The Miner’s Right

Chapter XXIX

Rolf Boldrewood

AFTER A WHILE he commenced to pace restlessly up and down the room, studiously avoiding the corner where the awful spectre (as to his disordered mind it appeared) sat crouched with bleeding breast and sad reproachful visage.

‘Why did I join with the rioters?’ he recommenced. ‘Well—some had good cause who had suffered cursed injustice—most of them, like myself, just followed on partly for the sport and partly because in a general way things wanted mending. I was young and foolish, proud of my strength and pluck, I suppose.’

‘What sort of leaders had you?’ said the Major, thinking it best to have his narrative concluded now so that relief might come to his overladen soul. ‘Were they Americans or what?’

‘Some of all sorts. There was Radetsky—a fine fellow too—they put a price on his head, though he fought for liberty. Then Peter Gawlor, the Irishman, who lost his arm in the fight, went in for devilment. A couple of Americans, back woodsmen, and that scoundrel who calls himself Jake. He deserted the night before the attack; they say he sold us, and brought on the military two hours before we were ready for them.’

‘But what madmen you all were. How could you hope,’ said I, ‘to have any lasting success?

‘Madmen then and now,’ he groaned, ‘but times were queer then. There was nearly a general rising. If we had beaten back the soldiers we should have been joined by the whole of the crowd, and then, if we had marched on Melbourne with an army swelling as it went, who was there then to oppose us?’

‘Who indeed?’ I said.

‘A great Melbourne merchant told me,’ said the Major, ‘that they were prepared for the worst. Many of the young squatters and their friends armed themselves and formed the nucleus of an army corps at the Central Police Barracks at Jolimont.’

‘The soldiers fought well,’ said the dipsomaniac with his eyes fixed on vacancy. ‘A messmate before a shipmate, a shipmate before a stranger, but a dog before a soldier, ha! I hate them, all sailors do. But they fought like men. They came on at the run, and many of them dropped as we fired, but they charged with the bayonet in style, and our lot began to flinch. I could see the captain at their head, an active, fair-haired, young-looking man, his sword in his hand and a smile on his face. I had a sort of feeling as if I had seen him before, but I was too busy to look long. I saw the soldier that hit Gawlor, and I took steady aim and dropped him. He fell on his face.’

‘Well, that was all fair fighting,’ said the Major, ‘though you were on the wrong side. Is that the worst of it? Your men didn’t keep steady, and the regulars marched over them. They always do.’

‘That was not all. God send it was, oh! how happy I should be. A few of us made a stand, and the captain ran up close to me waving his sword and cheering on his men. I felt a sharp pain in my left arm as a bayonet went through it. At the same time one of our men hit the captain a heavy blow with the butt end of a gun. His sword dropped from his hand, and—God forgive me—I snatched it up and ran him through with it. As the handle jarred against his chest he looked me full in the face. “Why, it’s Keeper Jack” (that’s what they used to call me about the poaching) “all the way from Kent,” he said half wonderingly, “who’d have thought of meeting you here, old fellow. You’ve hurt me, I’m afraid,” and he fell backwards. I was the only man who came alive out of the lot around him, his men saw to that. I was wounded in seven places and laid up in hiding for three months with £500 on my head. I don’t know that it’s off now. But if he died why does he go with me everywhere—why is he sitting there now?’

‘It’s a bad case and a thousand pities,’ the Major said. ‘Poor Wayse, he was the eldest son, heir to a baronetcy and a good estate. I knew him well, and never thought we should have for a mate the man that killed him. But it’s no use fretting; he wouldn’t have thought twice about cutting you down, Jack, I can assure you.’

‘But why should I have been picked out to kill him?’ groaned the homicide. ‘He that was so kind—kind’s no name for it. I could have followed him round the world. He was never hard to the rough country lad, as I was then, but as gentle as a woman, though he was as brave as steel. It is no use. I shall see him as he is there till I go to my own place. And then, then he may forgive me. God have mercy upon us.’

There was now nothing more to be said or done. We descended, locking the door, and still could hear the unfortunate victim of strong drink and remorse continuing his harrowing entreaties to be pardoned and set free from torment.

We told Hennessy that we had tried all means in our power, but that nothing save medical aid would be likely to benefit him. So we wended our way homewards, and sent our doctor, who had had considerable experience in cases of that nature.

That gentleman administered to him a very powerful sleeping draught to begin with, and followed it up with other remedies of such a nature that when, a week later, John Bulder presented himself at the claim he looked, though calm and composed, at least five years older, and moved as a man who is making a slow recovery after a fever.

‘Had a heavy bout of it this time, mates,’ was the only apology he thought it necessary to make. ‘Gave a lot of trouble, and talked a lot of d—d nonsense most likely. You had a man on all the time, I suppose. Charge me with his wages in the next settlement, and any other expenses the claim’s been put to through me.’

How marvellous is it that reason should so completely resume her sway after being so rudely deposed; that the reactionary feelings of energy and application are so powerfully experienced when the opposite tendencies have been so completely in the ascendant. But such is human nature, on the infinite variations of which mysterious creation ’twere vain to dilate in this brief chronicle.

When such a recovery takes place the mind and body after a while are so completely restored to their normal tone, that the sympathising observer might conclude not only that no criminal excess had been committed, but that such never could again intervene in the strong and well-regulated character.

Until the next time,’ quoth

            ‘‘The Fiend to whom belongs
The vengeance due to all our wrongs.’

This alarming outbreak did not, however, affect any one but the chief actor. Like my combat with Malgrade, it was no one’s affair but his own. Other highly respectable people suffered periodically from the same kind of attacks. He had abundantly the means of delegating the work he used to perform personally; so that, if he had spent his whole time at Hennessy’s, he was quite able to afford it. However, after a few days more he paid off his representative, and commenced to work his shift of eight hours with much the same patience and persevering energy which he had displayed on entering the claim. His spirits rose gradually, his appetite returned, and, as I said before, no one could have recognised in the cheery, hard-working miner the raving lunatic or the despairing hypochondriac we had so lately been compelled to succour.

His presence as a chief actor at the Eureka stockade, and his confession of having been the actual slayer of poor Captain Wayse, whom every one regretted, was much the more serious phase of the affair.

We knew, of course, that the Victorian juries had refused to convict the rioters when committed for trial for the same class of offence, and we doubted not but that they would pursue the same course in his case.

But actual homicide was different, and if arrested on suspicion of being one of the leading rioters at Ballarat, it would involve his being sent in irons to Victoria; for, of course, bail would not be taken in such a case, and that course we did not at all desire to see carried out.

Doubtless among the miners there were many who had recognised and could swear to him if they chose to give willing testimony; but the general feeling of the community was with the insurgents, and against the Government of the day in Victoria. And even if it were not so, no miner would voluntarily assume the hateful character of informer. The only fear was that the man known as Yankee Jake, who had reasons for personal enmity, might lay an information before a magistrate, and so compel the arrest of John Bulder on suspicion of having committed this high crime and misdemeanour.

However, at the present time, the said Jake, or ‘The Count,’ as he was indifferently called, had located himself in a quartz-reefing district, known as Mason’s, about twenty miles distant, where he was understood to have made several lucky hits, to have been appointed a director in mining companies which had been successfully floated, and generally to be rising into a state of undeserved social splendour and distinction.

For the present, then, it was possible that this Cerberus had his jaws confined with a golden muzzle, on account of which his growling and tearing were temporarily suspended.

As for John Bulder himself, ‘Damocles, his sword,’ if thus above him suspended, did not produce apparent uneasiness. He worked and jested with the same careless ease as of old, and for a few short weeks care and strife seemed banished entirely from this our antipodean section of the universe.

.     .     .     .     .

As suddenly as it had commenced, the wet, cold, inclement weather ceased. The sun shone daily with might and effulgence. The water-courses returned to their usual channels, the marshes commenced to dry up. The birds mated. The pasture grasses, hitherto hindered by the harsh winds and frosts of the late winter, made haste to shoot and burgeon with tropical rapidity of growth. All nature revelled in the rich bloom and wondrous luxuriance of the glorious Australian spring.

How different were the roads and tracks from those which we had lately plodded through and stumbled along. Every day added to the pleasure of living. Every change was in the direction of improvement and enjoyable existence. The days became insensibly warmer without being oppressively hot. The billowy prairies waved in the faint breeze which heralded the summer. The foliage of the slender-leaved eucalypti showed a tinge of softer green. And ever, in fine weather as in foul, the reputation of the Oxley goldfield, based upon the monthly unearthing of more than half a ton of gold, remained high and unwavering.

The weeks passed blithely along, and still so increasingly brilliant were our prospects, so satisfactory the dividends which we received at the Oxley, as well as those of which we had monthly advice from Yatala, that I at length fully made up my mind to settle my affairs temporarily the week before Christmas, and to take this long-looked-for holiday in Sydney, where I could arrange at the same time for poor Jane’s voyage to her native land, whence, I doubted not, I should follow her before many months were past.

At our present rate our full shareholders would divide between forty and fifty thousand pounds a man—John Bulder’s proportion being, of course, much less than this, as he had no original interest in No. 4 Liberator, of which we now held undisputed possession.

I was loath to leave off such engrossing exciting toil, but it came at last, the last week before Christmas, the second of the weary, hot, dry, dusty December, which had succeeded our matchless but too brief spring months.

I quitted my work that long-remembered day thoroughly exhausted, and, throwing off my working clothes with a deep sigh of relief, reflected that I should not need to don them again for a month. In the interim I should stand once more—oh, enchanting thought!—on the breeze-swept ocean beach, inhaling the briny odours of the half-forgotten main. At midnight, at sunrise, I should be free to watch the ebb, the flow of the mystic waters. In all my mining life I had not once happened to have revisited the coast since we returned from New Zealand. And now, excited by the near prospect of comparative rest and freedom, I exulted in the idea of exchanging the red-lined roads and yellow mullock heaps, the iron or wooden shanties, the sombre shadeless forest, amid which I had sojourned so long, for the cool streets, the lofty freestone walls, the massed flower thickets, and the unfamiliar luxuries of the City of the Sea.

Poor Jane, too, how innocently she would revel in the novelties and wonders of the Paris of the South, before commencing her voyage to the old land. I looked forward, like a boy, to the brief holiday-time we should have before we parted, perhaps for ever. My heart glowed at the thought that I had the means and opportunity of rescuing her from a hateful tyranny, from a life unspeakably wretched and degrading. The faded rose, once so fresh of petal, so delicate of hue, might, replanted in the ancestral soil, again bloom modestly, again put forth green leaflets, shrinking delicate flowerets.

In happy peaceful years to come we might yet see her, my bride and I, humbled and chastened of aspect, yet peaceful and respected in her village home, gathering with every added year a fuller measure of repose, of that divine peace that is promised to the heart’s deep, sincerest repentance.

In all this sanguine, it may be in some respects imprudent anticipation, I can swear it before the Lord of Heaven and Earth, my heart was towards her as that of a brother—of a brother only.

On the morrow early we were to start by the coach at day-light. When the sun set we should be a hundred miles on our way; ere the following midnight at our destination; once more in a land of civilisation, where art refines repose, and enjoyment rewards industry—fitting prelude to the life of unclouded happiness upon which I trusted to enter early in the coming year.

The sun had long since set. The night was sultry at the same time, but moonless, starless, rayless utterly. Some impending change in the elemental programme had covered the heavens with a robe of vapour so dense that when I rather impatiently essayed to make my way from our tent to the town proper, I more than once got off the narrow track through the network of shafts, being compelled to grope back my way with extreme circumspection.

I attributed my restless and excited mood to the great change in my temporary surroundings. But I felt uneasy to an unusual degree. I had resolved to call at Jane’s lodgings and warn her to have her luggage ready to the minute in the morning, as the coach-driver was of a ruthless and inexorable punctuality. And the disappointment of being left behind in my overwrought state of feeling would go nigh to break one’s heart, I thoughtlessly said.

She appeared, poor girl, when I saw her, almost as childishly elated as myself at the prospect of the speedy deliverance from her prison house, and the translation to a higher sphere, a purer air.

We talked it over at greater length than was perhaps actually necessary, but our hearts were full, genuinely athirst for sympathy. As old friends, cognisant as were none others of a thousand circumstances of our bygone life that the loosened spring of a coming departure seemed to release from memory’s coffer, we found a multiform and unexpected fund of mutual interest.

‘I shall be a good woman to the end of my days, and, as far as my conscience will let me, a happy one,’ she said, ‘if I ever reach the Leys again and see the old man’s face. And it will be to you, Hereward, and to you alone that I shall owe it—owe my salvation. God for ever bless you for it, and help you in your need as you have me.’

I had said farewell to her and had come out into the passage of the hotel, into which she followed me, being moved, as it seemed, to say these parting words. This thoroughfare—a kind of corridor between two sets of rooms—was unlighted. A gust from the rising wind suddenly blew to the door of the apartment we had just quitted. I had reached the outer door when some one brushed hurriedly past me. I thought it was one of the many inmates of the house, and walked on, when I heard a sudden sharp ejaculation, as in fear or anger, in Jane’s voice, then a horrible, choking, gurgling, unnatural sound, which sent a thrill through every nerve of my body. I turned hastily to the doorway, and as I did so a man again rushed by me and was swallowed up in the pitchy darkness which now enveloped all things. Breathless with excitement I rushed to the spot near where I had left Jane. I felt along the wall and stopped, almost petrified, as something human clasped my feet, and again the hoarse unearthly sound struck upon my ear, though fainter than at first. Stooping, I raised Jane’s fainting form, as I believed. Her face fell helpless forward against mine, and her arms clutched convulsively around my neck. At the same moment I felt something like liquid trickling down my breast and dripping with terrible distinctness on the floor. The hideous reality suddenly flashed across my mind, and I cried aloud for help.

Doors were quickly opened, lights appeared, trampling feet were heard. I was surrounded by the inmates and habitués of the house, a quickly increasing crowd. All gazed with widely opened eyes of surprise and horror. Full well might they gaze—for there stood I, Hereward Pole, in a pool of blood, with a dying woman in my arms, her throat cut with a dreadful gash which had nearly severed the head from the body.

For some seconds all stood silent. None seemed to have sufficient presence of mind to speak, much less to move for help, or in other act. Suddenly a voice from the outer edge of the crowd called out in husky strained accents,—

‘Send for the police—let no one leave the place till they come. I accuse that man of the murder of my wife.’

I looked over the heads of the crowd. There was the grim form of Ned Morsley, while at his side, in ominous proximity, I marked the cold features and evil sneer of Algernon Malgrade.

At that moment the crowd parted, and the sergeant, accompanied by a trooper, strode up the passage.

‘What is the meaning of all this? Ha!’ he said promptly, ‘some one call the women to take Mrs. Morsley and place her on a bed. Send for Dr. Bolton at once. Constable Grant, examine the spot closely, search the passage and room, try if you can find the weapon with which the wound was inflicted. Is the husband of the deceased here?

‘Yes, I’m here. I wish to give this man Pole in charge for the murder of my wife.’

I stood as one bereft of reason when I had seen the dreadful, lifeless, unreal shape borne away by the women, all that was left of poor Jane, but a few moments since (or was it days, months, years since) so happy and hopeful? And I with this miscreant’s false charge ringing in my ears. I, Hereward Pole, her best friend on earth, accused of slaying her.

‘Mr. Pole,’ said the Sergeant, without betraying one atom of surprise, ‘disagreeable duty, painful of course, only a matter of form, but I must trouble you to come along with me. Constable Grant, Mr. Pole won’t think of escaping I know, but for fear of accidents, dark night, and so on, allow me, sir—thanks,’ and I felt cold iron, for the first time, grate upon my wrists, and was on my way to the cells where all détenus of whatever kind or caste were primarily incarcerated. The clock struck ten. So early in the night too, to strike the knell of hope, life, liberty, good fame. Alas! poor human creature, thou that callest thyself man, made in thy Maker’s image, and boastest thyself of will and energy, and election of the better path, how darkly ironic is Fate in its dealings with thee.

One moment happy, healthful, bright with the light of love and life, hope and joy in days to come. In the next, all thy vision red, gloomy with the savour of blood, thy liberty exchanged for the felon’s cell, thy fame the sport of falsehood and evil hap, thy life blotted and future marred. Wherefore dost thou not follow the counsel of the patriarch’s wife—curse God, and die.

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