|Chapter Title||6. THE SASSAFRAS GULLY.|
|Newspaper Title||Leader (Melbourne, Vic. : 1862 - 1918)|
|Trove Title||Nancy. A Story of the Fifties|
|article text|| |
NANCY. A STORY OF THE FIFTIES.
By GEORGE GORDON McCRAE.
CHAPTER VI. THE SASSAFRAS GULLY.
It was after service in the wooden chapel almost adjoining, and also after a simple early dinner taken together, that John Arnold, with Nancy and Max, started away for the mountain excursion they had promised themselves no further back than yesterday.
Crossing over from the township, they made for Borak Creek, the bed of which they found already quite dry as they pressed through between two bosky walls at scrub crowned with matted masses of sky blue climbing plants, which flung swart shadows athwart a patch of soft ground deeply indented by the ruts made by the big wheels, of the drays that brought the wood supply into Borak. There was a distinctly fresh and revivifying earthy odour perceptible in this place, for there had been some little rain during the night, and a few olive green bell birds which still fondly lingered about the spot, though the stream had now no longer the force to run, made all the air melodious with their silvery chimes. Possibly there were pools still hidden away somewhere in the dense aromatic scrub, for Nancy knew from observation, as she now explained to Max, that where there was no water one would find no bell birds. About the outer edge of the broad green fringe of scrub were knots of fragrant plants in blossom, while huge masses of gollion," .with its leafless and ourling stems and tendrils, and a wealth of russet and yellowing berries, extended from the drooping tops of the ti-tree, which literally bent under the tangled burden. Once, past this, all vegetation, save some stunted and sun browned grass, appeared to cease, but among certain larger and more ragged tussocks the ground doves coursed nimbly hither and thither, pioking up their food as they scampered about - and the deep toned and contented cooing of the bronze wings was heard proceeding from the green and umbrageous cover of the native cherry trees in the gully. Slowly up the sideling our travellers took their way between the tall and ghostly white stemmed trunks of the cruelly ringed box trees. As they gradually ascended, a panorama perfectly and essentially Australian unrolled itself at their feet ; and when they faced about to take it all in at one magnificent coup d'oeil they discerned, mellowed by the remoter atmosphere, the roofs and chimneys of the township, the grand expanse of the yellow sunburnt flat behind it, all dotted over with blaokwood trees and certain dark obieots that they know for cattle, whether lying down or browsing about in little detached groups. Beyond all this they made out broad belts of olive grey gum forest, then more yellow plain, and past all the indigo peaks of the distant mountains, relieving powerfully against a
wonderful steel blue Australian sky, flecked with fleecy clouds just flushed with couleur de rose. " Tis distance lends enchantment to the view," quoted Nancy, who had been reading one of her father's favorite books. " It all looks, so beautiful from this far away point, but when one gets down again and reaches and passes over the country, how bare and dry and burnt up and wretohed looking it becomes." " One never manages somehow," replied Max, " to discover the true beauty ; It Is carefully hidden away like those pots of gold which (as boys) we used to believe were planted at either end of the rainbow. How often have we scrambled across country in the attempt to fix the exact spots from whence the rainbow sprang from the plains. The further we ran the further the rainbow seemed to recede, and of course we never lighted upon the treasure." " Oh ! you must have been very, very young indeed, Max," rejoined Nancy, " when you chased after shadows in that fashion." " Yes, a mere school boy of course ; but for all my want of success I used to wonder sometimes, even when I had grown much older, whether there might not really after all be something in it. One does not like, you know, to have to give up his earlier superstitions. It was the great Napoleon himself who cried out one day to his secretary, who had tried to undeceive him regarding the attitude of a certain personage, " Ah ! leave us to our illusions !' " As for myself, I still cherish a few youthful illusions of my own, and I never wish to have them in any way disturbed, and that is perhaps why I seem to hate the men of science, who are never more happy than when laying things bare to the bone anil telling one 'the reason why' for everything. It is quite unprofitable as we
all know, besides being so utterly unkind. Do you still believe in the old fairy tales, Nancy ?" " Yes, indeed, I do, and with all my heart. I love to do so still, and it always makes me glad when I find at the end of the last chapter how the enchanted prince married the princess - and - and -" " Shall I finish it for you, Nancy ? And they lived together happy ever after." " Yes ! that's the right sort of story for me. Anyone can write about miserable failures and terrible endings, but it is only a good, kind hearted author that ends his story with a happy marriage like the one in tho fairy tale. I sometimes wonder whether tho story of my little life is to have a pretty ending like this, but when I have played with the cherrystones on the plate after the oherrics were all gone I never could get what I wanted." " Oh !" cried Max, " cherrystones are like dreams, they ought to be read backwards." By this time Nancy's father, who was more than a hundred yards higher up the spur, shouted to them to come on. " Give me your hand, Nancy ; it is steep here and the burnt grass is slippery ; we must zig-zag it like your father." " It is my left hand, Max, if you don't mind. You know I can only take the hand of your well arm." " My 'well arm' as you call it is my sword arm, and your left is the one next your heart, and what could be better ?" " Why ! nothing," said Nancy, " but tell me, how many people have you killed with this terrible sword arm of yours ? I mean when you were a real soldier and wore a red coat and those beautiful gold epaulettes like the man in the picture book at home." " Would you drop my hand now if I said I had really done it." " Perhaps I might, perhaps not..... but I do hope, Max, so much there never was blood on this hand of yours. It is a gentleman's hand - not one bit like a butcher's, and not nearly so brown as my own." " Well ! I won't tell you till we get to tho top - and you can guess and guess till then, but you won't drop it even then unless I tell you." " I do hope you haven't that to tell me, but if it was in battle and you had to do it, then I would still hold on - though - yes - I would be sorry all the same."
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * Max had reached the summit, but John Arnold, who knew the height of the sun and the value of time, had turned off to the left to join the path that leads to the Sassafras Gully, and they also turned to follow him, but just before they plunged into the bush, and hereabout it was dense, green, living forest on all sides and in front of them. Nancy, clinging closer to Max than ever, challenged him, reminding him of his promise. " Ah ! you mean are we to go separately or together from the top here to overtake your father. No ! not that, but tell me truly — had you ever to kill a man ? If you have had, father would never like you any more, and for me. Yes ; I would always go on loving you, but I should also always be wishing you hadn't it upon your mind." By this time Max raised the shapely little brown hand to his lips. " There is a hand, now, past all suspicion, but innocent and sweet as it is it is not more innocent of blood than my own. I never yet had to draw my sword seriously on any one, and though I am a soldier I trust I never may. Are we satisfied now ?" And Max, leaning over to his right towards her in the most gallant and military attitude conceivable, prevented all possibility of reply by sealing her lips with a kiss. I don't think John Arnold knew anything of this unexpected occurrence, but there was an old follow with an enormous white head and a huge mouth perched on a dead branch of a gnarled old gum tree above them who exploded in fits of the most uncomfortable laughter, which echoed and re-echoed from the depths of the gully. See, Nancy, even that old bird up there won't believe on any account that I am a hero. He laughs at the bare idea. John Arnold was sitting with his hat at his feet in the dim twilight of the box forest, as, leaning against a huge white log, overgrown with lichens and mosses, he awaited the arrival of the stragglers. * * * * * * * * ** * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * A short rest to gain breathing time, and they commenced the descent into the gully through the portals of the sombre and mysterious arcades formed by the overhanging and ever interlacing boughs of tho box and peppermint trees. Where the ground, trampled over hurriedly by some wild cattle with tails erected and executing all manner of mad gambols, gave forth a thundrous sound, as if the swelling mountain side were as hollow as a drum. Here, though, the echoes were clear and intense, as if reflected from the groinings of a lofty roof, and the two dogs as they coursed and sniffed about among the underwood of the valley gave tongue after a fashion so musical as completely to arouse the sportsman hitherto slumbering in the inner nature of Max. A pair of brush wallaby tore past, jumping frantically every obstacle, and suddenly doubling, disappeared at once in the furthest depths of the gully. The barking of the dogs, mellowed by distance, faded until no longor perceptible, but the staccato notes of the wattle birds and leather heads engaged in a grotesque concerto overhead, while with all the rush and whistle of a young whirlwind, a flock of emerald green parakeets swept past the heads of our travellers like the tail of a doomed comet burst suddenly away from its orbit and reeling into infinite space. At every stop taken downwards newer beauties dawned upon the little party, at last,
the fragrant musk thioket with its silver backed leaves and downy white buds and shoots, the evergreen and ever aromatic sassafras, tho tender and graceful young mimosa, the dogwood and the native hazel, all stretching heavenwards and lightwards, as is the wont of such trees as find their home in the lower and darker depths of the Australian forest. A tiny rill of triokling diamond drops came purling down from between two moss grown boulders, and rippled along, singing as it went, till lost amid the matted and overhanging vegetation a few paces further down. Nor was this charming retreat entirely without some indication of gaiety, for there came boldly to the water both the live coal robin with the white spot in the centre of his sable forehead, and the superb warbler in black velvet with toque and tippet adorned with scales of the most vivid mineral blue. They chirruped, they plunged in the tiny stream, shook off the water drops from their wings, and took to flight, followed by a bevy of little helpmates in sober brown, who rose and fell, and turned and wavered, in their devious course till entirely lost to view. ** * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * There is that in scenes Australian of this type which begets silence ; but it is the silence of mingled awe and admiration, and while Max actually felt the almost audible silence that filled all the air, and laid its spell on Nancy as well as upon himself, he know that her heart, like his own, was full to overflowing. This was such a transition from the long and dusty slngle street of Borak, with all its petty jealousies and gossip, that it was well worth the pilgrimage, and something to be thankful for, besides. Nor did John Arnold speak ;
the scene, the surroundings, the atmosphere had set their seal upon him also. * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * Borak Creek had an innocent beginning, joyous like that of the life of a young child, but as it progressed so it clouded over, became dark and shifty, sin stained ; its current palpitating with remorse. What a story could not this sombre gully tell, were its moss grown stones to cry out, or its trees to whisper a confession as the winds swept through their branches after nightfall. They might tell of children strayed from home, bewildered and lost in the sorub, and nothing found of thorn over again bavo some poor scattered little bones. Then again of a poor girl crazed, or " off her head " who drowned herself in her dark despair, in the blaok pool below the First Fall, where once a miner was murdered for his gold. One murder this ; but how many more may there not have been that were never hinted at ; and how many robberies with violence in the early part of the history ? But, notwithstanding everything, how loveable this sylvan source ! Still pure, still clear. Nature smiles kindly on it up till now. It is set in a sombre frame, truly, but then all the Australian bush is melancholy. Sometimes it seems almost as if lying under the shadow of a curse ; but the sadness, due to whatever cause, touches no one so deeply or so nearly as when he happens to be left utterly alone. To sit here, solitary among the rocks under the 'netted shadows' of the branohes, on a still and sultry afternoon, with a sort of " last day" apprehensiveness brooding in the air, then the most trivial sound that disturbs the silence is a thing to be remembered for a life time. The mutterings of distant thunder, the mere breaking of a dry twig that snaps and falls to earth, the sudden dash of a bandicoot through the fern, or the measured and heavy thump of the foot of the kangaroo, as he comes slowly pounding along through the bitter hop scrub or the waste of priokly tulip bushes to gain the water's edge. Those sounds all serve to startle the senses, and impart a feeling next akin to fear, then again, there is tho beguiling and bewilderment of the eye, whioh, under the weird spell of the enchanters of the forest, not only fails to see things as they are, but sees them exactly as they are not. Times out of number a charred stump becomes an actual black man, in an attitude boding no good
him that sees ; and even the grey rocks assume such a strangely wonderful likeness to humanity as to render it impossible to shake off the illusion till one is finally quite clear of the charmed spot, Thus docs this forest-witchery affect even those the world would hesitate to pronounce superstitious, and many such fall under the influence of the enchantment, even against their will. It is terrible to imagine how these silences and sounds and apparitions must have affected those who with blood upon their hands, and murder or worse upon their souls, wandered fearfully through this shadowy solitude. * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * It was not the terror but the silent solemnity of the forest that told upon Nancy, on Max, and on John Arnold, but their friendly and familiar society demanding interchange of speech, the silence was broken, and with it the spell of the enchanter. . To Be Continued.