|Chapter Title||THE WOMBAT QUEST|
|Newspaper Title||Bathurst Free Press and Mining Journal (NSW : 1851 - 1904)|
|Trove Title||The Mount Macedon Mystery|
AN AUSTRALIAN NOVEL, BY IVAN DEXTER. ————
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
THE Mount Macedon Mystery CHAPTER XIV.— (Continued.)
It was still there and only a few feet away, but the murky gloom did not allow of its being clearly seen. Cautiously the young warehouseman inserted the stick and pushed it slowly
towards the object, after first making sure that his retreat was open. "The beast must be asleep," he mut- tered, as he felt the stick touch it and no movement followed. Encouraged by this inertia, he gave a more vigorous poke, and started back, for a movement certainly took place. He evidently expected a rush, but none took place, and he ventured to look in again. The animal was still there, and em- boldened by its evident disinclination to come out he made another attack on it. This time a suspicion began to fill his mind that the guide might be right after all, and the wish being father to the thought might have induced him to think that it was the wombat he was trying to outline in the darkness. As he felt the object again he became convinced that it was not a living animal, but a stone he was seeking to dislodge, for it felt hard and sounded sharply when struck. He therefore tried to pull it towards him. As he drew the stick back he could feel it coming to him, and when he looked in again it was almost at the mouth of the excavation. As his eyes became accustomed to the gloom they fixed on the mysterious object with a rigid stare, and for a full minute he remained on his hands and knees like one petrified. "What the devil are you looking at, Bruce ?" asked one of his companions. " You look as frightened as if Old Nick himself was there." The young man thus spoken to stood up and hastily clambered out of the ex- cavation. His face was white and his whole appearance that of a man who had suddenly and unexpectedly met with an unpleasant and startling sight. " Why, man, you have'nt seen a ghost surely ?" spoke one of the party, as he jumped down to the mouth of the hole. As he peered in an equally startled look crept over his face, and in a few moments he rejoined his comrades, who had surrounded Bruce. "It's a human skull," the latter was telling the awe-struck youths. "You must be mistaken," was the reply. "I've no doubt it's the skull of a dead wombat, or perhaps a wallaby that has been dragged into the hole." " Go and look for yourself," rejoined Bruce, and the man who had just re- turned from the opening, added : " Yes, you'll soon be satisfied on the point. It's a human skull — man or woman — as certain as we stand here." The man addressed slowly descended to the hole, and there in front of him lay the grinning skull. Death must be pleasant, someone has said, because it always grins, but there was no pleasantry revealed in that hideous mask thus strangely brought to light in that wild and unfrequented spot. Resting there in its weird grave, the mocking mouth, and sockets vacant of their eyes, it seemed to the startled man to be again sentient, with life and tel- ling the story of its queer abode. His comrades were bending over him, and after repeated requests from them, he put his hand into the hole and shud- deringly lifted out the repulsive relic of mortal humanity. The wondering group of men looked upon it with almost superstitious feel- ings. A human skull under ordinary cir- cumstances is not very awe-inspiring, but this skull must have an extraordinary history attached to it. How did it get there? To whom did it belong? Per- haps it was a dead and mute witness of a foul murder, or mayhap some weary pilgrim along life's highway had volun- tarily laid down his load and shortened the journey with his own hand. Then it might belong to a tourist like themselves, who, wandering through the undergrowth, had stumbled into the wombat hole, and, being seriously in- jured, had either died of starvation or been attacked and killed by the wom- bats. Stories had been told of these animals attacking men, and it was well known that a child had been carried off by them on the north side of Mount Mace- don. As one of the men looked up at the tremendous cliff, the face of which glistened in the setting sun, a momentary idea struck him that a fall over it might account for the presence of the human
relic, but it seemed so improbable that the thought immediately passed away. These and a hundred other conjectures passed through the minds of the silent group, and for several minutes no one spoke. Their eyes rested questionly on the impassive skull as though adjuring it like the ghost in Hamlet to "unfold its tale," but its sphynx-like immobility revealed nothing. Perhaps this is the skull of an aboriginal who has died here and been buried in the wombat-hole," suggested one of the men. It sounded feasable enough, but it did not elucidate the mystery, and as they still wondered, the guide said : "We must be getting away from here, unless you wish to camp here all night. We have only about two hours of day light, and we could never pass through the Glen in the dark. The prospect of a night in that wild eerie spot was not to the taste of the party, and, forgetting all about the object of their search, they were hurriedly gather- ing their tools together, when the guide said : "We had better conceal the pick and shovels here until to-morrow, as this hole must be searched for further traces of the bones which should belong to the skull. Several of my friends will join in the search if you are agreeable, and there is no need to bring these awkward tools to the hotel and back again." The young men at once fell in with the suggestion, for now that they had gone so far, they were eager to probe the mystery to the bottom. Securely planting the tools, they made their way back to the Forest Inn.