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A Rolling Stone Vol.III

Chapter X

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Chapter X.

‘Under thick trees about it swaying
A humpbacked hovel crouches low;
The roof-tree bends, the walls are fraying,
And on the threshold mosses grow.

‘One curl of silver smoke is twining
Its pale threads with the silent air,
To tell God that there yet is shining
A soul-spark in that ruined lair.’

A mile from the place where the blowing sand of the coast had piled itself into hills and ridges, in the shelter of which scraggy plants and coarse grass could grow, was a house. It was ‘the house’ of the district, for there was none other within twelve or fifteen miles, unless two or three shepherds' huts were to be dignified by the name. It was a tolerably old house; for it had been built some fifteen years before, when the sheep-run, of which it was the homestead, had first been taken up. A tolerably large one, too, for those parts, as it had eight or nine rooms, and appanages and appurtenances of different sizes and shapes, and also different materials, corrugated iron and wood predominating.

It was an ugly house, and it stood in an ugly page 151 country, as flat as a table, and only varied by tussocky lumps of grass or other lumps, which on close examination proved to be sheep. There were no trees worthy of the name, though, at some distance inland, there were hills beautifully clad with forests. The country was pleasant enough near to these hills, or where the rivers ran; but round the house—though not unprofitable when the sheep are taken into account—it was decidedly unlovable.

This was the solitude to which Stephen Langridge had gone nearly four years before. He breakfasted alone in the front room of the house, which, from some whim of the builder, was not in front, opposite to the sea, but looked to the back, where there was nothing to be seen except a swampy straggling stream, and the usual arrangement of tussocks. He had been accustomed to breakfast alone in this room ever since he had come to the place; so it was not reprehensible that for want of better company his dog should be his vis-à-vis at the table, and that he should have a book propped up before him. A solitary person is apt to turn into a bookworm. Stephen had read more during his seclusion than his friends would ever have thought possible. For at a station—though all station managers will deny this fact—there is not always much to do. There are certain great times—shearing-time most especially—when men condense all the work they have not done for a long while before into the exertions, wellnigh superhuman, of a few days, and elated with page 152 their achievements, deceive themselves into thinking they have been working at high pressure all the year round. But as a man, unfortunately, cannot shear his sheep oftener than once in twelve months, and as he would be but a foolish shepherd who was for ever following them and waiting upon them, it comes about that to keep a sheep farm means to have much leisure for at least three-quarters of the year.

Although the sitting-room commanded no very choice prospect, its interior was pleasing to the eye. It was well arranged and neatly furnished; there were books and pictures, including the portraits of the Langridge family,—those of Stephen's sisters forming a galaxy of beauty above the chimney-piece. There were stuffed birds, — Stephen was now a merciless slaughterer of both fish and fowl,—and on a table in one corner was an unfinished piece of wood-carving, which had saved him from the reproach of idleness during many a long winter's evening.

He finished a chapter, and poured himself out a second cup of coffee He could hear a sound like the rumbling of distant thunder, but he knew it too well to mistake it for that.

‘There must be a sea on this morning,’ he said, ‘and the wind's rising. I've a good mind to go down to the beach and see the big rollers come in. Well, what's amiss, old fellow?’

The dog, who had been sitting with the greatest page 153 propriety for the last half-hour, mutely contemplating his master's face, pricked his ears, sniffed, and growled. Simultaneously the other dogs innumerable which infested the place barked savagely. Some one expostulated, and distributed smart blows amongst the unruly pack, which only raged the more. There was such a hurly-burly that Stephen prepared to go to the rescue. He opened the door, and immediately, without ceremony, the visitor rushed in.

From head to foot he was soaked and dripping with water. His hair clung together in thick damp masses, his face had dried in streaks, he was barefooted and only partly clothed. He was a tall, broad-shouldered man, with massively-moulded chest and arms; but his face was white and haggard; he was breathless and exhausted, as if he had just passed through some struggle which had demanded all his strength.

‘Hallo!’ cried the astonished Stephen, checking the pressing attentions of a dog, which would still hang about and growl at one whom he evidently considered a mere pariah. ‘Where have you come from—out of the sea?’

‘I was in it ten minutes ago,’ said the man, speaking with difficulty, he was so out of breath with running. ‘Didn't you hear the guns before light?’ he gasped; ‘the steamer went on the rocks.’

‘We heard no guns,’ said Stephen. ‘A steamer page 154 on the reef in this weather! Good heavens! then, where are the other people?’

‘They were safe when our boat left. I swam through the breakers.’

‘You swam through the breakers!’ said Stephen, looking at this modern Hercules with an admiring eye. ‘Not many men would like to try that.’

‘I had to do it,’ said the man; ‘no boat could get near. It was a fearful piece of work, though. I've run all the way from the beach,’ he added, with a kind of gasping sigh. ‘Has no one been here?’

‘No man has been here,’ said Stephen.

‘There was one got ashore an hour ago; at least we thought so. He was to have brought the news to you. For God's sake! as he hasn't, let some one ride with a telegram before more time's lost.’

‘I'll send a man this instant,’ said Stephen, ‘and do you sit down and get something to eat; you look as if a breakfast would do you good.’

One of the station hands happening to pass the window at this moment, Stephen shouted to him, ‘Angus, I want you to take a telegram. You have the horses in the stockyard, saddle one directly. Take mine, he'll do it in the least time. Make haste!’

The wondering Angus almost flew to the saddle, so great was his haste. Stephen scrawled a telegram after obtaining a few particulars from the messenger, and the next moment Angus was away at a gallop.

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‘It's an hour and a half's ride, do what he will,’ said Stephen, as he looked after him, ‘and the sea must be very heavy from the sound.’

‘It's running mountains high,’ said the man, ‘but she wasn't breaking up when I left.’

‘They can't send a steamer down the coast in less than ten or twelve hours,’ said Stephen thoughtfully. ‘From the Bluff will be the best chance. You're eating nothing, and yet I don't suppose you've had a breakfast this morning.’

‘I can't eat,’ said the man, and though he was hospitably pressed by Stephen he would have no more. ‘I've no heart for eating or anything else till it's settled. And it's no use putting on dry things. I must go down to the beach to help; I promised I would as soon as I'd got you to know.’

‘I'll go with my men, and we'll do what we can,’ said Stephen.

All the available force of the station was mustered. Ordering the men to follow, as soon as they had got together what was likely to be of use, Stephen walked down with the messenger.

‘You said a man swam ashore before you?’ he said to him.

‘We thought so; but he wasn't anywhere about when I landed, and as he hasn't been here it's most likely he was washed back again. We didn't think he could do it, though he was so ready to volunteer.’

‘Who was he?’

‘Oh, one of the saloon passengers; I don't know page 156 his name. Poor fellow, he'd plenty of spirit; but he hardly looked fit for a tussle with the breakers.’

‘How is it you didn't see what became of him?’

‘We? It wasn't easy to keep our eye on him. We couldn't see much, down in the trough of the wave half the time. We thought he had got on shore, because we heard the people on the steamer cheering.’

They crossed the sandhills, meeting the bitterly cold south-east wind. A mist seemed to hang upon the shore; it was the sand and spray which the fierce blast drove before it. Finer than dust though the particles were they cut the face like a knife.

‘There she lies!’ said the man, pointing to the reef. ‘It will be a miracle if any boat gets nigh her again.’

‘Surely we shall be able to do something,’ said Stephen; but he looked at the tumult of the sea with a sinking heart.

On the beach they met the few men who had succeeded in landing. Their boat had been swamped in the surf, and had come ashore broken open at the bows. But it was the only boat to be had, and some men were hastily mending it as well as they could with the tools at hand. The other boat, from which the messenger had swum ashore, was some distance out, unable either to communicate with the steamer again or to come near the land.

There was no trace of the man who had been the first to attempt a landing, and all thought he page 157 must have perished. No one knew his name. Those who had been saved were steerage passengers or belonged to the crew. They knew him only by sight; it was seldom that they could tell the names of more than a few out of a numerous crowd of passengers who were leaving or coming on board at each port.

Stephen and his men found that little could be done. They could not launch the boat when it was mended. Short as was the distance between them and the drowning people on the steamer they were powerless to help them. When the shipwrecked men had been taken to the station and fed and clothed, those on the beach only remained there in the hope of being able to rescue some who might be washed ashore, and to watch, as long as there was life on the wreck—a painful but an absorbing task from which they could not tear themselves away. Others joined them, as the day wore on, for the news had flown, as only ill news can, all along that coast. Beside their watchfires they waited, Stephen amongst the rest, till further waiting was in vain.

Now while they sought for that nameless passenger until their search ended in the conviction that the sea had claimed him again, he was struggling farther and farther inland, not only turning his back on the sea but also the house he wished to reach. Some bewilderment of mind, or some change in the appearance of the place since he had seen it last—years before—misled him. There was no house in all the bleak dreary prospect. The grassy plains page 158 stretched as far as the distant ranges without the sign of a dwelling. He saw sheep which fled before him, wild as the wind, but he met with none who tended the flocks. He remembered that for miles on either hand the land was in one large holding; a place for sheep and not for men. Besides the huts of a few station hands, there would be no house over all this wide territory but the one he could not find.

Dizzily and half-blindly he wandered about, first one way and then the other. Conscious hardly of anything else, he was almost maddened by the thought that the duty to which he had pledged himself remained undone, while so many lives were hanging in the balance, lives which might be saved if his message could be sent in time, but which must be lost if he could tell it to no one. A wild thought seized him; he would walk to the telegraph station; he knew the way, miles—miles beyond the bend of the river. Impossible! he could not get there in time. He shouted, but his voice sounded so weak and hollow in his own ears that he could not hope it would be heard, unless some one was very near indeed. His head, burned and throbbed; he was not sure where was, whether near the beach or not. But the sound of the sea no longer rang in his ears, so he must have walked for some distance. ‘Why?’ he asked himself, as his mind for a moment was clearer—‘why am I walking this way? The house was near the beach;’ and he turned back. Oh, page 159 weary, weary way! walk as he would, it was still the same.

Sometimes there was a dusty path trodden by the sheep, and he would follow it, because it was easier to his uncovered feet than the sharp-edged grass. He came to a stream, and thinking only of his burning thirst and of the pain with which his head throbbed, lay down beside it, and drank till he was satisfied. Then again he turned back to the path.

It became more like a road, wider and beaten hard. He had forgotten why he was here by this time. He knew he was going somewhere; perhaps it was to the foot of the ranges. He had to look for some one there; he would search through all those ravines, but he would find him. Hark! was that a stealthy footstep behind him? He started back; it was only the bitter wind which followed after. He was glad it could not bring him the horrible sound of the sea any more; he had escaped from that.

Some object, larger than any he had yet seen upon his way rose before him. It was a clump of young pines—a small plantation in the treeless waste. The path led towards it. He went on; there was a hut, and a curl of blue smoke from its chimney. Here, then, was life in the wilderness.

He had no sooner seen all this than it began to melt away again. The nearer he came the fainter it grew. The door of the hut was open, and he page 160 heard a voice, not speaking to him, but repeating sentences in a low monotonous tone, as if reading. Then his feet felt heavy as lead; the ground seemed to rise up to meet him. He fell beside the path, and the voice went on reading in the same measured tones.

The hut was small and low, the walls were built of mud, and the roof was thickly thatched. Inside a fire smouldered; there was a bed covered with a red blanket, one or two small boxes for seats, and a shelf-like table under the window, where sat the man who was reading. He read a letter, and he read it aloud, because if he had gone outside and shouted it forth at the highest pitch of his voice, no one in the world would have been the wiser. In that solitude the sound of his own voice had become dear to him. For days together he neither saw nor heard a human being. If he could not have talked to himself in all probability he would have gone mad.

How often had that letter been read over? It was a soiled and tattered scrap with so much handling. It was only from habit that he held it before him while he repeated the words, for he knew then by heart. It was in a woman's handwriting; a lady's, one might say: the letters were evenly and delicately formed, and the language was not only correct but also such as could not have been used by any but an educated and thoughtful person.

She began by explaining that she had not page 161 written of late because she had been unwilling to give an account of her unhappy situation. As he insisted on it, she would tell him all. In the plain simple language of truth she told how one misfortune after another had fallen on her and their children (for she was his wife), how loss of their little all, illness, destitution, and want, had all been their portion. She described the squalid poverty of the place they called home; and the reader's voice shook, and the veins swelled on his forehead, as if some passionate feeling struggled under his control. They had suffered; and without complaining or striving for effect she told him how. They had worked, slaved, and starved for the last three years, in which he had heard nothing of them. They had hidden themselves in the heart of the great city, where no friend could find them, if friend still remembered them. Here, where famine and disease, ignorance and wickedness, hemmed them in, one after another of their children had sickened and died, till only one, the youngest daughter, was left. He had read that sentence fifty times; yet now, as ever, a cry forced its way to his lips, and the blotched and stained paper was damped again with tears. ‘O God!’ he cried, ‘is not this my punishment? Why should it have fallen on them?’

The letter continued. She was out of work, and the daughter was ill; it was impossible she could be in that place. The winter was coming on, and she trembled at the thought of it. With their page 162 poor clothing, without food or fire, except in driblets, how could they live through it? She had been obliged to apply for relief; the bread of charity, though bitter, was better than none. ‘Would that we could be together!’ she wrote, ‘even if it were only to see each other and then die. I know you cannot help us’—he groaned—‘or you would. I think if we could get a passage Ada's life might be saved, but I have no hope: they told me yesterday that free passages are not granted to New Zealand now.’

There were other words; the thoughts of a good woman who had forgiven him long ago for a great offence, which had driven him from his family and in the end had wrought their ruin. It had broken her heart; but she had not utterly cast him off. He had her portrait in his hand now. Where was that face?—the face which because of him had grown worn and old before its time. Perhaps it was laid within some nameless grave. What might not have happened in the four months since that letter had been written; in the two months during which he had read it over and over, knowing in his despair that he could do nothing?

‘Three years and I never knew,’ he cried. ‘I might have saved for them. I might have sent them what I earned every month. Miserable, grovelling wretch that I am! I have squandered it on wickedness while they starved. Oh, if I had known, I would have chained myself here, rather than have taken it where I knew I should be tempted!’

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What had been his temptation was written on his face, so that all who chose might read. Long ago that face had been handsome, those eyes had shone with the light of intellect; it was blurred and dim now. The hand, that had once been so firm and yet so delicate in all its work, was unsteady; a light piece of paper trembled in its nerveless grasp. He was only the wreck of a man to whom much had been given—strength, understanding, the power of knowledge,—and all had been broken and trampled upon. Yet something that was noble still remained, as the grandeur of a ruin long survives the shock which overthrew its loftiest towers.

He had not fallen lower than numbers of other men; but few have fallen from such a height; and so much the greater was his offence. Many men sin through ignorance; he had known the enormity and the reward of his sin from the beginning. It had led him to crime; and then he had hated it and himself, and had fled from it into a solitude where he had thought it could not follow him. So, in old times, men went out into the deserts, and hid themselves in caves and amongst the rocks of the mountains; but they found the tempter there. Everywhere, he walked beside them, and his shadow mingled with theirs, and his whisper sounded more clear and loud in the silence of the wilderness.

‘I will not read it again,’ said the man, putting the letter on the shelf by the window. He knew all the while that he would read it again, for he had said page 164 the same words and made them false many times before. He went out, and a dog which had been sleeping near the door rose, lazily stretched himself, and followed him, jumping up to lick his hand.

‘What!’ he said, ‘are you fond of me? Poor, senseless thing! if you knew how I've repaid the fondness of others, and how much viler I really am than such as you, you would not follow me.’

They turned into the path, and the dog ran before him with his nose to the ground. He stopped and whined piteously, and licked the face of a man who lay there, almost hidden by the high grass he had fallen amongst.

The shepherd knelt down beside him, and with professional adroitness felt his heart and pulse. He raised his head upon his knee, and brushed the dust away from the forehead which had pressed against the earth. Then, with hardly an effort; for he had been a powerful man, and in this emergency he felt his strength return to him, he raised the other in his arms, carried him into the hut, and laid him on the bed. He bathed his face and hands, which burned with fever heat; he washed the dust from the tired feet, scratched and cut all over by the sharp grass. Here was a ‘case’ for him again, and it had an absorbing interest. In the days which were no more he had never been able to watch over a patient in a half-hearted careless sort of way as some will. He had put himself on the patient's side in the fight against death, and had fought as a soldier who page 165 gives no quarter. He had loved to make an end to pain, to change sickness into the bliss of health, to snatch from death when he might, because he had that love of all humanity without which a physician is but a miserable intermeddler in Nature's affairs.

Now he was glad to wait upon this stranger, and to tend him with a hand which, roughened as it was, tremble though it might, had not yet lost its cunning. He watched him in the night, while from hour to hour he moved his restless hands, and raved—nonsense sometimes, or horrible fancies, but oftener in cries for help for people who were perishing, and entreaties that he might be allowed to go to them. He had exhausted himself when morning came, and was only capable of an indistinct babble, which at last also ceased, when he seemed to fall into a stupor. His nurse did not dare to leave him. At noon—wonderful sight!—he saw a horseman riding across the flat, some three hundred yards from his house. He ran out and shouted, and when the man had galloped up, gave him a paper.

‘I wish you'd take that to the station,’ he said. ‘Mr. Langridge will give you what I want from his medicine chest, and if you can, bring it on to-night again.’

‘Who wants medicine, Doctor?’ said the man.

They all called him ‘Doctor,’ and some small practice he had had amongst the station hands had imbued them with a great awe of his knowledge, and a conviction, which had often expressed itself in words, page 166 that his little finger knew more than Dr. Sloman knew in all his parts, from the crown of his head to the sole of his foot. The despised Dr. Sloman was the only doctor within a radius of thirty miles, and yet suffered from living in a country fanned too continuously with the breezes of health.

‘You are not down with anything, are you?’ queried the man. ‘You were in town lately, weren't you?’—this in obscure allusion to habits of the Doctor which were well known.

‘It is not for myself,’ said the Doctor. ‘I found some tramp or swagsman (only he had no swag) just here by the track yesterday afternoon, and it turned out he had brain fever——’

‘Fever! is it catching?’ said the horseman, leaning to the side farthest from the Doctor. ‘I don't want to take it home to Mary Anne.’

‘It won't harm you. Can you bring the things to-night, Bailey?’

‘I'll try. We're all in a stew up there, choked up with company. Mary Anne is worked off her feet. I suppose you've heard of the awful wreck?’

‘I heard! I hear nothing.’

‘It happened yesterday on the reef opposite to our place. Mr. Langridge was on the beach all day with us, helping, and stayed there at night; but the poor souls were washed off before any one could get to them. Twenty saved out of nearly two hundred. Mary Anne has been crying half the time, and I could have done the same, only I'd no opportunity. We page 167 are full up now—all the people saved have quarters with us, and others have come, and will be coming all this week, to look after the poor creatures whose bodies have come on shore, and bury them. We've the police there to keep order, which, goodness knows, is needed, and some uncommonly inquisitive gentlemen, who write for the papers, and who want to know everything that has happened, and a good deal more that hasn't. I hope the master won't go clean out of his senses with all this army, and their bag and baggage to look after, and feed, and bed down at night. We've had to lay in supplies; and Mary Anne is continually getting up meals, and the cook's always baking bread; for these people eat—my gracious! how they do eat. We killed a bullock this morning—sheep are nowhere—and I wouldn't give much for the remains to-morrow. Well, I'll come down as soon as I can, and when we get it I'll send the paper with the account of the wreck—the papers will have something to gorge themselves on now. Mary Anne will put the things together, and some little comforts for you as well.’

‘Thank you, Bailey,’ said the Doctor, going back to his house.