A South-Sea Siren
The Survey Office whither Raleigh and his companions now went was a one-storied, box-like, wooden building, standing bare and solitary on the confines of a large swamp, and surrounded with bleak and arid plains.
There was not a tree visible, nor any signs of vegetation beyond the marsh rushes and the wiry, yellow tussocks of the prairie. It was the dreariest, most desolate spot in the whole locality, and had been selected by the Government, as the site for a township. Consequently the only official residence in the district had been erected there, but it stood alone. Population had not flocked to the spot, the allotments had not been sold, not even the inevitable chapel, generally the first outward sign of a budding settlement, had yet sprung forth, to bloom in the desert.
The inside of the building was about in keeping with its naked surroundings, for it was a mere shell, weather-boarded without and match-boarded within, with no furniture beyond a couple of deal tables, some office stools and a few stretchers to sleep upon.
Ornamentation there was none; blinds and curtains, carpets and mats, were only conspicuous by their absence. The floors were blackened with mud and the walls with grease spots and fly marks, while spiders' webs hung about the corners of the ceilings, so that, judging from appearances, one might have been justified in concluding that there had never been a brush or broom in the establishment, let alone a woman.
Nevertheless, the building afforded good shelter against the rude blast which then swept in strong gusts from the ranges, and howled dismally over the wilderness, and after a bright fire had been kindled in the room set apart for a kitchen, the place looked quite cosy and cheerful compared to the dreary outside.
It was drawing towards a damp and chilly winter's evening. The party, immediately on arrival, dispersed in different quarters, intent on various occupations, domestic or otherwise. The surveyor had some office work to attend to, one of his assistants went to tether out the horses, another to chop wood and bring in water, a third to set about preparing the evening meal, as the cook was away. For in those days most people, whatever their social position might be, had to learn to page 165 help themselves, and no gentleman was above baking a damper, frying a chop, or grooming his own horse,
Raleigh asked to be allowed to make himself generally useful, but on being informed that there was nothing for him to do, he wandered listlessly about the premises, inspecting the maps and conversing with the inmates.
As he stood by one of the windows, looking out on the dismal swamp, and staring at vacancy, he suddenly perceived the figure of a man looming forth in the gloaming. The murky haziness distorted and magnified the object to the view, so that it looked like some misshapen monster staggering about in the gloom. Then the figure was seen to stop short in its erratic course, and standing erect, with head thrown back and arms extended upwards, to take a celestial observation through a black tube.
Raleigh gazed intently at the strange apparition, when to his amazement it suddenly disappeared from sight, and foggy darkness closed around. He immediately gave the alarm, and described the vision to Markham, who proposed that they should sally forth and reconnoitre,
Accordingly they went out in the direction indicated, groping their way through the rushes, but finding nothing, and were just about to return, when Raleigh stumbled over the prostrate form of a drunken man, who was lying with his head in a pool of water, and still clutching fast to an empty bottle,
‘Hullo!’ he exclaimed, ‘who the deuce is this?’
‘Why, dash my buttons!’ cried Markham, in a rage, ‘hang me, if it isn't Jim Bows, our cook, who was sent to the township this morning for a supply of provisions. Damnation! We shall have to go without our supper.’
‘Stop a bit,’ answered the other, ‘he has a bag by him on the ground, There's “balm in Gilead” yet.’
‘The drunken fool,’ continued the irate surveyor, ‘he deserves the sack for this, but I must make some allowances for the poor devil who has suffered a great disappointment lately, which has been preying on his mind. He must be a little off his head, for he is desperately in love.’ And Markham was about to relate at length the story of the man-of-war's-man's unrequited affection for Maggie the milk-maid, a subject of frequent comment over the camp fire, when Raleigh drew his attention to the dangerous position of the lover, who, with his face in the marsh, was threatened with suffocation.
‘There will soon be a tragical ending to the love story, unless we get page 166 him out of this,’ he remarked, while tugging vigorously at the man's collar,
Markham lent a hand, ‘the boys’ were called to the rescue, and by their united efforts the almost insensible body of Jim Bows was conveyed to the house, and thrown down under shelter of the verandah, there to recover at leisure.
Immediately after this episode a faint coo-ee was heard resounding from the hidden recesses of the swamp, and another search party had to be sent in quest of some misguided traveller, who had got bogged off the track.
The new arrival turned out to be Arthur Warren, the manager of the White Cliff station, and known as a rattling good fellow. He was welcomed with acclamation, and forthwith seized upon under the prevailing laws of hospitality, as lawful prey for the night, despite his urgent appeals to be allowed to pursue his journey.
He explained that he was returning to the station, which was sixty miles off, to meet his employer by appointment on the following day, and that the matter was one of the greatest importance—life and death, he called it. But no pathetic appeals were of any avail against the imperative claims of conviviality. Warren was known to sing a good song, and the whole party was fully intent on a jolly night; for no inducement could he be allowed to depart. Hardly had he alighted than his horse was whisked off to some hidden spot, his saddle and bridle mysteriously disappeared at the same moment, while his kit was conveyed into the house. There was no escape possible; however, to pacify his anxious misgivings, the young men, severally and collectively, solemnly swore to awake him by daylight, and to start him refreshed on his journey in ample time to keep his appointment.
That matter settled, the party then sat down to partake of such cheer as the exhausted nature of the camp larder afforded. The cook being incapacitated, one of the cadets had to officiate in the kitchen, and he announced a plain and limited bill of fare, but any deficiency in respect to eatables, was made up for by the appearance on the table of a goodly jar of whisky—an innovation on the ordinary bush fare, which was received with warm applause.
The surveyor, poised high on a three-legged office-stool, took the head of the table. Raleigh was provided with a broken chair, Warren with an empty brandy-case, the chief assistant with an inverted bucket; the rest had to sit on their bunks at the sides of the room, or squat down on the floor, holding their plates on their knees, and drinking their grog out of tin pannikins.
Dinner consisted of fried liver and bacon, served piping hot in the page 167 pan, with pancakes to follow, rather doughy, but then the whisky made amends
Hearty good cheer prevailed. The messmates were jolly, if not uproarious. They were eager for a bit of fun, a lively diversion on the sameness of their ordinary existence. They were easily pleased and not fastidious as to conversation. They would stoop to pick up the merest crumb of a joke, or open-mouthed would swallow the biggest crammer; puns were much relished, old stories were served up as new, while an ample supply of squibs and crackers came in for dessert. Right good fellows, this surveyor's party, although of somewhat rough exterior and unpolished manners, and rather affecting the rustic style of the bush. Living on the borderland of civilisation, they revelled in their sense of liberty, with a touch of savageness, and a tendency to revert still more into the rude arms of Mother Nature.
Supper over, the fire brightened into a crackling blaze, every one drew forth his pipe or cigar, and the room soon filled with a dense cloud of smoke, while a moment of calm ensued, preparatory to the general unloosening of tongues and discharge of romance. Then each story-teller braced himself up for the coming contest, to ‘cap’ his fellow, and vie with one another in splendid lying. Personal reminiscences came in for a big share; the field was a wide one and the harvest golden, and the principal wonder of any ‘outsider’ was to find himself among such a band of heroes.
Markam led the way; he was much given to blow, and by universal consent could spin a good yarn. He related with much gusto some of his racy experiences when a student in the Old Country, and dwelt with much complacency on his youthful adventures among the girls. He affected to have steadied down since, and out of regard for his official position to have become a stickler for decorum; nor did the land of his adoption afford any scope for similar feats of gallantry—the feminine element being so greatly wanting—but he was willing to pass for a reformed rake, and the period of his wild oats sowing was always a favourite one with him to look back upon. The audience applauded heartily, and complimented the former Don Juan on his successes, which were not to be repeated, worse luck!
Mr Field-assistant Norman had been to sea. He had a bluff way about him, a weather-beaten countenance, and he affected nautical terms and the bluster of a sailor, He told of desperate encounters with pirates in the China seas, and described some hot work in which he himself figured conspicuously, and did terrible execution with his rifle, But the thrilling adventure did not terminate in a general massacre; he had rescued a native damsel from the clutches of the ruffians page 168 and became her natural protector during his stay in those Celestial regions, but had eventually to resign her to the arms of her relations, amidst tears and lamentations.
This thrilling and pathetic tale of the sea was well received, and the heroic deed warmly commended, although nobody believed one word of the whole story.
Young Edwards was no less sentimental, but without bloodshed. He related how he had been desperately hard hit previous to his departure from the Old Country by a pair of blue eyes, involving in his own case a pair of black eyes to follow. He waxed very emotional over the description of his last parting with his inamorata, and he quite scared his listeners with the dangers attending their interviews, in which a dragon, in the shape of a bull-dog, played a prominent part. Altogether the youthful Lothario, even by his own account, had not come out of the affair with flying colours; he had left a portion of his nether garments behind him, and retired precipitately with a broken nose.
It was the curly-headed cadet's turn next to recount his amorous experiences, for nothing else would go down with the company. But he was a mere boy, and his exploits were absolutely wanting in romance, and were entirely confined to the pretty housemaids in his father's house. Even there he did not appear to have accomplished much, beyond getting kicked out of the paternal residence, and the young man expressed abiding regret that he had not turned his opportunities to better account. This was his chief lament, that he had been expelled from his Eden before hardly tasting of the forbidden fruit.
The world has no applause or even sympathy for failure. The curly-headed cadet was reproved by the surveyor, mercilessly chaffed by his companions, and laughed at for his pains, although, with the penalties attached, these had been no laughing matter.
The lamentable history of Jim Bow's disappointment in love then came up for discussion. The poor fellow was described as ‘far gone’, and his case as desperate. The symptoms of his flame had occasioned much entertainment at the camp for weeks past, and the sudden collapse of the suit was received with signs of regret. Some surprise was also expressed that the rosy-cheeked Maggie should have rejected such a fine, up-standing, lusty fellow as the man-of-war's-man, with his eight shillings a day, and a bit of property besides. What better parti for a saucy milkmaid, and the parents were known to favour the match. The opinion was freely expressed that the girl had been tampered with, and that some sneak had insinuated himself into her affections.page 169
‘Jim Bows has his suspicions,’ cried the excited Edwards; ‘he is mad with jealousy, and on the trail, and he swears that he will have the wretch's blood if he can only put a hand on him,’
‘I shouldn't care to stand in that chap's shoes, with Jim Bows squaring up against him,’ observed the curly-headed cadet, with trepidation.
‘No, indeed!’ added the surveyor, ‘Jim Bows, when his blood's up, is a terror, A punch from him would be like the kick from a horse. But I have warned him against any act of violence.’
‘Jim Bows has been under fire,’ said the assistant, grimly, ‘and when once a man has tasted blood no warning avails. I feel at times myself, when in a row, that I could out with my revolver and shoot a man down as soon as look at him. There will be murder yet!’
Raleigh did not feel particularly comfortable over this discussion, nor did he take any part in it, pretending complete ignorance of all the circumstances alluded to, but it was not without a secret sense of relief that he heard the full sounding snores of this ogre, from whose jealous fury such awful violence was to be apprehended. The blood-thirsty monster lay drunk and incapable on the floor of the verandah, and his desperate suspicions lay harmless with him.
Mr Arthur Warren, the station manager, hailed from Australia. He was a thick-set young man, with a square head and bushy beard, and of a very convivial turn. He had a lot to say concerning his wonderful experiences in the bush, encounters with hostile natives, being chased for his life by wild cattle, and a desperate duel-à-mort with an ‘old man’ kangaroo.
‘The natives gave us the greatest trouble,’ he said; ‘they plundered our flocks, speared our cattle, stole our provisions, and even committed several murders. No man was safe by himself on the run, and we always carried firearms. Nothing was thought of shooting a black fellow, but I had some narrow squeaks for the wretches tried to retaliate, We made several raids upon them, and did some execution with our rifles; but after a time we adopted a more peaceable method—much the best way, for it made no noise and was far more effectual. We used to poison the flour in the outhouses. The blacks watched their opportunities, carried off the stuff and we saw no more of them. It saved a lot of trouble.’
‘Good heavens!’ exclaimed Raleigh, horrified. ‘You don't mean to admit that you deliberately poisoned the poor wretches?’
‘It was only slow poison,’ replied the other, deprecatingly; and the audience, which had been somewhat shocked, accepted the explanation as satisfactory, page 170 With such cheerful recitals of gallantry and adventure, the hours passed swiftly by; the whisky jar went its rounds periodically and the merriment increased at every turn.
Then there was a general call for a song. Warren was famed for his voice, but his répertoire was scanty. He had only four songs, commencing with ‘Constantinople’ and ending with ‘Paddle your own Canoe’. These had to be given in quick succession,
Then there was more whisky and more yarns, Edwards declaimed from ‘Don Juan’, and Raleigh gave a humorous recitation. After that the whole parly joined in some rollicking sailor choruses, under the leadership of Norman.
It was getting far advanced in the night and the station manager pleaded pathetically to be allowed to retire on account of the imperative necessity for his being up and away by daylight, but nothing would do with the party but that he should repeat all his songs, with a general encore of the whole programme to follow.
There was no means of ascertaining the time as everybody's watch had either stopped of itself or been allowed to run out, while the office clock had met with an accident, having been knocked off the mantelpiece in a scuffle between Edwards and the curly-headed cadet. It had remained steadily at eight ever since, and the carousers pointed to the time-piece, and swore it was early yet.
For the third time the exhausted Warren had to sing his four songs, then there was a pause as the lamp went out suddenly, and nobody could find the candles. The fire had long since burnt out; it was cold and damp, and a dense fog had gathered outside.
By the light of some matches, struck in quick succession, the party managed to find their way to their respective blankets. Two of the cadets slept on the floor having given up their stretchers to the guests, the others tumbled into their bunks; the last match was blown out to the cry of ‘all right’, then there was a hearty response of ‘good night’ all round, and silence was at length restored.
* * * * *
‘Hullo there! are none of you boys stirring yet?’ cried the authoritative voice of the surveyor, from his room. ‘It must be getting late.’
‘All right, sir!’ answered the youngest cadet, popping his curly head outside of a heavy opossum rug, in which he lay ensconced, ‘What's the time? Can any one tell?’
‘Blowed if I know,’ answered Edwards, from the other side of the room. ‘I have been lying wide awake for these two hours, trying to guess.’page 171
‘The deuce you have?’ cried Warren, waking up with a start. ‘Then why didn't you call me? Didn't you, one and all, give me your sacred word of honour to start me off by daylight. I have a most important appointment at the station for this afternoon, and sixty miles to travel. Oh, dear! oh dear! what shall I do?
And the excited manager, in great perturbation, jumped out of bed in a very short garment, and rushed to the window. The outlook seemed to cheer him somewhat. A murky fog hung over the ground, the sky was leaden, and densely obscured, while not a gleam could be seen to indicate the position of the sun.
‘It surely can't be late,’ he muttered.
‘Why it's barely daylight!’ exclaimed Norman, shaking himself free from a pile of blankets; ‘and yet I seem to have slept a long time, for I feel quite cramped from lying in one position. Now, you youngsters, rouse up! All hands about ship. But where the blazes is Bows? He ought to have been up and about long ago.’
Then there were loud cries for Jim, but no response.
The sedate young Rose went in search of him, and returned with the startling intelligence that the man had disappeared, leaving the office door wide open, and that there was a pile of new bread on the table.
‘The baker must have called early this morning,’ remarked Raleigh with a big yawn.
‘Impossible!’ was the general reply. ‘He doesn't come round till mid-day. We are ten miles from the shop.’
‘Oh Lord! oh Lord! What shall I do?’ moaned the distracted manager, wringing his hands in agony.
‘I see it all,’ exclaimed Edwards, hopefully. ‘There is no need to be concerned. Jim Bows was boosy last night, and dropped a bag of provisions. He had been out on the track and brought it back by daybreak. Now, he is off again somewhere.’
‘The poor beggar is clean gone on that girl; quite off his head. Expect he will be on the spree again,’ remarked the assistant.
‘If he does,’ yelled the surveyor, putting his head through the doorway, ‘he shall he dismissed on the spot. I passed it over yesterday, but for a second offence I shall show no mercy. Discipline shall be maintained in this camp.’
‘Aye, aye, sir,’ responded the assistant, ‘so it shall. For that sort of thing on board a ship he would be tied up and get three dozen. I have had a man flogged for less.’
‘Don't condemn the poor devil unheard,’ suggested the mild Rose. ‘He may have been up and about his work long ago, though if he has page 172 such a head on him as I have he won't be fit for much, O! Gimini. I do feel awful bad.’
‘What shall I do? What will become of me?’ piteously cried the manager. M must be off at once. Will one of you fellows kindly bring up my horse, or tell me where to find him. Must start immediately. Can't wait for breakfast.”
‘All right, mate! Don't bust yourself,’ good-humouredly replied Norman. ‘I will fetch your horse and give him a good feed of oats into the bargain. He will need it. You other chaps don't stand gaping there. Set about doing something. Sharp's the word, quick's the motion. Light the fire and put the kettle on.’
‘What's your mighty hurry?’ inquired the curly-headed cadet. ‘We are always late here: always being fined and reprimanded, but it doesn't matter.’
‘It matters very much to me; in fact, it is a matter of life and death.’ answered the manager, impressively,
‘It involves the sack then,’ muttered the irreverent youngster, ‘Oh, golly!’
‘If I could only form some idea as to the time of day,’ continued the other, pacing the room in a distracted way,
‘I have a pocket sundial,’ mildly observed young Rose, as he pulled the little instrument out of a leather case, ‘if that can be of any use.’
‘Confusion!’ roared the other, stamping the floor.
After a short while the fire was lit, the kitchen cleared and tidied up a bit, the chops fried, and tea made.
Norman returned with the horses, the surveyor composed his ruffled feelings with a morning pipe, although he still threatened vengeance on the absent Jim Bows. Raleigh finished his bush toilet at the water hole, breakfast was announced, and the party sat down with tolerable good cheer, with the exception of the unfortunate station manager, who continued fearfully anxious, and in a tremendous hurry to be off.
‘Well,’ said the surveyor with decision, ‘you boys have had a jolly night of it, although I fear you kept it up rather too late. You will have to work all the harder to-day, I can allow no dereliction of duty, and I am very particular about working hours. We are due at the camp to-day at ten sharp. Bows had orders to be there by nine, with instructions for the men.’
‘I fancy Bows left here for the camp some time ago, sir,’ remarked Rose, reflectively. ‘I have been considering the matter. There were hot cinders in the fireplace, showing that a fire had been lit there this page 173 morning; the horses had been attended to, and the baker must have called because he left his bill——’
Had a bombshell dropt into the room it could not have produced greater consternation. The poor manager gave a cry, and nearly tumbled off his seat with dismay.
Then a volley of execration and abuse fell on the evil prophet. The surveyor took him roundly to task for being such an objectional ass, while the others laughed him to scorn,
‘Why, sir,’ expostulated the crest-fallen youth, ‘I was only trying to put two and two together.’
‘You gossoon!’ interjected Norman, ‘don't you see that the morning fog hasn't cleared off yet. It is still dark.’
‘I noticed it was very dark,’ continued the other, pertinaciously sticking to his point, ‘but then I fancy it is getting darker.’
This caused renewed consternation. There was a rush from the table to the window, and much peering outside. The sky seemed blacker than ever, the fog thicker; the gloom had intensified, and gradual obscurity was closing around. There was a moment of harassing suspense, then a loud laugh, in which all joined except the scared manager, who fairly collapsed under the blow.
‘There is no further doubt about it,’ cried the assistant, as he struck a match. ‘We shall have to finish our breakfast by candle-light. It is night!’