Chapter III

In Which is Related a Conversation Between My Cousin Hardwicke and Myself.

AT the conclusion of this most remarkable narrative, Dick dropped the manuscript upon his dressing-table and significantly inquired, “Well?”

A fitting reply to so ambiguous a remark being entirely beyond my powers, I answered interrogatively—

“What is your opinion, Dick?”

“I scarcely ha ve one,” he answered candidly. “The yarn has knocked me silly. Who would have dreamt that quiet, inoffensive old man had been the hero of such an unparalleled adventure?”

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“Unparalleled, truly,” I rejoined with something very like a touch of sarcasm. “It sounds like one of those marvellous romances in which impossible heroes perform incredible feats.”

“No doubt, no doubt. But what object would he have in lying?”

“A weakness of the brain,” I ventured. “You know how people's minds have run riot over that wonderful, unknown interior.”

“I think not,” said he, answering the first portion of my speech, and entirely ignoring the second. “Morton was a very quiet, sensible old fellow. And, with this exception, I have never yet had reason to suppose him mad. His horror at being sent back to the Swan River Settlement may seem exaggerated, but the convicts were often treated with unnecessary harshness, and the crime he and his companion had been guilty of meant hanging. I have both read and heard of many desperate attempts to escape from the penal settlements in the old days; how the men sought the inhospitable regions of the bush in preference to the abject, brutish life led in those seething hells, but never have I heard the like of this before.”

“I should think not,” I replied. “But tell me, Dick—Do you honestly believe he performed that journey?”

“Certainly. Why not?”

“But think. How could it be possible for him to do it without an escort or provisions? The country is as dry as a bone.”

“I cannot tell you how ne did it, Archie; but that it has been done by him I do not doubt for a moment. Who can say what providence watched over him?”

“Then you believe it might be done?”

“With the help of God,” said he devoutly.

This was coming it pretty strong, and I looked on him in wonder; but so entirely engrossed was he with his own thoughts that he appeared not to notice the ardour of my gaze.

“Then,” said I, “you think that providence—or

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whatever you may call it—taking pity on this man, would offer him its special protection?”

“Who knows?” he answered. “He had a great duty to perform.”

There was a pause in the conversation, each being busy with his own thoughts. Here then was a strange tale, and the opening for an adventure equalling in its intensity the wild search for Manoa, the Golden City of South America. But would not this Golden Lake prove as great a myth as the fabled city? Might not the wonderful story we had just heard be but the ravings of a madman? A delusion, a dream of wealth in which beggars so often indulge? And yet I had no reason to suppose the man was mad, though for the matter of that madness is so prevalent as to attract little or no attention. At the same time I must candidly confess that there was a certain flavour of romance about the narrative not altogether repugnant to my tastes. Being young, and particularly fond of excitement, I saw something supremely fascinating in this strange story of the great unknown interior; and my mind immediately bore me off across the great deserts, and I was arduously climbing the Principal Street of the Great White City in the Mountains, when Dick abruptly terminated my imaginary journey by suddenly exclaiming, “Well?”

“Well, Dick?” I replied.

“I'll tell you what, Archie,” said he turning his serious eyes upon me; “if I had the money I would get two or three people to go along with me and try and discover that lake. If I did not find the landmarks old Morton speaks of I would know he either lied or was mad; but until I prove it one way or the other, I must, I do believe him.”

“And do you mean to say you seriously entertain the thought of such a journey?”

“Why not? It will be easy enough to turn back if we discover none of the marks he gives us. I am serious, and shall never rest satisfied till I have proved the truth or falsehood of his story. If he has spoken the truth, we who know his secret owe a sacred duty to that poor child he

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left behind him fifteen years ago; and if we cannot undertake to rescue her, it is imperative that we let the authorities know the whole history.”

“You are right, old fellow,” I replied; “the story may be true, and it is our duty to do all that is within our power for the succour of that unfortunate girl. But the directions to this lake are so horribly vague. How can we possibly strike the places he mentions, knowing neither their latitude nor longitude?”

“But he has given us a course; vague I grant, but still a course, and with one exception the principal marks are all hills or mountains—things not very easily missed in a desert.”

“Well, then,” said I, “supposing all this explained satisfactorily enough, I want your opinion on the ‘Great White City in the Mountains.’ Do you for one moment believe there is such a thing?”

“I don't know,” he answered. “It seems incredible, and yet I do not disbelieve it. I have convinced myself into belief, you will say. Perhaps so. But this riddle of the mountain city need trouble us but little, for if we did not discover the landmarks previous to it, we could turn back and abandon the expedition.”

I was silent for a long time, turning and twisting the matter over in my head. After all, the story might be true, and, as he truly said, if we found not the landmarks Morton mentioned, there was nothing to prevent us from returning.

“And so money is the only bar, Dick?”

“Unfortunately, yes.”

“Then I will undertake to equip the expedition; and, what is more, will make one of the party.”

“Archie, you are a brick,” said he, and wrung my hand, by way of expressing thanks; “and if we do not strike the Golden Lake, and make all our fortunes, I will repay you for your outlay if it takes me years to do it.”

With that he deposited the old servant's narrative in the trunk again and carefully locked it, putting the directions to the lake in his pocket-book.

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“We must not tell the mother or the girls what we really intend doing,” said he. “I'll say we are going on a hunting expedition—so we are, you know, and such game, too—and that the Lord only knows when we'll be back.”

“If we ever come back at all.”

“Yes, even that's on the cards. But we'll wait till our doom threatens before we indulge in gloomy forebodings.”

With that the conversation ceased; and thus it was that I, Archibald Martesque, of Mintington, in the county of Somerset, became one of the small band of adventurers that plunged into the unknown depths of the great interior in search of the Golden Lake.