and a fire lighted, the quarts were put on, and the horses hobbled out to pick up such dry stuff as was left. The deserted hut had a weird, uncanny appearance, and dark shadows seemed to hide in the corners, dimly illuminated by the flickering flame.
'I wish it was morning; we can do nothing till then,' said Greenwood, the manager.
Of a sudden the cry arose again; but now it came swiftly towards the house, and with it came a sound like the beat of heavy wings. Both men had faced death in their lives, and were plucky enough; but now they were fairly stricken still with fright. And the cry came near, and circled round the hut, and the beat or the heavy wings accompanied it; and the wings seemed to flap against the walls, as though the wailing thing was trying to find entrance to the light.
'Come on, Dick!' cried Greenwood, in desperation; and flinging open the door, he rushed out, followed by his companion.
In the still, calm air the trees stood erect and motionless—not a bough or leaf stirred. The vertical moon searched every spot; but all around there was no sign of anything. The beat of the huge wings was silent; but a sound came from a distant belt of scrub like some strange being sobbing in great distress. The horses were standing still, sulking over the absence of feed, and did not appear to have been startled.
'We must tie them up to-night,' said Dick, breaking the silence, 'or they'll be miles away in the morning.'
'What on earth was that thing?' answered Greenwood, unheeding, and straining his senses to catch any sound or murmur; but all was quiet.
'Yes; tie them up, Dick,' said the manager, recovering himself. 'Tie them up in the verandah. They'll be company for us.'
He laughed mirthlessly, and after the horses had been secured they turned into the hut, and commenced their interrupted meal.
The night passed without their being disturbed, and by the first dawn the men were mounted, and glad to lose sight of the hut, where they had had such a dreary experience. They managed to pick up the tracks of the two men, and follow them up the river, until they got beyond the tracks of the horses' feeding grounds; then it was pretty easy work, for it was soon evident that the men were following the river for some purpose or other.
It was late in the afternoon when they reached a narrow gorge in the range, through which the river descended, and here their progress was blocked by a long and, apparently, deep waterhole, with sheer rocks rising on each side of it; but, strange to say, although they tracked the two right up to the water's edge, there were no return tracks.
Greenwood gazed at the water in perplexity. The sides were steep and inaccessible. Unless they had gone over the range, they could not have got round the hole. But then there was no turning back; the tracks went straight into the water, and were lost.
'They must have swum their horses across; but what for?'
It was getting late and their horses had had no feed the night before, so it was impossible to do anything more that night. Fortunately, Dick had noticed a patch of grass at the entrance of the gorge, and they went back there, and turned their hungry horses out and camped.
All night the silence was unbroken. No weird cries disturbed their restless naps, and no phantoms came to their camp, beating the air with invisible wings.
In the morning Greenwood determined to leave their horses where they were, there being no sign of blacks about, and try and get over the side of the gorge on foot. This they did, and in due course arrived at a point from which they could see the end of the water-hole, and some of the country beyond. But to theirs astonishment the end was impassable, blocked up by huge boulders and fallen rocks, a complete barricade.
'Whoever went in that hole never came out at the end,' said Dick.'
Greenwood examined the place carefully.
'It seems to me that those rocks have fallen recently. There's been a landslip lately.'
'Perhaps since they went through, and they can't get back,' suggested Dick. 'They would have managed it on foot; more likely the landslip caught them and their horses. Let's get as close as we can.'
They clambered on until they were right over the ruin below, and in sight of the country beyond the gorge.
A terrible looking place it was too, a barren, rocky basin, seemingly without vegetation of any sort. The course of the river could still be traced, showing a little water at intervals. But the singular thing about the landscape was that it was dotted over, with isolated, fantastic-looking rocks that took little imagination to conjure into eccentric and devilish forms, most of them like huge bats with extended wings.
'Blow me!' said Dick, 'but I never see'd rocks like that before.'
'Nor I either. Let's see if we can get down and find any tracks.'
After some trouble they reached the lower ground, and stood at the upper end of the water hole that blocked the gorge, above the huge mass of debris and rocks that formed an impassable barricade. Just above this Greenwood drew his companion's attention to a spring issuing from the scarred face of the cliff.
'I have it,' he said, after a little consideration. 'That hole was nearly dry when they came here, and they rode through it easily, then came this landslip, and that spring broke out and filled the hole up again.'
'We ought to find them up here then?'
'I'm afraid something has happened; they could have got back the way we came.'
'Dashed queer-looking place,' said Dick, looking round. Now that they were down in the basin the outlook was more weird than from up above. The strange isolated rocks rose up in front of them like an army of grotesque forms suddenly turned into stone. Greenwood went over to examine one of them. His footsteps made a hollow ring rise from the bare, flat rock, as though it was cavernous. He called Dick over.
'These things are easily accounted for,' he said. 'There's a soft stratum in this rock, and in heavy floods this flat we are on is all submerged, and that stratum has been washed away, and the hard rock left, standing. Look! there are one or two where the soft stuff has been washed clean away, and the rock has tumbled over.'
He pointed out the objects he was speaking of, but Dick, after looking at them, suddenly exclaimed, 'What's that there, Mr. Greenwood? There's something lying there as isn't a rock.'
They hastened over to it, and found to their dismay the clean-picked skeleton of a horse.
'Twasn't the crows did that, or dingoes either,' said Dick after a long pause. 'Besides there's no sign of them about.'
Both men stood silent and listened, but the stillness was unbroken by even the common sounds of the bush.
'Not a scrap of anything left but the bones,' remarked Greenwood, after examining the remains. 'Do you think it is one of theirs?'
Dick looked puzzled. Then he stooped down and examined one of the feet.
'It's old Ranger,' he said. 'See this crack in his hoof. When I was over a fortnight ago I put a shoe on for Bob to stop Ranger going lame. This is the shoe.'
'It's no good looking for tracks on this hard rock, but we must have a search round, anyhow. Don't get out of hearing, but cooee to me occasionally, and I'll answer. Fire a shot if you want me.'
The men parted and soon lost sight of each other amongst the standing pinnacles, but kept touch of each other's whereabouts by calling out at intervals. Presently Greenwood heard a shot, and going in the direction found Dick standing over the skeleton of a dog. Like the other the bones were picked clean and bare.
'Wonder how many horses they had with them?' said Dick.
'Wonder what sort of thing it is that has done this. It's not been done by anything in the bush that we know of, and I don't think there's much we don't know of.'
'By jingo! suppose they tackle our horses while we are away,' said Dick, and the thought made both men start.
'We must find something of Bob and young Daly before we leave,' returned Greenwood firmly, 'or come back to-morrow and keep on until we do. Whatever's left of them must be about here. We'll follow the river for a bit; it's early in the day yet.'
They followed the river up for a couple of miles, and found it only a channel worn in the solid rock, which spread on either side. No soil, no trees, nothing but the strange pinnacles all around them. They saw the ranges closing in ahead, and turned back without having found any clue.
'I have often wondered why this river came down so quickly,' said Greenwood. 'The water would accumulate in this barren, rocky basin and burst through the gorge with a rush?'
'By God! there's Bob,' suddenly interrupted Dick, running forward and calling Greenwood followed him, and found him wondering and perplexed.
'I'll swear I saw him as plain as I can see you, and he seemed to dodge behind one of these rocks, and now he ain't here.'
'It's strange he didn't answer you and come to us.'
'Strange. The old fellow must have got a touch of the sun and gone dotty. I've heard that they keep away when they are like that.'
'At any rate we must get on. If you saw him he must have seen and heard you.'
'If,' muttered Dick, aggrieved. 'I tell you, Mr. Greenwood, I did see him. Bob! Bob Blackburn!' he shouted.
Every echo in the ranges shouted back, 'Bob! Bob Blackburn!' but the cries were only echoes, and the two started again.
'There he is!' exclaimed Greenwood. 'You were right, Dick. Blackburn, here we are!'
He had gone again. They looked round every pinnacle and rock, but he was not in hiding anywhere.
Astonished and somewhat uneasy, the two resumed their way, and all the way to the gorge the mysterious figure appeared ahead, to first one, then the other, of them, and when they reached the gorge both saw it standing on the top of the tumbled rocks and boulders, and there it vanished.
The two looked at each other, and whispered awe-struck, 'You saw it too.'
Their nerves were getting a bit unhinged, but after a little they rallied.
'We must search these rocks,' said Greenwood. 'You saw where that thing disappeared?'
'Yes, what was it? It was Bob, and it wasn't Bob. However, we'll find out.'
Talking pretty loudly to keep one another's courage up, the two men commenced to climb the mass of fallen boulders to reach the place where they had seen the figure standing.
At times a boulder slipped and rolled down with a rumbling sound, and it was after one of these mishaps and some bad language from Dick, who had slipped, that they heard a cry, a voice seemingly calling for help. It seemed to float all round them; they could not locate it.
'It was a human voice, at any rate,' said Greenwood, and he shouted loudly in answer.
Again came the cry, but now they were on the watch, and were able to place it.
'It comes from underneath,' said Dick. 'One of 'em is buried alive.'
They were now close to the spot where the wraith had been seen, and a little search soon showed a rift, opening into a cavity under their feet. Greenwood stooped down and shouted:
'Any one there?'
His voice rumbled round the opening, which was apparently of some size, and an answer came back:
It seemed some distance below, and Greenwood called out to know if it were safe to drop.
'I'm afraid not,' returned the imprisoned man. 'I'll crawl underneath, and you can judge.'
'What's the matter?'
'My leg's hurt; we got buried by a fall of rocks; but one big one has fallen across and saved me.'
'Where's Bob?' cried out Dick.
'He was killed, I hope. But something came and took him out. But I will tell you all. First get me out, get me out of this.'
After a time the entombed man stood beneath them, and by means of their belts and a handkerchief they managed to ascertain that there was nearly twelve feet of a drop.
'You're the strongest man, and I am the lightest,' said Dick; 'I'll drop down—you can lower me as far as you can.'
Greenwood lay down, and Dick lowered himself down and hung on by the edge of the hole; then Greenwood took his wrists and lowered him as far as he could and Dick reached the bottom safely.
'How have you lived all this time?' he asked.
'The pack-horse was killed too, and I managed to get the bags off, and there's water here.'
'How do you propose to get out?' shouted Greenwood, from the top.
'Hanged if I know. Daly can only stand on one leg, and he's mighty shaky. Could you cut some saplings, and—'
'Saplings!' retorted Greenwood.' 'You know there's nothing here but rocks.
'Pile some rocks up,' said the wounded man. 'I commenced to do it, but had to give up.'
'That's the only way, unless you wait here another night.'
'No!' called out Daly, in a voice of terror, 'it's at night if comes. Not another night.'
'Go ahead, Dick,' shouted Greenwood. 'I'll collect some on top as well, and drop them down. Stand from under when I sing out.'
The two men worked hard, for the afternoon was now wearing on, and at last had a heap high enough to enable Dick to assist Daly to crawl to the top, and from there Greenwood was able to reach down and help him, and they got him out. He was worn and haggard from pain and misery, but they forbore to ask him any questions, only Greenwood descended into the hole and examined it.
A great slab of the cliff seemed to have fallen forward, and got chocked in a leaning position. The rocks and rubble had rolled off this and blocked the sides. Daly called out to him to look at the lowest end behind the stones, and he would find the pack bags, tomahawk, and surcingle. Greenwood struck some matches, and by their aid found a sort of barricade of stones erected, and behind the articles specified. He handed them up, and followed himself.
'What was that barricade for?' he asked Daly.
'To hide from the thing that comes at night. It took away Bob and the horses.'
They asked no more, but set to work to help the hurt man away. It was a hard task, but, thanks to the moon, they succeeded in getting him over the range, and found the camp as they had left it. The horses had not strayed away, and, as Greenwood said, they were luckier than they deserved to be.
The next morning; after a sound sleep, Daly felt somewhat recovered and told his story.
'WHEN we came to the waterhole in the gorge, we found it quite shallow, not over our horses' knees, so we rode through it, meaning to camp on the top side of the gorge. When we got in sight of the open country we saw that it was all flat rock, and no place to camp, so we pulled up and were talking of coming back here, to this place, which he had noticed, when there was a tremendous crash, and the cliff seemed to fall in on us. We were knocked down by the stones, for the big rock did not touch us, but in fact saved my life. I believe they were all killed at once, Bob, the horses, and the dog. I was bruised, but the worst blow I got was this one on my ankle. As I lay there, half stunned and stupid, I heard the rocks raining down on the huge slab that protected me, until at last it grew darker, and I knew that I was completely shut in, I got up, and found that I could only stand on one leg. I limped about, and at last got underneath the opening, and wondered if I could get out. The moon was not very strong, then, so I had to wait till morning, at daylight I commenced to look about, and saw poor old Bob and the horses and dog all lying in the dim light, quite still; just where they had fallen before the big slab came down and saved them from being crushed. Then I began to collect stones to make a stand to clamber out through the hole, but I hurt my foot trying to stand on it, and had to give over. I took the bags off the pack-horse, and that night the thing came.
'I first heard a cry, far away, come nearer and nearer... It was not a human cry, but like nothing I have heard before. It came close, I heard a noise like the beating of great wings, and then something commenced to clamber up the rocks outside, and there was a noise like sobbing; then the hole was darkened; and presently I heard something rustling and crawling about the place inside. I crouched in the leaning corner as far as I could, and then I heard the noise of something being dragged, along the rock, then the light came back through the hole, and I heard the howling again. This time it was answered; other things came up howling and crying, and once more the hole was darkened, and the dragging sound recommenced. Sometimes the thing crawling about seemed to come quite close to me, but it never touched me. At last the light of the stars was visible once more, and with great crying and the flapping of many wings the things departed; but for a long time I heard the wailing noise they made.
'In the morning I saw to my horror that Bob and the horses and dog had been taken away. I tried all I knew to get out, but only made my ankle worse, and I felt like blowing my brains out, for I saw no hope of anyone coming to my assistance. But I thought I'd stick to life as long as I could, for surely I could manage to make a hole somehow amongst the loose stones. So I gathered all the boulders I could crawl with and barricaded the low end of the cavern, for I was sure the horrid things would come back again. They did; every night there has been hooting and calling, and something rustling and searching about the cave. Whatever it was they could not get in altogether; but I think the awful things had a trunk that they thrust in, and it was not long enough to reach me. How I lived through it I don't know. It has put its mark on me for my life.'
After some further questions, Greenwood told Daly of the experiences he and Dick had been through, the winged thing that came to the hut, which was evidently one of the creatures that had been at the cave; how the ghostly appearance of poor Bob Blackburn led them to the opening, but for which probably he would not have been found.
'Then,' finished Greenwood grimly, 'I'm going to find out what these things are.'
'Take me home first,' cried Daly; 'I can stand no more.'
'Yes, we must go home first; there are a few things I want to prepare. Dick, you'll see the matter out?'
'Rather,' returned Dick, with force and brevity.
By easy stages, they took Daly to the head station, and then Greenwood made his preparations for a start.
The story, of course, had been told, and talked of, and the evening before Dick and he and a third volunteer were going to start, his black boy came to him with a tale he had heard from an old gin. No blacks went up that river now, though once, right, at the head of it, a large tribe used to camp; for there was a big lagoon there with fish and ducks in plenty.
One year it was fearfully dry, and some strange things came to the lagoon, flying things that killed the blacks, and sucked all their flesh away. The fish died in the lagoon, for the water turned black and stinking, the trees around it died; and what natives were left fled for their lives. Then the story went amongst the blacks that these awful things only came out when there had been no rain for a long, long time, and only when the rain came did they leave for the unknown places they came from. The description given of these creatures by the old gin was vague; but it agreed with what Greenwood had guessed.
THE next morning they started. After some trouble they found a way up the range, by which they could take their horses, and following the range round they finally arrived at the river again, having thus gone round one side of the rocky basin. Just beyond should lie the lagoon, if there was any truth in the blacks' yarn. Expectantly, they looked over the crest, of the range, and there, sure enough, was a dismal black lagoon, surrounded by skeleton trees, in the midst of a barren, desolate tract of land. No sign of life was visible.
They descended but could not approach the water, as the ground became marshy and boggy. The whole country seemed under a blight and a curse: Once Greenwood thought he saw a dark, undulating body rise above the gloomy surface, but he was never sure. His plans were formed, he had only come to make certain of the lagoon's existence. They turned their horses' heads back, and returned to their old camp at the end of the first gorge.
The next day they, were busy at work at the cave where Daly had been entombed. Having finished their work there, they repaired to the side opposite to where the hind slip had been, and after some trouble made a rude pathway, by which a lower ledge could be reached. Greenwood had brought a coil of fuse and some dynamite cartridges, intended for timber-splitting. He was going to try its effects on a little trap, he had thought of. The edge of the fallen slab looked very shaky, a charge might start it, and if so it would pin down any animal or thing with its head in the hole.
It was a brilliant moonlight night, now only a few days before full moon, when the watches took their position on the cliff, Greenwood being concealed: on the ledge, where the fuse terminated.
At last, the hooting and the beat of wings was heard; and in the moonlight they saw a huge dark shape come in sight, and drop on its feet at the side of the hole. Still bent on getting its victim, it thrust the long trunk it had into the aperture, and commenced to explore it, its enormous black bulk standing clearly defined, the wings propping at its sides. Dick nearly uttered an exclamation, for there was a stealthy step at his side. But it was only Greenwood, who had lit the fuse and joined them for safety.'
Some anxious minutes passed, then, the horrible thing lifted its head, and gave vent to the howls they had heard before. Greenwood was afraid, that the cartridges might explode while the thing had its head raised, but it plunged it in once more, and, as it did so, the explosion rang out, and the huge slab slipped down, and pinned it there.
The din that arose was awful. From far away came swift approaching hoots in answer to the cries of their desperate and struggling companion. They assembled round him to the number of half-a-dozen or so, and a babel of sound came up.
The men crouched in terror, dreading discovery when there suddenly came a loud crack and a dull grinding noise, followed by an almighty crash. The explosion had started another fall in the opposite cliff, and an avalanche came crashing on the monsters. A cloud of dust arose, thick with waiting cries; then followed another fall.
Out of the dust reek, Greenwood saw some gigantic form emerge, and sail away with a thunderous beating of wings, and then the cloud cleared and settled, but all was quiet down below, only the cliff they were on still seemed to rock with the concussion. The gorge was piled half full of rocks and rubble, but the creatures who had been caught in the fall were buried under tons and tons of rock.
The next day the rain clouds burst in fury, and since then the drought-demons have never been seen.
Only a white-headed man named Daly still tells to everyone who will listen his strange story. He is slightly deranged, and has been ever since that time.
"SAME old fence," said the swagman, as he contemplated an erratic piece of fencing by the side of the road. "That crooked tree still alive that Jim Staines hung himself on. It's quite pleasant to come back from one's wanderings and be welcomed by the old familiar objects such as these."
The swagman pulled out his pipe, and proceeded to fill it with a musing kind or air.
"Nine years since I was in this place, and blest if I think there's any change in it. Bet two to one old Jarmyn is still in the verandah looking out for travellers, and telling everybody of the roaring nights of the old days." He smoked on for a time, then a smile stole over this weather-worn features, and he resumed the swag he had thrown down, and went on his way.
"Darned if I don't do it," he muttered; "I've just enough coin to carry it through."
Maranoo, the township he was approaching, was just about the sleepiest of all the sleepy bush townships of New South Wales. A good-sized pocket handkerchief would have covered it. The one and only street was grass-grown to such a degree that it was generally used as a common. The daring stranger who walked down it during midday roused up disgusted milkers chewing their cud, and woke from pleasant dreams the sleeping horses. But in the opinion of the citizens of Maranoo a halo of glory still stuck to the place which time could not eradicate.
There had once been a gold field in its immediate neighborhood, and the memory of that field was the badge of honor of the Maranoos. True, the field had been of the smallest and poorest, but gold had been got there, and as years passed the nuggets increased in size and weight, and the mad orgies of the diggers were spoken of with bated breath. Nay, by whom started it was never known, but there were rumors of a deep lead, of such wonderful richness that, if once traced, the fortunes of Maranoo and the inhabitants thereof would be made for ever.
The swagman, whose name was Bates, had been on the field during its short-lived existence, and had been personally known to many of the inhabitants, having been one of those who had made a little—a very little—gold.
"Don't suppose they'll know me again, with my hair all white like it is. However, I'll chance it," and revolving these thoughts, he marched on along the road.
Soon the great township of Maranoo hove in sight, the first house, naturally, being a pub. There was old Jarmyn, as he had anticipated, still on the lookout for the diggers to return and rouse the welkin with festivity.
The architecture of the town was poor and simple in the extreme, but it sufficed, for the inhabitants did not put on airs. So long as they could spit in the road from their own doorway they were content.
The swagman pulled up at the old pub known to fame as the Digger's Rest, and throwing his swag on the verandah floor, greeted old Jarmyn with the intelligence that it was blanky hot for the time of year.
Jarmyn, after taking in the astounding fact that the newcomer was a stranger in reality, and not one of the townspeople masquerading as such, got up and proceeded methodically behind the bar, the shelves of which were mostly stocked with dummies.
"I don't mind if I do," said Bates. "P'raps you'll join me," and he ostentatiously drew forth some silver. Jarmyn had no objection, and joined.
"You don't mind a fellow here in the old diggings days of the name of Bates—Tom Bates—do ye?" asked the swagman.
"Bates! Name seems familiar like. A sort of cross-eyed, down-looking chap, was he?"
"Not at all. Eyes as straight as your'n—might have had a black 'un occasionally."
"Bates—Tom Bates. Of course," said the landlord, changing his tack, for even a swagman was a rare and precious being. "Now I mind him. I was thinking of Tom Gulliver. Yes, Bates. Friend of yours?"
"Rather. He and I went to West Australia, together."
"What, that 'ere Coolgardie I've heard tell on? Do anything there?"
"Me and Tom did first-rate at first, but he was allus a-hankering after something he'd left behind here. Weighed on his mind, it did, until he took sick with typhoid."
"Did he die?" said the landlord.
"Not he! Tom Bates die of typhoid—no fear! We got stone-broke, and the stonier we got the more Bates talked of Maranoo, and what there was there he'd left behind."
"What was it?" asked the landlord, filling the traveller's glass again. "Ah! that he never told me. Only he used to say, 'Just you wait, Jim Thomson, until we get back to Maranoo, and we'll just paint the town the bloomiest red ever was. You see, old Jarmyn (that's just what he said) 'll just go clean off his chump with joy when I tell him about it, and plump down a twenty-ounce nugget, and say, Drinks all round, and take it out o' that.'"
"I always did believe in the old times coming back," commented the interested Jarmyn.
By this time the news had travelled round that there was a stranger in the town, and one after another the Maranoos walked in. The talk became general, and all the old residents claimed to have known Tom Bates.
"And where may he be now?" asked the landlord.
"Tom Bates! Why, the poor old chap, he's lying dog sick in the orsepittal in Gobungalong. 'Jim,' he says to me, 'I'll pull round right enough. You go ahead, and wait for me at Maranoo, and the time we'll have of it—my colonial!'"
"I suppose," said the landlord, "he didn't let on where it was, did he?"
"He did not. I tell you, we was stone-broke and busted in West Australia, and just for the lack of turning up a slug or two we'd never have got back."
All eyes were fixed on the man who had really been to West Australia, which most of the Maranoos imagined to be somewhere in the neighborhood of New Zealand, and they had no notion exactly where that was.
"What did you want to turn up slugs for?" demanded a native-born Maranoosian. The traveller smiled in a superior manner.
"Slugs is nuggets out there," he condescended to explain.
"When do you think Tom Bates will arrive?" asked the landlord.
Jim Thomson, as he called himself, hesitated. "I want to have a little talk with you about that," he said. "Something atween ourselves—say, after dinner."
It being about that hour, the Maranoos dispersed, talking as they went of the interest to be aroused in their town and the probable disposal of unsalable town allotments.
"It's just this way with Tom Bates," said the hypocrite, after putting away a good, sturdy feed. "I told you as how we were both nigh stumped. Now, when Bates got took bad, and had to lay up in the orsepittal at Gobungalong, he says to me, 'Jim, you take what we've got left, and push on to Maranoo. If there's any of the real old sort who remember Tom Bates, they might advance a little loan, and down I'd come hot foot, and in less than a fortnight you see that place will just roar again!"
The landlord mused solemnly.
"Have a drink," said the traveller, jumping up.
"Mind you, I don't say as they will do it," remarked the landlord after the drinks had been swallowed. "But I don't mind sounding the leading townspeople, and together we might make up a little. How much do you think would be wanted?"
"Say, a matter of five pounds. What's that when you'll have fifty—aye, and fifties—pass over this very counter night after night," and he thumped the counter heavily as though anxious that it should bear witness to the truth of his prediction. Jarmyn nodded approvingly at the sentiment, and they parted for a while.
Now, amongst the townspeople there was, as there usually is in most sleepy-headed bush towns, a man of wonderful acuteness and discernment. In this case the local wiseacre was a kind of carpenter, painter, and Jack-of-all-trades. His name was Coop, and he had once had a wonderful experience. No less than being summoned to Sydney as a witness in a law case. True his evidence had not been required after all; but his expenses had been paid, and as time went on he persuaded himself that he had figured with great distinction in the witness box, had been put through a severe cross-examination by the opposing counsel, whom he had signally put to confusion. When there had been much excitement in the way of extra drinks, he was in the habit of adding something about a banquet and presentation by his Sydney admirers; but this was looked upon with suspicion.
Now, the case of Tom Bates was one to ponder over. He came to the conclusion that, as he expressed it, there was something in it. What that something was he could not explain; but as he was in the habit of remarking, "They can't take an old fox like me in. I've been to Sydney, and learnt all the tricks of the trade. It's my belief"—then a brilliant idea came to him—"Tom Bates has been murdered."
When it came to the matter of making up the £5 he gave nothing himself, but he urged the others to do so.
"Give him rope enough," he said, "it's my belief that that £5 will unearth a ghastly crime."
He communicated his suspicions to the local policeman, when that worthy would be sufficiently awake to listen to him. He held out a vision of promotion and stripes to him. He argued that a murder discovered in Maranoo would give the town as much notoriety as a new gold field. He made himself an objectionable nuisance, even to the easy-going Maranoos.
The £5 was collected, and handed over in one note to the swagman, who publicly placed it in an envelope with a letter, urging Tom Bates to immediately hasten to Maranoo, dead or alive, and point out the scene of the future rush. This envelope, with enclosure, was solemnly handed over to Jarmyn to post and register, and he rose to the occasion and shouted for all hands to drink success to the new rush.
"It's my belief," said the knowing man to the policeman, "that he's suspicious of us. He saw that I read him like a book, and I noticed he changed color. I must have seen him when I was in the court in Sydney. If he heard me trounce that barrister no wonder that he felt queer all over."
The policeman yawned. He was rather tired of Coop.
Another bright idea now occurred to Coop. As he was in the habit of saying, "Give me the opportunity, and see me rise to it." He determined to watch the pub that night to see that the guilty man did not escape. He did so, but without result. Not to be done, however, he invented such an adventurous recital of the night's proceeding, that he staggered even the constable. If Coop was willing to swear anything—no matter what—before the local J.P.—he would take upon himself to arrest the traveller on suspicion, but without the ceremony of swearing he professed that the law could do nothing.
Coop hesitated, but led on by vain glory, made an affidavit that to the best of his belief the man Thompson had murdered his mate Bates, in order to obtain possession of information concerning the whereabouts of a rich deposit of gold in the abandoned workings at Maranoo. It took a lot of trouble to induce the policeman to assist in the night watch, but Coop assured him that it must lead to fortune, and he consented to try an hour or two.
No one was more surprised than Coop when, after all had retired, they saw the traveller emerge from the public house, swag on shoulder. He stood still for a minute, looked up and down the deserted road; then, taking what is known as "a sight" at the building he was leaving, strode off.
Coop nudged the policeman, and they followed. "Be careful," whispered Coop, trembling somewhat, "he's a desperate man."
But the policeman, if stolid, was not afraid. He walked quickly after the swagman, who turned sharply when he heard the following footsteps.
"I arrist you on suspicion of having caused the death of one Thomas Bates, and ivery word you say will be used against you," he gabbled off.
The traveller stood quietly enough taking in the sense of what he said, then burst out laughing. "Hang it all mate, it's only a joke. I'm Thomas Bates myself."
"Oh that be blowed," said Coop, who had recovered confidence on seeing that there was no bloodshed imminent. "I knew Tom Bates well, none better. We were like brothers when he was here."
But the swagman still laughed. "You fool, Coop, don't you remember me? Not that we were ever very chummy, but many's the time I've shouted drinks for you when I had the stuff. Look here, I tell you I'm Tom Bates, so how can I have murdered myself?"
The policeman was puzzled. "If you had, it would be suicide, and I arrest you for murder."
"Arrest me! You can't arrest me for killing myself when I'm alive!"
"Oh, but I can, though, and I do. Coop here swears that you made away with one Thomas Bates."
"Coop does? Look here, you little varmint, I'll bring a double action against you for destitution of character and illogical imprisonment. How about that wife you deserted in Rattington? How about that drunken man you choked?"
Coop waited to hear no more, but departed.
"Have I got to go with you because that bally little liar has told you some cock and bull story?"
"Yes; we must have it cleared up now. Come along."
The swagman went.
So impressed were the townspeople with their belief in their coming benefactor Tom Bates that they absolutely refused to recognise the real Simon Pure, and Coop met with universal scorn and derision for starting the trouble. Moreover, the policeman related the accusations the swagman had thrown at him, and his wife coming to hear of it, the life of poor Coop became a burden and a reproach, besides which he was haunted by a dread of divers and unknown penalties being inflicted on him in the event of the traveller being Bates himself.
The case went up to the neighboring town, but as it all rested on the alleged disappearance of a man whose existence no one was sure of, there was naturally nothing in it. Gobungalong being appealed to, replied that everyone but a wooden-headed Maranoo man knew that there was no such thing as an hospital in Gobungalong; consequently, there never had been a Tom Bates there. The letter containing the enclosure was returned.
The traveller was discharged, accordingly, with a stern admonition not to come to that part of New South Wales again playing jokes on quiet people. He apologised; said that he only wanted to walk the first few miles in the cool night, his meals had been paid for, he had committed no crime—would the bench see fit to grant him something from the poor-box to help him along after this unjust and unlawful detention.
The presiding magistrate said that he was very sorry, but there was no poor-box. The Maranoo people should give him something by way of compensation; but they had all hastily left the court.
Jarmyn assembled the subscribers and paid them back their subscriptions to the Bates fund; then he locked the note up, and Maranoo was happy and sleepy, once more.
One month afterwards the disgusted commercial who paid Maranoo a periodical visit came on his rounds. Jarmyn had an account with him, and handed him the torn £5 note in payment.
The commercial looked at it, smiled, and gave it back. "What's the matter with it?" asked the astonished publican. "Aint it a good 'un?"
"It was once upon a time," replied the commercial, "but that bank is one of those that have burst up."
Jarmyn looked at the commercial in astonishment and dismay. "Why, I got it from the branch bank in Oraka myself, and the bank was open the other day."
He looked again at the note long and wistfully. "Blamed if I think it's the same," he muttered. Nor was it. The note had been changed by the swagman—a common enough trick, and not requiring much dexterity, as the commercial explained.
"Bust me, if he didn't want compensation!" roared Jarmyn. "I'll compensate him if I catch him!"
Strange to say, the townsfolk, while most sympathetic, did not see their way to handing back the contributions Jarmyn had returned to them, and there are now two factions in the once sleepy town. The Jarmynites are those who did not subscribe, and the anti-Jarmynites are those who did. Both parties detest Coop, and the policeman is watching for an excuse to run him in.
THE man in the boat stood up and looked at the shore he was slowly approaching; it appeared to be lonely and uninhabited. A sandy core, almost directly opposite, invited a landing, and that was the most hospitable thing to be seen. But the prospect seemed to please the man in the boat. He sat down and pulled wearily to the land, directing his course towards a clump of mangroves at the southern end of the little beach. The sea was calm, for the day was almost windless, and he landed without experiencing any difficulty. First, concealing the battered craft amongst the mangroves, he then hunted amongst the rocks above high-water mark till he found a little hole, still containing fresh water, left by a storm of the preceding day. Of this he drank deeply, and returning to the boat, took from the stern locker the scant materials for a meal, and sitting down devoured them ravenously.
"A wasted life," he muttered to himself when he had finished. "To think that in my despair and madness I should have urged him on to a needless death;" he arose and shook his clenched fist on high with a dramatic gesture. "But that traitor, that devil shall pay for it with his blood, I swear."
His next proceeding was to load the boat with heavy stones, push her into deep water, and sink her, so as to hide all traces of his landing. Then he lay down upon the hot sand to rest. At first he slept but little, being evidently disturbed by tormenting dreams, but exhaustion won the battle at last, and he sank into a dreamless sleep, that lasted until daylight the next morning. Then he arose, and meditating for a short time, turned his face to the south, and strode along the beach.
He knew that he was on the north coast of Queensland, but how far he would have to toil on before meeting with any help, he knew not. At last, towards noon, he espied a light-ship, moored at her anchorage no great distance from the shore; beyond, a spur from the range ran down into the sea, and formed a jutting cape. He stopped and pondered.
"Government dogs," he said at last, talking to himself as men used to solitude do, and there was a note of hatred in his low voice. "No, I will not surrender, unless obliged. I will look over the ridge ahead first." He struggled on, although evidently wearied out, and it was a couple of hours before he stood on the crest of the cape, and was able to command an extended view to the south. As he looked he gave vent to an exclamation of satisfaction. Some miles away a lugger was anchored close to the beach.
"Trepang fishers. I can trust them," he muttered, and resumed his weary march. The sun had sunk behind the range, when, at last, completely worn out, he stood on the beach opposite the lugger, and, mustering all his remaining strength, hailed her. The hail was heard, and answered, and, after a few minutes, a man got into the dinghy that was floating alongside, and sculled to the beach. The wanderer waded in to meet him. The fisherman, a genial looking fellow, gazed knowingly at him.
"Noumea?" he said, as a matter of course.
"Yes, Noumea, and starving;" returned the escapee in good English.
"Didn't you see the lightship as you came?"
"I did, but—" and the Frenchman gave an expressive shrug.
"Just as well, perhaps you didn't show yourself; old Brankstone puts on as much side as the captain of a man-of-war, ten chances to one the old ass would have shoved you in irons, and signalled to the first steamer."
"And you?" queried the Frenchman. "If you're starving, jump in and come aboard, we'll give you a feed, don't matter to us where you hail from; it looks as though you have had a devilish had time of it.
"Bad time, my God, no man ever went through such a time and lived."
He scrambled into the dingy, and they, were soon on board the lugger, lucre was only one more white man on board, beside the coloured crew, and he so much resembled the rescuer than it was not difficult to put them down as brothers: He looked at his brother and said laconically:
"Yes," assented the other, "we'll give him a feed and rest, lie's had a devil of a time, like the rest of them from there.
"I have money," urged the Frenchman, hastily.
"Oh, tommy rot. We don't take money from starving men," said the man who had I brought him on board, and whose name was Bob Davidson. "We were just going to have our chow ourselves when you came along, so sit down."
The escaped convict was soon eating voraciously a warm and plentiful meal, and that finished, he could not restrain the longing looks he cast at the pipes the others commenced smoking. Dick, the other brother, noticed the wistful glances and passed over a cake of tobacco and a knife.
"Dashed if I think we've got a spare pipe aboard, those niggers are death on pipes.
"No pipe, thank you, a little paper?" said their guest.
Dick grinned, and handed the Frenchman a piece of a "Cooktown Herald," from which the other quickly tore a slip, and made himself a cigarette.
"What is your name?" asked Bob, when this had been completed.
Their visitor held up his hand imploringly, "Ah, one moment."
The two well-fed men watched the outcast with an amused smile, while he silently luxuriated in the unwonted enjoyment of tobacco; presently he took the rude cigarette from his mouth, and spoke: "My name my friends, my very kind friends, is Louis Everard; I was sent to New Caledonia five years ago on the perjured testimony of a false friend. But, bah, you always hear that; is it not so?"
"What was the charge?" asked one.
"Embezzlement. I held a position of trust in a bank in Paris, and I frequently had occasion to go to London on confidential missions, which is the reason I speak your language."
The men accepted the statement in simple good faith; they were gifted with more than their share of good nature, and not of suspicion. Only they were relieved to hear that it was not a murderer they were succouring.
"What are you thinking of doing?" asked Bob.
"I seek to reach Cooktown. I have a friend, a countryman there."
"Show your face in Cooktown like you are now, and you will be arrested on suspicion at once. The police there have special orders to keep a sharp lookout for you chaps. They're not very sharp, but still! they couldn't miss you."
The man looked downcast. "Will you: help me?" he asked. "I have a little money."
"On, hang your money. Don't keep harping upon that. If you are an innocent man, we will do what we can to help you."
Everard sprang to his feet, and held his hand up. "May I be taken again, and sent back to suffer more than I have suffered already, if I have not told you the truth. I swear that I am innocent."
There was a pause. "You didn't come across alone?" said one.
"I had one companion, but be, poor fellow, died under the hardship. He lies out there," and he waved his hand towards the distant Pacific.
The conversation was carried on for some time longer, and then the men retired to rest, telling Everard that they would work out some scheme in the morning. In the morning, the two fishers said nothing until after breakfast, and then they broached the subject, and it was evident that their unexpected guest had created a favourable impression.
"Look here," said Bob, "it's no good our lending you any of our clothes, for we're nothing like a match." Everard was tall and gaunt, and the brothers were short, sturdy men. "As soon as you set foot in Cooktown, you would attract notice, and it would be all up. What we propose doing is this. We are going to our fishing station on No. 10 Island today. When we get there, Dick is going to Cooktown, to get some stores, so you can just quietly stop there at our camp until he gets back. He'll try and find out your friend, and take him a letter if you'll write to him, and get you some clothes, and get the friend to change your money, for I suppose it is French."
"And you will allow me to pay you?"
"Yes, a fair price, for we shall hare some trouble to set you ashore. If you land in broad daylight every prying Custom-house official and grass-green booby will be cross-questioning us as to how we came to pick up a fellow like you on the Barrier. No, we must manage it after dark, and Dick must have a confab with your friend."
"Where shall I find him?" asked Dick.
Everard coloured slightly. "He is but in a humble position—he is working as cook at some hotel, of which I know not the name."
"There was a Frenchman cooking at the Great Northern, the last time I was in the town, suppose it's the same."
"Most likely, if it is, he is the brother of the man who escaped with me and died.. The brother sent him the money to bribe one of the warders, but we had to start when but half prepared; that was the cause of our suffering so."
Little more was said, and the lugger was soon standing for the Great-Barrier and No. 10 island.
TWO men were seated is a small room in a Cooktown hotel. One was the late guest of the trepang fishers; trimmed and well-dressed, he looked a different man to the famished wanderer of the beach. He had landed, thanks to the assistance of the brothers, without molestation, and was now talking to a friend he had mentioned, who was a thickset, dark-complexioned fellow, evidently of a lower social grade than the escapee.
"I have told you all about our hurried escape—for it was a case of now or never with us, and we went with but scanty provisions, and but little water, I will now tell you of your brother's death." Everard paused, and a look of horror shone in his eyes.
"I murdered him," he said slowly.
The other started to his feet with a gasp. "Are you mad to come to me and tell me this?" he hissed. "Do you not know how I have worked and saved for the purpose of gaining my brother's liberty? Do yon imagine that I would let his murderer go free? You are mad I say. Your sufferings have driven you crazy; it cannot be."
"Would to God it was but a dream. Read this." He banded his companion a piece of paper, and he read:—
"Everard will tell you all. It is a case of necessity; one of us must die to save the other; there is an equal chance for both. The gamble is quite fair. If it is my fate to die, give Everard the money you have saved for me. He has wealthy friends in France who will repay you on his return there. You will either see me alone, or this paper and Everard."
The recipient of this message from the dead read it over two or three times, then got up and walked about the room; the other watched hint without a word. Presently the brother of the lost man resumed his seat. "I will hear the rest now," he said.
"We put out to sea," continued Everard, "on one of the most desperate ventures that ever two men embarked on. Owing to the incompleteness of our preparations, we had a small boat instead of the larger craft we had arranged for, and, as I said before, with but scant provisions and water.
"Fate dogged us from the start. How our cockleshell lived through the storms that burst upon us I know not; but one day we found ourselves becalmed upon the bosom of the mighty Pacific, which still heaved with the past convulsions. We had hardly sufficient strength to bale the boat dry. Some rags of rail still clung to the mast, but there was no wind to stir them, and so for days we drifted on. Oh, it was awful to sit in that boat under the burning sun, our boat wallowing in the swell, but not one breath of wind. It seemed that we had but exchanged the horror of the penal settlement for the horror of such a death; can you wonder that my season gave way, and that a mad idea entered into my half dazed brain. A short and quick death seemed preferable, I said. 'What food we have left may keep life in one until the Australian coast is reached: but it will not suffice for two. I am willing to take my chance which of us goes overboard.'
"Your brother lifted his head and gazed I at me. 'You mean, which of us shall die to save the life of the other.'
"I could see that he misunderstood me, and thought that I meant to suggest the roost horrible resort. 'God forbid,' I shudderingly said. 'No, no, we will not live on human flesh. The man who sacrifices his life goes overboard."
"He shuddered. 'Not overboard. I have a horror of drowning. I could not do it. Promise to kill me with your own hand if I lose, and I consent to draw lots.'
"'I have no weapon,' I said weakly.
"Your brother was sitting in the stern. He opened a locker, and drew out a tomahawk we had. 'A man cannot well kill himself with this; but in the hands, of another it would be deadly. Promise to do your share.'
"I hesitated; to jump into the sea was one thing; to sky a companion in cold blood was another. 'I cannot do it,' I answered.
"'Then there is no hope for either of us. For I will not undertake to jump overboard. I have such a detestation, of death by that means.'
"I pondered. After all, it was much the same thing. 'Well, then I agree.'
"He held out his hand, and we solemnly swore to stand by our compact.
"'How shall we decide?' he asked.
"'Let us toss up a coin three times after the English fashion. Heads or tails as they say.'
"He took out the money that you had sent the warder for us. 'To think,' he said, 'that all this cannot purchase one poor meal.'
"He selected a coin, and as the ghastly game commenced, it seemed to me that the restless ocean grew still to watch us gamble for out lives. Your brother tossed first. He spun the coin up; caught it, and covered it with his hand.
"'Head!' I cried carelessly, for I cared nothing which way it went.
"He lifted his hand, and the coin lay with the head uppermost. I had won the first toss.
"I took the coin and spun it up in my turn. 'Head!' cried your brother, and it was again a head. We were equal, and I handed the coin back.
"'Head!' I again called, and for the third time the head was uppermost, and I had won.
"Your brother smiled. 'I wish to write a few words first.' And he wrote the words you have there. Then he handed me the tomahawk, sat down on the after thwart, and bowed his head. 'I am ready,' he said. Twice I raised the tomahawk, and twice my hand failed. He lifted his face. 'Do not keep me waiting, remember your oath, he said,' and bowed his head once more....
"I grasped the weapon; with determination I raised it—and threw it far into the sea; my reason had returned.
"'I cannot do it,' I cried. 'We live or die together.'
"Your brother looked at me reproachfully. 'Is this the way you keep your oath?' he exclaimed. 'It is cruel to drive me to a death I detest.'
"Before I could restrain him, he shut his eyes, and sprang over the side. Instinctively I leant over and watched for him to rise. Just at that moment a puff of wind arose, and stirred the ragged sail. I caught hold of the tiller, and then I saw some bubbles rising on the other side. I had been looking the wrong way, and the boat had drifted over him."
Everard paused, and his listener got up and took two or three turns about the room.
"You accuse yourself of murdering him. By what you tell me, it was suicide."
"I murdered him. I have more to relate."
Everard went on with his tale. "The breeze grew steady, and we were soon forging ahead through a calm sea. All night, with the great horror of loneliness on me I kept on with a fair wind astern, and in the morning, I saw a line of breakers ahead There was one open passage, and through that I steered. Land rose in sight. We had been closer to the Queensland coast than we had imagined. Soon after noon I landed with a meal of food still on board. But for my mad project, your brother would be sitting here now."
He ceased, the other man kept gloomily looking down for some time. At last he spoke. "What proof have you of this improbable story?"
"You have the message in your brother's handwriting; and I swear, on my soul, that I have told you the truth."
"Bah. You are clever. A man of education transported for forgery and embezzlement. What easier than for you to concoct such a yarn. I don't trust to it. Provisions ran short, of course, and you killed him to save them for yourself. Yes, killed a man who was sent to prison for his love of liberty, a political martyr, who strove for freedom for his fellow workmen. I do not believe you. Listen; blood must have blood; I will not slay you with my own hands, but you shall go back to lifelong hell in New Caledonia. I go now to inform the police of your presence here." He rose and put on his cap.
"Blood must have blood," repeated Everard calmly; "but I am guiltless of directly shedding your brother's, though I was unhappily the cause. I am guiltless too of the charge that sent me from France a branded felon; as guiltless as he was. Go, then; bring the police; do not fear that I shall attempt to escape. You will find me here when you return with them."
The other glanced at him, and hastily quitted the room. Everard sat still and waited. Nearly half an hour elapsed before returning footsteps were heard. The avenger entered alone.
"I have changed my mind," he said. "Go in peace, I do not say that I have overcome my doubts, but I have thought deeply. Keep the money you have for your own use. If—as my brother says, you have wealthy relatives, you can repay me. If not, why—" he stopped abruptly and spread out his hands.
"I thank you," replied Everard, gazing at him steadily; "not for my life, for that is now worthless to me, but for the chance it leaves me of revenge on the man whose perjury sent me to prison. And I will avenge your brother, for the same man betrayed him. I will come to him like a ghost from his villainous past, that he thought laid for ever. Is not his name—" and he whispered in the other's ear.
"By God, it is the man; you have told me the truth, and I believe now in all you have told me."
He held out both hands, which Everard took.
"Go," he continued, "and when you confront that Judas, then, when you strike, remember you are avenging both my brother's death, and your own betrayal."
"NOW you fellows speak of it," said the chief engineer of the S.S. Mainbrace, as he sat on his bunk, with his legs dangling over the side, addressing two passengers who had already been made free of his state, room, "the ship has been haunted ever since Jack Collins went overboard, Just twelve months ago. Naturally, we don't talk about it, but the passengers generally find it out sooner or later. We are used to him, and don't mind him."
"He was sitting on the transom in the saloon last night," said the passenger for China, who occupied the camp stool. "I fell asleep on deck, and did not wake till everybody had turned in, and when I went below I saw him there. I thought be looked like a stranger, but before I could fix him properly he was gone."
"He was on the after hatch a night or two ago," said the pearl-sheller, who was on the settee. "I went up, meaning to speak to him, but when I got close it was the shadow of the wind sail. They play these tricks. There was a schooner up in the Straits troubled the same way."
"How did it happen? There's only the two of us here, and we're not talking men."
"He was our second officer," began the chief, "and a bright young fellow, too, just going up for his master's certificate when he reached Sydney, about a month before last Christmas. He never went up, however. When he got home he found that his wife had cleared out with someone else. Who it was she went with he did not know, and nobody else seemed to know; but she was gone right enough. I think, between ourselves, that not knowing who the man was preyed on him more than anything. If he could have got hold of the pair of them, and could have taken it out of the man and told the hussy a bit of his mind, I don't think he would have felt it as bad as he did; but, as it was, he could do nothing, and the idea of going through life not knowing but at any time he might unknowingly meet him, make friends with him, and eat and drink with him—why he told me himself that it was driving him crazy. It was on Christmas Eve that it happened. I suppose the thought of his last Christmas, when he was ashore and just married, was too much for him. Anyhow, he must have gone over the side as soon as he went off watch. He gave the man who relieved him the course, chatted a bit, as usual, then went down off the bridge, and nobody saw him again. It might have been an accident, for it was a dark night, and there was a heavy sea running."
"I expect he knows now who the other fellow was," said the sheller.
"Did the other fellow know him?" asked the China passenger.
"Possibly not. Queer arrangement, eh? However, they won't meet in this world. Poor Collins made sure of that," said the chief. "Last trip he was often up on the bridge they told me, but this trip he seems to be sticking aft. I have not seen him looking down the skylight into the engine-room, as he used to. Keep it quiet, though; some people are nervous, and don't like this sort of thing."
The curtain hanging in front of the doorway was drawn on one side, and a face looked in. The three men started, but it was not the face of the man who "walked."
"You look comfortable," said the owner of the face. "Can I come in?"
"Come in," said the chief, and the sheller shifted a little on the settee to make room for the newcomer.
It was another of the passengers—a man with a fair beard and rather large, light blue eyes. He accepted the accommodation with a nod of thanks, sat down, took out his cigar case, and offered the engineer a cigar—both the other men were smoking already. The subject of conversation changed at once. The engineer gradually glided into the inevitable yarn, and when it was finished the China passenger and the pearl sheller said good night, and left the cabin. A riding light was swinging about midway between the officers' state rooms amidships and the saloon companionway. As they approached it, another man could be seen coming along the deck, going forward. They should have met just under the swinging lantern, but as they approached the circle of light, the figure faded out of sight.
"Collins," said one with a gasp, and clutched the other's arm.
"Yes," replied the man addressed, "I suppose we shall get used to it in time," and he gave a forced laugh.
They halted at the companion way, and looked back. A bar of light flashed for a moment across the alleyway amidships—it was the third man leaving the engineer's cabin, he could be seen coming along the deck.
"There's Collins again, standing by the skylight of the engine-room," said the pearl-sheller, whose name was Reynolds.
"Looks as though he was waiting for that fellow. Do you know him?" returned the other.
"No: he's been sea-sick, I think; only just shown up since we've been steady."
The third passenger came on. They could see the burning end of his cigar, and when he came in the beam of light he stopped and tossed the stump overboard; then, as he turned, he became conscious of the figure standing at the skylight, apparently watching him. For a moment they stood, the dumb ghost and the unconscious mortal, looking at each other, then the man came on.
"Who's that sulky beggar standing by the skylight?" he said, when he reached the others. "Said good-night to him, and he wouldn't answer me."
"His name's Collins; he's a remarkably quiet man," said the China passenger.
"Seems like it," said the other. "Wonder if the bar is still open. Have a nightcap, you chaps?"
"Not for me," said Reynolds.
"Nor me, either," replied Gibson, the China passenger.
"Well, it's a hot night, so I'll get the steward to mix me the namesake of our friend, a 'John Collins.' Wonder if his name is John? I knew a Mrs. Collins once," and with a vacant chuckle he descended the few steps that led into the saloon.
"Seems a bit of an ass. What do you think?"
"I think we ought to put the ghost in irons. I shouldn't wonder if this is the man it's looking for: I suppose you didn't do it?"
"Not quite. I've got a very good little wife of my own; but I'd rather have the ghost after me than her if I did such a thing."
"Well, I shall turn in now. I suppose our friend has finished his drink by this time," and they went to their respective berths.
"Steward," said the fair-bearded passenger to the chief steward the next morning, "somebody kept disturbing me last night by looking in my cabin. If it was one of your boys, I wish you'd tell him to stop poking his head in at my door."
The steward made a suitable reply, but watched the other as he ascended to the deck. "Somebody looking in his cabin," he repeated. "Seem to me I have heard tales of that sort before."
It was fine weather, of the hot variety to be expected in the tropics, and was bright and clear, and for once nobody had anything to growl about, and Christmas warn rapidly approaching. The fair-bearded, passenger alone seemed unsettled in mind, now over-cheerful, and then despondent; his name was Vincent, and though some got on with him well enough, neither Reynolds nor Gibson liked him.
"Collins is very restless," said the latter one day to his friend. "Kept doing sentry-go on the after deck last night. Vincent was asleep in a chair, and suddenly woke up in a fright, and staggered over to the railing. I collared hold of him, and roused him up, and he said he'd had an awful dream. Dreamt he was in the sea on a dark night, fighting for his life, and watching the lights of the steamer disappearing. I told him he was taking too much whisky, but he went below and got another nip. Then Collins laughed."
"Here, drop that, old man; ghosts don't laugh, at least the ghosts that I know don't."
"Well, anyway there was a laugh, a very nasty laugh, somewhere about, and I had to visit the steward myself."
THE next morning the steamer anchored at Rock Harbor for a few hours.
"How are you, Mr. Vincent?" said the Customs officer when he came on board. "Better for your trip?"
"Oh much, thank you; quite right now; naturally upset, you know."
"Know that man?" asked Reynolds when the Customs official had finished his conversation with the other.
"Slightly. He was up here with his wife about six months ago, on his way to England in a B. and A. boat, and a sad thing happened. They were overheard having a rather heated argument in their cabin, and then she rushed on deck, and, it is supposed, jumped overboard. She was never seen again. He was dreadfully cut up, and at Donnor's Island changed steamers, and went back again south."
"Where did this happen?"
"About halfway between here and Donner's Island. I must be off. There's the donkey engine starting, and I don't want to be carried on. Good-bye. Remember me to all up north."
About two o'clock the next morning those who slept below were roused by hot words. Mr. Vincent and the chief steward were nearly coming to blows in the saloon.
"I tell you the fellow came right into my cabin, and was bending over me when I woke up. It's an infernal shame that you can't manage your men better, and that passengers should be annoyed like that."
"It's all fancy. My men are much too tired at night, and want, to sleep, not go monkeying about looking in people's cabins. None of the other passengers have been annoyed."
Vincent turned to Reynolds, who had been roused by the discussion.
"I was dreaming that confounded dream again, and I woke up in a fright, and there was somebody in my cabin bending over my berth. I assure you there was."
The steward looked at Reynolds over Vincent's shoulder, and made the motion of drinking with his hand, and Reynolds persuaded him to go to bed again. It was blowing hard the next morning, and an unseasonable change had taken place, a reminder of the coming monsoons. The sea was getting, up, and it looked as though a stormy Christmas would set in the next day. There had been a small jollification, it being Christmas Eve, and Vincent, who had recovered his spirits, had been exceedingly light-hearted and jovial, and bad turned in early rather the worse for wear. It was eleven o'clock, and the chief engineer and the two passengers were taking a walk up and down the short poop deck; the ship was uncomfortably restless, and they stopped, and sat down for more ease.
"Who is that coming up?" asked Reynolds.
"Somebody in pyjamas, a woman and another man. Why, it's Vincent." And the three men rose.
The steamer gave a heavy roll and a dive just then, and the three figures passed aft on the opposite side of the deck as the ship took a big beam sea on board. Down she went, the screw racing like mad, and the three figures could be seen right aft; but when she straightened up again they were gone. The engineer took about three steps down on to the deck and into the saloon, and the other two made their way aft. They looked over at the bubbling wake illuminated by the light from the stern portholes, but if any man's head had been above water it would not have been seen in that seething turmoil. The alarm was given, and the usual routine gone through, as a matter of form, for there was no earthly hope of ever seeing the man again, and the steamer, after much delay, resumed her passage with the loss of a lifebuoy and a passenger.
When the chief hurried into the saloon he went straight to Vincent's cabin, and found it empty, and the steward told him that Mr. Vincent had just gone on deck.
"Was he alone, and in his pyjamas?"
"Yes," returned the steward to both questions. The chief went on to the deck again, now crowded and busy, and drew the two men aside.
"There were a man and a woman with Vincent?"
"Yes," they both affirmed; "they had seen the three figures distinctly."
"I don't think we'll say anything about them," said the chief. "I wonder whether Vincent saw them, too?"
"Poor devil," said Reynolds. "Dreamt he was in a big sea on a dark night fighting for his life, and watching the lights of the steamer disappearing."
IT was raining, and the hearts of men and beasts rejoiced. Raining! Not a few tantalising heat-drops, but a steady downpour, out of a leaden sky; a downpour that drummed with a grateful throbbing on rooftops, and trilled with a musical drip, drip, from the downcast leaves still remaining on the non-edible trees that the axe had left untouched. Water! Surface water, a thing men had forgotten the appearance of, was beginning to stand in pools on the flats; and, beyond, the river foliage was blurred and misty...
But on Greenbank Station there was no rejoicing. The rain, the longed-for rain, had been withheld too long, and now its mournful splashings seemed to the ear of the listener to weave themselves into that bitter refrain, "Too late! Too late!"
Years of the hardest work that can fall to the lot of man. Thankless work, under a blistering sun, and a cloudless sky. Amidst the piteous moaning of tortured, dying stock, all, all, in vain. That day a representative of the mortgagees would arrive to take over the lonely homestead, and a stockless run. Plenty and prosperity would reign once more, as good season succeeded good season, to benefit those who had never borne the heat and burden of the day.
So thought Dick Drummond, as he sat on the verandah and moodily watched the rainfall, and he envied that stout old pioneer, his father, who two months ago had been laid to take his last rest in the hard, baked ground. But there had been worse behind. The mystery of a sudden, violent, and unexplained death.
Obstinate, hot-tempered, open-handed, and honourable, old Dick Drummond, senior, was riding home from the township of Wyagong, and when half-way a mysterious hand had stricken him down. A small gashed wound on the head, how inflicted they could not tell, had tumbled him off his horse on to the dry, dusty road, where he had lain until the horse himself, with trailing bridle, had taken home a wordless message that something was wrong. It was young Dick and one of his men who rode back hotfoot, and found the body of the old man. With a bushman's instinct, he had searched for tracks the first thing, and found no trace.
The single horse track going into Wyagong, the single horse track coming back. The mark where the body had fallen heavily and inertly, without a struggle, was all that the dry, dusty road had to tell. Dry and dusty with the long drought. The fall, in a fit, to the ground, could not have killed him, for there were no stones in the neighbourhood to cause tho wound; nor had it been inflicted by the horse's foot. Dick, junior, carefully kept the ground as clear as possible from confusing tracks around the scene of the tragedy, but it availed not.
The local tracking talent—and it was good—could make nothing of it; black, white, and brown wore alike puzzled. The wound on the head was sharp and clean, made by no blunt instrument; but where was the instrument? And how had it vanished without leaving any trace but the wound, so mysteriously inflicted?
A man was arrested on suspicion; a man who had a grudge of two years' standing against old Drummond. Two years ago there had been some shearing troubles, and this man, Blacklock, had made himself particularly active. But he overstepped the mark on one occasion, and laid himself open to arrest. It was a matter of identity, and it rested with Drummond. Drummond, obstinate as a mule, when it was, as he thought, a question of right or wrong, swore to his identity, and Blacklock got a severe sentence of twelve months. When he came out, he openly vowed he'd got even with Drummond, and when the old man was killed suspicion fell upon him.
But nothing came of it, for there was no evidence to send him to trial. Moreover, the electoral district of Wantaplace was on the eve of an election, and Blacklock was an influential agent on the side of Octavius C. Drummond, the popular candidate. Octavius was a distant relative of Drummond of Greenbank, but there was enmity, deep and bitter, between them; and when suspicion fell on Blacklock, at the time of the murder, Octavius swore that at that very time Blacklock was with him at Murtagh's Crossing, fifty miles away. So the weak case fell through at once, and soon afterwards, thanks to the energetic canvassing of Mr. Blacklock, who was a popular man among many of the electors, Octavius C. Drummond became M.L.A. for Wantaplace. And, as if in recognition of the glorious fact, the eight years' drought soon afterwards broke up.
A cold nose of sympathy was thrust into young Drummond's listless hand, as he sat dreaming of the past, and an old Irish terrier put his forepaws on his knee, and, with an uneasy whimper, looked wistfully at him, with yearning, brown eyes.
"Poor old Barney," said Dick, as he patted the rough head. "I hope the fellow who's coming is a decent fellow, who's fond of doggies."
Barney suddenly jumped down, and ran to the edge of the verandah, giving a short bark. Dick looked up, and saw a buggy just pulling up at the stable. One of the two occupants got out, and approached the house, and Barney jumped off the verandah, and ran to greet him. Drummond followed with a surprised look on his face.
"You, Grant? I expected someone very different," he said, as he shook the newcomer's hand, and they re-entered the verandah.
"The villain, eh? The usurping villain of a dastardly bailiff, who was going to turn you out homeless on a cruel world! Well, here he is. I am the representative of McWhirt and McWhirt; come to demand the pound of flesh and as much blood as the drought has left you. It's hard lines, Dick," he went on in a different tone, "to see all this rain come when it won't benefit you."
"It's just the fortune of war, old man. But tell me what brings you up here?"
Grant swished the water out of his sopping hat, and tossing it and his waterproof on one of the canvas chairs, followed his friend inside.
"You must know," said Grant, first helping himself to a little whisky, which stimulant Drummond had thoughtfully placed on the table. "I have been working some time for McWhirt, and McWhirt, buying fats and droving, and when I got down to Sydney a week ago I received Instructions to come up here and take delivery of Greenbank I hesitated. I know of the old man's death, and, somehow I didn't feel like it. But, on second thoughts, I changed my mind. If I don't go somebody else will; and Dick would rather I stood in his shoes than anyone else," and he stopped and patted Barney as if to emphasise the remark.
"Just like you, Grant," replied Drummond, "but you don't find much to take delivery of. Death has done that already."
The two friends said nothing for a time. Then Dick jumped up, and said, "I've had a stroke of luck. When this place was mortgaged there were two allotments of mine and Charley's in Wyagong that were not included. All through the drought no one would have given a brass farthing for them. Now, however, since the rain, land is booming again. Why, I don't know. Anyhow, I was offered six hundred for the two, and, you bet, I closed. It will give me a start in another State, and be a windfall for Charley."
"How's Charley getting on?"
"As well as a young beginner in an overcrowded profession can expect to got on!"
"And what do you think of doing?"
"Well, I've a fancy for West Australia. I've an idea that Mr. Blacklock's gone there."
Grant looked grave. "Still hold to that idea. How's Octavius?"
"We don't correspond, but I believe he is now a shining political light."
"Well, may this windfall prove a good omen; I shall see you back here yet."
"To toll you the truth, I'm glad to get away. I shan't be myself until I know the truth about the governor's death."
THREE or four days afterwards Dick was in Sydney. As he predicted, the delivery did not take long. Dick stood on the doorstep of a small house, and contemplated an array of small medical doorplates.
"Seem all to hang together, to give each other courage," he mused as he rang the bell, and inquired for Dr. Drummond. After satisfying the doormaid that he had had the audacity to call without an appointment, she took his name up, and the next minute he was being welcomed by his brother. After the first greetings were over, Dick asked how the medical profession was getting on?
"Where are you off to Dick?" asked Charley, suddenly, in reply.
"West Australia, to do a little prospecting."
"Then I'm off, too, for there's too many doctors in Sydney just at present."
"And how about Jim?"
"Poor Jim; we might as well wait for each other at the two ends of the Continent as in two Sydney suburbs. Octavius has got the last of her little money out of her. Cuss him."
"Cuss him, say I; but you'll not come with me, Charley. I've got some good news for you."
"You're going to be very ill, Dick; never mind. I'll doctor you for nothing."
"Listen. I had a bid for those two allotments in Wyagong, and I've sold them for six hundred."
"Is the sky going to fall?"
"One hundred and fifty will do me for outfit, I think; you and Jim can manage a beginning on the balance. I don't know how much it wants to start a doctor on a career of slaughter."
"Got any of the money about you?" said Charley, irrelevantly.
"A pound or two."
"Then let's go and have a decent lunch before the vision vanishes."
During the meal Charley's tongue still kept wagging, though Dick failed to rouse himself to the occasion, but he listened attentively to his brother's chatter.
"Octavius has wheedled his old mother out of everything, and even, as I told you, got poor Jemima's little bit. The old woman's doting, and bedridden, and Jim has to look after her. Octavius pays the rent of a small cottage, and allows them a pound a week, and Jim has to eke it out typewriting, etc. We'll go out after lunch, and talk this windfall over. Jim's got a splendid business head, and, please the pigs, we'll make a start."
A short tram journey and a walk brought the brothers to where Jemima, the younger sister of the member for Wantaplace, resided with her mother. Her welcome to Dick was cordial in the extreme, and she entered into the discussion of business details with animation, and they soon had the small capital planned out in a satisfactory manner.
"But, Dick," said Jemima, "you're quite sure the one-fifty will get you all you want?"
"Quite, and if you don't make use of the balance, I'll—I'll lend it to Octavius."
"Been here lately?" asked Charley.
"Yes. He came to get me to alter his last new frock coat. He goes to a cheap tailor, and he's not a good fit. He's good enough to say that I am cleverer than any tailor, but then he has to pay the tailor, and he does not offer to pay me, although the last job took more than half a day."
"Poor old Jim," said Charley.
"Oh! He's a brother to be proud of. He's bidding for the women's vote, and addresses meetings on the subject of underpaid women's work. He owes me £25 for typewriting, and I'll go to one of his meetings and read the item out one day."
"Well, no more typewriting, Jim, remember you're going to be a doctor's wife now, and the member for Wantaplace must pay somebody to do his work."
"Not he," said Jemima; "he'll run up a bill with some poor struggling typist, and pay in promises like he always does."
"Our distant relation seems to inspire esteem and affection in private life," said Dick, as they walked home.
"He's a skunk; but you'd be astonished at the moral political reputation he's building up. Lord! to hear him speak you would think he was fairly bubbling over with benevolence."
"Well, if I can verify my suspicions, I'll damage his bubbling reputation," returned Dick, savagely.
INLAND West Australia is looking at its worst. Round the gold field districts the perennial dry weather common to the locality has reduced the country to its usual wilted condition. A group of mixed men, camels, and horses are scattered about the ground surrounding a bit of a tin humpy and a few dilapidated shanties. There is a little saltbush scattered around, some very tired-looking scrub, and a bare granite mound of rock. There has been a bit of soak here; and a speculative individual has started a shanty; but the soak is at its last, gasp, and the next morning will see the end of it as a halting place. Dick and a couple of mates have stopped there to water their few camels. To them comes a man leading a limping pony.
"Look here," he says in an aggrieved tone, "what that blooming looney did yesterday. Chipped my prad on the hip skylarking about with the niggers. I didn't see it till just now."
"Who was he?"
"Some escaped lunatic been here on the spree. Had too much of the stuff they distil with the condensers. One of the combos chopped out a boomerang, and was doing tho saltbush dodge, just making it skim over the tops without touching, when this cove reels up."
"'I'll show you how to throw a boomerang or anything else. Stand, up, Billy, and hold this bottle!' But Billy took to his heels; so he stuck the bottle up on a stump. My word! the drunker he got the better he could throw. There's a whole heap of bottles busted out there. Some of them blooming camels will be cutting their pads with them."
"Wilde's this genius now'!"
"Went off in the horrors this morning with somebody else's bike. Owner's after him; might find his body."
"Do you know him?"
"Not from a crow. Came here two or three days ago, mad as a hatter, going east to smash up somebody who owed him some money. Topped up here with that distilled stuff; but, my word! he could throw a boomerang!"
Dick and his mates went to inspect the pony of the talkative man. Drummond started when he saw the wound, which was not much to look at.
"You are sure this was made by a boomerang?"
"Yes, the niggers told me he was fooling around at long distance shots after he'd broken the bottles, and one went amongst the horses. You see, it's just been whizzing round, and one end has hit the prad, and the thing has whizzed off again. 'Tain't much if I can keep the flies off, but if it had hit a man on the nut it would have cooked him."
Dick stared at the speaker in silence. It was just such a wound was on tho head of his father when he found him. And this man, this lunatic, who could throw blacks' weapons like few other men, was Blacklock; had he not a reputation for it all over the district? No wonder there were no tracks, for they had not looked far enough back from the road. And Octavius knew all about it, and bad perjured himself over the alibi. Blacklock was his right-hand man. If he had been committed to take his trial, Octavius would have lost the election. And now! He had promised Blacklock money, and had broken his word. And Blacklock, always an excitable, queer fellow, had been drinking himself half-mad.
"We must find this fellow. I have a score to settle with him," he said to his mates.
"Here's the bicycle man coming back with his machine," said the owner of the pony.
The man was wheeling his bike as though it had been damaged.
"Where did you find it?" inquired one, as he approached.
"'Bout live miles away; he ran against a tree, but it's not much hurt. I can fix it," returned the express-rider.
"Where's the lunatic?"
"Didn't stop to look for him; I've got to make time, you bet; somebody else can go."
"All right," said Dick, "just direct me to where you found your bike, while you tinker it up; my mates and I will start with one of the niggers."
"You can't go wrong," said the rider, as he fell to work. "Straight in the direction I come in you'll come on a bit of a clear slope, from the highest part you'll see a low ridge. At the western end of it I got my bike, and you'll see my trucks turning back, his go straight on. He's got a bottle with him. I saw where he got off to have a swig."
It still wanted two hours to sundown when Dick, his mates, and a blackfellow started, and in an hour had come to the place where the express rider had recovered his borrowed machine.
After that they managed to trace a mile or two of erratic progress before dark, when they camped.
In the middle of the night Dick woke from an uneasy sleep. He listened intently leaning on his elbow, for he had an indefinable feeling that somebody was moving about. He could hear the camels grunting, and the heavy breathing of the blackboy, and was about to lie down again, when there was a mad laugh close at hand, and an empty bottle whizzed over his head, and smashed against a neighbouring tree. Before his mates were fully awake, the lunatic was in the camp.
The blackboy jumped up in a fright, and, with unerring instinct, ran straight back to the soak. After a hard struggle, Dick and the others succeeded in overpowering and securing the madman.
Towards morning he was exhausted and quiet, and they managed, with much difficulty, to pack him on a camel, and take him to some rock holes they knew of. It was no good going back to the soak, there would be nobody there.
It was Blacklock whom they had rescued, but it was many days before a gleam of intellect came to the brain shattered with moody fits of brooding, sullen temper, aggravated by the poisonous home-brewed spirit.
Sense returned at last, returned with the weakness and indifference of approaching death. It was only the recognition of Drummond that woke him into fuller life.
"I never meant to kill the old man," he croaked out. "It astonished me when I hit him and toppled him over. The boomerang went on a good distance, and I crossed the road a long way down, at a place where you could not pick up my track, and recovered the boomerang. But that skinflint! I pulled him through the election, and he swore hard and fast in return, that I was at Murtagh's Crossing, when a score of people knew I was at Wyagong. Then I cleared out, and he promised to send me money, which he never did, and what with that and thinking about the old man, I got on this howling bust; and now I'm done for."
Dick could not deny it.
"Would it do any good if my confession was sworn to. And I could tell you all about that perjury. Why the publican at Murtagh's Crossing kept out of the way; 'cause he knew I wasn't there."
"My mate Mitten is a J.P. I think we'll take your deposition down, and I'll settle with Octavius."
"Do. He's an awful sneak. He knew I couldn't go back, and he thought he'd got me, but it's not all over yet."
Blacklock's racked out body soon found peace. To the last he assured Dick that he never intended the old man's death, but that the devil got in him, and he couldn't resist the opportunity to fetch the old squatter down in the dust.
Fortune often repents, and comes with both hands full. While nursing Blacklock through his last hours, Mitten, who had little to do, dropped on one of the best shows of that district, and Dick went back to the east with the prospect of a fortune not far ahead.
Charley and Jemima were married before he returned, and Charley's practice was looking up, and Jim did no more typewriting. Octavius was blooming and basking in the smiles of political popularity, oozing good works out of every port, when, to the astonishment of his admirers and followers, he resigned his seat and left Australia. Nobody knew the reason but three people, and nobody knew where he went to; but it was reported that he had become the leader of a new religious sect in the United States.
Greenbanks was still on the market and Dick invested in it, and the delighted Barney bit his old friend Grant out of joy at his return.
IT was in 1770 that my uncle, who had been knocking about the sea all his life, came home to Devon with his pockets heavy with cash. He had strange tales to tell of his late travels—he had been absent some three years—and of the strange countries in the east, and of his adventures there, and tales that fired my imagination, for I had been two cruises with him, and would have much liked to go another, but my father was ailing, and business compelled me to stop at home. Folks whispered that my uncle was nothing more nor less than a pirate when he got south of the Line, and a slaver to boot, but when I went with him he did nothing but honest trading, and, although he carried guns, and we twice had trouble with Dutch ships, in which one of them was sunk, that was brought on by their own interfering ways.
Well my uncle had been to the Great Southland that the Dutch had found a long time ago, and that our own navigator, Captain Dampier, had visited nearly a century before, and what he had found there he would not state plainly, but whatever it was he intended to go back there again.
I longed to accompany him, and chance willed that my father got better, and I was able to leave. We were to sail from Portsmouth, but were delayed two or three days waiting for a friend of my uncle's, who was to accompany us.
He came off late one night, and we immediately got under way, and by daylight were out of sight of land, laying a southern course before a fair wind.
There was something strange about our mode of departure, and when I saw our new shipmate in the morning I did not at all like the cut of his jib. My uncle introduced him to me as Lieutenant Dalgleish, late king's officer. I think we took a nautical dislike to each other from the first, and my uncle noticed it, for he took occasion to tell me to mend my manners towards Dalgleish, for, said he, "I am under great obligations to him, which this trip will pay off."
The Object of our trip I had not yet learned. I only knew that we were bound to the Great Southland, and that my uncle expected this to be his last voyage. It was, Heaven rest his soul, but not in the way he hoped for.
We were lucky in the weather, and made good progress, and, despite my dislike to Mr. Dalgleish, I had to confess that he knew his business, and could navigate a ship well. We had a good crew of old salts, better than most ships were manned with, and our provisions were on a liberal scale, so that our time passed pleasantly enough till we reached the Cape of Good Hope, and took in fresh water and stores.
As we drew near the north-west portion of the Southland, which the Dutch call New Holland, my uncle and Dalgleish pored over the old Dutch maps of this terra incognita, and compared them with a rough chart of my uncle's. At last, we sighted land, a low, barren coast, to which we gave a wide berth, and changed our course to a more northerly one. We kept on for some days, and finally got to a portion of the coast where it was studied with groups of islands.
Amongst these we cruised for some time, having no apparent object in view but to kill time. At last, one day, just before noon, we sighted a fleet of proas, and bore down to them. There must have been between fifty and sixty of them, and my uncle and Dalgleish went on board the leading proa, and the Rajah commanding the fleet came back on board the Mermaid, as our vessel was called. My uncle seemed able to converse with him in some sort of a lingo I could not make head or tail of, but I know that the old fellow, in spite of being a Mahomedan, got very merry on the wine before he went on board his proa.
We now sailed west, and came across another fleet of proas, where the same scene was reacted, and we then turned southward, into what I have since found out from Captain Flinders's charts was a great gulf. We cruised slowly round this great indentation, though what good we did by it I knew not at the time, though I do now. To all my questions my uncle would only smile, and say, "We are waiting till the fish are ready to be caught, my boy."
Dalgleish had seemingly great influence over my uncle, but he never interfered much with the actual working of the ship, which was fortunate, for our crew, an honest lot of sea dogs, disliked both him and his "king's officer" style as much as I did.
One day we put off for the shore to see if we could find a supply of fresh water, for my uncle had an old Dutch chart, with "Fresh water" marked on it in one or two places. Dalgleish and I went with the boat, and found the water. We were not short of water at the time, but my uncle wished to identify the spot for future guidance.
We pulled up the entrance to a river fringed with mangroves on each side, and found the water in a large lagoon, encircled with tall trees, with weeping foliage and thick papery bark. We saw many tracks and old fires of the Indians, but did not see any of them about the lagoon. Going back we ran on to a mudbank, and the boatswain jumped out to push the boat off. Immediately there came a shower of spears from amongst the mangroves, which, fortunately did no harm.
"Give way, quick!" shouted Dalgleish, jumping up and firing off his pistol. The men were bending to their oars, for the boat was now afloat, and the boatswain would have been left behind but that I dropped the tiller, and seizing an oar, swung the stern of the boat round and helped the man in.
"You should see that all your crew are on board before you shove off. Mr. Dalgleish," I said.
"Yes," added the boatswain. "Is that how they do on a King's ship—leave a man in a mudhole to be speared to death by the Indians?"
"D—— your insolence," said Dalgleish. "You should have got on board smarter; and as for you, Master Ruthven, I'd advise you not to shove your oar in."
"I'll shove my oar in when I see occasion, in spite of any cashiered King's officer," I retorted, and I saw him give a start and dart a fiendish glance at me, which confirmed my suspicions that he had been dismissed the navy in disgrace. However, he said nothing at the time, but when I got on board, my uncle, joined by Dalgleish, rated me soundly for my behavior. I had made a bitter enemy, but I had also made a firm friend, for the sturdy old boatswain was henceforth devoted to me.
After cruising aimlessly about for some time longer we returned to the watering place, sent an armed party ashore, and filled our casks, this time without any molestation. We then sailed north and west, and amongst some islands came across a large fleet of proas. All the crew were mustered up, and my uncle made a speech to them in which to my intense astonishment he said that he held a privateer's commission to harass and plunder all the king's enemies, and that Lieutenant Dalgleish would read it to them, which the latter, dressed in full uniform, proceeded to do. He then went on to explain that a state of war existed between the King of England and Sultan of Macassar, and it was their duty to overhaul these proas by force if necessary, and take what valuable they had, there would be good prize money all round. He then called for three cheers for King George, and my uncle ordered the decks to be cleared for action, and the guns shotted.
Now this yarn was good enough for the sailors, who were tired of inaction, and believed what was said, but it certainly did not deceive me. The whole piratical scheme flashed across me at once.
During our friendly intercourse with the Malays my uncle had learned their movements when the pearl fishery, which they were engaged in, would come to an end, and all the plans had been laid accordingly, and we had cruised about in the great gulf until the time was ripe.
As for the commission, I no more believed in that than I did in Dalgleish himself. I drew my uncle on one side, and told him what I thought of the affair, and refused to take part in it. He flew into a great rage, swore the commission was genuine, and calling Dalgleish over commenced a tirade against me, which I did not reply to, but when Dalgleish sneeringly remarked something I rounded on him, and plainly told him that he was a coward, and had shown the white feather when the Indians attacked us. He talked mighty big, but dared do no more, for he was no match for me if it came to blows.
Our near approach to the proas cut short the altercation, and bidding me hastily go and skulk below, my uncle went on the poop deck, followed by Dalgleish. I leant over the side and watched proceedings. The thing was managed well. My uncle knew the ways of the Malays, and fired a shot across the bows of the proa which carried the Rajah of the fleet. An armed boat's crew then went on board, while we lay close to, with the guns trained on the proa.
There was no resistance, and the marauders returned with their plunder. As the pearls obtained were regularly brought on board the Rajah's proa, it was not worth while overhauling the remainder of the fleet, and we made sail for the next rendezvous.
How the old Rajah took the transformation of his quondam hosts into pirates I do not know, but I suppose it astonished him. Of course the two did not confide in me as to the amount of their plunder, but I guessed, from their manner, it was valuable. I could not take the men into my confidence as to the legality of these proceedings, but Oswald, the boatswain, had a very shrewd suspicion, I felt certain. I kept my watch as usual, although little communication passed between my uncle and myself; and during one night Oswald asserted that his timely arrival only prevented Dalgleish from sneaking on me with a knife when I was off my guard.
We successfully rifled two small flotillas of proas, and then encountered a large fleet, which Dalgleish seemed anxious to let alone, but my uncle, led on by the belief that there was a big haul to be got, persisted in attacking. Dalgleish, in fear of his skin, did not go off in the boat, and as soon as they boarded the proa a signal gun was fired and a brisk fire opened on us from the carronades the proa carried.
Whether by some means they had heard of our former raids, and were prepared for us, I know not, but we received a great surprise. We could not fire, for our men were on board, so another boat was quickly manned, and I started with a rescue party, leaving Oswald in charge of the ship. We had a hard fight of it, but we managed to rescue my uncle, who had a bad cut on his head, and such men as were left, and beat a hasty retreat as the other junks were closing in.
Firing had ceased when we got on board, and I was astonished to see Dalgleish on deck in irons. Oswald informed me that he had tried to get the men to make sail on the vessel and sail away, leaving us to our fate. He had even offered the men half the pearls we had on beard if they would consent. While Oswald was telling me this the wind had dropped, and the proas had got their sweeps out, and we were in a bad way. We got ready to resist any attempts at boarding, when to our surprise a clumsy boat put off from the Rajah's proa, and pulled towards us.
The Rajah himself, richly dressed, came on board, and as I stepped forward, addressed me in Dutch, which I understood sufficiently well to make out his meaning. He had us in his power, but would let us go freely if we restored the pearls we had already taken. My uncle was insensible, so on my own account I explained to the men what the terms were and the hopelessness of our position.
While I was doing this the Rajah caught sight of Dalgleish. Instantly his countenance changed, and a look of gratified hate came over it.
Evidently he and Dalgleish had met before, and under circumstances that had left a deep debt of vengeance behind. Hastily spoke the Rajah, "Give me this man, and keep the pearls."
"No," shrieked Dalgleish. "For the love of God, Ruthven, shoot me before you hand me over to this man."
The sailors pressed forward, and Oswald said, "If the Rajah wants Mr. Dalgleish, he can have him and welcome."
My protests were unheeded, rough but friendly hands held me firm, and amidst imploring screams and entreaties Dalgleish was carried away in the Rajah's boat; and I never saw him more. Of his fate I dread to think—a Malay's vengeance is something terrible.
A breeze sprung up and carried us away from the scene, and we steered for the Cape. My uncle never recovered his proper senses, so that I could not learn the bond that existed between the two, but suspected that my uncle's piratical tendencies had got him into trouble with the naval authorities, from which Dalgleish had rescued him.
I divided the pearls with the crew in just proportion, and sold the vessel, devoting the money to the comfort of my uncle during the few years he lingered on.
THE hill, or mountain, as it was generally called, stood sheer on the bank of the river, which wheeled sharply around its base. The river was broad and sandy, and in its deeper pools the crocodiles of the Northern Territory disported themselves, and in the sunny hours of the winter days could be seen basking on the sandbanks in sleepy ease and contentment.
The mount itself was the termination of a range some sixty miles long, which started from the locality of a gold field, and all along its course the daring, prospector had threaded his way, taking, his life in his hand as ho did so, for the blacks at that time were, still savage and dangerous.
On the mount by the river several parties had obtained good results; but, strangely enough, none were able to follow it up. Nearly every party obtained one good prospect, and after that were mocked by the color of gold only.
Worse than all, no party had ever camped at the mount but what death, in some shape, had overtaken one of its members. One had gone to the river to wash, his clothes. His mates searched in vain for him when he did not return. The clothes were there, but the crocodiles had got the man. Another had sickened of the malarial fever of the north and died, and been buried there. Another had stuck his pick into his foot, and he, poor follow, died a dreadful death, in the agony of lockjaw. Two had gone there, and only one had come back again, disappeared in a day or two, and the story went round that he had murdered his mate.
So the tales ran about the mountain on the bank of the Railly River; and men began to get shy of going there.
"The next lot will get chawed up by the niggers," was the opinion of one old digger. "They haven't had an innings yet, and it's about their turn now."
"Whoever they, get, they won't get me. I wouldn't go down there for an ounce a day, unless, there was a regular camp," said another....
"What's the matter with the place?" asked a tall young fellow, who was sitting by the fire with the others, a new arrival from Queensland.
They told him the story, and he laughed as they all did at first when these yarns were told by the old hands.
"Everybody gets a good prospect to start with and then they can never get any more? Hanged if I don't try my luck there."
"We'll find your bones in a black's oven," said the old man who had first spoken.
"Blacks!" returned the other, contemptuously. "You shouldn't talk to an old Palmer man about niggers."
"You may be in nigger country for years, and one fine day, when you're smoking your pipe and reckoning that you're as safe as the Lord Mayor of London, crash will go your skull, and nothing will trouble you any more."
"I know 'em," said the other.
"So do I," said the young man, "they tackled us like devils twice on the Roper, when, we were coming across, and speared my best horse. I owe them something. But about this mountain is it a true bill about the prospects?"
"True as gospel; there's men in the camp here who have been there and found it: always the same—one good prospect and nothing more."
"It must be traced somehow. I'll have a try, anyhow. By the way, a brother of mine came over here about a year ago, and I have never heard of him since. Tall fellow, not unlike me; Sid Thomson was his name—used to be called Lanky Sid!"
"Good Lord!" said the old man. "Thought there was something familiar about the cut of you. Yes, your brother came here, worse luck, but where he is now nobody can say."
"How's that?" said the other, quickly.
"Because he went down to that there mountain, and he never came back again."
"Tell me all about it. I came over here from the Palmer, partly in the hope of finding him. Sid and I were always great chums from boys."
"I'll tell you, Thomson, if that's your name," went on Pranks, the old digger, "but it's a queer story, mind you, and none too pleasant for you to hear. Your brother Sid, I knew him well. He went down to the Railly River Mountain; would go against all we said, just the same as you, and he hasn't come back yet."
"How long ago was that?"
"More than six months. But that's not all. He had a mate with him—a fellow called Radforth. Radforth came back alone. Didn't say much to anyone—and disappeared. Clean gone, nobody know where."
"Didn't anybody ask about my brother?"
"Of course they did, naturally. But he answered in a way that made 'em think that Sid was still down there, and he had just come up for rations. Leastways, he bought rations, and vamoosed, without a word to anybody. This made some people who didn't like him—for he was an ugly tempered animal—suspect that something was wrong, and a party was made to go down. Well, they went, down there, but devil a thing could they find, beyond old tracks and old camps. Some think, maybe; that your brother and Radforth went across to the Victoria River, and so on to West Australia, but—I don't."
"I'll go down there at once, and alone, too. I'll find this thing out for myself, by God! If my brother has met with foul play, I'll hunt up this Radford if he's on earth."
"Steady! There's no proof that your brother Is dead, nor that Radford killed him; but the rumor has got about here. Still there may be no truth in it."
"Anyhow, I'm going down to have a look at the place. I suppose you can tell me how to find It?"
"Simple as possible. You have only to follow the range round, and the mountain is right on the bank of the river. You'll see scores of old tracks. But look out for the niggers! Look here, boy; they'll get the next man."
"I'm going, and I'll find out what's become of my brother," said Thomson; "and I'll start tomorrow."
TO a man who had been through, the Palmer rush, and finally overland to the Northern Territory, a trip of 60 miles was neither here nor there. Following the range along, he came on the second day to the Mount of Misfortune, round the base of which ran the Railly River. Lonely as was the place, young Thomson did not feel it so, so much was his mind occupied with his brother's fate, but although there wore no fresh tracks of blacks about, visible to his experienced eye, he took the precaution of camping some way up the slope of the mountain. There was good feed on the flat and there was no fear of his horses straying far during the night.
It was a beautifully clear moonlight night, and Thomson lay for some time smoking and thinking of the quest he was engaged in, when suddenly he heard a sound that caused him to raise himself up on his elbow and listen attentively. There was no mistake. Somebody was working with a pick on some part of the mountain. The night was noiseless, there was not even a wild dog howling, or a breath of wind stirring, and clearly and distinctly came the sounds of the strokes of a pick.
Thomson did not hesitate long. He picked up his Martini carbine, and stole carefully and as silently as possible in the direction of the mysterious sound. It was hard to trace, the echoes amongst the ranges were, confusing, but at last he located it, and leaning over the edge of the rocky descent into a steep gully, he saw the worker.
A man was digging down in the bed of the dry creek that ran down the bottom of the gully. Working, and had been working for some long time, as Thomson's digger's eye could see by the long heap of wash dirt piled up. Someone had penetrated the mystery of the mountain, and the source of the intermittent patches of gold, and was working it out quietly for himself. Who was the man?
"I'll watch till daylight, but I'll find out," thought Thomson.
For hours the solitary worker continued his labor, and the watcher at his post watched him. He congratulated himself on bringing his carbine; a man with the lust of gold in his brain would not hesitate to commit murder to preserve his secret.
It was about one o'clock in the morning before the digger ceased his toil, put down his tools, and straightened and stretched himself. Then he commenced to follow the gully down, and Thomson strode silently after him. Down, down, following every turn and twist, the two went, for Thomson had now descended into the gully, and kept his man well in sight.
Soon the river was in view, and still the stranger kept on until he reached the bank. He never looked back, but descended the path by a well-worn pad, and went out on the sand to the edge of a deep waterhole that extended down the river for a long way. There was an island covered with undergrowth just behind where he had taken up his position, and here Thomson concealed himself, so close that he could hear every word the man uttered. He wondered much that his presence had not been detected before; but the man before him seemed as though he was acting in a trance.
He was sitting at the edge of the water, looking down into its moonlit surface, and talking strangely to himself, as was but natural in a "hatter."
"Are you there, Sid? Was it painful when the crocodiles took you? Come up and tell me about it. I've got the lead right enough, and the secret of the mountain. Come up, old man, and don't grin down there. Bah! It wasn't painful—you were killed quick. Come up, man, and see how well I'm getting on."
Thomson could no longer restrain himself. There was no doubt in his mind that this was Radforth, the murderer of his brother in order to gain and keep to himself the secret of the mysterious mountain. He sprang down from the island, and stood beside the talker.
Radforth jumped upright, and looked at him aghast. The resemblance between the brothers was only a general one, but in the moonlight it sufficed.
"So you've come at last. Come at last," cried Radforth, falling back. "Go, take it; I'll take your place." Turning quickly away, he plunged into the bottomless hole, where the crocodiles that haunted it received him joyfully. He never rose again. Thomson watched for long, but the moonlit surface was unrippled after the commotions of the plunge had subsided.
In the morning he found the camp of the recluse, whom solitude and remorse had evidently driven crazy, and, in a diary, found his worse fears confirmed. His brother and Radforth had discovered what promised to be the true lead of the mountain source of the gold. They had not quarrelled, but the prospects were so rich that the greed of gold grew in Radforth's breast, and he killed his unsuspecting comrade.
He took his body to the waterhole, where one could always see the small eyes of a crocodile and a snout floating on the surface. There he left it, but the crocodiles did not touch it. Day after day, night after night, it lay there, and the crocodiles would not touch the dead body, nor hide the murder. Then in desperation he buried it in the sand, and that night the crocodiles dug it up, and in the morning it was floating at the brink of the sand-spit. And there it floated till the flesh dropped from the bone, and the awful thing sank. But I the curse was on the man, and every night after his hidden toil in the gully he was constrained to go down to where the bones were lying; and all I this he had written down.
In the morning Thomson went down to the edge of the waterhole, and under the clear water opposite where Radforth had been sitting he saw the bones and skull of what he felt sure was his brother's body. He recovered them, and buried them before he returned to the old camp. He told old Franks, and they kept silence, and went back to the mountain on the Railly River.
The first loads of the washdirt piled up by the wretched murderer washed out handsomely. The remainder, which they were too disgusted to go all through, contained but specks. The man had been driving himself mad over piling up load upon load of worthless dirt. The mystery of the Mountain of Misfortune is a mystery still.
IT all passed so quickly that it seemed as though a miracle had happened. One minute we were rejoicing over our victory, and the next, an unexpected broadside, poured in at close quarters, had covered our decks, with dead, dying, and wreckage. While the Portuguese ship was just hauling down her colors, and we were all intent upon her, the French ship we had seen in the morning had crept up in the smoke, bringing a light breeze with her, and had nearly blown us out of the water. There was an awful silence after the deadly thunder of that broadside; then a loud voice hailed us, calling on us to strike our flag.
I got on to my knees, finding myself almost unhurt, and looked at my father, who was shouting something to me, his voice broken with a curious sort of whistle. I managed to stagger where he lay, his body covered with blood. He was trying to point out to me the sail-maker who was going aft to haul down the flag. I guessed what my father meant, and drawing a pistol hailed him to stop. He kept on, however, answering something, and had got his hand on the halliards when I shot him down. Then I knelt by my father, and braced myself for what was coming to send us to the bottom. But nothing came, and presently I heard footsteps and voices approaching. One whom I took to be the French captain came up with another officer. He was a handsome, gallant-looking man, and I scrambled to my feet to greet him properly.
"I am Captain La Roche, of the Victoire," he said. "You are helpless, and sinking, so I refrained from firing into you again. Is this your captain?"
All this was in very good English, and I hastened to reply.
"This is Captain Stapleton, of the privateer Eagle. He is my father, and I fear me, dead."
The officer who accompanied the captain stooped clown, and rising shook his head—my father was dead.
"He died like a brave man, and will go down with his ship," said La Roche. "Now, will you muster up what men you have left, for we have but scant time?"
I got my men together, and few enough there were. We entered the French boats, and were rowed away from the sinking ship as prisoners of war. One of the French sailors was going to haul down the colors, but the captain stopped him, like the truly gallant man he was. The vessels had drifted apart, and when we had reached the Victoire, it was not long before the brave Eagle plunged under. She went down bows first, the last thing to go under being the English flag at her peak; and our foolish fellows cheered it as it vanished.
The Portuguese ship had received much damage, but the Frenchman was, of course, untouched, and it being calm weather they kept company for some days, repairing the Portuguese damages. Then we were transferred on board.
"I would have kept you with me," said La Roche, "but we have no room for prisoners; and if I take you to France, heaven knows when you will be set free, for it is a death grapple between France and England. But this paltry squabble with Portugal will soon be over; and you will be released. Goodbye, and if it comes to your chance to help a Frenchman, do so for my sake."
I grasped his hand, and we parted. I never met the generous-hearted fellow again, nor even heard of him. God rest his soul for a true gentleman and a sailor.
Our destination, we learned, was Goa, in India, and we found some difference in the dirty Portuguese ship and the trim Frenchman. I especially suffered a change. La Roche had taken me to his cabin, but in consequence of there being two Portuguese officers on board as passengers, I had to go forward, as the men of gilt lace and buttons objected to the presence of a heretic pirate. Being young, I naturally resented this, and foolishly took every small opportunity of showing it, so that when we arrived at Goa, the unfriendly Don Gongala da Sarmentů, who was a high official, managed that I should be separated from my companions and confined alone.
I received anything but handsome treatment, and I found out afterwards that the reason of my being so separated was that when peace was proclaimed soon after my arrival, my companions were at once released, while I was left to linger within the gloomy walls, forgotten. I sent several memorials to the Governor, but received no acknowledgment, and was making desperate resolutions to attempt escape at all hazards, when an event occurred that made me no longer sigh for freedom. The old woman who cooked the vile food I had to put up with was the wife of my gaoler, and the pair had taken some pity on my youth and loneliness, hence I had obtained a little more freedom. I used to visit the fat old cook in the kitchen, and found that it opened into the garden of the governor of the gaol, a very high and mighty dignitary. I was permitted to wander about the garden at certain hours, and when nobody was likely to be about. Escape from the gaol was easy enough, but how to get out of Goa?
How shall I tell what befell me in that quaint old garden? Only that one day I met a dark-eyed girl, the daughter of the governor, and again we met, and it came about that the bright southern maiden, the devout young Catholic, fresh from her convent, loved the ragged heretic prisoner.
One day I was talking to the old cook, and she asked me slyly if I had seen the little donna in the garden. In her garrulous way she went on telling me that a marriage had been arranged between her and Da Sarmentů, the man to whom I owed my long imprisonment, as I afterwards knew, though then I only suspected it. This was pleasant news for a helpless and hopeless prisoner.
"Frank, why are you prisoner?" said my sweetheart to me the day after the cook's communication.
"Because my country and yours are at war with one another."
"I think not. I do not know much, but I heard long since that there was peace with England; and even now there lies an English ship in the bay."
I leapt up, mad with rage and hope. Kept a prisoner of war during peace time, and an English ship in the bay. I caught Nita In my arms.
"Goodbye love, for the present; I must reach that ship or die; and if I reach it, by heaven I'll cut Sarmentů's ears off. If I fail, Nita, remember you must tell the English captain of my being kept here."
I had her still in my embrace kissing away her frightened tears, when I was roughly dragged away by strong hands. My enemy had surprised us with a Ale of soldiers. I fought like a demon, and wrenched a musket from one of them, and felled another to the ground. Then I rushed on Sarmentů, who was dragging Nita away. The coward! He put the shrieking girl in front of him to guard himself. The men were closing in on me again, so I turned and fled. I dashed through the kitchen and down the passage they used. The door was open; I knocked down a sleeping sentry, anti was in the street. Then I made for the bench. Sure enough an English man-of-war lay at anchor, and on the beach was a boat, a midshipman, and a couple of sailors tending.
"Who the devil are you?" was my greeting, as I ran up panting and breathless.
"I am an Englishman, unjustly kept here as a prisoner of war, and I claim the protection of my flag."
"War! Why we have not been at war with these here beggars for ever so long. Kept an Englishman prisoner, eh? Won't old Fire Irons raise Cain?"
The middy told me the ship was the Sea Lion, commanded by the Honorable Augustus Firontes, usually known as Fire Irons. He condescendingly informed me that I was safe under his protection, for which I felt duly grateful. The captain and his lieutenant, and the remainder of the crew came down, and I told my story over again.
Firontes at once took me on board, and furnished me with the necessaries I stood sadly in need of, then he went on shore in state to interview the Governor-General. There was a serious difference of opinion, but the wily Portuguese was too many for the blunt English captain, and explained the whole matter away in the most elaborate fashion. Fire Irons came on board muttering threats of bombarding the town, but he could do nothing else.
That night I went ashore, accompanied by my new friend, the middy. The captain, who knew my father by repute as captain of the most dashing Letter of Marque that ever harassed the King's enemies, had given me what money I required, and I made the old cook happy with a handsome present; but of Nita I could learn no word; but I left a long letter, telling her I would return. I could only go on board disheartened, although Chambers, the middy, was full of suggestions of cutting-out parties and searching the pious city of Goa.
On reaching England I fond that I was a wealthy man. My father had laid by money, and my uncle, a rich man, had just died, and I was sole heir to both. It was peace time now, and I easily got a ship for my purpose, and had my pick of men. Chambers obtained leave and accompanied me, and we sailed for Goa. After dark I went ashore, and found out my old friend the cook. I had just arrived in time. Nita was to be married the following day to Da Sarmentů.
There was some sort of ceremony going on that might at the Governor's house, and as Chambers and I crept through the garden we saw one of the large windows was all ablaze with light. It was but ten feet or so from the ground, and when we looked In we saw a brilliant gathering.
I saw nothing of Nita, but I saw Sarmentů in a brilliant uniform among a crowd of others equally tricked out. Chambers peered in beside me, and when I pointed out Sarmentů he put his hand to his pistol, as if there was to be shooting there and then. Just then I saw Nita. She was close to him; I had overlooked her. She was sitting with an elderly lady, looking sad and sick. The window was open, and I determined on a bold move. I whispered my instructions to Chambers, who dropped and stood ready; then I stole into the room. I anticipated a scream from Nita, but hoped I should be quick enough to get away with her before any of them could stop me. In a minute I stood beside her.
"I have come for you, Nita," I whispered. She turned and saw me. She was about to cry out, but checked it, and sprang into my arms. But never did woman scream as did her companion. I made for the window as the company rushed towards me, and was lifting my sweetheart to pass her down to Chambers, when Sarmentů fired a pistol at me. I felt nothing at the time, and carefully passed Nita into Chambers's arms, jumping down myself.
"She has fainted," said Chambers, as we pushed on, he, who was now a strong, athletic fellow, carrying Nita, whilst I followed, keeping off our pursuers, who were not very eager in the chase.
We joined our men, and were comparatively safe, and I now took Nita from Chambers. Horror! she was covered with blood, amid as her head fell back and the light of a lantern gleamed on her white face, I saw she was dead—dead by the bullet intended for me, fired by the coward who did not dare to come to close quarters to rescue his intended bride.
Drums were beating now, and the town was roused. My men hurried me to the boats, and we regained the ship, still bearing the poor girl's body with us. Chambers took command and got the ship out before they could bring the guns of the fort to bear upon us, for I was stupefied with grief, and divided between remorse for my rash act and rage at the murderer. Chambers roused me up by morning, and we buried my unfortunate sweetheart in a sailor's grave. Then there was only one thing left for me to do, and that was revenge her.
Chambers tried hard to dissuade me from my purpose, but I was not to be denied, and we had become too fast friends for anything to part us. I heard that Sarmentů had been appointed Governor of Macao, in China, and I hung about the coast until I had news of his departure, and then I started in pursuit. Twice I engaged his ship, and twice we were separated by a storm.
At last one night I lost sight of my enemy, and though I kept on the course be should have gone, I failed to sight him morning after morning. On through the Straits of Malacca, and never a sail. Then an idea occurred to me—the ship had made south, probably to the Portuguese settlements on Timor. We changed our course, and with a fair wind sped there. We coasted along the beautiful island, but there was no sign of my enemy. Perhaps we had got ahead of him. I sailed back on the course he should have come and met him.
It was a lowering day, but a dead, sullen calm had set in, and we lay all day in sight of one another. In the morning there was a heavy bank to the north-west, and a muttered rumble of thunder that never ceased.
"It will blow us apart again," said Chambers, who was leaning against a gun with me watching the Portuguese ship. "Look, they are taking in all sail, and we'd better do the same."
I saw the justice of this, and soon both ships were stripped. None too soon, for, without warning, the storm burst on us like a thunderbolt, and we fled south before it. All night it raged, and the next morning there was no abatement.
"Look here," said Chambers, "we shall be ashore directly," and he pointed to where the land of New Holland lay on the chart, the country lately taken possession of by the British.
"We'll both go together," I answered, for the Portuguese ship was still in sight to leeward of us. At noon the storm lulled and the weather cleared. We saw before us a long, low, level coast.
"The Portuguese have hoisted a signal of distress," said Chambers, who was looking at her through a telescope. We bore down to her, and found she had sprung a leak, and was sinking. The sea had fallen enough for the boats to live, and we took off crew and passengers, but amongst them was no Da Sarmentů.
To all my questions I could get no information, and it was not until some hours had passed that an idea flashed across Chambers, who had been very active in saving the Portuguese.
"Look among the women," he said. "I thought one of them was extra tall." True enough, we found him, hidden in a woman's dress and veil.
I headed the ship in shore to where I saw a sandy beach, but it was dark when we were off it, and I anchored for the night.
Next morning, with one of the officers of the sunken ship and Chambers, I landed and fought Sarmentů on that strip of beach on the shore of the great unknown land at the south.
I disarmed him twice, and the cur begged for his life, so I gave it to him; but I left him on that lonely shore, and sailed away to Timor. I landed the crew and passengers, and returned.
We found his dead body on the sand, dry and shrivelled. Nothing had touched it, neither savages nor wild beasts, if there are savages and wild beasts there.
So I was revenged, but it was of no avail; it could not bring me back the dark-eyed girl who loved the ragged, lonely English prisoner.
THE man was squatting by the edge of the pretty little stream that gurgled and rippled along, and, to my astonishment, as I rode closer, I saw that he was gold-washing, or apparently so. Now, as the country round about did not appear at all auriferous; nor did I know of any diggings in the neighborhood, I felt considerably astonished.
He did not move when I came close.
"How are you getting along?" I asked, for the sake of opening a conversation. "An ounce to the dish?"
He twisted his head around to look at me, and said: "Not now, but it don't run bad. Three and four pennyweights."
He was a solemn-looking old fellow, and he made this statement so seriously that he rather staggered me. Then he went on quietly finishing the last of the dish, while I leant on my horse's neck and watched him. When he had finished he straightened himself up, and, with a satisfied smile, handed me the dish. I took it and inspected it. There was a little black sand, such as you can find anywhere in Australia; beyond that, nothing. I gave him back the dish without a remark, for I concluded it was a joke of some sort he was playing off on me.
Taking the dish back, he remarked, "You wouldn't think stuff ran like that about here, would you?"
"No, I should not," I replied. "How is it that the place is not rushed?"
The old man looked at me with a cunning grin.
"'Cos they can't. All this land about here once belonged to me; but I was swindled out of it. But not all—not all. I was too sharp for them. They didn't know that there was gold on this bit of land, so the swindlers left me that as worthless and now I'm working it. Listen," and he came close; "I've got nearly enough to buy back everything. I've been sticking at it now tor years, and as soon as I've got all I want I mean to buy everything back."
I didn't know quite what to make of it, but the little township to which I was bound was just ahead; and I wished him luck and pushed on, leaving him filling up another dish from a bag of dirt that lay beside him.
SEATED in the verandah of the hotel that evening, I mentioned to the landlord my meeting with the old man.
"Old Forsyth, the mad hatter," he said. "Yes, the old fellow's a character, isn't he?"
"He told me he owned all the country about here once?"
"Partly true; he had a big station once; and got a lot of land purchased, but he lost it all."
"He said he was swindled."
"Ah! that's part of his madness. He played the fool, and, of course, others took advantage of him. I'll tell you the old man's story, if you like; it's a queer one."
"Naturally," I agreed, and the landlord commenced.
"OLD Forsyth originally made his money on the gold fields, but that was before my time. When I came here he had a good bit of land, and leased a fair-sized station, and was a hard-working fellow with a capital bank account. He was a widower, with no children, and married a young wife. She was a good-looking fool, who married him for his money, and hadn't the sense to know when she was well off. She finally eloped with a flash overseer he had, and that settled poor Forsyth.
"He drank and muddled away all he had in about eight years. Of course, he was swindled to a certain extent; unscrupulous people took advantage of his state to make good bargains out of him. No one would have believed that a man like him could have been so fond of the woman; but there is no mistake, it broke him right up. That's his story. He wound up with a bad attack of brain fever, and since then he's been a harmless lunatic, possessed with an idea that he has a private gold mine, and has panned out a fortune, in that creek. Of course there's no gold in this part, I need not tell you that."
"How does he exist?" I asked.
"That's where the romance comes in. When his wife ran away, she left him a year-old baby daughter, and when this child was born he was so delighted that he insisted on settling on her a birthday gift of a small farm, and it was tied up so tight that when the drink softened his brain, he could not make ducks and drakes of that; though many tried to get it from him. It's not of very much value, but that deserted girl has grown up a regular wonder. Smart and pretty. She keeps a lot of poultry, and runs the farm as a dairy. She's between 18 and 19 now, and could have married well half a dozen times; but no, she runs the place, and looks after the old man. Not that he wants much looking after, for as long as he's allowed to fill his bag up with what he thinks is wash-dirt, and take it down to the creek and wash it, he's happy."
The landlord stopped and lit a fresh cigar.
"There's one thing," he went on, "which none of us can make out. No one stops on the place at night but the old man and the girl, and a queer-looking servant woman they have there. Nobody's ever asked there. Two or three parsons have tried, in that familiar way they can put on when they like, but all they've got's a snubbing for their pains. No, there's no reason why the girl shouldn't marry and have a home and family of her own, for the old man is no hindrance; he's harmless; but there's something behind. But it's nothing bad, mind you," said the landlord, getting up, when I proposed an adjournment to the bar. "Nobody here would believe anything bad of Miss Forsyth, the mad hatter's daughter."
IT was years, but not many years, afterwards that I went back again to the little township where I had met the "mad hatter." To my surprise, the first man I met was an old friend, a doctor, who had settled down in Yungellalla in hopes to pick up a practice. From him I learned the sequel of old Forsyth's story. I was introduced to Mrs. Lofell, the wife of the doctor. Her maiden name was Miss Forsyth.
"I was called in to see old Forsyth," said Lofell, when he explained matters. "He was sick unto death. It necessitated my being there night and morning, and I found out the little mystery that surrounded the small household.
"That girl—my wife—how instinct had taught her, I know not; nor would I seek to pry in that great mystery that means the charity of femininity, was shielding her unhappy mother. She was the woman who was the disfigured servant. Oh! that farce the girl kept on.
"Every night the woman, who appeared occasionally before the working men on the farm as the disfigured servant, came and took her place as Forsyth's wife. Not the disgraced wife! That had all been lost and obscured in Forsyth's clouded brain. He retained one idea, that was the restoration of his vanished wealth. In the evening his wife appeared in the dress of her youth, and the old man was happy and contented. That was the secret of the girl's life. She kept her mother in the same guise, as far as the husband was concerned, as when she was the young bride he wooed and won. That is all. But it was such a deed of devotion that it won my love, and you know the rest."
LONG years had passed since any man had tried his luck on the deserted little gold field of Tralooa. It never had been more than a mere flicker of a rush, that had vanished at the first whiff of bad luck. It had now lain for years, bearing on its face all the misery of a deserted gold field. The mounds of earth were still visible, for the grass of northern Australia is not always so kindly disposed as that of countries with milder climates, and does not so readily cover up the scars which man makes on the surface of mother earth.
The nearest township, if such it could be called, was four or five miles away, and, excepting when now and again a little mob of bush cattle wandered on to the old abandoned field, and one of them tumbled down one of the old shafts that had not yet fallen in and got filled up, and remained there until death stopped its futile bellowings, the solitude was pretty well unbroken.
One day a strange cavalcade appeared on the lonely scene of past and buried hopes. A creaking old cart, drawn by a bony horse, drew up there one afternoon, and an aged couple got out of it, and looked at the dreary scene for a moment in silence.
"Seems as though all was gone to rack and ruin, mother," said the old man to the old woman.
"It is dreary, dear. Shall we camp here?" she asked.
"Best get a little further away," he replied. "I don't want the old moke to tumble into one of the old holes to-night, and he's sure to do it if he gets a chance. We'll go about a mile down the creek."
"And is there were Jack was the last we heard of him?" said the old dame, looking curiously around on the desolate spot. "It looks like a graveyard. Yes, Tom, we'll go down the creek a bit, and camp."
"This is the place, Madge; but when I came to see Jack here it was just like a Sydney street for life. Lord love you, what a change there's been!"
The old fellow sighed. During many years he had persuaded himself that unfortunate Tralooa, with its one store and shanty, had been a scene of glittering gaiety and wild dissipation when he had come up there to see his son, one of the prospectors of the only claim that had a poor little show. It had been many long years since the old man's son had written to his mother a glowing letter of the fortune he was making and the good times that were coming, and the old man had started and come up to see him. From the time he had said goodbye to his son, and returned home to the struggling little dairy farm, nothing had ever been heard of their son. Jack and the brilliant fortune had disappeared together. The old man had written, but could obtain no tidings save that the little gold field had been abandoned, and the fortune-seekers gone no one knew whither.
The hard times came, dry season after dry season, and the farm was lost. The old man had a brother in another part of the colony, who would give him and his wife a home, and there they were now journeying, and, as the road went close to Tralooa, they had turned off to visit the place where their son had last been heard of.
"Where was Jack's tent?" asked the mother.
The old man looked about in a confused manner.
"Things is so changed," he muttered. "As near as I can make out it would have been up on yon ridge. Them two uprights would perhaps be where the store was, and next to it were a public-house and a right pretty girl in it; seemed to think no end of Jack too, called him Mr. Harding."
"Some painted hussy," said the old woman.
"Well, she might have been, for she had a rare color on her cheeks and lips. And Jack, he put his money down like a lord, and he looked like one, too. Ah, he was a handsome boy."
"And it is a pity," said the old woman, severely, "that you had no more sense than to go with the boy into a drinking shop, and take notice of a girl's lips, at your age."
"Well, well," said the old man, soothingly, "there was such bustle and excitement, and Jack wouldn't be said no to; there was no harm done, Madge."
The old woman only gave a contemptuous snort, and, after gazing for some time round the field, hobbled back to the cart, and they resumed their journey.
THE next morning they reached the little township of Tralooa, from which the gold field took its name, and stopped a few hours to purchase some rations.
"Was you here when the rush was on?" asked the old woman of the storekeeper's wife.
"Yes, and before it. We've been here a long time. The rush was not much—how did you come to hear of it?"
"Our son, Jack Harding, was one of the prospectors," said the old man, with ill-concealed pride.
"Jack Harding,' echoed the woman, looking at the old couple, curiously. 'Yes, I remember him.'
"We have lost sight of him since the rush—never heard a word of him or from him."
Anyone could have seen that the storekeeper's wife knew something that she wouldn't tell. Anyone but the primitive old pair before her.
"You don't see the papers, maybe?" she said.
"No, missus; we have had no time for reading papers."
"O, I was just thinking about those personals, as they call 'em, that they put in. Suppose your son had put in one of those, saying he was going away, you wouldn't have seen it?"
But the storekeeper's wife was thinking of something else that had been in the paper—a "personal" truly, but very different from the personals she had been talking about. "No, I remember Jack Harding; but I can't say where he is now—he just disappeared, like the rest."
Then she chatted with the old pair, and found out where they were going, and asked them to stay and have a meal, and sent the simple couple on their way contented, feeling that they had received the kindness for Jack's sake. But the storekeeper's wife had told them a lie for their own sake, for she and everybody about Tralooa knew that Jack Harding was in gaol for nearly murdering a man.
Unwitting of this, the old couple journeyed on until they came to a fair-sized township, some thirty miles from their destination. Here they camped on the common outside. It was, growing dark; the old bodies had had their tea and were sitting contentedly round the small bit of fire that the exigencies of a small allowance of firewood such as is to be found in the neighborhood of a township commonage allowed, when the noise of a coarse, cursing voice was heard approaching.
"Some drunken woman. I hope she won't come here," said the old man.
But he was wrong. The shrieking voice, wrangling with itself, as in very despair of somebody else to exchange curses with, came in towards the little spark of fire, and halted there, in the person of a besotted woman hugging a gin bottle.
"Why shouldn't I sit at this fire?" she demanded, although no one had spoken.
"Seems to me I you ain't got much manners when a lady, who's been brought up as a lady, pays you a visit. 'Take a seat; my dear;' 'oh, yes, with pleasure!' and the foul creature plumped herself down beside the shrinking form of old Mrs. Harding.
"Got a pannikin?" the woman said. "Seems to me that you're very shy of your plate in this camp? Ha-ha! Plate in the camp! Why, I've drunk out of plate with my crest on it. My blooming crest! Two crossed bottles and a corkscrew rampant. That's heraldry, you know; but you don't understand. Give us a pannikin, old man."
"Help me into the cart, Tom," pleaded the old woman, as Tom gave his uninvited guest a pannikin.
"What, going already!" said the drunken woman; "leaving me all alone with the old man. Well, you aren't jealous as others, so keep your hair on."
Then the drunken mutter subsided into a sleep—a sleep so sound and deep, the sleep of intoxication; so deep was it that the old man drew back fearfully and shudderingly, for he could not account for the change in her face.
"GIVE ME some more!"
The old man helped her to some more gin, with the same look on his face; then he suddenly dropped both glass and bottle, and said, "I know you now!"
The old man made no effort to pick up the fallen bottle and glass, but stood staring at her with a look that forced her attention.
"Look here," said the old fellow, "when you was asleep just now, your face was quite changed. I saw the gal that talked and laughed, and smiled with her red lips on my son, my boy, at Tralooa Gold Fields. Was it true—was you the gal? Now you are awake, and asking for more gin, you are only the drunken woman as came to our camp tonight. When you was asleep you was different. Perhaps you was dreaming—dreaming maybe as I do sometimes—of Jack coming back all a-smiling and happy, with a pocketful of gold."
The woman gazed at him awe-struck, while the last nip of gin gurgled melodiously out of the neck of the overturned bottle.
"Who are you?" she asked, "and why do you speak of Tralooa, and of Jack? If it's Jack Harding you mean—handsome Jack—you'll never see him coming back smiling with a pocketful of gold."
"Where is he, woman?"
"Jack, Jack Harding; he got put in gaol and he's there still."
"Jack! my Jack! in gaol! What could he be put in gaol for?"
"Dear! oh! deary me!" said the woman, getting maudlin. "Through me if you want to know. I led Jack on, and he half-killed a man he met with me, and he was nearly being hanged only the man didn't die. Lord! Lord! to think of a real lady being brought to this!" and the wretched creature, from whom all trace of womanly beauty had departed, bowed down her head and wept piteously.
The old man stood, with white fury on his face, when a figure intervened, for Madge had scrambled out of the cart and come between them.
"Leave her to me," she said; "seems to me"—for with all the misery of the revelation she could not, woman-like, resist a wifely gibe—"that you'da been better employed giving Jack a lecture than drinking with him."
The old man kept quiet, and the old woman turned to the bloated thing of shame, and put her arm round her neck.
"Tell me about Jack?" she said. "He was my son, and I have a right to know."
"Oh!" the woman gabbled on incoherently. "I am sorry, but he was so forcible, and wild, and thought I was an innocent young girl, God help us! and so when he got jealous he half-killed another man, thought he had killed him outright, and went out and boasted about it, and was arrested, and kept in gaol to see whether the other man would die or not. And so, then he lived, and it was all my fault; he got ten years for it."
So ended the incoherent gabble, and the outcast put her head on her knees, and wept maudlin tears.
"So Jack's in gaol," said the old woman. "My Jack in gaol, on account of such as she. I was cross with you just now, old man, but never you mind that; help me back into the cart. Ten years—ten long years, and then when he comes out he won't be my Jack. No, old man, I couldn't bear to see him. Help me back into the cart."
The old man did as he was told, and stood by her leaning over her, sobbing, and holding her hand.
"Tom!" she said suddenly, "If I died here I'd have to be buried here; do you think you can turn back, and let me die in the old place—near the old place rather—so as I could be buried there, where I always thought of Jack as a child. Don't you think you could manage it, Tom?"
"I could, Madge, but," and he broke down utterly; "What's to become of me?"
"God knows, old man. We are both broken old stock, of no good to anybody. Only I must go back and die where I thought of my Jack as a boy who scarcely knew gaol by name."
"I'll take you back, Madge to-morrow morning, I will; now go to sleep, dearie."
The old man went back to the fire, and crooned over it: the woman was still sitting with her bowed head in her hands. The old man did not know enough to discriminate between the remorse born of gin and that which sprang from the real emotions. He sat sullenly down, and the strangely assorted couple watched the fire die out together.
Presently the woman rose.
"Look here," she said, and her face had somehow got back some of the old look in it. "Tell the old woman that Jack sent her this; Jack entrusted it with me for her, and take her back to where she wants to die, and let her die in peace, and bury her as she wishes. Never tell her that I gave it you myself, and it was never Jack's."
She produced from some part of her ragged dress a knotted handkerchief, undid the knots, and put in the old man's hands more sovereigns than he had ever seen together before; but that was not many, truly.
"But you," mumbled the surprised old creature.
"I—well, I shall get killed, maybe, over this; but never you mind. You take the old woman back and let her die in peace."
And she went out like a ghost into the dark night, and left the old man staggered and stupid, with the gold in his hands.
THEY got back, the old couple, and the old woman died in such peace as she could find left, and the old man soon followed her. But, owing to a bad habit of never reading a newspaper, they did not read of a brutal murder, committed near the township they had once stopped at, nor how it was said that one of the criminal class had beaten a woman to death for losing some stolen money he had entrusted her with.
IT was in one of the worst parts of Western Australia that we pulled up and looked over the most uninviting landscape a man could see anywhere in Australia. We halted on the top of a ridge considerably higher than its fellows, and from there looked over a dry and barren expanse of country, of which the only constituent parts were stones, mulga, and spinifex.
Not a living thing was visible; not even a kite hovering in the air; the whole was absolute desert of the worst kind, destitute not only of life, but of anything that could support life. The sun was about two hours off setting; the sky was cloudless; the day had been excessively hot; and our horses stood badly in need of water.
We looked at each other in some dismay.
'Let's have a squint at that chart,' said Ned. I took it from my saddle pouch, and together we went over it.
Yes, we had followed the directions quite correctly, but the country we had arrived at was of an entirely different character to what we had been led to expect; in fact, it could not well have been more different.
'Thirty miles back to the last water,' groaned Ned. 'Here's a fix; and all thanks to believing in that blooming old chart. The man was looney before he died.'
'Loony or not, we've got to get out of this somehow.'
I looked around, and noticed a desert gum much older and higher than its fellows—in fact, it was a wonder to see so tall a tree in such a position. It was but a short distance away, and I told the black boy to go and climb up it, and see if he could see anything from the higher elevation. As a blackfellow naturally does, he looked all round the tree before commencing the ascent; then he called to us to come over, which we hastily did.
'Whitefellow cut 'em,' said the boy, pointing to some marks on the tree.
They were old, but had been cut deep at the time, and the desert gum grows slowly, and the letters were easily distinguishable.
'CLIMB' we both spelled out together.
'Hurrah!' shouted Ned; 'we've struck oil after all.'
'Up you go, Tommy Dod!' I said to the boy. The twisted trees of that part of the country are easy to climb, and Tommy was soon as high as he could safely go. He was so long in speaking that we both impatiently cried out to know if he saw anything.
'Yowi. Over there,' and he pointed down the very valley along which we had been hopelessly gazing.
'What name?' I asked.
'Land tumble down,' he said; ''nother fellow country come up.'
Both Ned and I guessed the truth at once. What from our elevation, we had taken for the end of the valley, was really an abrupt fall to better and different country. We mounted, and, not having much time to spare, pressed on as fast as the nature of the country allowed.
We got to the abrupt decline about half an hour before sundown, and to our joy saw, no great distance beneath us, the patch of open country through which ran the tea-tree creek marked on the old chart, for which we were in search. But for the accident of finding the old tree, which seems to have been purposely omitted from the chart in order to mislead people, or, as it might have been in our case, lure them to their death, we should certainly have missed what we sought.
However, we thought nothing about this as we hurried down the steep decline, and made for the creek where, according to the rough chart, we should find water. This turned out to be the case, and we were soon comfortably camped.
It is now time to relate how this chart, or tracing, came into our possession. About one hundred and twenty miles from where we then were was an outside mining camp called Goram Gerup. Ned and I had been working there for some twelve months and knew the story of Loony Jones, who periodically made an excursion into the bush to search for something, which evidently he could not find.
The last time Looney Jones came back he was bad with fever. He camped near us, and we looked after him a bit, but lie was too for gone, and eventually died. Before dying, however, he gave us the ragged and much-worn chart, which he averred was the key to wealth, if we could only follow the track indicated on to its end. He had been vainly trying for more than a year, and gradually lost all he had in the vain search. Where he himself got the chart from he would not reveal, and Ned and I always suspected that he had murdered a man for it.
This belief was now changed into a certainty, as if it had been honestly come by the donor of it would have told him the secret of the tree. If a man missed that guide, he might wander amongst the spinifex gullies until he was worn out, and his horses dead. Evidently Jones had never struck the tree.
'I vote we have a day's spell here,' I remarked to Ned, just before finally turning in. 'There's grass and water, the nags want a rest, and we will poke about and see where we are.'
'Right,' returned Ned, and the next moment we were off on a long dreamless sleep until morning.
THE patch of open country was but small, and surrounded by the barren spinifex ridges. The presence of the water was easily accounted for by the fact that where we were was a sort of basin or depression, into which all the drainage and rainflow of the surrounding country found its way. Naturally we both looked first in the direction, in which the little creek ran in the hope of seeing a gorge of some sort, although none such was indicated on our chart, which, by the way was pretty well undecipherable from constant handling. But the creek ended, as it began, in dry sand; it only formed a kind of channel to receive the scanty drainage of the surrounding ridges, never enough to flow any distance.
Ned drew my attention before we left to the number of parrots and pigeons who were coming in to water.
'No more about here, old man,' he said, 'or they would not muster up in that fashion.'
'Well, we're all right,' I replied, 'we need not shift camp from here until we know where we're going to.'
We rode according to the route marked on the chart, and in seven or eight miles it landed us on the shoulder of a high spinifex ridge. From there we could see nothing of any consequence, and as the track marked on the chart took a sharp turn to arrive at this object point we were naturally surprised.
Vainly we looked around, no striking object of any sort was in view, nothing tout rough mulga, spinifex, and stones.
'There's another plant in this,' said Ned, 'This here old chart is as full of tricks as a monkey. Let's have a good look at the thing?'
We looked, and were further mystified by observing that there was a gap in the line of route marked. Evidently this point was another little trap, and I began to see that the chart had been for the sole benefit of the man who made it, and these gaps and breaks were intended to put others off the scent if the chart was lost. Evidently the maker of the chart depended on his memory at these points, and I argued that there must be some striking object in view.
Bearing this in mind. I looked most carefully all round, but could see nothing in any way uncommon. Telling Ned to stop still, I rode slowly up and down the ridge once, twice, thrice. Suddenly I caught it—at least, I caught sight of what I was sure was the guide mark.
On a ridge about a quarter of a mile away was a boulder, and from one point which I passed I had suddenly caught sight of it transformed into the semblance of a man's head. I shifted my position and lost it. Only from the one place did the outline of the rock lend itself to the illusion. The face was so grotesque and absurd that I could not help laughing; and Ned came riding up.
Ned was not in a good temper
'Blowed if I see anything to laugh at about here,' he said. 'The man who'd laugh in this sort of country would sing comic songs at a funeral.'
I pointed out the rock to him, and at last he saw the resemblance to the man's face.
'That must be it,' he agreed with me; 'let us ride over and see the next move.'
'My turn now,' said Ned when we reached the boulder, and dismounting: he climbed on top.
Standing up he gazed all round, rather disconsolately at first, but presently he brightened up.
'Come up here,' he said, and I climbed up and stood beside him.
'Do you think that's it?' he asked, and pointed to a belt of black scrub.
I soon noticed what he meant. Through the scrub, visible only from where we stood, was a clear track like a road, although, of course, that was impossible. What it really was, was that the two scrubs almost met, leaving but a small gap between them. This from where we were looked like a cleared road. Seen from down below the scrubs overlapped, and the space was not visible.
'Do you think that is the place?' asked Ned rather doubtfully.
'Taking all things into consideration, I do. That had better be our next dart, but it is no good going on to-day— to-morrow will be time enough.'
We returned to camp, and entered on a more complete examination of the chart than we had yet bestowed on it.
By means of a strong magnifying glass, which we carried for prospecting purposes, we made out much more than we had formerly found on it, so much had been half obliterated. In places there were sentences written in a sort of crabbed round hand.
One ran: 'Here you will find the first fruits of your toil.'
'Shouldn't mind some fruit just now,' I remarked.
'What sort of fruit do you think he means?' said Ned, who had not yet recovered his temper. 'Expect to get raspberries and strawberries growing on the spinifex and oranges and peaches on the mulga?'
'Now, we'll straighten it out,' I said, not heeding Ned's sarcasm.
By means of a pocket compass and a makeshift protractor I followed up the course. The maker had put no indications of the cardinal points on his map, and I had to run it from laying out the course we had already come. But the worst of it was, I had no means of arriving at his scale of miles, as in all probability a man who was so intent upon wrapping up his secret so that he alone could unravel it would be likely to alter his scale so as to bother one still more. When I had finished I made out that, if the scale was the same all the way through, the end of our journey, by many devious twists and turns, was about seventy-five miles away, but the same point could be reached in about forty to fifty miles by making straight across. This, however, considering the eccentric character of the map, the nature of the country we were in, and the general unreliability of everything, was too rash an undertaking to contemplate.
'We're well off here,' said Ned, 'and we won't shift until we know for certain where we are going to.'
This sentiment I duly endorsed. A couple of tender bronze-wing pigeons, split open and broiled on the coals, had restored Ned's temper, while the billy, bubbling alongside the fire with a stew of parrots, rice, and preserved potatoes, nicely flavored, in it, cooking for breakfast, made him feel content.
Next morning we were away pretty early.
Our camp and spare horses could be safely left to take care of themselves, as we had not seen track or sign of a blackfellow, either old or new, as yet; so we took Tommy with us, for three pairs of eyes were better than two. We made straight for the gap in the scrub that we had noticed, and were about entering it when an exclamation from Tommy made us look round. He had been looking back, and boulder on the ridge had caught his eye. No wonder he called out. From the side we now were the ludicrous likeness to a face was wonderful—a mocking face—the face of a sardonic and spiteful old man.
'Looks from here as though he was laughing at us,' said Ned.
'Perhaps he is,' I returned, as we started on again.
When we got out of the scrub the same dreary array of spinifex ridges confronted us, the only change being that in the distance, about fifteen miles away, there was a peak visible. I consulted the map, and found that, according to my working of it, our track should go to that peak or very near it In fact, it was at that spot on the map that the writing occurred about 'first fruits.'
'Tell you what, Ned, I said, 'I'll toss you who goes on to that peak. The other can go back to camp, and bring out a horse with the two big water bags on, and meet the one who goes there?'
'I'm on,' said Ned. 'It's no good our taking all the horses out there, and I bet there's no water.'
I had a coin in my saddle pouch, and we tossed and I won. Ned looked disappointed.
'Never mind,' he said, 'I expect you will do better than I should. I'll be here with the water, never fear. And if you don't come back tonight?'
'Say to-morrow night, or to-morrow at twelve. Then you can follow up,' I returned.
I had made a rough copy of the map, so I gave Ned the original for safety. I collected all the food we had brought out for a midday meal, took both water bags and Ned's cartridges and started.
I had a good fresh horse, and one which I had lately shod, so did not anticipate any difficulty. Bush riding by oneself is always lonely, but riding through such lifeless country as that was, is something more than lonely. During the fourteen or fifteen miles to that peak, I never heard a sound or saw a living creature, except a tiny lizard or some ants.
The approach to the peak was across a sandy plain, on which loose boulders were scattered about. Out of this plain the peak arose, bare, gaunt, and glistening with heat. It was a kind of red rock, unlike the usual run of the solitary peaks of that region, and I rode round it looking for an easy means of ascent, for there was nothing about the foot of it worthy of notice, while from the top I might see what was meant by the 'first fruits,' or, at any rate, have an extended view ahead.
I soon found a pretty easy assent, and determined to take it. Just opposite was a clump of dead saplings, and to one of these I tied my horse, took the full waterbag off—I had emptied one—and hung it on a tree. Then I started up the peak.
I suppose I must have been about halfway up, when I heard an affrighted snort from my horse. I looked down. He, one of the quietest of animals, was hanging back on his reins, his ears cocked, snorting with terror, although I could see nothing. Instantly the dread of being left to get back on foot flashed across me. Calling to him so that he should recognise my voice, I began hastily to descend.
As I did so a good-sized boulder, how detached I know not, came bounding down from the top of the hill, and passed perilously close to me. I got down somehow, but too late. The dead branch to which my horse had been tied had broken, and he was making his way campward along his outward track. I looked carefully round but could see absolutely no sign of anything that could have frightened my horse.
Suddenly a blind unreasoning fear assailed me. I had only one desire, to get away from the presence of the peak. I could see nothing, could hear nothing, but I felt the place was not good for me. Congratulating myself, even in my flurry, on my precaution in having taken the waterbag off the saddle, I took it in my hand and started off back on the track.
THAT walk back through the awful desolation of that country was a nightmare that I remember still, and dream of at times. Always I fancied that there was some threatening presence following me up with dire intent. I could not help glancing fearfully around now and again, as if it was possible there could be any living thing in that dread, drear desert but myself. It was horrible, this feeling of fright, which might overpower a man under some strange circumstances at the dead hour of night, but here, under the blazing sunshine, in was unnatural, and out of all reason.
It was nearly sundown when I was hailed by a welcome shout ahead, and I saw Ned breasting the rise, coming cantering towards me, leading my runaway horse. What a change that human about in that wilderness made in my feelings. At once I regained my nerve, and the superstitious terror that had dogged my track vanished like the quick passing of a fleeting shadow.
'Not hurt?' asked Ned anxiously, as he pulled up alongside of me.
'No,' I answered; 'Jimba and I both got a fright about nothing.'
It was with a thankful feeling of intense relief that I put my foot in the stirrup again, and as we rode home, I told Ned all about it.
'When you were half way up, what did the country already look like?' he asked.
'I never looked: I blundered down the hill so fast to catch Jimba before he got away, that I forgot all about it, and then that gibber coming down upset me still further.'
'We'll make an early start,' said Ned, 'and take Tommy with us to mind the nags while we go up the peak.'
To this I agreed, and a good feed when I got back to camp, and a night's sleep, made me inclined to laugh at myself the next morning, when, before the largest of the constellations had laded out, we were on our way back to the mysterious peak.
We rode quickly, leaving Tommy to follow more slowly with the pack horse. When we reached the peak, we rode carefully all round it, looking for tracks, but with the exception of mine of the day before, we could find nothing. We examined the stone that had nearly capsized me, and found it weather-worn almost to the shape of a globe; it may have been just ready to topple over, and by a strange coincidence, had fallen at the very time when I was ascending the hill. In fact, that must have been the case, for there could be nobody human, at any rate, waiting at the top of the peak to roll it down on the first comer. I felt none of the strange terror I had felt the day before, the companionship of my mate seemed quite sufficient to banish any superstitious feeling of that sort.
On the arrival of Tommy, we commenced the ascent, leaving him in a clear space, in full view of us. Slowly and carefully we went up, hardly looking abroad, until at last we gained the top, and both stood silently gazing around.
What did we see? In the immediate neighborhood the same dreary desert, to which our track seemed now wedded; beyond, low ranges, square-topped, and clothed for the greater part with black scrub, showing mostly a precipitous face for the last hundred feet of their summit. These, unpromising-looking ranges bounded our view nearly all the way round, but when we came to look at right angles to the course we had been following there was a depression in the range, and it looked as though a creek formed in the basin in which we then, were and found its way through this depression.
At times we fancied we could trace here and there the timber of a creek, but it was by no means a certainty, although we both felt sure, from the lay of the surrounding country, that a creek must exist. On consulting the map, we found that the track led in that direction.
Ned pointed out to me the place whence the boulder had been dislodged. A patch of fresh colored rock, different from the weather-worn surface around. So small was it that the stone must have been poised most delicately, right on the brow of a sloping rock. The least tremor would have started it.
'It strikes me, Ned,' I said, 'that is the first fruits the map speaks of.'
Ned nodded assent.
'We must keep our eyes open,' he replied. 'This old chart's dangerous.'
It was now about noon, so we decided to send Tommy back to camp, and take a short ride in the direction of the apparent creek. Before descending we took another look round, but no sign of life was visible, no smoke anywhere.
Tommy was glad to see us back again. He said that he felt frightened, but he couldn't tell why.
'Horse frightened, too,' he said. 'Mine think it dead fellow sit down here.'
'What for you think it dead fellow sit down here?' demanded Ned.
'Baal mine know; only mine think it. Stone sit down there.' He indicated a pile of stones a short distance away, which had escaped my observation. We rode over, and looked at it. It certainly looked like a grave. It was a pile about six feet long, and three broad, and had been built up by human hands.
'Blackfellow do this?' asked Ned of Tommy.
'Baal blackfellow,' said Tommy, emphatically. 'White fellow.'
We started to work putting the stones on one side. As we went on we found that the hole, grave, or whatever it was, was filled with stones; nor had we far to go, for it was evident that the loose, shifting sand had not permitted the sexton to go very deep.
In a short time a shrivelled body showed through the stones, and, working hastily, we soon had it uncovered. The dry, hot sand had reduced it to a mummy, but it had preserved the clothes and hair. The body was that of a man of strong build, with a black beard and black hair, most of which had, however, fallen off on the blanket on which he was lying.
We examined the grave thoroughly to see if anything had been buried with him which could give us a clue to his story, but found nothing beyond the belt and pouch he had on, for he had been buried in all his clothes; this we took for future examination. What we did discover, however, was that the man had not died a natural death, his skull being fractured just over the left temple.
We filled the grave in again with the stones, and by that time it was getting late and we started for camp. After tea we examined the pouch. It contained a piece of tobacco, shrivelled up like a withered stick, a pistol cartridge, and a well-worn envelope containing two or three papers. We fell with eager curiosity on these.
The first one we opened was a bill for £6 10s from the Blank Hotel, Fremantle, and Ned, after turning it over and upside down, put it aside with the remark that it was not receipted. The next paper was a newspaper cutting, stuck upon a piece of note paper with marginal notes in lead pencil.
This promised to be more interesting, and it was, The newspaper cutting was to the effect that James Bornstock had returned to the camp at Goram-Gerup, after a long prospecting trip. He reported finding likely-looking country, but had obtained no satisfactory results. He also reported the death of his mate by thirst. This was what the printed matter contained; the marginal annotations ran as follows:
'Bornstock's a liar. I must look him up.'
This with regard to getting no satisfactory results from the country. Opposite the line about losing his mate was scribbled:
'I must take a hand now, Bornstock won't come back without me.'
'But he did,' put in Ned, as we finished, reading.
'Mr. Bornstock, whoever he was, seems to have been clever at losing his mates,' I returned.
'Well, If Loony Jones killed him, it was only tit for tat,' said Ned.
The next paper proved the most interesting of all to us. There was a. circular mark drawn on it, and a straight line extending from it some distance. Along this line was written, 'Keep northeast; never mind rest.'
'Does that round mark mean the peak?' said Ned.
'I should think so,' I answered, fanning out the Chart. 'What is the bearings of that depression?'
'Here are, then. The track makes a lone course to the north-east, and then wanders about all roads.'
'Bravo and bully for us! but what a lot of lives this bit of paper is accountable for?' and Ned touched the frayed old map. 'See; there's the unknown mate of Bornstock's; then the man whose body we found; lastly, Bornstock himself; and only for a lucky fluke you and I might have been added to the list.'
'Well, shall we chance it, and make a move to-morrow morning?' asked Ned.
'Yes, there seems nothing else to do. We can always make back here, and by going straight to that opening, instead of round to the peak, we can cut off at least five or six miles.'
On that conclusion, we went to sleep, and next morning broke camp, bag and baggage. As we approached the dip in the range, we saw that a dry sandy creek did form, and assumed large proportions as we went on, but the bed was hopelessly dry, and looked as though it had been waterless for years. As we went on the ranges closed in on us more than we had expected.
I stopped, and consulted the chart, and found that, according to it, we should turn off at an angle that would bring us on to a south-east course.
'Well, Ned,' I said, 'shall we follow the chart or the creek?'
'The creek for me,' answered Ned; 'I'm sick of that puzzling old chart; besides, I think from, the look of things that there is going to be a change of scene directly.'
'Go ahead,' I returned, 'we can always turn back and follow up the other course.'
In about half an hour a black reef of rocks was visible stretching right across our track. The banks of the creek, too, were now much shallower, and the creek was much wider. As we got closer we could see that the reef crossed the creek and ran on to the corresponding range on the outer side. It seemed an impossible wall to take horses over. The bed of the creek was now one clean-swept, smooth rock; no sand or any debris was visible.
When we reached the rocky wall and dismounted, neither of us spoke, and we mutually turned and went down to the bed of the creek. It fell over a precipitous rock of about a hundred feet in depth, and stretched before us was a lovely valley, bordered by sharp-peaked ranges, some with red, rugged faces, glinting in the sunlight—others covered with dark scrub.
The valley itself, although of no great size, was evidently well-grassed, and free from the odious spinifex. Plains separated by belts of scrub lay before us, and through it all wound the creek, now apparently well-watered, for the trees in the bed and on the bank were green and densely foliaged. Parrots were swarming everywhere, and their noisy chattering rose even to where we were standing. We could see flocks of white corellas, slate-colored galahs, black cockatoos, and others flitting about, shrieking and scolding.
Ned advanced to the edge, and looked over, then he called to me. Below at the foot of the smooth rock was a deep, dark waterhole, formed by the rare floods that now and again swept down the creek.
I drew Ned back, for the rock was as slippery as glass, and an unwilling plunge down was not advisable. To get the horses down was the next trouble, and it was only after some hours that we managed to find an available break over the wall-like reef, and a descent the other side. At last we were safe down, and soon had fixed up a comfortable camp.
'It must have been a long time since the interesting Mr. Bornstock's visits to these parts,' I remarked to Ned. 'We have not seen the ghost of a track yet.'
'That dead man was a pretty plain track,' said Ned; 'but I wonder there is not some sort of an available track up and down this wall.'
'I don't, it would have betrayed him at once, probably he went up and down a different way every time.'
'Well, anyhow, we had better go over this valley now we are here. There's an hour or two of sun yet. Shall we ride down, the creek a mile or two?'
I assented, and we caught our horses and started. The creek was well watered with shallow pools, fringed in places with a growth of rushes. Ducks flew up as we approached, and occasionally a lonely jabiru rose hastily in affright.
'How is it there are no niggers about?' I said.
'I can't make it out. I've seen one or two very old camps, but that is all,' answered Ned. 'One should think this place would be a paradise for them.'
I assented, and as it was getting late we turned back.
Half-way to camp we came across Tommy making along our tracks. He was terribly frightened, and begged us not to camp where we were that night. It seems that noticing a good many wallabies amongst the rocks, he had gone along the wall to try and get a shot at one, and in about half a mile had come upon a scene which had frightened the life out of him. We went out to look at it.
From twenty to thirty bodies of natives, half mummies, half skeletons, lay there. A hideous massacre had been perpetrated at some time, and men and women and children had been rounded up against the face of the rocky wall and shot down. It was the most ghastly sight Ned or I had ever seen, and we gazed in horror at it. There was no mistake that it was the hands of some murderous whites which had done the deed, for many of the skulls had unmistakable bullet holes in them.
'Some of Mr. Bornstock's work?' Queried Ned.
'Yes, and that other man's. Don't you see, he must have been here with Bornstock to be able to write those directions. He helped him to slaughter these poor devils, and then when Bornstock got rid of him, why he killed two birds with one stone. Got rid of a witness and of a man who knew his secret.'
'That's it,' said Ned. 'Loony Jones would have made another if he had come out this far, but he must have killed Bornstock before he got to the marked tree, and, of course, couldn't pick up the trail.' We had dismounted, and were looking at the poor wretches around us. Ned turned over a rotting dilly bag with his foot. The contents rolled out, and we saw the gleam of gold amongst it.
Picking it up it proved to be a good-sized specimen containing more than an ounce of gold.
'We are close to It,' said Ned.
'Yes, but I'm sick of the whole thing. It reeks with blood. How many more shall we find?'
'There's a good moon, suppose we bury these remains to-night; it's more than I'd do for Bornstock if we found him.'
I agreed, and by the light of a nearly full moon we dug a hole large enough to contain the wretched remains of the massacre, and put them mercifully out of sight.
We slept sound after our work, and next morning started early, both feeling that we had about come to the end of our trip. Five miles down the creek we came on to auriferous country and some old workings in a gully leading down from one of the ranges, the first sign, beyond the dead bodies, that we had yet seen of the white man's former presence.
For more than a fortnight we prospected that place industriously, but, beyond the merest show, we obtained nothing. The auriferous belt was small, and dwindled off higher up the range, and was overlaid by the desert formation.
We tried the old workings, and got a little shotty gold that had been left behind, but the extent of the work that had been done, and the way it had been followed, it was evident that the former prospectors had struck a patch, and worked it out for all it was worth. We tried some of the dirt left on the bank, and got a little gold out of that; then we decided to give It up and return.
I had an idea of taking up the country and selling it for pastoral purposes; that, with the little gold we had got, would give us something over our expenses.
'I wonder what Bornstock did with the gold?' said Ned the night before we started back, 'and why he brought men as mates out here?'
'He must have been threatened by the blacks when by himself, and wanted company, and help.'
'I suppose so,' answered Ned, 'anyhow, I don't think that he took the gold into Goran Gerup, He planted it somewhere, and I guess I know where.'
Ned turned his back defiantly to me, and would say no more. Next morning he said he wanted to go round by the peak, and we went round.
'Now, old man, we are going to open that grave again.'
I started, and Ned's idea flashed across me at once, and we set to work; The corpse lay there as we had left it, only, perhaps from being exposed to the air, it seemed to have, shrunk up more.
'I wonder if the blanket will bold to lift him out; he's light enough, poor devil,' said Ned. We tried, and lifted the body out with ease. Underneath was another one!
'This is a family vault,' said Ned. 'This must be mate No. 1. But he must come out.' He was more of a skeleton than the other, and he was soon deposited on the brink of the grave. Then we searched.
The gold was there, underneath the two murdered men. Altogether it finally gave us about £5000 each. We put the dead men back, packed our treasure, and started, vowing never to revisit the spot.
On our way back, after passing the tree marked 'climb,' we kept a sharp lookout for the scene of the tragedy in which Loony Jones must have had a hand; but we did not find it.
Bornstock, the murderer; and probable a madman, is the only one whose bones lie somewhere—unburied, picked by crow and dingo.
THE shadows were growing long as the hot sun of the west sank behind the trees that scantily lined the banks of the inland river; cutting, like a great, serpentine ditch, through the level, sloping downs of the Australian interior. The river, in spite of its imposing breadth of bed, was dry for miles, and the long, dusty cattle pads trailed in to the far-apart water-holes, radiating from all parts of the compass.
Along one of these, raising a white cloud which powdered themselves, their saddles, and their horses indiscriminately, rode two men, while behind them jingled a couple of pack-horses driven by a black boy, whose face, greasy with sweat, was powdered white with dust on the projecting portions.
'Thank goodness, we'll be in to the Ten-mile in time for a swim,' said one of them, whose light blue eyes shone brightly out of his swarthy face.
'Yes; I don't know how many of the proverbial pecks of dust we swallow every summer up here. I could grow corn on my saddle-cloth.'
It was not long, before the Ten-mile Waterhole was reached, and men and horses were soon enjoying the rare luxury of a satisfying drink and bath in moderately cold water, for the Ten-mile was a noted hole for depth and length, and a dive deep down took one into a refreshing stratum of cool, shimmering obscurity.
Invigorated, the men sat down to their meal as the early stars were beginning to make themselves visible, and then the grateful scent of tobacco mingled with that of burning wood went up as an incense offering to the silent night.
Mertel, the man with the light blue eyes, was aroused from deep slumber by his companion shaking him. The night was well advanced, the still surface of the pool reflected the stars without a ripple causing them to move, and all was still.
'What's the matter?' he asked.
Pierse, the other man, drew his attention to a light at the end of the hole, about a quarter of a mile distant. It was but a flicker of light, and Mertel suggested that it was a smouldering log, left burning by some former traveller.
'I'm going up to see; you keep a look-out till I come back. It was here those two men were killed by the natives six months ago.'
'The niggers wouldn't light a fire up there if they meant to be saucy,' said Mertel.
'No, I suppose not; at any rate, I want to see what's there, for I feel sure there is something.'
'Well, I should wait till morning, if I were you.'
Pierse made no answer, but disappeared in the darkness; and Mertel lit his pipe with an ember from the dying fire, and lay down on his blanket again.
His companion made his way as cautiously as he could along the edge of the waterhole, until close to the glint of fire. Going near softly and silently, revolver in hand, he stopped once more and listened. All was silent, and step by step he advanced until he stood close by the red embers. It was the smouldering end of a log, and Pierse was about to turn back to his camp when he noticed that something seemed to be toasting on the live coals.
Stooping down, he saw that it was the edible seed pods of the water lily, a food used by the natives.
A noise in the water aroused his attention. He turned, and in the faint starlight saw a glistening black object like a head oh the surface. It rose up at the edge, and the owner of it was coming towards the fire, when, catching sight of the unexpected guest, it gave a harsh, inarticulate cry, and plunged with a splash back in the water.
From the hasty and indistinct glance Pierse had caught, the object appeared to be a young black, but that was all he saw, and, confounding his folly in not keeping out of sight, he returned to his camp.
Riding round the next morning the men saw by daylight that the camp had been a white man's, some weeks old, during which time the log had been slowly smouldering away.
The lily pods had disappeared, and the tracks in the ashes showed the imprint of a small foot only.
'No good looking for him or it,' said Mertel. 'The young devil's watching us from somewhere, but what can the creature be doing here all by itself?'
'Hanged if I know. I've a good mind to stop to-night, and lay a trap of some sort for it.'
'Pooh! A nice job to stop roasting here all day on the chance of catching a young nigger; not quite.'
Mertel turned his horse to ride off as he spoke, and Pierse reluctantly followed him.
'I never heard a human being make such a queer noise before,' he said.
Several times on their way home to the station he reverted to it, and talked and chattered in a way quite unusual with a man of his generally taciturn nature. The station was some ten miles from the waterhole, as the name indicated, and Mertel thought he had never seen his friend in such good spirits before as he was on that homeward ride.
In the afternoon Pierse went down to the small camp of quiet blacks who had found their way in to the station, and had a long confab with one of the old men there.
'I'm going to the Ten-mile to-morrow,' he said to Mertel, as they sat at their evening meal, 'will you come?'
'Not I,' was the answer. 'Get some of the blacks to go with you.'
'They wouldn't come for anything I can offer them. That's the queer thing about it.'
'Because of that murder there. Most blacks are like that.'
'No. I don't think that's the reason, but I'll find out before I return.'
Towards evening Pierse left on his errand, having provided himself with a couple of days' rations, in case his pursuit was not successful the first night He arrived at the hole after dark, and proceeded to make his preparations, which mostly consisted in getting a safe place of espionage on the still smouldering log.
It was a long watch. The belt was right overhead and the cross upright in the south, when he saw a dark, silent shadow raking the coals together. They flickered and blazed a little, giving to view a queer, elfish figure, with brilliant black eyes. Miserably thin and attenuated, with arms and legs of wonderful slenderness, the creature, a native girl, crouched over the fire, more, as it would seem, for company than warmth, for the night was still and sultry.
Pierse watched this being, wondering how it came to be there, for blacks never neglect their children, although they might eat them occasionally.
Presently the girl got up, and going to the edge of the water slipped quietly in and disappeared.
Here was another surprise, for blacks, as a rule, do not move about much at night, and certainly do not go hunting around for their food during the dark hours.
Pierse waited patiently, and in due course the dripping wet figure rose from the water, and coming to the fire, commenced to peel and prepare the pods it had been collecting. Now was Pierse's chance, and while the girl's attention was thus occupied, he sprang upon her and seized her.
He had not expected any opposition, but the thing fought and twisted and wriggled, making no sound beyond the indistinct and half-human-like cry it had given vent to before. At last he managed to tie the Slippery, eel-like object fast with the halter from the packhorse which he had brought with him.
At the last moment, watching an opportunity, the captive suddenly seized Pierce's left hand with its teeth, and inflicted a savage bite that brought an oath of pain from his lips.
After that the girl remained quiet, and made no more efforts to get free. Pierse washed and bound up the wound with the handkerchief from around his neck; and then set himself to conciliate his captive in the way that is generally most successful, namely by feeding her. It was some time before he could get her to take any food, although she was evidently starving; but little by little she took and tasted, and at last ate ravenously.
At daylight he started back with his prize, who now seemed reconciled to her fate, and trotted easily along at the slow pace he went at; but no word or sound had she uttered, save the strange cry made when struggling for her freedom.
Their way lay past the blacks' camp, and those who were still there greeted Pierse and his prisoner with loud cries, that soon grew violent. The old gins especially raged and spat at the girl, and waved their skinny arms aloft as though warning her off their encampment. Pierse cracked his whip, and made as though he was going to use it on them, and the clamor stilled, and the two went on to the principal hut, for the buildings were little more.
'Very strange thing about those blacks going on like that,' said Mertel, when Pierse had finished his yarn. 'I wonder what's the matter with the girl that she should be hunted out like that?'
'I don't know. It's a thing I never heard of before; but then they all have different customs. I've sent Fred down to try and find out what it means.'
Fred, the black boy, soon returned, and related what he had found out The girl was dumb, and, on account of some fancied evil resulting from her presence in the tribe, had been cast out by them to starve.
Pierse then remembered that the strange, animal-like cry was the unnatural sound of pain or terror usually made by the deaf mute.
'Old man say some pella white pella tumble down along a station now that one come up,' added Fred.
'Oh, we'll chance all that,' said Pierse. 'You go and tell those old gins, Fred, that if one of them touches the girl I'll break her skull with her own yam stick.'
The child seemed to perceive at once that she was going to be well treated, and employed herself during the ensuing four and twenty hours in satisfying her enormous appetite.
She was seemingly about eleven or twelve years old, and possessed a bright, intelligent face, with remarkably keen eyes, always on the watch, which acuteness was rendered necessary by her want of hearing.
Pierse doctored his hand up with such simple remedies as they possessed on the station. The bite had been a good, vicious, and vigorous one, and Mertel wanted him to go in to the nearest township and have it properly dressed. But he only laughed at him and went to work as usual. At the end of a week of blistering hot weather he put his hand in a sling, and complained that it throbbed so at night that he could not sleep.
One morning when seated at breakfast he suddenly stared hard and fixedly at his friend, but without speaking.
'What the devil's the matter?' asked Mertel. Pierse gave a sort of snarl, then drew a breath of relief.
'I couldn't open my mouth,' he said. 'My jaw seemed to get set.'
Two or three times in the course of the morning this happened.
'Tom!' said Mertel to the stockman, a lean, hard specimen of the western man. 'How long will it take you to get in to the crossing and bring that doctor out?'
'Two days and nights.'
'Take any two horses you fancy best and start at once. I'll send a letter by you.'
'S'posing he's drunk, as he generally is?' remarked Tom as he took his bridle down from the peg.
'Bring him, drunk or sober. Strap him on and bring a bottle or two with you to keep him going.'
Tom whistled—he was not a man of many words. When he was ready Mertel gave him a letter.
'He'll have a bag with him, Tom; see that he brings it.'
Tom nodded, swung himself into the saddle, and with the led horse jogging alongside of him rode off on the dusty road, across the big plain.
Mertel turned into the hut; Pierse was laughing strangely.
'Just had another of those queer contractions of the jaw. Feels deuced rum, when a fellow can't open his mouth,' and again he laughed mirthlessly.
All through the hot day he roamed about now complaining of his hand and arm, now laughing and grinning in a way that made Mertel feel cold, although in the verandah it was one hundred and fifteen by the thermometer.
The little black mute watched the man from a corner, or followed him about at a little distance. Whether she knew what was wrong, and that it was her doing, Mertel could not tell, but he thought so. As night came on the paroxysms of pain became worse, and the arm was angry and red to the shoulder.
Mertel could only sit with him and pray that Tom would return speedily. So the night dragged on, and in the morning Pierse could not speak, and could only look imploringly at his friend; but the pain had left him, and his arm was swollen and numb.
Mertel, looking at it, could only mutter to himself that it was too late, and that if all the doctors in Australia were there to amputate the poisoned limb it was too late.
The sun was setting when Pierse died in dumb agony, and Mertel composed the pain-contorted face and straightened the late strong limbs. A black shadow came in noiselessly and stood beside him as he did it. The deaf mute, the outcast, stood there and looked with curious eyes of awe and wonder at the dead.
She timidly put out her hand and touched the body, then glided out again.
Midnight, and two men riding across the plain, heard the natives wailing in their camp after their childish manner, and Tom knew at once that death had beaten him, well as he had sped.
The stiff, tired, and half-asleep doctor tumbled off his horse at the verandah. Up to the day when whisky won the fight with him in the end, he never forgot that ride, without break or pause, over the endless and monotonous downs, with the silent tireless figure like fate beside him.
Deaf to all his entreaties to stop, if only for an hour. Doling him out occasional nips of whisky, as though he was a machine that required recharging. He limped up to the bed and looked at the dead man.
'I could have done nothing, I'm afraid,' he said hoarsely to Mertel. 'Never have had the nerve to take his arm off; look how my hand shakes,' and he threw himself on Mertel's bed and went off into a heavy sleep.
THEY buried Pierse at dawn, and the deaf and dumb girl watched with the same eyes of awe and wonder. An hour or two afterwards the doctor woke up and went bunking out on to the verandah. Mertel was standing looking around as though searching, for something.
'Tom,' he called across to the gaunt stockman, who was standing smoking under the verandah of his hut, as though a hundred miles in the saddle without break or spell was mere child's play. 'Can you see the little nigger about anywhere?'
Tom answered in the negative, as he strolled across.
The heat haze was beginning to shimmer and tremble around the horizon, and shrouded from view a black speck speeding away from the station, never seen more.
THE Macdonnell Ranges, in Central Australia, are noted for their complicated formation. The ravines and gullies running from them, if followed, lead you, after many devious twists and turns, in the very opposite direction to the one they apparently started to follow.
At the time the overland line was being constructed many tales circulated amongst the men concerning rich deposits to be found amongst the fastnesses of these ranges, mostly arising from the fact that, when digging the holes for the poles, occasionally, washdirt had been found, which yielded a few colors of gold.
Gradually these yarns concentrated themselves into one, and that told of a wondrous gully situated in the maze of the great belt of ranges that spread from east to west across the heart of Australia. This gully was said to be held in dread by the natives, who only at times peeped fearfully into it from the crests of the neighboring ridges.
As usual, as years went on, the story of this hidden gully grew and grew, until at last a tale was brought in by one man, which seemed to give some definite form and substance. Coming in alone from one of the newly-formed stations to the westward, he met with an accident in the ranges, and lamed his horse and himself. Fortunately, some quiet blacks came across him, and took care of him, and looked after his two horses for a day or two, till he could hobble about. He asked them about the gully, and one old fellow said he would take him to a ridge overlooking the mysterious gully, if he would go by night.
Urged on by curiosity, he consented, and, as one of his horses was uninjured, he rode out one might, accompanied by five or six of the natives. They travelled the best part of the night, and then camped at a waterhole in a gorge, where the blacks insisted on staying nearly the whole of the next day. Towards evening they led him up a high ridge, the opposite side of which was precipitous, and from there he could see the gully below him.
It was broad, with a watercourse running down the centre, fringed with a growth of young trees. But the rest of the country visible was distinguished for an absence of any timber at all. One remarkable feature was, what seemed like a number of pillars of stone, dotted about here and there, also what looked like low walls, also made of stone. Beyond this he could make out nothing, and the blacks were uneasy and anxious to get away, so, as the sun went down, he turned back from the gully, determined to search for it another time.
But that time never came, for an unfortunate accident ended his life before he had a chance to put his intention into execution Then others took up the search, but none found the gully with the strange pillars and walls of stone, and the blacks grew suspicious, and denied all knowledge of its whereabouts.
One man became noted for the pertinacity with which he sought after the lost gully. Three or four times he had been in danger of his life from the blacks, who were not all well-disposed; but nothing would deter him from the quest, neither hunger nor thirst, nor the spears of the savages; and as years went on he grew grey, and lean and sullen, and when, he came in to procure rations, the men on the telegraph line and on the stations spoke of him amongst themselves as cranky Jennings.
He made enough fossicking about to keep himself going in rations, and as soon as he had a month or two's supply he would go out again on his everlasting wandering, until at last he disappeared, and men soon forgot him.
THE twilight was closing in rapidly, hastened by a dense black cloud that was quickly spreading over the sky, foretelling a night of storm, of thunder and lightning, when Jennings picked his way carefully along a boulder-strewn ridge. Down in the gully below darkness had already set in under the shadow of the looming storm. Looking round in the dusk, Jennings espied a place where two or three great rocks were piled up in such a way as to form a rude cave. He made for this, and unsaddled and unpacked his horses. Then, before the storm burst, got in a supply of dry wood, and made himself as comfortable as circumstances permitted.
The storm crept over the sky with a constant low mutter of distant thunder, which seemed to rumble all round the horizon, but there was no rain, until, in more than an hour's time, there was suddenly a flash that seemed to rend the heavens in all directions, and with it a peal of thunder which sounded as if the great granite hills all around were shaken and rocking to their foundations.
Then the rain came down in a terrific downpour, and black darkness settled down once more.
Jennings had started to his feet after the flash, for he had seen something in the white light of the flash that made his heart beat. Another flash flooded the gully below him with a searching, brilliant illumination, and showed him a sight that made him shout with wonder and joy.
As long as the storm lasted he stood there, watching the wondrous sight that the blazing lightning revealed to him, until at last his strained brain gave way, and he fell unconscious. He had seen the lost gully by the light of the lightning; but the stone pillars now supported a colonnade round a large square building, and the stone walls turned out to be the walls of a fortification of some sort. Then, whether it was the bewildering glow of the quick-flashing lightning or not, these buildings had seemed to stagger and collapse as though an earthquake was shaking them into ruin; and in the intervals, of the pealing thunder he heard the clamor of a trumpet sounding a note of wild terror and alarm. Then another flash showed him a swirling flood of water rushing down the valley and submerging all things—and then, a blank.
When Jennings woke the sun was shining brightly, every rivulet and channel was singing with running water, and the atmosphere was full of the refreshing scent which fills the early morning air after rain.
He looked down the gully. Yes; as the man who first saw it had reported it, he saw the rocky pillars and low, rocky walls, but no trace of the vision of buildings that the flashing lightning had revealed to him.
Long solitude and constant brooding over one object had somewhat weakened his brain, and he did not regard what he had seen, or fancied he had seen, as anything out of the ordinary course of nature. He made his tea, and ate his breakfast, then went after his horses, packed up and sought out a place to descend into the valley. To do this he had to follow it some distance towards its head, and even then he had much difficulty in getting down.
The bed of the gully was covered with long lush grass, a singular sight to see amongst the arid ranges of the interior. The creek at the bottom of the gully was running strong after the rain, but it was well within its banks, and Jennings soon arrived at the stone pillars and what appeared to be rude walls; but they were so weather-beaten that it was hard to say whether they were some fantastic work of nature or some ancient work of human hands.
Beyond them the gully closed in with high cliffs such as are common in some parts of the Macdonnell Ranges. In the middle of this narrow part Jennings happened to look back, and then he saw these rocks or ruins under quite a different aspect. They now appeared to be the pillars and walls of an ancient gateway built across the narrow way, for two of these pillars were on one side of the creek, two on the other, and the remains of the seeming wall fitted in to their places at the sides of each. This effect was not so noticeable from up stream as it was down below the singular ruins or natural formation, whichever it was.
But the sight that greeted him when he came to the lower mouth of the narrow pass was one to make him exclaim with wonder. The gully widened out into a large open basin, almost treeless, save for the growth that fringed the watercourse on either bank. Scattered about this basin, which was surrounded by low cliffs, were mounds of rock, of the same construction as the gate-like erections he had passed in the narrow defile.
But the strangest sight of all was the number of animals and birds about, all without any fear of man, and apparently dreading no danger from him. Jennings rode on, past kangaroos of all kinds, who simply lifted their heads from the grass and gazed at him with a look of mild surprise. Emus ran close up to him, and inspected him curiously; and the creek, which here broadened out into a string of broad lagoons, was covered with aquatic birds of every kind.
What marvellous superstition had kept the native hunters out of this veritable animal paradise? And what had kept the kangaroos down, so that they had not increased, in such numbers as to be forced to overrun the limits of the valley?
Jennings rode on until he came to the ruins, and, dismounting, proceeded to examine them. Wind, weather, and water had worked their will on them, and, even as the others, one could scarcely tell what age or what nature they were. But when Jennings remembered his strange vision, he recognised that the contour and outline of the stones and rocks nearly resembled that of the massive buildings he had seen in the night.
He rode on to the end of the basin, and found that the creek here forced its way through a narrow, impassable gorge. Strewn on the rocks and jammed in different crevices he saw numerous skeletons and bones. On examination they turned out to be the bones of kangaroos, etc. This accounted for the basin not becoming overstocked, as periodically big floods must occur, and most of its animal population be swept down the gorge to destruction.
Jennings turned back, and went to the creek as close to the ruins as he could get, and there camped. From the absence of timber he was forced to make frig camp at the creek. He made a meal, and then strolled over to the rocky mounds. All that afternoon he pried and peered about them, and at sundown had made up his mind as to his course of action. He was convinced that they were of human agency.
Tired and wearied, he slept that night the sleep of exhaustion; but in spite of all, he woke in the middle of the night, aroused by the sound of voices.
He gazed upwards. The sky was calm and serene. The southern constellations burned bright in a cloudless heaven, all was now silent, but as he arose on his elbow to look around, he was suddenly seized from behind and pressed down on his blankets again.
THAT they were human hands that thus pressed him backwards, Jenkins knew by the feel of them; but he did not see who it was who had thrown him down for his blanket was immediately muffled across his face, and he found himself blindfolded, bound, and helpless before he could make a sign of resistance.
Under these circumstances he thought it better to remain motionless, as any sort of resistance was so quite out of the question. He was picked up, seemingly by strong hands, and carried away. No word was spoken by his captors, and the only consolation he had was that he was treated gently, and not handled in a manner which would show that he was intended for a cannibal feast.
After a while he was set on his feet; and, apparently, two men grasped his arms to either side, and by propelling him gently but firmly forward, indicated that he must walk the rest of the distance.
This change was a relief, and Jenkins willingly toiled on for an hour or two. Of course he had spoken, but receiving no answer had afterwards remained silent, rightly guessing that his captors did not understand him my more than he would understand them.
The end came at last, and to his astonishment he found himself still muffled and in darkness, deposited on a soft yielding couch. A drinking utensil of some sort was put to his lips, and, reckless of consequences, he drank what it contained, a pleasant, sweet-tasting liquor. The effect was potent, for he remembered nothing sure until he awoke to light and reason once again.
He found himself in a stone-walled room, lying on a bed and covered with a soft covering of skins. Skins were everywhere, covering the door and hanging on the walls. The bright sunlight was glowing through the windows, and everything seemed peaceful and still. Presently his eye was caught by what seemed a picture, a rude scrawl executed on skin, but evidently intended to mean the Madonna. It gave him wonderful comfort to see this. Whoever it was had him in thrall, it was evidently people of some sort of civilisation.
He got up from his bed and moved about, thinking naturally that it would arouse the attention of his gaolers. He was not disappointed, for a clumsy door opened, and a man of large stature entered. He regarded the captive for a while, and then spoke to someone outside the door, who brought in food and drink, which Jenkins saw that he was expected to dispose of. He did so the while the big man, who was dressed in skins, watched him. This man was not very dark, but yet was swarthy enough to indicate that he was not of pure European descent.
His meal finished, the man beckoned to him, and made him to understand that he was to hollow him. Jenkins did so, and the man led him through a passage into a room, which was furnished with bare, roughly-made furniture. In it was an old, old man seated in a chair, and one or two others of the same stature as his guide waiting about. The guide motioned him to come close to the old man, and then he saw that he was blind. The old man put his wasted hands on the newcomer's face, and felt his features all over; then he gave a sigh of satisfaction and leaned back in his chair. He spoke in a language unknown to Jenkins, and one of the men went out and brought back a parchment, which he gave to Jenkins.
To his surprise, it was an English, and proved to be a royal commission issued to one James Dirkman, authorising him to harry and annoy the king's enemies, wheresoever he should meet them by sea or land. More marvellous still, the signature was James Rex.
After he had looked at the man who had brought it put into his hand another paper closely written in a crabbed, upright hand, Jenkins understood he was expected to read it, and as it would occupy some time, he sat down on one of the rude chairs to do so, it ran:
To my son, and son's descendants,
I, Captain James Dirkman fled from England in order to save my royal master, King James. I suppose that my name has been branded as that of a coward and traitor; but I leave this to tell the truth to my descendants. It was when I accompanied the English fleet in my barque, the Adventurer, that I received a message from the Duke of York, commanding the fleet, to go on board his ship. I went, and I now tell what passed. I resembled his Grace greatly in height and complexion, and the Duke told me in confidence that his nerves were unequal to stand the strain of the impending engagement with the Dutch vessels. In short, would I take his part. I consented, and he gave me his dress and full instructions, and the Duke went out of the cabin as Captain, Dirkman, and I remained. We won the battle, and the 'Adventurer,' my own barque, fled in a cowardly manner from the scene of conflict, and I won the fight under the guise of the Duke Of York.
What was my reward? On our triumphal return to England, and the necessary change had been effected, I was cast off by his Grace, and told that I would be treated as a madman if I asserted my claims to his gratitude. I had to submit, and in course of time his Grace came to the throne, and then I received another commission, and an intimation that I had better leave England at once, and never return.
There was no fighting against it. I left, and wandered over the world, and came to this land. My crew were sick and dying of scurvy, and my good ship had become only a floating lazar house. I landed, and we, the poor survivors, formed an encampment on the beach, and one by one died off, until at last I was left alone. I know not how many years it was before a man came to the beach—the natives had always kept aloof. He was a dark-faced man, of great stature. When first I saw him he was looking at the bare ribs of my poor barque, and turned to me with a savage gesture, as if I was to blame for it being a stranded wreck, and not a staunch craft as of old.
He spoke in Spanish, a language which I could partly understand.
' You come,' he said, 'from beyond seas; so do I. I had hoped to return, but now I know that it is hopeless; those who come to these shores never return.'
That shipwrecked Spaniard and I wandered over this desolate land, until we found the strange people living in this valley, who are a remnant of those lost tribes who have not yet been traced in the world's history. Here we married wives, and settled down to live our outcast lives out. There is an old prophesy about these people that they will be destroyed by flood in years to come, but I leave this account with my children, to prove that I, Captain James Dirkman, did not sail away in the 'Adventurer,' but stayed, and won the great battle over the Dutch fleet. And I charge my descendants 'to show this to the first European man who visits them.'
Here the scroll ended. Jenkins afterwards found that he would not be allowed to leave the hidden gully on account of some superstition that connected his arrival with the disaster of flood that was to come.
WHEN, years afterwards, the disappearance of Jenkins had been forgotten, an old white-haired man appeared at Alice Springs telegraph station, and told a strange story of how he had been living with a tribe in the interior, and they had all perished in a sudden inundation. He was looked upon as a harmless lunatic, and remained a pensioner at the place until he died.
IT was not without some feeling of nervousness that young Mivert took up his position in Hangman's Gully to carry out his boast of watching there all night; and interviewing the ghost who was said to appear there with unfailing regularity. He had extorted a solemn promise from his companions on the station that they were to play no tricks on him. It was to be a fair thing between the real ghost, if there was one, and himself, without the interference of any sham ghosts.
Hangman's Gully had a peculiarly evil reputation. First, it got its name from a famous massacre of blacks in the olden days, when some convicts had by way of diversion, hanged some natives from the projecting bough of a huge gum-tree that grew there. The tree was still alive, but the long straight bough stuck out at an angle, blasted and withered, and many people wondered that it had not fallen off years ago.
The tree stood near a waterhole, and some sceptical manager had in former times built a shepherd's hut under its unholy shade, but all the shepherds who were stationed there had committed suicide one after another with such praiseworthy perseverance that the place was abandoned, and even the cattle refused to make a camp of the spot, although in every way desirable.
The ghost who walked the gully was supposed to be the ghost of one of the stockmen who hanged the blacks. Some legends said that he was pursued by a howling mob of blacks who finally hanged him, shrieking from the withered limb. Others were to the effect that the suicides and murdered blacks arose and danced a weird dance around the Hangman's Tree.
Mivert thought of all these stories as he looked upon his surroundings, which were not of a cheerful kind, as seen under the rays of the half-moon. The framework of the hut still remained standing, and the three graves of the self-murderers, each fenced in with rough posts and rails, were plainly visible.
Mivert lit his pipe and took up his station under the Hangman's Tree. He fully expected that, in spite of their solemn protestations, it was the intention of the boys to play some trick on him, and determined that they should get a Roland for an Oliver; but hour after hour went on, and save for the exhilarating howl of a native dog, his watch was undisturbed.
It was near midnight, and the moon had set, leaving but the stars to lighten up the scene, when Mivert thought he heard a sound like somebody sobbing in close proximity to him. He listened and was convinced that there was someone sobbing bitterly in the near neighborhood. For a moment he felt startled, then the belief that it was a clever hoax, taking an unexpected form, took possession of him, and he darted round the tree, whence the sounds proceeded, and grasped a dark figure standing there.
'No good, old man—' he commenced when the figure started back with a frightened cry, and Mivert saw to his astonishment that it was a woman whom he had handled so roughly. 'Good God! Who are you?' he gasped, all fear of the supernatural driven clean out of his head.
'Oh, who are you? Do help me home. I have been away so long, so long.'
Mivert saw by the pale light of the stars that the newcomer had a riding habit on, and that her voice was the low, musical voice of a well-bred young girl but he could think of no one in the neighborhood at all like her in appearance—all the women on the neighboring stations were middle-aged and had large families.
'Where do you live?' he asked.
'At Castlebrook,' she replied.
Mivert started, Castlebrook was the former name of the station he was living on, only, the old abandoned homestead was some distance away from the present one.
'At Castlebrook,' he repeated. 'Certainly, I will help you home, but I live near Castlebrook, and the old station homestead is abandoned now. You must mean Brookfield, the new place. Were you going there, and lost your way?'
'No, my home is at Castlebrook, my father is Captain Baird.'
Captain Baird had been in his grave for more years than Mivert knew. The girl must have had a fall and was rambling in her mind. Baird first took up the country, and formed the old station; but that was before the girl beside him could have been born. He must see her back to the station at any rate.
He offered her his arm, and she took it, and gathered up her habit with her other hand. Mivert walked slowly and thought it well to avoid touching upon any but trivial subjects, trusting that the manager's wife would find out all about her when they got to the station. The track on coming out of the gully led through a patch of brigalow and gidea scrub.
They were near the centre when Mivert noticed the slight pressure on his arm relax, he turned to speak to his companion and she had vanished. Gone, without a sign or sound.
Mivert felt a shock of fear; then He called to her without avail. The scrub was silent, and there was neither sound nor movement. Could she have gone back to the gully? He rapidly retraced his steps, but at the Hangman's Tree and the gully there was no sign of life, and his calls remained unanswered.
It was a warm night, and, wearied and worried, he laid himself down to sleep out the remainder of his watch.
Daylight, and he had a swim in the lagoon, and went back to the station to meet as best he could the badinage of his companions. He would not admit that he had seen anything in particular; but one or two strange things had happened which were worth investigating, and he intended to spend another night there. Of course he had many offers of companionship, which he declined, assuring them that when he had solved the mystery they should all benefit by it.
It was shortly before midnight the following night when Mivert reached the Hangman's Tree. The place seemed as deserted as when he last saw it on his return from his strange walk with his companion who so mysteriously disappeared. He waited under the tree, and watched the declining moon, which still shed its faint beams on the gully. He was lost in thought, when a touch on his arm made him start.
There stood the girl, and by the stronger light he could see that she was young and handsome; but whether it was the moonlight or not her face looked very pale.
'Where did you go to last night, asked Mivert; 'and what are you doing here again?'
'I couldn't go past that place, you know; do you think you could get me past to-night? I will hold tight to your arm.'
'But, Miss Baird, where have you been since you left me? Surely you have not been wandering about the bush all the time?'
'No; I have been asleep. But I want to go home so badly.'
More than ever impressed with the Idea that the unfortunate girl was suffering under some mental delusion, although fairly perplexed as to where she could be living, Mivert felt in a fix. However, the only tiling now was to try arid get her to the station, if possible.
'Come; we will start,' he said. 'Mind and hold fast to my arm when going through the scrub,' he added, seeking to reassure the fancy that seemed to haunt her. They started, and on nearing the track through the scrub Mivert felt his companion's clasp tightening on his arm, until it became almost painful. Suddenly it was torn away. His arm was not let go; but the girl's hand forcibly wrenched away from his arm, as though done by some cruel physical power.
The girl had vanished as before, and Mivert was alone in the scrub again, with his heart beating fast and the dew of terror on his brow, for which he could scarcely be blamed. In the distance he heard a faint cry. If it was not fancy, it sounded like 'Come back again. Oh, come back! I must go home.'
Gloomy and taciturn, Mivert passed the following day brooding over the problem of the past two nights. Who or what was this creature of midnight who could, not pass a point in the scrub without vanishing? That she was not of this world he felt sure, but yet the touch of her hand was firm and life-like. His eyes were red with want of sleep, but still he felt that he must keep the ghostly tryst that night.
The moon now shed a fairly good light, and when Mivert took his stand by the Hangman's Tree the gully was fairly well illuminated. I will watch and see where she comes from, he thought: but watch as he would, the presence approached him unawares and unobserved, and was standing by his side 'ere he was aware of its coming.
'Do try and take me back to-night,' she pleaded. 'I am so tired, and want to go home. Listen! Can you carry me through, the scrub, and hold me fast and tight, so that I can go home?'
'I'll try my best,' said Mivert. 'Let us go now while the moon is still high.' Together they went along the track once more, and as they approached the scrub Mivert stooped and took the girl's slight form up in his arms, as he would a child's.
'Oh, you will carry me safely through,' she murmured in a restful tone, and putting her hand over his shoulder she pressed her deathly cold lips to his. Then Mivert went on with his light burden, and had reached the centre of the scrub when, with a cry of despair, the girl was forcibly rent from him by unseen hands, and he was once more alone. Only the cry was still ringing in his ears of 'Come back again! Come, back!'
'I don't know what's up with Mivert,' said someone at the dawn of day, rousing up the manager of Brookfield. 'He's as mad as a hatter, and keeps wanting to get up and go away.'
The superintendent went to the room Mivert shared with another man, and found him in a high stage of delirium.
'He's been stalking off to that old Hangman's Gully chasing a ghost for the last night or two,' volunteered Mivert's roommate.
'Then he's caught some sort of malarial fever bad,' said the super, 'very bad indeed. You'll have to go for the doctor. Saddle up, and look sharp.'
Mivert was delirious all day, spite of the sleeping draughts the doctor administered. Towards midnight be grew violent, and it was with the utmost difficulty, he was kept in bed. After midnight the paroxysm subsided and he looked at the super with rational eyes.
'She has gone home,' he said, to him in an earnest whisper. 'She came and told me; it is all well with her.
Towards morning the fever increased, and he became unconscious—a state, from which he only rallied just before his death at sunrise. He begged the superintendent to search the scrub between tie station and the Hangman's Gully.
AFTER the burial of poor Mivert, they searched the scrub foot by foot, and found the bones of a skeleton, which the doctor pronounced to be those of a woman. Amongst the bones was found a brooch and a bracelet, but all articles of clothing had long since yielded to time and exposure.
Living on the station was an old Irishwoman, who with her husband, since dead, had been there since the early days of the first pioneers, and had seen service with all the successive owners. Old Margaret, as she was called, became greatly excited when she heard of the discovery, and asked to see the brooch and bracelet.
'The good God!' she exclaimed when she saw them, 'and it's the pretty daughter of Captain Baird ye have found after all. Poor girlie! She went out for a ride one day, and never came back, though her horse did. Sure they searched high and low, and she lying dead in the black scrub all the time. It killed her father. She was all he had of kith or kin. He never looked up after. I remember it well, for I was young at the time, and she and I were great friends; and by the same token I pinned the brooch for her before she went out that day. And how did poor Mr. Mivert know the colleen was lying there? She must have come and told him. Bury the poor creature's bones where his are, and perhaps she'll be at rest. 'Twas cruel to die like that, and 'twas cruel on young Mr. Mivert to die of seeing her.'
MY name is Carjava, and I was second steersman on board the yacht Arnhem when we left Amboina, in 1623, on a voyage of discovery to the lands eastward and southward of Java. We were accompanied by another yacht, the Pera. Although my name is Spanish, I, like my father, was born in Holland, and have always considered myself one of that nation.
All went well with us until we sighted land and skirted it for nearly two days' sail. The shore was fringed with mangroves, but from the masthead we could see that there was rising ground just within the mangrove belt, and one clear morning, immediately before the sun rose, the tops of snow-clad mountains could be discerned far, far in the interior.
From my position as second steersman, I, of necessity, knew something of these seas, and knew that the land before us was called Novo Guinea.
As our object was to steer south and examine the great Southland known to exist there, and it being doubtful from the report of the captain of the Duyfken as to the reception we should meet there from the Indians, it was decided to send ashore at the first likely place and replenish our water-casks.
It was not long before we came to an open beach, which promised good landing, and from aloft there appeared to be a lagoon but a short distance from the beach. All looked inviting.
We went ashore, a strong party, two boats from the Arnhem and two from the Pera our own captain, Jan Carstens, being in command. There appeared to be no Indians in the neighbourhood, nor was the fresh water a great distance from the sea, so taking our barracos and leaving a guard we proceeded inland and filled our casks at the lagoon.
We then returned to the boats. Captain Carstens and some men remaining behind to examine the country more closely as it appeared to be deserted and safe. We stowed the barracos, and were awaiting the return of our captain, when suddenly the silence was broken by the most awful and fiendish yells man ever heard. Naturally we made all haste to our captain and his men, for they had evidently been attacked, and met him retreating with his sailors, pursued by what seemed countless swarms of Indians. Tall, copper-coloured men they were, with great mops of yellow hair. They were discharging flights of arrows and throwing spears at the fugitives, and although we made as much speed as possible, and put on a bold front, we were too late; the lightly-clad Indians had overtaken our comrades and killed them.
The savages on seeing us approach, halted, and the men on the ship firing off a carronade, they took fright, and ran away. Alas, our captain and all his party were killed. Having heard that these cruel wretches were cannibals we took the bodies on board and buried them at tea. It was useless to think of avenging them, for the Indians could evade us with ease.
The head merchant, Gerrit Pietersz, now took charge and we sailed away from the ill-omened depot, which had determined the fate of our captain and eight of his men. It also determined the fate of myself ere many days. Our coarse was south, and we soon sighted the land that had been seen by the Duyfken. Here we were somewhat luckier, for we found a wide opening into which flowed a river which the boats could ascend and obtain fresh water without the men landing.
We kept on, skirting the land south and west, but found it everywhere shallow, barren, and of no use whatever to the Dutch East India Company, while the natives were gaunt, treacherous, and half starved, in no way so sturdy as those who had killed the captain.
Still following the land, finding the same low muddy mangrove swamps, we again turned north, showing that we had been sailing round a great gulf. On this course we finally came to a headland, and when we had rounded it the shore trended westward again, but here my voyage on the Arnhem came to a sudden end.
The head merchant, who had succeeded the captain, was not very friendly towards me, being in that respect very different from my late captain, who had stood my very good friend on more than one occasion.
With Gerrit Pietersz, it was quite otherwise; he lost no opportunity to find fault end bicker with me; nor was I popular with the crew. This arose from my Spanish name, for at that time the most bitter enmity existed between Spain and Holland.
One evening a quarrel arose amongst the sailors on deck, and one drew a knife, and stabbed another. I was close at hand, and, though too late to stop the blow, I immediately closed with the murderer, and wrested the knife from his hand. What was my astonishment, to find myself seized, and accused of the crime. Protest was useless. I was dragged before Pietersz, who had evidently prejudged the case. The sailors swore positively that I struck the blow, and that they had seized me with the knife in my hand.
Nay, the actual, murderer went further, and vowed that I had snatched the knife from his belt to commit the deed in order to fasten the crime on him. Against this I had only my protestations of innocence to offer, and, most unfortunately, the sailor who was killed was known to have carried a grudge against me.
I was put in irons in the hold and confined there all night. The next morning I was brought on deck, as I concluded, to be hanged; but a more lingering death was in waiting for me. The yacht was hove to, a boat lowered, and several articles of dunnage put in it. Then my irons were struck off, and I was roughly told to follow. I was to be marooned—left alone among the cannibal savages of the great South land!
I commenced to protest, but Pietersz cut me short and, pointing to the yardarm, said, 'You have your choice—one or the other.'
For a moment I felt tempted to choose the disgraceful death, but the next instant changed my mind and went myself into the boat. Three men followed, and, I was silently pulled ashore. Just there the land was clear and open, free from mangroves; and I and my belongings were quickly landed, and the boat backed out and pulled for the Arnhem.
As long as my enemies were in sight I maintained a firm front; but when the yacht had shaken out her sails, and followed the Pera, now some distance away, and the two discovery ships disappeared found a point of land, and I was alone, I threw myself down in a stupor of despair.
The heat of the sun aroused me. Rallying myself, I examined my poor belongings. I must confess that in this respect I had been fairly well treated, although I at once guessed that I owed it principally to the kindliness of the first steersman, for I remembered seeing him passing the things into the boat himself.
There was enough biscuit and pork to last me a month with care, a cook-pot, and, above all, a musket and ammunition, a hatchet and jack-knife; and when I opened the bag of biscuit I found thrust within a pipe and tobacco, fishhooks and lines. These few possessions, and the knowledge that I owed them to a friend, put me in better spirits.
My first care was to remove my provisions to a place of comparative safety, and, determined to keep my courage up, I made an ample breakfast, for the last time, meaning to husband my resources hereafter. Then I started to see what sort of a place I had been left in.
The outlook was promising, the country being open, without any thickets to conceal the lurking Indians. As I proceeded a little further I came to a lagoon with water lilies on it, and many ducks and other birds swimming on its surface. I had not approached very cautiously, and when they caught sight of me they arose and flew with a great whirring and clapping of wings.
I was, however, hugely delighted at seeing them, as it relieved me from the fear of dying from hunger and thirst. I returned to the shore, and looked about for a place where I could sleep, tolerably secure from the Indians.
I selected a rock, elevated and hard to climb, also protected on each side by two more rocks. I took my hatchet, and lopped some boughs for my bed; then, thankful that my life was spared, I slept soundly all night.
And so two or three weeks passed. I saw no Indians, I caught fish, and occasionally managed to knock over a duck; but the loneliness was awful. I watched the horizon closely, for I hoped that the Pera might return alone, and out of pity take me off. I could only afford myself a small pipeful of tobacco every night, and I had finished this one night, and was sitting dozily dreaming, wondering whether I should ever see a light shine out across the sea-line, when suddenly I saw one. I sprang to my feet in amazement.
IT was a light sure enough; Not only one, but two; and as I watched, two more shone out. There were four.
By the position and the distance between them I took them to be four different craft lying a short distance off shore. I must have slept unknowingly, and during my sleep, they must have come up in the darkness. I glanced at the stars, and saw that the night was well advanced. Even as I watched, with every nerve strained; my heart beating fast with hope and doubt, I heard a strange sound behind me like a chorus of distant voices.
The Indians at last! Was I to die, just when a faint chance of life offered?
The lights were stationary. I turned my attention to the Indians. A soft whisper of wind brought me the voices more distinctly, and I thought I could distinguish a glow in the direction of the lagoon. I took my gun, and stole stealthily towards it.
When I reached the open space where I had first come upon the lagoon I saw at least five or six fires burning on the bank, and loudly I could now hear the savage chant rising and falling. From out of the brilliant circle of light they could not well see me in the surrounding darkness; but I could safety watch them. It was not a reassuring sight for a solitary man to witness in the great unknown land I was then in. Round the largest fire circled in a peculiar dance about thirty Indians, their black bodies streaked with white in a hideous manner, and as they wheeled round the blazing brands they looked like fiends rejoicing over a lost soul.
The women apparently were squatting apart, drumming on their laps, and droning forth a savage song, the men joining in now and then. Sick and unmanned, I stole back to the camp on the shore, butt the sight of those four lights at sea restored my spirits. They were stilt there, and I saw by the sinking constellations that daylight would soon end my suspense.
The dawn came and brightened, and I made out four high-peaked vessels close to the shore. The darkness had deceived me. I recognised them at once as Malay proas. The Malays were friendly with the Dutch, and I rejoiced. So engaged was I in watching the proas, that I had forgotten all about the Indians, when I was startled by a rustle in the bushes, turned, and there stood one of them not 20 yards away, with spears in his hand.
He gave a startled cry at my movement, for his eyes, like mine, had been fixed on the proas. He jumped back and I ducked behind the rock. A shower of spears hurtled over me. I rose quickly and shot the nearest Indian; then crouched once more, and the spears flew wide. So the fight went on, when suddenly there was the familiar grating sound of a boat's keel, and a dozen Malay sailors rushed past me and put the Indians to speedy flight, following them, stabbing them with their krises. At the boat stood a corpulent old Malay, clad in a gorgeous sash and turban.
He smiled pleasantly enough at me, and said in broken Dutch, 'You sailor man?'
I nodded, and he said, 'Ship?' pointing to the rocks as though he meant to ask had she been wrecked.
I nodded again, and intimated by sighs that I wanted to be taken off. This he understood, and indicated that he would take me. Then a gleam of cupidity came into his eyes, and he field out his hand for the musket I still held. I had no other means of paying my passage, so gave it to him with the best grace I could, with the balls and powder horn. By this time the Malays were straggling back. With their bloody krises thrust in their sashes. Afterwards I learned that these conflicts with the Indians occurred whenever they met. I had unconsciously done the Malays good service, for the fight with me upset the ambush the Indians were preparing for them, this being a favourite place for the Malays to water their boats. How good it was to be once more among my fellow beings, even if they were only, Malay pirates. How good to leave behind me that great lone land of savage solitude.
Of my life with the Malays I have not much to say. It tasted some years, for although I could have returned to Java, I had no wish to be hanged for a crime I had not committed.
One day we were again off the coast of the Southland, but further west than we had ever been before, when we sighted a stranded ship, evidently a Hollander. I boarded her with a boat's crew to see if there was anything left on board, and from what I saw concluded she was not a discovery ship, but one on the way to Batavia, driven out of her way by a violent storm.
At first I thought that she was deserted, but on entering the cabin I found three bodies in it. On a couch lay the form of a man dressed in rich uniform; and by his side knelt woman, her face buried in her hands. The third man lay in a huddled heap in one corner.
The dark storm clouds were breaking, and the cabin was not so gloomy. I went over to the couch and its double burden, and gently raised the woman's bead. To my surprise she was a beautiful girl dressed in the robes of a lady Of Quality. She was alive, but seemingly in a deep swoon. The man was dead, dried blood caked in hideous patches on his gay clothing. I went to the third, and as I stooped over him a ray of sunlight darted into the corner where he lay, and I recognised the features.
'Gerrit Pietersz!' I exclaimed.
To my surprise, he feebly opened his eyes.
'Who are you who calls me by name?' he demanded, staring at my dress.
'Juan Carjava, whom you marooned on this coast!'
'Alive! Lift my head and give me a drink. I would speak.'
I picked up a flask from those that were scattered on the floor, and supporting his head held it to his lips. It revived him a little, and he glanced over at the silent figures.
'Both dead?' he asked.
'The woman is alive. But what happened?' I demanded in my turn.
'Ask that beautiful hell-cat. A stout ship, a rich cargo, and five score lives sacrificed for a wanton's whims. You are exonerated: the rascal who did the deed confessed, and you can go back. I am glad; your fate has troubled me.'
He was growing weaker, but he managed to gasp out: 'Living or dead, cast her in the sea,' and, with a curse on his lips his spirit passed.
The serang came in to tell me that there was no one left on board, but there was much blood and marks of fighting; the weather was fast clearing, and the plunder—but words failed him.
Our fat old chief Ramma soon came off, and his delight at the prize was unbounded. I took him into the cabin to see the bodies, and the sole survivor, who was still unconscious, but the mystery of the wreck did not trouble them much. They were dead, and there was no one to dispute his claim.
Old Ramma had an island called Ratti, where he stored all his plunder, and a rich hoard he had there. Beside the piratical fleet, he owned many proas engaged in fishing for bÍche-de-mer on the northern shore of the Southland; and he was a man of importance among his countrymen.
We were some days transferring the loot, and though the fair lady soon recovered, nothing could be obtained from her in explanation of the tragedy. Her name was Von Heslau, and she was a niece of the Governor-General of the East India Company, and to his care she was coming out to Batavia.
Of the voyage she would say little or nothing, save that she kept her cabin very much, and there was fighting and bloodshed. Strange to say, when she heard that there were no other survivors, and that Pietersz had but lived a few moments, she quickly gained her spirits, and was as gay as though she had never known a care.
Ramma was in great good humour, and had all her belongings, of which she claimed a great quantity, carefully stowed away to send with herself to Batavia as soon as we had arrived at Ratti.
The old villain was greatly taken with her grace and beauty, and, I believe, would have offered to make her Ranee of his island kingdom had I not pointed out to him the risk of offending the powerful Dutch Company. He was, however, anxious to secure a treaty with them about Ratti, so it was arranged that I should convoy Fršulein von Heslau to her uncle, and enter into negotiations with him on Ramma's behalf.
Arrived at Ratti, a proa was soon made ready for our trip, and the time came to say farewell. Ramma bowed gravely to the girl to whom he had behaved with distinguished courtesy.
'Child,' he said in the Malay language, 'when you want a friend, send to old Ramma. Bend your head.'
She looked at me, and I translated his speech. Laughingly she inclined her handsome head, and he slipped over it on to her neck a double string of splendid pearls of great value. She gave a loud cry of admiration and delight when she saw what he had done.
A fair wind soon took M to Batavia; that a memorable incident occurred on the trip. The gnšdiges Fršulein had never deigned to exercise the spell of her fascinations over me—I was but a poor castaway; but once she stooped to speak of the past.
'Did Captain Gerrit speak of me ere he died?'
'He spoke but a few wandering words, Fršulein.'
'Truth to tell, they were evil words; but doubtless he raved.'
She looked sternly at me. 'It were well to forget a dying man's ravings. They hang men for piracy in these seas, do they not? And I have heard men speak of my uncle as a hard judge.'
She turned away, and left me meditating.
THE Governor-General received me graciously, thanked me for the care of his young relative, promised to guarantee Ramma against any molestation of his island by Dutch ships, and further offered me the post of first steersman, on board a ship bound for Holland.
I returned to Ratti on the proa, and told the satisfactory tidings to Ramma. He was very cordial, and when; I left a few weeks after, he pressed on me a heavy bag of dollars, in addition to my share of the loot, so that I, a naked, starving outcast when he rescued me, bade fair to return to Holland with some store.
I heard much of Fršulein von Heslau when I returned to Java. Of her wit and beauty, of the many fatal duels she had caused, and of more than one suicide. But of herself I saw nothing till just before my departure, and then I made bold to call a Javanese boy conducted me to the garden, where she was indolently reclining on a bamboo lounge.
She looked at me with languid surprise.
'Well, sailor, what is it?'
'Pardon me, Fršulein, I am the Dutch sailor who rescued you from the wreck. I sail for Holland to-morrow. I ventured to call to say farewell.'
'Ah, I did not recognise you without your pirate dress. It is just as well that you have, the air of Java may not prove healthy. Do you want money?'
'I am in no want of money. I have but to offer my respectful farewell.'
I bowed low, and was turning away, when she spoke again.
'Have you heard anything of that funny old Malay chief? I forget his name.'
And as she spoke I saw her fingers toying with the double coil of priceless pearls she wore round her white throat.
WHEN Abel Tasman made his second voyage of discovery to the south, Juan Carjava held a position of trust on the Limmen. A year before that the pest swept down upon Java, and among the victims at Batavia was the Governor's niece, Fršulein von Heslau.
IT was a bright, cheerful looking site for a station homestead, and the passing traveller who happened to come that way always wondered why it should have been abandoned. The remains of the house and the outbuildings stood on a rising knoll overlooking a crescent-shaped lagoon and a wide stretch of open country, with a range of blue hills in the far distance. The straggling trees and bushes of a once well cared for garden were still visible; but the intruding couch grass had covered the beds and paths, the fence was down, and all was now an untouched wilderness. Everything that could be of use at the new site selected for the head station had been removed, and only the gaunt corner posts and uprights of the buildings remained.
One thing only was exempt from ruin and decay, and that caught the eye at once. It was a grave, enclosed by an iron railing, and evidently still carefully tended. At the head a willow tree had been planted, and it had thriven and grown wonderfully, and now drooped over the headstone and trailed its slender branches against the inscription that was on it—a simple one, the intials 'J.S.' only and a date. Who lay beneath, man or woman, one could not tell; but it was somebody whose memory was still kept green. It was such a peaceful-looking spot, in spite of the forlorn appearance that always settles down on an abandoned homestead, that one unconsciously envied the one who, 'after life's fitful fever,' slept so well there, undisturbed, save by the sheep who straggled in to drink at the lagoon, and camp under the shady trees during the hot hours of the day, and those who came to tend the grave with loving hands.
All around spoke of rest and quiet, such rest and quiet as should linger round the grave of one who had been, perhaps, an idolised and only child, or a fair young wife, who, with her first-born, had faded out of her year-old married happiness, or a revered and reverend man whose blameless life had been passed in deeds of benevolence.
The man who slumbered in that nameless grave was an outcast from his fellows. One whose hands were stained with blood, and whose life had been passed in crime, in riot, and debauchery. But for one good deed he had earned this peaceful grave, cared for and watched, when all he had to expect was the quicklime of the gaol yard.
JIMMY STONE was noted from boyhood for his surly temper and brutal disposition. Dogs cleared out of his way intuitively, children slunk away from him, and he never had a friend. He was a good all-round man on a station; but was always getting sacked for his cruelty to horses and cattle. If he went splitting he continually quarrelled with his mates, and in consequence he became a kind of social 'hatter,' and that did not improve his temper. In a sort of way he was dimly conscious of his weakness of temper, and when he eventually killed a man, and had to do two years for manslaughter, it was brought strongly home to him that there was something very wrong somewhere.
But Jim blamed the laws of society for it, and considered it interference with the liberty of the subject. Jim did a little horse stealing and a little honest work when it suited him, and drank a good deal, and occasionally got into prison. He had to shift his districts occasionally, and at last found himself on the Palmer River, in North Queensland, in the early days of the rush. He had rather a good time with some congenial mates, and they did a roaring trade while the rush lasted and the fever raged, and men died in lonely places, and left their horses and goods behind them for the first comer.
Chinamen, too, were fine game, and Jim and his mates used to have rare sport when a gang came along in deadly terror of the natives, and ready to drop their swags and bolt at the first alarm.
But things, of course, got too warm for them in a short time, and the little pleasure party split up. Jim and another fellow went fossicking. It was away in one of the barren spinifex gullies, some distance from any camp, that Jim came on a tent, and inside the tent was a man wasted with fever. Jim had seen a good deal of this sort of thing, and often made a small rise on the strength of it. He looked at the man and his belongings, and saw that he was well equipped, and there were several things that he desired. He bent over the man, who was muttering deliriously. He was scarcely a man, and his beardless face; worn delicate by sickness, was like a girl's. When Jim stooped over him he opened a pair of large brown eyes, and looked at him solemnly, and without recognition.
Jim drew back; then he went outside, got his water-bag, and gave the sufferer a drink. Once upon a time Jim had had a love experience. She was a girl with brown eyes like the sick boy's. She was not one of the model women of the world; but she had loved the brutal man, who did not hesitate to chastise her occasionally after the manner of his kind; but that was nothing to her, as he was faithful in his way.
One day Jim caught her talking to a man whom he had long Jealously suspected, and whom he had forbidden her to speak to. The chastisement inflicted on that occasion was particularly severe; but she took it without complaint, and bore up for a long time, until at last she had to give in, and be taken to the hospital. What he she told about her bruised body Jim never knew; but she lingered for a week, and then died. Jim saw her just before her death, and he remembered those fond, dying eyes; he had never forgotten them. The girl had died like a dumb dog fondling the hand that killed her.
Stone meditated on these things in his clumsy, ignorant way, until he was aroused by a horse's tread. His mate had followed him. He dismounted, and gazed inquiringly at Jim.
'Cove dead or sick?' he said.
'Sick,' said Jim.
The other looked inside the tent, and his eyes glistened. 'My oath, that's a good gun he's got. I Just what I want. He'll die right enough. We I can help ourselves and leave him.'
'He won't die if he's looked after,' said Jim, sullenly.
Who's going to look after him? You going to turn sick nurse?'
'Yes; if I choose to.'
'Oh, you're welcome to for me. But I want that I gun; you can take his revolver. I suppose his I horses have gone to the bounds of blazes.'
'I suppose they have; that's why you can't have the gun—it might be wanted.'
'But I'm going to have it. If you like to play I the idiot I'm not going to. I'll go in and twist his neck for two pins!'
'I'm hanged if you will; and if I am it will be for you!'
Then there was a very pretty quarrel, and Jim's mate completely lost his temper, which was a very foolish thing to do under the circumstances, because for once in his life Jim resolutely kept his.
'Let's have it out down there,' he said, after I some mutual recrimination. 'I've given the boy a drink, and he's asleep, and I'm not going to have I him woke up.'
'Oh, you won't, won't you? Well, to oblige I you I'll step over there. I've quilted you before, Jim Stone, and I'll do it again, and thoroughly this time.' and they set off to a convincing ground. Then, having lost his temper, the mate incautiously proceeded to take his shirt off when they, arrived there. He got it over his head, but he never I got it any further.
Jim went back alone.
That was Jim's good deed; but be never bragged I about it. It was not his weakness to boast. Stone found that there was a little water in the I gully and a bit of feed for the two horses—his late mate's and his own. He went back to his own camp, and packed everything over, and started on his new career as sick nurse. It was a long time before the boy got strong enough to get up; but Jim stuck to him; and once the blacks gave them a call, and Jim found the disputed gun very handy.
As soon as the youngster got well enough Jim packed him to the nearest camp by easy stages. He had heard all his story which was that of a very innocent but good-hearted youth, who had started off brimful of adventure and inexperience. He made over to Jim all his chattels, swore eternal gratitude, and departed for the south to go back to his own people; and Jim wandered off to his own people, which were of a different class.
TEN or fifteen years had passed, when Jim Stone, whose wild life was telling upon him a good deal, found himself one day in the character of a swagman humping his drum past the station already mentioned, not then abandoned. He went up to the cook to get some rations, and travellers not being numerous, was told he could stop the night and get his meals.
'What's the cove's name??' he asked.
'Wingfield,' replied the cook.
Jim started slightly, and just then a little girl came running into the kitchen with a message from her mother. Jim saw the same brown eyes he had nursed back to life.
'One of his kids?' he asked when the child was gone.
'Yes; the only one. Two have died here. They talk of shifting the station, think the place isn't healthy.'
'He owns the place, then?'
'Yes; it's his own, and he isn't a bad sort, either.'
'Think I'll see him in the morning.'
'Better. He might find you something.'
Jim interviewed Wingfield in the morning. He recognised the sick boy in the bearded man; but there was no recognition by the other one. Jim was and felt prematurely old; his hair and beard were white, and his face, never too handsome, was seamed with toil and evil passions. Wingfield did not like his appearance, and curtly informed him that he had no work to offer him.
Jim looked around, and a great weariness of spirit came over him—a longing to end his days in peace and rest, away from the heat and struggle of the past. He was tired and worn. He asked if he could stay the day and spell; but did not betray himself. His request was readily granted.
It was evening, and Wingfield and his wife were standing in the verandah, when their only child ran up to them full of news.
'Oh, dad! it's so strange. I asked that old traveller in the kitchen to tell me some stories, and he knows one just like that one of your's, about a man being alone and sick in the bush, and how another man came and stopped with him, and fought the black-fellows.'
'It can't be the same,' said Wingfield, in answer to his wife's surprised and questioning look. 'Stone was a fine, manly bushman: this man is like what you would imagine in old lag to be.'
Such is the glamor of memory.
Wingfield went out to the traveller.
'Are you the Stone who saved my life on the Palmer years ago?'
'I'm the man. Do you remember this?' he opened his shirt, and showed the old scar of a black's spear taken in defence of the man before him.
Wingfield did not hesitate; but to him the disappointment at first was bitter. The Jim Stone of his memory was a hero of heroes; but this evil-looking old swagman was no hero; but he was the man, and Jim found a haven and a fast friend in the little girl, who henceforth took him entirely under her protection. It was she who in after times tended the grave of the man who had saved her father's life. But fortunately no one ever knew the truth, that the real good deed was not the romantic one of tending the sick youth and defending him from the blacks, but shooting a man when in the act of taking his shirt off.
WE stood on the summit of one of the highest altitudes of the King Leopold Ranges, in North Western Australia, and looked from thence to the north-east over a land that is almost new to white men; Grey and Lushington only having made a slight advance into it. There were three of us whites, and a Kimberley black boy. We had been fossicking without success around the western base of the ranges, and at last determined to surmount them, and see what lay beyond. We had lost one horse and much temper in making the ascent, for the King Leopold Ranges, if not high, are rugged and abrupt.
Looking to the north-east, the country appeared much the same as the usual coastal lands or Northern Australia, but we fancied we could pick out an easy descent to the more level country below. About fifteen, miles away, we calculated, there appeared a line of dark foliage, which we took to indicate a river; beyond the river, if river it was, a high ridge shut out any further view. Our boy came from the head of the Marguerite River, and could give us no information of what we should find when we got down on the country before us.
It was mid-day, but being winter time it was nothing more than a pleasant temperature, and we made up our minds to make the presumed river that night. We had not much trouble to get down the range, and arrived at the bank of the river about sundown. There were good feed and water, and we turned out and made ourselves comfortable.
'I suppose,' said Gordon, 'this will be an upper tributary of one of the rivers Grey was on?'
'Apparently so,' I replied, 'perhaps those wonderful cave paintings are somewhere on it.'
'Do you believe in their existence?' said Rogers.
'I believe that when they come to be examined again, they will be found to resemble other black fellows' work. Grey was young and inexperienced at the time, and I don't doubt but what his imagination carried him slightly away,' I replied.
'What do you say to going down and having a look at them?' said Rogers.
'Too rough; and not worth knocking our horses about over,' returned Gordon.
Dismissing the subject, we turned in and the night passed peacefully, although each one of us the next morning related how he had dreamed of the aureoled figure described by Grey. The next two days were uneventful; the country was indifferent; there were no auriferous indications, and nothing to delay us. The third day, from the top of a high ridge, we saw the sea and a tall elevation right on the coast, its base seemingly washed by the ocean. Towards this we steered our course, and camped at the foot of it that night.
Next morning early we ascended it; and had a splendid view of the bay, of which the elevation we were on formed the head, and of the archipelago of islands that lay beyond. So interested were we in the seaward view that we did not look around until an exclamation from Gordon caused us to do so.
'Glory! What's that?' he said.
'That' appeared to be a mass of solid green, which we had no difficulty in recognising as a bamboo jungle. About this part of Northern Australia we had not seen any bamboos, although they are common enough in the Northern Territory. The singularity was in coming across this isolated clump, as the bamboo spreads rapidly along tropical rivers. The clump in question appeared to be of some extent, and had some sort of symmetry about it. Seemingly it was about ten miles away.
Before leaving the crest of the hill we were standing on Rogers drew our attention to the smooth decline of bare rock that ran down almost from our feet without check or break right into the sea for a descent of nearly 200 ft. Although the day was calm, there was a swell on, and the waves came climbing hungrily for some distance up the smooth rock.
'A pretty slide a man would have if he happened to slip down there,' said Rogers.
'Yes; he'd set his trousers on fire before he got to the water,' laughed Gordon; and we went back to our camp.
Naturally, we made for the jungle of bamboos. They were old plants, thick-stemmed, interlaced, and hard as iron, absolutely impenetrable. We followed them round, and found that they were growing in a perfect square, about a mile away.
'These have been planted—this is artificial work,' I said.
'It was not done by the natives, at any rate, for we have not seen track or sign of them since we crossed the range,' remarked Gordon.
Rogers, who had been silent for some time, said, 'I believe the place is open inside, and this is a hedge of bamboos planted by the Malays, who must have introduced the bamboo to Australia. They had good-sized fleets of proas off this coast at one time.'
'If there is something enclosed inside, it must be worth going in to see, but how are we to get through?' I said.
'It would blunt any axe or tomahawk going in a dozen chops. I know these old bamboos,' returned Gordon.
'Let's see if Dandy can shin up one, and get a look inside,' I said.
Dandy soon peeled off, and easily went aloft. For some time he could not seemingly see for the intervening feathery tops, as he could not trust himself to the top of the bamboo, but at last he sang out, 'Me see him. House bin sit down there!'
He came down, much excited. On asking about the house, he described it by drawing it on the ground, as a low, oblong structure with a flat roof. He said that all the land around was bare, and that the house stood in the middle of the enclosure.
We had to get inside that enclosure somehow—that was our united determination. There was water not far off, and while Rogers and the boy fixed up a tamp, Gordon and I rode round the bamboos again. At last we came to a place where the bamboos had not thriven well, probably on account of the stony nature of the soil, a bit of rocky country here coming in. Not only that, but some of the bamboos were dead, and, we concluded that with fire and axe, we could force a gap. If we failed, we should have to dig a way, and uproot the trees, as being easier than cutting them down.
It was two days, and, I might say, nights, for we kept the fires going all night, before we found ourselves in the enclosure, so stubborn and broad was the hedge by which it was surrounded.
It was with a certain feeling of awe that we looked around this mysterious enclosure. Dandy's description had been accurate enough. We stood on a bare and naked plain, surrounded by the bamboo hedge, and in the middle rose the small building. It was oblong-shaped, with sloping sides and flat roof, about fourteen feet high and fourteen by eight, on a ground plan.
When we reached it we saw that it was built of mud bricks, painted, or coated rather, with some solution that had resisted all the weather that had so long beaten on it. There were no windows and no door nor entrance.
'It is a tomb,' said Gordon.
'Tomb or not,' replied Rogers, 'we must see the inside of it.'
To this we agreed, and selected a place of attack. Once the coating was through the mud bricks were soft and friable, and we worked away with a will.
'Look out for foul air!' said Rogers, as the point of his pick went through, and we heard a fall of bricks in the interior.
We soon had a large gap in the wall; it seemed like sacrilege thus partially to destroy this curious relic, but there was no other way to get at the secret of its construction, nor the purpose thereof.
The air that came but was certainly very bad. Whenever we caught a whiff of it we had to speedily retire, so that, it being about the middle of the day, we decided to finish the gap, and then go away and have our mid-day meal before entering, leaving the air to clear.
This we did, and when we came back, we found we could enter with perfect safety. The light streaming in through the ragged hole we had made revealed to us a strange sight.
In the centre of the apartment, on a raised bier, lay the body of a man in perfect preservation. His features were Malay, and his dress was also Malay in type, such as is worn by the Rajahs of the Celebes and other islands. He lay on his back with his hands clasped, and his attitude was almost exactly similar to the sculptured figures on old European tombs. Evidently he was a man of high rank, for his sarong and turban were richly worked and wrought with pearls and stones of value.
His face was strong and dignified, and he might have been asleep, instead of in the grasp of death. Certainly his preservation was wonderful in the extreme, and accomplished by some process that left embalmment far behind.
Glancing around, we saw figures were painted on the wall, figures which we all recognised as those described by Grey in his journal. We spoke to each other in awed whispers for the surroundings were solemn in the extreme, when suddenly Dandy interrupted us by a loud cry of terror, and ran out of the opening.
Glancing at the corpse, we saw that a change was taking place; whatever it was that had been, employed it could not resist the action of the outside air, and now it was falling into nothingness before our eyes. If was a fascinating, if thrilling, sight to see what might have been a sleeping human being wither and vanish into a little grey dust and empty robes. Where had been the dead rajah there was now nothing but his rich clothes, and they, too, went to pieces like tinder at our touch, and all that survived of this strange occupant of the tomb were the pearls and gems that had been on his dress, the gold thread they had been sewn with, and a sheet of metal like copper beaten thin, on which he had lain. This, when we took it outside in the strong light, proved to be covered with written characters deeply scratched on its surface.
Returning to camp, after a close examination of the inside of the enclosure which resulted in nothing, we found Dandy squatting by the fire, and muttering to himself. He had got a terrible fright, and it was some time before he recovered his nerve.
We devoted several days to searching for further traces of the Malays, but found nothing more. When we were ready to start, we went up to the top of the hill from which we had first caught sight of the bamboos, and stood there looking out across the bright bay, and the islands, and thinking how it must have looked when the Malay fleet was riding at anchor there. Suddenly Dandy shrieked with horror, and cried out, 'Man there! Man there!'
We looked round, but could see nothing. When we looked back, Dandy was just slipping on the edge of the treacherous incline, a look of agony and terror on his face, terror of something he saw which we could not see; then, before we could save him, he was gone to his death. He slid down with ever-increasing velocity, uttering, at first, painful cries, but these soon stopped, and, when at last he reached the water and vanished in a receding wave, he must have been quite dead.
With one accord we left the fatal spot, and took our homeward way, scarcely daring to speak of what we had witnessed, and quite unable to account for it.
THE inscribed metal plate has since been translated by a well-known professor of Oriental languages, and this is the purport of it. However, before mentioning this, I may say that ere we left the spot the whole of the building forming the mausoleum fell into ruins from the action of the air on the inside parts which had been so long hermetically sealed.
This, then, is the story of the dead Rajah, and it dates back as far as the 15th century:
One of the Rajahs of the straits who sent their fishing fleets to the north coast of Australia, from time immemorial, had but one son. He was of a brave disposition, but of weak health. His father sent him with the annual fishing fleet, hoping to restore him to vigor. He grew better on the voyage, and, landing with a party one day, they were attacked, by the Australian natives, with whom they had continued conflicts.
The Rajah's son received a severe wound, and the fleet sailed back with him on board. He was dying when he arrived, but he found his father dying, too. The old Rajah issued certain instructions to his principal chiefs to be carried out after his death and his son's death. These instructions, on the death of the son, which occurred only a few hours after the death of the father, were strictly carried out.
The young man's body was preserved according to a now forgotten process; he was dressed in royal robes, and conveyed back to the scene of his receiving the fatal wound. Then the tomb was built, and the bamboo planted, and the work of vengeance commenced. They watched the bamboos grow, and they captured the natives time by time, and by batches they were plunged—men, women, and children, young and old—down the rocky face of the outstanding point, down to death, and burial in the sea. They waited until the district was depopulated, and the smoke of a camp fire never rose to the sky. These were the victims which accompanied the last of their Rajahs to the other world.
What was it that drove Dandy to be the last victim? Was it the Spirit of the dead Rajah we had liberated from the tomb?
'THESE yarns about bush ghosts are all very well,' said Doubleton, 'but I know of a ghost about which there could be no manner of doubt.'
'Well, you can't deny that the stockman in the Murray bend who always rushes the cattle at 12 o'clock at night is a true bill,' returned Dwyer. 'Scores of people can swear to it.'
'Oh, that's all very fine. Anything will make cattle rush at times. A possum, or a kangaroo rat, or a fish jumping, or a duck rising. Why, I've known cattle rush at a man sneezing, but he had an uncommon powerful sneeze, and he sneezed when they were all fast asleep and quiet. Now, the ghost I mean was in a city, in Sydney, and he used to drive a cab about, a ghostly cab drawn by a ghostly horse, and woe betide anyone who engaged him.'
'I suppose,' said the owner of the station, just waking up from a doze, 'that most people had what is called the jim-jams when they hailed him?'
'Nothing of the sort. I saw him myself once, at least the man I was with said it was the ghost cab, but it certainly did look very real; but I was in Sydney when it was all found out about the cabman's murder, and then the ghost and the cab, and the horse, and all, were never seen again.
'I can give you the true version, for the man who brought it about was a friend of mine, and told, me all about it.'
'I was in a phantom cab that was dematerialised once,' said the station owner. 'I hailed it early one morning, and it seemed an alright sort of cab, and when I got into it it went off as usual, but when we got in the street where there was an electric light I suddenly saw a cart right ahead of us, and before I could call out we went right bang through it, and then through several buildings, and the whole blessed thing dematerialised, and left me sitting in the middle of the road, with a policeman asking me my name and address.'
'Oh! be quiet,' said Doubleton, 'I'll tell you the yarn if you like and you'll hold your tongue; if not, say so?'
'Let us hear it?' said Dwyer.
WELL, my friend, his name was Ryland, lived in the suburbs. He had been to supper, and just about midnight was returning home, when he saw a cab crawling along the street just in front of him, so he hailed it, and the cab stopped. The driver looked at him as he came up, and stooping down, he said, 'Do you want to go far, sir; my horse is tired?'
Now, this was a very natural question to ask at that time of night, so, Ryland had not the least suspicion of this being anything else but an ordinary cab, and told the man where he lived, and the man said he could manage it—so he got in, and the cabby drove off. Ryland might have dozed off; he's not prepared to swear that he didn't; anyway, he was awakened by voices, and feeling the cab stop. The cab had stopped, and the driver was in the road talking to a woman who was about to get into the cab.
'Here, what's this?' said Ryland. 'I object to anyone coming in; beside, you said your horse was tired.'
'He objects,' said the woman.
'It don't matter whether he objects or not,' said the cabman; 'its got to be. To-night's the twenty-first of November, and I've got to drive you there, so get in.'
Without more ado the woman got in, and as she passed the light of the lamps Ryland saw that she was very well dressed and very handsome. He was wide awake by now, and quite ready to see the adventure out to the end. On first waking he had thought that it was only some belated creature of the night who wanted a lift home. Now he saw that things were not what they seemed. His new companion sat quietly alongside him, and the horse seemed to have suddenly recovered all its fire and energy, for the cab bowled along the road as though the own brother to Cauliflower was in the shafts.
'You are out late,' said Ryland; 'lucky it's a fine night.'
He told me that, as soon as he'd spoken, it struck him his speech was not an example of wonderful brilliancy, but he felt that he must say something.
'You're out late, too,' said his new companion; 'but I don't consider the night fine.'
Just as she spoke, the sky seemed to get suddenly overcast, and a pelting rain commenced.
Ryland had a great coat on his arm, and the lady was in evening dress, with just what they call a cloud over her head and round her throat, so he took his coat and offered it to her to put round her shoulders, and she accepted it without a word of thanks.
Presently the horse and cab pulled up short before a house standing by itself in good-sized grounds. The gate was wide open, and up the drive they went, and pulled up in front of the house. The cabman was down like a shot, and thundered on the door with the knocker so that Ryland said, 'He's making enough noise to wake the dead.'
'Hush!' said the lady. 'He is waking the dead.'
Presently the door opened, And the lady made preparations for getting out, so Ryland he jumped out to help her. She put her hand in his, and it was so cold through her glove that it felt like a burn where it had touched him. The door was open, and there was a light in the hall, and the minute that lady stepped into the hall, the night was fine, clear, and calm once more.
'You'd better look after the cab for a bit,' said a voice beside him; 'I've got to go inside.'
Ryland found the cabman at his elbow.
'Supposing you look after your own cab,' he said, 'and I'll go inside if anybody is wanted.'
'I've no objection,' said the cabman, 'not the slightest. It's them inside might object.'
Ryland thought a bit. 'I'll go,' he said to himself, 'but I'll just take the number of this cab first,' and he scribbled the number painted on the lamps on his cuff. The number was 010203, and a very queer number he thought it was at the time. Then he turned, and was much astonished to find his great coat still on his arm, although he could have sworn that he put it over the lady's shoulders, and had not taken it back again.
He marched boldly in, never thinking what a liberty he was taking, and hearing voices in a room on the left-hand side of the hall he knocked at the door; there was no answer, so he opened it and walked in. The room was lit up, and the lady was there with two men, one old and one young.
'I beg your pardon,' said Ryland, 'but I wish to know if the lady requires the cab any more?'
The old man looked at him, and said, 'Go away, cabman, until you are called.'
The young man—and a regular bounder he was—turned round, and stared at Ryland very hard.
'I'm not the cabman,' said Ryland, 'but I hired the cabman to take me home, and he may as well do it if this lady has quite finished with his services.'
'Don't go yet!' cried the lady, suddenly starting from her chair.
Now in the full light of the gas lamps Ryland said she was the most beautiful creature he ever saw.
'No; I won't go,' he said immediately, 'if you ask me to stay,' and he eat down on a chair.
The old man looked annoyed, and the young bounder stared at him more insolently than ever.
'He can stay,' said the old man, 'if he gives us his name and address. He'll do for a witness, as well as the cabman; and, Charley, we must have no noise, no noise.'
Hardly had he got the words out of his mouth than the lady started up and commenced screaming—scream after scream, enough to take the roof off the house. The young man began to curse, and the old man put his hands to his ears.
Ryland jumped up, too, and looked about for some water, for he thought it was a case of hysterics; but as soon as he get up the young man flew at him and clutched him by the throat, and so sudden was the attack that Ryland was overborne and fell on the floor, knocking his head against the leg of a good solid table as he did so. He just remembered the cabman opening the door and bursting in when his senses left him. When he came to them again, the room was quiet and empty, though the lights were still burning. He got up and looked around, and then saw that he was not alone, for on the sofa lay the Lady.
Ryland went over to her, but she was quite still, with her eyes half open, looking ghastly. He felt her forehead, and it was cold, she had no pulse, and she was dead, as dead as could be. While Ryland was attending to her, he heard a voice outside, and going to the French window, saw a light down the garden, and heard the sound of pick and shovel. He went out off the window and crept down very quietly.
There were the two men, the old man and the young one working away digging a hole. The asphalt path was torn up, and underneath It they were digging a grave.
'That will be deep enough,' said the young one at last, 'to-morrow morning I'll fix the asphalt over it smooth.'
Then they went aside and staggered up again with the body of the cabman in their arms, quite dead and limp. They put the body in the grave and filled it up, and put the asphalt over it again roughly. Ryland noted the place, and saw that one side there was a big Norfolk Island pine, and on the other a very thick bush. The men went back to the house, and Ryland followed them.
But instead of following the men, he suddenly found himself walking along the same street where he had picked up the cab, and before him was the cab crawling along as before. Thinking himself the victim of some delusion, he first felt his head, which was quite sound and then hailed the cab.
The cab stopped, it was not the same cab, and glancing at the lamps, Ryland saw that it was not the same number; but the man, although he was not the same man, made the same reply about his horse being tired. However, he consented to take his fare, and Ryland got in. He kept a sharp lookout all the way, but nothing strange occurred, and he arrived safely at his own abode.
'You don't know of a cab with the number 010203, do you?' asked Ryland, after he had paid the man.
'There's no such a number of any cab,' replied the driver. 'What is it again, sir?'
Ryland read off the number on his cuff by the light of the lamp, '010203.' The man leaned down from his seat, and listened attentively. 'One, two, three?' he repeated. 'Take the '0's out o' that, and that there's the number of the ghost cab, one hundred and twenty-three.'
'The ghost's cab?'
'Yes, have you never heard of it. One hundred and twenty-three, the numbers just come in regular order, 1, 2, 3. It was drove by Jim Cleary, and he disappeared, and his horse and cab was driven out to a scrub, out Bondi way, and left there, but the cab had all the lining torn out, and the cushions taken away.'
'Suppose you tell me all about it to-morrow; it's rather too late to-night. If that was the ghost's cab, why, I had a ride in it to-night.'
The cabman looked at him curiously; then he said, 'What time shall I be here to-morrow, sir?'
'Oh, about half-past 9 or 10,' answered Ryland, and went in to puzzle over his strange adventure.
A LITTLE before ten the cabman appeared, the real one, not the ghost, and Ryland took him up to his room, and cross-questioned him as to all he knew about Cleary's disappearance. It was not much after all; but the date tallied with Cleary's disappearance. The man, whose name was Hart, was naturally very curious to know all about the ghost cab, but Ryland did not tell him just then, but he described the house to him as well as he could, and told him to drive about and look for one like it.
In a day or two he thought of going to the Public Library and hunting up the papers to see if he could find anything else about that time to associate with the disappearance of Cleary.
He found all about that, about the horse and cab being found in the scrub and the absence of the cushions, but for a long time he could see no trace of anything else.
At last he hit upon a paragraph called 'The Ranchurch Mystery.' In this he found that the residents of the suburb of Ranchurch were much excited about the disappearance of the inhabitants of a house in that suburb. The description of the occupants agreed very well with what Ryland had seen. A young man and his wife and his father had lived there, they had kept two servants, but they had been suddenly dismissed, the house shut up a few days afterwards, and the occupants had gone away, and had not returned. The house was the property of the tenants, so beyond the agent coming out to look at it occasionally it remained just as when it was left.
This was only a piece of that occasional and quite unnecessary gossip that finds its way into a paper when there is really nothing else to write about, but it afforded Ryland a clue to the place he wanted. He noted down the address. Strolling down he passed a cabstand, and saw the man Hart on the rank. He beckoned to him, and asked him whether he had found the house yet, because 'I have without going out of town,' he added.
'Drive to Blodger and Sprice, the land and house agents,' he said, and got in.
The clerk at the counter knew nothing of a house at Ranchurch, but fortunately Mr. Blodger was in and disengaged. Yes, a house at Ranchurch was in his hands to look after, but it was neither to sell nor to let.
Ryland made out he was very anxious to make an offer for it if he could go over it, and see what the house was like inside.
'There's a caretaker there,' said Mr. Blodger, doubtfully, 'and if I give you a card you might go over; but he is a cantankerous old villain, and if he's in a cranky temper he might refuse. I have no power over him myself, and, to tell you the truth, wish I had nothing to do with the tally thing.'
'I'll go,' said Ryland, and the agent gave him a card.
The distance to Ranchurch was soon, covered, and the cabman pulled up before a house that Ryland dreamily seemed to recognise as the one he had seen on the night of his ride in the phantom cab.
'Seems like the haunted house in Hood's poem,' he thought as he got out of the cab. The iron gate was rusty and apparently seldom used, but it did not stand ajar, but was chained and padlocked. The garden was neglected, the house had all the blinds down, and not a sign of life was visible.
'How the devil am I to get in?' he said aloud. 'There's no bell visible.'
'Climb over, sir,' suggested Hart from the seat of the cab. Ryland pooh-poohed the suggestion, as the railings were of iron, and he had a decent suit of clothes on; instead of that he gave vent to the most awful 'cooee' that he could.
'Enough to wake the dead,' he thought, and surely enough a blind was raised, and the head of an old man peered out. Ryland waved some papers at him as though he had a whole budget of correspondence in his pocket, and the face disappeared.
Next, the door opened, and an old man came slowly and painfully towards the gate.
'One of the ghosts,' muttered the awe-struck watcher as he saw that it was the old man of the dream. The figure came up to the gate.
'What is it?' he snarled through the bars. 'I have a communication from Mr. Blodger concerning the house,' replied Ryland.
'Well, give it me.'
'But I want to come in and see the house; I'm thinking of buying it.'
The old man gazed on him doubtfully, and, muttering to himself, unlocked the gate, and admitted Ryland. As soon as he was inside, Ryland opened the gate wide, and beckoned to Hart to drive in.
The old man stood aghast. 'We don't want any more cabmen in here,' he said; then, suddenly stopping, he went on down the drive, and led the way to the house.
When they got there, Ryland told Hart to get down, and wait, and keep his ears open, then giving Blodger's card to the old man, who was waiting at the door, he followed him Into the house. Dust everywhere, darkness and mildew. Ryland felt as he followed his guide that he was back once more in his strange experience of the Phantom cab.
On they went through different rooms, where the furniture was rotting untended and the shrouded windows steeped the rooms in semi-darkness.
They had entered the room which Ryland remembered well, and, lookup round, saw that the furniture was unchanged since he had imagined he was there!
'I should like to see the garden,' said Ryland.
'Like to see the garden, would you?' said the old man, glaring at him, 'come on then.'
They were in the hall, the front door was open, and, unseen by the old caretaker, Ryland made a sign to Hart to come in, and follow them. Sauntering round, they at last came to the place which he had marked down in his vision. The Norfolk Island pine on one side of the broad path, and the thick shrub on the other. Ryland looked at the asphalt, and then at the old map?
'It was just here, wasn't it?' he said. The living ghost gazed at him with horror, his lips moved convulsively; then he dropped down in it fit.
Presently he came round, but he was all broken up, and confessed to everything. The son's wife had money, but It was securely settled on her, and they could, touch nothing without her consent, and so badly was she treated by them that she went to live with come friends in town.
One night, when there was a ball at her friends' house, they sent Cleary, the cabman, whom she knew, to her with a note, saying that her husband was dying; would she come and say goodbye to him. Without thinking, she got into the cab, and came just as she was. Then, when she found it was all false, she wanted to go back, but they wouldn't let her, and they wanted her to sign some deed about her property, which the cabman would witness. She refused, got frightened, and began to scream.
Cleary came into see what was the matter, and the young fellow who was a perfect savage, hit him a blow on the head which killed him. The woman was senseless on the sofa, so they carried Cleary out and put him inside the cab, and intended to start the horse off, so that he'd smash the cab up somewhere; but the horse was so tired that he wouldn't budge. Then they took him out again, and buried him under the asphalt, and as the inside of the cab was stained with blood, they drove it out to where it was found, and tore the linings and cushions out and threw them in the sea.
When the unfortunate wife woke up, her mind was gone. She was taken to a lunatic asylum, and there she died, and the young fellow got the money. He cleared out, and left his father to act as caretaker at the place, and see that no body found the cabman's body. But he treated him cruelly, and only allowed him just enough to keep body and soul together.
'WAS THAT all?' asked Dwyer—the owner of the station was asleep.
'Yes, only the young fellow was caught easily enough and hanged. The old fellow died in the gaol hospital, and cabman No. 010203 was never seen any more.
'He was under the asphalt then?'
'You bet he was; and would be there now only for Ryland going for a ride in that phantom cab.'
'MY dear fellow,' said the prosperous individual to the seedy one. 'To tell you the truth, I am infinitely worse off than you are.'
'Then you must be bad indeed, for I haven't the price of a feed or a bed on me, and yet if I only had a few pounds I could make thousands.'
'I've no doubt you could. I never knew a man in your position who couldn't. But, unfortunately, I have not got the few pounds to lend you. See here, Stanmore,' and he took out a sovereign purse, and flicked it open, showing Its emptiness.
'That purse itself is worth a pound or two,' said the other.
'Not paid for my boy. I should go to gaol on a vulgar charge of larceny if I sold it, and when I do go I intend going on a much more respectable scale.'
'Do you mean to say that there's a crash impending?'
'I do indeed, crash is a mild way of putting it. In a day or two, exit your old friend Paul Wright.'
'I suppose you could save yourself even now if you had the money?'
'I could, but where is the money?'
'Find me the few pounds I speak of and in all probability the money is yours.'
'What's this mad idea?'
'If you are bound to go under, a few pounds more or less will not make much difference; and the chance is A.1.'
'Let's go and sit down somewhere, and have a drink, and you can tell me all about it. Anything is better than thinking, just now.'
'You remember Mat Reynolds?'
'A fellow mad on re-prospecting old fields. Yes, but if he is your authority on making a rise, it does not go for much.'
'Mat is not so mad as you think him. Anyhow, he has got something this time. He has picked up the lost lead of the Tintinburra. The company is about to be wound up, and the shares can be had for the asking. You remember what they went up to once. Well, they will go up beyond that this time. I did Mat a good turn once, and he has taken me into his confidence, thinking I could raise the needful. I relied on you, for I thought your prosperity was the real thing. If you can raise a hundred, you will get it back fifty-fold.'
'Why cannot Mat raise it himself?'
'Just because he has got the reputation you gave him just now. People think he's got a bee in his bonnet.'
'And you don't, because you have nothing to lose?'
'I think he's right in what he says. I know the country, and see no reason why it should not be so. I can't go into detail because the secret is not mine.'
'Do you know that it will go hard with me if I Incur any more liabilities at this stage of my affairs? At present I may come out free with all my possessions under my hat; but if I raised a hundred pounds it would be fraud—that is, it is very likely to come under that head.'
Stanmore got up dejectedly.
'I see, if that's the way it stands, it is impossible to expect it of you. I've lost so many chances during my life one more or lees does not make much difference.'
'Stop a minute. I presume that your time is not valuable, and I must say that, although you are a perfect Jonah of ill-luck, you have always been indifferently truthful and honest. Now, I'll consider this question a bit; meantime have a cigar, it is not paid for, but cigars are meant for consumption, not like jewellery.'
Stanmore lit the cigar, and smoked silently while his friend pondered.
'Look here, Stanmore,' he said at last, 'you are, and always have been, the most unlucky of men. I am superstitious, I suppose, so are most of us, particularly where chance is mixed up in it. Now, if you allow me to meet your Mat Reynolds, whom I know but casually, and if I am satisfied of the bona fides of the thing, I will risk it, and raise the money; but you must not appear in the matter. Your infernal luck would ruin everything.'
Stanmore glanced down at his shabby trousers and cracked boots, then took a long pull at his cigar, and sighed.
'You see,' went on Wright, 'it's all in your own interest; I risk more than you or Reynolds. You have nothing to risk, in fact; and Reynolds has but this information. The whole thing must be put entirely in my hands, or I won't stir in the matter.'
Stanmore smoked on and said nothing.
'Of course, I can do nothing but trust to you in the matter, so I agree, only I must live while the affair goes on.'
'I'll see after that. Now, what time am I to meet Reynolds?'
'Any time you like to-night' and they parted.
THE finding of the lost lead of the Tintinburra Mine was more than a nine-days' wonder, and the phenomenal price to which the shares ran up was long remembered. Then the lead ran out again, and shares went down to nothing once more, and some men went to King-street, and some went into the harbor, and some retired to suburban residences.
Mat Reynolds, the discoverer, went mad in reality. He could have done well; but his faith in the recovered lead was so absolute that he held on, and the shock was too much for him. Wright was gay on his recovered fortunes, and redeemed character, and, as for Stanmore, that unhappy Jonah had to content himself with an extremely small portion which, growl as he might, be had to accept. So he accepted it, and swore a bitter vengeance against his one-time friend; then a sudden change set in, and his luck became a proverb.
But it gave him no satisfaction, for the idea of having been made a puppet of in the way he had been was bitter to him, and the social success of Wright was an aching smart in his own good fortune.
As his means grew, he set to work to thwart Wright in every possible way he could, and gradually got the whip hand of that individual in a very substantial manner.
At last Wright took occasion to speak to him on the subject, and explained, to his own satisfaction—and many would have agreed with him—that the risk he took in the matter entitled him to the lion's share of the plunder. But Stanmore, in his perverse grudge, would hear none of it.
'When you are in the position I was when I came to you, perhaps I'll forgive you, and, if I can bring you to that position, I intend to do it.'
With that he left him.
AS years went on, this mad hatred still continued, till at last it appeared as though Stanmore would achieve his desire. The ill luck which had so dogged him seemed to be transferred to his enemy, for Wright gradually sank, as Stanmore prospered.
One day when Wright, now reduced, was traversing the city in search of employment, the face of a ghost from the past arrested his attention, stopped, turned, and walked beside him. It was Mat Reynolds, lately released from the lunatic asylum as cured. He spoke rationally, but his one theme was the lost lead of Tintinburra. He wanted money to go back and renew his prospecting work. There he was confident that he could pick up the lead once more, if he only had the money.
'Go and ask Stanmore,' said Wright, and turned away with a grim laugh. But Reynolds followed him up.
'I have seen him, and asked him,' he said. 'He has promised to help me if you will go and ask him.'
'I go! That is only a lie of his to degrade me still further. He mainly brought me down to this, and now he wants me to go begging to him, as he did to me. He told me as much. No, you must get it out of him some other way. I'll not ask.'
Reynolds begged and entreated, but Wright would not do it. For weeks he still walked about looking for work, and for weeks the ghost haunted him, and would not be put off, always entreating him to put his pride away, and they would both be rich once more. Till at last, worn, worried, and overcome, Wright consented.
'Your luck, Wright, is so infernally bad, that perhaps it is better your name should not appear. I'll look after your interests,' said Stanmore. He was wasted, and a light of fever burnt in his eyes.
'Look after your own interests,' retorted Wright, 'you've not much longer to do it.'
'What do you mean?'
'Mean, man! Death is written on your face, as ever his finger wrote it.'
'Is it; then I'll tell you what I'll do. Before we go into the thing I'll make my will, and leave you all my share in the Tintinburra Mine. Will that do you?'
'Go ahead as quick as you can; perhaps when you are dead my luck will change again. Now, let us part. I'm hungry and tired.'
Stanmore took a sovereign purse out of his pocket, emptied the gold out of it, and said, 'I'll leave you that, old man, in my will as well. Just as it is now.'
A hungry dead-beat loafing in Hyde Park saw two paragraphs in a dropped paper that made him laugh grimly. One was to the effect that Matthew Reynolds had blown his brains out, at the once notorious Tintinburra Mine, the reason being, as most people thought, on account of his failure to re-discover the lost lead. The other paragraph related to the death of that eminent citizen, Mr. Walter Stanmore. It did not tell that he died laughing, after reading the account of Reynolds's suicide.
'Might as well get that sovereign purse, at any rate,' said the dead-beat; 'wonder if my legs will carry me out there to-morrow.'
He was in luck that evening, for he met an old acquaintance who lent him 5 shillings, and warmed and comforted by a couple of meals and a night's sleep in a bed, he went out to his enemy's residence, and after some trouble and an appeal for the lawyer, who happened to be there, he was admitted. The lawyer took a wonderfully keen interest in him, and took him into a room by himself.
'The will is simple enough, and will be easily proved,' he commenced, when Wright interrupted him.
'I've come for the sovereign purse he was to leave me; I don't care about anything else.'
'Certainly, he left you the sovereign purse, and all the scrips of the Tintinburra Mine owned by him.'
'What's the good of that; I'll get a pound or two on the sovereign purse.'
'Perhaps you don't know the rights of Reynolds's suicide; it's only just come to hand. His head was weak, and when he found the lead again—found the lead again,' he repeated, 'his brain gave away, and he shot himself. That scrip will be of great value in a few days. Here, hold up, man; we don't want three dead men on our hands at once.'
But the third man did not die.
IT seems a besetting weakness of living humanity to ape the emblems of its long dead brethren. Men wear imitation skulls as ornamental pine in their neckties, and the skull is a favorite device to introduce in little knicknacks for the writing-table, ink-stands, ashtrays, etc. In fact, everyone's memory will tarnish him with some detail in which the emblems of mortality, as they are called, play a part.
Going down George street very late one night, I came across a skeleton holding a lamp-post up; at least he was hanging on to it actually like grim death, as though either he or the lamp-post intended to fall down shortly.
'Better take my arm,' I said; 'you seem to be gone at the knees.'
'Thanks, old man, I am a bit wobbly. Can't carry my liquor like I used to; no capacity now.'
He seemed a genial sort of skeleton, and when he disengaged himself from his support and accepted my arm he got along very, steadily, considering.
'You'd better come up to my rooms,' I suggested; 'I can put you up for to-night.'
'I don't mind if I do, old man,' he replied; 'I'm a long way from home, and the trams have stopped running and the last train to Rookwood has left.'
By the time we got to my abode we were on very good terms, and when I got him seated with a cigar in his mouth he was quite genial. He had one disagreeable habit I admit, and that was that he omitted to eject the smoke from his mouth, but instead let it ooze out through his eye sockets, nostrils, and the cracks in his skull, and other openings.
'You have a great leaning for skeletons in Australia,' he said, as he reclined comfortably back in his chair. 'I seldom pick up a bush story to read but what a skull and some bones found in the bush after many years does not play a prominent part. Now would you like to hear my story?'
I readily intimated my desire to do so.
'I DIED nearly twenty years ago,' commenced the skeleton, 'and I'm sorry to have to say that your coming across me in a state of inebriation is due to the fact of my having died in a fit of delirium tremens. To-day was the anniversary of my death.'
'You keep it up,' I remarked.
'As you say, I keep it up, it's my one weakness now. I had a good many when I was alive. Horses, wine, and the fair sex,' and as the collection of old bones stopped to indulge in his meditation on his past conquests, I gently jogged his memory.
'I beg your pardon,' he said, 'I was thinking of a girl I knew once. Well, to continue. I ran through a lot of money in England, and then came out here with the few thousands left out of a tolerable fortune, and after getting some bush experience took a partner named Beaumont and bought a station in Northern Queensland.'
'My name is Beaumont,' I interrupted. 'Not a son of his?' remarked the skeleton. 'I took good care of that.'
'No, but I had an uncle of the name who once had a station in Queensland with a partner called Fletcher.'
'That was me,' said the skeleton kicking his bony toes up. 'Beaumont and Fletcher, that was our partnership signature. Queer go eh; picked up by a nephew of my old partner when I'd got too tight to catch the train. What a lark, especially when I killed your uncle.'
'You killed my uncle!' I exclaimed, and in plain truth my uncle had disappeared in a most mysterious manner.
'Yes, I killed him; but I know now it was under a mistaken impression. It's no good you're getting your hair off about it. I've been dead about twenty years, so you can't hurt me. Now shall I tell you all about it?'
'Go on,' I said, re-seating myself, for in my natural excitement I had sprung up. The skeleton went on.
'Your uncle and I got on famously for a while, but he was a very steady fellow, and at last got to remonstrating with me on my occasional outbursts of dissipation. This began to irritate me, and a coldness was growing up between us when Dorothy Malcolm came into our lives. She was the daughter of our nearest neighbor, and came up to the station on a visit of a few months. Both Beaumont and I fell in love with her at once, and I can honestly say that for her sake I tried to reform my mode of life and live cleanly. As often happens, the girl chose the crooked stick—that was me—and refused the straight one. I was the accepted suitor, and we were engaged. I went down to the seaport to buy a ring and some presents, arid while there fell into my old habits, and it was some time before I was able to go back. During that time some kind gossip had carried the news up to the station, and Beaumont met me with one of his hated lectures and frankly told me that if it occurred again he should feel it his duty to inform Dorothy's father, as it was impossible the girl could be happy with a man of my confirmed habits. Naturally I resented this, coming from a disappointed suitor, and hot words passed between us, and in the end we agreed that our partnership should terminate at the end of the year, about sis months distant.
From that date I noticed a certain coldness growing between Miss Malcolm and myself which, not unnaturally, I put down to Beaumont's poisonous tongue. In truth. I know now that he never spoke a word to her against me, but that my life of dissipation had deteriorated my character so much, that, when it came to the familiar relations of an engagement existing between us, most of her illusions were speedily dispelled.
On first acquaintance the veneer of polish I had assumed had completely deceived her, but as she saw my real character her affection waned and I foresaw the breaking off of our engagement.
I tell you that I had now began to hate my partner with a perfectly ferocious hatred, and, when Miss Malcolm at last told me that she had mistaken her feelings towards ire and requested to be released from her engagement, I acted like a blackguard and used words to her that no man should.
Returning to the station, Beaumont and I had a furious row, and as we could no longer live together we decided to at once separate until our affairs could be settled. Beaumont increased my rancour by accepting the hospitality of our neighbor Malcolm. This naturally made me believe that he was the man who was going to succeed me in the daughter's favor.
I was fuming in the verandah when the blackboy, a boy who was devoted to me, because, being an ex-trooper and devoted to drink, he could always count on me to give him a nip, whereas Beaumont would refuse him.
'Marrme,' he said, coming up the verandah, 'me bin find'em gold.'
'Find gold?' I echoed.
'Alonga range,' and he held out a big lump of quartz, which was simply half gold. I took it in amazement.
I knew that Pluto would not tell me a lie, and I knew that he had a habit of absenting himself for some days from the station, which was only overlooked in him because he was such a good tracker and rider.
'Whereabouts alonga range?' I asked.
'You and me go. I know long time. Now Mister Beaumont gone, you and me go.'
The next morning we started; the range was nearly thirty miles away and it was evening before we reached it. We camped at the foot of it, and next morning commenced the ascent. The range was a steep, precipitous one which divided the rivers of the Pacific coast from those flowing into the Gulf of Carpentaria.
Pluto finally led me to the head of a wild gorge surrounded by scrub, or rather jungle, from which one could catch a glimpse of the sea. The reef was there plain enough, and a for me was within my grasp, but what of that, I wanted Dorothy Malcolm.
Gradually as I sat there a thought, a delightful scheme of vengeance came into my head. Beaumont would be too poor to marry after we parted. I had put most of the money in the station, and he had little more than a working share. I would bring him out and show him the wonderful reef, and twit him with it and what he had lost. Then I would quietly dispose of him, and then, with fortune before me, I would court Dorothy Malcolm once mote and win her again.
The idea was too fascinating to resist. I got up and told Pluto that we would go back. It was a wild view I saw as I stood at the head of the gorge and looked seaward. The cliffs at my feet were nearly precipitous, save that below me, about thirty feet; lay a tiny ledge, and the bottom of the gorge, 500 feet at least, was all scrub and jungle.
I sent a note over to Beaumont after my return, and asked him to come over to see me on a matter of importance. He came, and I showed him the piece of quartz which Pluto had given me, and told him that as we were still virtually partners, I thought it only right to acquaint him with the discovery.
He seemed struck, the poor fool, by my assumed honesty of purpose, and readily consented to the plan I proposed. This was that he should go back to Malcolm's, keep quiet about what I had told him, and meet me at an appointed spot the next day when I would take him to the reef.
He was there right enough, and he and I and Pluto rode out to the reef in the range at the head of the gorge, Pluto the savage, keen as all savages are, guessed what was coming, guessed partly as a savage, guesses, but never guessed the whole truth. He rode ahead leading the way and sometimes chanting a scrap of barbaric corrobboree, so we went on, one to madness, and two to death. I need not go into detail until we stood at the head of the gorge, and Beaumont stooped in wondering ecstasy over the rich gold reef.
'Is it good?' I asked.
'Fletcher, we are millionaires,' he said, 'and I have misjudged you; another man would have kept this quiet until after we had dissolved partnership. Shake hands, old man.'
He put his hand out and I brought the butt end of the driving pick we had used for knocking off the quartz down on his defenceless skull, he staggered back half stunned, and I pushed him over the cliff. He fell on the ledge, and when Pluto and I peered over he was sensible, thirty feet below. I shrieked at him—
'You marry Dorothy, my partner; you think that I was going to share this find with you and let you take my place? No, you dog; you shall die as a dog! You poisoned my gin's ears with tales about me, and you die!'
'Yowi! Die! die! die!' screamed Pluto, mad with the delight of slaughter, and lifting a huge fragment of quartz, which we had knocked off; he dropped it on the man's head, and the figure lay quiet and inert.
I got up, for I had work yet to do.
'Pluto,' I said, 'It's your turn now, old boy. Very sorry, but—' and before he could comprehend I had put two bullets through him, and with one push he went down, down, to the very bottom of the gorge. Poor Pluto! I felt sorry tor him even, as I sent him to his death, but you must agree with the that his murder was absolutely necessary, some day in a drunken fit he would have revealed everything.
Beaumont's horse was found with the saddle turned under its belly, but his remains were never discovered.
I never gained anything by the deed. Dorothy—although no one suspected me of the crime, for nobody knew that Beaumont went with us, and Pluto was supposed to have ran away—seemed to regard me with a shrinking sort of horror against which there was no making headway.
I sold out the station, came south and then Pluto began to haunt me. Always and ever was it Pluto. Never Beaumont. Pluto, with the look of horrified amazement on his face at my treacherous attack, used to come and sit at my bedside until I had to drown him in liquor, and in doing it I killed myself.
The reef is probably there untouched. I never dared go back to the spot. Some spectre would have appeared and hurled me over the cliff. Now don't speak nor make any remarks for the time is short, And the witching hour of night long paste. You are Beaumont's nephew, and I will make some amends by giving you the directions to find that reef.
The skeleton Fletcher drew his chair to table and commenced to write. How long he wrote I know not, for drowsiness overpowered me, and I fell asleep.
It was broad daylight when I awoke and, recalling my stupid wits, looked round for the skeleton, but there was nobody in the room but myself and a strong smell of stale tobacco.
I threw the window open, and thought that I had gone to sleep in my chair and had a queer I dream, and would have a bath and freshen myself up; but there on the table lay a sheet of note paper, closely written, and signed 'D. Z. Fletcher.'
I FOUND the gorge and buried the bones of my uncle and the betrayed black boy. The reef is now in full working order, and paying well. I have never come across my acquaintance the skeleton again, and it is to be hoped that he has abandoned the pernicious habit of keeping it up on his death-day, which, he informed me, answers to our birth-day during life.
COCONUT, the black boy came up to the verandah grinning all over his face, a sure sign that he considered his news important. If a blackfellow has particularly bad news to report he always grins more than ever. Blacks share with the lower class of whites the love of importance attaching to the messenger of evil tidings. This time, however, the news did not immediately affect my friend and host Munster, on whose station in Central Australia I then was.
'Blackfellow bin come up,' said Coconut. 'Myall fellow nigger'—with great contempt—'bring paper yabba,' and he handed Munster a cleft stick with a much greased and dirty piece of paper in the slit, evidently folded by a white man. Munster took it, and read it over to himself, then out loud.
To the owner or manager of the nearest station.
The writer, a mate, and a blackboy started from the head of the Gascoyne River (W.A.) to prospect across to the overland line. When near the boundary our camels got away, all but one we managed to secure. We could not overtake the others. We pushed on with the one, but my mate, Thomas Lawson, died of exhaustion. The blackboy went to a smoke he saw to look for water, and never returned. I kept on, but the camel knocked up. I was found in a dying state by a party of natives, and brought into a little soakage well, and am with the blacks now; they are very friendly. I beseech you, whoever receives this, to reward the bearer, and come to my assistance. I have important knowledge in my possession, which will recompense you. The blacks will guide you back.
October 19, 1895
We were both silent after the reading of this strange document. Then we questioned Coconut as to the bearer. He informed us that the bearer was at the blacks' camp, waiting. He was frightened to come up to the house, so we should have to go to the camp to see him. Without discussing the matter we went, Munster first going to the store, and taking out a couple of tomahawks and a piece of Turkey-red twill. We found the messenger in the camp an evident myall of the myalls. After some trouble, we found an old nigger who could fairly understand the stranger, and bit by bit pieced out the story. The messenger had not seen the white man; he was with a tribe a long way to the westward of his hunting-ground; the 'paper yabba' had passed through several hands before it reached him. Munster showed him the two tomahawks and the red twill, and had it explained to him that he would get one in the morning, when we started, and the other and the red stuff after he had guided us to his tribe.
'If I had given him the tomahawk to-night,' said Munster, as we strolled back, 'some of those beggars would have got it out of him before morning. Now we will have a talk about this mysterious message.'
We sat down on the verandah, and Munster said, 'You believe this thing to be genuine?'
'As far as we have got, it seems incontestable so.'
'Good; so I think. You will come with me, of course, and we'll take Coconut; that will be enough.'
'Now, the date of this message is October 19; man must have kept a diary, I suppose; this is, November 12, so it has been three weeks reaching us. Of course, that means nothing, for we cannot tell how long it has lain in the different camps it has passed through.'
'No,' I replied, 'the time is no criterion. The man may be anywhere within 300 miles.
Munster got up, and consulted a. map stuck tip on the wall. 'We are one hundred and twenty miles from the boundary; I know all the country that far. The chances are that he is still in West Australia.'
'Can we manage with horses as far as you know?'
'I think so. We are pretty safe for water, with niggers belonging to the country. The only thing is that these myalls don't know how much water a horse wants. A little soakhole that will do them they imagine will serve half a dozen horses. I've been let in like that more than once.'
'What's this important knowledge he has in his possession, do you think?'
'That's the part I like least about it, as if any white man would not go after another without wanting a bribe held out.'
'True. But don't let us go out prejudiced, against the man. It may have been written under the pressure of anxiety for somebody to come to his rescue speedily. Neither you nor I would enjoy an enforced sojourn in a blacks' camp.'
We made our arrangements for starting the next morning, and before going to bed Munster made a copy of the message to take with us.
'I'm going to leave the original at home,' he said.
Next morning at daylight we were off, the nigger trotting along, proud in the possession of his new tomahawk. We did not reach the place where his tribe was camped that day, but as Munster knew the country we got water for the night, and the next day, about noon, reached the end of our first stage in the journey, the camp of the tribe the last messenger had come from. It would be wearisome to recount the details of the trip.
We passed through three tribes of natives before reaching the one which dwelt on the eastern side of a wide, expanse of dry country, while the tribe the white man was with lived on the far, or western side.
None of the blacks would accompany us, but, after much trouble, we made out the situation and surroundings of the place whereat expected to find the lender of the letter. Never in all my life did I pass through such country as we traversed in that stage. Spinifex, spinifex, the whole day long, in great banks 6 ft and 7ft high, showing years of gradual growth; spinifex is rings and circles of eccentric shape. Nothing else but a few stunted bloodwood trees; underneath, hard rock and gritty gravel; overhead, cloudless sky and blazing sun. So we kept on until Munster, looking back, said, 'By Jove! there's a fire chasing us.'
We pulled up, and looked back. The heavens were being quickly obscured by the dense black smoke of the resinous spinifex, and though it was quite calm where we were the fire was bringing a wind with it.
'We've plenty of time,' I said; 'we'll start one ahead, here's lots of clear ground about here.'
We pulled up, and a few matches soon started a furious blaze ahead of us that put us beyond all danger of being overtaken by the larger conflagration.
One reads much of bush fires, but until a man sees a tract of old-man spinifex in action one knows nothing of them. The clouds of black smoke, half shrouding the leaping red flames, the roar and tumult of the fire mingling with the wail of the miserable trees as they bow their heads before it, and lift them with foliage shrivelled and scorched. The excited whistle of the swift-winged kites, keeping in front of the flames, and swooping down upon the doomed vermin who only live in the waterless country, and are forced to fly from the advancing destruction. The slow-going crows, with their sepulchral croak, following the red ruin, and garnering what the fire and the kites have left them. All form a picture only to be witnessed in the heart of Australia. The fire swept by us on either side, and as we rode over the hot smoking ground we watched it unite with the one we had started, and roar on to the westward.
All the rest of that day we rode over a blackened scene of desolation, and camped at dusk on a patch of stony ground that the fire had overleaped. We tied the horses up, for there was nothing for them to eat, and they would otherwise only wander afar in their hobbles. We were all gloomy and dispirited, and spoke but little, munching our meal almost in silence. We stretched ourselves on our blankets, and then commenced the torment of the ants. In their creeping myriads they assailed us from all sides. Sleep, the blessed, thing, beloved from pole to pole, was impossible. All night we sat up, walked about, smoked, and prayed for daylight.
Those who picture the Australian desert country as a Sahara-like expanse of sand-blown plain may learn that the real desert lies in the spinifex-covered sandstone rises. The rain, when it falls, will turn the sandy plain into an oasis of verdure, but on the barren sandstone ridge, come rain, come drought, the conditions never alter. No bird life, but an occasional weary kite winging his tired way to same distant water, a belated owl, or the speckled, whirring quail. No animal life but a startled bandicoot, or the prying bright-eyed little lizard. And over all silence, day and night, silence so complete that one welcomes the pound of the clinking hobble chains on the horses as telling of something in the neighborhood that is associated with one's fellow man. No shade by day, and the infinite torment of flies; no rest by night for the infinite torment of ants. And the cold, bright stars look down, unmoved, unstirred, cold in their immortal calm though man is dying beneath their gaze.
It was nearly sundown the next evening and our horses were beginning to suffer somewhat when we emerged into a change of country, and knew that we neared our destination. As we topped a slight elevation a comparatively treeless expanse lay stretched before us, and we saw what we took to be the blue expanse of a lake, but which, in reality, was only salt mud; and the smoke of a blacks' encampment on it bank. We rode hastily forward, for this was the goal of our journey. The natives sprang to their feet, and shouted as we approached, and then a white man advanced to meet us.
AMOS DRYANT was a man of good presence and of taking manner. Even after living with the wild blacks for some weeks he looked' neater and better cared for than either Dick Munster or myself. That he was also a man endowed with strong personality could be seen by the influence he had established amongst the blacks.
'Friends!' he said joyously, 'Is it an accident, or did you by chance get my message?'
'We got your message, and started at once. The message reached us in three weeks, and it has taken us nearly a week to get here,' replied Munster.
'Kind and generous men,' said Dryant; 'I thank you now, but I will do more presently.'
'Look here, old man, don't talk like that. We came to rescue a fellow white man, because we had the means at our command to do it If we had not had the necessary material we should have passed the job on to somebody who had. We don't want to hear anything about recompense, it's not our style.'
'Where do the niggers get their water?' I interrupted, 'our horses will be getting into that salt bog directly.'
'Oh, I will show you,' said Dryant nastily, and he led us to where three or four wells had been dug, about a hundred yards back from the saline swamp. We soon had the horses watered and a camp fixed. There was plenty of good feed in the neighborhood, and for the first time for two nights we felt restful and contented. We had brought out presents for the niggers, some of which we had distributed on the road. We gave the remainder to Dryant to give to his friends, and they retired to their camp happy, and left us alone. Dryant was enjoying the luxury of an unaccustomed pipe, and Dick and I were smoking silently. Somehow I did not feel the pleasure I had anticipated in the successful issue of our adventure. Suddenly Dryant knocked out his pipe, sat up, and commenced his yarn.
'WE started out from the head of the Gascoyne, Lawson, myself, and the black boy. When we got over the watershed we reached a long stretch of level country, sometimes grassed, at other times covered with spinifex and patches of mulga scrub. We had five camels with us, and got along very well for about 300 miles, but found no country worth prospecting. Then we got into low, stony ridges, and found a little show in some of the gullies, but nothing to pay. Beyond we found some big quartz blows, and one of them seemed pretty rich, quite good enough to go back to. This side we had a long, dry stage to cross. We had been two days on it, when one morning we were packing up, when we were surprised by a lot of natives, who had crept up to us, crawling through a bit of undergrowth, near where we were camped. The camels were not roped, and in the confusion of beating the niggers off, they cleared out, with the exception of one the black boy managed to stick to, and we never saw them again. By the time we had polished off the blacks we found ourselves left stranded on a dry stage, with one camel.
'We packed him with all we deemed most necessary, and put the rest of our traps together in as safe a place as we could find, then started to walk. The next day we made a brackish spring, and then came a singular discovery. We came to a patch of fine, well-watered country, open, rolling downs were grassed with little; square-topped knolls scattered through it, some of them showing quartz seams, which we examined, and found auriferous. Suddenly the blackboy uttered an exclamation of affright, and we saw him staring wildly ahead, and pointing with his finger. Following the direction, we saw the cause of his fright. Standing at the foot of one of the little knolls were about half a dozen deer. The stag, an old one, with large horns, was in front, and the terror of the blackboy was explained.
'The deer did not seem much alarmed, but on our approach they cantered away. It was Lawson's turn next to cry out, and no wonder; he had come upon a row of stones just showing above the surface, and these stones had been squared by hand.'
Dryant paused, but neither, of us made any comment. Fact is, we thought the man either off his head, or a liar.
'These stones seemed to lead straight ahead, and looked like the top of a wall that had been earthed up. They ran for nearly a hundred yards, and then ceased. There was a spring there, and we camped and proceeded to investigate. We found nothing that day beyond ascertaining that it was the top of a wall of squared stones, but on the next we found an opening in the ground, and when we had cleared it away we found rough stone steps descending seemingly into the bowels of the earth. We fixed up some lights, and went down these steps, which, after all, did not go very far. The air was dank and mouldy-smelling, but not poisonous, and we looked round the place where we found ourselves, and to our astonishment saw that we were in a little chapel with painted walls. The painting was rude, but good enough for us to understand. The subject was always the same, although differently treated—blacks, natives, being converted by a party of priests. In some they were being baptised, in some they were kneeling before an uplifted crucifix; and in others they were lying dead, and white angels were rising from their bodies.
'There was a large carved crucifix fallen on the ground, that had formerly stood upright, and there were many relics of some sort or another lying about in more or less perfect preservation. It was rather oppressive down there, so after a bit we came to the surface and investigated there, but could make nothing of it, beyond that a change in the formation of the surface had taken; place.'
'Is that all?' asked Munster.
'Yes, we started in here to get a fresh outfit, and got on the dry stage that finished us. Lawson knocked up and died, as I told you; the blackboy went to a smoke, and never came back; and I kept on until the camel gave in, and when I was just at the last gasp, a party, of these fellows came along and carried me to water.'
'How far away are these ruins?'
'Across the dry belt, about one hundred and fifty miles, I should say.'
'Can we get out there with our horses?' I asked.
'Now you could, for a heavy thunderstorm has fallen since I came here, and there are rock holes there that would hold water for months.'
'Well, we have plenty of rations, and our horses are in good fettle; what do you say to going out now, at once?' asked Munster.
'I'm agreeable,' I replied. 'We're here now, and it's not worth while going back to the station.'
'What do you say, Mr. Dryant, will you come? We brought a spare horse and saddle for you to ride back on.'
For some reason I thought that Dryant did not like the notion of my going to this place immediately, but he answered readily enough.
'Very well, I will go back with you, and take you there.'
'That's settled then,' said Munster. 'Horses to-morrow, piccaninny, daylight,' he called out to Coconut, who kept close to us, and had not made friends with the blacks.
'How do you account for the ruins?' I asked Dryant.
'Only the one way. Australia was visited by early Christian missionaries centuries ago; a thousand years, perhaps. They formed a colony and converted many of the natives. Some catastrophe blotted them out.'
The stars were still shining when we finished our breakfast and started packing up, and with the pink flush of dawn at our backs we started on our way to the mysterious ruins. It was a dreary ride through the dry desert country, but we made a long stage, and reached one of the rock holes Dryant had spoken of. As he had predicted, the thunderstorm, had replenished it, and it was now full.
Next day the way was just as weary, and about 4 o'clock we came to another rock hole tolerably full, but evidently it had only felt the outskirts of the storm. We watered out horses and then pushed on till after dark, as Dryant said that there was a strip of grass country on ahead. When we reached it we camped, and reckoned that the next day, if the travelling was decent, we might reach the edge of the patch of good country, which Dryant described as equal to anything in Australia.
'By the way,' said Munster in camp that night, 'didn't you say that the boy went after a smoke and never came back?'
'Funny the fire didn't travel at all; the spinifex is dry enough; but we passed over no burnt country.'
'It was a fire right enough,' returned Dryant.
Next day, towards afternoon the scrub began to close in on us, making progress with the pack horses slow and difficult.
Suddenly we emerged from the scrub without warning, and found ourselves on the summit of a low, sloping rise, looking over one of the most picturesque scenes I ever saw in Australia. The gentle waves, the open country, timbered here and there with slumps of trees and bushes, stretched to the western horizon. Broken by the quaint little square-topped knolls or hillocks that Dryant had spoken of, dotted about here and there. On either hand of us the line of black scrub extended north and south like a boundary wall, separating fertility from desolation. It only wanted a lofty tier of ranges in the background to complete the picture; but that, of course, we could not expect in Australia.
After a long pause of admiration we rode on to where Dryant said there was spring, and turned our horses on to the luxuriant feed. Poor devils, they had been on short commons for two nights.
Next morning we were early in the saddle, and in a couple of hours' time had reached the camp of Dryant and his unlucky mates.
OUR first inspection was of what Dryant had called the top of a wall; but both Munster and I agreed that it was the beginning of a large and ambitions building. The stones were neatly laid and fairly well squared, the workmanship, though rough, having evidently been carried out on an orderly way. We next went to the buried chapel, and, being well provided with candles, were able to inspect it and its strange contents with ease.
Truly, the paintings were, astounding, both from the effect produced by the common pigments used, and the marvellous state of preservation they were in. There were four large pictures evidently intended for the education of the natives. In one they were represented horrible and bestial in appearance, fighting and dancing mad war dances. In the next they knelt before a group of monks, who stood beside a cross and preached to them. In the third they were receiving baptism, and now they were represented without any of the wild appearance of the early picture; their weapons lay neglected on the ground, a sign that they had abandoned their savage warfare. The last of the series represented the souls of the dead blacks ascending to heaven in the guise of white angels. Though painted without perspective, they were sufficiently graphic and realistic to at once attract the attention of a savage, and moreover there was a rude kind of genius displayed in their execution that was especially marked. There were many other smaller paintings, chiefly portraying the crucifixion. Evidently the work was one of very early Christianity. The large crucifix that had fallen dawn was fashioned out of mulga, and ingeniously carved. As a relic it was priceless. It was nearly fossilised.
We ascended again, and Munster proposed that we should take a ride round and try and discover any more remains of this ancient mission station. Dryant excused himself on the plea of fatigue. Coconut went with us to mind our horses if we had to explore any place on foot. We were away a long time, but found nothing except, from the shape of one of the knolls, we judged to be the quarry from which the stone had been obtained; but any actual signs of work time and weather had obliterated.
It was nearly 4 o'clock when we returned to camp, and found it deserted. There was no sign of Dryant anywhere. Shouting and cooeeing produced no answer; nor did he turn up before dark. We indulged in many surmises, but could make no guesses at it. Wherever he had gone, then he had gone on foot, for none of the horses was away. We could do nothing till morning, except keep a good fire burning, and fire off an occasional shot to let him know the position of the camp. During the night both Munster and I were haunted by on idea that we would hear a noise like muffled shouting or shrieking. We only heard it when we were lying down. On sitting up to listen all was silent. This, combined with the strange absence of Dryant, caused us to pass a restless night.
At the earliest dawn we were about looking for tracks, but could not do any good. Our horses had fed close round and round the camp, and obliterated all tracks. The day passed in a fruitless search. We visited the chapel again and examined it thoroughly, but found nothing more than we had seen before.
That night I was awakened by a movement in the camp, and opening my eyes, without moving, I saw, in the dying moonlight, a dark figure prowling round our pack bags. Munster lay within reach, of me, and I managed to quietly awaken him. The figure was stooping, with its back towards us, and simultaneously we both sprang up end rushed at. It was a naked blackfellow, and after an ineffectual struggle he gave in, and we led him up to the fire. To our astonishment he addressed us in tolerable English, and explained that he was taking some rations for a whitefellow.
'What name whitefellow?' asked Munster.
'Lawson,' said the boy to our amazement.
'What for Lawson no come up?' I asked. The boy, whom we had released, for he evidently had no intention of running away, tapped his forehead and shook his head. Evidently Lawson was out of his mind. We made the fire up, gave the boy, whose name was Monday, a feed, and while he ate he told his story.
That he was the boy who had accompanied Dryant and Lawson we already guessed; and his tale was as follows:
SOON after the start the two commenced quarrelling, the row having arisen through Lawson having in his possession what, from the boy's description, was evidently a woman's photograph. All through the trip the dissensions grew more and more bitter, until, according to Monday, he daily expected to see them shoot one another. The loss of the camels put a stop to it for a time in their common misfortune, but it broke out worse than ever after their arrival in the good country and discovery of the ancient mission chapel.
One day, when Monday was absent from the camp doing a bit of hunting, he returned to find Lawson had vanished. Dryant told him that Lawson had gone on by himself, and told him to help pack the camel, as he was going to start after him that night.
They started, but saw no sign of Lawson. Then he grew suspicious, and determined to bolt at the first opportunity, for he concluded Dryant had killed Lawson, and would kill him next. When they were travelling the next day he pretended to see a smoke close handy, and went off to look at it, and as soon as he was clear away he made back as hard as he could. He arrived at the place where we then were at the end of the third day's absence. He laid down to rest and think. He was Lawson's boy, having been with him before the two joined, and he did not own any allegiance to Dryant.
While resting he heard the same strange sounds that had disturbed us. They frightened him terribly at first, but being sharp-eared, he recognised something in the mysterious voice resembling has missing master's. He recovered his courage, and traced the sounds to a patch of scrub close at the back of our camp. He finally located them as coming from under a big round boulder that was there. He tried to move the boulder, but it resisted his efforts, until he worked round to one particular side, and then it rolled away easily. Below the boulder was a large hole, and from this hole came the voice of has master.
How to get him out he did not know; but at last, fortunately, having taken his tomahawk with him when he bolted—a blackfellow never forgets that—he thought of cutting down a couple of saplings and putting them down the hole, and by the aid of these Lawson clambered up until Monday could get hold of him. The poor wretch had been three days, in this horrible prison, which was a large underground cave, the hole being in the roof. He was nearly exhausted and half mad when Monday rescued him.
When he had drunk his fill he went off in a stupor, and so remained for a long time. When he recovered, his brain was obscured, and he was insane, and talked continually to himself.
When we afterwards came to examine the cave and its occupants we did not wonder at that. Monday had kept himself and the unfortunate man alive by hunting ever since. On our arrival Lawson had hidden, his senses partly returned—enough to make him mature a plain of revenge. While we were away they had stolen on Dryant, overpowered him, and dragged him to the hole and thrown him headlong into the cave, then replaced the boulder.
'And is he there still?' cried Munster, jumping up. The boy nodded in the most matter-of-fact way.
'Come on; show us where it is. We must get him out!' And we hastened to the spot.
It was not many yards from, our camp, but the undergrowth had concealed it from our view. Monday showed us the side to tackle the boulder, and it rolled easily off the hole.
'Dryant!' I cried. There was no answer. I called again, but all was silent. He had either sunk into unconsciousness or death. We brought lights, and peered into the ghastly oubliette, but the lights were not strong enough.
'We must go down,' I said.
With surcingles and tent-rope, we had soon a line ready, and made fast. Munster went first. It was about twelve feet to the floor of the cave. I followed, and held the candles aloft.
It was a fairly large cavern, with a few stalactites in it; but the contents! O horror!
The cavern was of limestone origin, and around lay heaps of human bones and skulls fossilised by the water that occasionally flooded the place; now it was dry. Dryant's body lay on the floor, his face hideously disfigured and mangled. With a sickening shudder, we noticed the cause. A huge lace lizard, the flesh-eating iguana, gorged and asleep, lay coiled alongside the dead man.
Both our revolvers cracked together, and the obscene reptile stretched himself out, quivering in death. Then from dark corners and nooks, hideous creeping things came out and looked at us with hungry eyes. Startled bats brushed our faces with soft, repulsive wings, and the place seemed full of horrible and unnatural creations.
We fired again at the foremost of them, and then a stalactite fell with a crash to the ground, and they disappeared to cracks and crannies.
'Get the body out quick, or we shall both go mad,' I called out, springing forward. We put our candles down, and carried the mangled corpse to the hole, made fast the end of our line round the shoulders and swarmed up ourselves, as quick as we could. We drew the body up, and laid the poor wretch on the ground, and covered the half-eaten face in a handkerchief. Then we rolled the boulder back and closed the mouth of that hellish pit, I hope forever.
We went to camp, and Munster got out a bottle of brandy we had brought in case of accidents, and we both drank about two strong nips rolled into one.
'By heavens! I shall dream of that place all my life,' I said.
'Fancy that unfortunate man being down there for three days. Ugh! No wonder he is mad.'
I asked Monday if he knew where to find Lawson and take him some food. He said he did, and we sent him off, telling him to do his best to get Lawson to come to us in the morning.
'What's the meaning of the bones in that place?' I asked, when we were smoking. 'They had been there for centuries—they are stone now.'
'I thought it might have been a burial place at first,' returned Munster, 'but from the way that boulder blocked the entrance I think something worse.
'Once a man was put down there, and the stone rolled over, escape would be utterly impossible, wouldn't it?'
'Perhaps refractory heathens who refused to accept Christianity were put down there for the glory of God. Worse, or as bad, was done in America. And also up here in the East Indies.'
We were silent for some time, both thinking what had better not be put on paper.
'I wonder how Dryant got Lawson down there?'
'Unless he recovers his senses we shall never know. Probably they found the place, and Lawson foolishly descended to look at it. The rest would be easy.'
'Good gracious,' I said, 'why, that hateful place comes right underneath, here. If there are any cracks about some of these amiable creatures may pay us a visit.'
'Don't talk about such things,' said Munster; and we dozed and chatted till daylight.
At daylight we dug a grave, and were about to bury his body, when Monday and Lawson came up. He seemed quiet, but quite foolish, although he smiled and shook hands with us. We had sewn the corpse up in a blanket, so Lawson did not see it. We lowered it in the grave, and I said what I could remember of the burial service over it. Then we filled it in, and devoted our attention to the living.
We remained there nearly a week trying to find some clue to the story and fate of the heroic men who had penetrated the centre of ancient Australia and built a Christian chapel. But all our trouble was useless. Where they came from and what was the catastrophe which smote them we could not find out. Time had choked up their buildings, had buried their secrets, and the pictures on the chapel wall only told of their life-work. The mystery was as impenetrable as the presence of the little herd of deer one of which we vainly tried to get a shot at.
Before leaving we put a cross over poor Dryant's grave. Poor devil, he paid heavily for his sin of attempted murder. Lawson was perfectly quiet, and seemed to partly understand us, but the shock to his brain had been terrible, and no wonder.
The weather was favorable and we got home by easy stages. We saw Lawson placed under medical care. His family, residing in Melbourne, took, charge of him. I hear he is recovering, but all allusions to the past have to be avoided. Munster gladly took the faithful Monday into his employ. He has written down to me to get a camera ready, and come up and join him in another trip out there next year.
THE station was seemingly deserted. There were no fresh tracks about, the ashes of the kitchen fire were cold and lifeless. Save for that, everything bore the appearance of habitation—nothing disturbed or in confusion, the three legged pot hanging in the fireplace had a piece of sodden beef in the greasy water, a dishful of thick sour milk stood on a shelf, and there were two or three small loaves of hard, stale bread.
'What do you make of it, Denver?' I asked my companion.
'Make of it? I can make nothing of it. Let's go through the house.'
We did so, but the puzzle only grew more complex. Everything, again, was in order and undisturbed. A half-finished letter in the handwriting of Irving, the owner of the station, lay on the table in the little skillion room he used as an office. What to think of it we did not know.
'How long is it since you saw Irving?' I asked Denver.
'Not more than ten days ago. He was over at my place.'
'Did he seem himself?'
'Well, not quite; he had some queer tricks I never noticed before. He kept starting suddenly, and wiping his face with his handkerchief, then looking at the handkerchief as though he expected to find some stain on it.'
'Don't suppose he's gone mad, and killed everybody on the station, How many were there here?'
'Himself, two men, and a cook, and a colored gardener. No; I don't think he has had a fit of homicidal mania, although he was a most passionate fellow.'
'What was the colored gardener? A Chinaman?'
'No. Hanged if I know where he came from—Java, I think. He was a good gardener, but a sullen, morose fellow.'
'Well, let's try and knock up a feed of some sort. Wonder where the key of the store is?'
We found the key of the store, and got something eatable out of it, then sat down to our meal, and discussed the strange desertion of the station.
Suddenly Denver sprang up with a naughty exclamation.
'Look at my plate,' he said.
It was spotted with fresh dropped blood!
'It was not there when I sat down, and yours! Look—look at yours!'
By heavens, mine was the same!
We stared at each other in consternation.
'Let's start home,' said my companion. 'My appetite is ruined.'
He picked up the bridles, and went down the little home paddock for our horses.
I strolled towards the garden, which had been formed near the edge of the lagoon the station had been built on. It looked well, and spoke favorably for the care it had received; it had not been left untended long enough to yet show any signs of neglect. I entered the hut of the colored gardener. It was neat and tidy, but what instantly attracted nay attention was a large sheet of newspaper fastened to the wall. On it, daubed in vivid red, was an Oriental sign of some sort covering nearly the whole of the double newspaper. I cooeed to Denver, and presently he came down.
'What's the meaning of that?' I asked.
'Can't say. Looks like some obi business. See, there's been a fire burning in front of it.'
He stooped down and looked at the ashes, then smelt them.
'Queer; smells like pastille ashes.'
He had been rubbing up a pipeful of tobacco between the palms of his hands as he spoke. Suddenly he dropped it on the ground with an oath. He held his hands out to me. They were stained, as though he had been squeezing blood out of the tobacco.
'Come away,' he said; 'the place is cursed.'
We left the hut, and he washed and scrubbed his hands in one of the little trenches which still held some standing water.
We discussed the strange thing as we rode home through the moonlit night, but neither of us could arrive at any reasonable solution of the mystery.
The next evening we were smoking in the verandah of Denver's place, when we noticed a horseman approaching. He rode up to the rail where we generally hung up our houses, dismounted, and walked up to the house.
'It's Irving,' said Denver quietly, as he rose to meet him.
It was the ghost of Irving. Haggard, worn, and thin, with haunted eyes, he came towards us.
'Give me something to eat, Den,' he said, in a tired and hollow voice.
'Tea will be in directly,' replied Denver. 'Come and have a wash, old man, and I'll tell one of the boys to let your horse go.'
'Wait a minute,' said Irving, sinking into one of the canvas chairs, and sitting staring moodily in front of him.
'We were over at your place yesterday,' I remarked, the silence feeling awkward.
'I saw the tracks,' he returned shortly.
'Where are the men?' asked Denver.
'Left, and gone in to the township.'
'And the gardener?'
'Muzra Khem. I've been hunting for him.'
We were all silent until the clatter of plates announced the incoming of the meal. 'I will go to your room, Den,' said Irving, rising.
At meal time we avoided the subject uppermost in our minds, and talked, on indifferent local matters. Irving ate voraciously—the man was actually famished. At times he looked suspiciously at his plate and his food, but nothing happened. We both suspected that he was looking for the ghastly blood drops.
The night was calm and mild, and we had eat smoking in the verandah for some tune, when Irving suddenly said:
'Did anything strange happen to you when you were over at my place?'
'Yes,' returned Denver.
'Blood, I suppose?'
'Yes, blood appeared in the most mysterious manner on our plates; we came away without eating.
'A fortnight ago,' went on Irving, 'Muzra Khem, who had been long strange in manner, 'had a row with the cook and the other men. He accused them of putting blood in his bread. I must tell you that Muzra. Khem is a native of Sumatra, and belongs to some mysterious sect or brotherhood, who are supposed to be possessed of many occult secrets, mostly evil spells and curses. They are strict vegetarians, and to taste blood or flesh is to them utter damnation. I had warned the men to play no tricks, as he would probably run amok if they did, nor do I think any trick was played on him; the men all swore there was not. He only got bread from the kitchen, and used to wait for it hot from the oven, so that it could not accidentally touch meat or grease. The cook could only explain matters by supposing that a bit of the red yarn in the flour bag had got Into the flour and stained the bread; anyhow Muzra Khem came up with an ugly looking knife in his hand prepared to wipe them all out. We were going kill that evening, and one of the men had just loaded the gun to shoot the beast. He covered Muzra and made him halt, for he still had sufficient sense for that, although if he had once commenced stabbing, nothing but death would have stayed him. Finding himself foiled, he came over to where I was standing in the verandah. Walking up he commenced to explain his wrongs, and not being in a good temper I told him to be off to the garden. Then he burst out raving and, throwing the bread at my feet, made an attempt to jump on the verandah, knife in hand, but I knocked him down on his back, and before he got up had him covered with my revolver.
'I ordered him to drop the knife. He did so, and then spat twice in my face. You know what a fiendish temper I am afflicted with. I lost all control over myself at this shameful insult from a nigger, and it's a wonder that I did not kill him on the spot; but a sweeter punishment suggested itself. I told the men, who had come to my assistance, to go on up to the yard, and made Muzra Khem go up too.
'When the beast was shot and stuck, I seized him, forced him on his knees, and with all the strength of rage, bent his face and mouth down to the gushing blood. Then I let him go. He got up stiffly, for I must have nearly broken his neck. My senses suddenly returned, and I would have given anything to have undone what I had done when I saw the awful took of despair in the man's eyes. If there is a hell, lost souls must wear that look.
'He looked round, at us with, those tormented eyes, then stooped, dipped his hands in the blood, and, with a rapid movement, sprinkled all of us with it. Then he passed out of the yard, ran down to the lagoon and plunged in. We all knew he could swim like a fish, so went on with our work.
'All that night there was a light in his hut, and I heard sounds like some one chanting, for I could not sleep, in the morning he was gone; and on the wall was a sheet of newspaper, with some cabalistic sign scrawled on it in red. I tore it down and burnt it.'
'It was there when we were there,' I said.
'That is the third time it has been replaced, which shows that he is still hanging about. That morning the curse of the blood drops commenced, I came over here, meaning to tell you, Den, but when it came to the point I feared your laughing at me. When I went home I found the men with their horses saddled waiting for me. They were good fellows, who had been with me some time, but I could not blame them. I would have done the same myself. Next the blacks all left, and I was quite alone.' He paused.
'What have you been doing since?' asked Denver.
'Hunting for Muzra Khem. When I find him I'll torture him to death, but I'll make him take the curse off.'
Denver got up. 'Old man,' he said, 'what you want is a long sleep. Come and have a real good second mate's nip, and then turn in.'
Irving rose, and we went inside.
I looked quietly in his room the next morning and he was sleeping soundly.
'Let him sleep,' said Denver, 'It is what he wants.'
It was nearly eleven o'clock before he woke. He seemed much more composed, breakfasted well, and though both Denver and I offered to accompany him, he declined, and rode off home alone. A week afterwards be visited us again, looking a different man.
'I've shifted it,' he said, after the greetings were over.
'And Muzra Khem?' asked Denver.
'Please, old friend, don't ask me any questions. Muzra Khem is still alive. Let that suffice. I will stay here to-night, and tomorrow morning I want you boys to come back with me, and, if you can spare the time, stay a few days while I either get my old lads back or fresh ones.'
We agreed cordially, glad to see things straightened up again. Irving got the old men back; he was a popular man, like most fiery tempered men, who have a thing out and have done with it. It is the nagging men who are disliked. The story had, of course, spread, but it had been laughed at naturally, and the talk soon died out Irving, it was noticed, put great constraint on his temper ever since the Muzra Khem incident, but he never unclosed his lips about the means he had used to bring that gentleman to reason.
Only he confided to Denver that he was engaged to a girl down south, of whom he was passionately fond, and that he would have shot himself if he had not succeeded in lifting the curse of blood. He also assured Denver that he had only used a dire and inhuman threat to Muzra Khem, but had not injured him, that having been sufficient I had left the district for some time when I received a letter from Denver.
'Wretched news, old fellow,' he wrote. 'Our poor friend Irving was murdered in his bed the very night before he was starting south to get married. He was stabbed to the heart with a dagger, and on the handle was tied a paper with the following legend on it. It was written in what was meant to be English, and I have straightened it out, and send you its purport:'
I, Muzra Khem, once of the select, now a beast, did this thing to the white devil who made me a beast. The white devil caught me after I had put the curse of the dripping blood on him and all of his. He was very quiet, but his hands were of iron, and he bound me to a tree, fastening my arms behind me. Then he drove pegs in the ground and fastened my ankles thereto, so that the dead could have moved as easily as I. Then he looked into my eyes and spoke:
'Muzra Khem, how many hells are there?'
'I answered "Seven."'
'And after I have killed you where will your soul go?'
'Into the body of a tiger, and for a thousand years I shall roam about thirsting for blood.'
The white devil laughed.
'There won't be many tigers left in a hundred years, let alone a thousand. What becomes of those who go to the seventh hell?'
'None dare tell,' I answered.
'But I know,' he said. 'It is the eaters of men's flesh, who go to the seventh hell. Muzra Khem, unless you remove the curse of blood from me and mine, you shall go to the bottom of that hell. Listen! I will cut pieces of your flesh off, and you shall eat them before me.'
'I looked in that white devil's eyes, and saw that he had power over me, and I bowed my head, for I knew he would do what he said.
'I will take off the curse of the dripping blood,' I answered. 'And never curse me again. By what will you swear?'
'I will swear by the seven trees with the seven branches which only the wise have seen,' I replied.
'It is enough,' he said, and released me.
We went back to the station, and I took off the curse of the dripping blood, but I did not swear that I would not kill him when his eyes were closed, for when they were open they had power over me. It is done.
'Of course,' added Denver; 'the hue and cry is after Muzra, but in my humble flippin' opinion they'll have to go tiger hunting to find him.'
SOME cooks are pre-eminently distinguished by an ability to make themselves disagreeable. True, this is a privilege accorded to all cooks, whose despotic power in the kitchen is supposed to be a thing not to be crossed, unless the culprit feels inclined to chance the wrath that will inevitably ensue, but the cantankerousness of Jack Walters went something beyond this. He was a scrupulously clean man for one thing, and the luckless inhabitants of the men's hut never knew what unwritten law they were transgressing.
If a man picked up a pannikin to have a drink, Walters would watch him with unwinking eyes, and if he offered to put it back in its place, wet and dripping, then Walters would solemnly hand him a towel, with a look of withering and sarcastic scorn. And the culprit would feel bound to polish that pannikin up dry and bright before he restored it to its place.
Walters's power lay in moral persuasion. He was not exactly a fighting man, but he had enough incarnated unsociability to make the lives of all hands uncomfortable. The effect of his power was that he was a good cook. A rattling good cook—in fact, a perfect genius. A lesser man would not have been tolerated a moment, but every body on the station where Walters worked licked satisfactory lips, and put up with hits bad temper.
Walters had a dog, as unsatisfactory a member of canine society as Walters was of human society. He was a big gaunt dog, faithful to his master, and snarling towards everybody else but one who could take his own part, and it was only by superior numbers that the other station dogs ever got on level terms with him.
Walters lived for long on Windook Station, distinguished by several virtues. His good cooking and love of cleanliness, his affection for Hooker, his dog, and his hatred of the blacks. He saw men come and go, and even superintendents change, but Walters and Hooker went on just the same. It came to pass, in the days of a super named Lesteen, that the catastrophe happened which brought to light the hidden mystery of Walters's past life, and his evident misanthropical turn.
Hooker picked up a bait, and all attempts to save him, mustard emetics and the cutting off of his tail and ears, did not avail, and he died in the great agony induced by strychnine poisoning. From that hour Walters became a changed man. He faded and waited away, became quite amiable, gave the men jam tarts and fat cakes every day, and at last took to his bed and announced his intention of dying.
A messenger had come to ask Lesteen to go down and interview the dying cook just as a traveller arrived the station. Lesteen went down in response to the urgent message, and found Walters alone in his bunk; the sleeping accommodation was partitioned off from the kitchen, and the men had all cleared out and left it to Walters.
He seemed pretty bad, and when Lesteen sat down by him, and asked him how he felt, he answered that he wasn't long for this world, but before he died he wanted to tell what had so long weighed on his mind.
'Would Lesteen listen to him?'
Lesteen would do anything to oblige him, and listened patiently while Walters told his story.
I WAS at sea once, and with me was a brother of whom I was very fond. He was a sailor, and I was cook. I was enabled to fatten him up well, and when the catastrophe occurred he was in excellent condition. We were on a trading barque in the Pacific, a bona fide trader, not a blackbirder, and were doing very well. Unfortunately the skipper took it into his head to trade up at New Britain, then not much frequented. We got on all right for some time, then the natives got saucy, and one morning at daybreak they boarded tho barque, and there was a horrible massacre.
Strange to say, my brother and myself were the only ones left alive, besides my dog Hooker. We were taken ashore, and the niggers having tasted some of my cookery, when they had come board the barque, made me cook for them. And what do you think I had to cook for them? Why, the darned cannibals! The bodies of most of my shipmates. However, I did it for the sake of my brother, who was fat and fair and plump, and I made sure I would have to cook him in the end—that they were only keeping him for a tit-bit. Well, on his account I did my best, though I had a bad job with the boatswain, who was a tough subject to make a tasty dish of.
There was a rather nice young girl there, the favorite daughter of the chief; her name was Kittycrummie. She took a great fancy to my brother, and I told him that now was his chance to up and marry her, and live with the tribe until he saw a chance of getting away. As for me—since I had been cooking for them they had become regular gourmands, and wouldn't have lost me on any account. Fellows say I'm proud of my cooking; but who wouldn't be when he'd make a tribe of cannibal New Britons sit up, and understand good dishes.
Davy wouldn't have anything to say to Kittytrummie, who was plump and pretty, because he had a girl of his own in Sydney, and he said he wasn't going back on her. And all I could say to him would do no good. Finally they took him away, and put him in a bamboo cage, and there he would have to stay until he consented to marry Kittycrummie, which he vowed he would never do.
I did all I could to persuade him to give in, but no, he wouldn't budge an inch, and finally I was forbidden to go and see him. One day, some time afterwards, the under cooks brought me some 'long pig' (human flesh) to cook, and it was fat and juicy and tender. I was just about starting to work at it, when a thought struck me, and I demanded to know whose flesh it was, for they had so flayed it with their horrid bamboo knives, that you couldn't tell whether it was white or black.
True enough they told me it was my brother's, who had been dispatched because he wouldn't marry Kittycrummie. Then I went mad, and it was not until they had nearly thumped the life out of me that I consented to cook the grub. Only then for a special reason. Amongst the scores they had brought ashore, was a bottle of strychnine, and I managed to get hold of it. I cooked Davy, and seasoned him with strychnine. Now, I was in the habit of feeding Hooker when I was cooking, but from this particular lot of joints he wouldn't touch a single morsel, and I've honored and loved him ever since. He knew it was Davy, and now the dear dog's dead I don't want to live.
Well, the feast came off, and didn't they howl and yell when the strychnine began to take effect. Lord, they tied themselves up in knots, and rolled over in the worst kind of cramps, and all the while I laughed at them, and jeered at them in their agony. But though I looked everywhere when daylight came, I couldn't see anything of Kittycrummie.
I was searching about, when I heard a gun at sea. I looked out, and there were two gunboats, a Dutch and English one. Both sent crews ashore. They both came up to me together, but when the Dutch officer found I was an Englishman he saluted the English officer, and left me in his hands. Well, I told them all about it, and the lieutenant said that he would make the report all right, and I wouldn't have any trouble at all. He'd make out that a sudden contagious kind of malarial fever had swept over New Britain, and they found that the natives had died in their camps.
They were very good to me, and took me and Hooker down to Cooktown, and got up a subscription for us on board. But I've never been able to take to my fellow kind since, always thinking how they'd taste in pies, and now that Hooker's gone I haven't a mate in the world.'
WALTERS had just finished when one of the men came in, and asked Lesteen if he would mind coming out, and seeing the traveller who was very anxious to see him. Lesteen went out. The man was short and square in build.
'I'm looking for my brother,' he said, 'his name Is Walters; but the fellows say he's that bad I can't see him. Can't I, boss?'
'Is your name Davy?'
'Go in, then, at once.'
The man went behind the partition, and Lesteen beard a shriek of horror. He went in fearing the surprise would be too much.
'Davy, Davy!' said the cook, 'how did you escape?'
'Kittycrummie took my place; put on my clothes, and was killed instead of me. Dear girl, why did I not requite her affection?'
'Then it was Kittycrummie whom I cooked, and poisoned the whole crew with.'
'It was. I got taken off by the Dutch gunboat to Batavia, and was stranded there without any money.'
'Fancy! Poor Hooker. He wouldn't touch a bit of Kitty. I remember he was very fond of her. I think I'll get up and start cooking Davy, you must be hungry.'
'I am,' said Davy; and his brother got up and recovered.
THE fever of the north of Queensland had had me is its grip for weeks. There seemed to be nothing to be desired in life but one long, long drink of cold, clear water. To my parched palate the water out of the cooling water bag tasted of canvas and cattle camps.
Sometimes, when the pains that reached every joint were not so bad as usual, I could shut I my eyes and dream of all the purling brooks I had seen in more temperate climes. I remember looking around and noting everything just before the strange thing I am going to relate happened to me. The rough slabs of the but I was lying in, the scorching iron roof, Jack lying on his bunk smoking, and the big fireplace full of white ashes. Then I closed my eyes, for the ache in my limbs had left me for a while, and I thought I could sleep.
'Strange,' said a soft voice, apparently just above me, 'but all who come here look as though they had passed through much pain, weariness, and trouble, or else they are mutilated and mangled.'
'Why strange?' answered another voice as soft and soothing as the first. 'Why strange? You know what they have had to go through on earth, and what we escaped.'
'True,' said the first speaker,' we escaped much.'
I opened my eyes to see if I was dreaming or I not. It was soft and misty all round, and I could not clearly distinguish things at first, but I managed to make out two indistinct forms near where I was lying. One of them approached me, I and held a vessel of some sort to my lips, while the other assisted me to rise; the touch was substantial enough. I drank. What the draught I was I know not, but it brought back strength, health at one bound, and, for the time, oblivion of the past. I felt no longer strange to the place; I felt as though in my rightful home. I could see plainly, too; the misty twilight no longer I obscured my sight. I was in a land like the earth, but far more I beautiful. If you can imagine the earth freed from all grossness and impurity, and only retaining its beauty, that would be the place I was in.
I looked at my companions, two girls of about nineteen or twenty, dressed in straight-dropping, somewhat classic garments, and both lovely with an unearthly loveliness. I naturally glanced at myself, and found that I wore a dress of something the same style. I felt no surprise at this, I for, as I said, the draught had rendered me as I oblivious of my immediate individual past as one from the fatted fountain of Nepenthe would have I done.
'What is the name of this land?' I asked.
'It has no name, we who are here wait.'
'Wait for what?' I answered.
'For our time to return,' said the girl who had I spoken last.
'To return? What did you mean when you were talking to each other, and said you had escaped the trouble and misery of a life on earth?'
'We are of the earth the same as you, but we died as infants; since then we have grown up here.'
'And yet the place has no name?'
'No, it is only the Land of Wait.'
'If you died so young, how is it you know that there are troubles on earth.'
'We visit it often, but we are not visible. We have stood by our parents, when they grieved for us, and when fresh brothers and sisters took our places we have seen how we were gradually forgotten.'
I strove to remember what had immediately I happened before my advent to this place, but I could not succeed. I could remember things generally, but not particularly.
'Can you show me some of this strange land?' I asked.
'Come with us,' the girls replied.
We walked down a winding path that led through groves and forests, with here and there a swell of meadow land. We met several people on the way, dressed like I was, but all were abstracted and silent. Presently there came along the path one whom I recognised at a glance. The hairless face, stern, features, and indomitable look, was unmistakable, as was the squat, square figure. But now no elation was visible in the face, no remembrance of past glories came to lighten it up. Only the brooding look I noticed upon all as if they were engaged in an endless attempt to solve the mystery of their past.
My two companions and other young people had not this expression, for they had happily no past to remember. The girls shrank back as the figure I have described drew near, pacing with bent head and hands locked behind the back. He passed, and my guides seemed to breathe more freely.
'I cannot bear to meet him,' said one to the other.
'Nor I,' returned her companion.
'He was a great conqueror, was he not?' she said, addressing me.
'The greatest of our time,' I said. 'Does he, too, wait?'
'This is the Land of Wait,' answered one simply.
'Woe to the world, then, when he returns,' I said. 'He will find it equipped with weapons of wholesale destruction such as he never dreamed of. He will make it one reeking field of carnage from one end to the other, if he goes back with all his former experience, dormant though forgotten, in his mind.'
We passed on, and suddenly I noticed my guides became more cheerful and sprightlier in demeanor. Birds were singing, and all around us seemed blithe and jocund. Wondering at this, I suddenly noticed a man reclining under a tree, whose face was as familiar to me as that of the man whom we had lately passed. The noble brow, benign eyes, and sensitive mouth, were those known to every man where all European languages are read and spoken. Though his figure was not clad in the familiar Elizabethan dress, no one could mistake the man who reposed there, with none of the brooding look so noticeable in the others in his face. Rather he seemed as if musing pleasantly over fresh conceits than striving to recall old memories.
'When he returns?' asked one of my guides artlessly.
'The world will be a hundred times the better for him. He will carry fresh and undreamt-of joy into the lives of thousands. I hope I shall be a boy upon earth when his time comes to return.'
'I always feel different when I am near him,' said one girl, looking at the reposeful figure with a radiant smile.
'Do none speak to each other in this land of Wait?' I asked.
'Only such as we are, who have no past to recall. Those who have lived their lives are always striving to remember them, but always in vain. No one takes back to earth any memories of his former life beyond a few fleeting fancies that cannot be grasped. And it is here they forget them.'
We passed on, and saw many more people whose faces and forms I recognised, and for whose return earth still waited. The crowds thickened, and one ponderous person passed me whose face wore a more than usual puzzled expression; and who muttered continually to himself something that sounded like 'Fleet-street.'
'Do you know much of this land?' I asked, when once we paused to sit down and rest.
The girls laughed. 'We who have no memories know all about it; the rest are too busy trying to remember who they were.'
'I want to see where the savages, wait,' I replied.
'Everywhere; only they prefer the Hills and mountains. Shall we go there?' We rose and walked towards a not very distant range of low, mountainous hills; in this land walking was no fatigue. Arrived there we found many of the savages sitting about in listless attitude, with much the same look on their faces that all the others wore. Some had attempted to form weapons, such as they used in life, but their memory failed them, and the unfinished implements lay there, never to be completed.
'In what form will they return?' I pondered
'Who can say,' said one of my guides. 'When though here they wear the aspect of their past life, in the future they maybe as different as possible. That great conqueror we passed; he lived in France, did he not?'
'But what country he returns to is in the hands of fate.'
'It would be rather rough on the world if he sprang up in Russia,' I thought.
We wandered amongst the savages, who had enough lingering left of their old life to prefer the solitude of the mountains to the haunts of the whites. There was not so much dejection in their looks as listlessness, and a vain striving after a lost past. There seemed little more to see in the mountains, so we descended again, and wandered back, always in the misty half light, like the struggling thoughts of the inhabitants, but yet I could see plainly enough in it.'
'And does time pass always this way, waiting for the recall to life and earth?
'Always; only for those like us, it is different, for we have never known another life. We have seen it when we see the living at times, and what we do see does not make us wish to so there.'
'You talk of the earth as though it were a region close at hand. Where is it?'
The girls smiled.
'This is the earth where we are now. These trees, these hills, and plains, are those of earth; but seen with other eyes, the eyes of those who wait They cannot see the living, nor can the living see them; but the living are here all around us, pursuing their work and daily toil, while we, the few privileged ones, without any memory of sin and sorrow, can stand beside them unseen and unfelt, and watch their daily and hourly struggle.'
'Yes,' said the other, 'and influence them at times. Before now we have made the intending suicide drop his pistol, the forger change his mind and tear up the guilty paper, the murderer forego his purpose. We, the sinless ones, have power in the world such as he'—and she pointed to the moody figure of Napoleon passing at a distance—'never dreamt of. You are not yet one of the waiting world; will you look on earth again?'
I said 'Yes,' and immediately the girl had spoken, put her hands on my eyes and closed them.
'BY gum! He's a gonner!' said the voice of Jack Smith. 'I thought he looked mighty pinched and queer when I got up from having a smoke, and I came over to him, and there was the sweat on his forehead, and yet he was as cold as a tombstone.'
'Feel his heart,' said Tom Green.
A rough hand was thrust under my shirt and held there for a minute. 'Not a beat.'
'I've heard of holding a looking glass before the mouth,' said Tom, 'and if it dims the least little bit, why there's breath in the body.'
'I've got a bit of glass, we'll see,' replied Jack. I heard all this conversation, and yet could not move or stir. I felt that it would not be long before I was a fitting candidate for the land of wait.
Jack approached with the glass and held it before my mouth, then removed it after a while and they both criticised it carefully.
'He's gone, poor fellow,' said Tom. 'We'll have to put him underground to-night—such weather as this.'
This roused a frightful horror in my breast I had no fear of the 'land of wait,' but I had an awful horror, as I think, have all men, of a living burial. I struggled to burst the lethargy that held me fast; then suddenly, it seemed as though something soft was brushed against my eyes, and I was once more in the land of wait, and on either side my two girl guides.
'Well, your friends are going to bury you tonight,' said one smiling. 'Were you there?'
'We were. We told you we had the power of looking on at the living, and at times influencing them.'
'Then influence those two men not to bury me alive.'
'That will not happen, for your time for this land of waiting has not come yet.'
'And when I do come, how shall I know you again, for my memory will be gone?'
'We wait. Before you come we may have been called back to earth. If we are here we shall know you; let that suffice.'
'Hark! you are called now!' said the other one.
I looked round on the misty landscape, on the rapidly fading, beautiful faces of the two girls who had guided me through the land where the souls await their call back to earth, to work out their destiny in other bodies; then all was blank.
Once more I was lying, weak and exhausted, in my bunk. It was night, bright moon light. A short distance away I could hear the strokes of a pick and the murmur of voices. Tom and Jack were digging my grave. I essayed to move, and found that I could feebly stir my limbs. It was enough. With a bit of a struggle I sat up in my bunk and propped myself against the slabs. Then I waited for the return of my companions. They took some time—evidently they were conscientious over their work—then I heard them come back to the hut, talking as they came.
'It's a pity,' said Jack, as they entered, 'that we couldn't make a proper coffin; but Lord, poor fellow, he wouldn't object to a couple of sheets of bark.'
'No, I don't mind,' I managed to get out.
'Goramighty, Samson!' cried Jack, falling back, while Tom said something like 'Godfrey Daniel Simpson!'
It took some time before I could persuade them that I was really alive, and that the fever had left me. Then said Jack:
'Strong enough to get on your pins, old man?'
I protested that I was not.
'I'm sorry, because I'd like you to come out and see the lovely grave we dug for you. Never mind, we'll keep it open against it's wanted.'
THE long road seemed to be never coming to an end. It would not have mattered so much had there been any change in the landscape, any break or diversion which would end the wearisome monotony of straight gum forest and straighter, dusty track. The traveller began to feel out of temper, and his temper was usually of the best. When the tired packhorse he was leading hung back, and did not lead so well as usual, he jerked irritably at the halter, which was a thing quite unusual for him to do. The sameness of the timber and the surroundings was getting on his nerves, and he longed for some sort of a rest and change.
Suddenly there was a turn in the road. It was no longer an everlasting straight track, with the gaunt telegraph poles running beside it, but a deeply-foliaged creek appeared in view, and beyond he could see the green vista of a cultivation paddock.
"I wonder whether this can be Dowall's place?" muttered the rider. "I thought it was further off; anyway, I'll inquire."
He turned off along the track which lad to the homestead he was approaching, and let himself into the paddock by a neat, easy-swinging gate, which to a man accustomed to heavy sliprails was a luxury indeed. Everything looked smiling and green after the dusty road, and he noted with complacency the irrigation canals and the elevated tanks. There was a nice garden around the house, and a convenient shed wherein to hang his horses up while he made inquiries.
Those inquiries led him to the verandah, where a young woman of rather comely presence met him with a smiling Inquiry.
"I suppose you are Mr. Conyers, whom my father expected to-day? He will be back directly, meantime the boy will attend to your horses and bring your valise in."
Nothing loth, Conyers followed his guide into the house, and sat down to some refreshment, which the young lady kindly adapted to a bachelor taste.
"I am glad I had an opportunity of speaking to you alone before you met my father," said Miss Dowall. "I know of you as an old friend of his for whom he has a great regard, and I wish to tell you that you will find him greatly altered, and I want you to pretend not to notice it. I cannot account for the alteration, but it has been noticeable ever since my mother died, four years ago. I hope you are going to pay a long visit, and perhaps he may confide in you the cause of the change in his manner. I assure you it's worrying me."
At this unexpected and frank disclosure Conyers could do nothing else but express his desire to be of service, and it was an honest desire, for Dowall and he had been always the best of friends, although often the width of the Australian continent apart. But a severance like that often tends to the continuance of friendship.
Very shortly Dowall returned, and Conyers saw at once that there was a greater change in his friend than the intervening years should have made. But Dowall roused himself at sight of his old friend, and during that evening, at least, was his old self.
"I thank you," whispered Miss Dowall, as she said good night to her guest. "He has not been like this for a long time."
Next morning Dowall still seemed his old self, and proposed a ride to a certain cattle camp, to have his friend's opinion on some cattle running there. Miss Dowall accompanied them, and, as the morning was bright and cool, the ride was pleasant in the extreme.
After Inspecting the cattle, they went on to a creek where a blackboy had been sent ahead with a packhorse to make a fire, and Miss Dowall soon had lunch prepared for them. They were in the middle of the meal, and chatting gaily, when suddenly Dowall sprang to his feet, and, with a look of horror, appeared to be listening Intently to some sound. His face was white, and he was trembling all over.
Miss Dowall rose and went to her father.
"Did you hear anything?" he faltered.
"Nothing out of the way, father."
"Not a voice calling out?"
"And you, Conyers?"
"I heard no voice."
"It must have been fancy. I am afraid I am troubled with delusions, and want a change."
The meal was renewed, but all the gaiety was gone. Conyers pondered long on the matter. That Dowall was troubled with delusions was evident enough, and lie felt sorry for his daughter, in whom he was beginning to take a great interest, and if he could succeed in solving the mystery of her father's strange illness the interest might become mutual, he began to watch Dowall carefully, but quietly. There was no doubt that the man was haunted, and there was equally little doubt that otherwise he was as good a business man as ever, and as good a station manager. But what was the meaning of this strange illness that had overtaken him?
Conyers's visit became extended Indefinitely, he was an idle man of means, although energetic enough on occasions. Lucy Dowall's grey eyes had, however, done their work, and he felt he could not leave without a favorable answer to his suit. His answer, when he asked the question, was favorable enough, but Lucy told him plainly that it was impossible for her to leave her father while he continued in the peculiar state he was. "Left alone," she urged, and her lover could not deny it, "he will become so morose and melancholy that I dread the worst."
"Why does he not go away for a year?"
"He obstinately refuses. He has a nervous horror of being amongst strangers."
When Conyers spoke to Dowall about the feeling he had for Lucy the latter looked troubled.
"I don't say that the idea is unfamiliar to me, and it has my warm approval; but you cannot marry Lucy until you have heard the whole of my wretched story. I do not feel capable of telling you to-day. Give me until to-morrow."
Conyers urged him to tell him everything when the time came, as he thought he might be able to help him, and with this they parted. The mystery seemed to be growing deeper instead of clearer. What possible reason was there he should not marry Lucy, save one? Had Dowall, afflicted with his strange disease, persuaded himself that there was hereditary madness in his system?
Conyers felt that he had hit upon the secret. He was assured that Dowall was no more mad than he was, and could one dispel the fancy that he was brooding over he would be himself again. Was it the death of his wife, to whom he was much attached, that had produced this state of mind? Lucy said It commenced about that period. He told Lucy what had passed between him and her father, and spoke hopefully in the matter, and seemed to anticipate that the statement would lead to explanations which would clear up things in a happy manner. He asked Lucy if she had any particular reason for attributing his changed manner to the death of her mother, and she answered that she had a peculiar feeling about the matter that she could not account for. Much as her father and mother had loved each other, she did not think that excessive grief on her mother's account would in any way unhinge her father's mind. He was of too practical a nature.
"Did you ever see him as he was the other day at the camp?" asked Conyers. "I have seen him start and listen with a terrified air, but he never asked me If I heard any thing, or heard anybody speak as he did that day."
"And these starts and listenings commenced from the day of your mother's death?"
"Not exactly from the day of her death, but from a few days after she was buried. And I have more to tell you. More that is still stranger. I have heard talking in his room often. At first I felt frightened, and one night I summoned up courage to knock at the door of his room.
"'Who Is with you, father?' I asked.
"'No one,' he answered.
"'Who were you talking to, then?' I asked.
"'No one; I must have been talking in my sleep. Don't take any notice. I am rather restless. He was not talking in his sleep, for there were two distinct voices. Since then I have heard them often."
Conyers felt that no satisfactory explanation could be given to this, and it was with some anxiety he awaited the disclosure Dowall had promised to make.
'CONYERS,' said Musgrave, when the time came for him to make his promised disclosure. 'Mine is about the strangest tale you ever heard. I deserve all I'm suffering, for I am a murderer. A murderer do I say? Far worse. I murdered my own son.'
'Your own son,' said Conyers in' surprise. 'I did not know you had a son?'
'He was not a white boy, he was a half-caste; you understand, of course, it was before my marriage. I expected that when I married, his mother might make trouble, so to make sure I told her everything.'
'The best way, too,' muttered Conyers.
'Mother and child hung about the station, and I could not well turn them away, but the mother, strange to say, appeared to have a great admiration of my wife, and would do anything for her, but the son would not approach her, of which I was glad, for he grew up a sullen, ill-conditioned reprobate. For conscience sake I had him educated, and I wish to goodness I had not. To that I owe my trouble. He should have grown up in the blacks' camp by right. He worked on the station, and as he grew up I could see that he resented his inferior position. That you see was the result of educating a nature not fitted to receive it. Well, time went on, and Lucy came back from school, and then his evil temper broke out.
'One day we were out on the run together alone.
'How would you like (he spoke perfectly good English) me to tell Miss Lucy that I am her half-brother?'
'I'd cut the soul out of you if you did, and you know it.'
'Cut my soul out, you, my father, eh? Just try it?'
'I did try it, and gave him it with the stockwhip pretty hot, for I was mad at the thought of what he had said. 'Now I will do it,' he said. Then I pulled him off his horse, and went at him with my fists. I am a powerful man, and can use them as you know. I punched him about the body, and I suppose struck him hard over the heart, for he fell down dead.'
'Are you sure he was dead?'
'Sure! Do I know a dead man from a live one or not? Some blacks were about, and they took the body away, and I heard no more about it, but the mother disappeared from the station. Soon after that my dear wife died, and then it was that my torture commenced. I hear his voice, he comes to my room and talks to me, I am haunted day and night. But I deserve it. Now I see you think that it is a good deal of fancy on my part, but when I heard the voice at the creek the other day, did you or Lucy hear it?'
'That's easily accounted for. There was plenty of cover, and anyone could easily have crept up unseen, and said anything without our hearing it. We were a little bit engrossed perhaps.'
'The man was dead I tell you, and it would not answer anybody else's purpose to torment me so.'
'Where's the mother?'
'She came back to the station after my wife died.'
'Will you let me change places with you tonight, after dark, unobserved?'
'I see what you mean, but you will hear nothing.'
THAT night Conyers lay wakeful and watching, for he was convinced that Musgrave was the subject of a trick. He was not disappointed. When the house was quiet, a dark figure appeared in the dim light, and commenced to say something, but Conyers, determined not to risk an exposure, sprang out of bed and grappled with the intruder, shouting for Musgrave to bring a light.
The man whom Conyers had collared fought hard to get away, but he stuck to him until Musgrave appeared on the scene.
'Here's your ghost, Musgrave.'
'Good Heavens, and I have been frightened nearly into madness by this man!'
'What shall we do with him?'
'You let me go,' said the captive sullenly. 'You don't know who I am.'
'I believe I do better than Mr. Musgrave does. It's not the only part you've been acting. Now, we'll just lock him up until daylight.'
They did so, and then Conyers, after Musgrave had quieted Lucy's fears, communicated his suspicions to him.
'Is this the man you thought you killed, and who called himself your son?'
'Well, I don't believe that he is your son. He's bullied his mother into telling you so, and you've believed her. Come look at the facts as you have told them to me.'
'By jove, you are right, I believe, and I have been made a fool of all along,' and in spite of having been made a fool of, Musgrave's face cleared with joy.
When daylight came Conyers took the affair in hand and found all his suspicions confirmed by the mother's confession.
So the long road came to an end.
MORNING, such as only Southern Queensland, in all the world, can boast of—a morning when spring is not too far advanced and the flowering shrubs of the sub-tropical clime are sweet and fresh, and the cool air of awakening day is heavy with fragrance, a fragrance that vanishes when the sun asserts his might as lord of the day. But whilst his power is in abeyance, whilst the dew is moist on the grass and the first man to cross leaves a dark trail of crushed blades and the trees drip big tears, then, to the early riser, such a morning is a vision to be treasured and remembered.
On such a balmy, peaceful dawn one remembers other breaking morns—morns of still, sultry heat, when night had brought neither respite nor repose, and one rose bitterly to gaze around upon a dead, dust-white plain; or upon an oily sea, restless with a long dreary roll, making every spar creak and groan like a repining spirit; or the streets of a city, saddest sight of all, with the paling gas and electric lights, the shabby, skulking figures fleeing from the light of day, and all the nocturnal wastrels of so-called civilisation biding from the coming life and bustle. Better than this last is a morning in the central desert, with the sign of a blood-red sun blazing in the east; or a windless dawn in Torres Strait, with the New Guinea coast looming in the distance. But here it was as clean an out-cut from the pitiful stains of humanity as ever was the fabled daybreak of the golden age.
Out on the verandah of the picturesque old homestead stepped one who 'might have lived in the golden age. A girl of 19, tall and lithe in figure, with a flush of expectancy on her face—a flush on her face and a sparkle in her eyes that came from the golden age of love. She leaned on the bar surrounding the verandah, plucked a rose from the clusters climbing on the verandah, and listened eagerly. Far distant echoed the ring of a horse's hoofs, cantering along the road. The girl put the rose to her lips and wafted a kiss in the direction. At times the noise of horse tread died away when the rider was crossing some hollow or gully; then they would come again louder and clearer than before. At last they approached quite close, the rider being hidden by a patch of scrub round which the road wound; by the sound the house was pulled up to a walk, and the horseman soon appeared, the rays of the early sun glinting behind him.
The waiting girl turned pale, and then flushed red again, a look of keen disappointment in her eyes. The newcomer, though as goodly a specimen of manhood as maiden could desire for a lover, was evidently not the right man who had been expected.
The rider lifted his hat to her, dismounted, hitched his horse on a rail, and walked up to the verandah.
'Good morning, Miss Grandon. Is your father up yet?'
'Where's Herbert?' said the girl quickly, evidently thinking of but one thing. 'I thought he was coming down with you.'
'So he did as far as Branxmore, and he managed to miss the train there and of course the steamer at Rockhampton as well.'
'He'll be down on the next boat men. But there's nothing the matter with him? You're not deceiving me?'
'Not at all; he was as well as I am, the last time I saw him, and I've heard nothing to the contrary since.'
The appearance of another man just then interrupted the conversation. Grandon, the father of the girl who had been waiting and watching on the verandah, was a tall thin man, with a good-tempered looking face, somewhat weather-beaten and sunburned. He had evidently risen hastily on hearing the voices' outside.
'Well, Lascelles,' he said, 'back from the west. What have you done with Wilford?'
'I was just telling Miss Grandon that he missed the train at Branxmore, so he didn't come down with me. I got home last night, and rode over the first thing this morning to tell you.'
The girl turned away for a minute, probably to hide the mortification in her face, and Lascelles seized the opportunity of making a sign to Grandon that he wanted to speak to him alone. The elder man stepped down from the verandah, and the two sauntered away out of earshot.
'What's the matter?' asked Grandon, uneasily.
'Bad enough. When Wilford and I got to Branxmore the town was full; there was a show and race meeting on. Wilford met a lot of old friends and got on the spree.'
'A last bachelor one, eh? Well, I don't suppose Nora will ever hear of it,' said Grandon easily. 'Hang it, man, do you think that I came over here at this time in the morning to tell tales about Wilford. No. There was a woman in one of the bars, who was setting them all by the ears. I need not describe her; you can imagine the sort of woman who goes back west as a barmaid. Well, Wilford got entangled with her, and was not properly sober for days. I could do nothing with him, though I did my best, nor bring him to reason at all.'
'A pretty disgraceful sort of thing, considering his approaching marriage to Nora, but I think, Lascelles, I would have held my tongue about it, if I had been you,' said Grandon, in an offended and suspicions tone, for it struck him that it looked very like blackening the character of an absent man. Lascelles stamped his foot angrily, and his face flushed at the other's words.
'Can't you understand what I mean,' he retorted, hotly. 'I came over here the first thing in order that you can tell your daughter, and not let her hear of it by accident. He married the woman. That's why he did not come down with me.'
Across Grandon's face shot a mingled look of rage and pain.
'The infernal scoundrel!' he said. 'Why it will kill Nora. Her belief in the man is perfect.'
'No, it won't kill her. She has too much pride for that. Wilford has killed himself effectually as far as his future is concerned; but Miss Grandon will get over it. He never can.'
'Was he drunk when he did it?'
'He certainly was not sober, nor in his right senses; but he is married right enough.'
'Surely he will never come back here.'
'That's what I am afraid, of. The baggage he has married is a woman with character, and she will have her way with him. When he comes to himself he will recognise how hopeless his lot is, and either blow his brains out—the best thing he could do—or start drinking and let everything go to the devil.'
'It's an awful blow,' said Grandon; 'but Nora is a brave girl, though, it's at a time like this. I feel the loss of my wife.'
'No one could wish Wilford a worse punishment than what he has provided for himself,' said Lascelles. 'Now I must be off back.'
'You won't stay to breakfast?'
'Under the circumstances, no, old man.' So the messenger of bad tidings rode away.
'She will always think of me in connection with this, and dislike me accordingly,' he thought gloomily as he went home.
'What's that mysterious confab been about,' asked Nora Grandon, as her father returned to the verandah.
'Bad news, child,' he replied.
'Bad news? About Herbert? Then Mr. Lascelles did not tell me the truth after all. He is ill, or has met with an accident.'
'Neither one nor the other; he has simply acted like a fool and villain.'
The girl's face flushed hotly.
'What has Lascelles dared to tell you?' she said.
'Lascelles told me the truth. Wilford goes out of your life for ever. He is now the husband of another woman.'
Her father had to hastily spring forward and catch his daughter in his arms, she turned so white and staggered. She did not faint, however, but after a moment or two stood upright again.'
It cannot be true,' she wailed.
'It must be true. Lascelles would not invent such a story, that must be well known up there. It happened at Branxmore, and the only way to account for it is that Wilford was not responsible for his actions when he did it.'
'He was drunk?' queried the white-faced girl.
'Yes,' answered her father.
'And he swore to me when he left that he would never be induced to touch anything again. He broke that oath, why should he keep his faith with me,' then?'
Nora Grandon leaned against the side of the doorway, and gazed out on the fair landscape that had suddenly become dull and dreary to her.
'Who is the woman be married? She cannot be a good one to marry a drunken man.'
'She is not,' replied her father. 'But you need not speak of her, enough to know that she will be his shame and ruin, for the rest of his life.'
'Do you think that will be any satisfaction to me?' said Nora, indignantly, then turned to hide her misery in her own room.
Her father drew a deep breath of relief. 'She'll get over it,' he mused, 'and it's better as it is. Wilford would never have got out of the clutches of drink—it's in his blood. Now, it she will only notice Lascelles, she will, have a man for her husband.'
He turned to see after some of the early work going on on the homestead; whilst on her bed in the solitude of her room his daughter was sobbing her heart out.
And Lascelles was riding homeward, sorrowing for the girl he had long loved with an unrequited passion; but his heart full of a new hope that he could not repress.
OUT on the limitless plains of the far west, where only a winding, twisting creek, sparsely timbered, broke the view, a man was standing, or, rather, leaning, against one of the verandah posts of a rude hut built of stones and mud, and thatched with coarse grass. He was smoking and evidently lost in a brown study. Dressed only in the rough garb of outside settlement, Lascelles did not look the well-dressed, neatly-groomed man who brought Miss Grandon the tidings of her lover's perjury nearly twelve months before. Those twelve months had not brought him any nearer to Nora. Outwardly the girl had quickly mastered her grief, and turned a brave face to the world; but in her heart the cruel shame that had been put upon her still bled and rankled. Lascelles had brought his cattle out, and stocked the country that he had taken up on his former visit.
Of Wilford he saw but little, although the country he had secured and stocked was in Lascelles's immediate neighborhood. When Wilford's dazed senses returned to him, and he saw before him the whole horror of his future life, he resolved to bury himself in the far west.
Naturally, this did not suit his new-made wife. Aware that he possessed a small but valuable station in the closely-settled coast district, with a comfortable homestead, she had not the slightest intention of going to live in the inferno of a newly-formed station beyond the bounds of nowhere. But rage and blaspheme as she would, the man was firm.
Return to the place where he had lived so long with this painted harridan, ten years older than himself, as his bride, he would not shame himself that far. At last she consented, after wringing various concessions from him; and when a house was ready Wilford went out to perpetual exile, taking with him his lifelong punishment, who only consented to come on condition that she was allowed a long visit to Melbourne in a year's time.
And so they settled down on the new station, amid the great silent plains, the romance and mystery of which the woman could not understand. Only when the supply of rum and other liquor came up with the teams did she appreciate life. In off times she gave Wilford no rest until he cent packhorses to the nearest shanty to obtain a supply of the vile compound called rum in the parlance of the bush publican of the for outside.
Lascelles, riding over occasionally, thought hard things of Wilford—thought that he had brought his wife out to that lone spot to let her drink herself to death or insanity, and free him from the hideous incubus.
But he was mistaken. With all his weakness, Wilford had accepted his fate, and had no thought of hastening the end that he saw looming before the one or the other of them, for he drank heavily himself, and Lascelles heard of the orgies on the station; and discontinued his visits, as being of no use, and only tending to do harm. Therefore, he was much surprised to see, as he lounged against the verandah post, a rider coming across the plain, whom he immediately recognised as Wilford.
'It's all over, old man.'
'What do you mean?' demanded the man, slowly taking his pipe from his mouth.
'My wife is dead. Come over with me and fix things up.'
LASCELLES started, and examined the face of the man keenly, a suspicion striking him that perhaps Wilford himself had done the deed.
'I was away out mustering, and there was no one on the place but the Chinese cook; but I had no suspicion of any myalls being in the neighborhood.' answered Wilford, as much in reply to the glance as to any spoken word of inquiry.
'I left the men and rode in this afternoon, and found her dead, the cook gone, and the tracks of blacks about the place. Will you come back, and do what you can, as the men will not return until to-morrow?'
'Of course, I will, and take a man with me.'
It was a good moon, and the three did not take long to cover the distance between the two places. Wilford had taken the body of his wife into the house, and laid it on the bed. The unfortunate woman had seemingly been killed at one blow, and was not much disfigured. Search as they would, they could not find the body of the Chinaman, and concluded that he had either fled or his body been carried off.
The blacks had done no damage to the place, and appeared to have been but a small travelling party, as there were no tracks of gins or children amongst, them.
Lascelles was a J.P., and therefore able to make an official report on the matter without having to send for the police.
At the sultry dawn of a day of windless heat they buried, the body of the unfortunate creature who had wrought such ruin in Wilford's life. Then Lascelles turned his horse's head homeward, and pondered on what would be the upshot of it all.
Would Nora Grandon condone the terrible offence and take her recreant lover back. He thought and hoped not, but who can answer for the wayward will of a woman where her heart is concerned.
WILFORD remained on the station for some months, and then Lascelles saw him. Next he noticed the change for the better in his appearance. Although aged for his years he was a man from whom a weight of shame and terror, bad been lifted. Has he still hopes, thought Lascelles, jealously.
At that time there was a slight boom in western property in Queensland, and Wilford sold his place and returned east to his old station on the coast which he had leased during his terms of exile out west.
Shortly afterwards Lascelles received an offer too favorable to decline, and he too bade farewell to the western plains and their tragedies.
On returning to the district where he had formerly resided he heard that. Wilford was living a quiet, steady life on his station. Nora Crandon still lived with her father, and looked as though the storm of her life had cleared without leaving much trace.
Lascelles thought that the time had arrived for him to try his fate, and in consequence his horse's feet often took the road to Grandon's station. But it proved vain. The girl gave him her friendship, but nothing more, and he had perforce to content himself with that, and so things went on until he heard that Wilford, who, naturally, shunned the Grandons at first, was again to be found at the station on friendly terms.
NORA forgave her lover. He had been striving to atone for the past, and he had succeeded. Grandon himself was not in favor of it, but he was too easy-going where his daughter was concerned to make any active opposition, so long as be saw her going about with a happy smiling face once more.
Lascelles tried hard to stifle the life-long love he had for the girl and seek consolation elsewhere, but he could not do it, and made preparations to leave his place for a while when the time for the wedding drew near. But he never went.
One morning early a messenger arrived from Wilford's station with a packet for him, and when Lascelles had read it he took horse at once and rode over. But he was too late, as he anticipated. Wilford had ended his mistaken life by his own hand. The packet was a pitiful confession of crime, and at the last he dared not face the ordeal of marrying the pure-hearted girl who had loved him so long and truly.
'When I returned early to the station ahead of the men,' [it ran], 'I missed my wife from the house, and after calling her in vain went to the kitchen to ask the cook if she had gone out riding. What did I see? Lying on the Chinaman's filthy bunk was the woman I had married—stupefied with opium. The grinning wretch himself was in a half-dazed condition from the same drug.
'My brain gave way and I lost control of myself, and only felt the lust of revenge and murder hot within me. I killed them both.
'Then arose before me the possibility of a new; life of freedom and a return to myself again. A small party of natives had been to the station, but had done no harm, and their tracks would serve to hide my deed.
'The Chinaman's body I took away and concealed. My wife I carried it in and laid on the bed. You know all the rest. I had made up my mind to face life once more, and partly succeeded; but the strain has been too much. I have succumbed.
'For nights that woman has come in my dreams and told me of what was coming, and I cannot let Nora marry a haunted murderer.
'She will get over it, and I trust to you to hide the real facts of my crime and let her imagine that it was a bit of temporary insanity that has led to this deed; insanity bred by brooding over the wretched past when I lost her, as I now know, for ever. This is the charge of a dying; man to a one-time friend, and, for Nora's sake I feel that you will carry it out; but I felt that you, of all men, were entitled to know the truth of the tragedy out west.'
ONCE more an act of painful necessity was laid on Lascelles. Once more it was his duty to cross the path of her he loved with tidings of woe and trouble. And he did it bravely as before. The unfortunate suicide and murderer has long since mouldered into dust. But Lascelles and Nora Grandon have never become more than; friends, and now it seems that they never will.
IT was an awful sell when everything was going on so swimmingly, but it is always a woman who upsets my apple-cart, and, for the matter of that, nearly every other man's. It was a small township or village, not far from the mouth of the Murray, between Murray Bridge and the mouth of the river. Railways went all round it, but none of them considered it of sufficient, importance to call at; in fact, it was only a bit of a place where a steamer used to tie up now and again.
What the population was when I first went there I can't say—I daresay over a hundred; but the wonderful thing that struck me was the astonishing healthiness of the place. Grandfathers were as common as the ordinary fathers in other places—that is to say, as common as the limited number of the population admitted. And then they never died; there was no graveyard belonging to the village. When a man arrived at the state of a grandfather and began to get a bit shaky about the knees, he generally got a little too much 'tanked' one night, and managed to slip over the bank of the river. It was mighty convenient, no fuss, no funeral—nothing.
The women were the only trouble, for the grandmothers would generally die shortly after the grandfather had vanished, out of loneliness, then they just carried her off and planted her anywhere. How the people lived, goodness knows, but they did not seem to be badly off, and were able to keep one pub in a state of solvency. They grew potatoes, and did a bit of trade with the steamers; caught fish, and took them up to Murray Bridge and down to Goolwa; shot ducks, cut firewood, and jobs of that sort. But they were a lazy lot, and thundering gamblers. Most of their time was spent in playing euchre, which was the only game they knew. There was not much circulating wealth in the place, but it was generally in the hands of one or two, and the remainder were paupers until it came round to their turn to win.
Well, no good entering into the causes that first took me there, but the confounded healthiness of the place struck me. Of course, like all speculative men, I naturally thought there must be money to be made out of it, and my thoughts, like everybody's would have done, jumped to a sanatorium. That was the first idea, and when I got, down thinking about it, I saw that it was a regular soft thing. In the first place there was no graveyard, and one had never been a long felt want. All deaths were accidental; no doctor could make a living there. These were the moral advantages, so to speak. Physically, there was the river—trips down to Lake Alexandrina, etc.; we could rig up a marked tree that Sturt had inscribed, that meant historical interest; level country for driving and biking—why, it was destined by nature for the purpose.
I proceeded to make inquiries, cautiously and methodically, and found it was even better than I could have anticipated. There were only two or three people in the place who had bought land, they would willingly sell out, and the rest could be had straight from Government.
I started off for Adelaide to see men who had the money to go into the thing. When the men I had in view heard my account of the place they bit at once, for they knew I had my wits about me, and we set to work to draft out the prospectus of the Murray River Immortality Company. We called it the town of Jouvence, and drew up tables of 'average ages,' comparing the population of Jouvence with the populations of places of the same size in New Guinea and the West Australian gold fields, etc.
Then we had 'Births and Deaths,' 'Conjugal Condition of the People,' 'Proportion of Married and Unmarried,' 'Sickness and Infirmity,' (which was shown as nil), and lastly 'Salubrity of the Climate.' All those tables out of a slushy village of a little over a hundred inhabitants. I tell you it was a piece of high art.
It was agreed that I should go back to Glugson's Bend, for that was how the place was gazetted, and commence making some improvements. Meantime, the other promoters would secure the land and push the matter in town which, as it happened to be a brisk time in speculation, they anticipated would boom. The promoting money was put up, and I went back to Glugson's Bend and commenced to make improvements, just to give the place a kind of air as though big things were going to follow.
Now, we made one great mistake. We ought to have let the Glugson's Bend people into a slice of a good thing, but, instead of that, we had bought up the land they owned at a low figure; were going to secure the rest of it; treated them like a lot of chumps, in fact, which no doubt they were, but a chump gets very mad if he misses a bit of pudding.
Anyhow, when they woke up to the fact that Glugson's Bend was going to blossom out into a mighty big place (so we said), and that they had not a hand in it, they began to get vicious. I came in for all the abuse, being on the spot; but I didn't mind that, for I got news every mail that the thing was catching on like wild fire, and there were several fortunes sticking out ahead. I got a decent sort of a landing stage rigged up, and a road cut up to the one pub.
Fortunately, the publican remained my friend, for he saw plenty of custom ahead. One or two strange steamers used to tie up for an hour or two and have a yarn, out of curiosity—Murray River steamers are never in a hurry—and so we began to be talked about, which was just what we wanted. The Glugson Bendites went on growling; said my logs spoiled the river bank, and when two grandfathers tumbled in and were pulled out again by my workmen, instead of being allowed to drift down stream, they got real mad, and vowed that I had shoved them in.
One mail I received a letter from my fellow promoters to say that a very rich maiden lady, Miss Gojamma, had taken great interest in the institution of the sanatorium, and intended to pay it a visit, and, if satisfied as to the soundness of the speculation, she would buy largely when the affair was put on the market. Would I see that she was made comfortable?
I wrote back saying that I would do my best as far as the limitations of the place allowed, and awaited Miss Gojamma with a calm and assured spirit.
The steamer arrived, and I went on board to meet the lady. To my astonishment, she was not, as I expected, an old maid, but a fine, buxom woman of about 28 or 30. She had with her an elderly man, sickly and feeble, a servant, and a pug dog. The old man was her uncle, who thought that he would at once try the effects of the Jouvence air. I got them ashore, though I was afraid once or twice that the uncle would find the fate of the grandfathers, and led them up to the hotel, amidst a grinning crowd of Glugson's Benders, who made audible chuckleheaded remarks as we passed.
I installed them as comfortably as I could, assuring Mr. Belotson, the uncle, that even with the rough accommodation he would have to put up with, the wonderful air of Jouvence would soon restore him to energy and vigor.
Miss Gojamma proved a most amiable companion during her stay at Jouvence. I took her all over the place, and pointed out all the facilities for making it the sanatorium of Australasia, and she entered into everything with great sympathy, and proposed one or two little things herself—ideas which, of course, I received with enthusiasm.
Meanwhile, old Belotson sat on a log and coughed, and chatted with the grandfathers, and grew healthier and stronger day by day. I had better by far have devoted myself to him than gone trailing about with Miss Gojamma and whistling up her wheezy pug dog.
So more than a week passed. I received a letter from my partners saying that all was ready, and that as soon as they got the deeds from the Government (we had applied for it as an agricultural area) the Murray River Immortality Company would be launched on the market. I showed this to Miss Gojamma, and she expressed her delight and satisfaction. So did I when we reached home by kicking that confounded pug when she had gone inside. I always hated that dog. It was an unfortunate kick, all the same.
Somehow, a much better feeling had been shown lately in the town. The Benders chatted amicably with my workmen, and even bestowed a more genial good morning on me when we met. Naturally, I spent a little promoting money in setting up a few drinks for them, and things smiled again. As I passed the half-open door of the sitting-room, sacred to Miss Gojamma and Uncle Belotson, I heard the latter reading aloud, and saw him sitting with what was evidently a blue official paper in his hand.
I just caught the words as follows:
'Name, Glugson's Bend. Hundred, of Crowbait. County of Gumsucker. Set apart prior to act (18 of 1872), requiring dedication. There it is, Matilda, and those are the old survey pegs I saw.'
I didn't wait to hear Matilda's answer, for fear of being caught listening, but I slipped on to my room, and sat down to think. But I could make nothing of it, and after tea I strolled, out in the moonlight and took a short walk on the bank of I the river. Miss Gojamma's pug walked after me, I and, remembering that kick, gave me a nip in the leg. Next moment I had whirled him out into I the flowing stream to join the grandfathers. It was an act of irritable passion, but I was much I worried at the time.
There was ruction that night, and the Benders I sought that pug everywhere; but I trusted that by that time he was safely in Lake Alexandrina.
Next morning I dispatched a letter to my partners, mentioning what I had overheard; but my letter crossed one of theirs, in which occurred the following query:
'Is the old uncle you mention as being with Miss Gojamma a tall, thin man of the name of Belotson? If so he is the senior I partner in the firm of Gojamma and Bunkum, the lawyers. He manages all Miss Gojamma's business (her late father was the head of the firm), and is the most infernal old skinflint going. He was not sick at all when he left here, and must have been shamming, so as to be able to poke about by himself and find things out. Keep in with them, whatever you do.'
I wrote back at once that it was Belotson, the snaky old fraud, and that I would do my best to keep friends with him. Back came the answer to my first letter. It was all up unless we could compromise and take Belotson and Miss Gojamma into the show. The land had been withdrawn for township purposes long ago, and old Belotson had found it out from some of the grandfather Benders, confirmed it by the register, and notified the Government that it was the same land we were applying for, and, of course, they refused our application for an agricultural area, it being already town lands. Still, there was a strong hope of getting everything straight if Belotson thought well of the sanatorium scheme, for we could then go in together, the difference being that Miss Gojamma and her uncle would stand in as first robbers, instead of coming in with the crowd. Otherwise—well, we neither of us would do any good, for we could mutually spoil each other's business.
Unfortunately, this mattered far more to us than Gojamma and Company. They had money, and we had none. How I felt inclined to kick myself for my oversight in not conciliating the Benders! I should then have heard of the old township reserve, and made things right. There was no good crying over spilt milk, or keeping up the farce any longer, and I knocked at the sitting-room door, and entered into a conference with Belotson and Miss Gojamma.
They both recognised the situation, and, the ice being broken, both, especially Miss Gojamma, seemed inclined to enter into friendly relations. Belotson, as a shrewd man of business, approved of the scheme throughout, and submitted a plan of co-operation, which I felt sure my fellow promoters would accept. It would have been much stiffer, I am sure, but for Miss Gojamma's influence, and as she was finding most of the money, of course, she had a good deal to say in the matter.
Things had progressed in a very satisfactory manner, and I rose to transmit the offer to my partners, feeling that a very tight place had been well tided over. As I was going, the landlord came to the door and said, addressing Miss Gojamma:
'Your dorg's found, mum.'
'Oh!' said Miss Gojamma, starting up, 'I am delighted. Poor, dear old fellow! Where is he?'
I stood, my heart in my mouth, white the man answered sheepishly:
'Well, he's outside, mum. He ain't eggsackly fit to come in.' Miss Gojamma pressed to the door, taking me in her train. There were numerous Benders grouped outside regarding an object on the ground.
Such an object! A drowned dog is by no means a handsome sight, but when it is a fat pug, swollen twice its size, with its four stumpy legs sticking out like the legs of an iron pot—O, horror!
Miss Gojamma shrieked, although not one of the shrieking sort, and leant against me for support.
'How ever did he get into the river?' she moaned. 'My poor St. John!'—for that was the pug's name.
'I may as well tell you, mum; Mr. Sawkins there just hove him in!'
'Yes,' chorused the rest; 'we watched him do it.'
Now this was an awful and shameless conspiracy. One might have seen me, but I am certain no more did. Miss Gojamma drew herself away from me with horror.
'You threw my dog in the river!' she exclaimed. I ought to have denied it boldly, sworn the Benders were all liars together, and charged them with it; tout I was taken aback too suddenly. I muttered feebly something about giving him a swim.
'Gave him a swim? Mr. Sawkins, I will never speak to you again;' and she swept inside to her uncle.
They wrangled all the afternoon. The old man did not care if I had drowned twenty pugs, when there was a good speculation in view; but she would have none of it.
In the end he had to give in, and negotiations were off, never to be restored again. Neither side could profit by the idea, so it was abandoned.
But I chuckled next year when I heard that an epidemic of swamp fever had located itself in Glugson's Bend, and many cases had terminated fatally.
'THERE'S an old hut about fifteen from here, and you will strike it about rundown,' said the traveller I had just met. 'There's good feed and water there; but many people don't like camping there.'
'I can't say. Never camped there myself. But used to be part of a pub that was there. That got burned down. That's all I know about it.'
He had asked for some tobacco, and was filling his pipe as he spoke; so I continued the conversation—
'Likely to be haunted, this place?' I asked.
'Tell you I don't know. Knew the pub before it got burnt down. Had many a good booze there. Ratkins used to keep it. Made rare good stuff, too. Guaranteed to make a crocodile drunk with five nips!'
'How did he get burnt down?'
'How do pubs, usually get burnt down? Somebody was boozed, I suppose, and did it. I wasn't there.'
'Anybody killed over it?'
'Did hear something about somebody's bones being found.'
'Well, if I'm going to make the place by sundown, I must be getting forward,' I said, gathering up my reins. 'Good day!'
'Good day! Hope you'll enjoy your camp tonight,' and the traveller and I parted.
It was nearly sundown when I came to the old hut, and at once determined that, ghost or no ghost, I was going to camp there that night. The grass, like the grass always is on old camping grounds in a good season, was thick and sweet; the country was open; the place was situated on the hank of a well-watered creek; and the only drawback was the usual one on old camps—an absence of firewood. Still, that was not material; the night was mild, and I could easily get sufficient to boil my solitary quart.
I promptly unsaddled and hobbled my horses. The other side of the creek might not have any ghosts; but in other respects it was by no means as desirable as the side I was on. I was Just enjoying a pipe, and watching the evening star sinking in the west, my horse bells tinkling merrily on the flat, when I heard someone approaching. It was dark, but the pieces of firewood I had collected to boil my quart were still smouldering red, and quite sufficient to indicate my camp.
The stranger rode up and got off his horse.
'I suppose you've no objection to my camping here?' he said in a hoarse voice.
'None at all; you've as much right here as I have,' I returned.
'Just so; right you are,' and the traveller dropped down heavily on his feet, as though he was tired out.
'My horse stays well,' he said. 'He won't lead yours away,' he continued, as he took the saddle off, and led his horse down towards mine, carrying a pair of hobbles in his hand.
I suggested to him to take the quart-pot with him and bring it back full of water, and he did so. Meanwhile I made the fire up. My new companion came back with his bridle, and the quart-pot full of water. He put the latter down by the fire to boil, and as the full light fell upon his face I thought I had never seen an uglier man. His face was disfigured with scars, and his hands were twisted and distorted; while one of the scars on his face bad given his mouth a kind of perpetual grin. The scars looked like burns, and the man's whole appearance was decidedly unprepossessing.
He had nothing to eat with him, and I provided him with the necessary materials for a meal, during the progress of which I inquired about the old pub and the reputation of the place as a camping ground. He chuckled in his hoarse voice at the question.
'Maybe It's haunted; maybe it's not. All depends on the date. Old Ratkins, he comes back once a year regular.'
'Was old Ratkins burnt, then?'
'Sure and certain he was; inside and out, just as he'd burnt the inside out of many a poor devil before. Burnt their brains out first, so that they did what they never intended to do, and then burnt their insides out afterwards. Oh, he was a villain was old Rat—a low, torturing, murdering villain. How he squealed when he was being burned, and how he kicked and tried to get out, and how the man who did it kept knocking him back again. Oh! it was glorious sport!'
My strange visitor seemed getting quite excited over the matter, so I refrained from saying anything more until he cooled down a bit.
'Were you there?' I asked.
'Perhaps I was, and perhaps I wasn't. Anyhow I knew all about it—knew the man who did it, and knew why he did it. Should you like to hear the story?'
'Yes, very much.'
The ugly man with the scarred face and hands filled his pipe and lit it, then commenced:
THERE was a fellow named Beames—Joe Beames—carrying about here in Ratkins's time; decent sort of fellow; didn't drink, 'cept perhaps a nip now and again. Plenty of work; had a nice little home, and a young wife down at Ravenslaw, the township. He camps here one night, and went up with one of his mates to have a nip, and old Rat, who had spotted him, mixed a dose that stiffened him in one act. Didn't remember a single thing about ten minutes after he'd drank it.
Mates took him home to his camp, and he awoke in the morning feeling as though he'd got a fire alight inside him and it had burnt his tongue hard and stiff. Well, he went up to old Rat, and you bet your life old Rat gave him some proper stuff to pick himself up with, and was quite friendly. Beames began to think him quite a decent sort of chap.
'Look here, Joe,' he says, as though he'd been at school with him, 'there was a little bit of shouting going on last night, and you would take a hand; though you was in no ways fit. So I'll just wipe it off the slate, and we'll say nothing about it. You might think as how I'd be encouraging men to shout when they were boozed, which is a thing I never do. Not me. It might be some people's style, but 'taint mine.'
'Well, of course Joe wouldn't hear of it; would insist on paying his score, and old Rat wouldn't let him. Finally he did so most unwillingly on the agreement that he took a bottle of rum with him for the road. First time Joe had ever had occasion to do so.
Beames went away thinking what an honest old bloke Ratkins was, and vowing that he'd always call in there in future. This was the beginning of old Rat stealing his brain, and he wasn't long doing it either. By-and-bye things came about that Joe was a different man altogether, for old Rat, as well as stealing his brain, was beginning to steal his inside, and he never felt well or fit for work till be had some of the poison to stop the gnawing.
I can tell you things soon went from had to worse, and Joe went down hill as fast as he could. Show you how he stole his brains, Beames used to be as fond of his wife as a man could be of a woman, and he began actually, to dislike her when she begged him to give over drinking and be his old self again. Well, time drew on, and Joe's wife was not far off from having her first baby and he was expected down from his last trip, and sure enough he comes on horseback. Well, his wife was awfully glad to see that he' had thought of her, and come at all; and was quite cheerful.
'Where's the team, Joe?' she said, presently pretending not to notice how bloodshot his eyes were, and how dirty and untidy he looked.
'Team's gone,' he said, without looking her in the face.
'Team's gone?' she repeated, not knowing what be could possibly mean, 'Where's the team gone, Joe.'
'Ratkin has it. Showed me a bill he held over it; must have signed it one time when I was drunk. Don't remember anything about it.'
'You've lost your team, Joe, lost it for drink?' she said, in a choking sort of voice. Then she stretched out her hands, and before Joe could catch her she went right down in a dead faint.
Well, the women came to help, and the next morning Joe was sitting there more than half-stupid, with a dead wife and a dead baby in the next room.
Well, poor Joe Beames, who used to be an independent man, with a team of his own, a nice little home, and a pretty young wife, was very soon a drunken loafer: and, worst of all, he got so low that he became just a knock about wood and water joey at this very pub of old Ratkins, just for his rations and what drinks Old Rat and others gave him. This went on for some time, and Joe Beames was getting worse and worse, when one night a traveller comes along.'
Here the stranger paused for a minute or two.
'I HAD this part from Joe himself,' he said when he recommenced, 'otherwise I shouldn't ask you to believe it. However, I assure you that it's true as Gospel.'
The traveller went in to the bar and looked all round. He was a tall, dark faced looking chap. The bar was pretty full at the time, and the chaps say as how became so hot that it felt like being toasted when that fellow came in.
One fellow says at last, 'Have a drink, mate?' Then the stranger he laughed like anything, and he says 'Have a drink, why not? But I'll shout. I'll shout for all hands. 'Fill up, boys,' and he walked over, to the bar.
'Hullo; you old pirate!' says he; 'How are you? Forgotten me, eh?'
'Yes,' says Rat 'I can't remember your face just now; yet somehow it seems familiar.'
'Of course it does, Rat, you old sinner. Trot out your free fighters (meaning the thick-bottomed tumblers) and shake hands.'
'He put his hand across the bar, and Rat and he shook hard. My word, you should have heard old Rat sing out ki-hi!
'You're red hot,' he cried, as he wrung his greedy old paw with pain.
They all got their drinks and the stranger paid for them. Then he held up his glass.
Here's the last of old Rat,' he says, and he, drops a match in his glass and the spirit flared up, and every man looked like a cold, white corpse as he stood round, looking on. They were all so scared for an instant they forgot to swallow the liquor till the stranger tossed it off, all flaming as it was, and then they drank it and cried 'Here's the last of old Rat!'
'Where's Joe Beames?' said the stranger.
And Joe Beames, somewhat sobered, came up to him.
'Come outside, Joe; I want to speak to you,' and the two went off together.
'Damme, I don't like those kind of larks,' said old Ratkins. 'Who's that cove?'
Nobody could tell him, and they all felt mighty sober all of a sudden.
'Joe Beames,' said the stranger; 'do you know who I am?'
Joe shook his head.
'I'm the devil, and I've come for old Ratkins. I'm going to give you a chance, Joe; a chance to make him feel some of what he's made you feel. You shall burn his brain and his inside the same as he burnt yours, and ruined you. Away you go, Joe, and do, it.'
Joe Beames stood straight up and felt like a man again. He understood every word the stranger said and what he meant.
The men had fallen to drinking again, when all of a sudden they found the room full of smoke. It had been coming for some time, but they hadn't noticed it.
'The house is afire,' said one.
Then the flames burst up with a roar, for a lot of methylated spirits old Rat kept below had caught. Away went the men, and all of them got away safe.
Old Rat, he went to his safe to secure his cheques, and money, and orders, and one thing and another. He was stooped in there, shoving everything into a bag to carry away, when one of the beams of the floor gave way, and the floor lurched down. The heavy door of the safe slammed, and pinned old Rat, and held him in the middle of that blazing, fiery furnace as burst up suddenly all round.
Oh, man, it was an awful sight to see the old sinner getting roasted. And when at last he did get up and staggered along to get out of the fire, there was only one man game to go in, and that was Joe Beames. They thought as he was going to help him out; but no fear. He pushed him back, and he shouted, 'Here's the last of old Rat;' and when the shrieking old sinner got up again he went right into the fire and chucked him in again. No matter how he got burnt, he never felt it, didn't Joe Beames, for the joy of seeing old Rat burn, as he'd burnt the inside out of many another man.
THE stranger ceased, and after a bit I asked, 'What became of Joe Beames?'
'I never heard tell rightly, but anyhow he told me the story, and you bet it's true.'
The stranger suddenly grew taciturn, and we both of us remained silent, until I fell asleep. In the middle of the night I was suddenly awakened by a voice calling out.
I half rose, and listened. From the stumps of the old building came a cry, in the hoarse voice of the stranger:
'Here's the last of old Rat!' and with it came, too, shrieks of awful agony.
Much startled, I went over to the place where the stranger had lain himself down. He was gone, and now all was silent. Nor did I ever see that man again.
But he certainly came to my camp that night and told me this story.
'SOU-WEST you'll pick up the road from Watervale,' said the man in charge of the repairing party on the overland telegraph line, addressing two travellers with led pack horses; 'but it's almighty rough across there, and I'd advise you to go back to Watervale, and follow the road, You'll find it shorter in the end.'
'Don't like turning back,' said one of the men, 'and our horses are pretty fresh, and shod.'
'Oh, it's not stones so much as sand ridges—white sand and pine scrub. However, you'd better turn out here, and start to-morrow morning, for there's only one place where you can reckon on water, and that's a creek about half way.'
'What came of the old loony who was knocking about here six months ago?' said one of the line-men, addressing the crowd in general as they sat eating their meal that evening.
'Never heard,' returned another; 'but there was some yarn about his tracks having been seen going out the way you fellows are going; and another yarn about his horses having turned up at Watervale, but I never heard the rights of it.'
Next morning the two men started, and towards sundown came to the creek they had been told about. It was a desolate looking spot enough; a bare sandy creek, where a trickle of water down the centre of the bed, cut its way between white sand ridges, whereon gaunt angular pine trees threw their naked arms about. There was a little grass on the edge of the bank, and the travellers soon turned their tired horses out for it had been, heavy travelling all day.
'What's that half-way up the ridge there, Jack?' said one of them.
'Blessed if at does not look like a rag of an old tent. Let's go up and see.'
It was the tattered rags of an old tent which the wind had blown into ribbons, and the late owner sat with his back to a tree as if complacently, contemplating the wreck of his property. He had been dead some months, and the summer heat had dried him to a mummy.
'What the devil's that round his neck?' said Alf to his mate, as they stood and surveyed the relic.
They went forward and found a surcingle round the neck of the corpse, like a running noose, the end of the surcingle having been passed through the buckle and pulled nearly taut.
'Looks as if he'd been hanged and then let down again,' said Jack, glancing up the tree.
There was a suspicious bough handily situated just overhead. They found a pack-saddle and a riding saddle in the camp, and a few of the rest of the impedimenta a man generally carries in outside country; but the dogs had been at work, and the leather had been damaged by the weather.
'I suppose it's the old loony the men spoke of, whoever he was. I reckon we had better bury him in the morning; it's too late to-night' said Jack.
'What on earth did he want to come and die here for?' grumbled Alf, who seemed to look upon it rather in the light of a personal affront.
'I suppose he couldn't pick and choose his own place, could he?' retorted Jack. 'Although for the matter of that I don't see what he had to die of about here. It's not a cheerful spot certainly, but there's no occasion for a man to die on that account.
The men cooked and ate their meal, and soon were fast asleep.
Jack woke up in the middle of the night and looked around, and listened to hear which way the horses were making. It, was bright moonlight and if the place looked cheerless by day, it looked far more so at night The white bare sand and the sombre trees, with their black shadows, did not combine to make up a lively picture. A wind was wailing too, and made a melancholy sound, amongst the pine boughs. Jack's attention was drawn by the flapping of the old tent on the ridge. He looked that way, started, jumped up, and stared with might and main. He glanced at Alf, but he was sleeping soundly. What he thought he saw was a dark figure leaping and waving its arms about under the tree where the corpse lay.
'Must be a moving bough,' muttered Jack. 'Any way, I'll go and see without waking Alf.'
Buckling on his belt and revolver, he went noiselessly to the spot and' came on to a strange sight. The corpse had got up, and was indulging in strange and unbecoming antics—springing in the air; and trying to throw the end of the surcingle that was round its neck over the branch overhead.
At last it gave up, and moaned so miserably that Jack felt sorry for it; he was a soft-hearted fellow.
'What's the matter, old man?' he said.
'Matter!' groaned the corpse. 'Why I've got to roost out here on this ridge without any rest until I've hanged myself.'
'What do you want to hang yourself for? I should have thought you had no need to do that.' (Jack told me this yarn himself, and said he felt as cool as a cucumber all through the interview.)
'You don't understand,' returned the corpse. 'All our family have hanged themselves. My father, my grandfather, and my uncle Bill. My cousin Ned was hanged by the hangman. Now, my uncle Bill was a cantankerous old curmudgeon, who always disliked me, and before he did it he wrote a letter about his property, and in it he said, "I mistrust my nephew Frank (that's me); when the time comes he'll go back on his family, see if he don't."
'And then the old maligner went and did it.
'Now, I felt very hurt about this, and it rather preyed upon me, so one day I made an attempt to prove old uncle Bill a liar, but I was cut down and reprimanded by a magistrate, and altogether made a mess of it. I tried another time; same result. Same result again a third time, and I was getting about tired of it. Then I made up my mind to come out away back somewhere where a man could have a fair show. I got a hankering after the telegraph posts, but I didn't think it quite fair, because those chaps on the line were very sociable, so I came out here, and, would you believe it that very day I started I was taken bad with the fever.
'You know what the fever is, how it takes it out of a man's knees and neck and backbone, and everything else. How I managed to get here, I don't know; but somehow I did, and here I had to camp. I was bad, and a bit off my head for a few days, and when I was able to get about I found that my horses had come to the conclusion that it was a God-forgotten kind of place, and had cleared out Then it struck me that now was my chance. Here was I, all alone, no one to cut me down; I'd show Uncle Bill if I was going to go back on the family. And then, then—' (Here the corpse yelled in agony.)
'I was too weak, too gone in the joints, to throw that blessed surcingle over the branch! I tried, and tried, and tried, and at last one day I made a sort of a cast of it and half choked myself, and being so weak I fell down under the tree, and died.'
The corpse was silent for awhile.
'Ever since then,' went on the defunct, 'I've been tormented by old Uncle Bill coming and jeering at me, and night after night I've tried to do it properly and failed, and never a soul has come to this day to help me. Now,' went on the corpse, in a coaxing tone, 'would you mind giving me a hand. Just a pull on the surcingle, you know; throw it over the limb first.'
Jack took up the surcingle and considered. There could be no harm in hanging a dead man who wanted it so badly. The corpse took up his position, and he threw the surcingle over the limb, but it fell too short for him to grasp.
'Wait a minute,' he said, 'I will go and get one of our's and buckle on.'
Jack went to the camp, and got a surcingle. Alf was still snoring, and the dead man was awaiting him with a heavenly smile of expectation on his face.
'Now, then,' said Jack, 'say when you're ready.'
'Ready!' cried the corpse.
'Up you go,' said Jack, and half way up to the limb he went. Jack took a turn and a couple of half-hitches round a handy sapling, then, saying 'Good-night' went back to his camp, and slept soundly until morning.
THE two travellers got up at daylight. Alf went after the horses, which had gone down the creek in a different direction. Jack got breakfast ready, and glanced at the place of his midnight adventure, but there was nothing hanging on the tree, so he came to the conclusion that it was a nightmare, and made up his mind to say nothing about it. Presently Alf returned with the horses, and they had breakfast.
'Suppose we'd better go and bury that chap,' growled Alf. 'Good job it's soft digging.'
Jack assented, and they started. Arrived at the spot Alf looked round and started.
No wonder! The body lay under the limb, the head a little distance off, and over the branch dangled the empty noose. Evidently the defunct's neck had not stood the strain. Jack kept silence; then Alf strode over to where the second surcingle was fastened to the sapling, and examined it.
'Blowed if he didn't come down and get my surcingle,' he muttered as he recognised his initials marked on it. He unbuckled it and marched off, saying to Jack as he did so, 'Look here, if that fellow could get up last night and hang himself with my surcingle, he can just bury himself as well.'
THE infinite torment of flies, was everywhere. They flew down your throat when you opened your mouth, they clustered in noisome swarms about your eyes, they drowned themselves by dozens in your tea, and your food was made repugnant by their crawling over it. Night brought no relief, for although one could creep under the 'cheese cloth' curtains that served for mosquito nets, the heat was stifling. All around was the dry, white plain save where the tongue of timber, wherein the men were camped, ran out into it.
And from out of that timber rose a bare mound of granite. At the foot of the mound were two or three rock holes, one a pretty fair-sized one, half full of water, and round the base of the mound was a better spring of grass then anywhere else. The two men there had nothing to do but wait, and waiting under such circumstances was a weary business.
They were out looking over some new country in Central Australia, and the man in charge of the party had gone ahead with one man and a blackboy, leaving them there to await his return, and mind the spare horses. Day after day they looked anxiously across the plain hoping to see the returning figures, and night after night crawled under their nets disappointed. It. was long past the time when they should have returned, and the men were in an irritating state of uncertainty as to what to do. To follow the tracks might lead to trouble, as the absent men might come back on another course and find them gone.
To continue stopping there doing nothing was well nigh impossible. Martin stood and looked out across the plain about two hours before sundown. He stood looking so long and intently that Rawson, his mate, asked him if he saw anything.
'Yes, there's something bobbing about there. It looks like an emu coming in to water.'
Rawson, joined him, and both men regarded the approaching object in silence for some time.
'It's a blackfellow,' said Rawson at last. 'It is, and by Jingo it's Dandy crawling back along the tracks.'
Picking up a couple of bridles, Martin went to where the horses were feeding around the granite mound and caught two of them. Saddling them hastily he started, leading one, towards the dark figure coming across the plain.
Dandy was a miserable sight to see. His feet were cut and bleeding; he had thrown his clothes away, and on his side, was a ghastly wound covered with flies, which he was feebly trying to beat away with a bough. Martin hastily dismounted, and put the water bag to his parched lips. Dandy found his voice after a long drink, and, turning on Martin, eyes of horror and agony, said hoarsely:
'Them gone. Them two fellow gone.'
'Gone—gone bung?' inquired Martin, using the common bush phrase for death.
'Baal, gone away, away alonga debbil, debbil.'
'Here, come on to camp, where you can lie down and we'll dress your wound,' said Martin roughly, but kindly.
Dandy managed to mount, and they rode slowly back to camp.
'Don't speak to him for a bit until he's had a feed, and a spell, he seems a. bit dotty,' Martin said to Rawson.
Dandy ate ravenously, and then they examined his wound. It had a peculiar appearance, and seemed more like the tear of a huge claw than anything caused by an ordinary weapon. Heat, flies, and the exhaustion of walking had inflamed it, and a white man would have succumbed to it quickly. Both men were old station hands, and had become used to treating wounds on animals, so, though rough, their surgery was practical.
Somewhat relieved and recovered, Dandy told them a singular story, which, after allowing for the embroidery of a blackfellow's fancy, the men could scarcely believe.
According to Dandy, they had found fairly well-watered country, and were about turning back, whet they caught sight of a low black range ahead, and Murray, the leader, determined to go that far in order from the summit to view the land ahead. The range proved very scrubby and barren and what puzzled Dandy was that there were large pads or tracks leading through it, and, although these tracks were dusty and seemingly used by whatever animal made them, he could see no foot tracks on them.
They reached the top, and from it saw a level expanse of country partly scrubby, and partly open, with a small lake about two miles away. It was getting towards sundown, and they went to this lake, which proved salt. There was fair grass about, however, and they had water with them, so Murray expressed his intention of turning the horses out for a few hours' feed, and turning back by moonlight.
It was a brilliant moonlight night, only two nights off full moon, and the party were smoking after their meal, when they were startled by an agonised cry from one of the horses. There is no sound more startling and painful to hear than the semi-human cry of a horse in mortal pain and terror, and the men, starting to their feet, picked up their firearms, and hastened in the direction of the sound, their natural thought being that the blacks were spearing the horses.
One horse, a grey, was plunging frantically in its hobbles, rearing and uttering the terrified scream of pain that had startled them. As they approached they saw, clinging to the horse's throat, with claws buried in the shoulders, and its jaws having a firm grip on the poor creature's throat, what appeared to be a monstrous lizard.
The horse, as they approached, stood still, trembling all over, but the horrible thing fastened on it never moved. Putting his carbine close to its head at an angle that would not hurt the horse, Murray fired. The claws of the thing relaxed, but the jaws never opened, and the frightened horse began turning round and round with the dead creature hanging on to its throat. Then it staggered, fell, and, with a shuddering gasp, died.
The creature that had attacked it was, in fact, an enormous sort of lizard, with a huge disproportionate head. The iron jaws, armed with cruel teeth, still retained their death grip on the dead horse's throat; from which the blood was now pouring. While engaged in looking at it Dandy was seized in the side by another of the horrible creatures. Rafter, the other man, killed it, but not before it inflicted a terrible wound.
Murray called to them to catch the horses and get away as soon as they could, for others of the brutes were coming along the tracks they had noticed. Dandy could not see any footprints because the lizard's short, stumpy tail obliterated the tracks as it was dragged over them. Dandy could do nothing but stagger to camp; while Murray and Rafter ran after the horses to drive them up.
Dandy heard shouting and shots, but the others did not come back. He heard another of the creatures crawling towards him, and, overcome with blind terror, he fled. How long he was getting back he could not remember.
This was the tale they got from him.
'What can these creatures be?' asked Rawson.
'I've heard of things like that in some parts of Central America, bat never in Australia.'
'Now I think of it,' said Rawson, 'the blacks do say there are large lizards about—that make long pads in and out to their camping places. They call them—let's see—some name like 'Gonderup.'
'Gonderanup,' corrected Martin. 'Yes, I've heard, them speak of them, but never knew what they were.'
The men then had a serious discussion as to the best thing to do. To wait until Dandy was well enough to go back with them was not to be thought of. They must start that night. By close questioning they thought they could get from him a fairly approximate idea of the place. Anyhow, the range and the salt lake were good landmarks.
As for Dandy, he could spell at the camp until they came back. There were no signs of blacks about—no smoke had been visible—while they had been there. The place seemed shunned by the natives, and Dandy would be safe enough. Not that he particularly enjoyed the idea any more than he did the notion of going back to the land of the lizards, but there was no help for it.
Each leading a horse, the two men started, having got a fair idea from Dandy where they would find water.
They rode on steadily and silently throughput the night, and in the morning, by a singular piece of good fortune, found themselves still on the outward trail of Murray and his companions. This simplified mattes very much, and they had hopes of sighting the range before sundown.
They reached a rock hole about 10 o'clock, and turned the horses out for a good long spell during the heat of the day. It was sundown when they caught sight of the range, evidently some distance off, and as there was a bit of good feed, and they had been pushing the horses pretty hard, they determined to camp until a couple of hours before daylight. They could formulate no plan until they had seen these creatures and got the lay of the country; but they had little hope of rescuing their two companions alive.
They did not sleep much, for they did not know but what Gonderanups might attack them although they had not yet come across any of the trails spoken of by Dandy. Still they did not know how far these creatures took it in their heads to ramble. It was breaking day when they came to the edge of the scrub that clothed the range, and here they saw the first of the long converging trails, or pads, described by Dandy. More than that, they saw one of the Gonderanups creeping back along the trail, as though it had been out foraging during the night.
The sound of the horses feet made it stop and turn its head.
'You're the best shot, Martin,' whispered Rawson. Martin raised his carbine; the lizard stood defiantly still, and opened its huge mouth as if in threat. Martin fired, and the thing turned over, stretched out its short, stumpy legs, furnished with great claws, and expired.
The two men rode up to it, and, after looking carefully around to see that no others were near, they dismounted to examine the brute. It was a stumpy-tailed lizard, about 6ft or 7ft long. Its legs were short, and the claws were enormous. Above all, its head seemed to be nearly one-third of its whole length, and the jaws and teeth were terrifying, even in death.
'I am afraid we shall never find them alive,' said Martin. 'If these things only come out at night, they should have been able to get away in the daytime.'
'Perhaps the Gonderanups got them the first night, when Dandy bolted.'
'Perhaps so; I'm afraid they did,' said Martin. 'What horrible creatures! If one got hold of a man he would never let go until he was dead.'
'Let's follow the trail along; perhaps this fellow was late, and they are all camped by now.'
Martin agreed, and they rode along the trail for two miles, when they reached a fair-sized hole in the ground, and from all sides tracks such as they were following converged towards this opening.
'This is their lair, or one lair, at any rate,' said Martin.
'I remember now the blacks said these things camped underground all day; and hunted at night, though this country cannot support, many of them,' and Rawson glanced around at the barren waste of scrub.
'Will you chance it?' said Martin suddenly.
'What?' asked his companion. 'Why, there's heaps of dry wood about here. We'll build such a fire over this hole that will scorch the life out of them if they are not salamanders.'
'I'm on,' said Rawson. 'We must be canny. If they came out with a rush where would we be?'
The two men dismounted, and, as a precaution, first put two or three heavy dead logs crosswise above the opening. Then they filled in underneath: with light wood, dead leaves, and any dry lumber, and set fire to it. The dry scrubwood burnt like tinder, and the men, working like stokers, kept piling more wood on until there was a roaring fire that they could not approach.
Once they saw amid the reek and glare a hideous head, with eyes burnt out of their sockets, appear for a moment, and fall back again. This was the only attempt at escape they witnessed, though for two hours, until they were fairly exhausted, they kept feeding the fire.
'Not likely they have any other mode of egress,' remarked Martin.
'No. All the trails seem to die out at the other end.'
'I should like to know how many we have roasted; but we never shall. Let's get on ahead.'
They were soon at the top of the low range, and could see the salt lake, which they soon reached. The skeletons, literally skeletons, of three horses lay around, the flesh clean picked from the bone; but they both drew a sigh of relief when they rode round without seeing the sign of man's remains. They found the saddles; but the camp did not at first look as though it had been disturbed, until on further searching they discovered that most of the rations and some cooking utensils were missing.
'Hurrah!' shouted Martin; 'the gonderanups never killed them. They must have come back to the camp to get these things, and must be camped about here.'
'What's this?' said Rawson, picking up a piece of paper that had been tucked under the hook of one of the pack-saddles. They opened and read the crumpled scrap:
'Martin, or Rawson,—I am camped on the rock mound, two miles from here, due N.E. I write this in case you follow our tracks. Rafter is delirious, and I cannot leave him. For God's sake don't camp near the scrub or at the lake; there are devils about.'
Neither spoke after reading this message. Both mounted and with their led horses rode off due north-east. In a little time they sighted the granite mound, and shouted and fired off their revolvers to announce their approach. Murray consequently was at the base waiting for them when they cantered up.
'Thank Heaven you have come!' he said. 'I have all this time been nursing poor Rafter; he's mad, and I could not leave him. Did you see anything of those horrible creatures?'
'Yes; Dandy came back, badly wounded, and told us about them.'
'I gave up Dandy as dead. How we got away that night I can't tell; but I managed to save Rafter and three of the horses; Rafter is terribly bitten; three of them fastened hold of him. He is round here under some cork trees; at night I carry him to the top of the rock. There is water here, and I found out that these things did not come out in the daylight, so I went to our camp and got some rations.'
While they walked round the hill to see the sick man, Martin told Murray of their trip out Rafter was bad indeed; his agony was fearful, and at sundown he died. They buried him at the foot of the lonely mound—a fitting headstone for a brave man—and then they started homewards. Murray told them he had shot three of the lizards while on the rock, and as they saw none afterwards they began to hope that they had destroyed most of them.
As they approached the place where they had made the fire over the lair of the brutes, they smelt an intolerable stench—a stench that seemed to thicken the air around them—and they felt it impossible to approach the spot. This assured them that they must have killed a good many, and the after settlement of the country seemed to prove that the whole lot had been destroyed, as none of the larger variety have been seen since, although the smaller species is still to be found.
When they approached the camp all was silent. Martin shouted for Dandy, but got no answer. Poor Dandy was dead. The bite of the gonderanup seemed to be fatal.
Murray never would tell the whole details of his fight with the lizards on the bank of the salt lake, when he managed to bring off his companion. The subject seemed repulsive to him, and he swore that you could hack the bodies off the creatures, and their jaws would still remain fixed. They were not natural, he said, and old blackfellows of that part who remember them say so too.
IT was simply a choice between killing a man, and outraging all the finer sensibilities of my nature. Had I not done the deed I should have had to appear in another man's eyes as a coldblooded, selfish ingrate. I swear to you that it was to spare the feelings of both of us that I took upon myself the terrible responsibility of slaying a fellow-creature.
Do I regret the deed? Not at all.
Twelve years ago, I was just coming to the end of my term of partnership in a North Queensland station, and well pleased I was to get out of it, for pastoral property was falling rapidly. My two partners were not so happy over the matter. The rate at which they were buying me out had, under our agreement, been fixed some time previously, and as prices had since steadily fallen, they had to pay me more than the market value. But, then, had stations gone up, as was anticipated by them when the rate was agreed upon, I should have been forced to accept less than the market value, so it was just the fortune of war.
I had to be up on the station by a fixed date, the wet season had arrived, and there was not a day to spare. If I did not attend on the date specified for delivery, it might form a pretext for the other side to repudiate their bad bargain. The rain came down steadily, and I knew that my work was cut out to reach the place in time. Once across the Banderoar river, I was safe, but when I arrived on the bank it was a swim, and fast rising. There was too much at stake to hesitate; crocodiles or not, I must cross. My horse could swim well, I knew, and so could I. It was growing late, so, without more ado, I undressed, strapped my clothes on the saddle, unbuckled the reins, crossed the stirrup-leathers in front, and started.
As soon as old Hielandman (my horse) was out of his depth and swimming straight, I slipped off and swam alongside him. We were nearly two-thirds of the way across when suddenly Hielandman struck against a submerged snag. The shock and the strong current made me foul him, and ere I could get clear he had clipped me on the head with his fore-foot. I don't remember much about what happened immediately afterwards, only it seemed mighty hard to drown just as I was about to retire with a small competency and get married. Then I felt cold, and oh! so sick, and, after an interval, I found myself ashore with a great singing in my ears and a taste in my mouth as though I had swallowed all the flood-water in North Queensland.
I had been pulled out by one of a party of men camped on the bank I was making for. He had bravely jumped in without waiting to undress, and after being nearly drowned himself, had dragged me ashore. He was standing by the fire wringing out his wet clothes, and, with the glow of new-born life within me, I thought he was the most glorious fellow I had ever seen.
'By Jove, old man!' he said to me cheerily, 'if I had waited to take my trousers off you would have been feeding the crocodiles now.'
I did not doubt it, and I told him how deeply grateful I felt, and how I could never thank him sufficiently. To die just then would have been especially bitter, and I said so.
Hielandman had got free of the snag and swum to land safely. Beyond the lump on my head there was no damage done. My new friends were a party of drovers returning from delivering a mob of cattle. I camped with them that night, and next morning, with a light heart, departed for my destination. Needless to say, I had assured Jenkins, my rescuer, of my undying gratitude, and told him that whenever he desired it, my home should be his home, and my purse his purse. He took it all very nicely, told me that he was sure I would have done the same for him, that he wanted nothing; but to oblige me, if ever he did become 'stone broke' he would remember my kind offer.
TWELVE years elapsed. The money I had received for my share of I he station had, by judicious investment, turned into a nice little fortune. I was married to a wife exactly suited to me, we had three healthy children, and lived in good style in one of the prettiest suburbs of Sydney. I had often told my wife of the gallant way in which Jenkins, whom I had never since seen, plunged into the flooded river and rescued me, and she as often said that it would crown the happiness of her life to see him and thank him with her own lips.
One day I was accosted in George street by a bearded and sunburnt bushman dressed in unmistakable slop clothes, who seized me by the hand and ejaculated, 'But for being told, I should never have known you. You look a different sort of fellow to what you did when I pulled you out of the Banderoar. By love, old man, had I waited to take off my trousers you'd have been a gone coon!' It was Jenkins, my preserver.
I was delighted to see him and insisted on his coming out to stay with me. He agreed willingly, and I was at last able to present to my wife the saviour of her husband. That she was disappointed, I could see; but, being a good little woman, she did not let the guest observe it. Truth to tell, I somehow shared her sentiments. I had, perhaps, rather over done my description, and had made my wife expect to see something akin to one of Ouida's heroes. Jenkins certainly did show to better advantage at his own camp fire than in town in his newly-creased reach-me-downs, but we forgave all that, and made him royally welcome. At dinner he was rather awkward, and insisted on telling my wife the story of my rescue twice over, always emphasising the fact that, had he stopped to doff his trousers, I should have been drowned.
From that date there commenced an ordeal which I would not willingly—nay, one which I could not—again endure. When Jenkins gained a little confidence he became argumentative and dictatorial. I am a sociable man, and my house was a favourite with my friends, but Jenkins sat upon them all. He asserted his opinions loudly and emphatically, and when unacquainted with the place or topic under discussion, always had some friend of the past to quote who knew all about it. He held views on the labour troubles which were rank heresy to my circle of pastoral friends, but never did he hesitate to loudly assert them. And yet he was a good fellow, evidently looking upon me as a sort of a creation of his own.
'Ah!' he would say, as we stood regarding my pretty house, the sunny, flowering garden, and the children playing on the lawn, 'we should never have seen this if you had gone to the bottom of the Banderoar. If I had stopped to take off my trousers.'
I felt this, too, and wrung his hand in response. Perhaps that very evening we had a small dinner-party, and when I saw a demure smile steal over everybody's face, I knew that in the coming silence I should hear Jenkins describing what would have happened had he 'stopped to pull'—Then, I could have slain him. We had not a lady friend to whom he had not confided, in a loud voice, that singular instance of his presence of mind in refraining from undressing. Those male friends whom Jenkins had not insulted, I had quarrelled with on account of their frivolity in always asking me if 'Jenkins had taken his trousers off yet?'
But the worst of it was that the dear fellow really believed that he was affording me the most exquisite happiness in entertaining him. He was convinced that for twelve years I had been pining to pay off my debt, and that now I was enraptured. He was my shadow and reverenced everything belonging to me. How could I break this charm by declaring that I was tired of him? It would have been worse than heartless.
At last my patient wife began to grow short-tempered and restless. She told me plainly once that Jenkins had not pulled her out of the Banderoar, and that she did not see why she should put up with him any longer. I tried to point out that as she and I were one it really amounted to the same thing, but she replied that it certainly did not. We were not married when it happened, and if I had been drowned she would have married somebody else—perhaps someone not oppressed by having barnacled to him a devoted rescuer who was eternally advertising that he had not taken off his trousers.
I felt that a climax neared—and that something must be done to prevent the breaking up of my once happy home. At times I meditated investing a portion of my capital in a small selection somewhere and getting Jenkins to go and look after it for me, but he expressed himself as being contented where he was, and so greatly averse to returning to the bush, that I abandoned the ideas. Now, too, he began to indulge in sheepish flirtations with the maids, and my wife sternly requested me to 'speak to your friend.' I attempted to do so, but when I saw his mild, affectionate eyes gazing at me and knew that he was thinking of the time when he struggled beneath the muddy flood waters without taking off his trousers, I broke down. I could not wound his gentle heart.
It came to me suddenly—the inspiration, the solution of the difficulty. Jenkins must die!
Once resolved, I acted. I knew it was wrong, but I couldn't help it, any more than Deeming could help killing his wives, or Mr Neill Cream could help poisoning all those poor girls in London. Jenkins was a friendless bushman; I was a man with responsibilities and a family. Their happiness stood first, and it was kinder to Jenkins to kill him at once than to undeceive him.
I shall not enter into details as to the carrying out of my design. Enough to say that it was perfectly successful. I have no intention of teaching the art of murder made easy. Jenkins died peacefully and painlessly. The doctor said that his constitution had been undermined by exposure and hardship. When he was confined to his bed my wife forgave him everything, and nursed him with unremitting care. I have even seen tears in the poor little woman's eyes as she murmured that she was afraid we should lose him. Other people came to see him, and he passed away happy in the firm belief that he left behind him a large circle of sorrowing friends.
I buried him in my own ground in Waverley cemetery, and erected a neat stone with a suitable inscription, stating that he had risked his life in preserving me from death.
All my old friends are back again. Everybody has told me what a manly fellow I was, and how they admired my social pluck in not looking coldly upon an old benefactor who did not happen to be quite up to the Government House standard of dress and manners. My conscience is easy.
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