Mr. Aristocrat


Guy Boothby

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eBooks@Adelaide
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Mr. Aristocrat

“‘Shepherd, what’s love? I pray thee tell.’

‘It is that fountain and that well

Where pleasure and repentance dwell;

It is perhaps that sauncing bell

That tolls us all to heaven or hell,

And this is love as I heard tell.’”

Sir Walter Raleigh

The Australian Bush is pre-eminently a charnel-house of human lives, and therefore of the affections. Innumerable histories, neatly folded up and hidden away in the by-places of the great island continent, labelled Not wanted till the Judgment Day, will prove this indisputably. When Gabriel’s trump shall call the sleepers from their resting-places in the shadows of the frowning mountains, in the long, grey gullies, and from the deserts and hopeless open plains, Australia’s Bush contingent will be among the saddest and most miserable to face the Judgment Throne. “Mr. Aristocrat” will be there, and his case alone will be worth hearing.

At the time I’m going to tell you about we were pushing out to new country at the head of the Flinders River, in Northern Queensland, and when three camps this side of our destination, horses and men knocked up, things began to look the very reverse of cheering. Night was coming on; the cold wind murmured among the rocks, and the high cane-grass bowed its head before it, whispering, “Weep, weep, weep.” Then the full moon soared over the gaunt shoulders of the hills that peaked up into the lonely sky, and as she rose, we saw in front of us the lights of Mintabera Head Station.

To come across a dwelling in such a wilderness was a stroke of good fortune we did not expect. We rode up, made ourselves and our errand known, and were hospitably received. The manager, who came out to greet us, was a middle-aged man, very tall and broad-shouldered. He was also very quiet and reserved, which may or may not have been because he had been cut off from the doubtful advantages of civilization for so many years. He took me into the house and set his best before me. After dinner we lit our pipes, and sat talking in the verandah until about nine o’clock, when I craved permission to retire. My host accompanied me to my room, and before saying “good-night,” surprised me by inquiring if I was to be easily frightened. Asking “By what?” he replied, “By anything; by noises you might hear, or things you might see.”

On my assuring him that I thought my nerves were equal to a considerable strain, he left me to puzzle it out alone.

I was more mystified than I cared to own, and to tell the honest truth, I crawled into bed, half wishing that, after all, we had camped in the gully, as had been at first proposed. But, as nothing out of the common occurred for fully half an hour, I rolled over, and was soon in the land of dreams.

It must have been about midnight when I was suddenly awakened and brought up to a sitting posture by a scream, so terrible, so unearthly, that I could compare it to nothing I had ever heard before. Three times it rang out shrill and distinct upon the still night-air, and at each repetition my heart thumped with a new violence against my ribs, and the perspiration rolled in streams down my face. Then came the words (it was certainly a woman’s voice), “They’re coming! they’re coming! Will nobody save me?” Leaping out of bed, I huddled on my clothes, seized a revolver, and rushed across the verandah in the direction whence I thought the sound proceeded.

It was a glorious night, and the moon shone full and clear into the room where we had dined; but, before I could look in and satisfy my curiosity, my arm was seized from behind, and turning, I confronted the manager.

“Hush, hush!” he whispered. “Not a word, for God’s sake. Watch and listen!”

He pointed into the room, and my eyes followed the direction of his hand.

In the centre, looking straight before her, rigid as a marble statue, every muscle braced for action, stood the most beautiful and majestic woman I have ever seen in my life. To the stateliness of a Greek goddess she united the beauty of a Cleopatra. Her eyes rivetted my attention; they seemed to blaze from their sockets; her expression was that of a tigress wounded and waiting for the death-stroke. But her hair was the most weird part of her appearance, for it hung in glorious profusion down to her waist, and was white as the driven snow.

When we looked she had paused for a moment, as if listening, and then came that awful blood-curdling cry again:—

“They’re coming! they’re coming! Will nobody save me?”

It was so horrible that my blood felt as if it were freezing into solid ice. However, before I could pull myself together, her whole demeanour had changed, and she was kneeling on the floor kissing and caressing something she believed to be beneath her. Then, gradually, her voice died away in heart-rending sobs, and at this juncture my host went in and lifted her up. She seemed to have lost all power of recognition, and allowed him to lead her in a dazed sort of way to her room.

As he passed me the manager whispered, “Wait here!”

On his return, he led me across the verandah and into the garden. When we were out of hearing of the house, and leaning on the slip-rails of the horse paddock he told me the following extraordinary story, and the glorious night and the long sighing night-breeze sweeping down from the mountains seemed a fitting accompaniment to his tale.

“Fourteen years ago,” he said, “by God’s ordinance and with the blessing of the Church of England, I married that woman whom you saw just now in there.

“All my family were against it from the beginning. They had no name and no story bad enough for her. One said she bore a most suspicious character; another, that she had a temper like a fiend; but the principal charge against her was that she had been a governess in a certain nobleman’s household, and had been the cause of the eldest son’s leaving home. However, I didn’t care for anything they said; I was madly in love, and I believe I would have married her if she had been proved to have been the vilest wretch unhung.

“After we’d been married a month or so she begged me to sell my bit of a farm in Somersetshire and take her to Australia.

“Accordingly, I got rid of the place that had been in our family for centuries, and having packed up, set off, nearly breaking my old mother’s heart by doing so.

“Arriving in Sydney, I took a small house down Bondi way, and made myself comfortable; but I couldn’t be idle long, so after properly providing for her happiness there, I said good-bye to her for a while, and came into the Bush. Every time I could get a holiday I’d run down to Sydney, and I believe, in a way, she was glad to see me, though her manner was never anything but cold.

“By-and-by I drifted into Queensland, worked my way north, and then got the management of this place. You must remember that it was almost unknown country out here then, and what with blacks and wild dogs, want of water, and ignorance of the lay of the land, I had troubles enough to drive a man crazy. Before we had been here a year we were very hard pushed for men, and the owner sent me up a young Englishman, who, he said, was anxious to get as far out of the ken of the world as possible. I didn’t ask any questions, but made him as welcome as I could. He was a decent enough young fellow, tall, graceful, and very self-contained. Somehow, the hands took to calling him ‘Mr. Aristocrat,’ and the name fitted him like a glove. He came up with pack-horses, and among other letters he brought me one from my wife.

“‘She had grown hopelessly tired of Sydney and the south,’ she said, ‘and after mature consideration, was coming out to join me in the Bush.’

“I didn’t know what to do. We were too rough out here then for any decent woman. But as she had evidently started and couldn’t be stopped, we had to make the best of it, and accordingly up she came with the next bullock-teams.

“Poor idiot that I was, I thought it was the beginning of a new era in my life, and certainly for a week or two she seemed pleased to be with me again. But I was soon to be undeceived.

“About a month after her arrival I had reason to go out on the run for a few days, and it was necessary for me to take all the available hands with me. While rolling my swag close to the corner of the verandah, to my astonishment I heard my wife’s voice in the room within raised in tones of which I had never thought it capable. She was evidently beside herself with fury, and on stepping into the verandah, I could see that the object of her anger was none other than the young Englishman, ‘Mr. Aristocrat.’

“I tell you, sir, she was tongue-lashing that man as I never heard a woman do in my life before, and by the time I had stood there two minutes I had learnt enough to shatter all my hopes, to kill my happiness, and to convince me of her double-dyed treachery to myself.

“She paused for breath, and then began again:—

“‘So, you cowardly, snivelling hound,’ she hissed, with all the concentrated venom of a snake, ‘you thought you could sneak out of England, so that I shouldn’t know it, did you? But you couldn’t. You thought you could crawl out of Sydney so quietly that I shouldn’t follow you — did you? But you couldn’t. You thought you could run away up here to hide without my discovering and following your tracks — did you? But you couldn’t. No! No!! No!!! Go where you will, my lord, even down to hell itself, and I’ll track you there, to mock you, and to proclaim it so that all the world shall hear, that this is a pitiful coward who ruined a woman’s life, and hadn’t manhood enough in him to stand up and make it good to her.’

“The young fellow only covered his face with his hands, and said, ‘O God! when will all this end?’

“‘When you’ve done what you ——’ she was beginning again, but I could bear it no longer, so pushed my way into the room between them.

“When she saw me the expression on her face changed at once, and she came smiling to greet me like the Jezebel she was. But I wanted to have nothing to say to her, so I put her on one side and closed with him. He looked at me in a dazed sort of way for a moment. But only for that space of time. Then a sort of Baresark madness came over him, and he sprang upon me like a fiend. All the time we fought she sat watching us with the same awful smile upon her face. When I had nearly killed him I ordered him off the station, and, without a word to her, fled the house.

“That day we made a good stage on our journey, and by nightfall were camped alongside the Cliff Lagoon (you’ll probably camp there to-morrow evening). I sought my blankets early, and, about an hour before daylight, being unable to sleep, went out into the scrub to find and run in the horses. On my return to the camp, I discovered one of the station black boys, alongside the fire, jabbering and gesticulating wildly to an excited audience. As I came up he was saying —

“‘So, my word, I look; him baal budgerie black fellah along a’ station. Bang — bang — bang! him plenty dead white fellah.’

“There was no need for him to say more. I knew what it meant. And in less time than it takes to tell we were on the road back, galloping like madmen over rough or smooth country, regardless of everything but the need for haste. In less than two hours we dashed up to the yards, those you see down yonder, just in time to drive off the black brutes as they were rushing the house.

“You will understand for yourself what a close shave it was when I tell you that when we arrived the roof of the homestead was half burnt through, while the hut and outhouse had long since been reduced to ashes. The bodies of the old cook, and a tame black boy, named Rocca, lay dead in the open — speared while running for the hut. It was a horrible sight, and enough to turn a man sick, but I hadn’t time to think of them. I was looking for my wife; and until I heard a cry and recognised her voice I thought she must be dead. Then, as I pushed open the half-burnt door of the station-house (the brutes had thrown fire-sticks everywhere), she shrieked out as you heard her to-night.

“‘They’re coming! they’re coming! Will nobody save me?’ When I entered the room she was kneeling in the centre, surrounded by broken furniture and portions of the smouldering roof, wringing her hands, and wailing over a body on the floor.

“Though she was begrimed with dirt, smoke, and blood, she looked surpassingly beautiful; but — I don’t know whether you will believe me — the terrors of that night had turned her hair snow-white, just as it is to-day. The overseer led her to a seat, and I knelt beside the body on the floor. It was ‘Mr. Aristocrat.’

“He was well-nigh dead; it needed no doctor’s knowledge to see that. He lay in a large pool of blood, and breathed with difficulty; but after I had given him water he revived sufficiently to tell me what had happened.

“It appeared he had left the station as I had ordered him; but, as he went, his suspicions were aroused by the number of smoke-signals going up from the surrounding hills. Knowing they meant mischief, he kept his eyes open, and when, before dark, he saw a tribe of blacks creeping up the valley, he remembered that, save the cook and a black boy, the woman was alone, and made back on his tracks as fast as he was able. But he was too late; they had already surrounded the building, and had killed the two men we found lying in the open. Then he heard the woman’s shriek, and forgot everything but the fact that she must be saved.

“Racing across the open, he made a dash for the house. She saw his sacrifice and opened the door, but not before two spears were sticking in his side. Plucking them out, he set to work to defend her.

“Fortunately, I had left a rifle and plenty of ammunition behind me; so all through that sweltering, awful night he fought them inch by inch, with his wounds draining his life-blood out of him, to save the woman who had wrecked his life. By God, sir! whatever he may have been earlier, he was a brave man then, and I honour him for it! By his own telling he killed three of them. Then as day was breaking, a part of the roof fell in, and he received another spear through the broken door. This brought him to the ground; and at that moment we arrived, and drove the devils off.

“With his last strength, he drew me down to him and whispered that on his dying word he had always acted honourably towards me; and that, in spite of her tempting, he had never yielded to her. By the God before whose throne he was just about to stand, he swore this; and upon my honour, sir, I believe he spoke the truth.

“When he had finished speaking, she rose and mocked him, calling me fool and idiot for listening to his raving. Then, for the first and last time in my life, I threatened her, and she was silent.

“As the sun rose and pierced the smouldering roof, ‘Mr. Aristocrat’ whispered, “I want you to do me a favour. I want you to tell them at home that I forgive them. They misjudged me, you see, and it will make things a bit easier for my mother.”

“Then, with that sacred name upon his lips, he passed quietly away from the scene of his sacrifice into the mysteries of the world beyond.

“When he was dead, the woman that is my wife crawled from the place where she lay, and threw herself upon the body, moaning as if her heart would break. We took her away. But from that day forward her reason was gone.

“Ever since that time, at the same hour, night after night, year after year, she has gone through that awful tragedy in the old room yonder; and with the loneliness of this life around me, I have to hear and bear it. The strangest part of it is that I haven’t the heart to put her away from me.

“Now you understand the meaning of the scene you witnessed to-night, and you can see in my case the fulfilment of the Church’s order, ‘Whom God hath joined, let no man put asunder!’”

We walked back to the house together, and he left me at my bedroom door; but though I went back to my bed, had I been offered the gold of all the Indies I could not have slept a wink.

Next morning our horses were run up, and after breakfast we set off on our way again. When we had travelled about a mile, the manager, who was riding a short distance with us for company’s sake, led me off the track to a grassy knoll beside a creek bend. Here, under a fine coolabah, I discovered a neatly fenced-in grave.

Beneath the tree, and at the head of the little mound, was a small white board, and on it were these two words —

Mr. Aristocrat.

This web edition published by:

eBooks@Adelaide
The University of Adelaide Library
University of Adelaide
South Australia 5005