And presently, the Captain, half dressed, working away at his hair with two very stiff brushes, betook himself to Major Buckley’s room, whom he found shaving. “I’ll wait till you’re done,” said he; “I don’t want you to cut yourself.”
And then he resumed: “Buckley, your son wants to marry my daughter.”
“Shows his good taste,” said the Major. “What do you think of it?”
“I am very much delighted,” said the Captain.
“And what does she say to it?”
“She is very much delighted.”
“And I am very much delighted, and I suppose Sam is too. So there you are, you see: all agreed.”
And that was the way the marriage negotiations proceeded; indeed, it was nearly all that was ever said on the subject. But one day the Major brought two papers over to the Captain (who signed them), which were supposed to refer to settlements, and after that all the arrangements were left to Alice and Mrs. Buckley.
They started for Cape Chatham about nine o’clock in the day; Halbert and Jim first, then Sam and Alice, and lastly the three elders. This arrangement did not last long, however; for very soon Sam and Alice called aloud to Halbert and Jim to come and ride with them, for that they were boring one another to death. This they did, and now the discreet and sober conversation of the oldsters was much disturbed by loud laughter of the younger folks, in which, however, they could not help joining. It was a glorious crystal clear day in autumn; all nature, aroused from her summer’s rest, had put off her suit of hodden grey, and was flaunting in gaudiest green. The atmosphere was so amazingly pure that miles away across the plains the travellers could distinguish the herds of turkeys (bustards) stalking to and fro, while before them, that noble maritime mountain Cape Chatham towered up, sharply defined above the gleaming haze which marked the distant sea.
For a time their way lay straight across the broad well-grassed plains, marked with ripples as though the retiring sea had but just left it. Then a green swamp; through the tall reeds the native companion, king of cranes, waded majestic; the brilliant porphyry water hen, with scarlet bill and legs, flashed like a sapphire among the emerald green water-sedge. A shallow lake, dotted with wild ducks; here and there a group of wild swan, black with red bills, floating calmly on its bosom. A long stretch of grass as smooth as a bowling-green. A sudden rocky rise, clothed with native cypress (Exocarpus — Oh my botanical readers!), honeysuckle (Banksia), she-oak (Casuarina), and here and there a stunted gum. Cape Chatham began to show grander and nearer, topping all; and soon they saw the broad belt of brown sandy heath that lay along the shore.
“Here,” said the Doctor, riding up, “we leave the last limit of the lava streams from Mirngish and the Organ-hill. Now, immediately you shall see how we pass from the richly-grassed volcanic plains, into the barren sandstone heaths; from a productive pasture land into a useless flower-garden. Nature here is economical, as she always is: she makes her choicest ornamental efforts on spots otherwise useless. You will see a greater variety of vegetation on one acre of your sandy heath than on two square miles of the thickly-grassed country we have been passing over.”
It was as he said. They came soon on to the heath; a dark dreary expanse, dull to look upon after so long a journey upon the bright green grass. It stretched away right and left interminably, only broken here and there with islands of dull-coloured trees; as melancholy a piece of country as one could conceive: yet far more thickly peopled with animal as well as vegetable life, than the rich pastoral downs further inland. Now they began to see the little red brush kangaroo, and the grey forester, skipping away in all directions; and had it been summer they would have been startled more than once by the brown snake, and the copper snake, deadliest of their tribe. The painted quail, and the brush quail (the largest of Australian game birds I believe), whirred away from beneath their horses’ feet; and the ground parrot, green with mottlings of gold and black, rose like a partridge from the heather, and flew low. Here, too, the Doctor flushed a “White’s thrush,” close to an outlying belt of forest, and got into a great state of excitement about it. “The only known bird,” he said, “which is found in Europe, America, and Australia alike.” Then he pointed out the emu wren, a little tiny brown fellow, with long hairy tail-feathers, flitting from bush to bush; and then, leaving ornithology, called their attention to the wonderful variety of low vegetation that they were riding through; Hakeas, Acacias, Grevilleas, and what not. In spring this brown heath would have been a brilliant mass of flowers; but now, nothing was to be seen save a few tall crimson spikes of Epacris, and here and there a bunch of lemon-coloured Correas. Altogether, he kept them so well amused, that they were astonished to come so quickly upon the station, placed in a snug cove of the forest, where it bordered on the heath beside a sluggish creek. Then, seeing the mountain towering up close to them, and hearing, as they stayed at the door, a low continuous thunder behind a high roll in the heath which lay before them, they knew that the old ocean was close at hand, and their journey was done.
The people at the station were very glad to see them, of course. Barker, the paterfamilias, was an old friend of both the Major and the Captain, and they found so much to talk about, that after a heavy midday-meal, excellent in kind, though that kind was coarse, and certain libations of pale ale and cold claret and water, the older of the party, with the exception of Dr. Mulhaus, refused to go any farther; so the young people started forth to the Cape, under the guidance of George Barker, the fourth or fifth son, who happened to be at home.
“Doctor,” said Alice as they were starting, “do you remark what beautiful smooth grass covers the cape itself, while here we have nothing but this scrubby heath? The mountain is, I suppose, some different formation?”
“Granite, my dear young lady,” said the Doctor. “A cap of granite rising through and partly overlying this sandstone.”
“You can always tell one exactly what one wants to know,” said Alice; and, as they walked forwards, somehow got talking to Halbert, which I believe most firmly had been arranged beforehand with Sam. For he, falling back, ranged alongside of the Doctor, and, managing to draw him behind the others, turned to him and said suddenly —
“My dear old friend! my good old tutor!”
The Doctor stopped short, pulled out a pair of spectacles, wiped them, put them on, and looked at Sam through them for nearly a minute, and then said:
“My dear boy, you don’t mean to say ——”
“I do, Doctor. — Last night. — And, oh! if you could only tell, how happy I am at this moment! If you could guess at it! ——”
“Pooh, pooh!” said the Doctor; “I am not so old as that, my dear boy. Why, I am a marrying man myself. Sam, I am so very, very glad! You have won her, and now wear her, like a pearl beyond all price. I think that she is worthy of you: more than that she could not be.”
They shook hands, and soon Sam was at her side again, toiling up the steep ascent. They soon distanced the others, and went forwards by themselves.
There was such a rise in the ground seawards, that the broad ocean was invisible till they were half way up the grassy down. Then right and left they began to see the nether firmament, stretching away infinitely. But the happy lovers paused not till they stood upon the loftiest breezy knoll, and seemed alone together between the blue cloudless heaven and another azure-sphere which lay beneath their feet.
A cloudless sky and a sailless sea. Far beneath them they heard but saw not the eternal surges gnawing at the mountain. A few white albatrosses skimmed and sailed below, and before, seaward, the sheets of turf, falling away, stretched into a shoreless headland, fringed with black rock and snow-white surf.
She stood there, flushed and excited with the exercise, her bright hair dishevelled, waving in the free sea-breeze, the most beautiful object in that glorious landscape, her noble mate beside her. Awe, wonder, and admiration kept both of them silent for a few moments, and then she spoke.
“Do you know any of the choruses in the ‘Messiah’?” asked she.
“No, I do not,” said Sam.
“I am rather sorry for it,” she said, “because this is so very like some of them.”
“I can quite imagine that,” said Sam. “I can quite imagine music which expresses what we see now. Something infinitely BROAD I should say. Is that nonsense now?”
“Not to me,” said Alice.
“I imagined,” said Sam, “that the sea would be much rougher than this. In spite of the ceaseless thunder below there, it is very calm.”
“Calm, eh?” said the Doctor’s voice behind them. “God help the ship that should touch that reef this day, though a nautilus might float in safety! See, how the groundswell is tearing away at those rocks; you can just distinguish the long heave of the water, before it breaks. There is the most dangerous groundswell in the world off this coast. Should this country ever have a large coast-trade, they will find it out, in calm weather with no anchorage.”
A great coasting trade has arisen; and the Doctor’s remark has proved terribly true. Let the Monumental City and the Schomberg, the Duncan Dunbar and the Catherine Adamson bear witness to it. Let the drowning cries of hundreds of good sailors, who have been missed and never more heard of, bear witness that this is the most pitiless and unprotected, and, even in calm weather, the most dangerous coast in the world.
But Jim came panting up, and, throwing himself on the short turf, said —
“So this is the great Southern Ocean; eh! How far can one see, now, Halbert?”
“About thirty miles.”
“And how far to India; eh?”
“About seven thousand.”
“A long way,” said Jim. “However, not so far as to England.”
“Fancy,” said Halbert, “one of those old Dutch voyagers driving on this unknown coast on a dark night. What a sudden end to their voyage! Yet that must have happened to many ships which have never come home. Perhaps when they come to explore this coast a little more they may find some old ship’s ribs jammed on a reef; the ribs of some ship whose name and memory has perished.”
“The very thing you mention is the case,” said the Doctor. “Down the coast here, under a hopeless, black basaltic cliff, is to be seen the wreck of a very, very old ship, now covered with coral and seaweed. I waited down there for a spring tide, to examine her, but could determine nothing, save that she was very old; whether Dutch or Spanish I know not. You English should never sneer at those two nations: they were before you everywhere.”
“And the Chinese before any of us in Australia,” replied Halbert.
“If you will just come here,” said Alice, “where those black rocks are hid by the bend of the hill, you get only three colours in your landscape; blue sky, grey grass, and purple sea. But look, there is a man standing on the promontory. He makes quite an eyesore there. I wish he would go away.”
“I suppose he has as good a right there as any of us,” answered the Doctor. “But he certainly does not harmonise very well with the rest of the colouring. What a strange place he has chosen to stand in, looking out over the sea, as though he were a shipwrecked mariner — the last of the crew.”
“A shipwrecked mariner would hardly wear breeches and boots, my dear Doctor,” said Jim. “That man is a stockman.”
“Not one of ours, however,” said George Barker; “even at this distance I can see that. See, he’s gone! Strange! I know of no way down the cliff thereabouts. Would you like to come down to the shore?”
So they began their descent to the shore by a winding path of turf, among tumbled heaps of granite, down towards the rock-walled cove, a horseshoe of smooth white sand lying between two long black reefs, among whose isolated pinnacles the groundswell leapt and spouted ceaselessly.
Halbert remarked, “This granite coast is hardly so remarkable as our Cornish one. There are none of those queer pinnacles and tors one sees there, just ready to topple down into the sea. This granite is not half so fantastic.”
“Earthquakes, of which you have none in Cornwall,” said the Doctor, “will just account for the difference. I have felt one near here quite as strong as your famous lieutenant, who capsized the Logan stone.”
But now, getting on the level sands, they fell to gathering shells and sea-weeds like children. Jim trying to see how near he could get to a wave without being caught, got washed up like jetsam. Alice took Sam’s pocket-handkerchief, and filled it indiscriminately with everything she could lay her hand on, principally Trochuses, as big as one’s fist, and “Venus-ears,” scarlet outside. And after an hour, wetfooted and happy, dragging a yard or so of sea-tang behind her, she looked round for the Doctor, and saw him far out on the reef, lying flat on his stomach, and closely examining a large still pool of salt water, contained in the crevices of the rocks.
He held up his hand and beckoned. Sam and Alice advanced towards him over the slippery beds of seaweed, Sam bravely burying his feet in the wet clefts, and holding out his hand to help her along. Once there was a break in the reef, too broad to be jumped, and then for the first time he had her fairly in his arms and swung her across, which was undoubtedly very delightful, but unfortunately soon over. At length, however, they reached the Doctor, who was seated like a cormorant on a wet rock, lighting a pipe.
“What have you collected?” he asked. “Show me.”
Alice proudly displayed the inestimable treasures contained in Sam’s handkerchief.
“Rubbish! Rubbish!” said the Doctor, “Do you believe in mermaidens?”
“Of course I do, if you wish it,” said Alice. “Have you seen one?”
“No, but here is one of their flower-gardens. Bend down and look into this pool.”
She bent and looked. The first thing she saw was her own exquisite face, and Sam’s brown phiz peering over her shoulder. A golden tress of hair, loosened by the sea breeze, fell down into the water, and had to be looped up again. Then gazing down once more, she saw beneath the crystal water a bed of flowers; dahlias, ranunculuses, carnations, chrysanthemums, of every colour in the rainbow save blue. She gave a cry of pleasure: “What are they, Doctor? What do you call them?”
“Sea anemones, in English, I believe,” said the Doctor, “actinias, serpulas, and sabellas. You may see something like that on the European coasts, on a small scale, but there is nothing I ever have seen like that great crimson fellow with cream-coloured tentacles. I do not know his name. I suspect he has never been described. The common European anemone they call ‘crassicornis’ is something like him, but not half as fine.”
“Is there any means of gathering and keeping them, Doctor?” asked Sam. “We have no flowers in the garden like them.”
“No possible means,” said the Doctor. “They are but lumps of jelly. Let us come away and get round the headland before the tide comes in.”
They wandered on from cove to cove, under the dark cliffs, till rounding a little headland the Doctor called out —
“Here is something in your Cornish style, Halbert.”
A thin wall of granite, like a vast buttress, ran into the sea, pierced by a great arch, some sixty feet high. Aloft all sharp grey stone: below, wherever the salt water had reached, a mass of dark clinging weed: while beyond, as though set in a dark frame, was a soft glimpse of blue sky and snow-white seabirds.
“There is nothing so grand as that in Cornwall, Doctor,” said Halbert.
“Can we pass under it, Mr. Barker?” said Alice. “I should like to go through; we have been into none of the caves yet.”
“Oh, yes!” said George Barker. “You may go through for the next two hours. The tide has not turned yet.”
“I’ll volunteer first,” said the Doctor, “and if there’s anything worth seeing beyond, I’ll come for you.”
It was, as I said, a thin wall of granite, which ran out from the rest of the hill, seaward, and was pierced by a tall arch; the blocks which had formerly filled the void now lay weed-grown, half buried in sand, forming a slippery threshold. Over these the Doctor climbed and looked beyond.
A little sandy cove, reef-bound, like those they had seen before, lay under the dark cliffs; and on a water-washed rock, not a hundred yards from him, stood the man they had seen on the downs above, looking steadily seaward.
The Doctor slipped over the rocks like an otter, and approached the man across the smooth sand, unheard in the thunder of the surf. When he was close upon him, the stranger turned, and the Doctor uttered a low cry of wonder and alarm.
It was George Hawker! The Doctor knew him in a moment: but whether the recognition was mutual, he never found out, for Hawker, stepping rapidly from stone to stone, disappeared round the headland, and the thunderstruck Doctor retraced his steps to the arch.
There were all the young people gathered, wondering and delighted. But Alice came to meet him, and said —
“Who was that with you just now?”
“A mermaid!” replied he.
“That, indeed!” said Alice. “And what did she say?”
“She said, ‘Go home to your supper; you have seen quite enough; go home in good time.’”
“Doctor, there is something wrong!” said Alice. “I see it in your face. Can you trust me, and tell me what it is?”
“I can trust you so far as to tell you that you are right. I don’t like the look of things at all. I fear there are evil times coming for some of our friends! Further than this I can say nothing. Say your prayers, and trust God! Don’t tell Sam anything about this: tomorrow I shall speak to him. We won’t spoil a pleasant holiday on mere suspicion.”
They rejoined the others, and the Doctor said, “Come away home now; we have seen enough. Some future time we will come here again: you might see this fifty times, and never get tired of it.”
After a good scramble they stood once more on the down above, and turned to take a last look at the broad blue sea before they descended inland; at the first glance seaward, Halbert exclaimed —
“See there, Doctor! see there! A boat!”
“It’s only a whale, I think,” said George Barker.
There was a black speck far out at sea, but no whale; it was too steady for that. All day the air had been calm; if anything, the breeze was from the north, but now a strong wind was coming up from the south-east, freshening every moment, and bringing with it a pent bank of dark clouds; and, as they watched, the mysterious black speck was topped with white, and soon they saw that it was indeed a boat driving before the wind under a spritsail, which had just been set.
“That is very strange!” said George Barker. “Can it be a shipwrecked party?”
“More likely a mob of escaped convicts from Van Diemen’s Land,” said Jim. “If so, look out for squalls, you, George, and keep your guns loaded.”
“I don’t think it can be that, Jim,” said Sam. “What could bring them so far north? They would have landed, more likely, somewhere in the Straits, about the big lakes.”
“They may have been driven off shore by these westerly winds which have been blowing the last few days,” replied Jim, “and kept their boat’s head northward, to get nearer the settlements. They will be terribly hungry when they do land, for certain. What’s your opinion, Doctor?”
“I think that wise men should be always prepared. We should communicate with Captain Desborough, and set the police on the alert.”
“I wonder,” said Sam, “if that mysterious man we saw today, watching on the cliff, could have had any connexion with this equally mysterious boat. Not likely, though. However, if they are going to land to-night, they had better look sharp, for it is coming on to blow.”
The great bank of cloud which they had been watching, away to the south-east, was growing and spreading rapidly, sending out little black avant-couriers of scud, which were hurrying fanlike across the heavens, telling the news of the coming storm. Landward, in the west, the sun was going down in purple and scarlet splendours, but seaward, all looked dark and ominous.
The young folks stood together in the verandah before they went into dinner, listening to the wind which was beginning to scream angrily round the corners of the house. The rain had not yet gathered strength to fall steadily, but was whisked hither and thither by the blast, in a few uncertain drops. They saw that a great gale was coming up, and knew that, in a few hours, earth and sky would be mingled in furious war!
“How comfortable it is to think that all the animals are under shelter to-night!” said Sam. “Jim, my boy, I am glad you and I are not camped out with cattle this evening. We have been out on nights as bad as this though; eh? Oh, Lord! fancy sitting the saddle all to-night, under the breaking boughs, wet through!”
“No more of that for me, old Sam. No more jolly gallops after cattle or horses for me. But I was always a good hand at anything of that sort, and I mean to be a good soldier now. You’ll see.”
At dark, while they were sitting at dinner, the storm was raging round the house in full fury; but there, in the well-lighted room, before a good fire, they cared little for it. When dinner was over, the Doctor called the Captain and the Major aside, and told them in what manner he had seen and recognised George Hawker on the beach that day; and raised their fears still more by telling them of that mysterious boat which the Doctor thought Hawker had been watching for. None of them could understand it, but all agreed that these things boded no good; and so, having called their host into their confidence, with regard to the boat, they quietly loaded all the fire-arms in the place, and put them together in the hall. This done, they returned to the sitting-room, and, having taken their grog, retired to bed.
It must be remembered that hitherto Major Buckley knew nothing of George Hawker’s previous appearance, but the Doctor now let him into the secret. The Major’s astonishment and wrath may be conceived, at finding that his old PROTEGEE Mary, instead of being a comfortable widow, was the persecuted wife of one of the greatest bushrangers known. At first he was stunned and confused, but, ere he slept, his clear straightforward mind had come to a determination that the first evil was the worst, and that, God give him grace, he would hand the scoundrel over to justice on the first opportunity, sure that he was serving Mary best by doing so.
That night Jim and Sam lay together in a little room to the windward of the house. They were soon fast asleep, but, in the middle of the night, Jim was woke by a shake on the shoulder, and, rousing himself, saw that Sam was sitting up in the bed.
“My God, Jim!” said he — “I have had such an awful dream! I dreamed that those fellows in the boat were carrying off Alice, and I stood by and saw it, and could not move hand or foot. I am terribly frightened. That was something more than a dream, Jim.”
“You ate too much of that pie at dinner,” said Jim, “and you’ve had the nightmare — that’s what is the matter with you. Lord bless you, I often have the nightmare when I have eaten too much at supper, and lie on my back. Why, I dreamed the other night that the devil had got me under the wool-press, screwing me down as hard as he could, and singing the Hundredth Psalm all the time. That was a much worse dream than yours.”
Sam was obliged to confess that it was. “But still,” said he, “I think mine was something more than a dream. I’m frightened still.”
“Oh, nonsense; lie down again. You are pulling all the clothes off me.”
They lay down, and Jim was soon asleep, but not so Sam. His dream had taken such hold of his imagination, that he lay awake, listening to the storm howling around the house. Now and then he could hear the unearthly scream of some curlew piercing the din, and, above all, he could hear the continuous earth-shaking thunder of the surf upon the beach. Soon after daylight, getting Halbert to accompany him, he went out to have a look at the shore, and, forcing their way against the driving, cutting rain, they looked over the low cliff at the furious waste of waters beneath them, and saw mountain after mountain of water hurl itself, in a cloud of spray, upon the shore.
“What terrible waves, now!” said Sam.
“Yes,” replied Halbert; “there’s no land to windward for six thousand miles or more. I never saw heavier seas than those. I enjoy this, Sam. It reminds me of a good roaring winter’s day in old Cornwall.”
“I like it, too,” said Sam. “It freshens you up. How calm the water is to the leeward of the Cape!”
“Yes; a capital harbour of refuge that. Let us go home to breakfast.”
He turned to go, but was recalled by a wild shout from Sam.
“A ship! A ship!”
He ran back and looked over into the seething hell of waters helow. Was it only a thicker spot in the driving mist, or was it really a ship? If so, God help her.
Small time to deliberate. Ere he could think twice about it, a full-rigged ship, about five hundred tons, with a close-reefed topsail and a rag of a foresail upon her, came rushing, rolling, diving, and plunging on, apparently heading for the deadly white line of breakers which stretched into the sea at the end of the promontory.
“A Queen’s ship, Sam! a Queen’s ship! The Tartar, for a thousand pounds! Oh, what a pity; what a terrible pity!”
“Only a merchant ship, surely,” said Sam.
“Did you ever see a merchant ship with six such guns as those on her upper deck, and a hundred blue-jackets at quarters? That is the Tartar, Sam, and in three minutes there will be no Tartar.”
They had run in their excitement out to the very end of the Cape, and now the ship was almost under their feet, an awful sight to see. She was rolling fearfully, going dead before the wind. Now and then she would slop tons of water on her deck, and her mainyard would almost touch the water. But still the dark clusters of men along her bulwarks held steadfast, and the ship’s head never veered half a point. Now it became apparent that she would clear the reef by a hundred yards or more, and Halbert, waving his hat, cried out —
“Well done, Blockstrop! Bravely done, indeed! He is running under the lee of the Cape for shelter. Her Majesty has one more ship-of-war than I thought she would have had five minutes ago.”
As he spoke, she had passed the reef. The yards, as if by magic, swung round, and, for a moment, she was broadside on to the sea. One wave broke over her, and nought but her masts appeared above a sheet of white foam; but, ere the water had well done pouring from her open deck ports, she was in smooth water, her anchor was down, and the topsail yard was black with men.
“Let us come down, Sam,” said Halbert: “very likely they will send a boat ashore.”
As they were scrambling down the leeward side of the cliff, they saw a boat put off from the ship, and gained the beach in time to meet a midshipman coming towards them. He, seeing two well-dressed gentlemen before him, bowed, and said —
“Good morning; very rough weather.”
“Very, indeed,” said Halbert. “Is that the Tartar, pray?”
“That is the Tartar; yes. We were caught in the gale last night, and we lay-to. This morning, as soon as we recognised the Cape, we determined to run for this cove, where we have been before. We had an anxious night last night, I assure you. We have been terribly lucky. If the wind had veered a few more points to the east, we should have been done for. We never could have beaten off in such a sea as this.”
“Are you going to Sydney?”
“No; we are in chase of a boat full of escaped convicts from Launceston. Cunning dogs; they would not land in the Straits. We missed them and got across to Port Phillip, and put Captain D—— and his black police on the alert; and they have got scent of it, and coasted up north. We have examined the coast all along, but I am afraid they have given us the slip; there is such a system of intelligence among them. However, if they had not landed before last night, they have saved us all trouble; and if they are ashore we wash our hands of them, and leave them to the police.”
Halbert and Sam looked at one another. Then the former said —
“Last night, about an hour before it came on to blow, we saw a boat making for this very headland, which puzzled us exceedingly; and, what was stranger still, we saw a man on the Cape, who seemed to be on the look-out.”
“That is quite possible,” replied the midshipman; “these fellows have a queer system of communication. The boat you saw must certainly have been them; and if they landed at all they must have landed here.”
I must change the scene here, if you please, my dear reader, and get you to come with me on board his (I beg pardon, her) Majesty’s ship Tartar for a few minutes, for on the quarter-deck of that noble sloop there are at this moment two men worth rescuing from oblivion.
The first is a stoutish, upright, middle-aged man, in a naval uniform, with a brickdust complexion, and very light scanty whiskers; the jolliest, cheeriest-looking fellow you are likely to meet in a year’s journey. Such a bright merry blue eye as he has, too! This is Captain Blockstrop, now, I am happy to say, C.B.; a right valiant officer, as the despatches of Lyons and Peel will testify.
The other is a very different sort of man; — a long, wiry, brown-faced man, with a big forehead, and a comical expression about his eyes. This is no less a person than the Colonial Secretary of one of our three great colonies: of which I decline to mention. Those who know the Honourable Abiram Pollifex do not need to be told; and those who do not must find out for themselves. I may mention that he has been known to retain office seven years in succession, and yet he seldom threatens to resign his office and throw himself upon the country fewer than three times, and sometimes four, per annum. Latterly, I am sorry to say, a miserable faction, taking advantage of one of his numerous resignations, have assumed the reins of government, and, in spite of three votes of want of confidence, persist in retaining the seals of office. Let me add to this, that he is considered the best hand at quiet “chaff” in the House, and is allowed, both by his supporters and opponents, to be an honourable man, and a right good fellow.
Such were the two men who now stood side by side on the quarter-deck, looking eagerly at Sam and Halbert through a pair of telescopes.
“Pollifex,” said the Captain, “what do you make of these?”
“Gentlemen,” said the Secretary, curtly.
“So I make out,” said the Captain; “and apparently in good condition, too. A very well fed man that biggest, I should say.”
“Ye-es; well, ye-es,” said the Secretary; “he does look well-fed enough. He must be a stranger to these parts; probably from the Maneroo plains, or thereabout.”
“What makes you think so?”
“Dear me,” said the Secretary; “have you been stationed nearly three years on this coast, and ask how a man could possibly be in good condition living in those scrubby heaths?”
“Bad-looking country; eh?” said the Captain.
“Small cattle-stations, sir,” said the Secretary, “I can see at a glance. Salt beef, very tough, and very little of it. I shall run a bill through the House for the abolition of small cattle-stations next session.”
“Better get your estimates through first, old fellow. The bagpipes will play quite loud enough over them to last for some time.”
“I know it, but tremble not,” replied the undaunted Secretary; “I have got used to it. I fancy I hear Callaghan beginning now: ‘The unbridled prodigality, sir, and the reckless profligacy, sir, of those individuals who have so long, under the name of government ——’”
“That’ll do, now,” said the Captain; “you are worse than the reality. I shall go ashore, and take my chance of getting breakfast. Will you come?”
“Not if I know it, sir, with pork chops for breakfast in the cabin. Blockstrop, have you duly reflected what you are about to do? You are about to land alone, unarmed, unprovisioned, among the offscourings of white society, scarcely superior in their habits of life to the nomadic savages they have unjustly displaced. Pause and reflect, my dear fellow. What guarantee have you that they will not propose to feed you on damper, or some other nameless abomination of the same sort?”
“It was only the other day, in the House,” said the Captain, “that you said the small squatters and freehold farmers represented the greater part of the intelligence and education of the colony, and now ——”
“Sir! sir!” said the Secretary, “you don’t know what you are talking about. Sir, we are not in the House now. Are you determined, then?”
The Captain was quite determined, and they went down to the waist. They were raising a bag of potatoes from somewhere, and the Colonial Secretary, seizing two handfuls of them, presented them to the Captain.
“If you will go,” he said, “take these with you, and teach the poor benighted white savages to plant them. So if you fall a victim to indigestion, we will vote a monument to you on the summit of the Cape, and write:—‘He did not live in vain. He introduced the potato among the small cattle stations around Cape Chatham.’”
He held out his potatoes towards the retiring Captain with the air of Burke producing the dagger. His humour, I perceive, reads poor enough when written down, but when assisted by his comical impassible face, and solemn drawling delivery, I never heard anything much better.
Good old Pollifex! my heart warms towards him now. When I think what the men were whose clamour put him out of office in 184-, I have the conviction forced upon me, that the best among them was not worth his little finger. He left the colony in a most prosperous state, and, retiring honourably to one of his stations, set to work, as he said, to begin life again on a new principle. He is wealthy, honoured, and happy, as he deserves to be.
I cannot help, although somewhat in the wrong place, telling the reader under what circumstances I saw him last. Only two years ago, fifteen after he had left office, I happened to be standing with him, at the door of a certain club, in a certain capital, just after lunch time, when we saw the then Colonial Secretary, the man who had succeeded Pollifex, come scurrying round the corner of the street, fresh from his office. His face was flushed and perspiring, his hat was on wrong-side before, with his veil hanging down his back. In the one hand he held papers, in the other he supported over his fevered brow his white cotton umbrella; altogether he looked harassed beyond the bounds of human endurance, but when he caught sight of the open club-doors, he freshened a bit, and mended his pace. His troubles were not over, for ere he reached his haven, two Irishmen, with two different requests, rose as if from the earth, and confronted him. We saw him make two promises, contradictory to each other, and impossible of fulfilment, and as he came up the steps, I looked into the face of Ex–Secretary Pollifex, and saw there an expression which is beyond description. Say that of the ghost of a man who has been hanged, attending an execution. Or say the expression of a Catholic, converted by torture, watching the action of the thumb-screws upon another heretic. The air, in short, of a man who had been through it all before. And as the then Secretary came madly rushing up the steps, Pollifex confronted him, and said —
“Don’t you wish you were me, T——?”
“Sir!” said the Secretary, “dipping” his umbrella and dropping his papers, for the purpose of rhetorically pointing with his left hand at nothing; “Sir! flesh and blood can’t stand it. I resign tomorrow.” And so he went in to his lunch, and is in office at this present moment.
I must apologize most heartily for this long digression. The Captain’s gig, impelled by the “might of England’s pride,” was cleverly beached alongside of the other boat, and the Captain stepped out and confronted the midshipman.
“Got any news, Mr. Vang?”
“Yes, sir!” said the midshipman. “These gentlemen saw the boat yesterday afternoon.”
Sam and Halbert, who were standing behind him, came forward. The Captain bowed, and looked with admiration at the two highbred-looking men, that this unpromising desert had produced. They told him what they had told the midshipman, and the Captain said — “It will be a very serious thing for this country side, if these dogs have succeeded in landing. Let us hope that the sea has done good service in swallowing fourteen of the vilest wretches that ever disgraced humanity. Pray, are either of you gentlemen magistrates?”
“My father, Major Buckley, is a magistrate,” said Sam. “This gentleman is Lieutenant Halbert, of the Bengal Artillery.”
The Captain bowed to Halbert, and turning to Sam, said — “So you are the son of my old friend Major Buckley! I was midshipman in the ‘Phlegethon’ when she took him and part of his regiment to Portugal, in 1811. I met him at dinner in Sydney, the other day. Is he in the neighbourhood?”
“He is waiting breakfast for us not a quarter of a mile off,” said Sam. “Will you join us?”
“I shall be delighted; but duty first. If these fellows have succeeded in landing, you will have to arm and prepare for the worst. Now, unless they were caught by the gale and drowned, which I believe to be the case, they must have come ashore in this very bay, about five o’clock last night. There is no other place where they could have beached their boat for many miles. Consequently, the thing lies in a nutshell: if we find the boat, prepare yourselves — if not, make yourselves easy. Let us use our wits a little. They would round the headland as soon as possible, and probably run ashore in that furthest cove to our right, just inside the reef. I have examined the bay through a telescope, and could make out nothing of her. Let us come and examine carefully. Downhaul!” (to his Coxswain). “Come with me.”
They passed three or four indentations in the bay examining as they went, finding nothing, but when they scrambled over the rocks which bounded the cover the Captain had indicated, he waved his hat, and laughing said —
“Ha, ha! just as I thought. There she is.”
“Where, Captain Blockstrop?” said Halbert. “I don’t see her.”
“Nor I either,” said the Captain. “But I see the heap of seaweed that the cunning dogs have raked over her. — Downhaul; heave away at this weed, and show these gentlemen what is below it.”
The Coxswain began throwing away a pile of seatang heaped against a rock. Bit by bit was disclosed the clean run of a beautiful white whale-boat, which when turned over discovered her oars laid neatly side by side, with a small spritsail. The Captain stood by with the air of a man who had made a hit, while Sam and Halbert stared at one another with looks of blank discomfiture and alarm.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:52