I spurred on my horse as the creatures gained on me. I cursed my stupidity as my horse flew through the scrub, almost unseating me as he jumped fallen trees and swerved to avoid scarcely seen acacia bushes. If I hadn’t been so impatient, I would have spent the night in Brewarrina, but I had been traveling for months by this time and the thought that my final destination was but fifteen miles away gave rise to my daring.
Not that I was a daring man by nature. Exactly the opposite, in fact, although I had undertaken the journey from Surrey in England to what they called the outback of Australia. I was more than five hundred miles to the northwest of Sydney, close to the Queensland border, to escape the opprobrium of my father. I was the youngest of three sons and two daughters and the biggest disappointment of the clan.
Traditionally the youngest son, who had no expectations of inheriting either title or property, opted for a career in the church. My brothers had, as expected, gone into politics and the other into the military. But I had no inclination, though I was of a bookish nature—another major disappointment to my outgoing and physically active father—toward a career at the behest of a supreme being that I could neither worship nor even believe in. That was more than a disappointment to my family; that was a scandal.
Perhaps the creatures pursuing me were a punishment from God. I rejected that idea immediately. Nevertheless I was terrified. I was in a new land, and who knew what strange creatures lurked there. The land was much explored, I knew, but there were many in nature itself that remained to be named and catalogued. And a country that had given birth to the weird platypus and the kangaroo had also given birth to the creatures that were pursuing me. I knew not what their provenance was, which made me more fearful, and I could not see them clearly, so I could not confront them or my fears. They were playing with me like a lion plays with its prey before tearing it to pieces.
The ghost lights first appeared hovering above the horizon. But they followed me and sped up as I increased my speed. I turned to confront them as they sped toward me. I held the reins tight lest the horse get skittish, but he reacted as if they did not exist. Even as they catapulted toward us and I drew my pistol to scare them off, my horse ignored them and was startled only by the discharge of my gun when I thought the ghost lights were too near. It scared them, and they disappeared.
Perhaps they were part of my fevered imagination, because it had indeed been fevered since I had first met Robert Cruikshank. That fateful meeting, as I now thought upon it. The man I loved, though I had never had a chance to reveal my feelings for him. A man I had traveled halfway around the world to be with, a man who had never promised me anything but friendship. Now I was scared out of my wits by phantoms.
I was in this situation because months earlier, I had read in a London newspaper of a position as teacher and companion to the young sons and daughter of an Australian grazier which paid handsomely, although the advertisement had spelled out honestly but to its own detriment the promise of hardship and loneliness. That the position was on the opposite side of the world from my torment appealed to me, and I wrote off immediately, little expecting anything other than a curt rejection. My credentials were meager and my expectations even less so.
I was surprised when I received, long after I had expected even the courtesy of a rejection, a summons to London to meet the grazier who was then in the country on business. I had traveled up by train and taken great care with my clothes and my toilet. I had heard rumors of the coarse manners of these antipodeans, so I was very surprised to be met at the rather expensive hotel in Regent Street by a man of some stature and elegance. Robert Cruikshank did not look the rough man of the land that I had expected, except that his face was brown from exposure to the sun and his body much stockier and more muscular than English men of my acquaintance. He stood at over six feet, a good three inches taller than myself. His hands, admittedly, were callused and his fingernails chipped, but his manners came as a pleasant surprise. I’m not a snob by any means, but I was secretly pleased to see that here was a man of some breeding.
He opened the door to his suite himself and apologized at the lack of formality. I immediately liked the style of him. Excessive formality has always been a bugbear of mine and I told him so. He had no servants with him and had the sleeves of his shirt rolled up and the top buttons near his neck unfastened to reveal a brush of dark hair across his chest. I had caught him unawares, he had been so engrossed in some business or the other, and after begging my pardon, he withdrew to dress. On his return he sought my permission to take notes of our meeting as a reminder, as he had seen upwards of a dozen applicants. He told me he had sifted through the chaff applicants before narrowing it down to the dozen he had seen and that I was his final interview.