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The Stories Of Ernest Favenc, Volume IV:
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Date first posted: Feb 2023
Most recent update: Feb 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
TOM DARKE was a man who in his own particular line was, in bush parlance, 'a daddy.' His particular line was 'bull-punching,' or in other words, bullock-driving. Tom lived in an outside district of Northern Queensland in the days when there were still outside districts in that colony. He had two teams of his own, and was doing fairly well, though his trips were lengthy, laborious, and at times dangerous. The blacks in the basaltic walls of the valley of the river, through which his usual road ran for nearly two hundred miles, had a habit of issuing out of their fastnesses on periodical occasions, and making a foray for fresh meat and other unconsidered trifles, a white man's kidney fat not being the least delicacy amongst their requirements. Working bullocks were especially prized, as they were quiet, and allowed the natives to come close to them, so that there was less trouble in spearing them.
Tom Darke thought little of these dangers, a brush with the niggers only served to warm his blood; in fact, there were but two things Darke was frightened of. One was his wife, the other was the chance of seeing a ghost. His wife, a delicate little woman, lived at the nucleus of the township that was being formed at the lowest crossing of the river before-mentioned. The road there crossed the river, and went from its valley out over the range, and down, to the coast to the seaport where it was bound.
Mrs. Darke, as before said, a slight little woman, but the proud possessor of a big bald-headed baby, lived there, and kept Tom in order when he came down from up country. Also, when he came back from down country; that is to say, the rapidly-growing seaport where he delivered and obtained his loading.
Tom pulled up his two teams, for, as before said, he possessed two, at the back of the little township, and prepared to unyoke. His mate stopped with the waggons, but Tom spent his two days, before they resumed their journey, at the weatherboard cottage, which was his own, and where the frail little wife, and the big bald-headed baby spent a not unhappy time while he was away.
Finally, having unyoked, seen the bullocks taken off to their feeding ground, ail gone down to the river, and had a bath, and changed his clothes Tom felt fit to go home, and visit the small wife and big baby, with both of whom he had already exchanged distant salutations.
Now, as again beforesaid, Tom Darke dreaded only two things—his wife and the supernatural. His wife ruled him by reason of her frailty, and the contempt she had for ghosts and all belonging to them. It was a source of wonderment to Tom how a little creature that he could have cut in two with has bullock whip, could laugh at all the strange horrors the dark might possibly conceal.
Tom, if niggers were knocking about, or bullocks had strayed, thought no more of the dark than any other bushman. But let him sit for an hour or two round the camp fire, and get primed up by his companions with proper bush ghost yarns, why the darkness beyond the circle of firelight became, to his imagination, peopled with ghastly shapes of horror.
Tom's weakness was well known, and his wife had often tried to rally him on the subject; and he had come to think that she was a person whom ghosts would not dare approach, and before whom these intangible phantoms of darkness, who occasionally gibbered around his lonely camps, and peered with wild eyes through his smoke-begrimed mosquito nets, would disperse and fly.
Great wonder was it then that when Tom came up smiling and clean soaped, and took his wife and bald-headed baby into his extensive arms, he was amazed to find her in a tearful and affectionate mood, hiding her face on his shoulder, and saying:
'Tom! Tom! I am so glad to see you back; I've had such bad dreams about you.'
The bald-head baby said 'Gloo, gloo,' and slobbered as badly as ever, and Tom stood aghast at the idea of his ghost-proof wife being troubled by dreams.
'Dreams,' said Tom, adapting himself to the new character of sceptic. 'Dreams are all tommy-rotters. Why, I dreamt the other night that Snowey, you know, the near-side leader, was bogged in a waterhole, and the dingoes had chewed his ear off, and taken the eye out of him. Lord, I was up hot foot in the morning, and out with Yellow Dan, and old Snow was as right as the bank, and looking at me as he chewed his cud, just as if he knew all about it, and was laughing at me.
'What were you dreaming about?'
'Oh, Tom, it was as real as real. You were standing alongside a waterhole, a lagoon with tea tree scrub all round. It was a dark-looking lagoon, with water lily leaves round the edges; and Tom, you were standing there with such a look on your face, and a gun in your hand. Oh, Tom, I couldn't have believed, you could have looked so. Then I saw one of the water lily leaves move, and a head come from out of the waiter. Tom, you put up your gun and fired at the head, and then there was a great noise, and spears seemed to come flying towards you, so many that some of them must have hit you. Tom! tell me if you have had any trouble with the blacks this trip?'
'Why, it's been burnt feed all through. Bullocks round the camp every morning; seemed as if they were just wanting to be yoked up. Never had an easier trip, and never saw the track of a nigger.'
'Oh! Tom; and I've been so frightened about you ever since I had this dream.'
Tom put his wife back from him, and looked at her. 'You, Jennie, frightened of dreams?'
'Gloo! gloo!' said the large-headed baby.
'But, Tom, this was more like reality; it was so plain, so plain; and, Tom, listen, the face that you tired at—the face under the water lily leaves—was Yellow Dan's, the half-caste boy you have with, you as bullock watcher.'
'You must have been dreaming. Yellow Dan is the best boy Jack Morlock and I could have got! Isn't a better to be found in Queensland. Fancy my going to shoot him? Must have been dreaming, you must.'
Tom and the wife went in to tea, and before he started again for the little seaport of Bobsville she had nearly forgotten her strange dream, except when Yellow Dan came up to the cottage and put her in mind of it. Tom came back with a full loading, ready to start for one of the furthest stations out an the border land.
'Tom,' said his wife, 'I'm coming with you this trip.'
'Coming with me? How about baby?'
'Lord, Tom, I've been with you before: and it's time baby learned to go on the road. Why, in another year you'll have to make him a bullock whip for himself.'
Tom laughed. He was none averse to his wife coming with him. She knew the routine of waggon travel, and it was a good season, and there were no bad stages ahead, and Morlock, his mate and future partner, was a good man, and an old friend; so when the teams left the crossing, bound for the outside station, Mrs. Darke, ensconced on the top of the loading under a big white umbrella, was one of the party, and the baby was another.
Under fine weather conditions they went on along the lonely road that led to their destination. They had reached about half-way, when one day they passed a lagoon, and Tom riding alongside the waggon heard an exclamation from his wife. He looked up. She was pointing at the lagoon, the edge of which they were slowly traversing.
'My dream!' she exclaimed, bending forward to him. Tom looked at the still water; the girdle of lilies, and the tea-tree scrub, and felt uncomfortable.
'All these lagoons are alike all over the country; you can't tell one from another.'
'This is the place I dreamt of,' she repeated.
'Well, at any rate, if I shoot Yellow Dan it will be because he has done something to deserve it. So that's all right, little woman.'
They went on some five miles past the spot, and once away from it she recovered her spirits. Tom was doubtful whether to tell Morlock about it or not, but she begged him not to.
'We shall have more company coming back,' he told her. 'There's generally one or two wanting to come down with us.'
'I don't want more company. Tom, but I want to get this trip over.'
Tom felt highly uncomfortable. Naturally prone to superstition, it was hard to have his fancies confirmed, as it were, by the one who always treated them with contempt. Moreover, the dream had so worked on Jennie's mind that she had conceived a dislike to Yellow Dan, the half-caste, who before had been a favorite of her's.
However, things went on smoothly, it was fine weather, there was good grass pretty well everywhere, and they reached their destination without any mishap.
After a week's spell they started on their homeward journey, but no one was going down about that time, so they were of the same number in party as before. They reached the camp that they had formerly occupied, within five miles of the lagoon that Mrs. Darke associated with her ominous dream.
It was late when they reached it, and then noticed that, only a few miles back, at the base of the ranges, large bush fires were burning indicating the presence of blacks. However, the fire had not consumed the grass in the neighborhood of the water, so they unyoked and made their camp.
IN the middle of the night Tom awoke and went from under the waggon to listen for the bullock-bells, but he could not hear a sound. The old horse they kept at the camp for a night-horse was there, saddled and bridled, but Yellow Dan was not about; and if he was away after the bullocks, why was the noise there? Tom listened intently, but could not hear a sound. Probably the bullocks were lying down. He got on the horse, meaning to take a short ride round. He rode in various directions, and tatted to see anything of the bullocks, so returned to camp. His wife was awake watching for him.
When he told her that Yellow Dan was absent she immediately got nervous again.
'He came from about here, you know, Tom. He's gone away to the blacks. They've driven the bullocks off, and we're in a nice state.'
Nothing he could say could comfort her, and it was not until the bullock-bells suddenly made themselves heard again that she quietened down. Tom had missed the bullocks in the dark, and they had only been contentedly lying down chewing the cud, oblivious of blacks or dangers of any sort.
But the absence of Yellow Dan was still unexplained, and Mrs. Darke again reverted to her belief that he had run away and joined the blacks. Morlock, Tom's mate, who had been aroused by the discussion, poo-poohed the idea. Dan had gone after the bullocks on foot to turn them back, and he had gone to sleep. A blackfellow or a half-caste could go to sleep anywhere, and sleep like a top once he started. However, Morlock took the watch-horse and went out to where the bells were now merrily jangling.
He was a long time away. When he came back he said, 'They're all there but old Snowy; I can't see him any where.'
'He was always a bit of a hatter,' said Tom; 'I expect he's not far off.'
Daylight came, but Dan did not turn up; and while the early breakfast was preparing, Tom got the bullocks up, but could see nothing of Snowy or Dan. Now the loss of Dan would be annoying, as there would be no one to drive the spare bullocks and horses; but the loss of Snowy was a more serious thing. Snowy was everything a working bullock should be. He was almost human in some things, especially when a steer had to be broken in, and to think of losing him was dreadful.
After breakfast Morlock saddled up, and went out to look for the missing worker. Tom dawdled about the camp and played with the big and bald-headed baby, and 12 o'clock came and neither Morlock nor Dan returned, Tom got restless, and Mrs. Darke nervous; then about 2 o'clock Morlock was seen coming slowly along driving Snowy.
Snowy, when he arrived, was in a bad way. His tongue was out, and, besides other cuts and scars, his snow-white coat was soiled with blood, and a broken spear was still sticking in his shoulder.
'Niggers had hunted him nearly to the foot of the range; I found him in a gully,' said Morlock.
'How is it they did not kill him outright?' asked Tom, who was watching Snowy drink.
'That's what I can't understand. Strangest thing out. Something seemed to have disturbed them. But what could it have been?'
'Dan,' said Tom.
'Well, I was thinking that Mrs. Darke was right, and Dan, the yellow devil, had cleared out to the blacks, and driven Snowy, the quiet old fool, with him, just to make a good meat. But I don't think so now. Dan was mighty fond of Snowy.'
Tom was standing in the water by the bullock washing his shoulder, from which he had drawn the spear.
'No,' he said, 'Dan never drove him off, but, perhaps, he followed them, and spoilt their game. He might have got wounded. You mind the camp, Joe, and I'll go and look for him;' and Tom caught a fresh horse and prepared to depart.
'Don't stop after dark, Tom,' said his wife. 'You can't do any good, and you know I'm out of sorts.'
'I'll back in time, never fear,' said Tom, as he rode off. Morlock sat down to his belated meal, and Mrs. Darke went and rescued a butcher's knife from the big bald-headed baby, which he had crawled over for and succeeded in getting from the 'grub box.'
'Do you really think Dan has not run away to join the blacks?' she asked anxiously, as she soothed the howl of remonstrance that the bald-headed baby was giving way to, at having to give up the butcher's knife.
'I don't think so,' said Morlock as he partook of his food with keen appetite. 'Dan comes from this part right enough, but no half-caste goes back to the blacks, unless he's done something bad, and has to bolt. Now, Dan's a fine, good boy, and far more comfortable with us than a crowd of myalls.'
'But that dream; I can't forget that.'
'On that subject I won't argue.' said Morlock, 'I never found many points in dreams myself, but, that is an a matter of taste. Mostly I don't dream at all.'
Sundown drew near, and Tom had pot returned. Dusk gathered in, and still he did not appear.
'He promised, he promised,' said Mrs Darke.
'Lord, you couldn't expect him to turn back if he was on fresh tracks,' said Morlock, who was busy greasing a pair of bobbles. 'If a man is on fresh tracks he's bound to follow them as long as he's got light; consequently, it's equally bound to be after dark when be gets back to camp.'
Morlock laid this point down with such emphasis and determination that Mrs. Darke felt somewhat comforted; but the dreary night drew on, and even Joe Morlock, though he did not openly express his feelings, would have been glad to hear the tread of Tom's horse. More and more so as the night drew on, and the distant fires under the range grew to a string of gleaming light, and the curlews piped dismally, and a native dog howled, in unison.
'He's dead, and Dan has killed him,' sobbed the missing man's wife.'
'That's not according to your dream,' said matter-of-fact Joe. 'There, he was going to kill Dan.'
Mrs. Darke admitted as much, but added, in the illogical manner of her sex, that Tom had not come back; so where was he? This question being unanswerable, Morlock said nothing.
Morning came after many, many long hours, and Joe went out to gather in the bullocks which he had kept rounded up close to camp all night. He had brought them back, and was standing lighting his pipe with a firestick; Mrs. Darke was making the breakfast tea, and the bald-head was reposing on a rug and kicking up his substantial limbs, and saying 'gloo-gloo.'
Suddenly there was a rush of flying feet; a yellow-skinned figure rushed into the place panting and breathless, picked up the bald-headed baby, and made for one of the waggons with it. Following this figure came several black ones, and the camp was full of yelling natives. Mrs. Darke scarcely knew what passed, only she heard the quick firing of Joe Morlock's revolver, and a louder report from one of the waggons; then she was knocked down, and remembered no more. When she came to her senses, her husband and Morlock were bending over her, the latter in a pretty damaged condition. She herself had only received a blow on the head; but the bald-headed baby had disappeared. Tom had been on the blacks' tracks all, day, and riding from fire to fire most part of the night. Then he returned to camp, just in time.
Morlock had given a good account of himself, and Tom's coming turned the scale to flight. It was not until Mrs. Darke came back to her senses that the disappearance was discovered. Then, after her first agonised inquiries had proved the fact of his absence, she remembered how the naked figure of Yellow Dan had appeared in the camp immediately before the coming of the blacks, and how he had snatched up the baby and rushed for the waggon. From that put, at the moment, she could remember nothing more.
Darke gathered his reins up, and got on his tired horse; Morlock was too much wounded to do anything.
Tom was out of sight before Mrs. Darke fully remembered the incidents of the attack.
'Joe!' she cried. 'Did not somebody fire from the waggon—fire a rifle, not a revolver?'
'I was too busy to notice,' said Joe, who was washing his wounds.
'Get me a horse,' she cried. 'It was Yellow Dan, and he was firing at the blacks.'
Morlock was too faint to attend to her request. The old horse that he had brought the bullocks up with was still about the camp with the saddle and bridle on, too quiet to run away. The woman, in spite of the dizziness of her head, ran and caught it, and before Morlock could interfere, had mounted, and was urging it along the road after Tom.
Her dream had flashed through her mind, and she felt that the end would be at the lagoon, five miles away, which she had recognised on coming up. The lazy old watch-horse did not go very fast; neither did Tom's horse, which had been at work all night. At last the belt of scrub was reached. She went through it, and saw the lagoon. Her husband was standing at the bank, watching something in the water. His carbine, was at his shoulder. On his face the grim cruelty of, her vision.
'Tom! Tom!' she cried, and he turned. She had just reached him, when out from the lily leaves rose the head of Yellow Dan, and with it the bald bead and face of her half-choked baby.
'Baba all right!' Dan said, when from the scrub on the other side came a flight of spears from his relentless pursuers. They were thrown wild; the two whites were unhurt, but poor Dan got what there was of them that did any damage.
The blacks ran under Tom's fire, while Mrs. Darke ran into the water, and received her baby from the arms of bleeding, wounded Dan. They got his story from him before be died.
He had gone out on foot to look after the bullocks, and had heard the blacks driving Snowy away. They had too much sense to kill him close to the camp. He had followed them, and at last overtaken them, and given them a sudden start which had dispersed them for a time.
Then he found that they had come back, and were following him. To keep them away from the camp, he had led them a long dance through the ranges, and just at daylight had made for the camp, and found a mob of them right on his heels. He had rushed in, closely followed by them. He picked up the child to put him under one of the waggons for safety. Had fired one shot with Joe's rifle, and then, seeing Joe and Mrs. Darke knocked down, had thought all was up, and had bolted with the child. The blacks chased him to the lagoon, and he was swimming across when Tom on his knocked-up horse arrived.
Dan was buried at the lagoon, and the fence round his grave is the best-kept one on that road.
'IT'S a queer thing,' remarked Jim, 'but after you asked me that question last night, I fell to thanking about it, and I distinctly remember a very strange thing that happened about a galvanised iron bucket.'
'You mean to say,' I interrupted, 'that you stopped awake and made one up.'
'No fear. This is perfectly true, and I'll tell you of a man, who you must know, too, was there. You remember Tom Sweeney?'
'No, I don't,' I said.
'His brother married an elder sister of Bill Burke, and, as you remember, Burke was breaking out on the Paroo at the time you passed down with cattle—or it might have been the year before or the year after, I'm not sure which. Anyhow, you must know him.'
'I'll be hanged if I do, and who is it, Burke or Sweeney, that I ought to know? And which saw the ghost of the bucket, Burke or Sweeney?'
'It is Sweeney you ought to know. I only mentioned Burke in order to bring him back to your remembrance. I never said that either of them saw the ghost of a bucket I said that something strange happened about a bucket. Anyhow, I remember that Sweeney broke his neck before you came up on the station, so I suppose you couldn't have known him. He was there, at any rate, and was the cause of what happened.
Ringfield was in charge then. I suppose you won't deny knowing him? He was going to get married, and wanted a lot of heifers broken in, so that there should be plenty of milk and butter on the station when he brought his wife up. Now, there's no fun in breaking heifers in. If they're not choking themselves in the bail, they're kicking the leg-rope off and knocking the bucket into smithereens. Moreover, between, ourselves, Ringfield knew as much about cattle as he did about giraffes, and instead of picking out nice, quiet, lazy-going Shorthorns, he pitched on bald-faced carts of things, who'd yell and squeal and lie down in the bail, and kick blazes out of creation. Naturally, everyone, was in a bad temper; for we had to get up in the morning, and give the doctor a hand, and we generally cussed everything—Ringfield's future wife included. The time came when be started down to get married, and he was to be away for three weeks. Said Sweeney that night—'
'Was that after he broke has neck?' I asked.
'No; how the deuce could it be? No; it was before. And he said, "Look here, lads, I'm sick of man-handling those brutes; let's let them rip, and go out to the old Durham bulls camp and bring in the same number of decent, quiet heifers. There's a lot of good ones there, with young calves. I saw them there this morning. Bet you two to one that Ringfield will never know the difference."
'We all thought it a splendid joke, and the next morning we turned the heifers out, and they were just as glad to go as we were to get rid of them. That evening we had a nice lot of quiet, packed heifers in the yard, and in a few days some of them would walk into the bail without roping, and by the time the three weeks were over the whole of them were like old milkers.
'Now, we had a young sneak of a jackeroo on the station. I've had a lot of experience with jackeroos, and I've found them all sorts. Some as wild as you can make 'em, up to any larks; others sneaks, and I must say that, although I'm a Tamworth native myself, I prefer the imported men. You can do something with them, but the other sort think that because they are born in the country they must know everything, and their conceit is something stinking, that's what it is. This young whelp had never been out of Sydney before, and he'd been sent up by the firm who owned the station, being a relation of one of the partners. But I'm getting away from my story—'
'You have run off the rails a bit'
'Yes; it's a bad habit of mine, I admit. Ringfield came up with his bride, and she turned out a nice, quiet, sensible body, who had been brought up on a station, and knew all about it. Ringfield took her down to the milking-yard one morning, and, would you believe it, that duffer didn't know that those were not the same heifers, and explained to her how he had picked them all out himself against her arrival, and what splendid milkers they had turned out. What does that young fool of a jackeroo do, but blurt out the whole truth might in front of Mrs Ringfield, making a regular fool of her husband. Did you ever bear of such a thing?'
Jim started has pipe again his disgust at the remembrance, then he proceeded.
'Ringfield, of course, was very mad at being made to Hook so small before his bride, and when he toad pumped the jackeroo dry, and found out that it was Sweeney who originated the proceeding, he had it in for him. Now, I do not believe that Ringfield ever anticipated what happened. It was simply done out of spite, but he never meant it would be serious.
'"Sweeney," he said one day, "Miss. Ringfield has taken a fancy to that brown colt. You might try him with a skirt. See how he stands it."
'Sweeney whistled. "I might as well try to break in the devil to a skirt, Mr. Ringfield," replied he. "Why, that brown colt can kick a mosquito off his ear nine times out of ten. He'll never carry a lady."
'"Oh well, if you are frightened of him, that's another thing. I've heard you blow that you could ride anything with a tail."
'Now, this got Sweeney jumping mad as, of course, it was meant to do, and he asked me to catch a horse and come out with him to the One-mile Plain, and he'd try the colt with a skirt. So we went, and Sweeney took a red blanket with him for a dummy skirt. When we got on the plain he tacked this under his leg and let it flap, and, my oath! that brown colt did go it! He never shifted Sweeney, though, and he kept him going right across the plain. There was one tree grew right in the middle of that plain, and—would you credit it?—just when they were close to it the colt put his foot into a hole, stood on his head, pitched Sweeney against the tree, and fell over on his back. There they lay, quiet as possible, the two of them, with the red blanket lake like a sheet of blood, between them.
'I pulled the horse off Sweeney, but both their necks were broken, and I could do nothing but cover poor Sweeney up with the red blanket, and ride hell-for-leather into the station.
'You may imagine what Ringfield felt like, but the worst was to come. Next morning the milk was taken to the little lean-to used as a dairy, and Mrs Ringfield, who had taken the dairy under her charge, went down to strain the milk into the dishes. Suddenly there was a shriek that could be heard all over the station, and when they ran into the dairy, there was Mrs Ringfield in a dead faint on the floor, an empty bucket beside her, and—a dish full of blood on the table.'
'Now, this is a solemn fact! It was the same bucket Sweeney used when breaking in the heifers, and you could milk into that bucket pure, sweet milk, but when you turned it out into the dish—it was blood.
'They tried everything—scraping, and scalding, and scrubbing, till the bucket shone like silver inside. It was all of no avail, and, what is more, the two heifers Sweeney had broken in would not let themselves be milked into any other bucket. They would kick, and bellow, and buck if you tried it on, quiet as they generally were. So they had to be turned out again.'
'What became of the bucket, Jim?'
'It was taken away down to an old hut on the river where travellers used to camp, but it very soon had some holes punched in the bottom, for a yarn got about that the water dipped up in it turned to blood before it was carried to the hut.'
AN abandoned station is about one of the most desolate camps one can find for the night. The corner posts of the old buildings, the ruined fences showing the positions of paddocks stockyards, and, perhaps a plot of old garden overrun with grass and weeds, all combine to make one think of ghostly visitors. Saddest of all is it when one or two graves, fallen into disrepair, tell of those who have gone on to the main camp. Such minor troubles as an absence of firewood and an appreciable number of fleas are merely ordinary incidents. Perhaps the ruins of an old roadside inn, with its heap of 'dead marines'[*] is more pathetic still, telling of brief joys and squandered cheques and bitter repentance and ruined lives.
[* Empty bottles]
Such a skeleton stood on the bank of one of the Northern Queensland rivers. The road had been taken to a better crossing, and the traffic had consequently shifted. There were a good many graves at the abandoned shanty—so many as to make a respectable cemetery. Of course, there were many tales current as to the amazing fortune made by the former publican in what is always known as 'the good old times.'
Is there any district in Australia that has not had its 'good old times?' Some allowance must be made for the embroidery of age. Probably the good old times were the cause, of as much grumbling as the present ones. It was a matter of faith and belief, however, that the owner of the one time Nine-mile Crossing pub amassed wealth, and subsequently withdrew into private life, under a rather dark cloud of suspicion over the death of one of the occupants of the graves, who was well and popularly known as 'Long Tom.'
As to others who had taken up a permanent residence at the other occupied graves at the Nine-mile Crossing no particular suspicions were entertained. They were simply the victims of a good honest outbreak of a drinking lust on top of a constitution enfeebled by malarial fever and other incidents peculiar to a tropical climate.
With regard to 'Long Tom's' death the case was different. Rumor said that Old Man Joker, which was the familiar name of the former keeper of the place, had deliberately poisoned Long Tom. Of course the thing was never proved, and Old Man Joker retired into private life in another colony, and became an alderman or churchwarden, or something equally appropriate.
It came about on one night in December that a passing swagman had occasion, pressed by necessity, to camp on the site of the abandoned Nine-mile Crossing. All went well with him until about daylight, or a little before that time. In fact the swagman, who had a poetic imagination of his own, described the time as the first blush of dawn. Anyhow, he awoke to the fact that sitting at the smouldering embers of his camp fire was somebody who should not have rightly been there.
The trespasser was tall and gaunt; he was squatting on his haunches in the most approved of bush attitudes, and he was mumbling to himself in a very disquieting manner. Stammers, the swagman in question, turned down the blanket from his face, and looked upon his uninvited guest in a mixed mood of fear and indignation. At last he aroused himself sufficiently to make the ordinary remark of 'Good day, mate,' which he felt was entirely inadequate to the occasion.
The figure at the fire turned lack-lustre eyes upon him, and remarked, 'It was bluestone did it.'
There seemed no coherency in this, but Stammers saw that the thing crouching over his fire was a horrible, shrivelled corpse: a thing in which the only signs of life remaining were a pair of phosphorescent eyes. The truth came home to Stammers that it was no good shouting or screaming; there was nobody within hail, and he was being interviewed by a ghost.
In these circumstances he plucked up courage, and addressed the gruesome being.
'I don't quite understand you,' he remarked quaveringly.
'Bluestone did it, I said,' returned the phantom; 'that's plain enough.'
'No doubt,' said Stammers, 'but it's not explicit.' He was astonished himself, as he remarked afterwards, at his command of the English language.
'Perhaps not,' said the appearance, 'but if you have time. I shall consider myself honored by your listening to me.'
Stammers afterwards admitted that the ghost of Long Tom was the most polite ghost he had ever met, which, considering that he had never met any ghosts before, was a gracious admission. At any rate, as he told the story, the ghost was eminently polite, and worthy of a better end.
'It is a long while since,' said the ghost, 'and there are few people come along this road now, so that I have scant opportunities or making my grievances public. I wish to state that my death was quite unfair—in fact, it was 'crook' altogether, to use a vulgarism. Old Man Joker and I had a standing grievance which we never could settle. It was a dispute about the best method of curing sore backs on horses. I always advocated a weak solution of bluestone. Joker would not hear of it. I never could understand why he always got so angry when I mentioned the subject, until one day when there were a lot of fellows about, one of them burst out laughing, and said, "You don't like to hear about bluestone, do you, Joker, you use too much of it in your rum."
'Joker said nothing then, but when I came to think over the matter, I judged Joker must have always thought that I had been preaching this bluestone cure on purpose to annoy him.
'I must tell you that after this man's remark Joker got very morose and sullen, and that the graves increased at a fine rate; but I never dreamt that anything would happen to me. Joker and I were such old friends. One day I was stopping here, and had a cheque to spend, and, of course, Joker and I became very friendly. One day he said to me, "Tom," he says, "you keep harping on that bluestone racket in a way that really annoys me. Give it best, old man!" Now, I assure you that I had not mentioned the word bluestone for a month or more. Well, Joker kept chewing this over, and at last he brought an old hat-rack of a horse, and he says, says he, "Now, Mister Tom, you're such a blooming swell at curing horses' sore backs, just cure this one." It was a real old 'set-fast' the horse had, but I replied, "Joker, I can mix up some bluestone which will put him right if you give him a spell, and don't run the hind legs off him."
'Joker only laughed, but that night he came to me, and said, "Have a drink, old man," and I had one.
'"Now," says Joker, "that's the last drink you'll ever have. That's the dressing for the horse's sore back you have just drank, and bless me if you could tell it from rum!"
'Then I went away and died, and Joker is alive. It was the meanest trick ever played on a man. My grave is the first one in the long row at the top. So long!'
'The morning blushed red in the East,' said the poetic swagman, 'when I found myself sitting beside a half-emptied bottle of square gin, which I had disinterred from the heap of marines. It was full when I found it.'
THE dead man had been drifting about for some days before he was cast ashore, and then he was not a pretty sight to look at. The birds had taken horrible liberties with his face; the sharks truly had left him alone for some reason best known to themselves; but the sea had knocked him about a good deal before the top of a king-tide landed him beyond the reach of the waves. Then the crabs had a word to say, and by the time the sun had dried him up it would have taken a clever man to decide what he had been like when alive.
But nobody was about there to inquire into the matter, or trouble about the poor dead body. A point of rough rocks had caught and rescued him from, the water which had drowned him, and the rough rocks were the end of a point—a spur from a tall hill that cleft the otherwise unbroken line of mangroves that fringed the coast. On either side of the rocky point the mangroves grew thick in the black mud of the shore, and along the banks of the winding creeks, where the crocodiles floated and the swarms of flying foxes hung in the branches and chattered and screamed and snarled at each other in shrill whistles all day. It was a foul place of slime and evil creatures, but the dead man was past caring for that, and one place was as good as another to him. The smell of the mud and the crocodiles and the flying foxes was the same to him as the fresh sea breeze from across the Pacific. Steamers parsed up and down, and occasionally luggers and schooners, but none had any business on that desolate shore, and the now unrecognisable corpse might have lain there till the dismembered remnants were reclaimed by the sea but for the accident of a dreadful wreck.
One day, when all was calm and smiling and the sea of the inner barrier like an inland lake, a China-bound steamer crashed full speed on to an uncharted rock, and sank in ten minutes. Then commenced a search along the shore for any possible survivors, and some of the searchers landed at the rocky point, and found the ghastly thing that lay there. They looked at it, saw it was none of the steamer's passengers or crew, so took it a little way inland and gave it burial. But before burying it, one man detached from the shrivelled neck a chain that was round it, from which hung a large, irregularly shaped silver coin, on which were strange Eastern characters.
It seemed of little value, and gave no clue to the man cast ashore, so the man who found it kept it, and one day sold it to a pawnbroker for ten shillings, and the pawnbroker put it in his window amongst other coins, and there it lay.
One day a respectably dressed man of an olive complexion came along and noticed the coin in the window. He entered the shop, and asked the price. The pawnbroker said fifteen shillings, and the dark man, finding he had not enough money in his pocket, said that he would come back for it, and left the shop.
The pawnbroker put it back in the window. A few minutes afterwards a doctor was passing, and he, too, noticed the coin. He went in and offered to buy it. The astonished pawnbroker considered. The Oriental-looking gentleman had left no deposit. He might never come back. The coin seemed of more value than he thought, so he asked a pound, got it, and the doctor left the shop with it in his possession.
Then the Oriental-looking gentleman came back and fell into rage and despair over the matter. He could not be brought to believe that the coin had been really sold, but thought the man was holding out for more money. In vain he went up to £5, and the mortified and exasperated pawnbroker could only keep assuring him that the coin had been really sold, and that tho other should have left a deposit if he wanted it kept. The Oriental-looking gentleman at last went away, cursing his fate in a strange tongue, and the pawnbroker did the same in the language of his fathers.
From that day the pawnbroker's life became a burden. Always was the Oriental plunging into the shop, asking if the shopkeeper had seen anything of the purchaser, and always was the pawnbroker keeping an eager and nervous eye on the street, in the hope of seeing the purchaser pass. But the purchaser was thousands of miles away by the time they were both tired of their watch. He had simply gone back to his hotel, collected his luggage, and gone on board a China steamer; and from Hongkong he went to Singapore.
And this was all blind chance, for the doctor, beyond having a liking for foreign coins, had no especial interest in this one; and the Oriental gentleman, who had no liking for foreign coins as a hobby, had an especial greed and hunger for this one, and would have followed the doctor anywhere to obtain it.
While the pawnbroker, who liked coins of all sorts on their own account, became a morbid, miserable man, ever regretting his lost opportunity, and gradually working himself up to a belief that the coin was worth thousands.
DR. COLGRAVE was seated with a friend in the broad balcony of the Neptune Hotel at Singapore, and the singular-looking coin that he had picked up in Sydney just before leaving was the subject of their conversation, the reason being that Mantell was an authority on Eastern coinage. He turned the roughly-cast coin over in his hand, and looked keenly at it.
'I have no doubt about the matter,' he said, at last; 'this is the Mass-Hassa, the missing one of the three amulets of Zoabbarra. There are and have been emissaries all over the world nearly looking for it, for when it is once more with the other two the great prophecy will be fulfilled, and the Mahomedan power be once more established throughout the East. And you say that it was lying amongst other coins in a pawnbroker's window?'
'Yes. Of course I knew nothing of this Mass-Hassa business, but I knew I should meet you here, and it was such a queer-looking object that I went in and bought it for you.'
'You did not ask the pawnbroker how he got it?'
'No. From that chain on it I should think it had been worn round the neck of somebody.'
'Somebody who did not know its value evidently, and didn't know the risk he ran of being killed for it.'
'I'm not so sure of that; it would be less likely to be seen there than anywhere. Is it considered lucky or unlucky?'
'Unlucky, I believe; but we'll look the thing up. I have all about it somewhere. Thanks very much for the coin.'
'What do you intend to do with it?'
'I don't know yet I could sell it for a good round sum; but, of course, I don't intend to do that; and yet, if I keep it, it is bound to be stolen from me. Let's go to chow.'
A Malay boy had been doing some work on the balcony, but he soon disappeared, but not before he saw the coin, and caught the word 'Mass-Hassa.'
The amulets of Zoabbarra, according to what Mantell afterwards told his friend, were lost nearly four hundred years ago, and found again in strange circumstances—one in the belly of a shark, amongst some other relics of mortality; and one in the ruins of a Hindoo temple in Java. But the third had eluded all search, and until it was found the other two—the Ras-Hassa and Ram-Hassa—were as useless as a common rupee. Once they were united, however, the prophecy of the restoration, of the Mahomedan greatness in the East would be fulfilled, and the days of the Sultans return.
Mantell and his friend parted, the doctor returning to Sydney, whence he had come on a holiday, and Mantell remaining in Singapore. He knew that in a. short time the whereabouts of the Mass-Hassa would be known of, and he set himself to counteract the purloining of the coin for the mere fun of the game. He knew his life was safe, as those who were so anxious to obtain the coin could gain nothing by murdering him when they could search all his belongings with ease at any time. That they did search them thoroughly he was well aware, but his precautions outwitted even the astute searchers who were looking for the Mass-Hassa.
At last, one night the hotel safe was broken open, but nothing was taken, although there was a considerable sum of money in it at the time. Then Dr. Colgrave began to be bothered. Evidently the hunters thought he must have taken it back with him, and his house got systematically burgled in a way that drove the detective force crazy. In their despair they even collared the unfortunate pawnbroker one night, and garrotted and searched him. The whole thing was so simple—too simple—for the keen brains of the Asiatics.
Mantell and Dr. Colgrave went out for a drive the afternoon after they had inspected the coin amulet, and Mantell quietly took the works out of his watch, and put the coin in its place. It took up much about the same room, only it didn't work, which was not required of it. The real works went into a neighboring canal. The watch looked as well as ever—it was only Mantell's business that it did not keep time, and nobody else knew anything about it. It was only a common watch, not good enough even to tempt a Chinaman, who would rather steal a watch than anything else.
The one standard of great riches with a Chinaman is a plethora of watches. But Chinamen were not interested in the Massa-Hassa, and so the harmless watch reposed unstolen in the owner's pocket, with the sacred coin inside of it; and Mantell laughed to himself.
The next thing that happened in Sydney was that the body of the Oriental gentleman was found in the harbor, and nobody could find out how he got there. Evidently he had incurred the vengeance of his employers in being so foolish as to let slip the opportunity of securing the Mass-Hassa when Destiny gave it into his very hands. That might have been the case, or despair and disgust at his own incapacity might have led him to drown himself.
Anyhow, the pawnbroker, who read of the case of 'found drowned,' and went down to the morgue, recognised his would-be customer as the man who was so desirous of buying the strange coin. That is to say, he identified him to his own satisfaction, but did not do so openly to the authorities. In fact, the thing preyed upon his mind so much that it became a craze or monomania of his that people were always around watching him, and trying to steal his goods.
He stood this out well for a few weeks, and then cut his throat, after chasing his wife all over the house with a razor—a thing people do rather too often, after being a week or two without sleep, and imagining that people are watching them all the time.
Evidently the Mass-Hassa was getting in its work well, although, strange to say, it was inside the case of Mantell's watch all the time, and neither he nor Dr. Colgrave had yet suffered any serious effects from it; but then, they had no Eastern blood in their veins, and both the Oriental gentleman and the pawnbroker had. Lucky for the two last if the coin had been left reposing on the desolate rocks in North Queensland whereon the drowned sailor was washed.
MANTELL, in the course of his business, had occasion to go a journey. It was short and safe enough, but it required, amongst other things, that he should have a tolerably correct knowledge of the time; and, under the circumstances, a watch, with, so to say, no bowels in it, was useless. What to do? To carry two watches would excite the suspicion of the boy who attended him. He decided to leave the coin watch at home, carelessly, but in reality carefully.
When he returned he found the watch gone; and heaved a sigh of satisfaction, and thought that henceforth he would have no more trouble; and that the Mahomedan greatness might be restored, or not restored, just as Fate thought fit, provided he was no longer worried.
But he was mistaken. His belongings evidently underwent the same inspection as before, much to his surprise. The fact was that, during his absence, a Chinese boy came across the watch, carelessly left behind, and the temptation was too much for him. He took it, and left his employment in the hotel. Then he examined it, finding it would not go; and alarmed at discovering the strange coin inside, and suspecting a trap, he immediately went down to the Chinese quarter, and sold it to a storekeeper, who gave him a few 'cash' for the lot.
The storekeeper kept the coin for some time, and as the delinquent Chinaman was silent as to his theft, he was not interfered with. At last a party of English globe-trotters came that way in search of curios, and the storekeeper sold the Mass-Hassa to a young lady of the party at a considerable advance upon cost price. He also told the story of its being concealed in the watch, and the young lady's curiosity and romantic interest being, of course, aroused, she purchased the disembowelled watch as well for a considerable figure.
The party was staying at the same hotel as Mantell, and his love of numismatics being well known, the young lady told Mantell of her purchase.
'Have you shown it to anybody since you bought it?' he asked hastily.
'No,' she replied, 'I put it back in the watchcase, as the storekeeper told me it was when he purchased it.'
'Keep it there,' said Mantell, 'I will tell you all about it directly.'
Truth to tell, he was somewhat disturbed at the amulet coming back in this unexpected fashion; and wanted a few minutes to think over it.
The extraordinary return of the coin rather aroused his superstition. He took the young lady aside, and told her the story of the 'Mass-Hassa.'
She felt rather uncomfortable. She did not like to part with such a rare and singular curio, but if she kept it, it would be most certainly taken from her, and probably in some startling and disagreeable manner. Also the idea of having her wardrobe and belongings periodically and secretly ransacked did not commend itself to the feminine mind.
It is true she could keep it concealed in the watch-case, but what was the good of possessing a curiosity which you could not exhibit? She felt inclined to sell it to any Malay who wanted it, and consulted Mantell on the subject.
'There might be something in that,' said Mantell. 'Now let me turn the question over in my mind for four and twenty hours; meanwhile you don't mind keeping the Mass-Hassa for that length of time. Nobody as yet knows that you have it, so I don't suppose you will be troubled very much at present. To-morrow I will have arranged some plan.'
To this, Miss Curtis, which was the name of the young lady, assented, and, acting on Mantell's advice, left the dummy watch carelessly lying about. Now the Chinese boy, who had stolen the watch and sold it to the storekeeper, finding work hard to get, went back to the Neptune Hotel and succeeded in getting employment again as a sweeper. That evening, while dinner was In progress, he was employed in the passage from which Miss Curtis's bedroom opened, and influenced by insatiable curiosity, he peeped in to see if any unconsidered trifles were knocking about, and espied the watch on the dressing-table. A watch! He went in and had a look at it. It appeared familiar. He opened it. There lay the fatal coin that had so frightened him before. It had come back again to haunt him; it was a devil, surely; and dropping it hastily he fled along the passage and away downstairs, charging recklessly through the diners emerging from the dining-room.
Then a cry arose that a man was running amok, and a Sikh policeman shot him in the street. Miss Curtis found the coin and watch-case lying on the floor, and put them away before anybody else had seen them. She told Mantell of the occurrence, and he, with his knowledge of eastern life, was not long in piecing out the facts of the case. But, truth to tell, it made him feel very uncomfortable. It seemed as though the Mass-Hassa got its work in, slowly but surely; but it got it in all the same.
He called on a friend of his who ran a coastal steamer line, and asked him to inform any Malay gentleman of influence whom he might know that if he would call upon him (Mantell) at the Neptune Hotel he (Mantell) had an important communication to make to him. His friend told him that he knew many Malay gentlemen of influence and importance, and that Mantell could rely upon one calling on him shortly.
In fact, soon after breakfast a Malay gentleman put in an appearance at the Neptune and asked for Mr. Mantell.
'I presume,' he said quietly, in perfectly correct English, 'that you want to see me about the Mass-Hassa. Of course, I know that it was in your possession for a short time, but you have not got it now. Perhaps you wish to tell me where it is. It is no good beating about the bush in questions of this sort.'
'I have no intention of doing so,' said Mantell; 'but may I ask for your credentials in the matter?'
'Oh, that's my name; but I don't generally use it. Really, I am the Hereditary Sultan of Pedir, but at present the Saguin is representing me. My Mukim is XXV.,' he went on, indicating that, number on his card. 'Perhaps you have heard of it in the course of your studies?'
'I have. I presume you are the man who bought the breechloaders in Belgium, and smuggled them in so cleverly under the bows of the Dutch gunboats?'
The man in question laughed lightly, and answered in the affirmative.
'If you can put me on the track of the Mass-Hassa it will be worth more to me than twice twenty thousand breechloaders. Now, can you do it or not? I know that you have not got it in your own keeping, but I presume you are acting for somebody else. If it's money, mention the sum. Mind you, I give you all credit for your cuteness; but it won't last for ever. We'll get it in the end—and perhaps have to resort to unpleasant methods. No Chinaman will take charge of it now.'
'No. I never asked any Chinaman to take charge of it. But why the remark?'
'Well, we have warned the Chinese, and by way of enforcing the warning the Chinese storekeeper who bought the Mass-Hassa from another Chinaman, whom you gave it to, was killed last night—executed, I mean. The fool of a policeman who shot the man, who was supposed to be running amok last night, did it too well, and the wretch only lived long enough to utter the storekeeper's name, otherwise we should have round out more.'
Mantell smiled. 'You're a clever fellow in your own way, but you are too clever. I fooled you without' any trouble at all; and I never gave it to any Chinaman to take care of.'
The Sultan of Pedir looked annoyed. 'Jesting is all very well, but if what you say is true there will be a good many lives sacrificed over it.'
'Pooh! That does not trouble me in the least. Now, what, do you value this coin at?'
The Malay gentleman wrote something on a piece of paper, and handed it to Mantell. Mantell looked at it.
'You think highly of it,' he said. 'Far more than I do.'
'Oh!' he said, rather contemptuously, 'you do hot and cannot understand. . Money is nothing in this matter.'
'Apparently so. Well, to end all trouble you shall have it. Barring all accidents of your creation, if you call this afternoon, say 4 o'clock, it is yours. I have not got it. You will believe that?'
'Certainly. There will be no accidents of my creating. Until 4 o'clock!'
And, with a pleasant expression of face the Sultan of Pedir departed.
MANTELL consulted Miss Curtis, who fell back on her father for advice. At first her father was against taking such a large sum of money for such a paltry-looking coin, but Mantell showed him his mistake, and on condition that Mantell took a certain portion he agreed to his daughter accepting it. When 4 o'clock arrived the Malay gentleman was shown into the room, and there found Mantell and Miss Curtis. He betrayed no outward surprise at the lady's presence, but Mantell knew that he felt a good deal.
'This gentleman,' said Mantell to Miss Curtis, 'is the bearer of a title I am not at liberty to mention, but he is fully empowered to treat for the Mass-Hassa. Have I your permission to hand it to him in return for his cheque for the amount agreed upon?'
Miss Curtis signified that he had.
The Sultan looked at Mantell while he drew his watch out of his pocket, opened it, and showed him the Mass-Hassa reposing therein. His eyes glittered, and he ground his teeth. Mantell felt sorry for his baffled emissaries.
'Has it been there all along?' he asked.
'In the watch case, yes; in my possession, no. Miss Curtis is at present the owner of it.'
The Sultan took out a pocketbook and extracted a cheque from it, which he handed, to Mantell.
'That will be enough between us,' he said, and Mantell assented. 'You will probably hear of me again,' he said, meaningly.
'I hope so, and I hope as successful.'
'I am sure of It now I hold this,' replied the Malay, and bowing to Miss Curtis he left the room.
'What does he mean?' she asked of her companion.
'Only that he is engaged in an insurrection against the Dutch, and I trust he will win. We are not interested, in it, Miss Curtis.'
The cheque was duly honored, and the Mass-Hassa from that day passed out of the ken of the Europeans who had, up to then, handled and seen it.
The Sultan of Pedir made two unsuccessful attempts to land at a certain port in Sumatra, and each time was chased by Dutch gunboats. So he went away to Australia, meaning to return in a British ship as an Australian passenger, and go a different way about reaching his destination. The two amulets were waiting for the third, and until the three were complete and united, the spell of the Hassa had no effect.
The steamer he was on ran into the biggest cyclone that had been known on the northern coast for some years. Luggers and schooners belonging to the pearling fleets were wrecked by the score. The steamer got through all right, but she had two passengers and two of the crew washed overboard and drowned.
One of the passengers was the Sultan of Pedir. His body was washed ashore with those of other victims, and the blacks found them and gave them burial. One of the natives found the Mass-Hassa on the body and kept it. Afterwards he traded it off on a shanty keeper for rum, and the shanty keeper getting wroth about it fired a charge of shot at him, meaning only to pepper him, but unfortunately it killed him. Then the white had to stand his trial, and was sentenced to ten years' hard labor.
Somebody bought his shanty, and the Mass-Hassa went with it. A considerable number of men died of the horrors at the shanty during the time the Mass-Hassa was there—considerably over the average.
One of the children of the shanty keeper was playing with it one day, and a man who was there took a fancy to it and bought it. He put it in his 'saddle pouch' and went away with two bottles of sudden death in his pack. He was found dead on a dry stage, but his horse was never found, and it and the Mass-Hassa are adrift somewhere in the Australian continent at the present time.
Meanwhile, the companion amulets are waiting.
BIG BILL the carrier was on one of his periodical bursts. Bill was quarrelsome in his cups, therefore his 'benders' brought only a qualified joy to the heart of the local publican, for ma abusive tongue and pugnacious temper kept the good paying customers out of the bar. It was only the loafing fraternity who were willing to put up with Bill's foul language on the off-chance of his shouting for them, who mustered up when Bill was on the red path of war.
Strange to say, Big Bill when sober was one of the quietest most peaceable and long-suffering of men. His motto then was not 'Peace with honor,' but 'Peace at any price.' Nobody had ever known him to fight when sober; nobody had ever known him to do anything but go round spoiling for a fight when he was drunk.
On this particular occasion he was determined to put a saturated solution of carmine on the whole township. He commenced on his satellites, and, having discomfited them, horse and foot, he started off to the black's camp, announcing his intention of taking it out of Timothy, as there was not a white man in the whole town. Timothy was an ex-trooper of the native police, an untamable rebel against all authority. His last exploit, namely, almost biting his officer's thumb off, and nearly causing that individual's death of lockjaw, had procured him a lengthened imprisonment and his discharge. He was a splendid police boy on active service, but in camp none of the acting vice-sub-inspectors cared to have anything to do with him. He was not tall, but had a chest, neck and arms resembling Sandow of the present day, and could use his 'dooks' like a professional; in fact, but for the impossibility of training him, he would have figured in the ring.
Therefore, when Big Bill announced his intention of taking it out of Timothy in default of any white man showing an inclination to accept the challenge he threw out at the colonies in general, public curiosity was excited, and public curiosity wended its way to the nigger's camp to witness the trouble. Timothy was enjoying a siesta under the shade of a tree when Big Bill strode up and gave him a violent kick, which would have broken the ribs of an ordinary white man, telling him at the same time to get up, for a lazy blank, blank nigger, who had no business to be snoring in the daytime, when white men had to work.
'Not that there axe any white men in this blankest of blank towns,' he concluded, 'but then there might have been.' To the astonishment of everybody, Timothy lay quite still and did not at once spring to his feet and resent the assault. On the contrary, he groaned heavily and lay quiet. Bill bestowed another kick on him, telling him not to lie shamming there any longer, but Timothy did not respond. One of the bystanders advanced, and stooping over the recumbent figure, looked up at Bill and said, 'You've killed him!'
At this Timothy's two gins set up a hideous wailing, and commenced to scratch themselves with their nails. One brown-legged, barefooted lad started back to the township and informed the sergeant that Big Bill had just kicked Timothy to death; and another brown-legged, barefooted boy ran him a dead heat to fetch the doctor.
The doctor was 'sleeping it off,' but the chemist, an ex-good young man, who when he first arrived had tried to start a Sunday school, but had at last gone over to whisky and the enemy, came in hid stead. The sergeant put on his uniform jumper, and, accompanied by one of his men, went down to the scene of the I tragedy. The chemist pronounced Timothy dead offhand.
Bill, who was now stupid and quiet, went off peaceably to the logs with the two guardians of law and order. Everybody else left to get a drink; and the two gins, having obtained some pieces of glass, proceeded to cut themselves properly.
Timothy, however, was not by any means a corpse. True, Bill's first savage kick had landed just on the region of the heart and brought on a sudden swoon, but he presently revived, and having been informed of what had happened retired to his gunyah to rest, after having belabored the two bescratched gins.
Now it so happened that the coach arrived that night, and with it came an eminent German scientist, who had come out to the far, far west in search of a reported hairless tribe of aborigines. The said hairless tribe having originated in the distempered imagination of a man in the horrors.
The eminent scientist was vainly pursuing this hairless tribe towards the anterior when he arrived at the township. Naturally the tragedy of the afternoon was the staple subject of conversation, and if the massive frame and Herculean proportions of Timothy did not lose in the description. Naturally, too, the scientist, who was an enthusiastic anthropologist, was deeply interested and, failing the hairless race, determined to secure such a fancy aboriginal specimen.
Meanwhile another scene in the drama was being enacted. Timothy, finding that he was a presumed defunct, commanded the two lately chastised gins to go and procure a bottle of rum to celebrate his decease.
Whether they would have succeeded or not in their mission cannot be said, but a genial and drunken Irishman, finding out their errand, vowed that the poor cratur should not want for a dacent wake, and procured and presented them with three bottles of 'kill at forty yards.'
On their return with the spoil Timothy promptly annexed the plunder, and having speedily drunk himself into insensibility, the other blacks secured the remainder and made merry. The sounds of revelry by night died down in the township at last and the eminent scientist, seizing the opportunity when the partially-intoxicated landlord was closing the bar, drew him on one side and requested that astounded individual in broken English to sell him a hogshead of rum.
Now, as the publican made the greater part of his own liquor, and had only a small supply of 'real Mackay' on the premises, this magnificent and Gargantuan order naturally surprised and sobered him. Finally be sized his customer up and came to a sudden resolution. He informed the eminent that his stock had run low, and he could not furnish the amount required, but, if the eminent would be contented with a smaller quantity, he might manage it. The eminent considered, and finally replied slowly, 'If you cannot, as you call it, "manage," a smaller number may serve, sufficient, let us say, to cook his head.'
The publican staggered; he had a hazy idea of the habits of foreigners, especially Germans, and he asked aghast, 'Are you going to eat it?'
'Eat it? My God! No; I would keep it—preserve it, as a specimen.'
The landlord dropped to the situation.
'I have something that will do equally well'—he lowered his voice—'methylated spirits.'
'The very thing,' and his guest caught his hand and wrung it.
'But it is expensive,' said the cautious publican.
'Oh, bah! What do you call it? Damn the expense!'
Bidding the scientist wait on the verandah the publican retired, and after some delay reappeared with a bucket about half full of an evil-smelling fluid. After an exchange of golden coin, the two went off in the direction of the black's camp.
When in sight of it the publican, after warning his guest again and again that the strictest secrecy must be observed, returned home.
The German went alone to the camp. He found two old blackfellows still awake; they had managed to conceal a small quantity of the rum, and were amiably finishing it. It was with some difficulty that any understanding was arrived at, but at last he made his meaning plain, and was taken to the recumbent form of Timothy. He found to his disgust that he was still alive.
He felt his pulse; it was feeble and uneven. The man was in a state of collapse, he concluded, and on the point of death. He measured him and found, that although not quite up to description, he was still an abnormally developed savage. A bargain was then struck that as soon as Timothy died, his head was to be cut off and secretly conveyed to the German.
The scientist returned, stepped noiselessly on to the verandah and seated himself on a canvas chair to await results. Tired out by his long coach journey and late vigil he fell asleep.
A hand was laid on his shoulder and he woke with a start. He was a man of nerve, and had camped alone among New Guinea cannibals, but he could not repress a shudder at what he saw. In the west a full moon was sinking to rest. Dim and yellow in the murky atmosphere of the sultry summer night, she emitted but a weird and uncanny light, throwing long shadows across the level country. On either side of him stood two gaunt, black naked figures, and one held in its hand a ghastly, severed human head, from which the blood still dripped.
The start was but momentary. The scientific side of his character at once reasserted itself, and he arose, and taking Timothy's head, paid the reward, and the two lean shadows faded into the deeper shade. Timothy's cobbra was plunged into the fiery bath, waiting for it. It was concealed in safety, and the professor retired to enjoy a well-earned rest.
Now when he left the camp the two old men decided to represent providence. Timothy was anything but a favorite; in fact he was a nuisance. The white man said that he would surely die; what was the good of waiting? They did not wait; Timothy was soon a corpse in dead earnest, and the two men on their way to the German professor with his head.
Big Bill awoke the next morning with a parched roof to his mouth and a baked tongue. The kindly sergeant had left him a waterbag, which he soon emptied, and before he faced the bench some friendly visitors had revived his spirits—with well-intentioned nips.
Discipline was lax out west in those days. Bill was a favorite with everybody when sober. The magistrate and two Js.P. came to the conclusion that the affair was accidental, and that a fine and a caution would meet the case. The C.P.S., however, who was learned in the law, pointed out to them that the accused, on the evidence, must be committed for trial for manslaughter. The bench was about reluctantly to consent when the astounding news was brought into court that the corpse was now minus a head.
Bill was remanded while the police instituted a search, for the missing article. Gradually, of course, the story leaked out, one giving the other away. Bill seemed now the only innocent man of the crowd. Timothy's return to life and his appreciation the fact by at once sending for a bottle of rum was fully proved. It was an awful knot to unravel. There were now, beside the actual murderers, no less than six accessories, to the crime.
First, Bill commenced it by kicking Timothy insensible. Then the gins in getting the rum, which caused the second, and fatal stupor, helped and assisted. Next, the genial Irishman, still very drunk, had a hand in it by giving them the rum, which otherwise they would not have obtained. Of course the publican who supplied the spirits was an accessory before the fact; the scientist was the instigator of the deed; and then there were the two confessed murderers.
It was gravely debated whether the chemist and the doctor could not be included, the one for pronouncing Timothy dead; and the other for being drunk when his services were required.
The excitement was intense. The professor threatened the vengeance of the Emperor of all the Germans not to mention the scientific societies of Europe if his liberty was interfered with. The Irishman offered to fight everybody in the township if a hand was laid upon him, and the publican threatened to bring an action for libel against all and sundry who said that he sold methylated spirits.
Fortunately the Judge was on circuit, and soon arrived. The jury, after bringing in a verdict that the deceased died by accident caused by the visitation of God, and that no one was responsible, which the judge refused to accept; acquitted all the accused.
The German promised the direst of actions by law unless he got back his property for which he had duly paid, namely, Timothy's head; and he got it.
Now, if anyone mentions methylated spirits within the hearing of that publican there will probably be another trial for murder put on record.
EVERYBODY liked Fred Birdell. He was such a willing, cheerful, good-looking youngster. Everybody with one or two exceptions, prophesied that he was bound to get on, he had such a happy knack of making friends. The few exceptions remarked that this was the very thing likely to be his downfall; a generous temper and facile, friendly disposition not being usually conducive worldly success. However, when he was getting his "colonial experience" in the days of Northern Queensland he was the most, popular young fellow in the district. Fred picked up the run of station life rapidly, and by the time he had been over two years on an outside cattle run he was worth his wages anywhere.
He had in him till the makings of true bushman. Without being able analyse his feelings, he felt the many things which to other men were only a wearisome sameness, were to him a pleasure and delight.
When others crept sluggishly, grumbling, from their blankets, Fred felt the early freshness of the jocund morn as a direct call, and would be out for a plunge in the long lagoon and through the dewy grass of the paddock with the black boys after the horses, chanting a corroboree with them, or teaching them to sing some jingling nigger chorus.
The Never-Never country, not yet far beyond the station boundary, held untold possibilities for his young imagination. What reefs of gold, what miles of beautiful country, what strange discoveries might not be awaiting the first adventurer to those regions? The romance of bush life was visible to him where so man see only the monotony of the work and the hardship and occasional privation. So it was a happy, careless existence he passed during his novitiate, and the end of it found him as healthy, active a specimen of humanity as could be seen anywhere.
"I'm sorry for the girls, Fred, when you go to town," the fellows used to say chaffingly to him. But Fred never thought of girls at that time. There were only two or three withered specimens of womanhood in the district, and although a boy's first love is generally for someone of mature age, the ladies in question would scarcely under any circumstances have stirred even the depth of a boy's heart.
And so it came about, that Fred decided to go on a visit to his people in the South. He was a fairly innocent lad, but not outrageously so. The stunted generation growing up in our modern Australian cities possesses more vicious knowledge at fourteen than he did at his twenty years, but for all that he was not a country bumpkin. In those days there were no railways to transmit one as by a conjuring trick from the solitude of the west to the "big smoke" of eastern seaboard towns. People now would make their will and bid a weeping adieu to their friends if required to face such a journey as a jaunt to town then entailed.
From the open downs of the inland streams—streams in reality at times—streams but in the name only for many, many months—adown the low rise that there form the main watershed, through the melancholy brigalow scrubs of the head coastal waters, and down the coastal range itself, Fred and a companion made their way to what was then the principal town in Queensland, north of Brisbane. After over two years silent consecutively on one station, even a very primitive township has a certain charm of novelty about it to a young, unjaded taste. True, there was little diversion beyond tho many nourishing bars, and like most bush lads, Fred had enough innate vitality not to feel any craving for artificial stimulant. To his ignorant palate the flavour of such compounds was actually distasteful. A blackfellow is the only human being who takes to rum naturally.
There was no steamer going south for nearly a fortnight, and Fred and his companion, a much older man, were necessarily detained until then, At the end of three days Fred had made two discoveries; first, that champagne was a most delightful drink, which could be imbibed without any involuntary shuddering; secondly that a certain young damsel's eyes were deeper and more unfathomable than any still bush lagoon sleeping 'midst a fringe of broad leaved lilies.
Poor lad, the unconscious idealism of his nature made him taste nothing but spiritual elation in a very inferior imitation of champagne, and see a dream-woman in a third-class bar-maid with a pair of fine eyes.
His friend rallied him find tried to divert his thoughts into other channels when the steamer was about due, but not being very earnest himself he did not make sufficient allowance for the depth of a fresh young nature; otherwise he would have got him on board and carried him south by force or fraud. The steamer came and left, but Fred remained.
A cheque, even if it has taken over two years to earn, does not last very long under such circumstances, and Birdell was at the end of his almost before he realised the fact. He awoke one morning with the same sort of feeling he experienced wire when he went to sleep on watch, and let the cattle go off the camp.
Further consideration assured him that there was no doubt about. He felt ashamed to go home after his long delay, and equally ashamed to return to the station without having gone home. He had a pound or two left after paying his hotel bill, and two good horses in a paddock outside town. He could sell the horses and go south, or he could saddle up and go back to the station. He felt disinclined to do either. Delilah had assured him that he was the only one who had ever really sympathised will her, and he was far too young to be able to break away from her by him self. He had learnt to take his liquor when it was pretty well disguised, so he got up and had some rum and milk well-sweetened.
Delilah was seldom visible before 10 o'clock, and when he put in an appearance some time after that hour she was too deeply engrossed with another man to take much notice of him. How could he imagine that she knew as well as he did that he had reached the end of his tether? Up to that morning he had believed her to be all artlessness and innocence: a jewel amid unworthy surroundings. The studied neglect frightened him at first: he thought lie had done something to offend her. Ere the afternoon was over even his guileless eyes were opened, his day was done, he was only a foolish bushman at the end of his cheque, and Delilah had no more use for him.
Perhaps, to a trustful lad, there is nothing so morally agonising as the discovery that there are really bad women in the world, and worse, that he has been made the sport of one of them. Fred's answer against the deceiver was swallowed up in contempt for himself. It seemed to him that everyone must be sneering at him; and he had never known anything but friendliness all his life.
No; he could not go back to stand the good humoured chaff of his old companions out west. Nor could he face his own people at home. His nature was as sensitive as a girl's, and the touch of a woman's tainted hand had made every nerve quiver. As he walked moodily by the bank of the river a whiff of fresh salt air came up from the distant sea. It did him good; it seemed to chase the fumes of the bar-room from his brain. The old longing for the unknown country, the outside life, the charm of the hush, was strong upon him at once. He looked at the hard straight streets, the ugly uniformity of wood and iron structures bounding them, and his soul loathed the place. He would go back to his old life at once.
But not to the old station. No, he must be amongst strangers awhile. Men were pushing out north and north-west. He would go with them. Wherever there were horses to ride or cattle to look after he was sure of work. A day's ride would take him on the main road to the north, where he knew stock was constantly on the move. Once among the familiar scenes and duties again, these few mad weeks would seem like some foolish dream. Nature, the kindly mother who never deceives, held out her hand to him, and he took it gratefully.
A black crow pulls up abruptly in its flight, and dropping its legs after the awkward manner of its kind, perches on a dead bough.
"Caw! Caw! Caw-r-r-r;" another bird joins it, and the notes of the two die away in a hoarse chorus.
The ashes of a fire and the marks of a late encampment are beneath them. For a crow this holds out as great an attraction as burnt feed for a horse. The two birds look cautiously round and exchange a low guttural remarks in the knowing way peculiar to them, which has caused the natives to believe them gifted with the power of talking to each other. Satisfied that there is no one in sight, and that the place is deserted, they flutter to the ground and commence prospecting for scraps. They have it all to themselves for some time, occasionally diversifying matters by a flapping light over a choice bit of fat. Presently they are disturbed, and with an angry "caw!" fly back to the bough.
A dingo puts in an appearance, and begins sniffing about on a like quest; apparently he is more deeply interested than the crows, for he commences scratching on the ground in one particular place, and gives vent to a short howl. A second joins him, and the two root vigorously, the disgusted crows watching the proceeding from above. Shortly the dogs have unearthed something which has all the appearance of a man's boot, and are snapping and snarling over it.
A quick sharp report! One dog bounds away, the other gives a savage yelp and falls over; the crows fly off loudly expressing disapproval.
"Hit him?" says a man sitting on a horse and holding another by the bridle, to a man on foot, who is just ejecting a cartridge shell from his rifle.
"One of them; they must have been busy not to have heard us coming. Wonder what they were delving after?"
The first speaker dismounts, and hitching the horses to a tree, the two approach the deserted camp.
"Looks as though there had been a funeral here. It's a man's boot at any rate."
"And a foot inside of it," returns his mate.
"Poor devil, they might hare buried him a little deeper."
"Wonder who it is? Tracks appear fresh."
"Yesterday's camp: but there's no telling to an hour or so this dry weather."
The two men look curiously about, stamp the disturbed earth down, and drag some dead limbs over the place, then, after the habit of bushmen, proceed to cut up tobacco for their pipes. One of them turns the dead dingo over.
"Those Martini bullets hit hard; its gone clean through him," he remarks.
"What do you say if we ride round by Brumby Jack's, and find out something about this?" says his companion. "You, Dick, as a newly fledged J.P. ought not to allow corpses to be dropped promiscuously about the run."
"Right. Brumby's on his good behaviour with me just now."
They light their pipes, mount, and ride away. The dead man, under a foot of loose earth, and the dead dog, under none at all, are left in possession. Not much difference in their burial after all.
It is on the bank of the river, a bare-looking river, thinly timbered, running through great sloping downs stretching away to the sky line on either side in unbroken monotony.
Two hours' ride brings the men to a comfortless-looking shanty. Partly mud walls rudely thatched, partly galvanised iron, bent and patched as though the sheets had been used many times. The tread of the horses brings a dirty man into the apology for a verandah. This is Brumby Jack, the keeper of the accommodation house, save the mark. Needless to say, he is not licensed to sell fermented and spirituous liquors, but lives upon the business all the same.
The two men dismount and fasten their horses to a rude post.
"Good day, Mr. Kelson," says Brumby Jack effusively, "I was just thinking of riding over to see you, but I haven't a soul to leave to look after the place."
"Why, what's the matter?" replies the man that shot the dog.
"Well, there were some men left here this morning, and at their last camp, about eight miles from here, one of their mates died, and they left his things with me."
"Who buried him?"
"They did themselves. They are on their way to Burketown."
"Hum! He's getting up again; he had one foot out when he passed."
"You don't say so!" And Jack's villainous face assumed an air of horrified sympathy with the defunct.
"What did they say ho died of?" inquired tho other man, who had been rinsing his mouth out with cold water from a bag hanging in the verandah.
"Fever; he'd been bad ever since they crossed the Burdekin."
"Do not want me to take charge of his dunnage?" inquired Kelson.
Brumby shrugged his shoulders. "Beyond some letters and papers there's nothing but a pair of blankets and some old clothes."
"They didn't leave me any."
"Well, as we are here, we may as well have a bite to eat. Have you got any case liquor not uncorked?"
Jack smiled virtuously, as if to say "You must have your little joke," and led the way into a rude apartment, which served as a living-room. Leaving his guests there, he presently reappeared with a bottle of whisky and a corkscrew, which he rather ostentatiously placed before Kelson; then he went out again and came back with some letters and other miscellaneous articles.
"This is all, barring the duds," he said.
After uncorking the whisky and helping themselves, the two examined the dead man's effects. Both were silent for some time.
"Look here, Dick," said Hyndes. He held out a photograph to him.
The other took it and looked at it.
"Fine old lady; mother, I suppose. Poor beggar! A gentleman, seemingly." He looked again at the letter he had been reading, and a vision of the unmarked, shallow grave, with the wild dogs tearing at it, seemed to float before his eyes as he read the loving words a mother had written to her absent son.
"I have his name, and his mother's address," he said almost roughly to his friend. "Don't read any more; I'll send all these things on, and write to her as best I can."
Hyndes nodded and gave him back what he held in his hand. "There's another photo there," he said.
Kelson looked at it, and then at his, companion; both were men of the world, and the unspoken question was silently answered in the affirmative.
"Bah!" he said; "I won't send her that." And the pictured semblance of Delilah was thrown in torn fragments on the begrimed floor of the shanty.
"He had some horses, I suppose?" he asked, when Brumby returned with the coarse materials for a meal.
"I suppose so; but, of course, they took them on with them."
"Do you know the men?"
"No. All strangers up this way."
"Well, I'll send down from the station, and have him buried properly."
"I'd do it myself, willing," said Brumby; "but there, I haven't a soul about the place."
The repetition of this remark was quite unnecessary, as nobody ever credited Brumby with having a soul.
The wide acres of Carpentaria saw the last white man leave them in disgust, and the country abandoned to the former inhabitants. Then new men with new hopes came and restocked the deserted runs. Kelson and Hyndes had retired from the unequal struggle against the depression of that time. Brumby Jack, after clearing out the pockets of the last traveller, left with a moderate competence; and only a few distorted shoots of iron told of the site of his palatial abode. The rank grass of a wet season grew unchecked over the grave of those who fell by the way-side during the early years; and the bush fire following in the dry time destroyed any rough fence which may have marked a white man's resting-place.
The wind might remember the spot where the fair-faced boy slept, but everyone else has long since forgotten.
IN ONE of the cemeteries of Sydney, wherein many of her best men are buried, it is curious to note some of the records placed above meaner men. Here lies one whose wife obtained a divorce from him on account of his cruelty, and his children rise up and curse him to this day; but in gilded letters on the white marble we read, that "of such is the kingdom of heaven."
Here is another whose last years were passed in an alcoholic, bestial dream, but the story says that his sorrowing widow erected the monument in affectionate remembrance of his many virtues.
Look out across the blue sea.
Which is best? To sleep for ever with the waves of the restless Pacific rolling above—to rest unmarked and unknown in the quiet bush with the cattle browsing overhead—or, to be buried with a sculptured lie weighing you down? Alter all, it is only so many different ways of writing finis.
'I NEVER cared much for that part of the a country that I told you about, where Mrs. Birrell's farm was; I never seemed to have any luck there. I lost a fortune there,' remarked Jim.
'Jolly lucky to have ever had one to lose.'
'Well, I never did exactly have it, but I made sure I was going to get it.'
'Oh! that kind of fortune—one in prospect. Heaps of those knocking about I've lost whips of them myself.'
'It was all through that blamed Wreck. I told you that he got a remittance out, and married Eliza. Well, the girl had some savvy, for she got her paws on what few pounds were left, and, by Jove, she stuck to 'em. Wouldn't give the Wreck the price of a drink, no matter how he begged and prayed for it.
'One day the Wreck turned up at my camp, and pretty shaky he was. I took pity on him to the extent of a nip, and then he commenced to cry, and said I was the only friend he had in the world, and he intended to make my fortune. I suggested that he'd better make his own first, but he assured me that it was all right; hung round for a bit, spelling for another nip, which I gave him at last and he departed, still sticking to it that there was a fortune hanging out.
'About a week after that who should turn up but Eliza; and she wanted to know what I had done with her husband. Said he'd been last seen at my camp, and if I didn't produce him sound in wind and limb, she'd know the reason why.
'I managed to get her to tell me when her husband had disappeared, and I found out that he had not been seen since he had been mooning round my camp talking about this fortune. Eliza had got hold of the fortune yam, and she concluded that I had either murdered him for the sake of the fortune or had him kept hidden somewhere until he produced it. I asked her if she knew what the fortune was like, and could swear to its brand and ear-mark, but she got very wild; and when I inquired if she had the fortune's photograph she flung off in a rage, and vowed vengeance. She put all manner of yarns about concerning me, but of course, people only laughed at her, and came to the conclusion that the Wreck had had enough of married life, and had cleared out But he hadn't, for he turned up at my camp again, a more dilapidated wreck than ever. He'd been in the range, and what with leeches, scrub ticks, mosquitoes, lawyer vines, and tumbling over precipices five hundred feet high (at least, he said he had), there was very little more than half of him left.
'I fed him up, told him that he was looked upon as dead, and that the populace was only waiting for his body to come forward to give him a public funeral; that his disconsolate widow was also waiting for the corpse, as she had received several offers of marriage, and was in a hurry. After I had comforted him with these yarns he seemed happier, said that the fortune was all right; he'd been away looking at it, and it was still there.
'Of course, I had put it down as all talk, but he was so confident that I thought there might be something in it, for queer things like this have happened. At last he produced a packet and, opening it, showed me some strange-looking stuff like smoke-colored crystals, all alike, with eight sides and a pointed end.
'"What's that?" he said, triumphantly.
'I said I was blest if knew.
'"That's tin," he said; "tin ore of the very best quality, averages 95 per cent at the very least."
'There was great talk about tin at that time, for there was a big field over the range across the Queensland border, and everybody was a little bitten.
'"Where did you get it?" I asked.
'"Well, I don't mind telling you; I've just been out there, and I'll show you where it is. Fortune, my boy! there's a hundred fortunes out there. Hundred thousand pounds every one of them."
'Of course, I did not set much store by this talk, but still he might have stumbled on something.
'I managed to impress on man the necessity of not talking so much, and he promised he would hold his tongue, and left the packet of specimens with me. Of course, he went bragging about it and got so wonderfully drunk on the strength of it that he quite forgot that he had left the specimens with me. Meantime I took them to a man who understood the matter, and he tested them, and said it was right enough, that it was very rich tin ore, but he didn't believe that they came from anywhere about there; he said the geological formation was against it; still he would not speak for certain, used a lot of big words, and said something about an upheaval. I assured him that if the Wreck could not take us to the place there certainly would be an upheaval—an upheaval of wreckage. The question now was to get the Wreck sufficiently sober to take some of us out there. Of course it would be a grand thing for the town and everybody was interested, and the Wreck's popularity ascended at a bound, and a list was started to get him a testimonial, while town lots went up flying.
'I had an awful job to keep the Wreck up to the mark, but he stuck to his story like grim death, and made me believe in it. I used to lay awake at night speculating what I'd do with all the money when it came rolling in. As for Eliza, I believe she started credit at all the stores, and began to talk of ancestral homes in England, and how she'd be presented at Court; and I think she ran a duke in as a family relation before she'd done.
'At last I got the Wreck steady enough to go, and four of us started with him as delegates, or something of that sort. There was the scientific man I had taken the specimens to, the principal publican, and the principal Storekeeper. It was a picnic, you bet. Such a devil's dance he led us, through scrub and jungle, and along sidings, and up ravines and down gullies, until there was talk of lynching him if that tin field didn't soon put in an appearance.
'The Wreck was very nervous, I noticed, and I began to smell a rat, but I didn't say anything just then. At last we were camped right at the foot of a long spur, and after we'd fixed things up, the Wreck asked me to come to the top of the ridge with him and have a look over, as he had an idea that we were close to the place. I had an idea there was no place; and as soon as we got out of bearing I remarked: "How the devil are you going to get out of this mess?"
'The Wreck trembled all over. "Where's your blooming tin field?" I asked.
'He shook his head dolefully; so I took him by the collar, and shook his body to keep it company. "Out with it, where did you get those specimens from?"
'"Damph—I—know!" he chattered.
'"Confound you! How did you come to play this trick on me, of all men?"
'"Damph—I—know!" was all I could shake out of him.
'Now, this was a nice fix, but I felt more wild with myself than with the Wreck. That I should nave been such a fool as to be taken in by him!
'"Jim," he said, at last, "can't you fix it up somehow? I'll be hanged when I get back," and he commenced to whimper.
'"You've got a cheek! After leading me this chase through all this jungle and stones, you want me to help you out! Where did you get those specimens?"
'"You know old. Foster who has the shanty at the foot of the range. He had them—has had them for years. Some fellow who died there in the horrors brought them over from West Australia. He put me up to this game."
'"Then the best thing you can do is to split on him."
'"O Lord! I haven't the nerve. He'd stick a knife in me."
'"And the others'll hang you, so you've got your choice."
'"Have you got those specimens with you, Jim?"
'"Yes," I said; "here they are. I'm not going to West Australia at present."
'"I must think of something; leave me to my misery in case nothing turns up," and he sat down on a rock, borrowed a pipe of tobacco, and I left him.
'Now, you'd think that drunken fool had got himself into as tight a place as any man could, and no nerves left to face it out with, but I'm blest if he didn't wriggle out of it.
'It was dark, nearly, when I got back to camp, and the others wanted to know what I'd done with the Wreck; but I said we had parted, and I didn't know what had come of him. He never turned up all night, and the next morning we decided to go back, for you may be sure we were all dog-sick of it. I proposed looking for the Wreck for form's sake, but they said, "Oh, let him slide," and we started for home.
'Now, we'd been twisting and turning about so much that I was not a bit surprised when we came out on the road in about three miles, for, of course, the Wreck had been wandering around anyhow to gain time. Foster's shanty was only a mile away, so we agreed to go back there and refresh ourselves with something, for the old man knew me too well not to give us good stuff. Blessed if we hadn't played right into the Wreck's hands. There he was with half a dozen stiff nips under his belt as big as bull beef. The wastrel had made straight in there when I left him, and told old Foster that everything was running on greased ways. He'd meant to come back to our camp in the morning, but we had saved him that trouble.
'"Well, now we're right," he said, complacently, as we came in.
'We looked at him, nothing more, and old Foster put his thick tumblers on the bar, and asked us to "give it a name." I looked at Foster very hard, and he went to the back and brought a bottle out of a case. None of us asked the Wreck if he had a mouth on him, so he helped himself without being asked, and, strange to say, Foster saw him pour out half a tumbler without a murmur. Then I dropped that there was some villainy on between the two.
'"You see, we were a little too late," remarked the Wreck, as he put down his tumbler with a gasp.
'"Too late! How do you mean?" asked the scientific man.
'"Why, my friend, Mr. Foster, has already secured the ground. I forgot to inform you that Mr. Foster is also aware of the rich find."
'Old Foster beamed complacently, and remarked, "That's so, gents."
'"But where is the bally place, after all?" said two or three at once.
'Old Foster beamed still more. "That I don't care about saying," he returned. "Not just now. Here's some more of the stuff," and going into the back room he returned with what, I presume, was the balance of the ore left by the defunct soaker from West Australia. While the others were examining it I got a grip on the Wreck and ran him into the verandah.
'"I'm going to belt the life out of you with my bullock whip when we get back," I remarked to cheer him up.
'"Honor bright Jim! I didn't know what I was saying last night. It's all right, right as rain. I was only a bit off my chump through wandering around so long, and getting bushed."
'"Then you mean to have the cast-iron cheek to tell me that there's still a tin field knocking about here?"
'"I do, Jim; it's solid truth; only I'm in old Foster's hands, and must do what he says."
'"And the West Australian man who died here in the horrors?"
'"Did I say anything about a West Australian man? Must have been clean off my head with worry. No fear, the stuff came from here right enough."
I shook him up a bit and went inside. That cunning old Foster with his oily tongue had got completely round those fellows. He was just piling it on to the Wreck, running him down all he could think of; saying what a fool he'd been to trust to a fellow who couldn't keep his mouth shut tight enough to keep the flies out, and generally holding him up to public ridicule.
'Then he commenced on the field, and what it would do for the district, and I'm hanged if those fools didn't still believe in it all. You've only got to promise a man enough to make him believe.
'However, to make a long story short, old Foster got up enough excitement about the matter to sell his place well, and, as you may imagine, he and the Wreck and Eliza skipped without ever pointing out that tin field.
'I CAME across the Wreck once afterwards, at a small pub out back, when I was carrying. Foster and Eliza were there too—they ran the Show. The Wreck peeled potatoes and washed up and nursed the baby; and Eliza generally rattled him round, and allowed him two nips a day. He wanted badly to run away and go with me, but I was not agreeable.'
THE short tropic twilight was at an end; 'at one stride came the dark;' darkness and silence both.
The lonely man on the great interior plain felt as though he were at sea on a windless night of calm and heat, for in the sky unflecked by clouds the stars shone clear and bright down to the very verge of the horizon. But here there was no creak and rattle of masts and cordage, no sullen roll by which, even in its deepest dreams, the ocean mutters of its might and power.
Such silence is crushing to the spirit; one seems to have outlived the bustle, of the world, to have touched on the 'shores where all was dumb,' or to be astray, lost on some new, fire-born planet, doomed, to await through long years, companionless and in darkness, the coming of light and gladsome human voices.
Strange phantoms gather round at such times, strange faces come and go, strange eyes shine for a moment out of the surrounding obscurity, then vanish, and strange hands touch our own lightly and softly. Through the night, broken by restless snatches of sleep, full of troubled dreams, the solitary man lay on the rough soil of the great plain, his head pillowed on his saddle, glad when the snort of one of his horses, or the clink of their hobble chains, broke the dead stillness.
At last, after many vain and longing looks, the low-lying stars in the east began to wax faint in the grey gleam of dawn that, even with the sultry sigh of the coming hot wind stealing across the plain, looked cold and chill, until only the most brilliant of the southern constellations awaited the quick-spreading flush of the conquering sun.
At the earliest indication of day the traveller stood erect, eagerly scanning the western horizon as the light grew and the visible bounds of the great plain came in sight. But the watcher saw more. Silhouetted in dark bluish-grey against the morning sky there appeared the fantastic semblance of a line of rugged, broken hills, dominated by one tall peak in the centre. Plainer and more distinct it grew until, clear and undeniable, there stood out a far distant range, visible from that point only during the brief interval between dawn and sunrise.
The traveller drew his compass from his pouch, and carefully took the bearing of the central mount towering above its fellows; then behind him the great red sun suddenly sprang up, the range faded and disappeared from view, only the man's lengthened shadow fell dark upon the plain, pointing in the direction where it had appeared.
'I have seen it,' he said, speaking to himself, as men will in solitude: 'It is no dream.'
He took up bridle and halter, caught his horses, and was soon returning on his tracks of the day before, leading to his late resting-place.
MONTALBA DOWNS was the furthest western station in those days of Queensland settlement. Beyond lay the unknown, the mysterious interior, waiting for the adventurous foot of the white man. But the plains, broken by belts of scrub, rich as they were in grass and herbage, were waterless. Over the soft, spongy, untrodden soil the most tireless horse grew faint and weary. At night around the fire, in hut and camp, strange stories were told of what lay beyond—romances gathered from the broken babble of the natives who hung about the station.
Could one but travel for many days, a boundless plain would be reached stretching away, away to where the sun set. There, beyond that plain, which none could ever pass—for when the rains fell in their season the surface was too soft and boggy to ride over, and when the ground dried the shallow pools of surface water dried up too—there was a range of fear. No natives lived or hunted there; for at night, the earth moaned and trembled in spasms of unrest, water burst forth and ran down the gullies—water that could not bear the sunlight, for in the daytime it shrank; and dwindled away into the thirsty sand. Rocks and boulders rolled, down the steep sides of the range, dislodged without seeming cause, and the rush and roar of their headlong plunge awoke loud echoes that filled the ravines and gorges, with mocking cries uttered by no human lips. The trees growing on this range were gnarled and; twisted, many of them smitten and blasted by lightning.
Such were some of the wild tales told of the silent waste under the setting sun—told often in seeming jest, but with a lurking vein of half-belief running throughout. The better educated owners of the place looked upon it merely as a dry belt of country that, in time would be crossed when the pressure of increasing settlement drove men to push further out; but even they felt a haunting sense of mystery about it when they conjectured what basis of truth might underlie these idle legends.
ONE day three strange natives came into the camp of quiet blacks at the station. They were shy, and kept apart, although the others were friendly to them; when one of the whites approached the camp they slunk away. The other blacks could talk to them a little, and told the whites that these men came from the unknown west, that they had been on a long hunting trip, and the water had dried up behind them, cutting off their return. When the thunder storms fell, they would go back; till then they would remain quietly in the camp. Gradually the newcomers grew bolder, and were communicative. Some of their tribe had seen the range and told of the peak that rose, 'tall fellow' as their interpreters put it, but their own country was to the north; no blacks lived at the range.
In time the clouds gathered and the storms brooded black over the station, breaking in wind and dust with a few fierce peals of thunder, and heavy splashing drops. At last to the westwards a black bank received the sinking sun, and through the dark hours of early night the lightning drew zigzag strokes of livid flame across the gloom. In the morning the alien natives had departed.
'Bother take them,' said Drew, the younger of the two partners, 'I wanted them to show me where the water is that they are making for.'
'It will only be some melon-hole in one of the belts of scrub. We may find out from our own niggers where it is; perhaps these strangers may have told them,' replied his partner.
This conjecture turned out to be right. One of the blacks professed, after the manner of his kind, to have a complete knowledge of it; in fact, his speech suggested that it had been his childhood's happy playground. Both men knew how much discount to allow on this kind of talk; but as Murri-Arpa, the black in question, could ride a little and was willing to go there, Drew started out with him the next morning to locate the place and find out how much water there was there. They arrived at their destination, which proved to be but a larger depression in the scrub than was usually found, and camped there for the night. The three blacks were still there resting, for, as they explained through the medium of Murri-Arpa, they had a long stage before them the next day.
Drew fed the wanderers, and Murri-Arpa questioned them about the range. They told a strange tale, if his version was correct.
There was a great plain to the west; from that plain, just before the sun 'jumped up,' the range could be seen, only then. They had not seen it, although they had crossed the plain, but that was in the day time. They did not want to see it. Questioned why, they replied that the range had a strange power. Whoever looked on it felt bound to search for it, to go to it, but none ever found it. Men of their tribe had seen the range and fallen under its influence. They had started to look for it, but no man had returned. There was barren, desert country to cross, no game, no water, only spinifex and thorny scrub, and through this the crazed men wandered on until they fell and died, but never saw the range and the lofty peak. Only from the great plain before the sun rose had it ever been seen. How did they know all this if the searchers never returned to tell their tales? They could not say. The old men of the tribe had told them, and they believed what the old men said.
This was the story Murri-Arpa repeated word by word to Drew in the quaint descriptive speech of the native. How far was it to the great plain where the range could be seen? They would pass it the next afternoon. Drew made up his mind to go with them, leaving Murri-Arpa at the water to await his return. He had brought water-bags on the pack-horse, and they travelled along cheerily the following morning, the blacks seemingly encouraged by his presence, and especially by the presence of the water-bags.
Noon passed, and Drew fed his guides. Soon after starting again they emerged on the great plain, as they simultaneously called out to him. Gradually as they progressed the belt of Gidya scrub behind them dwindled down to a dark line, then broke up into clumps and dots, which first began to quiver and tremble in the wave of heated air hovering over the plain, and then became merged in the deceitful haze that now bounded them on all sides. At about 4 o'clock the natives halted, and indicated by signs that this was the place whence the range was visible.
How they knew it he could not make out, for there was no landmark in sight, but he accepted the fact, and tried to induce them to stay the night, showing them that he had food and water for them. But they were not to be persuaded, so he filled their wooden coolamen up with water, gave them a tomahawk he had brought on purpose, and saw their naked figures disappear to the north-west. Then he settled down to his long and lonely watch, which was rewarded when daylight broke.
'Are you certain it was not a cloud bank?' asked his partner, when they were discussing the matter after Drew's' return.
'Certain as I can be,' was the reply. 'See; I will draw it for you,' and he rapidly sketched the outline of a range with one taller peak in the centre.
'Let us go out to the plain together, and take that formidable telescope of yours,' he continued.
'Will there be enough water left?'
'Yes, there is enough in the scrub for the next three or four days for certain.'
'Very well, we will go to-morrow.'
THORPE and Drew were old friends as well as partners; indeed; in the future they were to, be united by a more sentimental bond than a mere business one, for Thorpe was engaged to Drew's sister. Only that the country was scarcely yet sufficiently civilized to be a comfortable surroundings for a lady's residence, they would have been married before.
Next morning, well supplied with fresh horses, they started for the plain. Drew proposed that they should merely spell at the water, for a few hours, then ride on through the night to the plain, so as to obviate the long watch. They took the blackfellow with them once more, to remain at the scrub hole with the spare horses.
The most beautiful constellation in Austral skies, the glittering belt of Orion, was overhead, and the much over-rated Cross hung low to the west of south, as they pulled rein on the spot which, judging by time, Drew thought to be on or nearly the same place where he had passed the night.
Once more he waited for the paling of the stars, once more he saw the mystic range stand out against the grey sky, and, with hands that trembled in their eagerness, levelled the telescope, and adjusted the focus. Then, without a word, handed it to his companion. Thorpe gazed intently.
Certainly no cloud bank. Through the powerful glass, he could see the dark shadowed ravines that scarred the sides of the range, the serrated crests and the bold peak that soared aloft like the monarch of the range. Suddenly a cry of admiration broke from him, and quickly passed back the glass to his companion, that he, too, might enjoy the glorious sight before it vanished.
The summit of the peak had caught the first flash of the sun. A crown of rosy gold burnt and flashed on the mountain's brow; burnt, flashed, and sparkled for one brief instant, then, faded into the nothingness of space. Drew closed the telescope. The legends of the natives were no longer fables.
'I shall put my foot on that range or die,' he said impetuously.
Thorpe sighed, and kept silence for some time, as he gazed around.
'I wonder if the other yarn of the blacks is true, that this range can only be seen from here.'
'We disbelieved the existence of the range once,' answered his eager companion. 'It may be true. If so there is only one way to account for it. This plain must be the summit of a watershed, and much higher than we think; going west one would unconsciously descend, as we have unconsciously ascended, and some higher ridge would probably shut it from sight at the lower elevation.'
'Perhaps so, but it is there, and one only has to go far enough west to reach it.'
'But how is it we cannot see it now?'
'Oh! that is a common enough phenomenon. Don't you remember when we were out run hunting, we saw a belt of scrub with a peculiar gap in it, just after daylight, which it took us the whole day to reach? It is due, I suppose, to some refractive power in the atmosphere peculiar to this hour of the day.'
'How far do you think that range is from here?' Drew asked wistfully, his eyes still fixed on the spot where it had been.
'Impossible to say without knowing how high we are.'
And with one last lingering look they mounted and rode back to the spot where the blackfellow awaited their return.
They had both now fallen under the spell, and made up their minds to reach the range and peak. Thorpe had a brother, who had just sold out of his station some 150 miles away to the eastward. He wrote to him, asking him to come and look after Montalba Downs for a month or so while he and Drew went out to inspect some new country. Then they started to prepare for their journey, carting a tank out one day's journey beyond the scrub hole, and then had to wait for a friendly thunderstorm to fill the hole. Before the rain fell Thorpe's brother arrived. A storm fell, the tank was filled from the scrub hole, and the two adventurers started, refusing, much to the brother's surprise, to take either another white or a black boy with them.
After they had left the elder Thorpe learnt from the station gossip of the romantic quest they were bent on, and naturally characterised it as 'tommy rot'.
'THE end of the plain at last!' cried Drew, as he pointed to some dark spots ahead, which indicated the presence of trees. The plain had seemed interminable, and both men felt relieved at the idea of leaving it. The timber turned out to be the edge of a straggling forest of box trees, as level as the plain they left. Still, for aught they knew, they might be unconsciously descending all the time. When it was near sundown Drew climbed the tallest tree that was handy; but from it only saw a sea of grey-green tree-tops.
That night they camped on a providential patch of fresh-springing, burnt grass, which served to prevent the horses straying. The monotony of the forest was broken by belts of barren scrub during the next day's travel. In the afternoon they were lucky enough to obtain water by digging in the dry, sandy bed of a creek they crossed.
'What's this,' said Drew, as they were fixing their camp on the bank. He touched with his foot a round, white object as he spoke.
'A nigger's skull; and there's the rest of his bones,' returned Thorpe.
'What the devil did he want to die here for?' demanded Drew.
'I suppose because he couldn't help it. Anyhow he didn't know we were going to camp here.'
'Well, he had plenty of other places to die in,' grumbled Drew, with an injured air.
The night was still and calm, both men were tired, and stretched themselves on their blankets, expecting the sound, dreamless sleep of the weary; but it came not. Towards daybreak they slept; but their sleep was broken by fantastic dreams, in which the Peak always bore part. Now, with the black pall of a thunderstorm behind it; anon shining out against the silvery-grey sky of the morning, crested with a glory of golden splendor. It was nearly sunrise ere they awoke, unrefreshed and out of sorts.
'It's all the fault of that dead nigger,' said Drew. 'How could anyone expect to sleep cheek by jowl alongside of his bones?'
'Luckily he hasn't worried the horses,' replied Thorpe; 'they look twenty per cent better than they did yesterday morning.'
It was bad travelling that day. Dense mulga scrub beset them, belts of prickly undergrowth intersected their course, and the baneful desert spinifex was ever around them. That night they had to fasten the horses to trees to prevent them wandering, for there was neither food nor water for them.
Next morning they came to a valley, sparsely weeded, the ground covered with the cruel spinifex and the barren sandstone rocks of the desert. The valley ran between black-browed frowning hills, but at the bottom there was no sign of a watercourse. They crossed it, ascended the rise, and once more found themselves amongst the countless stems of the gloomy, mulga. In an hour or two's time they were again in open country, and in the distance they saw a dark black line, which turned out to be a wall of basaltic boulders, a formidable barrier, impassable to their horses.
They climbed the rugged, honeycombed sides of the highest rock, but from the top could see nothing to the westward but a field of broken rocks, the dead scoriae of some ancient eruption. To the south, however, they noticed that the wall trended round to the west, so descending and remounting they skirted the obstacle in that direction. Suddenly Thorpe stepped, and held up his hand.
Drew joined him, and he pointed to another skeleton lying prone at the rocky base. This one was intact and untouched; beside the bones' lay some weather-bleached weapons and a wooden water-vessel or coolamen. Continuing they passed in the course of the afternoon two more of these ghastly warnings, one with the dried skin still enshrouding it. As they went on the spinifex gave way to better grass, the denudation of the basalt producing a mere fertile soil than the desert sandstone. In time the grass grew thicker and greener, and about an hour before sunset a faint smell of damp smelling wind met them, and the thirsty horses pushed eagerly on, sniffing the air with dilated nostrils.
'I believe there's a swamp ahead!' called out Thorpe, turning in his saddle.
Drew waved his hand in assent, and they soon emerged on a strip of open country, and before them was a belt of tall green bulrushes.
The horses ran into the shallow water, and drank greedily. When their thirst was appeased the men turned them back to the nearest timber, and camped.
Drew looked round for a tree to serve as a crow's; nest, for the rushes grew too high to see them from the ground. He picked on a tall bloodwood, and surmounting the naked stem by means of a few tomahawk notches, he soon was up aloft. Below Thorpe heard a loud shout of triumph, and looking up, saw his companion throw his hat wildly into the air.
'Come up here! Come up here!' he cried.
Thorpe kicked off his boots, and quickly joined his; companion; when he too; shouted in unison with him.
They overlooked the reeds, and saw beyond a sheet of open water extending, to the south, terminated northward by the field of rocks they had been skirting, adown the slope of which gushed numberless tiny rills and cascades. Across the lakelet was another belt of tall rushes, which screened the shore from view. The bosom of this secluded and solitary lake reflected the glowing tints of red and gold now spreading over the evening sky; the bright green rushes framed the emblazoned surface that, rippled by the falling streamlets that fed it, seemed sparkling with fire, and flame.
But it was the Peak, the hoped for Peak, still distant, but a tangible reality, no longer a vision of the dawn, a mirage of the morning, that wrung from them a shout of triumph.
'What could have killed those niggers whose bones we saw?' asked Drew, when, having finished a satisfactory meal, they lay smoking restful pipes.
'Can't understand. Its a puzzle altogether. I suppose we shall find out in time.'
That night their sleep was sound and heavy; if perchance one awoke the plash of the water falling into the lake, plainly audible in the silent night soon lulled him to slumber once more by its soothing sound.
Drew awoke first. He felt drowsy, and his head was heavy. Around all was enveloped in dense mist and the blankets were saturated with dew. He rose to his feet, and immediately a sense of giddiness seized him, and he dropped on the ground. The movement aroused Thorpe, who was about rising, when he heard Drew's weak voice—'Don't get up! Lie still, lie still!'
'What's the matter, old man?' he asked, obeying the injunction, however.
'Wait! Breathe through your blanket.' Thorpe kept still, and presently Drew spoke again from beneath his rug.
'This mist is poisonous. It turned me sick and giddy; we must keep our heads low until the sun disperses it.'
Thorpe looked at his watch. 'Man, it's past '9 o'clock!'
They lay still for some time, then Thorpe suddenly exclaimed, 'The horses! They must be suffocated by it.'
Drew made no answer, he seemed falling asleep again.
In time the sun's rays struggled through the steamy atmosphere, and the vapor broke into clouds, rose upwards, and dissolved in the warm upper air. Thorpe sprang up. Bending over Drew, he tried to rouse him, but it was some time before he succeeded.
'The air is pure again now, get up and pull yourself together.'
Drew got up, supported by his friend, and gazed somewhat vacantly around.
'By Jove, that mouthful I swallowed nearly did for me.'
Thorpe looked anxiously around for the horses. Two were visible near the rocks stretched out at full length. They went towards them, Drew still complaining of feeling giddy. Both were dead. Two further on along the lake were also lying down, but they seemed recovering under the influence of the fresh air.
In the distance they saw the other two, but they were on their legs feeding, apparently unaffected.
'That suffocating stuff must come from that old lava bed,' said Thorpe, 'the horses that were nearest to it are dead.'
'It doesn't matter,' replied Drew in an absent manner. 'We shan't want them any more.'
'Not want them! How are we to get back? Man alive, you're dreaming.'
'No, I'm awake. Once I dreamt, but that is all past. Let us stay here where there are no dreams, nothing but sleep, sound sleep!'
Thorpe looked at him with alarm.
'Touch of the sun, or fever,' he muttered, then led the other's faltering steps back to the camp. Looking through the pack-bags he found some quinine and a bottle of brandy they had brought with them. He mixed a stiff dose and induced Drew to swallow it got him to lie down, and fixed the blankets up as a shade. For some time he muttered restlessly, but presently slept soundly.
Thorpe looked around; the two horses had got on their legs, and were feeding, or trying to.
'This is a nice fix,' he muttered.
Drew seemed sleeping peacefully, so he went over to the wall and climbed along the rocks until he could see up the long vista of the lake. It was a fair and beautiful scene, full of quiet repose.
'What a lovely spot to be such a pest-hole?' he thought. He ascended one of the highest boulders in the neighborhood, but could see nothing but the black rocks extending northward as far as his sight could travel. Westward he could see the top of the peak.
In the afternoon Drew awoke complaining of headache, but he looked himself again, and spoke rationally. They shifted their camp some miles away from the rocks, and turned the horses well down the lake. In the morning no ghostly fog enwrapped them, but they could see it in the distance lying low on the ground like a white cloud. The horses were better, but Thorpe thought it wiser to spell for a couple of days, and look about.
'This explains those dead niggers,' Drew said, when they were chatting by the fire that night.
'Yes, they must have come tired out to that basalt wall, lain down to sleep, and have been suffocated. I suppose, it's some gaseous exhalation from crevices in the old lava bed that the cooler air before dawn keeps from rising. Something like the famous grotta del cane.'
During the two days' rest they took short rides about the neighborhood, rounding the lake, and examining the country on the other side of it. It was a long way round, but at the lower end they found plenty of wild fowl and other birds, nature seemingly teaching them to avoid the dangerous end near the basalt wall. Across the lake the country rose in a gradual ascent, and from the crest they obtained a good view of the peak and the range of which it was part Apparently, it was some twenty miles away still, and from their position they could see the country around, which presented a very broken and rugged appearance.
On the third day they made a fresh start Their number of pack horses being now lessened they left a pack saddle and some of their rations securely hidden, and Thorpe marked a tree on their tracks where they, turned the corner of the basalt wall. At the foot he buried a tin with a paper inside, telling of the vapor and its deadly effects. This, in case his brother should, despite his warning, follow up their trail.
Descending the opposite slope of the ridge on the western side of the lake, they now had the Peak of Sunrise in sight due ahead of them. The way grew barren and stony, the valleys they traversed were narrow and gloomy, even under the garish sunshine of noon. The ring of their iron-shod horses echoed and re-echoed from side to side of the rocky gorges they threaded, and always in front of them towered the grim and silent peak. At last they reached a kind of sandy marsh, which seemed to extend along the base of the peak; the rushes growing in its shallow depths were not tall and vigorous as the bulrushes on the lake, so they could see over them as they rode through. Weeds were rank on the bottom, and from the open pools and spaces, rose flocks of alarmed ducks in noisy flight. Cranes, native companions, and water-hens abounded, and in one large stretch of open water they saw a fleet of the grotesque-headed pelicans.
At last they reached the shore, and saw before them a rugged defile descending from the peak between two spurs. Up this they rode. They had ascended about half a mile, picking their way carefully amongst the boulder-strewn ground, when, oppressed by the gloomy silence and barren nature of their surroundings, Thorpe called loudly to Drew:
'Shall we go back and turn but at the water for a spell?'
A clattering echo succeeded the shout; and when, it ceased, and the men still sat listening for its weird mocking, yells of maniac laughter resounded on all sides. Thorpe, who was behind, pushed on to his comrade, and the two men looked at each, other in amazement; mixed with a sense of fear, which could well be forgiven.
'Look there!' suddenly gasped Drew. Round a jutting point came the dark figures of about twenty natives, but such figures as men only see in the wild horror of delirium. They were bony, lean, and naked, but that was nothing. In their faces was the soulless vacancy of imbecility, their blubber lips were twisted into apish mouthings, their hair hung matted to their shoulders, and their eyes, rheumy, and bleared, gazed at the travellers without life or speculation: They advanced, making freakish antics, and pointing with clawlike fingers at the white men.
Suddenly one stopped and commenced to howl with the same insane gibber of laughter that they had just heard. The others took it up, and the echoes of their horrible, inhuman mirth rang in wild discord from cliff to cliff. Instead of coming nearer, these beings now climbed up the rocky slopes like goats, their lean limbs seemingly possessed with the prehensile power of the monkey. One old, white-haired man stood out on a jutting ledge and again led the insane chorus, that now seemed more, demoniac than ever. As the white men watched, awe-struck and undetermined, they saw one of the others, crawling cat-like behind the old man. With a vigorous push the miserable, wretch was sent headlong into the valley, and higher and higher shrieked the frantic yells of glee as his white head crashed on the rocks, and his blood dyed it red.
'My God! We've got into a land of mad men!' said Thorpe.
As if excited by witnessing this deed of death, a woman with a child in her arms raised it high above her head, then threw it into the valley, where it fell on the rocks close to the horror-stricken men, who turned with one impulse and rode back to the swamp, where their startled loose horses had already preceded them.
'Let us go over to the other side,' said Drew hoarsely; and they rode splashing through the water, as if it could wash out the horror they had just witnessed.
THERE was little talk between the two adventurers that night, and it was some time before they slept Thorpe woke up suddenly. The full moon was nearly overhead, and its electric-like light made everything clear, throwing black shadows where it did not penetrate. He arose and looked seaward. The peak rose dark and sharply outlined. He stooped and roused Drew.
'The peak is calling us,' he said. 'Let us go up there to-night, and we shall not see those awful beings. Come!'
Drew showed no surprise.
'It calls me too! Let us go!'
They waded across the shallow swamp and walked up the gully that ran down from, the peak. Keeping steadily on, they reached the spot where the steep ascent commenced. In about an hour's time they had reached a jutting shoulder just above the base of the topmost peak, that shot up high above them, seemingly unscalable. Below them lay stretched the level country, long lines of brilliant light and deep shadow running over it, All was silent and still—no sign of the monstrous inhabitants.
'We can never reach the top!' said Drew.
'Never reach the top!' repeated an echo, so plain that both men started nervously.
Drew started to work his way round to the western side. Thorpe followed him. They found that the shoulder was broader on this side, and they seemingly looked down into a dark and fearful gorge, into which the moonbeams failed to penetrate.
Drew threw himself down, and Thorpe did the same.
'I am tired,' said the latter. 'Why did we come here?'
'It called us, and we had to obey,' answered Drew.
'But see!' he cried, leaping to his feet, 'what is it that comes?'
Out of the darkness of the gorge rose a solemn shape. It floated upward until it reached the two men, and they saw a face of stern, calm majesty.
'Come with me,' it said; and the two men rose to their feet and went upward with the figure, and stood on the highest point of the peak, and between them was the figure, now turned to stone, and awful in its cold stillness.
'Look at what you have dreamt,' it said, in a voice that chilled the listeners.
Drew looked down the fearful space into the abyss of darkness, and saw moving shadows that seemed to group and gather, until indistinctly they formed pictures and scenes of what had once been his dearest topes and aspirations. But they were shadowy and unreal, until at last they crystallised into a face—the face of one he loved, the girl he hoped to make his wife; and he saw it, not old with years, but old with grief, and care, and worry, and above all disappointment, and he thought that he could tell that the disappointment was for him.
The voice beside and above him spoke.
'The fulfilment of dreams is regret and sorrow. Why seek it? It is better not to dream.'
And to Drew the face faded away, and he saw only the darkness; and that seemed the best.
His companion, too, had looked down in the darkness and seen the hopes he had cherished fade as they appeared, until but the face of an old woman remained, worn and lined, with all life gone out of it and Thorpe knew it for his own, and like Drew he heard the voice telling of the vanity of dreams fulfilled, and like him he seemed to see respite only in the blackness of darkness beneath their feet.
The men looked up at the face of the stone being, and saw there nothing but calm—calm without hope—nothing but eternal indifference, in which there was neither joy nor sorrow; and they seemed to recognise that the desire and zest of life was in dreams, dreams that if accomplished would bring nothing but regret and misery; and it was better not to dream; and they laid themselves down on the edge of the gloomy chasm at the feet of the great stone figure, looking out into the mighty distance, and slept.
THE SPLASH and whirr of wings and the loud clacking of the water-fowl awoke the sleepers beside the sandy swamp. Drew sat up and looked around. Thorpe was just throwing off his blanket and yawning drowsily.
'By Jove, I dreamt we went up that peak last night,' said Drew, 'and went to sleep on it! An awful way up. Suppose we fell down here.
'I had some dream of the same sort. I. thought that everything was vanity and vexation of spirit, and there was no good in anything.'
'I wish those horrible madmen were a dream.'
'So do I. We shall have to tackle them to-day.'
Drew looked up at the peak. 'How dull it looks. The sun doesn't seem to brighten it at all, now we are here.
'It's like any dream last night—very beautiful when seen at a distance, but disappointing when reached.'
'Hanged if it's worth going up; but I want to see over the other side. I think we can ride over that shoulder at the base of the peak.' That will us leaving our horses to look after themselves.'
In an hour's time they were ready to start, and riding through the lagoon, entered once more the valley of horror they had seen the day before. Now it seemed silent, and the men were afraid to speak, lest they should rouse the echoes of that gruesome laughter once again. They rode quietly on until they commenced the steeper ascent of the shoulder, and as they neared it the remembrance of the dream came back vividly to both of them.
They reached the crest of the ridge, and looked eagerly down. The peak rose bare and erect beside them, as it did in the moonlight of their dream, but there was no mysterious gorge below now. The ridge ran down to a rocky gully, and beyond were but broken spinifex ridges, with patches of dark mulga scrub, nothing but the desert country of the interior.
As they looked there came over both of them a feeling of disappointment; but how they were disappointed they could not explain. The country was just what they would have expected to find if they had been asked beforehand. But, nevertheless, they experienced a kind of depression and dreariness for which there was no cause. Suddenly Thorpe called Drew's attention to some objects in the gully below.
'Good heavens! there are those wretched beings again!' cried Drew.
They were outlined against the sky, and the blacks caught sight of them. From down below rose the faint sound of their hellish chorus, as they indulged in their wild antics and gestures. Thorpe averted his eyes with disgust.
'Let us get back, old man. We've seen all we want to. We'll become like those animals if we stop here any longer.'
Drew glanced up at the peak, now nothing but fifty feet of naked, barren rook, on which no majestic figure sat now.
'Yes; let us go back; or we'll find our other dreams as barren as this Peak of Sunrise.'
They turned their horses; but as they descended the brow of the rise a laugh of triumph and mockery rang in the rocky hollows of the place and echoed far down the gully. It did not come from the beings down below, but both men could have sworn it came from the top of the peak.
Their homeward way was easy, but a blight seemed to have fallen on their spirits, which did not lighten until the familiar outline of the Station outbuildings came in view.
Thorpe's brother met them, and asked a few questions as they unsaddled and unpacked. Then he drew his brother on one side, and, with a grave face, showed him a telegram.
'It came over from the township last night. Boston brought it over himself.'
It was short, as all such messages were, and announced the death of their sister on the night they had dreamed of standing on the peak. Drew's dream had really vanished. That night his sweetheart had died.
No one has seen the Peak of Lost Dreams since, nor the foul creatures that live there; but some day the old lava-bed will claim a few more victims.
I WISH to say that I had no hand whatever in the production of the ghost of McPhail's roan bull. I make this statement designedly because many people, With McPhail amongst if them, although he's dead now, assert that I prepared a live animal to represent the ghost of McPhail's roan bull, which appeared after the death of the animal, at Danwiga Station, and was the cause of such disastrous doings.
Personally I know that on two occasion the apparition of McPhail's roan bull was a true ghost; of the other occasions on which it was alleged to have appeared, I knew nothing. This statement I have solemnly made before, but nobody has believed me, so, before telling the story, and I am going to tell it truthfully, I desire to make the statement once more.
McPhail bore me no love, of that I am aware, but our stations adjoined, and we were on speaking terms, sufficiently to behave in a decent and neighborly way towards each other. He thought that I envied him his well-known stud bull, King Pippin, sire imported, and had designs on that noble animal. I admit that I admired the beast which McPhail, by no judgment of his own, had imported into the district, but I did not envy him the possession of the bull, or think of doing him an injury.
But that was the way with McPhail. He thought everyone who saw red headed Mrs. McPhail fell in love with her, and wanted to elope with her, and he had a collie that he watched over at night, and, though no one would have had the cur at a gift, imagined every body was going to steal it.
One would have thought that McPhail would have been happy in possessing all these things which he valued so highly. But he wasn't. He always imagined that someone was going to steal them. And he felt mad when nobody tried to, or wanted to. If one had only run off with Mistress McPhail, or stolen the collie, he would have pursued them with all the vengeance of man and law, and never ceased to talk of it afterwards, but the only thing that was of any real value took sick and died on his hands, principally from the distracted efforts he made to cure the animal, and that was the roan bull, King Pippin.
So afflicted was McPhail at the sickness of the animal that he even sent over for my assistance. But the bull was in extremis when I arrived, so what little assistance I could have given was not needed. McPhail, needless to remark, was more than deeply distressed about the death of the be loved and admired bull. Distressed was no name for it, he was bereft of reason for the time. I am quite sure that he would have preferred Mrs. McPhail to have been the victim of Fate.
'It's the work of some scoundrel, some enemy,' and he looked fiercely at me, 'who envied me the possession of that noble creature, and, failing to steal him, poisoned him.'
'McPhail, you're a fool,' I said. 'If you mean me, you're telling an untruth. And you know it.'
'How should I know it, man, surrounded as I am by enemies, who longed for that bull; how should I know what to think? Answer me that now?'
'How can I answer it? The bull's been fed up too much, and anything may kill him. You know that yourself. You've been stuffing him too full of green feed, or letting him stuff himself.'
'I think I know how to feed stud cattle better than you, Glaisher,' he said.
'Well, I wish you knew how to feed me. Here I've ridden twelve miles to see your confounded bull. I can't bring him to life again, or I would; and you're going to let me go home with out asking me if I have a mouth on me.'
This touched McPhail on a weak point, and brought him to the ground—for, to tell the truth, he was not inhospitable. He muttered something about being put out by what had happened, and led the way to the house. Here, after our meal, McPhail grew somewhat himself, and said he had given orders to have the bull skinned.
'Don't do anything of the sort,'. I said hastily. 'You don't know what that bull died off.'
'What do you mean?' he demanded.
'Mean! Why, you know as well as I do that you might get one of your men blood-poisoned if the beast had died of "Cumberland" or anything of that sort.'
'Then I'll do it myself,' he said, jumping up from the table.
'Don't!' shrieked Mrs. McPhail. 'Mr. Glaisher is quite night; you don't know what you might catch?'
'Don't I? I'm going to catch the hide of my roan bull, King Pippin,' he said, getting up and leaving the room.
'Oh, don't let him do it; don't let him do it!' sobbed Mrs. McPhail.
'I can't stop him from doing it,' I returned. 'He knows the danger as well as I do.'
However, I got up and followed McPhail down to the yard, and found him with a knife and steel to his hand. I argued and remonstrated over the body of that wretched animal, who must have heard every word of it, and at last succeeded in restraining McPhail from carrying out his intention.
'The beast is cold by this time, and you'd have a job to take his hide off. Look what a sight he'd appear badly skinned. Why, if I was the bull, I'd haunt you.'
I think McPhail was touched, for he gave orders to get a couple of draught horses up and drag King Pippin away in the bush for a bit and cremate his body. Much relieved, I rode home. I had seen one case of blood poisoning, and did not want ever to witness another. Not that I really believed that the bull died of anything but a surfeit of green feed; but still, when anything dies suddenly—horse, bull, bullock, or sheep—there is always danger in handling the body with bare hands. So I went home with a good con science, and a highly satisfactory feeling of having saved a woman being from destruction.
Did I? I'm afraid not. It must have been about the middle of the night when a peculiar kind of voice awoke me, saying, 'I say, Glaisher!'
I awoke at once. The room was flooded with the most brilliant moonlight, and in the middle stood King Pippin; or, rather, the ghost of King, Pippin; for no respectable bull would walk into any man's bedroom at the dead hour of night, with his hide flayed off, and flayed in the most disgraceful fashion—cuts and gashes everywhere.
'Don't be frightened, Glaisher,' said the appearance, 'I bear you no grudge. On the contrary. You succeeded in stopping that fool McPhail from taking my hide off, and this is the figure I should have looked. Do you call it a pretty figure?'
'Scarcely,' I returned, regarding the object before me. And I leave it to anybody to say whether a bull without its hide would look a pretty object, excepting to a medical student.
'Say, why have you come to see me about the matter? I saved your carcass from the indignity?'
'I know you did, and I thought that you would like to see how I would have looked if McPhail had succeeded in his design.'
'I am awfully obliged,' I remarked, 'but really, if you hadn't taken the trouble, it would have been just as jolly.'
'Think I'll frighten McPhail?'
'No doubt of it frighten him off the station, I should think.'
'I should like to. The mean dog! After stuffing me with rank, green feed, and then, doctoring me to death, he wants to skin me. Now, if he'd only wanted to saw off my horns and preserve them as a friendly memento, it would not have been so bad. But to want to skin me for what my hide would fetch, after pretending such love for me. Pooh! I'll give him the cold sweats to night. So-long!'
'Hold on!' I cried. 'Think of Mrs. McPhail. Don't frighten her.'
'No, you donkey. We ghosts can materialise before whom we like. Mrs. McPhail will be sleeping soundly, while McPhail will be half out of his mind.'
In an instant the portent had vanished, and I got out of any bed and looked about the floor, expecting to find bloodstains all over it, bat no, there was nothing, and I came to the conclusion that ghosts were bloodless.
This occasion was one of the two which I can affirm to the actual appearance of McPhail's bull.
EARLY next morning came a hasty messenger over to my place. He had been riding hard, and handed me a note marked 'URGENT.'
'Come over, please, and see McPhail,' it read; 'I don't know what can have come to him since King Pippin died. Do come, if you have time.'
This was signed with, what I presumed were, Mrs McPhail's initials. Naturally I saddled my horse and went.
I found McPhail very wild-looking, and certainly not himself. He began at me at once. 'Glaisher, what did you mean by saying that King Pippin would haunt me? Last night I saw him! I saw him, I tell you, and I believe it was your doing.'
'Oh, hang it, man! King Pipping burst. How could you see him last night?'
'I heard a voice calling "McPhail! McPhail! get up and see your work!" Up I got, and came out side. There I saw an animal like King Pippin would have been if I had taken the hide off his cold carcass with a blunt knife. Like I was going to do. Now tell me, man; tell me, it was no trick of yours. If I thought that it was I should be all right, after I'd punched you, or you'd punched me. But not if it was a real spook! My sinful soul! I shall go mad!'
I did my very best to quieten the man down, and persuade him that' it was a dream, but I had a hard job, and besides, he had shouted his accusation against me out so loud, I know that from that occasion arose the idea that I had been playing ghost tricks. I managed to a certain extent, and we went down and looked at the charred remains of King Pippin, and gradually he got reconciled to the Idea that he had experienced only a hideous nightmare; but I knew in my own heart that it was nothing of the sort.
Sometimes now I feel sorry that I had not lied to the man. It might have saved his life. How ever, it was not to be, and I returned home, leaving McPhail a little calmed down.
That night I was again awakened by the ghost of the flayed bull, who hadn't been flayed.
'Glaisher!' he said, in that calm, familiar manner that ghosts assume. 'What am I to do? I had no intention, I assure you, of driving McPhail to such an extreme, but from the way he spoke about me when you were talking over my body, I concluded that the man had no heart, no feelings. Now I see that he has, and I feel deep regret about the matter.'
'Well don't go appearing to him any more then, and he will soon get all right.'
'Very easy to say that; but if you were a ghost you would know different. If you appear to a man once, you must appear to him three times. It's a law no ghost can break.'
'If you show up to McPhail any more you'll drive him out of his mind,' I replied.
'I don't want to do that; but what am I to do? I must go and see him again; I'm bound to tell you.'
'Well, if you must you must; but must you go to-night? Otherwise, we might fix things up a little.'
'How do you mean?'
'I persuaded McPhail that he had experienced a bad nightmare, and he seemed to think that I had been playing a trick on him. Now, I will let him hold that opinion, and think that I have been playing a trick on him.'
'And cast dishonor on the ghosts. Let it be thought that a real genuine ghost was only a turnip and a candle, so to speak. No! not to be thought of.'
'I can think of nothing else. Can't you put it off until to-morrow night?'
'I can do that if you'll promise not to play any tricks in the meantime.'
I gave my word, and the ghost of King Pippin departed with the same celerity as he did the night before.
I HAD to keep my word even to a ghost, but I determined to go and sleep over at McPhail's. I had a good excuse, just to look after him in his nervous condition. So I went. Mrs. McPhail was glad to see me, and told me that her husband had passed but a restless night, and he too was glad to welcome me to stop the night. I determined to keep awake, as I was certain that I should hear the ghost's voice as well as McPhail, but I didn't, or, rather, I dropped off to sleep.
I awoke with a start, and instinctively went out on the verandah. Good heavens; there in the brilliant moonlight stood McPhail, talking to something that—that night—I could not see. He had a revolver in his hand, and, shouting loudly to Mrs. McPhail, I ran down the two or three steps of the verandah, and I distinctly heard these words.
'Then you must come again?'
'Yes, I must!' came a voice from the invisible.
'Then I can't stand another sight of you!', and before I could get near he had shot himself.
Mrs. McPhail was just behind me, and there was a terrible scene, into which I need not go into details. But McPhail had gone to join King Pippin in ghostland, and, perhaps, he was happier.
That really is all I know about the tragedy.
SILENCE all around. In the fading light, the wide plain in front of the belt of stunted trees was gradually shrinking in size, but still retaining an impression of vast and illimitable space. The brightest of the constellations were already visible, remaining stars were rapidly peopling the dark spaces with shining points of light. But they only seemed to increase the overwhelming sense of loneliness. Like the boundless plain and the brooding, haunting stillness, these cold, pitiless but beautiful watchers of the night brought no suggestion of companionship. No mere human tragedy could win aught but stern indifference from them.
Gradually the western flush faded and died, and the feeling of being the last man on a dead world came strongly over the solitary figure lying at the edge of the scanty forest But of all things around the terrible unbroken silence pained him the worst and seemed to the sick man the most dreadful part of the torture Nature was inflicting on him. The agony of being alone in the darkness and stillness gave him strength to rise, and with tottering limbs, from which the fever had sapped all vigor, he sought for dried sticks and leaves to build a fire. It was not needed for warmth, for the night was windless and sultry, but it would be alive, with some sort of motion and noise—it would be a companion.
When he had finished his task he sank down, shaking with weakness. The fire created a little circle of light, and made the outside darkness blacker than before.
This surrounding of shadow worked on the sick man's nerves. All manner of strange and threatening spectres might be hiding in its shrouding gloom. He tried to concentrate his attention on the crackling fire, but every now and then he would have to steal a fearful look round to make sure that some grim phantom was not peering over his shoulder. Gradually the sense of his hopeless position absorbed even this terror, and a desperate resolve came into his mind. Why linger thus through the long watches of the night, waiting for daylight and—death? His end was sure, why not anticipate it and do away with so much suffering?
He drew his revolver and looked at it. It would be quick and easy, and he would no more fear heat and thirst, nor the torments of fever and solitude. He would leave a memorandum of his name and fate lest anyone should eventually find his remains, and he took a letter from his pouch and prepared to write on the back of it. As he commenced to write by the flickering and uncertain firelight he began to reflect how this little scrap of paper, that a puff of wind could waft away, was the only connecting link between him and his kind; how, at that moment, cheery companionship was filling all the homes in Australian cities and towns all over the continent.
The feeling of wretched abandonment was too much for him. He dropped the letter and took up the pistol.
What was that? A sound! a noise!
Impossible in this horrible solitary land. He listened eagerly. It was but fancy. No, it was real—men were talking out on the great plain. He heard a human voice once more after having given up all hope. He tried to shout, but his voice was weak and hoarse.
The fire! He must make it burn up to guide them.
Out on the plain two men with packhorses were travelling that summer night, making a short cut in the cooler night across the long dry expanse they had to cross. They were perforce silent, for one was riding ahead, the other driving the horses after him. Suddenly the leader stopped.
'What is it?' his companion asked, coming up to him.
'I could have sworn I saw the light of a fire over there just now.'
'Nonsense, man, who could be out here? The country has not been burnt either, or we should have seen the smoke.'
The other did not reply, but continued looking steadily in the direction where he had fancied he saw the light.
'It is a fire,' he said at last. 'Look right under Orion's belt There now, it is quite plain.'
'You're right The blacks have been travelling across and left something burning. There's no water anywhere about here, as you know as well as I do.'
'Shall we go over and see?'
'It's a good bit off our track; we could see a fire a long way on this plain.'
The other reflected. 'We ought to hear the horse bells if a white man is camped there.'
'You can't hear a bell far on a plain.'
'I don't think we'll take the trouble,' said the one who had been leading. Even as he spoke the spark of light burned up bright and unmistakable.
'Looks as though somebody had just made it up.'
'Shall we go over?'
'Yes,' said the other, turning his horse's head to the direction. 'We may as well see what it is.'
When the two reached the place they saw some sticks dying down into red embers and a senseless body lying alongside the expiring beacon that had brought him, almost miraculous, assistance. The cool water from a water-bag moistening his baked lips and parched tongue aroused the man from his faint. He opened his eyes, and then closed them and lay quiet, striving to realise the blissful sensation of being again amongst his own kind; feeling a dread fear that their friendly hands and voices were part of a fevered dream, and would disappear when he aroused himself thoroughly.
Then he realised that it was not imagination. The noise of the horses, the men's voices, and the blessed water were facts. He sat up and opened his eyes again.
'Good heavens, it's Newton!' said one of the rescuers. 'What on earth are you doing here in this state?'
Newton laughed, feebly and hysterically. 'Ewart, is it? I was dying, Tom; but I'm going to try and live now.'
'Don't talk any more,' interrupted Morrison, the otter one of the two. 'Put the quarts on, Tom, and I'll turn the horses out for a bite while we doctor your friend up.'
'He's had the fever bad and lost his horses,' said Ewart, when his friend came back from hobbling their horses out.
'Fever, eh?' returned Morrison. 'I've got some quinine with me; I'll give him a dose.'
He went over to the pack bags, and got out the squat phial that quinine is generally put into.
Newton, the owner of a newly formed station on a western river in Queensland, had been suffering for some time with the intermittent Queensland malarial fever common to freshly-occupied country. He had started to ride in to civilisation for a change, to try and shake it off.
Being shorthanded on the station, he was alone on his journey, and during a fresh attack of illness his horses had seized the opportunity, and made away. As soon as he was able to move he followed them. He tracked them to a small, muddy waterhole just on the point of drying up, and the next day had followed them to the edge of the great plain. There, overcome by heat, fever, and exhaustion; and with as empty water-bag, he had succumbed.
Ewart told these details to Morrison, as they stood by the rescued man, who, overcome by the nourishment and the relief of the strain, was sleeping quietly on the rugs and blankets they had spread for him.
'It's no good spoiling your visit, Ewart,' said Morrison. 'He's right enough now. I'll bring him in. You pack up and push on. You'll get to Donovan's early In the morning.'
'If you really think you can manage,' replied Ewart, in a tone which fully implied which way his inclinations tended.
'Of course I can. Now, don't disappoint them at Donovan's. You're the expected guest; I am not. I'll turn up in a day or two—glad to be out of the birthday festivities.'
'Well, I'll make a start.'
'Do. Go quiet; don't wake him. Kind regards to them all; and tell Miss Halcott she has to thank me for your arrival.'
Quickly Ewart caught his horses and saddled up.
'You'll be able to manage with the spare horse to you get to where he left his saddle. Keep all the water, I shall get to the crossing soon after sunset.'
Morrison walked a step with his companion.
'What sort of a fellow is this Newton? Known him long?'
'Some years. He's right enough, but impulsive. Does things that he is sorry for. Means well, but gives way to his feelings.'
They shook hands, and one rode on into the starlight; the other turned back to the fire. Morrison lit his pipe, and stood watching the sleeper.
'Impulsive,' he thought, 'I should think he was; face looks quite different already. All nerves, I fancy.'
He was a grizzled, middle-aged man, broad-set, and sunburnt The sleeper had a thin refined face that was handsome, now that he was in a pleasant, refreshing slumber.
In about an hour he awoke, and Morrison asked if he would have some more tea, and try and eat something. He assented gratefully, and asked where Ewart was.
'He's gone on. He's expected for Christmas at Donovan's place, and it was no good our both stopping. My name is Morrison; I'm a neighbor of Ewart's down on the Lookybar.'
'It was very good of you to stop.'
'Don't mention it. Ewart's young, and expects some fun; I've had mine, and don't care for any more.'
Newton did not reply. He was young, too, young enough to expect to get some more fun out life.
'How do you feel; suppose you get up and try your legs?'
Newton got up, and found himself stronger and better.
'We must get away as soon as we can,' said Morrison, 'for the horses want water. How far is it to where you left your saddle and traps?'
'It must be more than thirty miles.'
'Well, I've a spare riding horse; we must ride him in turns bare-backed. Think you can manage to start at daylight?'
'I think so,' replied Newton cheerfully.
'Try and go to sleep; I'll wake you in time.'
It was a long wearisome ride for both, for riding a horse without a saddle during a Queensland summer day is not conducive to ease. But Morrison took the lion's share, and by sundown they reached the little creek where Newton had left his saddle and belongings when he started on his luckless search after the horses.
WHEN a man with a nice little station gets married, and his wife has a good-looking sister, it is only a matter of common charity for that sister to come up on a visit occasionally, just to prevent the men in the district forgetting what a pretty girl is like. Miss Halcott had vanquished Ewart on her first visit, and when she repeated it, and Ewart received an invitation to ride over and celebrate the first birthday of Donovan's son and heir, he gladly responded.
Naturally Ewart's tale of seeing the fire and rescuing the almost dying man, excited much interest, and Donovan drove out the next day to bring the sufferer in.
'How are you, Morrison, old man. I wouldn't let Ewart come, although, to do him justice, he offered to. Sorry to meet you in this plight, Mr. Newton, but we'll put you right if you'll stop with us a few days.'
The horses were turned out for a spell, and in an hour or two the party were on their way back to Illingford station. Naturally Newton was the honored guest amongst the fairer portion of the assembled party. Certainly he was an interesting man, and one who knew how to make the most of his personal advantages.
'Norah,' said Donovan to his sister-in-law, 'don't you let that Newton be always making eyes at you. Ewart's worth twenty of him.'
Donovan was still too inexperienced in the ways of the other sex to know, that this was the most indiscreet thing he could say. Miss Halcott was persuaded in her own heart that Ewart was far superior to the interesting Newton, but she did not like to be told about it, and from very defiance allowed Newton to consider himself a favorite more than ever.
'Wish we'd never have picked the beggar up,' growled Ewart to his friend.
'Way of the women,' said Morrison. 'Just you get your arm or leg broken or an eye poked out, and you'll get all Miss Halcott's attention.'
'The fellow puts on so much side,' continued Ewart. 'Heard him spouting poetry the other day, and he did it well too. Wasn't much poetry about him that night.'
Morrison laughed. 'Girl's only amusing herself. Keep your temper, old man.'
Newton, on his part saw no reason why he should not fall in love with Norah Halcott if he felt so inclined; nor was there any. He did not know of Ewart's feelings in the matter, and there was no one to tell him; so he enjoyed himself as long as his good taste allowed him to trespass on Donovan's hospitality.
Truth was that the birthday visit had been somewhat prolonged in consequence of neither of the two men wanting to go away and leave the other in possession. But when Donovan mentioned that he could lend Newton horses if he wanted to start, now that he was well again, why the latter had nothing else to do but prepare for departure.
Unfortunately, before he left some references were made to the hope of meeting again in Sydney, where Miss Halcott lived, and whither Newton was bound. It was a most harmless piece of common politeness, but the jealous Ewart construed it differently, and as he was doomed to a continued exile in the west, he felt injured.
Naturally when he had the running to himself he put on the airs of a martyr, which the young lady highly resented.
'You are no worse than other men generally are when they are in a parlous state, but as an act of friendship allow me to tell you that you have been acting like a donkey,' said Morrison as, their visit concluded, they were on their homeward way.
'If Miss Halcott likes that fellow best, why should I interfere?' answered Ewart loftily. 'She doesn't like that fellow best, and anyone but a blind owl could see it. There you were in the straight with Mrs. Donovan to back you up, and you must needs get on your stilts, as if you expected the girl to come and beg your Highness's pardon. Likely thing! You're not the Grand Turk.'
'Oh, don't worry me, old man; It's the last visit I'll make there, I expect.'
'Tommy rot! You'll come round, or else your affection for the young lady can't be very real.'
'You seem to know all about it.'
'I've had my experience, like most men of my age; and though it was an unhappy one, I'm glad I had it. I wouldn't forget it if I could.'
Ewart got off the high horse, and after a short silence spoke cheerfully to his friend; and they rode along talking of other things. The summer was dry, and the long looked-for wet came only in partial thunderstorms—fierce as regarded thunder and lightning, mild as regarded the rainfall.
Out of the fair Lookybar River the waters dwindled down to a few permanent holes, and the heat haze danced over the plains all day. Morrison stood in the thatched verandah of his rough stone-and-mud hut, striving like many a western man was doing that same night to detect some change that might indicate a break-up of the drought. But the same thunderclouds glowed and quivered as the lightning permeated them, caught the same red flare from the setting sun, and promised to vanish as so many had done before, night after night. Over the rosy glow in the west hung a few tiny cloudlets, all gold and crimson, and the watcher turned inside to sit down at his solitary meal which the cook had just brought in. The same individual poked his head in the doorway soon afterwards to say that some travellers were approaching.
Morrison got up and went outside again. Travellers were rarities in that part of the continent Presently the dust resolved itself into two men, with a couple of spare horses; and a near approach proved them to be Donovan and a blackboy.
'What brings you out here?' demanded Morrison in surprise when they met. 'Business. My partner in Sydney has had Rockvale put under offer to him, and he wrote up to ask me to go put and report on it. As there's nothing to be done this weather, I came at once. Know the place?'
'Very well; it joins my two southern blocks. Come in; I've not commenced my tea.'
'How's Ewart?' asked Donovan when they were sealed.
'Very well the last time I saw him.'
'Newton, that chap you picked up on the edge of the plain, is back again; but he did not come our way. Taken the huff for same reason.'
'I suppose Miss Halcott did not smile on him in Sydney.'
'Something of the sort; but I'm not sorry. He's not my style.'
They drifted into the routine matters of the bush, and the subject was not renewed.
In the morning Morrison rode part of the way with Donovan, and when he left him turned his home's head towards Ewart's place. The inspection of the adjoining run occupied about a week, and then when Donovan returned be found Ewart at Morrison's place.
'Come back with me,' he said; 'there's little chance of rain now till after the winter, and you can do nothing amongst the cattle.'
Ewart reflected; but when Donovan remarked as an afterthought that Miss Halcott intended coming up again daring the winter months, he finally decided that he would not come back with Donovan, but that in about six weeks he might look him up, at which the latter seemed perfectly satisfied.
'NOW that you and Norah have settled it to your satisfaction,' said Mrs. Donovan to Ewart some time afterwards when they were talking on the verandah at Illingford, 'I can tell you that Newton gave her a lot of trouble in Sydney. Wouldn't take no for an answer, I told her that it was her own fault for encouraging him; but she declared that she had not encouraged him—that whenever he approached the subject she put him off—that he was an interesting man to talk to, but nothing more. So you might just as well have made it right last Christmas, as you see he had no chance, only in your fancy.'
From this it will be seen that Ewart had made good use of his time, and was now the accepted of Miss Halcott. Ewart wrote to Morrison, asking him to keep a lookout for a couple of men, as he wanted to put on some additions to his house, and telling hint that the wedding would be at the end of the year.
Morrison laughed when he read it, and some days afterwards was surprised at receiving a visit from Newton—surprised, as his place was nearly one hundred and twenty miles north of his. Newton, however, stated that he was on the same errand as Donovan had been, namely, to inspect and report on Rockvale for a Sydney buyer. He asked after Ewart, but for reasons of his own Morrison did not then inform him that Ewart was then at Donovan's, nor that he was engaged to Miss Halcott.
His visitor left the next morning, saying that he would be back in a week, and duly returned, but Morrison noticed a decided change in his manner.
'Why did you not tell me that Ewart was up at Donovan's?' he asked, rather surlily.
'Really, I did not think it of any importance,' replied Morrison, good-naturedly.
'Oh! It was of no importance, just when I heard at Rockvale that Donovan had been here, and that Ewart had gone there, I was surprised at your not mentioning it.'
'What do you think of Rockvale?' asked Morrison.
'Is Miss Halcott at Donovan's?' asked Newton, completely ignoring the question, and speaking as if under the influence of a sudden thought.
'Yes, she is; and Ewart and Miss Halcott are engaged, and are going to be married in a few months. I suppose that is what you want to know?' replied Morrison, rather out of patience.
Newton looked strangely at him, and Morrison could not help remembering what his friend had said about his impulsive nature.
'Going to be married in a few months,' repeated Newton, 'Well, a good many things may happen in a few months.'
'I suppose they may; but I don't think it would be advisable for you to interfere in any way.'
'It's no business of yours.'
'Quite right; I've no quarrel with you, Morrison.'
'I don't see why you should have one with Ewart. He helped you when you wanted it.'
'No! no. That was you, Morrison—not Ewart; and I am very glad of it.'
THE winter months passed quickly, and in October the grateful rains began to fall in copious thunderstorms. In widespread patches the country began to look green and beautiful. One could pass from bountiful pasture to stern aridity in a few strides in some parts, so marked at times was the partial rainfall. But more or less there had been enough all over the district to relieve the strain on the overstocked river frontages, and once again the cattle began to wander back to the smaller creeks and tributaries; and as November drew near, and the wet season promised to set in at its wonted time, men looked more cheerful at the prospect before them.
At Ewart's station the improvements and alterations were finished, and the owner had been looking over them in the twilight, when he heard the tread of an approaching horse. Looking up he saw that it was Newton. He bade him good evening as he came up, but the other did not dismount, but spoke to him from the saddle.
Ewart noted that he looked ill and haggard, worse almost than when they found him on the edge of the plain.
'Can I have a few words with you?' he said.
'Of course; but get off, and come inside.'
'No, thanks. I think you are aware that I had hopes of making Miss Halcott, the lady you are going to marry, my wife, at one time?'
'I am aware of it; but I don't see the necessity of discussing it. Miss Halcott has made her choice between us. That ends it.'
'I am not going to discuss anything. I only want to ask your opinion about something. I am in your debt for the relief you afforded me about a year ago. Now, as you have been the cause of my hopes having been blighted, we can consider that debt cancelled, may we not?'
'What nonsense,' said Ewart, with natural irritation. 'If Miss Halcott was not going to marry me, it would not follow that she would marry you. Besides, pray banish from your mind once and for all that you owe me any thanks for the occurrence of that night. It was Morrison who determined to go over and see the meaning of the fire, and it was Morrison who stayed with you, and helped you in. If we had ridden straight on as I suggested, not thinking that there could be anyone in want of help in such a place, you would not be alive now. It is to him you are indebted for the succour, not to me.'
'I am glad to know it for certain. We are on perfectly equal terms, then?'
'Is that a threat?'
'It is a question.'
'Well, it is answered.'
Newton lifted his hat with mock courtesy, turned his horse's head, and rode away into the fast gathering darkness.
'The man's off his head,' said Ewart to himself, as he turned back to the house.
Naturally, the visit disturbed him somewhat, and next morning be rode over the ten miles that, separated him from his neighbor. Morrison interrupted him when he commenced his story by telling him that Newton had been there the night before, and left immediately after breakfast. 'Did he seem queer?' asked Ewart.
'No. Not until he was going away. Then he said, "I hope, Morrison, you will never repent having saved my life that night."'
They could make nothing of the matter, beyond the rambling talk of a disappointed man, although Ewart was made anxious; knowing that under the influence of a hopeless passion men of Newton's temperament have been known to do strange things.
Newton did put in an appearance at Donovan's again. He was quite himself, and in spite of all efforts. Norah found herself betrayed into an interview with him on the verandah.
'Miss Halcott,' he said, 'I want to ask you one question.'
She looked at him in silence.
'If Ewart had not been here, would you have accepted me?'
'I decline to answer such a piece of impertinence,' she returned.
He looked at her with his face full of pain, and stepped off the verandah.
On the day that Ewart was expected Donovan drove Norah out to meet him and his friend. A black thunderstorm was rising in front of them, muttering and growling.
'We'll push on past 'the galloping ground,' and take shelter In the old hut,' said Donovan, whipping up his horses. The 'galloping ground' was a piece of road cut through a broad belt of gidea scrub. It ran in a gradual curve, and was generally in good repair, hence its name. But the storm came swiftly up, and burst in their faces, just as they reached the beginning of the scrub.
Donovan urged on his horses through the driving rain and wind, the lightning and thunder seemed to be simultaneous, and Norah beat her head against the fury of the outburst.
Suddenly, everything seemed to crash, together; she remembered flying forward, and nothing more. Morrison and Ewart reached the western side of the scrub at the same moment that the others came in at the eastern. They, too, were pushing on with the storm chasing them behind. Through the driving rain they caught sight of the buggy coming full speed round the curve, then there was a frightened shout from somebody, and all was wreck and confusion. Hastily dismounting, both men rushed to the assistance of the two who had been thrown over the splash-board on to the struggling horses.
Disregarding everything, they managed to drag them out. The horses still made furious efforts to rise, and one commenced uttering squeals of pain; and the black boy who had come us cried out that their legs were entangled in barbed wire. Donovan and his sister-in-law were insensible, and they laid them by the roadside. Morrison and the boy, working like demons, freed the horses at lest, and got the harness off them, while Ewart did what he could for the sufferers.
The storm cleared off as rapidly as it had come on, and it was thundering in the distance by the time they had finished, and the trembling, lamed horses stood by the roadside, while they hastily shifted the harness on to two of their saddle horses. They had not spoken, both knew what to do at a glance.
'How are they?' asked Morrison.
'Alive' but I can say no more.'
'I think the buggy will stand to go in with them. We must lose no time.'
The insensible figures were lifted carefully in, and Morrison rode on to get some brandy, and report what had happened, while Ewart and the boy brought the buggy on as quietly as possible.
As it turned out, tie escape of the occupants had been miraculous. Both were badly bruised, cut and battered, but beyond this Donovan had got off with a broken arm and a broken head, and Norah with a terrible shock and a broken collarbone.
Morrison went back with the man sent to see after the buggy horses, and carefully examined the scene of the accident, or rather outrage, for it was evident that the wire had been purposely stretched across the road. The two horses were ruined.
It was dark before be got back, and found that Donovan was fairly recovered, that is to say, he had got back his senses all right. But he was likely to lose them again with rage when he heard of the cause of the accident Fortunately the doctor from the neighboring town was one of the wedding guests, and he arrived that night.
Next morning Morrison was missing. It soon transpired that he had had a horse put in the stable the night before, and must have started off before daylight, as nobody saw him go.
Morrison arrived at the 'galloping ground' soon after sunrise. He went back to the place where he and Ewart had first caught sight of the buggy, and tried to locate the spot whence the cry had come. He was certain it was not uttered by Donovan.
Satisfied as to the whereabouts of it he rode through the scrub on a particular line, and soon struck the track of a horse being ridden away from the place.
On, on, through the best part of the day he followed that track, through scrub and across plains, a silent avenging Fate. At last he caught sight of his quarry on the bank of a small creek. A horse was feeding there, and as he drew nearer he saw the man he sought sitting weary and dejected at the butt of a tree. The figure rose as he came close to it.
'I'm glad it's you,' said Newton quietly.
'Are you coming back with me?' asked Morrison, getting off his horse.
'I want to speak to you first. I never dreamt of the buggy coming. I knew Ewart was expected that day, and I intended to spoil his wedding trip.'
'And break my neck as well?'
'I did not reckon on you coming. I saw the buggy and was rushing down to stop them, but what with the wind and the pelting rain, and the pace they were going at, I was too late. Oh, it was awful. Tell me, are they hurt much. Not killed surely?'
'Pretty well knocked about, but not killed, no thanks to you.'
'Morrison, listen,' and the unhappy man came closer to him. 'You remember the night you found me? Just before I heard your voices I was about to shoot myself. I had given up all hope, and could not wait through the long night for death to come slowly. I wish I had! Oh, how I wish I had!'
'I sincerely wish you had.'
'Morrison,' he went on, in pitiful appeal, 'I'll do it now. Let me do it now. You're a good fellow, and will understand that it will be for the best.'
Morrison looked at him steadily.
'You were a gentleman once, so I think it will be for the best. Do it while I'm riding away, but if you don't I'll drag you in at my horse's tail.'
'I'll do it' He held out his hand. Morrison hesitated, then took it. He mounted his horse and rode slowly away. A minute passed.
'Funked it,' the rider muttered. The report of the pistol rang sharp, and the rider turned back. The soul of the suicide had gone to another world.
THE road was lonely, and the traveller was tired. His horse was in the same condition. It was late, and the township was still five miles distant. Therefore, when Dick Roberts, the traveller in question, saw the dim figure of a dog flitting in front of his horse in the feeble light of a first-quarter moon, he harshly commanded it to get out of the road.
The dog did not show any sense of being hurt at the expressions used by the tired traveller, but approaching him, jumped up, placed Its forepaws on his foot, and gave at dismal howl. Then it vanished; that was the uncomfortable thing about it.
Roberts looked up and down the road, but the thing had gone. Nevertheless, he could have sworn to seeing and hearing It. Moreover, he had noticed the kind of dog it was—a mongrel fox terrier.
Gradually the idea took shape in his mind that he had seen a ghost, and, being a superstitious man, he pursued the rest of his way to the township at the fastest pace that he could induce his horse to travel.
Arrived there, the first thing he sought, before turning his horse into the yard with a heap of lucerne, which was all the stable accommodation the local inn could afford, was for Dutch courage in fighting rum. Then he told the story.
'FIVE miles from here,' repeated the landlord; 'and a fox terrier, too; why, that's whereabouts Deaf Tim was found dead.'
'You don't say so,' said Roberts, 'but seeing as how I never saw Deaf Tim to my knowledge, nor so much as heard of him, why should the ghost of his dog appear to me?'
This question the landlord did not attempt to answer; he only opined that it meant something. Roberts turned his horse out and sat down to a belated meal in a very bad temper. It was all very well to say it meant something, but if the supernatural appearance meant a death warning, what then?
He had swallowed his tea when he heard the landlord's voice relating the circumstance to another customer.
'Some has it in the shape of snakes, and some in the shape of rats. Dick here is gone on dogs, saw the ghost of one coming along the road to-night. Heard him howl, too.'
Dick Roberts arose in his wrath, and went in to interview the landlord. 'I'm no more balmy than you; but I saw and heard that dog as plainly as I can see you're ugly phiz right enough. There now.' Having uttered which defiance, Dick demanded a drink, and lit his pipe.
The landlord apologised in a blundering sort of way, and the customer, evidently with an eye to the supernatural, asked Dick to have another drink, and tell him the story. Others came in, and Dick told the story again, until at last he got so pot valiant that he offered to conduct a party back to the spot in search of the appearance.
All agreed that it must have something to do with the death of Deaf Tim; but none would go that night, though all expressed their willingness to go on the morrow, which notion was agreed to. The next morning the landlord took Dick aside, and talked to him confidentially.
'I see a good stroke of business in this ghost of your'n if it's kept up properly,' he said.
In vain Dick repudiated the idea of its being a ghost of his manufacture.
Said the landlord, 'If it was a real ghost, it won't show up to a crowd, so I vote we provide one to fill up the bill. Now, Tom, my man, can fake a horse with anybody; so I suppose he can a dog, and I'll set him to work.'
Dick argued and protested, but the landlord said that a ghost was just the thing to start a boom in the township, and at last convinced him to take a share in the proceedings.
The party was formed, and proceeded to the spot. Of course, they found nothing, but determined to stay and watch through the night. They were not disappointed. Tom got very drunk, and failing other dogs, he rigged up the greatest scarecrow in the town with whitewash and tar as a fox terrier, and conveyed him to the scene, and let him loose on the watchers.
The apparition was too much. They all took to their heels, or their horses' heels, the dog after them, wondering what it was all about. Tom, watching the spectacle from afar, saw a singular proceeding.
The dog pursuing the flying citizens was pursued by another dog, which seized on him and made him yell for mercy. When Tom came up the dog disappeared in the same mysterious manner as did the dog seen by Dick. Tom recovered the painted dog and conveyed him secretly into town, and concealed him there.
When he showed up the company had drunk themselves into bravery again, and talked of going back—talked of it only, another five miles was no joke. The landlord beamed—his plan had been most successful. But while in the midst of much talk and conversation the painted dog, inspired by some unholy feeling, or urged on by the ghost dog that still pursued him, broke out from confinement and came plunging into the bar, uttering howls of terror.
The company broke up without paying for the drinks, and the landlord's house got the name of being haunted. Everybody went over to the opposition house, and he was left with Tom and the painted dog on his hands, where they did not remain long, for he summarily ejected the pair.
It is reported that the dog still occasionally appears to benighted travellers, but no one has yet solved the mystery of his appearance, and from the temper he displayed with his understudy, nobody cares to try and find out.
MILES and miles to the westward. Over the range that guards the Australian littoral fronting and facing the Pacific. Across the dry river channels that carry the flood waters of the Queensland wet season down to the Darling, which in its turn passes them on to the Murray, and so to the southern sea.
Beyond the wide plains, shadeless and almost treeless, was a solitary cattle station; new, rough, unpicturesque, and remote enough to satisfy the unsocial longings of the most sour-minded of misanthropes. The rough mud walls, the staring iron roof, and the dusty stockyard, built of timber wonderful in its crookedness, for straight posts and rails were unobtainable in that region, were all as prosaic and painfully ugly as the creek, dotted with gnarled coolibah trees, on the bank of which, it was formed. Taciturn, bronzed like half-castes, inured to hard fare and hard work, the men on, it were like the great silent waste around them, the mighty expanse of interior Australia which awes men into a sense of their own pettiness. Virtues and vices are constrained to greatness in the far west—one could commit murder, but not petty theft.
Pakeera was the name of the isolated station on the edge of the fringe of semi-civilisation that intervenes between close settlement and the great unknown beyond. On the east their neighbors were some thirty miles away; on the west 350 miles of loneliness had to be crossed before an equally isolated telegraph station on the overland line was reached.
Many tales were told of this half-known area. The pituri plant grew there, and the natives who inhabited the country were said to be of a pugnacious and warlike disposition. There were tales, too, of an ancient white man living with the natives, who, on the authority of a noted western weaver of romances, was supposed to be Classen, a survivor of the lost party of Leichhardt.
But the two men, Grace and Strong, who had invested their slender capital in taking up and stocking the country, thought more of wet and dry seasons than of what romance might possibly exist outside their own domain. One day Grace was up the creek after some missing horses, when he came on to some travelling blacks camped on a waterhole some eight miles from the station. By means of the black boy he had with him, he found out that they had just made in from the dry pituri country, the spring they had been camping at having given out unexpectedly. They were tall, gaunt men, all wearing their hair in a picturesque knot on top of the head, and each with his plug of prepared pituri carried behind the ear, a chew of which was politely offered to Grace, who managed to evade the offer without giving offence.
While trying to get some Information from them regarding the waters to the westward by means of his own boy, who could slightly understand them, they were startled by a loud, wailing cry from the crest of the ridge facing the creek.
The blacks jumped up, grasping their weapons as they did so. Grace, anticipating treachery, drew his revolver, and stood ready; but no harm was intended. The cry was repeated, the blacks answered it, and some of them went in the direction of the sound.
''Nother feller come up,' said the boy. Grace waited, and a group of natives presently appeared, slowly approaching. As they drew nearer, it could be seen that they were either supporting or carrying one amongst them. Evidently the call had been for assistance. When they came to the camp they were helping an aged blackfellow, white-haired and white-bearded. His rheumy eyes seemed blinded with the glare of the mid-day sun, and he blinked at the white man with unresponsive gaze as the latter stooped over him.
Apparently he was a very old man, of a once tall and burly make, now gaunt and attenuated; evidently he had lived beyond the usual span of a native's life, and was slowly dying of extreme old age. Remembering the idle tales of an ancient European amongst the natives, Grace examined him attentively, but there was no sign of white blood in him.
After some water and food (the latter given him by Grace, some which he had brought with him for a mid-day meal), the old man revived somewhat; but Grace's boy was unable to find out why the blacks bestowed on him such care and attention, for it was unusual amongst them. Finding that they were going to remain a few days at the waterhole, he told them that he would return the next day, and rode home.
'It's deuced queer,' he said to his partner, when they were discussing the matter, 'but those niggers must have had a fine old contract getting that man across the dry stage; they were regularly dead beat when they sung out for the others to come and help them on. I wonder that they didn't knock him on the head!'
'Yes; they're not generally so considerate, although more so than they are usually given credit for.'
'Come up with me to-morrow. We'll take old Yackandando up with us. He can yabber to these fellows better than any of them.' Strong agreed, and the next morning, accompanied by the black professor of tongues, they rode up to the aborigines' camp with a few presents.
The ancient native was much better, and after distributing what they had brought they told Yackandando to try and find out why he was so well looked after.
The reason turned out to be simple, enough. He had a knack of preparing the pituri in a way peculiar to himself, converting the plant into a strong and potent drug, that was much better than that prepared in the ordinary way. In fact, according to the natives, the old man was of an enormous age, and had survived in consequence of the power of the plant on his system.
'I've often meant to try some of the staff,' said Grace.
'I wonder whether the old boy will make me some up, they're sure to have some of the dry pituri with them.'
'If I were you I wouldn't watch the preparation, at any rate,' replied Strong.
Grace made his request, which was conveyed to the old man, who seemed somewhat agitated when it was explained to him. He wanted to see Grace close, and looked long at him with his dim eyes. Then he said something that the others interpreted, that he would make him a dose that would cause him to steep and dream. That he would have it to-morrow, and that one of the natives would take it in to the station.
The next afternoon the plug of fermented pituri duly arrived, enclosed in a wisp of grass.
Grace postponed taking it until bedtime, then, according to instructions, vigorously chewed the unsavory-looking quid for some ten minutes, then he spat it out and got into his bunk.
Strong, who had been laughing at him, lay awake some time longer, reading, before putting the primitive slush lamp out, he looked at his partner. Grace was sleeping soundly and peacefully.
'A good opiate, after all,' said Strong, as he extinguished the light.
THERE was a fearful row going on somewhere, thought Grace, as he wearily opened his eyes; but it was only imagination, for the most complete silence reigned around. Gradually, as his senses fully returned, he found that he was in the open air; that he was stiff, sore and in pain; moreover, he was lying on the deck of a ship that was rolling slightly, and that other forms were stretched around him. With great exertion he raised his head, but no lights could be seen, no movement was visible. The sails were set, and the vessel speeding through the water; that was all he could make out before unconsciousness again overtook him.
When he once more opened his eyes he was still lying on the deck, with the same dread silence around; but now the dawn was breaking, and the light grew fast.
What a strange old ship it was! The sails that were set were rent and torn, and the deck was broken and bloody. Men, dead and wounded, in strange dresses, were lying prone, and others were moving about. But the moving ones made no noise, the masts and cordage did not creak, even the wind that blew and filled the sails was dumb.
Making an effort, Grace got to his feet, and propped himself against the high bulwark, but his own movements were noiseless. He now could see all along the deck, which was flush. At the stern were gathered a knot of men dressed in a fashion of more than a hundred and fifty years ago. Two, who seemed to be of the highest rank, wore knee breeches, long-skirted coats, and three-cornered hats. The other men were roughly dressed, some with sea-boots, some barefooted; many had bloody clouts about their heads and limbs. All were armed with cutlasses, long pistols, and pikes.
As the daylight spread fast, Grace could see their lips move as though angrily speaking, but not a word reached him; all was dumb-show. They were looking eagerly astern, and following their gaze he saw a ship there evidently pursuing them. Even as he looked a puff of white smoke burst from her bows, and there was a splash astern. His attention was attracted to the flag fluttering at their peak. It was black, and on it was a grim white skull and cross bones.
The Jolly Roger!
He was on board a pirate craft, chased by a King's ship, but of what nation he could not determine. He glanced at himself, and then noticed his own dress. Not only was he on board a pirate ship, but he was one himself, an officer of some sort; for his dress was rich like the two men astern. His left arm was useless, and his neck was stiff from a cut on the shoulder; there was a movement near him, though soundless, as all things were on that strange old ship.
A woman's head appeared out of the hatchway, and presently she ascended and stepped on deck. She looked at the men astern, then around her, and smiled at Grace. Looking at her he thought he had never seen such a wonderfully beautiful face, although pale and worn as if with fatigue. She waved her hand to him and went below again, only to re-appear with a long glass tankard, filled with wine, which she brought over to him.
He took it gratefully and drank, feeling new life course through his veins as he did so; then he handed it back to her, trying to express his thanks; but his voice had no sound. The woman took the tankard and Grace noticed what a white hand she had, and the rich jewels that sparkled on her fingers. Just then the men at the stern came forward, their attention having evidently been called to something in sight ahead.
The two officers spoke to him as though asking how he felt, but though his lips answered the silence was unbroken. The woman spoke to one of the two, and he came and examined his wounds. Meanwhile the silent chase continued; but the ship behind did not gain, and their bans still fell short. A black line was now plainly visible ahead, and towards it the vessel was steadily kept. The firing astern was increased, but without result, and the black line soon developed into a belt of mangrove trees.
More appeared, and gradually it was evident they were approaching a wide shore, where the pirates hoped to find shelter from their pursuer. On the two vessels kept before a freshening breeze, the pirate captain anxiously examining the dense bank of mangrove forest into which they appeared to be driving. Suddenly he pointed to something ahead and drew his companions' attention to it; then they went aft again. The woman came and stood beside Grace, leaning against the bulwark.
She spoke to him, and he answered her, but what they both said he knew not; some inner power forced him to speak words of which he was ignorant She turned and looked back at the pursuing vessel, without evincing fear or dislike; indifference seemed the prevailing feeling, only when she looked at Grace her eyes wore a look of kindness and affection.
What relationship could possibly exist between them?
All this time the vessel was rapidly nearing the mangroves in which an inlet was now visible. Into this their course was directed, one of the sailors up in the top seemingly conning her as she passed into a fair-sized channel, up which the tide was running strong. They turned a point, and before them was a fairly straight reach of water. Each side was nothing tout the dreary mangroves, here and there broken by little sandy plains, and silently they kept on their dream-like course. Suddenly the men at the stern seemed highly elated, and exchanged looks of satisfaction.
The cause was apparent. Over the mangrove point they had lately rounded could be seen the topmasts of the King's ship, but stationary. She had struck on a mud bank. The end of the long, straight reach terminated In another expanse running at a different angle, but at the end was a ridge, higher, than the mangroves; beyond which ridge the inlet they were in did not appear to be navigable.
At this rocky point they anchored, a boat was lowered, and the captain and some men went ashore. Up to this Grace had been a passive spectator, but he now found himself moving, stiffly about; and giving inaudible orders, or, rather the spirit controlling him was urging him on to act so. Whether by his orders, or by those of the captain, the ship was being put in a complete state of defence, as a boat attack was seemingly expected. The captain soon returned, and began speaking to the woman, who refused whatever request he was making, which appeared to be that she should go on shore during the approaching fight.
There was not much time to argue, as three boats soon appeared rounding the point They came swiftly on, and when within shot one on board held up a white flag, and the boat bearing it pulled ahead of the rest. An officer, richly dressed, but with a face of fierce passion, stood up in the stern and a parley ensued. It evidently had reference to the woman, who stood boldly out, and joined in.
The parley was fruitless, and Grace guessed that peace was offered if the woman was surrendered. The boat pulled back to the others, the officer shaking his sword hilt at the pirates as he left. The white flag was hauled down, and a desperate attack was made. Twice were they beaten back; the third time the assault was renewed, the officer who had held the parley storming and raging as he urged them on. Grace had found himself taking an active part in the defence; now he snatched a clumsy musket from a sailor and fired at the officer, who fell backwards, over the side of the boat. The attacking party halted, and then retreated. As the pirates were rejoicing, Grace felt a hand on his arm and beside him stood the woman. She looked at him out of her deep, dark eyes with a look of both affection and pity, and leaned her head on his shoulder; then seemingly recovered herself, and, putting her hands on his cheeks, drew his face down and kissed him.
The pirate captain stood near, and when she released his face, he took his hand and shook it heartily.
An anxious conference was held, and the boat with the other officer went away up the narrow channel of the river. Meanwhile the vessel was warped near the shore, and the work of unloading commenced. Stores, arms, and ammunition were taken out, and conveyed across the ridge, Grace finding himself superintending matters as though he had issued the orders. The boat returned, and the work went on all night; before daylight the ship was deserted and they all proceeded across the ridge. On the crest the Captain halted, and they remained there until day broke. Then a column of smoke was rising from the ship, and round the point came again the boats, now with carronades mounted in them.
Evidently this was what the pirates had expected; seeing that the boats could lay off and pound them to pieces, they had fired the ship. When the men in the boats saw that the ship was ablaze they ceased pulling, and lay on their oars watching the fire. Presently, in obedience, to an order, the boats' heads were turned, and they returned round the point. The pirate company waited until the vessel burnt to the water's edge, then they marched to the place where then stores were placed.
Grace found this to be by the side of a lagoon of fresh water round which grew the weeping tea-trees of the north, telling him that he was in Australia. Shelters were soon erected from spare sails, and there they remained while the wounded recovered somewhat. How many days it was Grace could not tell, all was so vague and dreamy now that the fight was over, only he remembered how he, the captain, the other officer, and the lady met one day, and the captain produced a paper.
Then Grace knew what the dumb ghosts of the past could not tell him. The lady was his sister, the man whose body lay in the salt water estuary, the prey of sharks and crocodiles, was her husband. The captain of the pirate vessel was her old lover, with whom, assisted by her brother, she had fled from her husband's cruelty and tyranny. Outlawed by the King of France, they had sailed for the French settlements in India, but were pursued there by the husband, who was of high rank. Hoisting the black flag in defiance, they sailed for the Eastern Archipelago, but were doggedly followed up by the Sire de Bricheneuil, in a King's ship. From island to island, and sea to sea, the chase continued, until at last the pirate craft turned and fought. But the King's ship was the strongest, and once more they flew south to the unknown 'terre Australe.'
Again an encounter took place, and then the rest that was related Grace had witnessed. To it was added that the ship had been burnt on an unknown land, and the survivors intended to make inland, thinking that in this vast country there must be civilised people who might shelter them. The document was buried, enclosed in a powder case, at the foot of one of the giant tea-trees.
Then all things grew dim and strange. Visions, misty and obscure, of the party falling, off one by one; of barren ranges, of sun scorched plains, of hostile natives. But always that beautiful woman was with them, until at last they stood together alone, for the faithful lover and his men were dead by the way. They were on a ridge that appeared strangely familiar to him. Around were dusky savages who seemed friendly, and the worn and faded lips, that still smiled on him, formed the last words, 'Good bye.'
So she died, and they buried her by the side of a mighty granite rock, in the ragged dress that still clung to her, and on her fingers the jewels and gold she wore. On her lonely grave they piled stones, as heavy as they could bring, and raised a mound.
Grace knew no more.
'HOW did the pituri work, old man?' asked Strong.
'Let me think a little,' replied Grace, looking at him somewhat dazedly. Strong remained silent; presently Grace got out of his bunk, and, going to the table; sat down and commenced to write. When he had finished he told his friend of his vision.
'I believe I know that ridge well, and I'm going there to dig that grave up,' he concluded.
Strong had listened, interested In spite of the disclaimer that was on his lips, but when his comrade had finished he agreed to go with him and investigate, only commenting that after a hundred and fifty years or more, there would not be much left to be found.
'But I tell you,' cried Grace, vehemently, 'that we put stones beneath her, and bark above her, and on the bark heavy stones. They would not decay, man.'
He spoke as though it had all been actual reality, but strong took no notice of this.
'We'll put it off until to-morrow. After going to the Gulf of Carpentaria and back last night, you must need a rest,' he said.
The following morning they started, equipped for the task. They went by way of the camp where the natives were, and both got off, as Grace wanted to see the old man.
The venerable old aboriginal looked hard at him as he approached, then spoke in his own tongue, which Yackandando, who had again accompanied them, translated to mean if the pituri had made him sleep. He answered that it had.
A strange light of intelligence came into his wrinkled face, and he spoke as follows, according to a free translation of the station boy's interpretation:
'You seek her whom you have seen. She is buried at the great rock.' He raised his voice. 'Urillalo!' he called to one of his tribe, 'guide them to the hill of the white dead.' He closed his eyes and sank back.
Remounting, and now accompanied by the native named, Grace and Strong proceeded on their way. That night they reached the hill, or ridge, and camped there. Next morning, Grace was up by the earliest dawn, and, with the vision of the rude burial still fresh in his memory, he had no difficulty In recognising the mound, now overgrown by grass and bushes.
Setting to work, they soon rolled the stones aside, and opened the shallow grave. When they came to the layer of stones they lifted them reverently. The bark and the body had long mingled in undistinguishable mould, but in fancy Grace still saw the beautiful worn face, as he had kissed it in his sleep. And on the breast, where the hands had been piously folded, flashed the gemmed rings the unhappy Frenchwoman had worn.
THE partners sold their station to advantage soon afterwards, and men wondered at the wild extravagance that had made them erect an iron railing around a heap of stones, and a stone cross at the mound's head, afar on a lonely ridge away back from the creek.
One old blackfellow knew, and when death at last claimed him his tribe buried him at the 'Hill of the White Dead.'
Published as by "Dramingo," Favenc's most common pseudonym, this is an example of his verse. A single volume of verse was published in his lifetime.
I was born—well, I scarce remember, now,
For 'twas many a year ago,
But I know 'twas deep in a furnace fierce,
In the midst of its heat and glow.
And I passed my youth with some hundreds more
In a cellar's cool retreat,
Where always I heard the incessant hum
Of the busy neighbouring street.
And then my turn came: I was carried forth
Away up a noisy stair.
Till I stood in a room where a revel raged
'Neath the gaslights' brilliant glare.
My time was short—from hand to hand
I passed, then I left the scene.
I was trundled out as a worthless thing:
I was only a "dead marine."
For weeks I was left, and then once again
Did the rich wine wet my lip;
I was filled to the brim, I was corked and sealed,
And carried on board a ship.
I have said, 'twas a feast when I first saw the light.
Where the air was mild and warm;
But when next I was opened, 'twas in the night.
In the midst of a raging storm.
Ah! the wine I had cherished was wasted then,
I—the bottle—was valued more;
For perchance I might live when they all were dead,
And carry a message ashore.
And one man wrote with a trembling hand,
Arm-linked round a swaying rope,
The name of the ship, the date, and then,
"God help us all. No hope."
I scarce can tell how it passed; I know
I was thrown far out to the lee,
I saw for one instant the reeling deck,
And the next—was alone at sea.
How many suns I watched rise and set
As I idly tossed afloat,
I cannot say, but one calm hot day
I drifted against a boat.
A boat, that rocked as idly as I,
Nor heeded my clinking touch,
'Till I heard a sound, and a man stooped down.
And seized me with greedy clutch.
With a shout of joy he held me high
The sun and his eyes between—
A man did I call him? My God! no man—
'Twas a phantom, gaunt and lean.
And the crew that sailed in that dreadful craft,
Five rotting bodies lay,
Sun-blistered, scorched, with their wide dead eyes
Upturned to the light of day.
And that lone survivor held me long:
How his fierce wild eyes did shine
With rage, when he saw I a message held,
And not what he hoped for—wine.
But it passed, and he put me gently back
In the smooth still sea once more,
And the boat and I went drifting along,
Silently as before.
Silently! Silently! through the night,
No sound but the plashing wave;
Just once, at midnight, I heard a voice
Calling on God to save.
But God heeded not; at least I know,
When the coming sun's red stain
Was bright in the east, the boat was gone,
And I was alone again.
'Twas a summer morn, and across the sea
A soft wind gently sighed,
When I floated into a rocky pool.
And was left by the ebbing tide.
I was found and handled by man once more,
Before many an hour had passed.
I was shattered in bits on a neighbouring rock—
My message was told at last.
MY name is Mervington Smythers. I was born in London, but have not had the inestimable advantage of in any way profiting by my short residence in that centre of civilisation, being only some four years old when my parents landed in Sydney.
My father was a gentleman, living upon his income, as the term goes. I did not then know whence this income was derived: I do now. All I knew then was: that as far as my mother and I were concerned it seemed a very inadequate sort of income, although adapted to keep my father in good clothes, hansom cabs, the best cigars, and private delicacies for his own eating, when not dining out anywhere, which, however, was generally the case; for being a man endowed with great social talents he was in request at other people's tables—and he always preferred them to his own.
My mother was pale, quiet, and had evidently been very pretty. She never went out any-where, was devoted to my father and me: the only two objects, in fact, that she lived for; and we bullied her. She educated me herself, and as I was a sharp boy, and she had received a more liberal education than most women get, I think I did as well, or better, than I would have done at school.
As I grew up and turned out a gentlemanly-looking lad, with good taste in dress and not so much gawkishness about me as a boy between fourteen and fifteen usually possesses, my father began to take more notice of me, and gradually I became his companion and pupil, and my mother was left entirely to herself. Finding, I suppose, that her influence was gone, and that she was of no further use in this world, the gentle little soul died; and I must confess that as far as regarded my personal comfort I missed her very much.
My father was a man essentially formed for society. Out of it, in the solitude of his own home, he was—truth compels me to write it—an unmitigated brute. He was always talking about his family: how he had offended them by his marriage—allying the blood of a Mervington Smythers with that of an Amberly, my mother's maiden name. We had a coat of arms which I studied assiduously, and believed in implicitly, as I did in a legend my father used to relate of it having been granted to an ancestor of his for prowess displayed at Chevy Chase. I used to quote as peculiarly appropriate:
These are the arms that once did turn
The tide of fight at Otterbourne.
My father used always to speak of my mother's relations in the most contemptuous manner; and from all I could gather I came to the conclusion that they were low people engaged in trade, and utterly below the notice of a Mervington Smythers, unless perhaps it might be honoring them by accepting their money. Against a brother of my mother's he was particularly fierce in inveighing, accusing him of rolling in wealth (an action I have often heard of but never seen performed), and leaving his relatives to starve.
My mother's death having removed what little check there was on my father, he took to drinking so constantly that in about three years' time he followed my mother to the grave, leaving me as a sole legacy his mantle of good looks and suave manner.
A gentleman of the name of Vaughan, whom I had seen visit my mother once or twice, came to see me, and attended my father's funeral. He then informed me that he had it in charge, on behalf of my mother's brother, to allow me the sum of £100 yearly until I was in a position to dispense with such assistance. He also told me that through the influence of some friends in Brisbane he could obtain for me an appointment in the Civil Service in that colony, and by steadiness and application I might in time rise. I had an idea that Brisbane was a half-civilised sort of place where Mervington Smythers would shine a star of the first magnitude; so accepted the offer and expressed my readiness to depart at once. My temporary guardian asked me if I had no enquiries to make concerning my mother's people, who were now my only relations. But my father's son replied in the negative, loftily and decidedly.
"You have no objection to the hundred a year Amberly will allow you?" he then asked.
Of course I had not.
I asked about my father's family, but he professed total ignorance concerning that point, in a tone almost as lofty as my own, and we parted rather coolly.
I had been in Brisbane about four years when the incident I am about to relate took place.
I had remained, and had risen, in the same department that I had first entered, and considered that my position in Brisbane society was a tolerably good one; not quite what my merits deserved, but still improving. I need not say that my companions in the office were all men of family, at least they all said that they were, and we made it a point of pretending to believe each other. At my instigation we had early formed a coalition to keep out cads, and any who did find their way into the office were glad to get removed again as soon as possible.
My principal friends were Snobleigh Johnstone, my rival in dress, deportment, and lady-killing; Tarquin Staggers, our wit, who gave the nicknames and did the sarcastic; De Joinville Peenopes, the poet, great (in his own opinion) at album verses and elegant epigrams; and Vermont Brussels, who studied family history and heraldry.
We all resided in a boarding-house situated on Kangaroo Point, and considered—or rather regarded—ourselves as the only worthy bearers of Civil appointments out of London. We studied Trollope, and modelled ourselves upon some of his characters, assuming an air of lofty hauteur towards the general public that we fancied rather good style.
Now if there was one person to whom I was partly indebted for my position in the upper strata of Brisbane society it was Mrs. Memphis. She had known my father in his best Sydney days—he was great at fascinating middle-aged women, and she was middle-aged in his time and always spoke of him as that delightful man.
Mrs. Memphis took me up when I first came to Brisbane, and excepting that she seemed to regard me as private property, to be entirely at her commands, I had no objection to being patronised by a lady of her standing.
The worst of it was, though, that Aurelia Sphinx, her niece, who resided with her, also seemed to consider me in the light of private property, and this I decidedly objected to.
We used to have very pleasant little parties on the Point in those days, there being some very nice girls in our set.
There was Bessie de Boys, called Bessie Doughboy amongst ourselves. Vermont Brussels, who was born in Brisbane, and knows everything about everybody, says that the paternal Patrick Doughboy kept a small public-house in the outskirts of the town, and having made a fortune by some lucky speculations, changed his name to Dubois, and came out, or rather the younger branches did. The old couple were not presentable as one of the "first families." However, in the course of her boarding-school education in Melbourne, Bessie discovered that Dubois was not considered a very aristocratic name in sunny France. Therefore, in a most ingenious manner, and with an utter disregard of the science of nomenclature, "Dubois" became "De Boys," and as de Boys they shone in our select circle. Bessie was given to dog French. Tarquin Staggers used to compare her to a page of one of Ouida's novels.
Aurelia Sphinx, I have already mentioned; her forté was the intensely respectable, in which she resembled her aunt, who was the incarnation of gentility.
Sophy Montcalm, who essayed the fast line, and indulged in slang, and Georgey Widrington, who gushed, make up the sum of all I need mention for the purpose of illustrating my story. Of the many friends of my father who had invited him to their tables for the sake of his convivial talents, none had shown the slightest interest in my fate or fortunes. My father had been proud of my good looks and appearance during the last years of his life, had been in the habit of introducing me to his friends, and saying, apropos of myself, "A chip of the old stem, blood must tell—as old a pedigree as anybody in the kingdom that boy can boast of." And I did boast of it, but am not aware that I derived any benefit beyond self-gratification by so doing. Consequently I now looked upon Brisbane as my settled home, and had lost all connection with my past life in Sydney, save the business one of receiving £25 quarterly from Vaughan.
I was beginning to think seriously of taking unto myself a wife, and thereby adding to my worldly importance and respectability, but was waiting for another step in promotion, and had not quite decided where to throw my handkerchief.
Aurelia Sphinx, I knew, looked upon me as booked, but so did not I, for she was ten years my senior if she was a day. Bessie de Boys was good-looking, good-tempered, and often sat out a dance with me. But truth to tell there was another "faire ladye" whose gray eyes had cast a spell over me. I did not mention her amongst the bevy of demoiselles already cited, for in fact she was not altogether one of our set. Even Tarquin Staggers had not dared to invest her with a sobriquet.
Mrs. Vane was by some called everything that was charming, and by others voted "stuck-up" and exclusive, and her daughter Clara shared both verdicts. I was never quite sure myself as to my own opinion.
Sometimes when freely ventilating my opinions in her presence as to the absurd pretensions of some people to be considered anything else but cads, I could detect a smile of amused contempt flicker over her regular features, and a cool look come into the great gray eyes that made me feel that she understood and appreciated me thoroughly. Then I thought her odious. But again, when in her own house, her perfect manner so entirely set you at ease, her soft voice seemed so modulated to nothing but tones of courtesy and kindness, that then she appeared to me the most witching piece of womanhood I had ever seen. But she was an only child; her mother had a secure little fortune which Clara would inherit, and that anchored my drifting fancy.
This, then, was my position when I received a letter that rather frightened me. It ran thus:
My dear nephew,
I hear from Vaughan that you are getting on steadily and well in the profession you have chosen to adopt. I am about starting to India on important business, and as I shall have some leisure time at my disposal when it is settled, I intend returning to England by way of Australia and America. I shall call at Brisbane en route, and will then see you.
By the way, there is a graceless young friend of mine on a cattle station somewhere in Queensland: his name is Fred. Conway; try and find him out and make his acquaintance. I have written to him and expect he will come to Brisbane to see me. I should like you to be friends.
I hope to arrive in Brisbane by the mail boat leaving Singapore in October next, and trust that I shall find in you something to remind me of my sister.
Your affectionate uncle,
The reader may think that there was nothing in this proposed visit of a wealthy uncle to cause a clerk in the —— department, with £100 a year besides his screw to feel frightened, but so it was.
As I have said before, I always imagined that my mother was the daughter of some wealthy tradesman whom (my mother, not the trades-man) my father had married for her pretty face. I had shunned asking Vaughan if it were so, for fear of his confirming it; and it was now as fixed an article of my belief as was the greatness of my father's family—though both were equally vague and misty deductions. Another belief was strong within me: namely, that Ralph Amberly, my maternal uncle, and R. Amberly, maker of "Amberly's celebrated Suffolk sauce," vide advertisements, were one and the same person.
Now I had so bored my friends with histories of the Mervington Smythers' family, so blown my own heraldic trumpet, that should my uncle turn out a mere maker of Suffolk sauce, whose name in glaring colors was in any grocer's window, I was lost beyond redemption. My rising sun of borrowed gentility would set in clouds of ridicule.
I was troubled in mind, the more so as I found that, in consequence of the mail having been delayed a fortnight, another fortnight would land my uncle on the shores of Queensland: brief breathing time in which to decide on a course of action. I re-read the letter, and then thought about looking up this Conway. Perhaps he was already in Brisbane. If so where should I find him? Where did bush fellows generally stay when in town? There were two or three places where I would enquire on the morrow.
Chance favored me the next day. At the first hotel where I enquired the waiter told me that a Mr. Conway was staying there. Was he at home? The waiter took my card and went to see; presently he returned and ushered me up-stairs to a private sitting-room.
A young fellow about my own age, sunburnt, and bearded, was lying on a sofa, reading. His heels were higher than his head, his coat was off, he was smoking a short clay pipe, and on the floor, within reach of his hand, were a large tumbler of iced claret and water and a palm leaf fan.
He sprang up as I entered, and greeted me in an open cordial manner, if somewhat eccentric.
"It's frightful weather for the time of year, is it not? You look hot; sit down and take your coat off, and have some iced claret. Here, take a couple of chairs in front of the window—you'll get a little draft there. The men who built such houses for a climate like this want crucifying, don't they?"
I accepted one chair and some claret, but declined to take my coat off. In fact I felt hurt at being told that I looked hot—I, Mervington Smythers, who prided myself on never looking hot.
"I'm glad to make your acquaintance," went on my new friend; "your uncle has been a second father to me. You don't know him personally, I believe."
I said "No," and we drifted on to the common topics of the day, and I found Conway not half so bucolic as I had anticipated. For I always had fought shy of bush fellows, imagined they were always talking about riding buck-jumpers, and insisting on "shouting" for you.
I did not draw him out about my uncle at first, for I thought that I could find out what I wanted to know better when I knew more of my new acquaintance. Presently Conway looked at his watch as I rose to go. "You live at Kangaroo Point, and as you say you can't stop to dine with me to-day" (the dinner invitation should have come, from me, but I wasn't quite sure about him at first), "I'll go over the river with you, and give a call I have to make over there."
"Perhaps I know your friends," I said. "I know most of the people over there."
"O very likely. Mrs. Vane; she was an old friend of my mother's."
"I know them well," I replied, "and will go with you. I owe a call there."
"I saw them once when I first came to the colony, three years ago, but have never been in Brisbane since. Excuse me half a minute."
My companion returned almost within the half minute, not having changed the light gray coat he wore, or donned anything more imposing than a common straw hat.
I suppose I was guilty of looking rather critically at his dress, and then at my own faultless and accurate get-up, for he glanced enquiringly at me but said nothing. At any rate, I thought he is calling on his own responsibility; I am not introducing him. But I had to admit that although his dress did not accord with my strict notions of the proper thing, he looked well in it. As we walked down the street we talked about my uncle.
"Is he much given to talking shop?" I asked, nervously approaching the dreadful subject.
"To tell the truth he is a little given to it, but not so much as most men who have made their mark."
"This sort of thing," I said, with a sickly smile, indicating a flaming placard in a window, setting forth the merits of "Amberly's Suffolk Sauce."
My companion looked me in the face with a puzzled expression of countenance. Suddenly a light seemed to dawn upon his mind, and he burst into a fit of ungovernable laughter.
"Don't!" I said; "pray remember that we are in the main street," and I glanced apprehensively around.
"'Pon my soul it's too rich," he said amid renewed merriment.
"What is? what is?" I asked.
"I will tell you directly," he replied.
"I was thinking," he went on when he had attained command of his facial muscles, "how happily you had hit your uncle's character. That sort of thing is his hobby. Once get him started on the merits of his incomparable sauce and he will hold forth for any length of time."
"But," I asked, "does he mention it amongst his friends apart from business?"
"Decidedly! His motto is, advertise every-where. At a dinner party, for instance, he will say: 'I see you use my sauce; now if you want to save, order it directly from the manufactory. Come! give me an order now, and I'll book it and make you the usual trade allowance.'"
This was awful; my worst fears had never pictured anything so bad as this.
"He carries little handbills," my companion went on, "and distributes them to everyone he is introduced to. He has often given me a lot to take to a ball or party."
"And did you take them?"
"Well you see he is such a fine-hearted old fellow in the main, and has been such a good friend to me that I couldn't refuse. He will make you laugh in spite of yourself. He thinks nothing of going up to a young lady, thrusting a handbill into her hand, and saying, 'There, my dear, when you get married—and that's sure to be soon, with a pretty face like yours—you buy plenty of my sauce, and you'll find your husband come home to his dinner as regular as clockwork.'"
Whatever should I do? Ask for leave of absence, and fly the country for a time? Impossible! I had just had a holiday.
My companion did not see, or did not heed, my disquietude, for he harped on the subject still.
"But his grandest point of all is telling how he first got the recipe for the ingredients of which the sauce is composed. He always commences in the same words; I have heard him tell it a score of times, and know directly it's coming. He begins: 'Now I'll tell you how I once got the better of a Jew.'"
Conway, doubtless, guessed why I was so silent and subdued, for after a short pause he said—
"But you must not imagine that he is always like this. Sometimes he can be most correct in his behaviour, but never for long, it's only acting a part."
This was a feeble ray of hope. Perhaps I could induce him to act a part all the time he stayed in Brisbane. An idea, a glimmer of salvation began to form in the troubled chaos of my mind. We reached the house where Mrs. Vane lived, and I was rather surprised to see that my companion's negligé costume brought no censuring look into Clara's face.
Mrs. Vane was delighted to see Conway, and I felt vexed at noting the interest Clara displayed in his conversation. Had it been possible for a visitor at their house to feel himself out in the cold, I should have felt so that afternoon despite the warmth of the weather.
But my annoyance was capped when Mrs. Vane asked Conway if he did not think Clara altered since they last met. Actually asking him—for it amounted to nothing else, I thought, in my vexation—to look at and admire her daughter's blooming beauty.
I was supposed just then to be engaged looking over some music, searching for a song I had asked permission to borrow, but could not resist stealing a glance at Miss Vane to see how she took it.
To my disgust she laughed merrily.
"If I am much altered, Mr. Conway is altered too, since we used to romp together."
"Don't remind me how old I am getting," said Mrs. Vane, and as I came forward with the sought-for song the conversation at once changed, and we shortly afterwards left.
"I suppose you saw a good deal of the Vanes when you first came out?" I said carelessly, as we strolled away.
"No, very little," he replied, "I only stayed a few days in Brisbane, and went straight up the bush where I have been ever since."
This was worse and worse; putting Clara down at nineteen, and deducting the three years my companion had been out in the colony, she would have been sixteen when they used to romp together. The idea was terrible—worse than my uncle's visit. The calm Clara Vane, the type of maidenly reserve and womanly propriety, romping at the age of sixteen with a young man she scarcely knew. After this the deluge!
"I knew them long ago in England," said my companion at this point of my meditations.
"Oh! that is where you used to romp together," I exclaimed, unguardedly showing what my thoughts had been.
"Yes," he replied, with the slightest elevation of his eyebrows. "Did you imagine it was out here? When I was a boy at school I used to spend half my holidays at their house."
I felt relieved, and Clara was back on her old pedestal again.
I saw my new friend down to the ferry, and promised to dine with him on the next day.
As I walked back to my lodgings I mused deeply upon the best way of combining two apparently antagonistic courses of action—namely, the best mode of presenting my uncle to my friends without endangering my presumed reputation for good family, and yet keeping carefully in his favor, so as not to forfeit my chance of obtaining a monetary acknowledgement of the tie of relationship existing between us. Had he been poor and vulgar of course I would have at once ignored the relationship; but rich and vulgar—that was a horse of another color.
I could not quite understand how it came about that Conway and my uncle were so intimate. Conway was evidently well-bred, and a gentleman, if somewhat careless of appearance, and yet he seemed to have been on a perfectly familiar footing with my uncle.
Still what he said was explicit enough, and reliable, and upon his utterances I built my plan of action.
My uncle intended coming out by way of India, where doubtless his business was establishing an agency for the sauce. He could act the part of a gentleman when he liked, so Conway said. I would introduce him as a distinguished Indian officer, and persuade him to carry out the deception. In all probability he had picked up enough Indian slang to carry it off, and would feel flattered at the notion.
The more I turned the idea over in my mind the better I liked it, and determining to strike while the notion was hot I mentioned it to my friends that evening.
"By-the-bye, I expect my uncle out by the next E. and A. mail," I said.
"Who is he—Lord Helpus?" said Staggers, who could be very low in his jokes when he liked.
"No," I replied loftily, "Colonel Amberly, of whom you would have heard before if you knew anything about India."
"Why, what did he do?" asked Snobleigh.
"Distinguished himself greatly at the Pass of Juggernhaut," I answered confidently. It was the first word I could think of, but it did for Snobleigh.
"What happened there?" he grunted.
"My uncle and a handful of his men captured a khitmugar full of wild elephants."
"What!" said Staggers, in a tone of surprise.
"A khitmugar full of wild elephants," I repeated undauntedly, "and let them loose upon the infuriated rebels. Yes! let them all loose upon the exasperated rebels."
My audience were deeply impressed.
"I remember the affair now," said Snobleigh, slowly; "a relation of mine was present at the engagement."
Now this was so evidently fiction, invented on the spot, that I determined to put it down at once.
"What was his name?" I asked. "Oh—Johnstone," he replied.
"I heard my uncle speak of him," I said.
"Very likely; he distinguished himself greatly there."
"He did," I said, "he ran away."
This turned the laugh against Johnstone, and so far I was triumphant.
The next day I dined tête-à-téte with Conway, and confided to him my Indian-officer-plan. He seemed delighted at the idea, said it would be the greatest joke out, and promised to use all his influence to induce my uncle to consent.
"But he'll break out sometimes you know," he remarked, "but we must manage so that it only occurs when we are alone."
"I hear you expect your uncle shortly," said Miss de Boys to me a few days after this.
"Yes, in a week or so," I replied.
"An old Indian officer, is he not?—a vieux moustache. I know I shall like him. Is he décoré?"
I was slightly at fault for an answer; her questions were so warm.
"The interest you display is most flattering, Miss de Boys," I said evasively.
"Really now; but it is a selfish interest, for I find I can get on so much better with people who have lived in society at home."
"I wish I had lived in society at home then," I said pathetically.
"You have quite the air of it," returned Bessie, graciously; "quite the bel air."
Now was not this too bad, to be approved and passed by a girl who had worn shoes and stockings only since she was ten years old, and the family greatness dawned. Bessie might have known that I knew what the amount of her experience had been. But that was the worst of our little set: we all tried to impose upon one another so. Could I look into my own heart and say that I was guiltless.
"I trust he will resemble your poor father," said Mrs. Memphis. "I never," she went on, turning to Aurelia Sphinx, "knew anybody who combined graceful wit with an easy polished manner, so delightfully."
"Yes, aunt, I think I have heard you say that before."
"If you have, my dear Aurelia, it is because such talents are not so noticeable amongst the people of the present day. I trust we shall, however, find the same happy combination in your uncle, Mr. Smythers."
I could only bow, and hope so too, most fervently.
"We shall be glad to know your uncle," said Mrs. Vane.
"And from Mr. Conway's description I am quite prepared to fall in love with him," added Clara.
"Most Indian men dance well," said the Montcalm; "I hope he goes fast."
I politely reminded her that my uncle's dancing days were probably over.
"Never mind, I'll flirt with him; I like flirting with old men better than young ones—they are not so conceited."
"That is a very cruel remark, considering to whom it is addressed, Miss Montcalm."
Now this was all very encouraging; but how would it be if this décoré, this man who was to combine polished wit with an easy manner; with whom quiet Clara Vane was ready to fall in love; and Sophy Montcalm to get up a flirtation—if he should thrust handbills upon them setting forth the superlative merits of his Suffolk sauce.
I used to have terrible nightmares, in which I was about to be married to Mrs. Memphis, and when about to produce the ring would find a bottle of sauce in my hand; whereupon she would change into a wild elephant and chase me round the church.
However there was nothing for it but to await the fullness of time. I had set my all upon a cast, and had to stand the hazard of the die.
THE day big with my fate arrived, and found Conway and I on board of the Kate, steaming down to the Bay to meet the E. and A. steamer Singapore.
Conway pointed out my uncle amongst the passengers, watching our approach, and I felt one weight off my mind: in appearance he was quite presentable.
We went on board, and Conway introduced me. My uncle perused my face earnestly, but seemed disappointed in what he found then.
"Too like his father," I overheard him say to Conway. I could quite understand that he bore my father no good will, and did not feel hurt at his tracing a resemblance I was rather proud of. On our way up the river my uncle seemed anxious to draw me out; and, nothing loath, I dilated to him in glowing terms upon the good standing I had achieved in the best Brisbane circles—I who had come then a lonely stranger; and although he several times asked me most earnestly about my mother, I always managed to get back to my own affairs again.
It did not strike me that even a manufacturer of Suffolk sauce may have loved his sister, and have been anxious to hear one word at least of affectionate remembrance from the lips of her only son. If that was his wish, it was not gratified. He seemed pained, and I thought Conway, who was sitting near, but not joining in the conversation, looked a trifle disgusted.
What astonished me, and also pleased me, was that my uncle, in manners and appearance, was such a contrast to what I had expected. Iron-gray moustache and whiskers, short-cut hair, and a manly, bronzed face, with a noticeable scar on the cheek,—why he was, in effect, the very character I had selected for him. Then was a slight twinkle in the eye that betokened a keen appreciation of humor, and a very set expression about the mouth that made me think that he would not be so easily led as I had fondly imagined. Still I hoped for the best; perhaps he would remain on his good behaviour of his own accord; he might have altered since Conway knew him.
As we neared Brisbane, my uncle took Conway's arm,—for whom he seemed to have a great affection,—and they commenced to walk the deck together. After a few turns, I saw my uncle's face change, and a look of deep wrath cross it; I could see before that he could look black when he liked; something that Conway said, however, immediately altered the expression into one of mirth, and for the rest of their walk he seemed scarcely able to suppress his merriment.
Conway had taken a room for my uncle in the same hotel when he was stopping, and we sat down to dinner in the private room when I had first met Conway. The moment we were seated I noticed a change in my uncle's manner—even in his face. Conway had whispered to me: "I never saw him keep straight so long before," therefore I was partly prepared for it. The first thing my uncle did was to throw off his coat and waistcoat, and, sinking down in a chair, to wipe his perspiring forehead with a table napkin.
"Pheugh!" he said; "Why don't you have punkahs here?"
I admitted that it would be an improvement.
Conway sat down opposite to me, having thrown off his coat and nodded to me to do the same. However, I would not. I thought that I could impress my uncle more by strictly adhering to the rules of society, than by meekly imitating his whims. Conway, I now saw, was a mere toady.
"Well, boys," said my uncle, "it's nice to get together, where a man can enjoy himself, free and easy like, same as I've always been accustomed to."
"Have you any Suffolk sauce?" he demanded of the waiter, before commencing to eat his soup.
"Yes, sir," said the man, handing him the cruet-stand. This was the first time that I had heard the dreaded word from his lips, and it made me shudder. My uncle selected the bottle indicated, re-moved the stopper, and smelt it suspiciously. He put it back without using any, and sternly told the waiter to bring him the real Suffolk sauce.
"That's Suffolk sauce, sir," said the waiter.
"It's not!" said my uncle, so savagely, that the poor man jumped again. "Send out directly, and buy a bottle. None genuine unless signed 'R. Amberly.' That's my name, d'ye see; and if a man isn't to know his own sauce, I'm a Dutchman. Now look sharp."
The man left the room, and in a much shorter time than I had expected, returned with a newly purchased bottle in a paper wrapper. I had gone on steadily eating my soup.
Conway leaned back in his chair, silent, and staring at the gas.
My uncle unbuttoned his shirt collar, and fanned himself with a napkin. He signified his approval of the fresh bottle; he and Conway put some in their soup, and they commenced their dinner. As the waiter was removing the plates, my uncle carefully unfolded the printed wrapper around the bottle of sauce, and handed it to Conway.
"Read it out to me, Fred," he said, drawing another chair up to rest one leg on; "seems long since I've heard it."
Conway commenced; and fancy what I had to suffer, knowing the waiter was grinning behind me, as he told how it was patronised by the nobility and gentry of England, sought after by foreign cooks, and used by missionaries to propitiate the heathen, and teach them to appreciate civilisation.
My uncle would grunt approval, and repeat what were evidently his pet passages after the reader.
"Imparting a truly delicate and delicious flavor to everything," he said, as Conway ceased; and with a satisfied sigh he returned to his dinner.
"He's rather worse than usual," Conway whispered to me after dinner; "he's been cramped on board the mail steamer, and now he's giving full fling. But don't look so disgusted. He says you're stuck-up; don't let him think that."
"Have you said anything about the Indian officer scheme?" I asked.
"I just mentioned it, and he seemed to like the idea. I'll sound him again to-night."
I left about ten o'clock, although my uncle wanted me to take a room at the hotel during his stay in Brisbane; but for several reasons I declined this arrangement.
As I emerged into the street I heard their voices in conversation on the balcony above, where they were smoking, and heard Conway say, "Yes, but don't overdo it."
I therefore concluded that he was explaining to my uncle our proposed line of conduct. I had promised to dine with my uncle every day during his stay in Brisbane; and used to go to the hotel immediately after office hours, for I was determined that if I had to put up with his vulgar ways, I would at least endeavor to get a substantial recognition of our relationship from him in return, and not leave it altogether to Conway to entertain him.
One day, as I entered the sitting-room (in, I confess, a rather unceremonious manner), I found a gentleman there whom I knew by sight, and whose acquaintance I had often coveted,—Major Milton. He was just taking his leave of Conway as I entered; my uncle was not there. As I apologised to Conway, Major Milton said, in his off-hand manner, "This is Amberly's nephew, I suppose?" and shook hands with me.
"Of course he's a dancing man; and Mrs. Milton will want to get up a dance after dinner; so I hope you are not engaged for to-morrow," he went on addressing me, and nodding to both of us, he left the room.
"You know Major Milton?" I said to Conway, carelessly.
"Never saw him before," said Conway: "but he and my father were brother officers."
"We must try and keep my uncle within bounds then," I said; "for Major Milton was a long time in India, so a mistake would be fatal; besides, they are the best people on the Point."
"Yes," said Conway, indifferently; "but here comes your uncle."
I told my uncle, as he entered, of the invitation to dinner at Major Milton's, and how necessary caution would be; for his assumption of the part of an Indian officer had now become openly recognised amongst us.
"All right, Neddy," (I hated this name) he said, "I'm fly. We'll put out company manners on Fred."
The next day I was very nervous. Staggers and Johnstone told me that they were invited to a carpet dance in the evening, and I crowed over them at having a dinner invitation. This was a slight source of satisfaction.
When we arrived at the Major's we found only Mrs. Vane and her daughter there, and Bessie de Boys, who had come under Mrs. Vane's chaperonage. Conway, to my disgust, took Clara in to dinner; I followed with Bessie, and I could scarcely help looking nervously behind me to see if my uncle was thrusting hand-bills into Mrs. Milton's hand as they brought up the rear. But his manner was simply perfection, and I could scarcely believe him to be the same man.
What with watching him, and casting furtive glances at Clara Vane and Conway, I am afraid Bessie found me a not very brilliant dinner-companion. So long as the ladies remained at table India was not mentioned, but at soon as they left I could see that Major Milton was eager for the fray.
"You knew Dick Featherstone—hard-riding Dick?" he asked of my uncle. "Did you hear what had become of him as you came out this time?"
"Yes; he's married."
"Married, is he? Whom did he marry?"
"You knew Bowker?" said my uncle; and I stared at him, lost in amazement at his cool audacity. How I longed to repeat Conway's caution—"Don't overdo it."
"Knew Bowker? Of course I did. Why, didn't Mrs. Bowker get out a daughter regularly every year? and Dick christened them 'the annuals.' You don't mean to say he married an 'annual?'" and he went off into a fit of laughter, in which my uncle joined.
"That's the best thing I've heard for a long time," said Major Milton, "Why, when the supply of daughters ran out, she used to get out nieces! Dick married a niece. I suppose?"
"Yes," said my uncle. "Fancy hard-riding Dick married to an 'annual!' He used to get up sweeps, write down 'Julia,' 'Maude,' 'Alice' etc., on slips of paper, and when the expected one arrived, who-ever had drawn her name took the rupees. Dick doesn't ride steeple-chases now, I'll be bound," said Major Milton. "But," he went on, turning to Conway and me, "I expect there's metal more attractive for you youngsters in the drawing room, so don't let us keep you here, listening to our old Indian yarns; we've got a lot of old battles to fight over yet."
Conway nodded, and, laughing pleasantly, rose and left the room. I kept my seat, anxious to see how far my uncle's assurance would carry him.
"Did you hear what had become of Tom Frost? What a hand he had for a devil's sauce!"
"Yes," returned my uncle; "and speaking of sauce, I will tell you how I once got the better of a Jew."
Here was a collapse. I could not see it out.
Hastily swallowing my wine, I rose and followed Conway. In the drawing-room, Mesdames Milton and Vane were deep in some matron's talk. Clara Vane and Conway were inspecting a photographic album together, and Bessie de Boys, looking very lonely, by herself, with a book in her lap. Bessie seemed unfeignedly glad to see me, and made room for me beside her on the ottoman with alacrity.
"What a delightful man your uncle is!" she said. "Just what I expected; quite one of the old regime."
What Bessie knew of the old "regeem," as she called it, I don't know; but as I thought of the disclosures being made at that moment in the dining-room by a member of that body I groaned in spirit.
"How triste you are," said she giving me a playful tap with her fan; "quite distrait. What is the matter with you?"
I borrowed the fan—for I was in that nervous state when it is a relief for a man to have some-thing to trifle with—and tried to rouse myself.
"It is excusable in me, Miss de Boys; for you know what Shakespeare says about lovers."
"No; what does he say? Oh! I know; something about being 'sans eyes, sans ears, sans everything;' and certainly it would apply to you very well just now."
"Pardon me; but I don't think you exactly remembered the quotation I meant."
"No! But never mind; tell me who you are in love with," she said, confidentially.
"Well—with myself, I think," I replied evasively. Bessie was such a girl for home questions.
"I certainly think you are," she said, rather pettishly.
At this moment a servant entered, and spoke to Mrs. Milton, who then left the room. What had happened? Was my uncle to be forcibly ejected as an impostor? and was I to follow? I looked towards Conway, but he seemed quite engrossed with Miss Vane, and had no eyes for me.
"There you are—looking at Miss Vane and Mr. Conway again! I declare you have been watching her ever since you came in," said Bessie.
Just then, Mrs. Memphis, Aurelia, and the Montcalm made their appearance, and a diversion was caused. Immediately following them, Mrs. Milton re-entered, and came directly towards me. Without stopping to consider the wild absurdity of her mentioning the fact, then and there, even if my uncle had "served by indenture to the common hangman," I awaited her approach with trepidation.
What a relief it was when she said:
"Your uncle and Major Milton are so deep in old Indian recollections that they are going to have their coffee on the verandah, and we need not expect to see them here. Now will you and Mr. Conway help to move the tables back, to make room to dance, and I'll play for you."
"All hands clear decks!" said Miss Montcalm, who had been to a dance on board of a man-of-war once; and Conway and I set about our appointed task, assisted by Staggers and John-stone, who came in.
I spent a very pleasant evening. Miss Vane danced twice with me for the first time in our acquaintance; and in other quarters I did what England is popularly supposed to expect every man to do. As my uncle did not come into the drawing room, I had not an opportunity of presenting him to Mrs. Memphis.
Major Milton walked down with him and Conway to the ferry before the last dance; and I had the inexpressible pleasure of being sole escort to Mrs. Vane and her daughter for the short distance that separated their home from the Miltons' residence.
It was a day or two after the dinner at Major Milton's that I was strolling up from the ferry, on my way home, when I saw three ladies walking ahead of me. There was no mistaking the graceful figure of the one who was my then object of adoration—Clara Vane. Equally recognisable to my acute eyes were the other two—Mrs. Memphis and Aurelia Sphinx. They had doubtless been shopping on the north side, and were on their way home.
Carefully avoiding all appearance of haste, I yet managed to quicken my steps so as to overtake them. I was well received, and graciously allowed to accompany them.
As we turned the corner two figures appeared approaching us, coming down the main street; my uncle and Conway. The first-named had his hat in one hand and his handkerchief in the other, and ever and anon fanned himself with the first-named article of attire. He had broken out again, I could see at a glance, an affectation of feeling the heat very much being a sure sign. I trembled. The meeting could not be avoided; it was inevitable. On they came.
"Is not that Mr. Conway?" said Mrs. Memphis. "Who can that be with him?"
She would know too soon. They met us directly, in front. I thought I saw a look of suppressed fun on Clara's face as she acknowledged Conway's salutation, but certainly did not feel very happy myself.
My uncle stopped short, managing somehow to check us as well, and, with a smile of bland benevolence beaming all over his face, said:
"Well, Neddy, boy; enjoying yourself! Trotting some swell girls out for a walk?"
Mrs. Memphis looked—but words adequate to express her look fail me—a petrified personification of outraged gentility. Aurelia regarded my uncle with a stare as stony as her namesake's; and Miss Vane fairly laughed out. My uncle turned to her.
"I think I know you, Missey," he said, taking her extended hand, and shaking it as if it were election time, and she a candidate. "Well, Fred," he went on, "as we've nothing better to do, suppose we see Neddy through."
What could I do? I—who prided myself on always introducing the right people at the right time—had now to present my uncle to Mrs. Memphis, in the middle of the street. There was no help for it.
My uncle insinuated himself between Mrs. Memphis and Aurelia Sphinx. Conway and I followed, as supporters to Miss Vane; and in this order we resumed our interrupted way. I could hear every word of the conversation going on in front, for in our trio reigned a deathly silence.
"You see, marm," said my uncle, addressing Mrs. Memphis, "when people arrive at our time of life" (I could fancy the Memphian visage at this remark, although I could not see it) "it's only right and proper we should indulge the young ones a little. Don't you think so, Miss?" turning to Aurelia.
"I do not understand you," she replied, in a voice like a file.
"No! Now what I mean is this: A man like me, who has had to work his own way,—why it does me good to see young folks enjoying themselves in a way I never got the chance of."
"Indeed!" said Mrs. Memphis. "Yes, marm; you wouldn't think it, to see me now, selling my sauce in every part of the world, by the ton, I may say: but I began life with nothing but my pay."
Mrs. Memphis snorted; I can use no other expression for the sound she emitted.
"Yes; I've made a tidy little fortune, and Neddy's my only nephew; so I like to see him kicking up his heels amongst the nobs a bit."
The voice of Mrs. Memphis seemed to take a softer intonation as she said: "I presume that yours is a lucrative profession, Mr. Amberly?"
"Yes, ma'm, a money-making business, and I always push it; that's my motto. Now, a lady like you ain't above saving a few shillings; and why should you be? say I. Then why don't you buy your sauce direct?—that's what I say. Give me an order direct, and I'll make a reduction."
"Really, Mr. Amberly, I do not use it in sufficient quantities to warrant me in doing so."
"Never mind the quantity; say a dozen only. I'm not above booking an order for a dozen."
"What a fortunate thing it is," said Mrs. Memphis, evading the order question, "for Mr. Smythers to have an uncle of your wealth; not all young men enjoy that advantage."
"Yes, it's lucky for Neddy, and he'll do me credit; he's had the advantage of good society;" and my uncle bowed, so as to point the compliment.
"Indeed, Mr. Amberly," she returned, with quite an agreeable smile, "I have always taken a great interest in your nephew. I knew his father."
"And so did I," and my uncle's voice seemed to alter as he said it.
"A delightful man," went on Mrs. Memphis, who, to my wonder and complete amazement seemed emerging from a frigid into almost a torrid zone; "and Mr. Smythers inherits many of his qualities."
"He does," said my uncle in the same altered voice.
"And will, I suppose, have the additional advantage of inheriting something more from other quarters," she said in a gushing manner, put on doubtless to cover the left-sidedness of her remark, for my inheritance would necessarily be contingent on my uncle's decease.
"Yes, ma'm," returned my uncle in his former manner, "money made from sauce is as good as any other money, and every penny that I've made from the sale of sauce Neddy shall get, take my word for it."
"But your essay in trade is only an affair of late years. I understood that you had served—"
"So I did, for many a long year, and got but very little wages."
"Served her Majesty, I mean, Mr. Amberly."
"O yes—I was special constable at the time of the Chartist riots."
At this moment we arrived at the Memphian abode, and my uncle's unlucky reminiscences were fortunately cut short. Both Mrs. Memphis and Aurelia bade him farewell in a most effusive manner; and I was fairly puzzled.
My uncle walked off with Miss Vane, and Conway and I strolled leisurely back to the ferry, my uncle saying he would overtake us as soon as he had seen his fair charge safely home.
Conway and I said but little as we walked along. I was wondering what had caused Mrs. Memphis to thaw in so remarkable a manner. Could it be the worship of the golden calf, and if so, what did it matter to her whether my uncle were rich or poor?
"QUITE original, but charming for that very originality," said Mrs. Memphis the next day, for I found a pretext for calling in order to hear her opinion of my relative.
"Yes," said Aurelia, regarding me with dangerous fondness; "there is something fresh and striking about these self-made men that, although perhaps not so agreeable at first sight as a more polished manner, has still its fascination."
"Be sure you do not allow him or Mr. Conway to engage themselves anywhere to-morrow night," said Mrs. Memphis. There was to be a small dance at the Memphian establishment. "My limited income," Mrs. Memphis would say, "does not allow me to give entertainments on the scale I once did;" so her dances were small, but select, O very select.
My uncle came, and was on his beat behavior. The sauce affair had somehow leaked out, and Staggers and Johnstone had already commenced some sly chaff; but as yet they were not sure of their ground, and my uncle's appearance at Mrs. Memphis' rather awed them.
"Fine-looking old boy," I heard Johnstone say.
The night was wearing on. I had just handed Miss Vane to a seat when Conway appeared. "I believe I am to have the pleasure of your hand for the next dance, Miss Vane?"
"Not so fast, Fred," said my uncle's voice behind me; "I am going to induce Miss Vane to dance with me instead of you."
"I did not know you danced, Mr. Amberly," said she.
"I have not danced for—really I don't know how long; and upon my word I think the last time was with you, when you were about as high as the back of the chair upon which you are sitting. But to-night, for once, I am going to break through my resolution in your favor; and if you don't consent I shall do something desperate."
"Well, Mr. Amberly, to avert such a catastrophe, I will break my word as you have broken yours, and Mr. Conway will excuse me."
"I excuse you, Miss Vane. I shall follow the example of the individual who hung his harp on a willow tree."
"And what did he do?" asked Clara, as she handed him her bouquet and fan.
"He said, or sung—
I will hide in my heart every selfish care;
I will flush my pale cheek with wine;—"
"Let me finish the quotation," said my uncle.
"No, Mr. Amberly, I will excuse you," said Clara, hastily. But he was not to be baulked—
"And when smiles await on the bridal pair,
I will hasten to give them mine."
And Miss Vane went off with a very pretty bloom upon her round cheek. Did I really catch a hesitating, timid glance in my direction as she tried to stop my uncle, or was it only fancy? No, not fancy, I felt sure of it, and was proportionately elated; so much so that I condescendingly offered to relieve Conway of Miss Vane's bouquet, but he said—"Never mind, my dear fellow, I don't want to dance; and there's Miss de Boys looking at you as though she expected you to ask her."
Poor Bessie, I really had flirted with her a good deal, and perhaps the little girl thought I meant something; so in the kindly disposition I was then in, I went and asked her to dance—a favor she kindly granted. As I composed myself to sleep that morning, I could not help thinking what a clever fellow I was. I felt sure that Miss Vane had what Bessie would call a penchant for me. I had heard my uncle say that every penny of the sauce money should be mine.
Nobody seemed to have remembered that I had announced my uncle as an Indian officer who had served with distinction, and he had announced himself as a sauce-maker. Doubtless my agreeable company was too highly valued for people to risk losing it by touching on the subject. My last thought was that Mervington Smythers was as talented an individual as one could find in Queensland, and, so thinking, I slept.
MY elation had not cooled when I awoke. My course ahead seemed fair and clear.
At the office I experienced some slight annoyance. Staggers and Johnstone conversed over my head on the merits of the celebrated Suffolk sauce; Staggers had procured an advertisement of it, and read it aloud at intervals during the day, Johnstone and the others making critical remarks during the process.
I stood the chaff pretty well, but found it very annoying. I mentioned it to Conway that evening, and he gave me a piece of advice; he said:—
"If they try it on again, just state that the first man who says anything about Suffolk sauce in your hearing, intentionally to annoy you, had better accompany you into the handiest backyard and there repeat it."
I tried it the next morning; Johnstone had bought a bottle of sauce, and produced it in an ostentatious manner on arrival. I immediately invited him to try the ordeal by battle, as proposed by Conway, and to my great relief he declined. We shook hands all round, and concluded to drop the subject.
"You know I would have fought you in a minute, old fellow," said Johnstone, "but I'm engaged for a picnic next week, and I was afraid of getting a black eye."
"Suppose you have it out afterwards," said Staggers. "I don't mind picking one of you up." But we said "No;" the matter was done with, it was absurd to start it again.
I went with my uncle to call on Mrs. Memphis a day or two after this. Aurelia in her sportive manner told me to come and help her to get some flowers, and with no great delight I obeyed her. While engaged in the floral occupation, Aurelia had some mysterious message brought to her by a servant—something about a dress-maker I thought I heard.
"I know I can dispense with ceremony with you, Mervington, we are such old friends," she said; "so make up the flowers nicely, and I will be back directly."
She skipped away in an airy manner, and fervently wishing that her return might be delayed till the crack of doom, I bundled the flowers together and went back to the house.
My uncle and Mrs. Memphis were sitting at the open window, talking. I could hear their voices although I could not see them, and hearing my own name, instinctively halted. I suppose I ought not to confess what I did, but the story would be incomplete without it, so, in fact, I stopped and listened.
"Quite an affair of the heart," said Mrs. Memphis; "Mervington will be so much steadier, and in Aurelia, he will find everything he could hope for in a wife."
"She seems a most amiable girl," said my uncle.
"She is amiability itself; during the years she has grown up under my eye, such sweet unselfishness as she displays has been my wonder and admiration!"
"It will be a trial to part with her."
"Indeed it will; no shadow of a quarrel has ever marred our intercourse." (they used to fight like two cats before me sometimes).
"And you think Mervington will propose to her soon?"
"He worships her; but the timidity of true love is so great that he hesitates to speak. Now, if you hinted to him that such a union would be most agreeable to you it would give him courage; he would gain sufficient courage to test his fate."
"He has my best wishes, and if a word of encouragement is needed he shall have that too."
"Then my dear Mr. Amberly we can look upon it as a settled thing, for a dutiful nephew like Mervington will be only too eager to hasten to please a generous uncle."
"I think it a suitable match in every respect provided that the young people" (Aurelia young!) "come to an understanding before I leave the colony."
"O, Mr. Amberly, although not given to match-making, in fact holding it in contempt, still standing as I do in a mother's place towards Aurelia, I can take upon myself to say that an opportunity shall be afforded for the needful explanations between them. Perhaps it is even now taking place," and she laughed girlishly, or as girlishly as a woman of sixty could.
I had heard enough; too much. I stole a few paces away, and then came back humming a tune. As we took our leave Mrs. Memphis gave my uncle a meaning glance that made me turn cold, and rendered me moody and silent until I was alone.
Now, what shall I do, I mused. Marry Amelia, and take my uncle's money? Yes, as a last resource; but if I can avoid it—no. Could I give up the idea of Miss Vane so readily?
Ah! a bright idea! My uncle had evidently a great liking for Clara; quite a paternal fondness. Would he not be as much, or more, pleased if I married her than if I married Aurelia? Of course he would. What did he mean by saying that his smiles would await on the bridal pair, unless he meant me to, what is popularly known as, "go in and win."
But I would consult Conway; he knew my uncle well, and could tell me what would be my best course: only the more I thought of Aurelia's faded fascinations, and compared them with Miss Vane's blooming freshness, the more did I feel averse to sacrificing myself, unless for a good consideration.
I invited Conway to a stroll and a cigar after dinner; we sauntered along a lonely street, and I explained what had passed, and asked his advice.
"My advice is that you tell your uncle that you have no more idea of marrying Miss Sphinx than you have of flying."
"But my uncle seemed to like the idea of the match; and he told Mrs. Memphis that every penny he had made by the sale of sauce should be mine. He might change his mind if I refused to marry Miss Sphinx."
"Everybody asks advice, but nobody takes it. I have given you mine, and I know your uncle well. Go straight to him, and tell him that there is nothing between you and Miss Sphinx. Don't listen to conversations not intended for you again; and take my word for it, every penny of the sauce money will still be yours."
Perhaps Conway was right, but I could not make up my mind to follow his counsel. I preferred acting with more caution. I would sound my uncle on the subject I fancied myself rather skilful at diplomacy, and never doubted but what I could find out what I wanted without committing myself. I did not reckon on the wiles of women.
Next morning a dainty note from Aurelia Sphinx informed me that her aunt had told her to write to me, and tell me that she (her aunt) had something important to say to me, if I would call that afternoon. Knowing what I knew, I looked upon the letter as an invitation from the spider to the fly; but mentally feeling that they had a very knowing fly to deal with, I went.
Mrs. Memphis was alone. Aurelia was not visible. My esteemed friend was made up for the part of an invalid. She was carefully arranged on the sofa, with shawls, smelling salts, and all other paraphernalia. She told me to bring my chair close, as she could not speak loud.
"My dear Mervington, as an old friend of your father's I can speak to you as freely as I would to my own son. Do not excite me by expressing emotion at what I am going to tell you, but for my sake be calm. You know the wretched state of health I have been in for the last few years. My troubles will soon be over. Last night Dr. Killall informed me that a crisis was approaching that would almost certainly prove fatal."
I expressed the tendered sympathy, in a way compatible with not exciting an invalid in such a dangerous state.
"But it is not for myself I feel sad," she resumed, in a tone of plaintive melancholy; "I hail with joy the prospect of release from mundane sorrows. It is for others that I grieve; for one other, I might say," (here her voice was broken by sobs) "who, unfitted to buffet with the world—with the cold, unfeeling world—will, on my death, find herself once more an orphan."
I tried to assure Mrs. Memphis that there was still room for much hope; it was, no good anticipating death; she might—I trusted would—live many years yet.
But she shook her head sadly.
"No, Mervington, the inward voice that never lies tells me otherwise You and Aurelia are the only two beings left for me to love; and you, I thank Heaven, have now no cause to dread the future. Secure in your uncle's favor, you can anticipate at no distant date becoming a very wealthy man: but my poor Aurelia! Promise me, Mervington," she cried, raising herself on one arm, as though inspired with new strength for the occasion, "promise me that you will not let me die in such painful uncertainty; that you will" (hysterical gasps and sobs) "watch over her" (sob) "shield her" (gasp), "and protect her—as—as—" (I made sure she was going to say sister, and in my eagerness to recognise such a safe relationship, and end the scene, cried out, "I understand—I will!")—"your wife!" shrieked Mrs. Memphis, sinking back, exhausted and fainting.
"Wife!" echoed Aurelia, appearing with the suddenness of a harlequin, and falling on my neck with a shock that staggered me.
"O Mervington," she murmured, "you have saved aunt's life, and made your poor Aurelia so happy."
"Leave me now, dear children," said Mrs. Memphis, faintly. "Put my bible near me, and after I have read a little, perhaps I may be able to sleep." We left her. I left the house in the most awful state of semi-lunacy I have ever experienced. I locked myself in my room, and pondered on my future course.
Mrs. Memphis would tell my uncle that all was happily settled; he would express satisfaction, and I would have to go up a willing victim. If I showed any repugnance to the match, my uncle would be justly offended at my want of stability of purpose. He would never learn how I had been fooled. And Clara Vane was lost to me for ever! As this fact became patent to me, I for the first time felt that I loved her for herself.
Had I but followed Conway's advice, all would have been well; and as I thought that, a glimmer of hope came to me that he might still be able to show me a way out of my difficulty. I would seek him and see. I had eaten no dinner, having been lying sulkily on my bed, thinking of all that had passed, but my appetite was gone, and without stopping to take any-thing, I hurried down to the ferry to go over to North Brisbane to look up Conway.
As I stepped on the landing stage, Conway himself appeared leaving the boat.
"Where are you going to?" I asked. He looked a little surprised at my abrupt question, but answered that he was going to spend the evening at Mrs. Vane's.
"Can you spare me half-an-hour?" I asked.
"Yes, if it is very important," he replied. I hurried him away, and told him what had happened since last I consulted him.
"And have you not yet seen," said my companion, "that your uncle is no more a manufacturer of Suffolk sauce than I am?"
"Not the sole proprietor of the celebrated Suffolk sauce!" I exclaimed, in my astonishment, quoting from the too-familiar advertisement. "Who, then, is he?"
"You gave him brevet rank when you announced him to your friends as Colonel Amberly, for he was only Captain Amberly when he left the army; but at present he is a simple country gentleman, and owner by inheritance of a fine estate in the south of England."
Although my strong sense of family pride was agreeably tickled by this announcement, still the blow to my discriminating talents was great.
"Then," I said, rather stiffly, "what is the meaning of the farce that has been carried out in order to deceive me?"
"You deceived yourself. If you remember, you were the originator of the idea. It so amused me—the imaginary picture you had conjured up of your relative—that I could not resist drawing a fancy portrait on your foundation. I persuaded your uncle to continue the deception, and he, in his strong love of a joke (his only failing, if it be one), consented. I owe you an apology for my share in it, which I now make. As for your uncle, when you remember the way in which you were prepared to condescendingly patronise a man whose purse has supported you since your birth, you must admit that the revenge he took was slight."
"He could well promise me all the money he had made by the sale of sauce," I said bitterly. My companion turned on me quite fiercely.
"A characteristic remark from your father's son," he said. "Shall I tell you why your uncle and I are so intimate?"
"Yes, if you like," I answered, ungraciously.
"It will teach you to appreciate him better, perhaps."
We had reached the side of the river, and Conway stopped, and, leaning against a post of an abandoned landing stage, spoke as follows:—
"My father and your uncle were friends at school—fast friends. Your grandfather was a country rector; his only children your uncle and mother. My father and your uncle entered the army together. Both had scarcely anything but their pay. Their friendship was close and constant, until an event happened which happens to most men—they fell in love. Unhappily, they were rivals. My father was the successful one, and your uncle went to India. As you may guess, the old tie of friendship was broken, although they never quarrelled. It was whilst your uncle was in India that your father and mother were married. While he was still out there your grandfather and his elder brother died within a short time of each other, and your uncle became possessor of the estate he still enjoys. On receipt of the news he started for England, intending to leave the army. He hardly reached Calcutta when the mutiny blazed out; and of course he turned back. My father was on his way out at the time, and at Delhi they met again. I will tell you how.
"It was one of the unsuccessful attacks made during the siege, and a small party of our men had been nearly cut to pieces. Your uncle came up with a handful of fresh men to cover the retreat, which was a very leisurely one, in spite of their loss.
"'By Jove! there's one of our fellows cut off!' said one of the officers to your uncle, directing his attention to a figure hemmed in by a swarm of Sepoys.
"'Who is it?' he asked, as they stopped.
" The other glanced around. 'It must be Conway,' he said.
"Your uncle was off back, the officer who had spoken and two or three others following.
"They would have all been sacrificed, but a lucky panic got amongst the rebels, and they ran for their guns again. As it was, the English got out sound, bringing my father with them. They carried him back to the lines, but it was hopeless; he was bleeding to death from a frightful tulwar wound, in addition to a shot through the lungs. They laid him on the ground, and your uncle knelt beside him. 'I saw you coming, old fellow,' he said, as he gazed at your uncle, with the old look of friendship. Then he motioned him to bend down a little. 'Take care of Annie and little Fred,' he managed to say; and so, with his head resting on your uncle's arm, and their hands clasped once more, he died."
I COULD not help being impressed by the story, told in the still, calm night, with the silent river flowing past, and the lights gleaming on its surface here and there; only the quiet voice of my companion, telling of his father's death, breaking the stillness. For a few moments I forgot my own troubles.
"How well he has carried out the trust reposed in him that day I can testify," said Conway, after a pause. "And why were my uncle and my father at variance always?" I asked.
"He will tell you himself; I prefer that he should," returned Conway, and turned to walk back. The spell was broken, and I got back to my own affairs again.
"But what is the best thing for me to do now?" I asked.
"Hang yourself," I thought my companion muttered, but was not sure.
"You see," I said, "it's worse than ever. I am my uncle's heir, I presume, so they'll never let me off."
"Your uncle has the disposal of his estate by will; so don't reckon on that."
"I didn't mean that; I mean this marriage with Miss Sphinx. They'll reckon on it—the estate, I mean."
"Tell them it's not so."
"They won't believe me."
"Then marry somebody else."
"A glorious idea! Somebody my uncle approves of!"
"Don't forget that main chance."
"No; I'll ask Miss Vane."
"You'll do what!" said my companion, in a savage tone that almost made me jump.
"Propose to Miss Vane," I repeated.
"Do you suppose she'll accept you, then?"
"I presume I have a perfect right to ask the question?" I said, haughtily.
"Of course you have," he said, sulkily. "And if she accepts me," I went on working out the idea, "my uncle likes her very much, so I am safe."
"If!—remember the if," said Conway.
"And if she refuses me?"
"Vae victis! or try somebody else," and Conway hurried on and left me.
I knew he had a weakness for Miss Vane, so was not surprised at the temper he had displayed. I had too good an opinion of myself to fear his rivalry very much. I went over to North Brisbane in search of my uncle, determined, now explanations were the order of the day, to have full and clear ones. I found him disengaged.
"Conway has told you of the deception practised on you," said my uncle, in reply to my questions. "It was a poor joke, but perhaps it has done you good; and if what I have got to tell you now is hard on your pride, I am sorry, but you had better hear it." He was silent for a few moments, and then resumed:
"My father wait a quiet country rector, thinking of little but parish and his books; and my sister was a country girl, with as much knowledge of the world as a baby. I was in India. Your father was a man who, without the slightest claim to be considered a gentleman—I can't help saying it—could, when it suited him, assume a cloak of good manners that would deceive unsuspicious people like my father and sister. He came down to our neighborhood for the shooting season, and was staying at the house of an eccentric kind of man who invited anybody who amused him. He met your father at a racecourse, or some other public place, I presume. Your father, as you pride yourself on remembering, had good social talents, especially adapting him for amusing for a time. How my father met him I never heard, but he invited him to his house, and the result was that my sister married him. To do your father justice, I believe he did love her at first; no one could have helped it. I came home after the mutiny, met your father, and saw the state of affairs at a glance. If I loved anything on earth it was my sister, and when I saw how she was neglected by her husband, I hated your father at once. You see I am speaking quite plainly, as I would to a stranger.
"Your father was anxious to cultivate my friendship, for I was rich, and he had squandered everything he had. I offered him a liberal income if he would leave the country, and consent to a separation. He agreed at once; but your mother, with all a woman's fidelity to one who ill-treated her, refused to comply. I happened to go to see her once, after he had been urging her to consent, and saw a mark on her face that made me think he had struck her. She denied it, of course, and unfortunately he came in just then. I am a passionate man by nature, and you can infer what followed. I never saw either your father or mother again. The income I regularly allowed her, your father, I presume, as regularly spent, with the disgrace of the personal chastisement I had inflicted on him not wiped out. Since his death I have made you an annual allowance, for my sister's sake; but since I have been here you have never given me reason to suppose that you cared for her, or felt grateful to me for it."
There was a dead silence when he had finished. I felt that I hated him for the way he had spoken to me; but he was my uncle, and rich!
"Who was my father?" I asked at last, in as clear a voice as I could command.
"The only son of a rich pawnbroker, who spent the fortune his father left him in striving to gain an entrance into society."
"But," I said, "I could not help it; am I not a Mervington Smythers?"
My uncle laughed loudly; every serious wrinkle vanished from his face. It was the happiest remark I could have made under the circumstances.
"Mervington Smythers may be the name your godfathers and godmothers gave you, but if there are ancestral honors bound up in the name I am not acquainted with them. Your father's name by rights was simply Smith—as good a one as Smythers, I should have thought."
Then my vaunted arms and long pedigree were all a sham, and my paternal grandfather advanced shillings and pence on articles of dress, and made money by the sale of unredeemed pledges!
I felt very bitter against my uncle for acquainting me with these facts, but deemed it prudent to hide the feeling.
"Now, having wounded your feelings enough, my boy, I must try and heal them. What is this that your friend Mrs. Memphis tells me about a tender feeling between you and her niece?"
It would never do to let him know how matters stood there. I must conceal that business, and keep Mrs. Memphis and my uncle apart, if possible.
"Mere absurdity, uncle," I said. "Mrs. Memphis, like a good many more people, sees just what she would like to see. There is no tender feeling between Miss Sphinx and me."
"Well, I am not sorry to hear it, for I must say neither aunt nor niece are much to my liking. That Miss de Boys is a pretty, good-natured little girl, and you seem rather devoted there."
"I like Miss de Boys very well, but to tell you the truth, uncle, there is somebody I like better; and you like her too."
"Who's the lady who is so highly favored by both of us?"
"Miss Vane! Fred will have to look out with such a formidable rival as you in the field."
"I know that Mr. Conway has hopes in that quarter; but I do not see that I should therefore withdraw."
"Certainly not: a fair field and no favor."
"Then, my dear uncle, I have your consent to my soliciting the hand of Miss Vane?"
"My consent is a trifle; it's Miss Vane's consent you want."
"But it meets with your approbation—my choice?"
"I suppose you have some grounds to go upon; and there's no accounting for a girl's fancy; but I think you will not steal a march upon Conway."
"With your permission I will try," I said; and soon afterwards said good night.
My feelings were very bitter that night. If Clara Vane would accept me, it would solve all difficulties; save me from Miss Sphinx and her aunt, for they would not say anything for their own sakes; cut out Conway, whom I cordially disliked; mortify my uncle, who evidently favored Conway; and show Mervington Smythers, (whom they had made a butt of) to be the cleverest man of the lot.
"Vae victis," Conway said; but it remained to see who would be the vanquished. The odds were against me, truly, but I did not despair.
The next day, thinking it best to lose no time I went to call on Mrs. Vane, determined to propose then and there, should opportunity offer. Everything seemed to favor me. Mrs. Vane left the room, and I was alone with Clara. Now or never.
"Miss Vane," I said, "if you will pardon the apparently abrupt manner in which I am forced to make my communication, but—but I have something important to tell you."
"Yes, Mr. Smythers," she said, with a beaming smile that encouraged me to proceed. "It is on a topic that has always a charm for the young and fair," I said, rather poetically, as I fancied.
"I think I can guess what's coming," she replied. Conway! Conway! Where are you now! I mentally exclaimed.
"That assists me greatly, Miss Vane, for a man may be forgiven for feeling nervous when his future fate hangs on a word from a woman's lips."
"But your fate is fortunately settled, Mr. Smythers. You need no longer be nervous."
Mervington Smythers! Mervington Smythers! You are a successful and a clever dog, was my mental exclamation this time.
"Yes, Miss Vane," (I was nearly saying Clara, but thought it premature), "thanks to your kind reception of what I was going to tell you. I see no more cause for nervousness."
"But when is the marriage to take place, Mr. Smythers? Really I am dying to know."
This was forcing the pace with a vengeance.
"As soon as possible. Do you think my anxiety is less than yours, dear Clara?" Miss Vane laughed a clear, merry laugh. "I always heard that lovers were the most absent-minded of people, but never expected such an exemplification of it as that remark shows."
"And when shall I have an opportunity of speaking to Mrs. Vane?" I asked.
"O, mamma knows all about it."
"Does she? And she is favorably inclined, I trust."
"O yes—thinks it a capital match."
"And when did you first suspect the truth?" I asked tenderly, for Clara looked most coquettishly pretty, and I thought an accepted lover had a right to a sentimental scene at least.
"I had an idea of it for some time, but was not sure of it until she told us this afternoon."
"She told you?" I repeated in dumb horror.
"Yes, Mrs. Memphis; she was here about half-an-hour before you came—"
I heard no more. Such a counter-check had never entered into my calculations; henceforth I would be the willing slave of Mrs. Memphis. I respected that woman—to rise from a bed of sickness and call upon her friends in order to inform, them of her niece's approaching marriage! Such energy was wonderful.
I have a dim notion of hearing Clara say—
"Wasn't it fun, her taking Mr. Amberly for the maker of Amberly's sauce? It was too bad of him;" and tottered out, after shaking the servant girl's hand in mistake for Miss Vane's.
"AND how did you prosper?" said my uncle when next I saw him. I did what I ought to have done at first—told him everything without reserve.
"I am to blame," he said; "but for that foolish job of mine they would never have thought you such a catch; but I think I can mend matters."
What he did I do not exactly know. I believe he told Mrs. Memphis in confidence that I had mortally offended him; that not only did he mean to cut me off with a shilling, but also to stop my allowance. The result was enough for me.
Mrs. Memphis and Aurelia cut me dead, and Mrs. Memphis told everybody that my conduct was just what she might have expected from me.
My uncle did not go away as soon as he expected. When he did leave he had acted the part of father twice, and given away two very pretty brides. Need I say that one was Clara Vane, who became Mrs. Conway; and the other was—well, I followed Conway's advice, and asked somebody else; and somebody else said, "Oui, Monsieur," so you can guess who that was.
It wasn't a bad idea, for my uncle took a great fancy to Bessie, and came down very handsomely, and she really is a good-natured little girl.
'WE'LL have to make a flutter of some sort,' said Cootes, my partner in the Locustville Herald, 'and I believe I've struck a patch.'
Cootes was the business manager, etc., of the small country paper, in which our modest capital was invested, and I was the editor. Cootes saw that the travelling shows did not get tick for their ads, and I abused the Government for not making the road across Dongout Flat, and for not promoting the sergeant of police, and not removing the postmaster, or sacking him.
'What's your notion?' I asked.
'A war number, sir; a war number teeming with maps and illustrations; gore, and more gore; and when we are out of breath, more gore.'
'Am I to write it up?'
'Certainly. You know nothing of the Cape; you don't properly know the difference between a bombardier and a bullock driver; and if you had to explain what single file meant, you'd say it meant going like ducks. You're the very man.'
'Cootes, you've been drinking,' I said.
'I admit it; how can a man raise ideas without drink? Now, I will see about the illustrations. Wexford and Stack, in Sydney, have a lot of old blocks, which they have promised me, for a song.'
'But a lot of old blocks will be no good.'
'Old blocks of the war, I mean. The inhabitants of Locustville don't run much to illustrated papers, and a local production will about stupefy them.'
'Well, go ahead; we can't be much worse off than we are, and I suppose Wexford and Stack will give us credit?'
'They will. So I will now write out a flaming advertisement that will set fire to Locustville, and then we win go over and have a drink in honor of the war number of the Locustville Herald.
Up to time came a weighty parcel of blocks from Wexford and Stack, and a letter stating that they had been carefully selected by an expert in South African warfare, and trusted they would give us ample satisfaction. The blocks had a 'proof,' with the names stuck on the back of them, so we sat down full of curiosity and enthusiasm to plan out our great war number.
'We must have the generals first,' said Cootes, and he selected a block which bore the appearance of somebody's headpiece, and turned it over.
'Likeness of General Buller,' he read out. 'By George, we're in luck the first go off.'
He gazed mournfully at the proof on the back of the block, then passed it over to me.
'Doesn't look like General Buller,' he said; 'but I suppose it's all serene.'
It did not look like General Buller; in fact, I unhesitatingly pronounced it a portrait of the late Prince Bismarck, but Cootes said emphatically, 'Wexford and Stack say it is General Buller, and Buller it is. Pass it aside, old man,' and I passed it aside.
'Charge of the 9th Lancers at the battle of Ladysmith,' read out Cootes.
'Charge of the devil,' I said. 'Why, it's the charge of the Light Brigade at Balaclava. "Half a league onward," you know, old man!'
'Now, look here.' said Cootes, 'who knows most about this South African war, you or the expert selected by Wexford and Stack. Naturally the expert. That's the charge of the 9th Lancers, or let us say, the New South Wales Lancers.'
'Go on,' I said. 'Don't let me interrupt you. They fought at the battle of Dorking, I suppose?'
'Suppose they did; they turned up trumps anyway. Now, we'll go on. Bridge over Tugela River looks awfully like the bridge over Mendoo Creek. Believe it's the same. What do you think?'
'Of course, it's the same; been over it scores of times. Look here, old man, this sort of fake will never do. Everybody will recognise Mendoo Creek.'
'All bridges are much alike,' mused Cootes. 'We might adopt the dodge used by one of the Sydney dailies, and put it in upside down, and call it the fortifications at Mafeking. There, now it's upside down, it looks splendid. What do you think?'
'We'd better put it both ways while we are at it Lucky there are no figures in it. How's this big one? Bird's eye view of the battle of Glencoe, sketched from the military balloon?'
'Sounds well, and original. In reality it's a supposed bird's eye view of the battle of Omdurman. I remember seeing it in a London paper. What do you think, will the natives of this part accept the Boers as wearing turbans and burnouses?'
'Well, if they accept our war number, they will accept anything. What's next?'
'Farm near Pretoria, owned by a leading Boer.'
'It's an Australian homestead, anyhow. Looks like old Blodger's farm. However, in it goes.'
'Portrait of President Kruger! No, by Jiminy, this will never do; it's a likeness at the Prince of Wales. Even our subscribers know old Kruger's phiz, by this time. What shall we call it?'
'The latest likeness of Colonel Baden Powell?'
'Right, that will do: you must explain in your article that during the siege he has not had time to shave, that's why he has grown a beard. But we must have Kruger. Let's see, there's a patent medicine block just came up that we have never used yet—portrait of a man with a baboon shave; suit Kruger all to pieces. Entirely new one, you know.'
Cootes rummaged on a shelf, and produced a block purporting to be the likeness of a man who had been saved by using Slammer's crocodile powders. It was ugly enough for Kruger certainly, but not in the least like him. However, Cootes decided on it, although he acknowledged that it was an insult to poor old Kruger.
'But he'll never hear of it, my dear boy,' he added. 'We're safe.'
The rest of the blocks turned out much the same, and finally the paper was brought out, a credit to Locustville, and a journalistic example to Australia. Or the agonies I suffered during the writing of the explanatory article, I will not dilate. My only books of reference were Stanley's Through the Dark Continent, and an old copy of Herodotus, neither of them of much value, and only for getting hold of a Capetown railway guide, with some unpronounceable names in it, I should have been floored altogether. These, however, I used to the best advantage, and the Boers fell back on many places where never a shot has been fired during the present war. The sale was wonderful, and we flattered ourselves that we had scored.
About a week afterwards, however, a rustic damsel rode up to the office, dismounted easily and lightly, without waiting for assistance, walked into the offices and laid a letter on the counter.
'Want an answer,' she said, with a broad grin on her freckled countenance. Cootes opened it, read it with come difficulty, and passed it over to me. It ran as follows:
Sir,—I am informed by a frend that yure illustrious (illustrated?) war number contains a wicked lible on me. You haa my portrake in the same as President Kruger, who, I am told, is a man of disreppable karacter, so the same is an insult to me. Now I will let you orf, on consideration that you gives me daughter fifty pounds, otherwise I konsult my lawyer, and that will mean, thousands. A prumpt reply will oblige. I am not to be held up to ridikule as President Kruger for nothing.
'By Jove!' said Cootes, 'I thought I knew the face. How could I have forgotten old Barkus?'
'There's no answer,' I said to the waiting maiden.
'But I was told to bring one. Fifty pounds you was to give me, dad says.'
'Very sorry,' said Cootes, 'but your dad's made a mistake.'
The girl struck her habit smartly with a greenhide whip she was carrying, and I moved back out of range. She looked spiteful. Finally she departed peacefully, and we breathed again.
'Good fun,' said Cootes, nervously.
'Wait until the next. I know there's more in store; certain of it.'
And there was. First Blodger came in with a bullock whip, and said that he was not going to have his farm caricatured as belonging to an adjective Boer. He'd let us know that there was no Boer about him. It cost a small fortune in drinks to conciliate him. But, unkindest cut of all, Wexford and Stack sent up to say that they considered putting in the block upside flown was a slur on their business, and they would be obliged for the amount of their bill at once. They have not got it yet.
WHEN Johnson first decided on getting up a Chinese cook, he did it with great reluctance. There was an anti-Chinese feeling in the district, and he suspected that his employment of Chinese labor would render him unpopular, and he liked popularity. But, to tell the truth, he had suffered so much at the hands of white men cooks and married couples that his soul so hungered after peace and the model Chinee that he finally made up his mind, and sent down to an agent to send him up a Chinese cook.
Johnson had a nice little station in North Queensland, which he looked after himself, and which paid fairly well. He liked comfort and good cooking, but hitherto had failed to obtain either. His experience of married couples had been unfortunate. Raw immigrants fresh out by the B. and L. boats, had broken his crockery—hard to replace—and ruined his digestion. Once he got a treasure—the man seemed to understand station work, and the wife seemed to have once occupied a superior station, for she could cook divinely and was neat and tidy. Unfortunately, the dream was rudely broken. A Jackeroo who was shaping very well eloped with the woman, and the man came to him in the morning and remarked in A familiar tone, 'I'm well out of that.'
Johnson was a moral man in a quiet sort of way, and was shocked at such heartlessness. But when the man explained to him that he was of good family, and had run away with the girl for a lark, and that just as they were getting tired of each other she saved him all trouble by running away with the jackeroo, he was even more shocked, and forswore married couples henceforth. The men cooks led him a life. They were either dirty, or stupid, or impudent, and, without exception, could not cook, hence the evolution of the Chinese cook.
In due time the Oriental arrived—a tall and rather dignified gentleman, who appeared rather to patronise his employer than not. However, on experience, his cooking was a dream. Johnson had taken some pains to furnish the store with unwonted luxuries, and Ah Won turned out some very decent dishes, the men complained that he kept them awake half the night strumming on a Chinese guitar and singing a Chinese song to its accompaniment, but, as he fed them well, the complaints were not loud. Whenever any of his neighbors came over and chaffed Johnson about employing Chinese labor, Johnson put one of Ah Won's curries before them, and they departed converted men.
IT was a brilliant moonlight night, some months after Ah Won's arrival, when Johnson awoke with a feeling that there was somebody moving about the house, somebody who had no business there. He went out on to the verandah, and saw Ah Won there. Ah Won evidently did not see him, and he had a sharp butcher's knife in his hand, so Johnson slipped back and got his revolver. He could not make it out Ah Won could not want to murder him. What could he want? Robbery! Pooh! there was nothing on the station worth anything.
He watched Ah Won, and saw him enter the sitting-room, then immediately come out again. He next went to the open space in front of the house, and before Johnson could conceive what he was going to do, deliberately cut his throat with the butcher's knife. Johnson gave a cry of horror, and dashed off the verandah; but the deed was done effectually. Ah Won simply gasped a few minutes with a nasty bubbling noise, and by the time the men, aroused by Johnson's cry, had come on the scene, Ah Won was dead.
It was a long way to send for the police, but Johnson did so, and in the meanwhile, being a J.P., by the aid of one or two neighbors, held a sort of informal inquest, and buried the body. When the Chinaman went into the sitting room he left a note on the table addressed to Johnson, in fair English, running as follows:
Society want me. If not go, kill. If go, kill. What do? Kill myself. Ah Won.
You let Mun Sing know—take body. If not, society kill you.
THIS was a nice ending to the quiet he had so long desired. He did not show the letter to the police for various reasons, but although he tried to make light of it, he could not help feeling uncomfortable, for he had heard so much about Chinese societies and their far-reaching power. Besides, who the devil was Mun Sing?
Finally, he wrote to the agent who had forwarded Ah Won, eased his temper by abusing him for sending a suicidal lunatic up to him, and confided to him the task of finding Mun Sing.
A month afterwards a Chinaman rode up to the station, asked to see Mr. Johnson, and stated that he was Mun Sing. Greatly relieved, Johnson hastened to show Shim Ah Won's grave, and offered him any help he wanted to dig him up and cart him away.
Mun Sing listened gravely, and said,
'There's no money. Ah Won drew his wages the day before he committed suicide. Here's the grave, and you can do what you like with the body, so long as you cart him off the station. I don't want any of your confounded societies.'
'No money, no want body,' and the Chinaman mounted his horse again, and rode off.
FROM that date Johnson was bombarded with Mun Sings, who turned up at uncertain intervals, and, all alike, demanded Ah Won's money, and contemptuously refused his body. Johnson began to grow thin under this infliction, and began to pray for the society to turn up instead.
In this quandary a friend came to him, and said, 'Engage another Chinese cook.'
'My colonial! no more,' returned Johnson.
'Take my advice,' said his friend, and Johnson took his advice, and the agent sent him up another cook, name of Mun Sing.
Johnson trembled. Mun Sing arrived, heard Johnson's story, and laughed, then he proceeded to dig up Ah Won. Nobody assisted at the operation—nobody wanted to.
Mun Sing took a small pouch from Ah Won's body, and re-interred him; then he assured Johnson that it was nothing—there was no society; Ah Won was mad.
The spurious Mun Sing did not stop long as cook, but when he went away he had poor Ah Won's cheque, and other savings, which he had found in the pouch on the dead body.
Johnson is still experimenting on cooks.
'WELL, Chinese is rum folk,' said Jim. 'Never had much to do with them myself, but an old mate of mine told me a queer story about one of them up north. You've been up that way, haven't you—north of Queensland, I mean?'
'Yes; I've been there.'
'There's heaps of alligators there, so this man says?'
'Plenty in places.'
'His name was Denis Slatwell, not the Slatwell who was known as Pig's Meat,' because a pig ate part of the calf of his leg when he was asleep dead drunk, and he always walked with a kind of a kick afterwards. I don't know if he was any relation; but it don't matter. Denis said this yarn was as true as a speech in Parliament, and, with the exception of selling a horse, I always put him down as a truthful kind of man.
'It seems that you never can get to the bottom of a Chinaman, even when he's drunk he's hiding something from you, and he's got all manner of queer notions of his own about his body after he dies. Always wants a fuss of some sort made about it. However, if you've been knocking about those parts you might know if it's at all likely to be true; for I don't believe in having any leg pulled. This happened at a place called Burketown. Ever been there?'
'According to Denis, it's fairly alive with alligators. If anyone gets up at daylight they think nothing of seeing two or three scuttling off down to the river. Two Chinese gardeners had a garden near the river, and one of them died of fever, and was buried by the other Chinese. They didn't bury him deep, because they meant to dig him up again afterwards, and cart his bones back to China. One morning the live Chinaman got up, and going to have a look at the grave, he found, to his astonishment that it had been dug out, and the corpse was missing. Well, he searched about everywhere, and at last, by the tracks, he came to the conclusion that the blessed alligators had nosed him out and taken him away.
'Some of the fellows from the township came down and examined the tracks, and came to the conclusion that it was so. Denis himself was one of them, and was quite convinced of it. Anyhow, the Chinaman was terribly upset about it. It seemed the dead partner was some sort of a relation of his, and he said he could never dare to go back to China without the other man's bones. He sold out the garden to a couple of his countrymen, and used to pass all his time sitting on the bank of the river cursing at the alligators. Denis said his curses were something awful. For all they were in Chinese, and no one could understand them, they were that blood-curdling that three of the hardest swearers and drinkers in the town took the pledge, and his oaths killed all the bees round where he used to sit. Of course, it wouldn't take much of this before he went loony, and turned dangerous, so they set out to quiet him. They got some blackfellows bones and put 'em to soak in the river. Then the first alligator that was shot they produced these, and told him that they were those of his lost countryman, and that everything was right now, and he could give over cursing and take a rest. He was a simple-minded Chow, and took it all in, or appeared to; and they had a fresh funeral, and roasted another sucking pig, and gave the corpse a second send-off.
'Everybody thought that things had been smoothed down nicely, and the three men who had sworn off went on an entirely new bender on the strength of it, when everything was capsized.
'Some Chinese fishermen at the mouth of the river caught an alligator, and inside was the real and original Chinese gardener. There were lots of things to identify him by, and the Chows howled all night at what they had done. They dug up the bones again, and hove them into the river, and buried the fresh find there, and once more people thought there was peace on the earth.
'But it wasn't to be. The new corpse couldn't rest in the grave where the blackfellow had been, and took to haunting; his old partner, which was a thundering mean thing to do. He insisted that some of his bones were missing—not important bones, but, still, their absence annoyed him, and his partner would have to find them or he'd know what for.
'Now the Chow had done his level best all through, and this trouble coming on top of the other made him a bit cranky. Up he goes to the police magistrate, and states the case to him. The P.M. tried to soothe him down, and explain to him that his jurisdiction didn't extend to the next world, and the best thing he could do was to pack up his duds and clear out somewhere else. However, this didn't satisfy the Chinaman, and he went down to the river and started cursing the alligators again, as the original source of all the trouble; but the alligators took no notice of him, so he up and hung himself on one of the trees he had killed with his outrageous bad language. Then for the third time the people thought that the matter was settled. But it wasn't by a long chalk. It's a serious thing to have trouble with a Chinese ghost, seemingly. The two ghosts got quarrelling, and they used to play up old Harry with the garden, which didn't belong to them at all. They had no sense of fairness and honesty, for the men who had bought the garden—couldn't help matters. But at it they'd go, and Bit there in the night and spit Chinese at one another, and heave vegetables at each other, and wreck the whole show. The other Chinese used to try and keep them away by banging kerosene tins, cracking whips, and firing guns, and this kind of jamboree went on every night until not a soul in the town could get a wink of sleep.
'The P.M. told the Chinese to dig up the bones and bury them somewhere else, and they did so, for they were pretty well full of the racket. But it was not an atom of good. The two ghosts had selected that garden for their fights to the finish, and meant to have it out there, right or wrong.
'It was a low kind of act on the part of the first ghost, and if I'd have been up there I'd have tried to reason with him; but, perhaps, being a Chinese ghost, he wouldn't have been open to argument. Still, I should like to have tried it on, for I never did tackle a Chinese ghost.
'Now the Chinese had sent off to one of their countrymen, and never said a word to anybody, which is their way. One day the man they wanted came. A Chinese doctor, who could flatten any ghost if he got a fair show. He made all inquiries, and shook his head very gravely and, said that it was all the fault of the alligators; and they wanted cursing properly. But the P.M. objected. Said that they'd had enough of that game already, and the only thing it had done was to bring in a drought. If anybody tries it any more he should be run in straight.
'The Chinese doctor, a very polite man, said that it was a pity, as he had a new patent curse, warranted to stand hot weather, and he was anxious to try it. However, he would do his best.
'It was a bright moonlight night when he went out to the field of action, and all the township turned out to see the fun. Denis says it was the best thing he ever saw. The ghosts were hard at it, hauling each other about by their pigtails and using the most iniquitous language. The doctor put on a pair of horn spectacles, marched up to them and solemnly stared at them. They didn't pay much heed to him at first, but gradually they began to get uncomfortable and look uneasily at the doctor, until at last he stared them into being quiet. Then he made them a speech; everybody said it was a most beautiful speech, although no one understood a single word of it but the ghosts. When he had finished he made a step forward, and, lifting his hand, shooed at them, and the ghosts retreated. On he went until he had shooed them right out of the garden, down among the trees by the river and clean out of sight. Presently he came back by himself.
'He explained that this was only the commencement, that it would take some days to complete the work, and as he was talking there arose the most horrible uproar from where the ghosts had disappeared. It seems that, not knowing the country, he had shooed them into the blacks' camp; and the niggers were bolting in all directions. However, that didn't matter, for everyone got a sleep that night, and next day the doctor was made an awful lot of by all.'
'NOW, there seems to be no besting a Chinese. Every night feat doctor went out to take a full exit of the ghosts, but they dodged him this way. They had to go, but he couldn't control the direction, and one night he shooed them into a mob of travelling cattle, and they rushed to glory. Another night he shooed them through the back wall of the baker's house, and the baker's wife, who was in an interesting condition, was frightened nearly to death and there was trouble. So he had to hit upon something else, and he did it—he just got there in the bull's eye.
'He told the ghost that was making all the fuss that he was going to examine his skeleton to find out which of his bones was missing that he was making all this war about. This staggered the ghost, and he seemed quite put out. At last he owned up that it was one of the fingers of his right hand.
Now would you believe such low down, rascally conduct on the part of even a Chinese ghost! That finger had been chopped off by an accident years and years before he came to Burketown. It had never been within hundreds of miles of the place, and the alligators who had been so becursed were not guilty of keeping the property, and as for his partner, whom he had driven to suicide, he had never even seen the missing finger.
'It was all a bit of spite, because the bones of the blackfellow had been put in his grave. Do you think it's a true bill?'
'I should say that every word of it was a stubborn fact.'
'Ah! I'm glad you think that, knowing the place. I should not like to suspect Denis of lying, unless it was about horses, which of course is natural and allowable. Besides, I know that if a ghost once makes up its mind to be a. nuisance it's bound to find some excuse; but that was the mangiest dodge I ever knew.'
'A LONELY place to be buried in,' said one of the two men gazing at the red loom of the sandhills to the westward, quivering like the heat haze hovering over a glowing furnace.
'But not more so than the bottom of the sea, where many a good fellow rests.'
'One sleeps just as well, whether on shore or in sea.' answered his companion, looking at a quiet form, covered with a blue blanket, lying under the scant shade of a neighboring tree.
'Yes, poor Tom; he'll be quiet enough here. Where shall we bury him?'
'Under that tree, I think. We'll cut his name pretty deep on it. Not that it matters much, but It is the sort of thing his wife will expect to hear about. Women are sentimental where their dead are concerned.'
The flat on which they stood was desolate and almost barren save for the little patch on which they where camped. There a broken fragment of a creek had formed a short-lived channel. An ancient gum tree that had looked on the unchanging solitude of the surrounding desert for many long, long years of fiercest drought until it was now a mere shell, stood on the bank bearing some meagre-foliaged limbs on its shattered crown. At its foot grew a clump of thin, wiry reeds, and a little spring of half-brackish water soaked down from amongst them and formed a pool in the bed of the creek. Around, for a little space, there was dry grass mixed with the dull grey-green of the foliage of the saltbush, and beyond the cruel, hard gleam of the spinifex, dotted here and there by a stunted tree that fought for a barren existence against the terrors of the climate; and beyond again—rose up the desert wave of red sand.
It was in the heart of Australia, 150 miles west of the furthest outside cattle station, where the tropic of Capricorn intersects the longitudinal line that divides the province of South Australia from the huge bulk of her sister colony. Drawn on by the tales of the rich reefs of West Australia, then in the glory of its rising boom, and believing, like many others, that the gold-bearing country would in time be traced far into the interior, the three men had started on a long prospecting trip, hoping to strike the golden belt on its eastern boundary. Having only horses with them and no camels, they found themselves baffled by the arid and waterless sandhills, a tract of which stretched across their route. Skirting this dreaded Sahara of West Australia, they unfortunately came into collision with a tribe of natives, and one of them—Tom Deeling—received a fatal spear wound. With unwearying care his comrades brought him away, and luckily came across the little spring, which afforded them a brief halt; enough at any rate to allow the sufferer to die in peace.
And he died, in such peace as the men of the advance guard of civilisation can expect. With the hot and cloudless southern sun o'erhead, the eternal stillness of the wild thirst land around, and two trusty comrades by his side. The sky was a blaze of angry glory by the time the men had finished their task. Prom the old shell of a desert gum a shield of bark had been stripped, and the dead man's name and the date of his death cut in the wood beneath with a chisel, after the fashion of a survey mark:
DIED AUG. 9
His private belongings were being carefully looked over and packed up. Landors, a tall, sinewy man, whose light blue eyes contrasted strongly with his sun-blackened face, was looking at a photograph amongst the letters and papers he was putting together.
'Is this his wife, Joe?' he asked. Joe Monteith, a middle-sized man with a full dark beard inspected it.
'I think so, he answered. 'I only saw her once, at the railway station at Adelaide, and then she had a hat and veil on. It's about her general look and figure, and her eyes look the same, for they must have been very bright to have been noticeable through her veil.'
'A good-looking woman,' returned Landors; 'but somehow she's not one I should fancy.'
'Nor I. I shouldn't like the job of telling her about this affair. Looks the sort who'd say it was all our fault.'
'How long had they been, married when we started?'
'Not long. Six months or so, Tom told me.'
'Had he any money? You knew more of him than I did.'
'Yes; he said to me that if anything happened to him his wife would be all right.'
'What induced him, with money enough to live on, and only six months married to a pretty, young wife, to come streeling out here with us. It's the natural thing for you and me to do. The outside country got hold of us "small and early," and when it calls us we've got to go, and also we haven't any wives to trouble about leaving behind; but it was different with Deeling. He hadn't sucked the desert into his bones.'
'Poor old boy. He'll stay here now, and I bet he's not sorry, for he let out some queer things when he was muttering just before he died. And why did he make that strange will? He must have had a special down on the fellow Blathkutt for such an easy-going fellow as he was to make such a will.'
'Stick to that paper, Joe. If there's been a youngster since we left it might mean something important.'
'I'll stick to it, safe enough, you bet,' said Joe.
Next morning they resumed their way, leaving only the red mound of earth and the carved face of the ancient gum tree to tell the tale of another white man gone to rest in the wide-spreading arms of the desert.
Landors and his mate kept on, and by evening reached a belt of good hard spinifex ridges trending westerly. The feed was scanty, but some heavy thunderstorms had fallen of late, and they pushed hopefully on into the unknown, as there would be a chance of some of the broken little creeks holding water a short time.
Joe had ridden down one of these creeks, while Landors went on. Seeing some damp-looking sand he got off, and commenced to probe the sand with a stick. Unthinkingly he left his horse on the bank, with the bridle trailing; when he looked up from his search he saw it trotting up the ridge back towards their tracks. With much blasphemy on himself and the horse, he mounted the ridge, only to see the steed disappearing on the track they had come.
Landors had gone on over the opposite ridge, and come to a rocky gully with a fine supply of water. He halted and was unpacking, when Monteith came up on foot. As darkness was closing in and the horses had had a long day, it was useless going after the fugitive that night. Moreover, it seemed certain that he would make straight back to the last water at the grave.
'I wouldn't care a curse,' said Joe; 'I'd let him and the saddle rip, as we've got Tom's, but that blessed will is in my saddle pouch, where I put it for safety.'
Soon after the prospectors had left their camp In the morning a wandering mob of blacks arrived, tired and hungry. They saw that the whites had left, and therefore camped with confidence; but that night one of them was awakened by the noise of some animal drinking at the pool. For a wonder he looked first without making a bad bolt. There-was a riderless horse there. He took courage and softly roused some others. Very shortly Joe's horse was being cut up into steaks and joints, the camp fires were made up, ovens dug, and the saddle was soon hacked to pieces for the sake of the ironwork.
When Joe arrived the next evening he found the bones of his horse and the remains of the feast; also the remnants of a saddle. The blacks' trail led over the sandhills, where there was no following. Joe departed in hot wrath. If he had looked Inside the shell of the old tree he would have found his saddle pouch there, where it had been carelessly flung. As it was, he presumed that it had gone on tour with the blacks.
In a week the spring dried up, and nothing, animal or human, came near the wretched flat. Until rain fell the saddle pouch was as secure there as in the Safe Deposit in Sydney, only nobody knew of it...
IT was somewhere about two year's before the letter containing the news of Deeling's death and the accompanying parcel of his private effects reached the widow. The delay had been inconvenient, but by no means the fault, of the prospectors. They had fought their way through and been to a certain extent rewarded. Nothing gigantic had fallen in their way, but they had secured a tidy show. They had left the things, with a letter, at the first place they struck in touch with civilisation, and various vicissitudes had been the lot of the packet since then. It had been forgotten for months, resurrected, dropped aside again, lost for some more months amongst Government stores, imperilled by fire and water, narrowly escaped being shipped off to England, and at last, with enough stamps on it to ensure its delivery at the South Pole, had reached the hands it was destined for in Sydney.
Its arrival was opportune. There was an insurance on Deeling's life, but that was not of such vital importance as the fact that Mrs. Deeling was particularly anxious to know if she was or was not a widow. She had long looked upon herself as one, and would have felt it as extremely bad manners on the part of poor Tom if he had put in an appearance in the body. They had not lived very happily for their brief term of wedded life, and as Deeling had gone away in wrath, hoping that he never would come back again, it would certainly have been bad taste on his part had he done so.
Tom had left her a few thousands in his will, and the insurance also was a couple more, when she got it. But the fact was, although a hard, sharp woman enough, there was one man who had found out the weak, spot in her nature, and he was not Tom Deeling. Here again came in the peculiar warp of a woman's nature.
Tom was an open, honest fellow, always more willing to give than to take; a fool if you like, but a very lovable fool, liked by all men, but not appreciated by his wife. The man who aspired to his shoes, and who had led to the domestic infelicity, was one of the secretive beings who go through life with an atmosphere of selfish repulsiveness around them. No man wanted his companionship, no man trusted him, no man cared whether he lived or died, and no man but a blackfellow or a Chinaman would have drunk a glass in friendship with him. This woman was simply his willing slave.
But it is not a singular prank, and is well known as a feminine peculiarity everywhere; even in the flying island of Laputa, where the Court lady used to run away from her palace to live in rags with the deformed, drunken footman who beat her.
Tom was dead, she was a free woman to marry again, and she had no child to remind her of the dear departed. The first thing was to find out the two prospectors; the insurance people required their sworn declaration. That ought not to be very hard. The reef they had found on the termination of their weary journey was now a busy centre, and if they were still there the 'wire would soon find them.
When Blathkutt, Tom's supplanter, came on his diurnal visit she told him the gleeful news. He went into the raptures suitable to the situation, did and said all he was expected to do, and then turned to review the main chance.
'The insurance money will be paid, I believe, as soon as the sworn declaration is produced; but there's another question. If I were you I should advance a claim for a third share of whatever may have been found on that trip. They don't mention anything of what they have done; but if they have got a good reef, and there have been some rich finds lately, it means a large sum of money.'
Mrs. Deeling looked at him with admiration. What a clever man he was; if anyone had mentioned sharp practice she would have withered them with scorn.
'Is it ours by law?' she asked; and he noted the word 'ours.'
'Well, I am afraid not; but we can make things so disagreeable, get an injunction, threaten a long lawsuit, and play the bereaved widow business so as to make them glad to compromise.'
Her admiration of his business smartness was doubled. Landors had written the letter. He was a mere cautious man than Monteith, not that he suspected any underhand work, but being naturally reticent, he said nothing about their subsequent adventures after Deeling's death; and nothing about the will, merely informing the widow of the circumstances of his death, and a list of the effects, and saying that he and his partner would pay for Deeling's horses and outfit at the cost price.
Blathkutt soon found out that two of the principal shareholders in and the original prospectors of the celebrated Desert Queen were Landors and Monteith. The partners received two letters—one from the insurance office requesting their sworn declarations as to the death of Deeling, and one from the widow, very gushing, very grateful, and very much interested in the reef, with a delicate hint as to what share she, as the widow, could claim in it.
Landors and his partner felt rather puzzled. Actually speaking, neither in justice or sentiment had the widow of their dead comrade any share in the Desert Queen. They had noticed some likely-looking country on their way over not many days before they struck an outside camp, but had not stopped to prospect. Afterwards they had returned, and finally found the Desert Queen on a separate expedition altogether.
A guarded answer was sent back enclosing the desired declarations and the price of the horses, but evading the subject of the Desert Queen. The next thing was a legal letter from the widow's solicitors putting forward a claim for her husband's share. This roused every fighting instinct in both of them, as they knew the widow was not in want, and this claim was a piece of barefaced attempt at grabbing.
'What did I tell you when I saw her face?' said Landors. 'You've told her about the will?'
'No, I didn't, as I reckon that will might as well be at the bottom of the sea as traipsing about the sandhills with a mob of myalls.'
'There's a man behind this,' said Monteith.
'Bet you what you like it's the Blathkutt fellow that Deeling had the down on.'
'Looks like it. Well, he won't get any good out of the badgering game, and all they'll do is to spend the insurance money.'
'There's Marpells starting out in a day or two, talks of going right across to the overland line. Blessed if I don't feel inclined to go with him, and overhaul every gin's dilly bag we come across.'
'Not much good that; but I've known them to carry things about for years, for no earthly reason.'
'Hanged if I don't go,' said Joe, and he went.
THE lawyers saw something in the case seemingly—not a claim, but the chance of a stiff compensation to avoid expensive litigation, and the bereaved widow dodge could be worked for all it was worth. There was the making of a most effective and affecting case. The young husband dying in the lonely desert, his last breath spent on a blessing on his widow. She, poor, sorrowing woman, forced to enter in another loveless marriage to keep her from starving, and the wicked companions gloating in the wealth wrung from, the rightful owner.
So certain did Blathkutt feel of the case turning in something that, after a few months had passed, he urged their speedy marriage, so that he could the better look after her interests. She agreed willingly, and the marriage was solemnised on the very day that Monteith, in company with Marpells's party, rode down the flat to the grave at the spring.
The spring was running once more; a whirlwind in passing had snapped the ancient tree off short, and hurled the trunk across the grave. It was twisted off above the inscription, and the stem stood up like a jagged tombstone.
Joe had been the curiosity of the trip. Every packet of skin, every dilly bag, etc., had been overhauled in each camp they had come across. But without avail. The bones of piccaninnies, the shrivelled bodies of frogs, and various other relics rewarded him, but no saddle pouch, no papers. No wonder, for Joe was at that instant leaning on the edge of the stump that concealed the very thing that he was in search of...
The others were grouped around reading the inscription, and listening to the story of the death that Joe was telling. A wet season had replenished the little spring, and it was gushing forth once more. Marpells was leaning against the side of the stump near Joe. He looked inside, and whistled.
'Joe, your blessed pouch is here waiting for you. Look inside the stump for it.'
Joe looked. The pouch had been partly covered by the white ants with an incrustation of clay, but it was there right enough. He fished it out, and gasped.
'Open it, Marpells.'
Marpells did so. There was Joe's own private papers of one sort or another, and the precious will.
'By Jove, you ought to go to every niggers' camp between here and Coolgardie and make a public apology,' said Marpells.
LANDORS came over to Adelaide to meet Monteith, in response to a wire from the overland line.
'It was the greediness of the fellow did it all,' said Joe. 'If he'd been contented with what he had, and not grabbed for a share in the Desert Queen, I'd never have gone looking for that will just to spite him.'
The will was plain enough. Deeling left all to his wife on condition that she did not marry Blathkutt; if she married Blathkutt everything went in trust to his child if there was one; if not, to a brother and sister. The insurance money, which did not belong to them, was already half gone in law expenses, and things generally looked bad for the Blathkutts. But the late Mrs. Deeling did not lose faith in her husband, and whenever a word was mentioned concerning the matter was voluble in her abuse of her first husband and his two companions.
'People when they're dying see clearly, and I expect Deeling knew what he was doing,' said Joe; 'but it was deuced lucky that Marpells and the others saw it found, or we should have been accused of forgery.'
THE sea casts up some strange waifs. One day into the group of islands on the northern-most point of Australia, of which Thursday Island, though least, is most important, it cast a storm-beaten proa, having on board three Malays, two alive, or between life and death. Hunger and thirst, but especially thirst, had reduced that gaunt crew to skeletons. The proa was rudderless and dismasted, and they sat with hollow eyes awaiting death; when one of the schooners belonging to the shelling fleet espied the waif, and went to examine her.
The two Malays were taken off, the third received a sailor's grave, and the proa became derelict.
The men were revived with rough kindness, and taken to the township, where, the police magistrate took charge of them. In time they gained strength enough to speak, and tell their story; such of it as they chose to tell, for the Malay is ever a secretive animal. They had been fishing for trepang and getting a little pearl-shell also, off the Company's Islands, when they were blown away to sea, dismasted and left helpless.
How long they had been drifting about they knew not, but fate at last led some wandering current to bring them down to within sight of Friday Island, where the schooner picked them up. One was a tall, old man, who gave the name of Ras-All; the other, a much younger man, called himself Abdrahim. They asked after the proa, and were told it had been left adrift. They listlessly cast down their eyes indifferently at the news.
All this information was obtained from them by means of one of the Malay divers.
When they had recovered sufficiently, they were informed that the Queensland Government would give them passage to somewhere near their native place, whence it would be easy for them to return home. They asked if work could be obtained there for men of their occupation; and when they were told it could, they said they would stay.
So they stayed on, and in a few months learnt a little English, and began to earn good wages on a station on Prince of Wales Island, for they both could work well when their strength returned.
One day a wandering aboriginal or Binghi brought in word that there was an old proa lying on the far beach of Prince of Wales Island, where whites seldom went in those days. He described it, and the man whom he told happened to be the employer of the two castaways, who were then scraping and cleaning shell in the shed.
White called them over.
"Ras All," he said, "this Binghi has found your old craft, I think." And he described what the nigger had told him.
The Malays listened in silence, and then one said, "We would like to see if it is ours. Ask the Binghi, sir, if it is far."
White, who knew the island thoroughly, soon located the place, and informed them that it was not more than three miles across the ridges, but very rough travelling.
They thanked him, and went back to their work. That evening, after knock-off time, they came and asked for two days' leave, to go and see if it was the remains of their old proa. They were steady workmen, and White readily consented.
Mohamed, the diver, who had acted as interpreter, was standing by when they made the request.
"Those strange men Malay," he said to White.
"What do you mean? Where do they come from?"
"A small island" (he could talk good English) "off Celebes. No one lands there, no stranger. Strange men, but good sailor man. What they want old proa for?"
"I'm sure I don't know," said White, "but they're welcome to her. The fellows on the schooner should have sunk her, and not let her go drifting about."
Mohamed said no more, but next morning, when the two sea waifs started, Mohamed was away too.
They came back at the appointed time, and Mohamed also. The latter went to White, and told him a strange and wonderful story. Put into plain English, it ran:
I TOLD you these were sea-devils from the island off Celebes; and I followed them to see what they wanted with the old proa. They went by the paper chart you had given them, and came almost direct to the proa. It was theirs. They examined it all over, and at last seemed satisfied, but, as I had to remain hidden some distance off, I could not see exactly what they did, but I feel sure they took something from it.
Then commenced their devil's tricks. They lit a fire, and sat by it singing one of their songs. Presently the old man, Ras All, went to the edge of the sea, and stretching out his hands gave a great and terrible cry.
A cry! I have heard once before off Flores, and that night we were wrecked. Seven times this awful cry went afar over the sea, and then strange things began to crawl on to the beach, and sit around waiting.
At last the thing that they waited for came. A man, a strange man, Malay, who had been dead for months, came out of the sea, and approached Ras All. His eyes were gone, and his wet hair was entwined with seaweeds, but it was the third man on the proa.
"Have I kept my trust?" the thing said to Ras All. And I could hear every word.
"Well have you kept it."
"Then can I sleep so that I shall not hear the great cry?"
"Sleep well, O friend."
The dead man turned to go, but stopped. "Keep thou the trust, too; and woe to those who would interfere."
"Woe to those who would interfere. Let those who listen beware."
At this the dead man entered the sea again, and all the strange and horrible creatures did the same. And just then the sun went down.
I was frightened, but I could not come back through those gullies and ravines in the dark; so I waited until the morning, and as soon as it was daylight I started.
"Now, sir, what did those strange-men Malays take from the wreck of the old proa?
"I cannot guess; nothing to interest me. Whatever it was it belonged to them; so that it is no business of ours."
But Mohamed thought that it was his business. Besides, he knew more than Mr. White did in the matter; and more about the strange Malays of the island off Celebes. He knew too much of the various ramifications of his countrymen to suppose that he could ever win their confidence, so he watched, and his watching was rewarded. He argued astutely, a Malay does not wear sufficient clothing when working amongst shell to afford a handy place of concealment; thus, whatever the "trust" was, that had been taken from the wreck of the proa, it was concealed somewhere, probably in tho bush.
After many days and nights he was rewarded. It was midnight one night when the sleepless spy saw the two Malays move like shadows out of the sleeping shed, and like a shadow ne followed them round the beach for nearly half-a-mile, and then they came to where a spring oozed from the bank, and trickled shiningly over some rocks. Part of the overflow diverged into a hole in the rock, and Mohamed saw, under the light of a half-moon, Ras All plunge his hand and arm into this hole, and draw something forth. The two heads bent together, then the object was replaced, and the two returned on their tracks, passing the concealed Mohamed too close to be pleasant.
Now, however, was his chance, and he went to the trickling spring, and, putting his hand and arm into the small hole, found a box of some sort. It was small and heavy; but he dared not stop to examine it then. He concealed it in another place, and afraid to go back to the sleeping shed stole to the back of the house, and threw himself down there till daylight.
Next morning, when all were at work, Mohamed asked for the boat to go across to Thursday Island. Then only, with the rippling strait between them, did he feel safe to examine his find. Landing at the boat jetty, he quickly found a place to see what he had stolen.
It was a small strong case, made of some aromatic wood, on which the water seemingly had made no impression. It was fastened by several springs, which his Malay intelligence quickly detected and understood, and the contents soon lay before him.
He had hoped for jewels, a hoard of pearls found amongst the Company's Islands, but never did he expect to find anything like this. Diamonds and rubies constituted the chief part, the rest were pearls, such as he, in all his diver's experience, had never seen. Who were these mysterious waifs of the ocean to have such treasure with them in a leaky old proa? And then his blood rah cold at the thought of what he had done, for did not the very dead guard this trust? How could he hope to escape?
The storm could not destroy it, the sea could not swallow it; the winds brought it to the shore of the island, where the guardians were. Mohamed grew chilly with fright, though the tropical sun was blazing.
At last his fears and his greed came to a compromise. He would take but one or two of the jewels, enough to make him fairly well off, the rest and the casket he would put back, thus would he deceive the guardians and save himself. A steamer would be in port the next day, by her he would go north.
Satisfied by this reasoning, Mohamed selected three jewels that he thought would answer his hopes, then reclosed the box, and rose to return; he felt that he could not rest until he had restored the casket to its hiding place. He determined to sail straight across to the point where the spring was; it was concealed from the station by a bend, and seldom visited.
He very soon reached the spot, lowered the sail, and stepped out into the shallow water, with the painter in his hand to make the boat fast. He had almost reached the shore when he felt himself clutched by the ankle. With a scream of horror he dragged his foot up high enough to see that he was held by a human hand, the hand of the dead guardian.
Then the head belonging to the hand appeared above the surface, and that awful cry went forth, the summoning cry that he had heard before. Then Mohamed knew, that he was doomed.
He fought and tugged and slashed with his knife, but the dead hand held firm, until he saw the forms of the two Malays approaching, in their hands the knives used for cleaning shell.
"Woe to those who would interfere!" sounded in his ears.
THE two Malays, Ras Dal and Abdrahim, went north in the steamer, but Mohamed's body was not found for some time after she had left. He was missed, and supposed to be drunk in the township; so, in looking for the boat they found him.
THE wind had dropped considerably, but it was still blowing half a gale of wind, and the sea was, I think, worse than ever. To stand was impossible, for it was not ordinary rolling and pitching, but the unmanageable hulk was tossed wildly about all directions—the most accomplished acrobat could not have kept his feet for half a minute. There was a glimmering of light coming, and I knew that the tardy day must be breaking at last. How we had kept afloat during the night was a miracle. Certainly, we had everything well battened down and we had lost both masts when the hurricane first struck us, so perhaps that had saved us.
But how many had been left on board? All night we had been at the mercy of the sea, and the decks had been swept clear of everything movable. I was cut by the ropes I had tied myself up with, but being under the break of the little forecastle had escaped some of the worst of it, but whether anyone else was alive on board I had no idea. I scarcely thought it possible.
A grey sullen, morning broke at last and showed me a clean-swept deck and a tossing sea of green and white. The rolling of the vessel was something tremendous and sickening, and it was only by an accident that I had fastened myself in the centre of the deck, else the seas that broke over the sides when she lay gunwale under would have soon drowned me. I saw that to stand or crawl was alike impossible, and perforce I must lie there helpless until the gale had blown itself out and the sea went down somewhat. It was anything but a nice lookout. I was sore, numbed, and chafed, and thirsty, and I knew my thirst would rapidly increase, augmented by the salt spray that continually whipped my face.
All the morning I lay there, and by noon the wind lulled, the sun was out, and the sea somewhat gone down. The rolling was still pretty bad, but I thought if I could get on my legs again I could manage to reach the little after cabin, and find something to relieve my thirst. Cautiously I undid my fastenings, and, after stretching and working my cramped legs and arms I essayed the task of traversing the heaving slippery deck. We had ragged gaps in the low bulwarks, and both our boats and all deck lumber had disappeared. Once I had a nasty capsize, and shot down the deck, and only by a fluke landed against a piece of the bulwark that was still standing, but finally I reached the little covered hatch leading to cabin, and after some trouble got the doors open and was pitched headlong down the two or three steps by the hull getting tossed up on an extra big wave.
Half stunned, I got on my legs and scrambled up and fastened the doors, for If she shipped a bigger sea than usual I stood a good chance of getting drowned. The little cabin was then as dark as pitch, but I groped about until by great good luck I came across a canvas bag that I had accidentally brought on board among my traps and that Ned and I had used for cooling water. It was a large one, originally intended for slinging round the neck of a packhorse, and being hung up and well corked had survived all the knocking about, and I got the most delicious drink from it that I ever had in my life, or ever hope to have.
Refreshed by it, and feeling that it had put new life into me, I stood thinking and listening to the groaning and wallowing of our poor dismasted schooner, and the swish of the water that had found its way into the cabin, and now washed over my feet at every roll of the vessel. I groped all over the cabin, in the hope that I might find someone there who had taken refuge, but no; no man likes to be below, any moment expecting to go to the bottom, and all hands must have stayed on deck, and one by one been washed overboard to drown.
I found my way to the little pantry, and, thanks to the way the shelves had been rigged, I get some biscuit, half a bottle of rum, and a pannikin. Bracing myself up, I managed to make a dismal sort of meal in the dark. Not that I particularly enjoyed it, but because I felt it necessary to keep my strength up if I was to make any sort of fight for my life. I finished my meal to the accompaniment of the gurgling water outside that at times seemed right overhead, as though the ill-used little craft was sinking at last, having given up the battle in despair. I managed to get on deck again, and found that the weather had now seemingly set in fair, and that by the next morning I should be able to go about without much danger or difficulty.
My temporary safety being now assured, I had time to think with regret of the fate of the others. Poor Ned Rowlands, my friend and partner; Alick, the old man-of-war's man; and the three kanakas. What would I have given to have seen one of them. It was scarcely likely that any of them could be still hidden in the forecastle, for if alive they would have crawled on deck before now.
As I thought of this and gazed forward, I saw the sliding door move back and a head peer out. A hail was on my lips, but surprise stopped me, for the head was the head of a stranger. It was a hideous head, grizzled and stubbly-bearded, lank, with a slinking villainous look about it, and evidently the head of a big-framed man. How did this creature come to be on board of our little schooner? He was not on board, to my knowledge, when we left Thursday Island five days before.
Slowly the man came cautiously out, and at length caught sight of me where I stood, and latter regarding me curiously for some time started to come aft. I stood watching him with a strange feeling of dread and disgust.
One would have thought that at that time I should have been glad to see any human being, no matter how mysterious his presence might have seemed, but I was not, and as the stranger came carefully along the deck I should not have cared much if one of the lurches had tilted him overboard through one of the gaps in the bulwarks. He was a great big-boned man, thin and emaciated, but still a strong man; but his face was most repulsive, and from his appearance he evidently had colored blood in him.
'Ullo!' he said when he had got near enough to make conversation possible.
'Who the devil are you?' I asked, 'and where did you come from?'
'Been down below,' he said in a harsh, rasping kind of voice. 'I'm pretty well broke up; can you get at any water or grub for a fellow?'
He spoke in a way that had a kind of foreign twang about it, but yet was quite plain English, like that of a man who had picked up the language in Ratcliffe Highway or Tiger Bay. It went to my heart to waste that cool, sweet water on such a brute, but yet I had to do it.
'Do you mean you were stowed away?' I asked.
'Yes. Got on board at Thursday Island—one of your kanakas helped me. Wanted to get to West Australia. Heard you were going round to Cossack.'
A thought flashed through my mind.
'Did you come off that French man-of-war?' I asked.
'Perhaps I did, and perhaps I didn't. Anyhow, don't keep a man perishing here while you ask questions.'
There was some sense in this, I had to admit and reluctantly I turned to the cabin door to open it. He came close beside me as I did so, and put a huge hand on it to assist me. What a huge hand it was, and what a length of arm he had. Like a baboon's.
I stumbled down the stairs; the seas were not so bad now, and we could afford to leave the door open without much risk of being swamped. I found the pannikin, and gave it to him to hold while I lifted the waterbag down. He was smelling it when I turned round.
'Been rum in this,' he said. 'Where is it?' His eyes gleamed in the semi-darkness, and I went to the pantry and got the biscuit and the rum bottle, but I took the precaution to pour most of it that was left on the wash of the floor; then I brought it out to him. He drank the rum and water and munched the biscuit. Then he picked up the empty bottle and eyed it suspiciously.
'There's more where that came from,' he said.
'I don't think there is; we didn't take many stores on board,' I returned. 'Whether or no, go on deck again and keep a lookout while I rummage round.'
He looked at me, and for some reason or another I slipped my hand in the pocket of my sodden white coat, whether to put on an affectation of ease of not I cannot remember, but he mistook the movement, and I went on deck without a word. He thought I had a revolver in my pocket. This gave me an idea, and I went to poor Ned's bunk and got, his revolver and my own too. As far as I knew these were the only firearms on board, barring a Winchester, for which we had no cartridges.
Then I went on deck to learn more of my unwelcome guest. I pretty well guessed who he was—an escaped French convict, captured at Singapore, who had been put in the man-of-war there, and was being taken back to New Caledonia. We had been lying pretty close to the Frenchman, and it would have been easy enough for him, with assistance, to reach our schooner and get aboard.
'Well,' I said when I had reached the deck, you had a rough time of it during the hurricane.'
'I did indeed. Now on my head, and now on my heels. Things rolling about. I am bruised all over.' His face bore witness of it.
'When the sea settles, I get back to Thursday Island.'
'To Thursday Island?' he asked.
'The wind has set in nor'west, and we must run before it. It won't change for three or four months now.'
He mused for a bit.
'Ah, well; we can do nothing until this sea goes down, but perhaps you can find something more to eat, and some tobacco. It would make the time pass more quickly.'
I agreed to this, for I wanted some more to eat myself; so I went below and got at the few stores we laid in, and found some tins of preserved meat, and milk, which with biscuits and the waterbag would make a decent feed. These I took on deck, and my new acquaintance and myself made a hearty meal, at the end of which he quietly pocketed the sheath knife I had brought rip to open the tins with.
'It is necessary to have a knife about one when one is going to work,' he said, in answer to my inquiring gaze.
I had not forgotten the pipes and tobacco, and under their influence I began to look on things from a little more cheerful light. Leaving out the death of my companions, a short run under any sort of rig would bring us back to Thursday Island, running before the north-west monsoon that had now set in.
Then my guest's remark flashed across me. Naturally, very naturally, he did not want to go back to Thursday Island!
We passed a quiet night; I did not sleep much, but my visitor, whom I had mentally called Caliban, slept soundly; no doubt he was pretty well tired out Before daylight I fell asleep, as one has a habit of doing after a sleepless night, and the sun was up when I awoke.
The sea was calm, our unfortunate craft was as steady as a ship motionless, and not under control, could well be, end Caliban was walking up and down the deck smoking.
'Oh!' he said, when he saw me get up. 'This is good, my friend, after being down there,' and he pointed to the hatchway.
'Let's get some breakfast, and start to work,' I said. 'The sooner we get back the better. A storm may spring up any moment while the northwest is on.'
At this moment I suddenly became conscious of the lightness of my pockets, and hastily thrust any hands in them. The revolvers were gone. Caliban looked at one with, a horrible grin.
'You miss something, my friend. I have them here. You sleep on your back, and I am afraid they will roll overboard, so I take care.'
He took one out as he spoke. In an instant I turned and darted down the cabin.
'It is useless!' he cried after me.
'I have been, there already.' I had put Ned's Winchester under his mattress, and it was there still. I must bluff. I ran out again, and he started when I covered him.
'Give up those revolvers!' I said.
'I give you one,' he cried, 'that is but fair, one and one.'
His hand was fumbling in his pocket, and I guessed that he was trying to extract the cartridges.
'Put it down on the hatchway,' I said fiercely, 'or—'
My finger was on the trigger of an empty rifle, but he did not know that, and put the revolver on the hatch and retreated forward. I picked the revolver up, and looked down the chambers; there were four cartridges in it; one chamber was empty. So he had managed to slip one out. This gave him six shots to my four, for the two revolvers were mates. Never mind, Caliban was vulnerable; his heart was not so big as his body.
'Now we will have breakfast,' I said.
'Certainly,' he replied; 'I am quite ready for it.'
He treated the little difference of opinion as something not to be regarded seriously, but I did not feel the same. The man was determined not to go back to Thursday Island, where he would be recognised and recaptured, and would stick at no means to hinder it. I must act with diplomacy, or I would be taken at some unguarded moment, and follow my poor friends. We sat down to our meal.
'What will they do with you if they get you back to New Caledonia?' I asked, as though it was a matter of course that he hailed from there.
'I am afraid they will be rather severe. I had an unfortunate difference with two guards when I escaped.'
'You killed them, in fact?'
'I am afraid so. Not on their account, for they were bad men. But, then, it will go against me.'
'Yes, I understand. That is why you do not wish to return to Thursday Island?'
'Exactly. I would go to Western Australia.'
'But we cannot get there now. We cannot, beat back against a head wind without masts.'
'We can try.'
'We wont try. I can beat up north, and put you on board a steamer, China or British India?'
'That would not suit me. I am what you call a marked man.' At this moment I heard something like a human voice in agony crying out below, and Caliban heard it too, and we both started up. The sound was unmistakable; the hull was not groaning now.
'There is somebody below,' I cried.
'Sit down, my dear friend, and finish your breakfast; there cannot be anybody below. Have I not been down there myself?'
In an instant I knew the man was lying. Right behind him was a rent and ragged gap in the bulwarks. If those long, ape-like arms and huge hands got hold of me I was lost. I sprang at him, and hit him straight out from the shoulder, right between the eyes. He had not expected it.
A slight roll assisted me, and over he went, and with a loud curse went splash into the sea, and I sprung forward to the forecastle, for I guessed that under the little hatch there, where Caliban had come from, I should find the man who had made that moan.
I WAS not mistaken. When I had pulled up the little hatch, and called down, I received an answer, and to my joy it was in Ned's voice.
Hastily letting myself down I groped my way towards him.
'Are you hurt; how did you get here?' were my rapid questions. 'Bruised; and my leg is hurt. How I got here is a long story. Could you make me a little more comfortable, and get me a drink?'
I shifted Rowlands into an easier position, then I started back for the deck. I reached it, and as I emerged from it, I caught sight of Caliban.
The boat was making no way, and there was a lot of rigging still trailing over the side, so he had easily climbed back. I made for the breakfast things as quickly as I could, revolver in hand, and was happy to see the rifle still there. It would do to threaten with anyhow. Caliban turned, and with an evil look on his face shook his fist at me, and growled out a curse. But to my surprise he did not move, and I got the water bag, some food, and the rifle, and returned unmolested.
Suddenly the cause of it flashed across me. Caliban's revolver had tumbled out of his pocket when he fell overboard. I remembered that the slight roll of the vessel sent him a regular somersault, and no doubt it dropped out then. Poor Caliban, how much he would like to get his great paws on to me, but he evidently had no heart for a bullet.
I wondered whether he had lost the knife, too. I gave Ned a drink, and then persuaded him to let me help him on deck, as I was horribly afraid that Caliban might shut us down.
When we were In the little forecastle, Ned munched some food, and told me how he got there. It appears that during the night he had made his way along forward to search for me. Thinking I was in the forecastle, having missed me on deck, he went in there. There he found Caliban, who had just emerged, and, I think, under some mistaken notion, when Ned caught hold of him, and asked him who he was, he gripped him in; return, and whether purposely, or more likely by accident, threw him down the hatchway.
Of course, after our little tiff, it was not Caliban's policy to tell me there was anyone aboard; that would mean two to one. Ned had been lying half senseless all night, and his cries were unheard through the noises the hull made. It was not until the comparative quiet set in that I heard him.
I told Ned of my adventures with Caliban, and we agreed that the situation was still very risky. We were two to one, but Ned was well nigh crippled, and the four shots in the revolver, and the empty rifle, were all we had to depend upon. Failing these, the huge Caliban was more than a match for us, if it came to close quarters. It was our business to prevent that, but as we had to go to work to get a jury mast up, if there was spar left, and to bend a sail on, it would tie very hard to avoid treachery.
We started aft. Caliban still stood sullenly there, and I ordered him to go forward, and stop there. There was no doubt he had lost the revolver, for he went without a word. Then, when he got there, he hailed me, and asked if I would give him a pipe and tobacco.
As I wished to keep him quiet I did so, going forward and throwing them to him. He filled and lit a pipe, and curling himself up in the sun seemed quite contented. Ned fixed himself up at the entrance of our cabin with the Winchester much in evidence, and I went below and commenced a thorough overhaul, which resulted in a satisfactory manner.
My great fear was that we were out of water, for goodness knew how long we should be kicking about on that lonely sea. The water cask lashed on deck was, of course, gone, but Ned had had a little tank let in under the floor of our doll's cabin, and when I tried that with the hand pump, I found it full. There was a fair allowance of stores and a keg of rum, besides salt pork and biscuit, so we could stand out a long time. When I had done, I went forward and hailed Caliban, for I was determined he should work his passage.
'Can you cook?' I asked.
'When I've got anything to cook;' he answered, surlily.
'Well, you must do that for us. I'm not going to trust you aft.'
'Trust me! By Gar!' he said. 'Who can trust you? Without one word of warning you knock me overboard.'
'Serve you right; you knew Rowlands was down there, and told me a lie.'
'Well, what do you want?' he said, seemingly wishing to change the subject.
'Hunt about down, below for a tin or old nail keg that will do to make a fire in; then I'll give you some coffee and food to cook.'
Caliban evidently wanted a hot meal as well as we did, and went to work. He was, as I anticipated, handy enough, and he soon found a tin and started a fire in it, and made some capital coffee and a very decent meal. I gave him a nip of rum, and he drank it off, remarking that he knew there was more where the other came from. For a moment a wild idea came into may head of making him dead drunk and heaving him overboard; but I could not resort to such extreme measures without sufficient provocation.
The weather still continued fine, and I searched about in vain for a spar on which to bend a rag of sail of some kind. The rudder had been well knocked about, but I found we could fix up some sort of steering gear for it, and if the weather kept fine, and the wind from the north-west, we should manage. But a spar for a mast! We had been swept as clean as could be of everything. Nothing bigger than a belaying pin, or less, firmly secured than a ringbolt, had escaped being swept overboard.
I reported my non-success to Rowlands.
'Look about the sea,' said he. 'Some might be drifting about. Look to windward; we would drift faster than wreckage.'
I looked to windward, but saw nothing. Then I hailed Caliban, and told him to look to windward and see if he could see any floating wreckage. He reared his tall form up and peered in the wind, but for long there was no response, until presently he said he thought he could see something occasionally on the top of a swell. I went over, and he pointed it but to: me. I made out something that certainly looked like wreckage, but it was too far off to be of any advantage to us, and I went back disappointed to Ned and told him.
'Pity we can't stick Caliban up for a mast,' he remarked, 'he's nearly tall enough.'
It was a curious predicament; we had spare sails below, but how to get them spread without a spar was the question. The storm had caught us unprepared; and the masts had gone clean, and the stays being somewhat old had parted as though they had been cut. Ned proposed to take up the deck planking and make some sort of a spar out of some of the planks.
But here again arose a difficulty, I could not well do it by myself, and Caliban would have to assist me. Now to put an axe or adze into his hands meant to give him a weapon, and my belief in Mr. Caliban was not enough to warrant that. He had no love for me after the overboard incident, and he had no intention of going back to Thursday Island if he could avoid it, so to give him the chance to knock me on the head was distinctly foolish, as poor crippled Rowlands would then be at his mercy.
The whole future bristled with difficulties, and I proposed to Ned to shoot Caliban out of hand, as he seemed to be one of the chief difficulties. I do not say I said it seriously, but if Ned had entertained the idea I believe I should have felt inclined to carry it out, as a solution of all difficulties. I was getting Caliban on the brain.
However, Ned refused to agree to such a simple solution, and we passed the day in fruitless conjectures and proposals.
'Well,' said Caliban, when I took him his evening meal, 'where is your jury-mast and your sail? Why are we not on our way back to Thursday Island? The wind, it is still north.'
The villain said this in such a mocking, insulting tone that I felt inclined to repeat the overboard process, but it was dangerous. Caliban might take me with him this time, so I refrained and answered quietly that, I had not been able to find spars or anything suitable, and that we must wait until picked up. A British-India steamer was due a few days after we left Thursday Island, and this would probably sight us.
'She goes to Batavia, does she not?' He asked.
'Yes. Port Darwin, and then Batavia.'
'That will suit me better than your jury mast. Come, now, it is lonely here; I give you my word of honor that I will be a good comrade, and attempt nothing. Let us live sociable and together.'
I told him I would ask Ned about it, and really it seemed as though there was really no harm to be feared. So long as we did not go back to Thursday Island, Caliban had no earthly reason for turning on us. The fact that the British-India steamer was due had, to tell the truth, not struck me until that moment.
'Let him come,' said Rowlands, 'I don't see what advantage it could be to him to do us any harm. We've got to stop here, anyhow.'
I hailed Caliban and told him truce was proclaimed, and he could come after, which he did immediately did, bringing his meal with him. Certainly, he was a light-hearted scoundrel, and amused and entertained us with tales of penal life in New Caledonia which were gory in the extreme The evening was fine, and Caliban and his stories made it pass quickly. I slept on deck, having brought Ned's mattress and my own up, and spread them in the sun all day. Caliban coiled himself down a short distance off, and I for one was soon asleep.
I was awakened by Ned shaking me.
'See what Caliban is up to,' he whispered. His bruises made him wakeful, and: he had seen our French friend go forward, and he had not come back again. He handed me the revolver, which, for safety, I had put under his head, and I crept cautiously forward.
Caliban was not visible, but the little forehatch in the floor of the forecastle was open, and down, that I went, but I did not go far, for a thought struck me. I had told Caliban that he was not to go into the after cabin, and had made our beds down in front of the doorway. There was a hatch in the cabin, and Caliban evidently thought that he could get there from the hold, but he was mistaken; the hatch in the after cabin only opened into a little lazarette.
The truth flashed across me: Caliban was after the rum. I climbed out, and replaced the hatch, then went aft, and told Ned, and, as it was not far off daylight and I had no other means of securing the hatch, I took my mattress forward, and lay down on it; I would give Caliban a surprise when he returned, which he very shortly did.
He swore and pushed at the hatch, but could not move it, as it was too high for him to put his back under, and when I got tired of the nuisance, I called out to him, and told him he was going to stay there for the present, and if he did not keep quiet I would fire at him.
He implored and entreated to be let out; declared the rats were attacking him, and other fables, to all of which I turned a deaf ear. Finally, he desisted and when the sun rose I took the hatch off, and told him to come up, and get breakfast. It was a very penitent Caliban who slunk out, and when I taxed him with going after the rum he did not deny it.
That day passed as uneventfully as the others Caliban made no attempts to get the revolver, and apparently was going to keep his word, but I felt mighty uncomfortable about him, and gave him a nip of rum twice to keep him from trying to steal it. By the time we went to bed he had counted up a homicidal list of about twenty murders; most of them in cold blood.
To be cast away on a masterless ship, with a wholesale murderer and a sick man as companion, was beginning to tell on my nerves. When I awoke in the morning I cast a look around the now quiet sunlit sea, and, what was my relief to see smoke on the horizon. Was it going away from, us, or coming towards us?
She might have passed us unseen in the dark hours. I went and told Ned the good tidings, and he managed to crawl to the stern, which by chance was directed towards the direction the vessel was appearing from; for; of course, we were being pitched about in every direction.
Consulting the compass in the cabin, the steamer was to the east, when gave us hope that it, was a B. and I. boat overtaking us. And in half an hour this was proved evident, and if she only passed close enough to see us, we were pretty sure of rescue.
Caliban joined; us In. our watch, and I suggested that, being the tallest amongst us, he should stand on the most elevated position, and wave an extemporised flag. This he agreed to this as soon it was satisfactorily evident that it was a mail boat and not a man-of-war sent to recapture him.
Reassured this point, he consented to act as signalman when the steamer passed within reasonable distance. She came on, and it seemed that fortune favoured us, as we seemed to be right in her track. Nevertheless, Caliban took his station forward, ready to wave a rug to show our distressful situation.
The steamer saw us, and stopped within hailing distance, while we explained our condition. We only wanted a spar or two, and would work back to Thursday Island, for we had no intention of abandoning the hull of our taut little schooner. Nearer and nearer the two vessels drifted, with the attraction that seems to possess bodies afloat in the sea. The passengers crowded the near side of the mail steamer, and Caliban marched up and down, smoking a cigarette he had manufactured, with a swaggering air, as though being on the deck of a dismasted schooner was a mere episode in his varied experiences. A boat dropped from the davits of the steamer, and a gangway was lowered; there was some confusion at the top of the gangway, which was not understood by us, then the boat came aboard. Catching the low gunwhale, the officer sprang aboard, and was in immediately recognised by us as an old friend, from the steamer passing Thursday Island so often. In a few words our predicament was explained, and we found that we could be easily supplied with what we wanted.
'Come aboard, will you?' said Jackson, the second officer of the Antarctica. 'There's a lady passenger on board, who says she recognised her husband on the deck of this schooner. Didn't know that you or Rowlands were married men; but do come, just to satisfy her.'
'We've a passenger on board whom you might take as far as Port Darwin,' said Rowlands. He pointed to Caliban, who was standing in a theatrical attitude with his arms folded.
'Very well; bring him, too,' said Jackson; 'only hurry up, the old man will be performing directly.'
We got Rowlands into the boat, and Caliban followed; then we mounted the steamer's gangway.
WITH eyes like red-hot sparks, a little, sharp-featured woman stood in front of a knot of passengers watching us step on deck. The instant Caliban appeared she flew at him like a tigress, and commenced to scratch and buffet his face. We looked on aghast. Did the bold, devil may care throw her overboard in rage?
Nothing of the sort. The gigantic escapee simply put his hands before his face, and whimpered in French to Marie to cease. The humor of the situation was too strong for the spectators. We could do nothing but giggle, until the captain stepped forward, and said. 'Madame, is this your husband?'
'My husband!' she screamed. 'Yes, unfortunate that I am. The coward, pig, villain, scoundrel, ran away from me. Me—his wife! Ran from Cooktown, where we kept a restaurant! Said he was tired of washing plates and dishes! But what did I do? Gentlemen, I sold out at once, and followed him. I heard of him at Thursday Island; but there I lost him. He had got away unknown. Now I suppose these shipwrecked gentlemen gave him passage.'
I had to speak.
'No,' I said; 'he stowed away, and we did not know of his presence until after the storm that dismasted us. He gave us to understand that he was an escaped convict from Noumea, and had killed two guards when escaping.'
The woman broke into peals of hysterical' laughter.
'He kill two guards! He in Noumea! He was never there in his life! He would tremble if I asked him to kill a mouse! Did you not see that he is a liar and a maker or romances? He amused our customers by telling of strange adventures; but as for going through them? Well!' and the little Frenchwoman spread out her hands in a most eloquent gesture.
So this was Caliban the Terror, who, instead of being a convict with a homicidal career behind him, was a runaway husband from a virago wife. If I could have gone overboard at that moment, I should have been grateful.
'Behold!' cried the woman, as if to fill up my cup of bitterness to the brim, 'how I treat this gallant man who could kill two strong guards for his liberty,' and she smacked him soundly on both cheeks.
As for Caliban, he only whimpered in French, and this was the dare-devil I had been watching and dreading for days. Still, I don't wonder he did not want to go back to Thursday Island. I need say no more.
The skipper of the Antarctica proved a friend in need, and fixed us up with all we wanted. A fellow I knew, a passenger, decided to go back with us to Thursday Island, and wait over for the next B. and I, just for the fun of the thing. The doctor saw to Ned's bruises, and all went well, only I felt as though I could have cheerfully strangled the erstwhile terrible Caliban. But a worse fate awaited him, and when the steamer dipped her flag and left us I pitied the poor devil.
IT was one thing to turn in to sleep quietly in your bunk, not fearing any danger or trouble, and another to be awakened by the thunder of pounding surf-waves and the swish of water on the deck. As I tumbled out, the only thought in my mind was: 'Where on earth have we got to?' Possibly it might have been put stronger, and in a different form, but the fact remained that I had to hurry on deck as fast as I could. Just as I reached the door of our cuddy I was met full, by a sweeping sea, that dashed me, stunned and half-drowned, under the table. How I escaped drowning I know not, for when I came to my senses the salt water was lapping my mouth. Needless to say, I scrambled up as quickly as possible, and, the beating of the billows being now somewhat lulled, I managed to grope my way on deck.
What a scene it was! By the light of a setting moon I could see that we were on a reef, and had been hurled by the violence of the breakers almost into safety, or, at least, such safety as a dismasted wreck could find on the shallows of a coral reef. Not a soul left; green, white-crested breakers all around, and a ghostly moon lighting up the scene. Whether they strove to wake me or not I cannot say, but recalling the hot words that had passed between Captain Mordrassa and myself, I believe that I was wilfully left to drown. There might have been several amongst the crew who did not wish for my death; but in the confusion of suddenly striking on this unknown reef they probably had no chance to look after my safety.
I had commenced to heartily curse both Mordrassa and the wine-bottle, which last was the cause of my sleeping so soundly, when it occurred to me that probably I had the best of it, for the boats could never have lived amongst the surf that stretched around. I was confirmed in this belief by the sudden advent of a dead body. A higher wave than usual threw it over the bulwarks, at my feet. I stooped, to examine it, the hulk being now fast and steady. It was the body of Mordrassa. Our quarrel was over and settled.
Recovering myself somewhat, and my brain becoming clearer, I looked around at the desolation that surrounded me. Astern was a line of breakers; ahead was calm water; but no sign of land. Above the horizon was the sickly, waning moon, and in the east the flush of coming day. My position seemed pretty hopeless, but it was better than Mordrassa's, and to settle matters between us I proceeded to heave his body overboard again. I did not desire his company, either alive or dead.
Then, as the dawn broke, clearer and brighter, I began to ponder over the state of affairs. I was alive. In all probability everybody else was dead. I owned the ship, which, was not, as one can imagine, of much value; but I also owned the treasure which should rightly belong to four and twenty souls—bad souls, now in purgatory, no doubt.
Awed by this thought, I knelt down and vowed that if I was rescued from my unfortunate position I would dedicate a large portion of our piratical gains to religious purposes. I felt better after this, and, the day being now bright and clear, I got a little more confidence in myself, and returning to the cuddy, still awash with water, I got some meat and a very comforting bottle of wine, and after disposing of them returned on deck again.
The poop was nearly dry, and I walked up and down meditating what I should do with the treasure, and what sort of a house I would build when I finally got away, when that confounded Mordrassa turned up again. I really thought the fellow did it on purpose, for an especially high wave cast him right over the poop railings at my very feet. And he had an evil, mocking grin on his face which no drowned man ought to wear. I thrust him overboard again, and, I must confess, kicked him several times in doing so.
Then I went down for another drink of wine, for Mordrassa had annoyed me. Why couldn't the man keep quiet when he is dead? I bethought me of the last words we had exchanged, nearly followed by cutlass thrusts, and felt satisfied that I had been in the right, and that if my little plan had succeeded, we should now be safe and sound instead of being stuck on a reef.
Mordrassa asserted that the Southland of the Dutch was a mere cluster of islands, and that we, coming from the east, after the sack of Panama, could sail right through them and reach Africa, which was foolish, but ingenious. But I held that the Dutch had discovered a great continent, and that we should drive on to its eastern coast. Quarrelling over this, I had induced a number of the crew to join me in a mutiny and an attempt to seize the command. We failed; Mordrassa's party proved too strong, and after a bloody struggle we had to give in.
On account of my seamanship Mordrassa spared my life, with the promise of yard-arming me as soon as we came in sight of land, but this never happened, and up to the night of our wreck we drank and quarrelled as usual, and now he was dead and I was alive.
So far, so good; but where was I? If It was the Dutch Southland, where was the bleak coast they described? Before me was nothing but green patches of water, and broken belts of surf. No sign of dry ground. All that day I took counsel with myself as to the outcome of my desperate situation; and at intervals Mordrassa came tumbling on board, until I got disgusted with his conduct, and lashed him fast with a rope. After that I found some comfort from him, for I used to talk to him, although not in a complimentary manner, and it was a solace to have an old enemy alongside whom one could abuse at leisure, and who could not answer back.
But, reflect as I would, the matter seemed hopeless. I had the ship and treasure surely enough, but what good was it to me? How could I get away? I might in time build a boat, for had some small skill in the matter, and that, I concluded, was the best thing to do. When should I set to work? At once; but first, to see that the treasure was safe, I went down to the lazarette, and saw the cases, all safe and intact, as I hoped their contents were. But I did not stop to examine them; Mordrassa came between me and the work. Another big sea hove him on board, and trundled him right through the cuddy on top of me.
Now this was disgusting. After lashing him safely, and, as I thought, surely, it was a dastardly thing for a corpse to cut itself loose and came tumbling down on top of a live man. I left the lazarette and went on deck. Mordrassa could stop where he was.
Next I commenced my boat building, and a weary, weary task it was, and all through, the thought haunted me that if I could find a passage through the reef I should find a continent to the westward, the big continent of the Dutch, and from there I would finally gain civilisation, and be able to make use of the treasure. I built the boat, and by the time I had finished it some nine months had passed. We had a store of 'boucan' on board, which was not much injured by the wet, and on this, and on the wines and other liquors, I lived.
And Mordrassa lived, too. When I say 'lived,' I mean that his body did not decompose, but that every time I went near the open trap of the lazarette his ugly face grinned up at me. The hulk was now leaking badly, and full of water, but what annoyed me was the thought that out of all who were drowned Mordrassa's body should be the only one to come back. Was this on account of our long enmity, the more bitter for its being concealed, that he should thus haunt me after death? We had; sailed together for years, and while he had always been ostensibly in command, he well knew, which was not concealed between us, in private, that I was the master spirit. Then, when we parted from Morgan and the others, and started on this wild cruise across the Pacific, he began to assume his foolish chieftain-kind of airs. That caused the quarrel. I insisted on equal division; he refused. Now I have it all.
Well, I am just about starting, and this is perhaps the last opportunity I may have of writing. I have the boat ready, and packed. The wreck is beginning to break up, and at daylight I leave.
'IS that your rendering, old man?' I said, when my mate had finished reading thus far.
'Yes, but not mine altogether; my father wrote some of it out. I have simply put it into readable English.'
'And you infer from it, so far as I can see, that the Great Barrier Reef is the place where this buccaneering ancestor of yours got wrecked?'
'Not my ancestor, but a great great uncle. Of what kin, I know not. It's a sort of Ingoldsby Legend arrangement. He came home and died, and this diary was found after his death, which was a bad' death, I may tell you, according to all legends.'
'Of course I never dreamt of finding myself located in this part of the world, but now, being on the Palmer Gold Field, and doing no good, you and I, why not spend the rest of our money looking up this treasure trove instead of sinking it in digging useless holes in the ground?'
'Have you any more of the diary?'
'Not much, but what there is, is very pregnant with meaning. The only thing is that we have to encounter Mordrassa's ghost.'
'Are you afraid of ghosts?'
'Can't tell; never saw one; don't want to.'
'Well, according to the finish of this old buccaneer's diary, Mordrassa is still keeping guard over the treasure.'
'So it was left behind, after all??'
'It was not exactly left behind, but rather returned. Anyhow, it's there still, If we can only find it.'
'And you think we can?'
'I do. And if you will listen to the rest of the yarn you will, too. Now, prepare for horrors.
AND THAT was how it was that Nick Donken and I fell to exploring the Barrier Reef, leaving behind the battered picks and shovels we ineffectually labored with. What we found was more than we bargained for.
PRIOR to getting the treasure, which had been stowed so that it could be easily handled, I had tried my boat by taking a cruise north and south of the reef during a spell of calm weather. To the north I found a passage through the reef leading west, and determined to follow, as my open boat would have better weather inside than outside the reef. I got the treasure on board, all the provisions I could muster, and started. But, before I left, I went down and said good-bye to Mordrassa. I left him with a few good wishes as to his soul, which he did not seem to appreciate; then I stepped on board from the now nearly water-logged hulk and sailed away.
The opening proving clear and easy of navigation, and the wind and tide being in my favor, I was through it and in open water again in about four tours. Before me was land, a low range rising out of the western sea, and running north and south. The continent of the Dutch Southland I had no doubt, and Mordrassa was a fool after all, and I turned round to laugh in the direction where I had left the wreck behind, and there was Mordrassa following me.
This was outrageous! He was about a hundred yards behind, coming on as though he was floating with the tide, and I managed to persuade myself that the wreck had broken up since I left, and the tide had brought him through a shorter passage than I had overlooked. But I knew in my heart that this was not so.
Anyhow, it was very offensive to a man of honor to be followed up by a corpse like this. I began to hate the man worse dead than I had when living. I resolutely kept my gaze ahead, and steered for the shore, and landed on a little beach that evening. It was pleasant to be on firm ground once more, but I had no intention of stopping where I was. I had heard too much of the Dutch Southland for that, and knew that it was only a land inhabited by savage black cannibals.
No, I intended to cruise north until I had rounded the northern cape, for there must be a northern cape somewhere, and then make for the Dutch settlements in Java. I could speak Dutch, and as we had been preying on the Spaniards, whom they hated, they would be disposed to be friendly to me. But I must hide the treasure somewhere. I knew enough of Dutchmen to know that they would not stick at trifles.
So, for many days, with a fair south-east wind blowing, I sailed north over a calm sea. And my dear friend Mordrassa followed me. At last I reached the cape I knew must be there, for the land turned and trended south, and before me, westward, was an open sea. I landed and filled up my barracos with fresh water, and then sailed boldly west. Six days, still with the steady trade wind, I sailed without sighting land, and then the coast rose before me again, and as I neared it I saw that it bore a close resemblance to the land I had left. Could I still be on the northern shore of the great Southland? And had I but crossed the mouth of a large and deep gulf?
The next day these questions were answered for me in a most unexpected manner. Rounding the point of a cluster of islands I ran right into the middle of a fleet of Malay proas. There was no chance of escape, for I could have been cut off easily, and there was nothing to do but surrender at discretion, and my boat and I were taken to the proa on which was the chief of the fleet.
He turned out to be a fat, oily, old rascal, of the name of Ram Mung, and he could speak a little Dutch, so we were able to understand each other fairly well. For all that he did not seem very fond of the Dutch, and when I explained that I was not a Dutchman he seemed inclined to be more friendly. I had some wine left, and although it was not according to his religion, he made no scruple of drinking it, in fact, drank all I had. Then he asked me what I had in the little boxes, and, honesty being the best policy, when you can't help yourself, I told him.
He said I was a good man and his brother, and if I would pay him well he would take me to the Dutch at Batavia at the end of the fishing season. This looked very well, but I began to suspect that the payment of my passage would leave me but a very small sum. But what was I to do? On the slightest pretext my throat would be cut, and I should go to feed the fishes. So I grinned assent.
Then Mordrassa commenced playing up! He frightened the crews when they were at work. He appeared in all kinds of places in the most unexpected manner, until their superstitious feelings were aroused and they demanded my being put ashore.
Old Ram Mung called me into his little deck-house.
'My brother, I fear that there is something wrong and unholy about these treasure boxes which you have not told to me. Why should a dead man follow you from the great reef and persist in stopping with us here, if Allah had not pronounced a curse upon it? Now, tell me all in truth between brother and brother.'
Now I had to tell the truth, for I was sick of Mordrassa and the villainous trickle was playing me. The facts were not as I have stated at the commencement. True, Mordrassa quarrelled the night of the wreck, but it ended with his telling me that the first piece of dry land we sighted, with a tree on it high enough to hang me on, I should be hung straight away.
After uttering this threat the fool, being pot valiant with the wine we had drank, turned to go on deck. Needless to say, I did not neglect such an opportunity, and before he could utter a cry, for he was going to call to the men to put me in irons, my knife was in his back to the hilt. That is the truth, but I did not write it down before in case of somebody making trouble about it. But now, considering that after all it was only in self defence, I put down the truth. Old Ram Mung grinned, for he saw no evil in it; it was just what he would have done under the circumstances.
Then he went on to inquire into the cause of a quarrel so deadly. And I told him that Mordrassa wished for a division of the spoil on the principle of one-third to himself, one-third to be divided amongst the officers, and the other third amongst the crew. This I maintained was unfair, and asserted that one-half should be divided between him and myself, and the other half in proportion amongst the crew.
'And,' said Ram Mung, 'you brought the whole of the treasure away with you? Speak truly, oh, brother!'
'I brought the whole away, I swear.' I replied.
'It was not well done. Mordrassa follows you to obtain his share, and that of his crew. It must be returned to him, or he may bring a storm on us that will sink my fleet.'
This was nice hearing, all for the sake of a sodden swab of a corpse! The old Malay thought for some time, then he ordered me to be confined, while he consulted with his men on the other proas. A day and night passed before I was called to him, and then he said they had determined what to do in order to get rid of the evil spirit which would assuredly bring them bad luck, if not death.
This was the plan, and a pretty plan too. My rightful share of the treasure was to be kept, and the remainder sent back in a proa to the scene of the wreck. I was to go back in the proa and point out the place, so the spirit would rest. Naturally, I foamed with rage, but it was of no use, back I had to go; but before the day was out I had matured a scheme that I thought well of.
The rascals with me had no desire to make a long trip of it, and I determined to find a place a good deal nearer, where I could some day return and get it. Just before I came to the north cape I had passed through a narrow passage between an island and the mainland. The spot was unmistakable. I would point out the southern end as the place where the ship had been wrecked, end there the treasure could await my coming.
Strange to say, Mordrassa did not follow us back. Perhaps he was now satisfied. I was very glad, for he might possibly have made himself disagreeable, insisting that was not the right place. However, the thing was done, and I saw the boxes buried near the southernmost point of the island. Back we came, and, found that the season was nearly over, and the fleet preparing to sail.
Nothing had been seen of Mordrassa after we left, and the old admiral, or whatever he called himself, was beaming and friendly. No wonder, the scurvy rascal! He made out a bill against me for the whole of my chare—charged me with the cost of sending the proa back, the shares the men lost in the fishery while they were away, etc. Never did I meet with a man who could make out a better bill. The Jews I had had dealings with would have blushed. Finally, when he landed me at Batavia, he gave me a few coins, because 'he loved me like a brother.' Over and over again I, would have risked my carcass by stabbing him, but that the thought of the buried treasure on the island kept my temper down and my spirits up. There I was, stranded in Batavia; and but that I met a seafaring man I had once sailed with, who helped me to a ship, I should have rotted there.
'HERE,' said Donken, 'ends the diary proper. It is certain, however, that the author of it went another voyage, and returned home as poor as when he started. He died, raving of the tortures he would inflict upon Mordrassa and Rum Mung when he met them in hell.'
'Then he did not find the treasure?'
'Apparently not. Something must have happened to prevent him.'
'Then you think the treasure is still where he buried it the second time?'
'I do, and propose to go and look for it'
'Do you think you can locate the place?'
'Easily. The narrow passage be speaks of, between an island and the mainland, must be the one now called Albany Pass. The island, on the southern end of which the treasure was buried, is Albany Island.'
'And where he met the Malay fleet?'
'Must be Cape Wessel. There are many groups of islands there.'
'Well,' I replied, 'I am tired of gold digging without the gold, so I'll put my little pile in to it.'
So we went.
WE both of us could manage a boat, and, luckily, found one for sale at Cooktown that just suited us. We should only want a colored man to cook and give a hand if necessary. We had to invent a story to account for our presence on Albany Island, for there was a station on the mainland, just opposite; but we made up a yarn about being quasi-scientific individuals examining the structure of the Great Barrier Reef, and they soon took little interest in us.
Over and over again we tried until we were tired, and I was losing heart, and still no trace of buried boxes could we find; or, supposing those had decayed, no trace of their contents.
'That old buccaneer must have come back and got his treasure, after all,' said I to Nick, as he was delving away one afternoon.
Just as I said this Nick's pick struck on something metallic. He stooped and disinterred it. It was a rust-eaten iron clamp, that had once held a box together. Naturally, we became rather excited, and Nick worked like his ancient namesake. Finally, we got out enough ironwork to construct the frame of a firmly-clamped box of small size, but no trace of the contents—nothing but what appeared like decayed shell. We looked at each other in consternation. Then Nick wielded his pick again. By evening we had arrived at the same result—the ironwork of another box, but no coin or anything of value.
We discussed the question over the camp fire until late. All we could make out of it was that the buccaneer had not returned, or the boxes would have been disturbed.
Suddenly Nick exclaimed, 'I have it. That rascally old Malay had him nicely on toast.'
'Who?' I asked. 'That thieving old pirate. What a flat he must have been after, all.'
'Why you are as bad as he was. Of course the Malay never sent the treasure back. He emptied the boxes and filled them up again with rubbish; but he kept the treasure, and planted it somewhere.'
'It's very likely. And his superstition was all assumed?'
'To a great extent, but I don't think altogether. Anyhow, I believe he chanced it, and stuck to the loot.'
'It seems so. Anyhow, we're up a tree as far as it is concerned.'
'Think so, too. Good-night!'
We turned over, and were silent, but I could not sleep. What did the old Malay do with the treasure, and why did not the persistent ghost of Mordrassa follow them back? Of course because the treasure was not there. If the treasure remained on board the fleet, why did not the spook persist in annoying them?
For a very good reason. Because the treasure had been concealed on Cape Wessel, or the islands about there; and if not taken away again there it was still. And probably Mordrassa's ghost as well.
I was so excited by the conclusion I had worked out that I could not refrain from waking Nick and telling him. At first he was rather uncomplimentary, but when he got fully awake be consented to agree with me. Then we discussed ways and means, and it was nearly daylight before we knocked off.
Thursday Island was but a day's sail, and there we could obtain a further supply of provisions, and watch our chance for a slant of fine weather to cross the mouth of the gulf. All this came off, and we arrived safely at Cape Wessel and commenced our search. We proceeded on different methods. I went round to all the old Malay camps and investigated. Nick persisted in shifting camp every night, in the hope of seeing Mordrassa's ghost, and Nick succeeded.
It was on one of the southernmost of the Wessel Islands Group that I was awakened one night by something sobbing in the darkness surrounding our camp. I awakened Nick softly, and we both listened. Certainly there was a sound like sobbing going on. We peered cautiously out into the darkness, but could see nothing.
'Make up the fire,' suggested Nick. I thought this bad advice, but acted on it, and soon a little dry drift wood made the blaze leap up and shed a bright light round. Then Nick gave a horrified gasp, and I felt rather like crying out too.
Out of the darkness came a head, a head, and no body—a ghastly, sodden, bleached, and dead head, the hair clotted with barnacles and seaweed; the sockets, with the eyes eaten out of them; and the lips had been gnawed by fish. The head of a nightmare, to haunt one to one's dying day. And the dreadful thing gave vent to a lamentable cry, and faded out of sight.
'Mordrassa!' cried Nick, and covered his eyes with his hands, as if to shut out the recollection. Needless to say, we slept no more, but watched until the welcome daylight broke in the east, and we regained a little courage.
As the day grew brighter our courage grew stronger, and Nick opined that we were close to the hidden treasure, and had better start searching. We did so, and continued without success all day. In the evening we went down to the beach for a swim, but we had hardly been in ten minutes before Nick swore that he saw Mordrassa's head floating and tossing on the waves, and we bolted ashore.
'Now Nick,' I said, when we had dressed, 'this sort of thing must net go on. We're evidently on the right track, and we must not submit to be bullied out of the thing by an old drowned ghost.'
'No, we mustn't,' agreed Donken. 'We must treat this spook with the contempt he deserves. Who is he? An antiquated ghost, who has had his day, and we'll tell him so if he turns up again to-night.'
We shook hands on this, and went back to camp. The colored man, who slept like the seven sleepers, had heard nothing the night before, so he was not frightened; but whether or no, he couldn't run away, if he wanted to.
I lay awake, listening to the lapping of the wavelets and the sighing of the wind, when I heard the sobbing again.
'Here comes that old fraud, Nick,' I said aloud.
'I hear him,' he replied, 'and I'll throw something at his ugly head if he shows it again.'
This reply reassured me that Nick was keeping his heart up. Presently the sobbing came nearer, and once again the frightful head came into the circle of light.
'Clear out,' cried Nick, jumping up, or I'll blow a Government road through you.'
The thing never moved.
Dick fired. The colored man leaped to his feet in alarm. The face was still there, but now it burned with a blue phosphorescent light, and moved away, instead of disappearing like it did the night before.
'Come on,' cried Nick, 'we must follow it; it may lead us to the place.'
At this the Manila man set up a lugubrious howl of fright, but, without regarding him, we followed the light on the head. Not far, not above 100 yards or so, and then it began to grow dim, and die out. Nick and I both rushed forward, and, as it disappeared, marked the spot with whatever sticks and stones we could find handy in the dark.
'Thank you, old man!' I cried, and we returned to camp to find the Manila man, groaning horribly, with his head in the blankets.
Next morning, bright and early; we were afoot, and commencing operations at the marked spot. An hour's digging brought us to same bones, but so decayed that we could not tell what they belonged to, but we presumed they had once been a man's. Next came a Malay kris, large and ornamented, but it would require cleaning thoroughly before one could say much about it. Besides the kris were some ornaments, buckles, and other rubbish.
'Seems as if somebody had been buried here with his clothes on,' said Nick. And then somebody laughed.
'Was that you?' we asked together; but it was neither of us, nor was it the Manila man, for we could hear him moving about the camp. We agreed that it was a 'jackass,' although we knew very well it was not. So we dug on, and at last came to a few coins, not much, nor representing a very gaudy 'treasure.'
We dug about there for nearly a month, and found a silver crucifix or two, a few rings and chains and other things; and now and again we heard that laugh. At last, when we had opened up a fair-sized agricultural patch, we knocked off, and started cleaning our 'treasure.'
It did not total anything worth speaking of. The coins were all silver, so were the images and crucifixes. The rings were gold, with a few stones in them. The only thing of value was the Malay kris, which had some fairly valuable jewels set in its hilt. Altogether, when we deducted the cost of everything—the Manila man's wages, and the trouble end danger we had undergone—we had made about £100 apiece, after paying for everything. No wonder that old ghost laughed!
But the strangest thing of all is that when the kris was cleaned and polished we found Arabic characters engraved on the blade. The Manila man deciphered them thus: 'The is the weapon of Ram Mung.'
IF anyone wants to go treasure-seeking there is a chance for them on South Wessel Island: they can't mistake the place.
Nick and I solved the affair after this fashion: Ram Mung returned for what he had buried, and took the crew of his proa ashore to dig it up, and carry it on board. When they had got it, the crew knocked old Ram Mung on the head, and tumbled him into the hole, all standing. Then they departed, and Mordrassa frightened seven bells out of them, and they all came to grief. Now, Mordrassa is amusing himself at the expense of anyone who comes looking for the treasure. He's just the sort of ghost to play a mean trick of that sort.
IN the town of Louviers, in France, there resided an English, doctor named Cranstone. Late one night an old woman—a countrywoman of his—came to him with a short note, requesting his immediate attendance.
'How is M. Varillon?' he asked, after glancing at the few words the note contained.
'Dead,' replied the dame; 'died this morning.'
'Miss Lucy is staying with me, and she wants you to go with her to-night to see her husband.'
'To see her husband! You say that he is dead?'
'He's as bad dead as he was living; but she'll tell you all about it.'
Without more questions, the doctor accompanied the old woman; and they presently reached a little cottage, the interior of which presented a mixed jumble of French and English furniture. Sitting by the fire burning in an open fireplace was a fair-faced girl, unmistakably English, whom the doctor addressed as Mme. Varillon. It was some time before she mooted her real object in sending for him; and then she watched his face narrowly with her big hazel eyes, as if dreading ridicule.
'He made me promise,' she said, speaking of her dead husband, 'that for the 'two nights before he would-be buried I would come and pray beside his body, and watch there from 2 o'clock until daylight.'
'What a ridiculous request,' replied the doctor.
'However, you are certainly not strong enough to redeem your promise, so you can make up your mind for a good night's rest.'
'But I must go.'
'Nonsense; it might be the death of you. Why send forme, if you won't take my advice?'
'It was not for your advice I asked you to come,' she said pleadingly, 'but to ask a greater favor. I must go, but I confess I feel timid. Will you come with me?'
'Of course I will. I should not have dreamt of allowing you to go alone.'
'There's nobody in the house but old Jeanne, and she sleeps below; the Soeur de Charité leaves at nightfall.'
'I will go, too. Miss Lucy,' said the old woman. 'No, nurse; I won't let you come. You know I shall be safe with Dr. Cranstone.'
'What could he mean by such a whim?' said the doctor petulantly.
'I can scarcely tell you what he said,' and her voice dropped, and she glanced fearfully round her. 'He seemed to fear that somebody—somebody not living, you know—might come to his body if I was not there.'
'Gracious me, what nonsense,' grumbled the old nurse. 'Who'd like to go near his ugly old body, if they could help it, I should like to know?'
'Go to bed at once, and dismiss these notions,' said the doctor.
'I must go; I feel I must.'
'A wilfu' woman maun gang her own fetit,' muttered the doctor; 'but if we must go I see no reason for leaving this snug room until necessary. I, for one, object to doing more penance than I can help.'
The doctor made another fruitless attempt to dissuade Mme. Varillon from her purpose, and after 1 o'clock they were traversing the deserted streets. They reached a gloomy square, on one side of which rose the dark towers of a church, the remaining three sides consisted of tall houses. High up in one of these a dim light shone through a window, and before this house they stopped.
Cranstone had only attended M. Varillon at the beginning of his illness, and then some fancy of the sick man's made him call in another doctor, and Cranstone's visits ceased. With his compatriot, Mme. Varillon, he had, however, kept up an acquaintanceship that had ripened into friendship.
After pulling at the bell for some time, somebody in the porter's lodge seemingly awoke, for a small door cut in the large one opened, and the doctor and his companion entered. The hall was intensely dark, and the air close and unwholesome, as if the place was always shut up.
Mme. Varillon, knowing the place better, took the doctor's hand, and led him towards the stairs. They, too, were unlighted, save by such meagre starlight as struggled in through the uncleaned windows; and as the doctor followed his silent guide be could scarcely help a thrill of superstitious fear from creeping over him.
They stopped at the third storey, and entered the room, where burned the light they had seen in the street. In one corner of the room stood a heavy, old-fashioned bedstead, and on it lay the dead. A flickering candle burnt on either side of the corpse, and on the breast lay a wreath of immortelles. The girl looked on the dead with a half-terrified gaze, and then throwing back her cloak knelt beside the bed, and, burying her face in her bands, seemed to pray.
Cranstone stood beside her, and looked curiously round the place, which he had only seen by daylight under different condition's. It was a large room, and the furniture in it was old and costly, the uncertain light of the two candles only illuminated that portion of the room in the immediate neighborhood of the bed, the far corners of the room were shrouded in grim obscurity.
Having finished his unsatisfactory survey, Cranstone looked at the corpse. The face was that of a man above middle age, evidently of a stern, forbidding aspect during life, and now looking doubly so during death. The hair and pointed beard were dark, streaked with grey, and contrasted in a ghastly manner with the white face. Cranstone wondered again, as he had wondered before, how the sweet-faced girl kneeling at the bed had come to marry such, a man.
Cranstone looked at the face of the corpse more intently, and he could scarcely repress a shuddering sensation that, from under the closed lids, the eyes of the dead man were looking angrily and fiercely at him. Impressed, in spite of himself, he looked almost savagely, and strove to discard the unholy sensations that were creeping into his mind and causing him to stand there, weirdly fascinated, gazing into a lifeless face.
The spell was broken by Mme. Varillon rising from her knees. She gathered her cloak about her as though she felt cold, and, stooping over the corpse, put her left hand in one of the lifeless ones, and, resting her right one on the bed, bent down as if about to impress a farewell kiss on the cold lips. In the very act she started back with a quick cry of pain and terror; a cry that seemed to the astonished doctor to be mockingly re-echoed throughout the building.
'My hand! My hand!' she gasped, in horror-stricken accents. Startled and astonished, Cranstone saw, to his dismay, that the dead hand had closed upon the living one the girl had laid upon it. No other change or motion was visible in the body; the set face showed no sign of returning life; but the bony hand had grasped the delicate one that had rested on it, and was crushing it in a fell grasp that made the sufferer wince with agony.
Recovering to a certain extent his presence of mind, Cranstone caught hold of the wrist of the corpse with one hand, and with the other tried to disengage Mme. Varillon's hand. But he failed in releasing the hold of the fingers in the slightest degree. Again he essayed, putting forth all his strength, and using both hands in his endeavors to wrench the hand open, but still in vain. Excited and incensed by the sight of the girl's suffering, Cranstone strained every muscle, throwing his whole will and energy into his endeavor to free the tortured imprisoned hand. This time he seemed, to have made some impression on the iron clasp, but it required the exertion of all his strength to retain the slight advantage he had gained.
He realised that it was a struggle' of mental rather than physical power. He felt that a mind of equal power' and determination was opposed to him, and the combative faculty was so equally balanced that one supreme effort must give the victory.
The horrible notion that an unknown being of another world was in the once-breathing form, and fighting him for the possession of the living hand, made him almost shudder at the contact of the cold, dead flesh; and he at once felt the fingers closing with renewed tenacity. Enraged at his own weakness, he strove to banish from his mind every feeling of terror at supernatural influence, and threw his utmost vigor into his tired and straining muscles. He felt, to his joy, that now he was succeeding, and that the rigid hold was failing beneath his desperate clasp. Animated by this, he essayed his utmost to accomplish his object, when the clock in the neighboring church struck 3.
At the first stroke, and with a suddenness that—coming so unexpectedly—caused him to almost lose his balance, the dead hand opened, and the girl with a low shuddering moan dropped fainting on the floor. Cranstone raised her at once, and looked vainly round the room for water. Noticing a door other than the one he had entered by, he took one of the candles and went and opened it. It was evidently a dressing-room, and in it he saw the water he sought. A low couch was in there, too, and thinking that his patient, when she recovered would be better out of the presence of the dead body, he carried her in and laid her on it.
After bathing her temples with the cold water, he examined her hand. So severe had been the grasp to which it had been subjected that the blood was oozing from beneath the finger nails, two of the bones of the palm of the hand were broken, and the rings she wore were bent and pressed into the flesh. After dressing the injured member as well as he could, he went to inspect the dead man. Here he was entirely at fault; no trace of life could he discover. Every test that his professional knowledge suggested he put into practice, but without result. The man was dead, and had evidently been so for some time.
Just as he had finished his inspection of the body, the noise of the door through which he had first entered being opened attracted his attention. Holding up the remaining candle, he turned round. The door opened slowly, and a woman came into the room, and advanced to the side of the bed. She was robed in a loose gown, her long hair hanging in disorder down her back. Two dark, wistful eyes looked out of a pale, handsome face—eyes, solemn, sad, and holding in their depths the memory of some secret horror that gave them the fixed, abstracted look of insanity.
She took no notice of Cranstone, who had put down the light, and stood silent and fascinated—a sensation of awful o'ermastering fear almost overwhelming him as this ghostly figure came to the bedside. She stood regarding the dead body for some time, her eyes fixed in a set stare of hate, her hands clasped loosely in front of her, and Cranstone noticed with a fresh access of horror that a hideous gash was across one of her wrists, nearly severing it to the bone.
The blood was dripping on the floor with a perfectly audible splash; but do what he would, the doctor could not move or speak. Presently the silent figure turned, and went into the room where lay the still insensible girl. She paused beside the couch, still visible to Cranstone through the open door. Suddenly she lifted her wounded arm, and, holding it over the prostrate form on the couch, let the blood trickle on Mme. Varillon's forehead.
Breaking the charm that held him by a mighty effort, the doctor sprang forward with an exclamation of horror. He saw the woman look menacingly at Mm as he advanced, he saw the girl's face with the disfiguring bloodstains on it, and then, to his astonishment, the standing figure vanished, and when he reached the side of the couch the insensible face on the pillow was as fair and pure as it had been before.
Doubting the evidence of his own senses, and utterly mystified, the doctor stood bewildered for a few moments. Then he recalled his coolness, and stepped out on the dark landing, closed the door behind him, and listened, patient and motionless, but could not detect the slightest sound in any part of the house. Dense darkness and absolute silence seemed to reign everywhere.
He returned to the room, and tried to reason himself into the belief that it was all an illusion. It was a creation of his own imagination, the premonitory symptom of an illness perhaps. Such things had been in his experience. But when he looked at the bruised hand of his patient, who was beginning to recover, he had to confess that something had happened that was beyond his philosophy.
It was some time before Mme. Varillon was sufficiently restored to return to the old nurse's cottage; and as the slightest allusion to the scene through which they had passed seemed to excite her, the doctor forbore to press for any information—even if she could have given any. He deemed it his duty, however, to look up the doctor who had succeeded him in attendance on M. Varillon, and see if any symptoms of trance had shown themselves.
Dr. Buvert proved very communicative, and did not seem to trouble himself about his confrere's motives for making; the inquiries. Without much diplomacy he was led to talk of Varillon's past life.
'He was married before,' he said, 'to a woman whose heart and soul were given to another. She was forced by her parents to marry Varillon, a cold, stern, abstracted man; and you can fancy how happy she was. Well, the result was inevitable. The lovers met again, and Varillon heard of it. He gave no sign; he bided his time.
'Her lover—his name was d'Heristal—ventured into the house to bid her a last farewell. They reckoned on the husband's absence; they were deceived. When about to separate, his step was heard coming slowly and deliberately towards the room. There was no escape; from the window to the ground was over forty feet at least, and there was but one door—that by which Varillon would enter directly.
'Anxious to screen her from shame, and not to save himself—for all stories unite in giving him the character of a bold young fellow—d'Heristal got out of the window, and, standing upon the precarious footing afforded by the ornamental portion of the facade beneath the old-fashioned window, stooped down low, sustaining himself by one hand on the window-sill. Varillon came into the room, and his quick eye at once saw the hand on the window-sill, for, in her alarm, Mme. Varillon never thought of diminishing the light in the room.
'Varillon said nothing of what he suspected, but, after a few ordinary remarks to the trembling woman, he caught her by the hand and tried to lead her to the window. She knew at once that all was known, and concluding that his intention was to hurl her lover into the street before her eyes, struggled and prayed for mercy. Silently ignoring her entreaties, he dragged her towards the window. A slight scuffling noise was heard. D'Heristal, doubtless in an attempt to get back in the room, hearing what was going on, had dislodged with his weight the old bricks, and the unfortunate man was suspended by his hands over the pavement, fifty feet below.
'Varillon must have guessed what had happened, for, with renewed persistence, he strove to drag his wife to the window to witness the fall that must take place; and she, in despair, caught up a knife from the supper-table, and gashed herself across the wrist, as if in an insane effort to cut herself free from his relentless grasp.'
'And what was the end?' asked Cranstone, as the other paused.
'D'Heristal, when his strength gave way, fell to the ground, and was killed instantly. She bled to death, and he had almost crushed her hand in his attempt to drag her to the window. Some of the metacarpal bones were broken, and the rings on her fingers bent and squeezed into the flesh.'
'And at what time did this happen?'
'The servant, who admitted Varillon, and who was watching and listening at the door and through whom the facts transpired, said that at the instant she drew the knife across her wrist the clock of St. Marguerite struck 3.'
'How many years ago did this occur?'
'About five years ago. There was some talk about it as you can imagine; and Varillon wisely went away to live in England. When he returned about twelve months ago he brought your pretty countrywoman back as his bride. How she was induced to marry him I cannot imagine: doubtless her parents were poor, and she was little more than a schoolgirl. However, she is a rich widow now, a better fate than she would have had as his wife. I wonder he even allowed that old nurse to accompany her.'
Buvert, having once started, seemed inclined to gossip on for ever; but Cranstone, having gained all he wanted to know, managed to escape as soon as he could consistent with politeness.
IT WAS more than a month before Mme. Varillon was strong enough to leave for England. Cranstone escorted her to Paris, and turned from watching' the departing train with the settled conviction that he was over head and ears in love, that he was a poor man, and, she was a rich widow, and that the best thing he could do was to forget about her as speedily as possible. Easier said than done, three and four years' hard work in his profession did not do it.
Then came the war with Prussia, the siege of Paris, the outbreak of the Commune, and the second siege of the city by the Versailles troops. Cranstone saw it all through, and in the hospitals amongst the wounded, or doing his voluntary work under the Prussian guns, had ever before him the remembrance of those soft brown eyes. An unwilling worker under the Commune, he still tended their wounded, hoping for the incoming of the Versailles troops.
The day of retribution came, at last and the streets of Paris became a red battle field. Trusting to the cross of Geneva for protection From both sides, Cranstone sallied out to see how things were going. He had gained a comparatively quiet street, when lie saw the scarlet facings of a band of communists at the head of it coming towards him.
Knowing that he might probably be shot out of mere wantonness, he tried to gain entrance in the nearest house until they had passed, and the assurance that he was a doctor obtained him admittance from the porter. While talking to the man about the fighting going on, an old woman looked into the porter's room, gave vent to an exclamation of boy, and rushed forward and caught him by the hand. It was Mme. Varillon's old nurse.
Not waiting to answer the doctor's rapid questions, she dragged him by the hand, and led him upstairs. All the doctor could understand from her incoherence was a reproach directed against himself for never having communicated with her mistress.
'And then,' said the garrulous old dame, 'We couldn't live out of Paris, where you might be, for we knew you had left Louviers, and so got shut up in this awful place, where they are always killing one another, and have been nearly starved.'
By this time they had reached the door of a room on the first floor, and the doctor, with a beating heart, followed the impetuous old dame, who burst in crying, 'I have found him! I have got him!'
And there was the love he had tried to forget. They did not enter into explanations, they were unnecessary, but perhaps the crash of firearms In the street beneath the window frightened her so that she had to take shelter in the doctor's arms; but that was a noise she should have been accustomed to. Be that as it may, she was there, and in the street a body of Versailles troops had met the Communists, and were having it out with them.
As she lifted her face to meet her lover's caress, she fell on his breast with a quick gasp of pain. A random bullet had found its way through the ill-barricaded window, and taken her life.
The agonised doctor laid her on the couch. Yes, even as he had seen her in the haunted room with the ghastly blood stain on her white forehead, she lay with the death wound in her brow. The omen was accomplished; he had found his love, but to lose her. And clear 'midst the shots and shouts of the combatants a little clock on the mantelpiece rang out the fatal hour of 3.
For a few moments Cranstone stood motionless and speechless, then, after one long kiss on the lifeless lips, he turned and sought the street. The Communists had retreated behind a barricade hastily thrown up at the end of the street, and their opponents were about to charge it. The doctor stooped over a dead body and took the chassepot from the still hand; then, as if struck with another idea, threw it aside and preferred the sword bayonet.
The Versailles troops carried the barricade after a desperate hand-to-hand struggle, during which they lost half their number. Of the Communists not a man escaped—they fell where they stood.
'My faith!' said the corporal, now by the loss of both his officers in command of the party, 'But if all the citizens had fought like that one lying there, the Comité Central could never have existed.'
His men, looking for their own wounded and dispatching any insurgent who showed signs of life, had just thrown on one side the dead body of the English doctor.
'IS that your dog?' I asked the traveller, as he stood at the door of the store on Ramstead head station.
'Yes, that's my dawg, and a good dawg, too, though he ain't no beauty.'
He certainly was not a beauty; his ears had been bitten and torn out of all shape and form; he was scarred, and one of his legs had been broken, and he travelled with a limp. His breed was anything; but he had a sharp, plucky look about him, and a wistful, comical eye—so wistful that, it being lulling morning, I gave him that muscular piece of the bullock popularly known as the 'New England tongue.'
Some of the station dogs resented this, and made signs of taking it; away from him; but the stranger rounded on them with such a sudden and angry snarl, every bristle of his back erect, that, being full of meat and not 'fighting fit,' they thought better of it.
The man wanted some rations, and while giving them out to him I could not help noticing a queer resemblance between him and his dog. And, to further add to it, he, too, had lost a portion of one ear. We had no work for him on the station, but I told him he could stop the night and spell his horses if he liked. He had two, and first-rate nags they were.
He saw me look at them, and remarked: 'Yes, that's been my weakness always—a fine woman and a fine horse, sir—and I don't mind owning to it.'
He said it in a way that was so genuine that you really could not laugh at him. He spoke as though he had thrown away tens of thousands on the turf and on racing studs, and as though his conquest among the fair sex had been legion. And in his opinion there was no doubt they had. He was undersized, sandy, and slightly bow-legged; but, like his dog, he looked all fight.
Two days afterwards I had to drive in to the neighboring township. As there was a good camp halfway we were in the habit of making two days of the journey, although it could actually be done in one. Arrived at the halfway camp on Native Creek, I saw that there was already a traveller camped there, who I found to be the man with the damaged ear who had left the station the morning before. The place had suited him to spell for a day as the feed was very good.
I was not sorry for the company, as the man promised to be more interesting than the ordinary station hand. He bustled about helping to unharness and hobble my horses, and his dog, moved by remembrance of the New England tongue, came up wagging his stumpy tail, and we renewed our acquaintance. I had a little whisky with me, and when our meal was finished, our beds made down, and the continuous tinkle of the horse bells told that those animals were enjoying themselves, I produced it.
'I saw you looking at my ear the other day,' said my companion, after a snort silence. You couldn't guess how I lost that bit of my anatomy.'
'No; guessing's too much trouble. You may as well tell me if you're not sleepy.'
'Well it was served the same as these ears of Paddy's have been,' he replied, fondling the dog; 'that piece was bitten out of my ear, but not by dog. By another man, or a thing in the shape of a man, wuss nor a dog. He was a Dago at sea, a low-down sort of South American, and some day I'll come across him again, and I'll pay a debt I owe him. It happened way down on the Maroo. Perhaps you know that part of the country?'
I said that I did.
'Then you know the Big Duck Bend. There was pub there, and at that time they was doing well. The bloke who kept it had his niece up there—a real pretty girl, and smart too, my word! She would play the pianner, and sing, too, and every mother's son was clean gone dotty about her. I had a good cheque, for I had been a long trip overlanding, and I sailed in and cut out the running, you bet your boots! And things was very nice and jolly for a bit. Now, there was this South American brute on the company's station, seven miles away, and he was always over there philandering about. He was a big, hulking brute of a fellow, with the wickedest black eyes you ever saw, and every gal he came across—O! he was her slave, for her to do what she liked with, and all that ladidah game takes with the women, you know. He had been carrying on with Josey Dean before I came, and playing first fiddle, so when I waded in and took the lead he began to get ugly. I believe he was a good hand with cattle, but that I know nothing of for I never saw him working; but he was no favorite about there—used to put on too many airs.
'The row commenced over Paddy here; we'd been kicking gravel for some time; but one day I was in the bar with a couple of bullockies who had stopped there for a drink. Up rode my noble Dago, as big as bull beef, with a red sash round his waist, like the nigger he was, and his hat on one side. He tied his horse up and came in. Paddy here, who hated him as bad as I did, gave a low growl, so as he passed the dog he muttered something In his own lingo, and gave Paddy a thundering kick in the ribs. Paddy jumped up with a bit of a howl, and fastened on him like grim death; my noble don yells out "blue murder;" the bullockie's dogs come tumbling in, and there was a right old noise. I called Paddy off, and says I to the Dago, who was as white as a sheet, "No man kicks my dog when the dog's done nothing," I says, so take that, you d——d blackfellow,' and I hits him with my open hand across the face.
'He turned black at once, and his hand flew to his belt; but Sailor Bob, one of the bullockies, who knew the breed, got hold of his hand and had the knife out of it in no time. Well, he warnt one for fighting with his fists, but he had to, and at it we went. Says Sailor Bob to me: "Don't you let him get a holt on you, Dick," which was mighty good advice, but, fighting there in the bar, I couldn't get away from him always, and at last he did get a hold of me, and got me down, being, as he was, so much bigger than me. What d'ye think the brute did when he had me down? Why, commenced worrying me with his teeth like a beast, and before the others could drag him off he'd bitten this piece out of my ear. And he must have swallowed it, too, as it was never found. The bullock drivers was furious. They wanted to tie him up and take turns at him with their bullock whips. But no, I says, it's my contract, and I'll finish it outside. So we went outside, and I takes good care as he never gets a hold of me again. I pasted him till his head was big enough for two, for he couldn't use his dooks a little bit, and then he lays flown and cries and refuses to get up again. "Get up, you thundering cannibal, and have some more," I says, and kicks his ribs like he kicked Paddy, but he wouldn't stir. Just then I felt myself pulled back, and there stood Josey, out of breath. She'd been away somewhere, and hadn't seen the fight, but came up just in time to see me kick the man when he was on the ground, and file other fellows a looking on and saying nothing.
'Lord, didn't she let out. Of course, like a woman, she didn't want to know nothing of the rights or wrongs of the business, but just went Into the game off her own bat, and, by Jove, she did score. She put her hands on her hips, and tongue-lashed us one after another, calling us all the cowards she could lay her tongue to. As for Mister Dago, when he found that he had a woman's petticoat to get behind, he mighty soon got up, and stood behind it for safety. When she had slanged us to a standstill, we went inside and had a drink, and bandaged my ear up. Now, of course, I knew very well that it was just a woman's way to take the part of the one who was down, and if it had been me on the ground she'd have fired up just the same, so I concluded I would make it up with her in a day or two, and after she'd heard the rights of the story she would not speak to Mister Dago.
'She nursed him all the afternoon, and when it was dark he rode home. She wouldn't speak or listen to me, and I got sulky. The Dago had a bad time of it, you may guess. The bullockies didn't spare him when they told the yarn, and he get put in Coventry by everybody. They used to hoot him and cry "Cannibal!" everywhere, and even put up the black gins to scream out to their picanninies to run when they saw him coming. Of course, this couldn't go on, and the boss of the company's station had to tell him to clear out, and he went.
'But he didn't go alone, curse him. Josey disappeared too. Somehow I often think that if I'd not been foolish, but humored the girl, it would have been all right, but I cut up rough and sulked. And perhaps I was partly to blame.'
The unconscious good faith in which this was said, and the profound belief in the results of his influence, if it had been exerted, was too genuine to excite ridicule. He remained silent for a bit, staring Into the fire. I took up his pannikin and replenished it and my own.
'Well,' he said, after he had swallowed his nip, 'I saw poor Josey once afterwards, and I'd sooner have seen her dead. It was two years after she ran away, and I was down in Sydney. One night. I passed three girls, and one of them was Josey, painted and dressed as you can imagine. But I went after her, and got her to speak to me.
'She told me that Pedro, as she called him, had shipped aboard a ship for Rio, and left her to starve, or earn her living the way she was doing. She vowed she'd stick a knife into him if ever he came back. She always had a temper; but now the life and the drink had made it awful.
'I could do her no good, and she wouldn't let me help her, whether or no, but as I walked home I thought what an awful brute the fellow had been. If a woman had stood up for me when I was down the way Josey did for him, there's nothing I wouldn't have done for her; while he, the low cur, had shown his gratitude by ruining her. I put my hand up to my ear and felt the place, and vowed that if I came across him again I would put a mark on him, both for Josey's sake and my own.'
The horse bells had ceased; they were camping. The fire had burned down to red embers, and Orion's Belt was straight overhead.
'That's the end?' I asked.
'So far it is,' he answered; 'but I hope it is not the end.'
We said good night, and rolled ourselves in our blankets. In the morning I told Dick Martin, as I learnt his name was, that in a couple of months we should be busy, and if he was about anywhere, and in want of a job, I could put him on then.
Sure enough he turned up, and, as things eventuated remained with us for over twelve months. He was a good hand, and I grew very fond of Paddy, who quickly fought himself up top dog on the station. One day Dick came to me and said that if I could manage to spare him he would like to leave shortly.
'Leave altogether, Dick?' I asked.
'Not altogether, Mr. Duncan, if things turn out right, but if they go wrong, I may not be able to come back.'
'Where are you going, then?'
'To finish up that old story, sir. One of the teamsters who passed here the other day was Sailor Bob, and he told me that Pedro was back, and that he saw him up the Burdekin way, on a station there. I'll go and see for myself.'
There was nothing for it but to let Dick go, although, as a J.P., I ought to have bound him over to keep the peace before leaving, but I did not suppose it would be much good, and he departed about a fortnight after he had spoken to me.
Months passed, and though I had scanned the newspapers curiously, I saw no report of any tragedy, when one day Dick turned up, without Paddy. Needless to say, my curiosity was great, particularly when I saw Dick had been scarred on the other ear, and, under some excuse, I managed to get him by himself, and he told me what had happened.
'When I left here I went north, and, sure enough, I began to hear of my man when I got near the Burdekin district; but when I reached the station where Bob saw him he had left. Well, I followed him, right out to the Flinders, and there I lost track of him. At last I was coming back licked, when, riding late to make a lagoon where I wanted to camp, I saw a fire in the scrub surrounding it. I could hear a horse-bell, so I knew it was not blacks. I rode towards it, when suddenly Paddy gave an angry bark, and rushed ahead. It flashed across me who it was, and I hurried after, but was too late. Pedro, aroused by the bark, was prepared, and when Paddy rushed at him he knocked him senseless and dying with a heavy bit of brigalow from the fire. I was so mad with rage that, instead of bailing him up with my revolver, I jumped off, and tackled him barehanded. I got the worst of it. and down we went, I underneath. He snarled some curses, of his own, and then I felt his teeth in my other uninjured ear. He bit pretty hard, but suddenly he let go, and toppled over with a yell, as something hairy dragged across my face. Poor dying Paddy, with a last struggle he had staggered across me, and fixed his teeth in Pedro's throat.
'It was a last effort, but it saved me. I sprang up, and before the Dago could get rid of the dead dog, I had tapped him on the head with the same bit of timber he had downed Paddy with. When he came to his senses he was tied up, and all his cutlery taken away. I made the fire up bright, then went and caught my horses, which Bad strolled off to feed; next took Paddy's body into the scrub, and then came back to my friend. I told him that I had seen Josey, and that I had a score to pay off on her account, as well as my own, and took my pocket knife out of my pouch. Lord! He made sure I was going to cut his throat, and sang out pen and ink, I told him that he was a beast, and I was going to ear-mark him like one, and I did.'
Martin paused, and then went on.
'I put the swallow tail on him, and then I let him free and rode away. He's marked for life, you bet.'
For the information of some readers, I may as well state that the 'swallow-tail' ear mark is an acute-angled triangular piece cut out of the ear; the ear stands up in two sharp points after the operation. It would be a terrible disfigurement to a man, worse than close cropping.
'Have you heard nothing more? Did he not go in and inform the police?'
'Not he, he had no witnesses to prove it was me.'
'Strikes me the end of the story is yet to come. I would be careful if I were you, Dick. No half breed could stand that treatment without seeking revenge.'
'Let him try it, sir. But I wish Paddy had not been killed.'
'So do I. He was a good friend to you.'
Dick came back to his billet and things went on in the usual routine for some months. We were then forming a new weaning station, and Dick with another man went out to live at a hut we had put up there, and looked after the weaners. They had been there about two months when Dick's companion was attacked by malarial fever, and came up to the head station to spell, Martin sending word that he would put in the week by himself and not want a fresh man sent down.
I called at the hut during the week and found everything quiet. Just as I was leaving Dick said, 'I wish old Paddy was alive, and with me. I dreamt of the old beggar last night.'
Somehow, although the expression was an ordinary one, it remained in my memory and, to a certain extent, haunted me. At the end of the week a man went down with rations, but did not see Dick, who was apparently away about his work. Then a few days' rain came, and Martin's companion, who was well again, went down, and returned that night with the news that the hut had evidently been unvisited since the man went down with the rations.
We searched high and low, but the rain had put out the tracks, and though we found Dick's horse, with the saddle and bridle on, we did not find Dick.
Fully six months afterwards two bodies were found in a small, scrubby range. One was Martin's—that we knew, by many signs. The other—well, the skin had dried mummy-like on the body, and the shrunken withered features still survived, like parched leather.
'Good God!' exclaimed my partner, 'what's the matter with the man's ears?'
I looked, and shuddered at the grotesque mockery of death the mutilated members made the body wear.
'He's swallow-tail ear-marked on both ears; what can be the meaning of it?'
I could have told him, but held my peace. It was dead Martin's secret, not mine.
'I WILL take my oath on it, he returned the sign most distinctly and correctly.'
'I think you're wrong, old man. Niggers always imitate you If you do anything.'
'I'm convinced that I'm not mistaken, and I intend, to follow it up.'
The dispute took place on one of the overland telegraph stations well in the centre of Australia, and the friendly, disputants were the stationmaster and a man from the south, up looking for country. It was in the early years of the line, and travellers were rare, and made very welcome. The subject was an incident that had occurred when Merven, the squatting man, had been out on a short, three days' trip. He had met with some natives, and he declared that an old man amongst them had made him a Masonic sign, which, he answered, and that the native had then made the correct following one, which he had replied to, when one of the party riding hastily up scared the blacks, who got away in the scrub, and they could not communicate with them again. Merven refused to listen to Mathers's explanation that it was all accidental, and was determined to go back and try and track the niggers up.
In a day or two he started with one white man and a blackfellow, a good tracker. Days passed, and ran into a fortnight, and then the blackfellow came back alone, with a rudely scrawled note. It was from the man who had accompanied Merven. He stated that Merven and he had found the natives camped at the water, where the note was written from. That Merven had interchanged many signs with an old white-haired man of the party, who seemed to understand him pretty well. That Merven finally went away with the natives, saying that he would be back in less than a week, and telling him to wait at the water for a week if he could make the rations last out.
That he had waited past the week a good bit, and his rations were almost finished, and he wanted Mathers to send him out word what he had better do. Masters thought the matter out, and decided to go back with the black boy, which he did, taking a good supply of rations. There had been no sign of Merven when he reached the camp, and he found the man rather hungrily awaiting the return of the black boy. They discussed the matter during the night, and Mathers concluded that, as a fortnight had elapsed, they had better, start and track the party up in the morning. The weather was fine, and he had a good assistant at the station, so he could afford to be away.
In the morning they made an early start, and did a very good day's work, as the blacks made a straight course for a distant hill of some height, in the McDonnell Ranges. Next day it was the same, and in the evening they reached a rocky ridge not far from the hill. Here the camp of the blacks had been occupied for some days, and here, to Mathers's horror, they found the skeleton of Merven's horse, which had evidently been killed and eaten, as the numerous ovens testified. The two men passed an uncomfortable night, doleful anticipations as to Merven's fate being uppermost in their minds.
In the morning they renewed their search, but without avail; they could not find which way the tracks' went, search high or low. They went over to the prominent hill, but found no traces of human presence about it and from the top could see nothing but rugged ranges to the north. After spending two days in vain efforts to pick up the tracks; the were forced to return; Merven had vanished from human ken.
IT was six months after this episode, another party had gone out with a like result, and Merven's disappearance had become past history, when one night there was a furious outcry of dogs, and the lost man stepped onto the verandah out of the darkness.
Mathers and his assistant were too startled to speak, almost doubting if the newcomer were real flesh and blood. He was thin and haggard, but his clothes were not much worse for wear, and he laughed at their consternation and asked for something to eat.
'Where the deuce have you been all this time, and what happened to you?' demanded Mathers.
'Oh, I'll tell you when I've had a decent feed and a wash. Just now I'm tired and famished.' He looked around with a half-frightened look as he spoke, and followed Mathers into the bedroom.
'How did you get back?' the latter asked. 'Did you walk? We saw where they killed your horse.'
'Did they kill my horse?' asked Merven indifferently
'Yes, didn't you know it?'
'No; but I'm tired.'
Mathers saw the futility of asking any more questions just then, and they returned to the living room; where a meal had now been laid for the wanderer. Merven sat down, and commenced to eat; Mathers went to the instrument. He had scarcely touched the key before Merven called to him.
'Don't wire news of my coming back yet. Wait till to-morrow, will you?'
'Just as you like.'
'I'll tell you all about it to-morrow. They might call me to-night, don't you see?'
'No; I'm hanged if I see. And who are "they"?'
'Never mind, I'm talking a bit at random. I'll explain in the morning.'
Mathers got up from the instrument, feeling rather puzzled, and as Merven appeared very sleepy after his meal he didn't plague him with any questions.
'Would you mind keeping your peg out tonight?' said Merven, as Mathers was about to cut off communication before going to bed.
'Why? Do you expect a message?'
'Yes; I suppose the call would always wake you?'
'Yes; both Jimmy and I if we were dead.'
'I might get a message,' repeated Merven in a curious tone, as he lay down on his improvised bed, and seemed to go off to sleep at once.
'Blessed if I can understand it. He's gone daft in the bush; but I'll get it all explained in the morning. Good night, Jimmy; get up if we are called.'
In the middle of the night, or rather, morning, Mathers sprang out of bed half asleep, awakened by the sharp repetitions of his station call. At the table he blundered against Jimmy, who was just replying.
'Whose calling?' said Mathers, as he lit a candle.
'Hanged if I know. Here he is again. "Is George Merven there?"' he read out aloud.
'Yes; who's speaking?' ticked Jimmy.
'Come back, come back at once; he is moving,' was the answer, though whom it came from it did not say.'
'What? what?' said a voice behind them. It was Merven, dressed as he had thrown himself down. The two men repeated what they had just read out.
'Yes, yes! I must go back,' he said, making for the door.
Before they thought of stopping them he opened it and passed out. Recovering from their surprise, both men went after him. It was a brilliant, moonlight night, light as day on the cleared ground round the station; inky black in the distant patches of mulga scrub. But not a sign of the man who had just left was visible, although he had but a few seconds' start. Not a dog stirred, not a footstep could be heard. Over all was absolute stillness, unbroken silence.
'Have we been dreaming?' asked Jimmy.
They went Inside, and asked the repeating stations north and south if they had been speaking to them; but both denied it. The cablegrams had mostly gone through, and the line had been perfectly quiet for over an hour.
Mathers jammed the peg in viciously.
'We'll have no more calls to-night, at any rate,' he said
In the morning they hunted vainly for tracks. The mystery of Merven's disappearance had now a touch of the supernatural about it. How could the sender of the mysterious message have called the one station without being heard elsewhere was a question no-one could fathom.
'Was it Merven came here?' asked Jimmy, when they had exhausted all conjectures.
'It was, and it was not. He seemed stupid, as though he had been wandering alone by himself, and yet his clothes looked nearly as well as when he left; and I swear he had not walked in from where we saw his last camp. I give it up.'
SOME six months elapsed of dull, uneventful life, when one morning a blackfellow came up to the station, one belonging to the tribe living about the place. He explained that there was a whitefellow out in the bush too weak to walk. A party was sent out at once, taking food and water, and about fifteen miles away the black led them to a man lying exhausted under a bough shade the friendly blacks had made for him. Naked, a mere skeleton of skin and bone, with scratches and cuts all over his body, lay George Merven; and as Mathers knelt beside him he somehow felt that this was not the same man as the strange being who visited the station some two months before:
Merven was too weak to speak, but looked at his friend with eyes of recognition—recognition that, Mathers remembered with a shudder, had been absent from the other man. They would not let him speak; but fed him skilfully with strengthening food, and in two or three days were able to take him in to the station. At last he was strong enough to tell his story; but first he answered the question Mathers had been longing to ask.
No; he had not come to the station two months ago.
'When I found the blacks,' he said, 'I discovered that the old man was fairly well up in Masonry, apparently of an ancient order; but he was a true Mason. He gave me to understand that the masters lived in the range, and that if I liked he would take me to them. To this I agreed, and went with them, as you know, to the ridge near a high hill on the outskirts of the McDonnell Range. Here there was good feed and water, and I left my horse and went with the old fellow to the hill on foot, as I understood from him the masters were to be found there.
'The hill, when reached, proved to be a high, granite one, precipitous on the northern side.'
'I have been there,' interrupted Mathers.
'On the precipitous side is a small cave which you would not see, as a tree grows in front, and hides it. Into this the old fellow conducted me, and holding my hand led me down a dark tunnel. How far we went stumbling along in the dark I know not, but at last our way seemed blocked, and we halted. In response, I suppose, to some signal from my guide, a door, seemed to be opened, and there was a dim light, in which stood a dark figure. We entered; the light instantly got bright, and I was able to see our new acquaintance. He was dark, but not black, and, to my astonishment, wore a long garment. His face had a Hebrew cast, and he had a full black beard. He looked at me with a pleased expression, and led the way on. It was now quite light, although I could not see where the light came from, and the rocky passage was wider and more easy of progress. We came at last to a fair-sized room or cavern with stone benches in it, and on these our guide motioned to us to sit while he went away. He soon returned with another man dressed like him. He approached me, and made some Masonic signs, which I answered, but I soon found that he was of a grade far above me, and I had to desist. He asked me by signs if I was tired, and offered me some drink in a wooden mug. I drank it, and immediately felt a feeling of intense sleepiness not to be resisted, and I lay down on the stone bench, and lost consciousness.
'When I came to myself the light was dim, but brightened when I moved, as though someone was watching me. I looked around; the old native had disappeared, but two men now approached me. One, the man, who had given me the drink; the other a dark man of Jewish look like his companion, but possessing a wonderfully benign and beautiful face. He smiled at me, and invited me to rise. I cannot tell you, of the many conversations I had with that marvellous creature, that Incarnation of all evil, but I learned from him that Freemasonry, as we term it, is but an offshoot of a mighty religion that once held the then civilised, parts of the world in sway. But while the doctrines now held, or professedly held, by Masons, are those of brotherly love and kindness, the tenets of the ancient religion were evil in everything. I was their prisoner, for a purpose, which I will tell you:
'They wanted my body.'
'Say no more, now,' said Mathers, 'you are tiring yourself out.'
Merven obeyed and dropped into a doze.
'What's all this thundering trash?' said Jim. 'He has been wandering about sun-struck, I am afraid, and imagined it all.'
Just then the station was called. Mathers went to the key
'Is George Merven there?'
'Who is it speaking?' was ticked out.
'Is George Merven there?'
'Who is it speaking?' persisted Mathers.
'I have a message for him.'
'Who are you?'
There was no answer.
'Some of the fellows are having a lark, said Jimmy; 'Why didn't you take their message?'
'No, in any case we will not. I have a reason.'
Merven slept on, and was able to take more food when he awoke. He then persisted in going on with his narrative, but the stationmaster said nothing of the mysterious message, thinking it better not to agitate him.
'THESE wretches are all over the world, and in constant communication with one another. The particular ones I was with came from Mexico across the Pacific, after the conquest. They found the natives totally unfitted for their purpose, and beyond teaching a few of them a little of the craft, they did nothing but prepare this secret place in the ranges. They have many scientific and other secrets that we do not possess, particularly the possession of a new force akin to electricity, by which they can travel through the air at an enormous rate.
'They are very active all over the world by means of these secrets; nearly all the unaccountable crimes that happen are inspired by them. I was well treated the first month of my captivity, but after that I received the most inhuman treatment, in consequence, of my stubborn refusal to fall in with their views. Without my consent they could not make use of my body, except by sending me in a stupor, which did not last long enough for their purpose, and which might terminate at any time by my awakening.'
'Do you mean by making use of your body, and mating it with another spirit while you were unconscious?'
'Yes; to work their own ends in the world. As yet they have remained quiescent in Australia to a great extent, waiting till the country is more settled. I was the first white man to be brought under their sway. How many months have I been lost?'
'Most of that time they have been torturing me, to make me fall in with their views—latterly it was starvation. The old black who lured me there used to come and give me scraps of food, otherwise I was kept in total darkness and solitude. We could converse a little, and I found out that some great event was anticipated the end of this century, and that most of the inhabitants of my place of imprisonment were away working in other countries. I believe the old fellow was moved by my emaciated appearance. After that attempt to use my body, while I was drugged, which probably was when that creature came here, I was left a good deal to the care of that blackfellow, who took a sudden fit of compassion on me, and aided me to escape. Darkness was one of the methods used for punishing me, the old blackfellow having been entrusted with the power of manipulating the light when he came to me. Under coyer of this darkness he allowed me to follow him out, but hardly had we reached open air before my escape must have been discovered. What power they had over that wretched black I know not, but we had not taken many steps before he was scorched up as if by lightning before my eyes. I was untouched, and they, did not seem able to reach me by the agency which had destroyed my companion! How I wandered here I know not, always feeling that I was being watched and pursued. At last I met with the friendly blacks, and sent a message in by one when I could ho longer move.'
For some days Merven lingered between life and death, but at last recovered sufficiently to go down south with safety. He went under medical treatment, and Mathers heard that he got better. The two men on the station reported the return of Merven, but nothing else, for they did not know what to believe after their own experience. Time passed on, and Mathers was anticipating a shift, when late one evening the station was called, and; once more the familiar question was asked relative to George Mervin. This time he took the message out of curiosity. It simply was—
'Tell him we are waiting.'
A week afterwards Merven himself appeared, looking as well as ever. To Mathers's astonishment he announced his intention of going out to the hill again with a man he had with him, and finding out if there was any truth in the delusions he had entertained. Now, with his recovered health, he thought he had been the victim of temporary madness, and had been with the blacks all the time, or wandering about the bush. Mathers told him of the message he had received.
'It's a trick someone is playing on you,' he said. 'They are tapping the line somewhere.'
When he persisted in going on, Mathers asked to go with him, and they started. They went over the remembered ground until they reached: the camp where the horse had been killed. The next morning they went to the hill.
The weather, was close, hot, and heavy clouds hung low; even in the morning there was a constant mutter of thunder. Merven led them round to the northern side of the hill. They left their horses at the foot of the rough country, and climbed up to the place where Merven said the pave entrance was.. He pointed out the tree, or what he thought was the tree, and climbed up before them to it. He looked behind, and shouted down, 'It's all humbug, there's no cave here.'
The clouds had been hanging lower and lower while they had been ascending, until the bottom of the black scud seemed to touch the top of the hill. As Merven spoke there was a blinding flash and a terrific peal of thunder. When the two men looked up Merven was gone.
They searched and waited in vain. No trace of him, nor sign of entrance could be found. Meantime, the most awful thunderstorm they had either of them ever experienced burst overhead The day was dark as evening; there was little or no rain, but the lightning and thunder were incessant.
'Let's get off this hill,' shouted Mathers in his companion's ear, 'I believe it attracts the lightning.'
They made their way back to where they had left their horses, blinded and deafened, and expecting to be struck down any moment. In an hour the storm had died away, growling and muttering, and they resumed their search without avail. They were at last forced to return to the camp unsuccessful, and finally go back to the line.
'Merven got ahead of you,' said Jimmy as they dismounted.
'What do you mean?' asked Mathers.
'He turned up here late yesterday evening said he came ahead to send an important telegram. He went back this morning to meet you; started before I was up.'
Mathers looked hard at his assistant.
'Are you quite sure it was Merven?' he said.
Jimmy started and muttered, 'I don't believe it.'
The two went in together, and Mathers reported disappearance of Merven again, and intimated that a search party would be of no avail.
What was the telegram that thing sent?' he asked.
'It was in cipher: I could make nothing of it.'
'Did you see his horse?'
'No, it was dark when he came in, and he left before anyone was up.'
'It's all a trick of some sort,' said Mathers, 'I'm certain of it; but anyhow, somebody else can have the benefit of it, I shan't come back here...'
It was twelve months after that the station has to be shifted on account of the many times it was struck by lightning and the instrument destroyed. Geologically, there was no accounting for it, but the authorities decided there must be a reef of iron In the neighborhood, and the site was moved.
Tales, however, were told that they could not get operators to stop on account of the constant calls that took place—calls that when answered only, brought back broken and unintelligible appeals for help from someone who would give no name.
A LONG time ago, when there were not many wire fences about and thirty miles, or so between stations was the ordinary distance, there was a solitary hut, a tailing yard, and a little horse yard standing on the bank of a river in Northern Queensland. It was not always inhabited, being only an adjunct to the head station, fifteen miles away; but at times, when there were some weaners to herd, a couple of men put in a lonely existence for three months at a time. It was not near any road, and the bridle track to the station was the only means of communication with the outer world. It was well up the river, and a few miles brought you to the spurs of the coast range, from the top of which, on clear days, you could see the stretch of flat coast country that intervened between the foot of the range and the sea. But it was a rough ascent and descent, and only out of curiosity had any one ever been there. The hut at this time was occupied, and had been for nearly two months. The weaners were now broken in steady and quiet, and the men then there had not much to do to kill the deadly monotony of the passing days.
It was near the close of the day when one of the men, as usual, rode home to make up the fire, bring up water, and perform the other slight hutkeeping duties which they took alternately. He hung his horse up, to assist his mate to yard the tailers presently, and went about his work. After making up the fire he took the two buckets and went down the bank of the river; there was a strip of sand to cross, and as he went to the water he suddenly stopped with a whistle of surprise; there was a regular pad of blacks tracks crossing the sand in a diagonal direction. He put down the buckets, and glanced keenly and suspiciously around, at the same time unbuttoning the flap of his revolver pouch. There was nothing, stirring, and not a sound to be heard; so, after a few moments of hesitation, he went warily on, filled his buckets and returned. The lead of that home-returning herd were just approaching the yard as he put the buckets down in the verandah. He shut the hut door, mounted his horse, and rode out to his mate.
At that time the blacks in that part of Australia had not been what is called 'let in.' That is, they kept back from the occupied country, and if they approached an inhabited place it was generally from a hostile intention. The two men discussed the matter of the tracks as they yarded the cattle, and, when the sliprails were put up, they went and examined the tracks and followed them some distance.
'They are all bucks' tracks, and going straight ahead,' said Nicholls, the man who had first seen them.
'They don't seem to want to interfere with us,' replied his mate; 'but they've got some object in view, by the way they are travelling.'
'The horses are just back of the scrub,' said Nicholls. 'One of us had better take a fresh one and go in and tell them at the station.'
'What the blazes made them cross the river just at our hut? Blamed queer thing for them to do; if they'd have kept the other side we should have seen nothing of the tracks,' returned Reddy, the second man.
'Don't understand it at all; but I'll run the horses in while you get grub ready. There's a good moon to-night.'
An hour afterwards Nicholls was on the track, to the station, keeping a watchful eye about him. But the lonely bridle pad was as lonely as usual. At times he would hear the wail of the curlews, or a startled owl would flutter out of a low tree, but there was no sign of the natives. No glow of fire, nor echoing chant of a corroboree.
He reached the head station at about 11 o'clock, and of course had to arouse them from their first sleep, for early hours are kept in the outside country. The boss came to the conclusion that a little cattle-killing was in the wind, but nobody could understand why they should have walked so defiantly, as it were, past the outside hut, knowing that their tracks would be seen when the men came back. And it was strange that they had not looted the hut when they passed.
By sunrise Nicholls, with the superintendent and another white man and a blackboy, were back at the outstation, just as Reddy was letting the rails down to let the cattle out. The night had passed quietly, as usual, and the mystery as to what the blacks intended to do was still unsolved.
After breakfast the man from the station remained to look after the weaners, and the superintendent, Reddy, Nicholls, and the blackboy started on the trail. It was easy enough to follow. There was nor straggling. The tracks kept on close together, bearing from the river towards an outlying spur of the coast range that divided the river the station was on from another small tributary of the main stream. They followed on for some hours. The tracks crossed the station track, but the party had not seen them in the semi-dark, and when it was nearly noon a two-peaked hill appeared in sight, and towards it the trail would appear to be steadily leading. There was a little water in a small creek, and the party stopped for a hasty meal.
'They must have passed your hut pretty early,' said Rolleston, the manager. 'There's no sign at a camp yet, and they have not been hunting as they went. They don't seem to mean any mischief either to us or the cattle, so we won't make any trouble if we overtake them; but I should like to see what they are up to.'
'It's the queerest start I ever saw, and I thought I knew something about niggers,' said Reddy.
'There's not a hoof runs up this way, and they must know that,' put in Nicholls; 'so it's not beef they're after.'
In an hour or two the two-peaked hill was fully in sight, and the tracks still kept straight on. The hill was known by sight to them, and was locally called Mount Doubletop, but nobody had yet been there. It was nearly 3 o'clock, and the base of the hill was nearly in sight, when a waft of wind came from the direction in which they were going, and simultaneously they pulled up, for to their practises senses it carried in its breath the unmistakable smell of a blacks' camp ahead. It was evident they were close to their quarry, and caution was necessary, for the party they were following was a large one, and all males, so that it would not do to blunder on top of them unprepared.
'If the beggars are on that hill they can see us as we come,' said Nicholls to the manager, Rolleston. 'What do you say to following the bed of that little creek? It seems to come down from Doubletop.'
After a little discussion it was determined to do so, as it would afford a little shelter to their approach.
'It's my opinion,' said Reddy, 'that they don't give a hang whether we see them or not, or else why would they have come past the hut, when they could have gone miles away just as easy?'
This very pertinent question could not be answered, and the party kept on along the little creek. It was not long before they heard the cry of a native ahead of them, seemingly about halfway up the hill, and they halted to listen.
The cry was answered higher up, and again answered apparently from the summit.
'What does that mean?' said Rolleston. 'Have they seen us?'
'They guess we're about,' said Reddy, who seemed to have an unalterable conviction that the natives rather desired their company than not. 'Seems to me they'd know jolly well that we'd follow their tracks; and that's a sort of invite.'
Rolleston got off his horse and went up the bank, whence he could get a clearer view of the hill. Nicholls followed him. They reconnoitred the hill, and saw a blackfellow standing erect on a prominent rock a short distance up the hill. As they looked he repeated the cry they had heard; again it was answered higher up, and another black was visible standing prominently out on the rock. Again came the cry, and there was a third one standing on the highest peak of the two that crowned Doubletop.
'By Jingo! Reddy's right, and they are calling to us to come on,' said Nicholls.
'It looks like it,' answered Rolleston. 'I suppose we'll have to go, for we mustn't turn back.'
Reddy had joined them, and after a few words the whole party left the cover of the creek and rode straight to the hill. As they emerged in a thinly timbered strip of country that formed the commencement of the hill, it became evident that the cries had really been addressed to them, for the blacks waved their hands and kept up their cries.
It was rather a puzzle how to proceed. The natives might be only crying out in defiance, as they generally did if they thought themselves in safety; or they might be issuing a general invitation to come up and be killed. It was hard to determine. If they went on foot one of them would have to stop to mind the horses, and the chances are he might get attacked and the horses clear out. The hill was not too steep to negotiate on horseback, and there was a good leading spur on one side that promised an easy ascent, so to that they made. The blacks became silent when they saw the whites turn off, but seemed satisfied when they saw them continue, to come on along the crown of the spur. There was no sign of running away amongst them, for now a good many more were visible. Nor did they exhibit any arms; but this might have been a trick, as they have a knack of dragging them with their toes. They stood, their ground until the whites reached a sort of plateau on the summit, from which arose the two rocky peaks that distinguished the hill.
Rolleston glanced around somewhat uneasily. It was not exactly a nice place to be trapped in, but still they were well armed, and tried men, and ought to stand a good chance if they kept their eyes well open. With a word of caution to keep their eyes in the backs of their heads, he rode a little ahead.
The natives, in their usual noiseless fashion, had gathered in a group in front of an overhanging shelf or rock that formed a sort of cave. Fires were burning all about, and there were a few throwing-sticks lying about, but no signs of other weapons. The blacks were about twenty in number, all grown men, and painted with white pigment, skeleton fashion. Some old white-beards were amongst them, and one of these advanced a few steps to meet Rolleston.
He held up his empty hands as a sign of peace, to which the white man replied in the same manner. The black then commenced a speech, which was, of course, quite unintelligible to Rolleston, and was accompanied with many gestures, particularly pointing towards the direction of the head station, and shaking his head and waving his hand, as if to express a negative. Rolleston signed to his blackboy to come up, but he, being a South Queensland boy, could not understand.
'He wants to make out that they do not mean anything against the cattle or station,' volunteered Reddy, who had been watching intently. 'Blessed if I don't believe that's why they passed the hut so close, just to show that they didn't mean any harm.'
Rolleston agreed with him, and got off his horse. The old fellow did not seem quite so pleased at this, and made signs as if he now wanted the whites to go away, again.
'They're up to some little hanky-panky of their own, and don't want us to stay and see it,' said Nicholls; and this was undoubtedly what the old moan wanted to convey. Rolleston, with his bridle on his arm, advanced towards the shelving rock, but the blacks gathered together before the entrance, and did not seem inclined to permit his intrusion in the cave.
Seeing that a collision would ensue if he persisted in his purpose, Rolleston changed the direction and continued between the two peaks, the others following, and the blacks keeping with them. To this the blacks seemed to have no objection, and they went slowly round and overlooked the country on the other side of Doubletop.
They noticed a spring trickling from under a rock on the largest of the peaks, and the open ground around was littered with the marks of bygone camps, and the ashes of fires. In fact, the place looked as though it had been the habitual resort of the natives for many generations. The head of a scrubby ravine ran down from between the twin peaks, and the country beyond was wild and broken.
Nicholls was the last man to pass the cave, and he had dismounted, taking his carbine in his hand. The sun had sunk behind some clouds, but just as he went slowly by, a beam of light shot through a rift and penetrated the obscurity of the cave, overshadowed as it was by the shelving rock. It lit up a jumble of round white stones, as they appeared to him at first, and then the sun came out in full, and he saw clearly the contents of the place that the blacks were so anxious to keep concealed. Then the sun vanished again and the dusky shadows obscured the view. He said nothing, and made no sign, but kept on. Their situation had become too ticklish to precipitate matters just then.
At last, after they had taken a good look at all the surroundings, Rolleston intimated to the blacks that they were going to return, at which there seemed much relief amongst the natives. They also seemed most anxious to avoid a rupture with the whites, and assured them of their goodwill, but equally desirous that they should depart and leave them alone.
They mounted and rode down the spur, keeping a sharp lookout as they descended; but the blacks stood quietly in a group and watched them, motionless, until they were lost to view. As soon as they were behind a convenient ridge, out of sight of the hill, Rolleston pulled up, and the others gathered around.
'They're up to some of their ceremonies, which they don't like whites to see,' said the manager; 'but I can't make out what it is. They're not going to initiate the young men, for they have no boys amongst them.'
'Piccaninny there,' said the blackboy.
'Where?' asked Rolleston.
'See 'em track, longa fire.'
'He's right,' added Nicholls; 'I saw them, two of them, in the cave, and I believe they were half-castes, too.'
'Did you go into the cave?'
'No, but after you fellows passed, the sun came out just for a minute, and shone right in. I saw that it was piled up with skulls, a regular old burial place, I've seen them before on the coast, and the two piccaninnies were in there.'
'You said you thought they were half-castes; young native children are very light.'
'I know, but these were not babies; they were a few years old, and they're black enough by that time if they're genuine combos.'
'I wish we had looked in that cave.'
'That's why I said nothing up there; there would have been an all-fired row, and they had plenty of weapons handy.'
'You bet,' said Reddy.
'Perhaps you were right,' returned Rolleston; 'but what are they going to do with the little wretches?'
'That's their burial ground, so perhaps they intend to kill them.'
'Queer! Out west where I was they stick their dead up in trees.'
'But these niggers go on to the coast sometimes, and lots of the coast niggers bury in caves; at least the skulls. I never saw all the skeleton.'
'Supposing we go back to-night,' suggested Reddy.
'Yes,' returned Rolleston; 'we could go round and come up that gully on the other side. I should dearly like to see what they are going to do. I have heard that they kill half-castes, but always when they are babies.'
'So have I; but those I saw were no babies,' returned Nicholls.
They rode on till dusk, to deceive the blacks, who might run their tracks to make sure, and then formed their plans over their evening meal. They had got a pretty good look at the country from the top of the hill, and by keeping well round could reach the foot of the scrubby ravine, with comparative ease. Up the ravine they would go on foot, and by good fortune might be able to overlook the operations of the blacks.
They were all armed as firearms went in those days, and even if discovered would have a good show against the blacks. There was no doubt that the natives, who were all strong, well-grown men, would resent their watching if they were discovered, but Rolleston thought that the presence of the children, and what seemed their probable fate, was quite sufficient justification.
It took them some time to work round the mountain, but the moon was nearly three-quarters full, and they presently found themselves approaching Doubletop from the opposite side to the way they had come before.
Many twinkling fires made a bright light on the crest, and silently they secured their horses at the foot of the gaily, and made ready for the ascent. They had to go slowly, and with great care, for the moon threw puzzling shadows in the scrub, and they felt thankful when the droning sound of a chant arose, which would help to drown the noise made by a slip or a false step.
I SHALL never forget that night, both, on account of the strange scene we witnessed and the narrow squeak we had for our lives. Fortunately, my companions were good men. Reddy was rather excitable, but Nicholls was one of those fellows who make sure first, but are prompt and quick when they do act. The black boy, Frank, had been brought up amongst the whites, was stolid, and very exact in doing what he was told, and this trait of his led to our extrication from a very tight place.
We reached the ridge of the scrub at the head of the ravine, and there, concealed under good cover, watched what was going on. There was a half circle of fires, and within the horns of the crescent formed by them, and exposed to their united glare, lay the dead body of a man. He was stretched on his back, with his arms arranged straight down by his sides. His eyes had not been closed, and his beard, which was peaked and grey, stuck up in the air in fantastic fashion, projecting from his poked-up chin, for his head was tilted back, there being no support under the back of his head. I took so much notice of his position, and so did the other men, from the fact that the body had a strong fascination for all of us; for, in spite of its wildness, sun-tanned and gaunt and scarred as it was, it was the body of a white man.
By the side of the corpse were the two children Nicholls had seen in the cave. One seemed about five or six years old, the other a little younger. They were both boys, and stood holding tight to each other's hands, but making no outcry, though they must have been frightened. There was no doubt about their parentage—they were half breeds, and the dead man was their father.
Who was he, and why had he not returned to his countrymen? The country had been settled nearly three years, and during that time some opportunities of doing so must have offered themselves.
Three of the old men were standing near the body, and the rest were squatting about the fires, keeping up a monotonous kind of chant. Presently some of the younger men approached, and kneeling down commenced digging a grave. This they did very quickly, working with a sharp pointed stick in their right hand, and with the left scooping the earth out. They did not take long to excavate a shallow trench, rather wider than what was seemingly required for the purpose of burial.
The body was then placed in it in the same position as that in which it had been lying on the ground. One of the old men picked up a heavy club, and, with no doubt of his intention, took one of the children by the hand, and led him towards the grave, the other little fellow following, still holding his brother's hand. There was no time to wait or hesitate. I had a Westley Richards breech-loader and Nicholls a Terry. Reddy was armed with a double-barrelled muzzle loader, one barrel for shot and one for ball.
What with the moonlight and firelight it was easy shooting, and the old murderer fell, both Reddy and I having hit him, whilst Nicholls had dropped one of the other old men. Reddy immediately fired his shot charge at the third greybeard.
The surprise was sudden and complete. Engaged in their burial ceremony, and the human sacrifice that was to follow it, they had quite forgotten our visit in the afternoon, or the chance of our returning. All but the children and the three greybeards disappeared amongst the shadows of the rocks. The two fallen men lay still, the other, wounded with a charge of duck shot, crawled slowly on his hands and knees out of the firelight.
'Get the kids, and clear out as quick as we can,' cried Nicholls, as we re-loaded. We ran forward, but the children were frightened, and we had to pick them up and hold them by force, and such imps to struggle and kick I never saw before or since.
'Too late,' said Reddy, as a spear or two was thrown at us, and I saw to my dismay that they came from the scrub. The blacks had seized their weapons, hidden in the rocks, and had entered the scrubby ravine lower down, thus cutting our retreat off.
Simultaneously, we made for the cave under the projecting rock, and reached it in safety with the children just as the missiles began to come fast and furious. It was the only thing to be done, for we would have had no chance in the open with the blacks amongst the rocks of the two peaks, and to retreat down the spur we had ridden up in the afternoon with the blacks above us all the way would have been certain death. In the cave we were pretty safe, but how were we to get out?
The cave faced the second peak, a hundred yards distant; and no one could show out opposite in the space between under our fire. Nor could they assail us from the opposite peak, for the shelving rock protected the entrance like a broad verandah. As soon as we reached our lair I missed Frank, the black boy. We called him, but got no answer, and none of us recalled having seen him after we fired. In all probability he had turned and run back instead of forward, and escaped down the ravine, safely, before the blacks got into it.
By the aid of a few matches we found the cave shelved back; for a good distance, and was littered with, skulls throughout, more than two hundred of them, as I found out afterwards. There were some fallen rocks, too, which would serve as cover.
The blacks kept very quiet on the open in front of the entrance; they knew too much to dare to show up. However, we expected a rush, and presently they made one. They crept up very noiselessly on each side of the entrance, but Nicholls, who was on the look out, saw their shadows moving, and we were behind the rocks, and ready for them, when they came. They rushed in in a body, with such impetus that they sprawled over the men who fell to our first discharge, but our revolvers served us well at close quarters, and they gave back, and the wounded ones crawled after them.
They were still for so long that we indulged in a smoke, and the hope that they had had enough of it and retired. But Reddy, incautiously poking his head out to have a look round, nearly got his brains let out with a nulla. There seemed nothing for it but to watch, and wait for daylight, and then make the best fight we could of it, and we had some dreary hours, in prospect, added to which there was the certainty that they would probably find our horses at the foot of the ravine, and spear them.
The moon had begun to sink low behind the peak in which our refuge was situated, and throw its shadow in front of the entrance, so that the dividing strip of land between the two peaks became so gloomy that we could not well see anything moving there after a couple of hours had passed. This added to our danger, but Nicholls took advantage of it to creep to the entrance and reconnoitre, with comparative safety. He stayed for some time, and, when he returned, said that he could hear the blacks moving about on the sides of the peak above us, but what the-were doing he could not make out.
We were soon to find out. He went again to the entrance, and suddenly dashed outside, wheeled and fired above him, and bolted back.
'They are bringing fire to smoke us out,' he cried. 'I dropped one fellow on top of the rock.'
This was bad news. The darkness was increasing, and by coming along to the edge of the shelving rock, they could easily build up a fire in perfect safety. And then some green boughs would soon make us try to force our way out.
It was a cheerful outlook, and there seemed no way of stopping them.
Reddy suggested making a bolt for the opposite peak, and getting cover among the broken rocks there, but on consideration the odds were too great. They could find cover better than we could, and once they got us separated they would make short work of us.
All this time the little ones, the cause of all the trouble, were lying still and quiet, without moving. I don't think they exactly knew what we had saved them from, nor were, at that time, at all thankful to us for what we had done. Presently there was a great shout from up above that startled us somewhat, and down came a mass of blazing wood in front of the cave, more and more dry wood followed it, so fast that it was useless to endanger ourselves by trying to scatter the brands.
They must have been gathering the material together while they were so quiet, and from their position they could lean over the ledge of the rock and pelt the faggots underneath. There was soon a blazing fire, and then down came bunches of green scrub, and the smoke began to fill the cave, and make our eyes water, and made us cough.
To add to the pleasure of the thing there were two dead bodies at the mouth, under this hail of fire, and they began to frizzle and cook, making the smell very juicy. However, by lying down behind our rocks, with our mouths close to the ground, we managed to hang out for a good bit, but I never hope to put in such a time again. My eyes and throat were smarting, and I felt as though I had a tight band of iron round my chest.
Suddenly the natives who had been yelling all the time stopped making a noise, and the rain of bushes stopped too. What could be up? Nothing could be heard but the crackling of the fire.
'Let's make a rush now!' growled Reddy, in a kind of hoarse croak. We did so, dashing through the fire into the pure delicious night air beyond. We drew deep inspirations of it, and then stood and looked round. The moon had nearly set, and the shadows thrown by its dying yellow light were long, black, and gaunt. All around was silent, but from below came the rattle and tramp of saddled horses, and a familiar voice crying, 'Get up there!' 'Go on!'
'It's Frank driving the horses up the way we came in the afternoon!' shouted Nicholls. 'That's what started the niggers away.'
We gave three cheers for Frank, which must have considerably startled the niggers within hearing. Then, I must confess, for the first time we thought of the youngsters, and we pushed back into the cave. They were pretty well choked, but we got them out all right, and just then Frank and the nags appeared. He was astonished at the hearty welcome we gave him, and at the condition of affairs, for he knew nothing of our predicament.
It was his job to look after the horses, and do the horse-hunting, and when we fired the first time he thought that some might break away, or the runaway blacks might scare them, and so hurried back down the gully to them, and escaped the enemy.
He found he could not get them up the ravine single-handed, so drove them round the hill to the spur we had come up: it had taken him a long time for he had to make a wide sweep, and being alone, the horses gave a lot of trouble, but he arrived in the very nick of time.
Daylight was not far off, and we boiled our quarts and made an early breakfast, and gave the youngsters something to eat. By this time they seemed beginning to understand that we were their friends. When day broke we examined our surroundings more closely than we had done the previous afternoon.
The body of the white man lying in the shallow grave naturally attracted our special attention. The face did not display any particular type or class, and the features were of those of an ordinary bush-worker. One hand was maimed and deformed from an old wound. We filled the grave in, and I marked a tree which happened to stand at the head of it.
Searching about we found many bundles of blackfellows' gear hidden amongst the rocks, and one of them seemed to have belonged to the dead white man.
There were in it many articles of civilised make, amongst them a muzzle-loading double-barrelled pistol, a sheath knife, a broken silver-mounted meerschaum pipe, and, carefully wrapped up, a faded photograph. A poor thing, taken by some travelling photographer when the art was in its childhood. It was the portrait of a country girl, in her best clothes, and with a broad smile on her round face. On the back, scarcely decipherable, was written: 'To Joe, from Lizzie, with her love.'
All through his wandering savage life the man had carried and treasured this token of his past.
An exclamation from Reddy withdrew my attention from this bit of romance. He was examining the sheath knife, on the handle of which some letters were rudely carved.
'S.C.R.A.M.M.Y.,' he read out; then, turning the knife round, read on the other side of the handle, 'J.O.E., Scrammy Joe!'
The name meant nothing to me, but Nicholls and Reddy recognised it at once.
'Scrammy Joe,' said Nicholls, 'why, that was the fellow who shot his mate and cleared out with the horse when the police were after him. How did his knife get up here?'
'That must be Scrammy himself lying there,' returned Reddy.
'That's him, with his twisted hand, that made him get the nickname Scrammy. He's been here, with the 'blacks ever since, and they thought he had got clear away.'
The story had never come to my ears, but it was well-known to my two companions. Scrammy Joe was a young native youth with a weakness for horses, other people's horses in particular. This led him to join one of the bushranging gangs then in existence, and one or two murders led to his being outlawed in common with the others. Scrammy and a companion were being chased by the troopers, and Scrammy was badly mounted, while his mate had one of the best horses in the district, stolen of course. Evidently, Scrammy thought it was a case of the hangman taking the hindmost, so he shot his mate, mounted the good horse, and rode easily away, and was never heard of again.
The dying outlaw lived long enough to tell the police how he met his fate, and Scrammy must have known that for him there could be no return. No one would have given him shelter, and everybody would join to hunt him down. Evidently he must have pushed out into the then unknown country, and finally been accepted amongst a tribe of blacks. He would seem to have attained to some influence amongst them, and it was not until his death that they had dared to attempt to carry out their custom of killing the half-caste children.
This would account for his making no attempt to rejoin the whites when he heard of their proximity. Fancy the man who did not hesitate to shoot his mate in cold blood, in order to secure the means of escape, preserving and keeping carefully the portrait of his old sweetheart!
We took the children in to the station, and they grew up good useful men. I sent in a report to the proper authorities, and in time the body was exhumed and identified by some one sent up on purpose, who had known the dead man well.
In the official report sent in it was stated that the blacks had evidently revisited the place, and removed all the skulls from the cave. This was only true, in a sense. The skulls had certainly been removed, but not by the blacks. I happened to have a cousin a sailor, who did very well out of a number of skulls he collected when island-cruising, and I remembered the incident. Before the authorities visited the scene Nicholls, Reddy, and I had removed the skulls to a safe place, and we eventually did very well out of them.
IT was during the prolonged drought of 1904-1905, just about Christmas time of the former year, that the steamer Niagara fell in with an apparently abandoned barquentine about fifty miles from Sydney. It was calm, fine weather, so, failing to get any response to their hail, the chief officer boarded her. He returned with the report that she was perfectly seaworthy and in good order, but that they could find no one on board, living or dead. The captain went on board, and, being so close to port, he was thinking of putting some hands on her to bring her into Port Jackson, when a perusal of the log book in the captain's cabin made him hesitate.
From the entries it seemed that the crew had sickened and died, of some kind of malignant fever, the only survivors being three men, a passenger, one sailor, and the cook. The last entry, which was nearly three weeks old, stated that these three had provisioned a boat and intended leaving the vessel and making for Australia as the only chance of saving their lives, as they felt sure that the vessel was infested with plague.
The value of the barquentine and cargo being considerable, and the weather settled, the captain determined to tow her into port. He put three volunteers on board to steer her, took her in tow, and brought her into Port Jackson, and anchored off the Quarantine Ground. On reporting the matter to the medical officer he was ordered to remain at anchor until it was decided what course to take.
The season was very hot and unhealthy, and when the story spread it occasioned a slight scare amongst the citizens. Both vessels were quarantined, and the barquentine thoroughly examined. When it was found from the log that the deserted craft had sailed from an Indian port, where the plague that had so long devastated Southern Asia was then raging furiously, the consternation grew into a panic. It was determined to take the vessel to sea and burn her—nothing else would pacify the public. The claim of the owners and the salvage claim for compensation were rated, and the Niagara towed the derelict out to sea and set fire to her, and then returned to undergo a term of quarantine.
Nothing further occurred, and in due course the Niagara was released, and people forgot the fright they had entertained. The drought reigned unbroken, and the heat continued to range higher than ever. Then, when the winter had passed, and a dry spring betokened the coming of another summer of drought and heat, a mortal sickness made its appearance in some of the low-lying suburbs of Sydney. When it had grown to an alarming extent, grim stories got to be bruited about, and a tale that one of the sailors of the Niagara had told was repeated.
He was on watch the night before the vessel was to be destroyed, the two ships, lying anchored pretty close together. It was about 2 o'clock when his attention was drawn to a peculiar noise on board the plague ship. He listened intently, and recognised the squealing of rats, and a low, pattering noise as though all the rats on the ship were gathering together. And so they were. By the light of the moon his quick eyes detected something moving on the cable. The rats were leaving the ship. Down the cable they went in what seemed to be an endless procession, into the water, and straight ashore they swam. They passed under the bow of the Niagara, and the sailor declared it seemed nearly half an hour before the last straggler swam past. He lost sight of them in the shadow of the shore, but he heard the curious subdued murmur they made for some time. The sailor little thought as he watched this strange exodus from the doomed ship that he had witnessed an invasion of Australia portending greater disaster than the entrance of a hostile fleet through the Heads. The horror of the tale was augmented by the fact that the suburbs afflicted were now haunted by numberless rats.
People began to fly from the neighborhood, and soon some of the most populous ones were empty and deserted. This spread the evil, and before long plague was universal in the city, and the authorities and their medical advisers at their wits' end to cope with and check me scourge.
The following account is from the diary of one who passed unscathed through the Affliction. Strange to, say, none of the crew of the Niagara were attacked, nor was the boat with the three survivors ever heard of.
'—THE weather is still unchanged. It seems as though a cloud would never appear in the sky again. Day after day the thermometer rises during the afternoon to 115 deg in the shade, with unvarying regularity. No wind comes, save puffs of hot air, which penetrate everywhere. The harbor is lifeless, and the water seems stagnant and rotting. And now, dead bodies are floating in what were once the clear, sparkling waters of Port Jackson. Most of these are the corpses of unfortunates, stricken with plague madness, when in their delirium, plunge into the water, which has a fatal fascination for them. They float untouched, for it is reported, and I believe with truth, that the very sharks have deserted these tainted shores. The sanitary cordon once drawn around the city has long since been abandoned. The plague now rages throughout the whole continent. The very birds of the air seem to carry the infection far and wide. All steamers have stopped running, for they dare not leave port, in case of being disabled at sea by their crews sickening and dying. All the ports of the world are closed against Australian vessels. Ghastly stories are told of ships floating around our coasts, drifting hither and thither, manned only by the dead. Our sole communication with the outer world is by cable, and that is uncertain, for some of the land operators have been found dead at the instruments.
THE dead are now beginning to lie about the streets, for the fatigue parties are overworked, and the cremation furnaces are not yet available. Yesterday I was in George-street, and saw three bodies lying in the Post Office Colonnade. Dogs were sniffing at them, and the horrible rats that now infest every place ran boldly about. There is now no traffic but the death carts, and the silence of the once noisy street is awful. The only places open for business are the hotel bars, for many hold that alcohol is a safeguard against the plague, and drink to excess, only to die of heat apoplexy. People who meet look curiously at each other to see if either bears the plague blotch on their face.
Religious mania is now common. The Salvation Army parade the streets praying and singing. The other day I saw, when kneeling in a circle, that two of them never rose again. They remained kneeling, smitten to death by the plague. The captain, as he called himself, raised a cry of 'Halleluiah! More souls for Jesus!' and then the whole crew, in their gaudy equipments, went marching down the echoing street, the big drum banging, its loudest. As the noise of their hysterical concert faded round a corner a death cart rambled up and the two victims were unceremoniously pitched into it; one of the men remarking, 'Tain't rotten ones, this time, better luck!' Such was the requiem passed on departed spirits by those whose occupation had long since made them callous to suffering and death.
All the medical profession stuck nobly to their posts, though death was busy amongst their ranks. And volunteers among the nurses, male and female, were never wanting, as places had to be filled. But what could medical science do against a disease that recognised no conventional rules, and raged in the open country the same as in the crowded towns? Experts from Europe and America came over and sacrificed their lives, and still no check could be found. All now agreed that the only chance in an atmospheric disturbance that would break up the drought and dispel the stagnant atmosphere that brooded like a nightmare over the continent. But the meteorologists could give no hope. All that they could say was that a cycle of rainless years had set in, and that at some former time Australia had passed through the same experience. A strange comet, too, of unprecedented size, had made its appearance in the southern hemisphere, and astronomers were at loss to account for the visitor. And the fiery portent flamed in the midnight sky, further adding to the terrors of the superstitious.
It was during one night, when walking late through the stricken city, I met with the following adventure. My work at the hospitals had been hard, but I felt no fatigue. The despair brooding over everyone had shadowed me with its influence. Think what it was to be shut up in a pest city without a chance of escape, either by sea or land. I wandered through the streets, Campbell's lines running in my head, 'And ships were drifting with the dead to shores where all was dumb.' Suddenly a door opened, and a young woman staggered out, and reeling, almost fell against me. I supported her, and she seemed to somewhat recover from the frightful horror that had apparently seized her. She stared at me, then said, 'Oh! I can stand it no longer. The rats came first, and now hideous things have come through the window, and are watching his breath go out. Are you a doctor?'
'I am not a doctor,' I answered; 'but I am one of those who attend to the dying. It is all we can do.'
'Will you come with me? My husband is dying, and I dare not go back alone, and I dare not leave him to die alone. He has raved of fearful things.'
The street lamps were unlighted, but by the glare of the threatening comet that lit up the heavens I could, see her face, and the mortal terror in it. I was just reassuring her when someone approaching stopped close to us.
'Ha, ha!' laughed the stranger, who was frenzied with drink. 'Another soul going to be damned. Let me see him. I'll cheer him on his way,' and he waved a bottle of whisky. I turned to remonstrate with the fellow, when I saw a change come over his face that transformed it from the frenzy of intoxication into comparative sobriety.
'Your name, woman; your husband's name?' he gasped. As if compelled to answer she replied, 'Sandover, Herbert Sandover!'
'Can I come, too,' said the man, addressing me in an altered tone. 'I know Herbert, knew him of old. But his wife doesn't remember me.'
'Keep quiet and don't disturb the dying,' I said, and giving my arm to the woman went into the house. We ascended the stairs and entered a bedroom; the rats scampered, squeaking, before us. On the bed lay a man, plague-stricken, and raving in delirium. No wonder. On the rail at the head of the bed and on the rail at the foot sat two huge bats. Not the harmless Australian variety that lives in the twilight limestone caves; nor the fruit-eating flying fox; but a larger kind still, the hideous flesh-feeding vampire of New Guinea and Borneo. For since Australia became a pest house the flying carnivora of the Archipelago had invaded the continent.
There sat these demon-like creatures with their vulpine heads and huge leathery wings, with which they were slowly fanning the air. And the dying man lay and raved at them. Disturbed by our entrance the obscene things flapped slowly out of the open window, and the sick man turned to us with a hideous laugh, which was echoed by the strange man who had joined us.
'Herbert Sandover,' he said, 'you know me, Bill Kempton, the man you robbed and ruined. I'm just in time to see you die. I came to Australia after you to twist your thievish neck, but plague has done it. Grin man, grin, it's pleasant to meet an old friend.'
I tried to stop him, but vainly, and from the look on the dying man's face I could see that it was a case of recognition in reality. The woman had sunk upon her knees and buried her head in her hands. Kempton still continued his mad taunting. Taking a tumbler from the table he poured some whisky into it and drank it.
'This is the stuff to keep the plague away,' he shouted; 'but you, Sandover, never drank. Oh, no! too clever for that. Spoil your nerve for cheating. But I'll live, you cur, and see you tumbled into the death cart.'
So he raved at the dying man, and one of the great vampires came back and perched on the window-sill. Raising himself in bed by a last effort, Sandover fixed his eyes on the thing, and screamed that it should not come for him before his time. As if incensed by his gestures, the vampire suddenly sprang fiercely at him, uttering a whistling snarl of rage. Fixing its talons in him and burying its teeth in his neck, it commenced worrying the poor wretch, and buffeting him with its wings.
Calling to Kempton, I rushed forward to try and beat it off, but its mate suddenly appeared. Quite powerless to aid, I picked up the woman, who had fainted, and carried her out of the room. Kempton, now quite mad, continued fighting the vampires, but at last, torn and bleeding, he followed us into the street. I was endeavoring to restore the woman, and he only stopped to assure me that the devils were eating Sandover, and then reeled off.
When the woman came to her senses I left her by her own request to wait till the death cart came round. I called there the next morning, but I never saw her again. Amidst such sights and scenes as these the summer passed on, burning and relentless. The cattle and sheep were dying in hundreds and thousands, and it looked as though Australia would soon be a lifeless waste, ever to remain so.
ONE morning it was posted up that news had come from Eucla that the barometer there gave notice of an atmospheric disturbance approaching from, the south-west That was all, and no more could be elicited. The line-men at tine next station started to ascertain the cause of the silence, and, after a few days they wired to say that they had found the men on the station all dead. But the self-registering instruments had continued their work, and the storm was daily expected at Cape Leeuwin.
The days preceding our deliverance from the pest were some of the worst experienced; as though the approaching storm drove before it all the foul brooding vapors that had so long oppressed us, and they had assembled to make a last stand on the east coast. One morning I felt a change, a cool change, in the air.
Going into the street, I saw, to my surprise, many people there, gathered to gather in groups, and gazing upwards at a strange eight. The vampires were leaving the city. Ceaseless columns of them were flying eastward, and men watched them with relieved faces, as though a dream of maddening horror was passing away. Then came a sound, such as must have been heard in the quaint old city of legendary lore when the pied piper sounded has magic flute. The pest rats were flying. Forth they came, unheeding the people who stood about; and eastward they commenced their march.
ALL that day it continued, and some reported that they plunged into the sea, and disappeared. At any rate, they vanished utterly, and with them other loathsome vermin that had been fattening on the dead and the living dead. Everyone seemed to see new life ahead. Men spoke cheerily to each other of adopting means for clearing and cleansing the city, but that work was taken out of our hands. That night the cyclonic system that had raged across the continent burst upon us. All the long dormant forces of the air seemed to have met in conflict. For three days its fury was appalling. The violent rain and constant thunder and lightning added to the tumult. No one stirred out during those three days of tempest and destruction. Nature in her own mighty way had set to work to purge the country of the plague. It was while this storm was at its fiercest that the post office tower and the town hall tower were destroyed, and hurled in ruins to the ground. No one, as far as I know, witnessed the catastrophe.
The morning of the fourth day broke calm, clear, and beautiful. At midnight the tempest had lulled, and when daylight came the sun rose in a sky lightly flecked with roseate morning clouds. Accompanied by a friend, I started out to see the ruined city, and those who were left alive in it. The streets still ran with flood water, but the higher levels had pretty well drained off, and, once they were gained, our progress was easy. Martin Place was choked with the ruins of the tower, and many other buildings had succumbed; while not a single verandah was left standing in any street.
We went to the harbor. The tide was receding, carrying with it the turbid waters that rushed into it from all points; carrying with it, too, wreckage and human bodies. A strong current was setting seaward through the Heads, and bore out to the Pacific all the rotting remnants of the past visitation.
The deserted, ships in the harbor had been torn from, their moorings and either sunk or blown ashore. Wreck and desolation were visible everywhere, but the air was pure, cool, and grateful; and our hearts rose in spite of the difficulties that lay before us, for the looming horror of the plague had been lifted.
OF what followed your histories tell you. How the overwhelming disaster knit the colonies together in a closer federation than legislators ever forged. How from that hour has sprung a new, purged and purified Australian race. All this, to the record of the Australian nation; mine are but some reminiscences of a time of horror unparalleled which no man anticipated would have visited Australia.
JOHNNIE MURCHISON, small boy, looked round the station homestead, and wondered what he would do. It was holiday time, and therefore, Johnnie found that old despot Time hang heavily upon his hands. His usual occupations had grown wearisome, and he longed for something new and fresh in the way of pastime.
It was early in the morning, soon after breakfast, and everybody had gone to work, and Johnnie was alone. He had no desire for the company of his mother, for she would surely set him something to do which he disliked; so he stood on the verandah, and looked round, and thought within himself that all was dust and ashes.
A thin smoke rising in the distance suggested the idea of the camp of the blacks hanging about the homestead. The blacks' camp was taboo to Johnnie, therefore, on this particular morning, when time hung heavily on his hands, he felt particularly attracted towards it.
King Paddy was, without doubt, a most attractive old man, but the rules and regulations were strictly against his having anything to say to Paddy on his own account.
Johnnie looked around. The pet emu was breaking all rules and regulations by wandering around the stables. The magpie was meditating an onslaught on the sleeping cat, and the gardener was having a quiet smoke-oh, even at that early hour. Every living thing appeared to be breaking rules and regulations, therefore why should Johnnie Murchison be exempt? The boy who hesitates is lost, in common with the man, therefore Johnnie hesitated, and decided to visit that nice old man, King Paddy.
Once committed, Johnnie had no scruples. He had not heard of the proverb that one might as well be hanged for a sheep as a lamb, but he proceeded to act on the principle. He first visited the store. The storekeeper was busy with his books, and did not see Johnnie filch some figs of tobacco from an opened case. A tin of jam and one of preserved milk formed all the spoils Johnnie could safely carry, and with these he departed. He—Johnnie—had made up his mind to have a day's outing with King Paddy, and to bribe that dusky potentate with his ill-gotten gains.
Johnnie found the king in a complacent humor. He was just out of tobacco, and a fig from Johnnie meant much, therefore his majesty was all smiles.
'Were you ever an outlaw?' asked Johnnie, when Paddy was well on for his smoke.
'You say outlaw,' said Paddy. 'My word! Mine been twenty time outlaw. One time alonga of killem twelve white fellow, then alonga five blackfellow, and then I forget who; but I bin outlaw plenty time, you bet.'
'Paddy,' said Johnnie, in a hesitating voice, 'do you mind being an outlaw with me? I've got a tin of jam and preserved milk, and some tobacco, that will last us until we can rob a hut.'
'You see,' he said, 'dis outlaw business cost money.'
Johnnie shook his head. Jam and other stores were fair game, but he had an honest horror about money.
'I suppose I, could do it,' said Paddy reflectively; 'but we must have something to shoot with. Outlaws not good without shooting.'
'I've got my gun,' said Johnnie. 'But, Paddy, do you know of a cave. Outlaws always have caves.'
'Yes,' said Paddy mendaciously, 'I know heaps of caves. There's the one under the big fig tree.'
'Oh,' said Johnnie regretfully, 'everybody knows that cave. We should be found at once.'
'Never mind,' said Paddy, 'I know plenty more caves.'
'Will you come, Paddy?' said the boy, 'and be an outlaw, and live in a cave?'
'My word!' said Paddy. 'Me come all right.'
The boy stood waiting while Paddy reflected. At last he spoke, 'You go back, get em shot gun, belonging you, tea and sugar, and meet me alonga old fellow tree' at lagoon paddock.'
The boy nodded a joyful assent. This was something like the joy of life—a man had been killed at the old man tree at the lagoon.
True to his word, Paddy was at the old man tree at the lagoon, awaiting the coming of the son and heir of Bigolong station. Paddy was but lightly attired, and he kindly allowed Johnnie to carry all the equipment. So the pair started out to be outlaws.
'Seems to me,' said Paddy, 'that we'd better go alonga road, meet 'em traveller, and stick him up.' Johnnie eagerly assented, but he was rather undecided when they met a traveller, and all that Paddy did was to whine for baccy.
'Mine think it,' said Paddy, 'we go alonga pub at crossing, and stick up that fella publican.'
This looked very much like the real thing, and Johnnie tramped contentedly alongside of Paddy until the pub was reached, and then Paddy suggested that probably Johnnie had thixpense on him.
'But I thought you were going to take the gun and stick up the publican?' said Johnnie.
'Yowl. Me take 'em gun alright. But carry thixpense, too.'
Paddy departed for the pub, and Johnnie waited anxiously, expecting to be called when he would find the publican and all hands tied up. No shots, however, were heard, and presently Paddy returned without the gun, and a suspicious bulge is his shirt front.
'No good,' he said, reflecting, 'too many white fellow sit down.' 'Where's the gun?' asked Johnnie. 'Mine 'bin plant 'am,' said Paddy. 'Mine think it we sit down alonga crossing, and wait for traveller.' The day was getting warm and Johnnie assented. They went and camped alongside a waterhole where they could watch the road. Paddy went down to the water and engaged in some mysterious operations, which made him cough. When he came back, there was no bulge in his shirt front.'
'You ever play about Red Indian?' asked Paddy.
'Oh, yes,' said Johnnie, 'if we stick up a traveller, we'll scalp him.'
'Yes,' said Paddy, 'first time scalp 'em, you mine, 'bin read 'em,' and he drew his sheath knife and looked wicked at poor Johnnie, but his mood relented, and he went down to the creek again, and bad another fit of coughing.
When he came back, he said he would go back to the hut and see if the people had left; if so, he would commence the slaughter. He staggered off, and Johnnie began to think that the business of outlaw was rather tame.
JOHNNIE MURCHISON waited in great discontent for the king's return. When at last the black monarch came, it was not at all a victorious outlaw—on the contrary, he seemed to appear with empty bottles flying after him. He sat down by Johnnie, and used profane language about publicans in general.
'Where's the gun?' asked Johnnie.
'That fellow publican got it,' replied Jimmy coolly.
'Got my gun!' exclaimed Johnnie. 'Why, it's my property, not yours.'
'Oh, proputty! I'm sick of that fellow proputty. Outlaws have no proputty. I sell him gun for two bottles of rum, and he only give me one bottle.'
'Oh, but, Jimmy, I must have my gun back.'
'Go and get it,' said Jimmy, who was three parts drunk. Johnnie considered a moment, and then marched up to the public house.
'You've my gun, Mr. Golding,' he said.
'What, the gun that Jimmy sold me?'
'Yes. If you don't give it me back, my father will see to it. You knew it was not Jimmy's, and you gave him rum for it.'
'Oh, here's your gun, sonny; but old Jimmy had better not come near me again.'
Johnnie took the gun and departed, his confidence in Jimmy completely shaken. He found Jimmy asleep, but he woke up on hearing Johnnie's tread.
'You got 'em gun, eh? Suppose I carry it; too heavy for you.'
'No!' said Johnnie. 'I'll carry it myself now.'
'Well, you like it being outlaw?'
'No, I don't,' returned Johnnie; 'it's too tame altogether. Why, we have not stuck up anybody yet, and all you have done is drink a bottle of rum.'
'That's all right,' said Jimmy; 'outlaw always drink rum.'
'What are we going to do now?' asked Johnnie.
'Oh, stick up someone. What you think of Chinaman? Stick up Chinaman garden—I think very good.'
This seemed somewhat definite, and Johnnie agreed. So the boy. and the black proceeded along the dusty road, until the green patch of the Chinaman's gardens appeared in sight.
'You go first, alonga a gun,' said Jimmy. 'That fellow Chinaman frightened alonga me.'
So Johnnie went boldly first, Jimmy following. Two Chinamen were working in the garden, and they did not appear at all alarmed at Johnnie's appearance, but when they caught sight of Jimmy they jabbered to one another, and came at him with their hoes. Jimmy did not wait for the onslaught, but fled at once.
The two Chinamen came back, speaking most disrespectfully of Jimmy as a 'd—d tief,' and asked Johnnie if he would like a melon. Johnnie had no objection, but he thought it beneath the dignity of an outlaw to accept one.
'You know I'm an outlaw,' he said.
'Welly good outlaw,' said one of the Chinamen. 'You Mr. Murchison's son—me bin see you before.'
This was a great come down for Johnnie; but at any rate he could now accept the melon with a good grace, which he did, and very good it was. The Chinamen showed him over their garden, and seemed very pleased to see him, which, considering the nature of his occupation, was singular.
When Johnnie left, they gave him some preserved ginger to take with him, and told him that if he met Jimmy, to shoot him, for he was a bad man.
Johnnie knew that Jimmy was a bad man, but was he not an outlaw? And was not Johnnie himself an outlaw? Therefore, he made up his mind not to take the Chinaman's advice and shoot Jimmy, although, doubtless, the advice was good and well meant.
He walked away along the road, and presently saw Jimmy awaiting him under the shade of a tree.
'Well, outlaw,' said Jimmy, 'you stick op Chinaman all right, I see.'
'No; they gave me this melon and preserved ginger.'
'All the same,' said Jimmy, accepting half the melon which Johnnie had brought for him, and finishing up with some preserved ginger.
'Jimmy,' said Johnnie, 'why did you run away just now?'
'Why, you see, those Chinamen and me not friends, and I bin frightened that if I stayed I kill them.'
'But you left me alone.'
'Oh, that all right; Chinaman no hurt a boy like you.'
'Well, they said you were a bad man, and I ought to shoot you, and I think I will, and then I'll be a real outlaw.'
'No, Johnnie,' whined his majesty, for Johnnie had begun to handle his gun. 'You no shoot old man, Jimmy,' and the blackfellow dodged towards a handy tree.
'Well, I won't shoot you this time,', returned Johnnie, who had now found out his power; 'but if you don't do something like a real outlaw the next time we have a chance I will shoot you. One can always shoot outlaws where you meet them.'
'Well, where go? There's Joe White, got a selection a mile away. Shall we stick him up and get dinner?'
'Yes, I'm getting hungry,' and they started. Joe White's selection was reached just as White was going to dinner.
'Hullo, young Murchison!' he said, 'just in time for dinner.'
Then, catching sight of Jimmy he added, 'Quick, lend me your gun.'
Without remembering that he was an outlaw, Johnnie surrendered his gun, but Jimmy was already going across the paddock like a frightened wallaby. When Jimmy was a good way off, so the shots would have little effect, he fired, and Jimmy gave a howl, and cleared the fence at one gigantic bound.
'Did you shoot Jimmy because he is an outlaw, Mr. White?' asked Johnnie. 'Is he an outlaw? I shot him to give him a warning not to come prowling round my fowl yard after dark.'
'I'm an outlaw, too.'
'Are you, Johnnie? When did you become an outlaw?' 'This morning. Jimmy and I started out to commence bushranging; but there's been no fun in it. Jimmy's a coward!'
'Well, come in; Mrs. White will give you some dinner.'
'But I must tell you first, Mr. White, we were going to stick up your place.'
Joe White laughed loud and long as he took Johnnie inside, and said to his wife, 'Here's a young gentleman who was going to stick up our place.'
'Bless the boy, what was he going to do that for? It's Johnnie Murchison, too.'
'He and that old thief King Jimmy started to play at bushranging this morning; but you haven't made a success of it, have you, Johnnie?'
Johnnie had a splendid appetite, and was deep in his dinner, so he only looked sheepish and grinned. When Johnnie had finished Ms dinner, and was ready to go, Mrs. White gave him a lump of cake to take home with him, warning him not to give it to Jimmy if he met him. But Johnnie thought Jimmy would not meet him; he would be too ashamed of himself, which showed how gullible poor Johnnie still was.
Sure enough, when he was well away from White's selection, Jimmy suddenly and mysteriously appeared on the road after the fashion of a blackfellow.
'I'm hungry; you got fill out; I got nothing only charge of shot.'
'A charge of fright, Jimmy; you were too far away to get hurt.'
'Well, gib it cake.' Johnnie was not hungry, and he gave him the cake.
'Jimmy, I am afraid that you are a coward and a thief.'
'Oh! so you do? Well, now, I just show you,' and before Johnnie knew what be was up to, he had grasped the gun, and dragged it out of his hands.
'You just come alonga your father. He be anxious about you. Hurry up, no cheek!'
Johnnie was too astounded at this sudden change of front to make any show of resistance, even if he had any chance, for Jimmy was twice the size of poor little Johnnie. He accordingly went; but was unprepared for the sequel.
It was late in the afternoon when they arrived at the station, and Johnnie was tired after roaming about all day. His father was standing on the verandah when they came up, and before Mr. Murchison or Johnnie could speak Jimmy burst out—
'Here's Johnnie, Mitter Murchison. I bin find him long way, going out with gun to be a bushranger. I make him come home. Very hungry and tired me. You gib it rations and shirt. Johnnie fired at me, and put shot in shirt,' and he turned round to show the perforation. Johnnie was speechless with indignation.
'It was Mr. White who fired at him because he was a thief!' he got out; but his father stopped him.
'Go inside! I will listen to you presently,' and poor Johnnie had to obey orders, and leave that arch conspirator Jimmy to tell his story uncontradicted.
He had the additional mortification of hearing his father go down to the store to give Jimmy rations and a new shirt.
Next time Johnnie goes bushranging he will choose a different mate to King Jimmy.
Project Gutenberg Australia