[Editor: This short story by “Tom Collins” (Joseph Furphy) was published in The Western Mail (Perth, WA), 1 February 1908. The story was printed in three parts; part 1 appeared on 25 January 1908, part 2 on 1 February 1908, and part 3 on 8 February 1908.]
The discovery of Christmas Reef.
By Tom Collins.
Sam was native-born, country-bred, and a first-class bushman, even as Australians go. But the day was cloudy; and, in the blundering hurry of the moment, he had counted too much on his own sense of locality. Despite his impatience, however, he searched for his tools and provisions systematically. His best hope was to recover his own track from the ascent of the ridge to his discovery of the relics; but here again he was unsuccessful. Possibly he unknowingly passed more than once within a few yards of his deposit; but the long forenoon fretted uselessly away, leaving him baffled and disconcerted.
Then it appeared to him that the distant certainty of his hut was preferable to the adjacent Buckley-show of his luggage. But the visible portion of the sky was of a uniform slate colour; and Sam, fully realising the temporary subversion of his own instinct of locality, was sane enough to defer his start until his course could be verified by sun or stars. No bushman, by the way, has any patience with the tenderfoot who talks of defining the poles by observation of moss on trees, etc. In fact, a mariner’s compass is the only substitute for sun and stars; and Sam had been too careless and confident to equip himself with that useful instrument. Meanwhile, he tried to appease his hunger with bramble berries; but these were small, scanty and unripe. And now, ranging round intent only on finding berries and locating the sun, he made another discovery.
On a quartz-strewn ridge, where the scrub gave place to brackens and heath, he found evidence of a week’s work, done by skilful hands. A well-defined reef had been laid bare for some yards, and abandoned; then twelve months of storm and sunshine had passed over the place, and Nature was rapidly healing the scar imprinted by her first invader. A thick crop of young brackens had already thrust their voluted fronds through the mullock thrown from the open cut. Further investigation disclosed traces of a pathway leading into a contiguous ravine.
This track, terminating in a dozen steps cut into the steep slope, thirty yards away, gave access to a spring, where a simply constructed dam imprisoned about 100 gallons of water. Close by, a flat block of sandstone had been used as a bed for dollying; and heaps of broken quartz lay around its base, whilst a pick, shovel, and dish lay rusting on its gritted surface.
With burning interest Sam scrutinised all exposed quartz, here and at the outcrop; he continued his examination for a couple of hours, finding the colour, and nothing more. But the cap of the reef was gone — rich, poor, or middling, as it might have been. Apparently it had been too poor to justify further development; and Sam became thoroughly sobered by this anti-climax to his day-dreams. But even an abandoned claim was something to go on with; so he resolved to return to the spot, re-furnished, and prove the reef to his own full satisfaction.
When the afternoon was half gone the sun appeared in a direction which Sam had tentatively taken as south-east. Now, after carefully confirming the cardinal points in their normal places, he started eastward, pausing now and then to look back toward the reef, thus impressing upon his mind the aspect of a returning route. This led him to notice that the track was slightly blazed; also that the marks were a year old, and had been made with a sharp tomahawk.
It is a noteworthy fact, that two men — or a dozen — passing separately through difficult country, bound for the same destination, are likely to walk in the very footsteps of each other. The reason is, that the same alternatives of route are accepted, independently, by each.
Hence, as it happened, Sam continued to leave behind him blazed trees and marked scrub till he reached a precipitous descent, with the opposing bluff so near and yet so far that two men might have played quoits across the massed foliage of tall trees growing in the intervening chasm.
To the strong, lithe young bushman the descent, though steep, was safe and easy till within 50 or 60 feet of the bottom. Here a sloping face of sandstone, eight or ten feet in height, formed part of the bluff; and from this downward the bramble-clad ground appeared vertical, but with a practicable slope extending to the right. A glance to each side showed that there was no avoiding this smooth rock, with the scanty foothold at its base; so Sam promptly lowered himself down the scarp, and let go. The toes of his boots failed to grip ground as he landed on the sharp angle — he reeled backward, and fell headlong, rolling, rebounding, bursting through impediments of interlocked undergrowth — till a final and opportune impulsion flung him across the stony bed of the creek, with a clear fall of about 15 feet.
Whilst rolling down the bluff, Sam had disputed his passage yard by yard, with a dogged resolution which debarred thought. But the decimal of a second occupied by his helpless fall was surcharged with reflections suitable to the situation. He thought of his mother, and of Molly. The thought of his mother was connected with injunctions against Sabbath-breaking; the thought of Molly implied the highest compliment applicable to woman, inasmuch as it forecasted a maiden widowhood for life… Then he crashed into a heap of yielding drift, deposited by the swollen current of many winters. But the crown of his head touched — just touched — a block of sandstone among the debris, and he lay very still.
Night had fallen, chill and starless, before he regained consciousness. For some time he strove vainly to array his disordered faculties; but at last the events of the day came into something like consecutive order. Though sore, stiff, and terribly shaken, he was relieved to find that no bones were broken, and that his pipe, matches and tobacco were safe. With benumbed and shivering fingers he lit the mass of dry brushwood from which he had just risen. The warmth revived him, but the dull pain of a cut on the head made time pass heavily. He attempted to bathe his wound, but the sting of the icy cold water forced him to desist.
However, he had learned by heart the burden of a thousand hymns, namely, that religion is the unfailing solace for all woes; and he reverently took his teraphim from the inside pocket of his jacket. But as the first strong flare of the fire had subsided, he rose to light an adjacent heap of drift, against the opposite bank of the shrunken rivulet. And the blaze of his fire-stick disclosed a spectacle which held him dazed and incredulous.
A death’s head stared upward in his face; the head thrown backward in small concavity; the shoulders reclined against the bank; whilst the hands and lower limbs were buried in last winter’s drift. Imagining now that his own mental balance was disturbed, Sam kindled a large fire where its light would shine full on the appalling object. The skin was like parchment, drawn back from the hollow orbits, and stretched tensely across the angular bones of face and head. The hair, thinned by decay, left the whitened scalp exposed. The lips had shrunk back, exposing two rows of perfect teeth in a silent, sinister laugh; and a thick, red beard concealed the neck. The portion of clothing visible above the drift was bleached to a uniform neutral colour.
A gruesome companion in the dark; so Sam sedulously fed the fire all night, whilst furtively watching the silent figure, which often seemed to move uneasily in its place, with expression of face varying from sardonic mirth to the very ecstasy of woe; from immovable patience to utter despair. Along with this, the nocturnal sounds of the bush, homely and pleasing at ordinary times, now startled the harassed watcher into vague apprehension; and he fervently welcomed the first hint of dawn.
Before the last shadows lifted, he was slowly and laboriously skirting the base of the treacherous bluff, on his homeward journey. Bareheaded, stiff, sore and hungry, his progress was slow enough, yet he pressed on, keeping the impracticable bed of the creek on his left, and always in sight. The day was cloudy; but from occasional glimpses of the sun he conceived the course of the creek to be far less direct than had appeared in following the stream upward. And even to his disturbed perception the country seemed more open, with fewer blackwoods in the hollows, and more thickets of mountain ash on the heights.
Presently the creek merged into a morass which he did not remember to have noticed in the haste and toil of his upward trip. This was a rotten quagmire, of 100 yards in diameter, bordered with overgrown sedges, and supporting strange, rank, unspecialised growths on its pulpy surface. The creep reappeared at the opposite extremity of the swamp; and Sam followed its course over comparatively easy ground for some hours, till a careful survey from the shoulder of a lofty promontory disclosed faint films of smoke coiling upward from the creek, a little way in front. This, he concluded, would be from the hollow log he had left burning at his first camp. There he would rest a while, and the familiar scene would adjust and verify his bearings. Twenty minutes later he emerged from a thicket of fern-trees to find the smouldering embers of his last night’s fire, sentinelled by that grisly form recumbent against the bank.
Baffled and bewildered, Sam stretched himself on the ground to work out the puzzle. How had he made this circuit? Not by turning back on his own tracks, for he had started eastward down the creek, and had returned from the west, still following the stream. But now the sun was gone from the sky, shining only on the tops of tall trees; and he was tired, very tired. To-morrow he would watch his way more carefully, and force the solution of this enigma.
He had burned all the firewood within easy reach, except the mass of drift in which his companion lay embedded; but removal of his camp never suggested itself. The dead man held him — not as a captive, but as a fate-allotted guest. All night he crouched by a small fire, alert and apprehensive. Each sudden call of a nocturnal bird or marsupial made him start. The dewdrops on bracken and heath, trembling in the firelight against invisible background, became the watchful eyes of living things unknown to bushcraft. His eyes burned for lack of sleep but the throbbing pain of the wound on his head kept him awake and distracted. And when weird fancies came thickest he began to find reassurance in the companionship of that silent figure whose very immobility brought relief.
In the grey dawn he cast one farewell look round the spot which had grown so grimly familiar. He laid his fingers on the dew-dripping brow of his unresponsive comrade — “Good-bye, old man,” he murmured gently; then turned eastward to thread his way through the maze of logs and scrub which confronted his outset.
More slowly than before, because more carefully, he followed the deeply cloven gorge, where, beneath logs, scrub, and denuded rocks, the shrunken stream found its way. From time to time he noted his tracks of the previous trip, and pressed on, guarding against repetition oft the incomprehensible blunder which had wasted one precious day. Again he skirted the deep morass, and resumed the course of the creek at its effluence. There was no other route, for the morass lay in the concavity of a cast horseshoe range which formed an unbroken bank to the creek, on the opposite side, for some distance above and below. Still more tracks of the preceding day, and scenes which he recognised at a glance; yet he struggled on, in dogged certainty that no error had been possible.
But when the long afternoon was half-spent he stood looking once more upon his charnel camp. It was no dream. There lay the ashes of his fires; and at his feet reclined the wasted form of his forerunner. For a full hour he sat with his back against the opposite bank, fronting that awful host, who would not let him go; till at last his deranged thought found refuge in an overmastering sympathy. He mused on the long, lonely winter nights, with their frost and rain — the pitiless exposure, the grievous dishonour, perforce so passively borne. And the injustice of it! — for no soldier, fallen with face to the foe, had better earned two paces of that kindly earth which becomingly covers man’s ultimate indignity.
With his sheath-knife he cut and chisel-pointed a stout stem of mountain ash; then, selecting a spot above the highest flood-mark, he dug a shallow grave into the side of the steep bank. Then removing the drift which covered the lower part of the remains, he searched the pockets for means of identification; but found only a rusty knife, an empty purse, and a few illegible papers. And whilst composing the poor, light relics in the grave he discovered that one leg was broken above the knee. From the upper side of the grave he dug down sufficient earth to form a mound; and finally he cut a conspicuous cross in the soft bark of a white gum close by.
The removal of the skeleton had rendered a large bank of drift available as fuel; and Sam, still under the fascination of the camp, had no thought of changing his quarters. The dusk was now settling down, and he was about to light the drift when his eye fell on a small canvas bag, blackening in decay, which had been under the right hand of the corpse. The bag was almost too rotten to hold together; but he found it to contain a quantity of reef gold, which his judgment — unaffected in accuracy, though lethargic in operation — estimated at 50 or 60 ounces. This he collected in his large cotton handkerchief, and laid aside. No wave of gratification, no reaction of even momentary buoyancy broke the cheerless stupor of his consciousness. Yet here was a dazzling response to his search of two days before — the reef-harvest of millennians — the crop which has no second growth — the imperishable gold, liberated by slow decomposition of its matrix through uncounted ages of aerial denudation.
But Sam, uneasily aware of encroaching aberration, dreaded the coming night. During daylight he was conscious of a lessening power of consecutive thought, and a futile activity of memory in recalling irrelevant snatches of songs, phrases from Scripture, and even nursery rhymes; and along with this, an increasing difficulty in separating actuality from illusion. Still he was master of his own individuality, and prepared to face any tangible mishap.
But night transported him to another world; a world of shapeless shadows, more formidable than actualities. To neutralise the invasion of these dreadful legions he laboured to provide an enormous fire, using the remaining heap of drift as a base. The narrow area of the camp being now illuminated in every recess, he lay down to rest; and again his burning eyes craved the sleep which his unsettled mind repelled.
In the optical night-effect of a bushfire, or a large camp-fire, the most remarkable impression — strangely overlooked by artists — is the startling conspicuousness of the branches overhead, stretching in ivory-white relief across the unfathomable blackness of foliage and sky above; though those branches may be grey or slate-coloured by daylight. Many a time had Sam contemplated this spectacle with casual interest, but now his judgment was in abeyance, his sense of comparison paralysed; and that odd filagree of white became a medley of dismembered skeletons gathered from forgotten graves and wind-swept plains and lonely mountain fastnesses to enact purposeless horrors in the midnight air. And forthwith his fevered fancy found occupation in classifying those lawless relics, each vital with a life impassive, insensate, and free from the limitations of flesh and blood. For though dead calm lay on the deep gorge, a strong, gusty wind convulsed the tree-tops; and the livid limbs advanced, retired, writhed and squirmed, reeled and capered, in a veritable dance of death; whilst, aiding this wild hallucination, the rising and falling sough of the variable blast supplied hollow, toneless music to the hideous carnival.
Morally driven to bay, appalled yet unterrified, Sam marked those rhythmic movements of the living dead, till his satiated glance ran down the long, white shaft of an adjacent tree, and rested on the new-made grave at its foot. He watched and waited, momentarily expecting a movement of the fresh soil, and a reappearance of the grisly form which he had unavailingly laid to rest. This fearful relaxation recurred at intervals; but his delirious gaze still reverted to the ghastly yet grotesque saturnalia in progress above, till daylight brought back the comfortless realities of his situation.
No condition of mind is more definitely graduated than insanity. Sam rose from his lair strong with the wasteful energy of confirmed derangement. The development of more violent phases would be a question of temperament and circumstances. From mere force of habit he glanced searchingly round the camp before starting. Besides the pile of gold on the handkerchief, he noted the head of a small American tomahawk, lying red-hot among the coals of his fire. He raked the tomahawk into a shallow pool of water; and, when cooled, placed it carefully with the gold; then he bound the parcel with many knots, and slung it on the back of his snake-hook belt. All this was done mechanically, with perhaps some nebulous appreciation of value, but without discrimination. Then he stubbornly resumed his twice-trodden route down the creek, altogether oblivious to the likelihood of another circuitous journey.
A quarter of an hour later — prompted rather by the cunning of lunacy than by legitimate caution — he forced his way down through the confusion of logs and undergrowth, to make sure the creek was there. Satisfied on this point, he resumed his difficult way; and, after another short interval, went to the trouble of repeating his verification. But now the rivulet was running in the opposite direction.
The simple fact was that each point of inspection was on a different branch of the main creek, the fatal bluff being in the junction. Both branches had their origin in the morass already described, and each found its contorted and roundabout way to the base of the bluff, the two thus enclosing an irregular island. And Sam had twice skirted the enclosed area, bearing on his left one or other of the concealed and shrunken affluents.
But now the reversal of the current brought him no enlightenment. His inductive faculties were wrecked; and only the blind, stubborn instinct of a homing animal prompted him to follow the creek downward, however the current might attempt to outwit and elude him.
He therefore crossed the trickle of water, and scrambled painfully on, still keeping the creek warily in view on his left. In another hour, even his deranged perception became cognisant, from time to time, of a certain dateless familiarity in the brief panoramic glimpses which unfolded as he struggled on — a dull recognition of physical features noted at some former time; and with this came a shapeless confidence which sustained his failing strength.
On the warm brow of a hill fronting the sun he gathered some handfulls of ripe bramble-berries, without which he would probably have collapsed. Despite his magnificent constitution, it was becoming a near thing, in every way. The sedative supplied occasionally by a few whiffs of tobacco just served as partial ballast to his staggering reason; whilst the influence of his fetish barely sustained those vital forces so harshly taxed by physical and mental stress.
When the falling of darkness made progress no longer possible, he kindled a fire and stretched himself beside it, alive only to the torture of wakefulness, and the throbbing pain of his inflamed scalp wound. Removed from the associations of his former gruesome camp, he gave little heed to the eerie shapes which watched him from every bush, and from behind every tree.
With the first grey light of dawn he resumed his way, climbing the opposing hill on his hands and knees, till the numbness passed from his swollen feet. But now the bush was more open, and the ground less steep, with slightly beaten tracks, and traces of prospecting. And just as the sun glinted on the tree-tops above, he stood on a low hill overlooking the Bagh, with his own bark hut clearly in view. It was exactly six days since he had crossed that hill on his outward trip.
(To be Concluded.)
The Western Mail (Perth, WA), 1 February 1908, p. 48
[Editor: Changed “return to th spot” to “return to the spot”, “first hint of drawn” to “first hint of dawn”, “invisiple” to “invisible”, “Gold-bye, old man” to “Good-bye, old man”, “branch or the main creek” to “branch of the main creek”, “enlightment” to “enlightenment”, “stiil keeping” to “still keeping”, “whffs” to “whiffs”.]
Also published in:
Southerly (Sydney, NSW), September 1945, pp. 19-37
J.L. Waten and V.G. O’Connor (editors), Twenty Great Australian Stories, Melbourne: Dolphin Publications, 1946
Joseph Furphy (Tom Collins), The Buln-Buln and the Brolga, and Other Stories, Adelaide (SA): Seal Books, 1971
alive = aware of, having knowledge of, interested in, seized with a recognition of something’s importance; active, alert, animated, full of emotion; active, busy, exciting
crown = the head; the top of the head; the top of a skull
filagree = an alternative form of “filigree”
handfull = an archaic spelling of “handful”
mullock = mining refuse, rubbish; dirt and stone which remains after the ore has been separated (often placed in a big pile outside of a mine, a mullock heap)
rivulet = a very small brook, creek, or stream
Sabbath-breaking = working on the Sabbath; as the Bible, in Exodus 20:8-11, designated the seventh day as a day for rest and as a holy day (interpreted as a day for the worship of God), working on that day is forbidden by conservative Christian and Jewish belief-systems
scarp = an escarpment, or steep slope
sedge = a grass-like plant with a solid three-sided stem, which grows in tufts, typically found in wet ground or near water, such as marshes; any of the grass-like plants of the family Cyperaceae (especially those of the of the genus Carex)
teraphim = idols or images, depicting human shape, believed to be depictions of revered ancestors, regarded as household gods