Geoffrey Hamlyn, by Henry Kingsley

Chapter 39

The Last Gleam Before the Storm.

But with us, who were staying down at Major Buckley’s, a fortnight passed on so pleasantly that the horror of poor Lee’s murder had begun to wear off, and we were getting once more as merry and careless as though we were living in the old times of profound peace. Sometimes we would think of poor Mary Hawker, at her lonely watch up at the forest station; but that or any other unpleasant subject was soon driven out of our heads by Captain Desborough, who had come back with six troopers, declared the country in a state of siege, proclaimed martial law, and kept us all laughing and amused from daylight to dark.

Captain Brentwood and his daughter Alice (the transcendently beautiful!) had come up, and were staying there. Jim and his friend Halbert were still away, but were daily expected. I never passed a pleasanter time in my life than during that fortnight’s lull between the storms.

“Begorra (that’s a Scotch expression, Miss Brentwood, but very forcible),” said Captain Desborough. “I owe you more than I can ever repay for buying out the Donovans. That girl Lesbia Burke would have forcibly abducted me, and married me against my will, if she hadn’t had to follow the rest of the family to Port Phillip.”

“A fine woman, too,” said Captain Brentwood.

“I’d have called her a little coarse, myself,” said Desborough.

“One of the finest, strangest sights I ever saw in my life,” resumed Captain Brentwood, “was on the morning I came to take possession. None of the family were left but Murtagh Donovan and Miss Burke. I rode over from Buckley’s, and when I came to the door Donovan took me by the arm, and saying ‘whist,’ led me into the sitting-room. There, in front of the empty fireplace, crouched down on the floor, bareheaded, with her beautiful hair hanging about her shoulders, sat Miss Burke. Every now and then she would utter the strangest low wailing cry you ever heard: a cry, by Jove, sir, that went straight to your heart. I turned to Donovan, and whispered, ‘Is she ill?’ and he whispered again, ‘Her heart’s broke at leaving the old place where she’s lived so long. She’s raising the keen over the cold hearthstone. It’s the way of the Burkes.’ I don’t know when I was so affected in my life. Somehow, that exquisite line came to my remembrance —

“‘And the hare shall kindle on the cold hearth-stone,’

“and I went back quietly with Donovan; and, by Jove, sir, when we came out the great ass had the tears running down his cheeks. I have always felt kindly to that man since.”

“Ah, Captain,” said Desborough, “with all our vanity and absurdity, we Irish have got good warm hearts under our waistcoats. We are the first nation in the world, sir, saving the Jews.”

This was late in the afternoon of a temperate spring day. We were watching Desborough as he was giving the finishing touches to a beautiful watercolour drawing.

“Doctor,” he said, “come and pass your opinion.”

“I think you have done admirably, Captain,” said the Doctor; “you have given one a splendid idea of distance in the way you have toned down the plain, from the grey appearance it has ten miles off to the rich, delicate green it shows close to us. And your mountain, too, is most aerial. You would make an artist.”

“I am not altogether displeased with my work, Doctor, if you, who never flatter, can praise it with the original before you. How exceedingly beautiful the evening tones are becoming!”

We looked across the plain; the stretch of grass I have described was lying before one like a waveless sea, from the horizon of which rose the square abruptsided mass of basalt which years ago we had named the Organ-hill, from the regular fluted columns of which it was composed. On most occasions, as seen from Major Buckley’s, it appeared a dim mass of pearly grey, but to-night, in the clear frosty air, it was of a rich purple, shining on the most prominent angles with a dull golden light.

“The more I look at that noble fire-temple, the more I admire it,” said the Doctor. “It is one of the most majestic objects I ever beheld.”

“It is not unlike Staffa,” said Desborough. “There come two travellers.”

Two dots appeared crawling over the plain, and making for the river. For a few minutes Alice could not be brought to see them, but when she did, she declared that it was Jim and Halbert.

“You have good eyes, my love,” said her father, “to see what does not exist. Jim’s horse is black, and Halbert’s roan, and those two men are both on grey horses.”

“The wish was parent to the thought, father,” she replied, laughing. “I wonder what is keeping him away from us so long? If he is to go to India, I should like to see him as much as possible.”

“My dear,” said her father, “when he went off with Halbert to see the Markhams, I told him that if he liked to go on to Sydney, he could go if Halbert went with him, and draw on the agent for what money he wanted. By his being so long away, I conclude he has done so, and that he is probably at this moment getting a lesson at billiards from Halbert before going to dinner. I shall have a nice little account from the agent just now, of ‘Cash advanced to J. Brentwood, Esq.’”

“I don’t think Jim’s extravagant, papa,” said Alice.

“My dear,” said Captain Brentwood, “you do him injustice. He hasn’t had the chance. I must say, considering his limited opportunities, he has spent as much money on horses, saddlery, &c., as any young gentleman on this country side. Eh, Sam?”

“Well sir,” said Sam, “Jim spends his money, but he generally makes pretty good investments in the horse line.”

“Such as that sweet-tempered useful animal Stampedo,” replied the Captain, laughing, “who nearly killed a groom, and staked himself trying to leap out of the stockyard the second day he had him. Well, never mind; Jim’s a good boy, and I am proud of him. I am in some hopes that this Sydney journey will satisfy his wandering propensities for the present, and that we may keep him at home. I wish he would fall in love with somebody, providing she wasn’t old enough to be his grandmother. — Couldn’t you send him a letter of introduction to some of your old schoolfellows, Miss Puss? There was one of them, I remember, I fell in love with myself one time when I came to see you; Miss Green, I think it was. She was very nearly being your mamma-in-law, my dear.”

“Why, she is a year younger than me,” said Alice, “and, oh goodness, such a temper! She threw the selections from Beethoven at Signor Smitherini, and had bread and water-melon for two days for it. Serve her right!”

“I have had a narrow escape, then,” replied the father. “But we shall see who these two people are immediately, for they are crossing the river.”

When the two travellers rose again into sight on the near bank of the river, one of them was seen galloping forward, waving his hat.

“I KNEW it was Jim,” said Alice, “and on a new grey horse. I thought he would not go to Sydney.” And in a minute more she had run to meet him, and Jim was off his horse, kissing his sister, laughing, shouting, and dancing around her.

“Well, father,” he said, “here I am back again. Went to Sydney and stayed a week, when we met the two Marstons, and went right up to the Clarence with them. That was a pretty journey, eh? Sold the old horse, and bought this one. I’ve got heaps to tell you, sister, about what I’ve seen. I went home, and only stayed ten minutes; when I heard you were here, I came right on.”

“I am glad to see you back, Mr. Halbert,” said Major Buckley; “I hope you have had a pleasant journey. You have met Captain Desborough?”

“Captain Desborough, how are you?” says Jim. “I am very glad to see you. But, between you and I, you’re always a bird of ill omen. Whose pig’s dead now? What brings YOU back? I thought we should be rid of you by this time.”

“But you are not rid of me, Jackanapes,” said Desborough, laughing. “But I’ll tell you what, Jim; there is really something wrong, my boy, and I’m glad to see you back.” And he told him all the news.

Jim grew very serious. “Well,” said he, “I’m glad to be home again; and I’m glad, too, to see you here. One feels safer when you’re in the way. We must put a cheerful face on the matter, and not frighten the women. I have bought such a beautiful brace of pistols in Sydney. I hope I may never have the chance to use them in this country. Why, there’s Cecil Mayford and Mrs. Buckley coming down the garden, and Charley Hawker, too. Why, Major, you’ve got all the world here to welcome us.”

The young men were soon busy discussing the merits of Jim’s new horse, and examining with great admiration his splendid new pistols. Charley Hawker, poor boy! made a mental resolution to go to Sydney, and also come back with a new grey horse, and a pair of pistols more resplendent than Jim’s. And then they went in to get ready for dinner.

When Jim unpacked his valise, he produced a pretty bracelet for his sister, and a stockwhip for Sam. On the latter article he was very eloquent.

“Sam, my boy,” said he, “there is not such another in the country. It was made by the celebrated Bill Mossman of the Upper Hunter, the greatest swearer at bullocks, and the most accomplished whipmaker on the Sydney side. He makes only one in six months, and he makes it a favour to let you have it for five pounds. You can take a piece of bark off a blue gum, big enough for a canoe, with one cut of it. There’s a fine of two pounds for cracking one within a mile of Government House, they make such a row. A man the other day cracked one of them on the South Head, and broke the windows in Pitt Street.”

“You’re improving, master Jim,” said Charles Hawker. “You’ll soon be as good a hand at a yarn as Hamlyn’s Dick.” At the same time he wrote down a stockwhip, similar to this one, on the tablets of his memory, to be procured on his projected visit to Sydney.

That evening we all sat listening to Jim’s adventures; and pleasantly enough he told them, with not a little humorous exaggeration. It is always pleasant to hear a young fellow telling his first impressions of new things and scenes, which have been so long familiar to ourselves; but Jim had really a very good power of narration, and he kept us laughing and amused till long after the usual hour for going to bed.

Next day we had a pleasant ride, all of us, down the banks of the river. The weather was slightly frosty, and the air clear and elastic. As we followed the windings of the noble rushing stream, at a height of seldom less than three hundred feet above his bed, the Doctor was busy pointing out the alternations of primitive sandstone and slate, and the great streams of volcanic bluestone which had poured from various points towards the deep glen in which the river flowed. Here, he would tell us, was formerly a lofty cascade, and a lake above it, but the river had worn through the sandstone bar, drained the lake, leaving nothing of the waterfall but two lofty cliffs, and a rapid. There again had come down a lava-stream from Mirngish, which, cooled by the waters of the river, had stopped, and, accumulating, formed the lofty overhanging cliff on which we stood. He showed us how the fern-trees grew only in the still sheltered elbows facing northward, where the sun raised a warm steam from the river, and the cold south wind could not penetrate. He gathered for Mrs. Buckley a bouquet of the tender sweetscented yellow oxalis, the winter flower of Australia, and showed us the copper-lizard basking on the red rocks, so like the stone on which he lay, that one could scarce see him till a metallic gleam betrayed him, as he slipped to his lair. And we, the elder of the party, who followed the Doctor’s handsome little brown mare, kept our ears open, and spoke little — but gave ourselves fully up to the enjoyment of his learning and eloquence.

But the Doctor did not absorb the whole party; far from it. He had a rival. All the young men, and Miss Alice besides, were grouped round Captain Desborough. Frequently we elders, deep in some Old World history of the Doctor’s, would be disturbed by a ringing peal of laughter from the other party, and then the Doctor would laugh, and we would all join; not that we had heard the joke, but from sheer sympathy with the hilarity of the young folks. Desborough was making himself agreeable, and who could do it better? He was telling the most outrageous of Irish stories, and making, on purpose, the most outrageous of Irish bulls. After a shout of laughter louder than the rest, the Doctor remarked —

“That’s better for them than geology — eh, Mrs. Buckley?”

“And so my grandmother,” we heard Desborough say, “waxed mighty wrath, and she up with her goldheaded walking stick in the middle of Sackville Street, and says she, ‘Ye villain, do ye think I don’t know my own Blenheim spannel when I see him?’ ‘Indeed, my lady,’ says Mike, ”twas himself tould me he belanged to Barney.’ ‘Who tould you?’ says she. ‘The dog himself tould me, my lady.’ ‘Ye thief of the world,’ says my aunt, ‘and ye’d believe a dog before a dowager countess? Give him up, ye villain, this minute, or I’ll hit ye!’”

These were the sort of stories Desborough delighted in, making them up, he often confessed, as he went on. On this occasion, when he had done his story, they all rode up and joined us, and we stood admiring the river, stretching westward in pools of gold between black cliffs, toward the setting sun; then we turned homeward.

That evening Alice said, “Now do tell me, Captain Desborough, was that a true story about Lady Covetown’s dog?”

“True!” said he. “What story worth hearing ever was true? The old lady lost her dog certainly, and claimed him of a dogstealer in Sackville Street; but all the rest, my dear young lady, is historic romance.”

“Mr. Hamlyn knows a good story,” said Charley Hawker, “about Bougong Jack. Do tell it to us, Uncle Jeff.”

“I don’t think,” I said, “that it has so much foundation in fact as Captain Desborough’s. But there must be some sort of truth in it, for it comes from the old hands, and shows a little more signs of imagination than you would expect from them. It is a very stupid story too.”

“Do tell it,” they all said. So I complied, much in the same language as I tell it now:—

You know that these great snow-ranges which tower up to the west of us are, farther south, of great breadth, and that none have yet forced their way from the country of the Ovens and the Mitta Mitta through here to Gipp’s-land.

The settlers who have just taken up that country, trying to penetrate to the eastward here towards us, find themselves stopped by a mighty granite wall. Any adventurous men, who may top that barrier, see nothing before them but range beyond range of snow Alps, intersected by precipitous cliffs, and frightful chasms.

This westward range is called the Bougongs. The blacks during summer are in the habit of coming thus far to collect and feed on the great grey moths (Bougongs) which are found on the rocks. They used to report that a fine available country lies to the east embosomed in mountains, rendered fertile by perpetual snow-fed streams. This is the more credible, as it is evident that between the Bougong range on the west and the Warragong range on the extreme east, towards us, there is a breadth of at least eighty miles.

There lived a few years ago, not very far from the Ovens-river, a curious character, by name John Sampson. He had been educated at one of the great English universities, and was a good scholar, though he had been forced to leave the university, and, as report went, England too, for some great irregularity.

He had money, and a share in his brother-in-law’s station, although he never stayed there many months in the year. He was always away at some mischief or another. No horse-race or prize-fight could go on without him, and he himself never left one of these last-mentioned gatherings without finding some one to try conclusions with him. Beside this, he was a great writer and singer of comic songs, and a consummate horseman.

One fine day he came back to his brother’s station in serious trouble. Whether he had mistaken another man’s horse for his own or not, I cannot say; but, at all events, he announced that a warrant was out against him for horse-stealing, and that he must go into hiding. So he took up his quarters at a little hut of his brother-in-law’s, on the ranges, inhabited only by a stockkeeper and a black boy, and kept a young lubra in pay to watch down the glen for the police.

One morning she came running into the hut, breathless, to say that a lieutenant and three troopers were riding towards the hut. Jack had just time to saddle and mount his horse before the police caught sight of him, and started after him at full speed.

They hunted him into a narrow glen; a single cattletrack, not a foot broad, led on between a swollen rocky creek, utterly impassable by horse or man, and a lofty precipice of loose broken slate, on which one would have thought a goat could not have found a footing. The young police lieutenant had done his work well, and sent a trooper round to head him, so that Jack found himself between the devil and the deep sea. A tall armed trooper stood in front of him, behind was the lieutenant, on the right of the creek, and on the left the precipice.

They called out to him to surrender; but, giving one look before and behind, and seeing escape was hopeless, he hesitated not a moment, but put his horse at the cliff, and clambered up, rolling down tons of loose slate in his course. The lieutenant shut his eyes, expecting to see horse and man roll down into the creek, and only opened them in time to see Jack stand for a moment on the summit against the sky, and then disappear.

He disappeared over the top of the cliff, and so he was lost to the ken of white men for the space of four years. His sister and brother-in-law mourned for him as dead, and mourned sincerely, for they and all who knew him liked him well. But at the end of that time, on a wild winter’s night, he came back to them, dressed in opossum skins, with scarce a vestige of European clothing about him. His beard had grown down over his chest, and he had nearly forgotten his mother tongue, but, when speech came to him again, he told them a strange story.

It was winter time when he rode away. All the table lands were deep with snow; and, when he had escaped the policemen, he had crossed the first of the great ridges on the same night. He camped in the valley he found on the other side; and, having his gun and some ammunition with him, he fared well.

He was beyond the country which had ever been trodden by white men, and now, for the mere sake of adventure, he determined to go further still, and see if he could cross the great White Mountains, which had hitherto been considered an insurmountable barrier.

For two days he rode over a high table-land, deep in snow. Here and there, in a shallow sheltered valley, he would find just grass enough to keep his horse alive, but nothing for himself. On the third night he saw before him another snow-ridge, too far off to reach without rest, and, tethering his horse in a little crevice between the rocks, he prepared to walk to and fro all night, to keep off the deadly snow sleepiness that he felt coming over him. “Let me but see what is beyond that next ridge,” he said, “and I will lie down and die.”

And now, as the stillness of the night came on, and the Southern Cross began to twinkle brilliantly above the blinding snow, he was startled once more by a sound which had fallen on his ear several times during his toilsome afternoon journey: a sound as of a sudden explosion, mingled, strangely too, with the splintering of broken glass. At first he thought it was merely the booming in his ears, or the rupture of some vessel in his bursting head. Or was it fancy? No; there it was again, clearer than before. That was no noise in his head, for the patient horse turned and looked toward the place where the sound came from. Thunder? The air was clear and frosty, and not a cloud stained the sky. There was some mystery beyond that snow-ridge worth living to see.

He lived to see it. For an hour after daybreak next morning, he, leading his horse, stumbled over the snowcovered rocks that bounded his view, and, when he reached the top, there burst on his sight a scene that made him throw up his arms and shout aloud.

Before him, pinnacle after pinnacle towered up a mighty Alp, blazing in the morning sun. Down through a black rift on its side wound a gleaming glacier, which hurled its shattered ice crystals over a dark cliff, into the deep profound blue of a lake, which stretched north and south, studded with green woody islets, almost as far as the eye could see. Toward the mountain the lake looked deep and gloomy, but, on the hither side, showed many a pleasant yellow shallow, and sandy bay, while between him and the lake lay a mile or so of park-like meadow land, in the full verdure of winter. As he looked, a vast dislocated mass of ice fell crashing from the glacier into the lake, and solved at once the mystery of the noises he had heard the night before.

He descended into the happy valley, and found a small tribe of friendly blacks, who had never before seen the face of white man, and who supposed him to be one of their own tribe, dead long ago, who had come back to them, renovated and beautified, from the other world. With these he lived a pleasant slothful life, while four years went on, forgetting all the outside world, till his horse was dead, his gun rusted and thrown aside, and his European clothes long since replaced by the skin of the opossum and the koala. He had forgotten his own tongue, and had given up all thoughts of crossing again the desolate barriers of snow which divided him from civilization, when a slight incident brought back old associations to his mind, and roused him from sleep.

In some hunting excursion he got a slight scratch, and, searching for some linen to tie it up, found in his mi-mi an old waistcoat, which he had worn when he came into the valley. In the lining, while tearing it up, he found a crumpled paper, a note from his sister, written years before, full of sisterly kindness and tenderness. He read it again and again before he lay down, and the next morning, collecting such small stock of provisions as he could, he started on the homeward track, and after incredible hardships reached his station.

His brother-in-law tried in vain with a strong party to reach the lake, but never succeeded. What mountain it was he discovered, or what river is fed by the lake he lived on, no man knows to this day. Some say he went mad, and lived in the ranges all the time, and that this was all a mere madman’s fancy. But, whether he was mad or not then, he is sane enough now, and has married a wife, and settled down to be one of the most thriving men in that part of the country.

“Well,” said the Doctor, thrusting his fists deep into his breeches pockets, “I don’t believe that story.”

“Nor I either, Doctor,” I replied. “But it has amused you all for half an hour; so let it pass.”

“Oh!” said the Doctor, rather peevishly, “if you put it on those grounds, I am bound, of course, to withhold a few little criticisms I was inclined to make on its probability. I hope you won’t go and pass it off as authentic, you know, because if we once begin to entertain these sort of legends as meaning anything, the whole history of the country becomes one great fogbank, through which the devil himself could not find his way.”

“Now, for my part,” said mischievous Alice, “I think it a very pretty story. And I have no doubt that it is every word of it true.”

“Oh, dear me, then,” said the Doctor, “let us vote it true. And, while we are about it, let us believe that the Sydney ghost actually did sit on a three-rail fence, smoking its pipe, and directing an anxious crowd of relatives where to find its body. By all means let us believe everything we hear.”

The next morning our pleasant party suffered a loss. Captain Brentwood and Alice went off home. He was wanted there, and all things seemed so tranquil that he thought it was foolish to stay away any longer. Cecil Mayford, too, departed, carrying with him the affectionate farewells of the whole party. His pleasant even temper, and his handsome face, had won every one who knew him, and, though he never talked much, yet, when he was gone, we all missed his merry laugh, after one of Desborough’s good stories. Charley Hawker went off with him too, and spent a few hours with Ellen Mayford, much to his satisfaction, but came in again at night, as his mother had prayed of him not to leave the Major’s till he had seen her again.

That night the Major proposed punch, and, after Mrs. Buckley had gone to bed, Sam sang a song, and Desborough told a story, about a gamekeeper of his uncle’s, whom the old gentleman desired to start in an independent way of business. So he built him a new house, and gave him a keg of whisky, to start in the spirit-selling line. “But the first night,” said Desborough, “the villain finished the whisky himself, broke the keg, and burnt the house down; so my uncle had to take him back into service again, after all.” And after this came other stories equally preposterous, and we went rather late to bed.

And the next morning, too, I am afraid, we were rather late for breakfast. Just as we were sitting down, in came Captain Brentwood.

“Hallo,” said the Major; “what brings you back so soon, old friend. Nothing the matter I hope?”

“Nothing but business,” he replied. “I am going on to Dickson’s, and I shall be back home to-night, I hope. I am glad to find you so late, as I have had no breakfast, and have ridden ten miles.”

He took breakfast with us and went on. The morning passed somewhat heavily, as a morning is apt to do, after sitting up late and drinking punch. Towards noon Desborough said —

“Now, if anybody will confess that he drank just three drops too much punch last night, I will do the same. Mrs. Buckley, my dear lady, I hope you will order plenty of pale ale for lunch.”

Lunch passed pleasantly enough, and afterwards the Major, telling Sam to move a table outside into the verandah, disappeared, and soon came back with a very “curious” bottle of Madeira. We sat then in the verandah smoking for about a quarter of an hour.

I remember every word that was spoken, and every trivial circumstance that happened during that quarter of an hour; they are burnt into my memory as if by fire. The Doctor was raving about English poetry, as usual, saying, however, that the modern English poets, good as they were, had lost the power of melody a good deal. This the Major denied, quoting:—

“By torch and trumpet fast array’d.”

“Fifty such lines, sir, are not worth one of Milton’s,” said the Doctor.

“‘The trumpet spake not to the armed throng.’

“There’s melody for you; there’s a blare and a clang; there’s a ——”

I heard no more. Mrs. Buckley’s French clock, in the house behind, chimed three quarters past one, and I heard a sound of two persons coming quickly through the house.

Can you tell the step of him who brings evil tidings? I think I can. At all events, I felt my heart grow cold when I heard those footsteps. I heard them coming through the house, across the boarded floor. The one was a rapid, firm, military footstep, accompanied with the clicking of a spur, and the other was unmistakably the “pad, pad” of a blackfellow.

We all turned round and looked at the door. There stood the sergeant of Desborough’s troopers, pale and silent, and close behind him, clinging to him as if for protection, was the lithe naked figure of a black lad, looking from behind the sergeant, with terrified visage, first at one and then at another of us.

I saw disaster in their faces, and would have held up my hand to warn him not to speak before Mrs. Buckley. But I was too late, for he had spoken. And then we sat for a minute, looking at one another, each man seeing the reflection of his own horror in his neighbour’s eyes.

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