George Manville Fenn.

Christmas Penny Readings: Original Sketches for the Season online

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and directly after, he fired again, emptying his second barrel, when
there was a reply of three shots.

I was hopeful that, hearing two shots, the fellows would think we were
both together, and taking advantage of some low bushes, I crawled right
to the side of the ravine, and then screening myself behind a buttress,
found that I could climb up a few feet to where there was a ledge, which
I soon reached, and was then some twenty feet above the bottom, well
screened by some bushes; and, to my intense satisfaction, I found, upon
creeping to the edge and thrusting my double-barrel between the leaves,
I had a good sight at two of the miscreants, whose heads and shoulders
were just visible.

As I looked, Abel gave two more shots from his gun, and I saw the chips
fly from the rock a little farther off, and then the two men I had not
seen before rose up and delivered their fire - dropping down again
directly - and evidently with some effect, for I heard a dismal howl,
which told of the dog being struck. Directly after, one of the fellows
in sight began to crawl forward, evidently intending to take us in the
flank; but he had been outwitted, and with the barrel of my gun
trembling as I took aim, I fired, and he lay motionless.

In an instant his companion turned in my direction, evidently saw the
puff of smoke, and raised his gun towards where I was; but he was too
late, I already had him well covered, and I fired again, when the poor
wretch gave a wild shriek, sprang into the air, and then fell out of
sight amongst the bushes.

I was so horrified that I lay there trembling, so that I could scarcely
reload. The perspiration ran off my forehead, and my teeth quite
chattered, but it was but for a few moments, for I recalled the scene of
the past night, and then remembered what must be the fate of the
prisoners were they not rescued. I felt that it was but life for life,
and with another shot I might myself be weltering in my blood. The next
moment I was cautiously peering out again to get another aim, and now my
hand was quite steady. I could see the place where one of the men had
shown to get a shot at Abel, but nothing of him was visible, so I
crawled a little more forward, when in a moment there was a sharp pang
in my left arm, so acute that I could not refrain from crying out, as I
started up on one knee; and then I fell again, for, as I heard a second
shot, my cap was struck from my head, and I saw that one of the men had
changed his position, and was a little higher up the valley, leaning
forward to see the result of his aim. But he was too eager, for the
next moment there was a shot from Abel and the fellow rolled over, and
lay full in my view, quivering and clutching at the ground, tearing up
tufts of grass, and gnashing his teeth frightfully. Then came a run and
a rush, and I saw the last of the four rush up the ravine, running
zigzag, but I got a sight at him, in spite of my pain, and Abel fired
too, though apparently without effect; and then the sky seemed to turn
black, and the rocks around to swim, and I saw no more till I found Abel
leaning over me, dropping some spirit between my lips from his flask.

"There, old fellow," he said, grimly, as he bound up my arm. "Can you
walk?"

I nodded; and seeming to gather strength each moment, I followed him
down into the ravine, where we found that two of the men were quite
dead, while the other was in a dying state, but he struck at us savagely
with his knife whenever we tried to approach.

I saw Abel's hand playing angrily with the butt of his revolver, and but
for me I believe he would have shot the fellow as he lay, but I hurried
him on, and we cautiously proceeded for about a hundred yards, but this
time without our dog to track, for the poor brute was lying bleeding to
death, shot through the lungs.

All at once there was a shot from a little gully on our right, when Abel
threw up his arms and let fell his gun, which exploded as it fell, and
then the poor fellow staggered, and went down upon his face.

I did not stop to think that the next bullet might find its billet in my
heart, but dashed forward towards the spot from whence the shot had been
fired, and directly after I was face to face with an enemy. He was
sitting with his back supported by a block of stone, and his gun across
his knees, glaring at me with a look of the bitterest hate, and a
moment's reflection would have told me that he was wounded unto the
death, but in the anger and heat of the moment there was no pausing for
thought, and the next moment both barrels of my gun, held pistol-wise,
were discharged into his breast.

I ran back to Abel, and raised his head, but with a sickening, deathly
feeling, I again let it fall, for the expression of his wild and staring
eyes told too well how true had been the aim - the last sting of the
dying viper; and when I somewhat recovered, it was to cover the body
with fragments of stone, to keep off the birds, and then, weak and
faint, I struggled on after the two mounted men.

But a change had now come over the scene; the wind tore furiously
overhead, while where I was toiling along it was a perfect calm. Then
came the rain - a few big drops, then a cessation; then again a loud and
furious howling of the wind; then a calm; while, piled up in huge,
lurid, black masses, the clouds seemed to shut out the light of day,
save when they were rent asunder by some jagged flash of lightning of a
vivid violet hue. Ever and anon there was a glare of light playing
behind the clouds, lighting them up in the most glorious way, so that
the rolling massy-looking vapours were displayed in all their grandeur,
while along the edges, quivering and darting, there was an incessant
tremulous light of every brilliant sunset hue. Now came the thunder in
a mighty diapason, rolling along the ravine, and seeming as if the sound
split and crumbled upon the bare summits of the range of mountains,
while fragments of the giant peal were scattered, and came hurrying
along the ravine. Then, again, burst after burst of huge, bellowing,
metallic peals rumbling hollow and deafening as though discharged from
some vast cannon mouth. Blackness again, as if it were night; till in a
few seconds came again a blinding flash, displaying the wild aspect of
the glen, but only to leave it darker than before; and now again a few
drops of rain, pattering upon the dry ground, and splashing from the
surface of the lichen-covered rocks, then a sharp fall as of a thunder
shower, and I crept beneath the shelter of an overhanging rock, while I
hastily covered the lock of my gun, and tried to load it with my one
uninjured hand, when again came the lightning playing down the ravine,
then black darkness and bellowing, deafening thunder, and then down came
the rain - not pouring - not streaming, but in one huge cataract of
hissing and foaming waters, as though, indeed, the heavens were opened
and the fountains of the great deep broken up. It was as though to have
stood beneath it for a moment would have been to be beaten down and
swept helplessly away by the waters bubbling and foaming at my feet.

But how refreshing and cooling it seemed as I bathed my fevered brow and
moistened the handkerchief hastily bound round my bleeding arm; while,
though stopped from continuing my pursuit, I knew that it was impossible
for the fugitives to proceed, and I waited anxiously for the cessation
of the storm.

Once there came a lull, but only for a few moments, while the brilliant
rose-coloured and violet lightning played around, when down came the
rain again, more violently than ever, as though it would never cease.
The ravine had been turned into a little river, once again towards
which, winding in and out amidst the huge blocks of rock, hundreds of
watercourses were hurrying. Now it was black darkness, and nothing
visible, and the next moment again flaming swords appeared to cut
through the rain, and light up the ravine with every rainbow tint; and
still came that deafening mighty rushing sound of the waters, as though
I were standing upon the spray-wet rock beneath Niagara.

I was standing where a weather-stained mass jutted out from the rocky
side and protected me from the heavy fall, but from every jagged and
time-worn point around the water streamed down as it leaped and plunged
from the mountain side into the ravine. At some early epoch in the
world's history, the earth must have divided in some awful internal
throe, and then imperfectly closing, have left this long rift forming a
watercourse in the rainy season, but in the dry-time merely a stony bed,
with here and there a pool. Save where the rains had washed away, and
masses of rock had fallen, the sides showed how once they had been torn
asunder, and displayed prominence and indentation at every bend.

All at once the rain ceased, as if in obedience to an omnipotent
command, the black clouds passed over, and the sun shone down into the
ravine. But what a sight met my gaze. Already up to my knees, and
teeming along with awful velocity, was a mighty clay-stoned river,
eddying, foaming, and sweeping round the rock-strewn bed, and bearing
with it leaf, branch, and trunk; bushes and masses of grass torn from
the gully sides; while large pieces of rock were being moved from their
places, or tottered where they stood.

I stood waiting for the waters to subside, for where I stood it was
impossible to scale the rocks, even for an active man, while in my
crippled state, I could not have climbed a foot. But they did not seem
to subside at first; and I fancied that they perceptibly rose, till I
called to mind that I had altered my position a little. But now there
was no doubt about it; the waters were rising fast, and I trembled as I
thought of being swept away, and my helplessness to cope with the
rushing stream; while, again, it was horrid to be prisoned there, while
the poor girl I sought to rescue was perhaps being borne farther and
farther away. Then came a grim smile as I thought of the vengeance
which had overtaken four of the miscreants, and then I shuddered as I
thought of the cost at which it had been purchased - poor Abel now
perhaps swept from his stony resting-place and borne far away towards
the sea.

But now it was time to think of self and life, for the water was rising
fast, and as I stood hesitating and watching for a place of safety, and
to which I could wade, heard above the present rushing of the waters,
came a hideous hollow-sounding roar, and gazing with affrighted eyes, I
saw as it were a tall wave rushing down the ravine, making the water in
its path foam and roar as, like some large cylinder, it rolled over and
over, sweeping all before it, and the next moment I was caught, torn
from my feeble hold on the rock, and hurried along, buffeting the
strangling waters.

Those were horrible moments: now I was beneath, now above, now dashed
half-stunned and senseless against some mass of rock, now thrust down
and held beneath the rushing stream by the branches of some torn-up
tree. It was impossible to swim, while even in the stillest water such
an effort would have been hard to a wounded man. A few despairing
thoughts crowded through my brain as I feebly buffeted the waves, and
struggled for a few more draughts of the fresh air of heaven, and then
after grasping and catching at twigs, branches, and masses of floating
turf, I was dashed against a mass of rock, to which I tried to cling.
There was a cleft in it wherein I thrust my fingers, and then tried to
hold on by my teeth on the soft crumbling stone. At first the little
projection broke off, filling my mouth with pieces of grit, but
despairingly I again hung on by my teeth, and this time hope seemed to
dawn again within my breast, for I thought if I could hold on for
awhile, the waters must subside. But as the thought animated me, there
came a fiercer rush than ever, I felt the mass of rock totter, roll
over, and I gave a wild despairing cry, as I was again swept away faster
and faster, while the horrid dread of death gave place to a strange
lulling sensation as I closed my eyes.

Once more I was aroused by a violent blow, and as my arm was raised
mechanically to grasp, I passed it over the trunk of a large floating
tree, and holding on for dear life, I was hurried down with the foaming
waters.

The hard battle for breath past, fear came again, and I looked
despairingly from left to right for rescue from my perilous position,
but everywhere ruin and desolation, while the din of the rushing waters
was frightful. Everywhere the sides of the ravine seemed to be
crumbling down, and masses of earth and rock were undermined and fell
with a terrible splash into the stream, growing more furious every
moment, while, wherever the gorge narrowed, the turbulence was awful.

Dashed against masses of drift wood, and bruised against the summits of
the projecting rocks, I was faint and despairing, when all at once the
roots of the tree I was in caught against a massive stone, the trunk
swung round, and I found myself brought up by the side of the gorge,
where the branches of a tree hung down; and rousing my last strength I
clutched them, and drew myself up, till I could rest my knees upon the
floating tree; then I nearly over-balanced myself as the trunk rolled
about, but getting hold of a stouter branch I again drew myself up, so
that I stood, and then as the trunk again broke loose and floated away,
I got one foot upon the rocky side, and hung suspended over the stream,
whose waves seemed to leap angrily, to beat me down.

To an uninjured man a slight effort would have been sufficient to place
him in safety, but a strange fear seemed to creep over me, as I felt
that in a few moments I must fall from my hold, and be swept away. But
once more the desire for life came again to renew my strength, and
slowly and painfully I got hold for my other foot, and then crawled to a
rift, where a little stream of water was rushing down from the
table-land above, when by dint of again battling with the blinding
water, falling from weakness again and again, I managed to reach the
top, crawl beyond the reach of the stream, and then fell exhausted,
where I could gaze down upon the raging torrent.

The pain from my wounded arm roused me at last from a half-drowsy,
fainting state, and then I eagerly drank from the spirit-flask in my
pocket. I then loosened the handkerchief round my wound, and
remembering that my task was yet unperformed, I examined my powder,
which was fortunately dry, and after carefully wiping, reloaded my
revolver, which was safe in my belt, but my gun was lost when I was
swept away. The sun was now setting, and I tried to make my plans for
the future, but a sense of confusion and dizziness seemed to rob me of
all power of action, and at last I threaded my way amongst the trees
slowly and painfully, keeping close to the great gully, and listening to
the hurrying waters; now shuddering as I thought of the past - now
stopping short to think of the possibility of those I was I was in
search of being yet in between the walls of the rift, when the storm
came, and then I trembled for their fate. But all seemed troubled and
confused as I stumbled along, trying to recover my lost ground, for I
must have been swept back a mile, though what I could have done to save
those I sought from their peril would have been but little. The last I
remember then is kneeling down to try and make out some object borne
along by the stream, surging along in the darkness below me, for all
seemed wild and blank, till I was again hastening with Abel through the
wood, guided by the burning farmstead, and watching the black demon-like
figures flitting about. Then I could feel the dog tug tug at the string
as we tracked the bushrangers, and I listened to his low whimpering cry.
Then again came the fight in the gully, and I saw again the agonies of
the man I shot, as he griped and clutched with talon-like fingers at the
earth; and then came the horrible crashing, rushing voice of the mighty
stream, as it raged along, sweeping all before it in its headlong
passage. Now, again I was stifling and strangling, grasping and
clutching at everything I touched, and then I seemed to be borne under,
and all was darkness.

The sun was high in the heavens when I awoke from my stupor-like sleep,
with my head throbbing, and gazed at the brilliant blue sky above me,
trying to recall the past. I was in pain, and could not raise my arm;
there was a delicious cool breeze fanning my cheek, while bright, fresh,
and pure, all around seemed grateful to the senses; but as I lay there
was a strange trembling vibration of the ground beneath me, and I
wondered as with it came a tremendous roar - a rushing noise.

All at once thought came again with a flash, and I shuddered as I
recalled the past, and thought of having slept so many hours. Then I
sat up and saw that I had fallen within a few feet of the precipice
where the stream rushed along still fiercely and impetuously, but with
the swift fierceness of a deep and mighty current.

I might well tremble as I gazed upon that huge current - a torrent which
had risen fifty feet in a few hours, sweeping all before it, and I
trembled again as I thought of those I sought. I rose to my feet and
tottered for a few paces, but was soon fain to sit down beneath a tree,
and there in the great wild I stayed, faint and weary, hour after hour,
listless and but little troubled, as I sat within sound of the rushing
waters.

It was towards night when all at once I roused up and stared around me,
for it seemed that I heard voices. I listened and all was silent; but
again the sound came, again heard above the roaring of the torrent, and
then I tried to give the well-known call of the Australian woods, when
to my inexpressible joy it was answered, and five minutes after I was
surrounded by a party, half squatters, half blacks, who had been upon
the track for the murderers of Mr Anderson.

I learned afterwards that the blacks had followed our trail till the
storm was coming, when they immediately hurried back, and the whole
party had a very narrow escape, but though they had struck the gully
again and again, they had seen no traces of those they sought, and but
for my hearing them, they would have passed me on their return.

They turned back once more upon learning my history; and, guided by the
blacks, kept as close to the brink of the rift as was possible; while,
after refreshment and rest, I struggled on with them, hoping against
hope that the two poor girls might yet be alive. I knew that if they
had escaped they could not be far off; and so the sequel proved.

The search was about concluded; and, sick at heart, I listened to the
talked-of return.

"Poor things! they must have been swept away," said one of the
squatters, when he started, and ran towards the gully edge, for a long,
wild cry for help arose apparently from beneath our feet.

One of the blacks then let himself over the edge, and climbed down, to
return directly after with the announcement that Miss Anderson was
below.

A rope of handkerchiefs and straps was soon improvised, with which the
black again descended; and in a few minutes the poor, fainting girl was
drawn up from the shelf of rock upon which she had been for hours
resting; and, after regaining her strength somewhat, she related how
that, when the storm set in, the men had hurriedly dismounted; and,
securing their horses at the bottom, climbed with the two poor girls to
the shelf where she was found - a place well sheltered by the overhanging
rock; and, of course, at the same time thoroughly hidden from those who
passed above.

Then came a time of horror, for they could climb no higher; and slowly
they had seen the water swell and rise till it came nearer and nearer;
and at last, giddy with fright, the poor servant had slipped from her
hold into the fierce stream. The men hesitated for a moment, but
directly after let themselves down, and swam boldly after her. Soon
after there came a shout, and then one or two strange, gurgling cries,
which chilled the hearer's blood, and then all was silent save the
rushing of the river, till voices were heard overhead when her cry for
help brought salvation.

Times have altered since then, and I often look with pride at the wife
who shares my home in the wilderness; and now, years after, in spite of
the changes that have taken place, and the safety of person and property
in the colony, Mary never hears an unusual noise by night without
tremblingly grasping my arm, and listening eagerly, while she recalls
the horrors of the deep gully.



CHAPTER FOURTEEN.

GNASHING OF TEETH.

Hush! Be silent! Let this be to you as if whispered under the seal of
confession, for it is of the secret, secret. Never let it be known to a
soul, or body, let it never even be said aloud, lest some vagrant wind
should bear it away, and it become known to the vulgar herd.

Hush, listen! Keep it secret. I am a man who has known sorrow and deep
affliction. My heart has been broken - broken? no, hammered to pieces -
powdered, till there cannot be a fragment left that has not dissolved
away amidst my tears. And how was this, say you? Why, because I loved
her. I knew it not at first, but it came upon me imperceptibly, like
the pale dawn upon the daisy mead, growing brighter each moment until
the sun riseth, and all is one glowing scene of beauty. It was all
sunshine then, and earth was brighter day by day in my kindling eye. A
new life seemed bursting forth within me. I found charms, where all
before was dreary. I slept - but to dream of my beloved image, and awoke
but to muse upon her perfections. She was a doctor's little daughter,
but the taint of medicine was never upon her, and to love her was a
new-born hope. Yes, I dared to hope - presumptuous wretch that I was;
but by that which casts the shadow of Wilkie Collins, I will name "No
Name." Yes, I hoped that my ardent passion was returned - that is to say
that not mine, but another ardent passion was given in exchange. Had
not she smiled upon me? and had not her hand rested in mine for an
instant, squeezed it, and then gently glided away, while I was bursting
with the desire to press my lips upon it? I dared not be too sanguine,
but yet hope whispered me that I was loved - that she would be all my
own - mine - far off perhaps in the future might the realisation of my
wishes be, but I could wait. I was still young, eighteen in a month,
and what were a few years, when so peerless a queen awaited me?

Time slipped rapidly by, though I counted the minutes ere I could cull
and lay the choicest of flowerets before her - flowers bought with money
at Covent Garden Market - flowers received with smiles, while some bud
would be culled and placed amidst the ebon ringlets that wantoned around
her alabastrine neck. The light of gratitude would beam from those
tender dark eyes when some book, poem, or musical trifle that I had
sought was presented with a stammered excuse for daring to bring them
beneath her queen-like notice. Her coral lips would part, and display
the pearly treasures beneath, when I would shrink back timid and fearful
lest I should be guilty of a theft and steal a treasure from the coral
bow.

I loved her - madly loved her. I paced the square by night to gaze upon
her lamp-lit casement - content with gazing upon the blind alone, but
enraptured if the shadow of her fairy form was cast upon that blind;
misery-stricken if, warned off by the policeman, I had to leave the
square, smarting under the knowledge that I was watched. But still I
kept long vigils by the house lest evil should befall her, and I not be
there to ward it off. But nothing happened: the house did not catch
fire; burglars never assailed it; no ruffians ever attempted abduction;
and the two mysterious figures who entered by the front door at two
o'clock on the Tuesday night, were her father and brother; while the
dark man who went down the area was only the policeman. But those were
agonies until I knew the truth, and was sweetly rallied for my anxiety.
But though no prodigies of valour were ever performed by me, they were
there ready in my bosom - a bosom which burned to shed its last drop in
her defence.

Months flew by, and then in the balcony one night I told my love of my
anxieties, my troubles, my cares, and then, in the intoxication of the
moment I saw not that we stood plainly out against the illuminated
window, for I only knew that her blushing face was hidden upon my


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Online LibraryGeorge Manville FennChristmas Penny Readings: Original Sketches for the Season → online text (page 10 of 19)