The New Arcadia/Chapter 33

CHAPTER XXXIII.

THE WHITE MAN OF THE WOODS.

"Like a rock that breasts the sea,
Firm he stood in front of foes;
To his friend a sheltering tree,
That in changeless beauty grows.

Firm alike to friend and foe,
Firm in gentleness and faith,
Firm in 'yes,' and firm in 'no,'
Firm through life, and firm in death."
Sir Henry Parkes.

"The flying rumours gathered as they roll'd.
Scarce any tale was sooner heard than told;
And all who told it added something new,
And all who told it made enlargements too;
In every ear it spread, on every tongue it grew."—Prior.

Beside the lonely beach the doctor sat, with elbows on knees, his eyes sweeping, for a thousandth time, the unbroken horizon, that never revealed speck or sail. As the soft breeze whispered amongst the palm-leaves, and the waters gently lapped the coral shore, the desolate man often dreamed that he heard his daughter's voice singing in the distant vale.

"If I might look upon her face, and know that she was happy!"

Starting to his feet he paced the gleaming sand, stretched forth trembling hands across the deep as though he would draw to him the loved forms he sometimes fancied he saw before him.

"Too hard, too hard to bear!" he groaned, pressing with his hands his throbbing temples, and, all unnerved, sitting down again to weep.

Some twelve feet below the top of the cliff from which he had fallen was a ledge, invisible from above, that protruded from the face of the rock. Catching on a projecting bush, he fell on the ledge, and rolled inward against the cliff.

Stiff and stunned, he lay all day on the horizontal fissure. Now he opened his eyes and half realized his position; now closing them, dreamed of distant scenes he had hoped so soon to visit. Again he awoke. It was night. He dared not move. Hour after hour he watched for the dawn. Daylight fully revealed his terrible position. A few feet from where he lay, the wall of cliff descended precipitously to the water. Not a goat could clamber to or from that dizzy shelf. Above him arose the cliff, sloping outwards to the sea.

There was no escape. He lay down to die. Possibly a rope might be lowered, but how could the searchers imagine that he had found lodgment on that cliff face? The action of Elms and the expression on his face convinced him that the search would not be protracted longer than he could contrive.

As he thought of the treachery of the man he had befriended, of the Will of which Elms had been mumbling in his fevered ravings, of the incoherent remarks about Malduke, and the document that had been destroyed, the doctor recognized the whole truth. The provision that, with a few lines, he had made for the disposition of the first venture, might be read as applying to the later estate.

The thought of his people and his life's work in the hands of these treacherous intriguers caused him, seeking means of escape, to tear again with his hands the smooth walls of his prison-house, and to scan with a practised eye the face of the cliff.

The coral rock, up-thrown by volcanic action, and exposed to the climatic influences of ages, was crisp and yielding. A slight foothold would suffice him. He could balance wherever chamois or its hunter could stand.

Out on the face, yard by yard, he cut footsteps, a narrow siding, in a slanting, upward direction. A sharp, flat stone served as chisel. A few yards along the dizzy precipice face he had levelled when night fell. From sheer hunger and exhaustion he slept. The next day, the third, he continued his labours, while the wild-fowl circled about him, and the white foam, restless to receive him, laved the rocks hundreds of feet below. Before the sun sank his task was accomplished. Out upon the cliff top the captive tottered, blood streaming from the hands that had torn a pathway from a living grave, suspended, like Mahomet's, between heaven and earth. He staggered to the knoll where the mate had slept. A blood-stained handkerchief he waved, shouting till the sea-birds, sweeping in wonder around, drowned his cries with their screeches. Away, towards the horizon, was a dark spot on the water, and a lingering line of smoke, that seemed unwilling to leave him to his fate.

"Lost and cast away!" he cried, as he grovelled on the hill-top, and wondered why the cruel ledge should have intercepted his descent to oblivion. "For the first time and last," he bitterly thought as he dragged himself down to the cave he had stocked, "has the provision I have made for others brought benefit to myself."

Water, fresh and tasteless, was procured, by sinking in the sands a few feet above high-water mark. Fish and mutton-birds with their eggs, cocoa-nuts and roots, served to eke out the store he had made. A hut he built himself; later he planted a garden, and, to pass the time, sowed seeds he discovered in his store. The wild-fowl he sought to tame.

A catamaran he constructed, and set forth on one occasion to cross the Pacific on a raft of logs! A merciful gale hurled him the next day on to the beach. Months passed, much as they have done for thousands shut up with themselves on desolate rocks of the ocean.

The "Two Greatest Books in the world," as he called them, helped him to preserve the reason, which sometimes seemed to be failing. Hour after hour he would read aloud dialogues and description, and live and converse with those whom genius and inspiration have rendered immortal. On margin and cover of each volume he wrote, with his one pencil, annotations and comments, that served to occupy his mind. With the indomitable resolution that had ever marked him, he refused to lie down and die, or to relinquish the priceless spiritual and intellectual powers that were left him.

Of the very irony of fate it seemed that he—who had decried so persistently the evils of individualism—should be taught, on that desert island, what complete isolation involves; that he who had devoted himself to social enterprise should be reduced to communing with the fancied and the dead—should realize how helpless the most gifted, cut off from his kind, deprived of the power of co-operation and communion with his fellows.

Again the stars, that had looked down on the ledge on which he had lain and first realized his desolation, returned. Almost a year, he knew, had elapsed.

A hurricane, that swept away his hut in the night, hurled a "dug-out" canoe, empty, on the shore. His blankets he converted into a sail. A store of fresh fowl and eggs, with kerosene-tin of water, he stowed in the hollow trunk of his out-rigged craft.

For days the lone man sailed over placid waters, out of sight of land. At night he directed his course by the stars, trusting to good fortune to do the same for him by day.

On an evil morn he awoke to find that his tin had sprung a leak, and given out its last drop of water. Days passed, when the sun beat down upon him, still sailing on, he knew not where; nights, when deadly dews descended upon his aching limbs and fevered head. At times he raised himself from the coffin-cabin in which he lay, and, in a moment of returning consciousness, wondered when it would end, how long he would be sailing over placid seas to some impossible "nowhere."

Now he was in his coffin, wild birds his mourners, stars his funeral tapers, dews of night his shroud. It is daylight, a steaming white craft is bearing down upon him. The blue flag he recognizes, of the "Royal Thames Yacht-club," of which years ago he was a member. He is dreaming, surely. Youthful days are returning to him. White jackets, however, and friendly bronzed faces are bending over the bulwarks of "the white ship." Bare, brown arms are lifting him out of his floating coffin!

"Ah, ah!" he laughs, "that is not kind, to disturb a man in his grave."

Kindly they laid the fevered, emaciated form on good Captain Bongard's own bunk.

The Southern Cross, returning from a six months' cruise amongst the palm-clad isles of the coral sea, drew next day in sight of the tapering pines of Norfolk Island. Wives and children and black scholars, two hundred strong, all clad in white, descended to the quay, waving and shouting and weeping for joy, to welcome the bronzed men whom duty had called half a year from their home.

Between two of the Christian pioneers of civilization the gaunt and haggard stranger staggered up the hill-side, casting wild eyes around, seeking for some face, he ever saw, to welcome him; weeping when he learned that he had not yet come to the home beside the lake. The good Bishop, himself crippled by the deadly dews of the treacherous seas, welcomed the social missionary to his bungalow.

The man revived, and feasted with the three hundred of all ages and grades, who, in the great mess-room, suggestive of an Australian wool-shed, partook of their meal in common.

Pitcairn Islanders welcomed the victim of a modern mutiny, showing him their clean-swept, macadamized roads and leafy avenues, and receiving him to their massive stone residences, relics of the labours of long-defunct convicts. In the stone chapel, beautiful as the Isles in which it gathers the music of the coral seas, memorial of the bishop-martyr who fell, fearless, at Santa Cruz, the doctor, with dark-skinned Christians in white robes, worshipped.

Later the Mary Ogilvey brought letters three months old to the isolated community hungering for news. The restored wanderer accepted the invitation of Captain Gartle to voyage in his trim schooner to Sydney. A brief stay at Lord Howe's Island, pleasant basking under the unrivalled palms that fringe the bright seaboard, and on to Sydney.

The doctor was afraid to telegraph, knowing that he must be accounted dead. He took steamer to Adelaide. Still unnerved, though daily gaining strength, he dared not make himself known. He clung to the vessel, and so thought of. returning quietly by water as he had departed. At Echuca, as he voyaged, he experienced a shock that stunned him.

Strolling into an hotel, he took up, to while away the time, one of those society papers that—

Like the flies of later spring,
Lay their eggs and sting and sing,
And weave their petty cells and die."

His eye fell on a column headed in large characters—

"A VILLAGE ROMANCE."

The writer recalled the fact of a Dr. Courtenay having sought to establish a Village Community on a tributary of the Silverbourne. How a year ago the founder had lost his life, leaving the estate in question to his manager and friend—one John Elms, Esq. This gentleman was now candidate for a seat in the Upper House.

His friends accused him of exchanging Radical principles for Conservative. A man with property and position such as his, was wise to modify his opinions. He had experienced difficulty, however, with respect to the people so strangely left at his mercy. Matters had come to a crisis. There was prospect of the entire community being summarily evicted unless they could see their way to sinking their individuality and falling in with their despotic master's peculiar ideas.

Love, of a romantic character, had, however, as is often the case, promised to cut the Gordian knot. The disconsolate widow was, so rumour had it, likely to yield to the blandishments of the lucky man who had stepped into her husband's shoes. Mr. Elms, it appeared, was willing to concede favourable terms to the distressed settlers if their advocate, the fair widow, would accept the late manager's suit, and agree to an alliance that would unite the two properties. The projected union was likely to be happily consummated at an early date, when the villagers would be assured of their title to their lands, and their master to the rich widow, &c.

The wretched print the doctor laid on his knee, and gazed blankly, for an hour, at the picture of Millais' 'Huguenot' that happened to hang on the wall opposite. His whole life passed in review before him; since a lovely woman first nestled to his breast and confessed that she loved him. The parting beside the lake, the eager longing for return, the face that haunted him as he paced the sand of his exile, all flashed in turn before him.

And it was for this he had persevered and lived! To find his wife the accepted bride, nay, perhaps already the wife, of his would-be murderer! He would return to the island retreat and spend his remaining years in companionship with the sea-fowl. He walked forth beside the wide river. Might he not fling himself on its turbid bosom, be lost, and remain forgotten? Nay, he was cowed, but not coward yet! He would go on to the bitter end!

Apparently his unhappy wife was, at worst, but sacrificing herself to purchase terms for the oppressed people. She was their champion in his absence.

He would see her again, though she should not know him. He must avoid that man lest murder should soil his name. Nay, he might yet, if it were not too late, unravel the mystery and save his wife. But not if, even for others' sake, she had yielded to this man's importunities. She would never again be his!

His canoe the traveller had lowered from the deck into the river and made fast to the stern, professedly to ascertain that it was taut and sound. In the early morning he dressed himself again in the tattered island garb, brought as a relic to amuse his friends. He looked in his cabin glass. He had grown older and whiter in the night. He thought, with a sickly smile, there would be little likelihood of his being recognized. Clean-shaven, round-figured, well-dressed and upright, he had gone forth, nearly two years ago—he returned with grey, flowing locks and beard, stooping and worn.

With first streak of daylight the mariner stepped into his canoe, paddled unobserved, softly, from the wharf, spread his blanket-sail to the morning breeze, and sped past startled sheep, and wondering punt-people, up the Silverbourne. The red-gum splitter flung down his axe and called to his mate, cooking the morning meal, to see the wondrous sight.

In a few hours the white-haired voyager entered the canal. Wattle-blossom, blown from myriad branches by last night's wind, floated like a streak of gold on a silver stream, past him to the sea. The mimosa-scent brought him thoughts of home and the treasured past. He recalled to his mind the bright pathway of flowers that had marked his departure amidst the prayers and blessings of those who now cursed or had forgotten him. No loving hands had plucked this wattle-bloom; it was hurled by the wild wind to its watery grave, as he was cast away on the stream of life, to disappear in the ocean of oblivion.

A flush returned to the wan cheek, as the founder observed the downs of Fabricia dotted with close-lying gardens, and pleasant booths of industry; as the children of Kokiana ran to meet the singing house-father returning to his vine-clad cottage. Away, over the plains, the orchards now spread. Even the palsied hands of Hygeia had covered the hillside with corn and lowing kine. And here, beside ike lake, a new settlement had arisen, where only women moved, vieing with the magpie and canaries in song. Girls sit in the sun and sew, others with writing-pad on lap hold the pen, while maidens descend laughing, with brimming pails of milk in either hand, from the farmyard on the hill.

Beneath a golden wattle, about which paroquets are shrieking as they flit amongst the white waxy gum-blossom, a girl is painting.

"Will he pause a moment," Millie Cole timidly requests, "while she sketches his gliding coracle?"

Seizing a bough, the white man acceded. In a few moments Millie had caught the outlines of a picture that brought her fame when the grey man was famous.

Across the rippleless lake, towards the quay, where the band is playing, and knots of men, women, and children are lounging, the venerable voyager proceeds. All crowd to the pier-end to observe him. Speculations are rife as to who he may be.

"Some 'wild man of the woods' from the sources of the Silverbourne," suggested one.

"An old 'hatter' been in hiding most like," hazards another.

"A log hollowed Out into a boat," screech some children with glee; "and got a little log aside it. I'd like to ride on it."

"Why don't he have one on t'other side?" laughs Sar' Ann Smith, "to match it?"

"Blowed if the old cove hasn't his 'bluey' for a sail!" exclaims Mike Milligan.

"He's not wore no new suit, nor seen no barber, for many a day, I reckon," cries Sar' Ann.

Oblivious, seemingly, of the curious eyes fixed upon him, and of the animated comment he was exciting, the mysterious stranger made fast his canoe, ascended the steps of the pier, and slowly and deliberately made his way through the gaping crowd. As though wearied, he seated himself on a bench beside a woman with one child in her arms and others about her. The children shrank away startled.

"You seem tolerably happy here," remarked the visitor, in an absent sort of way, looking languidly around upon the settlement that warm suns and genial waters had so rapidly developed.

"Speaks English 't any rate," remarked some of the company aside; "though, like the deaf coves at Hygeia, he talks like as he'd half-forgotten how."

"Happy!" exclaimed the mother, after a pause, while she considered whether she should reply; "you're better off, wherever you've been, all by yoursel', than us here. Sold, is what we calls it," she added, after further observation of the stranger. "A flash fellow of a doctor brought us all here. Swore as we'd be all right. Then went away; died, tumbled over a precipix or som'ut, and left us to a wild beast of a man."

"How do you know that no provision was made for you?" inquired the stranger.

"Know? Haven't we all seed the bit of a Will he did leave? Look here," continued the woman, with animation, "that child there were called a'ter him, 'Charles Courtenay.' When he goes away he says a lot of soft things, and puts his hand on his head, and the child gived him flowers. Now, they hates him. I've scratched his name out of the big Bible and wrote the child 'Beelzebub' i'stead—though Billy's the short we gives him. When the childer wakes up of nights and thinks they see a bogie, they calls out, 'the doctor's comin'!' That skeers 'em more nor Bunyip hi'self. 'Doctor's' same as devil hereabouts."

"Was he not kind to you when he was here?"

"Maybe, good enough, but he's spoilt it all. Curses on him!"

"Then you'e forgotten all the good he did," said Ihe stranger, rising and causing the company who were ogling around to fall back from his wild, withering glances. "Just the way of the world!" he exclaimed, with indignation. "The first lie heard you have accepted. Have taught your very children to curse their benefactor."

"Benefactor!" cry they all; "beast we calls him! Deceiver! Murderer!"

"There's one blessed thing," exclaimed a woman with crooked nose and a cross eye, "his missus is goin' to marry the man what has the place. I pity her, but, anyhow, we'll get our rights."

"Better not get them at all than in that way," rejoined a stalwart man, who pushed himself forward. "Sure's my name's Bob Bastion," he continued, "the matter 'll be cleared up yet. I distrusted one, in the cowardly way we all do, his son-in-law, and he died for my child. I'll never suspect another friend again until I die. With men like Elms and Malduke about, any fool might reckon there's more to be said yet."

"Hear, hear! " cried some.

"What about the son-in-law?" inquired the stranger, grasping Bastion's arm with a trembling hand. "You at least are an honest man and true," and he looked him hard in the face; "I'll believe you." Then very slowly—"What was that you said"— his voice faltered—"about the man—that died—for your child?" Involuntarily the stranger put his hand to his brow and shuddered.

"It's up there, cut in stone," Bastion, in a hoarse voice, replied. "We all subscribed to have it. None can forget it now. See and read for yourself, old man. I don't like to talk 'bout it."

The stranger moved through the crowd, past the pleasant homes, up the steep hill-side, amongst the vines, saying to himself as he beat his breast, "A Beast, a Murderer! My poor wife! My boy Larry!"

The sun set. Darkness was swiftly descending on the valley. The wanderer read the chiselled lines that told how his son had died. Flinging himself beside the stone figure, all the world became dark as that valley, and cold as the recumbent figure staring for ever across the ungrateful land. One at least had done his duty, and died for it. Alas! no achievement without sacrifice, no life without death!