Tropic Days, by E. J. Banfield

Time’s Finger

“The more cleer and the more shynynge that Fortune is, the more brutil and the sooner breketh she.”— CHAUCER.

High up on the auspicious shoulder of the Island mountain stands the Sentinel, a coarse, truncated pinnacle of granite, roughened and wrinkled by the toll of the moist breezes, alternating with the scorching flames of the sun. It overlooks the league-long sweep of the treacherous bay, with its soft and smothering sands, the string of islets of the Yacka Eebah group, while Bli and Coobie lie close under foot, set in a swirling sea.

One aspect of the Sentinel commands all the map-like detail of Pun-nul Bay, with its labyrinthian creeks among a flat density of mangroves, like lustrous, uncertain byways in a sombre field, erratic of shape, magnificent of proportion. Beyond are many islets — dark blue on a lighter plain. In the distance, on the other hand, islands and islets trail away until lost in the vague blending of sea and sky; and for a background is all Australia. In front alone does the Sentinel peer over uninterrupted space, and not always, for at times patches of white filigree mark the outliers of the Great Barrier Reef.

Looking up from Pun-nul Bay before sunrise, the base of the Sentinel ‘was swathed in white — night’s rumpled draperies not yet tossed aside. As the east glowed it stained the mist pink, and so warmed it that it parted into patches of luminous fluff which floated up and dissolved into crystalline air, and the great lumbering rock stood naked and bold in the sunshine.

Then it was that the apex of a splintered peak beyond the Sentinel glittered, and that Chutter-murra Wylo, the one survivor of the truculent natives, told once more of the wonderful stone for which many had ventured, which had caused the disappearance of several, which decoyed man and beast, and stored their bones close to the awful hole whence issued the smoke which made the rain, and the dread lightning, and the thunder.

None ever ventured there now; but sometimes in the early morning the stone twinkled for a moment like a malignant sprite, watchful all night, but abashed yet impudent to the authoritative sun.

Chutter-murra Wylo had so often indicated the exact locality of the stone, and had described its dire influence with such sincerity that, when it twinkled, a resolution which had been long in the back of my mind became wilful and imperative. He said that it was “on top, along oo-nang-mugil”— a gloomy place among rocks — and that the old men of the country had been wont to say that this particular “oo-nang-mugil” was the favourite resort of the “debil-debil,” the to whose arrogance and awful deeds the bones of man and beast bore terrifying testimony.

Between the Sentinel and a spur to the south is a narrow ravine, from which in the rainy season mist rises like jets of steam, and this was the very spot whence the lightning and thunder ranged when the “debil-debil” lifted the mighty stone which blocked the entrance to the cave of the winds. All about was fantastic ground, peopled by evil spirits who resented the intrusion of human beings and inflicted upon trespassers peculiar punishments. Ill befell everyone who invaded that remote, almost inaccessible, uninviting region, at the very centre of which the alluring stone glittered. Of those who rashly determined to gaze at the prodigy at close quarters, some never returned. Those who did come back were vexed with burning and smarting pains; they suffered illnesses; their skin broke out into blotches; they became old and enfeebled prematurely. and all, whether they survived for a few irritating weeks or a few sad years, wore to the end a startled, awe-struck air. “That fella no more sit down quiet; him frait all time,” Wylo explained. And the stone was good to look at. Sometimes it was white like water; sometimes blue, like the sea; sometimes red, like “carrie-wy-in-gin” (sunrise). Sometimes it shook, and then it became so bright that the eyes were dazzled. The star-like stone had been on the rock for all time, protected by distance and mystery. Was it not, indeed, the eye of the “debil-debil” who had custody of the lightning and thunder imps, and could it not be elevated or depressed like the eye of a sand-crab? No intruder had ever escaped its vigil or the consequences of his temerity.

We were camped under the lee of a low sand-dune, the top of which commanded Pun-nul Bay. As the wind swayed its scalp-lock of twisted shrubs, the dune quivered, and rivulets of singing sand, almost as fluid and as unstable as water, trickled down, for it was one of the rubbish-heaps of the sea, over the brink of which waste was unceasingly shot.

The maze of mangroves whence weird hoots and bubbling cries and sharp clicks came at night, the stealthy sand marching over the land, the barren slopes of the mountain, and the misshapen rock, gave one’s thoughts a twist in the direction of the vague and mysterious. Wylo’s continual harping on the wonderful stone renewed the old longing for adventure. He had seen it from a safe distance, but from the present aspect only the indecorous glint at sunrise was visible.

The stone was a crystallised fact, but why had the blacks invested it with such ill omen? Here was a worthy quest — a beautiful if not precious crystal betokening the actual presence of a wary demon guardant over the mouldering skeletons of Wylo’s forefathers! What quest could be more sensational or likely to be so famously rewarded?

Wylo was prepared to climb the mountain to the base of the Sentinel, but no higher. Secrets hidden from his intemperate, insistent gaze must surely be inconsequent. Once and for all, the legend of the crystal might be disposed of at the cost of two or three hours’ climbing. I would bring it back to prove to Wylo that no irreverent “debil-debil” would ever again blink at the sun from that particular spot. As for the skeletons, they were, without doubt, as mythical as the evil spirit, and in any case a few old bones were not to scare me from venturing to the boldly obvious summit of the mountain.

Wylo went wellnigh naked, carrying a day’s provisions and the rifle. I, too, was lightly clad, but wore thick-soled boots, freely studded, and with a tomahawk felt efficiently armed.

Beyond the entanglement of the beach scrub the way was open, though rough, with granite boulders half hidden among rampant blady grass. The country was decidedly hostile to the climber, though far from actually forbidding, and with Wylo in the lead — for I held myself in reserve for the final clamber up the ravine, to which the ascent to the base of the Sentinel was merely a prelude — the pace was respectable and sure. Closer acquaintance forced a certain sort of respect for the Sentinel, which was more massive, more venerable and time-worn than could be imagined from afar off, while all the scene below seemed softer and smoother and more fairyland-like than in reality.

Having indicated what he deemed to be the direct route, and firmly resolving to take no risks by peering into the domain of the “debil-debil,” Wylo sat in the shadow of a huge boulder whence he could command a view of the entrance to the rock-bestrewn gorge. Not more than eight hundred feet separated the spot from the summit of the peak. A couple of hours at most and I would be down again, and, semi-seriously, I counselled Wylo to stop where he was until late in the afternoon, and if I had not then appeared to return to the camp, where he was to remain for a couple of days, when he would be at liberty to make his way to the head of the mangrove creek where the boat was anchored, with the design of bringing help to kill the “debil-debil” that detained me in his clutches. He was not too cheerful in his parting injunctions. “No good you fight’m that fella. Suppose he catch’m you, he kill you one time — finis. No good me come back. Me clear out quick!”

In all seriousness he undertook to “sit down” for two days, and finally imparted advice which might enable me to out-manoeuvre the “debil-debil,” and either curb him or throw him out from his lair “with wondrous potency.” Up the gorge I would find a prickly bush, from which I was to cut a leafy branch as a frontal shield. Then, when the fiend swooped upon me, its long arms and pliant hands, furnished with needle-like nails, would become embarrassed by the “nails,” of the branch, and while it howled and danced I could “kill’m alonga leg” with the tomahawk. I was to be careful not to look up, for the eye of the “debil-debil” was so bright and hot that it burnt up mortal sight, leaving the intruder a blind and hopeless victim.

Discreetly valorous, Wylo was quite enthusiastic, anxious, indeed, that the quest should be accomplished by an audacious white man and at no risk to himself. Therefore did I accept his counsel gravely, and in parting promised to bring down one of the hands of the long-standing terror of the mountain as proof that I had exacted the last penalty for many demonic deeds.

Thus, good-humouredly, I began to clamber up the ravine through a perplexity of shrubs growing among loosely packed stones, thankful for strong boots and hands toughened by the sun. Overhanging trees and shrubs almost converted the ravine into a tunnel, but here and there a greenish light wrought changeful patterns on the gloomy rocks, and ferns of sombre green with unfolding fronds of ruddy brown occupied crannies and crowned rocks favoured by drips. No sound of animal life came to my cars, but an ever-increasing current of air was perceptible as the walls closed in and became almost precipitous.

The narrow footway was swept bare of loose stones and vegetable rubbish, save where the wet-season torrents had scooped out basins, or where a ledge of resisting rock made a wet-season water fall. Such places had to be discreetly scaled, for the rock was worn to polished smoothness and hand and foot holds were few and far between. Aerial roots, thin as whipcord, hung from the branches of trees crowding on the brink of the ravine, and with tasselled terminals sopped up moisture. A melancholy, humming monotone pervaded the ravine, seeming to increase in remonstrance and warning the higher I ascended. Wylo had told of the noise like a steamer’s whistle a long way off. His local knowledge was being authenticated at every step. Such a sound was almost uncouth in such a locality; and there, overhanging a jutting angle of red rock, was the predicted bush with keen prickles thickset on limber branches. Half amused, I climbed to the spot, and, clinging precariously to the principal stem, cut off a branch which, falling into the ravine, slipped several yards down the smooth floor. It was not worth recovering, but a certain half-humorous sense of obedience to the black boy’s cautions induced me to return for it; and as I trimmed off some of the prickles that it might be grasped comfortably, a stone clattered down, bouncing on the rock almost at my feet.

A substantial mystery! What invisible agency had given this hard fact its force? A gleeful chuckle followed by a discordant crow dissipated doubt-the stone had been dislodged by an industrious scrub fowl raking on the brink of the ravine. A sense of fellowship with the harsh-voiced bird manifested itself. A transient sensation of relief — I had not been conscious of the least mental depression — followed the thought that in and about the ravine there were other living things besides myself and snakes. The death adder, the head of which I had fatally bruised just now, had been the only sign of life, and it had been as dull-coloured and almost as inert as the rock on which it lay — an emblem of death at home in this almost lifeless seclusion. Dwelling with amusement on Wylo’s suggested precautions, I bore the branch before me as I climbed a steep face, the tomahawk in my belt, intent for the time being, and as cautious and suspicious as a black boy. On the lip of what seemed to be a hollow a fig-tree grew, the naked, interlacing roots of which made the final stages of the ascent easy and safe. Briskly hauling myself up, I stepped over the edge of the depression, and the solid rock lapsed and slid underfoot.

In a flash the head of a python arose, and with gaping jaws struck as the branch fell from my hand.’ In a moment I had whipped the tomahawk from my belt and slashed at the body of the snake squirming at my feet, as, baffled for a moment by the falling branch, it gathered itself for a second attack.

Few of the enemies of man are more easily disabled than a snake. Always zealous in obedience to the Biblical law, it is honest to confess to a decided preference for elbow-room when engaged in its actual fulfilment. This was a fight with man’s first enemy in close and awkward quarters — a precipice behind, walls of rock in front and at either hand. Three times my length, strong enough to constrict to death a giant, wily enough to seek the cover of the matted roots of the tree, several points were in favour of the snake. My first wild haphazard stroke, which had merely scored its flesh, seemed to have roused its vindictiveness. Once in those coils, the chances of victory would be remote indeed.

Part of the python’s still gliding length was within reach, while (the forepart resting on a branch) the head was but slightly higher than mine, though beyond the radius of the tomahawk.

The bulging head drew slowly back, as the snake released sufficient of its length to encompass me. The yellow, blinkless eyes, with knife-edge pupils, flashed with the hate of agelong feud as I edged against the wall. My arm was free. The lust of battle tightened every nerve. Neither flashing eyes nor strangulating length made for fear. The hitherto all-conquering snake, lord and master of the ravine, bade defiance, joining issue with the craft of its kind.

Slowly the pendant portion increased as the subtle beast seemed to concentrate all its energies on one triumphant, invincible effort.

Anticipating the fateful instant, I slashed with all my force at the portion of the body within reach, ducking simultaneously. Shooting over me, the head of the enemy struck the rock with brain-bemuddling impact. For once the serpent had been foiled. With jaws awry, the head swung limply, like a ceasing pendulum. One blow with the back of the tomahawk established the right of man to wander at will among the rough and secret places of the mountain.

Still did the swaying reptile cling with a single coil round the figtree’s branch, while chill blood dripped and splashed among the intertwined and snake-like roots. A sudden tug brought the body down a squirming mass. With rough-shod heel, I fulfilled the letter of the law, bruising the battered head, and then were revealed the bosses by which, with the tail, the snake had sustained its dead weight.

Was this the “debil-debil” which had scared so many from the quest — a python which any man might kill in the open without running any risk, and which a black boy, with time on his hands, would joy to eat? Yet I own that I was somewhat flustered, and not a little tired and bruised and angry, because such an impediment had had to be cleared from the track. Was there not cause for indignation? Why should a gormandising serpent, full to repletion, lie slothfully across a highway open to all, to the checking of a holiday-making mortal in lawful pursuit of a demon-protected crystal? Let me once more vindictively stamp on its head.

But which way? Here was a dead and unscalable wall to right and left and in front, and all in deep shadow. I estimated that another one hundred feet would take me to the mountain-top, whence it would be possible to survey the scene in relation to the bejewelled rock. Descent was the only practicable preliminary towards further ascent. Utilising the interlacing roots of the fig-tree, the way down was easy enough, and, choosing the left wall of the ravine, I began a perilous climb out of gloom into sunshine, upon a conglomeration of immense granite boulders, over which the Sentinel cast a shadow. This shadow indicated that the ascent had occupied at least three hours, and in my self-complacency I had calculated to beard the “debil-debil” in his den, dislodge the crystal, and be back at the camp gloating over the escapade to open-eyed Wylo in less time.

Though a night was to be spent in the haunt of the evil spirit, yet would I proceed. I found not one but many “oo-nang-mugils,” lowering caves and clefts in which scores of fearsome “debil-debils” might lurk, but which, as far as a vigilant mortal could detect, were given over to innocent bats and those sun-loving swiftlets which rear their young in nests adherent to rocks in dusky places.

Over and beneath boulders, squirming through bolt-holes and up flue-like openings, bruised and with bleeding hands, at last the top was reached, harsh with granite, and there to the right, on a gigantic splintered boulder which seemed to block the end of the ravine and to peer down into the blue bay below, was the crystal glinting in sunshine. It was not more than fifty yards away, and, easeful of mind, I sat down to munch a piece of damper. Close by a patch of vivid green moss indicated the existence of moisture and the further possibility of water. Sure enough, twenty yards down spongy moss and fern spread over a lip of rocks, and from dangling tufts and drooping fronds water dripped in melodious splashes into a shallow depression, and overflowed in a fan-shaped film. The facets and apex of the crystal reflected harsh brightness as unsullied as the moss-filtered, unstable drips which gathered second by second and were gone. How like those drips, how unlike the scarred, time-chastened rock, that steadfast slip of light which since the dawn of creation had flashed messages across the unresponsive sea.

From a ledge in which ferns and orchids grew in careless profusion — bird’s-nest fern and polypodium and white-flowering orchid — the crystal might be reached by a little manoeuvring. But why hurry? Every minor crevice was embossed with spongy moss, from which sprang modest little flowers, a flower of mountaintops alone, lacking a familiar name, but which in its dainty form and rich mauve is none the less precious. While all the rest of the way had been barren or gloomy, here was brave sunshine and space, a jewel-like crystal, and moss and ferns and flowers, and calm and cool serenity which’ bespoke remoteness from the “debil-debil” and all his works, and from the noisy cave of the winds. Magic there was in plenty-the air tingled with it — that exhilarating, mind-expanding silence of mountain-tops which is the most thrilling magic of all.

Leisurely glances at the mass of granite from which the crystal shone showed that from the ferny ledge it would be beyond reach, and that unless care was exercised in the dislodgment it might fall among a confusion of boulders far below and be lost for ever. My plan was of to build a buttress of loose stone on which to stand to tap it with the tomahawk. Like a miniature railway cutting, the ledge ran out on the face of the rock, so that standing upon it one looked down into the ravine; but it was broad enough to afford safe and even convenient footing.

As a final preliminary to the beginning of operations, I clambered up on to the ledge. Ferns grew among decaying vegetable matter in masses difficult to push through. Polypodiums with brown, oak-leaf like, infantile fronds clung tightly to the rocks with furry fingers, and the birds’-nests were big enough to conceal a man. A broad and comfortable path it was, leading directly under the crystal, and with haste and confidence I pushed along, smiling inwardly at “shynynge” fortune, to be in another moment dismayed by her “brutilness.” The earth sank under me. I shot into an acute fissure with ferns and dust piled overhead!

Gasping and coughing, I cleared away the smothering rubbish, to find myself a fixture — jambed fast between walls of granite. Deceptive ferns had masked the crevice. I had walked along a treacherous track until at a weak spot it had given way as the gallows’ trap beneath the feet of a murderer.

Light came from ahead, too. There the lancehead-shaped fissure opened on the ravine, whence it was flushed with cool air.

Was ever mortal in such a plight? A drop of eight from the spacious top of the mountain had lodged me a prisoner in the narrowest of cells. Dismayed but not despairing, I struggled frantically, working with shoulder and arms against the walls of granite. The right foot was firmly fixed, while a sensation of easiness was perceptible with regard to the left. Gently yet firmly, and fearful lest the slight grain of comfort might be fraudulent, I felt the weight of my body on the left foot, while scrutinising in detail the horrible trap into which the crystal bait had lured me.

There, a few feet below and further towards the ravine, was the skull of a human being, and still further down, where space was more confined, other bones were fixtures. There was a weird fascination about the skull, for at noon it would receive the benediction of the sun, and the diurnal glare into the secrets of the crevice had made a patch of white desert in an oasis of grey mould. The bones below, green and earthly with age, lay in disorder and confusion — poor fragments of the framework of man and harmless beasts, sharing a common fate.

Though fast a prisoner, nothing to live on but hope and fresh air, a sense of relief, somehow, sometime, established itself in my mind. Most of the significant features of the adventure had been faithfully foretold by Wylo — the prickly bush, the snake (archetype of the fiend), the mocking delusive stone, the stored bones of man and beast-all as he had described. He must have known more than he had voluntarily told, and assuredly would he come’, when he would coo-ee, and I would shout for very joy. In the meantime would I possess my soul in patience and conserve all the strength of my lungs and power of endurance.

Just beyond the platform of ferns a splash of lovely tints illuminated the edge of the time-recording shadow — the solar spectrum produced by the prism which had beckoned from afar. Was there no escape from the wizardry of the crystal? No hope of evading comparison of its beauty and permanence with the muddy and fleeting passions of mankind? Yet how fruitless its functions — to glorify for aeons the intractable rock, and to leave it ever unstained! For once in all the centuries may not a human hand be interposed between those ineffectual flames and the surly rock? Cannot even that small measure of space be overcome?

A few inches from the tips of my outstretched fingers were the prismatic tints with which the crystal daily registered the decline of the day; but not for all my striving and all my wit could I get within reach. They were as remote as the creating sun!

The narrowness of the cleft forbade effort to reach down so that I might unlace my boots. There wan but one chance of deliverance — the coming of Wylo. And would he, agitated by superstitious awe, dare to venture into the haunt of the evil spirit when he began to realise that I, too, had fallen into the clutches he so much dreaded? Yet he must come! Of what special impiety had I been guilty that so rare and terrible a fate should have been reserved for me. He must come!

Yes. Listen! I hear his coo-ee far below! He is making his way up the ravine! And with, all my vocal power I coo-eed and yelled. But the muffling rocks stifled all noise at lips. Listen! Yes! The sound again — merely the mellow cadences of a swamp pheasant whooping among the blady grass.

Wylo dared not venture to the very door of the cave of the winds. I was alone with my fate! Could I master it?

The clean-cut shadow crept up the rock, and with it the colour splash receded. As I gazed it glittered and was gone. It would not be visible again until the next afternoon. Would I be here to watch it illuminate the rock once more? Could I contain myself until then, and perhaps after, and for day after day, until the last? And were my bones to be added to the secret horde mouldering within a few feet of the mountain-top? A few feet of nothingness — mere empty space — separated me from lost and lovely liberty, and with frantic hands I strove against the hard face of the rock, and cried aloud in agonising protest.

The old rock had disregarded similar protests and supplications, and had endured like infantile pushings! Call, and who shall listen? Push and shove and fight, and what availed it?

In my delirium I cursed and blasphemed, and “full of shriekynge was that sory place.”

Darkness followed brief twilight, and up the ravine came the murmuring I had heard below — a sobbing sound which at first affrighted and then soothed, for it could be nothing but the echo of the sea on the curving beach below; and in its comfort that lulled all ineffectual clamour, and eventually to fretful but frightful sleep. Always I awoke panting with thirst, stiff and strained, and with unmanly cries of fear and pain on my lips, while the chaste stars danced across the narrow slit as I strove to stem the turbid stream of despondency.

About midnight a singular peacefulness possessed me, overcoming me in spite of myself. Feverish impatience and resistance seemed futile, and in my resignation I began to realise that to avert cramp and disablement from cold — for a chill, moist breeze from the ravine played continuously on me — some sort of exercise must be undertaken.

My left foot was certainly not so compressed as the right. Though it could not be raised, it was possible to move it ever so slightly forwards and backwards. Might it not be possible, by never-ceasing friction, to so abrade the edges of the sole of the boot that it might be reduced to such dimension as would permit it to be raised?

With all the force of my mind concentrated on the one idea, I began to work in a passion of patience. At first the play of the boot was hardly to be registered; but hour after hour of ceaseless and calculated effort not only counterbalanced mental tension and imparted some degree of warmth to my body, but so amended the shape of the boot that it began to move with some degree of freedom. The more easy the fit, the more cautious and calm I became.

No insipid monotony pervaded the remote, cold crevice. The operation was lubricated with hope. Once every heart-beat — for I kept strict tally, as further mental relaxation — my boot rubbed against the rock, and each rub wore away minute particles of leather. As time passed and the work became still easier, it became more engrossing, until calmness gave way, and every nerve thrilled with excitement, and I was convinced that I would win a joyful passage from this narrow strait by dint of the resolute continuation of the simplest of processes.

But the long night was not to end with such placid and entertaining occupation. Absorbed in it, sternly waving off all sense of weariness or despair, I was staggered and stunned by the fall, among an avalanche of fern debris, of a heavy living body on my head and shoulders — a grunting, struggling thing which kicked and scratched.

With a despairing shriek, ‘all my vibrant nerves collapsed, as in the darkness and confusion I fought against infernal odds. For one appalling instant I was convinced of the reality of Wylo’s most diresome fact, and did furiously believe that I was actually entrapped in the stronghold of a demon at that moment, intent upon tearing me limb from limb. The most fantastic and horrific of nightmares was actually materialised.

But at that instant a familiar odour sluiced away all mystery. This struggling thing, from the shock of which my very soul still trembled, was but a fellow-victim — a wallaby which, feeding along the ledge, had happened on the trap made by my fall.

In a flash of remorseless energy, I seized the panting body, felt for the throat, and, expelling pity from my heart, gripped until all was still. How precious and comforting it was! And once again all my powers of will and muscle were centred on a single design and action as with machine-like rhythm the boot wore itself against the rock. Disengaged from every other theme, my mind dwelt on the one steady, inevitable purpose. Rub! Rub! Rub! And I fancied I saw leathern dust fall like filings from iron down deeper into the crevice. Before dawn the boot was working freely, and with one arm on the compressed body of the wallaby to case my weight, rest was possible. The plan for the disengagement of the right foot, painfully rigid and cold, was perfect in theory. Would it hold in practice? When the left was free I would, by friction of the iron studs In the sole, wear away the laces of the engaged boot so that the foot might be withdrawn.

But physical weakness became imperious. The distraction of cramped and bruised flesh had to be withstood the while the constancy of the function was maintained. Continual comfort came from the dead body of the ill-fated wallaby — a sort of fellowship, and a feeling that with its co-operation the contest between living flesh and blood and the inert force of the mountain was not altogether one-sided. Light was certainly cheerful, but the crevice filled with mist which distilled on the rock, and a chill current of air benumbed my aching limbs.

Under the pressure of fierce determination the task persisted, until, quite unexpectedly as it seemed, the boot was free; and then, shoving and squeezing the wallaby as a cushion for my right arm, the sole of the left boot began to rasp away at the instep of the right. In such a constrained position the operation, which could be persevered in by fits and starts only, was exasperatingly slow. The sun sopped up the morning mist and boldly explored the crevice, revealing the marvellous precision of the space between the walls. No work of art could be more regular. The sheer simplicity of the trap made it the more effectual. The sunlight showed, too, that the fissure was the skylight of a cave which opened out on the ravine. Dry boulders were strewn about fifty feet below, while ahead I could catch a glimpse of a narrow ribbon of blue sea. This provoking sight of unattainable water aggravated thirst almost beyond endurance. Throughout the night had my longing increased, but now the pangs were extreme. The most gratifying of all drinks — cool, fern-filtered, flower-decorated water, water dripping in iridescent spangles from green moss soft as velvet — splashed incessantly into a hollow out there a few yards away in the free space of the mountain. Here, manacled with “adamant eterne,” in an agony of impatience I quaffed the thirst-stimulating draught of unsatisfied longing as I strove fitfully to wear away the stubborn strips of leather which held me in bondage. In a doze or dream the action went on. Startled, I awoke to find myself pommelling with inane savagery the poor crumpled body of the wallaby, and to the realisation that the imprisoned foot was loose in the boot.

A luxurious stupor took possession of my mind. I was at liberty to work out of the crevice knees and shoulders; yet an impalpable force detained me. It was not that I was not master of my fate, but that out there in the glare of the sun was patient water, dripping for the refreshment and cleansing of my grimy lips. So enchanting a thought was not to be abruptly ended. Was it not deliciously dreamy to hold myself in suspense awhile, to linger over anticipated sweetness and prolong blest gratifications indefinitely?

Strange drowsiness and peace bewitched the sunlit chink. Why should I struggle more? Could I not, in fancy, hearken to the measured splash of the drops from the sodden moss? Could anything be more consoling than this cushion to my bruised and aching arms? Ease and sloth were sweet indeed. I was free, but not at large. The amazing adaptability of the human mind had reconciled me in a few suffering hours to this confined space. Verily do I believe that the overcoming of this subtle anodyne demanded the expenditure of more vital force than the sum of all the long-sustained automatic exertion by which I had won physical release.

One supreme mental tug and the baneful torpor was dispelled, and with stiffened legs and bruised hand I began to screw myself up to the free air cautiously and painfully; and there, in a beam of light from the crystal, was the slow-dripping flower-bedizened water-celestial nectar to parched lips.

Hours after I awoke as from a dream. Far below a column of smoke showed that Wylo still watched. My first act was to send up a responsive signal. In a fit of petty passion I flung the toil-worn boot into the ravine, and began the descent by way of the spur to the west.

Wylo seemed scared by the sight of the staggering and tattered scarecrow, barefooted, and stained with blood and dirt, who stumbled into the camp at dusk, too weary to talk, almost too spent to eat; and to this day he is convinced that I was actually detained by the “debil-debil,” whom I had overcome by some means of which wonder-working white men alone have the secret.

After two days’ rest I climbed the mountain again, blocked the fissure with loose stones, and built a buttress, standing upon which I tapped the crystal gently with the tomahawk. It quivered. A shaft of rainbow tints dazzled my sight. I tapped again. As I touched it it third time, the fragile finger with which the gaunt old rock had scorned the plodding centuries vanished in a splutter of spangles!

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:32