One day I had a newspaper passed in to me. It was against the regulations, but I did get it for all that, and this was the first thing I saw:—
STRANGE DISCOVERY IN THE TURON DISTRICT.
A remarkable natural formation, leading to curious results, was last week accidentally hit upon by a party of prospectors, and by them made known to the police of the district. It may tend to solve the doubts which for the last few years have troubled the public at large with respect to the periodical disappearance of a certain gang of bush-rangers now broken up.
Accident led the gold miners, who were anxious to find a practicable track to the gullies at the foot of Nulla Mountain, to observe a narrow winding way apparently leading over the brow of the precipice on its western face. To their surprise, half hidden by a fallen tree, they discovered a difficult but practicable track down a gully which finally opened out into a broad well-grassed valley of considerable extent, in which cattle and horses were grazing.
No signs of human habitation were at first visible, but after a patient search a cave in the eastern angle of the range was discovered. Fires had been lighted habitually near the mouth, and near a log two saddles and bridles—long unused—lay in the tall grass. Hard by was stretched the body of a man of swarthy complexion. Upon examination the skull was found to be fractured, as if by some blunt instrument. A revolver of small size lay on his right side.
Proceeding to the interior of the cave, which had evidently been used as a dwelling for many years past, they came upon the corpse of another man, in a sitting posture, propped up against the wall. One arm rested upon an empty spirit-keg, beside which were a tin pannikin and a few rude cooking utensils. At his feet lay the skeleton of a dog. The whole group had evidently been dead for a considerable time. Further search revealed large supplies of clothes, saddlery, arms, and ammunition—all placed in recesses of the cave—besides other articles which would appear to have been deposited in that secure receptacle many years since.
As may be imagined, a large amount of interest, and even excitement, was caused when the circumstances, as reported to the police, became generally known. A number of our leading citizens, together with many of the adjoining station holders, at once repaired to the spot. No difficulty was felt in identifying the bodies as those of Ben Marston, the father of the two bush-rangers of that name, and of Warrigal, the half-caste follower always seen in attendance upon the chief of the gang, the celebrated Starlight.
How the last members of this well-known, long-dreaded gang of freebooters had actually perished can only be conjectured, but taking the surrounding circumstances into consideration, and the general impression abroad that Warrigal was the means of putting the police upon the track of Richard Marston, which led indirectly to the death of his master and of James Marston, the most probable solution would seem to be that, after a deep carouse, the old man had taxed Warrigal with his treachery and brained him with the American axe found close to the body. He had apparently then shot himself to avoid a lingering death, the bullet found in his body having been probably fired by the half-caste as he was advancing upon him axe in hand.
The dog, well known by the name of Crib, was the property and constant companion of Ben Marston, the innocent accomplice in many of his most daring stock-raids. Faithful unto the end, with the deep, uncalculating love which shames so often that of man, the dumb follower had apparently refused to procure food for himself, and pined to death at the feet of his dead master. Though the philanthropist may regret the untimely and violent end of men whose courage and energy fitted them for better things, it cannot be denied that the gain to society far exceeds the loss.
When the recesses of the Hollow were fully explored, traces of rude but apparently successful gold workings were found in the creeks which run through this romantic valley—long as invisible as the fabled gold cities of Mexico.
We may venture to assert that no great time will be suffered to elapse ere the whole of the alluvial will be taken up, and the Terrible Hollow, which some of the older settlers assert to be its real name, will re-echo with the sound of pick and shovel; perhaps to be the means of swelling those escorts which its former inhabitants so materially lessened.
With regard to the stock pasturing in the valley, a puzzling problem presented itself when they came to be gathered up and yarded. The adjoining settlers who had suffered from the depredations of the denizens of the Hollow were gladly expectant of the recovery of animals of great value. To their great disappointment, only a small number of the very aged bore any brand which could be sworn to and legally claimed. The more valuable cattle and horses, evidently of the choicest quality and the highest breeding, resembled very closely individuals of the same breed stolen from the various proprietors. But they were either unbranded or branded with a letter and numbers to which no stock-owners in the district could lay claim.
Provoking, as well as perplexing, was this unique state of matters—wholly without precedent. For instance, Mr. Rouncival and his stud-groom could almost have sworn to the big slashing brown mare, the image of the long-lost celebrity Termagant, with the same crooked blaze down the face, the same legs, the same high croup and peculiar way of carrying her head. She corresponded exactly in age to the date on which the grand thoroughbred mare, just about to bring forth, had disappeared from Buntagong. No reasonable doubt existed as to the identity of this valuable animal, followed as she was by several of her progeny, equally aristocratic in appearance. Still, as these interesting individuals had never been seen by their rightful owners, it was impossible to prove a legal title.
The same presumptive certainty and legal incompleteness existed concerning Mr. Bowe’s short-horns (as he averred) and Mr. Dawson’s Devons.
‘Thou art so near and yet so far,’
as a provoking stock-rider hummed. Finally, it was decided by the officials in charge to send the whole collection to the public pound, when each proprietor might become possessed of his own, with a good and lawful title in addition—for ‘a consideration’—and to the material benefit of the Government coffers.
So it was this way the poor old Hollow was dropped on to, and the well-hidden secret blown for ever and ever. Well, it had been a good plant for us and them as had it before our time. I don’t expect there’ll ever be such a place again, take it all round.
And that was the end of father! Poor old dad! game to the last. And the dog, too!—wouldn’t touch bit or sup after the old man dropped. Just like Crib that was! Often and often I used to wonder what he saw in father to be so fond of him. He was about the only creature in the wide world that was fond of dad—except mother, perhaps, when she was young. She’d rather got wore out of her feelings for him, too. But Crib stuck to him to his end—faithful till death, as some of them writing coves says.
And Warrigal! I could see it all, sticking out as plain as a fresh track after rain. He’d come back to the Hollow, like a fool—in spite of me warning him—or because he had nowhere else to go. And the first time dad had an extra glass in his head he tackled him about giving me away and being the means of the other two’s death. Then he’d got real mad and run at him with the axe. Warrigal had fired as he came up, and hit him too; but couldn’t stop him in the rush. Dad got in at him, and knocked his brains out there and then. Afterwards, he’d sat down and drank himself pretty well blind; and then, finding the pains coming on him, and knowing he couldn’t live, finished himself off with his own revolver.
It was just the way I expected he would make an ending. He couldn’t do much all alone in his line. The reward was a big one, and there would be always some one ready to earn it. Jim and Starlight were gone, and I was as good as dead. There wasn’t much of a call for him to keep alive. Anyhow, he died game, and paid up all scores, as he said himself.
There’s only one thing keeps me alive; only for that I’d have starved to death for want of having the heart to eat or drink either, or else have knocked my brains out against the wall when one of them low fits came over me. That one thing’s the thought of Gracey Storefield.
She couldn’t come to me, she wrote, just yet, but she’d come within the month, and I wasn’t to fret about her, because whether it was ten years or twenty years if she was alive she’d meet me the day after I was free, let who will see her. I must be brave and keep up my spirits for her sake and Aileen’s, who, though she was dead to the world, would hear of my being out, and would always put my name in her prayers. Neither she nor I would be so very old, and we might have many years of life reasonably happy yet in spite of all that had happened. So the less I gave way and made myself miserable, the younger I should look and feel when I came out. She was sure I repented truly of what I had done wrong in the past; and she for one, and George—good, old, kind George—had said he would go bail that I would be one of the squarest men in the whole colony for the future. So I was to live on, and hope and pray God to lighten our lot for her sake.
People have come to see me a many times, most of them the first year or two I was in. After that they seemed to forget me, and get tired of coming. It didn’t make much odds.
But one visitor I had regular after the first month or two. Gracey, poor Gracey, used to come and see me twice a year. She said it wouldn’t do her or me any good to come oftener, and George didn’t want her to. But them two times she always comes, and, if it wasn’t for that, I don’t think I’d ever have got through with it. The worst of it was, I used to be that low and miserable after she went, for days and days after, that it was much as I could do to keep from giving in altogether. After a month was past I’d begin to look forward to the next time.
When I’d done over eleven years—eleven years! how did I ever do it? but the time passed, and passed somehow—I got word that they that I knew of was making a try to see if I couldn’t be let out when I’d done twelve years. My regular sentence was fifteen, and little enough too. Anyhow, they knock off a year or two from most of the long-sentence men’s time, if they’ve behaved themselves well in gaol, and can show a good conduct ticket right through.
Well, I could do that. I was too low and miserable to fight much when I went in; besides, I never could see the pull of kicking up rows and giving trouble in a place like that. They’ve got you there fast enough, and any man that won’t be at peace himself, or let others be, is pretty sure to get the worst of it. I’d seen others try it, and never seen no good come of it. It’s like a dog on the chain that growls and bites at all that comes near him. A man can take a sapling and half kill him, and the dog never gets a show unless he breaks his chain, and that don’t happen often.
Well, I’d learned carpentering and had a turn at mat-making and a whole lot of other things. They kept me from thinking, as I said before, and the neater I did ’em and the more careful I worked the better it went with me. As for my mats, I came quite to be talked about on account of ’em. I drew a regular good picture of Rainbow, and worked it out on a mat with different coloured thrums, and the number of people who came to see that mat, and the notice they took of it, would surprise any one.
When my twelve years was within a couple of months or so of being up I began to hear that there was a deal of in-and-out sort of work about my getting my freedom. Old George Storefield and Mr. Falkland—both of ’em in the Upper House—and one or two more people that had some say with the Government, was working back and edge for me. There was a party on the other side that wasn’t willing as I should lose a day or an hour of my sentence, and that made out I ought to have been hanged ‘right away’, as old Arizona Bill would have said, when I was first taken. Well, I don’t blame any of ’em for that; but if they could have known the feelings of a man that’s done a matter of twelve years, and thinks he might—yes, might—smell the fresh air and feel the grass under his feet in a week or two—well, they’d perhaps consider a bit.
Whatever way it came out I couldn’t say, but the big man of the Government people at that time—the Minister that had his say in all these sort of things—took it into his head that I’d had about enough of it, if I was to be let out at all; that the steel had been pretty well taken out of me, and that, from what he knew of my people and so on, I wasn’t likely to trouble the Government again. And he was right. All I wanted was to be let out a pardoned man, that had done bad things, and helped in worse; but had paid—and paid dear, God knows—for every pound he’d got crooked and every day he’d wasted in cross work. If I’d been sent back for them three years, I do r’aly believe something of dad’s old savage blood would have come uppermost in me, and I’d have turned reckless and revengeful like to my life’s end.
Anyhow, as I said before, the Minister—he’d been into the gaol and had a look once or twice—made up his mind to back me right out; and he put it so before the Governor that he gave an order for my pardon to be made out, or for me to be discharged the day my twelve years was up, and to let off the other three, along of my good behaviour in the gaol, and all the rest of it.
This leaked out somehow, and there was the deuce’s own barney over it. When some of the Parliament men and them sort of coves in the country that never forgives anybody heard of it they began to buck, and no mistake. You’d have thought every bush-ranger that ever had been shopped in New South Wales had been hanged or kept in gaol till he died; nothing but petitions and letters to the papers; no end of bobbery. The only paper that had a word to say on the side of a poor devil like me was the ‘Turon Star’. He said that ‘Dick Marston and his brother Jim, not to mention Starlight (who paid his debts at any rate, unlike some people he could name who had signed their names to this petition), had worked manly and true at the Turon diggings for over a year. They were respected by all who knew them, and had they not been betrayed by a revengeful woman might have lived thenceforth a life of industry and honourable dealing. He, for one, upheld the decision of the Chief Secretary. Thousands of the Turon miners, men of worth and intelligence, would do the same.’
The Governor hadn’t been very long in the colony, and they tried it on all roads to get him to go back on his promise to me. They began bullying, and flattering, and preaching at him if such a notorious criminal as Richard Marston was to be allowed to go forth with a free pardon after a comparatively short—short, think of that, short!—imprisonment, what a bad example it will be to the rising generation, and so on.
They managed to put the thing back for a week or two till I was nearly drove mad with fretting, and being doubtful which way it would go.
Lucky for me it was, and for some other people as well, the Governor was one of those men that takes a bit of trouble and considers over a thing before he says yes or no. When he says a thing he sticks to it. When he goes forward a step he puts his foot down, and all the blowing, and cackle, and yelping in the world won’t shift him.
Whether the Chief Secretary would have taken my side if he’d known what a dust the thing would have raised, and how near his Ministers—or whatever they call ’em—was to going out along with poor Dick Marston, I can’t tell. Some people say he wouldn’t. Anyhow, he stuck to his word; and the Governor just said he’d given his decision about the matter, and he hadn’t the least intention of altering it—which showed he knew something of the world, as well as intended to be true to his own opinions. The whole thing blew over after a bit, and the people of the country soon found out that there wasn’t such another Governor (barrin’ one) as the Queen had the sending out of.
The day it was all settled the head gaoler comes to me, and says he, ‘Richard Marston, the Governor and Council has been graciously pleased to order that you be discharged from her Majesty’s gaol upon the completion of twelve years of imprisonment; the term of three years’ further imprisonment being remitted on account of your uniform good conduct while in the said gaol. You are now free!’
I heard it all as if it had been the parson reading out of a book about some other man. The words went into my ears and out again. I hardly heard them, only the last word, free—free—free! What a blessed word it is! I couldn’t say anything, or make a try to walk out. I sat down on my blankets on the floor, and wondered if I was going mad. The head gaoler walked over to me, and put his hand on my shoulder. He was a kind enough man, but, from being ‘took in’ so often, he was cautious. ‘Come, Dick,’ he says, ‘pull yourself together. It’s a shake for you, I daresay, but you’ll be all right in a day or so. I believe you’ll be another man when you get out, and give the lie to these fellows that say you’ll be up to your old tricks in a month. I’ll back you to go straight; if you don’t, you’re not the man I take you for.’
I got up and steadied myself. ‘I thank you with all my heart, Mr. ——,’ I said. ‘I’m not much of a talker, but you’ll see, you’ll see; that’s the best proof. The fools, do they think I want to come back here? I wish some of them had a year of it.’
As soon as there was a chance of my going out, I had been allowed to ‘grow’, as they call it in there. That is, to leave off having my face scraped every morning by the prison barber with his razor, that was sometimes sharp and more times rough enough to rasp the skin off you, particularly if it was a cold morning. My hair was let alone, too. My clothes—the suit I was taken in twelve years ago—had been washed and cleaned and folded up, and put away and numbered in a room with a lot of others. I remember I’d got ’em new just before I started away from the Hollow. They was brought to me, and very well they looked, too. I never had a suit that lasted that long before.
That minds me of a yarn I heard at Jonathan Barnes’s one day. There was a young chap that they used to call ‘Liverpool Jack’ about then. He was a free kind of fellow, and good-looking, and they all took to him. He went away rather sudden, and they heard nothing of him for about three years. Then he came back, and as it was the busy season old Jonathan put him on, and gave him work. It was low water with him, and he seemed glad to get a job.
When the old man came in he says, ‘Who do you think came up the road to-day?—Liverpool Jack. He looked rather down on his luck, so I gave him a job to mend up the barn. He’s a handy fellow. I wonder he doesn’t save more money. He’s a careful chap, too.’
‘Careful,’ says Maddie. ‘How do ye make that out?’
‘Why,’ says Jonathan, ‘I’m dashed if he ain’t got the same suit of clothes on he had when he was here three years ago.’
The old man didn’t tumble, but both the girls burst out laughing. He’d been in the jug all the time!
I dressed myself in my own clothes—how strange it seemed—even to the boots, and then I looked in the glass. I hadn’t done that lately. I regularly started back; I didn’t know myself; I came into prison a big, stout, brown-haired chap, full of life, and able to jump over a dray and bullocks almost. I did once jump clean over a pair of polers for a lark.
And how was I going out? A man with a set kind of face, neither one thing nor the other, as if he couldn’t be glad or sorry, with a fixed staring look about the eyes, a half-yellowish skin, with a lot of wrinkles in it, particularly about the eyes, and gray hair. Big streaks of gray in the hair of the head, and as for my beard it was white—white. I looked like an old man, and walked like one. What was the use of my going out at all?
When I went outside the walls by a small gate the head gaoler shook hands with me. ‘You’re a free man now, Dick,’ he says, ‘and remember this—no man can touch you. No man has the right to pull you up or lay a finger on you. You’re as independent as the best gentleman in the land so long as you keep straight. Remember that. I see there’s a friend waiting for you.’
Sure enough there was a man that I knew, and that lived near Rocky Flat. He was a quiet, steady-going sort of farmer, and never would have no truck with us in our flash times. He was driving a springcart, with a good sort of horse in it.
‘Come along with me, Dick,’ says he. ‘I’m going your way, and I promised George Storefield I’d call and give you a lift home. I’m glad to see you out again, and there’s a few more round Rocky Flat that’s the same.’
We had a long drive—many a mile to go before we were near home. I couldn’t talk; I didn’t know what to say, for one thing. I could only feel as if I was being driven along the road to heaven after coming from the other place. I couldn’t help wondering whether it was possible that I was a free man going back to life and friends and happiness. Was it possible? Could I ever be happy again? Surely it must be a dream that would all melt away, and I’d wake up as I’d done hundreds of times and find myself on the floor of the cell, with the bare walls all round me.
When we got nearer the old place I began to feel that queer and strange that I didn’t know which way to look. It was coming on for spring, and there’d been a middling drop of rain, seemingly, that had made the grass green and everything look grand. What a time had passed over since I thought whether it was spring, or summer, or winter! It didn’t make much odds to me in there, only to drive me wild now and again with thinkin’ of what was goin’ on outside, and how I was caged up and like to be for months and years.
Things began little by little to look the way they used to do long and long ago. Now it was an old overhanging limb that had arched over the road since we were boys; then there was a rock with a big kurrajong tree growing near it. When we came to the turn off where we could see Nulla Mountain everything came back to me. I seemed to have had two lives; the old one—then a time when I was dead, or next door to it—now this new life. I felt as if I was just born.
‘We’ll get down here now,’ I said, when we came near the dividing fence; ‘it ain’t far to walk. That’s your road.’
‘I’ll run you up to the door,’ says he, ‘it isn’t far; you ain’t used to walking much.’
He let out his horse and we trotted through the paddock up to the old hut.
‘The garden don’t look bad,’ says he. ‘Them peaches always used to bear well in the old man’s time, and the apples and quinces too. Some one’s had it took care on and tidied up a bit. There, you’ve got a friend or two left, old man. And I’m one, too,’ says he, putting out his hand and giving mine a shake. ‘There ain’t any one in these parts as ’ll cast it up to you as long as you keep straight. You can look ’em all in the face now, and bygones ’ll be bygones.’
Then he touched up his horse and rattled off before I could so much as say ‘Thank ye.’
I walked through the garden and sat down in the verandah on one of the old benches. There was the old place, mighty little altered considering. The hut had been mended up from time to time—now a slab and then a sheet of bark—else it would have been down long enough ago. The garden had been dug up, and the trees trimmed year by year. A hinge had been put on the old gate, and a couple of slip-rails at the paddock. The potato patch at the bottom of the garden was sown, and there were vegetables coming on in the old beds. Some one had looked after the place; of course, I knew who it was.
It began to get coldish, and I pulled the latch—it was there just the same—and went into the old room. I almost expected to see mother in her chair, and father on the stool near the fireplace, where he used to sit and smoke his pipe. Aileen’s was a little low chair near mother’s. Jim and I used to be mostly in the verandah, unless it was very cold, and then we used to lie down in front of the fire—that is, if dad was away, as he mostly was.
The room felt cold and dark as I looked in. So dreadful lonely, too. I almost wished I was back in the gaol.
When I looked round again I could see things had been left ready for me, so as I wasn’t to find myself bad off the first night. The fire was all made up ready to light, and matches on the table ready. The kettle was filled, and a basket close handy with a leg of mutton, and bread, butter, eggs, and a lot of things—enough to last me a week. The bedroom had been settled up too, and there was a good, comfortable bed ready for any tired man to turn into. Better than all, there was a letter, signed ‘Your own Gracey,’ that made me think I might have some life left worth living yet.
I lit the fire, and after a bit made shift to boil some tea; and after I’d finished what little I could eat I felt better, and sat down before the fire to consider over things. It was late enough—midnight—before I turned in. I couldn’t sleep then; but at last I must have dropped off, because the sun was shining into the room, through the old window with the broken shutter, when I awoke.
At first I didn’t think of getting up. Then I knew, all of a sudden, that I could open the door and go out. I was in the garden in three seconds, listening to the birds and watching the clouds rising over Nulla Mountain.
‘Look here, George,’ I said, ‘as there’s a God in heaven, no man shall ever be able to say a word against me again. I think more of what you’ve done for me almost than of poor Gracey’s holding fast. It came natural to her. Once a woman takes to a man, it don’t matter to her what he is. But if you’d thrown me off I’d have not blamed you. What’s left of Dick Marston’s life belongs to her and you.’
‘Why, it’s never Rainbow?’ says I. ‘It’s twelve years and over since I saw him last.’
‘I didn’t care if it was twenty,’ said she. ‘Here he is, and goes as sound as a bell. His poor old teeth are getting done, but he ain’t the only one that way, is he, Joe? He’ll never die if I can keep him alive. I have to give him corn-meal, though, so as he can grind it easy.’
‘I believe she thinks more of that old moke than me and the children all put together,’ says Joe Moreton.
‘And why shouldn’t I?’ says Maddie, facing round at him just the old way. ‘Isn’t he the finest horse that ever stood on legs, and didn’t he belong to the finest gentleman that you or any one else looked at? Don’t say a word against him, for I can’t stand it. I believe if you was to lay a whip across that old horse in anger I’d go away and leave you, Joe Moreton, just as if you was a regular black stranger. Poor Rainbow! Isn’t he a darling?’ Here she stroked the old horse’s neck. He was rolling fat, and had a coat like satin. His legs were just as clean as ever, and he stood there as if he heard everything, moving his old head up and down the way he always did—never still a moment. It brought back old times, and I felt soft enough, I tell you. Maddie’s lips were trembling again, too, and her eyes like two coals of fire. As for Joe, he said nothing more, and the best thing too. The boy led Rainbow over to the fence, and old George walked us all into the church, and that settled things.
After the words were said we all went back to George’s together, and Maddie and her husband drank a glass of wine to our health, and wished us luck. They rode as far as the turn off to Rocky Flat with us, and then took the Turon road.
‘Good-bye, Dick,’ says Maddie, bending down over the old horse’s neck. ‘You’ve got a stunning good wife now, if ever any man had in the whole world. Mind you’re an A1 husband, or we’ll all round on you, and your life won’t be worth having; and I’ve got the best horse in the country, haven’t I? See where the bullet went through his poor neck. There’s no lady in the land got one that’s a patch on him. Steady, now, Rainbow, we’ll be off in a minute. You shall see my little Jim there take him over a hurdle yard. He can ride a bit, as young as he is. Pity poor old Jim ain’t here to-day, isn’t it, Dick? Think of him being cold in his grave now, and we here. Well, it’s no use crying, is it?’
And off went Maddie at a pace that gave Joe and the boy all they knew to catch her.
It freshens me up to think of making a start in a new country. It’s a long way from where we were born and brought up; but all the better for that. Of course they’ll know about me; but in any part of Australia, once a chap shows that he’s given up cross doings and means to go straight for the future, the people of the country will always lend him a helping hand, particularly if he’s married to such a wife as Gracey. I’m not afraid of any of my troubles in the old days being cast up to me; and men are so scarce and hard to get west of the Barcoo that no one that once had Dick Marston’s help at a muster is likely to remind him of such an old story as that of ‘Robbery Under Arms’.