At eight o’clock prayers were read as usual, the lamps were extinguished, and all retired to rest.
When every one was asleep, Hobson and Long crept cautiously across the large room and gained the passage, where they found Mrs Barnett, who wished to press their hands once more.
“Till to-morrow,” she said to the Lieutenant.
“Yes,” replied Hobson, “to-morrow, madam, without fail.”
“But if you are delayed?”
“You must wait patiently for us,” replied the Lieutenant, “for if in examining the southern horizon we should see a fire, which is not unlikely this dark night, we should know that we were near the coasts of New Georgia, and then it would be desirable for me to ascertain our position by daylight. In fact, we may be away forty eight hours. If, however, we can get to Cape Michael before midnight, we shall be back at the fort to-morrow evening. So wait patiently, madam, and believe that we shall incur no unnecessary risk.”
“But,” added the lady, “suppose you don’t get back to morrow, suppose you are away more than two days?”
“Then we shall not return at all,” replied Hobson simply.
The door was opened, Mrs Barnett closed it behind the Lieutenant and his companion and went back to her own room, where Madge awaited her, feeling anxious and thoughtful.
Hobson and Long made their way across the inner court through a whirlwind which nearly knocked them down; but clinging to each other, and leaning on their iron-bound staffs, they reached the postern gates, and set out [beween] between the hills and the eastern bank of the lagoon.
A faint twilight enabled them to see their way. The moon, which was new the night before, would not appear above the horizon, and there was nothing to lessen the gloom of the darkness, which would, however, last but a few hours longer.
The wind and rain were as violent as ever. The Lieutenant and his companion wore impervious boots and water-proof cloaks well pulled in at the waist, and the hood completely covering their heads. Thus protected they got along at a rapid pace, for the wind was behind them, and sometimes drove them on rather faster than they cared to go. Talking was quite out of the question, and they did not attempt it, for they were deafened by the hurricane, and out of breath with the buffeting they received.
Hobson did not mean to follow the coast, the windings of which would have taken him a long way round, and have brought him face to face with the wind, which swept over the sea with nothing to break its fury. His idea was to cut across in a straight line from Cape Bathurst to Cape Michael, and he was provided with a pocket compass with which to ascertain his bearings. He hoped by this means to cross the ten or eleven miles between him and his goal, just before the twilight faded and gave place to the two hours of real darkness.
Bent almost double, with rounded shoulders and stooping heads, the two pressed on. As long as they kept near the lake they did not meet the gale full face, the little hills crowned with trees afforded them some protection, the wind howled fearfully as it bent and distorted the branches, almost tearing the trunks up by the roots; but it partly exhausted its strength, and even the rain when it reached the explorers was converted into impalpable mist, so that for about four miles they did not suffer half as much as they expected to.
But when they reached the southern skirts of the wood, where the hills disappeared, and there were neither trees nor rising ground, the wind swept along with awful force, and involuntarily they paused for a moment. They were still six miles from Cape Michael.
“We are going to have a bad time of it,” shouted Lieutenant Hobson in the Sergeant’s ear.
“Yes, the wind and rain will conspire to give us a good beating,” answered Long.
“I am afraid that now and then we shall have hail as well,” added Hobson.
“It won’t be as deadly as grape-shot,” replied Long coolly, “and we have both been through that, and so forwards!”
“Forwards, my brave comrade!”
It was then ten o’clock. The twilight was fading away, dying as if drowned in the mists or quenched by the wind and the rain.