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  ― 9 ―

Chapter I

In Which I Hear of the Golden Lake for the First Time.

MANY marvellous stories were set afloat concerning the great Colony of Western Australia, and not the least marvellous of the many I had heard during my stay in the Queen City of the Southern Hemisphere (as the Victorians delight in calling Melbourne) was one which was related to me by my cousin, Richard Hardwicke, with whom I was at that time staying in the Victorian capital.

We were seated at dinner one night—Dick, his two sisters, his mother, and myself. The weather being extremely close, all the large windows were thrown wide open, and we could hear the monotonous moan of the sea as it flung itself languidly on the beach below, for the home of the Hardwickes was in the charming suburb of St. Kilda. A solitary servant administered to our wants—an individual who appeared to me to be older in experience than years, for though his shoulders stooped and his hair was snow-white, there was an indelible impression of something stronger than years upon him. Intelligent was his face and almost handsome, and yet withal so strange and dejected that I seemed to guess, as if by intuition, that his had been a “strange, eventful history.”

Our conversation wandered on many topics during the


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progress of the meal—the theatre, the race for the Cup—which I, unfortunately, had missed—the latest marriage, and that ever-recurring subject, the weather, the heat during a part of that day having been exceptionally intense.

“It was nothing to what I have experienced in the northern parts of South Australia,” said my cousin. “There the thermometer registered for ten days in succession 130 degrees in the shade, and it was even said that the beard of one of our party had been set on fire by the sun. You see, it was a red one.”

“That was warm, Dick,” said his eldest sister, Kate, while peals of laughter went round the table.

“Which do you mean, the story or the beard?”

“Both.”

“Well,” continued Dick, “I didn't see it while it was actually burning, but I saw it shortly after, and I'll swear that it had been burnt. The boss vowed the lazy beggar had gone to sleep with his pipe in his mouth, though, the fellow, who by the way was an Irishman, swore by all the holy popes right back to Peter that if it wasn't the sun that did it, it was something a moighty sight hotter.”

“I suppose these are the usual tales with which you tingle the ears of the ‘new chum’?” I remarked. “It was not bad, old fellow, but you ought to produce something better in such a marvellous country as this. Take West Australia, for instance.” And as I spoke these words I looked towards my cousin, and caught the eyes of the old servant scanning me curiously.

“Almost a myth,” said Mrs. Hardwicke.

“A cipher,” remarked Miss Kate.

“Not altogether,” Dick answered coolly. “I have heard some wonderful yarns about that place, old chap”—he was now riding one of his pet hobbies, “and shall be mightily disappointed if I do not find that my imaginary castles have been built upon substantial foundations.”

“Then why don't you go exploring, Dick.” It was still the eldest sister who spoke. “You know, you might make


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a reputation even as great as Burke's, besides discovering some of those mountains of gold of which you are eternally dreaming,”

But Dick paid no attention to this young lady's sarcasms He turned to me with a smile. “They say there is never smoke without fire.”

“A truism which, metaphorically, does not always hold good.”

“No matter. We'll presume there is not.”

“And what then?”

“I'll tell you a queer yarn I once heard about that ‘mythical’ colony.” And here, chancing to look towards the old servant, I saw him tremble violently as he gazed with intensity upon my cousin. But Dick, utterly oblivious of the interest he was creating in the breast of at least one of the assembly, continued, “It was told to me when I was in South Australia, and you shall have it just as I did.”

We sat all attention, though I thought I perceived an almost imperceptible smile play round the corners of his eldest sister's mouth. She evidently knew what was coming. The old servant moved softly about the room. Dick took a sip of wine and began.

“I heard the story from a fellow who was one of the party, and as I knew him well I have no cause to disbelieve him, for I was not a ‘new chum,’ and there was nothing to be gained by getting at me. It was this: He said that while he was working with a party of surveyors away up in the North West of South Australia, some fifteen or sixteen years ago, they one day picked up a nigger, more dead than alive, whom they found crawling towards their camp on his hands and knees. He had followed their tracks for days over a most sterile region, but on account of the rapidity with which they travelled to the Springs, he had not been able to come up with them, consequently when discovered he was almost in his last gasp.

“When spoken to he could make no answer, his tongue and throat being most fearfully parched and swollen.


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They, however, attended the poor wretch carefully, with the result that he was speedily brought round, and when the chief of the party leant over him to see how he looked, the fellow's bloodshot eyes rested with the utmost curiosity on the surveyor's watch-chain, which was gold and of a considerable size. He stretched out his hand to feel it, and then cried in his own language, which one of the black boys luckily understood—

“ ‘What you call it?’

“ ‘Gold,’ he was answered.

“ ‘Good?’ he asked next.

“ ‘The best thing in the world,’ he was told, which reply he seemed scarcely to understand, though he immediately pointed to a roughly-shaped ring of dirty metal, which he wore on his ankle, and which they, examining, found to be gold.

“ ‘Plenty o' that stuff,' he cried.

“ ‘Where?’

“With a quick movement he jerked his hand towards the face of the setting sun.

“ ‘Behind the mountains—by the lake.’ ”

At the mention of the word “lake” the old servant, who was then engaged removing some glasses to the other end of the room, upset the tray, and crash upon the floor they went. No one spoke, but Mrs. Hardwicke arose at that moment, and with her daughters left the room. Then both Dick and I swung round and surveyed the delinquent. His face was ashy pale, and his hands trembled violently, but his eyes met ours with a steady searching gaze which was almost awful in its intensity.

“I ask your pardon, sir,” he stammered.

“Oh, it's nothing, Morton,” replied my cousin, “though I'm afraid you startled the ladies.”

No more was said at that moment, but, strange as it may seem, this apparently unimportant incident was but the beginning of a series of remarkable revelations which culminated in the undertaking of one of the most surprising journeys ever attempted by man.

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