A Strange Story, by Edward Bulwer-Lytton

Chapter 72.

I turned back alone. The sun was reddening the summits of the distant mountain-range, but dark clouds, that portended rain, were gathering behind my way and deepening the shadows in many a chasm and hollow which volcanic fires had wrought on the surface of uplands undulating like diluvian billows fixed into stone in the midst of their stormy swell. I wandered on and away from the beaten track, absorbed in thought. Could I acknowledge in Julius Faber’s conjectures any basis for logical ratiocination; or were they not the ingenious fancies of that empirical Philosophy of Sentiment by which the aged, in the decline of severer faculties, sometimes assimilate their theories to the hazy romance of youth? I can well conceive that the story I tell will be regarded by most as a wild and fantastic fable; that by some it may be considered a vehicle for guesses at various riddles of Nature, without or within us, which are free to the license of romance, though forbidden to the caution of science. But, I— I— know unmistakably my own identity, my own positive place in a substantial universe. And beyond that knowledge, what do I know? Yet had Faber no ground for his startling parallels between the chimeras of superstition and the alternatives to faith volunteered by the metaphysical speculations of knowledge? On the theorems of Condillac, I, in common with numberless contemporaneous students (for, in my youth, Condillac held sway in the schools, as now, driven forth from the schools, his opinions float loose through the talk and the scribble of men of the world, who perhaps never opened his page) — on the theorems of Condillac I had built up a system of thought designed to immure the swathed form of material philosophy from all rays and all sounds of a world not material, as the walls of some blind mausoleum shut out, from the mummy within, the whisper of winds and the gleaming of stars.

And did not those very theorems, when carried out to their strict and completing results by the close reasonings of Hume, resolve my own living identity, the one conscious indivisible me, into a bundle of memories derived from the senses which had bubbled and duped my experience, and reduce into a phantom, as spectral as that of the Luminous Shadow, the whole solid frame of creation?

While pondering these questions, the storm whose forewarnings I had neglected to heed burst forth with all the suddenness peculiar to the Australian climes. The rains descended like the rushing of floods. In the beds of watercourses, which, at noon, seemed dried up and exhausted, the torrents began to swell and to rave; the gray crags around them were animated into living waterfalls. I looked round, and the landscape was as changed as a scene that replaces a scene on the player’s stage. I was aware that I had wandered far from my home, and I knew not what direction I should take to regain it. Close at hand, and raised above the torrents that now rushed in many a gully and tributary creek, around and before me, the mouth of a deep cave, overgrown with bushes and creeping flowers tossed wildly to and fro between the rain from above and the spray of cascades below, offered a shelter from the storm. I entered — scaring innumerable flocks of bats striking against me, blinded by the glare of the lightning that followed me into the cavern, and hastening to resettle themselves on the pendants of stalactites, or the jagged buttresses of primaeval wall.

From time to time the lightning darted into the gloom and lingered amongst its shadows; and I saw, by the flash, that the floors on which I stood were strewed with strange bones, some amongst them the fossilized relics of races destroyed by the Deluge. The rain continued for more than two hours with unabated violence; then it ceased almost as suddenly as it had come on, and the lustrous moon of Australia burst from the clouds shining bright as an English dawn, into the hollows of the cave. And then simultaneously arose all the choral songs of the wilderness — creatures whose voices are heard at night — the loud whir of the locusts, the musical boom of the bullfrog, the cuckoo note of the morepork, and, mournful amidst all those merrier sounds, the hoot of the owl, through the wizard she-oaks and the pale green of the gum-trees.

I stepped forth into the open air and gazed, first instinctively on the heavens, next, with more heedful eye, upon the earth. The nature of the soil bore the evidence of volcanic fires long since extinguished. Just before my feet, the rays fell full upon a bright yellow streak in the block of quartz half imbedded in the soft moist soil. In the midst of all the solemn thoughts and the intense sorrows which weighed upon heart and mind, that yellow gleam startled the mind into a direction remote from philosophy, quickened the heart to a beat that chimed with no household affections. Involuntarily I stooped; impulsively I struck the block with the hatchet, or tomahawk, I carried habitually about me, for the purpose of marking the trees that I wished to clear from the waste of my broad domain. The quartz was shattered by the stroke, and left disburied its glittering treasure. My first glance had not deceived me. I, vain seeker after knowledge, had, at least, discovered gold. I took up the bright metal — gold! I paused; I looked round; the land that just before had seemed to me so worthless took the value of Ophir. Its features had before been as unknown to me as the Mountains of the Moon, and now my memory became wonderfully quickened. I recalled the rough map of my possessions, the first careless ride round their boundaries. Yes, the land on which I stood — for miles, to the spur of those farther mountains — the land was mine, and, beneath its surface, there was gold! I closed my eyes; for some moments visions of boundless wealth, and of the royal power which such wealth could command, swept athwart my brain. But my heart rapidly settled back to its real treasure. “What matters,” I sighed, “all this dross? Could Ophir itself buy back to my Lilian’s smile one ray of the light which gave ‘glory to the grass and splendour to the flower’?”

So muttering, I flung the gold into the torrent that raged below, and went on through the moonlight, sorrowing silently — only thankful for the discovery that had quickened my reminiscence of the landmarks by which to steer my way through the wilderness.

The night was half gone, for even when I had gained the familiar track through the pastures, the swell of the many winding creeks that now intersected the way obliged me often to retrace my steps; to find, sometimes, the bridge of a felled tree which had been providently left unremoved over the now foaming torrent, and, more than once, to swim across the current, in which swimmers less strong or less practised would have been dashed down the falls, where loose logs and torn trees went clattering and whirling: for I was in danger of life. A band of the savage natives were stealthily creeping on my track — the natives in those parts were not then so much awed by the white man as now. A boomerang43 had whirred by me, burying itself amongst the herbage close before my feet. I had turned, sought to find and to face these dastardly foes; they contrived to elude me. But when I moved on, my ear, sharpened by danger, heard them moving, too, in my rear. Once only three hideous forms suddenly faced me, springing up from a thicket, all tangled with honeysuckles and creepers of blue and vermilion. I walked steadily up to them. They halted a moment or so in suspense; but perhaps they were scared by my stature or awed by my aspect; and the Unfamiliar, though Human, had terror for them, as the Unfamiliar, although but a Shadow, had had terror for me. They vanished, and as quickly as if they had crept into the earth.

At length the air brought me the soft perfume of my well-known acacias, and my house stood before me, amidst English flowers and English fruit-trees, under the effulgent Australian moon. Just as I was opening the little gate which gave access from the pastureland into the garden, a figure in white rose up from under light, feathery boughs, and a hand was laid on my arm. I started; but my surprise was changed into fear when I saw the pale face and sweet eyes of Lilian.

“Heavens! you here! you! at this hour! Lilian, what is this?”

“Hush!” she whispered, clinging to me; “hush! do not tell: no one knows. I missed you when the storm came on; I have missed you ever since. Others went in search of you and came back. I could not sleep, but the rest are sleeping, so I stole down to watch for you. Brother, brother, if any harm chanced to you, even the angels could not comfort me; all would be dark, dark! But you are safe, safe, safe!” And she clung to me yet closer.

“Ah, Lilian, Lilian, your vision in the hour I first beheld you was indeed prophetic — ‘each has need of the other.’ Do you remember?”

“Softly, softly,” she said, “let me think!” She stood quietly by my side, looking up into the sky, with all its numberless stars, and its solitary moon now sinking slow behind the verge of the forest. “It comes back to me,” she murmured softly — “the Long ago — the sweet Long ago!”

I held my breath to listen.

“There, there!” she resumed, pointing to the heavens; “do you see? You are there, and my father, and — and — Oh! that terrible face, those serpent eyes, the dead man’s skull! Save me! save me!”

She bowed her head upon my bosom, and I led her gently back towards the house. As we gained the door which she had left open, the starlight shining across the shadowy gloom within, she lifted her face from my breast, and cast a hurried fearful look round the shining garden, then into the dim recess beyond the threshold.

“It is there — there! — the Shadow that lured me on, whispering that if I followed it I should join my beloved. False, dreadful Shadow! it will fade soon — fade into the grinning horrible skull. Brother, brother, where is my Allen? Is he dead — dead — or is it I who am dead to him?”

I could but clasp her again to my breast, and seek to mantle her shivering form with my dripping garments, all the while my eyes — following the direction which hers had taken — dwelt on the walls of the nook within the threshold, half lost in darkness, half white in starlight. And there I, too, beheld the haunting Luminous Shadow, the spectral effigies of the mysterious being, whose very existence in the flesh was a riddle unsolved by my reason. Distinctly I saw the Shadow, but its light was far paler, its outline far more vague, than when I had beheld it before. I took courage, as I felt Lilian’s heart beating against my own. I advanced, I crossed the threshold — the Shadow was gone.

“There is no Shadow here — no phantom to daunt thee, my life’s life,” said I, bending over Lilian.

“It has touched me in passing; I feel it — cold, cold, cold!” she answered faintly.

I bore her to her room, placed her on her bed, struck a light, watched over her. At dawn there was a change in her face, and from that time health gradually left her; strength slowly, slowly, yet to me perceptibly, ebbed from her life away.

43 A missile weapon peculiar to the Australian savages.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31