Along the grass-track I saw now, under the moon, just risen, a strange procession, never seen before in Australian pastures. It moved on, noiselessly but quickly. We descended the hillock, and met it on the way — a sable litter, borne by four men, in unfamiliar Eastern garments; two other servitors, more bravely dressed, with yataghans and silver-hilted pistols in their belts, preceded this sombre equipage. Perhaps Margrave divined the disdainful thought that passed through my mind, vaguely and half-unconsciously; for he said, with a hollow, bitter laugh that had replaced the lively peal of his once melodious mirth —
“A little leisure and a little gold, and your raw colonist, too, will have the tastes of a pacha.”
I made no answer. I had ceased to care who and what was my tempter. To me his whole being was resolved into one problem: Had he a secret by which death could be turned from Lilian?
But now, as the litter halted, from the long dark shadow which it cast upon the turf the figure of a woman emerged and stood before us. The outlines of her shape were lost in the loose folds of a black mantle, and the features of her face were hidden by a black veil, except only the dark, bright, solemn eyes. Her stature was lofty, her bearing majestic, whether in movement or repose.
Margrave accosted her in some language unknown to me. She replied in what seemed to me the same tongue. The tones of her voice were sweet, but inexpressibly mournful. The words that they uttered appeared intended to warn, or deprecate, or dissuade; but they called to Margrave’s brow a lowering frown, and drew from his lips a burst of unmistakable anger. The woman rejoined, in the same melancholy music of voice. And Margrave then, leaning his arm upon her shoulder, as he had leaned it on mine, drew her away from the group into a neighbouring copse of the flowering eucalypti — mystic trees, never changing the hues of their pale-green leaves, ever shifting the tints of their ash-gray, shedding bark. For some moments I gazed on the two human forms, dimly seen by the glinting moonlight through the gaps in the foliage. Then turning away my eyes, I saw, standing close at my side, a man whom I had not noticed before. His footstep, as it stole to me, had fallen on the sward without sound. His dress, though Oriental, differed from that of his companions, both in shape and colour; fitting close to the breast, leaving the arms bare to the elbow, and of a uniform ghastly white, as are the cerements of the grave. His visage was even darker than those of the Syrians or Arabs behind him, and his features were those of a bird of prey — the beak of the eagle, but the eye of the vulture. His cheeks were hollow; the arms, crossed on his breast, were long and fleshless. Yet in that skeleton form there was a something which conveyed the idea of a serpent’s suppleness and strength; and as the hungry, watchful eyes met my own startled gaze, I recoiled impulsively with that inward warning of danger which is conveyed to man, as to inferior animals, in the very aspect of the creatures that sting or devour. At my movement the man inclined his head in the submissive Eastern salutation, and spoke in his foreign tongue, softly, humbly, fawningly, to judge by his tone and his gesture.
I moved yet farther away from him with loathing, and now the human thought flashed upon me: was I, in truth, exposed to no danger in trusting myself to the mercy of the weird and remorseless master of those hirelings from the East — seven men in number, two at least of them formidably armed, and docile as bloodhounds to the hunter, who has only to show them their prey? But fear of man like myself is not my weakness; where fear found its way to my heart, it was through the doubts or the fancies in which man like myself disappeared in the attributes, dark and unknown, which we give to a fiend or a spectre. And, perhaps, if I could have paused to analyze my own sensations, the very presence of this escort-creatures of flesh and blood-lessened the dread of my incomprehensible tempter. Rather, a hundred times, front and defy those seven Eastern slaves — I, haughty son of the Anglo–Saxon who conquers all races because he fears no odds — than have seen again on the walls of my threshold the luminous, bodiless Shadow! Besides: Lilian! Lilian! for one chance of saving her life, however wild and chimerical that chance might be, I would have shrunk not a foot from the march of an army.
Thus reassured and thus resolved, I advanced, with a smile of disdain, to meet Margrave and his veiled companion, as they now came from the moonlit copse.
“Well,” I said to him, with an irony that unconsciously mimicked his own, “have you taken advice with your nurse? I assume that the dark form by your side is that of Ayesha.”
The woman looked at me from her sable veil, with her steadfast solemn eyes, and said, in English, though with a foreign accent: “The nurse born in Asia is but wise through her love; the pale son of Europe is wise through his art. The nurse says, ‘Forbear!’ Do you say, ‘Adventure’?”
“Peace!” exclaimed Margrave, stamping his foot on the ground. “I take no counsel from either; it is for me to resolve, for you to obey, and for him to aid. Night is come, and we waste it; move on.”
The woman made no reply, nor did I. He took my arm and walked back to the hut. The barbaric escort followed. When we reached the door of the building, Margrave said a few words to the woman and to the litter-bearers. They entered the but with us. Margrave pointed out to the woman his coffer, to the men the fuel stowed in the outhouse. Both were borne away and placed within the litter. Meanwhile, I took from the table, on which it was carelessly thrown, the light hatchet that I habitually carried with me in my rambles.
“Do you think that you need that idle weapon?” said Margrave. “Do you fear the good faith of my swarthy attendants?”
“Nay, take the hatchet yourself; its use is to sever the gold from the quartz in which we may find it embedded, or to clear, as this shovel, which will also be needed, from the slight soil above it, the ore that the mine in the mountain flings forth, as the sea casts its waifs on the sands.”
“Give me your hand, fellow-labourer!” said Margrave, joyfully. “Ah, there is no faltering terror in this pulse! I was not mistaken in the Man. What rests, but the Place and the Hour? I shall live! I shall live!”
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:06