Australian Tales

Holiday Peak

Marcus Clarke

IT WAS dusk when we reached the flat, for, determined to make the most of my brief holiday, I had wandered with Wallaby Dick all day among the ranges.

Wallaby Dick was a lame man, with a face like one of those German toys called “nut-crackers.” He was very old, and had lived in his bark hut under the Bluff for the last fifteen years. Wallaby could shoot or snare any living creature that bred, and boasted that he knew every mountain-path, track, and gully between White Swamp and Mount Dreadful. So mighty was the prowess of his gun, that men from the stations round about, spending a barren day stalking the scrub, would aver that Wallaby had discovered the track which led to that legendary Land of Plenty existing on the inaccessible summit of the ranges, and was wont to withdraw from his kind to hunt there.

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There is an indescribable ghastliness about the mountain bush at night which has affected most imaginative people. The grotesque and distorted trees, huddled here and there together in the gloom like whispering conspirators. The little open flats encircled by boulders which seem the forgotten altars of some unholy worship. The white, bare, and ghastly gums gleaming momentarily amid the deeper shades of the forest. The lonely pools begirt with shivering reeds, and haunted by the melancholy bittern only. The rifted and draggled creek-bed, which seems violently gouged out of the lacerated earth by some savage convulsion of nature; the silent and solitary places where a few blasted trees crouch together like withered witches, who, brooding on some deed of blood, have suddenly been stricken horror-stiff. Riding through this nightmare landscape, a whirr of wings, and a harsh cry disturb you from time to time, hideous and mocking laughter peals above and about you, and huge grey ghosts with little red eyes hop away in gigantic but noiseless bounds. You shake your bridle, the mare lengthens her stride, the tree-trunks run into one another, the leaves make overhead a continuous curtain, the earth reels out beneath you like a strip of grey cloth spun by a furiously flying boom, the air strikes your face sharply, the bush, always grey and colourless, parts before you, and closes behind you like a fog. You lose yourself in this prevailing indecision of sound and colour. You become drunk with the wine of the night, and, losing your individuality, sweep onward on a flying phantom in a land of shadows.

“The moon will be up in an hour, my lad,” said the old man. “Keep all the left-hand tracks, and you’ll pull the long Waterhole,” and then, whistling to his dog, he turned.

“But where are you going, Wallaby?”

“O, I’m going up the ranges,” said Wallaby, with what appeared to me in the dusk to be a fiendish grin, “for a holiday.”

When I drew bridle, the moon flung my shadow on the turf, I had gained the little plain which divides Mount Barren from Mount Scar, and the panorama of the valley lay below me. Mile after mile stretched the dusky grey tree-tops. Here and there a link of the chain of water holes which connected the Great and Little Styx flashed white beneath the moon, and from time to time the level surface of the forest was broken by the spectre-like upstarting of some huge gum-skeleton grasping at air with his crooked and ravenous claws. From out this valley, brooded upon by big blue and floating mists, uprose a mysterious murmur composed of crackling twigs, falling leaves, rustling wings, lapping water, and stirring breezes—breathing of the sleeping bush. Above me to the right and left towered, steel-blue in the moonlight, the twin peaks of Mount Mystery, and between them, far up the gap that led, no one knew whither, a red light gleamed.

The plateau on which I stood bore an evil reputation. It had been in old times the camping-place of the blacks, and upon the largest of the three gigantic stones, which disposed in the form of triangle, seemed to point to the triple peaks of the triform mountain, human sacrifices had been held, and horrible banquets celebrated. The earth, pawed by my impatient horse, was black and rich—strangely black and rich when compared with the surrounding soil, and the three enormous trees that overshadowed the three alter-stones seemed to own roots fed with fat food, so vigorously had they upsprung from out the rock. The gloomy glamour of ancient barbarism was upon the place. Standing there alone, a usurping white man within the mystic temple of a dead and forgotten creed, I seemed to realize for an instant the whole horror of the ancient worship. Again the skin drums resounded, again floated up to the full moon and wild chant of the women, again the furious fires blazed high, again the people in the valley of the peaks shouted to their savage divinity, again the painted and naked priest reared high the thirsty knife and flung himself—blood-red in the fire-glow—upon the panting victim. What mysteries might not have been celebrated in this forest, haggard and grey with age and storms? Those savage priests, those leaping warriors, might be administering a right primeval, recalling in their wild dances the mystic worship of Egypt, and completing, in their ignorance, the magnificent allegory of that ancient Faith, which, through all the world’s history, remains still the hope of thousands. Here in this lonely spot, among the frowning hills, where the pious Christian cries to this risen Lord, might sacrifice have been done to Mithra the virgin-born, to Isis the virgin-mother, to Osiris stretched upon his cross, or to Tammuz the slain for our sins, and re-risen from the dead to save us. Here might the trembling neophyte have prostrated himself before a barbaric Hyphon—that terrible genius of darkness and of doubt, that great Serpent Tempter of the ancient mysteries! In Mexico, in Africa, amid the snows of the Himalayas and the deserts of Central Asia, dwells his ancient worship. The mighty monuments which frown in bewildering grandeur from out the virgin forests of Darien, the legends of the sacred islands of the South, the world rites of Papua and the Marquesas, give token of the mystic lore of Egypt and the East. Its symbols are used equally by Jew, Turk, and Christian, and now, in this strange and barren land, long deemed worthless to the tread of white feet, did I meet again the traces of the old religion.

As these speculations held me, methought that the mysterious light in the mountain cleft moved higher, and that it was joined by another light. My mare snorted and wrenched at her bit, as though eager to leave the spot of ill omen. The first light twinkled, went out, beamed forth again, and, impelled by one of those sudden resolutions which seemed like inspiration, I rode down the side of the rise, and made towards it. The flats between the gorge and the mount were marshy, and bestrewn with fallen timber. Belts of impenetrable scrub intersected the numerous water-courses. The air grew cool, and a heavy dew began to fall. The moon had risen high, and was riding serenely in a wine-dark and cloudless heaven. A stillness reigned, the mysterious lights moved steadily onwards, and before me fluttered from tree to tree, swooping in upon me from time to time, as though to lure me on, a huge grey bat, through whose transparent wings I could almost see the sparkle of the coldly-gleaming stars. I pressed forward, and the two lights were joined by a third. The second light twinkled and went out, as the first had done, but to be again re-lumined; and then, not a hundred yards before me, the three moving points of fire beamed forth bright and clear. Another instant, and my snorting horse dashed the pebbles under her hoofs, and, rearing with terror, came to a sudden pause before three men who barred the rocky roadway.

“Hullo, Wallaby Dick!” I cried, “is this your holiday?”

But no answer came from the grey lips of the old man, who, facing about, with glassy eyes, thrust forth his flaming torch of mountain pine, as though to forbid my progress.

I turned to his companions, and a species of ludicrous terror seized me. One was dombie, the blackfellow, the other Ah Yung, the Chinaman. All three—European, Australian, and Mongol—were naked to the waist, each carried a blazing pine-torch, and on the face of each sat that hideous expression of death in life which caused the yellow fangs of the old wallaby hunter to glisten like the teeth of a skeleton.

“Whither are you bound?” I cried, controlling, with difficulty, my terrified horse.

Dombie raised his lean black arm, and silently pointed to the extremity of the gorge. I looked, and saw from behind a huge boulder upshoot a pillar of fire. As though this illumination had been some wellknown signal, from all parts of the mountain burst forth the red glare of torches. Above, around, and below burned innumerable spots of fire. The gorge seemed to swarm with fire-flies, the mountainside to be honeycombed with glow-worms, while in the valley I had left, an immense multitude pressed onward and upward, their torches tossing wildly as they came. Bewildered and alarmed, I rubbed my eyes to see if I was dreaming; but no, I was wide-awake, and conscious that it needed all the strength of my muscles to sit my now maddened horse.

“What foolery is this?” I cried. “Ah! Yung! Dombie! Speak.” But they turned abruptly and breasted the mountain, singing a wild chant as they went. I was forced to follow, for an all sides pressed the multitude. Perhaps from the glare and smoke of the torches my brain had become stupified, or my vision impaired, but it seemed to me that the persons who surrounded me were of all nations and colours. Mulattoes, Blacks, Chinese, Yellow men, and Red men, all the barbaric nations of the South came hurrying onwards: walking, riding, crawling—old men, women, and cripples—as they swarmed along the mighty mountain-side like travelling ants. The fire behind the boulder, fed fast by the gigantic shadows, shot high up into the night its threefold flame. I turned, and lo! The moon, mounted to her zenith, flung down the hill I had left the triple shadow of the three altars! The murmurous prelude to the hymn already began to tremble over the valley, and the multitude, pressing nearer to the sacrificial fire, carried me along with them. I looked round in vain for escape,—no, not in vain; at the very instant when another plunge of my mare would have flung me beneath the feet of the crowd, a young girl, riding on a white mule, pointed to a narrow cleft in the wall of rock on my right. I comprehended her, and wheeling my horse, forced myself clear of the press. A sharp salt wind blew in upon me, and in another instant the strange multitude and the mysterious fire faded behind me, and I was galloping up the gorge in the teeth of a driving storm.

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You, reader, who have known what it is to ride hard all night in an Australian mountain tempest, will appreciate the delight with which I hailed the glorious outburst of a sunny morning. I could not but think my vision of the night a dream, born of my own thoughts and the mysterious influence of the moonlit forest; and in the pure bright air of morning I laughed my follies to scorn. One thing was certain, however, in my dream or my stupidity, I had galloped up the ranges, and by some strange chance had struck that long-sought-for path which led to the mysterious and legendary land behind the mountains. Dismounting, and leading my weary horse by the bridle, I followed a sort of track along the top of the range, and looked, as I went, upon the scenery of the new country in which I found myself. The path wound in and out among the crags, and I soon lost all glimpse of the semi-civilised land I had left. I saw at my feet what seemed at the first glance to be a little township embosomed in encircling gardens. As I drew nearer, however, I saw what I had taken for a township was really a collection of buildings, apparently belonging to a large, white, low-roofed house, which stood on the edge of a slope of vineyard. It was evident that some settler, more adventurous than his neighbours, had penetrated the mysteries of the mountain, and had set up his abode in this fertile and charming valley. Wallaby Dick had indeed discovered a pleasant place in which to spend his holidays! Descending the track, which soon widened into a broad and well-kept road, I pulled the hanging handle of a bell which was suspended from a lofty wooden gateway before a huge and nail-studded door. The echo of my summons had not died away when the door was flung open, and Wallaby Dick himself appeared, his face no longer wrathful or ill-humoured, but beaming with smiles of welcome.

The appearance of the old man made me start. “You here, Wallaby? Why, what mystery is this?”

“No mystery,” said Wallaby, with the merriest laugh I had ever heard from his lips. “I have arrived before you, that is all. Come in; you are expected.”

“Expected! Then what place is this?”

“It’s got a lot o’ names,” said Wallaby. “Some calls it one thing, and some another. I call it Holiday Peak, because I comes here for my holidays; but it’s known to many folks as Mount Might-ha-been.”

“Many travellers stop here, it appears?” I enquired.

“Oh yes,” said the old fellow, hobbling off with my horse. “Most people passing this way stop here for a night, at all events, especially about the beginning of the new year. However, you go in, and I’ll show you round by-and-by.”

I went through the court-yard, and up the broad stone steps into an open space or square, in the midst of which a fountain played. Ah Yung was standing at the door of a queer little pagoda. No longer the greasy Chinaman cook, he was dressed with great splendour in the fashion of his country, and, bowing, invited me in. The house was wonderfully furnished. A Chinese woman, of pleasing countenance, sat on a low cane-chair, nursing a baby, and a domestic squatted on his hams in a corner of the verandah, filling the bowl of Ah Yung’s capacious pipe. Through the open lattice-work I saw spreading paddy-fields, and could catch the monotonous song of the stalwart river coolies as they propelled their heavily-laden barges up the river.

“All this is mine!” said Ah Yung, embracing with one sweep of his hand the furniture, the matron, the fat baby, the opium-pipe, and the paddy-fields.

“All yours! But if you own so fine a property, why do you work as cook in the men’s huts?”

“Cook in the men’s hut! What do you mean?” returned he with a pitying smile. “Me no cook. Me Chinee gentleman. Me mightabeen cook if me run away on board ship, and go fool my money in lottery!”

I turned away bewilderingly, and found myself face to face with my old college friend, Jack Reckless.

“Jack Reckless!” I cried, astonished at this new apparition. “Why, man, I thought you were——”

“Don’t be afraid of saying it,” said Jack, cheerily, though a touch of sadness caused his voice to quiver.

“You thought I was in gaol for forging Huxtable’s name to a bill. No, thank God, my boy! I might have been, but instead of yielding to the devilish temptation, I told my dear old father all about my debts and duns, and a year or two of economy set all right. You shall come over by and-by, and see my wife. You remember little Lucy?”

“Little Lucy! Yes;—but wasn’t that dreadful story true?”

“True! No. She saw through the scoundrel’s pretended affection, and as I was out of debt, and in a fair way of doing well, married me instead of running away with him. But I must go to the farm now.” he concluded, pointing to a picturesque roof that nestled in a pretty English landscape; “I call for you tomorrow.”

I walked up the lime-tree avenue which led to the Old Manse more bewildered than ever. Then the terrible story of sin and shame which had wrecked two homes was but a fiction after all? My spirits rose with the thought; indeed, gazing on that lovely garden, stretching terrace after terrace, away to the crystal river, it was difficult to harbour thoughts of sorrow or of suffering, and I felt, as I drank in the pure clear air of the mountains, almost as vigorous as Dombie, who, no longer blear-eyed and palsied with excess of tobacco and rum, but young, healthy, and hopeful, dashed past me with a “Hulloa!” making hard for a flock of emu yonder.

Passing by an old house which stood back from the others in the terrace, my attention was caught by a crimson scarf trailing from one of the upper windows. “An artist lives there,” was my first thought, for nowhere in the world but in the pictures of Prout do we see bits of colour floating about in that fashion. “Yes, you are right,” said a young man emerging from the well-dressed crowed which throngs in spring the steps of the Academy.

It was Gerard! Gerard, my boy friend, who fled from Oxford to Stonyhurst, and embraced the discipline of Loyola.

“Gerard, what means this?”

“Dear old fellow,” said he, putting his arm round my neck in the fond old schoolboy fashion, “it means that I thought better of my resolve, and followed out the natural bent of my talents. My picture, the ‘death of Alcibiades,’ is the talk of the year. I shall soon be as famous as you.”

“As I. You jest. A poor devil banished to Bush Land, tied neck and heels in debt, soon slips out of the memory even of his friends.”

“So you persist in that dream out Australia! Surely you know that the fortune was recovered, and that your year of poverty but served to correct your boyish extravagances, and that in easy circumstances you banished Poins and Pistol, and settled down to the career you chose!”

“Gerard, you are laughing at me!”

“Come into your house, then, and be convinced,” said Gerard.

My house, it appeared, was a villa at Richmond. The railway-station was sufficiently near to take me into town when town-talk was needed, and yet the cottage in its charm of park and river was sufficiently far away from London smoke to suffer one’s soul to breathe freely.

“I wonder,” said Gerard, “that with the horses you keep, you ever travel by the train?”

“My horses, then, are considered good?”

“Horses and books are your only extravagances. It is lucky that your income is not sufficiently large to suffer you to indulge a taste for pictures. You had better put down your yacht, and buy my ‘Death of Cromwell.’”

“No, no,” said I, dreamily, accepting this novel position; “I always had a taste for yachting;—but come in and let us converse.”

“You dine with Carabas to-night, remember,” said Gerard; “Ballhazar Claes and Byles Gridley wil be there. I know you affect to dislike dinners, but the marchioness is a good soul, and you must not disappoint her.”

“True,” said I, “she is; and after presenting my eldest daughter too. I shall certainly come.”

“The Superfine Review has cut up your book as usual,” remarked Gerard, turning over the papers on the horse-shoe table; “but to an author whose readers are counted by millions, and to whom Bentley gives £5,000 a volume, a sneer in the Superfine is not of much consequence.”

“No, indeed,” I replied, feeling much as if someone had taken away my head and left me a bubble of air in the place of it. “Besides, I write for the Slaughterer, and the two papers are at daggers drawn.”

“Ah! Lucky fellow,” said Gerard, throwing open the window to inhale the perfume of my rose-garden. “How different things might have been if you hadn’t taken your uncle’s advice.”

“You are right,” said I, “but help yourself to wine, and let us walk somewhere. To tell you the truth, my head feels a little queer this morning.”

“That is often the case,” returned Gerard, “when first one comes to Holiday Peak, but you will soon get used to our mountain air. Order your horses, and we will go and call on Mostyn. He didn’t marry the widow after all, and is still the same jolly fellow as of old.”

“Aye, I remember how he used to take me up from Aldershot in the baggage-train, and introduce to my schoolboy eyesight the wonders of London at midnight. Pray, are the Arminda Gardens still existent?”

“I don’t know what you mean. Mostyn never took you to London with him. You were never in the Armida Gardens in all your life.”

“Thank goodness, Gerard! Are you sure?”

“Quite certain. You might have wasted your youth in such places, and got into no end of mischief, had not your father kept such a strict and friendly eye upon you.”

“Ah,” said I, “you are right. Let us, then, remain at home to-day. Mostyn can wait.”

“As you please,” said Gerard. “Here is the end of Denis Duval. Have you read it?”

“The end of Denis Duval! Why, poor Thackeray died before he finished it.”

“Nonsense! He is as hearty as you or I. I met him at Dickens’s (they are great friends now, you know) the other day, and he never looked better. If it had not been for his excellent constitution, and the attention of Dr. Lydgate, however, he might have been dead long ago.”

“Gerard, my dear fellow,” said I, rising. “I—I feel a little confused; leave me for a while. We will meet at dinner.”

“Very well,” said Gerard. “I will take Constantia for a drive.”

“Constantia! What, not the girl we——”

“The same, dear old fellow.”

“And she did not marry Count Caskowisky?”

“Count Caskowisky be confounded! No; she married me. We have three children. Sans adieu!

I fell back in my easy chair, my easy chair, stupefied. I must be dreaming! But no, the well-bred presence of my Swiss valet, as he laid out my dress clothes, was too palpable a reality!

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The most notable the Marquis of Carabas lived at Grosvenor Gate, and it seemed to me that my five hundred-guinea horses had never accomplished the distance in so short a time. Scarcely had I entered the carriage when I was sitting beside the marchioness, and pulling Julie’s silken ears with all the freedom of an old acquaintance. Vivien Grey and I were the only persons allowed that privilege, but since his marriage with Violet Fane, he had resided principally abroad.

“So you have returned at last,” said the marchioness. “You and the count have the reputation of being the most erratic pair in Europe.”

The tall, thin, pale man, with the wonderful eyes, bowed slightly.

“The Countess of Monte Christo,” said he, “has ordered me to give up travelling.”

“And you obey?”

“Yes. I am tired of having my own way,” said Monte Christo.

“Omnipotence becomes wearisome. Moreover, I have pensioned Bertuccio and sold my island.”

“Indeed? To whom?”

“To an Australian wine-grower. He finds the rick admirably suited to the growth of White Ivanhoe, and he has turned my cavern into cellars. Faria and he are planning a press on a new principle.”

“Then M. L’Abbé recovered from his attack?” I enquired.

“Certainly. A few seconds after I had taken that involuntary leap into the sea from the summit of the Chateau D’If, the gaoler returned, gave my poor friend another dose of the cordial, and revived him to rejoice in the pardon sent by the Emperor. He is the tutor of my eldest son, Morcuf Villefort Danglars. Ah! Marchioness, if you could only see our little family circle, you would deem me the happiest man in Christendom. Dear Danglars! How I long to press his honest hand once more! Poor fellow, what enemies we might have been had the story Dumas chose to invent been true.”

Lord and Lady Byron sat opposite to me, Balzac being between them.

“It is needful that some man of sense should separate so absurdly affectionate a pair,” benevolent Lord Steyne whispered to me, “for they cannot keep from cooing even at dinner. By the way, Mrs. Crawley, I visited your orphanage to-day, and must congratulate you upon the excellent use you have made of poor Miss Crawley’s fortune.”

Sweet Becky lifted her guileless eyes, and smiled. “Ah, Lord Steyne, it is Rawdon whom you should praise—not me. He has quite a genius for charity.”

“I will bet fifty guineas that Steyne has been giving another cheque,” whispered the Rev. Henry Foker; “that man’s charities are unbounded.”

“I thought——” I stammered.

“I know,” said Archdeacon Castigan, “you thought Wenham’s confounded story was true! Ah me, dear sir, what is, and what might have been are two very different things. For instance, Newcome yonder might have married Mackenzie—that is the present Mrs. Foker—had not Lady Kew insisted upon dowering Ethel with her fortune, Sir Barnes, and Lady Highgate begged me to carry her compliments to Lady Clara. I discharge my duty!”

Good simple-minded Sir Barnes smiled. “Tell Highgate I am angry at his absence. He never comes to Newcome now.”

At the other end of the table they were talking of the unfortunate condition of Prussia.

“I am told had it not been for the French subscription, whole families would have perished of hunger,” said Steerforth. “And yet think how different things might have been had Bazaine been defeated,” returned Sir Montague Tigg.

“Might have been! Yes. The ‘Anglo-Benegalie’ might have been wrecked, with other institutions of a similar character,” laughed Bishop Prindie in the ear of Indiana.

“But M. Teeg is such a financier! My husband thinks him unequalled.”

“But your husband is so well-bred a gentleman, madam, that he thinks well of everyone.”

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The conversation made my head ache, and I seized the earliest opportunity to escape.

“Come to the club,” said Warrington, “and smoke a cigar. Laura is away on a visit to Mrs. Pen, and I am a bachelor.”

“Did you marry Laura, then? I thought that——.”

“That I had married someone else. No, thank God; I was very near it, though.”

The club was full. Ferner and his crony Romaine, as usual, were the life of the smoking-room. George Gentle (of Fen Court), was playing Mr. Cassaubon at billiards. Major-General Hinton and Colonel Lorrequer betting on the game.

“So Monsoon has turned trappist.” said Prince Djalma to Admiral Cuttle, K.C.B. “Who would have expected such a thing?”

L’homme propose, mais Dieu dispose,” returned the Admiral.

“For which overhaul your conversations-lexicon. Jack Burnsby became a local preacher.”

The Prince puffed his cigar meditatively. “A fine woman the Macstinger,” said he, “I don’t wonder that ce cher Bunsby broke his heart at her refusal of his hand. But, then, who could resist Fosco.”

“Save Quilp, I seldom met a more fascinating man,” said Guy Livingstone. “He is too fond of violent exercise though, for my taste. I detest your muscular heroes.”

“Who does not?” said Kingsley, from the little table where he sat with Dr. Newman and Swinburne. “Algernon, we’re four by honours?”

“Then do not strive to awake my friend,” said a gentle-voiced little gentleman, sucking a Trabuco. “It is good to dream.”

“Who is that?” I whispered to Singleton Fentenoy, as we descended the steps.

“Pio Nono. The Baptists allow him one hundred and fifty pounds a year, and he lodges over a hatter’s in Piccadilly.”

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Fentenoy and I strolled down the Haymarket, and the familiar faces passed and repassed us. There is but little variety, after all, in life. We had both been absent from England during twenty years, and here the same music was resounding, the same eyes glittering, the same laughter ringing. There was, however, a strange reality about it all that saddened me.

“Singleton, do you remember when you thought that tawdry ball-room a palace, those silly fellows yonder the most daring of rakes, and those poor half-educated, good-hearted girls the equals of Ninon de L’enclos, and Faustina Imperatrex? Let us go away; I am memory burdened.”

We walked onwards, and by-and-by found ourselves near Notting Hill. Singleton paused at the gate of a little villa, and pointed to the windows. The blinds were drawn up, and I saw, seated in a pleasant drawing-room, a young lady—it was Jenny—

“Lazy, laughing, languid Jenny,
Fond of a kiss, and fond of a guinea. ”

Her face brought back to me a strange dream of boy-and-girl folly, of a merry, thoughtless flight by train and boat, made dishes, French wines, babble, kisses, tears, and no pocket money.

“But I thought Lord Dagon had discovered in my funny little friend a bonne worthy of his purse.”

Your funny little friend! What do you mean? She married the respectable grocer, and never heard of Lord Dagon except in the newspapers. It was fortunate that you went to Scotland as you intended though, for there might have been mischief.”

“Good heavens!” I said, “am I then to believe that everything has happened as it should have happened, and that I have no regrets.”

But Singleton had gone, and I was alone above the broad terrace above the moon lighted garden.

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Tier upon tier swept upwards to the castle-crag the busky slopes of verdure. Pierced with alleys of bloom, gleaming with statues, musical with fountains, the marvellous gardens of the palace lay sleeping beneath the moon, even as they had slept when the Fairy-Prince leapt the briar-hedge to win with daring kiss his enchanted bride. The mellow lights in the pavilion of the Arabian jeweller shone in the waters of the lake. I heard the silvery laugh of Noureddin’s Persian, and could distinguish the gilded barge of the great Caliph, as, encompassed with barbaric music, panoplied in Eastern pomp, he moved towards the mysterious city. There, crowded with the misty halo of its myriad lamps, the great Babylon lay beneath me in the valley. At the white-stone breadth of the quay swung the rising tide of a hundred argosies. All of squallor, misery, and sin was hidden; and the majestic angel on the doomed summit of the great cathedral seemed to plume his shining vans for upward flight into the clear cold purity of the star-sprinkled heavens.

This, then, was the world of which I had dreamt, and that other sordid one in which I had lived so long was but a dream! How often a truant schoolboy, in depths of summer woods, garlanded with cool hyacinth, and couched on rustling fern, had I not seen this fair world! How often lying awake, while the breeze piped shrill across the coldly tossing sea, had I not beheld these glories of land and lake, of spired city and embattlemented rock. How often weary and hot with folly or with toil, had not that magnificent moon swum up into heaven to soothe and comfort me. Here, then, was Atlantis, here the Fortunate Isles, the Valley of Avilion, the true El Dorado—the wondrous Land of Might-have-been!

As one entranced in waking slumber, I moved through the portal, where frowning in war-like steel, sat ready horsed for combat the guard of Barbarussa. Charlemagne and Arthur had come again, and Duraudel gleamed once more in the grasp of risen Roland. The mighty laughter of the heroes shook the hall, and the smile of happy Metaine was reflected in the lips of gentle Aude. Yes, it was true!—chivalry lived still, and smug tradesmen, rejoicing in the science of money-breeding, had not beaten honesty and love to death with their yard-measures. All around me were beauty, truth, and honour, and serene in the midst of great and noble souls. I felt my spirit strengthened and sustained. At length, above a door of ivory, half hidden by a purple curtain, I saw, perched upon the bust of Pallas, the mocking figure of a raven. The door yielded and I entered. I was in a long apartment, going on a balcony open to the night; as I entered, a lady clad in white came towards me. I knew her at once. It was the Lady Lenore.

Lenore! The lost Lenore. She who forever waits and forever eludes our passionate arms. Dante called her Beatrice, Petrarch Laura, Burns knew her as Mary, Byron as——but why multiply names? She is for all of us, the impossible woman. Name her yourself, dear reader, lounging on the club sofa, wiling away an hour before dinner with this silly story. You are very cynical and pleasant now, and worship your stomach complacently. But there was a time, was there not, when “you were young, and songs were sung, and love-lamps in the casements hung,” when something might have been that was not and never will now be? Or will you name this little figure with the sad sweet eyes—are they brown or grey for you? Oh! Prosperous and well-dined merchant, musing with your fond children round your knees, and your faithful wife smiling cheerily at the end of the table? You love your wife and children, but, but—was there not—is there not—an ideal somewhere in your heart, albeit shut up and locked down, and the Family Bible laid at the top of it? Yes, she exists; here, in the land of might-have-been, call her by what name you will.


She gave me two cool hands and kissed me.

“At last, then! At last. Lenore! The Raven prophesied falsely. Our pain and sorrow, our ‘strange, unsatisfied longing,’ are over, and at last—oh, other half of my soul—I have and hold thee!”

She did not speak, but her eyes said more than words, and her slight figure trembled in my arms.

I drew her to the window, and with brain and blood on fire, pointed to the vessels at anchor at the quay.

“Whether this strange land be a land of shadows, I know not; but I know that thou art real. Come my love, come; see the boat lies below. Let us leave this place.”

She raised her head from my shoulder, and looked around. In the far east, where the waves tumbled white upon the shore, trembled the dawn. The moon was fading, the city, the river and the enchanted gardens lay lapped in a mysterious light—alas!

“The light that never was on sea or land,
The consecration and the poet’s dream.

“Come,” I repeated; “stern Heaven is kind at last, and we have met, why should we part again?”

But even as I pleaded, in tones that had perhaps too much of earth in them for that fair spirit, she seemed to withdraw from me. One glance, sad and tender, pitying and hopeful, thrilled me, a farewell kiss, pure as fire, light as a falling rose-leaf hushed my lips, and—I was alone.

Alone upon the triform hill whose mysterious altars reddened in the risen dawn. My holiday was over.

.     .     .     .     .

Little Nelly (to the story teller)—“But Mr. Marston, did you not go back to Holiday Peak?”

Marston—“I did not know the way, my dear.”

Little Nelly—“But there must be a way. If so many people stop there, a coach should go near the place.”

Marston—“There is a coach that goes to the very door, little one—a coach by which we must all travel one of these days—a black coach drawn by black horses. Some day they will take me when I am sleeping soundly, and put me into a big box, nail me up, and put on the lid a neat brass plate:—

This Side Up.


Australian Tales - Contents

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