― 59 ―

6. Chapter VI.

During the night that preceded this day Mrs. Lindsay lay many hours awake. When she at last fell asleep, her slumber was fitful and broken. Towards morning she suddenly woke up in extreme agitation. She thought she had heard Doris calling out, "Mother! mother! mother!" in piercing tones. When she opened her eyes, with this sound in her ears, her heart was throbbing so painfully that for a little time she could not move.

"It was a dream; it must have been a dream," she said, holding her hand against her left side, as if to still the stormy beatings of her heart. Yet she had no recollection of any event, or any other word that led up to this wailing cry. As soon as she could move, she went tremblingly to the door that led from her own room into her daughter's, but all was perfectly still. Then she opened the window and looked out. The east was faintly touched with the pallor of the coming dawn. The first half-drowsy notes of awakening birdsnote began to break the silence of the woods. It was the strangely beautiful hour in which nature, as if emerging from profound repose, seems to swim gradually back from the oblivion of night–all forms and colours spiritualized by the trembling approach of a new day. The dark masses of trees motionless as in a picture, the pale, unruffled lake, the deep clear vault of heaven, with a luminous reach of light slowly spreading in the orient–all were solemnly tranquil.

And when the mother once more turned to the dim, sweet chamber of her child, it was pervaded by an equal peacefulness. Near the window a bowlful of white roses glimmered in the uncertain light; on a little old-fashioned spindle table lay an open missal, beside a box of water-colours; on a chair, daintily folded, were the exquisitely-wrought under garments; in the depths of a half-opened wardrobe gleamed some of the crimson silk robes that Doris most habitually wore; and in the little bed, with its canopy of soft white Indian silk, the girl lay notefast asleep, her face,

  ― 60 ―
with its unruffled serenity, curiously resembling in expression the angel children she was so fond of painting. Over the foot of the bed a crimson scarf lay in careless folds.

This caught the mother's eyes, and she shivered slightly. In the yet dusky light this vivid streak of crimson somehow suggested to her morbidly-sensitive eyes the stain of a wounded creature's blood. She stole in softly and removed the scarf.

Doris moved, and lay with her face towards the window. Her lips parted in a soft smile. She murmured a few words in a low, glad voice, showing that some happy dream had come to her in sleep. At this the noteagitation which had taken so strong a hold on the mother was allayed. She went back into her own room, and though she did not sleep, she rested until after six.

Then Shung-Loo, with his invincible punctuality, with which no shadow of past or coming noteevents was ever allowed to interfere, tapped at her door, and on a little table close to it in the hall left a tray, with two cups of notecreamed chocolate and a little plateful of freshly-baked biscuits.

Mrs. Lindsay slipped on her dressing-gown and slippers, and took the tray into Doris's room. She had just awakened, and, on seeing her mother, started up to return her morning kiss.

"Is it really true, mother? Are we going away this very next day, into the strange countries where all the strange stories happened?"

"Yes, darling, going to-morrow. But, see, I have brought you your chocolate."

"But, mother, how naughty of you! Promise me you will let me wait more on you after this. You know, I am a great thing–half a head taller than you."

She sat up in bed, holding herself erect, so that even under a silken coverlet and in the weakly feminine folds of snowy lace that fell round her throat and slender white hands her heroic proportions should become evident.

"I promise you, Doris," said the mother, smiling fondly. "I dare say I shall soon grow stout and lazy, and let you come after me with my footstool and wrap; the voyage will be a fine opportunity. I wonder if the sea will make my little girl ill?"

  ― 61 ―

"Oh no–not a bit. Mother, I remember being on the sea quite well, and I dreamt of it a little before I woke. Do you remember how blue it used to look from the Adelaide hills?note And father sometimes took us sailing in a boat, you know, when we went to the seaside in the summer."

As always in mentioning her father, Doris's voice sank tenderly; and, as was her habit on such occasions, the mother pressed her child's hand.

"I remember, Dorrie; and you were quite a brave little sailor. Papa used to hold you up when the seagulls flew by, and you clapped your little hands with joy."

"Mother, I hope there will be great white seagulls, and albatrosses with wide, wide wings, and enormous sea-serpents, with green and gold eyes, sailing along with our ship," said Doris, her cheeks beginning to flush at the thought of all the notevague wonders that might open out before her on leaving the calm monotony of Ouranie.

Her mother smiled, shaking her head.

"Now, mammy, don't tell me that there are no sea-serpents," said Doris gaily. "I shall tell the captain to go to Sinbad's island, and to Ispahan.note Oh, you don't know half the places we are to see!"

Doris sipped a little chocolate, but she could not eat even one biscuit. Now that the hour of departure drew so near, the glad excitement of it all fairly carried her away.

"And the sea you saw in your sleep, Doris, was it blue and calm as we used to see it on summer days long ago?" asked her mother wistfully.

"No, I think it was stormy; and I was looking for you, mother, but I could not find you. Naughty little mother, where did you go? And why are you looking so pale again this morning, and dark under the eyes? Don't you hope the sea will be rough sometimes, mother, so that the waves will rise high with a white fringe to them, as they look in that picture in your bedroom?"

But the mother's heart, so sorely shaken by the tempests of life, was less adventurous. An old petition she had somewhere read long ago rose in her memory:

  ― 62 ―

"Grant, O God, that this sea may be to us and to all who sail upon it tranquil and quiet. To this end we pray. Hear us, good Lord!"note

Doris could no longer linger over her chocolate.

"It is right down to my little toes, mother–the gladness of going!"note she said, springing out of bed, and disappearing behind the pink chintz curtains that were drawn round her plunge bath.note

Her mother had been so much better these last notefew days that Doris, with the buoyant disbelief of youth in sorrow, had come to believe that the insidious weakness which for some days had prostrated her was quite passing away. Mrs. Murray was still very anxious, and Mrs. Challoner hopeful and uneasy by turns. Shung-Loo, the faithful Chinese servant, said nothing, but was in these days always hovering near his mistress. Shung was a marked personality in the Ouranie household. His connection with the family began in a curious way. At seventeen years of age he had been on the point of committing suicide at Canton, on account of failing to pass a literary examination.note He had been rescued by Mr. Lindsay, the son of the British Consul in that city. Shung became the young man's personal servant, and devoted himself heart and soul to his interest. He was equally devoted to his late master's widow and daughter. He was now over forty years of age, and his savings amounted to a sum that would keep him in competence in his native land, to which he hoped ultimately to return.

Shung's wages were paid to him half-yearly–thirty pounds in six five-pound notes. He did not like cheques, and Mrs. Lindsay indulged his prejudice. On receiving this money, Shung would count it over carefully, fingering each note with respectful affection. He would put the amount into a well-worn pocket-book, carry it about with him, and put it under his pillow at night for a week; then he would bring it back to Mrs. Lindsay, and ask her to keep it for him with the rest at six per cent. The amount would be entered in his pass-book, and Shung would cover a sheet of rice-paper with strange characters, making elaborate calculations as to the increase which this new deposit made to his capital and income. Shung was, as a rule, up to his eyes in work, cheerful, capable, and immovably calm. But at times a great

  ― 63 ―
melancholy would steal over him. At such seasons, Mrs. Lindsay, always a little apprehensive of that side of his character which had so early led him to the thought of self-destruction, would urge him to return to his own country.

"You have enough money now, Shung, and some of your relations are still living. You will be able to keep a wife, and have a pretty garden and a rice-field of your own," she would say to him, and Shung would listen with a half-pleased, half-wistful smile.

Who knows what visions of the Flowery Land,note and of the almond-eyed little Mongolian babies who might be born to him, visited his imagination? Yet, though exile had for him something of that "consumption of the soul"note which takes the savour out of life, his attachment to his mistress and his old home, and doubtless, too, the fascination of rapidly accumulating capital, had always hitherto won the day.

"When you and Miss Dolis go, then me go too," he would say.

It was notenow arranged that he should accompany them to noteFrance and then notetake ship from there to Canton.

He was pasting on labels and cording up boxes in the hall, when, at four o'clock on that afternoon, Doris came to ask if there was not something she could do.

"Maman is sleeping now," she said, "and Mrs. Murray is near her, tacking a ruffle round the neck of my travelling-cloak. Everything I begin to do someone else comes and finishes it. Now, Shung, there must be something I can do?"

"Yes, Miss Dolis. You go out and take you walk lound Gauwali. Missee Challonel," said Shung, turning to the latter as she came into the hall out of the room she occupied, "you vely good, vely kind. Take oul young lady out to see big sky and bilds. She not out all day; too muchee visitols."note

Mrs. Challoner promptly responded to this appeal. It was true that on this last day many callers had come from near and far. As Mrs. Lindsay could not be allowed to over-exert herself, Doris had been much to the fore, and had not been out of the house all day.

"I suppose that has hardly ever happened in your life before,

  ― 64 ―
except when you had the fever," said Mrs. Challoner as the two walked slowly round the lake.

"And once, two years ago, when mother was a little ill," answered Doris. She stood and drew in full breaths of the fresh air, which had in it poignant wafts of scent from the wattle-trees that were now in full blossom on the border of the lake, where they had been planted at intervals the year she was born. "How strange it will be at first," she said, "to be so far from our own birds and trees and sky, and the great Silent Sea!" she added, looking towards the north-east, where, beyond the wooded rises that surrounded Ouranie on all sides, the great rolling plain was visible, which sixty miles beyond Buda turned into the arid Salt-bush country.

"Oh, my dear, the great sounding ocean will be much more entertaining than the Silent Sea," returned Mrs. Challoner; "when you are fairly in that country, the gray look of it, the thirst that never seems satisfied, and the awful quiet, seem to take the heart out of you."

They were approaching a slight rise which was crowned with a group of shea-oak trees known as the Brotherhood.note Spot coaxed his mistress to take a run with him. When she reached the Brotherhood and looked eastward for a minute or two, she gave a little cry of joy and danced halfway back to Mrs. Challoner, crying:

"Guess who is coming–guess before you look!"

"What a picture the child makes!" thought Mrs. Challoner, looking at her with fond admiration. Hers was one of those rare faces never seen to such advantage as under the searching light of day. The fresh air brought a warmer tinge of colour into her cheeks, her great radiant eyes were sparkling; her eyelashes no longer cast a shadow under them, the amber tint of her hair was intensified by the sunlight. As she ran down from the Brotherhood on tip-toe, and stood on the margin of the lake with its reeds and tall grasses, bending and murmuring in the notebreeze with its wide, calm surface, absorbing the opulent afternoon sunshine, it would seem as though there were some subtle affinity between her and these wooing sights and sounds of nature.

"Who can it be?" said Mrs. Challoner with an answering smile,

  ― 65 ―
but regarding Doris so intently that she gave little thought to her question.

"It is Kenneth Campbell, and he has a gray horse this time with Jerry. What can have become of Rozinante?"note

It was the first question she put to the old man when they met.

"Rozinante notefell at the Mulga Ranges, Miss Dorrie, and I had to leave her. How do you find yourself to-day, ma'am?" he said, standing with uncovered head as Mrs. Challoner shook hands with him with the cordiality of an old friend.

Kenneth Campbell had been for fourteen years a shepherd on the Ouranie run,note living most of the time entirely alone. Four years previously he had given up shepherding, and bought a snug little farm in partnership with a younger brother, but in a short time he wearied of farming. He bought a hawker's waggon, and stocked it with religious books and publications, and returned to the district with which he had been so long familiar, travelling in a very leisurely fashion from station to station, and from one small township to the other.

There was something in his appearance that contrasted oddly with his nominal avocation. He was tall and lean, with a narrow face and narrow, stooping shoulders, on which a long gray alpaca coat hung loosely. He had a high furrowed brow, a thin aquiline nose, long gray moustachios and whiskers, while his hair fell in silvery locks on his shoulders. His whole face and bearing conveyed an impression of refinement, even benevolence, though he had the indescribable air of one who holds little communion with his kind; sometimes for days he would be silent as a dumb man. At such times there would be a brooding, semi-prophetic look in his large brown eyes, and in his face an air of abstraction as complete as if the world and all that it contained were as remote from his thoughts as one of the fixed stars. At other times he would be possessed by an irresistible impulse to give expression to notehis thoughts, and he would do so with forcible nervous eloquence in a soft, flexible voice, with that half-plaintive cadence which sometimes marks the noteutterances of Scottish Highlanders.

People said that his long solitude, and the mystical sort of

  ― 66 ―
books he read day and night, had unhinged his mind; and there may have been some truth in the supposition. It is certain that his most rooted and ardent ambition was to do good to his fellow-creatures, "to save souls from perdition," as he himself would say, though perdition and damnation with him meant moral evil rather than material torments. With his bookselling he combined voluntary and unpaid missionary work, holding impromptu servicesnote for station hands, splitters, miners and carters, or noteeven a solitary shepherd or hut-keeper who was willing to give him a hearing. He would on occasion take incredible trouble over some poor belatednote man who had fallen a victim to evil habits in the isolated life of the remote Bush.

Mrs. Lindsay had from the first recognised the rare qualities of mind and nature which distinguished Kenneth, and through her Mrs. Challoner had learned to esteem him. He had been shepherding at Ouranie when she lived there, and since her marriage she had seen him from time to time at her own home, and lately at notethe mine–always with an increased longing that he would settle down comfortably on his little farm.

"You are just in time to see Mrs. Lindsay and her daughter before they leave, Kenneth," said Mrs. Challoner, after the first greetings were over.

"Yes, yes, but it little matters in our span-length of time whether we say farewells. The great thing is that our spirits should meet at notea throne of grace,"note he murmured absently.

Mrs. Challoner thought he looked thinner than ever, and as if more rapt in those musings in which mundane events were but as straws in the balance; when thus absorbed he would often lose all thought of creature comforts. It was many years since he had given up animal food, and he seldom ate more than twice in the twenty-four hours, his food consisting for the most part of a quart-pot full of tea and a slice or two of damper–"noteunleaven bread,"note as he used to call it.

"I don't believe you have been well, Kenneth. Oh, I wish you would live on the farm once more! We should all be more comfortable to think of you under shelter with your brother than living this lonely life," said Mrs. Challoner, her anxiety for him

  ― 67 ―
increasing as she noticed the deep hollow circles round his eyes and the nervous, fleshless look of his hands.

He was watching Doris as she skimmed noteback by the water's edge, looking at some water-birds that had newly arrived; but as Mrs. Challoner spoke he turned to her with a kindlingnote look.

"But why should not all friends be comfortable about me, dear Mrs. Challoner? Death is the thing that the children of men dread most; and how many more die safe and sheltered in their beds than elsewhere! Wherever we may be on this piece of beguiling, well-lustred clay we call the earth, our lives must pass like snow-water; and often it is better passed in the wilds than otherwhere."

The old man's eyes glowed; his face lit up with a pale spiritual light. Mrs. Challoner recognised that he was in one of those moods of exaltation in which the presence of a fellow-creature roused him to utter some of the thoughts that had else passed in smother.note

"A writer of the Eastnote says," he went on, after a little pause, "that there are none happy in the world but beings who enjoy freely a vast horizon. And where in all the world shall you find it so wide and clear as on the great Salt-bush plains? There "like a man notebeloved of God"note have I often stood at the dawn, and the earth lay view beyond view, with notenot a tree, not a mole-hill to break the sight, and the air as pure as if man was never created. Even in a region where there is no water, no grass, where the notevery Salt-bush itself has withered, where the very scorpion perishes, man, if so minded, can draw nearer to the Eternalnote than among throngs of his fellow-creatures, eager to barter their immortal souls for the loan of a piece of dead clay, for the painted image of a worm-eaten happiness–Esau's mess of pottage.note No, no; do not fear for me, dear friend. Lonely we come into the world, recognising no soul, able only to greet; alone notemust we pass through the Dark Valley.note It is but fitting that between two such strange journeys, so mysterious a coming, so solemn a departure, we should oftentimes be solitary."

"Cowdie–Cowdie! come away and have a run with Spot, and tell him if you know these waterfowls!" cried Doris, her clear,

  ― 68 ―
glad tones ringing across the sombre utterances of the old shepherd like the notethrill of a bird heard in the darkness.

Cowdie was Kenneth's collie dog, whose grandparents he had brought with him from the rugged mountains of Argyllshire sixteen years previously. He was lying at his master's feet with his head flat on the ground, showing the whites of his eyes, as he glanced up now and then, waiting for his master's word of command.

"Go, Cowdie! go to Miss Doris," said Kenneth; and the dog instantly responded to the girl's call with the fleetness of a greyhound.

"Where were you last night, Kenneth?" asked Mrs. Challoner, anxious to divert Kenneth's thoughts from what she felt to be a very melancholy, if not morbid, groove.

"At the boundary hut–the one five miles from here, between Ouranie and Mr. White's run–where I shepherded notemy linenote for nearly ten years. But all that time nothing happened so strange as what took place last night. It was after ten. I was reading in my waggon when all at once I heard a loud, sharp scream–the scream of a woman."

Kenneth paused, looking into the distance as if awaiting some approaching sight or sound.

"And who was it, Kenneth?" asked Mrs. Challoner, with agitated interest.

"I am not quite sure, ma'am; but I will tell you all I know. As soon as I heard that cry I ran to the spot it seemed to come from. Perhaps you know notethe stringy-bark grows very thick round the boundary hut? I could see or hear nothing. Then I stood and gave a long, loud cooey. As the sound was dying away, I thought I heard a curious cry, as if one called and it was suddenly stopped. On that I began to search again. I went round and round for more than two hours. Then I thought of stories I had heard of strange creatures with strange cries in the Bush that white people have never seen, and I tried to believe noteit was not a human being. Yet I felt I was trying to put a lie on myself. I went back to my waggon, but I could not sleep; so I lit my little lamp, and read for some

  ― 69 ―
time longer. Then I got sleepy, and noteI was just going to put out my lamp, when I heard notethe sound of running–of someone passing quickly with naked feet. I jumped up and ran out; I saw something like shadows disappearing among the trees, one after the other. I did not know what I ought to do. My lamp was burning, and I thought if it was one in danger or lost he would surely make for the light. I turned up the notelight higher, and fastened back the flap of my tarpaulin, so that the light would shine out through the trees, and any creature lost or distressed could see it. I looked at my watch; it was one o'clock in the morning. About half an hour later I heard voices; I went out, and two men, spent with running, came up to me––"

"Two men?" said Mrs. Challoner, who was listening with painful intentness.

"Yes, two black fellows. One of them an old man, half naked, and bleeding from a wound in his side; the other a younger man, one that I knew by sight–he worked for some time on the Noomoolloo Station–Mr. White's, you'll remember. The old man yelled out something in the native language. I only understood "nape," which means wife. note Then the younger man asked me if I had seen any women. I told him I had not, and asked him if it was black women he was looking for. He said one was notehalf-caste, the younger almost white, and both dressed like white women. Then they said they must look in my waggon; I held the lamp, and let them search all through it. The old man's wound kept on bleeding; now and then he wiped the blood away with his hand, and he got it over his face. He was awful enough without that. I have never seen anyone in the shape of a human creature so like what we might suppose the father of darkness to be."

"Kenneth, these poor creatures–do you think they were from Noomoolloo?" said Mrs. Challoner hesitatingly.

"Ay, ma'am, they were the mother and daughter. Two miles from here I met a boundary rider of White's, and he told me the poor half-caste woman and White's daughter had run away two days ago for fear of being separated."

Here Doris came tripping back, followed by the dogs, and the

  ― 70 ―
subject was dropped. She and Mrs. Challoner returned by the path bordering the lake.

When Kenneth visited Ouranie, he always stopped at the house of Mr. Murray, the manager. To get there he had to turn more to the west.

"Come in soon after you take the horses out, Kenneth," said Mrs. Challoner in parting. "Mrs. Lindsay will want to talk to you for a little time, and she keeps early hours just now. We want her to be strong and fresh for the journey."

Kenneth promised to come early, and then slowly led his horses on their way. The evil that is in the world, active and implacable, laying waste so many lives, oftentimes weighed heavily on his mind, making his face sombrely earnest, with something of a fiery eagerness, like one crying in the wilderness,note and ready to denounce a world ripe for judgment.