The Miner’s Right

Chapter XXX

Rolf Boldrewood

THROUGH the long hours of that hateful night, which made a true inferno of the close-walled, low-roofed cell, I paced its narrow limits. My brain lay quiescent in dull stupor, or with feverish rapidity ceaselessly revolved the scenery and action of the terrible tragedy, in which I could scarcely realise my part as leading actor, accused criminal. Heaven, surely, without abrogating all functions of justice and mercy, could not suffer my conviction upon so false, so hellish an accusation! Could it be believed for one moment that I, with no conceivable reason for anger, had hurt one hair of her poor head?

No. But it might be proved.

I sprang upwards, as the fiendish suggestion passed through my brain and passed into the darkness as if to look for some subtle imp that had personally whispered the damning thought. The links of circumstantial evidence were not so far apart, but that malice and persistent ingenuity might forge the fatal chain. Men as innocent had ere now ascended the scaffold proclaiming their innocence.

What are the facts?

I am discovered in darkness, in solitude, with the dying woman in my arms. I am naturally covered with blood. Angry voices, one of them a man’s, had been heard sounding exactly where she was last seen alive. Then the passionate refusal to ‘go home’—a phrase of double meaning. Then cessation of speech and the awful unhuman death tones which so strangely thrilled me.

I sickened with fear. I thought how such evidence would have tended in the case of another so arraigned before me.

At an early hour of the day, now dawning, I knew that I should necessarily be brought before the bench of magistrates, charged in due form ‘that I did on such a day unlawfully kill and murder one Jane Morsley, etc.’ There was no escape from that. I saw myself standing in the dock, compulsorily exhibited for the pleasure of the curious and idle crowd, a spectacle of guilt or shame, as opinion might incline. What had I done in my short life that such misery, such undeserved torments should be heaped upon me?

Worn out at length by racking alternating paroxysms, my aching eyelids are sealed by kindly nature; a blessed sleep enfolds me mother-like, strikes dumb and motionless the crowd of evil shapes that flit through the unguarded portals of the brain.

But anon the busy, babbling, and remorseless day is not to be cheated. The sun, that sun which I fondly hoped to have watched arise as Jane and I were borne swiftly towards the sea, towards hope and happiness, and renewed life for both of us, soon streamed through the apertures of my cell upon me, half a felon, half a maniac, as in my excited imagination I then deemed myself. His beams illumined the silent chamber where she lay a corpse. What a mockery was it that there should be aught but clouds and tempests in this melancholy star, misnamed a world? Was it not rather a hateful prison-house, where souls ruined and doomed in a former state of existence roamed endlessly, cheating themselves with the hope of happiness, amused by the malice of friends, with dreams of impossible bliss?

One of the constables fully aroused me by bringing in the wherewithal for a rude lavation. He respectfully advised me to dress and have a cup of tea, which would help, as he said, to straighten me a bit before court time.

He meant well and kindly, as did all the men of the police force stationed there, knowing me well by sight and reputation. Whether guilty or innocent in this matter he possibly did not consider himself bound even approximately to decide. It was not his ‘case.’ The sergeant would have the getting up of the evidence, and so on. But it was hard, he thought, to see a man like me, who had seen better days, as the common phrase runs, locked up on such a charge. Was I guilty? Who could say? Wonderful things in the history of crime had happened, even in his experience on goldfields, and he was a young man; and where there was a woman in the case, who was to say with certainty what might or might not take place?

So Police-constable Grant calmly arranged my basin and towel, with a small looking-glass and comb, placed a tin measure of tea with a plate of the same material, containing bread and meat, at the farther end of the cell, mentioned that court would be open at ten o’clock sharp, and departed.

It was later than I thought. I had scarcely more than time to lave my burning brow and breast plentifully with the ice-cold water, which indeed wonderfully refreshed and relieved me, drank freely and partaken of the smallest morsel of bread, when the iron-bound door again clanged and Sergeant MacMahon entered with another trooper to escort me to the court-house.

‘Brushed yourself up a bit, Mr. Pole?’ he said, with a kindly gravity ‘It’s a dreadful business, but there’s no use taking things too much to heart before the real time comes on. Have you any legal gentleman engaged to defend you?’

‘Defend me!’ I said, ‘what necessity is there for that? who could think for one moment that I was guilty of such a crime?’

‘Never mind the crime, Mr. Pole,’ said the sergeant, his keen gray eye resting upon me meanwhile, as if there was a printed page on my heart which he was deciphering slowly but accurately; ‘take my advice and have Mr. Markham. You’re not fit to conduct your own case. But I daresay your mates have sent for him long before this. Please to follow me into court.’

I walked out of the cell dreamily and did as I was told, constable Grant following within arm’s length, as was de rigueur in case of attempts at escape. I was then taken through the crowd which filled the court, and permitted to sit down in the vicinity of the table usually devoted to professional gentlemen, strangers of degree, and parties to civil suits. I saw the sergeant look over at Blake, who nodded his head affirmatively.

The court is crammed. Even the approaches are so thronged that those afar off desist from endeavouring to gain nearer ‘coigns of vantage,’ and content themselves with sitting on the fence of the camp reserve. There is a sickening feeling at my heart, which still keeps throbbing with the thought that Jane lies dead, foully murdered, and that I stand here this day in the sight of all men charged with being her slayer. Truly my enemies had triumphed—so far I was beneath their heels.

Of course, my friends muster strong on the occasion. I see the Major, Olivera, and Jack Bulder, also Mrs. Yorke, the latter weeping profusely, with a large solemn baby in her arms, Mrs. Mangrove and other female sympathisers, all with their best bonnets on as if they were going to church. The Commissioner is seated on the bench with two other magistrates. They look at me with an air of not seeing me, which long practice has enabled them to assume. It is not for them to take for granted guilt or innocence on the part of the accused until the evidence be concluded. There is a man charged with being drunk in a public street. He having been locked up all night, and not being an habitual offender, is discharged with a caution. I watched him passing into the body of the court, and metamorphosing himself into a spectator, with features quite relaxed and free of care. Another indiscreet has been drunk and disorderly. He is adjudged to pay a pound or to undergo seven days’ gaol. He pays, and lightly changes front.

‘Hereward Pole, stand up! You stand charged with wilful murder; how do you plead?’

I start as though I had been struck.

‘Not guilty,’ of course I exclaim.

‘Swear Sergeant MacMahon,’ says the Commissioner. And the sergeant enters the witness box. On his oath he thus deposes—

‘I am a senior-sergeant of police stationed at the Oxley goldfield. About half-past ten or a quarter to eleven o’clock, P.M., yesterday, while on duty, I was attracted by seeing a crowd at the licensed house of Mrs. Simpson. I immediately proceeded thither, and on entering the house perceived the prisoner standing at the top of the passage with a woman in his arms. She was apparently in a helpless or dying state when I approached. There was a pool of blood at the feet of prisoner. Examined the appearance of the woman, whom I recognised to be Mrs. Morsley, whom I had known at Grenville and Warraluen diggings as the wife of a man named Edward Morsley. Her throat was cut almost from ear to ear. (Sensation. The women cry piteously.) She could not speak. I heard one sound, a kind of unintelligible moan. I caused her to be placed upon a bed and sent for Dr. Bolton. When I saw her she appeared to be quite dead. Edward Morsley called out from the crowd and said, “I charge this man with the murder of my wife.” I said “Very well.” I arrested the prisoner and confined him in the lock-up. I then charged him with the wilful murder of Jane Morsley. He said, in answer to the charge, “I could not have hurt her for all the gold in Australia.”’

Cross-examined by Dr. Bellair, retained for the prosecution: ‘Prisoner looked pale and horror-struck, as any one would have looked under the circumstances.’

Dr. Bellair: ‘What, even a policeman?’

The sergeant, with dignity: ‘Yes, anybody but a doctor.’

Dr. Bellair: ‘I appeal to the Court for protection. It is most improper of the witness to address the counsel for the Crown in this way.’

The Bench is of opinion that no disrespect was intended. The witness is merely desirous of eulogising the professional nerve of surgeons.

Sarah Simpson, sworn, states: ‘I am the landlady of the hotel where deceased lodged. She had been with me several months, and was most quiet and well-behaved in every way. Understood she was going home to England. Mr. Pole, whom she told witness knew her in England, used to come and see her now and then, but not often. Remembered his coming last night. He said to me, “Mrs. Simpson, please tell Mrs. Morsley I want to see her about being ready in time for the coach to-morrow. If she’s gone to bed it doesn’t matter. Be sure and have her called early.” I told her and she went into the front parlour where Harry Pole was. When Mr. Pole was gone, or say a couple of minutes afterwards, I heard the parlour door slam. I heard her say, “I won’t go home, I’ll die first.” Ran out with others directly after when Mr. Pole cried “Help.” Saw him holding her all bleeding in his arms. Oh, my God!’

(Here the witness fainted, and the proceedings had to be stayed till her recovery.)

By Dr. Bellair: ‘Can’t think who did it. Will never think it was Mr. Pole; he always acted the gentleman, and was a good friend to her.’

‘Too good a friend, perhaps?’

‘No, sir, he were not—not as I ever see or thought on, and won’t believe till my dying day.’

‘Perhaps I ran in and killed her, then?’

‘Perhaps you did, sir; little men is that vicious when they takes the turn, as they might do hanything. But some one come from somewheres and did it, and not Harry Pole, and that I’ll live and die on, poor dear!’

John Henderson sworn: ‘Is a commercial traveller, and had been several days in the house. Was just going to bed when he heard some one cry out for help. Ran out into the passage, other people having come with lights. He saw prisoner standing near the end of the passage supporting Mrs. Morsley in his arms. Had seen her in the hotel several times. There was blood on the floor, on his clothing, everywhere. Deceased was bleeding from a large wound in the throat, which had been cut, as the phrase is, from ear to ear.’

Cross-examined: ‘Did not hear any one speak before the cry for help. Might have been some talking without his hearing. Had been going over his accounts before going to bed.’

‘Was that his way of saying his prayers?’

‘Not exactly—it was minding his business, however, and he would recommend other people to mind theirs.’

‘Was the prisoner very pale and unnerved?’

‘Not more so than any gentleman—himself for certain would have been—on suddenly encountering such a dreadful task. Could not form any opinion as to who had committed the crime; would as soon accuse his Worship on the Bench as prisoner of having done it.’

At this stage of the proceedings a note was placed in the hands of the Commissioner who, after reading it, gave it to his brother magistrates for inspection. After a short consultation, he spoke as follows—

‘A letter addressed to the Bench has just been placed in my hands. In it Mr. Markham, who is employed on behalf of the prisoner, states that he has been prevented attending to-day on account of other professional engagements, and requests that the Bench will remand the prisoner until Monday next in order that he may have the opportunity of securing professional aid. Have you any objection, Dr. Bellair, to the course indicated?’

‘Under the circumstances of the case, none whatever, your worship,’ said the little man, with stupendous dignity.

‘Call up the witnesses, Sergeant MacMahon, and let them be bound over to appear on the day named—Edward Morsley Algernon Malgrade, Sarah Simpson, John Henderson, are you content to be bound in the sum of forty pounds each to appear on Monday next at the court-house on the Oxley at ten o’clock, there to give evidence in the case of Hereward Pole charged with wilful murder? are you content to be bound?’

‘Yes, your worship.’

‘This Court stands adjourned till to-morrow morning at ten o’clock.’

The crowd passed out and separated into groups to talk over the all-absorbing topic, with the interesting uncertainty, doubtless, of my innocence or otherwise in the affair.

In a few minutes the whole enclosure was cleared, the courthouse locked up. I was again sitting on my bed in the cell upon which I had thrown myself in dull despair as I re-entered.

Was this, indeed, my life? or had I changed souls and destinies as old writers dreamed?

It seems the first thing the Major did after quitting me at the lock-up when I first entered it, was to send off a messenger post-haste to Mr. Markham, with a note briefly detailing the circumstances, and enclosing a substantial check as retaining fee on my behalf in the preliminary inquiry which was imminent.

On the Sunday afternoon, therefore, that gentleman was ushered into my cell, and, shaking me by the hand with his accustomed warmth and heartiness, appeared only to perceive, like a skilful and courtly physician, a slight social indisposition which regular treatment would be sure to remove.

‘Unpleasant affair, Harry, my boy,’ he said; ‘dreadfully unpleasant; temporary inconvenience, eh? and all the rest of it. No bail allowed either, or of course you needn’t have been ten minutes in the logs. Not but what there are worse places—delightfully cool this broiling weather. Got a crib all to yourself, eh? I say, sergeant.

‘Well, Mr. Markham,’ said my chief custodian, ‘what can I do for you?’

‘Why, send me a chair, of course. You don’t expect me to stand for a couple of hours while I am having a good confidential yarn about this business with my friend, Harry, here. When it comes you can lock us in; only don’t forget to let me out about tea-time.’

‘All right, Mr. Markham,’ said the sergeant. ‘Is there anything else I can do for you?’

‘Nothing, except you were to let me have some brandy and soda. But as that’s against the regulations, we must wait for happier times, I suppose. Thanks, that is a good substantial chair—good afternoon for the present.’

And he sat himself down with the greatest ease and deliberation, while the bolt was shot to, the door clanged, and we were alone in the cell.

Mr. Markham’s face underwent a sudden and complete change. The expression of rollicking good humour faded away as the door swung on its hinges. When the key had turned and the bolt shot to, nothing was to be seen but a keen concentrated gaze, whence all levity had fled for ever.

I returned his gaze with eyes as unfaltering as his own.

‘You never did it, I can see that,’ he said, as if in answer to an unspoken question. ‘I had my doubts before I saw you. Don’t speak now; if you knew as much of human nature as I do, you’d believe anything or nothing in any case where a woman was concerned. You didn’t do it, as I said before. Now, the question is, who did, and how is he to be fixed?’

‘I can’t tell,’ I answered wearily. ‘I did not, as you truly say and believe. Why should I have harmed a hair of her head? Poor Jane. I would have done anything in the world for her that a man might do.’

‘So I have heard,’ he said drily. ‘It’s a pity that this brother-and-sister business should so often be misconstrued. I don’t blame you, my dear boy; young men will be imprudent. But it would have been better for both of you if you had let her go her own way, and you had stuck to your work.’

‘It may be so,’ I said. ‘It is too late to talk of that now.’

‘Well, yes; and I didn’t come here to moralise. The point is, who do you think killed her, and why?’

‘The man who brushed past me in the entry was the only person who had time or opportunity. It was too dark to recognise him.’

‘And you have no idea who or what he was like?’

‘Something, for a moment, put me in mind of Ned Morsley. I can hardly say why. But it could not have been him.’

‘Why not?’

‘Because he was among the crowd with Malgrade hardly two minutes afterwards, when I had poor Jane’s body in my arms. He could never have stopped and joined the crowd after such a deed.’

‘Humph!’ said my adviser, ‘the night was dark, you said?’

‘The very darkest that I have seen for years. There was a thunderstorm at midnight. I heard it coming as I paced up and down this doghole for an hour before.’

‘Poor Harry!’ he said compassionately. ‘You expected to be in Sydney, somewhere about Batty’s hotel, by this time. Life’s another word for disappointment, isn’t it? You have a sheath knife, I see.’

I knew what he meant. I handed it to him. I had picked up the habit of carrying such a knife attached to my belt from the sailors on the outward bound voyage, and had found it come in too handily in a rude wandering life to relinquish it.

‘Humph! point ground down, edge like an old meat axe, very fine knife to cut butter. What have you been doing with it lately?’

‘The fact was that we came to a quartz vein at 120 foot level, and I picked out some very good coarse gold with the point till I broke it off, and had to grind it round. The edge was gapped by young Dawson the other day. I lent it to him to go kangarooing. I didn’t think it worth while sharpening it, and indeed was going to give it to Mrs. Yorke for a kitchen knife to-morrow.’

‘Humph!’ said Mr. Markham again. After this he sat in silence for a few minutes. Then he aroused himself and changed the conversation, encouraging me to talk of old English days, of my life at the Leys, of Jack and Joe Bulder, of my fixed determination to have cleared out in six months, whatever may have been the ebb or flow of the treasure-tide. Lastly he commenced to ask in a general way whom I had seen that day, with whom conversed, what well-known miners, loafers, or quasi-criminals I had seen about the town. Finally, he exhorted me to keep up my spirits, and to go over and over the few minutes before and immediately after the tragedy, lest haply some important fact may have escaped my observation.

Then he took leave of me, and knocked at the door, first moderately, then impatiently. There was no answer. The sergeant had been called away, and there was no one to release the captive until he returned. Mr. Markham lit a cigar and appeared to take the forced incarceration easily enough.

While accepting the profuse apologies of the sergeant, when he arrived in high glee, having captured a horse-stealer—the show criminal of the division—Mr. Markham seemed by no means fully satiated with prison experience for the time. He lingered in the vicinity, putting careless half-questions that were half-assertions to the sergeant and Grant. Finally, he thanked that official most warmly for the pleasure of his visit and the confidence with which he had honoured him, and strolled off with a last injunction to me to keep up my spirits and try to ‘remember up’ any facts and details even up to the most minute shred of speech or action during the few minutes preceding and following the tragedy, or otherwise I should do him no credit as a client, and the enemy—even Dr. Bellair, who was retained for the Crown—would have cause to triumph.

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