DROWNING THEM LIKE RATS.
"Plough of Nature! Hand of God!
Fallow deep the hills eternal!
Bless for these the mountain sod
With full fruit and pasture vernal!
Somewhere in the by-and-by,
Sounds of distant life are humming;
They are nearing, though not nigh,
And the day of homes is coming."
Australian Poets, H. H. Blackham.
High in the far-off glens rose thin blue curls from the homesteads;
Softly the low of the herds, and the pipe of the outgoing herdsman,
Fled to her ear on the water, and melted her heart into weeping."
As Travers and Gwyneth turned along the hill-side, who should the unconventional couple meet but Hilda and Maud, riding with Larry O'Lochlan. Both parties were moving too rapidly for it to be marked that they did not pull up. Neither desired to do so. The men doffed their hats gaily. The women looked at their horses' heads demurely.
"Who is that young 'Duchess of Devonshire' with the buttercups round her hat?" asked Larry of Hilda, when they were well out of ear-shot.
"A young person from the village that my brother has picked up. Not very considerate of him. I believe she's respectable enough."
"Do not speak of her in that way," interjected Maud. "She is really a good clever girl. I often meet her."
"But that is no reason why our brother should demean himself by driving her out."
"You know he has peculiar notions," said Maud, "concerning social distinctions. With respect to them he regards only education and character. After all, we are by ourselves in this community."
"She makes a pretty picture, at any rate," remarked Larry.
"Pretty pictures should be hung up at home, in their proper place," replied Hilda, with undisguised vexation. "But everything's topsy-turvy here," she continued. "I wish we were back in the city, and had never seen the place."
At the top of a ridge, as the dog-cart still ascended, Travers drew rein to afford his companion an opportunity of observing the view.
"See what a year or two has effected since you descended this hill the day of the Hegira!"
"It is beautiful. I thought so that evening, when I looked on the sleeping valley with its clumps of tents. It is changed as if by magic. How picturesque the two long avenues with the crops and vines and pastures beyond! The lakes alone are the same."
"They will appear animated before long."
"I do admire those boulders and these light-hued trees—what do you call them?"
"That is the native cherry. Has it not a soft yellow-green leaf? That a pine. Those sombre-looking sentinels, she-oaks. This again an apple-tree."
In the scattered gum-trees, white with flower, parrots of rosy hue were chattering, darting from bloom to bloom like bees about the honeysuckle. Below, as if watching for the crops to ripen, a cloud of cockatoos were shrieking—now sweeping in a white mass upon the plain, now swarming again about another clump of trees, like flakes of snow on a mountain fir. In the pauses between the shrieks and chatter of the feathery tribe, sounds of children's laughter, the lowing of cattle, shouts of animated groups watching the football contest on the village green far below, arose, as if a few hundred yards away, on the clear air softened and sweet as from another world. Wreaths of smoke ascended lazily from three hundred scattered cottages, the perfume of flowers from a hundred gardens mingled with the stronger odours of eucalypts on the hill-side.
"Better than the crowded slums and dreary artisans' quarters of most of our cities," Travers suggested.
His companion was too moved to reply at once. Feelings of gratitude and joy were filling her breast, in which the light of a new-born love was kindling.
"I should like to live here," she said at length as if to herself, "and look always on that scene, watch the trees we have planted grow, see the first-fruits of our labours bearing down the boughs, and all the promise of the land unfolding and fulfilled."
"So you shall," her companion had almost replied; checking himself he remarked—"
"Strange to say, I have selected this very site for myself. Already I have a lodge erected beyond those trees. Some day, when our ships literally come home, and lie, not two or three, in that broad lake, I shall build a bungalow palace on this hill-side and watch the development of our village of the vale."
"Aye, well I do, one of the finest chapters the sage ever dreamed."
"You remember," she continued, "the world-sick Teufelsdröckh ascending the mountain-side, breathing disappointment and defiance with every step, and, looking down on a scene such as this, being softened at last by the sights and sounds of a smiling hamlet. Beautiful it was to sit there musing and meditating," repeated the girl. "I think I know the passage by heart. 'In the high table-lands in front of the mountains; over me the roof, the azure dome ... And then to fancy the fair castles that stood sheltered in these mountain hollows, or, better still, the straw-roofed cottages, wherein stood many a mother baking bread, with her children around her—all hidden and protectingly folded up in the valley folds.' I forget the rest," said the maiden, hesitatingly. "You remember," she continued after a pause, "the homely descriptions, and, further on, that pathetic passage—may I try to quote it?—'With other eyes could I now look upon my fellow-men; with an infinite love; with an infinite pity. Art thou not tried and beaten with stripes, even as I? Art thou not so weary, so heavy-laden, and thy bed of rest is but the grave? Oh, my brother, my brother, why cannot I shelter thee in my bosom, and wipe away all tears from thy eyes? The poor Earth, with her poor joys, was now my needy mother. Man, with his so mad wants and so mean endeavours, had become the dearer to me; and even for his suffering and his sins I now first named him Brother.'"
"Thank you very much," replied Travers, as they drove on. "I shall always associate this familiar scene with that passage. There is much that is soothing and invigorating in the prospect of Nature's peace, especially when evidences of man's domestic joys and husbandry are prominent. The village, nestling at the foot of the mountain, has a thousand more interests hidden away about it, than all the snowy peaks, giddy ravines, and dazzling splendours of lonely mountain heights. Though world on world, in myriad myriad, roll round us ... What know we greater than the soul? ... than man? Yet no life—is it not strange?—is so stunted and distraught at the present day as the social."
"You are going to alter that here, at any rate," she said, cheerfully. "In this valley, human existence is not to be the only sorrowful failure in creation."
"I hope not," he said, thoughtfully, flicking a fly from his leader's back.
"Whose sheep are those sweeping round the hill beyond the lake?" asked the girl. "What yellow specks the lambs appear! How distinctly the bleating of the little truants is carried across the water!"
"Do you not recognize your own property?" replied Travers, laughing.
"I? I have not one lamb to my name."
"No great loss. The sweet pet-lamb is a myth; the reality has cream-clogged chin, body like a child's toy-horse, stiff legs to fit a hogget. When it matures into something comely, it ungratefully takes itself off to the flocks. But do you not know that those sheep are yours?"
"The property of the village you mean."
"Yes, and a very valuable one too, I assure you," replied Travers.
"But the profit will be your father's."
"Not at all. He will charge a nominal interest, that is all. By degrees his share will be purchased, and you will own the entire property."
"I wonder where father is," said the girl after a time, with evident anxiety. "We ought to have met him."
"I will find him out in two minutes, if you like."
"How can you? We are, I suppose, five miles from home."
"Hold the reins, please. We'll soon ring him up."
"Please do not laugh at me, I really am anxious."
"I am not joking, as you will see."
From beneath the seat of the dog-cart the young engineer drew a small machine, which, leaping from the vehicle, he attached to the top rail of the wire fence, and began vigorously turning a handle.
"What are you doing?" cried Gwyneth, laughing, while Willie, forgetting himself, stood up at the back and peered over Gwyneth's shoulder with amazement.
"Why, it's a coffee-grinder, I do believe," the lad whispered.
A little bell began to ring.
"Are you there?" inquired Travers, bending over an almost inaudible disc.
"Oh, my office, is it? Ask whether Mr. Elms has returned."
In a few moments the words came—"He has just arrived."
"Tell him we shall be home by six. Has the mail arrived?"
"No other news?"
"In the Lovibanks Paddock?"
"Send a man to repair it."
Leaping into the trap, disposing the instrument under the seat, the dog-cart was in a moment whirling again on its way.
"Your father has returned," reported Travers; "I have told him we shall be back by six. Good sales reported from Melbourne. The telephone shows a great gap in the fence—a fire perhaps—and some trees fallen."
"Do you mean to say you can telephone all about the place?"
"As readily as in a city. The top wire of all the fences outside, and of some cross ones, like this, are rendered continuous."
"But there must be many breaks."
"No; a slight connecting wire carries the current round the straining-post—such as that one there; do you see?"
In a few moments the head of the lake was reached. Handing the reins to his companion, Travers began inspecting the dam, while Gwyneth surveyed the scene and chatted with Willie. The lad, restrained hereto by Travers' presence, opened his heart as to the beauties of the place—the new life, and the telephone, that seemed to impress him much. There was only one trouble, he was no nearer finding his father.
"I wish I could go and look for him, miss."
"But you would not leave me and Mimosa Vale?"
"No; but I'd like some one belonging to me, in all the world."
"So I have caught you, have I?" said a voice from behind, as a man, with a gun across his shoulder, stood before them. Gwyneth started involuntarily.
"Oh, it's only Dick," said the girl, recognizing her quondam lover. "You quite startled me. What brings you here?"
"Rabbits!" was the laconic reply; "but I didn't expect to meet lovers."
"I do not know what you mean," replied the girl, reddening.
"Yes you do; and more than that, you know what it is to play fast and loose with two at the same time."
"You cannot think what you are saying."
"Don't I?" was the reply. "Mark you, he shall never have you. Not content with robbing us of the reward of our labour, these capitalists would steal our very flesh and blood."
"You are talking riddles."
"Then this is the solution of them. You shall never be the wife of that man, Gwyneth," he continued, with a faltering voice. "We have known each other since we were children. Are you. going to cast me off for this squatter's son? Consider well. I have a lot of good—or a lot of bad—in me."
The girl was moved. She had never given her affections to this strange man. She had despised him. Had she taken enough trouble to convince him that his suit was hopeless? Perhaps not. In truth she had never seriously regarded it.
Willie had wandered away, plucking flowers. The young man put down his gun, took the girl's hand, and said hurriedly—
"Gwyneth, dear Gwyneth, is it to be heaven or hell in my heart? Do you choose poverty or wealth? A plain man who will love you, or a gilded creature who will play with you, and then cast you aside?"
Gwyneth had had time to recover herself. Withdrawing her hand she replied—
"Richard Malduke, you must relinquish these wild fancies. You force me to say that I do not love you; that I never did, that I never can. But let us be friends, Dick, and not make fools of ourselves."
"Then you love that man?"
She was about to deny the allegation, but the lie she would utter refused to pass her lips.
"That is no business of yours," she replied.
"Is it not?" he exclaimed bitterly. "It used to be," he hissed out, "when you were only a plain carpenter's daughter. Now that you are a rich young rogue's plaything——"
Scarcely were the words uttered, when down came the wattle-stick, with which the girl had been toying, across the young man's face, leaving from forehead to cheek its fiery mark.
Malduke started forward. At that moment, Travers, intent on his work, appeared at the end of the dam.
"Blow for blow a man cannot give, not in one way—perhaps he can in another," muttered the socialist, as, catching up the gun, and shaking his fist at the trembling girl, he disappeared down the bank.
Gwyneth sat on a log and mused. Enraged at the insult to which she had been subjected, she did not regret the summary chastisement she had inflicted, but a sense of danger impending for herself and for others crept over her.
"What is the matter, Gwyneth? You seem excited. Your hand is shaking," said Travers, approaching.
"Oh, nothing. A rabbit started up beside me; I suppose I am nervous."
"Is that all? Come for a stroll down the bank."
The girl begged to return home, but seeing Travers intent as a matter of duty upon examining the canal, and not wishing to be left alone, she went with him.
The two were soon at the bottom of the works.
Thirty feet above them the dam towered; on either side the smooth sides rose perpendicularly.
"I suppose the dam could not break away?" the girl remarked.
"I should hope not. The flood would swallow us up in an instant, like rats in a hole. But there is no fear of that," he said with a laugh.
Further on between the sheer walls the pair proceeded. A head, unobserved, appeared above the works.
"Yes, 'like rats in a hole,'" Malduke muttered. "Into 'the valley of death' they are wandering. How easily I could do it—if it was only him! If she were out of the way. Why so?"
He wiped his brow, on which drops of perspiration were hanging ; blood appeared on his palm.
"She struck the blow, and walks there, tripping beside him—the smooth-faced fool. It shall be their last lovers' walk. She's brought it on herself!"
Picking up a long iron rod, the man stepped on to a tree that had fallen into the lake, and plunged the bar into the soft side of the dam just below the water-level. Entering a short distance it stuck in the damp loam. Seizing a heavy maul that lay on the bank, he drove the bar through the bank until it protruded on the other side. Working the rod backwards and forwards, Malduke succeeded in withdrawing it a few feet; but further out it would not come. The sound of a footstep on the bank caused him to steal along the dam, and hide himself in the scrub on the hillside.
Willie, who had returned from his flower quest, had caught Travers' remark as the lovers descended into the gorge: "We should be drowned like rats." To the child's horror water was even now spurting from a hole in the narrow embankment. Every instant the stream increased in volume. Willie cooeyed and called, but the distant pair could not hear. Throwing himself into the slush the child literally battled with the waters. Finding at length the mouth of the orifice, he pressed his tiny hands upon the aperture. For an instant they held back the gurgling waters. Looking round, Willie could see the two, unconscious of their danger, walking on further into the canal bed. When would they turn? Hours it seemed, as he struggled with the swelling flood.
Should he not escape while he could? The lake level was feet above him. His hands, his knees were stiff. He was drenched with the oozing waters. What! leave his friends to be drowned like rats! With redoubled energy the child held back the angry, baffled tide.
A watcher on the bank raised a gun to his shoulder.
"The darned little cuss. He'll give them time to get back yet! He is game though," he muttered, lowering his gun.
The waters shooting now from the fissure almost washed the child away. Now he was hurled down the bank. Now struggled up again, fighting with the flood for the life of his friends. Nails and knees were torn and bleeding. New fissures, through which the waters were gushing, appeared running upward from the orifice and enclosing a solid triangular mass of embankment.
"Run for your life, lad," rang another voice from the bushes. Unheeding, raising himself on tiptoe, pressing his whole weight against the mass that quivered under his hands, he stood there, staggering, dripping, bleeding; deluged with slush and clay as if holding back the mass that was quivering above him. He was eleven years old. Horace Bellmaine was younger by half, yet the words apply—
"You sob and splutter out your soul; with baby gasps you strive
To play the man as best you can, thou flounderer of five.
D'ye know we ask no harder task, no sterner test of worth,
From those who carve a country's fate—the men who salt the earth."
"Great God! the dam has burst," exclaimed Travers, seeing the solid wall of water coming down the cutting towards them like' a sudden flood in a northern Bilabong. Seemingly there was no escape. Gwyneth, who had not recovered from her former excitement, seeing the body of water approaching, sank in a swoon.
Seizing the unconscious girl in his arms, leaping on to a bank of clay that had been left obtruding, the young man flung his burden on some bushes that were growing on a ledge a few feet above. Just as he himself clutched a sapling, the waters roaring down the ravine washed the clay from beneath his feet, flooding the works twenty feet deep! For some seconds the young man hung suspended above the water-floods, then with a violent effort flung himself, as only an athlete could do, across the sapling. Lifting Gwyneth on to the top of the bank, he began to chafe her hands and call her by name. In a few moments the girl was sufficiently recovered to walk unaided.
As they returned, and Travers was wondering how the embankment came to give way, thanking heaven meanwhile for their miraculous escape, they came upon a man with a child upon his knees. The stranger was rocking himself, weeping and laughing by turns. The boy was drenched. Face and hands and legs were blood-marked.
"He's coming round! He's coming to! My son! My son!" the man was saying as the pair approached.
"It's Willie! How did he get hurt?" asked Travers, as the child opened his eyes.
"How did he get hurt? How did he ever escape?" the stranger asked. "You should have seen him standing there in the rushing waters pushing back the bank as he seemed to think. I was coming down the track there," he continued, "and called out, 'Run for your life.' It was too late, the dam burst that moment. I stood over the roaring abyss and looked for the lad. That minute he comes up, then goes down again. I hesitated to jump in. 'He's done for, anyhow, I thought,' and a man could not swim in them waters. Then up he comes again. 'He's some one's poor child,' I thought, 'I'll try anyhow,' and in I jumps. I don't know how I got him out. I was nigh done myself, and swallowed gallons. I was dazed with the waters whirling me about. Just then he almost knocked agin me. I grabbed him. Round we goes again; somehow out of the eddy at last. With a last stroke I gets to the shore. Then the rummiest thing of all comes. Makes me think I'm in a dream. I washes his face and looks, and I sees—it's my son."
Again the poor fellow began to rock the lad in his arms and to weep like a child.
"How he got there at all, I don't know; I left him in town."
"You must be mistaken," said Travers, who had not heard the child's story; "but never mind, come and get him into the trap."
Willie was now recovering; he rubbed his eyes.
"Am I awake?" he said, looking round bewildered. "I thought you was drownded, miss. I seed yous two walkin' on and on—you'd not come back nor wait for me—along to the gates of Paradise they singed about at t' hospital. The only thing was, you was going down, down, somehow, 'stead of up above."
Willie rubbed his eyes again, and stared up at the rough head bent over him in wonder.
"I was dreamin' I was dead too, and the angels was turnin' me round and round to see if I was fit to go along wi' they, I suppose." He tried to laugh. "Just as we was crossin' Jordan, and the water was mighty deep, I sees my father. He catches hold on me—and—I—forgets the rest."
Again the child gazed with a distant look into the rugged face above him. He sat up.
"Blowed if it ain't my father, be we live or be we dead."
Recovered at length, the lad leaping up flung his arms about the dripping, dust-stained neck, exclaiming—
"S'help me Bob, I do believe, my dear old dad at last."
"It must be he," whispered Gwyneth to Travers.
"You know the child had lost his father, and was always longing to find him."
The pair were much affected when they heard of Willie's strenuous efforts to save their lives. Hurrying him to the dog-cart, and hastily telephoning for a gang to repair the embankment, the party rapidly drove back to the village.
Willie insisted that he had heard hammering behind the dam, and had seen a man slip away into the bushes. Travers was inclined to treat lightly the story, of which the lad had a very hazy idea, owing doubtless to the mental strain and physical shock to which he had been subjected. Gwyneth heard the words, and pondered them in her heart.
That night, however, there was rejoicing in the hospitable abode of Jim and his wife. Chattering and exclaiming, they received father and son who had been "dead and were alive again, lost and were found."