Madame Midas, by Fergus Hume

Prologue

Cast up by the Sea

A wild bleak-looking coast, with huge water-worn promontories jutting out into the sea, daring the tempestuous fury of the waves, which dashed furiously in sheets of seething foam against the iron rocks. Two of these headlands ran out for a considerable distance, and at the base of each, ragged cruel-looking rocks stretched still further out into the ocean until they entirely disappeared beneath the heaving waste of waters, and only the sudden line of white foam every now and then streaking the dark green waves betrayed their treacherous presence to the idle eye. Between these two headlands there was about half a mile of yellow sandy beach on which the waves rolled with a dull roar, fringing the wet sands with many coloured wreaths of sea-weed and delicate shells. At the back the cliffs rose in a kind of semi-circle, black and precipitous, to the height of about a hundred feet, and flocks of white seagulls who had their nests therein were constantly circling round, or flying seaward with steadily expanded wings and discordant cries. At the top of these inhospitable-looking cliffs a line of pale green betrayed the presence of vegetation, and from thence it spread inland into vast-rolling pastures ending far away at the outskirts of the bush, above which could be seen giant mountains with snow-covered ranges. Over all this strange contrast of savage arid coast and peaceful upland there was a glaring red sky — not the delicate evanescent pink of an ordinary sunset — but a fierce angry crimson which turned the wet sands and dark expanse of ocean into the colour of blood. Far away westward, where the sun — a molten ball of fire — was sinking behind the snow-clad peaks, frowned long lines of gloomy clouds — like prison bars through which the sinking orb glowed fiercely. Rising from the east to the zenith of the sky was a huge black cloud bearing a curious resemblance to a gigantic hand, the long lean fingers of which were stretched threateningly out as if to grasp the land and drag it back into the lurid sea of blood; altogether a cruel, weird-looking scene, fantastic, unreal, and bizarre as one of Dore’s marvellous conceptions. Suddenly on the red waters there appeared a black speck, rising and falling with the restless waves, and ever drawing nearer and nearer to the gloomy cliffs and sandy beach. When within a quarter of a mile of the shore, the speck resolved itself into a boat, a mere shallop, painted a dingy white, and much battered by the waves as it tossed lightly on the crimson waters. It had one mast and a small sail all torn and patched, which by some miracle held together, and swelling out to the wind drew the boat nearer to the land. In this frail craft were two men, one of whom was kneeling in the prow of the boat shading his eyes from the sunlight with his hands and gazing eagerly at the cliffs, while the other sat in the centre with bowed head, in an attitude of sullen resignation, holding the straining sail by a stout rope twisted round his arm. Neither of them spoke a word till within a short distance of the beach, when the man at the look-out arose, tall and gaunt, and stretched out his hands to the inhospitable-looking coast with a harsh, exulting laugh.

‘At last,’ he cried, in a hoarse, strained voice, and in a foreign tongue; ‘freedom at last.’

The other man made no comment on this outburst of his companion, but kept his eyes steadfastly on the bottom of the boat, where lay a small barrel and a bag of mouldy biscuits, the remnants of their provisions on the voyage.

The man who had spoken evidently did not expect an answer from his companion, for he did not even turn his head to look at him, but stood with folded arms gazing eagerly ahead, until, with a sudden rush, the boat drove up high and dry on the shore, sending him head-over-heels into the wet sand. He struggled to his feet quickly, and, running up the beach a little way, turned to see how his companion had fared. The other had fallen into the sea, but had picked himself up, and was busily engaged in wringing the water from his coarse clothing. There was a smooth water-worn boulder on the beach, and, seeing this, the man who had spoken went up to it and sat down thereon, while his companion, evidently of a more practical turn of mind, collected the stale biscuits which had fallen out of the bag, then, taking the barrel carefully on his shoulder, walked up to where the other was sitting, and threw both biscuits and barrel at his feet.

He then flung himself wearily on the sand, and picking up a biscuit began to munch it steadily. The other drew a tin pannikin from the bosom of his shirt, and nodded his head towards the barrel, upon which the eater laid down his biscuit, and, taking up the barrel, drew the bung, and let a few drops of water trickle into the tin dish. The man on the boulder drank every drop, then threw the pannikin down on the sand, while his companion, who had exhausted the contents of the barrel, looked wolfishly at him. The other, however, did not take the slightest notice of his friend’s lowering looks, but began to eat a biscuit and look around him. There was a strong contrast between these two waifs of the sea which the ocean had just thrown up on the desolate coast. The man on the boulder was a tall, slightly-built young fellow, apparently about thirty years of age, with leonine masses of reddish-coloured hair, and a short, stubbly beard of the same tint. His face, pale and attenuated by famine, looked sharp and clever; and his eyes, forming a strong contrast to his hair, were quite black, with thin, delicately-drawn eyebrows above them. They scintillated with a peculiar light which, though not offensive, yet gave anyone looking at him an uncomfortable feeling of insecurity. The young man’s hands, though hardened and discoloured, were yet finely formed, while even the coarse, heavy boots he wore could not disguise the delicacy of his feet. He was dressed in a rough blue suit of clothes, all torn and much stained by sea water, and his head was covered with a red cap of wool-work which rested lightly on his tangled masses of hair. After a time he tossed aside the biscuit he was eating, and looked down at his companion with a cynical smile. The man at his feet was a rough, heavy-looking fellow, squarely and massively built, with black hair and a heavy beard of the same sombre hue. His hands were long and sinewy; his feet — which were bare — large and ungainly: and his whole appearance was that of a man in a low station of life. No one could have told the colour of his eyes, for he looked obstinately at the ground; and the expression of his face was so sullen and forbidding that altogether he appeared to be an exceedingly unpleasant individual. His companion eyed him for a short time in a cool, calculating manner, and then rose painfully to his feet.

‘So,’ he said rapidly in French, waving his hand towards the frowning cliffs, ‘so, my Pierre, we are in the land of promise; though I must confess’— with a disparaging shrug of the shoulders — ‘it certainly does not look very promising: still, we are on dry land, and that is something after tossing about so long in that stupid boat, with only a plank between us and death. Bah!’— with another expressive shrug —‘why should I call it stupid? It has carried us all the way from New Caledonia, that hell upon earth, and landed us safely in what may turn out Paradise. We must not be ungrateful to the bridge that carried us over — eh, my friend?’

The man addressed as Pierre nodded an assent, then pointed towards the boat; the other looked up and saw that the tide had risen, and that the boat was drifting slowly away from the land.

‘It goes,’ he said coolly, ‘back again to its proper owner, I suppose. Well, let it. We have no further need of it, for, like Caesar, we have now crossed the Rubicon. We are no longer convicts from a French prison, my friend, but shipwrecked sailors; you hear?’— with a sudden scintillation from his black eyes — ‘shipwrecked sailors; and I will tell the story of the wreck. Luckily, I can depend on your discretion, as you have not even a tongue to contradict, which you wouldn’t do if you had.’

The dumb man rose slowly to his feet, and pointed to the cliffs frowning above them. The other answered his thought with a careless shrug of the shoulders.

‘We must climb,’ he said lightly, ‘and let us hope the top will prove less inhospitable than this place. Where we are I don’t know, except that this is Australia; there is gold here, my friend, and we must get our share of it. We will match our Gallic wit against these English fools, and see who comes off best. You have strength, I have brains; so we will do great things; but’— laying his hand impressively on the other’s breast —‘no quarter, no yielding, you see!’

The dumb man nodded violently, and rubbed his ungainly hands together in delight.

‘You don’t know Balzac, my friend,’ went on the young man in a conversational tone, ‘or I would tell you that, like Rastignac, war is declared between ourselves and society; but if you have not the knowledge you have the will, and that is enough for me. Come, let us make the first step towards our wealth;’ and without casting a glance behind him, he turned and walked towards the nearest headland, followed by the dumb man with bent head and slouching gait.

The rain and wind had been at work on this promontory, and their combined action had broken off great masses of rock, which lay in rugged confusion at the base. This offered painful but secure foothold, and the two adventurers, with much labour — for they were weak with the privations endured on the voyage from New Caledonia — managed to climb half way up the cliff, when they stopped to take breath and look around them. They were now in a perilous position, for, hanging as they were on a narrow ledge of rock midway between earth and sky, the least slip would have cost them their lives. The great mass of rock which frowned above them was nearly perpendicular, yet offered here and there certain facilities for climbing, though to do so looked like certain death. The men, however, were quite reckless, and knew if they could get to the top they would be safe, so they determined to attempt the rest of the ascent.

‘As we have not the wings of eagles, friend Pierre,’ said the younger man, glancing around, ‘we must climb where we can find foothold. God will protect us; if not,’ with a sneer, ‘the Devil always looks after his own.’

He crept along the narrow ledge and scrambled with great difficulty into a niche above, holding on by the weeds and sparse grass which grew out of the crannies of the barren crag. Followed by his companion, he went steadily up, clinging to projecting rocks — long trails of tough grass and anything else he could hold on to. Every now and then some seabird would dash out into their faces with wild cries, and nearly cause them to lose their foothold in the sudden start. Then the herbage began to get more luxurious, and the cliff to slope in an easy incline, which made the latter part of their ascent much easier. At last, after half an hour’s hard work, they managed to get to the top, and threw themselves breathlessly on the short dry grass which fringed the rough cliff. Lying there half fainting with fatigue and hunger, they could hear, as in a confused dream, the drowsy thunder of the waves below, and the discordant cries of the sea-gulls circling round their nests, to which they had not yet returned. The rest did them good, and in a short time they were able to rise to their feet and survey the situation. In front was the sea, and at the back the grassy undulating country, dotted here and there with clumps of trees now becoming faint and indistinct in the rapidly falling shadows of the night. They could also see horses and cattle moving in the distant fields, which showed that there must be some human habitation near, and suddenly from a far distant house which they had not observed shone a bright light, which became to these weary waifs of the ocean a star of hope.

They looked at one another in silence, and then the young man turned towards the ocean again.

‘Behind,’ he said, pointing to the east, ‘lies a French prison and two ruined lives — yours and mine — but in front,’ swinging round to the rich fields, ‘there is fortune, food, and freedom. Come, my friend, let us follow that light, which is our star of hope, and who knows what glory may await us. The old life is dead, and we start our lives in this new world with all the bitter experiences of the old to teach us wisdom — come!’ And without another word he walked slowly down the slope towards the inland, followed by the dumb man with his head still bent and his air of sullen resignation.

The sun disappeared behind the snowy ranges — night drew a grey veil over the sky as the red light died out, and here and there the stars were shining. The seabirds sought their nests again and ceased their discordant cries — the boat which had brought the adventurers to shore drifted slowly out to sea, while the great black hand that rose from the eastward stretched out threateningly towards the two men tramping steadily onward through the dewy grass, as though it would have drawn them back again to the prison from whence they had so miraculously escaped.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/h/hume/fergus/h93ma/prologue.html

Last updated Monday, March 17, 2014 at 16:42