by E Charles
THE hot Australian sunshine was streaming down upon the parched earth, burning up the last dry herbage in the bare paddocks, drying up the last yellow puddles of water in the creeks, beating down with scorching fervour on the dim olive-green woods, and imparting fresh life and activity to the swarms of large yellow-winged grasshoppers that flew through the hot air, leaving devastation and barrenness in their track. The cloudless sky was obscured by a thin blue haze rising up from the numerous bush-fires which seemed to have joined their destructive powers with that of the drought and heat to destroy all animal and vegetable life. The homestead of Leliwah station, lying cool and secluded in a quiet valley embosomed among swelling hills and shaded by groups of myall-trees and whispering swamp-oaks, looked like an oasis in this desert of general desolation. The creek, which rippled its tranquil waters so pleasantly past the garden in spring-time, and which in the winter rains changed its drowsy murmur to a flooded roar, was now nearly dry with the exception of a deep hole that had never been known to fail, even in the driest seasons. Here the weeping willows bent their rustling boughs to meet the calm dark waters, and the sweetbriars, starred with pale pink roses, afforded shelter to innumerable tiny birds. The low-roofed cottage was half-smothered with the light green leaves and scarlet flowers of the passion-fruit, the large Gloire de Dijon roses drooped their pale sulphur-tinted petals languidly beneath the hot afternoon sun, and the well-kept beds near the verandah sent up a sweet perfume from their bright verbenas and heliotropes.
The plentiful Christmas dinner was over; the master of Leliwah station and his guests were preparing to start away into the gullies to while away the afternoon by shooting rock wallabies; the mistress of the household had sought repose from the arduous duties of the morning in the seclusion of her own room; the station hands were carousing and yarning down at their huts, a company of blacks were feasting on their share of the Christmas good cheer under a clump of wattles in the paddock, and everybody, even to the surly bulldog in the back-yard, snarling sleepily over some well-picked bones, seemed disposed to enjoy the merry Christmas time according to his tastes and fancies. We say everybody, but we must make an exception in the person of that young man, dressed in a light summer suit, who is leaning indolently over the paling which separates the garden from the creek. The hot breeze is stirring the leaves of the willows, shaking them down into the placid water, a magpie warbles his afternoon song drowsily in the branches above, and from the distance come sounds of laughter and singing.
The young man seemed absorbed in some gloomy brooding thoughts which made him insensible to the bright afternoon, and to the general holiday humour prevailing on the station. A broad straw hat was pushed down over his sun-browned face, and his dark hazel eyes were fixed abstractedly on the motionless water. He puffed away vigorously at a short pipe, but without seeming to derive any enjoyment from the soothing weed, and so engrossed was he by his moody reflections that he started violently when a hand was laid on his shoulder, and a gay, boyish voice fell on his ear.
“Are you going with us this afternoon, Mr. Darnley? We are going to give the wallabies such a warming!”
The speaker was a boy about fourteen, with a bright handsome face and frank blue eyes; he was equipped for a ride with spurs and leggings, and carried a stockwhip in his hand and a rifle slung across his shoulders.
“Are you going with us?” he repeated, looking up into the gloomy face with bright, laughing eyes.
“No, thank you, Austin, I feel too lazy for such work to-day.”
“Lazy,” repeated the boy in a tone of surprise; “why, it’s the jolliest lark out. You are never going to stay here by yourself all the afternoon. It’s Christmas Day, you know, and everybody is having some fun.”
“It is no fun for me to ride through those bare, shelterless paddocks, and to climb the hot rocks to shoot the unfortunate wallabies that have a better right to live than I have.”
“Then you will not come?” said Austin with some disappointment in his voice; “you are in one of your gloomy tempers. Well, I must be off. You had better get Sissie to keep you company. She has a wonderful knack of making everybody as happy and cheerful as herself. Good-bye, I’m off.” He sprang lightly over the paling, and hurried away to join the sportsmen who were preparing to start away from the stables.
Darnley shook the ashes out of his pipe, and thrusting his hands into his pockets with an air of sudden resolution, sauntered slowly towards the house. A rich contralto voice was singing in the drawing-room, and as the young man paused on the verandah he caught the refrain of a song he knew well –
True, true till death – true, true till death;
Bear it, oh wind, on your lightning breath.
“True till death,” muttered Darnley; “I wonder whether she feels anything of what she is singing. She appears to be putting her whole heart into that song, but I believe it is only because she has caught the expression I taught her, and she has caught that expression wonderfully well.”
He approached the door and looked in at the singer. She was a slender girl, dressed in white, and as she sat at the piano he could see her fair, regular profile, and delicately rounded cheek. She ceased singing and, dropping her slim hands into her lap, looked dreamily at the open music book before her.
“That was very well sung,” said Darnley, taking off his hat and entering the room. His face, unshaded by the hat, was a bold, energetic one. A well-cut aquiline nose, a square chin, a firm mouth, half-hidden by a heavy brown moustache, gave him a resolute, manly appearance, which, with the well-built, broad-shouldered figure, would have been altogether pleasing had it not been for the expression of gloom in the dark eyes, which were now looking straight at the young girl without any change in the steadfast sadness of their gaze.
“I thought you had gone with the others, Mr. Darnley,” said the girl, blushing faintly as she turned round and faced him. She had the same clear, frank blue eyes as her brother Austin, eyes the gentle kindliness of which softened the rather proud and wilful expression of her features.
“Not I,” said Darnley, as he dropped into a chair; “I have no desire to play the Nimrod on a day like this, with 112 deg. in the shade. And, besides,” he added in a lower tone, “this is Christmas Day, a day that always brings a flood of bitter and saddening memories to one like me, who is a stranger in an alien land with no one to care whether he lives or dies.”
“Now that is a very unkind thing to say,” replied the girl with an attempt at cheerfulness, while her voice trembled with some secret emotion. “You have surely not lived twelve months at Leliwah without finding out that – that I – that we – I mean all of us care a great deal about you!”
“You are very kind to say so, Miss Reid,” replied Darnley, starting up with sudden impetuosity. “You are trying to administer some pleasant crumbs of consolation to me, for which I am not ungrateful, although I take your words for what they are meant and no more. But, believe me, I am not ungrateful for the kindness I have experienced since I have been living at Leliwah. I came here a poor, friendless rover, who had been knocked about among rough and reckless men until he had become nearly as rough and reckless as they, and this house seemed like a haven of refuge to me after the life I had been leading. But I feel that I have been here long enough. It is time for me to move on again. There is no rest for me anywhere. I am like the Wandering Jew, condemned to everlasting unrest.”
“How wildly you talk!” said Miss Reid, and then she added, “but you are not really going to leave us?”
“I fear I must. It is time I tried to work my way up in the world. I cannot remain a tutor all my days. I shall go to Sydney and see if I can turn my college education and engineering knowledge to some account in government services.”
“Oh! I am so sorry,” said Alice Reid, falteringly. “Austin was getting on so well with you. And what shall I do? Who will teach me music and painting when you are gone? I shall never care to learn from any other master, because I feel sure no one could teach me like you.”
The tears welled up in her eyes and she turned her head away to hide her emotion; but Darnley, who had been watching every look and tone, was at her side in a moment.
“Alice!” he said, in a tone of deep tenderness, “is it for my sake that you are grieved at my departure?”
She did not answer, but as she raised her large tearful eyes to his face he read the whole secret of her young heart in that frank, sorrowful look.
Ned Darnley looked at her and turned pale. He pressed his lips together with a resolute struggle to hide his own feelings, and after a momentary pause, said coldly, “I must go; I ought to have gone long ago. I shall never forget you, Miss Reid; your studies have been a source of great pleasure to me, and your kindness has cheered many a gloomy hour. But as for yourself,” he added, with a slight tremor in his voice, “I feel certain that you will soon have forgotten my very existence, and will be quite happy in marrying that wealthy, red-bearded squatter, whom your father has destined to be your husband.”
Alice flushed to the very roots of her dark-brown hair. “How unkind you are,” she said, while her tears fell fast; “you know I cannot bear the man. He is not at all the kind of man I should like.”
“What do you know of the kind of man you would like,” retorted Darnley, bitterly. “You are only eighteen, a mere child. What does a girl of eighteen know of her feelings!”
“I know I am only a child in your eyes,” said Alice, passionately; “you look upon me only as a little girl, as your pupil who is to be praised or blamed according to your fancy. But I know that you are very cruel and unkind, and that I am more of a woman than you imagine.” She broke off suddenly as if afraid of saying too much, and moved towards the door.
Darnley made a movement as if to detain her, but immediately recollecting himself, turned away and seating himself at the piano began to play the prelude to the song which Alice had just been singing, and as she lingered at the door she heard his deep baritone voice singing the same refrain of love and faithfulness:
True, true till death! true, true till death!
The hot day was drawing to a close; the wind had died away; the glowing sun was sloping slowly westward, sending his parting rays against the windows of Leliwah Cottage, till the small, old-fashioned panes gleamed like burnished gold. Mrs. Reid was reclining comfortably in a rocking-chair on the verandah, fanning her stout, comely person with a Chinese fan, while Ned Darnley, leaning against a verandah-post, was amusing himself by tormenting a small black-and-tan terrier, which showed its sharp white teeth, and growled viciously. The air was sultry, and in the west a dark blue bank of clouds was rising up swiftly, with occasional lightning-flashes and thunderous mutterings.
“I think there will be a storm,” said Mrs. Reid; “you and Miss Reid reached home from your ride just in time.”
“Miss Reid and I have not been for a ride,” said Darnley, looking up in surprise.
“Have you not? How strange! Where can Alice be – she never went out alone, surely?”
“Will you be kind enough to explain what you mean?” said Darnley, with a touch of polite impatience in his voice.
“Why, Alice came into my room when I was having a doze, about two hours ago, and said she was going out for a ride. I said it was madness to go out riding in such heat, and then I asked if you were going with her as there was no one else at home. She went out of the room saying something that I took to mean ‘Yes,’ and I fell asleep, and thought no more about it. But if she did not go out with you, she must have gone alone. She’s so wilful and spoilt, Mr. Darnley, being the only girl, that she just does whatever she likes; and if she is put out in any way, she is as likely as not to start off cantering across the country alone; I’ve known her to do so before; she says it is the best way to get out of her tantrums; but it is not a safe thing to do, and particularly when there’s a storm coming.”
“Good heavens! she will be caught in the storm,” said Darnley, starting up from his indolent position as a low rumbling peal of thunder shook the air, and the sun dipped down into the dark cloud-masses.
From the servants he learned that Miss Reid had been seen cantering alone on her chestnut mare across the paddocks, about two hours before, and a few minutes later he was himself riding fiercely through the gathering gloom, through whirling dust and clouds of grasshoppers. A rush of wind, and a fast-approaching continuous roar heralded the coming storm; the earth grew dark under the hurrying clouds, and large rain-drops began to fall upon the parched earth. Darnley spurred his horse onwards, regardless of the lightning-flashes that now played around him, regardless of the deafening claps of thunder which seemed to shake the ground beneath his horse’s feet. A terrible fear had taken possession of his soul, a nameless terror for the safety of the wilful girl who had taken offence at his words, and had gone off on her lonely ride, Heaven only knew with what reckless impulses. He chafed at the darkness that obscured the landscape. He knew not where to look for her, he knew not whither to ride. Was he mistaken, or was it really love for him that had moved her so when he spoke of his departure? Was it love for him that had caused that passionate outburst when he had spoken of her marriage with another man? He had struggled manfully against his own love, the mad and hopeless passion which he had felt growing stronger day by day since his arrival at Leliwah in the capacity of tutor. He knew it was a hopeless love, for he had no prospects in life. Estranged from his own friends through youthful follies, he had left his Scotch home to seek his fortunes in Australia. Like so many others, he had only encountered hardships and privations, instead of easily acquired wealth, and after some years of “roughing it” in the wilds of the bush, had been glad to accept the post of tutor at the station with a very moderate salary. Austin was his chief pupil, but Alice had been learning music and drawing with him, and by degrees this bright-faced, innocent girl had won his affections, until he could not disguise the fact from himself that he loved her with an all-absorbing passion. He felt that he must leave the home that had become very dear to him, and leave it at once, before he betrayed his feelings. He feared, and yet hoped, that these feelings were returned, and this was a still more urgent reason for his leaving the station.
But where was Alice now? The storm had passed over with short violence, the clouds rolled on laden with hail and rain, roaring overhead with tumultuous thunder; the setting sun shone out again upon the refreshed earth; a sweet, warm fragrance rose up from the moist ground, and the clear voice of the butcher-bird rang through the low, wet brushwood. Darnley had reached the dry bed of a broad creek, which showed little signs of the rain that had passed so quickly over it. He reined up his horse, and looked hopelessly up and down the watercourse, and over towards the open forest-land, where some scattered sheep were cropping hungrily at the dry bushes. There was no sign of her whom he was seeking. But what was that strange sullen roar, like the voice of some terrible hurricane coming nearer and nearer, seeming to shake the air with its thunder? Darnley looked up at the sky. It was perfectly clear, save where the big masses of white-capped thunder-clouds were rolling away towards the east. Was it a tempest of wind? Was it an earthquake? It reminded the listener of the roaring of some fierce fire sweeping through a thickly-timbered country, or of the thundering tramp of a large mob of “scrubbers” dashing over the plains before the whip of the stockman.
And now he saw what it was. A strange and terrible sight truly! Coming down the bed of the creek with the force and violence of a tempest was a yellow, foaming flood, filling every hole and hollow, bearing on its bosom huge uprooted trees, wrecks of fencing, and clods of earth; whirling past him with bubbling foam-crested waves, sweeping up over the banks and dashing round his horse’s feet, so that the animal started back snorting with terror. The storm that had passed so quickly over his head had burst with the violence of a water spout higher up the creek, and with this thought a new idea darted through Darnley’s brain. The crossing was higher up. What if Alice had been on the other side, and, hastening to escape from the storm, had been caught in that sudden flood? And now, as if to give his fear a tangible form, something came sweeping down upon the waters – something that made his heart stand still for a moment with sudden terror. Was not that a woman’s hat? – a broad yellow straw hat, such as Alice wore when she went out. Yes! it was a hat – her hat, he knew it by – the long blue ribbon. It went eddying past him, whirling round and round on those cruel waves, and he strained his eyes to see whether anything else would follow, while for the first time for years a prayer rose to his lips: “Oh, God! have mercy, grant that I may not be too late!”
Throwing himself from his horse he ran along the bank of the flooded creek, keeping his eyes on the roaring tide, and ready to fling himself into its swirling eddies if his worst fears should be realised. Something else struggling in the waters! What is that dark object now drifting with the current, now sweeping towards the bank? Is it the trunk of a tree? Is it a living creature? Now it is coming nearer – oh, merciful God! it is Alice’s horse, the saddle turned round, the bridle dragging loosely in the water, but where is the rider? A cry of horror burst from Darnley at this sight; and hark! was not that cry answered by a faint shriek, or was it only the curlew winging its way overhead?
Darnley, raising his hands to his mouth, sent a long, loud cooey across the waters; and again he heard that faint cry, coming, as it seemed, from the very midst of the roaring flood. He dashed on again with breathless haste and newly-awakened hope. A little farther up the creek he caught sight of a solitary swamp-oak standing in a tumult of leaping waters, and swaying backwards and forwards as the current surged around it. Was there not a dark figure clinging to those fragile branches? Yes! yes – thank God! She is found! He can see her plainly now in the golden gleam of sunset which lights up with a strange lurid light the wild waters, the pale green swamp oak, and that slender, clinging figure.
In another moment Darnley had thrown off his coat and boots, and was striking out boldly for the tree, which was on the opposite side, with a whirling flood of water between it and the bank. The swimmer had not paused to think of the madness of his venture. He thought only of the danger of the girl he loved, and blessed his hardy boyhood when he had loved to struggle with the wild waters of his native Tay. He was a good swimmer, and had forded many a flooded creek, but he knew it would be a hard struggle this time – hard enough to reach the tree through that fierce current, and harder still to bear the girl safely to the shore. But the tree might be swept away at any moment; there was no time to be lost. “True to death,” he muttered, as he drew a long breath and struck out bravely. Alice saw him coming, as she clung with fast-failing strength to the tree; the terror which she had felt for herself was now changed to fear for her lover’s life. Would he be able to avoid that log coming madly down the current? She shouted a warning, and he seemed to hear it, for he turned aside, and avoided that danger. But now he was caught in the current; he was being swept helplessly down on the roaring tide. If he sank and rose no more she would follow him; she would loosen her hold and allow herself to sink down into the angry waters. But no! he was battling bravely with the stream; he had gained a calmer place; he was succeeding, he was coming nearer; she could see his pale resolute face and dark shining eyes, and now he was close to her. The tree was creaking and bending; there was a crash; it was going. She heard Darnley’s voice calling to her to let go and throw herself into the water, and she obeyed him, leaping down into that wild flood as she would have leapt into a fiery furnace if he had bid her. She sank down into the gurgling tide, and felt it closing over her! –––––
“How do you feel, Darnley? A bit battered, eh! No wonder too. Not another man in a hundred would have done what you did. By George! it was a bold swim. We thought it was all over with you, but thank God you managed to struggle out.”
Darnley, supported by friendly arms, looked up at Mr. Reid in a dazed manner. “Where is she?” he asked, eagerly, as he struggled to his feet.
“Alice, you mean. She’s all right. She would stop till you came round again. See there she is just going off in the buggy. Oh! Mr. Darnley, you are quite a hero, indeed you are.” And Austin threw his arms around his tutor’s neck, and burst into boyish tears.
“Come, come,” said his father, gruffly. “You had better let Darnley get home and change his clothes. It would be much better than this hugging and sniffling. This isn’t a time for many words, sir,” added the squatter, turning to the young man, “and I’m never a good hand at expressing my feelings. But I must say that I owe you a debt of gratitude that I’ll never know how to repay. You have saved my daughter’s life, and there is nothing I could refuse you now.”
That Christmas evening a happy company was assembled in the drawing-room at Leliwah. The clouds had come back, and the rain was falling in welcome showers, making a pleasant pattering on the ivy, leaves and roof. Mr. Reid and his wife were conversing earnestly with a stranger who had arrived that afternoon, and proved himself to be Ned Darnley’s brother. He brought kind messages from the old Scotch home, and a sum of money destined to start the brothers in some profitable enterprise. Mr. Reid had heard Darnley’s confession with much surprise and annoyance, for he had set his heart on marrying his daughter to the wealthy squatter whose land joined his own so conveniently, but he could not discard the man who had saved his daughter’s life, particularly now that he had fair prospects of getting on in life; and when Alice declared that she would never marry any other, her father gave his consent without further hesitation.
“The best thing you can do,” he said to the elder Darnley, “will be to buy White’s station, which is to be sold next week. It will be a good investment now the drought seems to be broken, and your brother knows enough of station life to make a fair squatter, I reckon.”
“Yes,” said Charles Darnley, “he was speaking of the very same thing himself, and saying that he preferred station-life to everything else. We are going to inspect the station to-morrow.”
“Well, well,” said Mrs. Reid, “it’s strange now how things do come to pass. I never did think that our Alice and Mr. Darnley would take a liking to each other; but I’m glad she’s not going away far from us, for you see she’s our only one, Mr. Darnley.”
And while these good folks were discussing the lovers and their future, Alice and Darnley were seated in the seclusion of a bow-window talking over the adventures of the afternoon, and weaving their own happy plans for the future.
“You will never think Christmas Day a time for sad memories and mournful reflections again,” said Alice, looking up into her lover’s face with timid happiness.
“Never,” he replied, a smile lighting up his grave eyes; “I shall remember it as the day on which I won the greatest happiness of my life, my ain true lassie, snatching her from the very jaws of death, and both of us, my darling, will look back upon this Christmas Day as the beginning of a new life, consecrated by the vow we have made to each other, in the words of our favourite song that we would ever be ‘True, true till death’.”
E Charles, “True Till Death“, Goulburn Herald, 13 November 1884: 4.