The Miner’s Right

Chapter XXXIII

Rolf Boldrewood

THE COURT was immediately adjourned.

Surrounded by my friends, I was marched off in triumph, escorted by a great crowd that insisted upon following us down the principal street in triumphal procession. A small band of musicians even, on the watch for opportunities of profitable patronage, seized the occasion, and headed the cortege, playing ‘See the conquering hero comes,’ ‘When Johnny comes marching home,’ with other airs appropriate, in their opinion, to my circumstances.

For me, like the victims of those death ceremonies of the olden Asiatic communities when stupefied by narcotics, I felt confused with a blaze of trumpets and beating of gongs and cymbals. One glance as I left the court had shown me my enemy being conveyed to the cell I had just quitted. His face was a study for all evil passions, baffled malice, blind rage, and hate unspeakable. As Malgrade departed he was hustled and hooted by the crowd. The women had come to gradually but distinctly connect him with the tragedy in some shape, and he had become scarcely less unpopular than the principal criminal.

The crowd left us at the cross street which led down to our dwelling, previously calling for three cheers for Harry Pole, which were given with great heartiness and enthusiasm before they separated.

I walked listlessly into our humble dwelling. It looked like a palace after the hateful bare walls of the cell. Throwing myself down on my bed I felt inclined to sleep for evermore. And, indeed, so utterly wearied was I, so worn out with stress of mind and body, with sleeplessness, anxiety, and pain, that I fell at once into a deep slumber which lasted unbrokenly until sunrise on the following day.

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How wondrously complicated, how tremulously, delicately fine are the first mental movements as our being, truly unwillingly, extricates consciousness from the trance which so strangely simulates death! How clear yet impalpably minute is the semitone of thought which indicates misfortune already realised, or looming dim and powerless in the future. Magically sudden also is the thrill of relief when the soul, signalling the dread incubus with electrical flash, simultaneously registers the facts of safety and freedom.

So wakes the pensioned soldier, with the well-remembered sounds of parade and drill in his ears, to contrast only more effectively with the blessed independence of rural life in his long-lost village-home. So wakes the newly-enriched heir, half encompassed by the shifts and straitened ways of his ungilded manhood, to rejoice even more vividly in his lofty halls and the tokens of unfettered expenditure. So comes the blissful morn to the freed captive, whose first movements seem guarded by his prison walls, upon whom the quick joy of realised freedom instantly breaks with the beam of heaven’s light.

As the sun streamed unimpeded through the window of our cabin, my soul seemed to be irradiated, my whole being pervaded with a gratitude so deep that for a moment I shrunk from it as disloyalty to her who lay so cold and still in a blood-stained grave.

‘Well, Harry!’ said the crisp, unsentimental voice of Mrs. Yorke, ‘you’d better come and have your breakfast if you’re ever going to get up again. You’ve had enough sleep by this time. Don’t take on overmuch—it’s no use doing that. Poor Jane’s gone, and there’s an end of her. We’re all sorry enough for it, but fretting won’t bring her to life, and there’s no use your grizzling all the health and strength out of yourself if she is dead. I’d clear, if I was you, and cut digging for a spell. The claims’ll go on all the same as long as they’re worth sticking to.’

‘I am going away, Mrs. Yorke,’ I said wearily. ‘I shall leave my interests in the Major’s hands. I know I can trust all the mates. My loathing of this place, and all things connected with it, I can’t describe. I hope I shall never see a diggings again.’

‘I feel pretty full up about the field myself at times,’ she answered, ‘and good reason I had.’ Here her face softened, and the tears streamed down her cheeks, suddenly as an April shower. ‘But I don’t know as I could better myself living in a strange town among a lot of people as couldn’t tell washdirt from mullock, and never saw a tin dish used except to set milk in. I was quite a girl when Cyrus and I came on the diggings first, and I’ve followed them so long that I can hardly content myself anywhere else. But it’s different with a man; and I should up stick and be off to England by the first mail steamer if I was you.’

‘I daresay I shall do something of the sort directly, but just now I feel as if I were some one else. The change that has come over me has taken all my old feelings away. I can hardly describe it.’

‘There’s one thing would keep me for a bit if I was you,’ she said in a lower tone, ‘and I’d wait a year to see it if I was dying to get away.’ A hard bitter look came over her face as she spoke.

‘Why, what could that be?’

‘To see that villain, Ned Morsley, hanged,’ she said below her breath.

‘Ha!’ I returned, ‘I had forgotten the brute. Still I don’t see how the guilt is to be brought home to him, though I have a conviction now that his hand alone could have struck the blow.’

‘Of course he did,’ she said, ‘every child on the diggings knows that, and me blackguarding the poor old sergeant and Merlin for running you in when they only did it to throw that wretch off his guard while they hunted up the evidence.’

‘Is that the reason why they did it?’ I stammered out. ‘How little my feelings seem to have counted in the matter.’

‘Well, you see,’ said Mrs. Yorke sagely, ‘the police can’t afford to consider people’s feelings, it’s the “case” they have to give their minds to, as Mr. Merlin told me. He’s away at the Fish River on the track of Gilbert Hawke; but I’ll go bail the sergeant’s got a few bits of evidence that Mr. Black Ned don’t reckon upon. They’ve got Mr. Markham for the Crown now, and Morsley’s got the little doctor to defend him. The case will be on next Monday, and I’ll be there if I’m spared.’

‘I suppose I shall not be away either,’ I said. ‘I may as well see the thing out. It is only the next shifting of the scene in my life’s drama.’

There were yet several days which must elapse before Morsley could be put upon the preliminary examination, the prelude to a final trial before judge and jury.

This interval was more difficult to dispose of than any period which I could recall since my arrival in Australia. I had entirely lost the spring of action which had formerly incited me to labour. The hope of success then lured me on. Now that success had come, the bitter blight of sorrow, the settled night of adversity had destroyed all hope. The future was filled with impenetrable gloom. I had had no letter from home either since the last one from my darling Ruth, in which she had avowed her unfaltering belief in my innocence, and her resolution to abide by me at all hazards.

What might have happened in the interval? I trembled to think. Had she been induced by her parents, justly, as they would argue from their point of view, incensed against me, to marry one among the well-born, perfectly unexceptionable suitors, who doubtless were but too eager to offer themselves to the heiress of Allerton Court.

The hours, the days, the long bright days of an Australian midsummer, seemed as if they would never come to an end. Yet the weariest work was over. My prison doors were opened. My trial, in the face of the curious crowd, with all its racking torment and corroding anxiety, had been concluded. I was triumphantly cleared in the face of the society in which I lived of the frightful accusation under which I had lain prostrate.

Once more I stood a free man under the broad blue sky of heaven, without trammel or fetter. How strange it was to feel thankful for such a boon. I that had hitherto been as free as the bird that cleaves the sky, without thought of cage or knowledge of captivity!

For the first day or two levees of sympathising friends and acquaintances gave me no time wherein to think over plans for future action. People to whom I had never spoke came from comparatively distant diggings to shake me by the hand, and congratulate me on my acquittal. I found that a widespread belief had existed throughout the goldfield, that my being arrested at all was an outrage and an injustice. They had not dreamed of interfering with the administration of the law (there being no ‘shallow ground’ in the case), but were not the less united on the score of my having suffered wrong and injustice.

I had not, indeed, slept the second night in our joint abode when an influential deputation, consisting of some of the leading miners and business people of the goldfield, waited upon me for the purpose of ascertaining if a certain day would be convenient for me to be entertained at a public dinner specially arranged in my honour, and designed therein to exhibit the unanimous public sentiment in my behalf.

I was not, as may be believed, in the humour for festal assemblages of any sort or kind. My first impulse was of unqualified denial. But the feelings which prompted the invitation were generous and manly. I knew that my refusal would be construed by many as, if not an insult, at any rate as implied personal superiority to my entertainers. I had decided at no distant period to leave the locality, and to let drift my miner’s life behind me for ever. And I could not deny but that this would be a fitting opportunity to say farewell to those with whom I had so long worked and dwelt on terms of perfect social equality.

How utter was the change, the revulsion of my feelings. The goldfield, with its surroundings and associations, had all become hateful to me. I could not walk down the street, or take part in ordinary duty or pleasure without being reminded of the dear dead Jane, and of the pleasant aftertime we had dreamed of when she should be restored through my instrumentality to her old quiet home and a life of peace, in which, shielded from every evil, she might devote her days to good deeds and repentance. Ah me! All such pleasant pure imaginings had been blasted, shattered into more than oblivion—into a bitter and bloodstained memory; into a horror and a crime which must suffice to render barren of joy years of my future life.

I had announced my intention without delay to the Major and my other mates in the claim. I should take away the cash which stood to my credit in the bank, and leaving the Major as my authorised agent, by power of attorney, trust to him to guard my interest and remit whatever further monies might accrue to me up to the time when Greenstone Dyke and No. 4 were worked out, and either abandoned, or made a present of to the wages men, as the case might be.

I should have more than sufficient for all my needs, and for whatever life I should elect to lead in England or on the Continent. I could travel. I could lead a society life, if it so pleased me, among the haute volée of the great cities of the world, to which a man of good family, if duly gilded and not disqualified by manners or morals to which exception can be taken, can always procure the entrée. I could live quietly and luxuriously in the land of my birth, in town or country, which ever might best suit my humour. In a word, I was free to choose the perfectly untrammelled heartless life which so many people consider to be the most precious result of realised wealth.

Such had not been the goal to which my thoughts had turned when I placed the warm quick pulses of youth, the settled purpose of manhood, in the scale—trusting to the hazard of brave adventure, and the goodness of a merciful Providence for success, after a few years more or less of honourable toil, of manly endeavour.

No! far otherwise was the pinnacle to which I had essayed to climb. A height which should be irradiated by love and honour, as well as by personal happiness, by the gratitude of the poor, the respect of the rich, the encircling belief which alone finds life worthy and leaves it ennobled.

And to what kind of stagnant existence was I now doomed? To the selfish withdrawal from all of the honourable cares of humanity, to the well-clothed, well-fed, well-amused passage through barren hours, which, as by the subtle action of a mineral fountain, turns the heart and every moral tissue to stone.

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During the period which elapsed between my liberation and the examination of Morsley by the bench, the probability or otherwise of his being the murderer of his wife was the chief centre of thought, the leading topic of conversation among all classes at the Oxley. Curious half-forgotten scandals were exhumed, giving colour to the most extravagantly improbable theories as to the actual slayer and his presumed motives.

‘It was a former admirer, driven to madness by her coquetries, who had offered to elope with her by the next American mail steamer, and to settle ten thousand pounds upon her.’

‘It was no man at all but a jealous woman-rival, who had sworn years since to be avenged on her, and included in that evil prayer the promise that she never should quit the goldfield alive!’

‘It was a mistake from beginning to end. Fitzpatrick, just returned from Granville Bar, had heard that his wife was staying at Simpson’s and carrying on “top ropes,” as the phrase for “light life and conversation” then obtained, had rushed over maniacally and seeing the unfortunate deceased parting with a stranger on terms of friendship never stopped to reason, but, the likeness being curiously close as to figure and height, rushed in and committed the fatal deed. He and his wife were off to California within forty-eight hours.’

These and other mournful or ludicrous versions were (as I heard afterwards) freely bandied about and accepted as true or probable statements.

A strong general feeling of belief in the guilt or complicity of Morsley pervaded the minds of the more closely-reasoning portion of the population, from the man’s known savage and pitiless nature—from the bad terms on which he and poor Jane had notoriously lived—most of all from a general instinctive habit to think ill of him and Malgrade, which showed the deep unpopularity which now encompassed him.

But if in reality guilty how had he so suddenly appeared among the crowd, ready and willing to charge me with the crime? Was it in the nature of things, was it credible that any man should commit so diabolical a deed, and appear within five minutes apparently on a level with other spectators, and sufficiently free from all trace of crime to fear the searching scrutiny of the police?

Thus reasoned by far the greater number of the miners and residents on the goldfield, and thus in good sooth did I myself incline, strong as was my distrust of every word and deed of the ruffian to whom poor Jane had been so fatally bound.

Could there be any other human creature so strongly interested in the death of the unhappy woman? It could not be so.

Morsley, and he alone, must have filled up the measure of his iniquities by dyeing his hands in the blood of the helpless creature whose life he had ruined, sending her into the presence of her Maker, as she had foreboded, poor soul! without one moment’s preparation for the dread ordeal.

The frank vengeance of the middle ages, when rulers had the power to enforce personal expiation of unusual crime, would have torn to pieces such a man by wild horses; the populace, greedily curious and critical, would have gloated over the ghastly spectacle, watched the rending of the living muscle, the dislocation of the tortured limbs. And could not I, too, have shared the fierce pleasure with calmness if not with exultation? And there was wild justice in the custom. Why should the arch-criminal, the cool contriver, the remorseless agent in a plot of devilish bloody deed, bear but the same penalty as the frenzied foolish rustic, the half-besotted maniac, who slays in fury and weeps over the deed he has committed?

However I might suffer personally, I determined not to quit the Oxley until I had witnessed the trial of my enemy, and heard the nature of the evidence to be brought against him.

I knew that the sergeant would not have taken the decisive step of arresting Morsley in court and applying for a remand, unless he had something more than ordinary circumstantial evidence in petto. Whatever it was, the outside public, myself included, were left in total ignorance of the nature of it. Mr. Markham was now retained on the part of the Crown, a recognised practice which obtains in important police cases. Dr. Bellair was special private counsel for the accused, and I knew could comport himself with his usual intensity and aggressiveness.

As regarded my partners, nothing could have been more considerate, more delicate than their every word and act. The same might have been said of every chance acquaintance of the goldfield generally. The miners, better than most men in more conventionally apportioned communities, understood the difficult position in which I had been placed—appreciated the loyalty in which I had striven to carry out my trust.

‘Why didn’t the darned skunk put a head on his devilry while the pronunciamiento was out?’ queried Sonora Joe wrathfully, ‘then we could have lynched him quite high-toned and respectable like. Now, I bet the nigger will be indulged with a judge and jury foolin’ round. Couldn’t do no more if he’d been a full-sized Chow destroyer in the Flat troubles.’

‘We’re not quite so quick as you are, Joe, and we like to hang the right man, you see. But I’ll back British institutions against Yankee ones any day in the long run. You’ll see an infernal scoundrel get his deserts, or I’m much mistaken, and everything done ship-shape and Bristol fashion.’ So spoke Captain Blogg, late of the Maid of Avon, merchantman, which, having been deserted by her crew, from the boatswain to the cook’s mate, was long a sheer hulk in Hobson’s Bay. Finally, the captain and mates had to go, unless they elected to become a band of Flying Dutchmen without the ability to fly out of the great land-locked Bay of Hobson, where the navies of the world might ride.

‘Wal—I don’t reckon to dispute John Bull’s ways, not so much as I did when first I came on these diggings. I surmise that he’s a critter as knows what he wants and mostly hez it. But you mind me, Joseph L. Jefferson, that if there’s no rope twisted for that woman-murdering hound, there’s a rifle or two will crack, as mostly carries true when the bead’s drawn on a man.’

The Major, to do him justice, never recalled any of our conversations in which he had warned me against imprudent entanglement, and the dangerous companionship of any one of Eve’s daughters, young or old, married or single—they were all alike to be avoided and distrusted by the wise man.

‘You’re weak and low now, Pole, old fellow,’ he said; ‘nothing but change—change from this confounded New World, which has become old to us—will set you up. You’ve had the fever, so have I, so have most men, the wise and the unwise—Edgar Borlase among the number, who was left among the dead on one of life’s battlefields many a year ago. But he arose and staggered off, finally was cured and became strong, outwardly at least. So will you. But you must change the landscape, from these endless forests, these monotoned mullock heaps, to green England’s glades and meadows. Ha! the thought is entrancing. What do you say, Olivera?’

‘I quite agree with you,’ said that calm enthusiast, who now strolled up, meerschaum in mouth. ‘We should be justified in getting the Commissioner to send Pole down in charge of the police, only to be released on shipboard. He has so unhinged his nervous system that nothing but sea air and his boyhood’s home will have power to cure.’

‘Why don’t you come back to Europe too?’ I said rather thoughtlessly. ‘You might as well come, for all the good you are doing here?’

Olivera’s eyes flashed, and he stood for a space without speaking. I thought I saw a slight flush pass over his dark-hued countenance.

‘You are right, perhaps,’ he said, ‘though you cannot know the reasons which I have for longing once more to set foot on English soil; but it is my destiny to remain here till the hour of success and triumph arrive. It may be that a generation shall pass before that result. Till then I shall continue to be a miner wherever on this broad continent the gold lure beckons.’

‘You are not to be discouraged, then,’ I said, ‘no matter how unfortunate you may continue to be,’ charmed momentarily out of my own sorrrows by this man’s imperturbable fatalism.

‘Fortunate and unfortunate are relative terms,’ he replied calmly. ‘I believe firmly that before my destiny is accomplished in this land I shall amass wealth by means of mineral discoveries, whether by means of gold, silver, copper, or tin, I cannot say. But that my fate is connected with one of these metals I am as certain as that we stand here. Good-night.’

‘I shall leave directly after this trial, Major,’ said I, as we prepared for rest. ‘You need have no fear further of indecision on my part. But I cannot go away till I have heard the fresh evidence which has evidently been procured by the police. I feel as if it was a sacred duty which I owe, not only to myself, but to her.’

The Miner’s Right - Contents    |     Chapter XXXIV

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