Shadows on the Snow: A Christmas Story
Part II. The Shadows in the Snow Ranges
Part II. The Shadows in the Snow Ranges.
Far, far away from English homes and English firesides, our story takes us, on a dark and cheerless night, to a little narrow tent, pitched in a gully, on each side of which frowning ranges rear their lofty heads, grandly. To this little narrow tent we come across wild and stormy seas, through storm and tempest, through tropical waters where the moon rises blood-red from a lurid ocean, past icebergs looming threateningly near, through miles of phosphorescent light gleaming in the eyes of the solemn night—to this little narrow tent, wherein, mayhap, are centred all the hopes and fears, all the joys, sorrows, ambitions, which make up the sum of human life in the great world beyond. Months fly, seasons change, and once-glowing aspirations fade away, and are lost for ever in the gulf of time. The drama of some men's lives is played out upon many stages; in others, a single scene upon a narrow stage suffices for the commencement and the end. One man's life may be a cyclopædia; another's, a word of but one syllable. A look, a thought, a motion of the hand, may be sufficient to change the peaceful current of an existence into a turbulent whirlpool.
A dark, cold, cheerless night. With the exception of page 61 this little tent, no trace of civilization near. Here Nature reigns supreme. The lofty mountains, rising range over range, appear to shut out from the world the gully in which our scene is laid. And yet, between this sterile, savage spot and our peaceful Devon lane, there is a close and human connexion. The thoughts of one man at least, sitting in the tent are travelling back to that pleasant yet bitter nook in Devon, wherein were culminated his life's happiness and his life's sorrow. Again the scene rises before him. Again the old familiar faces shape themselves from the air, and visit him with loving looks and smiles. Again a tearfully-happy face is resting on his breast, and loving eyes seek his, yearningly. Again the fond arms are thrown around him, and a tender form nestles confidingly to his heart. And then he wakes, and, looking round with a bitter smile, shakes off the dream, angrily.
Within the tent four men are seated round a miserably scant fire. The canvas above their heads scarcely screens them from the inclemency of the night; and strong and hardy as they are, they huddle close together for warmth, and greedily watch the dying embers before them. Outside the tent, no sign of human habitation or human life can be seen. The district is wild, barren, and dismally bare of vegetation. The men are rough-looking fellows, with great beards and strong limbs, and a decided exertion of physical strength in their every action. Each has a short black pipe in his mouth, which he puffs vigorously, and with a will; and all are alike attired in rough jackets, moleskin trousers, and billy-cock hats. Although they are in as desperate a condition as four men well can be; although the country, for miles around, page 62 is knee-deep, and, in some places, man-deep with snow; although a heavy drift without is raising barriers almost impassable; although their last handful of wood is burning on the fire, and they know that they can obtain no more; although they have not three days provisions in their tent—scarce an anxious thought crosses their minds. Some three or four weeks before, they had set off on the track of a party of men, who were supposed to have found a new Gold Field. Stealing out in the dead of night, lest they themselves should be discovered, they had plunged into a portion of the country which they did not hope to find other than barren, inhospitable, and incapable of sustaining human life. With the indomitable courage and recklessness which appear to form part of the gold digger's character, they had set themselves the task of tracking the men before them, and discovering the locality of their workings. No pluck in the world can beat the pluck of the gold digger. He laughs at obstacles at which others would pale; he fights with the barrenness of nature, and, conquering, opens up country, which, but for his hardihood, might remain with its treasure for ever shut out from the knowledge of mankind. There is no pioneer so brave, so persistent, so enduring. It may be questioned if, in any age, or in any country, the nobler physical qualities of man have been more worthily exercised. In these our antipodean Colonies, the gold digger is the pioneer of progress.
These four men, bound together for the time by the almost brotherly tie of gold digging freemasonry, differed widely in nature and appearance. Each of them might have moved in different grades of life in the old page 63 country; but conventionalities were here set aside, for a gold digger's existence levels all distinction. Their great beards made their faces so many distinct puzzles, physiognomically; but there was that about their general appearance, their gait, and their conversation, which in some measure served as an index to their several characters. One of these was known as Gentleman George. There was no satire meant in the name. Gentleman George was simply a man of good breeding—a handsome fellow enough, with laughing blue eyes, and the strength of a Hercules. Opposite to him, squatting upon his blanket, was Cornish Tom. He had been a gold digger for the last fifteen years; and had mined in California, New South Wales, Victoria, and New Zealand. He might have made a moderate fortune half-a-dozen times, for he had had fully that number of chances. But there was no rest for the sole of Cornish Tom's foot. No sooner did he hear of a “new rush,” than he was off. Many were the rich claims he had abandoned to be among the first on a new Gold Field. Hundreds and thousands of miles of bush and plain had he traversed, patiently and cheerfully, to find that he had been following a Will-o'-the-wisp. Yet he was always hopeful—always san-guine. Free-handed, simple-minded, hard-working, and restless, he was the type of a class which will be easily recognised in the Colonies. The third of the party was a young man, remarkable chiefly for his reticence and his furious love for hard work. He hoarded his gold like a miser. The very opposite of Cornish Tom, who flung his money about with utter recklessness, Dick Driver spent never a shilling in waste, and was so con- page 64 sistently steady and saving that he often brought upon himself the ridicule of his companions. The fourth of the party was William Fairfield.
Yes, maddened by what he had seen that Christmas night, William Fairfield had gone the next morning to Mr. Wymer, and signed away his farm to Stephen Winkworth. He wrote but a few words to Laura. They were these: “I was outside your house last night, and saw all. Oh, Laura, how could you so deceive me! I leave you with a pang at my heart which time can never alleviate. May your future be happier than that I see before me. Farewell.” And without waiting for explanation or reply, he travelled hastily to Liverpool, and took passage in a ship just then departing for New Zealand. Very commonplace reading this; but life is made up of lights and shades, and ordinary events require but ordinary language to express them.
As he sat by the miserable fire on this cold and bitter night, his thoughts, with strange persistence, wandered back to that Christmas Eve. Indeed, his thoughts were always dwelling upon that time. He would lie awake night after night wandering through the maze of the past. In the midst of his work, the memory of some trifle, which had given him pleasure, would thrill through him again; and he would linger upon it, although to do so was torture. At times he would wonder what she was doing at the moment of his thought, and he would set the old wound bleeding by calling up the image of her face—her face, so innocently beautiful, so fair, so sweet to look upon. He kept the memory of it lingering about him, although he extracted from it nothing but exquisite misery.page 65
One thought continually haunted him. Could he have been mistaken? Had he been rash in judging her? No; he would sigh, as the memories of the shadows he had seen upon the snow hovered again and again about him. But still his thoughts would wander back to the theme, and still the doubt remained.
“Whew!” whistled Gentleman George, casting his eyes somewhat apprehensively round, “I hope the wind won't blow away the tent. I half expect we are in a pickle as it is, but that would make it ten times worse. Just take a peep out of doors, Willy, and see what it looks like.”
Willy (that was the only name by which William Fairfield was known) went to the door, and cautiously opening it, and holding it fast lest it should be blown out of his hand, let in a gust of wind that raised the dying embers of the fire into a furious but deceitful blaze. Stepping out quickly, and pulling the door behind him, William gazed around and shivered. In truth, it was a bitter night. A heavy wind was driving the snow before it fiercely. The tremendous ranges which hemmed in this little band of men were snow-clad from base to summit, and the flying drift blowing into William's face almost blinded him. Shading his eyes with his disengaged hand, William looked about him keenly, as if in search of some familiar object, and then, hastily stepping into the tent, fastened the door, and resumed his seat.
“Well?” said Gentleman George, in a tone of inquiry.
“Did you see the fork this afternoon?” abruptly asked William, without heeding Gentleman George's query.
“Yes,” was the reply.page 66
The fork was a tree with a quaintly forked branch, which stood about a hundred yards from the tent.
“Sure?” asked William.
“Well, it has either been blown down, or the snow has covered it. If it is not blown away, there must be twelve feet of snow where it stands.”
A low whistle broke from the lips of the three men, and Cornish Tom, carefully re-filling his cutty, asked composedly,
“Ever snowed up, George?”
“No,” replied George; “and never want to be.”
“Dare say,” returned Cornish Tom, lighting his pipe; “but you'll have a chance now.”
There was silence for a few moments, and then Cornish Tom spoke again.
“Look here, mates,” he said, “I reckon we're in for it; we haven't three days' grub in the place, and can't get any more. This snow-storm is going to last, and I'm blessed if I can see how we're to get out of it.”
No one thought of disputing with Cornish Tom; he was known not to be fond of giving idle opinions.
“I have heard from some of the shepherds, that places like these are snowed up at this season of the year, sometimes for months together,” said Gentleman George.
“The best thing we can do,” said Cornish Tom, “is to try and hump it back again to-morrow. Did you see any smoke from the next gully, to-day?”
“No,” replied William.
“I saw it yesterday,” continued Tom; “perhaps they're off. An eternal shame it is,” he grumbled, “that page 67 when we've found a rich gully like this, we should have to run away from it. Why, we could make a pile in six months. I wonder what sort of ground they've got in the next gully.”
“I wonder if they've got any provisions,” speculated William.
“It strikes me,” said Dick Driver, speaking very slowly, “that we shall not be able to get out of this as easily as we think. Look here,” and he kicked the side of the tent, against which a mass of accumulated snow was heavily pressing; “there is an awful drift going on; all the tracks are rubbed out, and if the fork is buried, we might as well try to walk through the sea as try to get out that way. I shouldn't be half surprised if we were never to get out at all! Hark! what was that?”
They all bent their heads and listened. The only sound they could hear was the roaring of the wind past the tent.
“We may as well look at it right in the face,” resumed Dick; “I was never very religious, but if I had been, I think I should say my prayers twice over to-night.”
The only answer Gentleman George and Cornish Tom gave to this, was a steadier puffing at their pipes. They were well aware of their danger, but they did not care to talk over-much about it; they all knew and could grasp the full extent of their peril—all but William Fairfield. He had never realised it until this night, and now it came upon him with terrible force. Never to get back! he thought; to be snowed up here, and be buried and lost to the world for ever! Never to see page 68 dear Devon again! never again to see or hear of Laura! And now an intense desire seized him to see and speak with her once more; for he loved her still—loved her dearly. Swiftly to his thought came her sweet face to his mind; and the yearning that filled his soul made him sick with desire.
“Oh!” he groaned to himself, as he had done hundreds of times before, “would it have been better for me not to have seen?—It would, for I should not have known; I should have been blest and happy, and now”——
He looked round, shiveringly. Heedless of the blinding snow, he went again to the door, and stepped out. He strained his gaze across the hills, as if he could see Warleycombe in the distance. And if he could—if at that moment a vision of what was passing in his old home had visited him—what would he have seen and heard?
He would have seen Laura sitting, listlessly, at her bedroom window, overlooking the garden, now radiant with Nature's loveliest gems. He would have seen her, with a wistful look in her sweet eyes, gazing far, far beyond, as if she, too, yearned to annihilate space, and look again upon the form of the man she loved—for she did love him, truthfully, faithfully; and she yearned to take him to her heart, and weep over him and forgive him.
He would have seen her father enter slowly, and have seen her turn to him, and lay her head gently upon his breast. He would have heard Harrild say,
“Still thinking, darling?”page 69
“Still thinking, father,” she answers, softly; “as I shall always do.”
“Child! child!” Reuben Harild says, “he is not worthy of you.”
“Yes, he is, father,” she replies, laying her hand upon his lips. “He is mistaken, that is all. And, oh, father! would that he were here, that I might forgive him.”
Looking again, William would have seen Laura upon her knees, her prayer being that her lover might return to her, or that she might die.
William might have seen another home—that of Stephen Winkworth. He might have seen poor crippled Alice lying sick upon her bed, and Stephen standing by in anguish; Doctor Bax being present, looking somewhat graver than of old.
“Something better to-day, Alice,” says the little Doctor. “We shall have you presently running about the house, as lively as a cricket.”
A weary, incredulous smile passes over the girl's face, and she murmurs something about never getting better.
“Nonsense, child! nonsense!” says Doctor Bax. “You don't mean to say, you little goose, that you know better than I do. Why, you would upset the whole science of making people well if you had your way.”
“There is only one thing that can make me better, Doctor Bax,” says the girl.
“And what is that? Just say it, and you shall have it in a twinkling,” replied the Doctor.
She shakes her head sadly.
“No,” she says; “you cannot get it for me. If William Fairfield would come back and marry Laura, I think I page 70 should be better. She is very unhappy, is she not, Doctor?”
“Very unhappy, child.”
“Poor Laura!” says Alice, pityingly. “What made him go away?”
“What made him go away?” echoes Doctor Bax, irascibly. “How on earth should I know? An unfortunate temperament, I suppose. It is a most unaccountable thing. I have lived all these years in the world, and the more I live, the more I am puzzled. How such a young man could run away from that sweet girl—for she's an angel, my dear, and so are you—is the greatest puzzle I have ever met with. Upon my word, I think the world is going crazy. Good day, my dear, I will see you to-morrow;” and Doctor Bax goes out, rubbing his head vexedly.
But William Fairfield saw nothing of all this. He saw nothing but the desolate white ranges; and as he looked, a great despair gathered round his heart. The thought of dying uncared for in this wild spot, almost drove him mad. But he could not bear the cold, and presently he re-joined his companions.
“I am not much of a believer in presentiments,” Gentleman George was saying, “but I have got the idea in my head that we shall never get out of this, alive. We could keep the snow away for a good many days, but we shall have enough work to do to keep ourselves from freezing. Then, we have nothing to eat.”
“And the bacca's nearly run out,” grumbled Cornish Tom. “I'd give a pound of gold for a pound of Barrett's Twist. I wouldn't care if we had plenty of bacca.”page 71
“I wonder if the folks at home will ever have an idea of our fate, if we shouldn't get away,” said Gentleman George.
“Don't keep on talking like that, George,” remonstrated Tom; “you make me feel as low-spirited as—as”—but Tom couldn't get a simile, so he rattled the ashes out of his pipe and re-filled it.
“I can't help it, Tom; I have not seen my mother or father for over ten years, and although I don't write to them, and don't know, indeed, if they are alive, I can't help thinking of them at such a time as this. I I never heard you speak of yours, Tom.”
“Haven't got none,” said Tom, shortly.
“Have you, Will?” asked Gentleman George.
William shook his head.
“You have, I know, Dick,” George pursued, “for I have seen you reading their letters. You see I was a scapegrace at home, and they were glad to get rid of me, and I was not sorry to go. But I should like to see their dear old faces again.”
“And so you will, George,” said Tom, energetically; “but you're not going the right way about it. We must keep stout hearts, and we shall be all right. At all events, we won't stay here until we're so tightly snowed up, that we can't get out. We'll start to-morrow, and cut our way out of it.”
“Hark!” said William, who had been listening with bent head to something outside. “Do you not hear a cry!”
They all listened attentively, but no sound reached their ears but the moaning of the wind.page 72
“I thought I heard some one crying out,” said William, after a pause.
“You couldn't hear anything in such a wind as this,” said Cornish Tom. “Lord! What is that?”
They all rushed to the door. A deadening roar, soft at first, but increasing every instant, had struck upon their ears, and looking out, they saw a sight which filled each man with awe and wonder. An avalanche, slipping from the summit of one of the loftiest ranges! Down, down it thundered, throwing out huge snow-sprays, each one sufficient to bury a hundred men. Down the steep side of the mountain it rushed, increasing in volume with every foot it rolled, and detaching great masses of snow and ice, which leaped over each other with terrible velocity, until they thundered into the gully. A roar as of ten thousand evil spirits: an angry rush as of a giant army of white monsters, filling the air with terrible sights and sounds: and then the avalanche spread itself, with a great thud, at the base of the mountain. The lookers-on held in their breaths; all thought of their own peril gone in the terrific grandeur of the scene.
“We shall be blown into ice-blocks,” presently, said Gentleman George, as a sigh of relief escaped him, “if we stand here much longer. Thank God, we were not under it!”
And so, with a deep feeling of thankfulness at their hearts, they went into the tent, and, scraping up the scattered embers of the fire, huddled round it in close companionship.
“I don't think any one of us is in the humour for sleeping,” said George; “tell us a story, Tom.”page 73
Tom, without more ado, settled himself comfortably and began.
“When the Victorian gold fever was at its height,” he said, “people were literally mad with excitement. Lord! lord! the queer sights I have seen, and the queer stories I could tell, would fill a dozen books. I have worked with all sorts of mates, and lived all sorts of lives. The strangest mate I ever worked with was a man who went by the name of Cranky Bill. He was as thin as a lath, and as tall as a may-pole, and he would talk—Lord! he would talk, I believe, for days and nights without stopping, if he could only get some one to listen to him. He had come out to the colony under a cloud. When I say under a cloud,” said Tom, taking his pipe from his mouth, “I didn't mean that he had done anything wrong; but he was obliged to run away from England for a reason I didn't know then, but which I learned after-wards. He had brought his wife out with him: a poor, weak, delicate creature, who died soon after he landed, leaving behind her a little girl. This little girl, Cranky Bill left with some people in Melbourne, and came to the diggings to try his luck. I was working in Dead Dog Gully, near Forest Creek, which was just discovered, and Cranky Bill and me had somehow or another come together as mates. A better one I never wish for. Barring his gift of the gab, which was an awful nuisance, to be sure, I never had anything to complain of. He never shirked his work; and once, when I was laid up with low fever, he uursed me like a woman, and worked the claim without a murmur. Soon after I got page 74 well our claim was worked out, and we had to look elsewhere for another, for every inch of the gully was taken up. I remember the night we parted. We were sitting in the tent, with the gold before us, and our revolvers on the table; for we had to look out pretty sharp, those days, mates. Many's the man who has been robbed and murdered without any one being the wiser; strange things have been done on the diggings, which man's tongue will never speak of. I've seen some sights which make me shiver when I think of them; just the same as Cranky Bill——but I mustn't spoil my story.
“Well, we were sitting there with the gold before us. Our claim had been a rich one, and we had over three hundred ounces to divide, after all our sprees.
“‘Tom,’ said Cranky Bill, as he sat looking at the gold, ‘if I had had my share of that gold at home, I should never have come out to the gold fields, and my wife would not have died.’
“How can you tell that, Bill?” I asked.
“Ah, but I know,” he said. “You see, ours was a love match. We lived at Birkenhead. There was an old hunks of a money-lender wanted to marry my Lizzie; but although her father tried to force her to the match, she would not consent, and we were married one morning, quietly, and without their knowing. We were very happy—she was a good girl, was my Liz—and we could have got along very well, if it had not been for that money-lending miser. To spite me for marrying the girl, he bought up all my debts—they were not much, about four hundred pounds—and almost worried me mad.page 75
And do you know one morning I caught the villain in the act of insulting my wife, and learned that this was not the first time he had done so, threatening that, if she mentioned it, he would sell me up and put me in prison. I didn't show him any mercy, you may be sure; I beat him till he was sore, and kicked him out of the house; and the next morning I had to fly, for his bailiffs were on the look-out to arrest me for the debt. He sold me up, and turned my wife into the streets, and we came together to Liverpool in a sad plight. However, I shipped before the mast, and a friend assisted me to pay for my wife's passage. It was not until we had been at sea a week that she told me that the doctor had said if she left England she would not live a twelvemonth. She died within the year. So, you see, if I had had my share of that gold at home, I could have paid that old scoundrel's debt, and my wife would not have died. If I can ever get enough money to go home and ruin him, I shall die contented.”
“And he broke out into a storm of oaths and curses.
“‘I tell you what, Tom,’ he said, after a bit, ‘I shall go down to Melbourne and see my little daughter, and then I'll go prospecting. I know that there are places where the gold can be got in lumps, and I mean to find them out. I dreamed the other night that I came upon it in the rock, and that I had to cut it out with a chisel.’
“I tried to persuade him from this; for I did not like the idea of losing my mate, but I might as well have talked to a mile-post. So we divided the gold, and that night he started on the tramp to Melbourne.
“I did not see or hear anything of Cranky Bill for page 76 some months after this; and, somehow or other, luck was against me—every hole I bottomed turned out a duffer. I went to every little rush; had half-a-dozen different mates in as many months; and didn't earn tucker any week during that time. I wonder,” said Cornish Tom, meditatively, “where all the names they give to the gullies come from? I've worked in Jackass Gully, Starvation Gully, Donkey-woman's Gully, Pegleg Gully, Choke'm Gully, Dead Horse Gully, and lots of others—I've sunk holes in them all. But no place is so strong in my mind as Madman's Gully, and I shall never forget the way I came across it.
“I had been working for nearly three weeks on Murdering Flat—nice sociable names, ain't they?—and was pretty well down on my luck. I remember that I had made about seven pennyweights in those three weeks; and I also remember that I hadn't an ounce of gold left in my bag. I was working as a ‘hatter,’ and I had been particularly unlucky that day, having got about three grains, which I flung away in a rage. I was just thinking whether I might not as well go to the grog shanty for a nobbler or two—it was nine o'clock at night—when who should walk in but Cranky Bill. I did not know him at first, for he had let the hair grow all over his face, and he was covered with it up to his eyes and down to his breast; but I wasn't long in the dark, for I recognised his voice directly he spoke.
“‘All alone, Tom?’ he asked.
“I nodded; and without saying another word, he went out, and brought in in his arms a beautiful little girl, asleep. She wasn't above six years old, but she was so page 77 pretty, and looked so like a little angel, that I fell in love with her at once. Of course, I was a bit surprised when he brought her in, and he could see this as he laid her down upon my stretcher.
“‘This is my daughter, Tom,’ he said, answering my look; ‘if ever I go to heaven, I shall have her to thank for it. She is my good angel.’
“‘Where are you come from, Bill?’ I asked, after we had covered her up with the blankets.
“He looked cautiously round, and then taking a seat close to me at the end of the stretcher, said, in a whisper,
“‘I've found it Tom!’”
“His eyes glared round so awfully, that I felt quite scared as I asked him what he had found.
“‘I've found the place where the gold comes from,’ he said, in the same voice; ‘I know I am near it. I always thought I should find it at last. Look here.’
“And he pulled out of his breast-pocket, a nugget weighing nearly seventy ounces, and half a dozen others, from fifteen to twenty-five ounces each. Lord! how my heart beat as I looked at them, and how I wished I could drop across some of the same kidney. I don't know how it is with you, mates, but although I don't value the gold much when I have got it, I can't express the eager delight which fills me when I come across a rich pocket. I think the sight of bright shining gold down a dark claim, is the prettiest in the world.
“‘How are you doing, Tom?’ Cranky Bill asked, as he put back the nuggets.
“‘Can't make tucker, Bill,’ I answered; ‘my luck's dead out.’page 78
“‘Well, look here,’ he said, ‘you're all right now. I have come to fetch you, and shew you where you can make fifty ounces a day. Will you come?’
“That was a nice question to put to hard-up digger, wasn't it?
“‘When shall we start, old fellow?’ I said.
“‘Stop a minute, Tom,’ he said, gravely. ‘I have something to say to you first. I want you for a mate again: but we've got to make a bargain. You see my little girl there?’
“‘Well, she is the blood of my heart. I am like a plant, Tom, which would wither, if deprived of God Almighty's blessed dew. She is my dew. And if anything was to happen to her, I should wither, and rot, and die. I want you for my mate, because I believe you to be honest and true. And I am going to show you a place which, of my own free will, I would not show to another man in the world. But do you know, Tom, that since I have had my little pet with me,’—and he laid his hand, oh! so gently against her cheek,—‘all my recklessness and courage seem to have gone clean out of me. For I think what will become of her if I should die—if I should slip down a shaft, or the claim should tumble in upon me, or I should fall ill of a fever, or anything of that sort. These thoughts haunt me day and night, and I have a presentiment of something I cannot express. Now, Tom, listen to me. The place I am going to take you to will make you rich—if we can keep it to ourselves for two or three months (although there is another in the secret, but he won't peach for his own sake), we'll get five thousand page 79 ounces, and perhaps more. Now, lay your hand upon your heart, and swear that if anything happens to me, you will take care of my pet, and be a second father to her, when I am gone.’
“I rose and bent over the dear little one's face—I can feel her sweet breath again upon my cheek—and kissed her. Then I said,
“‘That kiss is a sacrament, Bill. By all that's holy, I will be a second father to your little girl. So help me God!’
“He took my hand, and the big tears rolled down his beard. We neither of us spoke for five minutes, and then he commenced again.
“‘Now, I will tell you all about it. You remember my leaving you to go to Melbourne, after we had worked out our claim in Dead Dog? Well, I went down and found that my little girl was not being well treated. The people she was living with had taken to drink, and had neglected her. And my heart so grew to her—her face is the picture of my Lizzie's—that I made up my mind never to leave her again. We've travelled together, since that time, I don't know how many hundreds of miles.’
“‘How did you manage that?’ I asked; ‘the little thing could not walk.’
“‘Sometimes I carried her,’ he answered; ‘and I got her odd lifts, now and then, upon the drays and wagons. There was never a drayman or a wagoner who refused to give my little girl a ride, if he was going our way. Why, do you know,’ he said, laughing, ‘once she saved me from the bushrangers. They were upon me in the page 80 Black Forest, before I knew where I was, and called out to me to stand. We had just been having tea, and I was stooping over the log fire to get a light for my pipe. I jumped up, and saw them before me. There were three of them. They were splendidly mounted, and were dressed in red serge shirts and silk sashes. Well, my girl runs up to my side, and stands looking at the three men. They were dumfoundered. “Is that yours, mate?” they asked. “Yes,” I answered; and then one of them got off his horse, and asked my little girl to give him a kiss, which she did; and he knelt down before her, and put her two hands on his eyes, and kissed them over and again. “If every man had a little angel like that by his side,” he said, “it would be the better for him.” And then, taking off his silk sash, he put it round my girl's waist; and they all wished me good night, and rode off. That was a lucky escape, was it not? However, while on the road, I could not get along as quickly as I wanted to, so I bought a wheelbarrow.’
“‘A wheelbarrow!’ I exclaimed, surprised.
“‘Yes, a wheelbarrow,’ he said with a comical look; ‘and I put my little girl in it, and wheel her wherever I want to go. Well, to get along with my story, I came upon the gully where I am working now. Directly I saw it, I knew that it was right for gold. I went to a station, about twelve miles off, and laid up a stock of provisions. Then I set to work. Oh, Tom! it is a gully; and rising up steeply on one side of it is a rocky range, with great masses of quartz sticking out. I've broken up a lot of it, and have got plenty of little nuggets out of the page 81 stone; and I know that if we could get a shaft down, we should find the gold in lumps. I worked by myself in this gully for two months, and got over four hundred ounces; but one day, when I was cradling, I saw a man looking at me. My mind was made up in a minute. He had wandered by accident to the place, and had discovered me working. So I took him for a mate, and we were together until the day before yesterday.’
“‘And now you have parted,’ I said.
“‘Yes. My pet don't like him, and I absolutely think he doesn't like my pet. Then there's my dog Whiskey snarls at him whenever he comes within chain-length; and I believe in dogs, Tom. I had a stand-up fight with him, the day before yesterday. He said something to Liz, that made her cry; so I gave him a thrashing, and told him I would have nothing more to do with him. I knew you were knocking about in these parts, and I determined to come and find you.’
“‘Did you bring the child in the wheelbarrow?’ I asked.
“‘Yes,’ he replied, ‘it is in the bush, half-a-mile away, with my swag, and Whiskey is taking care of them. No one must know where you are going. What do you say to packing up your swag, and starting right off?’
“My swag did not take long putting together, and Bill, taking the little girl, who was half asleep and half awake, in his arms, led the way into the bush.”
Cornish Tom had got thus far with his story, when a motion of William Fairfield's finger to his lips, made him pause.page 82
“I could swear I heard a cry for help,” said William, listening anxiously.
They all went again to the door, but when they were outside, the wind was so violent that they could scarcely stand. They peered about them, and searched, and called out for fully a quarter of an hour, but they saw nothing, and heard no sound in reply to their shrill cooeys.
“Fancy, Will,” suggested Gentleman George, as they went in.
“No,” said William, “I don't think it; I have thought two or three times that I heard a cry. But it may have been the wind, after all.”
“There can't be anyone there,” said Cornish Tom, “or they would have heard our cooeys, and answered them.”
So they huddled together again, and Tom proceeded with his story.
“We travelled the whole of that night, lest we should be tracked, taking it in turns to wheel the little girl, who slept soundly all the time. It was a beautiful starlight night, and as we went along, Cranky Bill pointed out lots of likely looking places, that had never had a pick put in them to prove if there was gold there or not. I wanted to stop and try some of them, but Bill kept urging me on, and would not listen to an hour's delay. We lay quiet, and slept by snatches during the next day, and at night we pursued our journey. Well, about midnight, we came to the gully. We had been travelling for two or three hours over a heavy rocky range, and what with the steepness of the hill, and the page 83 weight of our swags, and the wheelbarrow with little Liz in it (although she often got out and walked, or was carried in our arms a bit), it was awful work, I can tell you. At last we got to the top, and there beneath us, some five hundred yards down, was the gully. It was scarcely a gully: it looked to me, when I first saw it, for all the world like a large basin, shut in by the steep ranges. You would have thought there was no outlet from it, unless you climbed over the hills; but when you got down you discovered two or three artful little turns, which took you to other gullies and basins, almost as queer-looking as this. As we walked down, Bill showed me his tent, and said that he should not wonder if his mate was sleeping in it. Sure enough, as we came near, out he rushed with a revolver in his hand, and he let one barrel fly at Whiskey, who had sprung at him the moment he made his appearance.
“‘Lie down, Whiskey,’ said Cranky Bill, seizing the dog by the collar; ‘and you, Ted, put down that revolver, or I'll wring your neck for you.’ And, almost on the words, Bill let go the dog, and jumped on the fellow, wrested the revolver from his hands, and sent him spinning a dozen yards away. It was not too soon done, for I believe he would have shot us in another minute. He was a desperate-looking fellow, was Teddy the Tyler. I heard some queer stories about him afterwards.
“‘You murdering villain, you,’ said Bill, as Teddy the Tyler rose from the ground, with an evil look, and shook himself; ‘what do you mean by pointing your pistol at me like that? Do you know you might have shot my little girl?’page 84
“She was standing at his side, and clinging to him, trembling with fear.
“‘A good job if I had,’ muttered Teddy the Tyler, vindictively.
“Cranky Bill strode quickly up, and seizing him by the shirt-collar, forced him to the ground by dint of sheer muscular strength.
“‘Now, just you listen to me,’ he said, as Teddy lay helpless at his feet. ‘If ever you raise your hand against me, or my little girl, or my mate, or my dog, or anything that belongs to me, I'll break your infernal back for you; I will, by the lord!’
“‘What do you bring loafers into the gully for?” growled Teddy.
“‘That's my business,’ answered Bill; ‘this is my mate now, and if you call him a loafer again, I'll knock your ugly teeth down your throat. But I'm not going to have anything more to do with you. I make you a present of the gully; I know a better one—ah! you may stare, but you'll not put your foot into it, my lad. Tomorrow morning I shall take my tent away, and you can work here by yourself till you rot, if you like. I don't think you are fool enough to get the place rushed, for that would put an end to your little game. Pick up that revolver, Tom, and stick it in your belt. Throw out of the tent everything that belongs to the thief.’
“I carried his blankets and some clothes out to him, and threw them down, while he stood scowling.
“‘There's another thing in there,’ he said; ‘there's my neckhandkerchief.’
“And I flung to him a bright-colored handkerchief, page 85 which he wore round his neck. As he slung it carelessly over his shoulders, the light of the moon caught it, and I noticed particularly the combination of bright colors in which it was woven.
“‘Ain't you going to give me my revolver?’ he asked, sulkily.
“‘Not likely, my lad,’ replied Cranky Bill. ‘You might find too much use for it.’
“‘All right,’ he said. ‘But just you look out, Bill. I'll make this the worst night's work for you, that you have ever done. If I don't make you smart for this, may I be”——
“We did not take any more notice of him, but, putting the chain on Whiskey, we went into the tent, and lay down till morning.
“We were up with the lark, and out. As we passed along the gully, I noticed that Teddy the Tyler had put up a sort of mimi, and that he was asleep under it.
“‘Now then, Tom,’ said my mate, ‘I'll shew you a place that will open your eyes. That fool there doesn't know anything about it. You remember the old schoolboy maxim, that ‘cheating never thrives.’ Upon my word, I believe it to be true; for if I had not found out that he was a cheat and a thief, I would have shown him a better gully than this one.’
“Coming to the end of the gully, we walked over a little bit of a rise, Bill leading the way, through a heavy clump of timber on the other side. We might have gone half a mile, when Bill clapped his hands before my eyes, and told me not to look. We might have walked a hundred yards further, when he took his hand away, and page 86 told me to open my eyes. It was a strange-looking spot, to be sure. It was a steep gully, that seemed to have been scooped out of the range, and it was just the shape of a saddle.
“‘Look here, Tom,’ said Cranky Bill, stooping down before the stump of what had been a large tree, and scraping up the earth from the roots; ‘here's a couple of pennyweights;’ and he held up a little nugget he had found in the dirt. ‘We shall get some heavy nuggets in the saddle.’
“Well, to cut a long story short, we removed the tent here, and commenced sinking. Talk of jewellers' shops! One of our claims took the shine out of all of them. And as day after day went, and our bags got heavier and heavier, I began to talk to Bill about going home, and buying a farm, and settling down. It was all settled. We were to live together, and the girl was to grow up into a beautiful young woman, and get married, and then we were to take care of the children—and she used to listen to us, and laugh, and clap her little hands——lord!” mused Cornish Tom, “when I think of those five weeks we worked together, I can scarcely believe that what took place afterwards was real. How I loved that dear little angel! She called me Father Tom, and every night, as she knelt by the crib we had made for her, she used to wind up her prayers with ‘God bless dear papa and Father Tom, and make me a good child!’ Then, on Sundays, we would take a walk, and gather wild flowers; and Bill in the evening would read a chapter out of the Bible. Do you know, mates, (said Tom, suddenly breaking off,) that I don't think page 87 Sunday on the diggings is at all properly spent. I know lots of diggers who make a practice of spending it in sly-grog shanties, and nobblerising. I don't know where the fault lies, but it's true enough there's something wrong. Those Sundays, with Bill and his little girl, are never out of my thoughts. I wish I could spend my Sundays now, as I did then.
“During this time, we had only seen Teddy the Tyler once. About a fortnight after we started working, he came strolling upon us in the after part of the day. A tin dish, with nearly a pound of gold in it, was lying by the claim, and as he came up, he threw a woefully covetous look at it. I should tell you that the little girl was asleep in the tent.
“‘What do you want here?’ asked my mate. We were both at the top of the claim.
“‘Nothing particular,’ he said. ‘I came to see how you're getting on.’
“He had his pick and shovel hanging over his shoulder, and, walking past the claim we were working, he stuck his pick in the ground, and began tucking up his shirt sleeves.
“Cranky Bill went up to him, and taking the pick and shovel, pitched them a dozen yards off.
“‘Do you remember me telling you that you shouldn't come into this gully?’ he asked.
“‘You might say what you pleased,’ said Teddy the Tyler. ‘It is as much mine as your's. I mean to fight for it, mate, at all events.’
“‘That's fair,’ said Cranky Bill. ‘If you lick me, we'll give you our claim, and get another. Tom, come and see fair play.’page 88
“And to it they went. But Teddy the Tyler might as well have stood up against a rock as against my mate. Bill was the strongest man I ever saw, and he gave Teddy such an awful thrashing, that he threw up his arms in less than a quarter of an hour.
“‘Had enough, mate?’ asked Bill, coolly.
“Teddy did not reply, but shouldering his pick and shovel, he walked away without a word; throwing a devil's look behind him though, as he went.
“‘He'd murder us, if he could,’ I said.
“‘I dare say,’ said Bill, ‘but we won't give him the chance.’
“You would hardly believe, would you, that in five weeks we got eleven hundred ounces of gold? We did, though; and then something happened that makes my blood shiver to think of. I had started the night before to get some provisions. We used to start off in the night, so that we should not be discovered, and when we went to the station early in the morning, for meat and flour, the people did not suspect we had been walking all the previous night. I was the whole day getting back, for I took my time, and kept my eyes well about me, to see that I was not followed. I was within half a mile of our gully, when who should I meet but Cranky Bill, looking like a madman. Running up to me, he said, wildly—
“‘Tom, for God's sake, answer me quickly: have you seen Lizzie?’
“‘No,’ I said, while an uncomfortable feeling rose at my throat.
“‘She's lost! She's lost!’ he screamed. ‘Oh, my pet, page 89 my darling! if I don't find you, may the world be burned, and all that's in it.’
“I really thought he was going mad. I had a deal to do to keep myself cool, for I was full of fears, and you know I loved the little thing as if she were my own daughter. When I got him a bit calm, I said, as quietly as I could—
“‘Let us be cool, Bill, and we shall have a chance of finding her. If we don't keep our wits together, we might be her death.’
“‘I know! I know!’ he said, repressing his agitation. ‘What are we to do?’
“‘First, when did you miss her?’
“‘This morning,’ he replied. ‘I got up at daylight, and left her sleeping in her crib. I kissed her before I went out. I shall never kiss her again! I shall never kiss her again!’ And he broke cut into a passionate fit of sobbing.
“I waited quietly until this was over, and then I told him to go on.
“‘I came back to breakfast, and she was gone; and the dog had been taken off his chain, and was gone, too. I've been looking for her all day, and I shall never see her any more!’
“‘I am glad the dog was with her,’ I said. ‘How long is it since you were at the tent?’
“‘I was there an hour ago; but all this talking will not bring her back. Let's search for her. Perhaps she has climbed over the range, and is lost in the bush.’
“‘She could never do it—she hasn't strength enough, the dear little thing, to get to the top. Now, Bill, listen page 90 to me. I am cooler than you are, and I intend to keep cool; although I'd give my legs and arms rather than any hurt should come to her, I am not going to let my feelings run away with me. If I am to assist you, I must know everything. Let us go back at once to the tent, and start from there. Here's my hand, Bill, and I'll search till I drop before I give her up.’
“He took my hand, and we went back to the tent. The first thing I did was to look at the dog's chain. It had been unlocked in the usual manner, and the key was lying on the table.
“‘That's plain proof,’ I said, ‘that Lizzie herself let him loose, and took him out with her. Had she all her things on?’
“Yes, her hat and mantle were gone, and also a little basket which she used to take with her sometimes, and fill with wild flowers.
“‘You see,’ I said, ‘she went out flower-gathering. Now, which way did she go?’
“I was puzzled for a few moments, and then I thought she would probably take the road she knew best; and that was the one that led to the gully Crazy Bill had first worked. There was a creek on the road, pretty deep in some parts, and I jumped at the idea at once, that she might have fallen in. All this time, Bill was behaving in a most dreadful manner. He took up the little things that belonged to her, and kissed them over and over again. He called her by name, as if she could hear him; spoke of his dead wife, as if she were standing before him; and, altogether, he was about as useless as a man well could be. Then, taking a match-box, half filled with gold, he threw it on the ground, shouting—page 91
“‘To the devil with all the gold! Devil gold! Devil gold! Why did I come here and lose my pet for you? Oh, Lord! take all the gold, and give me back my daughter.’
“‘Come along, Bill,’ I said, without appearing to pay any heed to his ravings, for I knew that was best; ‘I am going to the creek to look for her.’
“‘She hasn't fallen in!’ he cried. ‘How do you know she has fallen in? It's not true! My little pet is not drowned! No! No!’
“‘I don't say she is drowned,’ said I. ‘God forbid that she is! Behave like a man, Bill, and keep your senses about you, or we may as well give her up altogether.’
“You see, I could not help speaking so to him, and after a time I got him to be a little more reasonable. Then we started to walk to the creek. I searched carefully all the way, but could see nothing that would give me the slightest clue. When we got to the creek, Bill absolutely shook with fear. We tracked it up and down for a long way without any success, and then we sat on the bank, looking at each other.
“‘Don't be cast down, Bill,’ I said, after a little consideration, ‘she can't be drowned.
“‘How do you know that?’ he asked moodily.
“‘Why, the dog can swim,’ I answered, ‘and if he could not have saved her, he would be somewhere about.’ And then, as a sudden thought came into my mind, I said, ‘Bill, have you been to Teddy the Tyler?’
“He gave a sudden jump, and turning quite white, he whispered—page 92
“‘Why, do you think’——
“‘I don't think anything,’ I interrupted, decidedly. ‘Let us go and see him.’
“So we walked in silence to Teddy the Tyler's tent. It was late in the evening, now, and Teddy was sitting by a log fire, smoking his pipe. He barely looked up as we approached, but I noticed that he drew near to him with his foot an axe that was lying on the ground.
“‘Good evening, mate,’ I said, by way of commencement, although I felt more inclined to throttle him than to be civil to him. As for Bill, he was trembling with excitement. There was a gleam in his eyes I did not like, and I knew that I must keep myself cool for his sake.
“Teddy did not reply to my good evening, but still sat smoking. He had one eye on the axe, though; I didn't miss that.
“‘Are you deaf?’ I asked.
“‘No,’ he snapped. ‘Are you?’
“‘Look, here, mate,’ I said——
“‘And look you here, mate,’ he interrupted, ‘I don't want any of your good evenings, or any of your company. What are you loafing about my gully for? I'll split your skull open if you stop here much longer.’
“‘Keep a civil tongue in your head, mate,’ said I. “‘We've come here especially to see you, and I am going to ask you a question or two. You will have to answer them, my lad, or you will never answer another.’
“‘You can ask a thousand questions, if you like,’ said Teddy, ‘you won't get me to answer one.’
“‘We shall see,’ I replied. ‘We are in search of page 93 little Lizzie. She has not been home all day. Have you seen her?’
“Cranky Bill had been quiet all this time, but had never moved his eyes off Teddy. He did not seem to like this, didn't Teddy, and he shifted his position more than once. When I put the question to him, he gave us both a sharp, quick look, but made no answer.
“‘Have you seen Lizzie?’ I repeated. ‘Has she been here to-day?’
“Still no answer.
“Suddenly, Bill made a spring at him, but Teddy was on his legs in an instant, brandishing the axe over his head. Bill avoided the blow, catching the handle on his arm, and, closing with Teddy, had him on the ground in no time, with his knee on his chest, and his hand at his throat.
“‘Hold off, Bill!’ Teddy choked out. ‘Take the madman off, or he'll throttle me!’
“‘Answer that question,’ shouted Bill, loosing his grasp a little; ‘if you don't, I'll kill you!’
“‘She hasn't been here to-day,’ the fellow gasped.
“‘Have you seen her anywhere, you devil?’ asked Bill.
“‘No,’ was the sullen reply.
“‘You may get up,’ said Bill, rising; ‘I believe you are lying, you thieving knave. If I find that you are, I'll tear your heart out. Mark me, Teddy the Tyler, if I discover that you have seen my girl to-day, and have been telling us lies, you shall cry blood. Come away, Tom, the sight of him turns me sick.’
“We had a weary night of it. We searched in every page 94 likely place: we lighted fires on every little rise, so that they might catch the child's eye, if she was any where near; but when the morning came, we were as far off finding her as ever. What puzzled me most, was the absence of the dog. We could find no trace of him. If anything had happened to the child, I thought, his instinct would surely have led him back to the tent. We came home tired and disheartened. We had not eaten a morsel the whole night. Bill, I don't believe, had tasted food since he first missed her. He had not even smoked a pipe. I was thinking to myself, what shall we do next, when my mate, who had thrown himself upon the ground, said in a low voice, as if he was frightened that any one should hear him, ‘Tom, we have not looked down the claims.’
“The idea that our little girl might be lying at the bottom of one of the holes, dying, turned me quite faint.
“I jumped up without a word, and we re-commenced our search. Bill was terribly shaky, every fresh hole we came to. I went down myself, so as to save him the shock; and I cannot tell you the relief I felt when I came up from the last hole, without finding her.
“‘Let's go to the old gully, and look there,’ said Bill.
“And we went in silence. The sun was just rising over the hills, and the laughing jackass was waking everything up with its gurgling laughter. Teddy the Tyler was not out of bed, so I first went down the claim he was then working. I suppose the noise disturbed him, for he came presently, half undressed, and looked over the claim. Bill was standing at the top, and page 95 Teddy had just come as I climbed out of the hole. He began cursing, and asked what we wanted now.
“‘It's only fair to tell him,’ said Bill. ‘We're looking for my Liz. She might have tumbled down one of the claims, you know.’
“I noticed Teddy's lips turn white. But he commenced again grumbling and swearing, and we left him. We searched every hole in the gully, but found nothing; and then we went away. I noticed that Teddy was watching us all the time.
“And now, mates, something happened that I have thought of a hundred times since, with wonder. I was a better man then than I am now, for you see I had the impression of those Sundays with the chapters out of the Bible, and the quiet walks with little Lizzie, full upon me. And I thought at that time that God Almighty had assisted us to the end of our search. We had got out of Teddy the Tyler's gully, and were passing a gum-tree, upon which half-a-dozen laughing jackasses were perched. As we passed, they all set up a laugh, which, somehow or other, so grated upon me, that I threw my stick at them, and sent them flying away. I went to pick up my stick, which had fallen to the ground a good distance off, when I noticed an abrupt turn in the range, leading to a gully. Knowing we had not searched there, I called out to Bill, and we walked down the declivity.
“‘Look, Bill,’ I said, ‘some one has been prospecting. Here's a six-foot hole.’
“And I put my foot at the side to go down. Before I reached the bottom, I saw that our search was over. There lay our little girl, with her face turned upwards, page 96 as if she were asleep. I could not distinguish the expression of her features, and, indeed, I did not stop time enough, for directly I saw what was below, I came out of the hole again.
“‘Well, Tom?’ said Bill; and then seeing something in my face, for I was awfully white and fear-struck, he added, ‘For God's sake, speak, Tom, is she there?’
“‘She is, Bill,’ I said, as quietly as I could, ‘but be steady, lad, be steady, let us get her up first. Don't give way, Bill, as you love your dear little one; don't give way yet a while.’
“And all the time I was speaking, I was getting the rope ready to raise her. Bill was shaking and quivering all over, but he stopped himself and gave me what assistance he could, and in a very short time she was lying at the top of the claim. As she lay with her eyes turned blindly to the sun, I could scarcely believe she was dead. In her innocent young face, the roses were still blooming, and my eyes brimmed over as I saw grasped in her pretty little hands the remains of a few wild flowers she had been gathering. I stooped and kissed her pure fresh lips. Then I turned away, for my emotion was overcoming me.
“‘Oh, my darling! my darling!’ I heard Bill say, ‘You are not dead. Look at me—speak to me, my pet. Throw your arms round my neck,’ and he pressed her to his breast, with a fierce eagerness, and kissed her a thousand times. ‘She can't be dead, Tom. Feel her heart, is it not beating? Feel, feel! I say!’
“I placed my hand upon her heart, to please him, but its pulse was stilled for ever.page 97
“‘Bill,’ I said, solemnly, for it was an awful thing, was the sight of that dear angel lying dead upon the grass, ‘she's dead! She has gone to a better world than this.’
“Dead!” he cried, springing to his feet, and throwing his arms wildly about him. ‘Then strike me dead too!’ And he looked up, as if expecting a thunderbolt to fall upon him.
“‘Hush, Bill,’ I said; ‘do not blaspheme at such a time as this. It is God's will, and she has gone to Him.’
“He threw himself upon her body again. He clasped her in his arms—he nursed and rocked her, as if she were asleep—he called her by every endearing name; and then, as if awaking to the fact that she was dead, he sprang up, and screamed wildly—
“‘How did she die, Tom? Who killed her? Do you hear me? Who killed her?’
“I was hurrying away, when he seized my arm.
“‘Where is the dog, Tom?’ he cried. ‘Where is the dog?’
“And he tore about like a madman, in search of the dog. I looked for it too, for the absence of that dog was a thing I could not understand. I heard Bill's voice, calling out that he had got it, from a clump of bush hard by; and presently he came up to me, and laid poor Whiskey dead at my feet. The dog had been shot through the heart.
“‘Who shot him?’ he asked, a little more quietly. ‘You see he's been shot. Who did it? Whoever killed the dog killed my child!’
“I knelt down and examined the dog's body. It was quite stiff, and had something in its mouth. Forcing the jaws page 98 apart, I took it out, and recognised it immediately. It was a piece of the colored silk handkerchief I had thrown out of the tent to Teddy the Tyler, the first night we came to the gully. The dog had evidently torn it away savagely, for shreds of it were sticking in its teeth.
“‘There has been foul play here, Bill,’ I said.
“‘I know, I know!’ he exclaimed, impatiently. “Whose handkerchief is that off, Tom? I want to hear you say the name. Out with it, man!’
“‘That is a piece of Teddy the Tyler's handkerchief,’ I said; but I could say no more, for Cranky Bill had dashed off, like a madman, in the direction of Teddy's tent. Although I followed him at once, I could not keep pace with him, and when I got to the gully, I saw Teddy flying up the range, with Cranky Bill tearing after him. Teddy, who had a revolver in his hand, turned round twice, and fired at Bill. The last time he did so, Bill staggered, but recovered himself in an instant. The range, as I told you, was very steep, and as they scrambled up, Bill gained ground rapidly. Just before they got to the top, my mate seized Teddy, and grappled with him. Then commenced such a struggle as I never wish to see again; and, presently, down they dashed, one over another, locked in each other's arms. I ran up to the spot where I knew they must fall; and although they came down with a fearful crash, they were not separated. They were both dead. Bill had been mortally wounded by the pistol shot, but he had such a grasp on Teddy's neck, that I could not loosen his fingers. And that was the end of Cranky Bill and poor little Lizzie!
“I did not stop any longer by myself in the place, you page 99 may be sure; but I went and told the story, and in twenty-four hours, five hundred men were working in what was called—how it got the name, or who bestowed it, I can't tell—Madman's Gully from that time.
“I buried little Lizzie and Cranky Bill in one grave, and the miners helped me to put a fence round it; and that is the end of my story.”
Cornish Tom's story done, the men in the snow-shrouded tent sat about the fast-dying embers of their fire, and commented on it. The wind had somewhat abated, but the cold was intense.
“I can't help thinking,” said Gentleman George, “of the party in the next gully. Do you know that when Will thought he heard some one cry outside, I fancied that they might have come over the range for company. Perhaps—who can tell?—they know a way out of this, and came to tell us.”
“Likely enough,” said Cornish Tom. “What do you say to our going over to them? We shall never be able, by ourselves, to make our way out of this. If we stop here any longer, we shall be frozen to death; all the firewood is used up—bacca nearly gone—and grub not very plentiful. I tell you what we'll do: we'll start off at once. I couldn't sleep if I tried. It is moonlight, and we shall be able to pick our way as well if it were day.”
Cornish Tom's suggestion was eagerly listened to, and was adopted without any hesitation. Some of the party were inclined to sleep, and all were glad of the opportunity of being active. It was resolved that page 100 Gentleman George, Dick Driver, and Cornish Tom, should go, and that William should be left to take care of the tent. They calculated to be back by daylight, when they would commence the task of retracing their steps out of the region of snow. They took some long poles and ropes with them, and in a few minutes William was left alone.
He was not sorry that they had left for a while. He wanted an opportunity of being alone with his thoughts. Standing by the tent door, he watched his mates treading their way carefully along until they were out of sight, and then he went in and threw himself upon his stretcher. As he lay dozily dreaming, a strange fancy haunted him. He thought he heard a cry for help sounding from afar off. He roused himself, and listened intently. Although the wind had lulled, he heard no sound, and he dozed off again—only to be again awakened by the seeming cry. It was but imagination; of that he was certain; but he could not rest, so he rose and went to the door. Nothing but the snow-covered peaks and hills could be seen. No sign of life was near; and a shivering feeling of desolation crept over him, as he thought that perhaps he might never look upon mortal face again. As this impression grew upon him, the scene reminded him strangely of his last Christmas Eve at Warleycombe. He looked around, almost expecting to see the queer faces and the shadows of his dream. The hill, down which had swept the avalanche, was before him; he could not see the faces he had seen peeping down from the tree at Warleycombe in which he had fallen asleep, but he saw——page 101
Yes, he saw the great hill nodding to him grimly. By degrees it assumed the form and shape of a monster man, and his fevered fancy peopled its rugged sides with snow-elves and shadows, all staring at him with glittering eyes. For a few moments, he gave himself up to the vision, and allowed it to grow upon him. Yes, the Shadows started up from the ground on all sides, and surrounded him with their waving arms. As he advanced among them, they retreated, but beckoned him still to come. He felt as though drawn forward by an invisible power, and he had already wandered some distance from the tent, when, overpowered by nervous excitement, he sank down half insensible upon the snow. He did not lose his sense of consciousness; he was too nervously-wakeful for that; but everything around him assumed an air of strange unreality. He heard voices in the air, voices that filled him with dread.
“Crush him into the snow!” they said. “Bury him a hundred miles down! Freeze for ever the heart of the man who doubted Love, the Purifier!”
And as they spoke, he saw the Monster Man-Hill bend threateningly over him, lower, lower, lower! until he feared lest it should topple and crush him out of existence.
“My life is over,” he thought. “Hope has departed from it. Love has melted out of it. The woman I adored was false!”
“No!” came an awfully deep voice upon his ear, and the word was echoed and re-echoed a thousand times by the surrounding hills. Then the echoes as suddenly ceased; and, like a bell-note upon the rarified air, clear page 102 and sweet, stole a voice which smote him with mingled pain and pleasure.
“No!” it said, “the woman you loved was not false. Why did you judge unquestioningly? Miserable atom as you are! it would be a fitting punishment if you were left to die in your despair! She whom you loved is pure—pure as the snow which may be your grave. What are you, that you should destroy and wither her young life? Tear from the rose of Love the parasyte Doubt, and awake from your dream!”
The voice ceased; the Shadows disappeared; and William rose from the ground, and rubbed his eyes. His limbs were almost benumbed. He had wandered far from the tent; and he was about turning thitherward, when a dark shade upon the snow, some distance off, caught his eye. He moved forward; and he trembled with agitation as he saw stretched upon the ground the bodies of two men. He knelt and tried to rouse them. In vain: they were insensible; perhaps dead. The cries he had heard were real, and had proceeded from these two men! He could see their pale faces in the moon-gleam; and one, bearded as it was, struck upon his memory like that of an almost forgotten friend. He carried the men, still benumbed and rigid, to the tent, and tried every means in his power to restore their consciousness. Almost despairing, he searched in their pockets for some means of identification. In the pockets of the first he found nothing but a match-box full of gold, and an empty pipe. On the other, he found a pocket-book. As he knelt over him to take it from his breast, and looked into his face, the same page 103 impression of an old familiar association struck him; and he passed his hand across his brow, as if endeavouring to trace the connecting link to the fancy which enthralled him. The next moment he opened the pocket-book.
Was he dreaming still? He started to his feet, his body all a-glow with excitement; for in his hand lay the picture of Laura Harrild, looking at him with her truthful eyes! With trembling hands he opened a letter, the characters of which were familiar to him; and with a despairing cry he dropped into his seat. Yes, he saw it all now. This man lying at his feet was Laura's brother. It was he to whom she was bidding farewell on Christmas Eve; and as William read on, his eyes were blurred with tears. He remembered Laura's agitation on that evening as they sat in the curtained recess, when he told her the story of his friend who had forged his father's name. Now it was explained. Some years before, her brother also had forged his father's signature. His father never forgave him, nor would he allow his son's name to be mentioned in his house. To all inquiries he returned but one answer—that his son was dead; and so the years rolled on, and to all Laura's entreaties for forgiveness for her brother Reuben Harrild turned a deaf ear. Willliam recalled the shadow of the man he had seen upon the snow outside the house, and Laura's entreaties that he would not stir to learn who was there; for her brother had bound her to secresy, and had especially enjoined her not to disclose the affair to her future husband. Wearied with his unsuccessful efforts to obtain his father's pardon, Young Harrild resolved to emigrate, and to trust to time page 104 to heal the breach between them. And on that Christmas Eve he had bidden Laura a secret farewell. Through the window of the room in which the merriment was going on, he had watched once more for the form of his father, whom he might never see again; and so, with good resolves in his heart, he had said adieu to his native land, hoping that his future life might redeem in his father's eyes the wrong he had done in the past. As William read, an agony of remorse fell upon him, and the words he had heard the Shadow speak to him in his dreams bore a strangely new significance. Yes, she was pure—she was true. She loved, and had ever loved him. Even through his misery, this thought gave consolation.
“I have not seen him,” Laura wrote in one part of the letter, “since the night you bade me farewell. He saw our parting, and misconstrued it. I forgive him, dear brother, for you know I never spoke to him about you. Daily I reproach myself that I did not tell him; for a woman should have no secrets from her husband. And, oh! dear Arthur, I loved him so, that my heart aches sorely at the thought that he should deem me untrue.”
“Fool, fool! that I was,” William muttered, as he read. “Forgive me, Laura, forgive me! And oh, God! pity me, for the blessing I have thrown away.”
“If you should meet him,” the letter went on, “for he has gone to the Colonies, speak to him Arthur, dear. Ask him to write to me, for I cannot live under the thought that he thinks I have deceived him. I will not grieve if he should have ceased to love me—I can bear that; but my heart is his, and I shall love him for ever. Tell him all about yourself, and about our parting that night; and if he is in error, undeceive him.”page 105
And then she bade God bless her brother, and prosper him, and bring him home again, safe and well; and prayed that he might be re-united to his father once more—for she still hoped to gain for him forgiveness.
When William had read on to the end, he bowed his head, and buried his face in his hands. He had thrown away his precious love, he had wrecked his life and her's by his unworthy suspicion. Going to the door of the tent, the drift whizzed by him in blinding particles, and the mournful wail of the wind filled him with dread.
“I shall die here,” he thought, “and she will never know. Oh! Shadows! that visited me on that night, and on this, would that I had listened and believed!”
And he fell upon his knees, and raised his hands in an agony of pleading for forgiveness, while the flying snow about him shrouded his form in white.