previous
next



  ― 18 ―

Chapter II The Massacre

RUNNING to the door to see what had caused this sudden change of mood in the animal, the wife was astonished, though certainly not alarmed, at seeing three blacks, armed with spear and boomerang, almost close to the hut.

The dog sprang out upon the blacks in the most furious manner, but he was too small to be of any use in the way of defence, although sufficiently attached to his owners to be the cause of mischief by the offence and irritation that his attacks would give to the blacks. Thus, when he rushed out at them, and the savages threatened him with their spears, she called him back, and, by a few soothing words, induced him to enter the hut, though all her persuasion was insufficient to keep him quiet, or to prevent him from keeping up a continued growling.

The blacks now came up, and Macomo, the leader, stalked with an air of authority into the hut, whilst Atare and Opara took up their station just within the doorway. As they cast their eyes around the hut, and marked its contents, there was in them a greedy and exulting gleam that did not escape the woman's observation. There was something there, though she could not read its whole meaning, that told her feminine instincts that she was not safe. With true maternal precaution, she gathered her two elder children up close to her, as


  ― 19 ―
though, at all events, to shield them from the first fury of the storm should it burst forth; and, taking up her position by the side of the cradle in which her infant was sleeping, she faced the intruders boldly, and addressed them sternly, no quaver of fear in her voice, no want of courage in her eye.

“Now, what is it you want?” she inquired.

The savages looked at each other, for, though Macomo may have known sufficient of the whitefellows' language to understand a simple sentence addressed to him, there were but very few words that he could speak himself. His companions were altogether ignorant of the tongue; but still the manner of the woman left no doubt in their minds as to what she was saying.

Macomo opened his mouth, put his fingers into it in a manner not to be mistaken, and said the one word, “Eat.”

“If you want food, go outside and camp down by the stockyard, and I will bring you something,” and she pointed with her hand to the door.

Macomo shook his head, and, with a half-imperative gesture, placed his hand upon the table, and indicated by signs that the meal should be served there.

“No!” answered the wife. “My husband will be home directly to his dinner, and he will not suffer you in the house. You must go outside.”

She was watching them narrowly, and she caught sight of the fierce significant glance that passed between them when Macomo told them the purport of what she had just said. She became aware then that, though Macomo pretended not to know what was said, he understood every word. The bearing of the three was such as to convince her that danger was impending and imminent, though of what kind she was unable to say.


  ― 20 ―
Judging from the wild and ruthless look of the savages, the very worst might be expected. What, then, was she to do? Should she make a bold effort and endeavour to escape? Alas, those little ones would impede her flight, and she had rather die with them than leave them in such pitiless hands. She must temporise, then; hold them in play; gain time—precious time. Perhaps her husband might take it into his head to come home to dinner. He had done so occasionally; but as she thought this she knew that she was deceiving herself, for only on one or two occasions had he done so. Still, time gained was something.

All this passed like a flash through her mind, and her plan was at once formed. Changing her tone to one of easy indifference, she said, “Well, never mind; if he comes in I must make peace for you. So sit down.”

With a calmness that nothing but the exercise of the most powerful will could have given, she placed chairs at the table, and, after laying plates and knives and forks on the board, she sat her children down on a stool by the fire, and went into the storeroom to fetch the food. “Perhaps,” she thought, “I may see some opening of escape in that direction.”

But again the thought of the helpless little ones came upon her, and she knew that escape with them was impossible. Almost mechanically, for her mind was busy upon some means of escape, she opened the safe, and was taking out the food, when she became aware of the presence of Blucher. He had followed her into the store, and was whining and fondling on her feet, expressing in the best way that nature permitted to him the sympathy he felt for her dangerous position.




  ― 21 ―

“My poor Marshal,” she said, “and you foresaw this, and this it was that caused the uneasiness for which we were inclined to blame you.”

The dog jumped and fondled upon her almost in ecstasy, as if he knew now that his conduct of the morning had been appreciated. “Oh,” she continued, “that you had but the power of speech, that you might aid me with your counsel, and tell me what is best to be done.”

Blucher wagged his tail and looked up in her face reflectively, a low whine being possibly intended to express the regret he felt at not being able to do what his mistress wished.

Suddenly the thought came upon her that George could not be very far away, and that the distance would be nothing when traversed at the full speed of the willing dog. If the dog could be sent away with a message, she might manage to keep the blacks in good humour, and George might be home in time to prevent mischief. But how to send a message; she had no materials for writing —nothing to send him as a sign of their danger. Stay! There was the locket with her dear mother's hair. George knew that she never parted with that, and that nothing but a dire extremity would induce her to risk its loss. She would tie it round the dog's neck, and when George saw it, he would guess the rest. But would the dog find her husband? and then, would her husband notice the locket on his neck? She would not doubt. She would try the experiment, and leave the result in the hands of Providence. All this passed through her mind in an instant of time, and in a few seconds afterwards the locket was taken from her own neck, and tied, in such a manner as to be readily remarked, round that of the dog, and the dog himself was dropped noiselessly out of the window, after he had been taken up by his mistress,


  ― 22 ―
caressed, and received this instruction—“Use all the speed you can, my good dog, to find your master, and bring him back to save us.”

This done, she left the store with as much coolness as if nothing had occurred. On opening the door, she found Atare standing on the watch, and, motioning him to go before—a direction that the black obeyed with evident unwillingness—she returned to the main room, and her heart was relieved from a load when she saw her children sitting safe where she had left them.

She placed the meat and bread upon the table, and was about to cut off some meat for the blacks, when the knife and fork were rudely snatched from her hand by Opara, who made signs to indicate that he would help himself.

Macomo now turned to her, and, going through a feigned process of drinking, said, “Tea!”

She shook her head. “No water,” she said. “Blackfellow go to river and get water.”

Macomo answered by pointing, with a sardonic grin, to the kettle that was boiling on the hearth.

“That is for the tea that my husband takes with his dinner, and must not be used.”

Again that savage gleam shot out of the eyes of the black. He, however, contented himself with making an imperative negative gesture, and pointed to himself and his companions.

She caught the look, however, and was warned by it. “Why, you surely would not eat my husband's dinner, and then leave him without a cup of tea also,” she said, in a voice of constrained pleasantry, even smiling on them, in the hope of temporarily restraining them from the execution of their manifest design of pillage.

The words fell upon ears that could not comprehend


  ― 23 ―
their meaning; but her tone of voice was readily understood; in fact, so well had the woman played her part, that, keen savage as he was, the cadence of the words, and the smile that accompanied them, completely deceived Macomo. Taking advantage of the seeming complaisance of the mistress of the house, he seized the hand which in speaking she had stretched out towards them. There could be no mistaking the look that accompanied this action, and all the Saxon blood of the virtuous English matron was at once up in arms.

Snatching her hand away with every token of disgust, and her eyes fairly ablaze with anger, she cried, “Out from the hut, ye black curs! Troop, march! Out of the hut, or I'll take your punishment into my own hands, and leave not a strip of your black hides for my husband to flog off you on his return!”

The blacks had started to their feet. The concentrated fury in which the last words were uttered left no possible excuse for mistaking the woman's meaning. In an instant their tomahawks were in their hands. As they thus confronted her, the woman took two paces backward, seized a small saucepan that was at hand, ladled it full of boiling water from the huge iron pot that was hung over the fire, and, preparing to cast it over the blacks, she said, “Clear out, every one of you! March out, or I will scald you so that your own tribe shall not know you again!”

Alas! Well would it have been for her had she cast on them the water without giving them warning. In the suddenness of attack she might have surprised them into flight, and so saved her life. It would have been beyond their power to have endured the pain that would have been caused by the hot water upon their nude bodies. But, though they understood the action of the woman,


  ― 24 ―
and its threatening character, they did not understand the words; and, the first surprise overcome, their wily wits were soon at work. That moment's pause had cost the poor mother her life; for Atare, who was close to the cradle, pounced suddenly down upon it, and, seizing the infant, that had been lying sleeping in it, in an iron clutch that almost crunched the young bones, and brought out a yell of agony from the babe, he, with a shout of derision, held it before him as a shield. This sight, and the cry of pain from her babe, was more than the mother's courage could stand. Letting fall the saucepan she had held, but had failed to use, she rushed forward to the rescue of her infant. She had barely taken three steps towards Atare, when the tomahawk of Macomo was buried in her brain. With a wild ringing shriek she fell, and the last sight that her dying eyse encountered as she was falling was one that had called forth that shriek of agony more than any bodily pang of her own. She saw, and had still the consciousness to be agonised by the action, her beloved babe dashed savagely down upon the earth by the now furious barbarian who had temporarily made it his protection. She saw this, and then Heaven, in its mercy, called her away. The two little ones, who were crying with fright in the chimney corner, were despatched almost before they were aware of what had happened. The poor babe had had all its little life crushed out of it by that one violent cast.

And now the savages dispersed over the hut, admiring, breaking, and destroying; collecting together all such articles as, according to their notions, were the most valuable, and wantonly smashing up all that they could not remove. Already they had gathered three heaps of goods, when the sound of hurried footsteps caught their ready ears. Opara at once sprang forward, looking out in the


  ― 25 ―
direction whence the sound came, but keeping himself concealed. A short observation satisfied him, and he grinned gaily to his companions as he told them that it was only the boy, and that if they would keep themselves quiet, the lad would run into the trap, and be very quickly disposed of.

Poor Jamie! He had heard whilst at work at the lower end of the clearing that piercing shriek, the last cry of his dying mother; and, changed as it was, and in a tone that he had never heard before, he knew that mother's voice. Stupefied for the moment by the thrill of horror that it caused to pass through his frame, he stood aghast and irresolute. He knew nothing of the arrival of the blacks, and could not therefore in any way conjecture what could possibly have called forth that cry of agony. That something dreadful had occurred he was convinced, and he at once set off at his utmost speed for the hut.

Nearer he came, his cheeks pale with the haste he had made, as well as from the remembrance of that dreadful cry that still seemed ringing in his ears. As he approached, however within fair sight of the doorway, the unwonted stillness that reigned around seemed to raise some suspicion in his mind, and he came to a dead halt, and peered inquiringly in at the door, now not more than fifty yards distant. He could see nothing of those he sought, nor of any living thing. He had left Blucher in the hut, and if Blucher were there, he would not have allowed him to come thus near without a bark of recognition. They might be down at the river, and some accident might have occurred there. Still he was sure that shriek—and the memory of it made him shudder— had come from the hut. He considered for a moment, and had almost made up his mind to go down to the river


  ― 26 ―
and search for his mother there, when suddenly a black form glided through the doorway, and in another moment a spear was cast from Opara's woomera, and came whizzing through the air straight towards him. Quick as lightning he dropped flat upon his face, and the spear sped harmlessly over him, and stuck quivering in the ground some twenty yards beyond.

The boy, however, did not wait to watch the course of the weapon, but, springing at once to his feet, he bounded off at his utmost speed along the upper line of the fence in the direction that had that morning been taken by his father. But he had cunning enemies at his heels. Opara ran after him only so far as to give himself a steady aim, and his weapon the required distance for a correct throw. Having attained this, he paused for a moment to steady himself, and then launched a boomerang from his hand. The weapon rose slightly from the throw, and then, cutting the air in a series of curves, at last struck the boy over the legs, and brought him to the ground with a broken thigh bone. Drawing his tomahawk from his belt, for he had left his spears behind him in the hut, Opara ran off at full speed to the spot where the lad had fallen.

In spite of the agony the action caused him, Jamie raised himself till he stood upright. All was now clear to him. He knew too well the meaning of that fatal scream, and the cause of that unwonted silence. The savages had desolated his home, and one of them was now approaching eager to take his life. That life he would sell dearly, if but the chance were given him; for, boy though he was, the heart of a man was in his bosom. Hastily looking round for some weapon of defence against the savage who was fast nearing him, he was almost driven to despair at finding that there was not so much


  ― 27 ―
as a stick within his reach. There were, however, a quantity of stones lying along the bottom of the fence. Quickly selecting one of these, he kept it as far as he could out of sight, and with a beating heart awaited the approach of the black. He had but to wait a few seconds, and then Opara was down upon him; and, as the savage raised his tomahawk to strike, the boy with all his strength launched the stone full in the face of the black. It struck the mark at which it had been so steadily aimed, and with such good-will that the savage fell as if he had been shot. This, however, did not save the boy, for the blow aimed by the black had already parted, and the tomahawk descended upon his head. Jamie dropped senseless, and apparently dead, and, at the same moment, his assailant, equally senseless, fell on top of him.

They lay thus for some minutes, for it was not until that time that Macomo and Atare missed their companion. His continued absence, however, at last led them to deem it advisable to follow on his track and learn what had detained him. They had not far to go, and their astonishment was great at finding him lying senseless upon the apparently dead body of the boy. Raising him up, they saw the ghastly wound that had been inflicted, a wound of so extensive a character that they despaired of their comrade's life. Their rage knew no bounds, and, spurning the lad's body with their feet, they would, no doubt, have hacked it piecemeal, had not their companion's precarious condition demanded their instant attention. They at once gave all their skill to restoring him to consciousness.

When at last he opened his eyes and gave a deep groan, they turned their attention to the boy. There is a kind of superstition amongst the Australian aborigines that the slayer of one of their tribe should not only be


  ― 28 ―
killed, but should also be buried out of sight, so that the members of his own tribe may never be able to claim and pay the last rites to the body. By this only, as they believe, can the spirit of their departed comrade be fully satisfied. Thus, then, in order to propitiate Opara's spirit, in the event of a serious termination to his wound, Macomo and Atare proceeded to put the boy's body out of sight.

Scooping out with their tomahawks a shallow trench in the softer ground that lay under shelter of the fence, they threw Jamie's body into it. They then drew over it the surface earth they had previously removed, heaping on the top a number of the stones before referred to, and scattering over all a quantity of leaves and twigs, in such a way as to leave but little trace of the bloody deed that had been thus concealed.

Having done this to their satisfaction, they bore the body of Opara to the hut, and, by the use of the rude aboriginal remedies, they succeeded in bringing him back to full consciousness, and ultimately in putting him in a state to move away. This was all the more necessary since these occurrences had consumed a considerable amount of time, and they began to feel that there was a danger that the settler might come upon them before they could get a sufficient distance away to provide for their comrade's safety. They had missed the dog, knowing that he would not have remained quiet throughout all this violence had he been anywhere handy; and they could give a pretty shrewd guess as to the direction in which he had gone. Their own wily and observant natures also told them that important information was to be conveyed by very trifling indications, such as would scarcely be remarked by an ordinary or uninterested observer, or one not acquainted with the token sent.




  ― 29 ―

Packing together, then, as much of their selected plunder as they could conveniently carry, they set fire to the hut, and before it had burst into a blaze, left the spot, their wounded companion toiling painfully after them.

As George Maxwell left his home in the morning, it was only to be expected that the melancholy howlings of the dog, which followed his footsteps, should have had some depressing influence upon him. He was a brave man, but he had the warmest affection for his family, and the strongest anxiety for their safety; and, as those cries followed him, he felt much more uneasy than he would willingly acknowledge to himself. This feeling became so strong upon him that, when he reached the top of the ridge, he paused for a moment hesitatingly, with more than a half inclination to turn back and send his son in his place. But upon what slight circumstances do the most important events of our life frequently hinge! Have not the most momentous occurrences but too frequently been dependent, in the first instance, upon some circumstance of the most trivial kind, that for the moment has passed by us disregarded?

And so it was in the present instance. At the instant when George paused, and just as he was on the point of turning back, he took one look at the sheep, still a long way ahead of him. He saw that the leaders of the flock were about to dip into a thick jungly gully. Had they fed into this, he knew that there was great danger of their separating, and of a large portion of the flock being lost. He could not, therefore, leave them at this particular juncture, and, hurrying forward after them, he determined to extricate them from this difficulty,


  ― 30 ―
to place them upon some clear feeding-ground, and then to return.

Suddenly he heard a distant cry, or rather, as it might be, the echo of a cry, that sounded to him like a shriek of distress, and coming, too, from the direction of his home. His heart almost ceased to beat as he heard, and then again he checked his fears. Could he have heard a cry at that distance from his home? It was folly. It must be a delusion of his sense of hearing acted upon by the nervous excitement his mind had been undergoing for the last few hours. And so he reassured himself.

Hardly had he made up his mind to return home than he had started; but he had not taken more than a hundred paces before the dog Blucher dashed breathless and panting out of the bush, and commenced to bark and to jump upon his master. He gave but a short time, however, to the caress of his master, for, almost immediately, he left him, ran back towards home, stopped to see if his master followed, and, finding that he did not do so, came back a short distance towards him, and then again dashed off homeward, as though tempting George to follow at the same speed.

“Well, Marshal,” said George, “so you have changed your mind, old fellow, and have come out to inspect the forces after all.”

The dog wagged his tail at the friendly salutation, but whined pleadingly, and once more started off on the homeward track.

As Maxwell hesitated, Blucher instantly ran back to him, and, seizing him by the trousers, endeavoured to drag him on the way towards the hut. Then, when his master turned and faced in the homeward direction, the dog once more bounded off on the track, stopping, however,


  ― 31 ―
when he had gone some distance, and looking back anxiously to see if his master followed.

George was fairly perplexed at the Marshal's conduct. “Confound the dog!” he said. “I hope he's not going mad. It seems very much like it. If he comes near me again in that style, I'll give him a charge of lead, and prevent accidents.”

He turned away, and once more the dog came back to him. George heard him coming, and at once faced round and raised his gun with a view to carry out his threat; but, in running his eye along the animal's body in search of the spot at which to aim, he perceived, for the first time, the black ribbon that was round its neck, and, tracing this ribbon with his eye, he saw the locket attached to it, and at once recognised it as his wife's.

Something like a suspicion of the truth seemed to dart across George's mind when he saw the locket. As his wife had well surmised, he knew the trinket never left her possession. The dog was now close to him, so, seizing the animal with one hand, with the other he detached the ribbon and locket from its neck. Yes, it was hers—there could be no doubt about it. Had this been sent by his wife? It could have been in the hands of none other. Then it could only have been sent in a moment of great urgency as a token that he was instantly required. And then the conduct of the dog—yes, that was all clear enough now. And he had been about to shoot the poor brute; and instead of following the faithful animal, who knew its mistress's danger, he had lost time, valuable time, that could never be regained. These were the thoughts that passed through his mind as he ran now at his utmost speed towards home.

“Oh! would to God I may not be too late!” was the expression, and the only one that passed the lips, of the


  ― 32 ―
agonised man, almost unconsciously, as he rushed wildly homewards. He saw it all now, plainly and palpably; at least he saw that some imminent danger impended— a danger that might fall at any moment on his own loved ones before he was there to aid them. But from what quarter and in what form did it threaten? And then that shriek—“Oh! would to God I may not be too late!” he cried, as the sweat, not of exertion, but of agony, poured from his brow. “Oh! Marshal, Marshal! would that you had language equal to your intelligence! Would that you could tell all that you have so recently seen!”

At last he reached a spot whence he had been accustomed to see the smoke from his hut fire rising into the air. Yes, there it was! But no; the largest fire of the coldest night never sent up such a smoke as that! And with the thought he dashed forward more fiercely and more eagerly than before. The summit of the next rise was reached, and then he came into full view of what had so recently been his happy, thriving home. One look told him all. That burning hut; with no one living soul near, spoke the whole history to his quick perceptions. He stopped abruptly and looked upon the ruin, and as he looked there was something in the sight that seemed to turn the man to stone. Grinding his teeth together with rage, he clenched his hands so violently as to be almost forcible enough to crush the polished barrel of the gun he held in one of them. He ceased at once the pious ejaculation he had previously so frequently and so fervently uttered. The blow had fallen—he had no need of prayer now. No word passed his lips, but the look of agony left his face, and in its place his countenance assumed the terrible scowl of vengeful determination—a scowl of which, ten minutes before, none would have thought it capable. Satisfied with his


  ― 33 ―
survey, he moved forward, but no longer with the head-long speed he had hitherto used. It was at a quick walk only that he came towards the spot, knowing that the blow had fallen—that the worst had occurred, and that what had happened was irreparable.

He reached the hut, and while it was burning, he stood as near as he conveniently could, and, leaning on his gun, passively watched the flames doing the work of destruction. To have seen him, one would have said that he was an utterly disinterested and an exceedingly nonchalant spectator of the ruin, but for the look of his face. There was still there that look of vengeful determination, that seemed now to have been firmly and indelibly chiselled into it in hard and unmistakable lines. There was no sign of his wife or his children. He did not expect to meet with any. He seemed to know instinctively that he must look there—there amongst that burning mass, for what had been his wife and children. And he must wait—wait patiently till he could search for and bring them forth. Well, he would wait. He could wait and bide his time; but his time would come at last, and then—and he ground his teeth savagely together as he thought upon what would happen then.

It had only been a bark hut, and the fire was not long before it had exhausted itself, and left nothing but smouldering ruins behind. As soon as he could venture amongst the heated wreck, George was at work upon it, heedless of burns and injuries to himself, dragging out the still burning sheets of bark that had fallen from the roof, and clearing away and rooting down to what he knew was below lying on the earthen floor. He came first to the body of his wife. He raised her remains tenderly and carefully, and laid them out on the spot of grass in front of the hut.




  ― 34 ―

In removing her he came upon the crushed body of the babe. Yes, he knew that the mother would not allow her infant to be far separated from her, even in death. Close by were the bodies of the other two children; but where was Jamie? His body was not near that burnt and hideous mass. Where could it be? And he searched over the whole hut, clearing out every portion of the ruin. Had Jamie escaped? Had he turned coward, and, saving himself, left his mother to be slaughtered without a blow in her defence? And a darker scowl than it had ever yet borne passed over his face. No! He could not believe it. Jamie would have died for his mother, and he must be dead, or his mother would not be lying there. But where was his body? Without waiting for any answer to his question, he hastily decided to dig a grave for the remains of his loved ones, and, when that was completed, he stood and looked down upon the corpses. He uttered no word; he shed no tear; there was not so much as a sigh breathed forth to relieve that heavy oppression that seemed to be suffocating him. Yes, his mind was clearer now, and he determined to search for Jamie's body, believing that the demons who had killed the others had sacrificed him also.

previous
next