Chapter 18339887

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Chapter NumberBOOK III XXVI-(Continued)
Chapter Title
Chapter Urlhttp://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article18339887
Full Date1876-01-01
Page Number9
Corrections0
Word Count3613
IllustratedN
Last Corrected0000-00-00
Newspaper TitleThe Queenslander (Brisbane, Qld. : 1866 - 1939)
Trove TitleHis Natural Life
article text

The Storyteller.

His Natural Life

BOOK III. CHAPTER XXVI.-(Continued.)

BY MARCUS CLARKE.

ARRIVED at the foot of the cliff, Blunt and Staples found themselves in almost complete darkness, for the light of the mysterious fire, which had hitherto guided them, had

necessarily disappeared. Uim as was we nigni and still as was the ocean, the sea vet ran with silent but dangerous strength through the channel which led to the Blow-hole ; and Blunt, instinctively feeling the boat drawn towards some unknown peril, held off the shelf of rocks out of reach of the current. A sudden flash of fire, as from a flourished brand, burst out above them, and floating downwards through the darkness, in erratic circles, came an atom of burning wood. Surely no one but a hunted man would lurk in such a savage retwat Blunt, inldeeperate anxiety, determined to risk all upon one venture. "John Hex I" he shouted up through his rounded hands. The light flashed again at the eye-hole of the mountain, and on the point above them appeared a wild figure, holding in its hands a burning log, whose fierce glow illumined a face so con torted by deadly fear and agony of expectation, that it was scarce human. " Here t here!" The poor devil seems half-crasy," says Will Staples, under his breath; and then aloud, « We're FwtSM!" A few moments sufficed to explain matters. The terrors which had oppressed John Rex dis appeared in human presence, and the villain found his coolness return. Kneeling on the rock platform, he held parley. "It is impossible for me to come down now," he said. " The tide covers the only way out of the cavern." "Can't you dive through it?" says Will Btaples. " No, nor you neither," says Rex, shuddering at the thought of trusting himself to that horrible whirlpool "What's to be done ? You can't come down that vail." v Wait until morning," returned Rex, coolly. "It will be dead low tide at seven o'clock. You must send a boat at six, or thereabouts. It will be low enough for me to get out, I dare say, »y that time." "But the Guard T « Won't come here, my man. They've got their work to do in watching the Neck and exploring after my mates. They -won't come here. Besides, I'm dead." "Dead!" "Thought to be so, which is as well—better for me, perhaps. If they don't see your ship, or your boat, you're safe enough." "I don't like to risk it," »ys Blunt. "It's life if we're caught, remember." "It's Death if I'm caught!" returned the other, with a sinister laugh. " But there's no danger if you are cautious. No one looks for rats in a terrier's kennel, and there's,not a station along the beach from here to Cape Pillar. Take your vessel out of eye-shot of the Neck, bring the boat up Descent Beach, and the thing's done." " Well," Bays Blunt, " Til try it," "You wouldn't like to stop here till morning? It is rather lonely," suggested Rex, absolutely making a jest of his late terrors. Will Staples laughed. " You're a bold boy !" said he. " We'll come at day-break." " Have you got the clothes as I directed ?" "Yes." "Then good-night. I'll put my fire out, in case somebody else might see it, who wouldn't be as kind as you are." " Good-night" "Not a word for the Madam;' said Staples, when they reached the vessel. "Not a word, the ungrateful dog," assented Blunt, adding with some heat* " That's the way with women. They'll go through fire and water for a man that doesn't care a snap of his fingers for 'em ; but any poor fellow -who risks his neck to pleasuro 'em they've nothing but sneers ! I wish I'd never meddled in the business." " There are no fools like old fools," thought Will Staples, looking back through the darkness at the place where the fire had been, but he did not utter his thoughts aloud. At eight o'clock the next morning the Pretty Mary stood out to sea with every stitch of canvas set, alow and aloft. The skipper's fishing had come to an end. He had caught a shipwrecked seaman, who had been brought on board at daylight, and was then at breakfast in the cabin. The crew winked at each other when the haggard mariner, attired in garments that seemed remarkably well preserved, mounted the side. But they, none of them, were in a position to controvert the skipper's statement.' " Where are we bound for ?" asked John Rex, smoking Staple's pipe in lingering puffs of delight,. "I'm entirely iv your hands, my worthy Blunt." "My orders are to cruise about the whaling grounds until I meet my consort," returned Blunt, sullenly, " and put you aboard her. She'll take you back to Sydney. I'm victualled for a twelvemonth's trip." " Right!" cries Hex, clapping his preserver on the buck. " I'm bound to get to Sydney some how ; but, as the Philistines are abroad, I may as well tarry in Jericho till my beard be grown. Don't store at my scriptural quotation, Mr. Staples," he added, inspirited by creature comforts, and secure amid his purchased friends. " I assure you that I've had the very bent re ligious instruction. Indeed, it is chiefly owing to my worthy spiritual pastor aud master thiit I am enabled to suiiko this very villauoua tobacco of yours at the present moment I" Chapter XXVIL THE VALLEY OP TUE SHADOW OF DEATH. It was not until they bad scrambled up the beach to safe'y thiit the nbeconders became fully aware of the loss of another of their companions. As they stood ou the break of the beach, wringiug the water from their clothes, Oabbett's small eye countiug their number missed the stroke oar.

"Wbew'aCoxr " The fool fell overboard," odd Jemmy Vetch, shortly.** " He neTer had as mach sense in that skull of hU as would keep it sound on his shoulders." Oabbett scowled. " That's three of us gone," he said in the tones of a man suffering some personal injury. They summed up their means of defence against attack. Sauuders aud Greenhill had knives. Oabbett still retained the axe in hi» belt Vetch had dropped his musket at the Neck; and Bodenham and Cornelius were unarmed. " Let's hare a look at the tucker," said Vetch. There was but one bag of provisions. It con tained a pieoe of salt pork, two loaves, and some uncooked potatoes. Signal Hill Station was not rich in edibles. " That ain't much," said the Crow, with rueful face. "Is it, Oabbett!" "It must do, anyway," returned the giant carelessly. The inspection over, the six proceeded up the shore, and encamped under the lee of a rock. Bodenham was for lighting a fire, but Vetch, who by tacit consent had been chosen leader of the expedition, forbade it, saying that the light might betray them. "They'll think we're drowned, and won't pursue us," he said. So all that night the miserable wretches crouched tireless together. Morning breaks clear and bright, and—free for the first time in ten years—they comprehend that their terrible journey has begun. " Where are we to go ?—How are we to live!" asks Bodenham, scanning the barren bush that stretches to the barren sea. " Gabbett, you've been out before—bow's it done!" " We'll make the shepherds' huts, and live on their tucker till we get a change o'clothes," says Oabbett, evading the main question. "We can follow the coast line." "Steady, lads," says prudent Vetch; we must sneak round yon sandhills, and so creep into the scrub. If they've a good glass at the Neck, they can see us." "It does teem close," says Bodenham ; " I could pitch a stone on to the guard-house. Good-bye, you Bloody Spot," he adds, with sudden rage, shaking his fist vindictively at the Penitentiary. "I don't want to see you no more till the Day o' Judgment" Vetch divides the provisions, and they travel all that day until dark night The scrub is prickly and dense. Their clothes are torn, their hands and faces bleeding. Already they feel out-wearied. No one seeming to pursue, they light a fire, and sleep. The second day they come to a sandy spit that runs out into the sea, and find that they have got too far to the east ward, and must follow the shore line to East Bay Neck. Back through the scrub they drag their heavy feet That night they eat the last crumb of the loaf. The third day at high noon—after some toilsome walking they reach a big hill, now called Collins' Mount, and see the upper link of the earring, the isthmus of East Bay Neck, at their feet A few rocks are on their right hand, and blue in the lovely distance lies hated Maria Island. "We must keep well to the eastward," says Greenhill, "or we shall fall in with the settlers and get taken." So, passing the isthmus, they strike into the bush along the shore, aud tightening their belts over their gnawing bellies, camp under some low-lying hills. The fourth day is notable for the indisposition of Bodenham, who is a bad walker, and, falling behind, delays the party by frequent cooeys. Gabbett threatens him with a worse fate than sore feet if he lingers. Luckily that evening Greenhill espies a hut, but not trustiug to the friendship of the occupant, they wait until he quits it in the morning, and then send Vetch to forage. Vetch, secretly congratulating himself on having by his counsel prevented violence, returns bending under half a bag of flour. "You'd better carry the flour," says he to Gabbett, " and give-me the axe." Gabbett eyes him for awhile, as if struck by his puny form, but finally gives the axe to his mate Sanders. That day they creep along cautiously between the sea and the hills, camping at a creek. Vetch, after much search, finds a handful of berries, and adds them to the main stock. Half of this handful is eaten at once, the other half reserved for " to-morrow." The next day they come to an arm of the sea, and struggling northward, Maria Island disappears, aud with it all danger from telescopes. That evening they reach the camping ground by twos and threes ; and each wonders—between the paroxysms of hunger— if his face is as Laggard, and his eyes as blood* shot, as those of his neighbor. The seventh day, Bodenham says his feet are so bad he can't walk, and Greenhill, with a greedy look at the berries, bids him stay behind. Being in a very weak condition, he takes his companion at hit* word, and drops off about noon the next day. Gabbett, discovering this defec tion, however, goes back, and in an hour or so appears, driving the wretched creature before him with blows, as a sheep is driven to the shambles. Greenhill remonstrates at another mouth being thus forced upon the party, but the giant silences him with a hideous glance. Jemmy Vetch remembers that Greenhill accompanied Gabbett once before, and feels uncomfortable. He gives bint of his suspicions to Sanders, but San ders only laughs. It is horribly evident that there is an understanding among the three. The ninth &un of their freedom, rising upon sandy and barren hillocks, bristling thick with cruel scrub, sees the six famine-stricken wretches cursing their God, and yet afraid to die. All around is the fruitless, shadeless, shelterless bush. Above, the pitiless heaven. In the distance, the reinurneleßH Bea. Something ter rible must happen. That gray wilderness, arched by gray heaven stooping to gray sea, is a fitting kee|>er of hideous secrets. Vetch sug gests that Oyster Bay cannot be far to the east ward —the line of ocean is deceitfully close—and though nuch a proceeding will take them out of their course, they resolve to make for it. After hobbling five miles, they seem no nearer than befor«, aud, nigh dead with fatigue and starva tion, sink despairingly upon the ground. Vetch thinks Gabbett'« eyes have a wolfish glare in them, and inbtiuctively draws off from him. Says Greenhill, in the course of a dismal con*

venation, "I am so weak that leould eat apiece of a man." On the tenth day Bodenham refuses to atir, and the others being scarce able to drag along their limbs, sit on the ground about him. Greenhill, eyeing the prostrate man, says, slowly, " I have seen the same before, boya, and it tasted like pork." Vetch, hearing his savage comrade give utter ance to a thought all had seoietly cherished, speaks oat, crying, " It would be murder to do it, and then perhaps couldn't eat it" " Oh," »»y» Gabbett, with a grin, "I'll war rant you that, but you must all have a hand in it" Gabbett, Sanders, and Grenhill then go aside, and presently Sanders coming to the Crow, says, "He consented to act as flogger. He deserves it" "Sodid Gabbet, for that matter;* ?hodden Vetch. "Ay, but Bodenham's feet an sore," a»ys Sanders, " and 'tis a pity to leave him." Having no fire, they made a little break-wind ; and Vetch half dozing behind this At about three in the morning, hears some one cry out " Christ!" and awakes sweating ice. No one but Gabbett and Greenhill would eat that night. That savage pair, however, make a fire, fling ghastly fragments on the embers, and eat the broil before it U right warm. In the morning the frightful carcase is divided. That day's march takes place in silence, and at the midday halt Cornelius volunteers to carry the billy, affecting great restoration from the food. Vetch gives it him, and in half an hour afterwards Cornelius is missing. Gabbett and Greenhill pursue him in vain, and return with curses. " He'll die like a dog,". says Greenhill, " aloue in the bush." Jemmy Vetch, with his intellect acute as ever, thinks that Cornelius prefers such a death to the one in store for him, but says nothing. The twelfth morning dawns wet and misty, but Vetoh, seeing the provisions running short, strives to be cheerful, telling stories of men who have escaped greater peril. Vetch feels with dismay that he is the weakest of the party, but has some sort of ludicro-horrible consolation in remembering that he ia also the leanest They come to a creek that afternoon, and look until nightfall, in vain, for a crossing-place. The next day Gabbett and Vetch swim across, and Vetch directs Gabbett to out a long sapling, which, being stretched across the water, is seized by Greenhill and the Moocher, who are dragged over. " What would you do without me I" says the Crow, with a ghastly grin. They cannot kindle a fire, for Greenhill, who carries the tinder, has allowed it to get wet. The giantr swings his axe in savage anger at the enforced cold, and Vetoh takes an opportunity to remark privately to him, what a big man Greenhill is. On the fourteenth day they can scarcely crawl, and their limbs pain them. Greenhill, who is the weakest, sees Gabbett and the Moocher go aside to consult, and crawling to the Crow, whimper : " For God's sake, Jemmy, don't let 'em murder me 1" " I can't help you," says Vetoh, looking about in terror. " Think of poor Tom Bodenham." " But he was no murderer. If they kill me, I shall go to hell with Tom's blood on my soul." He writhes on the ground in sickening terror, and Gabbett arriving, bids Vetch bring wood for the fire. Vetch, going, sees Greenhill clinging to wolfish Gabbett'a knees, and Sanders calls after him, "You will hear it presently, Jem." The nervous Crow puts his hands to his ears, but is conscious, nevertheless, of a dull crash and a groan. When he comes back, Gabbett is putting on the dead man's shoes, which are better than his own. "We'll stop here a day or so and rest," says he, " now we ye got provisions." Two more days pass, and the three, eyeing each other suspiciously, resume their march. The third day—the sixteenth of their awful journey—such portions of the carcase as they have with them prove unfit to eat They look into eaoh other's famine-sharpened faces, and wonder " who next ?" "We must all die together," says Sanders quickly, " before anything else must happen." Vetch marks the terror that lies concealed in the words, and when the dreaded giant is out of earshot, Bays, " For God's sake, let's go on alone, Alick. Tou see what sort of a cove that Gabbett is—he'd kill his father before he'd fast one day." They make for the bush, when the giant turns and strides towards them. Vetch skips nimbly on one side, but Gabbett strikes the Moocher on the forehead with the axe. " Help ! Jem, help!" cries the victim, cut, but not fatally, and in the strength of his desperation tears the axe from the monster who bears it, and flings it to Vetch. " Keep it, Jemmy," he cries, " let's have no more murder done!" They fare again through the horrible bush until nightfall, when Vetch, in a Btrange voice, calls the giant to him. " He must die." " Either you or he," laughs Gabbett. " Give me the axe." " No, no," says the Crow, his thin malignant face distorted by a horrible resolution. " /'ll keep the axe. Stand back ! You shall hold him, and I'll do the job." Sanders, seeing them approach, knows his end has come, and submits, crying, " Give me half an hour to pray for myself." They consent, and the bewildered wretch kneels down and folds his hands like a child. His big, stupid face works with emotion. His great cracked lips move in desperate agony. He waga his head from side to side, in pitiful confusion of his brutalised senses. " I can't think o' the words, Jem !" " Pah," snarls the cripple, swinging the axe, " we can't starve here all night." Four daya have passed, and the two survivors of thU awful journey sit watching each other. The gaunt giant, his eyes gleaming with hate and hunger, Hits sentinel over the dwarf. The dwarf, chuckling to himself at bis superior sagacity, clutches the fatal axe. For two clays they have not spoken to each other. For two days each has promised himself that on the next his companion must deep—and die. Vetch

comprehends the devilish scheme of the monster who has entrapped five of his fellow-beings to aid him by their deaths to his own safety, and holds aloof. Gabbett watches to snatch the weapon from his companion, and make the odds even for once and for ever. In the day-time they travel on, seeking each a pretext to creep behind the other. In the night-time they feign slumber, and each stealthily raising a head catches the wakeful glance of his companion. Vetch feds his strength deserting him, and his brain over powered by fatigue. Sorely the giant, mutter* ing, gesticulating, and slavering at the month, must be on the road to madness. Will the monster find opportunity to rush at him, sad, braving the blood-stained axe, kill him by main force ; or will he sleep, and be himself a victim t Unhappy Vetch t It is the terrible privilege of insanity to be sleepless. On the fifth day, Vetch, creeping behind a tree, takes off his belt, and makes a noose. He will hang himself. He gets one end of the belt over a bough, and then his cowardice bids him pause. Gabbett approaches ;Be tries to evade him, and steal away into the bush. In Tain. The insatiable giant, ravenous with famine, and sustained by madness, is not to be shaken oft Vetch tries to run, but his legs bend under him. The axe that has tried to drink so much blood feels heavy as lead. He will fling it away. No —He dares not. Night falls again. He must rest, or go mad. His limbs are powerless. His eyelids are glued together. He sleeps as he stands. This horrible thing must be a dream. He is at Port Arthur, or will wake on his paHet in the penny lodging-house he slept at when a boy. Is that the deputy come to wake him to the torment of living f It is not time —surely not time yet He sleeps—and the giant, grinning with ferocious joy, approaches on clumsy tiptoe and seizes the coveted axe. On the north-east coast of Van Dieman's Land is a place called St. Helen's Point, and a certain skipper, being in want of fresh water, landing there with a boat's crew, finds on the banks of the creek a gaunt and blood-stained man, clad in tattered yellow, who carries on his back an axe and a bundle. When the sailors come within sight of him he makes signs to them to approach, and opening his bundle with much ceremony offers them some of its contents. Filled with horror at what the maniac displays, they seize and bind him. At Hobart Town he is recognised as the only survivor of the nine desperadoes who bad escaped from Colons! Arthur's " Natural Penitentiary." BUD or BOOK TBS TBIBBI