The Germ Growers/Preliminary



When I first heard the name of Kimberley[1] it did not remind me of the strange things which I have here to record, and which I had witnessed somewhere in its neighbourhood years before. But one day, in the end of last summer, I overheard a conversation about its geography which led me to recognise it as a place that I had formerly visited under very extraordinary circumstances. The recognition was in this wise. Jack Wilbraham and I were spending a little while at a hotel in Gippsland, partly on a tour of pleasure and partly, so at least we persuaded ourselves, on business. The fact was, however, that for some days past, the business had quite retreated into the background, or, to speak more correctly, we had left it behind at Bairnsdale, and had come in search of pleasure a little farther south.

It was delicious weather, warm enough for light silk coats in the daytime, and cold enough for two pairs of blankets at night. We had riding and sea-bathing to our hearts' content, and even a rough kind of yachting and fishing. The ocean was before us—we heard its thunder night and day; and the lakes were behind us, stretching away to the promontory which the Mitchell cuts in two, and thence to the mouth of the Latrobe, which is the highway to Sale. Three times a week a coach passed our door, bound for the Snowy River and the more savage regions beyond. Any day for a few shillings we could be driven to Lake Tyers, to spend a day amidst scenery almost comparable with the incomparable Hawkesbury. Last of all, if we grew tired of the bell-birds and the gum-trees and the roar of the ocean, we were within a day's journey of Melbourne by lake and river and rail.

It was our custom to be out all day, but home early and early to bed. We used to take our meals in a low long room which was well aired but poorly lighted, whether by day or night. And here, when tea was over and the womenkind had retired, we smoked, whenever, as often happened, the evening was cold enough to make a shelter desirable; smoked and chatted. There was light enough to see the smoke of your pipe and the faces of those near you; but if you were listening to the chatter of a group in the other end of the room the faces of the speakers were so indistinct as often to give a startling challenge to your imagination if you had one, and if it was accustomed to take the bit in its teeth. I sometimes caught myself partly listening to a story-teller in the other end of the room and partly fashioning a face out of his dimly seen features, which quite belied the honest fellow's real countenance when the flash of a pipelight or a shifted lamp revealed it more fully.

Jack and I were more of listeners than talkers, and we were usually amongst the earliest who retired. But one evening there was a good deal of talk about the new gold-field in the north-west, and a keen-looking bushman who seemed to have just returned from the place began to describe its whereabouts. Then I listened attentively, and at one point in his talk, I started and looked over at Jack, and I saw that he was already looking at me. I got up and left the room without a sign to him, but I knew that he would follow me, and he did. It was bright moonlight, and when we met outside we strolled down to the beach together. It was a wide, long, and lonely beach, lonely to the very last degree, and it was divided from the house by a belt of scrub near a mile wide. We said not a word to one another till we got quite near the sea. Then I turned round and looked Jack in the face and said, "Why, man, it must have been quite near the place."

"No," said he, "it may have been fifty miles or more away, their knowledge is loose, and their description looser, but it must be somewhere in the neighbourhood, and I suppose they are sure to find it."

"I do not know," said I; and after a pause I added, "Jack, it seems to me they might pass all over the place and see nothing of what we saw."

"God knows," he muttered, and then he sat down on a hummock of sand and I beside him. Then he said, "Why have you never told the story, Bob?"

"Don't you know why, Jack?" I answered. "They would lock me up in a madhouse; there would be no one to corroborate me but you, and if you did so you would be locked up along with me."

"That might be," said he, "if they believed you; but they would not believe you, they would think you were simply romancing."

"What would be the good of speaking then?" said I.

"Don't speak," he repeated, "but write, litera scripta manet, you will be believed sometime. But meanwhile you can take as your motto that verse in Virgil about the gate of ivory, and that will save you from being thought mad. You have a knack of the pen, Bob, you ought to try it."

"Well," said I, "let it be a joint concern between you and me, and I'll do my best."

Then we lit our pipes and walked home, and settled the matter in a very few words on the way. I was to write, but all I should write was to be read over to Jack, who should correct and supplement it from his own memory. And no account of anything which was witnessed by both of us was to stand finally unless it was fully vouched for by the memory of both. Thus for any part of the narrative which would concern one of us only that one should be alone responsible, but for all of it in which we were both concerned there should be a joint responsibility.

Out of this agreement comes the following history, and thus it happens that it is told in the first person singular, although there are two names on the title-page.

  1. In North-west Australia.