The Lost Child
Remember? Yes, I remember well that time when the disagreement arose
between Sam Buckley and Cecil, and how it was mended. You are wrong
about one thing, General; no words ever passed between those two young
men; death was between them before they had time to speak.
I will tell you the real story, old as I am, as well as either of them
could tell it for themselves; and as I tell it I hear the familiar roar
of the old snowy river in my ears, and if I shut my eyes I can see the
great mountain, Lanyngerin, bending down his head like a thoroughbred
horse with a curb in his mouth; I can see the long gray plains, broken
with the outlines of the solitary volcanoes Widderin and Monmot. Ah,
General Halbert! I will go back there next year, for I am tired of
England, and I will leave my bones there; I am getting old, and I want
peace, as I had it in Australia. As for the story you speak of, it is
Four or five miles up the river from Garoopna stood a solitary hut,
sheltered by a lofty, bare knoll, round which the great river chafed
among the bowlders. Across the stream was the forest sloping down in
pleasant glades from the mountain; and behind the hut rose the plain
four or five hundred feet overhead, seeming to be held aloft by the
blue-stone columns which rose from the river-side.
In this cottage resided a shepherd, his wife, and one little boy, their
son, about eight years old,—a strange, wild, little bush child, able to
speak articulately, but utterly without knowledge or experience of human
creatures, save of his father and mother; unable to read a line; without
religion of any sort or kind; as entire a little savage, in fact, as you
could find in the worst den in your city, morally speaking, and yet
beautiful to look on; as active as a roe, and, with regard to natural
objects, as fearless as a lion.
As yet unfit to begin labor, all the long summer he would wander about
the river-bank, up and down the beautiful rock-walled paradise where he
was confined, sometimes looking eagerly across the water at the waving
forest boughs, and fancying he could see other children far up the
vistas beckoning to him to cross and play in that merry land of shifting
lights and shadows.
It grew quite into a passion with the little man to get across and play
there; and one day when his mother was shifting the hurdles, and he was
handing her the strips of green hide which bound them together, he said
to her, "Mother, what country is that across the river?"
"The forest, child."
"There's plenty of quantongs over there, eh, mother, and raspberries?
Why mayn't I get across and play there?"
"The river is too deep, child, and the Bunyip lives in the water under
"Who are the children that play across there?"
"Black children, likely."
"No white children?"
"Pixies; don't go near 'em, child; they'll lure you on, Lord knows where.
Don't get trying to cross the river, now, or you'll be drowned."
But next day the passion was stronger on him than ever. Quite early on
the glorious, cloudless, midsummer day he was down by the river-side,
sitting on a rock, with his shoes and stockings off, paddling his feet
in the clear tepid water, and watching the million fish in the
shallows—black fish and grayling—leaping and flashing in the sun.
There is no pleasure that I have ever experienced like a child's
midsummer holiday,—the time, I mean, when two or three of us used to go
away up the brook, and take our dinners with us, and come home at night
tired, dirty, happy, scratched beyond recognition, with a great nosegay,
three little trout, and one shoe, the other having been used for a boat
till it had gone down with all hands out of soundings. How poor our
Derby days, our Greenwich dinners, our evening parties, where there are
plenty of nice girls, are, after that! Depend on it, a man never
experiences such pleasure or grief after fourteen as he does
before,—unless in some cases in his first love-making, when the
sensation is new to him.
But meanwhile there sat our child, bare-legged, watching the forbidden
ground beyond the river. A fresh breeze was moving the trees and making
the whole a dazzling mass of shifting light and shadow. He sat so still
that a glorious violet and red kingfisher perched quite close, and,
dashing into the water, came forth with a fish, and fled like a ray of
light along the winding of the river. A colony of little shell parrots,
too, crowded on a bough, and twittered and ran to and fro quite busily,
as though they said to him, "We don't mind you, my dear; you are quite
one of us."
Never was the river so low. He stepped in; it scarcely reached his ankle.
Now surely he might get across. He stripped himself, and, carrying his
clothes, waded through, the water never reaching his middle, all across
the long, yellow, gravelly shallow. And there he stood, naked and free,
on the forbidden ground.
He quickly dressed himself, and began examining his new kingdom, rich
beyond his utmost hopes. Such quantongs, such raspberries, surpassing
imagination; and when tired of them, such fern boughs, six or eight feet
long! He would penetrate this region, and see how far it extended.
What tales he would have for his father to-night! He would bring him
here, and show him all the wonders, and perhaps he would build a new hut
over here, and come and live in it? Perhaps the pretty young lady, with
the feathers in her hat, lived somewhere here, too?
There! There is one of those children he has seen before across the
river. Ah! ah! it is not a child at all, but a pretty gray beast with
big ears. A kangaroo, my lad; he won't play with you, but skips away
slowly, and leaves you alone.
There is something like the gleam of water on that rock. A snake! Now a
sounding rush through the wood, and a passing shadow. An eagle! He
brushes so close to the child, that he strikes at the bird with a stick,
and then watches him as he shoots up like a rocket and, measuring the
fields of air in ever-widening circles, hangs like a motionless speck
upon the sky; though, measure his wings across, and you will find he is
nearer fifteen feet than fourteen.
Here is a prize, though! A wee little native bear, barely a foot
long,—a little gray beast, comical beyond expression, with broad
flapped ears,—sits on a tree within reach. He makes no resistance, but
cuddles into the child's bosom, and eats a leaf as they go along; while
his mother sits aloft and grunts indignant at the abstraction of her
offspring, but on the whole takes it pretty comfortably, and goes on
with her dinner of peppermint leaves.
What a short day it has been! Here is the sun getting low, and the
magpies and jackasses beginning to tune up before roosting.
He would turn and go back to the river. Alas! which way?
He was lost in the bush. He turned back and went, as he thought, the way
he had come, but soon arrived at a tall, precipitous cliff, which by
some infernal magic seemed to have got between him and the river. Then
he broke down, and that strange madness came on him, which comes even on
strong men, when lost in the forest—a despair, a confusion of intellect,
which has cost many a man his life. Think what it must be with a child!
He was fully persuaded that the cliff was between him and home, and that
he must climb it. Alas! every step he took aloft carried him further
from the river, and the hope of safety; and when he came to the top,
just at dark, he saw nothing but cliff after cliff, range after range,
all around him. He had been wandering through steep gullies all day
unconsciously, and had penetrated far into the mountains. Night was
coming down, still and crystal clear, and the poor little lad was far
away from help or hope, going his last long journey alone.
Partly perhaps walking, and partly sitting down and weeping, he got
through the night; and when the solemn morning came up, again he was
still tottering along the leading range, bewildered, crying from time to
time, "Mother, mother!" still nursing his little bear, his only
companion, to his bosom, and holding still in his hand a few poor
flowers he had gathered up the day before. Up and on all day, and at
evening, passing out of the great zone of timber, he came on the bald,
thunder-smitten summit ridge, where one ruined tree held up its skeleton
arms against the sunset, and the wind came keen and frosty. So, with
failing, feeble legs, upward still, toward the region of the granite and
the snow; toward the eyry of the kite and the eagle.
* * * * *
Brisk as they all were at Garoopna, none were so brisk as Cecil and Sam.
Charles Hawker wanted to come with them, but Sam asked him to go with
Jim, and, long before the others were ready, our two had strapped their
blankets to their saddles, and followed by Sam's dog Rover, now getting
a little gray about the nose, cantered off up the river.
Neither spoke at first. They knew what a solemn task they had before
them; and, while acting as though everything depended on speed, guessed
well that their search was only for a little corpse, which, if they had
luck, they would find stiff and cold under some tree or crag.
Cecil began: "Sam, depend on it, that child has crossed the river to
this side. If he had been on the plains, he would have been seen from a
distance in a few hours."
"I quite agree," said Sam. "Let us go down on this side till we are
opposite the hut, and search for marks by the river-side."
So they agreed, and in half an hour were opposite the hut, and, riding
across to it to ask a few questions, found the poor mother sitting on
the doorstep, with her apron over her head, rocking herself to and fro.
"We have come to help you, mistress," said Sam. "How do you think he is
She said, with frequent bursts of grief, that "some days before he had
mentioned having seen white children across the water, who beckoned him
to cross and play; that she, knowing well that they were fairies, or
perhaps worse, had warned him solemnly not to mind them; but that she
had very little doubt that they had helped him over and carried him away
to the forest; and that her husband would not believe in his having
crossed the river."
"Why, it is not knee-deep across the shallow," said Cecil.
"Let us cross again," said Sam; "he may be drowned, but I don't think
In a quarter of an hour from starting, they found, slightly up the
stream, one of the child's socks, which in his hurry to dress he had
forgotten. Here brave Rover took up the trail like a bloodhound, and
before evening stopped at the foot of a lofty cliff.
"Can he have gone up here?" said Sam, as they were brought up by the
"Most likely," said Cecil. "Lost children always climb from height to
height. I have heard it often remarked by old bush hands. Why they do so,
God, who leads them, only knows; but the fact is beyond denial. Ask
Rover what he thinks."
The brave old dog was half-way up, looking back for them. It took them
nearly till dark to get their horses up; and, as there was no moon, and
the way was getting perilous, they determined to camp, and start again
in the morning.
They spread their blankets, and lay down side by side. Sam had thought,
from Cecil's proposing to come with him in preference to the others,
that he would speak of a subject nearly concerning them both; out Cecil
went off to sleep and made no sign; and Sam, ere he dozed, said to
himself, "If he doesn't speak this journey, I will. It is unbearable
that we should not come to some understanding. Poor Cecil!"
At early dawn they caught up their horses, which had been hobbled with
the stirrup leathers, and started afresh. Both were more silent than
ever, and the dog, with his nose to the ground, led them slowly along
the rocky rib of the mountain, ever going higher and higher.
"It is inconceivable," said Sam, "that the poor child can have come up
here. There is Tuckerimbid close to our right, five thousand feet above
the river. Don't you think we must be mistaken?"
"The dog disagrees with you," said Cecil. "He has something before him,
not very far off. Watch him."
The trees had become dwarfed and scattered; they were getting out of the
region of trees; the real forest zone was now below them, and they saw
they were emerging toward a bald elevated down, and that a few hundred
yards before them was a dead tree, on the highest branch of which sat an
"The dog has stopped," said Cecil; "the end is near."
"See," said Sam, "there is a handkerchief under the tree."
"That is the boy himself," said Cecil.
They were up to him and off in a moment. There he lay dead and stiff,
one hand still grasping the flowers he had gathered on his last happy
play-day, and the other laid as a pillow between the soft cold cheek and
the rough cold stone. His midsummer holiday was over, his long journey
was ended. He had found out at last what lay beyond the shining river he
had watched so long.
That is the whole story, General Halbert; and who should know it better
than I, Geoffry Hamlyn?