The morning sun comes shining through the window bars; and ever since he was up have I been cursing the daylight, cursing myself, and them that brought me into the world. Did I curse mother, and the hour I was born into this miserable life?
Why should I curse the day? Why do I lie here, groaning; yes, crying like a child, and beating my head against the stone floor? I am not mad, though I am shut up in a cell. No. Better for me if I was. But it’s all up now; there’s no get away this time; and I, Dick Marston, as strong as a bullock, as active as a rock-wallaby, chock-full of life and spirits and health, have been tried for bush-ranging—robbery under arms they call it—and though the blood runs through my veins like the water in the mountain creeks, and every bit of bone and sinew is as sound as the day I was born, I must die on the gallows this day month.
Die—die—yes, die; be strung up like a dog, as they say. I’m blessed if ever I did know of a dog being hanged, though, if it comes to that, a shot or a bait generally makes an end of ’em in this country. Ha, ha! Did I laugh? What a rum thing it is that a man should have a laugh in him when he’s only got twenty-nine days more to live—a day for every year of my life. Well, laughing or crying, this is what it has come to at last. All the drinking and recklessness; the flash talk and the idle ways; the merry cross-country rides that we used to have, night or day, it made no odds to us; every man well mounted, as like as not on a racehorse in training taken out of his stable within the week; the sharp brushes with the police, when now and then a man was wounded on each side, but no one killed. That came later on, worse luck. The jolly sprees we used to have in the bush townships, where we chucked our money about like gentlemen, where all the girls had a smile and a kind word for a lot of game upstanding chaps, that acted like men, if they did keep the road a little lively. Our ‘bush telegraphs’ were safe to let us know when the ‘traps’ were closing in on us, and then—why the coach would be ‘stuck up’ a hundred miles away, in a different direction, within twenty-four hours. Marston’s gang again! The police are in pursuit! That’s what we’d see in the papers. We had ’em sent to us regular; besides having the pick of ’em when we cut open the mail bags.
And now—that chain rubbed a sore, curse it!—all that racket’s over. It’s more than hard to die in this settled, infernal, fixed sort of way, like a bullock in the killing-yard, all ready to be ‘pithed’. I used to pity them when I was a boy, walking round the yard, pushing their noses through the rails, trying for a likely place to jump, stamping and pawing and roaring and knocking their heads against the heavy close rails, with misery and rage in their eyes, till their time was up. Nobody told them beforehand, though!
Have I and the likes of me ever felt much the same, I wonder, shut up in a pen like this, with the rails up, and not a place a rat could creep through, waiting till our killing time was come? The poor devils of steers have never done anything but ramble off the run now and again, while we—but it’s too late to think of that. It is hard. There’s no saying it isn’t; no, nor thinking what a fool, what a blind, stupid, thundering idiot a fellow’s been, to laugh at the steady working life that would have helped him up, bit by bit, to a good farm, a good wife, and innocent little kids about him, like that chap, George Storefield, that came to see me last week. He was real rightdown sorry for me, I could tell, though Jim and I used to laugh at him, and call him a regular old crawler of a milker’s calf in the old days. The tears came into his eyes reg’lar like a woman as he gave my hand a squeeze and turned his head away. We was little chaps together, you know. A man always feels that, you know. And old George, he’ll go back—a fifty-mile ride, but what’s that on a good horse? He’ll be late home, but he can cross the rock ford the short way over the creek. I can see him turn his horse loose at the garden-gate, and walk through the quinces that lead up to the cottage, with his saddle on his arm. Can’t I see it all, as plain as if I was there?
And his wife and the young ’uns ’ll run out when they hear father’s horse, and want to hear all the news. When he goes in there’s his meal tidy and decent waiting for him, while he tells them about the poor chap he’s been to see as is to be scragged next month. Ha! ha! what a rum joke it is, isn’t it?
And then he’ll go out in the verandah, with the roses growin’ all over the posts and smellin’ sweet in the cool night air. After that he’ll have his smoke, and sit there thinkin’ about me, perhaps, and old days, and what not, till all hours—till his wife comes and fetches him in. And here I lie—my God! why didn’t they knock me on the head when I was born, like a lamb in a dry season, or a blind puppy—blind enough, God knows! They do so in some countries, if the books say true, and what a hell of misery that must save some people from!
Well, it’s done now, and there’s no get away. I may as well make the best of it. A sergeant of police was shot in our last scrimmage, and they must fit some one over that. It’s only natural. He was rash, or Starlight would never have dropped him that day. Not if he’d been sober either. We’d been drinking all night at that Willow Tree shanty. Bad grog, too! When a man’s half drunk he’s fit for any devilment that comes before him. Drink! How do you think a chap that’s taken to the bush—regularly turned out, I mean, with a price on his head, and a fire burning in his heart night and day—can stand his life if he don’t drink? When he thinks of what he might have been, and what he is! Why, nearly every man he meets is paid to run him down, or trap him some way like a stray dog that’s taken to sheep-killin’. He knows a score of men, and women too, that are only looking out for a chance to sell his blood on the quiet and pouch the money. Do you think that makes a chap mad and miserable, and tired of his life, or not? And if a drop of grog will take him right out of his wretched self for a bit why shouldn’t he drink? People don’t know what they are talking about. Why, he is that miserable that he wonders why he don’t hang himself, and save the Government all the trouble; and if a few nobblers make him feel as if he might have some good chances yet, and that it doesn’t so much matter after all, why shouldn’t he drink?
He does drink, of course; every miserable man, and a good many women as have something to fear or repent of, drink. The worst of it is that too much of it brings on the ‘horrors’, and then the devil, instead of giving you a jog now and then, sends one of his imps to grin in your face and pull your heartstrings all day and all night long. By George, I’m getting clever—too clever, altogether, I think. If I could forget for one moment, in the middle of all the nonsense, that I was to die on Thursday three weeks! die on Thursday three weeks! die on Thursday! That’s the way the time runs in my ears like a chime of bells. But it’s all mere bosh I’ve been reading these long six months I’ve been chained up here—after I was committed for trial. When I came out of the hospital after curing me of that wound—for I was hit bad by that black tracker—they gave me some books to read for fear I’d go mad and cheat the hangman. I was always fond of reading, and many a night I’ve read to poor old mother and Aileen before I left the old place. I was that weak and low, after I took the turn, and I felt glad to get a book to take me away from sitting, staring, and blinking at nothing by the hour together. It was all very well then; I was too weak to think much. But when I began to get well again I kept always coming across something in the book that made me groan or cry out, as if some one had stuck a knife in me. A dark chap did once—through the ribs—it didn’t feel so bad, a little sharpish at first; why didn’t he aim a bit higher? He never was no good, even at that. As I was saying, there’d be something about a horse, or the country, or the spring weather—it’s just coming in now, and the Indian corn’s shooting after the rain, and I’ll never see it; or they’d put in a bit about the cows walking through the river in the hot summer afternoons; or they’d go describing about a girl, until I began to think of sister Aileen again; then I’d run my head against the wall, or do something like a madman, and they’d stop the books for a week; and I’d be as miserable as a bandicoot, worse and worse a lot, with all the devil’s tricks and bad thoughts in my head, and nothing to put them away.
I must either kill myself, or get something to fill up my time till the day—yes, the day comes. I’ve always been a middling writer, tho’ I can’t say much for the grammar, and spelling, and that, but I’ll put it all down, from the beginning to the end, and maybe it’ll save some other unfortunate young chap from pulling back like a colt when he’s first roped, setting himself against everything in the way of proper breaking, making a fool of himself generally, and choking himself down, as I’ve done.
The gaoler—he looks hard—he has to do that, there’s more than one or two within here that would have him by the throat, with his heart’s blood running, in half a minute, if they had their way, and the warder was off guard. He knows that very well. But he’s not a bad-hearted chap.
‘You can have books, or paper and pens, anything you like,’ he said, ‘you unfortunate young beggar, until you’re turned off.’
‘If I’d only had you to see after me when I was young,’ says I——
‘Come; don’t whine,’ he said, then he burst out laughing. ‘You didn’t mean it, I see. I ought to have known better. You’re not one of that sort, and I like you all the better for it.’
Anyhow, I must make a start. How do people begin when they set to work to write their own sayings and doings? There’s been a deal more doing than talking in my life—it was the wrong sort—more’s the pity.
Well, let’s see; his parents were poor, but respectable. That’s what they always say. My parents were poor, and mother was as good a soul as ever broke bread, and wouldn’t have taken a shilling’s worth that wasn’t her own if she’d been starving. But as for father, he’d been a poacher in England, a Lincolnshire man he was, and got sent out for it. He wasn’t much more than a boy, he said, and it was only for a hare or two, which didn’t seem much. But I begin to think, being able to see the right of things a bit now, and having no bad grog inside of me to turn a fellow’s head upside down, as poaching must be something like cattle and horse duffing—not the worst thing in the world itself, but mighty likely to lead to it.
Dad had always been a hard-working, steady-going sort of chap, good at most things, and like a lot more of the Government men, as the convicts were always called round our part, he saved some money as soon as he had done his time, and married mother, who was a simple emigrant girl just out from Ireland. Father was a square-built, good-looking chap, I believe, then; not so tall as I am by three inches, but wonderfully strong and quick on his pins. They did say as he could hammer any man in the district before he got old and stiff. I never saw him ‘shape’ but once, and then he rolled into a man big enough to eat him, and polished him off in a way that showed me—though I was a bit of a boy then—that he’d been at the game before. He didn’t ride so bad either, though he hadn’t had much of it where he came from; but he was afraid of nothing, and had a quiet way with colts. He could make pretty good play in thick country, and ride a roughish horse, too.
Well, our farm was on a good little flat, with a big mountain in front, and a scrubby, rangy country at the back for miles. People often asked him why he chose such a place. ‘It suits me,’ he used to say, with a laugh, and talk of something else. We could only raise about enough corn and potatoes, in a general way, for ourselves from the flat; but there were other chances and pickings which helped to make the pot boil, and them we’d have been a deal better without.
First of all, though our cultivation paddock was small, and the good land seemed squeezed in between the hills, there was a narrow tract up the creek, and here it widened out into a large well-grassed flat. This was where our cattle ran, for, of course, we had a team of workers and a few milkers when we came. No one ever took up a farm in those days without a dray and a team, a year’s rations, a few horses and milkers, pigs and fowls, and a little furniture. They didn’t collar a 40-acre selection, as they do now—spend all their money in getting the land and squat down as bare as robins—a man with his wife and children all under a sheet of bark, nothing on their backs, and very little in their bellies. However, some of them do pretty well, though they do say they have to live on ’possums for a time. We didn’t do much, in spite of our grand start.
The flat was well enough, but there were other places in the gullies beyond that that father had dropped upon when he was out shooting. He was a tremendous chap for poking about on foot or on horseback, and though he was an Englishman, he was what you call a born bushman. I never saw any man almost as was his equal. Wherever he’d been once, there he could take you to again; and what was more, if it was in the dead of the night he could do it just the same. People said he was as good as a blackfellow, but I never saw one that was as good as he was, all round. In a strange country, too. That was what beat me—he’d know the way the creek run, and noticed when the cattle headed to camp, and a lot of things that other people couldn’t see, or if they did, couldn’t remember again. He was a great man for solitary walks, too—he and an old dog he had, called Crib, a cross-bred mongrel-looking brute, most like what they call a lurcher in England, father said. Anyhow, he could do most anything but talk. He could bite to some purpose, drive cattle or sheep, catch a kangaroo, if it wasn’t a regular flyer, fight like a bulldog, and swim like a retriever, track anything, and fetch and carry, but bark he wouldn’t. He’d stand and look at dad as if he worshipped him, and he’d make him some sign and off he’d go like a child that’s got a message. Why he was so fond of the old man we boys couldn’t make out. We were afraid of him, and as far as we could see he never patted or made much of Crib. He thrashed him unmerciful as he did us boys. Still the dog was that fond of him you’d think he’d like to die for him there and then. But dogs are not like boys, or men either—better, perhaps.
Well, we were all born at the hut by the creek, I suppose, for I remember it as soon as I could remember anything. It was a snug hut enough, for father was a good bush carpenter, and didn’t turn his back to any one for splitting and fencing, hut-building and shingle-splitting; he had had a year or two at sawing, too, but after he was married he dropped that. But I’ve heard mother say that he took great pride in the hut when he brought her to it first, and said it was the best-built hut within fifty miles. He split every slab, cut every post and wallplate and rafter himself, with a man to help him at odd times; and after the frame was up, and the bark on the roof, he camped underneath and finished every bit of it—chimney, flooring, doors, windows, and partitions—by himself. Then he dug up a little garden in front, and planted a dozen or two peaches and quinces in it; put a couple of roses—a red and a white one—by the posts of the verandah, and it was all ready for his pretty Norah, as she says he used to call her then. If I’ve heard her tell about the garden and the quince trees and the two roses once, I’ve heard her tell it a hundred times. Poor mother! we used to get round her—Aileen, and Jim, and I—and say, ‘Tell us about the garden, mother.’ She’d never refuse; those were her happy days, she always said. She used to cry afterwards—nearly always.
The first thing almost that I can remember was riding the old pony, ’Possum, out to bring in the milkers. Father was away somewhere, so mother took us all out and put me on the pony, and let me have a whip. Aileen walked alongside, and very proud I was. My legs stuck out straight on the old pony’s fat back. Mother had ridden him up when she came—the first horse she ever rode, she said. He was a quiet little old roan, with a bright eye and legs like gate-posts, but he never fell down with us boys, for all that. If we fell off he stopped still and began to feed, so that he suited us all to pieces. We soon got sharp enough to flail him along with a quince stick, and we used to bring up the milkers, I expect, a good deal faster than was good for them. After a bit we could milk, leg-rope, and bail up for ourselves, and help dad brand the calves, which began to come pretty thick. There were only three of us children—my brother Jim, who was two years younger than I was, and then Aileen, who was four years behind him. I know we were both able to nurse the baby a while after she came, and neither of us wanted better fun than to be allowed to watch her, or rock the cradle, or as a great treat to carry her a few steps. Somehow we was that fond and proud of her from the first that we’d have done anything in the world for her. And so we would now—I was going to say—but that poor Jim lies under a forest oak on a sandhill, and I—well, I’m here, and if I’d listened to her advice I should have been a free man. A free man! How it sounds, doesn’t it? with the sun shining, and the blue sky over your head, and the birds twittering, and the grass beneath your feet! I wonder if I shall go mad before my time’s up.
Mother was a Roman Catholic—most Irishwomen are; and dad was a Protestant, if he was anything. However, that says nothing. People that don’t talk much about their religion, or follow it up at all, won’t change it for all that. So father, though mother tried him hard enough when they were first married, wouldn’t hear of turning, not if he was to be killed for it, as I once heard him say. ‘No!’ he says, ‘my father and grandfather, and all the lot, was Church people, and so I shall live and die. I don’t know as it would make much matter to me, but such as my notions is, I shall stick to ’em as long as the craft holds together. You can bring up the girl in your own way; it’s made a good woman of you, or found you one, which is most likely, and so she may take her chance. But I stand for Church and King, and so shall the boys, as sure as my name’s Ben Marston.’