Such a hot night as it was — not a breath of wind, and the moon, full orbed, dull and yellow, hangs like a lamp in the dark blue sky. Low down on the horizon are great masses of rain clouds, ragged and angry-looking, and the whole firmament seems to weigh down on the still earth, where everything is burnt and parched, the foliage of the trees hanging limp and heavily, and the grass, yellow and sere, mingling with the hot, white dust of the roads. Absolute stillness everywhere down here by the Yarra Yarra, not even the river making a noise as it sweeps swiftly down on its winding course between its low mud banks. No bark of a dog or human voice breaks the stillness; not even the sighing of the wind through the trees. And throughout all this unearthly silence a nervous vitality predominates, for the air is full of electricity, and the subtle force is permeating the whole scene. A long trail of silver light lies on the dark surface of the river rolling along, and here and there the current swirls into sombre, cruel-looking pools — or froths, and foams in lines of dirty white around the trunks of spectral-looking gum trees, which stretch out their white, scarred branches over the waters.
Just a little way below the bridge which leads to the Botanical Gardens, on the near side of the river, stands an old, dilapidated bathing-house, with its long row of dressing-rooms, doorless and damp-looking. A broad, irregular wooden platform is in front of these, and slopes gradually down to the bank, from whence narrow, crazy-looking steps, stretching the whole length of the platform, go down beneath the sullen waters. And all this covered with black mould and green slime, with whole armies of spiders weaving grey, dusky webs in odd corners, and a broken-down fence on the left half buried in bush rank grass — an evil-looking place even in the daytime, and ten times more evil-looking and uncanny under the light of the moon, which fills it with vague shadows. The rough, slimy platform is deserted, and nothing is heard but the squeaking and scampering of the water-rats, and every now and then the gurgling of the river as it races past, as if it was laughing quietly in a ghastly manner over the victims it had drowned.
Suddenly a black shadow comes gliding along the narrow path by the river bank, and pauses a moment at the entrance to the platform. Then it listens for a few minutes, and again hurries down to the crazy-looking steps. The black shadow standing there, like the genius of solitude, is a woman, and she has apparently come to add herself to the list of the cruel-looking river’s victims. Standing there, with one hand on the rough rail, and staring with fascinated eyes on the dull muddy water, she does not hear a step behind her. The shadow of a man, who has apparently followed her, glides from behind the bathing-shed, and stealing down to the woman on the verge of the stream, lays a delicate white hand on her shoulder. She turns with a startled cry, and Kitty Marchurst and Gaston Vandeloup are looking into one another’s eyes. Kitty’s charming face is worn and pallid, and the hand which clutches her shawl is trembling nervously as she gazes at her old lover. There he stands, dressed in old black clothes, worn and tattered looking, with his fair auburn hair all tangled and matted; his chin covered with a short stubbly beard of some weeks’ growth, and his face gaunt and haggard-looking — the very same appearance as he had when he landed in Australia. Then he sought to preserve his liberty; now he is seeking to preserve his life. They gaze at one another in a fascinated manner for a few moments, and then Gaston removes his hand from the girl’s shoulder with a sardonic laugh, and she buries her face in her hands with a stifled sob.
‘So this is the end,’ he said, pointing to the river, and fixing his scintillating eyes on the girl; ‘this is the end of our lives; for you the river — for me the hangman.’
‘God help me,’ she moaned, piteously; ‘what else is left to me but the river?’
‘Hope,’ he said, in a low voice; ‘you are young; you are beautiful; you can yet enjoy life; but,’ in a deliberate cruel manner, ‘you will not, for the river claims you as its victim.’
Something in his voice fills her with fear, and looking up she reads death in his face, and sinking on her knees she holds out her helpless hands with a pitying cry for life.
‘Strange,’ observed M. Vandeloup, with a touch of his old airy manner; ‘you come to commit suicide and are not afraid; I wish to save you the trouble, and you are, my dear — you are illogical.’
‘No! no!’ she mutters, twisting her hands together, ‘I do not want to die; why do you wish to kill me?’ lifting her wan face to his.
He bent down, and caught her wrist fiercely.
‘You ask me that?’ he said, in a voice of concentrated passion, ‘you who, with your long tongue, have put the hangman’s rope round my throat; but for you, I would, by this time, have been on my way to America, where freedom and wealth awaits me. I have worked hard, and committed crimes for money, and now, when I should enjoy it, you, with your feminine devilry, have dragged me back to the depths.’
‘I did not make you commit the crimes,’ she said, piteously.
‘Bah!’ with a scoffing laugh, ‘who said you did? I take my own sins on my own shoulders; but you did worse; you betrayed me. Yes; there is a warrant out for my arrest, for the murder of that accursed Pierre. I have eluded the clever Melbourne police so far, but I have lived the life of a dog. I dare not even ask for food, lest I betray myself. I am starving! I tell you, starving! you harlot! and it is your work.’
He flung her violently to the ground, and she lay there, a huddled heap of clothing, while, with wild gesticulations, he went on.
‘But I will not hang,’ he said, fiercely; ‘Octave Braulard, who escaped the guillotine, will not perish by a rope. No; I have found a boat going to South America, and to-morrow I go on board of her, to sail to Valparaiso; but before I go I settle with you.’
She sprang suddenly to her feet with a look of hate in her eyes.
‘You villain!’ she said, through her clenched teeth, ‘you ruined my life, but you shall not murder me!’
He caught her wrist again, but he was weak for want of food, and she easily wrenched it away.
‘Stand back!’ she cried, retreating a little.
‘You think to escape me,’ he almost shrieked, all his smooth cynical mask falling off; ‘no, you will not; I will throw you into the river. I will see you sink to your death. You will cry for help. No one will hear you but God and myself. Both of us are merciless. You will die like a rat in a hole, and that face you are so proud of will be buried in the mud of the river. You devil! your time has come to die.’
He hissed out the last word in a low, sibilant manner, then sprang towards her to execute his purpose. They were both standing on the verge of the steps, and instinctively Kitty put out her hands to keep him off. She struck him on the chest, and then his foot slipped on the green slime which covered the steps, and with a cry of baffled rage he fell backward into the dull waters, with a heavy splash. The swift current gripped him, and before Kitty could utter a sound, she could see him rising out in midstream, and being carried rapidly away. He threw up his hands with a hoarse cry for help, but, weakened by famine, he could do nothing for himself, and sank for the second time. Again he rose, and the current swept him near shore, almost within reach of a fallen tree. He made a desperate effort to grasp it, but the current, mocking his puny efforts, bore him away once again in its giant embrace, and with a wild shriek on God he sank to rise no more.
The woman on the bank, with white face and staring eyes, saw the fate which he had meant for her meted out to him, and when she saw him sink for the last time, she covered her face with her hand and fled rapidly away into the shadowy night.
The sun is setting in a sea of blood, and all the west is lurid with crimson and barred by long black clouds. A heavy cloud of smoke shot with fiery red hangs over the city, and the din of many workings sound through the air. Down on the river the ships are floating on the blood-stained waters, and all their masts stand up like a forest of bare trees against the clear sky. And the river sweeps on red and angry-looking under the sunset, with the rank grass and vegetation on its shelving banks. Rats are scampering along among the wet stones, and then a vagrant dog poking about amid some garbage howls dismally. What is that black speck on the crimson waters? The trunk of a tree perhaps; no, it is a body, with white face and tangled auburn hair; it is floating down with the current. People are passing to and fro on the bridge, the clock strikes in the town hall, and the dead body drifts slowly down the red stream far into the shadows of the coming night — under the bridge, across which the crowd is hurrying, bent on pleasure and business, past the tall warehouses where rich merchants are counting their gains, under the shadow of the big steamers with their tall masts and smoky funnels. Now it is caught in the reeds at the side of the stream; no, the current carries it out again, and so down the foul river, with the hum of the city on each side and the red sky above, drifts the dead body on its way to the sea. The red dies out of the sky, the veil of night descends, and under the cold starlight — cold and cruel as his own nature — that which was once Gaston Vandeloup floats away into the still shadows.
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University of Adelaide
South Australia 5005
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:51