Ralph Rashleigh, by James Tucker

Chapter 28

In broken dreams the image rose

Of varied perils, pains, and woes.

They come, in dim procession led,

The cold, the faithless, and the dead;

As warm each hand, each brow as gay,

As if they parted yesterday.

The condition of the fugitives in their rude fortress was sufficiently dispiriting, after the first joy that they felt for their victory had passed away. Three of their number lay dead; and all the rest, save Rashleigh, were more or less wounded, as before related. Besides these causes for regret, they knew that the blacks, though repulsed for a time, would most certainly renew their attack with the first convenient opportunity and never cease to harass them until they had either revenged the fall of their fellows or shared their bloody graves. The spot in which they were also afforded no water, and it would have been perfectly impossible for some of the white men, who had suffered most in their late conflict, to remove to any more promising place, even if they had not feared danger by the way from the assaults of their insidious enemies.

McClashin, who was almost uninjured, and Hennessy, who was only slightly so, were now violent in their clamours against our adventurer, accusing him of being the origin of all their mishaps, since they had adopted his advice of continuing the route along the beach. It was in vain that Rashleigh alleged the fact that they would have been equally liable to the attacks of the aborigines in whatever direction they had proceeded. The others only became more clamorous; and Hennessy at length got so much enraged that, taking an opportunity while Ralph was looking another way, he presented his musket at the former. Roberts, whose wounds had by this time become so stiff that he could not rise, was only able to warn the intended victim of the other’s murderous design in a hurried manner.

On turning his head, Rashleigh saw the rascal taking aim at himself and rushed upon him. Fortunately the gun missed fire; and our adventurer, whose passions were fully aroused at the treachery of the attempt, wrested the musket out of Hennessy’s hand, then, throwing it away, seized upon his foe and lifting him up by main strength, dashed him to the ground, the craven ruffian roaring out all the while for mercy; which Ralph, thinking the fall might be a sufficient lesson to him, now granted and resumed his seat beside Roberts, who was rapidly sinking from loss of blood, he having received four spear wounds in different parts, besides many contusions.

It was Rashleigh’s care in the first place to withdraw the weapons, portions of which still remained in the wounds of his suffering companion. He then bandaged them up as well as he could and laid the wounded man in a nook where he might take some undisturbed repose. After this he cautiously crept out of their fastness, with his musket loaded, to reconnoitre the neighbourhood for water and to observe whether any of their late opponents were visible. Not one of the latter was to be seen, nor could our adventurer for a long period discover any of the former object of his search. At length, in a spot at the foot of a clef, in the precipice, he found some aquatic-looking plants, around which the soil seemed moist. Here he scratched a hole with a stick, and in a few moments had the happiness to observe the orifice filling with a fluid that examination soon assured him was good fresh water, a small supply of which he took in a quart pot to the cave, having first enlarged the little well to the capacity of a bucket.

The water was eagerly welcomed by Roberts; and the other wounded men were equally clamorous for a drink. But as a few minutes must elapse before any quantity could be collected, they were forced to wait, and in the mean time Ralph employed himself in dragging away the dead bodies that cumbered the floor of their retreat. These he put in a hole beside a huge rock at some distance, covering them with sand as well as his imperfect means would allow. The next operation he engaged in was the construction of a sort of hedge, or chevaux de frise, with the ropes they had brought, which he tied across a narrow part of their retreat, securing the ends to stakes wedged into fissures of the rock and interlacing the whole with thorny boughs, so that it might serve to prevent any sudden hostile attack and keep off their foes while they reloaded their muskets, which, as Ralph had discovered, was very essential from the circumstances attending the last onslaught of their sable enemies.

Our adventurer next procured a sufficient supply of fresh water and prepared some food, of which, however, neither Roberts nor Owens was able to partake. They were the principal objects of his solicitude, as the conduct of neither McClashin nor Hennessy had been such as much to endear them to him. But nevertheless, though they had not assisted him in any of his exertions, he invited them to share the meal, which they did very willingly, appearing to be quite friendly and reconciled, though once or twice our adventurer detected sinister glances passing from one to another of them, which he neither understood nor approved of, and therefore, after having attended to the wants of the wounded, he left the cavern in search of some secret nook to which he might repair after it became dark.

At some short distance from their place of retreat was an upright fissure in a rock, which had been filled with seaweed by the action of repeated storms. The upper part of this was now dry, and Rashleigh resolved on making it his lair for the night that was now fast approaching. Intending, however, to give one more look at his companion Roberts and to smoke a pipe beside him as he lay, he turned back for this purpose, taking with him a large armful of seaweed to form an addition to the couch of the wounded man.

Just before he reached their place of refuge he heard voices conversing together in a subdued, almost whispering manner. A little attention to the tones satisfied him they were those of McClashin and Hennessy, and willing to hear what the subject might be they were discussing in this stealthy manner, our adventurer noiselessly put down his burden and crept very cautiously behind a rock they were seated in front of, talking so earnestly that they had not observed his approach.

Ralph heard Hennessy say, “I tell you he’s as strong as a bullock and might be more than a match for the pair of us.”

McClashin rephed, “Well thin, we must do the other thing, that’s all.” And they rose from their seats, going away towards their companions.

The few words he had thus heard set Rashleigh thinking what might be their import; but he could not satisfy himself upon this score, though, coupling the glances he had seen exchanged between these men with this circumstance, he feared they intended treachery to himself. Thus put in some degree upon his guard, he entered the cavern very warily and looked round for the two conspirators, whom he saw sitting by the fireside, chatting together in a very unconcerned manner.

McClashin observed, “I see you’ve got something to make a bed. Is there any more of it anywhere handy?”

“Plenty on the beach,” briefly replied Rashleigh. And the other two rose and went out, as Hennessy said, “to gather something to lay upon.”

While they were gone, our adventurer’s first act was to take out the flints from their muskets, after which he made up a bed for Roberts and then concealed all the other fire-arms but the piece he carried himself. When this was done he prepared his pipe and lay down to smoke in silence beside his wounded companions, who went to sleep almost directly he had replaced them on their rude couches. McClashin and Hennessy soon returned, and the former observed they had now a good way of passing the night.

Our adventurer did not make any reply, and the other went on addressing him, “What’s the rason you don’t speak to a body? Sure you an’t crabbed at us because you had them few words wid us to-day, are you? You shouldn’t mind me or Hennessy, for we are only a couple of foolish wild Irishmin, you must know.”

Hennessy here laughed and swore, “By Jakus, thin, I’m foolish enough, anyway, for I’d quarrel wid my best frind sometimes; but id’s all over wid me in a minnit.”

Rashleigh did not put much confidence in the pretended friendship of either, but still thought it best to suppress the answer that was rising to his lips. So he only said that he wasn’t at all angry, but only tired and sleepy, on which McClashin remarked, “Faix, thin, and no wondher, afther the hullaballoo we’ve all been in to-day. By my sowl thin, I seen you shtick that big black divil that was hauling you off like a horse’s head to a bonfire. That was nately done . . . And thin, how you rattled the others about the shkulls that was pegging away at poor Roberts. I will say if you hadn’t come back to help us, he’d a bin dead now, anyway. And musha, God knows, the whole of us, maybe.”

There was a catlike, treacherous, whining way about this man that he ever assumed towards those whom he most deeply hated, and Rashleigh had observed it often before, so that all his specious talk made no further impression upon the mind of our exile than warning him against some meditated deed of stealthy violence. So, finding himself really about to sleep, he got up and stole out of the place, taking the greatest precaution against being either followed or observed. In this way he reached his proposed lair and nestling in among the seaweed, slept unmolested until morning.

Soon after daylight he re-entered the rude shelter, where he found all things undisturbed and the inmates fast asleep behind the defence he had erected. While he was preparing their morning meal, McClashin awoke, and observing Rashleigh to be busied in his occupation, he arose and proffered to assist him. Hennessy also got up and our adventurer thought there was an air of hesitation about this bold-faced ruffian that did not become the assumed heartiness of his manner as he bade Ralph a good morrow. In the course of their meal McClashin asked the latter how he had slept and being answered very well, he added that he also slept wen, “only the muskatees were very throublesome”.

This day passed over quietly, and towards nightfall McClashin and Rashleigh went out to fish while Hennessy promised to keep a strict look-out for the blacks.

The two anglers met with very good success and brought home as much finny spoil as promised to afford them all two abundant meals. After supper Rashleigh lay down beside Roberts as before, until it was dark, when he repaired to his separate sleeping-place, where he again disposed himself for slumber, but in vain for a very long period, and he imagined that he was not sufficiently tired to sleep quickly. At length the drowsy god shed his poppies over the eye-lids of our exile, who sank into a state of troubled repose.

His rest was broken by a series of singular dreams. First his vagrant fancy strayed to the home of his youth. He was playing with his only sister, when a little childish quarrel arose and she was suddenly transformed into a hideous spectre, whose demoniac features still bore a faint resemblance to those of the departed bushranger Philip Foxley, who, grinning horribly, appeared about to strangle the solitary sleeper. Then again, he fancied himself to be an inmate of Marshall’s cottage, paying courtship to his quondam fellow-traveller Jane Bates; and she was smiling at his suit as the door suddenly opened, when McClashin, with Hennessy for his compartion, rushed in, who shot the poor girl dead and were dragging him out when he awoke to feel a sensation of some undefinable dread overhanging his mind, which he could by no means dispel so as to sleep again.

At last the fear of some unknown and horrible impending calamity became so poignant that Rashleigh could endure it no longer, and hastily getting up, he went towards the place of his comrades’ repose. On arriving within sight of the opening, the first thing that attracted his attention was the ruddy glow of some hasty fire that emanated from it, which, casting its glare around, illumined every object for many yards. His instant idea was that the blacks had surprised his sleeping companions, and having set fire to the hedge he had put up, were perhaps waiting until the white men came out in confusion to spear them at their leisure.

Full of this dreadful thought, he cocked his piece and stepped stealthily towards the spot, where he saw McClashin stooping down, adding some light wood to the fire, while Hennessy was apparently looking for someone in the corner where Rashleigh had at first lain down.

Who was the object of this search quickly became apparent, for the ruffian making it uttered a loud oath, and said, “That beggar Ralph is not any place here!”

“Well, never mind him now!” replied McClashin. “We can give it to him as he comes back. Settle the other two at once.”

By this time our adventurer had got quite close to Hennessy, who stooped over Owens. A stifled sort of shriek and a blood-stained knife that gleamed in the murderer’s hand as he rose told what his base deed had been. At this instant his eye caught that of Rashleigh, whose finger was on the trigger of the musket, the muzzle of which was not a yard from the detected cut-throat’s head. He uttered an indescribable sort of howl as Ralph shouted, “Die, dog!” And the musket answering well to his words, the brains of the cold-blooded ruffianly assassin spattered full in the face of his accomplice McClashin, who, Pot yet seeing their intended victim, had come to the assistance of Hennessy, but dismayed by his sudden fall, offered no effectual opposition to our adventurer, who smote him to the earth with his musket.

Such was the force of the blow dealt that no second repetition of it was necessary. The defeated plotter sank to the earth, and the short-lived flame raised by his hand expiring at the same instant, our exile was left alone, as he believed, and in darkness with four inanimate corpses that had within the last few seconds been violently reft of life, two of them by his own deed.

For an instant he stood appalled; but at length collecting some scattered fragments, he again awoke the slumbering embers of the decayed fire, by the light of which he surveyed the scene and quickly found, to his great joy, that Roberts yet survived, not having been touched by Hennessy, whose purpose appeared to have been first to kill Rashleigh, and it seemed to be only when he could not find the primary object of his heartless design that he had resolved on ridding himself of their wounded comrades.

This idea was confirmed by McClashin, who did not die until near morning, though the roof of his head was completely crushed in. Before his departure, with every mark of penitence for this as well as many other crimes, he confessed to Rashleigh that himself and Hennessy had resolved on killing all three of their surviving companions, then to cut off their heads as well as the heads of those who had fallen and were buried. They proposed to take these bloody trophies back to Newcastle, where they intended to give themselves up to the commandant, telling him a specious tale to the effect that they (McClashin and Hennessy) having been pressed by the others and compelled against their wills to join in the seizure of the boat, had watched the opportunity as soon as they could acquire fire-arms by stealth from the fugitives, and killed them all. For this act of barbarous treachery they hoped to obtain their freedom, as many other equally execrable deeds had been similarly rewarded before; but the whole plan had been opportunely defeated, as we have seen, through the restlessness of one of its proposed victims.

For several days after this scene of detected treachery, the two surviving fugitives remained in their retreat unmolested; and at length Roberts, having acquired sufficient strength to walk, yielded to the urgent entreaties of Rashleigh, who ardently longed to quit a place where even the air they breathed appeared to be polluted by deeds of slaughter and violence.

Having therefore concealed the greater portion of their tools, arms and other appurtenances by burying them in the sand, the runaways recommenced their toilsome march, carrying with them two muskets, an axe and a cross-cut saw, with a small supply of provisions, intending still to persevere in their now almost hopeless design of penetrating to the cedar trees before spoken of and attempting to construct a canoe of that timber.

Roberts, however, was still so feeble and weak that although the distance could not have been more than twenty miles, yet they were three days in reaching the scene of their proposed operations.

The long sought for trees grew upon an island about four miles from the bottom of a bay, in the course of a broad and rapid river, which fell over a ledge of rocks at the end of the island nearest the ocean. The current was exceedingly rapid, and our adventurers could not for some time devise means of passing it. At length Rashleigh remembered the method adopted by Foxley in crossing the Nepean, and after some rime succeeded in constructing a catamaran near a bend in the river a good distance above the islet in question. This rude raft was formed only of logs lashed together with wild vines, but having tested its powers of endurance, Ralph did not doubt its answering their purpose, and Roberts, without hesitation, committed himself upon it to the water, accompanied by our adventurer, who had provided himself with a pole to guide their crazy vessel. Fortunately the bed of the stream was here very shallow, so that when they got out into the current our exile was enabled to bear strongly upon his pole, keeping the head of his raft in the proper direction, and in a few minutes they safely reached the haven of their hopes.

The island upon which they had landed was very small, deeply fringed with brushwood that grew down to the water’s edge. But the centre was a hill of considerable height, on which the trees grew that were the object of their ambition to reach, without any other kind of timber near them. These cedars were of very great size, and Rashleigh began to fear that even when his companion should be sufficiently recovered to attempt it, their saw would be found inadequate in length to cut down even the least, in which case they would be compelled to resort to the tedious process of chopping it through with the axe.

In the first place, the delicate state of Roberts’s health rendered it necessary that some shelter from the weather should be provided; and Rashleigh, anxious for employment to dissipate the unpleasant reminiscences occasioned by their past mischances, set himself so industriously to work that in three days he had completed a very passable hut, the sides of which were wattled with boughs and plastered with mud, while the roof was thatched with reeds.

Deeming this to be a place of security, our exile next determined to pay a visit to their former retreat under the rock, as he now discovered they were likely to want several other matters for the construction of a canoe which lay there, in particular some cordage; and having now acquired a little knowledge of the stream on which their island stood, he feared not to wade it. This he did shortly after daylight one morning, leaving his comrade in their little cot, well supplied with all he could be likely to require, and strictly enjoining him on no account to leave the hut, lest he should be seen by any of their sable foes from the shore.

As Ralph was encumbered with nothing but his gun, he ran the greater part of the way to the scene of their late conflict, nor did he see a single living being on his route. But on approaching the bay, he first perceived a dense smoke arising from the neighbourhood of their former fortress; and having ascended a tree on a slight eminence, he saw that a large number of blacks occupied the beach in front of it, who were apparently intent on the performance of some religious or perhaps funereal solemnity. As our adventurer had often heard that these savages do not like to remain for a long period near a place where any of their tribes have met with violent deaths, he concluded the best plan he could adopt was to wait patiently until the sooty warriors should withdraw; but he almost repented of this determination as hour after hour went by and they still appeared to have some fresh ceremony or new dance to perform.

The sun was very low before the blacks left the spot free to the researches of our adventurer, and on descending he found that they had indeed been performing some most revolting rites. The sable warriors that had fallen throughout the affray with the white men had apparently all been disinhumed and brought hither to be reinterred, a spot above the influence of the highest tides having been selected. Graves, or rather pits — as the aborigines always bury their dead either erect or sitting down, and not extended — had been dug, the number of which described a rude circle. The blacks who had been slain appeared here to have been buried. A post set up in the centre bore the heads of all the fallen white men, severed from their bodies and hung here by the jaws, while all of their teeth had been knocked out and carried off. On every one of the graves also lay some part of a white man’s corpse, other portions of which were strewn about in all directions, so that it appeared these revengeful savages had wreaked that vengeance upon the dead which they had been prevented from doing to the living.

Rashleigh stood a few moments an appalled spectator of this disgusting golgotha; but at last he resolved the savages should not be able to revisit that spot on the morrow to point to the senseless remains in proof of what they had done to avenge the aggressions of the white men. So, disgusting and repugnant as was the task, he collected all the mangled relics of his slain companions, and fearing no other method could secure them from further desecration, he piled them all together with a huge quantity of brushwood, which he at length set fire to, being well aware he need fear no interruption from the aborigines, whom no earthly considerations could induce to approach the grave of any of their recent dead after nightfall.

When this melancholy duty was fulfilled, he repaired to their former hiding-placc under the rock, where he found the articles they had concealed were still unmolested. From these he selected as much as he could carry and departed, using every exertion to arrive at the island before daylight; but it was long after sunrise when he did so, and found Roberts, as he had expected, much alarmed on his account.

When the wounded man had in a great measure recovered from his injuries, both our fugitives set themselves strenuously to work and by dint of arduous exertion in the short space of one day had not only felled a stout cedar but had cut a portion of the butt off and stripped it of its bark. There was fortunately a considerable hollow in this naturally, which, of course, promised to diminish their labour most materially. The plan they proposed to adopt, therefore, was to split a part of the butt off, to deepen the hollow by means of fire, rudely to shape the head, stopping up the orifice in that part by the means of gum, used instead of pitch by the aborigines. To this log they proposed to attach another, and connecting both parts together, thus to form a double canoe similar to those in use among the Sandwich islanders, which it is well known can scarcely be upset.

For several days, growing at length into weeks, they toiled unremittingly, and at length had the heartfelt joy of seeing both the parts of their canoe safely launched into the water, while the rude balks they intended for the connecting frame lay ready for joining on the bank. This inspired them with so much additional vigour that they wrought harder than ever, scarcely taking time either to eat or sleep, because they employed themselves on their vessel all day, and at night, by the gleam of their fire, prepared their cordage, sails and oars.

The river had been several days getting lower than it was when first they arrived on the island; but Roberts, to whom Rashleigh had that morning remarked this circumstance, only replied, “Never mind, mate. If there’s only water enough left to carry us over the fall, there’s sure to be plenty in the sea!”

The weather, too, was unusually oppressive; yet though it was so hot, the sun was obscured by a yellow haze, while all nature seemed completely hushed into a state of unnatural stillness. About four o’clock in the afternoon of the same day, as both our fugitives were working on the raft, our exile conceived he felt a tremulous motion that seemed to be communicated from the land against which one side of their vessel lay. Just after, a moaning rushing noise, far more terrifying to him than the loudest clap of thunder, seemed to issue from the neighbouring mountains.

“What’s that dreadful noise, Roberts?” asked Ralph, looking wildly at his companion.

“Only distant thunder,” was the reply.

“Thunder!” repeated Rashleigh, gazing round at the sky. “And not a cloud to be seen!”

At this instant his eye rested upon the bend of the river just above him, and who shall attempt to analyze or describe his feelings when he saw sweeping down towards them, silently save for that moaning noise which he now too well understood, a mighty mountain of rushing waters, that stretched from bank to bank of the stream, and whose height seen from the level at which the fugitives stood was equal to that of the loftiest tree of the forest!

Short was the time permitted him to gaze upon this awful sight. Before Rashleigh could communicate his alarm to his companion, the vast volume of water was upon them like a destroying angel. Roberts was torn from the canoe, which, bursting its fastenings as though they were threads, was hurled over the falls in an instant. The crash of its parting timbers announced its destruction; and Rashleigh became insensible.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 20:05