AMONG the new arrivals who came in numbers to swell the gathering crowd, whose huts and tents were now scattered for miles around the original gully, which, owing to the chronic discontent of the prospectors, had given its name to the locality, were some people from a distant part of the neighbouring colony of New South Wales. They constituted a large family party, comprising brothers, cousins, the mother of the young men, their sister, and a friend or two. Their tents were pitched in an open flat at no great distance from claim Number Six, and without any special overture on either side, a casual acquaintance commenced which bade fair to ripen into friendship. The migrating party were all native-born Australians. Gold-lured, they had travelled in one encampment from their homesteads on the upper waters of the Eumeralla, a tributary of the Snowy River. In that mountainous region, thinly settled with scattered families, tending their herds of wild cattle and wilder horses, had these stalwart men and fearless girls been born and reared. The men were fine athletic fellows, free and cordial in their manners, apparently liberal and obliging in such small matters as came into notice. Apart from his natural curiosity, too, as to the characteristics of this company of ‘Sydney natives,’ as they were generally called—people of pure British race and descent, who had never seen Britain—Lance was attracted by their riding feats as well as by the high quality of the unusually large number of horses which belonged to the party. That they were consummate horsemen, he, a fair judge and performer in the hunting field, at once perceived. Their ways of managing the animals, catching, handling and saddling them, were all new to him. He came to walk over to their tent in the evening, to talk over the gold news of the ‘day,’ to hear their stories of adventure by flood and field, to him novel and interesting, and by no means unattractively rendered. Besides all this, there was another appendage to the Lawless family—one which, since the ancientest days, has sufficed to attract the ardent susceptible male of whatever age and character with steady resistless force. There was a woman in the case, and a fairly prepossessing damsel she was. The sister of the young men, Kate Lawless, was indeed a very handsome girl. Bush-bred and reared as she was, uneducated and wholly unacquainted with many of the habitudes of civilisation, she comprised much of the perilous fascination of her sex. Tall and slight, but with a rounded symmetrical figure, there was an ease and unstudied grace in all her attitudes, which an artist would have recognised as true to the training of nature. Like her brothers, more at home in the saddle than in a chair, she compelled admiration when mounted on her favourite horse, a gray of grand action; she swept through the forest paths or amid the awkward traps and obstacles of a goldfield with such perfection of seat and hand as can only be obtained by that practice which commences with earliest childhood. Her complexion was delicate, indeed, unusually fair, save where an envious freckle showed that the summer sun had been all too rashly defied, her soft brown hair was unusually abundant, while her bright dark gray eyes had a glitter at times, in moments of mirth or excitement, which denoted, either for good or ill, a character of no ordinary firmness.
Lance Trevanion had been out of the way of female fascinations for a considerable period. The o’ermastering strength of his feelings after the quarrel with his father; the fierce, persistent determination with which he had followed up the fortune which he had vowed to gain in Australia, had for the time being dispossessed the minor frailties. But, now that wealth had begun to pour in with a flowing tide, now that leisure had succeeded ceaseless toil (for he had felt justified in putting on a ‘wages man’), now that flattery, spoken or implied, commenced to indicate him as Trevanion of Number Six, ‘a golden-hole man,’ and the half-owner of one of the richest claims on the field, the ordinary results of more than sufficing money and time commenced to exhibit themselves.
‘I don’t know that I like that Lawless crowd overmuch,’ said Hastings to him one day. ‘I’d be a little careful, if I were you.’
‘Why, what’s wrong with them?’ answered Lance, rather hotly. ‘They’re fine, manly fellows, and pretty good all round. They can ride and shoot—they’re very good with their hands—and I never saw smarter men to work. Quite different from what I expected Sydney natives to be.’
‘And their sister’s a very pretty girl—eh! Come, don’t be offended, I’m only advising you for your good. But I met an old friend, who was a squatter in their district, and he says they are a bad lot—gamblers and horse-thieves—more than suspected of worse things, indeed.’
‘Well, of course, your friend may be a little prejudiced,’ answered Trevanion, trying his best to repress his rising irritability. ‘They may have fallen out. What’s the difference between squatters and drovers? That’s what they are. They told me——’
‘What’s the difference between country gentlemen and poachers?’ replied Hastings. ‘You haven’t been long enough in the country to know the ins and outs of things. But, take my word for it, the sooner you drop your native friends the better.’
‘Really, my dear fellow,’ answered Lance, putting on a lofty and superior air, which his friend had never before observed, while the strange glitter in his eyes became more intense with every word, ‘you must permit me to manage my own affairs and choose my own friends. I have not been so long in the country as yourself, but I am not quite devoid of common sense, and have seen a little life before I came here. The Lawlesses are pleasant, manly fellows—quite as good as most of the men we meet out here; and Miss Kate is a friend of mine of whom I shall allow no one to speak disrespectfully.’
Hastings was an exceptionally cool man, or he would doubtless have requested his interlocutor, shortly, to go to the devil his own way, and, thereafter, have washed his hands of him. But he owed a debt of gratitude for his first generous service which he was too sincere and genuine to forget.
‘You must take your own way, I suppose,’ he said goodhumouredly. ‘We won’t quarrel, if I can help it. But I hope you won’t have reason to regret not taking my advice. Have you heard who the new Police Magistrate is?’
‘His name is Mac, something or other; comes from Tasmania, and knows every escaped convict in the colonies by sight, they say.’
‘Oh, Launceston Mac! Is that the P.M. who is to reign over us? No doubt he’s a good man, but a little too fond of appearing to know everybody, and awfully severe. He’s too quick in his decision, for my taste. I feel like the sergeant in Rob Roy, who considers that, “Were it the Bailie’s own case, he would be in no such dashed hurry.”’
‘Oh, well, there are plenty of rascals here and to spare. He may try his hand on them, and welcome.’
‘There’s a new Sergeant of Police, too,’ he continued. ‘Can’t remember his name; something like Barrell or Farrell. They say he’s a “ regular terror,” as Joe Lawless expressed it.’
‘Frank Dayrell! Is he come?’ asked Hastings, with a change of tone. ‘I used to know him in a wild district out back, before the gold. There was great joy when he left Wanaaring.’
‘Why, what was the matter with him! I heard he was a very smart, active officer.’
‘All that,’ said Hastings, ‘but more besides much more. Sergeant Francis Dayrell bore the name of being one of the most unscrupulous, remorseless men that ever touched a revolver. When he has duty to do, he’s all right. But, above everything, he must have a conviction. If he can manage that, with his prisoner, well and good. If not—caveat captivus.’
‘Whatever he is,’ answered Lance, ‘it won’t matter much to us. We can afford to pay for “Miner’s Rights” now,’ he added laughingly, ‘and there’s nothing else likely to bring us within the talons of the law.’
‘I wouldn’t make too sure of that,’ his companion returned half musingly, and with a strangely altered expression. ‘Dayrell is a most extraordinary man.’
That there was, in the early days of the great Australian gold irruption, a large proportion of remarkable and exceptional characters on all the goldfields, few who have the faintest recollection of that socially volcanic period will be found to deny. It could hardly have been otherwise. Adventurers of every sort and condition, of all ages and both sexes, from every clime and country, had there congregated at these wondrous auriferous centres. The first year’s manual labour, which all essayed as the recognised form of ticket in the lottery, saw many of the unused toilers disgusted or discouraged. Meanwhile, a demand arose for competent persons to fill appointments the emoluments attached to which were calculated on war prices. The public and private service were both undermanned. Hence, every day well-born and well-educated mining amateurs relinquished the pick and shovel to become gentlemen, so to speak, once more. The more fortunate became Goldfield Commissioners, Police Magistrates, Customs Officers, Clerks, Agents, Storekeepers, Inspectors of Police, Auctioneers, and what not. The salaries were large; the profits extraordinary—in many cases far exceeding the gains of the ordinary miner. The rank and file of the unsuccessful applicants, fully equal, if not, in some cases, superior to the fortunate competitors, contented themselves with becoming police-troopers, store clerks and assistants, coach-drivers, billiard-markers, or barmen. In all these conventionally humble situations they were, if sober and shrewd, enabled to save money and lay the foundation of future opulence. The police force—more particularly the mounted division—was popular with the more aristocratic waifs. It afforded a reasonable degree of leisure, a spice of danger, and the privilege of posing in quasi military array, besides riding a well-appointed charger and wearing a showy uniform. Among the privates and, so to speak, non-commissioned officers of the force were to be found, therefore, a large proportion of what, in a regular army, would have been called soldiers of fortune. They were occasionally impatient of discipline, wild and reckless in their habits, given to occasional brawling, drinking, and dicing, much as were the Royalist soldiery in the days of the first Charles. But, like them, they were brave to recklessness, cool and daring amid fierce and lawless crowds, and of all that strangely gathered band the wildest and most untamed spirit, yet the coolest, the most rusé, deadliest sleuth-hound, by general acclaim and common report, was Sergeant Francis DayrelL
Tall and slight, with fair hair and beard, and a false air of almost effeminate softness in his blue eyes, he was wonderfully active and curiously muscular as compared with his outward appearance. That he had received the education of a gentleman all could perceive. Of his family nothing was known. Ever reticent about his own concerns, he was not a man to be interrogated. An admirable man-at-arms—promoted, indeed, in consequence of some exceptional deed of power, the taking, indeed, of a desperate malefactor single-handed; he was an unsparing martinet to those below him, merely respectful to his superiors in rank, and habitually hard and merciless to the criminals with whom he had to deal. With the exception of occasional boon companions, with whom, at intervals, he drank deeply, and, it was alleged, gambled for high stakes, he made no friends and had no intimates. Solitary, if not unsocial, he was generally feared if not disliked, and the mixed population of the goldfield, many of whom, doubtless, were conscious of ‘sins unwhipt of justice,’ united in giving the sergeant a very wide berth indeed. Such was the man who had suddenly been transferred to the police district which included Growlers’ Gully and its vicinity.
Among his friends, the Lawlesses, Lance was not long in perceiving that the sergeant’s advent was not regarded as a wholly unimportant circumstance. He rather wondered to hear the tone of mingled dislike and bitterness with which the affair was discussed.
‘Not that they,’ Ned Lawless, the eldest of the brothers, and, in a sense, the leader of the party, laughingly remarked, ‘had any call to be afraid, but there were friends of theirs, quiet, steady-going farmers and drovers, upon whom this cove, Dayrell, had been tremendously hard—treated them dashed unfairly indeed. So that if, by chance, his horse came home some day without him, he, for one, would not be surprised, nor would he be inclined to go into mourning for him.’
‘If he only does his duty, though,’ Lance could not help answering, ‘that ought not to make Dayrell unpopular.’
‘There’s ways and ways of doing things,’ returned Ned. ‘I quarrel with no man for doing his duty—that he’s paid for. But this man’s a —— dog, and I’d shoot him like a crow if he came messing round me, and think nothing of it either.’
Trevanion couldn’t quite understand the savage tone with which these words were uttered; he thought that something had occurred to put Ned out, as he was habitually a goodtempered fellow. When he went to Kate for an explanation, he found himself no nearer to a solution.
‘I hate the sight of him,’ she said, ‘with his soft voice and sneering ways. I believe he’d hang us all if he could. He nearly “run in“ a young man we knew on the other side, and him as innocent about the duffing as the babe unborn. He’ll get a rough turn yet, if he doesn’t look sharp, and serve him right, too.’
‘But you have no cause to mind his coming here, Kate,’ he said in a bantering tone. ‘You’ve never stolen a horse, or “stuck up” anybody—isn’t that the expression?—(except me, you know). I wonder you girls don’t admire a handsome man like DayrelL’
‘I wouldn’t mind laying him out for his coffin,’ said the girl vengefully. ‘I might admire his features then. But,’ and here her face assumed, for a few seconds, an expression which caused her companion to gasp in amazement, ‘his turn may come yet, and if Frank Dayrell dies in his bed he’s a luckier man than some of us think he’ll be. By Jove!’ she exclaimed suddenly, ‘if that isn’t him, and almost close enough to hear me. He’s the devil himself, I do believe.’
By a curious coincidence the unconscious object of this discussion had emerged from a by-track, and, suddenly reining up, rode slowly past the pair. Whatever his moral qualities he was utterly point device as a man-at-arms. His tall erect figure and manège horsemanship were well displayed on the handsome roan thoroughbred which he rode as a charger. High boots, very carefully polished, with bit, stirrup-irons, and sabre-scabbard glittering in the sun, showed the military completeness of his equipment. At his sword-belt hung a serviceable navy revolver, while from toe to chin-strap no smallest detail was omitted.
As his eye fell on Lance and the girl, he nodded and laughingly raised his helmet
‘Well, Miss Lawless—we mustn’t say Kate now, I expect have—you had a ride after moonlighters lately? I expect Mr. Trevanion doesn’t know what the meaning of the word is. However, you and Ned will soon enlarge his limited colonial experience.’
As the trooper rode slowly past them, his well-bred high-conditioned horse arching his neck and champing the bit which had stopped him so suddenly, the girl turned pale in spite of her angry look, and lowered her defiant eyes. Without speaking more or altering his careless seat and steady regard, he sauntered slowly on, with one foot dangling sideways in the stirrup. For an instant his eyes met those of Trevanion, who, irritated by the whole bearing of the man and a certain ill-concealed air of authority, said, ‘I daresay you’ll know me again. May I ask what reason you have for favouring Miss Lawless and me with your particular attention?’
The sergeant’s features slightly relaxed, though his eyes maintained the same cold, penetrating inscrutable expression which had so annoyed Lance, as he replied—
‘Kate Lawless and I are old acquaintances, perhaps I can hardly say friends. As for you, we may possibly be better acquainted in future. But if you take my advice—that of a wellwisher, little as you may suppose it—you’ll stick to your claim, and be careful in your choice of associates.’
Before the angry reply, which was rising to his lips, could find utterance, the sergeant struck his charger lightly across the neck with his glove and cantered off, raising his helmet in a half-mocking salute to Kate Lawless.
‘Insolent scoundrel,’ said Lance, ‘if he dares to address me again I’ll knock him off his horse. If I was in my own country I’d show him the difference in our positions. But in this confounded country things are turned upside down with a vengeance. But what did he mean by saying you and he were old acquaintances?’
‘He be hanged,’ said the girl, whose colour and courage had apparently returned. ‘We never were nearer friends than to pass the time of day. But he was stationed once on Monaro, where we all lived, and, of course, he came to the place now and then. I think he was a bit sweet upon Tessie, but she couldn’t stand him and so he dropped coming to Mountain Creek. He’s not worth minding, any road. We’d better finish our walk and get home for tea, I’m thinking.’
It was the early summer. The winter had been cold and wet. The Ballarat climate is by no means of that exceptional mildness which the Briton innocently believes to characterise the whole of Australia, making no allowance for widely diverging degrees of elevation and latitude. It had been severe beyond the usual average, wild and tempestuous. But now, all suddenly the delicious warmth of the first summer months made itself felt. Day after day witnessed the riotous growth of pasture and herbage, the blooming of flowerets before the joyous sorcery of a southern spring. Their path lay through the primeval woodland, bordered by an emerald carpet studded with flower-jewels and redolent with balsamic forest odours. As the shadows lengthened and the birds’ notes sounded clear and sweet through the evening stillness, the girl’s voice, as she told of wild rides and solitary experiences in their mountain home, had a strangely soft and caressing tone.