The girl made a flickering effort to appear calm and collected and then relapsed into her previous expression of deepest gloom; while—how piteous to look upon—the sick man tried to rouse her, and actually forced her with tremulous fingers to take the bouquet into hers, clay-cold and unresisting as they were.
‘What’s the meaning of all this?’ said I to our guide, who sat carelessly watching the proceedings with rather a satisfied expression.
‘Well, you see, poor old Jim here, his wife—that’s his first one—and he didn’t hit it over and above well, and many a year ago in Victoria she made a bolt of it. All the boys tell me that it was her fault and not Jim’s.’
‘And so I suppose he takes up with this pretty young woman when he came on to the rush here, and they were not able to get married before.’
‘That’s about the size of it, Mr. Pole. This gal, she was the daughter of one of the selectors at Blue Gum Flats, and about two years ago she and Jim made it up to be man and wife, like. You remember what an upstanding good-looking chap he were.’
‘Yes, indeed, he was. It’s a sad change to see him like this.’
‘Well, his time’s up. A man must go when his time comes; he ain’t had a bad innings, but he used to fret awful at times when he thought as Bessy wasn’t his wife. Now it’s all right, and he’ll die happy.’
‘But how can he legally marry her if his wife—’
‘Bless your heart, why he only got the news of his wife’s death last week, and the moment he heard of it he orders the wedding dress, and the earrings, the brooch, and the bo-kay all regular, and sends me for the Registrator directly they come by “coach-parcel.”’
The strangely environed marriage ceremony concluded, the new-made bride hid her face in her hands and retired into the inner room. The dying man lay back for a few moments, the strain upon his faculties having apparently utterly exhausted his failing strength. Bill lit his pipe, and seating himself by the fire seemed lost in meditation.
We prepared for our homeward ride, our horses being only hung up to the nearest fence, a practice to which they were well accustomed.
Suddenly the sick man raised himself.
‘Bill,’ he said, in a husky weak voice, ‘come here.’
‘All right, Jim, old man,’ said the other, knocking the ashes out of his pipe, ‘what is it?’
‘You don’t want another ride into camp to-morrow, do you?’
‘Well, not particular. I’m on the day shift, too, and it’s rather tidy work putting in them setts. The ground’s none too good and won’t bear playin’ with.’
‘Well, as Mr. Bagstock’s here, and this job’s over, he might as well do the other one, and finish this register business right away.’
‘What other business, Jim?’ said his mate in a low voice, while Bagstock looked from one to the other as if the mysteries of the night were never to cease.
‘Why, you’ll have to register my death, won’t you?’ pursued the sick man, fixing his unnaturally large fever-bright eyes upon us, ‘and why not do it now? I shall be as dead a man by this time to-morrow as ever was stretched, and wot’s the use of dragging poor Bill in and losing another shift in the claim? He told Lovett yesterday to have the coffin ready, so there’s no call to waste a day over that.’
‘Good God!’ said Mr. Bagstock, ‘who ever heard of s-s-such a thing, r-r-registering a man’s d-d-eath when he’s alive.’
‘What’s the odds?’ queried the persistent moribund wearily. ‘It’s twenty mile there and back to the camp. As for dying, I’ve seen too many chaps go under with this blamed colonial fever or typho not to know the stages. When a man’s like I’ve been all to-day he never sees another sunset. So just fix it up, Mr. Bagstock, and oblige all parties, will ye?’
Mr. Bagstock, during his short residence in the colonies, and moreover at the diggings, had rubbed off many of his British prejudices; but this request so transcended in its ghastly significance all his previous experiences, so contravened all his notions of the fitness of things, that he was on the point of flatly refusing when he caught the warning eye of the dying miner’s mate. He whispered—
‘Don’t cross him, sir, he was allays the most obstinate cove out. It might do him a mischief to be disappointed, like.’
The sick man had again relapsed into a death-like stupor, but the strong calm spirit again rallied the fainting flesh—trembling as it seemed on the dread margin of eternity. He read in the official’s eyes his request was granted, and then repeated for Bagstock’s information, who took down the items in a large official-looking paper ruled and marked in spaces, the required details. It was soon over.
‘It’s the biggest day’s work I’ve done this weeks,’ said the sick man. ‘I’m thankful to you, Mr. Bagstock, and to you, Harry Pole, for coming with him this perishin’ night and keeping us company, like. Poor Bess is Mrs. James Bellinger now, and no man nor woman on the field can throw it up to her as she ain’t. I shall die happy, though I never ciphered it out as I was to die on my weddin’ day. Good-night and good-bye! for it’s the long good-bye I’m thinking, and no get away this time.’
We shook the wasted hand of the doomed man, said a natural word of kindly farewell, departed for the world of light and life and strength and pleasure, where in a few hours all beneath the sun would still be strong and beauteous in heaped-up prodigality, and left the lonely bark to push off in the dread and awful hush of midnight on the dark waters of the shoreless ocean of eternity.
The moon had arisen, and by her silver light we rode slowly and silently forth along the lonely road that led from the little mining hamlet to the gold city. Our thoughts were full of the strong brave soul which was passing away fearless and unshrinking from the dread summons that was even now reverberating in his ears, careful in that supreme hour but for others, loyal in the very extremity of the weakness of the flesh to friendship and to love.
‘I was t-t-told,’ said Mr. Bagstock musingly, after a protracted silence, ‘that I should see some s-s-strange people on the d-d-diggings. There never w-w-was a truer word s-s-spoken.’
And he relapsed into a silence which lasted till we reached the camp. At that citadel all were still up, and unusual excitement prevailed. A telegram had come up to Mr. Merlin at a late hour which evidently was of importance; his manly brow was overclouded, and his utterances were more curt, not to say aggressive, than ever.
‘What’s the matter with you, Merlin?’ said Bright. ‘Bilious as usual, or is there any news about those confounded bush-rangers that seem to be always just out of reach, like crows when a fellow has a gun.’
‘Read that!’ said the inspector, throwing over the modern messenger of fate. ‘Isn’t it enough to make a man curse the day he was born? There, I’ve just sent away all my best men, besides Sir Watkyn, and now I haven’t a tracker that could follow a working bullock over a ploughed field.’
Mr. Bright read out the telegram—
|‘Ben Wall, supposed to have stolen Grey Surrey out of Bowdler’s stables last night, has been tracked through Forbes towards Jones’s sheep station. Horse has a broken hind shoe.’|
‘The best chance I’ve had since they’ve turned out; and to think that it should be upset by such a casual accident. I was half a mind to keep the men yesterday. I knew it was a wild-goose chase. Well, sergeant, what is it?’
For that worthy officer, with cheerful visage, appeared in the doorway, and having duly saluted thus spoke—
‘The men are back, sir, and Sir Watkyn the tracker with them.’
‘Thank God for that!’ said Merlin with unwonted piety. ‘Is he sober?’
‘Sober as a judge, sir.’
‘How did they change route then without fresh orders?’ said he sternly—for no deviation from the strictest discipline was suffered.
‘They got a telegram from Sergeant Redmond about Ben Wall having been seen near Forbes. They afterwards met a man in a certain place, after which Senior-constable Evans acted on his own responsibility. Here’s a letter, sir.’
‘By Jove! we have him then,’ cried out Merlin, ‘unless the devil gives him better cards than usual. Have the horses fed. Lock up that fellow, Sir Watkyn, and have the men ready to start in an hour.’
The sergeant saluted and withdrew.
‘The luck is changed, and the red hazard is coming up again,’ pursued Merlin, with a gambler’s joyous exultation. ‘I see it all plainly. We shall have Mr. Ben as safe as a dingo in a dog-trap.’
‘How’s that?’ I said; ‘there have been so many false alarms.’
‘It’s all right this time,’ said the inspector, opening his revolver case. ‘The reward is a large one, and our friend has been “given away” at last by one of his precious pals. The worst of it is that we shall have to watch all the rest of this cursed cold night around a deserted hut in the ranges, and with the cold I’ve got I’m as likely to be a dead man as Ben is next morning. However, vogue la galère.’
While divers plans in the council of war were being discussed, Mr. Bright, after deep thought, contributed a suggestion.
‘I can’t go with you myself, Merlin, though I’d like to do it of all things, because it happens to be our quarterly balance day to-morrow, and though the General stands a good deal from me, I don’t think he’d stand that. But I’ll tell you what I’ll do—I’ll lend you my breechloader.’
‘Sorry we’re not to have the support of your presence, my dear fellow,’ said Merlin with much politeness, ‘but we’re not going duck-shooting.’
‘Nonsense. I tell you I’m serious. I wish to heaven I could have a steady pot at that fellow Ben Wall or Frank Lardner after the rascally way they took a sitting shot at us. But what I mean is this—’ here his manner assumed an unwonted earnestness.
‘Well, what is it? Unburden yourself of this dark and dreadful secret.’
‘Now, you listen to me, Merlin.’ Here Mr. Bright laid his hand upon the sub-inspector’s arm, and in a deeply impressive voice spoke as follows: ‘You take my advice—use a smooth bore and green cartridge; it’s out and out the best business when you mean close shooting at anything under a hundred yards. Revolvers, I know by experience, are most uncertain, though, perhaps, as I should have been a dead man twice over if they had always been held straight, I oughtn’t to complain.’
‘Well, well, old fellow!’ said Merlin, actually smiling and exhibiting a rare amiability, ‘I don’t know whether I won’t take your advice for once. We’ve had such bad luck lately with this gang that I feel ready to do anything to change it.’
‘I must say I can’t congratulate you or your men on your success in stalking or shooting either,’ said Blake; ‘the civilians are having quite the best of it.’
‘How’s that?’ demanded the inspector fiercely, looking up from his weapons.
‘Why, you know that Campbell of Goimbla shot Daly, and Keightly shot O’Rourke. Lardner’s out of the colony apparently. Gilbert Hawke’s flown away too, so if you want to make an imperishable name for yourself, you must come back with Ben Wall’s scalp at your saddle-bow to-morrow.’
‘D—n Ben Wall, and you too!’ said Merlin, roused to unusual fervour by these taunts. ‘Sergeant!’ he roared, ‘are the men never going to mount. By —— I’ll break the senior-constable if my orders are not better carried out. There’s no discipline, no decent punctuality of any kind on this infernal goldfield. I wish the devil had flown away with the first man that washed a dish of dirt on the Turon. Bright, where’s that gun?’
‘Here it is; and half a dozen cartridges.’
‘Two will be enough,’ growled Merlin, grinding his teeth; ‘if I miss that infernal scoundrel after having to watch his damnable hiding-place in such weather as this, I wish my arm may rot to the shoulder blade. Good-night!’
‘Take me with you,’ said I, ‘I owe Master Ben a turn, and this is as good a chance as I shall get. May I go?’
‘You may go to the devil—that is, with pleasure, my dear boy,’ with difficulty recovering his affability. ‘Look alive and have your horse brought out. But you’re half knocked up already.’
‘I shall be all right when the shooting begins,’ I said.
The night was now intensely dark—‘the moonbeams broke and deepest night came down upon the heath’—bitterly cold, wet under foot, wet overhead, as we left the camp without beat of drum.
Well clothed and warmly wrapped up as we were, after the first mile the frost seemed to strike through all to the very marrow. No sound was heard but the occasional jingle of stirrup-iron or bridle bit, as the horses slipped and stumbled; indeed, more than one fell in the perilous, rough cross-country tracks we were compelled to follow. More than one of the troopers was well acquainted with the locality, and could have ridden it like William of Deloraine—of whom the Last Minstrel’s Lay avers—
‘Alike to him was time or tide,|
December’s snow, or July’s pride;
Alike to him was tide or time,
Moonless midnight, or matin prime.’
Still, between roaring torrents, abandoned shafts, black forest-arches where no ray of starlight penetrated, and dismal water-logged flats, where only the marsh-frogs made chorus, and the night-owl hooted, we should, it appeared to me, have made but indifferent progress but for the aid and leadership of the black tracker, Sir Watkyn, whose sobriety had been so anxiously inquired into.
This distinguished heathen was certainly on this occasion ‘the right man in the right place.’ Being commanded to take the lead at starting by Mr. Merlin, and to look alive and keep a straight track, as if it were the easiest thing in the world, Sir Watkyn rammed the spurs into his charger, and rode as straight ’o’er moor and fell, through wood and wold’ as if he had a private understanding with the north star. Wonderful, indeed, is it that he and his kindred still possess this power, so often denied to the over-civilised individuals of the imperial race, of passing with unerring accuracy from point to point of the trackless wilderness, by night too even as by day.
Blindly and persistently we followed him, since better might not be. We rode in Indian file, the troopers and I in the rear, sleepy and over-fatigued, taking it for granted that we should reach some place or other eventually. It was, perhaps, hardest upon Merlin, whose cough, impossible of repression, sounded ever and anon in the most hollow churchyard-like manner as the icy dampness of the air irritated his bronchial passages. But no consideration could be extended to the personal circumstances of individuals, until the robber-gang was stamped out. To their extermination the Government of New South Wales was pledged, and no detail or exertion was omitted which gave hope of successful capture. Many a trooper, and not a few of the subalterns of the force, dated the commencement of fatal chest ailments to the ceaseless watches and night marches rendered necessary by the prevalence of robbery under arms in the terrible winter of 186—.
It was long past midnight, and for all I knew to the contrary we might have been heading straight for Sydney, when our sable guide reined up short on the top of a flint-bestrewn range, where the corrugated stems of the great ironbark trees stood black and columnar against the ashen sky, sombrely regular, as though they had been fashioned from the metal itself.
Merlin and the senior-constable rode at once to his side. He pointed to a small open space below, dimly visible, as the heavens had cleared since midnight, and the stars commenced to make the contrasts of earth and sky faintly visible.
‘You see um Sheep-station Flat,’ he said, pointing downwards, while his teeth chattered like castanets with the cold.
‘D—d if I do,’ said Merlin, ‘but what then?’
‘Sam Towney’s hut long o’ that flat, that old lambing station. That fellow, Ben Wall, sit down long a that one hut, then Sam bring him tucker to-morrow morning.’
‘We’ll bring him something for breakfast too, eh?’ replied Merlin with grim humour. ‘But you’re a sharp boy, Sir Watkyn, to bring us so straight; sober to a fault I see, too. Well, virtue must be rewarded. Give me that “tot” that I see tied to your saddle.’
Even in the dim light I could see the swarth face lighten up, with flash of eyes and teeth, as Mr. Merlin produced a capacious flask of spirits, from which he administered to the guide a carefully graduated dram, handing the flask also to the senior-constable and me, partaking moderately himself, and then sharing the remainder among the men.
‘Now, our plan is, Pole, to lie quiet and surround the place till daylight Master Ben’s horse must be tied up or hobbled near the hut. He can’t have him in the house with him. When he comes out we must drop him, unless the devil, who certainly has befriended him hitherto, comes to his assistance in person.’
The necessary orders were briefly given. Merlin, myself, Sir Watkyn, and one trooper were to spread around the front of the hut, taking such cover as the place afforded. The senior-constable and two other troopers were to take up their position at the rear. The horses were to be left where we stood, all tied up by their cavalry headstalls, with a couple of men who sotto voce cursed their luck to take charge of them.
Led onwards again by the swarth scout, who crept along sinuously adown the spur of the range, we silently and cautiously took up our positions within about fifty yards of a dismal deserted-looking slab hut with four sheets of bark off the roof and a chimney which was all awry. Immediately at the rear of the building was a thick scrub, one of those timber covers in which a desperate active man on a good horse might foil even a band of Comanche Indians let alone ordinary police troopers.
‘S—t,’ sibilated our guide, ‘me see um two horse, one fellow gray horse, one fellow bay, like it short hobbles.’
‘That’ll do, very good boy, but hold your row and lie down,’ said Merlin. ‘That’s Mr. Bowdler’s Surrey; the game’s netted. All we have to do is to wait till he runs into the decoy.’
The black dropped on the earth, and straightway became invisible after the manner of his kind, while we waited more or less impatiently for the tardy dawn which was to rise for the last time on the outlaw’s career, or to add another to the list of mortifying failures.
For myself, I had no great natural inclination to the trade of robber-hunting. I could not help feeling some qualms of pity for the human quarry, who in the prime of early manhood was presently to be shot down like a beast of prey, or if captured reserved only for an ignominious death. It needed all my recollection of the cold-blooded attempt upon the lives as well as on the gold of others, in both of which departments I had suffered loss and injury almost unto death, to harden my spirit to the proper pitch of pitiless resolution.
Wearily the hours passed. Stiff and sore, cold and well-nigh frozen was I, were we all. We could hear every faint sound of the forest; the cry of the night-bird, the rustle of the phalangers and the smaller marsupials as they glided through the wiry frozen grass or climbed the clear stems of the eucalypti.
We could hear the ripple of the tiny brooklet, its existence mainly due to the late extraordinary rainfall. Gradually in spite of my watchfulness a kind of drowsiness came stealing over me, just as the first dim gray streaks of dawn were visible in the east—the east that was so long of becoming illumined with the day-god’s fateful ray.
Near me, however, at that moment an opossum commenced to make his curious half-chattering, half-mournful sound. This unseasonable outcry became so persistent that both Merlin and I, who were near each other in the night watch, were effectually aroused. Indeed, the creature became so riotously and aggressively noisy that I kept looking up first one and then another of the white stemmed gums that were thinly scattered over the flat, having completely banished the drowsy feeling which had commenced to steal over me.
Merlin also was apparently disturbed, for he moved nearer to me and peevishly devoted the obtrusive performer to the infernal deities. As if the creature comprehended the uncomplimentary terms in which he had been referred to, the noise suddenly ceased. And as the sound died away I saw by Merlin’s sudden alteration of attitude that something had attracted his attention.
I looked towards the hut. Midway between it and the trees behind which we stood came a man walking slowly and heedfully, as if seeking for something near and well known which had not yet come within his sphere of vision. His dress, which was certainly of a dull grayish material, with a poncho over all, was so thoroughly in harmony with the neutral tints of the sky, herbage, and the struggling light, that he had actually quitted the hut and approached our position unnoticed.
But for our being accidentally aroused by the opossum, it is far from improbable that he would have passed our section of the cordon unchallenged.