I must recur to the same eventful night again, and relate another circumstance that occurred on it. As events thicken, time gets more precious; so that, whereas at first I thought nothing of giving you the events of twenty years or so in a chapter, we are now compelled to concentrate time so much that it takes three chapters to twenty-four hours. I read a long novel once, the incidents of which did not extend over thirty-six hours, and yet it was not so profoundly stupid as you would suppose.
All the party got safe home from the picnic, and were glad enough to get housed out of the frosty air. The Doctor, above all others, was rampant at the thoughts of dinner, and a good chat over a warm fire, and burst out, in a noble bass voice, with an old German student’s song about wine and Gretchen, and what not.
His music was soon turned into mourning; for, as they rode into the courtyard, a man came up to Captain Brentwood, and began talking eagerly to him.
It was one of his shepherds, who lived alone with his wife towards the mountain. The poor woman, his wife, he said, was taken in labour that morning, and was very bad. Hearing there was a doctor staying at the home station, he had come down to see if he could come to their assistance.
“I’ll go, of course,” said the Doctor; “but let me get something to eat first. Is anybody with her?”
“Yes, a woman was with her; had been staying with them some days.”
“I hope you can find the way in the dark,” said the Doctor, “for I can tell you I can’t.”
“No fear, sir,” said the man; “there’s a track all the way, and the moon’s full. If it wasn’t for the fog it would be as bright as day.”
He took a hasty meal, and started. They went at a foot’s pace, for the shepherd was on foot. The track was easily seen, and although it was exceedingly cold, the Doctor, being well wrapped up, contrived, with incessant smoking, to be moderately comfortable. All external objects being a blank, he soon turned to his companion to see what he could get out of him.
“What part of the country are you from, my friend?”
“Fra’ the Isle of Skye,” the man answered. “I’m one of the Macdonalds of Skye.”
“That’s a very ancient family, is it not?” said the Doctor at a venture, knowing he could not go wrong with a Highlander.
“Very ancient, and weel respeckit,” the man answered.
“And who is your sheik, rajah, chieftain, or what you call him?”
“My lord Macdonald. I am cousin to my lord.”
“Indeed! He owns the whole island, I suppose?”
“There’s Mackinnons live there. But they are interlopers; they are worthless trash,” and he spit in disgust.
“I suppose,” said the Doctor, “a Mackinnon would return the compliment, if speaking of a Macdonald.”
The man laughed, and said, he supposed “Yes,” then added, “See! what’s yon?”
“A white stump burnt black at one side — what did you think it was?”
“I jaloused it might be a ghaist. There’s a many ghaists and bogles about here.”
“I should have thought the country was too young for those gentry,” said the Doctor.
“It’s a young country, but there’s been muckle wickedness done in it. And what are those blacks do you think? — next thing to devils — at all events they’re no’ exactly human.”
“Impish, decidedly,” said the Doctor. “Have you ever seen any ghosts, friend?”
“Ay! many. A fortnight agone, come tomorrow, I saw the ghost of my wife’s brother in broad day. It was the time of the high wind ye mind of; and the rain drove so thick I could no see all my sheep at once. And a man on a white horse came fleeing before the wind close past me; I knew him in a minute; it was my wife’s brother, as I tell ye, that was hung fifteen years agone for sheep-stealing, and he wasn’t so much altered as ye’d think.”
“Some one else like him!” suggested the Doctor.
“Deil a fear,” replied the man, “for when I cried out and said, ‘What, Col, lad! Gang hame, and lie in yer grave, and dinna trouble honest folk,’ he turned and rode away through the rain, straight from me.”
“Well!” said the Doctor, “I partly agree with you that the land’s bewitched. I saw a man not two months ago who ought to have been dead five or six years at least. But are you quite sure the man you saw was hung?”
“Well nigh about,” he replied. “When we sailed from Skye he was under sentence, and they weren’t over much given to reprieve for sheep-stealing in those days. It was in consequence o’ that that I came here.”
“That’s a very tolerable ghost story,” said the Doctor. “Have you got another? If you have, I shouldn’t mind hearing it, as it will beguile the way.”
“Did ye ever hear how Faithful’s lot were murdered by the blacks up on the Merrimerangbong?”
“No, but I should like to; is it a ghost story?”
“Deed ay, and is it. This is how it happened:— When Faithful came to take up his country across the mountains yonder, they were a strong party, enough to have been safe in any country, but whether it was food was scarce, or whether it was on account of getting water, I don’t know, but they separated, and fifteen of them got into the Yackandandah country before the others.
“Well, you see, they were pretty confident, being still a strong mob, and didn’t set any watch or take any care. There was one among them (Cranky Jim they used to call him — he as told me this yarn — he used to be about Reid’s mill last year) who always was going on at them to take more care, but they never heeded him at all.
“They found a fine creek, with plenty of feed and water, and camped at it to wait till the others came up. They saw no blacks, nor heard of any, and three days were past, and they began to wonder why the others had not overtaken them.
“The third night they were all sitting round the fire, laughing and smoking, when they heard a loud co’ee on the opposite side of the scrub, and half-a-dozen of them started up, and sang out, “There they are!”
“Well, they all began co’eeing again, and they heard the others in reply, apparently all about in the scrub. So off they starts, one by one, into the scrub, answering and hallooing, for it seemed to them that their mates were scattered about, and didn’t know where they were. Well, as I said, fourteen of them started into the scrub to collect the party and bring them up to the fire; only old Cranky Jim sat still in the camp. He believed, with the others, that it was the rest of their party coming up, but he soon began to wonder how it was that they were so scattered. Then he heard one scream, and then it struck him all at once that this was a dodge of the blacks to draw the men from the camp, and, when they were abroad, cut them off one by one, plunder the drays, and drive off the sheep.
“So he dropped, and crawled away in the dark. He heard the co’ees grow fewer and fewer as the men were speared one by one, and at last everything was quiet, and then he knew he was right, and he rose up and fled away.
“In two days he found the other party, and told them what had happened. They came up, and there was some sharp fighting, but they got a good many of their sheep back.
“They found the men lying about singly in the scrub, all speared. They buried them just where they found each one, for it was hot weather. They buried them four foot deep, but they wouldn’t lie still.
“Every night, about nine o’clock, they get up again, and begin co’eeing for an hour or more. At first there’s a regular coronach of them, then by degrees the shouts get fewer and fewer, and, just when you think it’s all over, one will break out loud and clear close to you, and after that all’s still again.”
“You don’t believe that story, I suppose?”
“If you press me very hard,” said the Doctor, “I must confess, with all humility, that I don’t!”
“No more did I,” said Macdonald, “till I heard ’em!”
“Heard them!” said the Doctor.
“Ay, AND SEEN THEM!” said the man, stopping and turning round.
“You most agreeable of men! pray, tell me how.”
“Why, you see, last year I was coming down with some wool-drays from Parson Dorken’s, and this Cranky Jim was with us, and told us the same yarn, and when he had finished, he said, ‘You’ll know whether I speak truth or not to-night, for we’re going to camp at the place where it happened.’
“Well, and so we did, and, as well as we could reckon, it was a little past nine when a curlew got up and began crying. That was the signal for the ghosts, and in a minute they were co’eeing like mad all round. As Jim had told us, one by one ceased until all was quiet, and I thought it was over, when I looked, and saw, about a hundred yards off, a tall man in grey crossing a belt of open ground. He put his hand to his mouth, gave a wild shout, and disappeared!”
“Thank you,” said the Doctor. “I think you mentioned that your wife’s confinement was somewhat sudden?”
“Yes, rather,” replied the man.
“Pray, had you been relating any of the charming little tales to her lately — just, we will suppose, to while away the time of the evening?”
“Well, I may have done so,” said Macdonald, “but I don’t exactly mind.”
“Ah, so I thought. The next time your good lady happens to be in a similar situation, I think I would refrain from ghost stories. I should not like to commit myself to a decided opinion, but I should be inclined to say that the tales you have been telling me were rather horrible. Is that the light of your hut?”
Two noble colley dogs bounded to welcome them, and a beautiful bare-legged girl, about sixteen, ran forth to tell her father, in Gaelic, that the trouble was over, and that a boy was born.
On going in, they found the mother asleep, while her gossip held the baby on her knee; so the Doctor saw that he was not needed, and sat down, to wait until the woman should wake, having first, however, produced from his saddle two bottles of port wine, a present from Alice.
The woman soon woke, and the Doctor, having felt her pulse, and left some medicine, started to ride home again, carrying with him an incense of good wishes from the warm-hearted Highlanders.
Instead of looking carefully for the road, the good Doctor was soon nine fathoms deep into the reasons why the mountaineers and coast folk of all northern countries should be more blindly superstitious than the dwellers in plains and in towns; and so it happened that, coming to a fork in the track, he disregarded the advice of his horse, and, instead of taking the right hand, as he should have done, he held straight on, and, about two o’clock in the morning, found that not only had he lost his road, but that the track had died out altogether, and that he was completely abroad in the bush.
He was in a very disagreeable predicament. The fog was thicker than ever, without a breath of air; and he knew that it was as likely as not that it might last for a day or two. He was in a very wild part of the mountain, quite on the borders of all the country used by white men.
After some reflection, he determined to follow the fall of the land, thinking that he was still on the water-shed of the Snowy-river, and hoping, by following down some creek, to find some place he knew.
Gradually day broke, cold and cheerless. He was wet and miserable, and could merely give a guess at the east, for the sun was quite invisible; but, about eight o’clock, he came on a track, running at right angles to the way he had been going, and marked with the hoofs of two horses, whose riders had apparently passed not many hours before.
Which way should he go? He could not determine. The horsemen, it seemed to him, as far as he could guess, had been going west, while his route lay east. And, after a time, having registered a vow never to stir out of sight of the station again without a compass, he determined to take a contrary direction from them, and to find out where they had come from.
The road crossed gully after gully, each one like the other. The timber was heavy stringy bark, and, in the lower part of the shallow gullies, the tall white stems of the blue gums stood up in the mist like ghosts. All nature was dripping and dull, and he was chilled and wretched.
At length, at the bottom of a gully, rather more dreary looking, if possible, than all the others, he came on a black reedy waterhole, the first he had seen in his ride, and perceived that the track turned short to the left. Casting his eye along it, he made out the dark indistinct outline of a hut, standing about forty yards off.
He rode up to it. All was as still as death. No man came out to welcome him, no dog jumped, barking forth, no smoke went up from the chimney; and, looking round, he saw that the track ended here, and that he had ridden all these miles only to find a deserted hut.
But was it deserted? Not very long so, for those two horsemen, whose tracks he had been on so long, had started from here. Here, on this bare spot in front of the door, they had mounted. One of their horses had been capering; nay, here were their footsteps on the threshold. And, while he looked, there was a light fall inside, and the chimney began smoking. “At all events,” said the Doctor, “the fire’s in, and here’s the camp-oven, too. Somebody will be here soon. I shall go in and light my pipe.”
He lifted the latch, and went in. Nobody there. Stay — yes, there is a man asleep in the bed-place. “The watchman, probably,” thought the Doctor; “he’s been up all night with the sheep, and is taking his rest by day. Well, I won’t wake him; I’ll hang up my horse a bit, and take a pipe. Perhaps I may as well turn the horse out. Well, no. I shan’t wait long; he may stand a little without hurting himself.”
So soliloquised the Doctor, and lit his pipe. A quarter of an hour passed, and the man still lay there without moving. The Doctor rose and went close to him. He could not even hear him breathe.
His flesh began to creep, but his brows contracted, and his face grew firm. He went boldly up, and pulled down the blanket, and then, to his horror and amazement, recognised the distorted countenance of the unfortunate William Lee.
He covered the face over again, and stood thinking of his situation, and how this had come to pass. How came Lee here, and how had he met his death? At this moment something bright, half hidden by a blue shirt lying on the floor, caught his eye, and, going to pick it up, he found it was a beautiful pistol, mounted in silver, and richly chased.
He turned it over and over till in a lozenge behind the hammer he found, apparently scratched with a knife, the name, “G. Hawker.”
Here was light with a vengeance! But he had little time to think of his discovery ere he was startled by the sound of horses’ feet rapidly approaching the hut.
Instinctively he thrust the pistol into his pocket, and stooped down, pretending to light his pipe. He heard some one ride up to the door, dismount, and enter the hut. He at once turned round, pipe in mouth, and confronted him.
He was a tall, ill-looking, red-haired man, and to the Doctor’s pleasant good morning he replied by sulkily asking what he wanted.
“Only a light for my pipe, friend,” said the Doctor; “having got one, I will bid you good morning. Our friend here sleeps well.”
The new comer was between him and the door, but the Doctor advanced boldly. When the two men were opposite their eyes met, and they understood one another.
Moody (for it was he) threw himself upon the Doctor with an oath, trying to bear him down; but, although the tallest man, he had met his match. He was held in a grasp of iron; the Doctor’s hand was on his collar, and his elbow against his face, and thus his head was pressed slowly backwards till he fell to avoid a broken neck, and fell, too, with such force that he lay for an instant stunned and motionless, and before he came to himself the Doctor was on horseback, and some way along the track, glad to have made so good an escape from such an awkward customer.
“If he had been armed,” said the Doctor, as he rode along, “I should have been killed: he evidently came back after that pistol. Now, I wonder where I am? I shall know soon at this pace. The little horse keeps up well, seeing he has been out all night.”
In about two hours he heard a dog bark to the left of the track, and, turning off in that direction, he soon found himself in a courtyard, and before a door which he thought he recognised: the door opened at the sound of his horse, and out walked Tom Troubridge.
“Good Lord!” said the Doctor, “a friend’s face at last; tell me where I am, for I can’t see the end of the house.”
“Why, at our place, Toonarbin, Doctor.”
“Well, take me in and give me some food; I have terrible tidings for you. When did you last see Lee?”
“The day before yesterday; he is up at an outlying hut of ours in the ranges.”
“He is lying murdered in his bed there, for I saw him so not three hours past.”
He then told Troubridge all that had happened.
“What sort of man was it that attacked you?” said Troubridge.
The Doctor described Moody.
“That’s his hut-keeper that he took from here with him; a man he said he knew, and you say he was on horseback. What sort of a horse had he?”
“A good-looking roan, with a new bridle on him.”
“Lee’s horse,” said Troubridge; “he must have murdered him for it. Poor William!”
But when Tom saw the pistol and read the name on it, he said —
“Things are coming to a crisis, Doctor; the net seems closing round my unfortunate partner. God grant the storm may come and clear the air! Anything is better than these continual alarms.”
“It will be very terrible when it does come, my dear friend,” said the Doctor.
“It cannot be much more terrible than this,” said Tom, “when our servants are assassinated in their beds, and travellers in lonely huts have to wrestle for their lives. Doctor, did you ever nourish a passion for revenge?”
“Yes, once,” said the Doctor, “and had it gratified in fair and open duel; but when I saw him lying white on the grass before me, and thought that he was dead, I was like one demented, and prayed that my life might be taken instead of his. Be sure, Tom, that revenge is of the devil, and, like everything else you get from him, is not worth having.”
“I do not in the least doubt it, Doctor,” said Tom; “but oh, if I could only have five minutes with him on the turf yonder, with no one to interfere between us! I want no weapons; let us meet in our shirts and trowsers, like Devon lads.”
“And what would you do to him?”
“If you weren’t there to see, HE’D never tell you.”
“Why nourish this feeling, Tom, my old friend; you do not know what pain it gives me to see a noble open character like yours distorted like this. Leave him to Desborough — why should you feel so deadly towards the man? He has injured others more than you.”
“He stands between me and the hopes of a happy old age. He stands between me and the light, and he must stand on one side.”
That night they brought poor Lee’s body down in a dray, and buried him in the family burying-ground close beside old Miss Thornton. Then the next morning he rode back home to the Buckleys’, where he found that family with myself, just arrived from the Brentwoods’. I of course was brimful of intelligence, but when the Doctor arrived I was thrown into the shade at once. However, no time was to be lost, and we despatched a messenger, post haste, to fetch back Captain Desborough and his troopers, who had now been moved off about a week, but had not been as yet very far withdrawn, and were examining into some “black” outrages to the northward.
Mary Hawker was warned, as delicately as possible, that her husband was in the neighbourhood. She remained buried in thought for a time, and then, rousing herself, said, suddenly —
“There must be an end to all this. Get my horse, and let me go home.”
In spite of all persuasions to the contrary, she still said the same.
“Mrs. Buckley, I will go home and see if I can meet him alone. All I ask of you is to keep Charles with you. Don’t let the father and son meet, in God’s name.”
“But what can you do?” urged Mrs. Buckley.
“Something, at all events. Find out what he wants. Buy him off, perhaps. Pray don’t argue with me. I am quite determined.”
Then it became necessary to tell her of Lee’s death, though the fact of his having been murdered was concealed; but it deeply affected her to hear of the loss of her old faithful servant, faithful to her at all events, whatever his faults may have been. Nevertheless, she went off alone, and took up her abode with Troubridge, and there they two sat watching in the lonely station, for him who was to come.
Though they watched together there was no sympathy or confidence between them. She never guessed what purpose was in Tom’s heart; she never guessed what made him so pale and gloomy, or why he never stirred from the house, but slept half the day on the sofa. But ere she had been a week at home, she found out. Thus:—
They would sit, those two, silent and thoughtful, beside that unhappy hearth, watching the fire, and brooding over the past. Each had that in their hearts which made them silent to one another, and each felt the horror of some great overshadowing formless calamity, which any instant might take form, and overwhelm them. Mary would sit late, dreading the weary night, when her overstrained senses caught every sound in the distant forest; but, however late she sat, she always left Tom behind, over the fire, not taking his comfortable glass, but gloomily musing — as much changed from his old self as man could be.
She now lay always in her clothes, ready for any emergency; and one night, about a week after Lee’s murder, she dreamt that her husband was in the hall, bidding her in a whisper which thrilled her heart, to come forth. The fancy was so strong upon her, that saying aloud to herself, “The end is come!” she arose in a state little short of delirium, and went into the hall. There was no one there, but she went to the front door, and, looking out into the profoundly black gloom of the night, said in a low voice —
“George, George, come to me! Let me speak to you, George. It will be better for both of us to speak.”
No answer: but she heard a slight noise in the sitting-room behind her, and, opening the door gently, saw a light there, and Tom sitting with parted lips watching the door, holding in his hand a cocked pistol.
She was not in the least astonished or alarmed. She was too much TETE MONTEE to be surprised at anything. She said only, with a laugh —
“What! are you watching, too, old mastiff? — Would you grip the wolf, old dog, if he came?”
“Was he there, Mary? Did you speak to him?”
“No! no!” she said. “A dream, a wandering dream. What would you do if he came — eh, cousin?”
“Nothing! nothing!” said Tom. “Go to bed.”
“Bed, eh?” she answered. “Cousin; shooting is an easier death than hanging — eh?”
Tom felt a creeping at the roots of his hair, as he answered — “Yes, I believe so.”
“Can you shoot straight, old man? Could you shoot straight and true if he stood there before you? Ah, you think you could now, but your hand would shake when you saw him.”
“Go to bed, Mary,” said Tom. “Don’t talk like that. Let the future lie, cousin.”
She turned and went to her room again.
All this was told me long after by Tom himself. Tom believed, or said he believed, that she was only sounding him, to see what his intentions were in case of a meeting with George Hawker. I would not for the world have had him suppose I disagreed with him; but I myself take another and darker interpretation of her strange words that night. I think, that she, never a very strong-minded person, and now, grown quite desperate from terror, actually contemplated her husband’s death with complacency, nay, hoped, in her secret heart, that one mad struggle between him and Tom might end the matter for ever, and leave her a free woman. I may do her injustice, but I think I do not. One never knows what a woman of this kind, with strong passions and a not over-strong intellect, may be driven to. I knew her for forty years, and loved her for twenty. I knew in spite of all her selfishness and violence that there were many good, nay, noble points in her character; but I cannot disguise from myself that that night’s conversation with Tom showed me a darker point in her character than I knew of before. Let us forget it. I would wish to have none but kindly recollections of the woman I loved so truly and so long.
For the secret must be told sooner or later — I loved her before any of them. Before James Stockbridge, before George Hawker, before Thomas Troubridge, and I loved her more deeply and more truly than any of them. But the last remnant of that love departed from my heart twenty years ago, and that is why I can write of her so calmly now, and that is the reason, too, why I remain an old bachelor to this day.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:10