The Land of The Lost
The weary hours of waiting dragged slowly by while in the darkened room Youth wrestled strenuously with Death. All that the science of man could accomplish had been performed by the young doctor the night before. It had been one of those conflicts of daily, nay, hourly, occurrence of which, save when we are perforce witnesses of them, we hear nothing.
Wilfrid had had imperatively presented to him a task from which Doctor Hamilton had drawn back, declaring it to be impossible; a task, indeed, which would have tried the skill and endurance of the most gifted surgeon, and by force of will and keenness of intellect he had borne it through. If the young man's constitution were, as it appeared, flawless, then he would survive and be none the worse for the injury. That was the sole dependence. In the meantime there was nothing to do but wait.
Wilfrid was lying on the sofa in his room, trying to recover from the nervous strain of the last twelve hours, when Esther opened the door. He started up at once and looked expectantly towards her.
"I came to see if you would like something to eat, dear?" she asked. Her face was pale and her eyes large and brilliant, but her manner was tender and collected as of old.
"Come and sit down," he said cheerfully, making page 298room for her beside him. "I have done great deeds to-day and praise is sweet to me."
"There are no words good enough for you," she said softly. "Father has told me, and though I don't understand, I believe." She took his hand and raised it impulsively to her lips.
"I wasn't thinking of that," he said, flushing. "I was thinking of vengeance. Reynolds has got them both, and if there is any justice in the country they will never be free men again."
She drew a quick breath and her eyes sparkled.
"Does that do you good?" he asked.
She sat silent a moment, looking straight before her; then turned to him, her face full of entreaty.
"Tell me the truth, Wilfrid," she begged. "Let me know the worst."
"Soon," he replied, "I will tell you, but now I cannot, because I do not know. I think he will recover, but it may be it is willed otherwise. You are a brave girl, and your conduct throughout the night has been beyond praise. You have asked me for the worst and I will tell it you. If his case had been merely described to me, I should have said as your father said, that it was hopeless."
She drew a quivering breath, and his eyes regarded her with an affectionate scrutiny.
"But," he continued, "Hugh has a clean record and his constitution is magnificent; with such men the word 'hopeless' hardly exists." He rose to his feet and paced the room, moved beyond himself by the desire to say something that would do her good. "Belief," he said at last, "is treacherous ground, but I do believe, nay, at this moment I am certain that all is well."
In the morning Hugh's fate still hung in the balance, page 299but his condition was such that even Doctor Hamilton began to wonder whether the "impossible" might not after all prove amenable to the latest surgical science, as exemplified by a man fresh from a great London hospital.
Shortly after eight o'clock Wilson ran across from the store with a wire for Wilfrid. The sender was Reynolds, who had great news to communicate.
"Constable Howell reports" (ran the message) "Olive found missing man 11.30 last night. Apparently dying from injuries to head. Leaving here instanter. Probably bring him through this afternoon. Prisoners safe.—Reynolds."
Wilfrid stood a moment, then went across to the store to interview Roller.
"Can you find room for him?" he asked, after the storekeeper had read the message.
"Certainly," Roller replied. "I'll see to it at once."
It was in the dusk of evening, when the first faint stars were becoming visible, that four horsemen, riding in a square, carried the unconscious form of Bart over the boundary line between the gumfield and the fertile lands and brought him at last into the settlement. It needed no experienced eye to recognise that his case was hopeless. Whatever might have been the result had his injuries been attended to at first, the long hours through which he had lain concealed in a dry water-hole covered with brushwood had carried him beyond the reach of human help. The most that was possible was to restore him to a brief consciousness, and this Wilfrid, after a discussion with Doctor Hamilton, decided to attempt.
The delicate operation of trepanning was successfully performed, and for a while the patient rallied, so that page 300Jess, who had constituted himself his nurse, became inspired with the hope that Bart would pull through.
"He has a very strong vitality," he said pleadingly to Wilfrid.
The latter shook his head. "Don't deceive yourself, Jess," he said; "it is all up. Our duty is to get from him a deposition of what occurred in order that the guilty may be punished. I shall go and lie down for an hour in the next room, and you must call me as soon as he attains complete consciousness. After that the end will be near."
Reynolds, on hearing from the constable the condition in which Bart had been found, had considered it his duty to communicate the facts to the Stipendiary Magistrate, and that gentleman had accordingly accompanied the sergeant on his journey to Parawai, and was now quartered in Doctor Hamilton's house.
About three o'clock in the morning Bart opened his eyes and looked at Jess. He did not speak, but there was consciousness and reflection in his gaze. Jess slipped out and communicated the news to Wilfrid, who at once crossed the road for the magistrate.
Meanwhile Jess had again taken his seat at the bedside of the man whom for many years he had loved and befriended as a son.
"So the road parts here, Jess," Bart said quietly.
"For a little while, perhaps," Jess replied.
A sound of approaching footsteps became audible.
"They want you to tell them what happened to you," Jess said, as the magistrate and Wilfrid entered the room.
A small table with writing material was brought to the bedside, and at this the magistrate took his seat. Then he turned to Wilfrid.page 301
"Does he know?" he asked.
"Tell him, Jess," said Wilfrid.
Jess turned his face to the bed. "Boy," he said tenderly, "you are going to die."
"Yes," said Bart.
"Tell the magistrate the truth, and all the truth."
"What does it matter?" said Bart wearily. "Let it rest."
"We cannot save you," said Jess entreatingly. "Let us avenge you."
"Vengeance!" replied Bart. "Give me vengeance for life, not death."
"Tell him about Hugh," Wilfrid said softly.
"Listen, Bart," said Jess; "you were fond of the young un. You tried to save him. Take vengeance for him if not for yourself."
"Is he dead?"
"Not dead, but near it. They shot him down at his sweetheart's side, and he is at death's door now."
"Well," said Bart, and was silent.
The magistrate dipped his pen in the ink and looked expectantly towards the bed.
"It was some days ago," came the low, weak voice at length. "I was sleeping at the inn. I came downstairs in my stockinged feet for a drink. I heard talking in the dining-room and stood at the bottom of the stairs, waiting. I heard the voices of Upmore and Brice. They were quarrelling. I judged that Brice had been asking for money, and that Upmore was reproaching him for not earning it. I understood that Brice was to make away with Clifford. I did not hear Clifford's name, but I guessed he was the man from what was said. Afterwards I attempted to warn him. On the night of the social, when Roller was thrown into the page 302dead-house, I got pushed in. I was dizzy from a fall I had sustained and went and lay down. While I was there I heard Upmore come to the door, and something induced me to feign sleep. I heard Upmore persuade Roller to attack Clifford. He was to join Brice outside and they were to go to Clifford's tent. When they went they left the door open, and after a while I got up and went out into the passage…. I was still dizzy—I had been drinking a good deal—and I had to put my hand on the wall to steady myself. I was still in the passage when Upmore came back and found me. He held the light up to my face, and I suppose he guessed that I had heard him. I tried to get away, but he dragged me with him into the dead-house and locked the door. I lost command of my temper at that and began to call him names. I told him what I had overheard between him and Brice. He grew very white and sat on the bench gnawing his nails and watching me. Presently he got up and went out…. He came back in half an hour. He had something in his hand and I did not like the look of him…. I was still dizzy and had been sitting on the ground. I tried to get up, but he was too quick for me…. He struck me."
There was a long pause. The magistrate took down the last word and carefully blotted the sheet.
"Is that all you remember?" he asked.
"I remember hearing Brice's voice — it seemed a long while after, but all is confused…. I remember lying in the open air and watching the Southern Cross swing backwards and forwards…. But maybe it was all a dream…. No, that is all."
"Now," said the magistrate," I am about to read the statement you have made, knowing yourself to be on the point of death. If there are any errors, or if there page 303is anything you desire to alter or add, tell me, and after, if you are able, you will sign the document."
The deposition was read and approved, and the hand of the dying man was guided to the sheet.
"What shall I sign?" he asked.
"Your name," said the magistrate.
There was a long pause, then the hand seemed suddenly inspired with an unnatural vigour and moved rapidly across the paper.
The magistrate took up the sheet and read—"Charles Horace Medway." "And that is your true name?" he said.
"Yes," said Bart," I have never forfeited the right to sign my name, and no man in the world has a right to it but I."
The magistrate looked at him with a speculative interest.
"Is there any relation you would like to communicate with?" he asked.
"Relation!" exclaimed Bart harshly. "In the Land of the Lost a man has no relatives, and that is the only advantage it possesses."
"Ah, Bart," said Jess pitiably, "the darkness is closing in upon you now. Send them a word of forgiveness before you go."
"No," said Bart. "No death-bed relentings for me. I die game. God bless you, Jess—if there is any meaning in the words—but this you don't understand. Give me a drink, and let me die as I have lived."
He lay back white and exhausted from the passion of memory that stirred him. Wilfrid administered a stimulant that brought a momentary colour to his cheeks, but the dews of death were already beginning to gather on his brow.page 304
"Bart," said Jess brokenly, "say good-bye to me before you go."
"Good-bye, Jess," he murmured, with closed eyes. "There may be vengeance for me, but who will take vengeance for you, old friend? But the world is only a little while, and the universe itself—isn't a great matter, and sleep's—best of all."
There was a long silence.
"Jess," clearly, "take care of my rose tree. You know."
The rest was the rambling of unconsciousness. In the last minutes his mind wandered back to his youth and away to his ancestral home. Again he was a boy at college, bird-nesting in the glorious English lanes, rejoicing, boy-like, in his youth and strength. Then a note of sadness seemed to creep in. His voice became alternately rebellious-and wistful. Just at the last he raised himself and said in tones of indescribable weariness, "Yes, mother, I will try."
And there was the story of his life.