IT CAME at last—the week—the day—the very night to which Lance had looked forward with such nervous anxiety. When compelled to pace the deck for the last morning, as he trusted, with his chained comrades, he barely concealed his exultation at the thought that on the morrow he might be a free man once more. He feared it would be visible in his countenance, in his very step, which in spite of himself was almost elastic, causing his chains to clank unusually. Indeed one of his fellows in adversity noticed it
Keen to detect the slightest change from the stereotyped prison bearing, he growled out, ‘What the —— are ye at, step-dancing with your bloomin’ irons, ye —— fool? They’ll clap the fourteen-pound clinks on ye if ye try the shakin’ lay. Stoush it, ye ——’
The words were perhaps unfit for publication, but the intention was not all unkind. The trained forçat had quickly divined that something not in the programme—an ‘extra,’ so to speak—was likely to be played, and thus warned him against premature elation.
Lance felt his heart stop as the possibility occurred to him that the caprice of a warder might order him to wear irons weighing a quarter of a hundredweight in place of the comparatively light ones which at present confined his limbs. He at once ‘dropped,’ as the adviser would have phrased it, and falling into the chain-gang shuffle as if instinctively, said, ‘All right, Scotty, this foggy day makes a fellow want to warm his feet.’
‘Warm your feet!’ scoffed the convict, ‘you’ll be lucky if you can raise a trot without hobbles these years to come. When your time’s up they’ll have ye for something else, like they did me. Once they’ve got a cove on these —— hell-boats they don’t like to let him go again.’
‘How long have you been lagged, Scotty?’ inquired Lance, less indeed impelled by curiosity than desirous of turning the conversation from what he felt was a dangerous direction.
‘Me?’ growled the convict hoarsely, glaring for a moment at Lance with his wolfish eyes—eyes which rarely met those of another stedfastly. ‘I did ten stretch on the Derwent afore I come across the Straits—ten long years. That warn’t enough for ’em, for I hadn’t been a year at Bendigo when I was “lumbered” for robbing a cove’s tent as I’d never been nigh. No! God strike me dead if I had! I knew the chap as did the “touch” as well as I know you. He and Black Douglas did it between ’em. But I’d a bad name. I’d come from the other side, and I was picked upon. I was seen going towards the tent the night before. The chaps that lost their gold swore to me; they wanted to “cop” somebody. And there was I, as was going straight and had a good claim and didn’t need to rob nobody, and thought I had a chance in a new country, there was I—“lagged” and dragged aboard again, and me no more in it than a sucking child. I went mad pretty well, and here’s the end of it. But by ——’and here the half-insane felon swore a terrible oath, ‘I’ll give ’em something to talk about afore I’m done, and it’ll be true this time—true as death—death—death!’
Here the unfortunate creature, whose features had gradually assumed an expression of ungovernable rage, lashed to fury by the thought of real or fancied injustice, raised his voice to a shriek like the cry of a wild beast, and with every feature working like those of an epileptic, fell on the floor of the deck helpless and insensible.
‘What’s all this?’ demanded a warder, marching to the spot, yet cautiously, as always doubtful of a rush among the fierce animals over which he and his comrades ruled. ‘Dash it all, you fellows are like a lot of old women—jabber, jabber. I shall have to put some of you in the black hole if you don’t look out.’
‘It’s only Scotty, sir,’ answered a crafty-looking convict who had been looking on, with a strange mysterious smile. ‘He’s got a fit or somethink. He’s always mad when he gets on that Bendigo yarn of his.’
‘Oh, Scotty, is it?’ replied the warder carelessly. ‘Throw a bucket of salt water over him; he’ll come to directly. Your hour’s up all but five minutes, men. You can go below and keep quiet, or it’ll be worse for some of you.’
So below they went, in tens and tens, one after the other, murmuring and cursing among themselves, devoting Scotty, Lance, and the warder to the least respectable deities, yet not daring to raise their voices lest the dreaded ‘black hole’ or the more terrible ‘box’ should be apportioned to some of them with indiscriminate severity.
Lance, perhaps, was the only one who retired to his cell with a feeling of satisfaction. Gloomy was the evening, dark yet not stormy. Brooding over all things hung an enshrouding, clinging fog. The lights of the vessels in the bay were invisible until the boats almost ran against their sides, then they appeared like blurred and wavering moons. The invisible flocks of sea-birds flying landwards, true precursors of a storm, wailed and shrieked in curiously weird cadence, like the ghosts of shipwrecked mariners. Yet no breath of rising wind or gathering tempest stirred the black waveless plain which stretched for so many a mile seaward and lay illimitable between the murky shores. To those long versed in sea signs—and there were many such on board this mockery of a ship—a storm was imminent. Phantom-like, motionless, lay the President on the oily moveless deep, a corpse-like hull upon the lifeless water. In that hour she seemed a derelict of that dread fleet which the poet dreamed of in his weirdest, grandest poem:
‘And ships were drifting with the dead|
To shores where all were dumb.’
If there was a period of comparative rest and peace in that lazar ship, choked to the gunwales with human nature’s foulest disorders, it was between the second and third hour after midnight. Before that time there was little or no repose, much less silence. The restless felons, debarred from work or exercise, were loath to sleep or to permit such indulgence to others. But from about an hour after midnight to the lingering winter dawn a certain, or rather uncertain, quantity of sleep was procured. Not incorrectly may it be said that then in all abodes of sin and wretchedness.
‘The wicked cease from troubling|
And the weary are at rest.’
The hush of nature, the strange compulsion of the tangible darkness and solemn stillness of the night, was unbroken save by the flights of sea-fowl and the occasional sound from the shore, when softly yet distinctly touching the very stern of the vessel a grating sound was heard by Lance, secreted in an old state-room. Two large-sized ports, through which a man could easily crawl and drop himself into the water or on a boat below, were open. ‘Lower away,’ said a carefully modulated voice, ‘and look sharp.’
As he spoke a stout rope was let down, of which the man in the boat-punt laid hold. Lance leaned out through the wide port of the state-room and could just distinguish the outline of a small boat. ‘Drop slowly down,’ said the strange voice; ‘gently does it.’
The captive had by this time seated himself on the windowsill with his legs outward. His irons were wrapped and muffled with portions of his blanket, which he had sacrificed for the purpose. A twisted rope was made of strips of the same material, a stout gray woollen, woven and milled in Pentridge, and therefore free from shoddy and mixture.
Adown this Lance cautiously lowered himself—how cautiously and anxiously! A slip—a touch of foot on the side instead of the centre of the frail bark, and failure—recapture even—were imminent The splash would at once alarm the vigilant ears of the sentries, whose rifle-bullets would be spurting in and about the spot in no time. Inch by inch he lowered himself until he felt a man’s hand touch and steady him. His feet were on the flat bottom of a ducking canoe which floated low on the surface of the stirless deep. Lower still and lower he sank down until he found himself sitting on the floor of the punt with an arm on either thwart and his back nearly touching the stern. With one strong noiseless stroke the strange boatman sent his light craft yards away from the prison-ship, and as the hull vanished abruptly, swallowed up in the Egyptian darkness of the night, Lance felt a great throb at his heart. He inhaled joyously the salt odour of the tide, for he knew that, bar accidents, he was again a free man.
‘Steady,’ said the boatman in a low but distinct voice as he settled to his sculls, ‘another quarter of a mile and we may talk as much as you please. We shall make the shore before yon black cloud bursts, and after that no boat leaves any ship in the bay till sunrise.’
Lance sat carefully still, and indeed had little inclination to talk for a while. Swiftly, smoothly, they seemed to speed through the ebon darkness lit up from time to time by the phosphorescent scintillations which fell from the black water at each dip of the oars.
‘How do you steer?’ he said at length. ( It wouldn’t do to get lost in this fog; we might easily be picked up, and then my fate would be worse than before.’
‘See that light?’ said the rower, pointing to a tiny speck like a beacon, miles away on the main.
‘I do see a very small glimmering,’ said Lance; ‘are you sure that is the right direction?’
‘That light,’ said the stranger slowly, ‘is a fire in a nail can which is kept alight by my mate. It stands before our hut in Fisherman’s Bend, and there could not be a better place to land.’
‘Because it is cut off before and behind by marshes. There is no track to Liardet’s Beach, which is only half a mile off. There is a mud flat in front, and hardly any one but ourselves knows the channel. It’s dead low water now any boat, even if they chased us, would be stuck in the mud in ten minutes, and it isn’t every one that knows how to get off again.’
‘Then we’re right, and I’m a free man once more. Great God of Heaven! what a feeling it is. May I ask your name, the name of a man that’s saved my life?’
‘My name’s Wheeler. Not that it matters much, unless I’m had up for being so soft-hearted as to mix myself up with the law’s victims. But one gentleman takes a fancy to help another now and then in this topsy-turvy country. I’ve heard and can see for myself that you’re one.’
‘I was,’ groaned out Lance. ‘People called me one. Shall I ever be one again?’
Here his irons, stirred with an involuntary movement, made a slight sound.
‘That is the answer. My God, what had I done that I should be tortured thus?’ His head sank down upon his knees, and he made no sound or sign till the boat glided up to the verge of the small beacon light and a second man appeared out of the darkness, taking hold of the painter which was thrown out to him.
‘Haul her up, Joe, as far as you can,’ said the boatman, stepping out on the low sedgy bank, so low as to be barely distinguishable above the water. ‘Stop, I’ll help you. Sit quiet then till we come to you.’
The shallow canoe, with the prow released from weight and tilted up, was pulled bodily on to the land. Then the men stood on either side of Lance, and, raising him from his cramped position, helped him to step on to terra firma, and thence into the door of a small hut, in front of which stood the nail can aforesaid.
The hut was small, but weather-tight and snug as to its interior fittings, displaying the extreme neatness coupled with economy of space often observable where men live by themselves, especially if one of the celibates happens to have been a sailor.
‘This is my mate, Trevanion,’ said the first mariner. ‘His name’s Joe Collins, formerly second lieutenant of Her Majesty’s ship Avenger. My name you know, so we needn’t stand on ceremony with one another. We are well posted up in your story, thanks to your plucky pretty friend, so there’s no need for explanation. You and I are ready for supper, I suspect, so we’ll turn to while Collins sees to the canoe and makes all tight for the night. There’s the first storm-note; it’s going to blow great guns before long, just as I thought it would.”
Mr. Wheeler rattled on in a cheery, careless sort of way, while his friend went in and out, fed the dogs, of which they had two or three couples—retrievers, terriers, and one of the tall handsome greyhounds, the kangaroo dog of the colonists. Lance knew that the talkativeness was assumed for the sake of putting him at his ease. Too strange and excited to converse himself, he could but sit in a rude but substantial chair, fashioned out of a beer-barrel and covered with a kangaroo skin, and look silently from one to the other.
Meanwhile the tea was made, the corned beef and bread set forth in a tin dish, pannikins placed ready, and the substantial bush meal, always fully adequate to the needs of a healthy man in good training, was ready. Before commencing, however, Mr. Wheeler fished forth from a species of locker a square bottle, apparently containing Hollands. From this he poured into each pannikin a pretty stiff ‘second mate’s glass.’
‘Do us no harm this cold night,’ he said. ‘Your health, Trevanion, and a good journey to follow a bad start. It often happens here, take my word for it.’
The three men raised the tin pints and looked at each other. ‘Thank you; from my heart I thank yon,’ Lance gasped out. ‘God bless you both, if my wishing it will do you any good. I shall never forget this night.’
One is far from recommending, or indeed palliating, the continuous use of alcohol, but there is no evading the fact that when people are more or less exhausted, beside being chilled and dispirited, a glass of spirits, be it sound cognac, ‘the real M‘Kay,’ or, as in this instance, good square gin, produces an effect little less than magical. There are those who, in the joyous season of early youth, or fixed in the higher wisdom of abstinence, require it not. But strictly in moderation and under exceptional circumstances it is a medicine, a luxury, an elixir vitae.
No sooner had the powerful cordial commenced to produce its ordinary effect than the heart of the ransomed captive was conscious of a feeling of lightness to which it had long been a stranger. Hope, timidly approaching, whispered a soothing message; a vision of distant lands and brighter days assumed form and colour. The cramped limbs recovered warmth; the sluggish blood commenced a quicker circulation. He found appetite for the simple meal, and listened with interest and amusement to the tales of moving incidents by flood and field with which, between their pipes, the woodsmen beguiled the winter evening. Lastly, the door was bolted, the dogs let loose, and Lance was invited to avail himself of a comfortable shakedown, where opossum cloaks and wallaby rugs protected him from the searching night air, now keen-edged with the fury of a howling storm. The wearied fugitive slept soundly, as he had not done for months. He awakened to find that the sun had risen and that his hosts had left him to complete his slumbers undisturbed by their exit
His feelings when he arose and looked around were instinctively tinged with apprehension. By this time at least his escape had been made known. What excitement must have been caused! What despatches to the other prison-ships and their guards! To the water police! To the hunters of men on land and sea whose beards had been mocked at! Their energy would be further stimulated by the offer of a reward, as well as by the certainty of promotion in the event of recapture. As the captive sat up on his couch and looked through the open door upon the still waters of the river-mouth, from which the fog, now that the storm had blown itself out, was slowly lifting, he felt a shudder thrill through his frame as he realised how near he was still to his prison home, how helpless too, manacled as he was. He struggled to his feet, however, with a renewal of hope and confidence in the future. The fresh and unpolluted air acted like a cordial as he breathed it with long gasps of enjoyment. The close walls of lofty ti-tree which shut in on three sides the nook of land, indistinguishable from the water until at close quarters, provided at once a shelter and a hiding-place almost impossible of surprise. The wild-fowl swam and dived and splashed and squatted, heedless of their chief enemy man. He found himself reverting in thought to the sports of his youth, to the happy days when, gun in hand, he would have joyed to have crawled within range of the shy birds and rattled in a right and left shot.
One of his irons clanked; the rag had slipped. How the sound brought him back to the present! His lips had shaped themselves into a curse, his brow had darkened, when his hosts suddenly appeared, emerging from a creek which wound sinuously through the marshy level. Fastening up the invaluable punt, they stepped lightly out, bearing with them a goodly assortment of wild-fowl—noble black duck, delicate teal, and that lovely minute goose, the Anas boscha, commonly known as the ‘wood duck.’
‘Grand bird this,’ said Wheeler, throwing down a magnificent specimen of that finest of all the family—the ‘mountain duck’—with his bronzed-fawn and metallic plumage. ‘Splendid fellow to look at, but that’s all. Pity, isn’t it? Not worth a button to eat. Why do we shoot them? you’ll ask. We sell them to the bird-stufFers. They pay well at the price they give us. Now then, we’ll proceed to business, which means breakfast. Spatch duck—a couple of teal, eh? How do we do it? Pop ’em into boiling water. Feathers off in a jiffy. Cut them in four, broil, and serve hot. Tender as butter, these flappers, for they’re not much older. After breakfast we’ll unfold the plot Slept well? I thought so. Hope you’ve got an appetite.’
Lance was well aware that Mr. Wheeler’s cheery, garrulous tone, not by any means characteristic of men who live lonely lives, was assumed for the purpose of concealing his real feelings and saving those of his guest. But he appeared to take no heed, merely performing his toilet with the aid of a bucket of water and a rough towel, and treating himself to a more thorough lavation than had been lately possible. Mr. Collins, R.N., had been setting-to with a will as caterer, and in far less time than one would think, a meal, in some respects not to he disdained by an epicure, appeared on the small table which, fixed upon trestles, was placed before the hut door.
‘Try this teal, Trevanion; it’s as plump as a partridge. Here’s cayenne pepper; lemons in that net. Cut one in half and squeeze—“squeeze doughtily,” as Dugald Dalgetty advises Ranald M‘Eagh to do when he has his hand on the Duke of Argyle’s windpipe, in the event of His Grace attempting to give the alarm. I read A Legend of Montrose over again last week. What a glorious old fellow Sir Walter is, to be sure! When you’ve finished your first beaker of tea, there’s more in the camp-kettle, Australice “billy.” Did I ever think—or you either, Trevanion—that we should drink tea out of a “billy,” or be our own cooks, housemaids, washerwomen, and gamekeepers all in one. Still, there are worse places than Australia, and that I’ll live and die on.’
While Wheeler’s tongue was going at this brisk rate, it is not to be supposed that his jaws were idle. The friends played a real good knife and fork, and Lance, between invitation and the natural temptation of, in its way, a dainty and appetising meal, followed suit. The other man gave a lively sketch of their morning’s sport, and by the time breakfast was finished and pipes lighted, a well-worn briar-root having been made over to Lance on the previous evening, the gnawing feeling of consuming anxiety commenced to be somewhat allayed.
‘Now we open the council of war,’ began Wheeler, after two or three solemn puffs. ‘Collins and I have to make a little détour on business which will occupy us till mid-day. Half an hour after we leave, a mysterious artificer will suddenly appear, not out of the ground, like Wayland Smith in Kenilworth (pray excuse any excessive quotation of Sir Walter, but the fact is we got a second-hand edition cheap last month, and have been feasting upon him ever since). Well, this lineal descendant of Tubal Cain will arise out of the ti-tree and will disembarrass you of, say, any garniture which you may consider inconvenient to travel with. I don’t know him; you don’t know him; he don’t know us; nobody knows anybody. You apprehend? But the work will be done. Afterwards look in that bag and you will find a rig-out, half-worn but serviceable, and somewhere about your measure.’
‘Stop a minute—just permit me one minute,’ proceeded Wheeler hurriedly, but ever courteously. ‘A trifle more explanation is necessary. Here is your route arranged for you by your good angel, your admirable friend and protectress, with whom Collins and I are madly enamoured—but this by the way. Listen again. When you feel ready for the road, take this left-hand path through the ti-tree. You see it starting behind that bush. You cannot get off it once you are on it. Follow it for three miles. You will meet there, by a reedy lagoon, a man with two horses. Mount the one which he leads, asking no questions. He will say “Number Six?” you will say “Polwarth.” Of course you are the Mr. Polwarth of Number Six on a tour of inspection. He will ride with you the whole night through, stopping only at necessary intervals. At daylight you will find yourself more than fifty miles on the Gippsland road. He will take you by “cuts “and by-tracks to a part of Gippsland from which you may make your way to Monaro, to Twofold Bay, to Omeo—all A1 places for a man who wishes rest and seclusion for a season. You will take your choice. On the led horse—a good one, as I am informed—you will find valise, waterproof, and other necessaries. Here is a pocket-book, which I am commissioned to hand to you, in which are £50 in notes and gold, besides a letter from her to whom you owe so much.’
Mr. Wheeler rattled out this full and complete code of instructions with his customary rapidity, finishing off with the delivery of the pocket-book to Lance, who held out his hand mechanically and stood staring at him for a few momenta like a man in a dream.
Then he found his tongue.
‘You have done for me that which many a man’s brother would have declined. I am a poor creature now, and can’t speak even as once I could. But may Heaven help you in your need, as you have stood by me. Some day it may be. I cannot say, but the day may come when a scion of the house of Wychwood may repay some slight portion of the debt of gratitude its most ill-fated son has incurred. Farewell, and God for ever bless you.’
The men looked in each other’s eyes for a little space, one strong hand-clasp, after the manner of Englishmen, was exchanged, and they parted.
‘That’s a man of birth and breeding who has been wrongfully convicted, I’ll stake my life,’ said Wheeler to his friend, as, with gun on shoulder and long steady stride, they left the hut behind them. ‘Had I not been convinced of it, all Ballarat would not have tempted me to go into the affair. But between pity and admiration for that trump of a girl, I gave way. I wonder whether his luck will turn now and all come right.’
‘There’s a great deal in luck in this world,’ said Mr. Collins sententiously. ‘It’s hard to say.’
Within a few minutes after the time specified, and for which Lance waited with ever-increasing impatience, a quietly-dressed individual so suddenly appeared as to startle him. He came around the side of the hut while Lance was deep in the perusal of Tessie’s letter, which also contained a few lines from Mr. Stirling, telling him that his order for cash, worded in a certain way, would always be paid to any person whom he might name at any place.
He looked up for an instant and saw the broad frame and steady eye of the stranger confronting him. ‘Could this be a detective in plain clothes? The thought was madness.’
The stranger smiled. ‘All right,’ he said; ‘I’m the blacksmith; come to take the clinks off—not the first job of the sort I’ve done. Sharp’s the word—sit down, sir.’
Here the stranger produced from his pockets and a bag an assortment of tools of various sorts, including files of marvellous finish and temper. Seating himself, Lance freely yielded his limbs to the man of iron, who, in something under half an hour, produced remarkable results. How the heart of Lance Trevanion swelled with joy when he saw the hated manacles drop heavily upon the rug on which he had been sitting!
‘So far so good,’ remarked the liberator artisan. ‘One of ’em’s chafed your ankle, but you’ll soon get over that. Ugly, ain’t they? If you’ll dress yourself while I take a walk along the river I’ll show you what I’ll do with them.’
A few minutes sufficed for the inspection of the beauties of the Yarra. When he returned, the good-looking young man with the clean-shaved face and short hair did not look in the least like the hunted convict of the previous day.
‘My word,’ quoth the smith, dragging out an old sugee bag, ‘you look fust-rate—never see any one change more for the better—for the better. Here goes!’ Thus speaking, he placed the irons in the bag, which he afterwards nearly filled with the prison clothing of which Lance, even to his boots, had denuded himself. These he took into the punt, and rowing to a deep place in the river near the bank he threw in the sack, which the weight of the irons caused to sink at once. ‘Many a poor fellow’s been buried like that at sea,’ he remarked, in soliloquy. ‘I wonder if it ain’t as good a way as any. The p’leece won’t find them in a hurry, I bet. And now Mr. Never-Never, I’ll show you the left-hand road, as I was told to. There’s your track, and good luck to you.’
Lance had good reason to believe that this service had been paid for, but he could not bear that the man who had rendered him such material aid should go even temporarily unrewarded. So he extracted one of the five-pound notes from the pocketbook and presented it to him at the close of proceedings.
‘You’re a gentleman,’ said the smith, unconsciously using the stereotyped expression of those receiving a gratuity in advance of expectation.
‘I was once,’ replied Lance, with a sadly humorous halfsmile. ‘God knows if I ever shall be one again.’
‘No fear,’ quoth the hammerman, with a cheery, consoling accent. ‘You’ve got the world afore you now. Many a man in this country has been a deal lower down that holds his head high enough now. Keep up your “pecker.” It’ll all come right in the end.’
On the narrow marshy track, which led between thickgrowing walls of ti-tree eight or ten feet high, there was not, as Wheeler averred, much chance of losing the way. Lance plodded on cheerfully for about an hour. Once he could have done the distance in far less time, but from want of exercise and other reasons he had contracted the habit of taking short steps, which he found it difficult to change. He felt altogether out of sorts, and was by no means sorry to see near a deep reed-fringed lagoon a man who looked like a stock-rider sitting on a log watching two hobbled horses that, saddled and bridled, fed close by the water’s edge.
As the foot traveller emerged from the ti-tree thicket, the man walked to the horses’ heads, and, after one look at the newcomer, commenced to unloose the hobbles. These he buckled on to each saddle, and, tightening the girths, said interrogatively, ‘Number Six?’
‘Polwarth,’ was the answer returned.
Upon this he held the bridle of one of the horses and motioned for Lance to mount, after altering the stirrup to suit the stranger’s length of limb. This done, he mounted and rode forward at a steady pace, turning neither to the right nor left, except when apparently some advantage would seem to be gained by it. Both horses walked fast, particularly the one which Lance bestrode, which he found to be good in all his paces, free, clever, and in all respects a superior style of hackney.
Mile after mile did they ride after this fashion, walking, trotting, or cantering as the roads, both deep and difficult in places, permitted. The rate at which they travelled was on the whole rapid, though the guide evidently husbanded the powers of both horses in view of a toilsome journey still to be made.
An hour before midnight, pursuing a bytrack for some distance, they came upon a hut in a forest near a deserted saw-pit. It had once been a snug and substantial dwelling, but the timber had long been cut and carted away, so the hut was no longer needed. The grass grew thick and green around. The guide, with practised hand, first lighted a fire in the large mud-lined chimney, and then unsaddled and hobbled out the horses. He produced from a rude cupboard bread and cold meat, tea, sugar, and the quart pot and pannikins necessary for a bush meal. These had evidently been placed there in anticipation of such a visit. Besides all this, there were a couple of rugs, and as many double blankets of the ordinary gray colour used by travelling bushmen.
The fire having burned well up, and a couple of dry back logs having been placed so as to ensure a steady glow for at least half the evening, his taciturn guide relaxed a little. ‘Here we are for the night,’ he said, ‘though we’d best make an early start, and I don’t know as we could be much more comfortable. We’ve plenty to eat and drink and a fire to sleep by, no cattle to watch, and a good roof over us. I’ve often bad a worse night along tbis very road.’
‘I daresay,’ said Lance, wbo began to shake off bis fears of immediate capture. ‘This must be a queer road in wet weather.’
‘I believe yer,’ answered the guide. ‘Many a mob of fat cattle I’ve drove along this very track. It’s a nice treat on a wet night, sitting on your horse soaking wet through, nearly pitch dark, and afraid to give the bullocks a chance for fear they’d rush. This here’s a picnic in a manner of speaking.’
‘I suppose it is,’ quoth Lance. ‘Things might be worse, I daresay. I shall sleep well, I don’t doubt. I haven’t been riding much lately. Where shall we get to-morrow night?’
‘Somewhere about the Running Creek; it’s a longish pull, but the horses are good and in fine buckle. You can do a long day’s journey with an early start.’
Their meal over, the two men sat before the glowing fire on the rude seats which they had found in the hut. The soothing pipe helped still further to produce in Lance’s case a calm and equable state of mind. To this succeeded a drowsily luxurious sensation of fatigue, which he did not attempt to combat, and, stretching himself on his rug, he covered himself with the blanket; he and his companion were soon asleep.
The stars were still in the sky when he started at a touch on the shoulder, and found that his companion had noiselessly arisen and prepared breakfast. The horses also, ready saddled and bridled, were standing with their bridles over the fork of a tree near the door. Lance was soon dressed. Breakfast over, they were in the saddle and away while as yet the first faint tinge of the dawn light had scarcely commenced to irradiate the mountain peaks which stood ranked like a company of Titans near the eastern sky-line.
With this, the second day’s journey, a change commenced to make itself apparent in Lance Trevanion’s mien and bearing. The fresh forest air was in his lungs, the great woodland through which they were now riding commenced to endue him with the fearless spirit of the waste. He could hardly imagine that it was so short a time since he was in fettered bondage. What a difference was there in his every movement and sensations! He began unconsciously to act the free man in tone and manner. He praised the paces of the horse he was riding, and criticised that of his guide in a way which showed that experienced person that he was no novice in the noble science of horse-flesh. He began to draw out his companion. In him he perceived, as he thought, the ordinary bushman, an experienced stock-rider, or, perhaps, confidential drover, and thence he began to wonder how much of his past history he had been made acquainted with. A chance question supplied the information.