The Miner’s Right

Chapter XXXI

Rolf Boldrewood

THE DOOR was shut behind my kindly, good-humoured advocate. He had succeeded in raising my spirits, albeit imperceptibly. A vision of future safety and peace rose, faintly tremulous, amid the dread shadow-land of the dim horizon. Of happiness I did not dream; it could never more be mine. The insatiable Fate, which had so mercilessly dogged my foot-steps in this southland, was still relentless. My reputation stood shamefully linked with the ill-starred dead. Her very name was all-powerful still to injure me with those whose good opinion I valued most in the world. Strangely impalpable Slander! How subtle, how dire a poison art thou! Conveyed in the touch of a hand, in the whispered breath, in the motion of the body, the glance of the eye. As by those wondrous, deadly mediæval agencies, the life, nay more, the memory, the soul’s weal is blasted, shrivelled, stricken dead, and dishonoured before the magical missile, viewless as the wind, secret as the sea, cruel as the grave. Brinvilliers and the Borgias have gone to their appointed place; but modern society still holds those who smile and betray to doom, who stab with words and slay with medicated tongue. Dead or alive, poor Jane had worked me woe. Was I now to be overwhelmed, crushed, obliterated; and was there no hope of succour?

As these and kindred thoughts passed through my mind, already crowded with morbid and gloomy images, my dull ear became increasingly sensible of a deep yet distant murmur, which gradually swelled in volume and nearness to my cell. Half instinctively, as I listened, the sound waves resolved themselves into a familiar rhythmical noise. It was the tread of a large body of men marching in rank.

What was the occasion? Scarcely another émeute? What then could it be? In another moment the band of one of the great associated guilds struck the first notes of that grand composition long associated with the dead, with the last pageant in which they hold formal association with the living. With stupefied unawakened intelligence, as to an overture, I listened indifferently. The solemn awe-inspiring movement was familiar to the ear, yet bearing no message to the heart. Then flashed with electrical suddenness across me the terrible truth—it is Jane’s funeral. How had I not earlier realised the possibility of such a ceremony, natural and inevitable as it was?

How inexplicable are the movements of the mind. But a moment since I had schooled myself to a stoical mood of endurance of the ills that might henceforth come upon me. I felt even a feeble kind of reactionary resentment against the course of events which had stricken me down so suddenly, had laid me so low. Mr. Markham’s condolences had not been without their effect. After all I was not wholly to blame. I had done everything for Jane’s best interests that a man could have done for his own sister. I had been actuated by the best and purest motives if such there be within this strangely concocted entity, this jumble of ‘made ground’ (to use the miner’s phrase), that we call humanity. And what had been the result?

She lay dead, a disfigured corpse, denied even a seemly appearance in death, she that was so fair. I was in a felon’s cell, justly so prisoned in the opinion of a section of the society in which I lived, irrevocably humbled and injured in my own eyes, and in those of my fellow-men. One thought of the sea-washed pier we had both so longed to tread again came through my brain at the same instant.

One breath of the ocean breeze fanned my face in visionary freshness. The contrast, even in glamour and delusion, unmanned me. I cast myself down on my pallet and wept like a child. Long and passionately I wept as I lay there, while the sunshine streamed through in golden flakes telling of the bright blue cloudless skies without, and of the dry dusty street which our feet had so often paced. Adown this she was now passing for the last time—the last time, ah me! to the pine-crested cemetery. There dwelt many guests that had never dreamed of being bidden so early to take their part in life’s last promenade, to taste ‘Death’s coal-black wine.’

Radetsky had gone there. How strange and unnatural that his restless heart was stilled. Cyrus, of the mighty arm, was never more to raise so much as the weight of the dry grass stems that fluttered in the summer whirlwinds. And now, Jane Mangold, fresh-tinted, bright-hued, innocent wild rose, as I first remembered her in her country home; the sad-eyed, haggard woman of these last sorrowful months, she was gone to be alone with Death—when the train of kindly mourners should return, who paid the last token of respect to a foully murdered sister, a repentant fellow-sinner.

Should I be the next?

In my weakened and excited state the idea assumed a horrible distinctness; it gradually increased to the dimensions of a fear, almost of a form, until, with throbbing burning temples, like to burst with pain, with beating overcharged heart, of which the pulsations seemed to clang intolerably and loudly, I pictured myself carried past my prison, along the self-same well-known road, and saw the familiar faces of friends and acquaintances, decorously downcast, at the same distance from the bier at which I had a score of times walked myself.

It seemed to be a fitting end for this accursed, feverish, treasure-seeking life, in which the gold was so rapidly turning to ashes and bitterness, to dead leaves, as in the folk-lore of childhood’s days.

‘Why,’ I once more moaned out, ‘did I not die by the robber’s bullet? A quick shrift, a clean death, worthy of a man, if premature and sudden? Then I should have left behind but fond regrets, but passionate loving tears and manly sorrow for a lost comrade—’

While now—

.     .     .     .     .

I must have been weakened as by a wound, become morbidly nervous and sensitive, for this womanly passion and hysterical weakness to have come over me. But I had hardly tasted food since first the prison bolts closed behind me. Sleep had been either entirely absent or broken and disturbed with frightful images. I had heard of men going mad under such circumstances, and I at times probed and tested my mental powers as if to discover whether or not reason was shaken.

The tramp of feet passed and ceased; the deep tones of the funeral march died away in the distance; the shadows darkened, and finally the cell, which in hot summer evenings felt intolerably stifling, became filled with darkness. I slept or lay in unconscious stupor. I hardly knew which. But I started up from time to time. In my ear sounded the awful words, ‘dust to dust, ashes to ashes,’ as if spoken within my cell, and still, ever and anon upon the night breeze came the dirge-like echoes of the Dead March in Saul, still the wailing wind voices of the night cried aloud of death and of doom.

.     .     .     .     .

Pale, unstrung, tremulous should I have found myself before the crowded court on the appointed morning, but Mr. Markham, who has called in before breakfast, will not have it so. His cheering voice breaks the spell.

‘I say, Harry my boy, this sort of thing won’t do at all. I can’t have you grizzling and doing the handkerchief business like a peculiar Christian or some of those repentant sinner-parties that intend to sin again when they get another chance. You must pull yourself together a bit or you’ll do me no credit, and any goldfield’s jury will bring you in guilty for not having pluck enough to bluff it off like a man.’

‘I say, governor,’ this to the sergeant, ‘I’ll send him in a cup of coffee from Jones’s of my own particular brewing, and you’ll see that he takes it, won’t you?’

‘All right, Mr. Markham, you may depend on me,’ said the sergeant good-naturedly, ‘and it’s what I’d advise him myself, to hold up his head a trifle higher in the court. There’s no saying what evidence may be brought forward.’

‘Perfectly correct, sergeant, as usual,’ said my professional adviser, with a meaning look.

‘Now, I wonder what that old fox has got in his head,’ said he to me, as the worthy official departed. ‘He’s the closest old file I ever met, and I know the police have been hunting up every scrap of evidence they can lay their hands on. I shouldn’t wonder that Bellair gets a slight surprise himself to-day. But don’t expect too much, Harry, old fellow. You never can tell till the numbers are up.’

Mr. Markham’s coffee was, probably, flavoured with something more potent than milk and sugar, or I should hardly have felt so much relieved in mind as I did when my cell door opened, and I saw the Major, Jack Bulder, Olivera, and Mrs. Yorke, all waiting to give me a reassuring word and smile as I came out.

Their strong undoubting faith acted as a cordial to my worn senses. Here, at any rate, were kindly, honest, and withal shrewd people, who believed undoubtedly and uncompromisingly in my absolute innocence.

He kill her,’ said Mrs. Yorke to a large female with a dull distrustful countenance, showing a soupçon of the asperity which had occasionally flavoured her discussions with Cyrus. ‘I wonder if there’s people alive with so little sense as to think of such a piece of rot. Not but what there’s plenty of women on the field as wants killing, Mrs. Muggins. I don’t say there ain’t, but every one knows as he was that softhearted about females, young or old, good-looking or homely, it was all one to poor Harry—he had a pleasant word and a smile for all of ’em. More than that, there was nothing he wouldn’t do for the humblest of ’em in the way of kindness and rale downright politeness, as I call it. Didn’t I see him pick up a big bag of chaff as old mother Shea, the milkwoman, was a-carrying to the cows one dry time, and hump it the best part of a mile for her through the town, too. He kill anybody with a petticoat on, not he! Only he was too dashed soft, and so was run into things as artfuller cards kep’ out of, that’s what he was, and I’d like to have stuck Merlin and the old sergeant into the logs themselves for potting the wrong man, and see how they’d like it.’

Here Mrs. Yorke’s frightfully revolutionary sentiments were brought forcibly to an end by the onward movement of the crowd, which separated the disputants and surged into the building directly the large door of the court was opened by the sergeant. By the favour of Mr. Merlin, to whom she had alluded so disrespectfully, she was, however, accommodated with a seat on the form set apart for witnesses, and otherwise treated with distinction. The known fact of her being ‘a golden hole woman,’ as the miners called her, doubtless operated to her advantage. Wealth has its privileges all over the world, even at the headquarters of the chief of metals.

The court was now formally opened. Mr. Markham, cool and confident, advanced with a cheerful mien. The Commissioner and his brother magistrates sat with unmoved countenances, like Rhadamanthus and his peers. Dr. Bellair rose with tragic brow and a mien of awful dignity.

‘Your worships, I demand that all witnesses leave the court.’

The Commissioner nodded to the sergeant, who, in stentorian tones, repeats the formula—

‘All witnesses are ordered to leave this court, until called on to give evidence.’

With this several persons, some not previously known to me, or indeed apparently to one another, prepare to leave the court, with some difficulty, indeed, on account of the crush and crowding.

‘Call Algernon Malgrade,’ says the Doctor, with additional majesty, and that gentleman lounges forward and goes into the witness-box, with an air of calm indifference to the hundreds of eyes that are at once directed upon him.

Mr. Markham looks him all over in a keen, yet leisurely, manner, with the air of a surgeon regarding a subject upon whom he proposes to undertake a serious and critical operation. Malgrade places one hand on the witness-box and stares back in return with his habitual insolence of manner. Mr. Markham softly rubs his hands and smiles severely, with an air of peculiar benevolence.

Being sworn, the witness thus deposes: ‘My name is Algernon Malgrade, formerly in the army. Am at present a miner, residing at the Oxley, where I hold interests in mining properties. Have known the prisoner for many years. Knew him slightly in England before either had sailed for Australia. Have also known deceased and Morsley for several years since they were married, when they lived in Ballarat; knew them well as acquaintances; always thought they lived on the usual matrimonial terms. They quarrelled, as a matter of course, occasionally. Deceased was a high-spirited woman. Like all handsome women, and some plain ones, she had a violent temper; would not swear to that physiological fact, but such had been his experience. Had heard, cursorily, that Morsley was jealous of prisoner. Thought it likely enough, prisoner’s conduct had been most imprudent. Saw Morsley when he came to the Oxley a few days since. He did say he should prevent his wife going to Sydney with prisoner. Thought he intended to let matters slide—that is the course he himself should have taken under the circumstances. Recollected the night of the murder?—Y-e-es! He was walking up Mayne Street, and came up while smoking to the door of Simpson’s Hotel. Was leaning against the outer door, when Morsley came up. They heard voices inside the passage; deceased, as he thought, called out, “I will not go home, I will die first.” Morsley said, “That’s my wife’s voice,” and rushed in. In a moment or two he came out gasping for breath and greatly excited. I asked him what was the matter? Just then we heard prisoner call for help, and we all went in. I saw prisoner standing supporting deceased, who was bleeding from a wound in the neck and apparently dying. The police came soon after, and Morsley charged prisoner with the murder of his wife.’

‘Call Edward Hill Morsley,’ continues Dr. Bellair, with solemnity unspeakable.

The spectators drew back. There was an audible murmur as the husband whose wife had been foully murdered answered to his name, and walked slowly and firmly towards the witness-box. I gazed at his face. Save one, he was the man I hated and despised most on the earth. His dark face had a stern, almost savage, expression, which gained intensity as his deeply-set black eyes met mine; aflame with the lurid light of all the baser passions, they seemed to glow with demoniac lustre. If there was any tremor of body or quailing of the spirit as he lifted the sacred book and bound himself, as God should help him, to ‘speak the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth,’ he did not show it by quiver of muscle or outward sign.

Dr. Bellair commences the examination, and extracts with practised ease his sworn statement, the more readily, perhaps, that every word of it is prejudicial to me, and accords with the most favourable hypothess of the witness’s own conduct.

‘My name is Edward Hill Morsley. I am a hotel-keeper, and reside at the Miners’ Home, Warraluen. I was the husband of the deceased Jane Morsley. We were married at Wendouree Street, Ballarat, and have followed the diggings since then, about four years. We have had quarrels now and then. Last year prisoner came to Warraluen. He formed some acquaintance with me and deceased, whom I afterwards found he had known in England. Deceased did not tell me so at the time, nor did prisoner. I assisted him in the purchase of shares in the Holman Company, and others, and was very friendly towards him. After he left, deceased kept up a correspondence with him, and seemed restless and dissatisfied—talking of going back to England. I gave her no cause of complaint. At the time of the escort robbery, when prisoner was wounded, deceased insisted on going over to Eugowra to nurse him, and did so against my will. She refused subsequently to come back; she stayed at the Oxley where prisoner lived, and said she would go to England. I came over to the Oxley to see her, and if possible to prevail on her to return to me. I went to Simpson’s Hotel where I heard she was staying. As I came up to the door about twelve o’clock, or perhaps nearer half-past eleven o’clock, I heard deceased and some one talking in the passage of the hotel. Deceased said in an excited tone of voice, “I will never go home with you, I will die first.” I ran into the passage and found prisoner holding deceased in his arms; she appeared to have been wounded. I ran out to give the alarm, but was so taken by surprise that I could not speak. In the meantime prisoner called out, and other people came in. I followed them into the passage, and when the police came gave prisoner in charge for murder. Have had quarrels with deceased like other married people, I suppose, but had no ill feeling towards her. She was very fond of admiration, and had a violent temper when roused. This led to altercation of course. She was much worse after prisoner came to Warraluen. Saw Algernon Malgrade at the hotel on the night of the murder. Did not remark him before until the crowd came up. May have spoken to him in the forenoon of that day. Did not have a long conversation with him on that day—to the best of my knowledge, that is; if so have forgotten it. Is not a particular friend of mine, not more than a diggings acquaintance. May have seen him the day after the escort robbery. Did not see Wall or Gilbert Hawke the day after the robbery; saw plenty of other persons that day. Do not carry a knife on ordinary occasions; have not got one now. May have borrowed a knife since I came to the Oxley to do some trifling act. If so, do not remember. Do not know a man named Luke Weston. Did not borrow his knife the day before the murder; may have borrowed one from some one. May have said that deceased should not go to Sydney with prisoner, but never to my knowledge that I would cut her throat first. Have said such things in the heat of passion—people often do; never intended her any harm.’

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