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  ― 65 ―

Spirit-Led




  ― 67 ―

I

IT was the hottest day the Gulfnote had seen for years. Burning, scorching and blistering heat, beating down directly from the vertical sun, in the open; radiating from the iron roof which provided what was mistakenly called shade. In the whole township there was not a corner to be found where a man could escape the suffocating sense of being in the stoke-hole of a steamer.

The surroundings were not of a nature to be grateful to eyes wearied with the monotony of plain and forest. The few stunted trees that had been spared seemed to sadly regret not having shared the fate of their comrades, and the barren ironstone ridge on which the township was built gave


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back with interest all the sun's heat it had absorbed.

Two men were seated on canvas chairs in the verandah of one of the principal “hotels,” both lightly attired in shirt and trousers only, busily engaged in mopping the perspiration from their steaming faces, and swearing at the flies.

“Deuced sight hotter lounging about here than travelling,” said Davis, the elder of the two; “I vote we make a start.”

“I'm agreeable,” replied his companion; “the horses must be starving in the paddock. But we shall have a job to get Delaine away, he's bent on seeing his cheque through.”

“That won't take long at the rate he's going. He's got every loafer in the town hanging about him.”

“Hullo! what's that?” said the other, as the shrill whistle of a steam-launch was heard. “Oh! of course, the steamer arrived at the mouth of the river last night; that's the launch coming up. Shall we go down and see who is on board?”




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The two men got up and joined the stragglers who were wending their way across the bare flat to the bank of the river. Some of the passengers were strangers to the place; one of them, a man with white hair and beard, though otherwise young-looking, immediately attracted Davis' attention.

“See that chap, Bennett?” he said.

“Yes, Dick, who is he?”

“Some years ago he was with me on a droving trip; when we started he was a fine fellow with dark hair. It's a true bill about a man's hair going white in one night. His did.”

“What from? Fright?”

“Yes. We nearly buried him alive by mistake.

“The deuce you did!”

“He had a cataleptic fit on watch one night. The other man—we were double-banking the watch at the time—found him as stiff as a poker, and we all thought he was dead, there were no signs of life in him. It was hot weather—as bad as this—and we couldn't keep him, so we dug a grave, and


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started to bury him at sundown. He came to when we were filling in the grave, yelled blue murder, and frightened the life out of us. His hair that night turned as you see it now, although he vows it was not the fright of being buried alive that did it.”

“What then?”

“Something that happened when he was in the fit, or trance. He has never said more than that he was perfectly conscious all the time, and had a very strange experience.”

“Ever ask him anything?”

“No, he didn't like talking about it. Wonder what he's doing up here?”

By this time the river bank was deserted. Davis and Bennett strolled up after the others, and on arrival at the hotel found the hero of the yarn there before them.

“Hullo, Maxwell,” said Davis, “what brought you up this way?”

Maxwell started slightly when he saw his quondam sexton, but he met him frankly enough, although, at first, he disregarded the question that had been asked.




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In the course of the conversation that followed, Maxwell stated that he was on his way out to the Nicholson river, but with what object did not transpire.

“Bennett and I were just talking of making a start to-morrow, or the next day. Our cattle are spelling on some country just this side of the river. You had better come with us.”

“I shall be very glad,” replied the other, and the thing was settled.

Bennett had been looking curiously at this man who had had so narrow an escape, but beyond the strange whiteness of his hair (which contrasted oddly with the swarthy hue of his sunburnt face) and a nervous look in his eyes, he showed no trace of his singular experience. On the contrary, he promised, upon nearer acquaintance, to be a pleasant travelling companion.

The next morning broke hot and sullen as before. Davis had risen early to send a man out to the paddock after the horses, and was in the bar, talking to the landlord.




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“You'll have to knock off his grog or there'll be trouble,” he said. “He was up all last night wandering about with his belt and revolver on, muttering to himself, and when a fellow does that he's ‘got 'em’ pretty bad.”

“I'll do what I can, but if he doesn't get drink here he will somewhere else,” replied the publican, reluctantly.

“Then I'll see the magistrate and ask him to prohibit his being served. It's the only way to get him straight.”

At this moment the subject of their remarks entered the bar—a young fellow about five or six and twenty—who evidently had not been in bed all night. The whites of his eyes were not blood-shot, but blood-red throughout, and the pupils so dilated that they imparted a look of unnatural horror to his face.

“Hullo, Davis!” he shouted; “glad to see a white man at last. That old nigger with the white hair has been after me all night—the old buck who was potted in the head. He comes along every night now with his


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flour-bag cobranote all over blood. Can't get a wink of sleep for him. Have a drink?”

His speech was quite distinct, he was past the stage when strong waters thicken the voice; his walk was steady, and but for the wild eyes, he might have passed for a man who was simply tired out with a night's riding or watching.

The landlord glanced enquiringly at Davis, as if to put on him the responsibility of serving the liquor.

“Too early, Delaine, and too hot already; besides, I'm going to start to-day and mustn't get tight before breakfast,” said the latter soothingly.

“Oh, be hanged! Here, give us something,” and the young fellow turned towards the bar, and as he did so caught sight of Maxwell, who had just come to the door and was looking in.

The effect on his excited brain of seeing the dark face and snow-white hair was awful to witness. His eyes, blazing before, seemed now simply orbs of fire. Davis and the


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landlord turned to see what the madman was looking at, and that moment was nearly fatal to the newcomer. Muttering: “By ——, he's taken to following me by daylight as well, has he? But I'll soon stop him!” he drew his revolver and, only that Davis turned his head again and was just in time to knock his hand up, Maxwell would have been past praying for. The landlord ran round the bar, and with some trouble the three men got the pistol from the maniac, who raved, bit, and fought like a wild beast. The doctor, who slept in the house, was called, and injected some morphia into the patient's arm, which soon sent him into a stupor.

“By jove, Davis, you saved my life,” said Maxwell; “that blessed lunatic would have shot me sure enough only for you. Whom did he take me for?”

“He's got the horrors, his name is Delaine, and he's from a station on the tableland. They had some trouble with the blacks up there lately, and, I suppose, it was the first dispersing-matchnote he had ever seen. There


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was one white-haired old man got a bullet through his head, and he says he felt as though his own father had been shot when he saw it done. He's a clergyman's son, so, of course, he drinks like a fish, and is superstitious as well.”

“I trust they'll lock him up until I get out of the town; but I'll remember your share of this. Wait until we get away and I will tell you what brought me up here, but don't ask me any questions now. Is your friend Bennett to be trusted?”

“In what way? Wine, women, or gold? I don't know about the first two, but the last I can answer for.”

“It's a secret. Possibly connected with the last.”

“I hope so, I want some badly enough. I think I know where to put you on to a couple of good horses, and then we'll make a start.”

II

The stove-like township is three days' journey away; four men, Davis, Bennett,


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Maxwell, and a blackfellow, are camped for the night by the side of a small lagoon covered with the broad leaves of the purple water-lily. In the distance the cheery sound of horse-bells can be heard, and round the fire the travellers are grouped listening to Maxwell, who is telling the tale he has never yet told:

“When I fell down on watch that night and became to all appearance a corpse, I never, for one instant, lost either consciousness or memory. My soul, spirit, or whatever you like to call it, parted company with my body, but I retained all former powers of observation. I gazed at myself lying there motionless, waited until my fellow-watcher came around and awakened the sleeping camp with the tidings of my death; then, without any impulse of my own, I left the spot and found myself in a shadowy realm where all was vague and confused. Strange, indistinct shapes flitted constantly before me, I heard voices and sounds like sobbing and weeping.

“Now, before I go any further, let me tell


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you that I have never been subject to these fits. I never studied any occult arts, nor troubled myself about what I called ‘such rubbish.’ Why this experience should have befallen me I cannot say. I found I was travelling along swiftly, carried on by some unknown motive power, or, rather, drifting aimlessly with a current of misty forms in which all seemed confusion. Suddenly, to my surprise, I found myself on the earth once more, in a place quite unknown to me.

“I was in Australia—that much I recognised at a glance—but whereabouts?

“I was standing on the bank of a river—a northern river, evidently, for I could see the foliage of the drooping ti-trees and Leichhardt trees further down its course. The surrounding country was open, but barren; immediately in front of me was a rugged range through which the river found its way by means of an apparently impenetrable gorge. The black rocks rose abruptly on either side of a deep pool of water, and all progress, except by swimming,


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was barred. On both sides the ranges were precipitous, cleft by deep ravines; all the growth to be seen was spinifex, save a few stunted bloodwood trees.

“What struck me most forcibly was, that in the centre of the water-hole, at the entrance of the gorge, there arose two rocks, like pillars, some twelve or fifteen feet above the surface of the water.

“Below the gorge the river-bed was sandy, and the usual timber grew on the banks. At first I thought I was alone, but, looking round, I found that a man was standing a short distance away from me. Apparently he was a European, but so tanned and burnt by the sun as to be almost copper-coloured. He was partially clothed in skins, and held some hunting-weapons in his hand. He was gazing absently into the gorge when I first noticed him, but presently turned, and, without evincing any surprise or curiosity, beckoned to me. Immediately, in obedience to some strange impulse, I found myself threading the gloomy gorge with him, although, apparently, we exercised no


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motion. It was more as though we stood still and the rocks glided past us and the water beneath us. We soon reached a small open space or pocket; here there was a rude hut, and we halted.

“My strange companion looked around and, without speaking, drew my attention to a huge boulder close to the hut, on which letters and figures were carved. I made out the principal inscription:—

‘Hendrik Heermans, her vangecommen, 1670.’

There were also an anchor, a ship and a heart, all neatly cut. I turned from these records to the man. He beckoned me again; I followed him across the small open space and up a ravine. The man pointed to a reef cropping out and crossing the gully. I looked at it and saw that the cap had been broken and that gold was showing freely in the stone. The man waved his hand up the gully as though intimating that there were more reefs there.

“Suddenly, sweeping up the gorge came a gust of ice-cold wind, and with it a dash of


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mist or spray. Looming out of this I saw for a moment a young girl's face looking at me. Her lips moved. ‘Go back. Go back!’ she seemed to whisper.

“When I heard this I felt an irresistible longing to return to my discarded body, and, in an instant, gorge, mountains and all my surroundings disappeared, and I found myself in the twilight space battling despairingly on, for I felt that I had lost my way and should never find it again.

“How was I to reach my forsaken body through such a vague, misty and indeterminate land? Impalpable forms threw themselves in my path. Strange cries and wailings led me astray, and all the while there was a smell as of death in my nostrils, and I knew that I must return or die.

“Oh, the unutterable anguish of that time! Ages seemed to pass during which I was fighting with shadows, until at last, I saw a sinking sun, an open grave, and men whose faces I knew, commencing to shovel earth on a senseless body.

“Mine!




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“I had felt no pain when my soul left, but the re-entrance of it into its tenement was such infinite agony, that it forced from me terrible cries that caused my rescue from suffocation.”

Maxwell paused, and the other two were silent.

“You will wonder,” he resumed, “what all this has to do with my present journey. I will tell you. You remember Milford, a surveyor up here—at one time he was running the boundary-line between Queensland and South Australia for the Queensland Government? A year ago I met him, and we were talking about the country up this way. In running the line he had to follow the Nicholson a good way, until finally he was completely blocked. He described to me the place where he had to turn back. It was the water-hole in the gorge with the two rock-like pillars rising out of the water.”

Again there was silence for a while. Then Davis said musingly—

“It's impossible to pronounce any opinion at present; the coincidence of Milford's


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report is certainly startling. But why should this sign have been vouchsafed to you? Apparently this being you saw was the ghost of some old Dutch sailor wrecked or marooned here in the days of the early discovery of Australia. Had you any ancestors among those gentry?

“Not that I am aware of,” returned Maxwell, “but if we find the place we shall certainly make some interesting discovery, apart from any gold.”

“And the girl's face?” enquired Bennett.

Maxwell did not answer for a minute or two.

“I may as well tell you all,” he said then; “I was in Melbourne, after I saw Milford, and I met a girl with that same face, in the street. Strange, too, we could not help looking at each other as though we knew we had met before. That meeting decided me on taking the trip up here. Now, that is really all. Are you ready for the adventure?”

“I should think so,” said Davis, “we have fresh horses at the camp, and nothing


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to do with ourselves for three months or more. Please God, we'll soon be on Tom Tiddler's ground picking up gold in chunks.”

“One question more,” put in Bennett. “Have you ever had any return of these trances or cataleptic fits?”

“Never since, not the slightest sign of one.”

III

There was no doubt about the strange proof or coincidence, whichever it should turn out to be. The three men stood on the bank of the Nicholson gazing at the gorge and the water-hole, from the bosom of which rose the two upright pillars of rock. A fortnight had elapsed since they were camped at the lagoon.

“It's the same place,” muttered Maxwell—and, as the overwhelming horror of his fight through shadowland came back to him, he leant on his horse's shoulder and bowed his head down on the mane.

Bennett made a sign to Davis, and both were silent for a while. Then Davis spoke—




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“Well, old man, as we aren't possessed of the supernatural power you had when you were last here, we'll have to get over that range somehow.”

Maxwell lifted his head. “We must tackle the range, but I expect we shall have a job to get the horses over. How about leaving them here in hobbles and going up on foot?”

“Not to be thought of,” replied Davis; “why, the niggers' tracks just back there in the bed of the river are as thick as sheep-tracks. The horses would be speared before we got five miles away. I know these beggars.”

“That's true,” said Bennett.

Davis eyed the range curiously for some time. “There's a spur there that we can work our way up, I think,” he said at last, indicating with his hand the spot he meant. The other two, after a short inspection, agreed with him. It was then nearly noon, so the horses were turned out for a couple of hours' spell, a fire lit and the billy boiled.

“What could have led your Dutch sailor


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up this way?” said Davis as, the meal over, they were enjoying a pipe.

“That is what has puzzled me. I have read up everything I could get hold of on the subject of Dutch discovery and can find no record of any ship visiting the Gulf about that date,” replied Maxwell.

“There may have been plenty of ships here, of which neither captain nor crew wanted a record kept. Those were the days of the buccaneers,” said Bennett.

“Yes, but with the exception of the ship which had Dampier on board, they did not come out of their way to New Holland,” returned Maxwell.

“The Bachelor's Delight' and the ‘Cygnet' were on the west coast, as you say; why not others which had not the luck to be associated with Dampier?”

“True; but the Dutch were not noted as buccaneers. However, plenty of ships may have been lost in the Gulf of which all record has disappeared. The question is, what brought the man up into this region?” said Davis.




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“I firmly believe we shall get the clue to that secret when we find the ravine. It seems incredible that a shipwrecked or marooned man should have left the seacoast, whereon was his only hope of salvation, and have made south into an unknown land, through such a range as this.”

“Well, boys, we'll make a start for it,” said Davis, jumping up; and the party were soon in their saddles.

The range proved stiff climbing, and they were so often baulked, and forced to retrace their steps, that it was sundown ere they reached the top.

It was a desolate outlook for a camp. A rough tableland of spinifex—evidently extending too far for them to cross and descend the other side before darkness set in—lay before them.

“Nothing for it but to go on and tie the horses up all night,” said Bennett. Fortune, however, favoured them; in about a mile they came to a small patch of grass, sufficient


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for the horses, and as their water-bags were full, they gladly turned out.

“Well, Maxwell,” said Davis, as they were discussing breakfast, “hear anything from your old Dutch navigator last night?”

“No, only I had some confused sort of dream about this place; I thought I heard that voice once more telling me to ‘go back.’ But that, of course, is only natural.”

“I think we are close to the spot,” remarked Bennett. “When I was after the horses this morning I could see down into the river, and there appeared to be a pocket there.”

Bennett proved right. In half-an-hour's time they were scrambling down the range, and soon stood in an open space which Maxwell at once identified.

Naturally everyone was somewhat excited. Although at first inclined to put the story down to hallucination, the subsequent events had certainly shaken this belief in the minds of the two friends. Maxwell silently pointed to the boulder; there was something carved


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on it, but it was worn and indistinct. Two centuries of weather had almost obliterated whatever marks had been there.

“They were fresh and clear when I saw them,” said Maxwell, in an awed voice.

By diligent scrutiny they made out the inscription that he had formerly repeated, but had they not known it the task would have been most difficult. The words had not been very deeply marked, and as the face of the boulder fronted north-west, the full force of two hundred years' monsoons had been experienced by the inscription.

“This is a wonderful thing,” said Davis. “There can be no doubt as to its age.”

“Let's go up the ravine and look for the reef and then get back as soon as possible. I don't like this place. I wish I had not come,” returned Maxwell.

They left the pack-horses feeding about and rode up the gully, taking with them the pick and shovel they had brought. “It was here, I think,” said Maxwell, looking round, “but the place seems altered.”

“Very likely the creek would change


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its 'course slightly in a couple of hundred years, but not much. That looks like an outcrop there.”

“This is the place,” replied Maxwell, eagerly, “I know it now, but it is a little different.”

The three dismounted, and Davis, taking the pick, struck the cap of the reef, breaking off some lumps of stone. As he did so, a wild “Holloa!” rang up the gully. All started and looked at each other with faces suddenly white and hearts quickly beating. There was something grisly in such a cry arising out of the surrounding solitude.

“Blacks?” said Bennett, doubtfully. Davis shook his head. Once more the loud shout was raised, apparently coming from the direction of the inscribed rock.

“Let's go and see what it is, anyhow,” said Davis—and they mounted and rode down the gully again, Bennett, who had picked up a piece of the quartz, putting it into his saddle-pouch as they went along.

Maxwell had not spoken since the cry had been heard, his face was pale, and


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occasionally he muttered to himself, “Go back, go back!” The pack-horses were industriously cropping what scanty grass there was; all seemed peaceful and quiet.

“I believe it was a bird, after all; there's a kind of toucan makes a devil of a row—have a look round,” said Davis to Bennett, and they both rode up and down the bank of the river, leaving Maxwell standing near the rock where he had dismounted. Nothing could be seen, and the two returned and proposed going up the gully again.

“You fellows go and come back quickly, I want to get out of this—I'm upset,” said Maxwell in a constrained voice, speaking for the first time.

Davis glanced at his friend. “Right you are, old man, no wonder you don't feel well; we'll just make sure of the reef and come back. If you want us, fire your pistol; we sha'n't be far off.”

The two rode back to their interrupted work, and hastily commenced their examination of the stone. There was no doubt about


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the richness of the find, and the reef could be traced a good distance without much trouble. They had collected a small heap of specimens to take back, when suddenly the loud “Holloa!” came pealing once more up the gully, followed instantly by a fainter cry and two revolver-shots.

Hastily mounting, the two galloped back.

The pack-horses, as if startled, were walking along their tracks towards home, followed by Maxwell's horse with the bridle trailing. Its rider was stretched on the ground; nothing else was visible.

Jumping from their horses they approached the prostrate man. Both started and stared at each other with terror-stricken eyes. Before them lay a skeleton clad in Maxwell's clothes.

“Are we mad?” cried Davis, aghast with horror.

The fierce sun was above them, the bare mountains around, they could hear the horses clattering up the range as if anxious to leave the accursed place, and before them


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lay a skeleton with the shrunken skin still adhering to it in places—a corpse that had been rotting for years, that had relapsed into the state in which it would have been had the former trance been death. Blind terror seized them both, and they mounted to follow the horses, when an awful voice came from the fleshless lips: “Stay with me, stop! I may come back; I may——”

Bennett could bear no more, he stuck spurs in his horse and galloped off. Davis would have followed, but he was transfixed with terror at what he saw. The awful object was moving, the outcast spirit was striving desperately to reanimate the body, that had suddenly fallen into decay. The watcher was chained to the spot. Once it seemed that the horrible thing was really going to rise, but the struggle was unavailing; with a loud moan of keenest agony and despair that thrilled the listener's brain with terror, it fell back silent and motionless. Davis remembered nothing more till he found himself urging his horse up the range.

In an asylum for the insane in a Queensland


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town there is a patient named Bennett, who is always talking about the wonderful reef he knows of up North. He has a specimen of very rich quartz, which he never parts with day or night. He is often visited by a friend named Davis, who nursed him through a severe attack of fever out on the Nicholson. The doctors think he may yet recover.

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