Chapter XVI

“Groans, as from parting life's convulsive frame,
At times were heard upon the gale to swell;
And, led by these, with fearful steps he came,
Where, bath'd in blood, the helpless victim fell.”

The proximity of the Diggings was indicated by the many persons coming and going, loaded drays, carts, and pack-horses, men on foot and on horseback—some pressing forward full of hope; some returning in despair, ruined, or struck by fatal maladies; others rejoicing in newly-acquired wealth. Amidst all this, slowly progressed the weary pedestrians whose good and bad fortunes we have followed at the Ophir. As night approached the travellers became fewer, and, after they had stayed at a low tavern to refresh themselves, their way was solitary. The travellers in either direction had appeared resolved to pass the night at the tavern, and, finding it crowded, they had gladly pursued their way.

  ― 99 ―

Bain was in one of those humours when all connected with earth disgusted and wearied him, and an unsatisfied soul vainly reached after something higher—yet sought it not of Christ, but fed a strong imagination with the poetry of nature; he walked slowly beside Gilbert, now quoting the rhymed thoughts of others, now, in language at once original and rich as eastern imagery, giving utterance to his own. Gilbert was silent: the inward disquiet took with him another shape, that of gnawing remorse;—the grieving sister at home—the fair, pure Clare Welton, around whom he had wreathed so many of life's brightest garlands—beckoned him back to a life of right and usefulness; yet, struggling against their influence, he was placing a yet wider distance between them, and wringing their hearts with agony; he knew what was right: often, at Aunt Nancy's knee, he had read the Bible, and repeated the simple prayer she dictated, concluding—“Make me grow up a good and useful man, and a blessing to my friends and country, for Thy dear Son's sake.”

Bain needed no reply; he was rather uttering his thoughts aloud than communicating them to his companion, and the Bunyip and Collector were some little distance in advance, engaged in a cheerful conversation; their voices or a mirthful laugh just reached them. The even temper and patient contentment under all hardships which Frank Maclean displayed, had made him a universal favourite.

Darkness approached, but they had resolved to reach the gold-field that night, and pressed on. Dark high trees threw a sombre shadow across the road—a shadow like that of death; presently there was the report of fire-arms, and several men, armed, and their faces covered with black handkerchiefs, rushed out upon the foremost. Bain and Gilbert sprang forward, and fired upon the assailants; there was a returning volley—a cry of agony—a scuffle; Ducie stumbled over the prostrate form of some person—foe or friend, he knew not in the darkness; and blows were dealt indiscriminately. Then there was a pause, broken by deep-drawn breaths and groans; then a sound as of a heavy body dragged into the bush.

“Who's that?—St. Just, Ducie, Mac!” called Bain's voice.

“All right, Bain,” responded Gilbert.

“The villains!” growled Ducie, smarting under a bullet-wound; but no word told of the Collector's safety. “Mac!” called each; a groan replied.

  ― 100 ―

“Good heavens! Mac, my boy, where are you?”

Another groan, and a sound as of some one endeavouring to rise, and then falling heavily, answered Ducie's question. They stooped down, groping in the darkness for the evidently wounded man, and found him where at the first fire he had fallen.

“What is to be done?” demanded Gilbert. Bain knelt beside the Collector, and felt his pulse.

“Life is ebbing fast,” he said.

“Shall I return to the ‘Pick and Cradle,’ and get aid?”

“You might be murdered by the way, St. Just. Can we not carry him thither?”

“It is so dark. Poor fellow, what a groan!”

“I have no fear—I will go. Do you watch here, Bain—have your revolver loaded.”

Long the watchers looked in the direction in which the young man had started, listening absorbedly to hear if he were attacked.

The dying man's head was pillowed on a rolled-up blanket, containing their small stock of provisions, and his hand, chill with the dew of death, was held within that of Bain; only the dying utterance of suffering broke the awful silence; a thick scud, which had risen an hour before, was sailing across the sky, and entirely obscured the light of the crescent moon. Bitterly did both miners now regret that they had not stayed at the tavern—the elder man even more than the other, for, by general though tacit consent, he had taken command; and he followed Gilbert step by step, feeling that for worlds he would not have that young life sacrificed.

“Counting the minutes” is ever a tedious occupation; how doubly so to them who dared not strike a light to ascertain the nature of their companion's wounds, and felt his life was oozing away with the blood which crimsoned the road-side. After awhile there sounded the galloping of horses, then shouts, and soon the party reined up, and lighted lanterns.

There was no medical man within reach. Bain had, however, in his nomadic life of adventure, acquired much surgical skill, and he, at once, pronounced the case hopeless—the glazed eye-balls wide open and staring, the livid features, told their own tale.

“Shall we move him? he could not reach the ‘Pick’ alive,”

  ― 101 ―

“No; let him die without added torture,” returned Bain, with the calmness of deep emotion. And, surrounded by a circle of grave, and in some cases sincere, sympathisers, the young naturalist ended his journey and life, in a strange land, and among strangers, with earth in mourning, and the sky weeping gentle tears upon his hard couch.

After the inquest, the body was interred by the road-side, and his friends raised a pile of stones above his lonely resting-place, and carved his name upon a standing tree near.

“There is a fond heart somewhere to mourn for him,” said Bain, as he wrapped carefully in paper a faded ribbon, knotted round a lock of fine soft light hair; they had discovered it round his neck, and he preserved it in hopes of returning it some day to one who might cherish it as a memorial of love.

So inauspicious a commencement threw a gloom over their prospects, and, though they had not been plundered by their assailants, their possessions were very limited, hardly sufficient to pay the licence fee, and purchase victuals till they might hope to find gold.