In the Roaring Fifties


Edward Dyson

BURTON found his mate gloomy and taciturn all next day, a condition so remarkable in Done that it gave Mike some little concern, but he made no comment; and Jim was too absorbed in the strange, new development in his life to discover his friend’s uneasiness. Ryder’s story brought Jim’s youthful sufferings back to him with painful vividness; it awakened some animosities he had thought dead, and he recognised, though shrinking from the idea with actual terror, in Ryder’s attitude towards his kind the frame of mind into which he was drifting when he broke away from Chisley and its associations. Remembering well his own heart up to the time when human interests and sympathies began to awaken kindred emotions within him, he understood that the resemblance between himself and his brother was as close on the moral side as it was on the physical, but with Ryder the demoralizing influences had worked their utmost. How like their sufferings had been! differing only in degree; but his own sufferings looked pale and fanciful now beside those of his brother. His afflictions were of the spirit only. He and Ryder were of a supersensitive race and every soul-pang he endured had been augmented a thousand times in his brother’s case, and driven in by the prison cell, the leg-irons, the loathsome associations, the animalizing toil in the quarries—the lash! Jim had heard enough of the infamy of the system to understand, if not the worst, sufficient to make his skin creep at the thought of it. He realized to what state of heart and mind Ryder had been driven, knowing how he himself had developed under the stress of comparatively trivial wrongs, and the whole man ached with sympathy. It required a strong effort to restrain his inclination to tears, a weakness of the flesh he had surprised in himself before now.

And Ryder had suffered all this, knowing himself to be guiltless of the crime of which he was convicted. Stony was there in his tent. If Jim had known where to find his brother he would have gone to him in the morning, prompted by the generous affection that had sprung in his heart, feeling that Ryder might be won over by new friendships and new interests. It seemed to him that the wholesome effects worked in his case might be repeated in that of his brother, forgetting their disparity in years. The change had come to him while he was yet little more than a boy; Ryder was a man in middle life, and no longer capable of youth’s saving enthusiasms.

Jim was early for the appointment, but Ryder was already at the rendezvous, seated on the log, smoking, and apparently deriving placid enjoyment from his cigar. The young man’s greeting was warm, but the elder showed no emotion. If any liking for Jim existed in him it was carefully hidden away. Throughout their previous meeting he had borne himself with seriousness, as if something of importance to him were at stake; to-night he was in a wholly different humour, more like the man who had encountered Jim in Mary Kyley’s bar.

‘Are we to consider the relationship established?’ he said.

‘I am quite convinced,’ answered Jim. ‘I have not doubted it from the moment you declared yourself.’

‘You are much too confiding, my boy. As an impostor I might have gathered all these details from the real Richard Done.’

‘With what object?’

‘Well, I have an object, an ulterior motive. I want you to share a large fortune with me.’

Jim laughed. ‘You may pick up a large family of brothers on those terms,’ he said.

‘You will do. Is it a bargain?’

‘What is this fortune? Where is it? How was it come by?’

‘The fortune is mainly in virgin gold; it is in an untried alluvial field.’

‘If the field is untried, how do you know the gold is in it?’

‘I put it there.’

Jim looked at Ryder sharply. ‘You have not answered one of my questions,’ he said. ‘How was the gold come by?’

‘There’s no objection on that score,’ Ryder answered lightly. ‘It was come by dishonestly, every grain of it.’

‘To me that is a serious objection. I am an honest man, my instincts are all for fair dealing, and I believe, as a simple everyday working principle, honesty is the best policy.’

‘Honesty is not a policy, my boy: it is a misfortune.’

‘Why do you wish to share your loot with me?’

‘Seventy or eighty thousand ounces of gold is not easily accounted for nor easily disposed of by a guest of the Queen who is on leave without a ticket that will bear the closest investigation. You could dispose of it safely enough.’

‘And if I were asked to account for it?’

‘That is provided for. I have discovered a field within a day’s journey that nobody else knows of—that nobody else is likely to know of. You and I go there, we work it for a few months, and the gold I have mentioned is to be represented as the result of our labours if it becomes necessary to make explanations. A few thousand ounces in nuggets which might ‘by some unhappy chance be recognised by previous owners we shall batter into slugs and reserve for sale in other lands.’

And then?’

‘Then all that life in London and Paris means to men with great fortunes.’ Ryder was smiling as he spoke. ‘Then to seize and enjoy all that smug respectability is willing to give to the wealthy, and much that it is unwilling to give, but which it shall be our pleasure to take. Then to exact our revenge for all we have endured at the hands of society by making it in some measure the slave to minister to our needs and our desires. I positively tremble, my brother, when I think of the little mischief one man can work; but with money and ingenuity, combined with devotion to purpose, we may succeed in accomplishing quite a decent vengeance.’

‘I have no desire for revenge upon society.’

‘To be sure, you have not sat through the long black night in, a cold cell with the rats, a wet rag thrown over your lacerated back, the chains eating into your flesh like the nibbling of tiny teeth, thinking of the good people who rule England, sitting at their blazing fires or smiling round the laden tables.’

‘No, thank God!’

‘If you had you might appreciate the subtle delight of sinning against your enemies. I am going back to England to devote what arts I know, what cunning I have, and what attractions I can assume, to the gratification of the only passion left me. When I think of the fair daughters and the fair sons of the comfortable middle class, Jim, I have exquisite hopes.’ Ryder rolled the cigar between his fingers, and smiled at his brother in a gentle, kindly way. ‘If I can bring an honoured son of reputable parents to taste the joys of the hulks and feel the caresses of the leaded cat, I shall, I feel, be almost reconciled to my past. They talk of stopping transportation and abolishing the system. I never cease to pray that the system may be spared to us. If it is done away with before I have gratified the magnificent malice I have stored up in this breast, morsel by morsel, hoarding it with the greed of a miser, I am afraid I shall lose my faith in a just Providence.’

‘This is simply hideous,’ exclaimed Jim. ‘But you are joking. You speak without bitterness.

‘I speak without bitterness because I would not waste any jot of it. When my moments come (and I have had a few) I desire to experience the perfect emotion. Revenge is only sweet when it opens the flood-gates of a pent-up hatred.’

‘Richard!’ cried the young man, ‘for God’s sake put this black evil out of your heart! Here is a clean world—come into it, take part in it with the good men. Your soul is poisoned—purge it. Open your eyes to the sun. I’ll help you!’

Ryder placed his cigar on the log beside him, and turning back the left wrist of the silk undershirt he wore, struck a match, and showed Jim a broad red wheal encircling the arm like the scar of a deep burn.

‘Would you like to see my ankle?’ he said. ‘Or my back? It’s a pretty sight. I am a hunted man. But if I were not, I would not consent to sacrifice my exquisite desires merely because the sun shines and girls are merry.’

‘But I have been happy. I’ll have none of this ugly gospel of hatred and revenge.’

‘Happy! Because you are free for a moment; because you are not treated quite as a pariah because that black-eyed houri down at the shanty smiles at you? You’ll sicken of this presently. I tell you you must come back to your healthy hatred. The spirit of revolt is in your blood; the contempt is with you. I shall win you over.’

‘Never! Never!’

‘Happy! Son of a mother tortured to death by a Christian people; brother of the girl driven to suicide by hate; brother of the man whom society set in hell.’ Ryder’s voice was low and musical, and his words were more dreadful than curses. ‘You have not told me all,’ he continued. ‘Sit down, man—tell me of your life at home there.’

Jim demurred, but Ryder led him on to the narrative, and eventually he described his past, and as he talked of the old troubles and tribulations, his former prejudices awoke, and something of the early hatred and disdain. Ryder, quick to detect the effect of the revival of his boyish grievances, kept the young man’s thoughts on the more painful features of the story, and worked upon his feelings guilefully probing his soul, finding his weaknesses with an unerring touch, prompted, no doubt, by his knowledge of Richard Done, the man he had been, whose youthful character he found faithfully reflected here.

‘You’ll come with me?’ said Ryder.

‘No, I couldn’t do it,’ answered Jim. ‘Your idea of vengeance strikes me only as the dream of a madman.’

‘But you’ll think it over?’

‘You don’t suppose a man can get this sort of thing out of his mind in a day.’

‘Remember, I bind you to nothing, and there is a big fortune at stake.’

‘Got by crime.’

‘By open, honest daylight robbery.’

Jim looked at his brother with a feeling of despair; he recognised the utter hopelessness of argument based on accepted ideas of right and wrong. In disputing he felt like a child blowing bubbles against a stone wall. Ryder’s attitude implied that he had tested everything in the fire of a terrible experience.

‘Man, man!’ cried Done, ‘how can you hope to beat the world?’

‘For four years I have beaten it. And I am appreciated. The Government of Victoria has just raised the price of my head to one thousand pounds.’

‘Why not leave the country at once?’

‘As soon as you are ready.’

‘Impossible. I will not go.’

‘I remain until you change your mind, unless, in the meantime, some safe and convenient means of transporting my hard-earned gold presents itself. I have an alternative scheme, but it means greater risks, and, besides, I find I am still capable of the preposterous folly of liking. I like you.’

‘Then give up this brutal scheme, join with me, make an effort to work the poison out of your blood, to revive a clean, honest interest in existence, and I’ll stand by you through thick and thin, against the law and all your enemies, while I’ve a heart-beat left in me. It’s worth the effort, Dick; the world is fair, men are decent, and women are sweet.’

Ryder sat nursing a foot, smiling a smile of kindly interest. ‘My boy,’ he said, ‘you have the ardent sentimentality of a good mother’s pink-cheeked cub of nineteen. Has it occurred to you that I have run a very great risk in being seen for five minutes in your company? Your name is Done, and you made the name rather familiar along Forest Creek; we are alike, as you have noted, and although Richard Done, the escaped convict, is not much thought of at this date, it is certain that hearing your name awakened recollection amongst the old Vandemonians in the police here, and they have probably run the rule over you more than once. If I were to join with you, they’d clap the darbies on me within a week.’

Jim spread his hands in a gesture of despair. ‘I have been mistaken for Solo once; that risk must always follow you,’ he said.

‘I am prepared; but the Government shall never pay their thousand pounds for a live man. I appear as little as possible in the diggings in this guise, however. You did not know me as the chief performer in that little comedy with Brigalow on Diamond Gully. You did not recognise me in the dark man who talked with you and Burton while the madcap from Kyley’s was leading the troopers a merry dance along the lead. By the way, I admire your taste in women, Jim. She’s a fine, unshamed barbarian, this Aurora.’

The subject was distasteful to Jim. He put it aside hastily. ‘If I worked with you in this scheme for disposing of the gold you would run the same risk,’ he said.

‘No; I need not appear in the matter. The field I speak of, which is probably very rich in itself, is so situated that we might work it for a year without being discovered. Meanwhile, by making frequent trips to Ballarat and Bendigo, you could sell a great deal of my gold along with such as we may earn. Then I should sail for England, taking with me as much gold as I could safely handle, leaving you to sell more, and eventually join me with the remainder. In this way we can, if we choose, rid ourselves of three hundred thousand pounds’ worth without attracting any particular attention.’

‘You reckoned on finding me greedy for gold.’

‘I reckoned more on finding you willing to seize an opportunity of exacting from society some return for death, torture, and infamy!’

‘There was a time when you might have prevailed.’

‘That time may come again. It needs only a new grievance—the law to bruise you, the women to betray.’

Jim shook his head. He felt the disc of Lucy’s locket pressing against his breast under his folded arms. ‘I cannot believe it,’ he said.

The other was silent for some moments, and Jim watched him with troubled eyes. None of the cruelty and the viciousness to which Ryder had given utterance found expression in his features, which were marked with sensitive lines and some refinement. Done thought of Brummy the Nut, and it seemed to him little short of miraculous that this man had been able to come through similar experiences and yet show no evidence of it in his face. Ryder arose and moved away a few paces.

‘If you go from here to another field,’ he said, ‘leave word for me at one of the stores.’

‘Are you going?’

‘I may not leave Jim Crow for a few days.’

‘You have something in hand?’

‘Meaning some robbery? No; it is possible Solo has made a dramatic disappearance from contemporaneous history.’

‘You’ll drop the game? Good! Good!’

‘It all depends. I have the gold I need, but the sporting instinct may be too strong for me. Just now there is other work in view. Be assured, my intentions are not honourable, however. We shall meet again. My proposition may appeal to you later. You will not forget it.’

‘Put it out of your head,’ said Jim appealingly. ‘Leave the country, take the gold if you must, live luxuriously if you care to, but dig out of your heart this devilish malice against people who have done you no conscious wrong. Do this for your own sake; the course you have decided upon is one of desolation and despair.’

‘Least of all did I expect to find my brother a pulpiteer and a moralist with all the popular faith in the domestic virtues, and the quaint conviction that misery dogs the sinner,’ said Ryder dryly.

‘I have used no cant,’ answered Jim, ‘and I said nothing of sin or virtue. I don’t ask you to trust God, but to trust man. Be at peace with your kind!’

‘And this is the man they called the Hermit on board the Francis Cadman!’

‘Yes; and I was wretched aboard simply because I met the free and hearty men around me in a spirit of sullenness and suspicion. But my sick misanthropy was not proof against the heart-quickening sunshine and the grand enthusiasm of those fine sane men.’

‘Evidently your philosophy sprang from a disordered liver. The sea-voyage, in stimulating that, cured you of your cherished beliefs. Another trip would probably make a devout Wesleyan of you,’ said Ryder banteringly. ‘Now, my liver is a perfect instrument, and you couldn’t alter a single opinion of mine with a long course of antibilious treatment. In defiance of all Sunday-school precedents, I can be cheerful though wicked, and, having attained the splendid isolation of perfect selfishness, my happiness is not dependent on the gaiety or gloom of the crowd, My boy, you might remember that your experience is not so wide as to justify you in asking mankind at large to accept you as the touchstone for all human emotions. Good-bye.’

Jim gripped his brother’s hand and held it. ‘Good bye!’ he said. ‘I wish I could do something for you, but you leave me helpless.’

Ryder went off with a laugh, and a moment later his voice came back through the trees—a light, musical baritone, singing an Irish love-song, and Jim, listening, troubled in spirit, wondered how much of the true man he had been permitted to see.

Throughout the quiet months that followed Done lived a sober, methodical life. He saw no more of his brother while they remained on the Jim Crow diggings, but thought of him constantly, dreading to hear of some further daring escapade on the part of Solo, fearing more the possibility of his capture. Burton was perplexed by the note of gravity that had developed in his mate, until he made an accidental discovery of Lucy Woodrow’s locket, and then he thought he understood all, especially as Jim’s visits to Kyley’s shanty were comparatively rare of late. Meanwhile, Jim had written once to Lucy, but had received no answer—a fact that did not disturb him, however, as the postal service on the fields and in the Bush was extremely erratic. He was quite satisfied now that he had been in love with his shipmate all the time, but it was not easy to account for Aurora. Certainly he had been very fond of her: he was fond of her still, and could not bring himself to regret having known her. He strove resolutely to refrain from applying conventional standards of judgment, with which, he assured himself, he had no sympathy, but little uneasinesses and awkward moments would obtrude. It was difficult to maintain the fine idea of rationalism. ‘I won’t have you bind the strange man you may be to-morrow with oaths,’ Aurora had said; yet it was evident the change in him was a source of great distress to her.

‘I haven’t seen you for a fortnight, Jim,’ she said one evening, with a tinge of reproach that she was striving to repress.

‘No,’ he said shortly.

‘And absence hasn’t made you particularly fond.’

He was leaning on the counter, and took her hand between his own, but was silent.

‘At least, you don’t lie to me,’ she continued.

Jim did not plume himself on that; he knew in his heart that if he had not lied it was because a thoroughly satisfactory fiction had not presented itself. He kissed her knuckles, which, in itself was a lie of inference. Aurora pulled her hand away, and robbed him of his one resource. He felt abashed and defenceless without it. He thrust his hands in his pockets, and turned his shoulders to her, gazing moodily on the floor, having a dawning sense of the differences that may suddenly afflict two hearts that have beat as one, realizing that the ardent affection of yesterday and yesterday’s kisses count for nothing in the present estrangement. He could, not essay the role of friendship: it was as if they were strangers without a single affinity.

‘The fact is, Aurora,’ he said desperately, ‘I’m a good deal changed. I’ve experienced a great shock lately, and it has pulled me up short.’

‘And the woman?’

He turned upon her again with genuine surprise. ‘The woman! The woman!’ he cried. ‘It has nothing to do with a woman. Upon my soul, no! Something has been revealed to me that has hit me hard. I don’t get over it easily; it clings in my mind. If I could tell you, old girl, you’d sympathize; but I can’t—the secret is not my own.’ He spoke with emotion, and Aurora, watching him sharply, was touched. She put a hand on his arm.

‘Not another word, Jimmy,’ she said. ‘I won’t bother you. Sure,’ she continued lightly, ‘we weemin ’re niver contint wid the throubles of the day. We’re that curious we must be wonderin’ how much more’s comin’. We may boast iv bein’ sensible an’ sthrong, but we’re alwiz pushin’ our tentacles out to feel the sorrow iv to-morrow. I reckoned you’d be hatin’ me in a week, ma bouchal.’

Done felt himself justified in kissing her there and then, but the kiss partook a good deal of the nature of a benediction.

This explanation did not serve to restore confidence; the constraint remained, and increased with time. Jim noted its effect on Aurora with some misgiving. His appearance in the tent was the signal for a display of boisterous animation on her part. If she had been depressed before, she suddenly became gay; if she had been animated, she became jubilant. She sang, and joked, and danced, and played, with an excess of jocosity that jarred him painfully. He gave her credit for uncommon intelligence, and undoubtedly she had been educated above the position in life she was content to occupy. Why should she resort to the shallow and obvious subterfuges of the most foolish and frivolous of her sex? He had no perception of the extent of her sufferings, and would not, in any case, have understood how independent are the workings of the head and the heart of a loving woman. On such occasions she flirted audaciously with the miners, and her blood burned in her veins because Done showed no disposition to be moved by it.

Tim Carrol imagined himself to be the specially favoured man, and was Aurora’s most devoted slave, and the girl played upon his big, affectionate heart, with no object but to awaken in Done a sparkle of the recent fire. One night Aurora danced with him through a lively reel, and at its conclusion, in a spirit of mirthless mischief, put up her red mouth to be kissed. Not for all the powers of good and evil would Tim have foregone that delight. He kissed her, but this time Done offered no objection. Indeed, he gave no indication of having seen what was passing, although in reality he had been watching Aurora, impressed with the idea that she was drinking. Never since the first night he met her had she seemed to him to be under the influence of drink, and he admitted to himself that he might have been mistaken then, and was probably deceived now by the fervour of her character.

Done’s indifference struck a chill to the girl’s heart. She went back to her place silent, but feeling within her the stirring of a tempest. A quarter of an hour later she confronted Jim as he stood talking with Harry Peetree. For a moment she looked into his face, and all eyes were upon her. Then she struck him in the mouth with her right hand, and her eyes, cheeks, and whole being seemed to blaze into passion at the same moment.

‘I have something belonging to you. Is it that you are waiting for?’ She threw the small nugget in his face with her other hand.

The gold cut his temple, but he did not flinch; his eyes met hers without passion; his cultivated power of control helped him now. Taking out a handkerchief, he wiped the blood from his eye, and then, picking up the nugget, offered it to her.

‘Aurora,’ he said, ‘you know in your heart that is a lie.’

His quietness made her action ridiculous, whatever his intention may have been, and the girl felt it with an access of frenzy; but at this point Tim Carrol felt himself called upon to intervene in his new character as knight-errant.

‘D’ye mean to call the lady a liar?’ he cried hotly.

Jim, who had a real liking for the cheerful young Irishman, evaded the awkward blow aimed at his head, and stood back, and Ben Kyley saved further trouble by seizing Tim and hustling him into a corner.

‘I’m the on’y man what’s permitted to punch the customers in this tent,’ said Ben.

At the same time Mrs. Ben descended upon Aurora and bore her off with a mighty hug, much as if she were a rebellious infant.

In the Roaring Fifties - Contents    |     XVII

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