In the Roaring Fifties


Edward Dyson

A MATCH was struck, and in its glow Done recognised his visitor. It was Ryder. The latter lit the candle, and then turned towards Jim. He was quite composed, apparently. Not so Done; the revelation amazed him. The hand containing the revolver sank to his side. He stood for some moments awaiting an explanation. None was offered.

‘Is Mr. Walter Ryder a tent thief?’ he asked bitterly.

Ryder shook his head. ‘No,’ he said.

‘It looks strangely like it.’

‘It does.’

‘And I purpose raising the camp, and submitting the matter to the men.’

‘You won’t do that.’

‘Why not?’

‘Because I can satisfy you that I have a very excellent excuse for being here and for prying into your affairs.’

‘I’ll wait two minutes for that.’

‘It won’t take one, Jim. I am your brother, Richard Done!’

The revolver dropped from Jim’s hand. He did not speak; every particle of him thrilled with intense emotion. For half a minute he stood rooted, speechless, and then he strode forward and seated himself on the bunk, staring closely into Ryder’s face by the dim light of the candle.

‘You will want proof?’ said Ryder.

Jim shook his head. Ryder’s declaration, abrupt and dramatic as it was, had struck him with absolute conviction. He was amazed, but he did not doubt. He understood now the origin of the deep impression this man had made upon him.

‘That is proof enough,’ he said, laying a trembling hand upon the miniature of his mother upon the table.

‘Almost,’ answered Ryder, ‘but not enough. We are both very like poor mother.’

‘We are very like each other.’ Jim’s faculties were stunned for the time; there was a dreamlike unreality in their positions.

Ryder nodded. ‘We are.’

‘It must have been that and your resemblance to my mother impressed me. I was impressed without consciousness of the reason.’

‘Miss Woodrow noticed the resemblance, and when I heard your name and your age I thought it very likely that you were my brother. When I saw you that night in the shanty I was almost convinced. These satisfied me.’ He indicated the scattered articles upon the table.

Jim made no demonstration; he sat with his eyes fixed upon the miniature, still dazed by the blow. There was something in his head—something he wished to know, but his ideas were all out of control. The thought centred with a shock.

‘Good God, no!’ he cried, clutching Ryder with a nerveless hand. ‘They hanged my brother!’

Ryder’s face was perfectly bloodless; it looked cold. He shook his head slowly.

‘I was condemned to be hanged. They altered it to transportation for life.’

‘But they all believed—’

‘Mother must have known. It would have made little difference. The horror of it was a little greater than the horror of hanging. It probably gave her no comfort.’

‘She died of it all.’ Jim spoke without volition.

‘Yes,’ responded Ryder dully. ‘She was the kind of woman who would. I was transported, and for all those years I lived in hell.’

‘For murder!’ said Jim sharply.

Ryder shook his head again. His voice was quite even. ‘I did no murder. There was no murder done.’

‘The body—what of the body?’

‘There was none. The man for whose murder I was condemned still lives. Stony is the man!’

‘Stony!’ Jim peered into the other’s face again. ‘Stony!’ he cried. ‘It’s not possible. You are lying. It’s utterly incredible. Stony! Then this explains?’ He did not doubt even while the words of unbelief were on his lips.

‘This explains. My coming upon you that night in the Black Forest was not so extraordinary as it seemed. I was following you both. I had been to Melbourne on Stony’s track, having caught a glimpse of him one night at Ballarat. I ascertained that he had started for Forest Creek. Meanwhile Mrs. Macdougal and Miss Woodrow had told me of you. It was reasonable to assume that you also had started for the field everybody was talking of. At our first meeting I did not see you: I was too deeply interested in Mr. Stony.’

‘Stony was not the name.’

‘Stony is an assumed name. Cannon is his real name—Peter Cannon.’

‘That is the name. But I cannot understand. My head fails me. I am utterly bewildered!’

‘You’ll hear Stony’s story? He is in his tent.’

‘Not now. You have overwhelmed: me. For God’s sake, give me time to straighten things out!’

Jim sat in silence for some minutes, but the excitement lingered. He drifted into questions, and plied the other like a cross-examining lawyer eager to trap a witness; but Ryder knew every detail of the family history. He told Jim of a birthmark on his own body. He described the furnishing of the home in Chisley much as it remained within Jim’s memory.

‘You have not mentioned our sister,’ he said.

‘She killed herself.’ Jim spoke with blunt brutality. He had no energy for equivocation.

Ryder accepted this piece of news in the spirit of a man steeled to the keenest strokes of Fate.

‘She was a beautiful girl,’ he said. ‘I remember I loved her dearly.’

‘You speak as if it were fifty years ago.’

‘I have been in hell since, I tell you.’

Jim looked closely into his brother’s face again, but it baffled him; it betrayed no more feeling than a stone.

‘Why have you divulged this now?’ he asked.

‘You forced it from me. I did not expect you to return. I saw you playing cards at the shanty. But it is as well. I should have told you later.’

‘There is something behind?’

‘Much; but till you have heard Stony tell his part I shall say no more. And for the present let this be our secret.’

‘Burton may come in at any moment.’

‘Good-night, then.’

‘No; I’ll go with you. I cannot face Mike in this condition. He would think me mad.’

‘To Stony’s tent?’

‘If you like. In Heaven’s name, man, why are you so cold? Why am I like a stunned brute? We are brothers. We may shake hands.’

Ryder made no advance. ‘Better hear the story out,’ he said.

It was a two-mile walk from where Jim and Mike were now camped to Stony’s tent, and the hour was midnight. The two men walked in silence, Jim with his head bowed, racked with nervous excitement, his mind running from point to point, grasping nothing wholly, seeing nothing clearly, the other erect and calm. When the tent was reached Ryder entered unceremoniously, and, striking a match, looked about him for a candle. There was a slush-lamp on a box by the bunk, and this he lit. Jim saw Stony start up in bed, and stare at the intruder with a look of mortal terror.

‘I have brought you a visitor,’ said Ryder.

The apprehension faded from the hatter’s face when he Jim.

‘A nice hour!’ he grumbled.

‘I have not studied your convenience,’ answered Ryder. ‘Here is the man to whom you are to tell the story of Richard Done and Peter Cannon. Tell it briefly, as you told it to me.’

Ryder seated himself on a block near the tent entrance, his back half turned to the others, and neither spoke nor moved throughout the narration. Stony looked from one to the other, and then commenced his story. He told it in a monotonous voice, with a dull face and eyes heavy with drink.

‘We were always enemies, Dick Done and I—enemies as boys at school at Chisley, fighting over everything, picking at each other from morn till night. As young chaps we remained enemies. It seemed as if God or the devil had sent us to plague each other. Our enmity grew with us. In manhood we were as bitter as death. Then the woman came. We both wanted her. It was just natural of us to get set on the same girl. She liked him—she didn’t care a snap of her fingers for me; but I didn’t give up. I followed her, plagued her, persecuted her, and hated Done worse than poison. With all my soul I hated him! Of course, we quarrelled over her, and Done went so far as to talk of killing. He didn’t mean it, perhaps, but it told against him later. One bright night I came on him and her sitting on Harry’s Crag. ’Twasn’t an accident. I’d been told they’d gone down to the sea, and I followed. I interfered, furious at heart, but making a show of civility, knowing that would madden him. He was soon up in arms. He tried to drive me off, struck me. I used my stick, and we fought there and then—fought like madmen on the cliff edge, two hundred feet above the sea. The girl, frightened almost to death, ran away. Done got my stick from me, and we fought with our hands. He could beat me at that game, and at length struck me a blow that stunned me; then he left me lying there, and went after the girl.’

Stony paused for a moment, and, drawing a bottle from the back of his bunk, took a long drink. Then his eyes wandered to Ryder again, and he went on:

‘When I came to I was alone. I crept a little further from the edge of the cliff, and lay down again. I was pretty badly knocked about; my nose was bleeding freely. Presently, moving my hand, I struck a knife—his knife! It was closed. I opened it, looking at the long blade. The idea had already formed in my mind. I smeared the blade with blood, and dropped the knife, open as it was, over the cliff, being careful that it should fall on the ledge about twenty feet below. Then I smeared blood upon the brink, tore a scrap from my coat, and left it there, throwing the coat with the hat into the sea. I was never seen in Chisley again. I walked all that night. In London I read of the arrest of Done on a charge of murder. They had found my hat and my coat and the knife. The girl had told her story. Done was condemned to death; and then I stowed away in an Australian boat, and was allowed to work my passage out I thought Richard Done had been hanged till I saw him that night at the camp in the Bush. The man sitting there is Richard Done.’

Stony fell back upon his grimy pillow again, and was silent; his eyes were fixed upon Ryder, but at that moment he had more to fear from Jim, who looked down upon him, fierce with disgust, his fingers itching to be at the thin neck of the brute.

‘Let us get out of this!’ he gasped.

‘Have you no questions to ask?’ said Ryder quietly.

‘None, none! And when I think of what this dog has brought upon me and mine I feel murderous.’

Ryder left the tent without another word, and Jim followed him. As they walked away, Done was stirred with deep sympathy for his companion. Ryder’s reiteration of the words, ‘I have been in hell!’ recurred to him. He felt that there were years of suffering and a fathomless hatred behind the phrase, and his blood ran hotly.

‘I wonder you have not killed that man!’ he blurted after a few minutes’ silence. ‘I regret ever having raised a hand to prevent it.’

‘I needed him,’ answered Ryder.

‘You intend to establish your innocence?’

For the first time that night a smile moved Ryder’s stark lips—a hard, mirthless smile.

‘No,’ he said; ‘where’s the use?’

‘How is it you are free?’ asked Jim with surprise. This view had not occurred to him before.

They were standing between the stunted and twisted gums. The Bush here was spare and dwarfed, and the moonlight shone clearly upon Ryder’s face.

‘I am an escaped convict!’ he replied

A bitter curse leapt from Done’s tongue. He felt himself bound to this man by a common wrong, a wrong that had clouded with misery the greater part of their two lives.

‘You may be retaken,’ he said.

‘I may, but I do not think it likely.’

At that moment recollection flashed upon Jim. He recalled the adventure with Long Aleck in the Bourke Street bar, and the robbery of Brigalow, the gold-buyer, at Diamond Gully. His hand was upon Ryder again: he gazed at him with a new apprehension.

‘Sit,’ he said. Ryder seated himself on a stump by the side of the young man, and Jim continued:

‘You say Miss Woodrow noticed a strong resemblance between us. Others have remarked it.’

‘I am not surprised. There is no difference in our faces but that which years have made.’

‘It was in Melbourne on the night of my arrival. I was attacked in a bar by a man who mistook me for Solo.’

The brothers looked into each other’s eyes for some little time, Jim anxiously, Ryder with no appearance of concern in his strong, handsome face.

‘I am the man they call Solo.’

‘Solo the robber!’ Instinctively Jim had moved back from the other, but Ryder took no notice of the action.

‘My boy,’ he said, ‘there are two kinds of men—the active criminal and the passive. I am fairly active.’

‘But the blind folly of it—here, where fortunes are made so easily!’

‘Are they? You have had a bit of luck. There are thousands on the rushes who do not make tucker. In any case I could not afford to place myself directly under the supervision of the troopers. Not that I had any weak desire to earn an honest living, by the way.’

‘What are you hoping for? Where is it all leading?’ Jim felt an emotion of despair.

‘Perhaps you would rather hear no more to-night.’

‘I must hear all. For God’s sake, speak!’

‘I have been in hell. For fifteen years I remained in the convict prisons. It might have been fifteen centuries, an eternity. Everything beyond is so distant that my youth seems a mere dot in the perspective.’

Ryder was talking in a clear, even, unemotional voice.

‘I cannot hope to give you anything approaching a true idea of the horror of that life. I know I can only faintly comprehend it myself now. Taken from happiness, a comparative boy, I was plunged into a state of absolute torment, an existence of brutalizing labour, ceaseless cruelty, and blackest infamy. I herded with men who had degenerated from criminals into brutes under the influence of the infamous system. Those fifteen years served to burn out of me most of the fine emotions and sentiments on which civilized men pride themselves, and then, during the blackest year of all, a wild craving to preserve something of humanity arose within me. That was my salvation. I had always before me the hope of escape. I fought now cease to retain some qualities of clean manhood, that I might appear amongst fellow as a man, and not like one of the lowering monsters by whom I was surrounded—men upon whose every feature and limb were stamped the repulsive brands of the lag. During that first period I maintained an attitude of fierce revolt, then, recognising my helplessness, I brought cunning into play, and practised dissimulation night and day. This saved me in some measure, but the ghastly life continued year after year, and I was thirty-eight before a reasonable chance of escape presented itself. My plans had been perfected, and when the opportunity came I seized it, with the resolution of a man for whom there was only one alternative to liberty—death.’

Jim never took his eyes from Ryder’s; he sat as if fascinated by the ivory-pale face of his companion.

‘I had one friend in Hobart Town, a freed convict named Wainewright. He provided me with the clothes of a gentleman. The beard I wore, and which has since served me as a disguise in my many enterprises, was given to me in the first place by Wainewright. To perfect that beard and destroy every semblance of artificiality, I had worked at it for three years in the cunning, patient way old prisoners toil at such a task. Wainewright helped me to get to the mainland, and I was safe, with a forged ticket-of-leave in my pocket in case the marks of the chains should be discovered by prying official eyes.’

‘Did you make any effort to live honestly?’ asked Jim.

‘Almost my first action on reaching the neighbour hood of Melbourne was to bail-up a prominent resident, whom I robbed. That act afforded me absolute joy. He was a decent, orderly citizen, a pillar of the State, a powerful upholder of the law. No robbery I have since committed has given me quite the same delight. I stole then because I needed money. I rob now because I am a keen sportsman, and that is the particular sport I affect. Possibly you would not appreciate the pleasure of the game; you have not had the humbug of the world eaten out of your heart with live flame. Having wilfully exposed itself to me, and translated my respect for it into a magnificent hatred, society cannot reasonably expect to find me docile. I prey upon society.’

‘It will avenge itself.’

‘True, it may. Robbery under arms is a hanging matter, but I have graduated in a marvellous school for cunning, and have perfect confidence.’

‘Yet you place yourself in my hands. What can the ties of blood count for between us two? For as long as I can remember I’ve thought of you only as something evil hovering over the door, silencing the home, darkening life.’

‘I counted on finding in you a mind not wholly at variance with my own. What those two women told me gave me some insight into your character. I perceived that at least the flame had scorched the bloom from your soul.’

‘Here I am a new man. I have known happiness, I have tasted love, and made friends with good men. Here I can live!’

Ryder looked at him closely. ‘You must tell me of your life,’ he said—‘the life in Chisley after my supposed hanging. No, no; not now. Go to your tent and sleep.’

‘Sleep! I shall not sleep.’

‘Think over what I have told you.’

‘There is more behind?’

‘There may be.’

‘You think I will join you?’

‘In my present career? No. For the time being, let us say no more. I need not ask you to be silent. Meet me here to-morrow night at nine. While you are thinking, bear always in mind the fact that Peter Cannon is there ‘—he pointed in the direction of Stony’s tent—‘a living man. Good-night.’

The reminder was well timed; pity stirred warmly in Jim’s heart again, and he offered his hand.

‘So long,’ he said, dropping into the vernacular of mateship.

Ryder took his hand with no demonstration of emotion. ‘So long,’ he replied.

In the Roaring Fifties - Contents    |     XVI

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