Four or five miles up the river from Garoopna stood a solitary hut, snug, sheltered by a lofty bare knoll, round which the great river chafed among the boulders. Across the stream was the forest, sloping down in pleasant glades from the mountain; and behind the hut rose the plain four or five hundred feet over head, seeming to be held aloft by the blue-stone columns which rose from the river side.
In this cottage resided a shepherd, his wife, and one little boy, their son, about eight years old. A strange, wild little bush child, able to speak articulately, but utterly without knowledge or experience of human creatures, save of his father and mother; unable to read a line; without religion of any sort or kind; as entire a little savage, in fact, as you could find in the worst den in your city, morally speaking, and yet beautiful to look on; as active as a roe, and, with regard to natural objects, as fearless as a lion.
As yet unfit to begin labour. All the long summer he would wander about the river bank, up and down the beautiful rock-walled paradise where he was confined, sometimes looking eagerly across the water at the waving forest boughs, and fancying he could see other children far up the vistas beckoning to him to cross and play in that merry land of shifting lights and shadows.
It grew quite into a passion with the poor little man to get across and play there; and one day when his mother was shifting the hurdles, and he was handing her the strips of green hide which bound them together, he said to her —
“Mother, what country is that across the river?”
“The forest, child.”
“There’s plenty of quantongs over there, eh, mother, and raspberries? Why mayn’t I get across and play there?”
“The river is too deep, child, and the Bunyip lives in the water under the stones.”
“Who are the children that play across there?”
“Black children, likely.”
“No white children?”
“Pixies; don’t go near ’em child; they’ll lure you on, Lord knows where. Don’t get trying to cross the river, now, or you’ll be drowned.”
But next day the passion was stronger on him than ever. Quite early on the glorious cloudless midsummer day he was down by the river side, sitting on a rock, with his shoes and stockings off, paddling his feet in the clear tepid water, and watching the million fish in the shallows black fish and grayling — leaping and flashing in the sun.
There is no pleasure that I have ever experienced like a child’s midsummer holiday. The time, I mean, when two or three of us used to go away up the brook, and take our dinners with us, and come home at night tired, dirty, happy, scratched beyond recognition, with a great nosegay, three little trout, and one shoe, the other one having been used for a boat till it had gone down with all hands out of soundings. How poor our Derby days, our Greenwich dinners, our evening parties, where there are plenty of nice girls, are after that! Depend on it, a man never experiences such pleasure or grief after fourteen as he does before, unless in come cases in his first love-making, when the sensation is new to him.
But, meanwhile, there sits our child, barelegged, watching the forbidden ground beyond the river. A fresh breeze was moving the trees, and making the whole a dazzling mass of shifting light and shadow. He sat so still that a glorious violet and red king-fisher perched quite close, and, dashing into the water, came forth with a fish, and fled like a ray of light along the winding of the river. A colony of little shell parrots, too, crowded on a bough, and twittered and ran to and fro quite busily, as though they said to him, “We don’t mind you, my dear; you are quite one of us.”
Never was the river so low. He stepped in; it scarcely reached his ancle. Now surely he might get across. He stripped himself, and, carrying his clothes, waded through, the water never reaching his middle all across the long, yellow, gravelly shallow. And there he stood naked and free in the forbidden ground.
He quickly dressed himself, and began examining his new kingdom, rich beyond his utmost hopes. Such quantongs, such raspberries, surpassing imagination; and when tired of them such fern boughs, six or eight feet long! He would penetrate this region, and see how far it extended.
What tales he would have for his father to-night. He would bring him here, and show him all the wonders, and perhaps he would build a new hut over here, and come and live in it? Perhaps the pretty young lady, with the feathers in her hat, lived somewhere here, too?
There! There is one of those children he had seen before across the river. Ah! ah! it was not a child at all, but a pretty grey beast, with big ears. A kangaroo, my lad; he won’t play with you, but skips away slowly, and leaves you alone.
There is something like the gleam of water on that rock. A snake! Now a sounding rush through the wood, and a passing shadow. An eagle! He brushes so close to the child; that he strikes at the bird with a stick, and then watches him as he shoots up like a rocket, and, measuring the fields of air in ever-widening circles, hangs like a motionless speck upon the sky; though, measure his wings across, and you will find he is nearer fifteen feet than fourteen.
Here is a prize, though! A wee little native bear, barely eight inches long — a little grey beast, comical beyond expression, with broad flapped ears, sits on a tree within reach. He makes no resistance, but cuddles into the child’s bosom, and eats a leaf as they go along; while his mother sits aloft, and grunts indignant at the abstraction of her offspring, but, on the whole, takes it pretty comfortably, and goes on with her dinner of peppermint leaves.
What a short day it has been! Here is the sun getting low, and the magpies and jackasses beginning to tune up before roosting.
He would turn and go back to the river. Alas! which way?
He was lost in the bush. He turned back and went, as he thought, the way he had come, but soon arrived at a tall, precipitous cliff, which, by some infernal magic, seemed to have got between him and the river. Then he broke down, and that strange madness came on him which comes even on strong men when lost in the forest: a despair, a confusion of intellect, which cost many a bold man his life. Think what it must be with a child.
He was fully persuaded that the cliff was between him and home, and that he must climb it. Alas! every step he took aloft carried him further from the river and the hope of safety; and when he came to the top, just at dark, he saw nothing but cliff after cliff, range after range, all around him. He had been wandering through steep gullies all day unconsciously, and had penetrated far into the mountains. Night was coming down, still and crystal-clear, and the poor little lad was far away from help or hope, going his last long journey alone.
Partly perhaps walking, and partly sitting down and weeping, he got through the night; and when the solemn morning came up again he was still tottering along the leading range, bewildered; crying, from time to time, “Mother, mother!” still nursing his little bear, his only companion, to his bosom, and holding still in his hand a few poor flowers he had gathered the day before. Up and on all day, and at evening, passing out of the great zone of timber, he came on the bald, thunder-smitten summit ridge, where one ruined tree held up its skeleton arms against the sunset, and the wind came keen and frosty. So, with failing, feeble legs, upward still, towards the region of the granite and the snow; towards the eyrie of the kite and the eagle.
Brisk as they all were at Garoopna, none were so brisk as Cecil and Sam. Charles Hawker wanted to come with them, but Sam asked him to go with Jim; and, long before the others were ready, our two had strapped their blankets to their saddles, and, followed by Sam’s dog Rover, now getting a little grey about the nose, cantered off up the river.
Neither spoke at first. They knew what a solemn task they had before them; and, while acting as though everything depended on speed, guessed well that their search was only for a little corpse, which, if they had luck, they would find stiff and cold under some tree or crag.
Cecil began: “Sam, depend on it that child has crossed the river to this side. If he had been on the plains he would have been seen from a distance in a few hours.”
“I quite agree,” said Sam. “Let us go down this side till we are opposite the hut, and search for marks by the river side.”
So they agreed; and in half an hour were opposite the hut, and, riding across to it to ask a few questions, found the poor mother sitting on the door-step, with her apron over her head, rocking herself to and fro.
“We have come to help you, mistress,” said Sam. “How do you think he is gone?”
She said, with frequent bursts of grief, that “some days before he had mentioned having seen white children across the water, who beckoned him to cross and play; that she, knowing well that they were fairies, or perhaps worse, had warned him solemnly not to mind them; but that she had very little doubt that they had helped him over and carried him away to the forest; and that her husband would not believe in his having crossed the river.”
“Why, it is not knee-deep across the shallow,” said Cecil.
“Let us cross again,” said Sam: “he MAY be drowned, but I don’t think it.”
In a quarter of an hour from starting they found, slightly up the stream, one of the child’s socks, which in his hurry to dress he had forgotten. Here brave Rover took up the trail like a bloodhound, and before evening stopped at the foot of a lofty cliff.
“Can he have gone up here?” said Sam, as they were brought up by the rock.
“Most likely,” said Cecil. “Lost children always climb from height to height. I have heard it often remarked by old bush hands. Why they do so, God, who leads them, only knows; but the fact is beyond denial. Ask Rover what he thinks?”
The brave old dog was half-way up, looking back for them. It took them nearly till dark to get their horses up; and, as there was no moon, and the way was getting perilous, they determined to camp, and start again in the morning.
They spread their blankets and lay down side by side. Sam had thought, from Cecil’s proposing to come with him in preference to the others, that he would speak of a subject nearly concerning them both; but Cecil went off to sleep and made no sign; and Sam, ere he dozed, said to himself, “By Jove, if he don’t speak this journey, I will. It is unbearable that we should not come to some understanding. Poor Cecil!”
At early dawn they caught up their horses, which had been hobbled with the stirrup leathers, and started afresh. Both were more silent than ever, and the dog, with his nose to the ground, led them slowly along the rocky rib of the mountain, ever going higher and higher.
“It is inconceivable,” said Sam, “that the poor child can have come up here. There is Tuckerimbid close to our right, five thousand feet above the river. Don’t you think we must be mistaken?”
“The dog disagrees with you,” said Cecil. “He has something before him not very far off. Watch him.”
The trees had become dwarfed and scattered; they were getting out of the region of trees; the real forest zone was now below them, and they saw they were emerging towards a bald elevated down, and that a few hundred yards before them was a dead tree, on the highest branch of which sat an eagle.
“The dog has stopped,” said Cecil, “the end is near.”
“See,” said Sam, “there is a handkerchief under the tree.”
“That is the boy himself,” said Cecil.
They were up to him and off in a moment. There he lay, dead and stiff, one hand still grasping the flowers he had gathered on his last happy play-day, and the other laid as a pillow, between the soft cold cheek and the rough cold stone. His midsummer holiday was over, his long journey was ended. He had found out at last what lay beyond the shining river he had watched so long.
Both the young men knelt beside him for a moment in silence. They had found only what they had expected to find, and yet, now that they had found it, they were far more touched and softened than they could have thought possible. They stayed in silence a few moments, and then Cecil, lifting up his head, said suddenly —
“Sam Buckley! there can be no debate between us two, with this lying here between us. Let us speak now.”
“There has never been any debate, Cecil,” said he, “and there never would be, though this little corpse was buried fathoms deep. It takes two to make a quarrel, Cecil, and I will not be one.”
“Sam,” said Cecil, “I love Alice Brentwood better than all the world besides.”
“I know it.”
“And you love her too, as well, were it possible, as I do.”
“I know that too.”
“Why,” resumed Cecil hurriedly, “has this come to pass? Why has it been my unlucky destiny, that the man I love and honour above all others should become my rival? Are there no other women in the world? Tell me, Sam, why is it forced on me to choose between my best friend and the woman I love dearer than life? Why has this terrible emergency come between us?”
“I will tell you why,” said Sam, speaking very quietly, as though fearing to awaken the dead: “to teach us to behave like men of honour and gentlemen, though our hearts break. That is why, Cecil.”
“What shall we do?” said Cecil.
“Easily answered,” said Sam. “Let her decide for herself. It may be, mind you, that she will have neither of us. There has been one living in the house with her lately, far superior in every point to you or I. How if she thought fit to prefer him?”
“Yes, Halbert! What more likely? Let you and I find out the truth, Cecil, like men, and abide by it. Let each one ask her in his turn what chance he has.”
“See here,” said Sam; “draw one of these pieces of grass out of my hand. If you draw the longest piece ask her at once. Will you abide by this?”
He said “yes,” and drew — the longest piece.
“That is well,” said Sam. “And now no more of this at present. I will sling this poor little fellow in my blanket and carry him home to his mother. See, Cecil, what is Rover at?”
Rover was on his hind legs against the tree, smelling at something. When they came to look, there was a wee little grey bear perched in the hollow of the tree.
“What a very strange place for a young bear!” said Cecil.
“Depend on it,” said Sam, “that the child had caught it from its dam, and brought it up here. Take it home with you, Cecil, and give it to Alice.”
Cecil took the little thing home, and in time it grew to be between three and four feet high, a grandfather of bears. The magpie protested against his introduction to the establishment, and used to pluck billfulls of hair from his stomach under pretence of lining a nest, which was never made. But in spite of this, the good gentle beast lived nigh as long as the magpie — long enough to be caressed by the waxen fingers of little children, who would afterwards gather round their father, and hear how the bear had been carried to the mountains in the bosom of the little boy who lost his way on the granite ranges, and went to heaven, in the year that the bushrangers came down.
Sam carried the little corpse back in his blanket, and that evening helped the father to bury it by the river side. Under some fern trees they buried him, on a knoll which looked across the river, into the treacherous beautiful forest which had lured him to his destruction.
Alice was very sad for a day or two, and thought and talked much about this sad accident, but soon she recovered her spirits again. And it fell out, that a bare week after this, the party being all out in one direction or another, that Cecil saw Alice alone in the garden, tending her flowers, and knew that the time was come for him to keep his bargain with Sam and speak to her. He felt like a man who was being led to execution; but screwed his courage to the highest point, and went down to where she was tying up a rose-tree.
“Miss Brentwood,” he said, “I am come to petition for a flower.”
“You shall have a dozen, if you will,” she answered. “Help yourself; will you have a peony or a sunflower? If you have not made up your mind, let me recommend a good large yellow sunflower.”
Here was a pretty beginning!
“Miss Brentwood, don’t laugh at me, but listen to me a moment. I love you above all earthly things besides. I worship the ground you walk on. I loved you from the first moment I saw you. I shall love you as well, ay, better, if that could be, on the day my heart is still, and my hand is cold for ever: can you tell me to hope? Don’t drive me, by one hasty half-considered word, to despair and misery for the rest of my life. Say only one syllable of encouragement, and I will bide your time for years and years.”
Alice was shocked and stunned. She saw he was in earnest, by his looks, and by his hurried, confused way of speaking. She feared she might have been to blame, and have encouraged him in her thoughtlessness, more than she ought. “I will make him angry with me,” she said to herself. “I will treat him to ridicule. It is the only chance, poor fellow!”
“Mr. Mayford,” she said, “if I thought you were in jest, I should feel it necessary to tell my father and brother that you had been impertinent. I can only believe that you are in earnest, and I deeply regret that your personal vanity should have urged you to take such an unwarrantable liberty with a girl you have not yet known for ten days.”
He turned and left her without a word, and she remained standing where she was, half inclined to cry, and wondering if she had acted right on the spur of the moment — sometimes half inclined to believe that she had been unladylike and rude. When a thing of this kind takes place, both parties generally put themselves in immediate correspondence with a confidant. Miss Smith totters into the apartments of her dearest friend, and falls weeping on the sofa, while Jones rushes madly into Brown’s rooms in the Temple, and, shying his best hat into the coalscuttle, announces that there is nothing now left for him but to drown the past in debauchery. Whereupon Brown, if he is a good fellow, as all the Browns are, produces the whisky and hears all about it.
So in the present instance two people were informed of what had taken place before they went to bed that night; and those two were Jim and Doctor Mulhaus. Alice had stood where Cecil had left her, thinking, could she confide it to Mrs. Buckley, and ask for advice. But Mrs. Buckley had been a little cross to her that week for some reason, and so she was afraid; and, not knowing anybody else well enough, began to cry.
There was a noise of horses’ feet just beyond the fence, and a voice calling to her to come. It was Jim, and, drying her eyes, she went out, and he, dismounting, put his arm round her waist and kissed her.
“Why, my beauty,” he said, “who has been making you cry?”
She put her head on his shoulder and began sobbing louder than ever. “Cecil Mayford,” she said in a whisper.
“Well, and what the d —— l has he been at?” said Jim, in a rather startling tone.
“Wants to marry me,” she answered, in a whisper, and hid her face in his coat.
“The deuce doubt he does,” said Jim; “who does not? What did you tell him?”
“I told him that I wondered at his audacity.”
“Sent him off with a flea in his ear, in fact,” said Jim. “Well, quite right. I suppose you would do the same for any man?”
“Certainly I should,” she said, looking up.
“If Doctor Mulhaus, now — eh?”
“I’d box his ears, Jim,” she said, laughing; “I would, indeed.”
“Or Sam Buckley; would you box his ears, if he were to — you know?”
“Yes,” she said. But there spread over her face a sudden crimson blush, like the rosy arch which heralds the tropical sun, which made Jim laugh aloud.
“If you dared to say a word, Jim,” she said, “I would never, never —”
Poor Cecil had taken his horse and had meant to ride home, but came back again at night, “just,” he thought, “to have one more look at her before he entered on some line of life which would take him far away from Garoopna and its temptations.”
The Doctor (who has been rather thrust aside lately in the midst of all this love-making and so on) saw that something had gone very wrong with Cecil, who was a great friend of his, and, as he could never bear to see a man in distress without helping him, he encouraged Cecil to stroll down the garden with him, and then kindly and gently asked him what was wrong.
Cecil told him all, from beginning to end, and added that life was over for him, as far as all pleasure and excitement went; and, in short, said what we have all said, and had said to us in our time, after a great disappointment in love; which the Doctor took for exactly what it was worth, although poor little Cecil’s distress was very keen; and, remembering some old bygone day when he had suffered so himself, he cast about to find some comfort for him.
“You will get over this, my boy,” said he, “if you would only believe it.”
“Never, never!” said Cecil.
“Let me tell you a story, as we walk up and down. If it does not comfort you, it will amuse you. How sweet the orange bloom smells! Listen:— Had not the war broke out so suddenly, I should have been married, two months to a day, before the battle of Saarbruck. Catherine was a distant cousin, beautiful and talented, about ten years my junior. Before Heaven, sir, on the word of a gentleman, I never persecuted her with my addresses, and if either of them ay I did, tell them from me, sir, that they lie, and I will prove it on their bodies. Bah! I was forgetting. I, as head of the family, was her guardian, and, although my younger brother was nearer her age, I courted her, in all honour and humility proposed to her, and was accepted with even more willingness than most women condescend to show on such occasions, and received the hearty congratulations of my brother. Few women were ever loved better than I loved Catherine. Conceive, Cecil, that I loved her as well as you love Miss Brentwood, and listen to what follows.
“The war-cloud burst so suddenly that, leaving my bride that was to be, to the care of my brother, and putting him in charge over my property, I hurried off to join the Landsturm, two regiments of which I had put into a state of efficiency by my sole exertions.
“You know partly what followed — in one day an army of 150,000 men destroyed, the King in flight to Konigsberg, and Prussia a province of France.
“I fled, wounded badly, desperate and penniless, from that field. I learnt from the peasants, that what I had thought to be merely a serious defeat was an irretrievable disaster; and, in spite of wounds, hunger, and want of clothes, I held on my way towards home.
“The enemy were in possession of the country, so I had to travel by night alone, and beg from such poor cottages as I dared to approach. Sometimes got a night’s rest, but generally lay abroad in the fields. But at length, after every sort of danger and hardship, I stood above the broad, sweeping Maine, and saw the towers of my own beloved castle across the river, perched as of old above the vineyards, looking protectingly down upon the little town which was clustered on the river-bank below, and which owned me for its master.
“I crossed at dusk. I had to act with great caution, for I did not know whether the French were there or no. I did not make myself known to the peasant who ferried me over, further than as one from the war, which my appearance was sufficient to prove. I landed just below a long high wall which separated the town from the river, and, ere I had time to decide what I should do first, a figure coming out of an archway caught me by the hand, and I recognised my own major domo, my foster-brother.
“‘I knew you would come back to me,’ he said, ‘if it was only as a pale ghost; though I never believed you dead, and have watched here for you night and day to stop you.’
“‘Are the French in my castle, then?’
“‘There are worse than the French there,’ he said; ‘worse than the devil Bonaparte himself. Treason, treachery, adultery!’
“‘Who has proved false?’ I cried.
“‘Your brother! False to his king, to his word, to yourself. He was in correspondence with the French for six months past, and, now that he believes you dead, he is living in sin with her who was to have been your wife.’
“I did not cry out or faint, or anything of that sort. I only said, ‘I am going to the castle, Fritz,’ and he came with me. My brother had turned him out of the house when he usurped my property, but by a still faithful domestic we were admitted, and I, knowing every secret passage in my house, came shoeless from behind some arras, and stood before them as they sat at supper. I was a ghastly sight. I had not shaved for a fortnight, and my uniform hung in tatters from my body; round my head was the same bloody white handkerchief with which I had bound up my head at Jena. I was deadly pale from hunger, too; and from my entering so silently they believed they had seen a ghost. My brother rose, and stood pale and horrified, and Catherine fell fainting on the floor. This was all my revenge, and ere my brother could speak, I was gone — away to England, where I had money in the funds, accompanied by my faithful Max, whom Mary Hawker’s father buried in Drumston churchyard.
“So in one day I lost a brother, a mistress, a castle, a king, and a fatherland. I was a ruined, desperate man. And yet I lived to see old Blucher with his dirty boots on the silken sofas at the Tuileries, and to become as stout and merry a middle-aged man as any Prussian subject in her young Majesty’s dominions.”
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:10