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Chapter XII

The Golden Lake.

IT took me some little time to recover what I might call my proper senses, but, under the genial influence of my cousin Hardwicke, return they most assuredly did. Then was I able with ease to look about me, and for our merciful deliverance thank God with all my heart. We had accomplished a terrific journey, during which we had waged unceasing war with fate, and now the end was nearly come, and we should soon know all.

“Well,” said Dick, who sat beside me, a glad light illumining his hollow eyes, “we are here at last, old man, here at last. It seems incredible, I know, but it is as true as day. Look, there is the One Tree Hill, the thing you thought had no existence except in Morton's disordered imagination. Many a time have I dreamt of this sight, Archie,” he continued, his voice becoming grave in a moment, “dreamt of it when I scarcely even dared to hope that


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such dreams would ever be realised. But the day is come at last; the dreams are realised, the gold is almost within our grasp. Our fortunes are made. I thank Heaven, not so much for the gold, but for what I shall be able to do with it for those who are dearer to me than life.”

I neither interrupted nor questioned his enthusiasm, but contented myself with remarking that such indeed seemed the case, and that I hoped we should get as safely out of the country as we had got into it.

The water which we so opportunely discovered, and beside which we camped, was a small clear stream that flew sparkling over a rocky bed till it lost itself in the sand below. Dick vowed that the stream was an overflow of the lake itself, which argument I, having no reason to doubt, accepted. We both felt sure that it was the very water Morton had mentioned, and that surety was made positive a little while after by our discovering a big M built of stones. It was partly overgrown by grasses, but when these were cleared away, the great letter stood out in bold relief. It was here, then, the natives had parted with him, and to while away an idle hour he had left his mark, a guide to future travellers. Dick upbraided himself greatly that he had not examined our other resting places more closely, “For,” said he, “there can be little doubt that Morton left a regular trail behind him, which we, but for our carelessness, would have found with little trouble.”

The rest of that day we spent luxuriously—eating, drinking, smoking, and sleeping whenever we felt inclined. We were too thoroughly exhausted to attempt the ascent of the mountains then, so decided to wait till the following day; and in the meantime we made ourselves as lazily comfortable as our limited luxuries would allow. But even had we determined to move, I do not think I could have done so had my life depended upon it, for I was thoroughly prostrate in body, and moved my limbs with great difficulty.

During the night I suffered terribly from the cold, or


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what I at that time thought was the cold, and when I finally awoke in the morning, I knew I had contracted some kind of illness. Icy shivers ran down my back, and I trembled as I have seen people tremble with creeping paralysis. Glad was I to see the sun come out. Its hot rays were thrice welcome, for they pleasantly warmed my chilly blood. My companions, on the contrary, had benefited to a remarkable degree, and Hardwicke assured me that another good night's rest would set him up as well as he had ever been.

Jimmy then parcelled out the breakfast in equal shares as usual, and my companions fell with avidity upon their portions, declaring they were as hungry as the proverbial hunter. But I could not eat. To swallow a mouthful was a superhuman task, and quite beyond me.

Dick looked at me in consternation. “You are not ill, Archie?”

“A little knocked up, old chap, that's all. I shall be well again in a day or two. You see, I'm not used to this work, and to put it mildly, that last stretch was a teaser.”

“It was, indeed,” he answered. “But we did it, Archie, and no thanks to any one.” Then, as if he dreaded anything but an affirmative reply, he said, “But you can walk?”

“Certainly,” I replied, rising to my feet. “If I am going to be laid up, Dick, it must be after we have found the Lake—do you understand?”

“Right,” he said, his eyes beaming. “Jimmy,” he then called out to that worthy, “see that everything is ready, you rascal. We are on the last stage of our journey.”

“Well, Mass'r Dick,” said Jimmy thoughtfully, “it's about time. This am the longest wallaby track (tramp) I ever followed. Never seen such a journey. Think for certain, Mass'r Dick, we never come to end. Wonder what for you do all this dam fool's work.”

Dick roared with laughter.

“So it's dawned upon you at last, has it, James? Now can't you guess what has brought us here?”




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“Never thought of it, Mass'r Dick, till I see them dam crows. Then me think what for you want to come here and let them fellows gobble you up.”

“Well then, Jimmy, we have come for gold.”

“For gold, Mass'r Dick? Ah!” and in that exclamation the worthy black spoke volumes. “But, Mass'r Dick,” said he, scratching his head and looking as though he was oppressed by some mighty problem, “suppose you find 'um gold, how you take 'um back to Melbourne?”

“We will come again,” answered his master. “Plenty of horses, plenty of men, and plenty of grub—you sabbee?”

“Plenty sabbee grub, Mass'r Dick,” and he opened his mouth and smiled insinuatingly at the portion I could not eat, which I handed over to him, and which he demolished with great gusto.

We cleaned and loaded our fire-arms, that is, Dick cleaned and loaded them, and with him by my side, and Jimmy bringing up the rear, we began the final stage of our great journey.

For a time we followed the small stream of which I have spoken till we found it branching off to the north side of the One Tree Hill, the south side of which our directions bade us climb, so we were accordingly forced to abandon it. Our way was exceedingly disagreeable, being for the most part over rough, loose boulders, which so distressed me that to take my cousin's arm became a necessity. I felt so indignant with myself that I could have cried aloud with anger, and would have implored him to leave me behind, only I knew such a request would have been useless. In this manner we struggled on, with occasional rests, for about three hours, at the end of which time we had reached the base of One Tree Hill. Here our way was slightly better, being up the centre of a valley that wound, as it were, round the southern side of that curious mount. Up this valley, which was mostly composed of volcanic rocks, we struggled to an exceedingly great height till we found ourselves at the head of it on the western side of the aforementioned hill. Here we rested awhile, I needing it especially, for by this


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time I could scarcely walk. However, the rest refreshed me greatly and we resumed our journey as before, Dick passing his arm through mine and helping me carefully over the rough way. Jimmy was sent on ahead with instructions to return immediately the lake came in view, for that it was hereabouts we had not now the ghost of a doubt.

In the meantime Dick and I trudged slowly along a small plateau that stretched westward from the head of the valley, and along which Jimmy had directed his course. At the northern end of this wide space the ground gradually rose till it ended in a steep hill, and to the base or southern side of this elevation we steered, hoping that from there the lake might open up. But we were once more doomed to disappointment, for the valley stretched for quite half a mile farther on and then swept the northern base of another big hill, which looked like an extinct volcano. Along this valley we stumbled, the loose stones giving way beneath our feet, rendering our progress anything but pleasant or easy. Yet on approaching the foot of the hill just mentioned, our eyes were suddenly gladdened by the welcome vision of Jimmy, who came rapidly towards us.

“Did you see the lake?” shouted Hardwicke, long before the worthy black had reached us.

“Me see plenty of water, Mass'r Dick. Suppose 'um lake?”

“Yes, yes!” and I felt his arm tremble in mine with excitement, and he, quite unknowingly I am sure, moved forward at a more rapid pace.

We passed the hill above-mentioned and then found the valley slope downwards, which, as it was more even, made walking comparatively easy, so that we fairly bowled along, excitement giving us renewed vigour. The cry of many birds filled the air, while grass grew here and there in small patches, and even the sun seemed to lose some of his horrible power.

Presently a great cry of astonishment arose from Hardwicke's lips.

“My God! look, look!”




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We had at that moment rounded a huge mass of fallen stones, and the lake—the veritable lake we had suffered so much to reach—lay not more than a hundred feet below us. We stepped out of the path that evidently wound down to its shores, and sitting on a ledge of a rock that overlooked it, let our eyes wander across the bright, blue stretch of water till they rested on the mountains a couple of miles away. What our feelings were it would be difficult to describe. Dick was animated with the keenest joy. It sparkled in his eyes and spread itself in smiles over his face. He looked as happy as though he had accomplished the greatest task ever set to man. He had reached the lake, the Golden Lake at last, and henceforth he could snap his fingers in the face of the genius of poverty. Jimmy was quite unmoved at our success, while I looked upon the water with feelings of joy and awe. We had done what no party of human beings had ever accomplished before. We had penetrated to the very centre of the great desert, the desolation and misery of which had hitherto been insurpassable bars to all mankind. And yet my gratification at our success was accompanied by the paingiving thought that the desolation and misery which had barred so many out, might bar us in.

Luckily for the spirits of the party these gloomy thoughts were all my own. Dick was in ecstasies of delight.

“So we are here at last, old man,” said he. “We have had a tough pull, but now comes the reward. And such a reward. Is not the gold we shall get worth the trouble of attaining it? What new prospects life already opens. What a change from genteel poverty to unbounded wealth. I imagined I was more of a stoic, Archie, and believed that nothing on earth could affect me so much as the thought of this gold does. I know my words sound sordid; but, after all, what is life without money but an everlasting affliction? You think I am premature, that I might at least wait till we have found the gold? You surely do not doubt that we shall find it?”

“Not for an instant,” I answered; “not for an instant.”




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“But,” he continued, “you have a ‘but’ there, you would say more. You would tell me that we are not yet out of the wood. No, but please God we shall be. Sufficient for the day. Get well and strong, old chap, and you will see things with a brighter eye. I have not been without my despairing moments, though I have not broached them to you, because I would not. But that night before the dew fell I thought was going to be our last on earth. Then we were miraculously saved. Later on the dreadful companionship of the two vultures forced our heart-breaking situation with keener intensity upon me, but even then was fate's merciful hand stretched out and we were drawn from a death too hideous even to think of. And does all this mean nothing, think you? Death has claimed one of our number, and is satisfied. We have reached the Golden Lake, we shall find the gold, and what is perhaps more to you, you shall see England again.”

“I wonder,” said I, changing the conversation, for I did not like my secret thoughts being read so easily by my grave-faced, earnest-voiced companion, “if we shall find the little girl, Mayne's daughter, you know—safe and sound?”

I must confess, with shame, that this same daughter of the gentleman convict's had held but a secondary standing in our thoughts. I will not attempt to deny that gold was the motive of our journey. Should the girl be living, we said, and willing to go with us, we would exert our utmost power to see her safely through the journey, but should she refuse us, as she did Morton, we should not attempt to force her. How little is it possible for a man to predict what a day will bring forth.

“Perhaps,” replied Dick to my query. “Though you must remember that same little girl, if alive, is now a woman of twenty-three or twenty-four, and may be married to a chief and the mother of a family of savages—horrid, black, dirty savages.

“What a horrible idea, Dick.'

“It's not pleasant, is it he replied. “But what is a girl to do?”




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As this question exceeded my bounds of comprehension I made no reply, while he fingered his rifle dexterously preparatory to testing his skill as a marksman upon some black swans which floated on the lake about four hundred yards away.

“What do you bet I don't knock that leader over,” he said.

“A thousand pounds to a horseshoe.”

“Done,” and he was about to fire, when there arose a fluttering in the camp of the swans, and they immediately took to wing.

“Well, that is strange,” he ejaculated. “One might almost swear they knew one was going to fire. The birds must be pretty sharp about here. Look!” He broke off suddenly and uttered this exclamation in a loud key.

From behind a rocky promontory that jutted out into the lake on the northern side of our position, and not more than three hundred yards from where the swans had been swimming, there suddenly shot forth to our view a small canoe containing one person who appeared to be straining every muscle to force the little craft along. Almost immediately there followed in its wake another canoe propelled with much more swiftness, for we saw it gain rapidly on the first-comer. This second boat contained also a solitary individual who worked with such tremendous will that the small craft seemed impelled forward by more than human agency. It literally bounded over the blue water, flinging the white foam from its bows with all the dignity of a little ship.

As both boats came nearer, Dick cried out that he believed the person in the first one was a woman, and that a man was after her—very likely on a kidnapping expedition—and that for two pins he'd pot him. Jimmy, who was watching the race with glistening eyes and a joyous, deep-meaning smile upon his lips, was of the same opinion as his master. At that moment the two canoes got more in the open, and the leader turned her boat's prow towards a rocky headland that rose a little to the south of us. This


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brought their outlines more distinctly in view, and we saw beyond a doubt that the first craft contained a woman, and the second a man, and that she was most certainly fleeing from him.

They were now close upon the spot on which the swans had been swimming a moment or two before, and whether it was a stronger puff of wind, or an extra bit of exertion on the woman's part I do not know, but her hair suddenly streamed out behind, and the sun falling upon it, caught it, and lit it with a thousand gleams.

“Good heavens!” cried Dick. “She has golden hair!

“Mayne's daughter?” I queried.

“Yes, yes,” added he excitedly, “it must, it can only be she.”

I was now thoroughly alive and glowing with the excitement of the scene, even though I guessed not how sensational the business was to be. But I was soon to know. The big savage having come up alongside of the woman, ceased paddling, and seizing a spear which was lying in the bottom of his canoe, shook it threateningly towards her. She, apparently terrified, also let her paddle fall and held her hands before her face as though to shield herself from the dreaded thrust. He was kneeling in his canoe gesticulating, talking (taunting her we found out afterwards), but all the time continuing to flourish the dreadful spear as though each moment he intended to hurl it through her.

All this, though it takes some time to describe, was enacted in a few seconds.

“Do you think you can hit him, Dick?”

“I'll try.”

“Then shoot, for the love of God, shoot!”

He leant upon one knee, and carried his rifle to his shoulder. I was trembling with excitement, but he was as steady as the rocks around. No muscle moved. He might have been carved of stone. I knew he would shoot well, this man with the iron nerves; I could see it in his clear grey eyes, and I followed the barrel of his rifle to the


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lake below; and I saw the savage partly rise with a violent gesture poising his spear, saw the poor woman crouch, as it were, lower and lower in the boat as though she hoped that by so doing, she would avoid the missile. Then, just as I thought her last moment was come—the savage having drawn himself back for a final lunge—I involuntarily closed my eyes.

Bang!

The report of a rifle broke the stillness of the air, and my eyes opened instinctively. I saw the great savage rise to his full height in his frail canoe, still grasping the spear in his outstretched hand, which he poised for a final effort, but ere he found the requisite strength to hurl it, he tumbled headlong into the water.

Dick's bullet had found its mark.

“A good shot, Dick.”

“Not bad,” he answered coolly, though I could see he was as proud of it as I.

The report of the rifle, and the sudden disappearance of her assailant beneath the water, was evidently the cause of no little wonder and alarm to the girl, for she looked most anxiously around on all sides of her. Then seeing us, for we had all three arisen by this time and were frantically waving our hats, she pointed her boat's head towards us and came almost under the cliff, when we were subject, by her, to a minute examination. She was apparently well satisfied with her keen scrutiny, for she pointed with her hand to the shore, as much as to say “come down.” We required no second invitation, but hurriedly scrambled back to the path and descended.

The girl sat in her canoe about fifty yards from the shore and eyed us with intense curiosity. We shouted to her to come closer, that we were only peaceful travellers, and that we meant her no harm. She, however, made no reply nor seemed inclined to trust us nearer, but sat motionless, still surveying us with minute attention. It was evident she understood not a word we said, and was in consequence doubtful of our integrity. Then we told Jimmy to speak


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to her in his own language and tell her who we were and what we had said. This he did, she making some reply and at the same time approaching a little closer.

“She all the same jabber my lingo, Mass'r Dick, only another one,” said Jimmy by way of explanation, meaning that she spoke his language though with a different dialect or accent.

“Then impress upon her,” said Hardwicke “that we are friends. That we have travelled far and endured much to reach this lake; that it was we who destroyed the savage a little while ago, and that thus suddenly shall all perish who would seek to harm a hair of her head.”

This Jimmy repeated with many grand flourishes of his head and arms, to which she listened very intently, still scrutinising us most keenly. Then, as if still more satisfied, she gave her paddle a couple of gentle strokes which brought her quite within close quarters, and we saw that she was a most beautiful creature, with two great blue eyes as clear and limpid as the waters of the lake, a fair face tanned to a delightful brown with exposure to the sun, and a cloud of wonderful golden hair which like an aureole framed her head with mystic splendour.

We naturally put on our very sweetest of smiles, beckoning her all the while to approach and telling her, at least in effect, that we were quite incapable of harm.

At last she ventured a query—

“Who are you?”

This was excellent. Once get her curiosity aroused and we knew, or guessed, it would overcome every scruple, for a woman dearly loves to know who's who and what's what.

We told her that we had come from far beyond the great desert to find this particular lake, and to take back to her own people the golden-haired maiden called Ada.

At the sound of that name she visibly started and gazed upon us with an intenser eagerness. Then her woman's curiosity got the better of her discretion, and she immediately drove her canoe upon the sand and leaped ashore. If we


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admired her in the boat at a distance, that admiration changed to positive worship as she came half-boldly and half-tremblingly towards us with gratitude beaming in her big blue eyes, and a face full of the most intense, bewildered earnestness. Quickly kneeling upon the sand she declaimed most passionately, pointing alternately to us and to the lake with gestures representing both despair and joy.

Jimmy then made it known that she was giving a history of her adventures with the savage Hardwicke had shot. He was a Wyhuma warrior, and the Wyhumas were constantly at war with her people, who were the tribe of the Mandanyah. She, it seems, had been gathering herbs which only grew by a certain portion of the lake, when she was surprised by the Wyhuma who, giving chase, caught her up with such fatal consequences to himself.

This story she went through with much impressive fervour, and when she came to the part we had played in the little drama the tears welled in her eyes, and it was as much as we could do to prevent her kissing our hands. We said a thousand pleasant things to her in return, and Dick showed her the rifle, and, through Jimmy, told her how he had shot the Wyhuma. She looked upon him with admiration and awe, and asked him if he was a spirit or a man that he could do such things, and when he laughingly told her that he was only a man, she laughed too and said she supposed men with white faces were different from those with black.

“I am white too,” she added, and as if to prove the truth of her words she rolled up her sleeve and showed a beautiful milk-white arm. “My father lived by the shore of the great sea—many moons away—and was a beautiful white man, as beautiful as you,” she said, turning suddenly to me, at which direct address I became conscious of growing red.

“Don't blush, Archie,” said Hardwicke, and Jimmy grinned from ear to ear. But the girl seemed to heed us not. She continued—

“Not that I remember him too well. but the old chief


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who died twelve moons ago, told me many things, and I know my father was like a star.”

“But not so like as you,” said Hardwicke, which Jimmy translated before he could be stopped.

She looked at Dick and smiled.

“I am very different from the other women of the village,” she said. “Their faces are black, as black as the sky when there is no moon, when there is no star. I used sometimes to wish I was like them,” she continued; “but now I have seen you two I am glad my face is white.”

“And so are we,” we added simultaneously.

“But tell me,” said Hardwicke, “Is your name Ada?” She negatively shook her head.

“Laughing Hair?” he went on.

She smiled. “Yes, yes. I am Laughing Hair.”

“Mayne's daughter. Wonderful! And what a beauty, Archie. Whoever would have thought of seeing such a flower in this——”

But she suddenly cut short his burst of eloquence by asking us if we would not like to journey to the village. That being the thing of things we were most anxious to do, we readily assented; but how were we to reach it? At our right and left, at a distance of not more than a hundred yards, the rocks rose sheer from the lake, making a journey to the village by water a necessity. This being pointed out to her she spoke a few words to Jimmy, at which that worthy leapt into her canoe and paddled off to bring back the defunct savage's, which was floating upside down a little distance off.

Her dress beggars any description of mine. It was composed of feathers, skins, and grasses, the latter plaited with such marvellous neatness as to make them resemble a piece of coarse tweed. Her feet were encased in skin boots or moccasins, the sides of which were ornamented with bright red stones, which acted as substitutes for buttons. These I guessed were rubies, remembering that Morton had spoken of the chief people wearing them. On one arm was


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a roughly shaped gold bangle, but with the exception of a large ruby in her skin cap which kept a bright feather in its place, she displayed no signs of undreamt-of wealth. Though not altogether beauty unadorned, she was just adorned enough to make a lovely picture of timid savagery, a picture that any young man not austerely inclined might well be expected to rave about. And if her face was perfect, and in my opinion the tan enhanced its effect, her figure was none the less fascinating, while her hair was truly the most superb I have ever seen on woman. It reached to the bottom of her waist and looked like a great glowing mass of silky sunbeams. Morton said the natives called her Laughing Hair. I should have called her the Genius of Day—the Sun Queen.

The excitement that had borne me up thus far, gradually cooled down, the old sick feeling came upon me, and I reeled giddily and was forced to sit for fear of falling. She saw the action, and knowing that something ailed me, approached to my side and spoke in a tender voice. Of course I knew not what she said, but her manner was so gentle that I felt my heart go out to her. There is something so exquisitely tender in a woman's sympathy, something so utterly angelic that I often wonder why any of them should want to change the nature God bequeathed them.

The return of Jimmy cut short my ruminations, and we prepared to embark. As it was evident the canoes would not hold more than two each we were in a dilemma, which she however righted by motioning me to get in with her, in invitation which had not to be repeated a second time. Dick and Jimmy entered the other. No sooner was I aboard than she stepped lightly in, seized the paddle, refusing to allow me to even touch it, and signifying by a motion of her head that I should sit still, shot the boat out upon the lake, the other two following, Jimmy being perfectly at home in the canoe, and using the paddle with unerring dexterity.

We rounded the headland to the south, of which I spoke before, when another one opened up about half a mile away.


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a high, cone-shaped, volcanic-looking hill, and towards it she directed our course. The breeze upon the water revived me somewhat, and I began to talk to my fair boat-woman, and she to me, neither understanding a word the other said, though both were as serious as though holding a sober conversation. She paid the strictest attention to what I said and tried her hardest to comprehend my meaning, but she was fain to shake her head as signifying failure. Then I used the word Ada, and pointed to her, and I believe the name sounded familiar, for she smiled on me and looked as though she partly understood, while she racked her brains to their utmost; then a look of despair would rush over her face, and she would shake her head sadly and bend again more fiercely over her work.

We were now approaching the great cone-shaped hill with rapidity, for her long, strong sweeps made the canoe fairly bound over the blue water, and when at last we came up with it and rounded its utmost point, I saw that on the other side the lake was not more than half a mile wide, and that straight across, or on the western margin of the water, a good-sized village nestled snugly at the foot of a great hill, and that towards this village my fair canoeist steered her little craft. There were a great number of huts, with one exceedingly large one in the centre, which we afterwards discovered was the head man's or chief's. All, or nearly all, were conical in shape and built of bark, no mean substitute for wood. As we drew near the shore, I saw many people thronging the water's edge, the crowd every minute increasing, till by the time we reached the landing-place quite a big assembly had congregated. I thought my fair companion surveyed the large gathering somewhat disdainfully. Anyway, she gave her paddle an extra strong pull and drove the canoe far on the sand, and leaping out with wonderful agility, steadied it for me to step ashore, which I did with some difficulty.

By this time Dick and Jimmy had come up and made their landing in a similar manner, and we were immediately surrounded by an immense throng of gaping blacks, whom


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Ada, however, waved haughtily aside, and, beckoning us to follow, passed on.

We walked towards the big hut I have spoken of the people following. Dick assured me, as we went along, that they were a much more powerful and muscular lot than the ordinary Australian native. They were wild enough looking in all conscience, and were entirely naked with the exception of a skin slung round their loins. The women were dressed, or undressed, similarly, though several of the village belles, we found out later on, imitated Ada's style; but beyond that, men and women went unclothed alike.

At the entrance to the large hut we found four huge savage-looking fellows standing leaning on their spears, formidable looking weapons with sharpened stone heads, and to one of them Ada spoke several words, whereat the fellow, raising his spear by way of salute, disappeared behind a sort of barricade that answered the purpose of a door. He was absent but a few minutes, and on returning, motioned us to enter. She led the way, we following, and after passing through the barricade and pushing some skins aside which did duty for curtains, we entered a long, dark chamber, in which we remained for several minutes, neither speaking nor moving. Then some more skin curtains at the farther end of this chamber were pulled aside and we were told to advance.

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