‘Look sharp, men!’ growled the sergeant. ‘A cross-looking chap, on a black horse, was seen hereabouts yesterday, with another man answering Gilbert Hawke’s description. If Darkie and his rider’s anywhere handy now, it will be rough work in this beastly gap. Good God! here they are. Close up, men, and defend the escort—steady—fire!’
As the word of command left the sergeant’s lips, a volley of firearms resounded, reverberating from each side of the rocky ravine, called The Gap, which we had a short time since entered. At the same time a body of nearly twenty men showed themselves from behind trees and rocks.
I awake—my dream, how rudely shattered—to a full sense of my immediate surroundings. We were attacked by bushrangers. The far-famed pass known as Eugowra Rocks had been picked for the scene of conflict.
This now celebrated spot was on the saddle of a lofty granitic range of hills which intersected our road to the metropolis. A tedious ascent led to a spot where the escort coach had just space to wind between the huge monoliths that reared themselves frowningly in our path. The locality was densely wooded. No element was wanting for our discomfiture. A long stretch of gently descending ground led to the champaign below, where the road was easy and pleasant, without hill or wood to mar the path to the farthest horizon.
We had all been looking forward to this reward of previous anxiety, yet destined never to reach it. All the men were masked and otherwise fully disguised. They had apparently lain in wait in this narrow defile. Now we knew why our progress had been barred. The tree had been felled solely for that purpose.
Our return fire was quicker than they could have calculated upon. More than one shot told. It was not the first time I had burned powder in earnest. Mr. Bright fired as fast and steadily as if he had been engaged in his favourite sport of pigeon-shooting. There was little time for observation, but I thought I recognised a figure that stole from behind a huge rock to take up a nearer position to our ill-fated equipage.
For several minutes, long enough for hours they seemed to me, the fusillade was sharply kept up on either side. And more than one smothered cry or savage oath told that our ammunition was not all wasted.
The troopers who rode behind had closed up. Throwing themselves from their horses, and taking what cover they could from the wheels and body of the vehicle, they kept their Terry rifles busy. But we fought at a disadvantage in every way. The situation had been carefully calculated. The immense boulders on either side of the gorge furnished only too complete cover for the attacking party. Trapped and surprised, we had fallen into an ambuscade laid for us only too successfully.
Debarred from opening out into skirmishing order, we were exposed to a concentrated fire from hidden enemies. They were enabled to take sure and deadly aim at us from behind their more complete defences.
But no man flinched. The troopers—one of whom was a smooth-cheeked youngster, just newly landed in Australia, who had left the paternal rectory but lately for the force, faute d’autre—loaded and fired like veterans of the Old Guard.
‘That’s Malgrade, or the devil,’ said I to Mr. Bright, ‘he that just slipped behind the rock from the tree. I know his walk, d—n him: no mask can disguise him from me.’
‘Just what I thought myself,’ said Bright; ‘let’s give it him together, the next time he shows. We ought to nail him between us.’
At the first volley two of our men had dropped, if not mortally wounded, still decidedly hors-de-combat. We could not disguise from ourselves that our chance was bad of coming out unscathed or even of successfully defending our precious freight. With every fresh volley one or other was wounded, and every moment the impossibility of long sustaining the unequal fight was felt. Neither could we retreat and carry the gold with us.
Of the good team that had pranced so gaily out of the camp gates this morning one horse lay dead, and the other, badly hit, had broken traces and bolted through the forest. One of the wheelers was unharmed, but the other had two bullets through his body, and though still on his legs was evidently suffering internal agony, as ever and again he turned his eyes plaintively on us and backward to his bleeding flank, as if mutely asking why he should be mixed up in his master’s combats.
The escort sergeant had been hit at the first discharge, as indeed had most of us, slightly or otherwise. He however, held himself straight, and not only fired rapidly himself, but kept the whole of his party well in hand, urging them not to quit cover unnecessarily, but to aim steadily and surely whenever the bushrangers exposed themselves.
‘They’ll get tired of it if we can only keep them off for another hour,’ he said. ‘I don’t think they care about coming to close quarters. We may get assistance before dark.’
It was not to be. Even as he spoke the brave fellow’s face was changing. I noticed the blood staining his blue uniform a bright crimson, where it welled from his side in heavy, quick-recurring drops.
They were the last words he ever spoke. The next moment he swayed for a moment and fell heavily to the earth. A cry of exultation at the fall of our leader rose mockingly amid the crags, and a rush still nearer was made by the masked assailants, who now exposed themselves more freely, as if sure of victory.
The man whom I took to be Malgrade stepped cautiously from behind his rock; at that moment Mr. Bright and I fired without a second’s loss of time at his left shoulder. He fell, but was dragged behind the rock by some one, apparently also concealed there, and who was a taller and broader man than any one we had as yet noticed. At the same time the whole fire of the party poured down upon us, and both Bright and I felt ourselves wounded again.
‘Only winged, I think,’ said Bright, raising his right arm. ‘Might drop out of bounds, but I don’t think they’ll bag me this time. How do you feel, Pole? where are you touched?’
‘Under the rib, and I don’t like the feel of it,’ said I. ‘I wonder if we drilled that scoundrel Malgrade, if it was him. By Jove, that young Rowan’s done.’
Two troopers lifted up the poor youngster, shot through the body and apparently dying.
‘We can do nothing by stopping here, Mr. Bright,’ said the second in command, a grizzled sun-burned senior-constable, who looked as if he had seen much service. ‘We shall all get potted and not save the gold, either; that’s what I look at. The best thing is to retreat across to that scrub alongside of Stony Pinch. I know a track down it. I don’t think they will follow us there.’
‘Leaving the ship while there’s a plank to stand on is devilishly mean work,’ said Bright, blazing away in quick succession as he spoke, ‘but I suppose we can’t do any good this time. The Sergeant stone dead, poor fellow; that youngster’s little better, and Pole here doesn’t look as if he’d hold out long. I suppose we can take the horses and retreat in good order?’
‘We can manage that,’ said the senior-constable. ‘They only want the gold, blast them; and the sooner we get the black trackers on the trail, then the sooner we shall have a chance of seeing some of it back.’
So, keeping our faces to the foe and maintaining a brisk fire, we commenced to retreat slowly, leading the unwounded horses and carrying the young trooper with us. As soon as it was seen that we had given up trying to defend the gold, no attempt was made to follow us up. Doubtless, it was thought that in our desperation we should not prove less formidable than at present.
One man only among the bushrangers had any personal animosity to gratify. This was Malgrade, if, indeed, it was as I supposed. And he had apparently received his quietus for a time. A few dropping shots followed us as we made our way slowly and with difficulty through the forest, which commenced to become more dense until it ended in a perfect thicket, or what to Australians is known as a scrub.
Here we struck after a while into a narrow, well-worn path, which led down a steep rocky defile, tortuously but distinctly. In less than a couple of miles we debouched upon a comparatively level and thickly-grassed meadow or creek flat. Here it was proposed that we should rest, while the senior-constable, who knew the country well, rode across to the nearest police station, whence the tidings could be at once sent to the Oxley, and half a hundred other headquarters. No time would be lost in setting a brace of black trackers on the trail of the robbers, who no doubt would have expended no unnecessary time in clearing out with the treasure. Assistance would, of course, be sent to us without a moment’s delay.
The trooper dashed off on the best horse of the party, within three minutes of our halt, leaving us in the gathering twilight in no very enviable position. As fast falling shades of night commenced to gather around, the darksome trees which fringed the creek, the gliding waters which murmured along its channel, the heavy hanging cliffs of the dimly outlined mountain, gained a weird and melancholy tone. Our feelings were closely in unison with the solitary scene, the closing day. They could hardly be otherwise than mournful. We had started in the morning full, if not of high hope, of that cheerful confidence in the future, which is borne of untried dangers, untempted perils. The gold which we bore with us was pleasantly connected with our tools and avocations. The day was bright, the journey little more than a pleasure excursion.
Now how darkly, how irrevocably all was changed! A dead man and dying horses lay beside the stranded carriage which had borne us forth so gaily in the morning. Stiff with our wounds, hungry, cold, and weary, our attitudes were gloomy and despairing. The pale countenance of the wounded man, streaked with blood, looked more ghastly in the flickering light of the fire which one of the others had at length lighted.
Is it a heated imagination, or are there other forms, strange shadows, gliding around the watch-fire and amid the dark-leaved water-oaks? They gather around upon the wounded man, whose laboured breathing I seem to hear with ever increasing distinctness.
‘Bright, I say, Bright! don’t let those people crowd so closely round Rowan, they will smother him. Good God! do you not hear?’
‘Your head must be going, Pole,’ said the banker seriously, who was sitting on a log smoking resignedly and watching the wounded man. ‘Come over and let me see where they touched you. Take care—’
But I hear no more. I rise and stagger blindly forward, and the blood pours from my side. I see a crowd of spectres hurrying towards me—my head swims, and my eyes are darkened as in death.
When I recovered my senses I was lying under a tree in the cool moonlight, with Bright bending anxiously over me. All was over now, it seemed to me.
How joyously had I marked the sun rise over this very mountain, as I rose from my humble couch at Yatala. And now the same orb had but set, and with it the sun of Hereward Pole’s fortune. What a satiric comment on man’s vain life and vainer hopes. All was gone. Hope and fortune. Love, gold, and life itself, and here I lay under this darksome forest tree with the life-blood fast ebbing away, and scarce a trace would be left of a wasted existence, blighted career.
Well, the news would soon reach Allerton Court; the country busy bodies would be enabled to verify their long cherished foreboding that nothing would come of my gold-seeking adventure, and that everything had turned out exactly as they expected from the very first day of the Squire’s sanction to his daughter’s ridiculous engagement.
Then I died! Can a man die more than once? Is it not a real death when the flickering senses first dwindle down to the lowest point of consciousness? Men arouse themselves as at a faintly-heard summons once more to animate the sinking frame, in pain and mutest agony, clinging with the might of despair to every last buttress of the ruined citadel. Then an appalling sense of general departure from this long accustomed mortal tenement joined with a mysterious boding horror of undefined doom. A time of coldness, numbness, deadly still-creeping paralysis over the centre of sensation—then utter darkness—extinction.
He rose quickly to his feet with a sigh of relief, remaining silent for a short space so as apparently to enable me to realise the fact that I was in a rude but neatly-furnished slab cottage, accommodated with all the comforts which a small farmhouse could furnish. Then he spoke—
‘Well, Pole, old man, you’re worth a brace of dead men yet—a near thing, though. The doctor said that a shade closer to the main artery, and you would have been gathered to your strong-minded ancestor the Legate. Now you’ve got such a good-looking, neat-handed nurse to look after you, you’re sure to come out right.’
‘What has become of the other—fellows, and—the gold?’ said I feebly. ‘Who stuck us up?’
‘Why, Frank Lardner, of course, b——t him!’ said Mr. Merlin with perhaps allowable anger. ‘We know that Wall, Gilbert Hawke, and Daly were with him, besides half a dozen other ruffians of less note. Sergeant Webber is dead and buried. Constable Rowan not expected to live. Watson has got a bullet in his hip, and will be lame for life. Bright was winged, and not much the worse for it. The gold was all taken of course, but the “wire” brought a cordon of police round them within twelve hours, and we know they can’t have got clear off with it. We have great hope of recovering the lot within a month.’
‘Thank God for that,’ I said. ‘I ought perhaps to think of my life first; but if all the gold was gone I shouldn’t think the other very valuable. And so it was Master Frank, was it, with Wall, Gilbert Hawke, and the rest? What a pity such smart fellows should have taken to the bush and commenced with such a cold-blooded murderous outrage.’
‘Pity,’ said Merlin, drawing his lips slightly back, and showing his white teeth in a way which reminded me of the jaguar aroused. ‘I’d find them pity if I saw them at the end of a half-inch line; and by —— you will see them there one day, as sure as my name’s Mainwaring Merlin. Think of poor Webber, what a fine fellow he was! I shall never get such another accountant either,’ he added reflectively. ‘By God! I could hang them with my own hands. And now I must be off. Mrs. Morton, or whatever you call her, will be here directly. I quite envy you.’
Here Mr. Merlin took himself off, and went on the war-path, which indeed he had seldom quitted by night or by day since the terrible news of the Great Escort Robbery. Tireless, pitiless, even at the highest pitch of energy and alertness in mind and body, he was a dangerous enemy for the Yedden Mountain gang, as they were called, to arouse, and so indeed they found it before all was done. Had I been strong enough to smile, I must have done so at the naïveté of his regret for poor Sergeant Webber, whose clerkly qualities, plucky and clever officer as he was in other respects, mainly endeared him to Mr. Merlin’s organising soul.
The sound of his footsteps had hardly died away when the rustle of a woman’s dress told me that the nurse of whom he spoke was approaching. Strange was it that something, even in that symbolical token of woman’s presence brought back to me a memory of the long vanished past. But I had taxed my strength too much. Falling helplessly back upon the pillow, I fainted. I had a dim, confused recollection of feeling my forehead bathed, of the tender touch of a woman’s hand passing lightly over it, of a cordial held to my lips. With a painful effort I raised my head and opened my eyes. I could hardly trust the evidence of my senses. I thought I must be wandering again, and that I fancied myself at Dibblestowe Leys; for the face which was bending over me, full of womanly tenderness, was the face of Jane Mangold.
I saw again the bright blue eyes, the soft fair hair, the delicate features of her who, before my knowledge of Ruth Allerton, had been to me the embodiment of fairest womanhood. At the first glance she seemed unchanged. Then I marked with pain the deepened lines in her face, the saddened brow, the worn anxious look, which had replaced the girlish defiant expression which I had always associated with her laughing eyes and saucy smile. The sad handwriting which the world and its pitiless warfare inscribes upon its victims was there indelibly imprinted.
‘Jane,’ I said, ‘dear Jane, are we both at the Leys again; or how do I see you here? Ah, why did you come to me?’
‘How could I help coming to nurse you, when I heard you were dying?’ she said. ‘Have you not been a friend—a brother to me? Have you not saved me from what is worse than death? And am I to do nothing for you to show my gratitude? Mr. Merlin told me your life might depend upon careful nursing.’
All this she uttered in her old quiet way of speaking when anything moved her more than common. Once more vividly real, under the shadow of death. How the old life career came back to me.
‘But, Jane,’ I said, ‘people, will talk, and you know at Yatala it does not take long——’
‘If I am to be the cause of shame and disgrace to you, I will go away and hide my wretched self the moment you have recovered from your wound. It shall never be said that I helped to harm you—you who have been better than a brother; but the doctor says, even now, that you may not get over it. And I thought that she, that Miss Allerton, might be glad to know that a friendly hand, even if it was poor Jane Mangold’s, helped to do what only a woman can for man at the last.’ Here she buried her head in her hands and wept unrestrainedly.
‘You are right, Jane,’ I said, ‘and I will answer for my dearest Ruth, that she will be grateful to you, if I see her face no more, for smoothing my pillow before the last sleep. We have always been friends, why should we not be true to each other to the last? Let us keep faith with ourselves and the absent, and the world may say it’s say.’
She raised herself and looked wistfully at me.
‘I only know that I should be glad if I were in her place,’ said she, ‘and would thank on my knees any one that did for my lover what I will do for you in your hour of need.’
Here I could no longer support the fatigue of conversation and, for a space, again ‘effaced myself.’