THEY RODE quietly adown the winding track, which the sharpness of the grade rendered necessary, until finally reaching the wide green flat, they halted before the much-vaunted ‘rush’ of Balooka. The early summer sun’s rays in that temperate region had as yet been unable to dim the green lustre of the herbage, or turn to dust the close sward of the river meadows. The contrast was sharply accented in this still dreamy eve between the brilliant tones of the levels and the sombrely-purple shadows of the overhanging mountain, the faintly-burning sunset tints, while through all sounded the rhythmic murmur of the rushing river rippling over slate and granite bars, in the crevices of which were ‘pockets’ filled with gold. The strange blending of sounds which arose from the camp—an occasional shot, the barking of dogs, the low hum of many voices indistinctly heard—were not devoid in unison of a rude harmony.
‘Can anything be more wonderful than this change of scenery?’ exclaimed Lance admiringly. ‘Who thought there could be such a spot in Australia? It is lovelier than a dream!’
‘It don’t look bad,’ assented his companion. ‘That’s our camp to the right. You can see they’ve yarded the horses. Ned’s in front with his gray horse, and I spot a stranger or two. Perhaps he’s sold the mob “to a dealer.”‘
Touching the led horse with the quince switch which she used as a riding-whip, Kate dashed into a hand-gallop, and, riding at speed across the boggy runlets which trickled from the hills, pulled up short at a cluster of tents somewhat away from the main body of miners. They had been pitched close to the edge of the far-extending flat; nearly opposite was a brush and log stockyard, in which were nearly a hundred horses.
Springing from her horse, though still holding the two bridles in her hand, the girl walked up to her brother, saying as she came, ‘It’s all right, Ned, Trevanion’s come with me. I fell in with him—My God!’ she continued in an altered tone, ‘what’s up?’ Then for the first time turning her searching glance on the plainly-dressed man with a slouched felt hat who stood by her brother’s side, she exclaimed, ‘Frank Dayrell, by the Lord! Why, I thought you were a hundred miles off. What call have you to be worrying and tracking us down, like a black-hearted bloodhound that you are?’
‘Hold your d—d chatter, Kate, can’t you?’ said her brother, whom she now noticed had handcuffs on, though, with his hands before him, it was not at first apparent. ‘Why the devil didn’t you keep away when you were away? I thought you and he were gone for good.’
‘Johnnie Kemp was only going as far as his claim; you know that,’ she answered, with a meaning look, though her cheeks grew pale and her lips became hard and set. ‘Now, Sergeant Dayrell, what are you going to do to me—put the bracelets on, eh?’
Then this strange girl burst into a wild fit of laughter, which, though bordering on hysterical seizure, was yet sufficiently natural to pass for her amused acknowledgment of the humour of her situation.
At this moment Lance Trevanion, who had been gazing around with the air of a man surprised out of all ordinary power of expression, dismounted and advanced towards the man-at-arms.
‘Sergeant Dayrell,’ he said, ‘I am quite at a loss to understand these very strange proceedings. Have you a warrant for the arrest of my friend Lawless here? Is he to be punished without trial? And for any rashness to this young lady here be assured that I will hold you accountable.’
The trooper smiled grimly as his eye, cold and contemptuous, met that of the excited speaker.
‘Your friend, as you call him, is arrested on suspicion of stealing certain horses missing from the Growlers’ Gully and the Ballarat field generally, several of which, in that yard, are already identified. Miss Kate Lawless will have quite enough to do to clear herself. She knows where that led horse came from. As for you,’ and here his voice suddenly became harsh and menacing, ‘the horse you ride is a stolen one, and I arrest you on the charge of receiving, well knowing him to be such. Put up your hands.’
Lance Trevanion had come nearer to the sergeant as he spoke, the frown upon his face becoming yet more ominous and dark, while the gloomy fire in his eyes had become strangely intense. As the sergeant spoke the last word he drew his revolver, and pointing it full at the young man’s head advanced upon him. He doubtless calculated upon the surprise which in the case of most criminals, alleged or otherwise, rendered them easy of capture, for he signed to one of the men in plain clothes who stood near to bring the handcuffs ready in his hand. But at that moment Trevanion, springing forward, knocked up the barrel of the revolver, and, catching his enemy fair between the eyes with his left, felled him like a log. He lay for an instant without sense or motion. Before Lance had time, however, to consider what use he should make of his instinctive success the two constables were upon him from either side. He made one frantic struggle, but the odds were too great, and after a short but severe contest the fetters were slipped over his wrists with practised celerity, and the locks being snapped, Lance found himself, for the first time in his life, a fettered captive.
The sergeant rose slowly to his feet and gazed upon the young man, now breathless and held on either side by the myrmidons of the law. His brow was flushed and red, but there was, at present, no mark of disfigurement.
‘That was one for you, Dayrell,’ said the mocking voice of Kate Lawless, as she stood by her brother, with a jeering smile on her lips. ‘My word, Lance Trevanion, you got home then if you never get the chance of another round. Why don’t you slip the bracelets, sergeant, and have it out man to man? I’ll see fair play. You’ve a lot of science, we all know, but I’ll back Lance for a tenner. What do you say?’
The expression on the sergeant’s face had never varied from the cold and fixed expression which it had worn when he made the charge against Lance, but now he relaxed visibly and wore a comparatively cheerful air.
‘You are a good straight hitter, Trevanion,’ he said, ‘and I like a man all the better for being quick with his hands. I didn’t count on your showing fight, I must say. But you never can tell what a man will do the first time he’s shopped. You’ll know more about it before we’ve done with you.’
‘Good God! ‘said Trevanion, ‘you don’t surely mean to say that you believe I have had anything to do with stealing horses? I may have been deceived. I begin to suspect that I have, but how many men have bought stolen horses on the diggings without a thought of anything dishonest? What reason have I either, a man with more money than he knows what to do with?’
‘You can tell all that to the Bench,’ said the sergeant coldly. ‘All I know is that I find you in possession of a stolen horse and the associate of horse-stealers. You must stand your trial like other men.’
Had the mountain suddenly rolled down, filled up the river, and pulverised the camp, Lance’s astonishment could not have been more profound. He groaned as he felt the touch of the cold iron, and then sullenly resigned himself to the indignity.
‘Now, Miss Tiger-cat,’ said this modern presentment of Nemesis, ‘you know pretty well where the horse you were riding came from, and where the one you were leading ate his corn a week ago. I must take them with me, but you can have your side-saddle. Whether you’re brought into this racket depends on yourself, you understand me.’ And with a meaning glance the sergeant turned to his men. ‘One of you take the prisoners to the lock-up. Shoot either of them if they try to run. The other take these three horses and secure them at the camp stable. I’ll remain here till you come back to watch these horses in the yard.’
The little procession moved on. The fettered prisoners—now linked together—the three led horses. The number was swelled by dozens of idle or curious spectators to nearly a hundred before they reached the temporary but massive wooden building which did duty as a gaol; and therein, for the first time in his life, Lance heard a prison key turned, and a prison bolt shot, upon—himself.
Words are vain things, after all. Who can essay to describe—be it ever so faintly traced—the mingled shame and surprise—the agony and the sorrow—the wrath and despair of the man unjustly imprisoned? Think of Lance Trevanion, young, gently nurtured, ignorant, save by hearsay, of crime or its punishment, suddenly captured, subjected to durance vile, in danger of yet infinitely greater shame and more lasting disgrace. Haughty and untamed—so far removed by race and tradition from the meaner crimes from which the lower human tribes have for ages suffered, it was as if one of the legendary demon-lovers of the daughters of men had been ensnared and chained. Ceaselessly did Lance Trevanion rave and fret on that never-to-be-forgotten night. The dawn found him pale and determined, with set face and drawn lips. Every vestige of youth seemed to have vanished. Years might have rolled on. A careless youth might have been succeeded by the mordant cares of middle age. So changed was every facial line—so fixed the expression which implied settled resentment of an outrage—even more, the thirst for revenge!
When he became—after hours of half-delirious raving—sufficiently calm to reflect upon and realise his position, nothing could be clearer than the explanation. Scales seemed, metaphorically, to have fallen from his eyes. How blind! How imbecile had he been, thus to walk into the trap with his eyes open! This, of course, was what the girl Tessie had meant when with such disproportionate earnestness she had warned him not to go on this ill-fated journey. She knew what Ned Lawless’s past had been, what any ‘business’ of his was likely to be; and Kate—double-dyed hypocrite and false-tongued jade that she was—how she had lured him to his doom. Perhaps not exactly that, for, of course, his utter ignorance of their villainy would appear on the trial, if it went so far, and as to buying a stolen horse it was next to impossible to avoid that—numbers of people he knew had done so; and then, what motive could she have for enticing him to Balooka, when she must have known the tremendous risk to which she was exposing him? She, surely, had no reason to wish to injure him? Surely, surely, not after her words, her looks, her changes of voice and expression, all of which he knew so well! But throughout, and above and below all his thoughts, imaginings, and wonderings, came with recurring and regulated distinctness—What a fool I have been, what a fool, what a thrice-sodden idiot and lunatic! Now he knew what the friendly warning of Hastings meant. Now he understood Mrs. Polwarth’s dislike and Jack’s blunt disapproval of that intimacy.
It was easily explained. He had had to buy his experience. He had paid dearly for going to that school. And who were, proverbially, the people who would learn at no other? Fools, fools, again fools!
The day had passed without his touching the simple food which had been placed before him. At sundown the constable who came to see that his prisoner was all right for the night, pitying his evident misery, and accepting the non-absorption of food and drink as an incontestable proof of first offence, tried to persuade him to ‘take it easy,’ as he expressed it.
‘You’ve never been shopped before, that’s seen. Well, it’s happened to many a good man, and will again. Don’t go back on your tucker. You’ve a long ride before you. We shall start back for Ballarat to-morrow. If you get clear, you’re all the better for not losing heart. If you don’t, it won’t matter one way or the other.’
Lance nodded his head. Speech—to talk as he did when he was that other man, the man who was a gentleman, free, proud, stainless, who never needed to lower his eyes or doff his hat to any living being—to him now speech was impossible.
The policeman looked at him, turned again, and shook his head and walked out, locking and bolting the door mechanically.
‘Dashed if I can make out that case,’ said the trooper to himself. ‘Dayrell knows why he arrested that young fellow, I don’t. Any child can see he didn’t stand in with that crowd. They’ve had him soft, selling him a cross horse as any man might have knowed was too good for them to own on the square; but if he gives up the horse they can’t touch him, I should think. He floored Dayrell though, and that’ll go agin him. The sergeant can make it pretty hot for them as he don’t fancy.’
Early next morning, half an hour after a pannikin of tea and a plate of meat surmounted by a large wedge of bread had been placed in his cell, Lance Trevanion was taken out and placed upon a horse. He was helped into the saddle, the feat of mounting in handcuffs being rather a difficult one to the inexperienced captive, as any gentleman may discover by tying his hands together and making the attempt. He was permitted to hold the reins by means of a knot at the end, and, with some limitation, to direct the animal’s course. But a leading-rein was buckled to the snaffle, by which a mounted trooper led his horse. Ned Lawless, also handcuffed, was similarly accommodated. One trooper rode ahead, one behind. Neither of the prisoners’ horses were such that if they had got loose and essayed to escape, would have had much chance by reason of superior speed. They were leg-weary screws, and were, indeed, nearly due for superannuation, the goal of which would be reached when they had carried (and risked the lives of) a few dozen more prisoners. Dayrell remained behind at Balooka, Possibly he had some reason for the delay, but if so he did not disclose it.
What a different return journey was this from the commencement of it, when Lance had set out so light of heart, so joyous of mood, his pockets full of money, his credit unlimited, all the world before him, as the ordinary phrase goes; able to pick and choose, as he supposed, among the world’s pleasures and occupations, to select, to examine, to purchase, to refuse, at his pleasure. A good horse under him, the fresh forest breeze in each inhalation exhilarating every pulse as he rode at ease or at headlong speed through the winding forest track. A man, a gentleman, rich, successful, respected, more independent than a king and unlike him, free to come or to go at his own sovereign will and pleasure.
And now, how had a few short hours, a conspiracy, heedless imprudence, and malign fate changed and disfigured him. A prisoner fettered and confined, charged with a grave offence, at the mercy of a severe and unscrupulous officer whom he had been imprudent enough to defy and later on to resist, what might he not expect?