Geoffrey Hamlyn, by Henry Kingsley

Chapter 43

Across the Snow.

Hawker the elder, as I said, casting one glance at the body of his son, whom he knew not, and another at Captain Desborough, who was just rising from the ground after his fall, set spurs to his noble chestnut horse, and, pushing through the contracted barriers of slate which closed up the southern end of the amphitheatre where they had been surprised, made for the broader and rapidly rising valley which stretched beyond.

He soon reached the rocky gate, where the vast ridge of schist, alternating with the limestone, and running north and south in high serrated ridges, was cut through by a deep fissure, formed by the never idle waters of a little creek, that in the course of ages had mined away the softer portions of the slate, and made a practicable pass toward the mountains.

He picked his way with difficulty through the tumbled boulders that lay in the chasm; and then there was a cool brisk wind on his forehead, and a glare in his eyes. The chill breath of the west wind from the mountain — the glare of the snow that filled up the upper end of the valley, rising in level ridges towards the sky-line.

He had been this path before; and if he had gone it a hundred times again, he would only have cursed it for a rough, desperate road, the only hope of a desperate man. Not for him to notice the thousand lessons that the Lord had spread before him in the wilderness! Not for him to notice how the vegetation changed when the limestone was passed, and the white quartz reefs began to seam the slaty sides of the valley like rivers of silver! Not for him to see how, as he went up and on, the hardy Dicksoniae, still nestled in stunted tufts among the more sheltered side gullies, long after her tenderer sister, the queenly Alsophylla had been left behind. He only knew that he was a hunted wild beast, and that his lair was beyond the snow.

The creek flashed pleasantly among the broken slate, full and turbid under the mid-day sun. After midnight, when its fountains are sealed again by the frosty breath of night, that creek will be reduced to a trickling rill. His horse’s feet brushed through the delicate asplenium, the Venus’-hair of Australia; the sarsaparilla still hung in scant purple tufts on the golden wattle, and the scarlet correa lurked among the broken quartz.

Upwards and onwards. In front, endless cycles agone, a lava stream from some crater we know not had burst over the slate, with fearful clang and fierce explosion, forming a broad roadway of broken basalt up to a plateau twelve hundred feet or more above us, and not so steep but that a horse might be led up it. Let us go up with him, not cursing heaven and earth, as he did, but noticing how, as we ascend, the scarlet wreaths of the Kennedia and the crimson Grevillea give place to the golden Grevillea and the red Epacris; then comes the white Epacris, and then the grass trees, getting smaller and scantier as we go, till the little blue Gentian, blossoming boldly among the slippery crags, tells us that we have nearly reached the limits of vegetation.

He turned when he reached this spot, and looked around him. To the west a broad rolling down of snow, rising gradually; to the east, a noble prospect of forest and plain, hill and gully, with old Snowy winding on in broad bright curves towards the sea. He looked over all the beauty and undeveloped wealth of Gipp’s Land, which shall yet, please God, in fulness of time, be one of the brightest jewels in the King of England’s crown, but with eyes that saw not. He turned towards the snow, and mounting his horse, which he had led up the cliff, held steadily westward.

His plans were well laid. Across the mountain, north of Lake Omeo, not far from the mighty cleft in which the infant Murray spends his youth, were two huts, erected years before by some settler, and abandoned. They had been used by a gang of bushrangers, who had been attacked by the police, and dispersed. Nevertheless, they had been since inhabited by the men we know of, who landed in the boat from Van Diemen’s Land, in consequence of Hawker himself having found a pass through the ranges, open for nine months in the year. So that, when the police were searching Gipp’s Land for these men, they, with the exception of two or three, were snugly ensconced on the other water-shed, waiting till the storm should blow over. In these huts Hawker intended to lie by for a short time, living on such provisions as were left, until he could make his way northward, on the outskirts of the settlements, and escape.

There was no pursuit, he thought: how could there be? Who knew of this route but himself and his mates? hardly likely any of them would betray him. No creature was moving in the valley he had just ascended; but the sun was beginning to slope towards the west, and he must onwards.

Onwards, across the slippery snow. At first a few tree-stems, blighted and withered, were visible right and left, proving that at some time during their existence, these bald downs had either a less elevation or a warmer climate than now. Then these even disappeared, and all around was one white blinding glare. To the right, the snow-fields rolled up into the shapeless lofty mass called Mount Tambo, behind which the hill they now call Kosciusko — as some say, the highest ground in the country — began to take a crimson tint from the declining sun. Far to the south, black and gaunt among the whitened hills, towered the rounded hump of Buffaloe, while the peaks of Buller and Aberdeen showed like dim blue clouds on the furthest horizon.

Snow, and nothing but snow. Sometimes plunging shoulder deep into some treacherous hollow, sometimes guiding the tired horse across the surface frozen over unknown depths. He had been drinking hard for some days, and, now the excitement of action had gone off, was fearfully nervous. The snow-glint had dizzied his head, too, and he began to see strange shapes forming themselves in the shade of each hollow, and start at each stumble of his horse.

A swift-flying shadow upon the snow, and a rush of wings overhead. An eagle. The lordly scavenger is following him, impatient for him to drop and become a prey. Soar up, old bird, and bide thy time; on yonder precipice thou shalt have good chance of a meal.

Twilight, and then night, and yet the snow but half past. There is a rock in a hollow, where grow a few scanty tufts of grass which the poor horse may eat. Here he will camp, fireless, foodless, and walk up and down the livelong night, for sleep might be death. Though he is not in thoroughly Alpine regions, yet still, at this time of the year, the snow is deep and the frost is keen. It were as well to keep awake.

As he paced up and down beneath the sheltering rock, when night had closed in, and the frosty stars were twinkling in the cold blue firmament, strange ghosts and fancies came crowding on him thick and fast. Down the long vista of a misspent, ruined life, he saw people long since forgotten trooping up towards him. His father tottered sternly on, as with a fixed purpose before him; his gipsy-mother, Madge, strode forward pitiless; and poor ruined Ellen, holding her child to her heart, joined the others, and held up her withered hand as if in mockery. But then there came a face between him and all the other figures which his distempered brain had summoned, and blotted them out; the face of a young man, bearing a strange likeness to himself; the face of the last human creature he had seen; the face of the boy that he had shot down among the fern.

Why should this face grow before him wherever he turned, so that he could not look on rock or sky without seeing it? Why should it glare at him through a blood-red haze when he shut his eyes to keep it out, not in sorrow, not in anger, but even as he had seen it last, expressing only terror and pain, as the lad rolled off his horse, and lay a black heap among the flowers? Up and away! anything is better than this. Let us stumble away across the snow, through the mirk night once more, rather than be driven mad by this pale boy’s face.

Morning, and the pale ghosts have departed. Long shadows of horse and man are thrown before him now, as the slope dips away to the westward, and he knows that his journey is well-nigh over.

It was late, afternoon, before, having left the snow some hours, he began to lead his horse down a wooded precipice, through vegetation which grew more luxuriant every yard he descended. The glen, whose bottom he was trying to reach, was a black profound gulf, with perpendicular, or rather over-hanging walls, on every side, save where he was scrambling down. Here indeed it was possible for a horse to keep his footing among the belts of trees, that, alternating with precipitous granite cliff, formed the upper end of one of the most tremendous glens in the world — the Gates of the Murray.

He was barely one-third of the way down this mountain wall, when the poor tired horse lost his footing and fell over the edge, touching neither tree nor stone for five hundred feet, while George Hawker was left terrified, hardly daring to peer into the dim abyss, where the poor beast was gone.

But it was little matter. The hut he was making for was barely four miles off now, and there was meat, drink, and safety. Perhaps there might be company, he hoped there might — some of the gang might have escaped. A dog would be some sort of friend, anything sooner than such another night as last night.

His pistols were gone with the saddle, and he was unarmed. He reached the base of the cliff in safety, and forced his way through the tangled scrub that fringed the infant river, towards the lower end of the pass. Here the granite walls, overhanging, bend forward above to meet one another, almost forming an arch, the height of which, from the river-bed, is computed to be nearly, if not quite, three thousand feet. Through this awful gate he forced his way, overawed and utterly dispirited, and reached the gully where his refuge lay, just as the sun was setting.

There was a slight track, partly formed by stray cattle which led up it, and casting his eyes upon this, he saw the marks of a horse’s feet. “Some one of the gang got home before me,” he said. “I’m right glad of that, anything better than such another night.”

He turned a sharp angle in the path, just where it ran round an abrupt cliff. He saw a horseman within ten yards of him with his face towards him. Captain Desborough, holding a pistol at his head.

“Surrender, George Hawker!” said Desborough. “Or, by the living Lord! you are a dead man.”

Hungry, cold, desperate, unarmed; he saw that he was undone, and that hope was dead. The Captain had an easier prey than he had anticipated. Hawker threw up his arms, and ere he could fully appreciate his situation, he was chained fast to Desborough’s saddle, only to be loosed, he knew, by the gallows.

Without a word on either side they began their terrible journey. Desborough riding, and Hawker manacled by his right wrist to the saddle. Fully a mile was passed before the latter asked, sullenly —

“Where are you going to take me to-night?”

“To Dickenson’s,” replied Desborough. “You must step out you know. It will be for your own good, for I must get there to-night.”

Two or three miles further were got over, when Hawker said abruptly —

“Look here, Captain, I want to talk to you.”

“You had better not,” said Desborough. “I don’t want to have any communication with you, and every word you say will go against you.”

“Bah!” said Hawker. “I must swing. I know that. I shan’t make any defence. Why, the devils out of hell would come into court against me if I did. But I want to ask you a question or two. You haven’t got the character of being a brutal fellow, like O——. It can’t hurt you to answer me one or two things, and ease my mind a bit.”

“God help you, unhappy man;” said Desborough. “I will answer any questions you ask.”

“Well, then, see here,” said Hawker, hesitating. “I want to know — I want to know first, how you got round before me?”

“Is that all?” said Desborough. “Well, I came round over Broad-saddle, and got a fresh horse at the Parson’s.”

“Ah!” said Hawker. “That young fellow I shot down when you were after me, is he dead?”

“By this time,” said Desborough. “He was just dying when I came away.”

“Would you mind stopping for a moment, Captain? Now tell me, who was he?”

“Mr. Charles Hawker, son of Mrs. Hawker, of Toonarbin.”

He gave such a yell that Desborough shrunk from him appalled — a cry as of a wounded tiger — and struggled so wildly with his handcuffs that the blood poured from his wrists. Let us close this scene. Desborough told me afterwards that that wild, fierce, despairing cry, rang in his ears for many years afterwards, and would never be forgotten till those ears were closed with the dust of the grave.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/k/kingsley/henry/hamlyn/chapter43.html

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