In Great Waters


Guy Boothby

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In Great Waters

“Short shrift! sharp fate! dark doom to dree!

Hard struggle, though quickly ending!

At home or abroad, by land or sea,

In peace or war, sore trials must be,

And worse may happen to you or to me,

For none are secure and none can flee

From a destiny impending.”

Adam Lindsay Gordon.

“Don’t thank me; I’m sure I’m equally obliged to you. I haven’t seen a strange face these three months; and though I am that despised animal, a broken-down gentleman, I’ve never quite been able to overcome a foolish hankering after some dealing with my old caste again. Pardon the implied compliment!

“You’d better hobble your horses and turn them loose towards the creek. I’ll run them up in the morning with my own.

“Having done that, if you’re hungry, you’ll find tea in the billy, and damper and meat in those ration bags. It’s Queensland boundary rider’s fare, but the best I can offer you.

“Monotonous country? By Heavens, yes! The children in exile knew no worse. On all sides, sand, mulga, and desolation — desolation, mulga, and sand, and unceasing regret, the portion of every man who has his lot in it!

“Have you quite finished? Then light your pipe. No, no! not with a vesta like a new chum, but with a fire-stick — so! When you’ve been in the Bush as long as I have, you will see in a match something more than a pipe-light. But by that time you will be on the high road to a still more peculiar wisdom, which will never be of service to you.

“Now, draw your blankets to the fire and cease thinking of your horses. They’re on good feed, so let them eat their fill. If what I hear of the country out back is true, they’ll get no more this side of the Barcoo.

“What do I say? How do I know that you are new to the country? Simply enough! By the light in your eyes, the palms of your hands, and the freshness of your voice. Besides, when a man has been long in the West, does he stand up for want of a chair? Forgive my rudeness, but you’ll learn it all soon enough.

“Talking of classes! Consider the class I represent. In this country it is a numerous one, and the Bush is both our refuge and our cemetery. As we wish to know nobody, so we desire that nobody shall ever know us; and being beyond the reach of pride or shame, we live entirely in memories of the past, through which we enjoy a keener torture than any creed or sect can promise us hereafter. If you have the understanding, you might write the book of our misery, and, believe me, you’d have an inexhaustible reservoir upon which to draw.

“Before you came out you had a different notion of Australia? Exactly! Folk who live sixteen thousand miles away, and own bank-books and fat stomachs, have one idea of it; while we, who exist like Esau, in the Red Sand itself, if you approached us properly, would give quite another. Now, I knew of a case once — but I beg your pardon!

“That old hut at the Creek Bend you passed at mid-day? Three black posts and a wreck of charred timber, yellow boulders against an umber cliff, and two dingoe pups rioting on the threshold — isn’t that the picture?

“Well, if you think it dreary and lonesome to-day, try and imagine it when it was the furthest boundary west, with only the Great Unknown between the ranges at our back and the Timor Sea.

“For reasons which could not interest you, I was the first to live there. Curiously enough, my hut-keeper was also of our caste. By nationality he was a Hungarian, and in addition to other things, he was a studious disciple of Goethe, and the finest zither player I have ever heard. It’s about his connection with that hut that I wish to tell you.

“As men seldom quarrel when ambition has gone out of their lives, for a year we came as near a certain sort of happiness as a remorseless Heaven would permit. Then everything suddenly changed.

“One day, after a long stretch of dry weather that looked almost like settling in for a drought, welcome storm-clouds gathered in the west, and night closed in with a vigorous downpour. The creek, which for months past had been merely a chain of half-dry waterholes, began to trickle briskly round its bends, and in the morning had risen to the size of a respectable torrent. Next day, Thursday, it was a banker, and still the rain continued. By Friday evening the flood was upon us. And such a flood as you never in your life saw or dreamed of!

“To give you some idea of its size, you must imagine this plain, from the mountains behind you to the scrub yonder, one vast sheet of foaming, roaring, rushing, eddying water.

“Opposite the old hut we are talking of it was many miles in width, and for more than a week we were hemmed in upon a tiny island (the hut stands on a slight elevation, as you perhaps have observed), with the waters drawing a line of yeast-like foam daily closer and closer to our door. There was no escape, and I doubt if either of us would have taken advantage of it if there had been.

“Morning, noon, and night, the flood went roaring and rushing by, carrying on its bosom forest trees, and hopeless beasts of all sorts, sizes, and descriptions. And each moment saw us waiting for the lip-lap upon the threshold which should signal the destruction of the hut and our immediate departure for Eternity!

“Now you must remember that in life there is no such thing as chance. Every existence has its allotted span, and to avoid the pre-ordained termination is impossible for any man. You may smile, but I am convinced that what I say is correct, and this is a case in point.

“On the ninth night of our imprisonment we were sitting in our one room, trying to keep warm, and listening to the storm outside. The wind, moaning through the logs, played with the firelight and threw a thousand fantastic shadows on the rough-hewn walls.

“When life carries no future for a man, you will readily understand that he becomes callous, even as to the means of his death; so, even with destruction hovering over him, Yadeski sought company in his music. Drawing his zither from its case, he laid it on the table and allowed his fingers to stray across the strings. The sweet, sad melody that followed lent an air of almost reverence to the bare walls and homeless aspect of the room.

“The storm outside yelled and muttered by turns; but, heedless of it, he played on, wandering from the folk-songs of the old grey Magyar villages to the pæans of victorious hunters, from mighty trampling war-chants to tender, crooning cradle-songs.

“Suddenly a shout rang out clear and distinct above the storm. It was the cry of a man who, feeling the hand of Death clutching at his weasand, knows that unless help comes quickly that grip will tighten and his life go from him. Before he could call again, we had rushed into the storm.

“The wind blew a hurricane, the waters snarled at the tiny hill and rolled in black waves, that might almost have been taken for the sea, to our feet. Battling in the direction whence the sound proceeded, Yadeski called with all the strength of his lungs. His voice, however, was lost in the general turmoil. But at the same instant, as if in answer, a white face rose through the foam not a dozen paces from our feet. Yadeski instantly plunged in, the face vanished, and for a moment I lost sight of both. Then they rose within an arm’s length of where I stood, and I went in and dragged them out — the working of Fate, mind you!

“Between us we carried the stranger to our hut and laid him before the fire.

“For more than an hour, despite our exertions, he remained unconscious; then his eyes slowly opened, and in a few moments his power of speech returned to him. Two words escaped his lips, and when he heard them my hut-keeper fell back against the wall with ashen face.

“A soft sleep followed the return to consciousness, and I turned into my bunk. Yadeski, however, sat gazing into the fire with an expression on his face I could not, for the life of me, understand. All night he must have kept the same position; but when the sun rose he shook himself together and set about his preparation of the morning meal.

“By the light of day I saw that the stranger was a young man of prepossessing appearance. He explained that he was a Hungarian, and had only been in Australia a month. From what I could gather he was travelling to some new country that had lately been taken up further to the north-west. When crossing the river, which, by reason of the floods, was very much congested, the waters had separated him from his party and had washed his horse from under him. He was carried mile after mile battling for life, spent half a day in a tree, which was eventually washed from under him, was borne out into the main stream, and, but for our timely assistance, would soon have been a dead man.

“I hope I am not wearying you?

“Well, day after day the flood continued, and for more than a week our chance guest was compelled to remain with us. Then the waters fell as quickly as they had risen, and when the safety of the track was once more assured, he decided to resume his journey.

“The night before he left us we were sitting round the fire listening to Yadeski’s music. As was his custom, he wandered from air to air, seemingly unconscious of our presence.

“The stranger listened with his eyes full of an insatiable hunger.

“From gentlest pianissimo the music rose to a wild, fierce note of despair. An unearthly pathos seized the instrument — an inexplicable, yet intense longing, a vague desire for something unattainable, took possession of us. Then the music ceased abruptly, the spell was broken, and the younger man, springing to his feet, cried, in a voice tremulous with excitement —

“‘Oh, where, tell me where you learned that dreadful air?’

“The musician did not answer, but sat gazing into the fire. Shaking him by the shoulder, the younger man repeated his question till, as one in a dream, Yadeski muttered —

“‘Many years ago, far from here. What does it matter?’

“‘Matter! Why, man, it was that air that brought me out here; it was that cursed air that killed my ——’ But he stopped, and leaned against the wall.

“‘Let me tell you why I asked you that question,’ he said at length, when he had recovered his calmness. ‘We spoke to-night of Buda. I was born within ten miles of it, the eldest of a family of eight. Our farm was as good land as any in the district, and we had held it under the Counts Romanyi for centuries. My father, I must tell you, died when I was only nine years old, and so my mother, who was famous through the district for her beauty and her zither-playing, was left alone to look after us.

“‘One evening while she sat playing, as was her custom, at our cottage door, the Count passed, and, hearing her music, stopped to buy a glass of milk. He was an accomplished musician himself, and at his request she played to him. Then, after saying many pretty things, and distributing a handful of coins from his pocket among us children, he rode away.

“‘Next day he came again, and the next, and so on, day by day, till we children, who had hitherto feared his name more than God’s, grew so bold that we could quite look upon him as one of ourselves.

“‘Ah, how well I remember the night he played that hellish air for the first time! I can see the drift-smoke lying low upon the land, and smell the smell of the pines floating down the mountain-side. I can see my mother sitting, watching, and listening like one spellbound. It must have been the music of the devil, for it ate into her heart, and the same day a week later, a neighbour came to tell us that our mother would not come back to us again.

“‘Six years after, when I was almost a man, she returned. I can remember that homecoming as if it were but yesterday.

“‘It was a night late in winter, and the young moon was shining faintly above the snow. A knocking came to the door, and I opened it upon a heap of rags — my mother!

“‘She died with the dawn, but not before she had told me everything. I want now to meet the Count. I have sworn that the hour I come face to face with him shall be his last! Wouldn’t you do the same?’

“Yadeski’s head had sunk on his outstretched arms, and, but for a certain tremulous movement of his shoulders, he might well have been asleep. I lay in the shadow of my bunk, wondering what it all might mean.

“‘I commenced my search in Vienna, where he had a house; but it seems he was in serious trouble with the Government, and had fled from Austria. I followed him to Italy, to England, and to America, but in vain. I have continued it all over the world; but I do not despair, for I am certain that, sooner or later, God will lead me to his side.’

“Controlling his voice with an effort, Yadeski asked —

“‘And what then?’

“‘Ah! what then? But I fear I have wearied you with my story. I am sorry. Good-night!’

“He dropped on to his blankets, curled himself up, and spoke no more. Only the crackling of the burning logs disturbed the silence.

“Just before dawn I was awakened by the sound of gentlest music — the same weird melody we had heard earlier in the evening. It began, but was never finished.

“Unseen by us, a thick glaze was creeping over the player’s eyes, and his supple fingers were stiffening in the grasp of Death. The music grew fainter, and still more faint, until finally it merged itself into a thick, monotonous drip — drip — drip, which caught the first red signs of day as they stole into us under the old hut door.

“Then there was a curiously heavy sob, and a half-turn of the musician’s figure. After which a long, keen-bladed knife fell from the table, and the clatter roused us both to action.

“But Yadeski was beyond the reach of human vengeance. He had severed a vein in his arm, and so bled peacefully to death. Quo cunque nomine de mortuis nil nisi bonum loqua.

“See, here comes the moon, and the wind with her. You’d better take this extra blanket. It will be cold before dawn.

“Hark! The horses have crossed the creek and are making towards the hut we’ve just been talking of. They will be miles away in the morning. Never mind! Good-night!”

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eBooks@Adelaide
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University of Adelaide
South Australia 5005