Moondyne/The King of the Vasse
Beside the bright fire of mahogany wood, and slowly advancing to meet the strangers, was a venerable man-an aborigine, tall, white-haired, and of great dignity. It was Te-mana-roa (the long-lived), the King of the Vasse.
Graver than the sedateness of civilization was the dignified bearing of this powerful and famous barbarian. His erect stature was touched by his great age, which outran, it was said, all the generations then living. His fame as a ruler was known throughout the whole Western country; and among the aborigines even of the far Eastern slope, two thousand miles away, his existence was vaguely rumoured, as in former times the European people heard reports of a mysterious oriental potentate called Prester John.
Behind the aged king, in the full light of the fire, stood two young girls, dark and skin-clad like their elder, but of surpassing symmetry of body and beauty of feature. They were Koro and Tapairu, the grandchildren of Te-mana-roa. Startled, timid, wondering, they stood together in the intense light, their soft fur-bokas thrown back, showing to rare effect their rounded limbs and exquisitely curved bodies.
The old chief welcomed Moondyne with few words, but with many signs of pleasure and deep respect; but he looked with severe displeasure at his companion.
A long and earnest conversation followed; while the cunning eyes of the sergeant, and the inquiring ones of the young bushman and his sisters, followed every expression of the old chief and Moondyne.
It was evident that Moondyne was telling the reason of the stranger's presence—telling the story just as it had happened—that there was no other hope for life—and he had promised to show this man the gold mine.
Te-mana-roa heard the story with a troubled brow, and when it had come to an end, he bowed his white head in deep thought. After some moments, he raised his face and looked long and severely at the sergeant, who grew restless under the piercing scrutiny.
Still keeping his eyes on the trooper's face, he said in his own tongue, half in soliloquy and half in query—
"This man cannot be trusted."
Every eye in the group was now centred on the sergeant's face.
After a pause, Moondyne simply repeated the words of the chief—
"He cannot be trusted."
"Had he come blindfolded from the Koagulup," continued the chief, "we might lead him through the passes in the night, and set him free. He has seen the hills and noted the sun and stars as he came: he must not leave this valley."
The old chief uttered the last sentence as one giving judgment.
"Ngaru," he said, still gazing intently on the trooper's face. The young bushman arose from the fire.
"He must not leave the pass, Ngaru."
Without a word the young and powerful bushman took his spears and womerah, and disappeared in the mouth of the gloomy pass.
Te-mana-roa then arose slowly, and, lighting a resinous torch, motioned the sergeant to follow him toward a dark entrance in the iron-stone cliff that loomed above them. The sergeant obeyed, followed by Moondyne. The men stooped to enter the face of the cliff, but once inside, the roof rose high, and the way grew spacious.
The walls were black as coal, and dripping with dampness. Not cut by the hands of man, but worn perhaps in ages past by a stream that worked its way, as patient as Fate, through the weaker parts of the rock. The roof soon rose so high that the torchlight was lost in the overhanging gloom. The passage grew wide and wider, until it seemed as if the whole interior of the mountain were hollow. There were no visible walls; but at intervals there came from the darkness above a ghostly white stalactite pillar of vast dimensions, down which in utter silence streamed water that glistened in the torchlight.
A terror crept through the sergeant's heart, that was only strong with evil intent. He glanced suspiciously at Moondyne. But he could not read the faces of the two men beside him. They symbolized something unknown to such as he. On them at that moment lay the great but acceptable burden of manhood— the overmastering but sweet allegiance that a true man owes to the truth.
It does not need culture and fine association to develop in some men this highest quality. Those who live by externals, though steeped in their parrot learning, are not men, but shells of men. When one turns within his own heart, and finds there the motive and the master, he approaches nobility. There is nothing of a man but the word, that is kept or broken—sacred as life, or unstable as water. By this we judge each other, in philosophy and practice; and by this test shall be ruled the ultimate judgment.
Moondyne had solemnly promised to lead to the mine a man he knew to be a villain. The old chief examined the bond of his friend, and acknowledged its force.
The word of the Moondyne must be kept to-night. Tomorrow the fate of the stranger would be decided.
They proceeded far into the interior of the mountain, until they seemed to stand in the midst of a great plain, with open sky overhead, though in truth above them rose a mountain. The light was reflected from myriad points of spar or crystal, that shone above like stars in the blackness. The air of the place was tremulous with a deep, rushing sound, like the sweep of a river; but the flood was invisible.
At last the old chief who led the way, stood beside a stone trough or basin, filled with long pieces of wood standing on end. To these he applied the torch, and a flame of resinous brightness swept instantly over the pile and licked at the darkness above in long, fiery tongues.
The gloom seemed to struggle with the light, like opposing spirits, and a minute passed before the eye took in the surrounding objects.
"Now," said Moondyne to the sergeant, raising his hand sweeping it around—"now, you are within the GOLD MINE OF THE VASSE."
The stupendous dimensions of the vault or chamber in which they stood oppressed and terrified the sergeant. Hundreds of feet above his head spread the shadow of the tremendous roof. Hundreds of feet from where he stood loomed the awful blackness of the cyclopean walls. From these he scarce could turn his eyes. Their immensity fascinated and stupefied him. Nor was it strange that such a scene should inspire awe. The vastest work of humanity dwindled into insignificance beside the immeasurable dimensions of this mysterious cavern.
It was long before consciousness of his purpose returned to the sergeant; but at length, withdrawing his eyes from the gloomy sketch of gloomy stretch of iron-stone that roofed the mine his glance fell upon the wide floor, and there, on every side, from wall to wall, were heaps and masses of yellow metal—of dust and bars, and solid rocks of gold.