When we saw the light settle down before the door it was about eight o'clock, a little more than two hours after sunset. It was very cloudy but not absolutely dark. We turned our steps at once toward the stair. We had no expectation of any difficulty just yet. The watch which was kept upon us during the night was effectually neutralised; for the watchers, no doubt, supposed that we were safely housed, and that we could not stir without betraying our movements to them. Nevertheless, we walked very softly and spoke almost nothing until we reached the summit of the stair. Then we stopped and held a very brief conference. There were various points of detail as to which it was needful that we should understand one another more perfectly. But after glancing at them it seemed better that we should make a start first, and then we could converse without losing time.
So we hurried along the platform to the car. It was on the very spot where we saw it first, on the evening when we made our first voyage in it. Everything was ready. One battery was in position, and another lay by it ready to take its place. There was a pocket on one side of the car filled with the lozenge-like articles of diet on which we had lived since we came here. There were two glasses like that with which I had observed the seed-beds, and Jack, after examination, pronounced that there was an abundant store of the matters required for the production of the gas which was needed for the inflation of the balloons. The light by which we saw all this stood in the fore part of the car just over a little binnacle where a compass was fixed. Leäfar had more than fulfilled his promise.
I had noticed before in the cars a framework like this in which the compass was housed, but it never struck me what it was for. The compass card was very like ours. It had sixteen points only instead of thirty-two, and these were distinguished by colours and combinations of colours. The light was no doubt electric, for it was to all appearance produced by a battery acting on a system of wires. The wire did not seem to consume very rapidly, and it was supplied by automatic machinery from a large coil fixed under the binnacle. I have said "no doubt electric." I ought to add that the machinery which produced the light had no perceptible effect on the car's compasses nor yet on mine.
As soon as we got into the car Jack proceeded to raise it, as Niccolo Davelli had done, by inflating the balloons. This cannot be quickly done by any but a practised hand. If one who has had no practice tries it, the balloons are apt to get unequally inflated, and so the operator in bringing them every now and then to a state of equal inflation works the car from side to side with a rolling motion. Signor Davelli raised it quickly, without any rolling motion at all. This was only the second day of practice for Jack, but he managed by raising the car slowly to produce very little of the rolling motion.
As soon as he had attained what he judged a sufficient height he connected the batteries with the paddles, and as the wind was, as the sailors say, "dead aft," we soon began to make very great speed.
I noticed now a point in the machinery which I had not observed before. There was a valve to each balloon, and both valves were worked by a sort of movable tap, one tap for both. The effect of these valves appeared to be the maintenance of the cars at a uniform height, or higher or lower as the driver wished. The tap was worked by the same machinery that drove the paddles. And if the driver for any reason wished to make the balloon act independently of the paddles he could disconnect the tap which worked the valves from the machinery which worked the paddles. The connection and disconnection was made by a handle within easy reach of the driver.
After we had got well under way Jack began to speak.
"Now, Bob," he said, "do you think that you can steer while I speak? I have something to say. Here is the handle that you steer by: you see it is fixed so that you pull the way you want to go. That bright blue mark on the compass is East. Never mind the balloons, I will attend to them if there is need. You will have nothing to do but just keep the head of the car due east."
I found but little difficulty in managing the car as he directed, and after about twenty minutes' practice I was able to steer and listen at the same time.
Then Jack began, in a business-like manner, "You have seen the battery that we are driving by now; very well, here is the spare battery which, according to Leäfar's promise, I find." He pointed to the spare battery, which was placed on a sort of bracket within my sight. He took it off, or rather out of, the bracket with his two hands and put it back again.
"I see," said I, "that it is larger; it seems heavier than the other, and in some details different: what of that?"
"Thereby hangs a tale," he said. "I have not been able to learn anything about the way of making these batteries. Indeed, I did not try; there was no time to spare from the more urgent matters. What I have learned is that they have two kinds of battery, one much more easily made and which wastes very much more quickly, but which drives the cars faster while it lasts. That is the sort that we are using now. The other sort is more difficult of production and wastes very much more slowly, and drives the cars more slowly. On long voyages, as I understand, they use the latter sort mainly, reserving the former sort for short voyages and for spurts. Now the spare battery is of the sort that wastes more slowly and drives the car more slowly; whereas it is a battery of the other sort that has been put into operation, what does that mean? I don't know how Leäfar got the batteries, and I don't know what he knows about their use. I think it would not be safe to assume that he is beyond the risk of making mistakes. They have to learn things just as we have."
"He got the battery for us," I replied, "and it seems the safer thing to conclude that he knows more about it than we do. But what does it matter any way?"
"I'll tell you as near as I can. Don't mind a bit of rigmarole or what seems to be such. Trust me for coming to the point all the time."
"Go ahead," said I.
"Very well," he said, "I want to know, or to make as near a guess as possible, at two or three things.
"(1.) How fast are we going now, and how far are we from the wire? or how far were we when we started? That means, how soon shall we reach the wire?
"(2.) What are we to do if we overshoot the wire? We have no way of telling the longitude; my watch indeed is a capital chronometer, but I have altered it by the sun two or three times as near as I could. Besides, we cannot get the sun's place near enough. Now, if we overshoot the wire, we shall either have to cross the continent or else to make southward and look out for the Darling or for the Murray; or, failing either, for the sea.
"I do not think that we can have made much more than three hundred miles of westing from the Daly Waters, and suppose that we are now travelling at the rate of thirty miles an hour, which is not unlikely, we ought, if we keep up the rate, to make the wire at seven or eight o'clock in the morning. If I have overrated the distance or underrated our speed only a little, we may cross the wire before sunrise.
"So far, then, it seems clear to me that we ought to be travelling at the slow rate instead of the quick rate. I thought of this before, but I saw no means of securing one of the larger batteries, and I knew that I could slow the speed of the smaller one.
"Why don't I slow it now? you will say. Well, because I found the smaller and quicker battery put on, although the other was there: why was it put on unless to use all possible speed? I cannot but think that Leäfar considers the prospect of pursuit so great that speed is in his view the first necessity. I may be wrong, but, somehow, this view of the case makes me unwilling to slow the machinery."
"I think you are right," I said; "still it is quite possible that there may be nothing in it. The workers whom Leäfar employs may have been simply bidden to secure the batteries, and to put one of them on; the difference between the batteries may have been altogether overlooked."
"It may be so," he said, "and one must not overlook the possibility, but I don't think it likely."
"Then you see something in the presence of the larger battery?"
"That's it," he said. "If only the voyage to the wire were in view a second one of the smaller batteries would have given us an ample margin for contingencies. I think that the chance of our overshooting the wire has been reckoned upon, and for that reason the other battery has been provided. The smaller battery wastes in less than twenty-four hours, the other lasts, I believe, about four weeks. But the speed of the larger is not much more than half the speed of the smaller. Now, if we do overshoot the wire, a spare battery of the smaller kind would fail us in the midst of the bush, while the larger one would enable us to reach some settlement.
"Just one word more. We are now at full speed, and I found the machinery fixed for full speed when we came on board. Besides, the wind has not in any way changed since the middle of the day, and it is full in our favour now. Our speed is at the very highest, and whosoever put in the battery must have known that it would be so; even if the wind were to fall the difference would not be very great. Now, what do you say?"
Easterly. I think we must go as we are going until dawn of day anyway. If we are not pursued before then, we shall not be pursued at all.
Wilbraham. Why do you think that?
Easterly. It seems to be the way of these fellows to keep as clear of civilised men as is consistent with the pursuit of their malevolent purposes.
Wilbraham. What do you suppose to be their motive?
Easterly. Well, it doesn't seem very far to seek. Among civilised men there is very little belief in the existence of such beings; what little there is is usually not active, and so far as it is active it attributes to them, just as the belief of savage men does, powers greatly in excess of those which they really possess. Either state of mind is highly favourable to their ends, and anything substituted for either; a state of mind like neither would of course be avoided by them. They might almost live among savages without in any way detracting from a highly exaggerated view of their powers; but any decisive appearance of them among civilised men; any experience such as we have had, if established and accepted, would cause their powers to be examined and understood.
Wilbraham. I see; we should take their measure and know how to manage them.
Easterly. That's it; as Mr. Morley says of the clergy, we should explain them.
Wilbraham. And that would be worse for them than a sheer denial of their existence?
Easterly. Very much worse. Their motives and purposes would be known and canvassed like other matters of fact, and much that holds up its head in the world now would be discredited in consequence.
Wilbraham. In short, we may put our confidence in Leäfar's opinion, and we may conclude that they will not pursue us into the civilised settlements.
Easterly. I think so, and therefore my opinion is that when daylight comes if we find no trace of pursuit we may slack speed, and lower the car and look for the wire.
Wilbraham. Agreed. And now what do you think? Shall we be followed?
Easterly. On the whole I think we shall, but it depends on circumstances that we can only guess at.
Wilbraham. Why do you think we shall be followed?
Easterly. Well, it seems to me likely that patrols of some kind are kept, and in that case the absence of the car will be discovered, perhaps is now discovered.
Wilbraham. And what then?
Easterly. Then our quarters will be searched, and our escape will immediately become known.
Wilbraham. How can they tell in which direction to follow us?
Easterly. They cannot tell, but they may very well conclude that we shall make either for the west coast or for the wire, and they may send after us both ways. I wonder if Leäfar knows which course we have taken?
Wilbraham. Yes, he knows. I thought you were not attending when I said it, but I spoke plainly enough. I said, "If we escape shall we go eastward or westward? My purpose is to make for the wire." And he said in reply "Yes, that is the better course." It was near the end of his talk.
"Well, now," said I, "suppose we get through safely, what shall we do with the car?"
"I have thought that over, Bob," he said, "and I have come to rather an odd conclusion."
Easterly. Do you mind telling a fellow what it is?
Wilbraham. Not at all. Suppose now that we should steer this car to Melbourne or to Sydney and exhibit it. We should make a great noise, no doubt, and perhaps a pot of money, but we should ruin ourselves for all that. Even if we go to work like gentlemen, even if we make no attempt to make money out of it, but simply hand over the car to some public body with any statement we like to make, we shall be ruined all the same.
Easterly. I dare say you are right.
Wilbraham. Yes, I am right. For in the first place suppose we make a true statement, and neither of us would consent to do else, what will follow? Either we shall be set down as impostors without any more ado, or else an expedition will be organized to examine the country we have been in. But if Leäfar is right, as no doubt he is, nothing will be found to justify our story. Suppose we warn them beforehand that they will find nothing, that will he accepted as only one proof more that we are lying.
Suppose, now, for the sake of argument, that we do lie, and say that we ourselves invented and constructed the car, then we shall be expected and invited to make another. But we know next to nothing about the manner of producing the gas which inflates the balloons or about the constitution of the batteries. If we should attempt to substitute larger balloons filled with hydrogen, and batteries of such construction as we understand, the almost certain result would be that our car would be added to the long list of discredited flying machines, and ourselves to the much longer list of exposed impostors. How do you like the prospect?
Easterly. Not at all; and I believe you are right. But what do you propose to do?
Wilbraham. If we discover the wire I propose to go back two or three miles and abandon the car. I should like to break it up but we have no tools. I can dismantle it, however, so that nobody will be able to make anything of it if it is found.
Easterly. But if we escape we must give some account of our escape; we are not going to tell lies.
Wilbraham. Not lies; we shall tell the whole truth about the blacks, and for the rest we shall confine ourselves to generalities which will be true as far as they go. They may think us a little bit off our heads, "a shingle short," as Tim Blundel would say, but that won't matter, it will be set down to our wanderings in the bush. For the present at least we had better keep the whole matter as quiet as we can. If we ever see a chance of doing any good by speaking out we shall speak out. But now to more immediate business. Can we try to estimate the rate at which we are travelling?
By this time it was much brighter, the clouds were quite cleared away, and the moon, which was only two or three days past the full, was fairly well up in the sky.
So I said to Jack, "Lower the car a little, then take the steering gear in hand and let me try to estimate our speed. He let the car descend slowly until he could distinguish the trees and other prominent features of the landscape. Then he took the steering gear into his own hand and I looked over the side of the car. The forest was thick in parts, but there were wide spaces of treeless plain; and we were just passing over a range of hills which I think I am right in identifying with a range that we had observed at a distance of several miles when we were among the blacks.
I took particular notice of the larger trees, trying to guess their distance each from the other and referring to my watch every few seconds.
"What do you make of it?" said Jack at last, when he had raised the car to its former height.
"It is hard to fix it," said I, "but I cannot think that we are travelling less than twenty-five miles an hour and I should say much more probably thirty."
Wilbraham. Ah! and how far do you suppose that we have to travel from the start?
Easterly. Say fifteen days passed from our parting with Mr. Fetherston until we reached the valley, and I am pretty sure we made an average of thirty miles a day. But of course that was nearly all westing. I don't think that our furthest point could be quite as much as three hundred miles from the wire. I don't think that your own estimate can be much out of the way, but we are perhaps a little under the mark.
Wilbraham. Ah! if the figures are right the sum is easy; we ought to cross the wire about six o'clock.
Easterly. Yes, but look here; thirty miles an hour is possibly an overestimate of our speed; and three hundred miles is possibly an underestimate of our distance. Besides, we shall not be able to keep up our present speed. The wind is already falling, and may be against us in an hour or two. That would knock, say, ten miles an hour off the rate of speed at which we are now travelling.
Wilbraham. It might, but that is another over-estimate; we may fairly reckon on travelling all night at within five miles of our present rate of speed.
Easterly. I suppose so. Nevertheless, the chances are that if we stop the car about sunrise we shall still be west of the wire. Then we can lower the car, move north, and watch for the wire, then go slowly, still eastward, keeping a sharp look-out as we go.
We were now both very tired, and as there were still some hours to pass before we could expect to get sight of the wire, we agreed to divide the time till dawn into half-hour watches. Each of us wished the other to take the first rest, and so we had to settle the dispute by lot. I told Jack to hide some lozenges, and to let me guess odd or even. Jack won, but our mode of settling the question was not without important effects. For Jack said, when he was putting back the lozenges into his pocket, "By-the-way, I may as well put these with the others in the car pocket," and he did so.
When my turn came I lay down on the floor of the car, as Jack had done, with my hat for a pillow. The lozenges in my pocket were a little in my way; not much, but just enough to remind me of what Jack had done. Still, I didn't rise, only turned over. Then some of the lozenges rolled out of my pocket. Then I jumped up, and said, "I may as well put mine with yours." I did so, and lay down again and slept.
So now we had all our eggs in one basket, and it never occurred to us that we were incurring any risk at all.
It was eleven o'clock when Jack lay down for his first sleep, and we took regular half-hour turns until five o'clock, when my sixth half-hour was up. It was now dawn, and the light was increasing rapidly. We had had enough rest, and it was getting near sunrise. It was time to think of lowering the car and reconnoitring. The morning was very fine, but there was rather a heavy bank of clouds in the east where the sun was rising. We lowered the car a little, and slackened our speed. Presently we disconnected the battery, and so stopped the car. Then we rested at about four to five hundred feet from the ground. I swept the whole field of sight with the car's glasses in search of the wire, but could find no trace of it. Then I looked westward long and anxiously, but could see nothing specially worthy of notice. At last I fell to admiring the beauty of the clouds; they were beginning to reflect the glory of the sun which was now risen, but still hidden by them. There was in the air that sort of shimmering which portends a dry, hot day. I picked out a small bank of clouds to the west, on the near side of which the shimmering which I have mentioned appeared to be greater than elsewhere. I was quietly speculating on the cause of this when the sun extricated himself from the clouds to the eastward, and his rays fell straight and full upon the clouds to westward. Then I saw strike upon the cloud upon which I had been gazing two shadows which I recognised with horror. I cried out to Jack to look, and I lifted the glasses which were in my hand and turned them to the shadows on the cloud, and I saw that he did the same with his glasses. You will remember that we were now at rest, excepting for the motion caused by the breeze which had almost ceased to blow.
The sun was now shining brightly, and we could make out two dark masses moving towards us. I suppose we ought to have got in motion again as quickly as possible, although I doubt if it would have made any difference at all. At any rate, we did not make the slightest attempt to move, but watched in dead silence the shadows of the contending cars. For that they were somehow contending there could be no doubt at all. The one was trying to block the way of the other, and the other was trying to dodge it. The former was pursuing, and the latter was pursued. The two shadows passed right over us, and as they did, the cars, considering the position of the sun, must have been a little way to the eastward of us; and now it seemed as if the pursuing car was underneath the other, and so nearer to us, and as if the pursued car was being forced upward. Just then, however, the pursued car made a very quick turn westward. The movement was followed by the other car, but it seemed, as it followed, to lose just a little ground. Mind, we could see nothing but shadows, but the shadows were wonderfully distinct. Then the shadows passed over us again, and they were now much nearer, and they quite darkened our car. And now it seemed as if the pursued car had given the other the slip, for it was now the nearer of the two; and then both were straight over our heads. It seemed as if something clashed against us, and we perceived immediately that a missile of some sort had been driven right through the side and floor of our car. It had passed between us, and if it were intended to kill either of us, it had certainly missed its aim. We saw that our car remained steady, and we were too much absorbed in the strife going on above us to notice anything else. Then the same manœuvre seemed to be repeated, for the shadows passed over us again, but this time they were much higher, and the pursuing car was again underneath.
A fourth time the shadows fell across us, but they were still higher this time, and the pursuing car still held its place nearer to us. And now the pursued car seemed to give up the contest, for it held its way westward until we lost all trace of it, and the pursuing car stopped and turned, and came towards us until the shadow was all but over us, and then out of the shadow, as it seemed, there fell a long white streamer. It waved one moment backward and forward, and then disappeared. We swung off our hats together, and gave a lusty cheer.
Then the shadow of the car passed away westward and was lost to sight.
So we had been pursued, and the pursuit was over and our lives were saved. So it seemed, and our joy was great; but it was very soon changed for something very like despair. The car in which we rode had canted over to one side, so that it was becoming difficult either to sit or stand straight in it. We soon saw why.
One of the balloons was slowly collapsing, and on examination we found that it had been slightly grazed by the missile which had passed through the car. It was clear that we must lower the car to the ground as quickly as possible, and it was very doubtful if we could raise it again. A closer examination revealed a far worse loss. The missile in question had been driven straight through the wall-bag which held our provisions, and nearly all of them had fallen through the hole which had been pierced through the floor of the car. It was surely no chance which had given the missile its precise direction. It was almost incredible skill and altogether diabolical malignity. We thought that our enemy had aimed at our bodies and had missed his aim: he knew better: the purpose of his missile was to cause our miserable death in the wilderness.
Jack put in action the machinery by which the balloons were filled, and endeavoured to trim them so as to act together. But it proved quite impossible to do so. The rent in the injured balloon was increasing slowly under the pressure of the gas, and it was evident that it would very soon be quite useless. Jack sang out to me to connect the batteries and to set the paddles in motion. I did so at once and I soon perceived why I was told to do so. The injured balloon was now collapsing so rapidly that we were in great danger of being upset by the one-sided buoyancy of the car. It was necessary to empty the other balloon as quickly as possible in order to keep the car in such a position that we could keep our seats. And the rapid emptying of the balloons would have dashed us to the ground but for the motion of the paddles. As it was we were half turned over before we reached the ground, and we fell with rather a severe crash but without any serious injury. I managed to gather up a few of the lozenges which were left on the floor of the car, as they were rolling off the car when we were fifty or sixty feet from the ground.
Here we were now in a condition almost as bad as when the blacks left us; quite as bad, indeed, or worse, for although we were now probably much nearer to help than then, we did not know where to look for it, and we had no time to spend in finding it. When we were left alone before, we had plenty of water and the means of procuring food for at least some weeks. Now the doubt was if we could survive the second day unless help should reach us before its close.
Besides we were not now as ready to stand hardships as then. We were then in splendid condition. But the nervous excitement consequent upon the startling experiences of the few days which had intervened since then had heavily told on both of us; and anxiety and broken rest had also had their effect. I was myself much worn, but I saw now, or thought I saw, that Jack was on the very verge of collapsing. He was brave enough and ready enough, and very much more hopeful than I was, but there was a look about his eyes and mouth which alarmed me.
"What do you think now, Jack?" I said.
"Well, it's rather a bad business about the lozenges," he replied, "but as for the car, he has only done what I should have liked to do myself; we are well rid of it."
Easterley. But where's the wire?
Wilbraham. Well, old man, the wire is not five miles off, you may be sure of that: most likely not half so far.
Easterley. Why do you think so?
Wilbraham. Leäfar would never have left unless he knew that we were near enough. Besides, all our calculations look the same way.
Easterley. I wish I could see the situation in the same light. Our calculations are based on guesses, and may easily be fifty or a hundred miles astray. And Leäfar most likely did not know that our car was badly damaged and our food lost. Besides, the other one seemed to be quite satisfied with what he had done; for he sailed straight away. But he has not done much after all if he has only dropped us without hurt within a few miles of the wire.
Wilbraham. Well, not much as it has happened, but he was very near smashing us to pieces, and the spilling of the food was a clever extra touch. He had got to do something, and he had about a minute to do it in, and he did his best, or his worst: and as for sailing away, I take it he was beaten away.
Easterley. I hope you may be right. We must never say die, anyway. But you don't look well, Jack, though you speak so cheerfully.
Wilbraham. I am a bit seedy, I am sure I don't know why, but I daresay it will pass off soon.
Easterley. I suppose we had better push on, we have most of the day before us yet, and we had better take some of the food that is left. But look! what's that?
Wilbraham. A horse, by George! didn't I tell you?
And a horse it was, but its presence proved after all not to be such a very good sign as we supposed. We thought at first that it must belong to some of the telegraph people, but as we drew nearer we saw that it was Jack's own horse which had been abandoned in the bush on account of lameness. Still it was a good sign. Its presence made it much more likely that we were still west of the wire, and we might possibly make use of it for travelling, but above all it seemed as if there must be water near, and that if we stuck to the horse we should find it.
It was quite an easy matter to catch the horse; he had been well broken in, and his ten or twelve days in the bush had not made him at all forget his training. He seemed to recognise us, and we thought at first that his lameness was quite gone.
Then we reckoned up our store of food. We had saved just nine of the lozenges. We resolved now to take three each, reserving three for the evening.
If Jack was right we should hardly have need of them. And yet we might, for the telegraph stations were far apart, and it might be quite beyond our power to walk to the nearest, and we would not know in which direction to travel in order to reach the nearest. But then, as Jack said, if all came to all we should cut the wire, and that would soon bring us help.
The food quite restored me, but I did not think that it had the same good effect on Jack. He was quite cheerful, brave, and hopeful, but still there was undoubtedly something amiss. So I proposed that Jack should have the horse and that I should walk beside him. "I don't mind," he said, "if I have the first ride." And so it was arranged.
But riding even a very tame horse without either saddle or bridle is neither a pleasant nor a quick way of travelling, and besides the horse's lameness came on again as soon as he had weight to carry, and it became clear before long that we could get no good of him that way. I had improvised a sort of halter out of slips cut from our coats, and so when Jack dismounted, we tried to lead the horse; he showed a decided tendency, both when ridden and led, to go north. "Let him have his way," Jack said, "provided he doesn't make any westing. I will not go away from the wire." The end of it was that we led the horse, or let him lead us, for several hours. We travelled very slowly, indeed, but still we must have got over twelve or thirteen miles, going mainly northward, and making perhaps a mile of easting all the time.
The country that we travelled over consisted of a series of plains which were separated by thin belts of timber. There was little or no scrub. At last we came, as it seemed, to a small dried-up watercourse; but it proved to be not quite dried up, for the horse trotted over to one of the sand-beds where the ponds had been, and found a little hole of water which he drank very greedily. The hole was so small that we did not care to drink after him if it could be helped; but by digging with our hands in the sand a little higher up we got a sufficient supply of water that was fairly good.
We had now got all out of the horse that we were likely to get. This water meant life for a day or two longer. It seemed now to be the best course for us to start from this point due east. If the wire were even within twenty miles of us we might escape. If not, our death seemed certain.
But Jack's increasing debility, which was beginning to make me very anxious, made it out of the question to go farther to-night. Indeed, it was already getting on for sundown. So we took each, one of our three remaining lozenges, and made our camp as best we could. The trees near the watercourse were shadier than elsewhere, and the weather was mild. We had no tobacco. By some mischance we had left it behind us in our escape from the valley. Indeed, such was our excitement and anxiety that we had never smoked once all the time we were there. But now we missed our pipes very much.
Before going to sleep, however, I made a discovery that cheered us up a little. I found two more lozenges in the corner of my pocket. These would give us a shadow of breakfast.
I slept rather well, but Jack was troubled with restlessness and with dreams. And in the morning he was no better.
Things were looking very black indeed. After making our shadow of breakfast we had but one lozenge left, and then nothing but a little water to live upon. Jack was beginning to show signs of collapse. "I know, old fellow," he said, "that I could not persuade you to abandon me, but I'll die very soon, and after I am dead you will still have time to look for the wire."
"Jack," said I, "look here, shall I go and look for the wire now? I'll come back in two hours whether I find it or not, and then we shall stay together while we live. I daresay we have both of us pretty well done with this world, but while there's life there's hope. What do you say?"
"Well," he said, "I think I can live for more than two hours with the help of this water; yes, old fellow, go and look for it; that's the best chance."
I made him as comfortable as I could near the water under the shade, and then I started with but little hope. I was already getting weak with hunger, although otherwise I was well enough. I crossed the plain eastward to one of the belts of timber I told you of. The distance was about a quarter or a third of a mile. Then I marked a tree, and on passing through the belt of timber, which was only a few yards across, I marked another. I was now in a second plain just like the first. I crossed it slowly to the eastward, came to another belt of timber, and marked another tree.
Then I began to think it was of no use to make any further exertion. Half an hour was already gone; I must in any case turn back in half an hour more. "Oh Leäfar, Leäfar," I said, and I wrung my hand, "how could you leave us in such misery?" And then I remembered how little Leäfar seemed to think of death in comparison with the doom I had escaped, and I was ashamed of myself, and I said—
"The will of God be done."
I had crossed the second belt of timber, and I was marking another tree on the east side of it. I was acting quite mechanically and without conscious purpose, for I had made up my mind to return at once, and so I should not need another marked tree. All in a moment I became conscious of this, and I thought that perhaps my mind was going. Then I turned round to look at the plain which I had just entered, and was just about to leave, and, good heavens! there was the wire! This plain was of about the same dimensions as the other two, and right across it ran the telegraph poles.
I just said, "Thank God," and I ran back as fast as my legs could carry me.
Jack was taking a drink of water, and I thought looking a little brighter. I was quite out of breath, and before I could speak he had time to say—
"Why, Bob, you've hardly been away an hour."
"I have found it!" I cried, "I have found it!"
"Take it easy, man," he said; "take a drink of water. Didn't I tell you we were near it?"
We took near two hours to reach it, for we were both weak for want of food, and Jack was ill. Then we sat down under one of the posts and consulted.
"Jack," said I, "we may die of starvation yet, unless you can cut that wire. I couldn't climb the pole, poor devil that I am, not to save your life and my own."
(You will remember, no doubt, that I have already told you that Jack was a very clever athlete.)
He replied after a silence of a minute or so, letting his words drop slowly: "I should have thought but little of it yesterday morning. I am sure I don't know if I can do it now. I'll try."
"I have one lozenge left," I said; "take it before you try;" and I handed him the lozenge.
"I'll take my share of it," he answered, "but not yours too."
"Now be reasonable, Jack," said I; "my life as well as yours depends on your cutting that wire. If the lozenge helps you to cut it, don't you see that it is best for us both that you should have it."
"Very well," he replied; "I believe you are right; give it me," and he ate it without more ado. And then after feeling for his knife he began to climb.
Presently it became clear that he could not get up the pole without some protection to his knees. I cut off the sleeves of my coat and we slipped them up over his legs; they fitted him so tightly that no fastening was needed.
Then he began to climb again with more success, but such was his weakness that it seemed several times as if he would have to give over the attempt. At last he reached the top, and after hanging for a while to rest he began to cut at the wire.
I watched the process with great anxiety. He gave over several times, and once I thought he was going to faint, and I ran up to the post to try and break his fall. But he began hacking at the wire again, and in a few seconds more it fell apart, and one end of it lay on the ground.
Then he began to slide down the post, and before he was down his arms relaxed their hold, and he almost fell into my arms as I stood underneath.
We both fell to the ground, but without any severe shock, and we were quite unhurt. I staggered to my feet and dragged him to some thick shrubs near at hand, where I propped him up as well as I could manage. He did not quite lose his senses, and I whispered, "We are all right now, Jack; we shall have help soon." Then I lay down beside him.
I do not think that I was more than half an hour lying there when I heard the noise of horses, and in about fifteen minutes more a party of horsemen rode up.
We might have lain there for several hours, however, if it had not been for a combination of favourable circumstances. We were only three miles from a telegraph station to the north, and a sharp look-out had been kept for us. It had been kept indeed since the third or fourth day after our departure, and it had been quickened a few days ago by a lying rumour which proved to be unintentionally true. Some blacks had come into the camp who knew both Gioro and Bomero, and they told Mr. Fetherston that Gioro had been killed some days before. Now, as far as I could make out, Gioro had been killed a day or two after they told the story. So they were certainly lying. But it seemed as if every one who knew anything about the matter expected that Gioro would be killed if Bomero's protection were withdrawn. And so it happened as you have heard, and thus their lie came true.
So there was a bright look-out kept for about fifty miles on each side of the Daly Waters, and a party had gone westward into the bush in search of us a few days before, and the moment the communication by wire was broken a party of horsemen started for the point where the break was made. We were now nearly thirty miles north of the Daly Waters.
We were speedily taken to the nearest station and treated with all the attention that we needed. I needed only food and clothes, but Jack proved to be sickening for colonial fever, and was in rather a critical state for some time. He did not seem to me to be dangerously ill. Much languor and a little wandering and extreme prostration were his principal symptoms. I was not very anxious about him, but Mr. Fetherston thought more of the illness than he chose to say. I did not know the nature of the complaint; I have learnt better since then.
Mr. Fetherston asked me several questions, and I told him all about the blacks, dwelling especially on Bomero's panic and Gioro's death. Then I said that after that we had got among some people that had given us food and clothes. He looked very carefully at the coats and hats, and he said, "Why, these must have come from Java, or perhaps from the Philippines. I had no idea that there was any communication."
I said that I was inclined to believe that the people I had met were not of the same race as the blacks, their colour was much lighter, I said, and they had some curious knowledge.
Mr. Fetherstone looked at me with some anxiety and suspicion, and the same evening I heard him say to Tim Blundell that people who wandered among the blacks often got off their heads for a while.
After that I held my peace.
In about six weeks Jack was able to travel, and Mr. Fetherston gave us an escort to Port Darwin.
After about ten days there, we were so fortunate as to get a passage to King George's Sound in a Government steamer. We reached Adelaide about the first week in September.