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Chapter NumberII
Chapter Title
Chapter Urlhttp://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article63513261
Full Date1866-12-15
Page Number9
Corrections7
Word Count4509
IllustratedN
Last Corrected2019-11-15
Newspaper TitleIllustrated Sydney News (NSW : 1853 - 1872)
Trove TitleEdged with Gold: An Australian Christmas Story
article text

CHAPTER II.

Indeed, since that sad hour I have not slept For thinking of the wrong I did to thee ! ****** Speak on, speak on,

Let me but hear thy voice, and I am happy, For every tone, like some sweet incantation, Calls up the buried past to plead for me.—

THE SPANISH STUDENT.

There are few places in the world which can surpass in ab- rupt massive grandeur the glen of the Bellengen River.

Situated a few miles to the northward of the Macleay, its dense wilds have been gradually peopled with nomadic tribes of sawyers and cedar-dealers, who have forsaken the almost worked-out forests of the Macleay for the luxuriant mahogany-

brushes further north.

Twisting its tortuous course in such eccentric curves that (travelling in a direct line) it may be crossed a dozen times within a distance of ten miles the Bellengen river sleeps in

quiet reaches, glides gloomily over the floor of mountain gulches, dashes in tiny runnels, pebble-paved, or falls enshrouded in blinding spray from ledges of slimed rocks to mossy pools

below.

But it is when standing on one of the dividing ranges, say that which rises in a gashed hummocky ridge between Odal- berce Creek and the river, that one can grasp all the wild beauty of the Bellengen's romantic glen.

Stretched out immediately below, the narrow ravine forming its channel seems choked with impervious masses of glossy- leaved brushwood, while to the north uprises the mighty granite range, studded with gigantic buttresses, and varying in height from three to five thousand feet. Here and there the glimmer of the sun shoots its fretted rays, gilding the spiky leaves of the hardy vegetation clinging to crag and cleft, sheathing with splendour the bunching knobs bossing the broken face of the wall, and flashing, with a thousand hues, on a reckless streak of water which hurls itself madly on the jagged peaks and

smooth-worn boulders-lying in the obscurity a thousand feet

beneath.

But we have no business up on the mountain-tops, gazing at the glories of an Australian midsummer sunset, for the scene of our story is the grassy brink of the river, and the time, night— dull, murky, starless night ! A week prior to the commence-

ment of our first chapter, stray, shivery blasts of wind were playing at hide-and-seek among the thick foliage of the myrtles, roaming at intervals over the long, sullen-looking flats, floating down the upper gorges with a wailful croon, and stealing stealthily about the corners of a hut built of cedar slabs, through whose chinky sides the fire-gleams shot out with long arrows of streaky light. A man came to the door and listened, and then the rosy glare flooded across the dark tide of the river, like a pathway of glory, and the soft flow of waters under the hollow banks and among the gnarled fig-tree roots, swirled along with a more musical song of gurgle and gush. The hut was erected on a jutting bank, whose flat expanse was covered with a luxuriant growth of grass and underwood. Just where the river took a turn at the rear, a gaping chasm seared the wild face of crag in a most fantastic manner. Crossed by rude ledges, and choked with fern and rock-weed, some upper moun- tain-torrent tumbled in tumultuous haste down the tunnel-like embrasure, and fell into a deep pool whose steely waters were spiked here and there with pointed crags, shooting, wet and glistering, from their cold depths. The edge was ill-defined, but of tropical splendour, feathered reed and blossomy bush, wattles, myrtles, ferns, and palms, mixed in such glorious pro- fusion that you could scarcely tell where the shore began, or where the water ended, save, here and there, where the sand had silted up into long shelving silvery slopes, over which the ripples chimed in a flood of golden music. Well, as I said, on the night in question, the shadows were chasing each other over the flat, and lurking behind rolling masses of fog-wreath, and the wind, like a hunted thing, shrieked forth a wild wail of terror, and, rushing in between the legs of the man who opened the door, it fought furiously with the fire-logs, and nestled in the hut corners until the warmth forced it to waste away

through the slab chinks to roam once more up the desolate

gullies.

"I fancied I heard it, plain as a pike-staff, the cry of a woman by the upper timber-track, but that only just goes to prove what fancy can make a cove believe. By the by, Meredith, do you know that this is Christmas-week? Next Saturday will be Christmas-day, old boy, and here are we, like two bandicoots, or a couple of blessed beavers, gnawing or sawing down trees and floating them down creek, while away across the ocean our

kith and kin are cracking their nuts and jokes over a Christmas

fire."

" Ay, Bob ! " responded his mate. " It's well for those who have any, to say 'our kith and kin '."

" Well, come now, I don't suppose there's anybody so friend- less but has somebody to think on him at Christmas-time, and, at all events, there's plenty for us to remember if toe are for- gotten. Why, bless my old eyes ! I can recollect the fust Christmas-pudding as ever I had a finger in, and how we helped our mother to pick the plums in the kitchen on that bright frosty morning. Bless'em all! l can see it all over again ; the ice-drops on the panes, with a robin a tapping his beak on 'em. Ugh! it's a shivery cold night; I don't know whether it's the thought of the ice or no. Just see whether you can squeeze a drop out of that rum-keg, will you, Gaby ? and then I'll turn in. There's that big log wants squaring, you know, fust thing in the morning. Hang it ! I don't know what makes me think so of all the absent faces to-night ; however, here's luck to 'em, and a merry Christmas to us all in sun or snow ! "

" Amen ! for companionship's sake,'' returned the man called Meredith. " I shall soon follow in your wake, for I feel as if I was going to have a fit of the ' blues. ' Leave us a dram in the

rum cask, old man."

The sawyer, Bob, trundled off a portion of his clothes, and having ejected a lank kangaroo dog from the bed, coiled himself up in its place, as his last drowsy words expressed it, " snug as a 'possum." As for Gabriel Meredith, he sat in silence for some

time, watching the fire-flakes hungrily gnawing the logs to

pieces, and the bright charred fragments toppling off like crim- son stars into the ashes beneath. By and by the dog came and coiled itself near him, and the man, waking from a state of half dream, found himself with a blackened stick from the fire tracing out half-forgotten places, and altogether disused names on the dusty hearth. A loud snore from his sleeping comrade aroused him from his dozing state, and he laughed incredulously as he thought of the former's remark : " There's nobody so friendless but has some one to remember him at Christmas

time."

" Who remembers me? Father—mother—sunny-haired child —and fair, but faithless wife ? None, none, more than if I had slept for the last twenty years at the bottom of yonder creek ! None ! Will their Christmas fire shine less pleasantly because I am not of the circle about it? Will their Christmas sun throw a less kindly glow on the floor because my shadow is not there to break it ? No, no, better as it is, to live forgotten and die unwept, than to look on her shining face and trace the devil beneath it! Yet, Bob was right ; the child, my little Mabel! perhaps Christmas would go all the merrier here if I had the pleasant touch of that little one's fingers on my face ; but, never mind. Hark! what's that? the sound of bells, Christmas- bells? Pshaw ! only a dingle-bird, or the tinkle of the creek."

He leaned his head on his hand musingly, and as his eyes dimmed with their stedfast gaze at the fire, a dewy moisture gathered in them. He still looked straight at the capacious back of the fire-place, but instead of the huge flakes of river- stone lining it half way up to protect the slab chimney from the burning logs, it seemed magnified into a giant picture-frame, over the centre of which the smoke lay blue and placid like distant summer-haze. He could see, as it were, right through, and instead of (what he knew lay behind) the river with its wooded bluffs and shadowed bends, he saw the semblance of an old English village-church, the church where he had been married ten years before. There it stood, roof snow-laden, and the trees surrounding it leafless and bare, the red bricks peeping warmly out, like strawberries in cream, and inside the long slits of blue and crimson glass falling brightly over the oaken floor. There was the mellow sound of Christmas-bells welling from the tapering spire, and the merry laugh and chatter of children, unchecked by the red-faced beadle for this occasion only, and why ? because even the beadle remembered it was Christmas- day. Then the minister, with the old benevolent face (whose very expression made the sinners about him realize that there was indeed a Heaven) told the wondrous tale of Him who brought peace on earth, good-will among men," mingled with which came the voices of the village choir joining in the old remembered hymn. In the scene before him Gabriel Meredith recognized his childhood's village church, but what astonished him still more was the counterpart of himself coming into the broad happy sunshine, with a rosy face beside him turned de-

murely to the earth, and ever and anon lifted up laughingly to

his own.

" Fair, but false ! " muttered the sawyer between his clenched

teeth.

As if withered by his words, the picture began to fade, and in the place of the church stood the interior of a neat cottage home, an English home where the rose and honeysuckle pressed knowingly against the casement, and sent their balmy breath into the room with a rich odorous sigh, as the window opened. The youth and girl were again there, seated at tea, and looking elderly and sedate, after the manner of married folk, with a bran new baby crooning and crowing its best in its mother's arms, and striking out bravely at the Future with its tiny fists. Another figure seemed to grow upon the picture-—the figure of a well-dressed, well-looking man, and as his form became developed, the remaining tints of the picture seemed to dull, the fire burned less brightly, and the baby relapsed into a low frightened wail. The men went out together, and the young wife seemed to feel for the first time deserted.

" Well," muttered Meredith, as if talking in his sleep, "I feel sorry for her, but she encouraged him. Fair, but false ! "

Long rolling waves began to shape themselves where the cottage floor had been. The baby's cradle (touched by the wand of Imagination) grew into a boat, and Gabriel Meredith saw himself, his wife and child, tossing helplessly in that frail refuge on a stormy sea, nothing but black rolling water below, and black rolling clouds above, and they tossing madly between, like a mere speck. A great mass of splintered wood and tangled cordage came surging past, and on it was lashed the figure of a man, the same man seen in the previous picture How the tempest raved and roared ! and yet the poor wretch's screams were heard above the din of the elements, and he was dragged into the boat at the risk of its already imperilled occu- pants. Then the glowing sun came out with such fierceness that it seemed to " lick up the water that was in the trough' of the ocean. The sky displaced its angry scowl and grew intensely blue ; sunny sward and glowing trees took the place of curling billows, and then a long low verandahed house in one of the suburbs of Sydney gleamed out, and the baby, now grown a golden-haired little girl, stood picking the blossoms from the trailing creepers. Again the counterpart of Gabriel Meredith figured on the picture, passing out on to the verandah, crossing the threshold of his home, it seemed, for ever, and leaving the door ajar through which you could catch a glimpse of his wife with her hair streaming wildly over her face, her head resting on her hands, and her whole attitude betokening intense grief. The sawyer's eyes were streaming with tears as he witnessed this scene dissolving, and that may account for the succeeding pictures looming hazy and indistinct; certain it is, they all lacked the brightness of the preceding ones.

Four Christmas pictures, all of passages in his eventful life, appeared in rapid succession. Now he was shepherding on a distant 'run,' with the hot glare glistering on the white gum boles, with thousands of tireless cicadas keeping up an incessant twitter, while the swelling mountain spur, and the plain in which it ran, was dotted with a flock of dusky sheep. On two other occasions he was pictured working on the diggings, and once at his present occupation of cedar-sawing ; but in each, as his wife's image grew bright in some unexpected part of the scene, and she advanced towards him with extended arms, the whole dissolved and vanished, leaving nothing behind but blue unsubstantial hazy vapour. They were all well-remembered scenes and incidents in his own life, but now something strange began to present itself. True, the scenery was familiar enough, for it was the similitude of that surrounding his present abode. There was the rude timber-track leading from his hut to the ' general store ' of the cedar-dealer ; there, too, was the place where the last thunderstorm had formed a running creek across the road, now bridged by a couple of felled trees ; there was the tall gum-tree, rived by the lightning's stroke, and now swinging its one or two hanging branches dismally over the roadway, and, more than all the rest, there plodded a bullock driver on that very track, with Gabriel Meredith's wife sitting on the vehicle. The sawyer could scarcely suppress an excl- mation of surprise, but the words were stifled in their utterance by his observing several native blacks stealing along in the underbrush with stealthy motions. The fall of the leaf in the forest, or the patter of the dank moisture on the thick moss fell with greater power on the ear than did the slight pressure of their crafty footsteps, and Meredith leaned forward and watched the picture with intense excitement as he saw the black band drawing in and hemming the unconscious travellers

in a deadly half circle.

A spear came hurtling through the air, and pinned the driver

to the dray, while one of the bullocks plunged forward, plough-

ng up the ground with his horns. Then all was clamour and confusion—the rattle of spears, the duller sound of blows with the nulla nulla, the groans of the oxen, the screams of the woman, and the wild gibberish of the black tribe, all echoing in one dis- cordant yell from rock to rock. The sawyer could bear it no longer. The picture fell to pieces like clouds from a mountain top : in its place the blue smoke curled up from the half-con- sumed logs, and Gabriel Meredith found himself sitting before the fire-place, with a colley sheep-dog stretched at his feet. But while he rubbed his eyes, and wondered and laughed by turns at the Christmas Diorama, the strange wild cry heard

before burst upon his ear.

"Hi! Bob!" he shouted, as he shook the sleeper lustily, " Hi ! rouse yourself, man—there's trouble afoot."

" What's the row ?—have you boiled the pudding too much ? or has the dog run away with the beef? Well, I'm blessed, Gaby. Have you been dreaming ? or have I ? I know I have though, for I fancied I was away back with the old folks, all among the snow," said Bob, balancing himself sleepily on the

edge of the bed.

" Dreaming ? man alive ! hark to that !'' cried Meredith, as a piercing, blood-curdling yell fluttered about the gully, falling in lessening cadence down the deep glen of the river—" Hark

to that !"

The dog whined uneasily, while the hair bristled on his arch- ing back, and then he crept howling under the settle bed. Without a word, one of the men took down the fowling-piece hanging above the fire place, and fixed a new cap on the nipple ; while the other stuck a knife into his belt, and picked up a light American axe from the corner. Then both stole forth with the dog crouching timidly at their heels. On they went, over boulders of granite, and fragments of crumbling sandstone; through the slime of half-dried waterholes and the brisk brattle of branching creeks ; treading down the brilliant tufts of the crimson and white epacris, and dashing through fragrant bushes of yellow wattle; tripping over the outlying cordage of creepers and vines, and wading through masses of feathery-fronded fern. On they went, until they seemed to plunge into the very midst of the battle up- roar. Rolling masses of scud left the moon (almost at the full), free at times, and by its uncertain light the blacks could be seen, like ants, over-running a dray in the centre of the road—cram- ming their mouths with flour and sugar, and piling up quantities of both on fragments of bark, or wrapping it up in pieces of the broken bags. The bullock-driver was lying with a white un- natural stiffness among the oxen, and a woman sat in the dust of the road close at hand, the natives apparently being too much engrossed to notice her at present.

"Now, my good woman," whispered Bob, as he crawled forth in the dusk, and placed his hand on her mouth to prevent her screaming, " Not a word, your're with friends, that's sufficient. Steal off into the bush, to the right, yonder ; my mate's there, and he'll take care on yer. I'll stop here for a few minutes, and if any on 'em suspects somethin' wrong, and comes to inquire I'll satisfy them."

Half dead with fear, the woman did as she was advised; and in a few minutes more the light movemeat of a twig here and there told she was making her escape to the sawyer's hut, under the guidance of Gabriel. Ten minutes' hurried scramble through brake and brier brought them within view of the hut, and he had scarcely placed a rough log seat for his visitor, before confused yell came ringing down the gully, and the sound of crash- ing boughs and snapping sticks announced the approach of Bob.

"There's a reg'lar gang on 'em," he breathed out in broken gasps, as he helped Meredith to barricade the door. " I stuck to 'em as long as I could, lying in the spot where they left this good lady, (nodding at the new-comer) "but one of the rascally mob seemed to think of the woman all of a sudden, and came jumping along towards me like a paddymelon; he was rather surprised when he found out the change, but before he could recover himself, I gev him a blow with my axe over the skull, that I swear'd split a block of ironbark—but, would you believe it, he only gev a grunt, and then yabber'd out, ' Bail him white- fellow dead, him bin jump up again, and murry saucy,'—so see- ing I only had a chance of blunting my axe all to no purpose, I bolted for the scrub ; and now the black devils are on the wrong scent for a time. But, eh, missus ! what's wrong ? Don't be frightened, there's a good heart."

Certainly there was some occasion for Bob's thus addressing the woman, for she had raised her head, and now sat peering forward with a wild troubled stare, while her patted lips just gave passage to the single word, "Gabriel." He, in turn, seemed changed to stone, but muttered the name of " Maud," and then leaned heavily against the slab wall, as the gun dropped to the floor. And thus they met, after five weary years of absence and estrangement—husband and wife, with the prospect of their now meeting spirits in a few moments fading out together into the

wild viewless future.

"Gabriel! Husband!" cried the woman, falling at his feet and clasping his knees, " Look at me, love me, if you can ; but let the long weary wanderings and the heartsickening disappoint- ments of the last five years blot out the clouds that rest between

us."

" Why do you haunt me in this manner ?" muttered her hus- band, striving, as it were, to pass from her grasp. " Wrongs have been seared upon my very heart, are they to cut in still

deeper ? "

" Wrongs ! have I not suffered wrong ? " urged the woman, " have I had no share of the pain ? All the combined sorrows of my life, from childhood till five years ago, would inflict but a passing pang compared with one day's suffering since then. Hark ! " she added, as the sudden cry of the blacks came flittig from cliff to crag. " Before the night wanes, we may both have to quit the world we have so sorrowed in, shall we leave it as strangers? Oh, no! In anticipation of that coming death, and by my hopes of mercy in the judgment following after, I swear that I have never disgraced the holy name of ' wife.' Oh, if this death could be avoided, time would prove that nothing but strange circumstances and unfounded suspicions have shadowed a love, which (even if rejected now), will go forth into the un- known future, blindly clinging to your own."

" And, Martin Thornley ? "——

"Was nothing more to me than a stranger, less than a friend," answered Maud Meredith. " Not one circumstance by which his name has been associated with mine but would have been avoided, if a ransom of my own heart's blood could have done it. Since your departure I have never seen him, or spoken with

him,"

"And now?"

"He is dead. Three years ago a jury returned a verdict of manslaughter against one who stabbed him to the heart in drunken brawl. But say you forgive me, Gabriel, before we part take this shadow from my life—own me, blameless, spotless as your wife—and then, if needed, I wili leave your path, never to cross it again. Think of the old Christmas time, Gabriel, ten years ago, when I trusted the happiness of my life with you; I have never faltered in either love or duty since—how strong those feelings have been, and now are ; let the searchings, the perils, the weary wanderings of the past five years testify. Don't spurn me, Gabriel !—say you believe me !"

"I do, darling! By the blessed Christmas presence which has hovered around me this night, I do believe you innocent; . Maddened by feelings of jealousy, I saw in every friend one who was plotting to destroy my happiness, in every kindly atten-

tion to you a studied insult to myself; and thus, drop by drop, I drove out every better feeling from my heart, and filled it with gall. But can you forgive me, Maud ?—I dare not hope you can forget!"

" Both !—my husband ! The happiness of the present teaches me to forgive the past, and all shall be forgotten save the love of to-night and of ten years ago !"

"I say, mate, you'll excuse me—and I begs parding, Mrs. Meredith (I suppose)," interrupted Bob, " but if you're at leisure, I should jest like to take your opinion as to them niggers. I hear 'em howling up at the ' bend,' and somehow I have a fancy to enjoy a few more Christmases if I can, before re- tiring from business in this world !"

" Of course, Bob !" answered Meredith, " our delay may have imperilled our lives ; half an hour ago they might have trampled on my corpse and welcome ; but now, life seems of value ten thousandfold. What do you propose?"

" Well, the chances are if we stop here we'll be smoked out like kangaroo-rats, or have the hut burnt down over our heads ; and if we run out, we have the alternative of two feet of spear through our ribs, or a few inches of our skulls driven in ; and as

my own head is hardly nulla-nulla proof, I'm decidedly agen * letting 'em try it ! Now, there's the rock-cave in the hanging cliff overlooking the river—that 'ud hide us for a time ; and if they do find us, there's more chance there than here—one man with a fowling piece could outstand fifty for a night."

" The very place !—lead the way, Bob, by the back. Now, Maud, darling, a few yards, and across the creek, will put us in safety—at least for a time."

Slinging his gun over his shoulder, he lifted her in his arms, and followed Bob along the sedgy brink of the river to where the hallow indicated by his mate wormed itself into the rocky heart of the mountain. There he crouched on the sandy floor, with his arms locked about the form of his new-found wife, with her head resting lovingly and trustfully on his breast, as they watched the dark knobs of the murderous tribe bunching up from the tussocky herbage, and glinting in the dim steely light of the hazy moon. And so, as the night wore on, the pressure of each to each grew firmer—as red forky flames flew up the wide chimney, and crawled through the cracks in the bark-roof like fiery serpents. Bit by bit the charred rafters fell inside, sending up a brilliant rout of sparks, scaring the dingo who peeped from his reedy lair, and the night-owls that fluttered, with dazzled eyes, over the conflagration.