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The Lost White Woman

THE brig was a wreck. Now and again through the foaming breakers they could see the dark mass of her stern, but the white water covered it and it was gone; a spar or two came washing ashore and some of the deck hamper, but it was utterly impossible that any living thing could be aboard the Britannia. On the beach stood the little band of survivors, three men and a woman. It was a November day, the storm had passed, overhead was a cloudless blue sky, and the bright sun was rapidly drying their damp clothes and putting a little warmth into their frozen limbs. The woman, hardly more than a girl she was, drew her red cloak round her and shivered drearily. She felt sick and ill and terrified, and she wished with all her heart that the sea had not been so merciful.

“Heart up, my pretty,” said the old man beside her, putting a kindly hand on her shoulder.

“Where are we?” she asked.

The old man looked towards the mate who was carefully nursing a broken arm.

“Ninety Mile Beach, I think,” said he, sinking down on the sand, “the Gippsland coast.”

And in 1839 they knew less about Gippsland than we do about Central Africa. Behind them was dense tea-tree scrub, its dark green tops vivid and bright in the sunshine, and before them the long yellow stretch of sand that went right away to the horizon, and the treacherous sea sparkling and dancing in the sunlight.

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“We can walk back to the settlement,” suggested the old sailor.

But the mate shook his head.

“Scrub's too dense, so I've heard, and there's Corner Inlet and Western Port to be negotiated if we go round the coast. No, bo'sun, Twofold Bay's our only hope,” and he looked pitifully at the woman.

“Then we'd better start at once,” said the bo'sun, and he put one arm round her, lifted her to her feet, and turned his sturdy old face to the east. The other two quietly followed him.

They had no food, they had no water, they had absolutely nothing but what they stood up in, and for all they knew, the thick scrub on their left hand might be swarming with blood-thirsty savages.

At noon they came to some rocks jutting out into the sea. They searched and found shell-fish, and their overpowering thirst they quenched at a rill of water that came out of the scrub. The woman was done, and so was the mate. They had just as soon lie down and die there as crawl a step farther, and since the others would not leave them, they all lay down and rested in the shade of the tea-tree. They slept, too, and they kept no watch. There might be lurking savages, but their plight could hardly be worse. Death possibly would not be so cruel as that weary tramp along the coast to Twofold Bay.

And at evening death came. Just as the sun was setting and the swift darkness coming down on the land, there were strange rustlings in the scrub about them, so soft and gentle it might have been the wind among the leaves, only there was no wind.

Ellen Hammond heard it first. She pushed her thick hair back from her ears and sat up and listened, then her eyes fell on a dark hand beside a tea-tree stem; she stifled a cry, and in a moment the scrub was alive with leaping, dancing figures. There came a flight of spears; the old man beside her died with a moan, and the other two scrambled to their feet. But their eyes were heavy with sleep; they had only their fists to

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defend themselves with, and those black figures, with skeletons marked on them in white, outnumbered them ten to one.

The unhappy woman crouching there saw them butchered before her eyes, and crouched still lower. It was useless her trying to escape, and she covered her face with her long, fair hair, gave a yearning, tender thought to the husband and home she had been going to in Sydney, and bent her head to meet her fate. Oh that it might come quickly! That it might come quickly! The white men had died so quietly, with scarce a groan, and now there was in her ears only the uncouth yabbering of savage tongues. How horrible, how weird, how unearthly it all seemed! But still death did not come.

And then a new terror seized her; she thought no more of husband and home, she only realised she was alone and unprotected among those horrible savages, and she envied with all her heart the quiet men beside her. The suspense was more than she could bear, and she sprang to her feet with a terrified cry, and started down for the beach. If she could but reach the sea, the kindly sea, then would all her troubles be over.

But she had not gone half-a-dozen steps before strong hands were laid upon her, she was turned round sharply, and found herself facing a stalwart savage with a bearded face smeared with grease and a piece of bone stuck in his hair. He uttered a sort of grunt of astonishment and admiration. Probably in all his days he had not seen anything so fair as this English girl, with the sunny hair about her shoulders and her blue eyes wide with horror and terror. He appeared to be a sort of chief amongst them, for he pushed off the others who came crowding round, and put his hand on her shoulder. It made her shudder, but she dared not shake it off. At least he kept the other savages away, and she closed her eyes to shut out the sight of them stripping the dead men who had been her friends all this long, weary day.

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At last the hand on her shoulder began to urge her forward, and the whole band went in single file through the scrub. It was dark now, and the savages were evidently afraid. They huddled close together, and moved in silence. The tea-tree was high above their heads; sometimes it met and shut out the dark sky, but generally she could see a star looking down on her, reminding her of her courting days, when she and Tom had looked at the stars together, and it comforted her somehow, though she could hardly have told how. By and by they passed the belt of tea-tree, the scrub and undergrowth were different now, and immense trees towered overhead; then the ground cleared a little, there were little points of leaping flame in the darkness, shrill coo-eyes, the guttural sound of many voices shouting in an uncouth, barbarous tongue, and the pattering of bare feet, and she knew they had reached the blacks' camp.

She was so weary now nothing seemed to matter. She would have dropped to the ground but for the strong hand on her shoulder. A stick in a small fire, a blackfellow's fire, leaped into sudden light, and she saw she was standing beside a hollow tree, and that the interior seemed to be carpeted with soft rotten wood and dead leaves, and with a touch and a kindly look at her captor—necessity had made her diplomatic —she slipped inside and dropped down there, and with the shouts of the people still in her ears she fell into a sleep that was almost a stupor.

“I tell you what, my man,” said Captain Dana of the Native Police, not unkindly, “you'd very much better let us go alone. See here, you're nothing much of a bushman, and you won't be any mortal good to us. You go back to the settlement like a good fellow, and I'll send Bullet here along to put you on the right track. If there's a white woman there—”

“If—if—” stammered Hammond, whose dark hair was already streaked with grey, and whose young face had many lines in it. “When that stockman from

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Western Port way saw no less than two trees with E. H. marked on them. I—I—”

“And you know,” said Dana soothingly, “the average stockman will see anything that's worth a glass of rum.”

“And that leaf he picked up out of Dr Jamieson's big bible. He swears there was something written on it in charcoal when first he saw it, but it got rubbed off in his trousers' pocket.”

“It might have been there before the blacks raided Jamieson's station,” mused Dana, “and—well—it's but a slender clue, specially as we can't read it. Look here, do you know, Hammond—I mean—do you understand—what I mean is, if there's a woman with the blacks we're bound to find her, and we'll bring her in any way. My dear fellow, you haven't realised what the life of a woman among them is like, what she'd be after two or three months, let alone two or three years!”

The unhappy man groaned, and the policeman thought he was going to see reason.

“We'll hand her over to the first white woman we come across, and then you shall see her when she's properly clothed and—”

“I'm going on with you,” said the man sullenly.

“On your head be it then,” and Dana rolled his blanket round him, put his head on his saddle and his feet to the fire, and stared up at the stars, musing on the impracticability of white men and black troopers. Occasionally he looked round and saw his men dimly in the darkness out of range of the firelight, and the white man, full in the blaze, with his head buried in his hands.

“I don't suppose,” said he to himself, “there is any danger, but if some wandering scallawag of a warrigal does throw a spear that ends it, I don't suppose the poor devil'll mind very much.”

It was weary work trailing through the dense forests. It was late autumn, too, and the rain—it rained every day; the ground was a quagmire—soft, loose ground

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on which the foot of a white man had never trod; the huge trees, the trailing creepers, the fern, and the tea-tree loomed up dimly through the mist and the rain, and the four black troopers were as miserable as only black fellows can be. Only the stern command of their leader kept them going forward. Whenever they came to a sheltered spot they were anxious to “quamby” there, and whenever they got the chance they gorged themselves so with food that there was serious danger of the supplies running short. As for the other white man, he grew more like a ghost every day. Even if he found the woman he loved, would it not be better for him and her that she should be dead? How were they ever to blot out those cruel years? And what must she have suffered! What must she be suffering still! Oh God! Oh God! No wonder he spent sleepless nights and watched the dawn come creeping slowly, grey and dreary, through the dripping bush.

They found traces of the aborigines more than once. More than once Bullet, a big black trooper, came back saying that “Plenty blackfellow yanem from scrub,” but never did they get a sight of them, though they found their deserted fires over and over again.

“One day more and we must turn back,” said Dana at last. “No, Mr Hammond, it's no good protesting. I assure you we haven't two days' flour left, and if I didn't go the troopers would go without me. There's not much chivalry among these sons of darkness. Back to Jamieson's station we must go. If he can lend us some rations, well, we'll come back for another two days, and that's all I can promise you.”

And that day Bullet found a tree and pointed it out to Dana. It was marked, as if with some rude instrument unskilled fingers had tried to cut thereon the letters E. H. And it was freshly done. Dana looked at it gravely, and the man beside him trembled like a leaf. The sun was bright in a cloudless sky to-day, and his face was ghastly.

“Well,” said the leader kindly.

Hammond moistened his dry lips.

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“It is—it must be—”

“I think so too.”

The day was bright and fairly warm, and the troopers went gaily ahead. The blacks had passed that way, and they were following quickly. A broken twig, a little trampled grass, to the eyes of the white men there was nothing, but Bullet went ahead briskly and they followed in silence.

Hammond was sick with weariness and suspense. He could hardly sit his horse.

“I see nothing,” he said anxiously. “Can they possibly be following anything?”

“It's as plain as the high road,” said Captain Dana. “It won't be long now. We shall come upon them before night, and then at least we shall learn something.”

By and by Bullet stopped short and came back to his leader.

“Plenty blackfellow this time sit down alonga waterhole.”

“Then,” said Dana, dismounting, “we'll leave the horses here and creep in on them. Here, Johnny Warrington, you sit down alonga yarramen.”

Johnny Warrington didn't exactly seem to like being left alone in the gathering darkness with the horses, but there was no gainsaying Captain Dana's orders. He would have liked to have left Hammond, too, but one glance at the man's strained, anxious face stopped him.

It was getting dark now, the outlines of the tree trunks were hazy with the evening mists. Captain Dana followed close behind Bullet, and behind him came Hammond. He knew that the other two troopers were on either side, but the gathering gloom hid them from him. He could see nothing but the tall, slight figure of the leader of the black troopers.

So impressive had been the command for silence that he hardly dared breathe; the others slipped along like ghosts, only his own footsteps seemed to ring out above all other sounds. He was thankful for the wind

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that arose and rustled the leaves of the trees overhead, for the mocking laugh of a belated jackass, for the mournful hoot of the little white owl that flitted like a lost soul across their path.

Then the figure in front came to a halt, and, turning, caught his hand and pointed to three fiery eyes that looked out of a background of gloom.

“Blackfellows' fires,” said Dana, “at the bottom of the gully. We'll get a little closer and make a rush when I say ‘Go.’ ”

The minutes seemed to crawl, they were stretching themselves into hours, the very sound of his heart beating seemed to fill all the night; then there was the sharp snap of a breaking branch. He had trodden on it.

“You fool,” said Dana's voice angrily. “Go; now go,” he shouted, and he ran forward.

Then followed a scene of wild confusion in the dying light. The troopers raced forward with a savage yell. The blacks in the camp returned it with a cry of unmistakable terror. There was a flight of spears, and then another as the troopers closed. And then came the sharp report of the white man's firearms.

Dana swore an angry oath.

“Who did that?” But there was no reply. The camp was vacant, and its late occupants were rapidly scuttling away into the scrub. Only there was a dark form lay close to one of the little fires. Hammond stood still bewildered, and Dana cried to his men to see that they weren't all speared from the scrub.

The opossum skin rug at the fire moved feebly, and a woman's voice with a sob in it cried:

“Are you white men?”

In a moment Hammond was at her side, and Dana had stirred the smouldering fire to a blaze. It was a white face that lay there among the folds of the rug, a very white face, the hair all round it like an aureole was flaxen, but alas, there was a dark stain on the fur and it was growing larger every minute.

“Nellie! Nellie! Nellie! My God! At last!”

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She put up a feeble hand and touched his face. There were still the ragged remains of a sleeve on the thin arm.

“I'm glad, I'm glad, sweetheart. I have wanted you so much.”

The tears were blinding his eyes and raining down on the face that was growing so still.

“Man,” said Dana's pitying voice, “she is dying.”

“No, no.”

She turned her face into his shoulder.

“Tom, Tom dear.”

Dana bared his head. In the bright firelight they were a target for every spear from out the blackness of the surrounding scrub. But he reckoned that a blackfellow when he was scared was scared badly, and would not stop to see if things might not be mended.

A moment or two passed, and Captain Dana touched his shoulder again.

“Dead,” said he. “She is dead. God rest her soul.”

“Who shot her?” said Dana when he told the story to his particular friend in Melbourne a fortnight later; “well, between ourselves, just between ourselves, you know, I think it was Hammond himself. There were two reports, and I've dismissed Racy Bob from the force for firing without orders; the beggar was pining to get back to his tribe and would have made himself scarce in a week if I hadn't, and I've made Hammond clearly understand that he didn't. He thinks I've eyes that see the bullets in the air, but if the bullet that came whistling past my arm didn't bury itself in the opossum skin rug I'm a Dutchman.”

“She was better dead,” said Captain Lonsdale quietly; “much better dead. But you're right, we'll keep the story quiet.”

And so quiet did they keep it that many people to this day think that the white woman who was captured by the Gippsland blacks was never found.