The Germ Growers/Chapter 6



All the events described at the close of the last chapter succeeded one another very rapidly. I do not think that four hours in all could have passed from the beginning of Bomero's last harangue until Jack and I stood together over Gioro's grave. The sun had not reached the meridian; the atmosphere was perfectly clear; and the triple peak which had been the signal of so much disaster stood out clear and well-defined in the west.

What were we to do now? Were we to stay here and die like starved bandicoots when the first drought should come on? That was the question in both our minds, and that was the form in which Jack expressed it. "Let us get some food first," said I, "and then we shall see. Thank God it is easy enough still to get food." We soon lit a fire and shot some duck, and with the help of some of the wild fruit already mentioned and the water of the creek we did well enough. Then we talked over the situation, and it soon became clear that only two courses were open to us if we were to return to civilisation, or even to live. The one course was to push backward by the way we came. And if it had not been for the last two days' journey we should probably have chosen that way without hesitation. And even now if we could be sure of not meeting the blacks again, I think we might have tried it. It was true that we might wait here long enough to make sure that the blacks would have gone west-ward, but all the while we should wait, the tracks and the other waymarks would be gradually becoming obliterated. Besides, it was certain that we could not live by snaring birds and spearing fish for food as the blacks could, and our powder and shot would soon be done. Our better hope seemed to lie in the chance of finding white men somewhere near, and the strange proceedings of Bomero seemed surely to indicate the near presence of white men. He must have met some pioneers from the west coast. Such men were often known to treat the blacks as if they were mere wild beasts, and it seemed not unlikely that some act of reckless cruelty on the part of the white men might have been witnessed by him, or, at least, that he might have heard of such from some other blacks.

Jack had a little pocket telescope, and he examined the hill to westward with it. After a careful scrutiny he declared that he saw a man in one of the gaps on the top of the hill and that he was a white man. "Yes, I see him," said I, for I thought I observed something moving, "but I cannot say whether he is black or white." Jack handed me the glass, but I could not now distinguish even with the glass any sign of life or movement.

He took back the glass in a hurry and looked again, and then he declared that he could no longer see any man. "And yet," said he, "there was a man there, and he had on a long coat, and there was something odd and foreign in the look of him."

"Nonsense," I said, "you could never tell that at such a distance and with such a glass."

"Well, one would think not," he said, "and yet it was as I say."

I then went over my calculations with a view to determine whereabouts we were, but I could not by any means make our position far enough west to render it likely that we were near any settlement. We had no instrument by which we could make observations with any approach to accuracy. Our latitude was not much changed since we had left the wire; that much we could see from the stars. But our course had been so very zigzag that it was quite impossible to estimate our longtitude within a hundred or more miles. And even if our course had been due west all through I still could hardly think that we were near the head waters of the western slope. After all, however, it seemed the wisest course to reconnoitre, first, this mountain or hill. If there was no one there it would be still Possible for us to return to where we were now, and to make a start eastward. Indeed, if the hill were not inhabited, that would be the only course that would be in the least degree hopeful. For certainly to strike westward without any guide er any knowledge of the way would be for us, and in such a country as Australia, to face certain death.

We made up our minds, therefore, to explore the hill at once. We put together somehow the remains of our breakfast, enough for two very spare meals each. We took a good drink of water and filled with water a small flask which would suffice to moisten our lips and throats in case we should find none at the hill. We reckoned that the hill was not quite ten miles away, and if that were all, we should get here in time to reconnoitre while it was still daylight, and if no prospect of help appeared we would return early in the morning. Then we took our farewell of poor Gioro's grave and set our faces to the hill. The way was quite easy; there was but little timber and the grass, although thick, was short. There were still evidences about us that the past season had been wet, but we did not find the ground boggy, and the atmosphere was fresh, clear, and bright. As we marched forward the shape of the hill became better and better defined, and more striking. It stood quite alone in the plain, from which it seemed to rise sheer upward with little or no slope.

It looked for all the world as if it had been dropped from the sky, so completely without connection was it with the surrounding landscape. As we drew nearer, it presented more the appearance of a huge irregular building which had become covered in the course of ages with vegetation. But, as we drear nearer still, these odd appearances gradually wore away, and began to look not very unlike other lonely and precipitous rocks which I have seen in Australia. Such a rock, for example, as the Hanging Rock, near Woodend, only very much larger, or such a rock as that other one a little north of the Billabong, and south of the Murrumbidgee, near the railway between Albury and Wagga.

As we drew near the foot of the precipice we made for the shadiest spot that we could find.

The various crags of which the hill was formed were covered almost everywhere with a foliage which differed but little from the prevailing Australian type.

There was abundance ef the sweet smelling shrub which is common along the shores of Port Phillip. I pressed and rubbed a few of the leaves and the smell was just the same. There was less of the blue gum and more of the lightwood than I had elsewhere seen, and there were a good many pines. There were also a few remarkable shrubs that I have not seen elsewhere, and a few large and queer-looking flowers of a bright red colour.

We made for this particular spot not only because it was the shadiest but because it seemed to have a fresher and greener look than the rest of the hill; and our delight was great when upon reaching it, and after poking about a little while, we found a large basin or pond of water surrounded and shut off by rocks. It was nearly elliptical in shape but rather elongated: about thirty feet by ten. The water seemed at first as if it issued from the earth, but on closer inspection we had little doubt that it was due altogether to the rainfall percolating through the cliffs from the heights above.

Here we sat and refreshed ourselves for an hour or so before consulting as to our further progress.

It was later than we had reckoned on, for the journey to the hill had taken a longer time than we thought it would take; so we resolved to decide nothing further until the morning.

We chose not to light a fire although we knew by experience that the middle of the night would be very cold. We told ourselves that though we had seen no sign of any more natives there were probably some about, and therefore that it was better not to light a fire. Our prevailing reason, however, was an indefinite sense of dread which had come upon us and which we confessed to one another as we sat and ate.

We chose to attribute this dread to the strange and threatening shape of the hill as we approached it. Yet as we looked about us now we could not but acknowledge that we had seen many more awful cliffs and precipices without any of the unreasonable feeling which we could not but confess to now. A little while before sunset I noticed something which I tried to tell myself was most likely nothing, but which, nevertheless, increased this indefinite fear into a sense almost of horror.

The sky was perfectly cloudless, but for all that the shadow of a cloud fell on the ground quite near. The sun was very low and the shadows were nearly at their longest, and yet about this there was a shapeliness too definite for a cloud, a sort of shapeliness which might have reminded me at once of those other shadows of which I have told you, and yet it did not then remind me of them. It was the same sort of shadow, only elongated by the setting sun. It passed away very rapidly and I said nothing of it to my companion who was dozing.

Indeed, I felt the same unaccountable unwillingness to speak of it that I felt when I had seen the like of it before.

Next morning we awoke early, and found to our great delight a second well of water higher up the cliff. It was very much smaller—only a few feet across, but it was purer; and we determined if we remained long here to reserve it for drinking and to bathe in the larger one.

After we had bathed and had eaten the few scraps of food which remained to us, we began to reconnoitre, and we were both immediately struck by the appearance of the ground a few hundred yards to the south of where we had slept, but still at the foot of the cliff. The ground was worn away, it might be by water, it might be by some heavy mass being dragged along it.

It had a curious air of something like regularity, which suggested, and yet which need not suggest, art or design. We saw, however, at once, that it was the termination of a sort of hole in the cliff, apparently coming from above.

As this hole proved to be quite large enough for three or four men to stand up in it abreast, and as the ascent of it seemed not impracticable, we began to think of trying to ascend it.

Jack thought that it might lead us to the top more easily than the surface of the hill. Certainly no part of the cliff, as far as we had seen, seemed at all practicable, but I saw no reason to suspect that we should find a readier passage upward here. Still I agreed with Jack that we might as well try it. I insisted, however, that only one of us should go up, and that the other should await either his return or some signal from the top, if that were possible.

We agreed finally to cast lots to see who should stay behind, and the lot fell upon Jack. I immediately began the ascent, and found it very much easier than I had expected. The darkness increased only for a little while, and by and by it began to grow light, and I then discovered a sort of roadway with steps moulded out of the soil on either side.

After perhaps an hour of this work I came suddenly to a level. The passage opened into a spacious cave, which was dimly lit by a large opening in the rock, across which there seemed to be growing a thick scrub, not so thick, however, but that here and there the sunshine came freely enough through.

I had little doubt now that I was coming upon some hiding place of the blacks, and I proceeded with very great caution. I made slowly for the opening in the rock of which I had spoken, and when I had nearly reached it I saw that I could, without very much difficulty, force my way through the scrub. On a closer approach I observed with great astonishment that the scrub seemed to be arranged in two square pieces, which were certainly suggestive of a gateway.

There was a framework of dead branches, or rather two frames, and the scrub was roughly twisted in and out upon these. I thought it best now to make some preliminary observation from behind the screen of leaves and branches.

I soon found a small opening where I could see without any risk of being seen. I looked cautiously through. What I saw I will tell you in the next chapter.

Note.—I have never been able to come to any decisive conclusion as to the origin and use of this cave or underground passage by which I made the ascent to the gateway as above described. It was in no way necessary, as far as I could see, to the people of whom you will read in the following chapters. I should have thought it an old haunt of the blacks but for two reasons: If it had been so it must have been long disused by them, and yet it was evidently still, or quite recently, in use, but for what purpose I am unable even to guess. I tell you the facts as I find them.—R. E.