Geoffrey Hamlyn, by Henry Kingsley

Chapter 36

An Earthquake, a Colliery Explosion, and an Adventure.

So the Captain, the Colonial Secretary, and the small midshipman left the station and went on board again, disappearing from this history for evermore. The others all went home and grew warlike, arming themselves against the threatened danger; but still weeks, nay months, rolled on, and winter was turning into spring, and yet the country side remained so profoundly tranquil that every one began to believe that the convicts must after all have been drowned, and that the boat found by sagacious Blockstrop had been capsized and thrown bottom upwards on the beach. So that, before the brown flocks began to be spotted with white lambs, all alarm had gone by.

Only four persons, besides Mary Hawker herself, were conversant of the fact that the Bushranger and George Hawker were the same man. Of these only three, the Doctor, Major Buckley, and Captain Brentwood, knew of his more recent appearance on the shore, and they, after due consultation, took honest Tom Troubridge into their confidence.

But, as I said, all things went so quietly for two months, that at the end of that time no one thought any more of bushrangers than they would of tigers. And just about this time, I, Geoffry Hamlyn, having finished my last consignment of novels from England, and having nothing to do, determined to ride over, and spend a day or two with Major Buckley.

But when I rode up to the door at Baroona, having pulled my shirt collar up, and rapped at the door with my whip, out came the housekeeper to inform me there was not a soul at home. This was deeply provoking, for I had got on a new pair of riding trousers, which had cost money, and a new white hat with a blue net veil (rather a neat thing too), and I had ridden up to the house under the idea that fourteen or fifteen persons were looking at me out of window. I had also tickled my old horse, Chanticleer, to make him caper and show the excellency of my seat. But when I came to remember that the old horse had nearly bucked me over his head instead of capering, and to find that my hat was garnished with a large cobweb of what is called by courtesy native silk, with half-a-dozen dead leaves sticking in it, I felt consoled that no one had seen me approach, and asked the housekeeper, with tolerable equanimity, where they were all gone.

They were all gone, she said, over to Captain Brentwood’s, and goodness gracious knew when they would be back again. Mrs. Hawker and Mr. Charles were gone with them. For her part, she should not be sorry when Mr. Sam brought Miss Brentwood over for good and all. The house was terrible lonesome when they were all away.

I remarked, “Oho!” and asked whether she knew if Mr. Troubridge was at Toonarbin.

No, she said; he was away again at Port Phillip with store cattle; making a deal of money, she understood, and laying out a deal for the Major in land. She wished he would marry Mrs. Hawker and settle down, for he was a pleasant gentleman, and fine company in a house. Wouldn’t I get off and have a bit of cold wild duck and a glass of sherry?

Certainly I would. So I gave my horse to the groom and went in. I had hardly cut the first rich red slice from the breast of a fat teal, when I heard a light step in the passage, and in walked my man Dick. You remember him, reader. The man we saw five and twenty years ago on Dartmoor, combining with William Lee to urge the unhappy George Hawker on to ruin and forgery, which circumstance, remember, I knew nothing of at this time. The same man I had picked up footsore and penniless in the bush sixteen years ago, and who had since lived with me, a most excellent and clever servant — the best I ever had. This man now came into Major Buckley’s parlour, hat in hand, looking a little foolish, and when I saw him my knife and fork were paralyzed with astonishment.

“Why, what the Dickens” (I used that strong expression) “brings you here, my lad?”

“I went up to Hipsley’s about the colt,” he said, “and when I got home I found you were gone off unexpectedly; so I thought it better to come after you and tell you all about it. He won’t take less than thirty-five.”

“Man! man!” I said, “do you mean to say that you have ridden fifty miles to tell me the price of a leggy beast like that, after I had told you that twentyfour was my highest offer?”

He looked very silly, and I saw very well he had some other reason for coming than that. But with a good servant I never ask too many questions, and when I went out a short time after, and found him leaning against a fence, and talking earnestly to our old acquaintance William Lee, I thought, “He wanted an excuse to come up and see his old friend Lee. That is quite just and proper, and fully accounts for it.”

Lee always paid me the high compliment of touching his hat to me, for old Devon’ sake, I suppose. “How’s all at Toonarbin, Lee?” I asked.

“Well and hearty, sir. How is yourself, sir?”

“Getting older, Lee. Nothing worse than that. Dick, I am going on to Captain Brentwood’s. If you like to go back to Toonarbin and stay a day or two with Lee, you can do so.”

“I would rather come on with you, sir,” he said eagerly.

“Are you sure?” I said.

“Quite sure, sir.” And Lee said, “You go on with Mr. Hamlyn, Dick, and do your duty, mind.”

I thought this odd; but, knowing it was useless to ask questions of an old hand, or try to get any information which was not volunteered, I held my tongue and departed, taking Dick with me.

I arrived at Captain Brentwood’s about three o’clock in the afternoon. I flatter myself that I made a very successful approach, and created rather a sensation among the fourteen or fifteen people who were sitting in the verandah. They took me for a distinguished stranger. But when they saw who it was they all began calling out to me at once to know how I was, and to come in (as if I wasn’t coming in), and when at last I got among them, I nearly had my hand shaken off; and the Doctor, putting on his spectacles and looking at me for a minute, asked what I had given for my hat?

Let me see, who was there that day? There was Mary Hawker, looking rather older, and a little worn; and there was her son Charles sitting beside pretty Ellen Mayford, and carrying on a terrible flirtation with that young lady, in spite of her fat jolly-looking mother, who sat with folded hands beside her. Next to her sat her handsome brother Cecil, looking, poor lad! as miserable as he well could look, although I did not know the cause. Then came Sam, beside his mother, whose noble happy face was still worth riding fifty miles to see; and then, standing beside her chair, was Alice Brentwood.

I had never seen this exquisite creature before, and I immediately fell desperately and hopelessly in love with her, and told her so that same evening, in the presence of Sam. Finding that my affection was not likely to be returned, I enrolled myself as one of her knights, and remain so to this present time.

The Major sat beside his wife, and the Doctor and Captain Brentwood walked up and down, talking politics. There were also present, certain Hawbucks, leggy youths with brown faces and limp hair, in appearance and dress not unlike English steeplechaseriders who had been treated, on the face and hands, with walnut-juice. They never spoke, and the number of them then present I am uncertain about, but one of them I recollect could spit a great deal farther than any of his brothers, and proved it beyond controversy about twice in every three minutes.

I missed my old friend Jim Brentwood, and was informed that he had gone to Sydney, “on the spree,” as Sam expressed it, along with a certain Lieutenant Halbert, who was staying on a visit with Major Buckley.

First I sat down by Mary Hawker, and had a long talk with her about old times. She was in one of her gay moods, and laughed and joked continuously. Then I moved up, by invitation, to a chair between the Major and his wife, and had a long private and confidential conversation with them.

“How,” I began, “is Tom Troubridge?”

“Tom is perfectly well,” said the Major. “He still carries on his old chronic flirtation with Mary; and she is as ready to be flirted with as ever.”

“Why don’t they marry?” I asked, peevishly. “Why on earth don’t they marry one another? What is the good of carrying on that old folly so long? They surely must have made up their minds by now. She knows she is a widow, and has known it for years.”

“Good God! Hamlyn, are you so ignorant?” said the Major. And then he struck me dumb by telling me of all that had happened latterly: of George Hawker’s reappearance, of his identity with the great bushranger, and, lastly, of his second appearance not two months before.

“I tell you this in strict confidence, Hamlyn, as one of my oldest and best friends. I know how deeply your happiness is affected by all this.”

I remained silent and thunderstruck for a time, and then I tried to turn the conversation:—

“Have you had any alarm from bushrangers lately? I heard a report of some convicts having landed on the coast.”

“All a false alarm!” said the Major. “They were drowned, and the boat washed ashore, bottom upwards.”

Here the Doctor broke in: “Hamlyn, is not this very queer weather?”

When he called my attention to it, I remarked that the weather was really different from any I had seen before, and said so.

The sky was grey and dull, the distances were clear, and to the eye it appeared merely a soft grey autumnal day. But there was something very strange and odd in the deadly stillness of all nature. Not a leaf moved, not a bird sang, and the air seemed like lead. At once Mrs. Buckley remarked —

“I can’t work, and I can’t talk. I am so wretchedly nervous that I don’t know what to do with myself, and you know, my dear,” she said, appealing to her husband, “that I am not given to that sort of thing.”

Each man looked at his neighbour, for there was a sound in the air now a weird and awful sound like nothing else in nature. To the south arose upon the ear a hollow quivering hum, which swelled rapidly into a roar beneath our feet; there was a sickening shake, a thump, a crash, and away went the earthquake, groaning off to the northward.

The women behaved very well, though some of them began to cry; and hearing a fearful row in the kitchen I dashed off there, followed by the Doctor. The interior was a chaos of pots and kettles, in the centre of which sat the cook, Eleanor, holding on by the floor. Every now and then she would give a scream which took all the breath out of her; so she had to stop and fetch breath before she could give another. The Doctor stepped through the saucepans and camp-ovens, and trying to raise her said —

“Come, get up, my good woman, and give over screaming. All the danger is over, and you will frighten the ladies.”

At this moment she had got her “second wind,” and as he tried to get her up she gave such a yell that he dropped her again, and bolted, stopping his ears; bolted over a teakettle which had been thrown down, and fell prostrate, resounding like an Homeric hero, on to a heap of kitchen utensils, at the feet of Alice, who had come in to come see what the noise was about.

“Good Lord!” said he, picking himself up, “what lungs she has got! I shall have a singing in my ears to my dying day. Yar! it went through my head like a knife.”

Sam picked up the cook, and she, after a time, picked up her pots, giving, however, an occasional squall, and holding on by the dresser, under the impression that another earthquake was coming. We left her, however, getting dinner under way, and went back to the others, whom we soon set laughing by telling poor Eleanor’s misadventures.

We were all in good spirits now. A brisk cool wind had come up from the south, following the earthquake, making a pleasant rustle as it swept across the plain or tossed the forest boughs. The sky had got clear, and the nimble air was so inviting that we rose as one body to stroll in groups about the garden and wander down to the river.

The brave old river was rushing hoarsely along, clear and full, between his ruined temple-columns of basalt, as of old. “What a grand salmon-river this would be, Major!” said I; “what pools and stickles are here! Ah! if we only could get the salmon-spawn through the tropics without its germinating. — Can you tell me, Doctor, why these rocks should take the form of columns? Is there any particular reason for it that you know?”

“You have asked a very puzzling question,” he replied, “and I hardly know how to answer it. Nine geologists out of ten will tell you that basalt is lava cooled under pressure. But I have seen it in places where that solution was quite inapplicable. However, I can tell you that the same cause which set these pillars here, to wall the river, piled up yon Organ-hill, produced the caves of Widderin, the great crater-hollow of Mirngish, and accommodated us with that brisk little earthquake which we felt just now. For you know that we mortals stand only on a thin crust of cooled matter, but beneath our feet is all molten metal.”

“I wish you could give us a lecture on these things, Doctor,” I said.

“To-morrow,” said he, “let us ride forth to Mirngish and have a picnic. There I will give you a little sketch of the origin of that hill.”

In front of the Brentwoods’ house the plains stretched away for a dozen miles or so, a bare sheet of grass with no timber, grey in summer, green in winter. About five miles off it began to roll into great waves, and then heaved up into a high bald hill, a lofty down, capped with black rocks, bearing in its side a vast round hollow, at the bottom of which was a little swamp, perfectly circular, fringed with a ring of white gum-trees, standing in such an exact circle that it was hard to persuade oneself that they were not planted by the hand of man. This was the crater of the old volcano. Had you stood in it, you would have remarked that one side was a shelving steep bank of short grass, while the other reared up some five hundred feet, a precipice of fire-eaten rock. At one end the lip had broken down, pouring a torrent of lava, now fertile grass-land, over the surrounding country, which little gap gave one a delicious bit of blue distance. All else, as I said, was a circular wall of grass, rock, and tumbled slag.

This was Mirngish. And the day after the earthquake there was a fresh eruption in the crater. An eruption of horsemen and horse-women. An eruption of talk, laughter, pink-bonnets, knives and forks, and champagne. Many a pleasant echo came ringing back from the old volcano-walls overhead, only used for so many ages to hear the wild rattle of the thunder and the scream of the hungry eagle.

Was ever a poor old worn-out grass-grown volcano used so badly? Here into the very pit of Tophet had the audacious Captain that very morning sent on a spring-cart of all eatables and drinkables, and then had followed himself with a dozen of his friends, to eat and drink, and talk and laugh, just in the very spot where of old roared and seethed the fire and brimstone of Erebus.

Yet the good old mountain was civil, for we were not blown into the air, to be a warning to all people picnicing in high places; but when we had eaten and drunk, and all the ladies had separately and collectively declared that they were SO fond of the smell of tobacco in the open air, we followed the Doctor, who led the way to the summit of the hill.

I arrived last, having dragged dear fat old Mrs. Mayford up the slippery steep. The Doctor had perched himself on the highest flame-worn crag, and when we all had grouped ourselves below him, and while the wind swept pleasantly through the grass, and rushed humming through the ancient rocks, he in a clear melodious voice thus began:—

“Of old the great sea heaved and foamed above the ground on which we stand; ay, above this, and above yon farthest snowy peak, which the westering sun begins to tinge with crimson.

“But in the lapse of ten thousand changing centuries, the lower deeps, acted on by some Plutonic agency, began to grow shallow; and the imprisoned tides began to foam and roar as they struggled to follow the moon, their leader, angry to find that the stillness of their ancient domain was year by year invaded by the ever-rising land.

“At that time, had man been on the earth to see it, those towering Alps were a cluster of lofty islands, each mountain pass which divides them was a tide-swept fiord, in and out of which, twice in the day, age after age, rushed the sea, bringing down those vast piles of water-worn gravel which you see accumulated, and now covered with dense vegetation, at the mouth of each great valley.

“So twenty thousand years went on, and all this fair champagne country which we overlook became, first a sand-bank, then a dreary stretch of salt saturated desert, and then, as the roar of the retiring ocean grew fainter and fainter, began to sustain such vegetation as the Lord thought fit.

“A thousand years are but as yesterday to Him, and I can give you no notion as to how many hundred thousand years it took to do all this; or what productions covered the face of the country. It must have been a miserably poor region: nothing but the debris of granite, sandstone, and slate; perhaps here and there partially fertilized by rotting seaweed, dead fish and shells; things which would, we may assume, have appeared and flourished as the water grew shallower.

“New elements were wanting to make the country available for man, so soon to appear in his majesty; and new elements were forthcoming. The internal fires so long imprisoned beneath the weight of the incumbent earth, having done their duty in raising the continent, began to find vent in every weak spot caused by its elevation.

“Here where we stand, in this great crack between the granite and the sandstone, they broke out with all their wildest fury; hurling stones high in the air, making mid-day dark with clouds of ashes, and pouring streams of lava far and wide.

“So the country was desolated by volcanoes, but only desolated that it might grow greener and richer than ever, with a new and hitherto unknown fertility; for, as the surface of the lava disintegrated, a new soil was found, containing all the elements of the old one, and many more. These are your black clay, and your red burnt soil, which, I take it, are some of the richest in the world.

“Then our old volcano, our familiar Mirngish, in whose crater we have been feasting, grew still for a time, for many ages probably; but after that I see the traces of another eruption; the worst, perhaps, that he ever accomplished.

“He had exhausted himself, and gradually subsided, leaving a perfect cup or crater, the accumulation of the ashes of a hundred eruptions; nay, even this may have been filled with water, as is Mount Gambier, which you have not seen, forming a lake without a visible outlet; the water draining off at that level where the looser scoriae begin.

“But he burst out again, filling this great hollow with lava, till the accumulation of the molten matter broke through the weaker part of the wall, and rolled away there, out of that gap to the northward, and forming what you now call the ‘stony rises,’— turning yon creek into steam, which by its explosive force formed that fantastic cap of rocks, and, swelling into great bubbles under the hot lava, made those long underground hollows which we now know as the caves of Bar-ca-nah.

“Is he asleep for ever? I know not. He may arise again in his wrath and fill the land with desolation; for that earthquake we felt yesterday was but a wild throe of the giant struggling to be free.

“Let us hope that he may not break his chains, for as I stand here gazing on those crimson Alps, the spirit of prophecy is upon me, and I can see far into the future, and all the desolate landscape becomes peopled with busy figures.

“I see the sunny slopes below me yellow with trellissed vines. They have gathered the vintage, and I hear them singing at the wine-press. They sing that the exhausted vineyards of the old world yield no wine so rare, so rich, as the fresh volcanic slopes of the southern continent, and that the princes of the earth send their wealth, that their hearts may get glad from the juice of the Australian grapes.

“Beyond I see fat black ridges grow yellow with a thousand cornfields. I see a hundred happy homesteads, half-hidden by clustering wheatstacks. What do they want with all that corn? say you; where is their market?

“There is their market! Away there on the barren forest ranges. See, the timber is gone, and a city stands there instead. What is that on the crest of the hill? A steam-engine; nay, see, there are five of them, working night and day, fast and busy. Their cranks gleam and flash under the same moon that grew red and lurid when old Mirngish vomited fire and smoke twenty thousand years ago. As I listen I can hear the grinding of the busy quartz-mill. What are they doing? you ask. They are gold-mining.

“They have found gold here, and gold in abundance, and hither have come, by ship and steamship, all the unfortunate of the earth. The English factory labourer and the farmer-ridden peasant; the Irish pauper; the starved Scotch Highlander. I hear a grand swelling chorus rising above the murmur of the evening breeze; that is sung by German peasants revelling in such plenty as they never knew before, yet still regretting fatherland, and then I hear a burst of Italian melody replying. Hungarians are not wanting, for all the oppressed of the earth have taken refuge here, glorying to live under the free government of Britain; for she, warned by American experience, has granted to all her colonies such rights as the British boast of possessing.”

I did not understand him then. But, since I have seen the living wonder of Ballarat, I understand him well enough.

He ceased. But the Major cried out, “Go on, Doctor, go on. Look farther yet, and tell us what you see. Give us a bit more poetry while your hand is in.”

He faced round, and I fancied I could detect a latent smile about his mouth.

“I see,” said he, “a vision of a nation, the colony of the greatest race on the earth, who began their career with more advantages than ever fell to the lot of a young nation yet. War never looked on them. Not theirs was the lot to fight, like the Americans, through bankruptcy and inexperience towards freedom and honour. No. Freedom came to them, Heavensent, red-tape-bound, straight from Downing-street. Millions of fertile acres, gold in bushels were theirs, and yet ——”

“Go on,” said the Major.

“I see a vision of broken railway arches and ruined farms. I see a vision of a people surfeited with prosperity and freedom grown factious, so that now one party must command a strong majority ere they can pass a law the goodness of which no one denies. I see a bankrupt exchequer, a drunken Governor, an Irish ministry, a ——”

“Come down out of that,” roared the Major, “before I pull you down. You’re a pretty fellow to come out for a day’s pleasure! Jeremiah was a saint to him,” he added, turning appealingly to the rest of us. “Hear my opinion, ‘per contra,’ Doctor. I’ll be as near right as you.”

“Go on, then,” said the Doctor.

“I see,” began the Major, “the Anglo–Saxon race —”

“Don’t forget the Irish, Jews, Germans, Chinese, and other barbarians,” interrupted the Doctor.

“Asserting,” continued the Major, scornfully, “as they always do, their right to all the unoccupied territories of the earth.”

(“Blackfellow’s claims being ignored,” interpolated the Doctor.)

“And filling all the harbours of this magnificent country ——”

(“Want to see them.”)

“With their steamships and their sailing vessels. Say there be gold here, as I believe there is, the time must come when the mines will be exhausted. What then? With our coals we shall supply ——”

(“Newcastle,” said the Doctor, again.)

“The British fleets in the East Indies ——”

“And compete with Borneo,” said the Doctor, quietly, “which contains more coal than ever India will burn, at one-tenth the distance from her that we are. If that is a specimen of your prophecies, Major, you are but a Micaiah after all.”

“Well,” said the Major, laughing, “I cannot reel it off quite so quick as you; but think we shall hardly have time for any more prophesying; the sun is getting very low.”

We turned and looked to westward. The lofty rolling snow-downs had changed to dull lead colour, as the sun went down in a red haze behind them; only here and there some little elevated pinnacle would catch the light. Below the mountain lay vast black sheets of woodland, and nearer still was the river, marked distinctly by a dense and rapidly-rising line of fog.

“We are going to have a fog and a frost,” said the Major. “We had better hurry home.”

Behind all the others rode Alice, Sam, and myself. I was fearful of being “de trop,” but when I tried to get forward to the laughing, chattering, crowd in front, these two young lovers raised such an outcry that I was fain to stay with them, which I was well pleased to do.

Behind us, however, rode three mounted servants, two of Captain Brentwood’s, and my man Dick.

We were almost in sight of the river, nearly home in fact, when there arose a loud lamentation from Alice.

“Oh, my bracelet! my dear bracelet! I have lost it.”

“Have you any idea where you dropped it?” I inquired.

“Oh, yes,” she said. “I am sure it must have been when I fell down, scrambling up the rocks, just before the Doctor began his lecture. Just as I reached the top, you know, I fell down, and I must have lost it there.”

“I will ride back and find it, then, in no time,” I said.

“No, indeed, Uncle Jeff,” said Sam. “I will go back.”

“I use an uncle’s authority,” I replied, “and I forbid you. That miserable old pony of yours, which you have chosen to bring out today, has had quite work enough, without ten miles extra. I condescend to no argument; here I go.”

I turned, with a kind look from both of them, but ere I had gone ten yards, my servant Dick was alongside of me.

“Where are you going, sir?” said he.

“I am going back to Mirngish,” I replied. “Miss Alice has dropped her bracelet, and I am going back for it.”

“I will come with you, sir,” he said.

“Indeed no, Dick; there is no need. Go back to your supper, lad. I shan’t be long away.”

“I am coming with you, sir,” he replied. “Company is a good thing sometimes.”

“Well, boy,” I said, “if you will come, I shall be glad of your company; so come along.”

I had noticed lately that Dick never let me go far alone, but would always be with me. It gave rise to no suspicion in my mind. He had been tried too often for that. But still, I thought it strange.

On this occasion, we had not ridden far before he asked me a question which rather surprised me. He said —

“Mr. Hamlyn; do you carry pistols?”

“Why, Dick, boy?” I said, “why should I?”

“Look you here, Mr. Hamlyn,” said he. “Have you tried me?”

“I have tried you for twenty years, Dick, and have not found you wanting.”

“Ah!” said he, “that’s good hearing. You’re a magistrate, sir, though only just made. But you know that coves like me, that have been in trouble, get hold of information which you beaks can’t. And I tell you, sir, there’s bad times coming for this country side. You carry your pistols, sir, and, what’s more, YOU USE ‘EM. See here.”

He opened his shirt, and showed me a long sharp knife inside.

“That’s what I carries, sir, in these times, and you ought to carry ditto, and a brace of barkers besides. We shan’t get back to the Captain’s to-night.”

We were rising on the first shoulder of Mirngish, and daylight was rapidly departing. I looked back. Nothing but a vast sea of fog, one snow peak rising from it like an iceberg from a frozen sea, piercing the clear frosy air like a crystal of lead and silver.

“We must hurry on,” I said, “or we shall never have daylight to find the bracelet. We shall never find our way home through that fog, without a breath of wind to guide us. What shall we do?”

“I noticed today, sir,” said Dick, “a track that crossed the hill to the east; if we can get on that, and keep on it, we are sure to get somewhere. It would be better to follow that than go blundering across the plain through such a mist as that.”

As he was speaking, we had dismounted and commenced our search. In five minutes, so well did our recollection serve us, Dick had got the bracelet, and, having mounted our horses, we deliberated what was next to be done.

A thick fog covered the whole country, and was rapidly creeping up to the elevation on which we stood. To get home over the plains without a compass seemed a hopeless matter. So we determined to strike for the track which Dick had noticed in the morning, and get on it before it was dark.

We plunged down into the sea of fog, and, by carefully keeping the same direction, we found our road. The moon was nearly full, which enabled us to distinguish it, though we could never see above five yards in front of us.

We followed the road above an hour; then we began to see ghostly tree-stems through the mist. They grew thicker and more frequent. Then we saw a light, and at last rode up to a hut-door, cheered by the warm light, emanating from a roaring fire within, which poured through every crack in the house-side, and made the very fog look warm.

I held Dick’s horse while he knocked. The door was opened by a wee feeble old man, about sixty, with a sharp clever face, and an iron-grey rough head of hair.

“Night, daddy,” said Dick. “Can me and my master stay here to-night? We’re all abroad in this fog. The governor will leave something handsome behind in the morning, old party, I know.” (This latter was in a whisper.)

“Canst thou stay here, say’st thou?” replied the old fellow. “In course thou canst. But thy master’s money may bide in a’s pouch. Get thy saddles off, lad, and come in; ’tis a smittle night for rheumatics.”

I helped Dick to take off the saddles, and, having hobbled our horses with stirrup-leathers, we went in.

Our little old friend was the hut-keeper, as I saw at a glance. The shepherd was sitting on a block before the fire, in his shirt, smoking his pipe and warming his legs preparatory to turning in.

I understood him in a moment, as I then thought (though I was much deceived). A short, wiry, blackheaded man, with a cunning face — convict all over. He rose as we came in, and gave us good evening. I begged he would not disturb himself; so he moved his block into the corner, and smoked away with that lazy indifference that only a shepherd is master of.

But the old man began bustling about. He made us sit down before the fire, and make ourselves comfortable. He never ceased talking.

“I’ll get ye, lads, some supper just now,” said he. “There’s na but twa bunks i’ the hut; so master and man must lie o’ the floor, ‘less indeed the boss lies in my bed, which he’s welcome to. We’ve a plenty blankets, though, and sheepskins. We’ll mak ye comfortable, boys. There’s a mickle back log o’ the fire, and ye’ll lie warm, I’se warrant ye. There’s cowd beef, sir (to me), and good breed, no’ to mind boggins o’ tea. Ye’ll be comfortable, will ye. What’s yer name?”

“Hamlyn,” I said.

“Oh, ay! Ye’re Hamlyn and Stockbridge! I ken ye well; I kenned yer partner: a good man — a very good man, a man o’ ten thousand. He was put down up north. A bad job — a very bad job! Ye gat terrible vengeance, though. Ye hewed Agag in pieces! T’ Governor up there to Sydney was wild angry at what ye did, but he darena’ say much. He knew that every free man’s heart went with ye. It were the sword of the Lord and of Gideon that ye fought with! Ye saved many good lives by that raid of yours after Stockbridge was killed. The devils wanted a lesson, and ye gar’d them read one wi’ a vengeance!”

During this speech, which was uttered in a series of interjections, we had made our supper, and drawn back to the fire. The shepherd had tumbled into his blankets, and was snoring. The old man, having cleared away the things, came and sat down beside us. The present of a fig of tobacco won his heart utterly, and he, having cut up a pipeful, began talking again.

“Why,” said he, “it’s the real Barret’s twist — the very real article! Eh, master, ye’re book-learned: do you ken where this grows? It must be a fine country to bring up such backer as this; some o’ they Palm Isles, I reckon.”

“Virginia,” I told him, “or Carolina, one of the finest countries in the world where they hold slaves.”

“Ah,” said he, “they couldn’t get white men to mess with backer and such in a hot country, and in course every one knows that blacks won’t work till they’re made. That’s why they bothers themselves with ’em, I reckon. But, Lord! they are useless trash. White convicts is useless enough; think what black niggers must be!”

How about the gentleman in bed? I thought; but he was snoring comfortably.

“I am a free man myself,” continued the old man. “I never did aught, ay, or thought o’ doing aught, that an honest man should not do. But I’ve lived among convicts twenty odd year, and do you know, sir, sometimes I hardly know richt fra wrang. Sometimes I see things that whiles I think I should inform of, and then the devil comes and tells me it would be dishonourable. And then I believe him till the time’s gone by, and after that I am miserable in my conscience. So I haven’t an easy time of it, though I have good times, and money to spare.”

I was getting fond of the honest, talkative old fellow; so when Dick asked him if he wanted to turn in, and he answered no, I was well pleased.

“Can’t you pitch us a yarn, daddy?” said Dick. “Tell us something about the old country. I should like well to hear what you were at home.”

“I’ll pitch ye a yarn, lad,” he replied, “if the master don’t want to turn in. I’m fond of talking. All old men are, I think,” he said, appealing to me. “The time’s coming, ye see, when the gift o’ speech will be gone from me. It’s a great gift. But happen we won’t lose it after all.”

I said, “No, that I thought not; that I thought on the other side of the grave we should both speak and hear of higher things than we did in the flesh.”

“Happen so,” said he; “I think so too, sometime. I’ll give ye my yarn; I have told it often. Howsever, neither o’ ye have heard it, so ye’re the luckier that I tell it better by frequent repetition. Here it is:—

“I was a collier lad, always lean, and not well favoured, though I was active and strong. I was small, too, and that set my father’s heart agin me somewhat, for he was a gran’ man, and a mighty fighter.

“But my elder brother Jack, he was a mighty fellow, God bless him; and when he was eighteen he weighed twelve stone, and was earning man’s wages, tho’ that I was hurrying still. I saw that father loved him better than me, and whiles that vexed me, but most times it didn’t, for I cared about the lad as well as father did, and he liked me the same. He never went far without me; and whether he fought, or whether he drunk, I must be wi’ him and help.

“Well, so we went on till, as I said, I was seventeen, and he eighteen. We never had a word till then; we were as brothers should be. But at this time we had a quarrel, the first we ever had; ay, and the last, for we got something to mind this one by.

“We both worked in the same pit. It was the Southstone Pit; happen you’ve heard of it. No? Well, thus things get soon forgot. Father had been an overman there, but was doing better now above ground. He and mother kept a bit shop; made money.

“There was a fair in our village, a poor thing enough; but when we boys were children we used to look forward to it eleven months out o’ twelve, and the day it came round we used to go to father, and get sixpence, or happen a shilling apiece to spend.

“Well, time went on till we came to earn money; but still we kept up the custom, and went to the old man reg’lar for our fairin’, and he used to laugh and chaff us as he’d give us a fourpenny or such, and we liked the joke as well as he.

“Well this time — it was in ‘12, just after the comet, just the worst times of the war, the fair came round, 24th of May, I well remember, and we went in to the old man to get summut to spend — just for a joke like.

“He’d lost money, and been vexed; so when Jack asked him for his fairin’ he gi’ed him five shillin’, and said, ‘I’ll go to gaol but what my handsome boy shan’t have summut to treat his friends to beer.’ But when I axed him, he said, ‘Earn man’s wages, and thee’ll get a man’s fairin,’ and heaved a penny at me.

“That made me wild mad, I tell you. I wasn’t only angry wi’ the old man, but I was mad wi’ Jack, poor lad! The devil of jealousy had got into me, and, instead of kicking him out, I nursed him. I ran out o’ the house, and away into the fair, and drunk, and fought, and swore like a mad one.

“I was in one of the dancing booths, half drunk, and a young fellow came to me, and said, ‘Where has thee been? Do thee know thy brother has foughten Jim Perry, and beaten him?’

“I felt like crying, to think my brother had fought, and I not there to set him up. But I swore, and said, ‘I wish Jim Perry had killed un;’ and then I sneaked off home to bed, and cried like a lass.

“And next morning I was up before him, and down the pit. He worked a good piece from me, so I did not see him, and it came on nigh nine o’clock before I began to wonder why the viewer had not been round, for I had heard say there was a foul place cut into by some of them, and at such times the viewer generally looks into every corner.

“Well, about nine, the viewer and underviewer came up with the overman, and stood talking alongside of me, when there came a something sudden and sharp, as tho’ one had boxed your ears, and then a ‘whiz, whiz,’ and the viewer stumbled a one side, and cried out, ‘God save us!’

“I hardly knew what had happened till I heard him singing out clear and firm, ‘Come here to me, you lads; come here. Keep steady, and we’ll be all right yet.’ Then I knew it was a fire, and a sharp one, and began crying out for Jack.

“I heard him calling for me, and then he ran up and got hold of me; and so ended the only quarrel we ever had, and that was a one-sided one.

“‘Are you all here?’ said the viewer. ‘Now follow me, and if we meet the afterdamp hold your breath and run. I am afraid it’s a bad job, but we may get through yet.’

“We had not gone fifty yards before we came on the afterdamp, filling the headway like smoke. Jack and I took hold of each other’s collars and ran, but before we were half-way through, he fell. I kept good hold of his shirt, and dragged him on on the ground. I felt as strong as a horse; and in ten seconds, which seemed to me like ten hours, I dragged him out under the shaft into clear air. At first I thought he was dead, but he was still alive, and very little of that. His heart beat very slow, and I thought he’d die; but I knew if he got clear air that he might come round.

“When we had gotten to the shaft bottom we found it all full of smoke; the waft had gone straight up, and they on the top told us after that all the earth round was shook, and the black smoke and coal-dust flew up as though from a gun-barrel. Any way it was strong enough to carry away the machine, so we waited there ten minutes and wondered the basket did not come down; but they above, meanwhile, were rigging a rope to an old horse-whim, and as they could not get horses, the men run the poles round themselves.

“But we at the bottom knew nothing of all this. There were thirty or so in the shaft bottom, standing there, dripping wet wi’ water, and shouting for the others, who never came; now the smoke began to show in the west drive, and we knew the mine was fired, and yet we heard nought from those above.

“But what I minded most of all was, that Jack was getting better. I knew we could not well be lost right under the shaft, so I did not swear and go on like some of them, because they did not mind us above. When the basket came down at last, I and Jack went up among the first, and there I saw such a sight, lad, as ye’ll never see till ye see a colliery explosion. There were hundreds and hundreds there. Most had got friends or kin in the pit, and as each man came up, his wife or his mother would seize hold of him and carry on terrible.

“But the worst were they whose husbands and sons never came up again, and they were many; for out of one hundred and thirty-one men in the pit, only thirtynine came up alive. Directly we came to bank, I saw father; he was first among them that were helping, working like a horse, and directing everything. When he saw us, he said, ‘Thank the Lord, there’s my two boys. I am not a loser today!’ and came running to us, and helped me to carry Jack down the bank. He was very weak and sick, but the air freshened him up wonderful.

“I told father all about it, and he said, ‘I’ve been wrong, and thou’st been wrong. Don’t thou get angry for nothing; thou hast done a man’s work today, at all events. Now come and bear a hand. T’owd ‘ooman will mind the lad.’

“We went back to the pit’s mouth; the men were tearing round the whim faster than horses would a’ done it. And first amongst ’em all was old Mrs. Cobley, wi’ her long grey hair down her back, doing the work o’ three men; for her two boys were down still, and I knew for one that they were not with us at the bottom; but when the basket came up with the last, and her two boys missing, she went across to the master, and asked him what he was going to do, as quiet as possible.

“He said he was going to ask some men to go down, and my father volunteered to go at once, and eight more went with him. They were soon up again, and reported that all the mine was full of smoke, and no one had dared leave the shaft bottom fifty yards.

“‘It’s clear enough, the mine’s fired, sir,’ said my father to the owner. ‘They that’s down are dead. Better close it, sir.’

“‘What!’ screamed old Mrs. Cobley, ‘close the pit, ye dog, and my boys down there? Ye wouldn’t do such a thing, master dear?’ she continued; ‘ye couldn’t do it.’ Many others were wild when they heard the thing proposed; but while they raved and argued, the pit began to send up a reek of smoke like the mouth of hell, and then the master gave orders to close the shaft, and a hundred women knew they were widows, and went weeping home.

“And Jack got well. And after the old man died, we came out here. Jack has gotten a public-house in Yass, and next year I shall go home and live with him.

“And that’s the yarn about the fire at the Southstone Pit.”

We applauded it highly, and after a time began to talk about lying down, when on a sudden we heard a noise of horses’ feet outside; then the door was opened, and in came a stranger.

He was a stranger to me, but not to my servant, who I could see recognized him, though he gave no sign of it in words. I also stared at him, for he was the handsomest young man I had ever seen.

Handsome as an Apollo, beautiful as a leopard, but with such a peculiar style of beauty, that when you looked at him you instinctively felt at your side for a weapon of defence, for a more reckless, dangerous looking man I never yet set eyes on. And while I looked at him I recognised him. I had seen his face, or one like it, before often, often. And it seemed as though I had known him just as he stood there, years and years ago, on the other side of the world. I was almost certain it was so, and yet he seemed barely twenty. It was an impossibility, and yet as I looked I grew every moment more certain.

He dashed in in an insolent way. “I am going to quarter here to-night and chance it,” he said. “Hallo! Dick, my prince! You here? And what may your name be, old cock?” he added, turning to me, now seeing me indistinctly for the first time, for I was sitting back in the shadow.

“My name is Geoffry Hamlyn. I am a Justice of the Peace, and I am at your service,” I said. “Now perhaps you will favour me with YOUR name?”

The young gentleman did not seem to like coming so suddenly into close proximity with a “beak,” and answered defiantly —

“Charles Sutton is my name, and I don’t know as there’s anything against me, at present.”

“Sutton,” I said; “Sutton? I don’t know the name. No, I have nothing against you, except that you don’t appear very civil.”

Soon after I rolled myself in a blanket and lay down. Dick lay at right angles to me, his feet nearly touching mine. He began snoring heavily almost immediately, and just when I was going to give him a kick, and tell him not to make such a row, I felt him give me a good sharp shove with the heel of his boot, by which I understood that he was awake, and meant to keep awake, as he did not approve of the strangers.

I was anxious about our horses, yet in a short time I could keep awake no longer. I slept, and when I next woke, I heard voices whispering eagerly together. I silently turned, so that I could see whence the voices came, and perceived the hut-keeper sitting up in bed, in close confabulation with the stranger.

“Those two rascals are plotting some villany,” I said to myself; “somebody will be minus a horse shortly, I expect.” And then I fell asleep again; and when I awoke it was broad day.

I found the young man was gone, and, what pleased me better still, had not taken either of our horses with him. So, when we had taken some breakfast, we started, and I left the kind little old man something to remember me by.

We had not ridden a hundred yards, before I turned to Dick and said —

“Now mind; I don’t want you to tell me anything you don’t like, but pray relieve my mind on one point. Who was that young man? Have I ever seen him before?”

“I think not, sir; but I can explain how you come to think you have. You remember, sir, that I knew all about Mrs. Hawker’s history?”

“Yes! Yes! Go on.”

“That young fellow is George Hawker’s son.”

It came upon me like a thunderbolt. This, then, was the illegitimate son that he had by his cousin Ellen. Oh miserable child of sin and shame! to what end, I wondered, had he been saved till now?

We shall see soon. Meanwhile I turned to my companion and said, “Tell me how he came to be here.”

“Why you see, sir, he went on in his father’s ways, and got lagged. He found his father out as soon as he was free, which wasn’t long first, for he is mortal cunning, and since then they two have stuck together. Most times they quarrel, and sometimes they fight, but they are never far apart. Hawker ain’t far off now.”

“Now, sir,” he continued, “I am going to tell you something which, if it ever leaks out of your lips again, in such a way as to show where it came from, will end my life as sure as if I was hung. You remember three months ago that a boatful of men were supposed to have landed from Cockatoo?”

“Yes,” I said, “I heard it from Major Buckley. But the police have been scouring in all directions, and can find nothing of them. My opinion is that the boat was capsized, and they were all drowned, and that the surf piled the boat over with sea-weed. Depend on it they did not land.”

“Depend on it they did, sir; those men are safe and well, and ready for any mischief. Hawker was on the look-out for them, and they all stowed away till the police cleared off, which they did last week. There will be mischief soon. There; I have told you enough to cut my throat, and I’ll tell you more, and convince you that I am right. That shepherd at whose hut we stayed last night was one of them; that fellow was the celebrated Captain Mike. What do you think of that?”

I shuddered as I heard the name of that fell ruffian, and thought that I had slept in the hut with him. But when I remembered how he was whispering with the stranger in the middle of the night, I came to the conclusion that serious mischief was brewing, and pushed on through the fog, which still continued as dense as ever, and, guided by some directions from the old hut-keeper, I got to Captain Brentwood’s about ten o’clock, and told him and the Major the night’s adventures.

We three armed ourselves secretly and quietly, and went back to the hut with the determination of getting possession of the person of the shepherd Mike, who, were he the man Dick accused him of being, would have been a prize indeed, being one of the leading Van Diemen’s Land rangers, and one of the men reported as missing by Captain Blockstrop.

“Suppose,” said Captain Brentwood, “that we seize the fellow, and it isn’t him after all?”

“Then,” said the Major, “an action for false imprisonment would lie sir, decidedly. But we will chance it.”

And when we got there, we saw the old hut-keeper, he of the colliery explosion experiences, shepherding the sheep himself, and found that the man we were in search of had left the hut that morning, apparently to take the sheep out. But that going out about eleven the old man had found them still in the yard, whereby he concluded that the shepherd was gone, which proved to be the case. And making further inquiries we found that the shepherd had only been hired a month previously, and no man knew whence he came: all of which seemed to confirm Dick’s story wonderfully, and made us excessively uneasy. And in the end the Major asked me to prolong my visit for a time and keep my servant with me, as every hand was of use; and so it fell out that I happened to be present at, and chronicle all which follows.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/k/kingsley/henry/hamlyn/chapter36.html

Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 21:44