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Title: Castle Vane Author: J H M Abbott * A Project Gutenberg Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1306151h.html Language: English Date first posted: November 2013 Date most recently updated: November 2013 Produced by: Maurie Mulcahy Project Gutenberg Australia eBooks are created from printed editions which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular paper edition. Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this file. This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg Australia Licence which may be viewed online.
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CHAPTER I.—THE MAJOR'S NOSE
CHAPTER II.—THE BOOKSELLER
CHAPTER III.—THE RECRUIT
CHAPTER IV.—THE FREE COMPANY
CHAPTER V.—THE NIGHT RIDE
CHAPTER VI.—AT CASTLE VANE
CHAPTER VII.—THE JEWBOY
CHAPTER VIII.—THE JEWBOY'S JEST
CHAPTER IX.—THE TRIAL
CHAPTER X.—THE DEEP SEA
CHAPTER XI.—To THE MOUNTAINS
CHAPTER XII.—THE JEWBOY'S LAIR
CHAPTER XIII.—AT THE BOOKSHOP
CHAPTER XIV.—THE STORY OF RICHARD DELANE
CHAPTER XVI.—THE ATTACK
CHAPTER XVII.—THE COUNTER-STROKE
CHAPTER XVIII.—A DAY WITH THE OUTLAWS
CHAPTER XIX.—ON THE TRAIL
CHAPTER XX.—DOUGHBOY HOLLOW
CHAPTER XXI.—ALL'S WELL
MAJOR JOHN HILARY VANE, of Her Majesty's One Hundred and Forty-sixth Regiment of Foot, strode angrily up George Street.
If a man ever wore that expression of feature which is known as "a black look," it was worn by the senior major of the old "Perishers" on this sunny morning in the year of Our Lord one thousand eight hundred and forty. So black was it that a child ceased its play at the corner of Hunter Street, and howled dismally, as it caught sight of the lowering countenance of the tall field-officer. A top-hatted constable had paled to the roots of his red whiskers as he saluted him; and old Danny Burke, a First Fleeter, tottering along the sidewalk with the help of two sticks, had tripped over one of them, and sprawled into the gutter, in an access of sudden terror, when he beheld the major close upon him.
"Glory be!" the old man muttered, as a kindly passer-by assisted him to his feet. "Glory be! 'Twas warse than Guv'nor Bligh he do be looking. Shure, 'tis flogging dayfaulters he'll be doin' this same morning. 'Tis the black wrath—the black, black divil—he has roused in him. God hilp the 'Perishers' this day!"
People turned to look after the handsome, hard-faced man in full regimentals, as he crossed the street towards the barrack gates.
There was always something about John Vane that commanded attention. The strong, stern, well-featured face, almost swarthy in complexion, the straight line of black eyebrows overshadowing bright and piercing black eyes—it was a face that compelled regard, that aroused a feeling of respect in the average man, not untinged with fear. It was not the kind of face that is soon forgotten, nor the sort that is lost in any merging with other faces. It would be as easily forgotten as is the face of the great Duke of Wellington.
The sentry inside the gateway saw him coming, and stiffened like a ramrod.
"Guard, turn out!" he bawled.
The stout sergeant, lounging under the verandah of the guard-room, wheeled hastily, and caught the sentry's hoarse stage-whisper:—"Quick, sergeant! 'Tis the major."
"Guar-rd, tur-rn out!" he bellowed into the open door of the guard-room, and as Major Vane passed through the gate, the main guard, with the sergeant behind it and corporal upon its right flank, red-coated and pipe-clay belted, stood rigidly to attention.
"Present ar-rms!" cried the sergeant, and the little guard of soldiers accorded Major John Hilary Vane the compliment that was his due as temporarily commanding the 146th. He stiffly acknowledged the salute, and was striding on, when something caught his eye and brought him abruptly to a halt.
"Sergeant!" he rasped out, in the barrack-square voice which the "Perishers" knew so well and loved so little.
"Sir!"—and the anxious sergeant doubled round to the front of the guard, and stood to attention before the great man.
"A —— dirty guard, sergeant. Look at this man! He is not dressed." He pointed with his white gloves to a tall young private—a fine-looking man, who was on the left flank of the guard.
"No, sir," promptly agreed the sergeant, searching the soldier with his eyes in an almost vain attempt to detect anything amiss with his appearance. "No, sir—a dir-rty soldier, sir."
The tall young private gazed immovably to his front, over the head of the anxious sergeant.
"Two buttons of his jacket are undone. Make him a prisoner, sergeant. And send him under escort to the orderly-room immediately. I will deal with him this morning. Consider yourself fortunate that I do not reduce you to corporal. Damnably careless! A disgrace to the army."
The black-browed major strode on across the barrack-square to the orderly-room, where it was his immediate duty to dispense the daily dose of justice, injustice, and tyranny which was considered essential to the well-being, discipline, and efficiency of any regiment of the British Army, at home and abroad.
And so, by reason of two unbuttoned buttonholes in the scarlet jacket of Private Richard Delane, as detected by his commanding officer on a morning of January, 1840, does this story have its beginnings.
Out in the barrack square the band of the regiment was forming up for practice, and, in the street without the wide gateway, a little rag-tag company of idlers and passers-by, that always complimented it by listening to the performance which Bandmaster Bernstein put it through, was gathered in force. The band of the 146th was a popular institution in Sydney in the forties of the last century. But this morning, because of the displeasure of the acting-commander of the regiment, the audience was doomed to disappointment. Hardly had the first strains of the regimental quick-step saluted the sunny morning when a corporal came running from the orderly-room with uplifted, forbidding hands. Fat Mr. Bernstein saw him coming, and immediately stopped the music.
"The adjutant's orders, Mr. Bernstein, and you're to take the band into the Domain, an' practise there."
"Ach—for why is this, Corporal Hall?" demanded the scandalized bandmaster in astonishment.
"Begad, Mr. Bernstein, 'tis because th' major's ragin' like a mad devil."
"With me—with the musicians?"
"No. God only knows. 'Send th' dam band to hell,' he says to Captain Clare. Oh, we're in for it to-day."
So, silently, the band moved off across the parade ground and out into George Street, followed towards the Domain by its assorted audience.
"Clare," said the major, as he took his seat with a frown behind the table in the orderly-room. "Clare—it is my opinion—my very deliberate opinion, that his Excellency is an unconscionable ass. An ass, a ——— fool!"
"Major!" exclaimed the adjutant, scandalized by this treasonable utterance on the part of his commanding officer. "How? Why? What has Sir George Gipps done, may I ask?"
The adjutant of the 146th had in his aspect less of the man of war than one would have looked for in so responsible an officer of such a truculent regiment as the "Perishers." A mild man, a man who was constitutionally a neutral, an enemy of strife, a deplorer of harsh measures—Captain Clare's appearance did not belie his gentle nature. It was easy for his friends to understand why, ten years later, his government of that outpost of hell at Norfolk Island was such a dismal failure. He was too gentle for a soldier, they said, too mild for a convict disciplinarian, too much of a gentleman, too scrupulous and fair for an official position that demanded ruthless and unscrupulous determination. Now, as chaplain of the 146th he might have been an unqualified success; as a bishop, even, he would have been admirable. But as adjutant, or gaoler, he was clearly the wrong man in the wrong place. You had but to look at him to realize so much as this. It was obvious in his very appearance.
A grave and serious face of a peculiar plainness was his. It had honesty and lack of humour writ clear over its homely features. A certain air of primness almost suggested some old-maidish habit of mind, some faculty for scandalization and disapproval that in these days would have not altogether deservedly earned for him in Sydney the title of "wowser." He was clearly a good man, and just as clearly a dull, narrow man, to whom dullness was congenial and altogether natural. For his epitaph he would have desired nothing better than the simple and noble words, "He did his duty." By the addition of one word to it his whole biography might have been written, "He did his duty drearily" would have summed up the life story of Captain William Clare, of H.M. 146th Foot, to a nicety. All the tale of his sojourn on earth might have been told in those five words.
Such an expression of forceful opinion as Major Vane had just given vent to seemed to the adjutant to savor of little less than blasphemy.
"My dear major!" he exclaimed. "The Governor! Dear me."
"Yes," went on Vane. "He is an imbecile, a dolt. He does not understand the essentials of colonial government. Damme, Clare, he has had the effrontery, the incapacity, the unparalleled short-sightedness to refuse me confirmation of the grant of land on the Hunter River which his predecessor, a truly wise and far-seeing pro-consul—excellent Sir Richard Bourke—had promised me, and where, mark you, I am already established and settled. I may purchase from the Crown on favourable terms, he says; but he sees no reason why I should obtain the land for nothing. For nothing, mark you. Is all my pioneering work nothing? Have I purchased my stock for nothing? Am I nothing myself? Is my enterprise of no value to this country? He is unfit to conduct this government, I say. He will ruin the colony. Mark my words. He will bring it to ruination."
"Dear me! His Excellency will not confirm your occupation of Castle Vane, then, major? Do I understand you alright? Will he not reconsider the matter?"
The major laughed harshly.
"Reconsider! No. He is explicit on that point. He even gives me a date in which to pay for the land or to evacuate it. Under no circumstances will he reopen the matter, he writes, I have his letter, received this morning, in my pocket."
"And have you come to any decision?"
"Yes. As you know, I have sent in my papers, and in a few weeks at most I shall have left the regiment. ——— the Governor. I thank God I have the means to purchase, and will not be baulked by his ignorant maladministration. I shall lodge the purchase money to-day. We will see whether his Excellency can hinder the development of the colony. But come, Clare—have the defaulters brought in."
Six drunks, one resister of the picket, two insubordinations, three leave-breakers, and a deserter were duly paraded in turn before the acting commanding officer of the 146th, and had grim and unpleasant reason to remark the fact that his temper was ruffled. Each and all of them received the maximum punishment, even to courts-martial, which it was in the power of the irate officer to award summarily or to recommend. In no instance was the slightest excuse available, and the sentences were savagely severe. It seemed that the O.C. had no desire to leave pleasant memories behind him in the old regiment. With each successive case his ill-humour grew more pronounced. Even the provost-sergeant, parading the prisoners, narrowly escaped arrest, and the adjutant himself, mercifully putting in a word as to the deserter's good record, was abruptly and peremptorily rebuked.
"That, sir, ends the defaulters' list," said Captain Clare, closing the book of fate with a sigh.
"And a ——— lot of scoundrels, too," growled the major. "But wait a moment, Mr. Adjutant—here is one more. A prisoner of my own, I think. Bring him in, sergeant," he cried to the little group on the verandah.
Between his escort of two soldiers of the guard, with bayonets fixed, Private Richard Delane was paraded before the tribunal of justice, to answer the charge of being improperly dressed upon guard duty—to render account of himself over the hideous sin of offending his commander's eye with two unbuttoned buttons of his jacket. Truly a terrific crime, and unforgivable.
The young soldier stood erect between his guardians, and faced the major's scowling stare with an air of defiance.
He was a handsome youth, of somewhere about twenty-four—tall, clean-limbed, and athletic—with a face that expressed some indication of a temper that might be as fiery as that of the man who sat and glared at him. But it lacked the ill-humour that was all too evident in the older man's habitual expression.
"Private Delane, sir," said the provost-sergeant. "Improperly dressed on guard duty; dirty, sir."
The major eyed him for a few seconds in silence, before taking up his pen to record the sentence. No explanation was asked of the soldier, no record of character was inquired into. His sentence was prompt and terrible. It was a sentence which Major John Hilary Vane was inflicting upon his Excellency Sir George Gipps, Governor and Captain-General in and over His Majesty's Territory of New South Wales. Even the provost-sergeant gasped as he heard the words. The adjutant turned pale. Even in those days of iron discipline it was a fearful sentence for such a trivial crime.
"Fifty lashes!" said the major.
For a moment the young soldier glanced at him. Then, swiftly, and before the astonished escort could intervene, he took a step forward to the table, shot out his clenched fish, and smote his commanding officer upon the nose, as he leaned across his papers.
Instantly he turned, and, with a sweep of his strong arms, pushed the astonished escort apart, leaped to the door, and ran out into the sunshine, sprinting across the barrack square towards the gate. His action was so startingly sudden as temporarily to paralyse those in the room. He was already half-way to the gate before the provost-sergeant and the escort came racing after him from the orderly-room.
The sentry at the guard-room, pacing down towards the street, with his back to the square, was a man of slow comprehension, and gaped at the oncoming flying figure, when the shouts of the escort drew his attention, in bewilderment. As Private Delane sped near him, he aimed his musket at him, but, for the luck of Delane, it only flashed in the pan, and the next moment the young soldier was racing diagonally across George Street. He dived into the open door of a little book-shop.
And from that moment Private Richard Delane, of the 146th, disappeared from the face of the earth—at any rate so far as that thoroughly mystified, and not altogether displeased, regiment could make out. There were few of the rank and file who grudged him his liberty. The major's broken nose buttoned a multitude of buttons.
IT was a quiet, unobtrusive, dark little shop with small and dingy windows, and it stood not far from where a great grey trachyte building of an American insurance office stands to-day in George Street. A plain and unadorned stone cottage of the Macquarie regime, without a verandah, but having a sort of low stone pavement, a couple of yards in width, dividing it from the building alignment of the street—it was one of scores of little primitive dwellings, solid and substantial, and exceedingly ugly, that gave shelter to the majority of the citizens of Sydney in 1840.
It was not until the goldfield days that the capital of the Australias began to adorn itself architecturally by means of private enterprise. Nearly all the imposing buildings, scattered here and there through the towns, were official before the fifties—gaols, barracks, churches, stores, and Government offices. Up on the Rocks, and out by Woolloomooloo, were some fine mansions of the merchants and rich emancipists, but in Sydney itself the streets were for the most part rows of cottages, broken here and there by larger buildings that were still severely simple in design.
In one of the two small-paned windows of the cottage were displayed the backs of several dingy rows of books, and over the door was a sign that intimated that Jacob Losky conducted within a Subscription Library, and sold Books, Prints, and Periodicals. Also that the establishment rejoiced in the patronage of his Excellency the Governor and his Honor the Chief Justice.
The provost-sergeant and his two men, blocked by a broken-down hay waggon, and a gathering crowd about it, reached the door of the shop a good forty seconds after Private Richard Delane had dived through its narrow portals into the dim interior.
"In there he went," directed a small and eager boy. "I see him run in."
But within the dark little book-shop the pursuers drew a blank.
"Where is he?" demanded the sergeant. "Where's the man who ran in here just now?"
A girl, reading behind the low counter, seated upon a stool, put her book down and rose to her feet. She was a black-haired handsome Jewess, about eighteen years old, shapely and well developed, and with a magnificent pair of flashing, dark eyes, that the sergeant noted and admired, as she turned their wondering gaze upon him.
"What man, sir? There has been no one here this last half-hour. Indeed, I have not yet had a customer this morning."
"Nonsense, my gal," shouted the sergeant, impatiently. "Nonsense! One of our men ran in here this very minute. He was seen to. Come, where is he?"
"No one has been here. How should I have missed seeing him? I have been here since we opened the street-door at nine o'clock. There has been no one, sergeant. I am sure of it. There could not have been anyone. It is you who talk nonsense."
There was an inflection of impatience in her speech. But the sergeant was not impressed by it. He turned to the two soldiers standing in the doorway. The tousled head of the small boy thrust itself between them.
"Come in here, you!" he cried, seizing the urchin by the hair. "You say you saw the man run in here—a soldier? Come—speak up!"
"O-o! Leggo my hair!" the boy squealed. "Yes, I did. 'E came runnin' across from th' barrack gate, when t'other sojer fired 'is gun off. I seen 'im. An' 'e jumped in 'ere. Seen 'im do it. My colonial oath, so I did."
"There, miss—what have you to say to that? This boy saw him run in here just now. Where is he? Where has he gone? He must be hiding here."
There was anger in the girl's voice as she replied: "He is not here. I tell you no one has been here. The boy is mistaken. He is a little liar."
"I ain't no liar!" the small boy protested shrilly. "'E come in 'ere. I knows 'oo it was. It was Mister Delane. I knows 'im all right."
"I'll search the house," cried the wrathful provost-sergeant. "Stay you at the door, Jenkins. Marshall, you come with me. The beggar's listening to us now, I'll be bound. And laughing at us."
One of the soldiers entered the room, and the sergeant took a stride towards the door at the back, over which hung a pair of heavy green curtains. As he did so they were drawn aside, and an old, white-bearded man appeared in the opening—a little old man, who stooped somewhat, but in whose bright eye and alert appearance there was nothing of feebleness.
"Who are you who will search my house?" he demanded of the sergeant. "What is this disturbance? What—it is you, Mr. Baylis! What do you want—and what are these armed soldiers doing here?"
"A prisoner has escaped from over yonder, Mr. Losky, and I'm after him. He's badly wanted. He bolted from my custody, after assaulting Major Vane, cleared through the guard at the gate, and ran across the street into your shop. I must have him. Stand aside while I search the place."
"Softly, Sergeant Baylis—softly! How can you search my house? Where is your authority? Have you a warrant?"
The sergeant spluttered, but fell back a pace.
"Rachel," continued the old man, "did any soldier come in here? It is useless my asking, for if he had I should have heard him. I have been in the back room since opening the shop half an hour ago. But did you see anything of this man?"
"No, grandfather," replied the girl. "No one has been here—soldier, bond, or free—since you opened the door. I have told the sergeant so."
"This boy saw him," said the sergeant doggedly.
The old man smiled.
"Then the boy has wonderful powers, which he should cultivate. He can see the invisible. Sure, it must have been a ghost he saw."
"Will you let me see for myself, Mr. Losky?" demanded the sergeant.
"At your request, willingly, Mr. Baylis. But it is not your right. You could not force an entrance legally without a search warrant. However, to humour you, and to convince you that no soldier has been here this morning—pray, come this way."
The old man bowed, and waved his arm towards the back of the house.
"Look first, however, in this front room," he went on. "'Tis my granddaughter's. You do not object, Rachael?"
"No, grandfather. But the sergeant might spare himself the trouble. He will find no soldier beneath my bed."
The old man conducted the sergeant into the girl's bedroom. In a few seconds they came out, and he led the way to the back of the cottage. The two rooms and the kitchen, which made up the rest of the premises, yielded no better results. Nor the garden and outhouses at the back. So presently they returned, the sergeant crestfallen and anxious as to the anger of the major when he should return empty-handed; the old man smiling.
"The boy has been mistaken, you see, Mr. Baylis. I wish you good morning. Perhaps you will have better luck elsewhere."
Withdrawing his men, the provost-sergeant braced himself to face the wrath to come, and marched back, empty-handed, to the barracks.
The old Jew smiled a farewell as he stood in the middle of the little shop. Then he turned to his granddaughter. She was laughing too.
"Well, Rachel," he said softly, "It is a good get-away. That was a fair test. And now we must dispose of our guest."
"It will not be easy," answered the girl; "but I've no doubt you will find a way, grandfather."
"Yes, yes—it is simple enough. But watch how well it works; how easily I vanish. The thing was well worth the trouble."
He walked through the door, and halted just inside the inner room. Over his head, within easy reach, a metal vase, with handles at either side, in which grew a flourishing cluster of maiden-hair fern, was suspended by three brass chains from a ring-bolt in the painted wooden ceiling. It was an innocent-looking and graceful ornament. The old man turned about, and glanced at the street door to make sure that no one was looking in.
"See, my Rachael," he laughed—"our disappearing trick!" He reached up and tugged at a handle of the vase. The next instant the floor opened and the old man disappeared into a yawning pit. At once the trap-doors sprang back into place, and the floor was apparently sound and solid again. The handsome Jewess clapped her hands and laughed musically.
"Oh, but he is clever," she murmured. "The cleverest man on earth! It was well for Dick Delane that he knew the trick of it. I wonder what grandfather means to do with him—what use he will put him to. He surely has him now—body and soul. And such a man should prove useful. Ah, well—I will know in good time, I suppose."
She picked up her book and resumed her reading, as she awaited the coming of custom.
It was a strange place into which the old man had so suddenly vanished, as the young soldier had done not ten minutes before him—a strange and cunning place.
There was a deep cavern hollowed out beneath the floor of the cottage, and at its bottom coarse sacking covered a great pad of straw some 3ft. deep. The sides of the pit were padded also to a height of about 5ft. The drop was a good 10ft., but so soft was the landing that no man might injure himself who fell through the trap-doors. In a far corner was a narrow opening, through which a man might squeeze himself, and through it shone a dim light, as from a candle or lantern, in some cavity beyond.
The old man picked himself up and made towards the gleam of light, squeezing through the opening, and emerging into a wider tunnel, where, in the light of a ship's lamp, he found the soldier seated upon a bench.
"What ho, Father Jacob!" The young man stood up to greet him, grasping both his hands, and wringing them vigorously. "I salute my preserver!"
"Gently, gently, my pretty fellow," cried the old man. "So you are the first to benefit by my invention! It seems that it made a mighty convenience to you. Sergeant Baylis was eagerness itself to lay his hands upon you. What does it mean? Why were you in such a hurry to leave the army?—for that is what I presume you have done?" His voice sank to a murmur, and he eyed the young man narrowly.
"Is it murder?" he whispered hoarsely, laying his hand upon the soldier's knee. "Come—tell me. I am your friend—else I would not have made you free of this—convenience."
The private laughed.
"Murder! Good God—no! 'Tis not so bad as that. But I have broken Black Jack's nose for him, I think. I have spoiled his beauty for a day or two. Like this!"
He doubled up a great fist and smashed it into the open palm of the other hand.
"Black Jack! Major Vane—you have beaten him?"
"Well—not exactly 'beaten him.' Just a tap, that is all. But a hard enough tap to land me with the iron gang for longer than I care to think about."
"I was on the main guard when he came into barracks this morning. That blundering clown, Roarty, turned us out when he was almost between the gate-posts. I missed two buttons in my jacket, and he saw it, cursed me, and made me a prisoner, had me up before him at orderly-room on the instant, and—what think you?—sentenced me to fifty lashes. Good God! Me at the triangles. Me, Dick Delane—as smart a soldier as is in the 'Perishers.' For a thing like that! Something had made him mad with rage. You could see it in his face as he inspected the guard. So I left the army," he laughed defiantly.
"Yes—but to strike him! Why, 'tis almost a hanging matter!"
"It would be so—if we were upon active service."
"Well, now, I suppose, I am in your hands, Father Jacob. Will you sell me to the floggers and the road gang's overseers?"
"No, no. But Dick, lad,"—the old man leaned forward and peered into his face—"will you join us now? Is there anything else you can do? Will you not be one of us?"
The soldier remained silent for a time, his arms folded across his great chest, staring into the lamp. At last he sighed and shrugged his shoulders. He held out his right hand to the Jew, and the latter grasped it eagerly.
"All right, Father Jacob. There is nothing else for it. I am with you. 'Tis my fate, I suppose. I am with you. I can do no otherwise."
The Jew wrung his hand.
"Good!" he cried joyfully. "You will not regret it, Dick."
"And what's to be done now?"
"You must lie low here until after dark. I will find some clothes for you. Your red jacket will be found upon the cliffs at South Head to-morrow. And to-night I will send you to a safe enough place. My son—I am glad that you are with us in the Free Company. We could have no better recruit. Give me your hand again!"
ALL through the long day the refugee remained in Jacob Losky's strange subterranean hiding-place.
It was an interminable day, and the first part of it, before he had become a little accustomed to his situation, seemed to Richard Delane to be the most wearisome and dreary of it all. The hours dragged with heavy feet, and he had nothing to do but pace up and down the tunnel and consider the somewhat unpromising outlook that was his. There was a strange collection of all manner of odds and ends stored along the sides of the passage, and he whiled away part of his captivity by examining it.
The old Jew seemed to be a veritable human jackdaw—so diverse and dissimilar were the contents of the cavern. Boats' sails and oars, firearms, bales of cotton goods, furniture, doors and window frames, tools of all description, old boots, pictures, and rolled carpets were a few items of the strange jumble. There were heavy iron-bound chests and tin deed boxes, and an immense accumulation of faded yellow papers tied in bundles. He seemed to have overlooked in his collection nothing that was portable, and what use much of it might be to him was more than his guest could imagine.
A wooden door closed the further end of the tunnel, which was almost thirty feet long by ten feet wide and high. It was securely locked—apparently on the other side. Delane took the ship's lamp down from its hook to explore the place, and it was while he was examining the closed door that it opened, and Rachel, the old man's granddaughter, appeared on the threshhold.
"Thank you, Mr. Delane," she laughed, picking up a tray of food and drink, which she had placed upon the ground while manipulating the heavy padlock. "How did you know I was coming."
"'Twas but chance, Miss Losky. I was exploring this queer place," he replied, a little startled by her sudden appearance.
"Rachel, if you please," she smilingly corrected him. "Grandfather tells me you are going to join the Free Company. We are all Tom, Dick, Harry, and Rachel to one another in the Company. So you are Dick, or Dicky, to me, and I am Rachel to you. It is just as well. We will get to know one another's—weaknesses—pretty well, I've no doubt."
Dicky Delane (he was a young man) looked into her splendid eyes—deep, dark pools of mystic depth—and realized that he would be a bold man who would seek to fathom Rachel Losky's weaknesses. Strength and beauty—the handsome, over-beautiful beauty of the young Jewess—were in every curve of her face and every line of her lissome body. There was in her regard of him something that was entirely frank and fearless, nothing of a kind that would earn Mrs. Grundy's classification of "bold." There was friendliness in it, combined with a certain you-be-damnedness and utter independence.
"And are you of the Company too—Rachel?" He baulked a little at the name. "I hardly thought it had women in its membership."
"I am no lady, Dick—or Dicky, I think. I am my father's daughter—and my father was hanged outside Newgate. And I am Jacob Losky's granddaughter—and maybe Father Jacob will hang some day. But I am the only woman in the Company. The only one of my sex who has its freedom. And sometimes I think that, but, for my grandfather, I am the best man in it."
She laughed in his face.
"I know I am a better man than you," she continued.
He looked down at her in a puzzled fashion.
"How then? You are but a girl," he began.
"Aye, a girl—but nevertheless a better man than Dick Delane. I would not go mad, and break the major's nose, and ruin my own life, and be driven into the earth—into the depths—as you are driven—because of my bad temper. I would do better than that."
"But to be flogged—for two buttons!"
"You might have escaped, as you did, without making an active enemy of John Vane."
She laughed again, and changed her tone to one of business-like instructions.
"But come—you must eat. It is past mid-day. And then you must fill in the afternoon. Sleep, I should. You have a rough night before you. Later on, my grandfather will come down to prepare you for your journey."
"Yes. You do not think you can stay here. You are to take the field to-night. Take to the bush, as they put it in New South Wales."
"To the bush!"
"Yes, my friend. There is nothing for you now but the bushranging profession. People of your violence of nature generally come to it here—and the gallows. You see, I hold out no hope to you of retiring on a competence. We are all gallows-birds in the Company—and most of us will find our perch below the cross-beam one of these fine days. Even I—perhaps. You—for certain!"
"But where am I to go to-night—what to do?"
"You will go where I take you, and you will do what the Jewboy says."
"The Jewboy!" he exclaimed. It was becoming a well-known name. "The Jewboy—is he of the Company?"
"The very soul of it. But good-bye for the present," and she was gone before he could question further, slamming the door behind her.
Delane sat down, and attacked the food and wine with eager appetite. After his meal he stretched himself upon the floor of the tunnel and slept the afternoon away.
How long he slept he did not know, but he was awakened by hearing his name pronounced. The old Jew was bending over him, and shaking him by the shoulder.
"You are a sound sleeper, Richard," he grumbled. "But come now, it is time you were moving. I am going to dress you for a new part."
The soldier rose, and stretched himself, yawning. "Egad, Father Jacob," he said, "it seems years to me since I played in my last one. What is this to be?"
"Strip off those regimentals, and put these clothes on. I have to get you away from Sydney to-night, and it would not be easy to get you off in that costume. Sydney is being scoured for you. There has been a soldier at my door all day, and Major Vane himself came to see me. He is a pretty sight. Both eyes are black, and his nose is all sticking plaster. I think he would dearly love a sight of you, Dicky. Shall I send for him?" he asked banteringly.
"What had he to say?"
"He said that if he ever found that I had harbored you he would have me hounded out of Sydney. And he would, too. But there is no chance."
"He is a devil," growled the young soldier, "I wish it was his neck I had broken, instead of his nose."
He busied himself changing his clothes, and when he had put on the rough countryman's suit which the Jew had provided for him, the latter made him sit down while he completed the disguise.
"Now I will make you so that your mother would not know you. I was a dresser at Drury Lane in my young days, Dicky—you may count that as one of the favours Providence has dispensed to you to-day. I don't think I've lost my skill. Why, I made the Jewboy into a Christian when I got him away!"
He rubbed some dark stain into Delane's face and hands, and completed his metamorphosis by adorning him with beard, whiskers, and moustache. It was skilfully done. The old man had not forgotten the art of theatrical make-up. When he was finished he held a hand mirror up to his subject, and the latter was startled by the change.
"You'll do for to-night, at any rate," said Losky. "By the next daylight you should be where you won't want a disguise. And now we'll start—come. Supper is waiting above."
He opened the door, and led the way down a very long, dark passage, carrying the ship's lamp in his hand. At its further end they mounted a short flight of steps, and the old man opened a door at their top. They came into a lighted room in which was a table spread with a substantial supper. Seated at the table was a boyish-looking young man, whose face seemed strangely familiar to Delane.
"Be seated," said Losky, "and eat your fill. You have a long night before you. This is your travelling companion," he said, with a smile, motioning with his hand towards the young man.
Delane stared in a puzzled fashion at the latter. He was a fair-haired youth, with reddish mutton-chop side whiskers adorning a handsome face. He was dressed in riding costume, and he smiled at Dick in a friendly and quizzical fashion.
"Good evening," he said. "I think Mr. Delane and I have met before."
"I'm puzzling about that," returned Delane. "Where was it—and when?"
"Twice to-day. Once in Father Jacob's shop, and once in the place whence you have just arrived. Don't you know me, Dicky?"
"Good heavens! Is it Rachel?"
"Well—it was. It's Jimmy Smith, or Jacky Jones—anyone you please in this costume. How do you like it?"
"It's a marvellous disguise!"
"Not so good as yours, though. Father Jacob is an artist, isn't he? But make a start—we must be off soon."
The soldier set to willingly, and whilst they supped Jacob Losky explained the plans he had formed for getting Delane out of the way.
"I am sending you to join the Jewboy, Dick, as I have told you. He will find you something to do. Rachel here will be your guide. To-night you must ride to the Hawkesbury, and there you will be handed over to another guide, who will conduct you to where the Jewboy—Edward Davis—has his headquarters."
"What part of the Hawkesbury?" asked Delane, looking up from his plate. "There is a detachment of the regiment at Windsor?"
"No, no—not to Windsor. That would be from the frying pan to the fire. I am sending you to the mouth of the river at Broken Bay. A boat will carry you across the bay into Brisbane Water, and there you will come into touch with the Free Company. Fine fellows they are, Dick, living a venturous, open life, full of excitement, such as a soldier should love, and gaining rich rewards. You will be a welcome addition to their number. In time you will be rich, and can find a means of leaving the country and getting back to England."
"But they are outlaws—bushrangers!"
"True. But what are you yourself but an outlaw? What else is there for you? Nothing—but the road gangs. There is your choice. Make what you can of it. Join in with us, or join the canaries—the poor devils, who are lashed, and driven, and starved. Give yourself up to the military authorities, and you will be put in the way of joining them—with a couple of hundred lashes to begin with. It should not be a difficult choice. You will join us?"
Delane stared gloomily at the table for a little while before he replied. At last, with an angry shake of the head, he answered:—
"Yes—there is no choice. I must. I can never go back now. And I see no way of getting clear except this. But I tell you, Father Jacob, that whenever an opportunity offers I mean to get away. I have been out after bushrangers myself, and I know that the life of a hunted dog is not an agreeable one. Let it be clearly understood that I leave your gang."
"Company, Richard—the Free Company," murmured the old man.
"Your Company, then—as soon as it is safe to do so."
"Of course—that is what they all aim at. The Company, of which I am president and Sydney agent—ha, ha—the Company was formed in order to assist the deserving to escape from servitude, and to enable them to pay themselves back for the slavery that society has inflicted upon them. They make war upon society—but it is only that they may recompense themselves for the outrages that society has inflicted upon them. That is all. Compensation, Richard, compensation—and escape."
"Well—I join you. Here is my hand upon it," said the young man.
"Good. You will not regret. And now you had better start. You will be back to-morrow evening, Rachel. Good-bye, Richard. You will hear of me often, but I don't think we will meet for many months. Rachel will deliver you safely."
"But how do we get away from here?"
"You are in a house in Pitt Street that the tunnel connects with my shop. You have but to cross the harbour to Sirius Cove, and you will find horses waiting for you. Rachel has everything arranged. Good-bye."
He opened the street door, and the soldier and the girl slipped out into a wet and windy night, and made their way towards the harbour side.
IN the year 1840, there were living in Sydney and New South Wales many quite respectable, and a good many quite disreputable, free citizens of the State, who had not always been free citizens. Some of them, a few, were men and women who had not deserved at all, or, at the most, only half deserved the loss of liberty and endurance of an ultra-slavery which had been their sad lot. Some of them, the fierce fires through which they had passed had purged of all dross. On some of them their sufferings had impressed the significance of the Eleventh Commandment—"Thou shalt not be found out"—without cleansing them in any way. And some of them had been utterly ruined, body and mind, by the terrible system which, claiming to be reformative, was only vindictive, aggravating, and soul-destroying. Taken together, the Emancipists comprised as strange and diverse a class of human beings, as had ever been in the world. They were good, and half good, and bad and superlatively bad. But there were few amongst them who combined each of these qualities in his own being.
Jacob Losky did. He was good and moderately good, bad and incredibly bad, in turn and simultaneously. It was as impossible to define his character exactly as it would be to count the sands of the sea-shore. He was a wicked and dangerous man, and a good and benevolent one, in the same minute of the same hour. He could coolly carry out a terrible crime at the same time that he was making some self-sacrificing effort for the betterment of a fellow-creature. For many things he deserved to be hanged; for many others he almost merited canonization. He had every good quality, and every bad quality, and they did not always manifest themselves in turn. He was such a man as the world is mercifully spared for age-long intervals. When the Creator was constructing him, it almost seemed as if He must have done so in some spirit of sarcastic rebuke to man—as though He should have said:—"Who are you, to judge your fellows by your own standards of right and wrong? Judge Me this one."
Jacob Losky never was judged quite adequately by his fellows. But it was not the fault of his fellows that they were not divine and omniscient.
By extraction, Losky was a Russian Jew—by birth a Londoner of the second generation. He had begun life as a call-boy at Drury Lane Theatre, had become a dresser, had even acted minor parts, and at twenty-six years of age was secretary to the great Mr. Barry O'Shaughnessy, the Irish tragedian, who, until the memorable occasion of his falling foul of the Prince Regent, over a lady of the theatre, had enjoyed a somewhat remarkable vogue in the English dramatic world. A year or so before the downfall of the O'Shaughnessy, the clever young secretary had, for the only recorded time in his life, broken the abovementioned Eleventh Commandment. He had forged the signature of his employer, and, by one chance in a hundred, which it is needless to explain here, the forgery had been detected.
Jacob Losky was sentenced to death, but—by the active effort of the eminent actor, and the intervention of the First Gentleman in Europe, still delighting in the society of the witty Irishman—had escaped the gallows, and been transported for life to His Majesty's penal settlement of New South Wales. He arrived in Sydney not very long after Captain William Bligh, late of H.M.S. Bounty, had assumed the government of the young colony.
From the first, the clever young Jew had done well in the new world in which he found himself. In twelve months he had received his ticket-of-leave as a reward for his share in bringing to justice three robbers of the Government stores. And almost one of the last acts of Captain Bligh, before his deposition, had been to grant him a conditional pardon, on account of his single-handed apprehension of a notorious escapee, who had terrorized the district of the Green Hills—as Windsor was then styled—in a fashion both gallant and diplomatic. Through the troublous interregnum that succeeded the Bligh rebellion, he had managed to keep in favour with the usurping officers of the New South Wales Corps, and was easily able to demonstrate to Governor Macquarie, upon his arrival, that he had been entirely loyal to Governor Bligh in his misfortunes. In the meantime, he had prospered not a little.
Macquarie found in the handsome young Jew just the type of man which he deemed it his duty to encourage by every means in his power—the criminal who was to be redeemed. The good Governor looked upon the colony as being designed before everything else, as a place in which the outcasts of society were to be given a chance, and every assistance in rehabilitating themselves. This was the reason of its foundation, he maintained, and in making good and useful citizens of those who had temporarily fallen from grace its chief function lay.
The progress of Jacob Losky was an interesting and fascinating study to him. He encouraged it in every possible way—now by a judicious grant of land, now by the sanctioning of some trading venture, and now by a gift of breeding stock. And always he was careful to emphasise, in his personal dealings with such Emancipists as Losky, that their past counted for nothing, that socially they were as good as anyone in the colony, and that they might ever regard him as their friend and sympathiser whilst they continued in such courses as made for their own good and the advancement of the settlement.
By the end of Macquarie's reign Jacob Losky was so entirely established that no one even thought of him as ever being anything other than the estimable citizen he undoubtedly was. And in the eighteen years that followed, and that brings his history down to the time of our story, he had established himself so firmly that his good character was easily sufficient to cover and conceal any of the doings that his bad one was responsible for.
He had married at eighteen, and left his wife and infant son with her people in England when he came to the colony. The son had inherited all the bad side of his father's composition, and had died outside Newgate, to the tolling of St. Sepulchre's bell, in his twenty-fifth year, as an unrepentant highwayman. He had left behind him a wife, and a daughter three or four years old. Her mother dying soon after, Jacob Losky had sent home for his granddaughter, and had brought her up himself in Sydney. She was Rachel Losky.
Such, briefly, is an outline of the career of the founder of the Free Company, up to the time when this story begins.
Jacob Losky was a rich man. No enterprise in which he had been concerned had ever been anything but a success. He had farms on the Hawkesbury, a cattle station out in the new country of the Liverpool Plains, a coal-mine near Newcastle, and a couple of schooners which traded up and down the coast, and sometimes further oversea, to New Zealand and the South Sea Islands. The book-shop in George Street, opposite to the barrack gates, was a hobby—one that paid its way, but still only a hobby.
He had many irons in the fire, and some of the fires in which they glowed were fed with very questionable fuel. Some of the enterprises were honest and open, and some were, not too openly, dishonest. He would dabble in almost anything that did not seem to him to be foolishly risky of his own personal liberty. All was fish that came to his net, and his net was a wide one with narrow meshes. Nearly every condition of life in the new country seemed to him to be worthy of exploitation. And so, regarding the great bushranging industry which flourished so openly in the first half of the last century in New South Wales, he saw that it was a form of activity which, properly organized, might be well rewarded.
He therefore founded and organized the Free Company. The Free Company was a band of cattle stealers, bushrangers, and outlaws, that was almost wholly recruited from the ranks of the convict class. The active toilers who collected the spoil were desperate men with a price upon their heads. Jacob Losky was the agent and manager, who planned most of the larger enterprises, and saw to the disposal of the booty and the realization of the profits. Between him and them were a host of go-betweens—ships' captains, corrupt officials, and storekeepers and publicans in the country districts. He had planned an elaborate system of intelligence throughout the regions in which the Company operated, mainly in the districts of the Hunter River and the plains of the north-west. News of the Company's transactions came to him through a score of channels. Wonderful codes existed by whose use perfectly innocent people would be made to carry information from place to place in entire innocence. Elaborate get-away arrangements—of such a kind as was exemplified in the trap-door and tunnel at his headquarters—had been perfected in many places. A cave in a Blue Mountain gully, a little mangrove-hidden creek in the Hawkesbury, a drinking-shop near the waterside, a sailors' boarding-house in Sydney or Newcastle—in such had he established secret meeting places, and outlets of escape for those of the Company upon whom the law pressed too hard. In no aspect of the lawless organization which he controlled did he take greater delight and interest than in that of making good the escape of its members from the tight corners in which they found themselves from time to time. He was an expert in dramatic disappearances.
The Free Company only had an existence of less than three years, from, say, the beginning of '39 to the middle of '41. But in that time its revenues must have been enormous. New South Wales was literally overrun with bushrangers. They varied in calibre, from the scum of Van Diemen's Land and Port Arthur to the petty thieves of a few ewes and lambs, or the occasional robbery of a farmer returning from market. Whether individually controlled directly by Jacob Losky or not, it was almost certain that the Company would be called upon to act the profitable part of receiver of their stolen goods. There was no safer method for big or little robber to dispose of his booty than through its agency.
And now, having outlined the inception and the scope of the extraordinary organization with which this story has to do, we will proceed with our narrative of the adventures of Richard Delane, lately of H.M. 146th Regiment of Foot.
RACHEL and her charge hurried down Pitt Street with the wind and rain at their backs. A stiff southerly was blowing and it promised to be a wild night. It was a little after nine o'clock as they came to the shores of Sydney Cove.
Once they passed a picket of the 146th, under charge of a corporal, strolling perfunctorily along the sidewalk, the moisture gleaming on their high shakoes as they swung by lighted windows. They took no notice of the tall, bearded countryman and his youthful companion, and Dick felt that his disguise was complete. They were men of his own company.
At the end of the street stood an inn, the Seaman's Rest—its front distinguished by a great red oil-lamp. From its interior came a discordance of drunken choruses—old sea chanteys, and obscene songs of the wide world, blended with pathetic ballads of poor sailor lads who find themselves upon lee shores. Half a dozen singers seemed to be favouring the company together, each according to his individual fancy.
"Some ship just in," said Rachel in a low tone.
As they passed before the open door, a tall figure emerged, and stood for a moment in the strip of glare that shone out into the wet street. It was a woman's figure, and Delane noticed that she seemed to sway a little, as if intoxicated. Suddenly she threw her arms up with a wild gesture, and plunged out into the muddy causeway, running, in the darkness, towards the water's edge. With some half-defined notion that the woman sought her own destruction, Delane followed her.
"You fool!" called the young Jewess, "You fool—let her alone!" As she, too, hurried after them, she heard a splash, and came to the water's edge just as Delane, hastily divesting himself of his top-coat, sprang into the water.
"Oh—the idiot, the numskull!" muttered Rachel, striving to pierce the darkness and to make out what had become of them. Then she uttered an exclamation, and ran to the wharf-side. She knew that she was close to where a boat was awaiting their coming, in charge of old Tom Higgins, one of her grandfather's wharfmen.
Yes—just below her lay the boat, with a lantern in the stern-sheets. She turned back, and picked up Delane's discarded overcoat.
"Quick, Tom—is that you?"
"Aye, aye, Miss Rachel!—bin 'ere this quarter-hour or more."
There was another man in the boat with him.
"Hurry," she said, "and cast off." She lowered herself down from the wharf. "Our man has jumped in to save a woman. We must get him out. Did you hear the splash?"
"Thought I 'eard something," he answered in a surly tone, as they pulled the boat round. "But 't'warn't our business."
The girl stood up.
"Dick!" she called, and the wind carried her voice across the waters. "Dick—where are you."
"'Tis all right!" came his voice, quite close to them. "I've got her."
Rachel held up the lantern, and in the edge of its radiance caught sight of Delane, supporting a white-faced woman above the surface. In a moment the boat was beside them, and in a few seconds they were both aboard.
"We must land her, and take her to the inn," said Delane, bending over the unconscious figure in the boat. "She's half drowned."
"No!" cried Rachel, angrily. "You fool—do you want to be taken? Pull, Tom—pull across to Sirius Cove. She will take no harm—'tis a warm night, in spite of the rain. You cannot risk it, Dick. You'll be certain to be recognized. She must come with us to the other side. Tom, here, will bring her back."
The two oarsmen bent their backs to their task, and soon the boat was out in the stream opposite Fort Macquarie. The night was as black as pitch, and the southerly wind pressed hard on their beam. Rachel was at the tiller, but she took all her steering directions from Tom, the boatman.
That worthy seemed to be gifted with a supernatural faculty of direction. He was never wrong as to his position in the harbour, and his short, terse advices to the girl kept them well up the stream until they were beyond the island of Pinchgut. Then he swung the boat's prow to the north, and the wind drove them up into the mouth of Great Sirius Cove—round which the red-roofed suburb of Mosman clusters to-day. It was not long before the keel grounded on the sandy beach at the head of the bay.
Dick had been studying the features of the unconscious woman at his feet in the dim light of the ship's lantern. They were regular and well cut, and he judged that she might have been a handsome enough girl not so long ago. But there were unmistakable and disfiguring traces of dissipation and drink—tell-tale lines and wrinkles that spoke of reckless living and despair. As the boat grounded, she opened her eyes and stared up at the dimly-lit faces that bent over her.
"Where am I?" she gasped, in a weak voice. "Oh, why didn't you let me go? I wanted to go. I've had enough."
She fell to sobbing bitterly, and hid her face in her arm. Dick looked at Rachel, but there was no sign of pity in her handsome face—only contempt and disgust.
"What's to be done with her?" he asked hopelessly.
"We can do nothing," answered the girl. "She must go back to Sydney. Tom will take her back. She is not our business. You'll land her, Tom?"
"Aye—I knows her!" growled the boatman. "All the waterside men knows her—an' many others. 'Tis Sal Devine. She's—savin' y'r presence, Miss Rachel—not what she ought to be. She's a hout-an'-houter, Sal is. Bin drinkin' a bit extra, I s'pose—to try an' cut 'er lucky like this 'ere. Ho—I'll take 'er back. There's some as'll give 'er shelter, maybe. She can doss in th' boatshed if there's nowhere else."
"Come," said Rachel. "She will be all right. We have no time to waste, Dick. The horses will be waiting for us up here."
But Delane lingered by the boat. He could not help pitying the poor creature whom he had saved from death.
"See here, you Tom Higgins," he said, putting his hand in his breeches pocket. "See, here's a crown piece. Take it, and do what you can for her. Think if it were your own daughter. Poor devil! See to her, will you?"
"I'll land her, y'r honor, and see to it she gets lodgings to-night. But y'd have done her a kindness to let her go the way she wanted."
"Is he to be trusted?" Dick asked Rachel, in an undertone.
"Yes—if I tell him to. See to her, Tom. And now—we must hasten. Come."
She almost dragged him up to the edge of the flat beach. The tide was out, and there was a wide expanse of sand left bare. At its shoreward side, under the trees, beside a little brook, they came to where a man held two horses.
"Is everything right, Tim?" asked the girl.
"Yes, Miss Rachel—they knows you're coming down to Pittwater. Billy-the-boy took word this afternoon. Ye'll find all ready. Ye've a bad night. But th' rain will blow itself out."
"I'll be back to-morrow night, Tim," she said, as she took the reins from him and mounted. "Up with you, Dick. We must be moving. We've wasted too much time over that trollop already."
"Thank God I was able to save the poor creature," said Dick.
Rachel led the way unerringly, along a narrow track that took them up the gully, down which a little streamlet trickled into the Cove. They did not go near the buildings of the whaling station that stood at one side of the beach, but reached the ridge behind it, and followed it up by a winding bridle path through the wet and dripping bush, until they gained the higher ridge that divides the waters of Port Jackson proper from Middle Harbour. Every inch of the way seemed familiar to the girl, and Delane, an indifferent horseman, and no bushman, marvelled at the unerring instinct that guided her in the blackness of the night, amidst the dense forest of scrub-covered rock and boulder through which their track seemed to lie.
Dimly, he could see her ahead of him at intervals. As a rule, however, it was only by the clatter of her horse's hooves amongst the stones that he could make out her position. Often she was obliged to halt until he caught her up.
"Leave your reins alone, Dick," she said to him once, when he had pulled his steed off the track and wandered away to the left, so that she had to ride back looking for him. "Your horse will follow mine. They both know the road."
He took her advice, and found that it was sound.
There was little settlement at that time in the wild country that lay about Middle Harbour. Opposite to Sydney itself, in the vague district known as the North Shore and St. Leonards, there was the beginning of a scattered village whose villagers were still pioneers of a wild and inhospitable country. Settlement thinned out towards Gordon and the head of the Lane Cove River into a rugged No Man's Land that stretched to the creeks and ravines of the estuary of the Hawkesbury. But between Sirius Cove and the Spit, the land was hardly occupied at all. There was the whaling station beside the Cove, and one or two country houses that overlooked Sydney from the northern heights—the residences of retired military officers and holders of grants from the Crown. Beyond the dividing ridge, along which the Military Road leads to Middle Head to-day, there was hardly a single dwelling. Only cunningly hidden, little, rough stone huts were planted, here and there, at the head of some rivulet emptying its tiny stream into the great landlocked lake of Middle Harbour.
They were mere squattages—as often as not the centre of some contraband trade, such as the illicit distillation of spirits. It was almost as wild a country as might be explored in the Blue Mountains themselves. Delane found it hard to believe that only a journey of an hour or so separated them from the capital of Australia.
It was past midnight when, descending from the heights, they stumbled down on to a long, level point of sand—the Spit, which they followed to its end, and found themselves on the southern shore of the great harbour's narrowest part. Here there was a tiny hut, on whose door Rachel, dismounting, knocked with the butt of her riding crop. Presently a light glowed within, and the door opened.
A burly and bearded man shaded the flickering light of a tallow candle with his hand, as he peered out into the darkness.
"Is it Miss Rachel?" he growled. "They told me to expect ye to-night. Billy-the-boy left word this afternoon. Ye're goin' across?"
"Yes, Isaac—and be quick. We have a long way to go yet; we are to be at Pittwater by daylight."
"Well, Miss Rachel, wait till I light my lantern, an' I'll be with you."
In a few moments he came out, and led the way down to the waterside, where a flat-bottomed boat was moored to a post driven into the sand. It was just about large enough to accommodate a cart and horses. Without much trouble—they were evidently used to it—the horses were led aboard, and, manipulating a pair of sweeps from the forward end of the boat, the ferryman slowly transported them across the narrow waters. The boat grounded on a little sandy beach, and presently, with a rough "Good-night" from Isaac in their ears, they were again in the saddle, and climbing up a tortuous zig-zag cart track leading to the top of the further hillside.
Through the dark hours they pressed on at a steady walk. They hardly spoke at all. Rachel always rode some yards in advance of Delane, and he, letting his horse have its head, was content to follow blindly in her tracks.
The tiny settlement at Manly Beach they left far on their right, and followed a bridle path that took them round the head of the lagoon to the north of it. Every inch of the way seemed to be familiar to the girl. Though the path she took was narrow and rough, it was evidently a well-used one. She told him that her grandfather made much use of Broken Bay in connection with his shipping enterprises, and that this bridle track was his nearest and most direct means of communication with his agents at Pittwater.
Round the ends of rough, jutting tongues of land, across little creeks, past still lagoons, they travelled through the small hours of the morning. About two o'clock the weather began to clear, and towards daylight—as they passed along by gleaming white beaches beyond the Narrabeen Lakes, which they skirted round through the foot-hills—a declining fragment of moon lit them on their way.
Just as the dawn was coming, the girl reined in her horse, and waited for Delane to ride up beside her.
"Dick," she said, as he drew level with her, "a mile from here, and we will be at our journey's end. You've travelled far in the last twenty-four hours. But 'tis but a little way compared with the distance you have to go yet."
"Well, it's not far off in miles, is it," he replied, wondering at the seriousness of her tone and look. "We are hardly twenty miles from Sydney?"
"I don't mean that. What I mean is, since you ran through the barrack gates yesterday morning you have travelled all the distance that lies between Honest Town and Rogue City. You've become a rogue—and you were an honest man. Do you see? You were of the world yesterday, and now you are out of it—an outcast, a vagabond. You are one of Father Jacob's bargains."
"What choice had I? What was there between this and the lash? But for your grandfather, and for you, I'd have been in the cells by now, awaiting a trial at which I was condemned beforehand. Then I'd have been cut to pieces at the triangles, and drummed out of the regiment to the tune of the 'Rogues' March.' A rogue! I think I am less of a rogue as a free man than I'd have been as a convict in irons on one of the road-gangs. There was not much choice, Rachel."
"And yet, I don't know," she said, looking at him thoughtfully with her great black eyes, in which there was a gleam of pity. "You are young—you might have lived through it all. But once you make this journey into the bush as an outlaw, you begin a journey that only has one ending—death. The bullet, or the gallows—most likely the gallows."
She looked very handsome, as she rode beside him in the early morning in her manly costume—a well-built, active stripling. But there was something of the woman in the way she regarded him, despite her breeches, and boots, and whiskers. He felt full of gratitude towards her, and of an interest in her, that might not altogether have been due to gratitude alone.
"They'll never catch me!" he cried, a little boastfully.
"Maybe, maybe," she said. "Others have felt that too, Dicky—others who have been caught and hanged."
For a time they rode on in silence. She was deep in thought, whilst he breathed in the fresh morning air, as they jogged along, and thanked his good fortune that he was free, and not an unwilling guest of the provost-marshal.
Presently she drew rein.
"Here, Dick, I leave you. I take the horses to a place I know of, and rest for the day. You must go on alone. Follow this path down, and it will take you to where you are expected, hardly half a mile from here. Give me your reins."
He dismounted, and handed the reins to her. He walked round to the near side of her horse.
"Rachel," he said, "I thank you. You have saved me—you and your grandfather both."
"My grandfather has not saved you, Dick. He has sentenced you. But I may be able to. God knows! Take this packet, and when you reach the Jewboy, give it him unopened."
She looked at him with a strange wistfulness. Suddenly she leaned over towards him until her face was close to his, and he could feel her warm breath upon his cheek.
"Kiss me, Dick," she said.
More in astonishment than fervor, his lips met hers. Instantly she straightened up in the saddle, crimson-faced, wheeled her horse, and trotted off through the trees, leading his. His eyes followed her wonderingly.
"Well, I'm blowed!" he said, as he turned, when she was out of sight, to follow the path along which she had directed him.
FOUR months after that unhappy morning in the orderly-room of the Barracks at Sydney, Major John Hilary Vane duly and completely established himself in his principality upon the Upper Hunter River. That is to say that, having retired from the active list of the army, he came to settle down upon his freehold estate of Castle Vane, which was situated not very far from the little village of Scone.
He had been in occupation of Castle Vane, or rather his duly appointed representative, Mr. Overseer McNab, had been in occupation, for some two years before this date, as a lessee of the Crown at an almost nominal rent. Having vainly besought his Excellency Sir George Gipps to confirm his title to the estate as a grant from Her Majesty's Government—in fulfilment of a promise which he maintained had been made to him at the time of his first occupation—he had, with an ill grace, paid the purchase money for some 3,000 acres of splendid land with a frontage to the river, which consisted for the most part of rich alluvial flats and gently rising ridges that ran up towards the foot-hills of the ranges. And he got it at a figure much below its value even then, three-quarters of a century ago.
It was, nevertheless, a bitter grievance to John Vane, until the day of his death, that he had had to pay anything at all for Castle Vane. He remained a deeply injured man—until he left the colony in disgust, ten years, exactly, after he had come to the Hunter to establish his dynasty.
Although he possessed the freehold of only 3,000 acres, his cattle and horses had a countryside as large as an English county for their pasturage. In common with his neighbours, up and down the river, he had the use of the whole district that lay between and about their holdings. Only by their brands did they set boundaries to the wanderings of their cattle and horses. Fences—save around the home paddocks and the fields of cultivation—there were none. The cattle running in the hills and ranges were mustered periodically for branding or for sale. The sheep were shepherded in the most suitable localities. And nearly all the labour was supplied, by the assignment system, from the ranks of the very large convict population of the colony.
It was meant to be a great day when the lord of the manor drove up to Castle Vane. The fine new house which he had built—it is old, and a dairy farm, now—was decorated with flags, and green boughs, and ferns from the mountains. Mr. McNab wore his best broadcloth, his ancient beaver top-hat, and his least appalling look. The convict labourers—between fifty and sixty of them—were paraded in front of the house, and made a demonstration that was ostensibly one of welcome, but in reality was an utterance of ribaldry and loathing that did not dare to express itself openly.
Mr. McNab rode to meet the major's cavalcade as it forded the crossing below the house.
There was the major, his lady—the beautiful woman who made his life such a hell—and his daughter Caroline. The major and Mrs. Vane had both enjoyed previous matrimonial experience before venturing upon the united experience—a disastrous one—of one another. His daughter was the child of his first marriage—a fair-headed English girl, with a sweet face, but not so lovely as her handsome stepmother's. She was prettily conscious of this, and her stepmother was not the kind of lady who would ever be likely to permit her to forget it. The three travelled in a light phaeton, drawn by a magnificent pair of dapple greys.
Behind them came a large conveyance, containing Major Vane's soldier-servant, John O'Toole, whose discharge from the 146th he had purchased on his own retirement; his French chef, Louis Pinaud, and the two maids in attendance upon the ladies. Further behind was a two-horsed cart, transporting the travelling equipment and personal baggage of the party; and far back on the Great Northern Road, a heavily-laden bullock dray toiled up the river from Morpeth, at the head of navigation in the Hunter, piled with furniture and luxuries for the equipment at Castle Vane.
The major sat very erect, beside his handsome wife—his grim, cold, austere face relaxing a little as he greeted his dour deputy.
"How d'ye do, Mr. McNab? My dear—allow me to present to you Mr. McNab, my overseer."
The raw-boned Scot removed his ancient beaver, and bowed low over the pommel of his saddle.
"Ye're varra welcome, me leddy. Ah hope ye'll find Castle Vane to your liking. 'Tis a bonny place, or 'twill be when all's set in or-der. The view's fine, d'ye no ken? An' 'tis a braw hoose his Honor's builded for ye. We'll be layin' oot a bit garden the noo."
Mrs. Vane nodded disdainfully at him. The girl in the back seat smiled in such a way as to win his heart at once—and the heart of Donald McNab was not easily won.
"Drive on, John," commanded the major's lady. "Who are those dreadful creatures before the house? What a noise they are making! It positively makes my head ache. Do, please, send then away immediately."
The sorry rabble of ill-clad convicts was rejoicing, as duly ordered by the overseer.
"Send them about their business, McNab," said the major. "Send them back to work. It spoils such scum as these people to indulge them with holidays."
A little crestfallen, Mr. McNab rode ahead of the procession, and cursed the servants into the background.
One of them—a sturdy fellow—had been a soldier of the 146th. He muttered as they slunk back to their tasks:—
"'Tis the same hell-hound of a Johnny Vane. By heavens you chaps will find McNab was a grandmother compared to this fellie. I'll bet any one of ye a fig of tobacco he sends some of ye into Scone to the justices for a floggin' before the twenty-four hours is out. I know the wretch!"
"Sure—but it might be y'silf he'll be sendin', Miles, me lad!" growled an old convict near him. "How'd ye like that, me pebble?"
"I'm goin' to do all I can to keep out of his eyesight. He's had me flogged once, d——n him. If it comes again—'tis Miles Marvel for the bush. But I'll kill him if he does. He's a devil—a devil out of hell."
"To-morrow morning, McNab," said the major that evening, as if issuing Regimental Orders of the Day, "at seven o'clock, you will hold a parade of the servants on the estate, when I will make an inspection of them. This will be a daily affair. You will attend yourself, with a nominal roll and a written statement of each man's task for the day. You will there report to me all breaches of discipline, which I will deal with after breakfast at my office. I shall leave it to you to see that my punishments are carried out. Discipline, discipline, McNab. Discipline is the thing for these creatures. I will discipline them. We will carry on in this fashion from henceforth, if you please. I rather think that the servants have become too used to your easy-going ways."
"Ma certes," murmured McNab grimly, as he returned to his quarters, "he ca's my ways 'easy-goin'!' I wonder how yon prees'ner bodies will find his."
In the morning—just as the sun was peeping over the indigo line of ranges, and sending golden gleams sparkling across the frosty grass on the river flats—the major held his first parade. A great bell clanged out its summons hard by the overseer's quarters, and presently the ill-clad wretches came shuffling and slouching from their huts to the front of the homestead. There, being duly ordered in some kind of double rank formation by McNab, and the roll being called, the master of their souls and bodies stepped down from the verandah, high stocked and closely buttoned, to speak a little of his mind to his assembled serfs. His address is so characteristic of the man that it may be given in full.
He stood before them in the morning sunlight—the very personification of the martinet of a period in British military history when not to be a martinet was to confess oneself a weakling. It had not yet been discovered that the British soldier was amenable to kindness, and the disciplinary reputation of the Great Duke, together with his unflattering opinion of the private, was still a tradition of regimental messes. The major proposed to keep the tradition alive amongst his assigned servants.
"Stand at 'attention!' Damme, Mr. McNab, you should call them to attention when I appear on the verandah. Now, listen to me, you prisoners. I have an idea that you have been having altogether too easy a time of it, and I intend to smarten you. Who is that man in the rear rank chewing tobacco? Fall out—you I mean," pointing at a little old man who wore brass ear-rings. "What is your name? Cassidy? Mark Cassidy for punishment, Mr. McNab. I will have no nonsense. If you behave you will get—what you are entitled to under my agreement with Government. If you are insubordinate or insolent, you will be chastised. For graver offences, the Law will deal with you. I remind you that, although you are not in gaol or labouring in the road-gangs, you are still prisoners of the Crown, and still amenable to prison discipline. See that you bear it in mind. I will have no shirking of work. If a man does not carry out his task to my satisfaction, or that of my overseer, Mr. McNab, his diet will be reduced. If he shams illness as an excuse, he will be sent in to the justices in Scone. If he should prove incorrigible, he will be returned to Hyde Park Barracks, in Sydney, with a full recommendation. You understand—there will be no excuses at Castle Vane. Now be off to your work—and remember what I have said. Stay a moment, though. Come here—you."
He had caught sight of the ex-soldier. With a scowl on his face, but the effects of the drill still strong in him, the convict Marvel took three military strides to the front, saluted the major, and stood rigidly to attention.
"I have seen you before. You were drummed out of the regiment, and sent to prison. What is your name?"
"Why do you not say 'sir'? Mr. McNab, this man for punishment also. I will cure your insolence, my man. Mr. McNab, you may dismiss the parade," and he strode inside to breakfast.
"Get to h—l out of this," was Mr. McNab's curt way of issuing the order deputed to him. "And ye'd best mar-rk what the major said to ye. He's no the mon for triflin'. You two—Cassidy and Marvel—come to the office at nine o'clock. Ye fools, ye—t' get into the major's black books already. Ye'll repent it—or me name's not Donald McNab."
By ten o'clock, Messrs. Cassidy and Marvel, bearing a letter to the bench of magistrates in Scone—in the which their brother justice, Major John Hilary Vane, begged for them the award of twenty-five lashes apiece for "gross insolence and misbehaviour"—were tramping sullenly to their punishment. By sunset, with raw and bleeding backs, and raw souls that were filled with bitter hatred, they had reported themselves to the overseer at Castle Vane.
It was an expeditious and useful business, this interchange of courtesies by brother justices in the country districts. Every large land-holder was a Justice of the Peace, and nearly every one—save those rare and wise exceptions who recognized its costliness—availed themselves of the assigned servant system. To prevent injustice and tyranny a paternal government had ordained that no master should inflict corporal punishment upon the prisoners in his care. He had to send them for trial before a duly constituted court of summary jurisdiction. So Mr. A, the neighbour of good Mr. B, when sitting in judgment, saw to it that Mr. B's delinquents paid for their digressions with their skins, and Mr. B, in his turn, duly attended to the disciplinary interests of the worthy Mr. A. There was a delightful give-and-take about the arrangement. And there was an element of humour in the mere fact that the man who was to do the taking quite often carried a letter which was something after the following style:—
"Dear A,—Please give bearer fifty lashes, and oblige. Yours to command—B."
LATE in the afternoon of the third day after his arrival at Castle Vane, the major, strolling up and down a pathway of what was to be, in time, the garden, beheld a man on horseback riding up from the river-crossing towards the house. The stranger was too far off for recognition, but as he drew closer to him, the major perceived that he was a well-appointed person, of evidently some importance, and that he was exceedingly well mounted. Furthermore, he decided that, whoever he might be, the stranger was not unwelcome to Castle Vane—for the simple reason that its overlord was beginning to suspect himself of being in danger of becoming bored with too much of his own society.
For days the handsome mistress of the establishment had been in one of those moods which puzzled and disquieted her husband. Nothing he could do could please her. She maintained an almost unbreakable silence, or, if she did speak, it was only in complaint about the conditions of existence in the colony, and her unfortunate lot in finding herself situated in such an out-of-the-way corner of the world. He did everything that he could imagine would divert her mind and occupy her fancy, but to no purpose. Sometimes she sulked. At others she supposed herself to be ill, and kept her room. He could arouse her to no interest in the affairs of Castle Vane. And she had been like this ever since they had left Sydney.
Between his daughter, Caroline, and himself there was not much sympathy. They had seen little of one another since the death of Caroline's mother, when she was a child five years old, and her girlhood had been passed at a school in Belgium, where he had left her during his services abroad, in India and New South Wales. Last year he had returned to England on leave, with an intention of bringing her back with him to preside over his establishment in Sydney, had found her almost a stranger, and, falling desperately in love with the young widow of a retired naval captain who had committed suicide after a short and disastrous career on the Stock Exchange, had brought that lady instead, with his daughter as a somewhat unwilling member of their household.
Neither daughter nor stepmother appreciated the position over-much, and there was little enough of friendliness, not to speak of affection, wasted between the two. Caroline was a warm-hearted, impulsive, merry, and sweet-natured girl. With her beautiful stepmother—selfish, vain, and luxury-loving to a degree—she was altogether out of relationship. Her father was almost a stranger to her, and his cold, precise, somewhat pompous manner rather overawed her. She could see, too, that her father was a friendless man, through his own unlovable character, and that he was bitterly hated by all who were beneath him for his tyrannous and overbearing demeanour. The family could hardly be described as a happy one.
So it was almost with a sense of relief that, this evening, the major walked down the garden to meet the new arrival.
The latter was a tall and good-looking man, athletic, healthy, and bright-eyed. The valise strapped in front of the saddle marked him as a traveller, if the dust upon his well-cut clothes and Wellington boots had not done so too. Obviously he was of Hebraic extraction, but his features were not aggressively Jewish, even if there was no mistaking their cast.
The major and the newcomer reached opposite sides of the garden gate at the same time. The latter lifted his hat, and bowed politely, without alighting—a courtesy which the major stiffly acknowledged.
"Good evening, sir,"—the man spoke pleasantly, and in the tone of an educated and well-bred person—"have I the honour of addressing Major John Vane, late of Her Majesty's 146th Regiment?"
"You have, sir,"—replied the major, bowing. "Pray what can I do for you? And may I enquire whom you may be, sir?"
"I carry a letter of introduction to you, Major Vane, from your agents in Sydney. Allow me to present it you."
He got down from his horse, and, taking a letter from an inside pocket of his coat, handed it to the major. He stood flicking his boots gently with his riding whip, whilst the latter opened and read it. His eyes travelled over the house in a swift, comprehensive glance, and a smile twitched his lips as the major studied the letter with knitted brows.
He seemed to become aware of the open-mouthed, gaping stare of a convict, who was digging up a flower bed a few yards away. The man had paused in his work for a moment to take stock of the stranger—a look of astonishment and apprehension in his face. The stranger made a sign with his hand—a peculiar sign, that might have been merely made to brush away a fly from his nose, or to convey a hasty signal. The convict knew what it conveyed.
"Howly saints!" he muttered to himself. "'Tis the Jewboy—and that's the 'lie low' sign he's give me. Sure—there's something in the wind."
The major looked up from the paper and opened the little gate. He held out his hand to the stranger.
"I am delighted to meet you, Mr. Davis," he said, with as much delight in his cold tone as he was able to express. "My agents inform me of your journey's object, and it gives me pleasure to offer you the hospitality of Castle Vane. Will you come inside?"
He looked round, and saw the convict. It was the unfortunate old Cassidy, who had had his twenty-five lashes the day before, but was not for that reason excused from labour.
"Here you—prisoner!" called the major sharply. "Take this horse to the stables, and tell the groom to water and feed him and rub him down. Ah—it is Cassidy, is it? Well, Cassidy—I trust your manners are improved."
The old man touched his hat.
"Yis sorr! 'Tis that they are."
He hobbled painfully to the gate. The dried blood made a pattern on the back of his coarse cotton shirt. He led the horse round to the stables, muttering to himself as he went.
"The Jewboy! Thin 'tis the divil Vane is goin' to suffer. I must get word wid him—for to tell him not to shpare th' hell-hound."
"A taste of the cat?" remarked the visitor, airly and pleasantly, as his host led the way indoors.
"Yes," replied the major. "He was lacking in respect. I consider it necessary—most necessary—to enforce discipline upon these creatures. They are quite worthless."
"Quite, major, quite," agreed the other. "It does 'em good."
The major pulled the bell-cord, and in a few moments his butler, John O'Toole, appeared in the door of the dining-room.
"Glasses, O'Toole. You will take a little refreshment, Mr. Davis? We dine at five o'clock. Have you ridden far to-day?"
"Only from Muswellbrook. I spent the night at the inn there—in excellent company. You know Mr. Denny Day—the police-magistrate from Maitland? He was there too. Delightful company—such reminiscences."
"By repute only. I have not yet met him. What is he doing in these parts?"
"He has been after a certain notorious character, a highwayman, whom I daresay you have heard something of. He is known as the Jewboy."
He took the glass of brandy and water which Vane had mixed for him. "Your health, Major! The scoundrel is a namesake of mine." He laughed.
The major bowed.
"I fancy that my overseer has mentioned the ruffian to me. I can assure him of a warm welcome if he comes onto my estate. And did he elude Mr. Day?"
"Yes, he escaped to the ranges. Perhaps Mr. Day will have better luck next time."
"'Tis to be hoped so!" replied the major. "And now, sir, will you allow me to show you to your room. I will send for your valise. Dinner will shortly be served. Will you come with me?"
He led the way to the guest-room, and after seeing that the visitor had all that he required for his toilet, left him alone.
Mr. Davis sat down on the side of the bed and laughed silently. "Ah, my fine bird," he soliloquized in a low tone—"you little realize the angel you are entertaining unawares. It is an amusing adventure—I wonder will he see the joke of it to-morrow? I doubt much if a sense of humour is amongst my worthy host's characteristics. But we will put him to the test to-morrow. There is one of my band, at any rate, whom the situation will divert. Dick Delane will enjoy it. By George—I think we might put a little honest amusement in the way of old Cassidy too. It will take his mind off his sore back." He laughed silently as he threw off his coat and waistcoat. A knock came to the door.
It was the old Irish convict with his valise. The Jewboy held up his hand warningly.
"Not a word, Denis—'twill be your turn to-morrow."
The old man grinned slyly, nodded his head twice, and took himself off. Opening his valise, the visitor brought to light a small bundle of clean linen and a pair of horse-pistols with their ammunition—a flask of powder and a bag of bullets. There were also a formidable-looking knife and a small hatchet. He rapidly completed his toilet and fastened up his valise.
In the dining-room he found the major with his daughter, and was duly presented. The major apologized for the absence of his wife.
"Mrs. Vane is indisposed, and is keeping her room, sir. She begs to be excused from receiving you, Mr. Davis, but hopes to have the pleasure of meeting you in the morning."
"The loss, I am sure, is mine, Major Vane. But there is some consolation in the presence of your charming daughter."
Their guest proved to be an agreeable companion, and, gradually, the major's frozen and formal politeness thawed a little, and he found himself listening with appreciation to the anecdotes and recollections of the stranger.
The latter was evidently a man of wide reading and extensive travel. He was a Londoner, and knew the other European capitals—Paris, Berlin, St. Petersburg, Rome, and Madrid—almost as well as he knew the English metropolis. He talked to Caroline of Belgium and France, and of Bruges, where she had been at school, and made himself altogether agreeable. She was quite sorry when the time came for her to withdraw and leave the gentlemen sitting over their wine.
"And so, Mr. Davis, you propose to settle down across the ranges?" began the major, when they had lighted their cigars.
"Yes—if the run which I am going up to inspect suits me. I have great confidence in the future of this country, major. It will be a rich one some day. Not in our time, perhaps—but our children will reap what we sow."
"I agree with you."
"You are fortunate in the property which you have acquired, sir," went on the other. "I admired it greatly as I rode through it to-day. You will find it a good investment."
"Do you think so? I hope it may be. I have paid a fair price for it."
"Ah—I should have supposed it had been a grant from the Crown, major, as some reward for your distinguished services. Surely they have entitled you to so much."
Whereupon, as Mr. Davis was not altogether unexpectant, he was told much concerning the ungratefulness of those in power, their short-sightedness, and the disastrous effects which their misguided policy would inevitably bring about with regard to the welfare of the colony. Also, he heard some plain-spoken criticism of his Excellency Sir George Gipps. He sympathized feelingly with the major, agreed that he had been treated with gross unfairness, and that it was a shameful thing that persons of his sort, being desirous of settling in the country, for its good and their own, should not receive more considerate treatment.
"It is a fine house that you have built here, sir," he said, casting his eyes round the handsome room in which they sat. "I perceive that your furnishings are not altogether complete, though. On their way, doubtless?"
"No," replied his host, "they are not complete. But they soon will be. Some heavy baggage, together with all my plate, has been coming from Morpeth this week past. I am bringing the goods up by bullock dray—a slow but sure method. They are only a few miles from here to-night. In fact, I am riding out early in the morning to meet them."
"Ah—then perhaps I may ride with you? I must return to Muswellbrook to complete some business before I pursue my journey northwards. I am to meet a gentleman—with a view to inspecting some cattle which he has at Page's River. May I have the pleasure?"
"Delighted," said the major. "I will order an early breakfast, and shall be glad of your company. It is indeed a pleasure to meet with one who has had so extensive an experience of the world, and has observed it so well as yourself. And now, shall we join my daughter in the drawing-room? We may persuade her to favour us with some music. She sings a little, and numbers a knowledge of the guitar amongst her accomplishments."
"With pleasure," murmured Mr. Davis.
They spent a pleasant evening, during the course of which Mr. Davis further impressed himself upon the major and Miss Caroline as a charming acquaintance. When bed-time came, the major pressed him to stay over a few days.
"No—I thank you. Much as I should like to, my business undertakings demand my immediate attention. Perhaps you will welcome me some other time?"
Major Vane was almost genial in his invitation to his new friend to come whenever it might suit him?
"Perhaps," murmured Mr. Davis, as he got between the sheets and blew his candle out—"perhaps, my worthy big-wig, you will not feel so inclined to welcome the Jewboy by to-morrow night."
THE major and his guest rode away from Castle Vane soon after sunrise. It was a beautiful, clear morning of early winter, and all nature seemed to rejoice in the glorious keenness of the air and the brightness of the sunshine. Magpies sang in the high timber along the river, and the rustling of the breeze through the dark she-oaks that fringed its winding course made a soft music in their ears.
"That is a fine horse you are riding, Mr. Davis," remarked the major, casting an approving and discriminating eye over the splendid black gelding upon which his companion was mounted. "May I, without seeming impertinent, ask you what you gave for him?"
"Yes, he is a fine animal, major—but as to what I gave for him, that is no criterion of his value. I gave nothing for him. He was a present—from a man I know." He might have added that the price of him was the escape from death of his late owner, which had been gladly accepted by that unfortunate person in exchange for the horse—but did not do so. "Your own is not a bad animal, sir. Is he imported—may I ask?" Mr. Davis approved of the brown stallion the major rode.
"Yes. I brought him out with me, on my return from England last year. He, also, was a present—from my uncle, the Earl of Marshford."
"Lord Marshford! Are you, then, related to his lordship?"
"My father was his youngest brother. But did you know him?"
"I often encountered him in the European capitals, at most of which he was ambassador in turn. I knew him fairly intimately—as intimately as a humble individual like myself may become acquainted with so distinguished a character. A great man, sir! Are you in favour with him, may I ask? Have you expectations?"
The major laughed grimly.
"No, I think not. I fancy that the old man regarded the gift of this horse as discharging any claims I may have had upon his affectionate remembrances. I fear that I can look for nothing further in the way of favour from the Earl. However, the horse is rather more than I expected from him. He was never notorious for his liberality to his kinsmen."
They rode along through the pleasant morning, chatting of many things—of Sydney and its people, official and otherwise; of the major's war services in India; of his companion's travels; of the prospects of the pastoral industry in New South Wales—until they were between three and four miles from Castle Vane.
They had followed the dray-track which led from the station to the Great Northern Road, and which was all the approach there was as yet to the major's homestead. Just here it led through the bush in a straight avenue of half a mile or so in length. In the distance they beheld a bullock dray standing in the middle of the road, without its team. It seemed to be deserted.
"By heavens!" cried the major, "I believe that is my dray!" He checked his horse. Then he heard his companion, a few feet in his rear, say quietly:
"Major Vane. One moment, if you please."
The major half turned in his saddle, and found himself looking down the barrel of a formidable horse-pistol. At the same instant, a rough-looking man jumped from behind a tree, and seized his bridle reins. His late guest smiled at him along the barrel of the pistol.
The major was a brave man, but the suddenness of the thing bewildered him.
"Good heavens, Mr. Davis! What does this mean?" was all he was able to gasp in his astonishment.
"It simply means, major, that I think you had better get out of the saddle. It also means—this loaded pistol of mine—that if you move a hand towards your pockets you are a dead man. It means it very sincerely, I assure you."
Furious with rage and mortification, the major got off his horse, and stood in the track, glaring at the visitor.
"Put your hands above your head, if you please, my dear major," suavely requested the latter. "Morris," he called, "come along. Take my horse."
Two more men, armed with muskets, came out of the bush. One of them took their leader's horse by the bridle, the other covering Major Vane as Mr. Davis dismounted. As soon as he was on the ground he again presented his pistol at the major.
"Search him, Albert," he said. "See if he has any weapons." With a thoroughness that bespoke some familiarity with the process, the other man searched the major, taking from one of his pockets a small double-barrelled pistol. When he had handed it to Mr. Davis, the latter lowered his weapon, and bowed ceremoniously to his captive. "Permit me to introduce myself, Major Vane. It is true that you are already acquainted with my real name, but I am not sure that you know me as the Jewboy. A rather undignified title, perhaps, for a man of my parts—but it is tolerably well-known and respected, and does well enough. Now, will you kindly walk beside me to the dray? Bring the horses, lads. Albert—shoot the major if he tries to bolt into the bush. I should not attempt it if I were you, sir—the young man is an excellent shot."
The major was a picture of misery and futile anger. It was not of the least use his offering any resistance to his captors—that he knew—but to walk quietly in order to look over the looting of his own property was a terribly hard trial to his dignity. He turned to the Jewboy.
"Davis," he said, "you seemed to me last night to be a gentleman—you had a letter that vouched for you from my agents. How did you come by it?"
The robber laughed.
"My dear major, the letter was forged in Sydney, and sent up to me here on the Hunter, in case I should wish to use it. It was done by a man who can imitate any writing. I confess that I wanted to reconnoitre Castle Vane, and to be your guest before you became mine. It was a pleasant enough thing to drop the bushranger for one evening, and sleep under a gentleman's roof. I am not quite a gentleman, perhaps—but such little polish as I may have was imparted to me in your own family. You look surprised. I was valet to the Earl of Marshford for eight years. Few men know him better. I am glad to gain possession of a horse that was bred at Marshford. You see, the whole little comedy has been prettily played, major, has it not? A little farce before the main performance, eh? Let us hope that we have to stage no tragedy."
"What do you mean to do with me?"
"Personally, my dear major, I would set you at liberty, once our own liberty was assured—when we had made good our escape—but I am not altogether a free agent. There are two or three members of my company who wish to transact a little business with you. I am afraid that they will hold different views from my own as to what should be done with your person. But here we are—let us see what you have been so good as to bring from Sydney for our benefit. Sit down on the grass, will you? Albert, attend to the major. I wish to look over the spoil."
The attentions of Albert did not relax for a single instant. He squatted down opposite to the unfortunate gentleman and kept him covered with his musket, the butt resting on his thigh, and the hammer at full-cock.
"Move, ye devil, an' I'll let daylight into you!" was his pleasant caution to his charge.
For more than half an hour the unhappy owner of Castle Vane remained in this humiliating position. His back was to the bullock-dray, and he could not see what was going on, but from the occasional bursts of laughter that broke upon his hearing, it seemed that the gang was enjoying itself over the investigation of his property. At last the Jewboy called to his guardian to bring the prisoner up.
"Git up," growled the amiable Albert, and the major rose to his feet, and faced about. A queer spectacle met his astonished vision. They had broken into the boxes containing his clothes—indeed, they had broken open everything—and finding his uniforms in one of them, four of the bushrangers stood arrayed in all his military splendours, so far as they would go round. One man, a grotesque individual with a flaming red beard, had donned his full dress frock coat. Another had on his gold-laced mess jacket and his cocked hat. Two more had blended various incongruous articles of military clothing in a ridiculous fashion, and were strutting about among the trees. A couple of open cases of wine revealed the source of this humour.
"Fall in th' gyard of honor!" shouted the individual in the frock coat, and the other three unsteadily arrayed themselves in line.
"Do not, I pray you, regard this buffoonery too severely, my dear major," said the Jewboy. "We lead a strenuous life, with only infrequent relaxation. I am obliged to loosen the reins of discipline a little when such an opportunity as this presents itself."
The major said nothing. He did not know what to say. Never in his life before had he been a butt for the entertainment of others. But he knew well that this foolery was not to prove the worst of the experiences that were to be his this morning. His only consolation lay in the fact that none but this motley crew of runaway convicts was present to witness his discomfiture. That was something. And, at any rate, his hands were free. If it came to the worst he would sell his life dearly.
But even this small comfort was snatched away from him.
"There is a dangerous look in your eye, I think, major," remarked the leader of the gang—"I think we will secure our persons from the exercise of your prowess. Bind his hands behind him."
It was promptly done, and then he was shoved and led through the trees to a little circular open space, which had evidently been prepared for his reception.
Another group of men stood waiting here. They seemed to have been arranging the appointments of the place.
Much of his furniture had been taken from the dray. A small table had been placed at one side of the clearing, with a high-backed chair behind it. A semi-circle of his dining-room chairs—part of an expensive suite which he had brought from England—was arranged in front of it. In the spaces between, an empty packing case had been placed. And, very ominously, from the branch of a great tree that projected over the spot, there dangled a rope with a noose at the end of it. The situation, truly, looked alarming enough. These scoundrels were going to exercise their feeble humour upon him before they took his life. They designed to make his end as ridiculous as they knew how. Well, all that he could do would be to remain as unmoved as possible under the ordeal that was inevitable, and, if he had to die ridiculously, he would not let any act of his own contribute to the enjoyment of this riff-raff. He kept his eyes fixed upon the ground.
At a sign from the Jewboy he was partly lifted onto the box, amidst the jeers of the convicts. Then they tied his ankles together, and put the noose about his neck.
He lifted his eyes once, and surveyed the characters in this strange drama. The three men who had been in charge of the bullock-dray were bound to saplings at the side of the little sylvan amphitheatre, with gags in their mouths. His grotesque guardians had arranged themselves behind him. Several others of the gang lounged about on the grass. A small group of three took his attention particularly.
Could he believe his eyes? Yes—there was no doubt about it—that tall man who looked at him with so much of dislike in his handsome face was the young soldier who had smitten him in the orderly-room that morning four months ago. He was talking to the convict Marvel, whom he had recently sent into Scone to be flogged. And with them was old Denis Cassidy, who had also recently suffered through his caprices. If these men were to be his judges, his shrift would be a short one. The Jewboy stood beside the table, smiling at him. And then he heard him speaking.
"Major Vane," he began, "you may have surmised, from the proceedings of the last hour, that your position is a delicate one—an extremely delicate one. But for my influence with these gentlemen, you would already have been a dead man. But I have persuaded my brave comrades to accord you the benefit of a trial. You will be accorded nothing but justice. I do not mean justice as the word commonly has its meaning understood. What I mean is the kind of justice that these men are used to seeing served out to themselves and their fellows in misfortune in New South Wales, by you and your class. You stand exactly in the same position that many a man has stood in before, in this land of bondage. Your hands are tied, and your feet. Your punishment—symbolized by the rope about your neck—is arranged before you come to your trial. So it is with nearly every unfortunate prisoner who faces the bench in this colony, upon any charge of conduct indulged in as a protest against the intolerable tyranny of such men as yourself. You will experience the consolation of such a trial—just as many better men than you have experienced it before. It will surely be a great consolation indeed. Your judge will be a partial and prejudiced one, and the jury of two who will decide your fate will be selected on account of their bias against you. So you see that it will all be quite fair—as the word 'fair' is understood in this part of the world. And now his Honor the venerable Mr. Justice Cassidy will take his seat upon the bench. Come, Denis. And the jury, both lately of your old regiment, will take their seats. There are a dozen chairs for them to occupy, as they really represent twelve good men and true, and I have no doubt that they will do their duty towards the honorable court, yourself, and the community."
A burst of cheers greeted this deliverance, mingled with oaths and ribald jests upon the major's appearance. Old Cassidy shuffled into the seat of justice, and the two soldiers sprawled over the chairs behind the impromptu gallows.
"You hound!" the major burst out—"you shall pay for this outrage."
"Yes, my dear major—but not so soon as you will pay for some of your own outrages."
IT was a grotesque scene—grotesque and horrible.
The tall, angry, black-browed gentleman on the packing case, with the rope about his neck, and his hands tied behind him, was, in some respects, a legitimate source of a grim kind of amusement. The scowling countenances of the half-drunken outlaws who made up the majority of the audience, their ferocious delight in the unfortunate major's jeopardy, the hideous taunts which they flung at him, and their gestures of fierce hatred, turned the farce into a terrible and revolting tragedy. But most terrible of all was the smiling, cynical politeness of their leader, the cruel cat-like playing with his victim in which he indulged, and his obvious enjoyment of the whole proceedings. It was only the dignity and courage of the major himself, under such fearful circumstances, that lent a touch of the heroic to a scene that was bestial and savage to an extremity.
But there was one man who found little satisfaction in this torture of the victim—Dick Delane. The young soldier was of a different stamp to his companions. He was not a polished "swell-mobsman," like Davis—a highly cultivated "crook," with a capacity for refined cruelty, and a perverted sense of the ridiculous. He could not share the Jewboy's exquisite enjoyment of the scene. He had no love for Major Vane, but he had a hatred of all devilry of this kind; even though circumstances—of which the major's own malignant temper, and his hasty one, were the chiefest and most active—had driven him into outlawry. He had not consented to taking refuge with the bushrangers in order to be a party to such performances as this. Whatever might be done, he made up his mind to have no share in it. But he did not see how he could hinder it.
The other ex-soldier, Marvel, was bitter with the rage of his recent flogging. He entertained no feeling of mercy towards the tyrant who had sent him to the triangles in such a wanton fashion. His torn and bruised back, swollen and raw from the laceration of the day before yesterday, was too present a torture to allow him to feel at all gently disposed towards the cruel devil who had been instrumental in inflicting it upon him. They might do what they liked, so far as he was concerned—and he wasn't sure that he wouldn't help them in whatever they might do. Nothing was too hard for such a tyrant. He deserved all that he was getting.
As for the old Irish convict, Denis Cassidy—such a deed as he found himself participating in was an unadulterated pleasure, a festival, the reward and compensation for years of misery and woe. He had been flogged, and flogged again, through almost half a century of his gaol-bird career. All that they had not scourged out of his man's soul was the native Irish wit that was of his very flesh and bones. They could only take that from him with his life.
In his fiercest moments of bitter resentment of the hideous existence that had been his, when he wondered vaguely what could pay him for all that he had had to endure, he had never risen to the height of imagining that such a recompense as this would be vouchsafed to him. He would some day soon close his old eyes when his time came—on the gallows, as he always supposed—with resignation, and gratitude for the fact that such an opportunity as this had come his way. It was more than he had ever hoped.
"Now, major," said the Jewboy, "your judge takes his seat—do you not think that you ought to bow to him? Most prisoners who are being tried for their lives—as, of course, you are—deem it a wise precaution to endeavour to propitiate the judge. But please yourself. Denis, I think you ought to show the gentleman your commission to try him. He may doubt the justice of it. Up on the chair, and show him your parchment."
Davis had evidently rehearsed the old man for this. Shakily he climbed upon the seat of the chair, with his back to the major, and pulled his shirt tail's out of his breeches. The Jewboy stepped forward, and lifted the blood-caked cotton garment up to the old man's rounded shoulders, exposing his torn and still bleeding back.
It was a fearful and sickening sight. The white flesh was mottled in a dreadful blue and green and red pattern of crossed cuts. It must have looked like a blood-soaked sponge when the flagellator had finished his task. Now, it was still oozing little thick gouts of blood in places, and the bruised and torn flesh seemed to be almost ready to putrefy. It was healing, no doubt, as well as might be expected—but it did not look like it. Of course, to the old man, who had in his time experienced floggings that were reckoned by the hundreds of lashes, a mere 25 was a bagatelle—but its effects were not pleasant to look upon.
"You see, major," jeered the Jewboy, "the venerable judge has his written authority to preside at your trial—written on the parchment of his own hide. Such authority is hardly questionable, is it? You would not gainsay it, would you, my dear major?"
The major had paled a little, as the disgusting exhibition was made before him, but he said nothing.
There was something fine in his almost contemptuous scorn of the rabble that surrounded him, with its jeering taunts, and its gloating revelling in the misery of his situation. Much as he hated him, Dick Delane could not feel anything but admiration for the man he hated. He had pluck, at any rate—courage of the highest sort.
"And now, my lord, will it please your lordship if I open the prosecution of the prisoner?" mockingly inquired the Jewboy.
"Aw—ye're the fine fellie for th' talkin', so ye are, Misther Jewboy," responded the old man, leering his admiration of the outlaw, and licking his cracked lips in a sort of animal enjoyment. "Shure—let th' coort hear what ye've got to say. Soilince in th' coort, ye wine-swabbin' blackgyards there foreninst me! Is it none of ye've got th' dacincy to pass th' joodge a bottle for his own comfort?"
One of the correctly-described audience came forward with a half-empty bottle of port, and the Bench refreshed itself.
"Git on wid ye, me Jewboy. Th' coort is dyin' t' see th' rope stretched."
"Well—my lord, and gentlemen—I have very little to say." The Jewboy was enjoying himself immensely, smiling all the time at his disdainful victim. "The prisoner is charged with being a tyrant of tyrants, a black-hearted devil, a persecutor. He has driven men to crime by his over-bearing demeanour. He has driven Dick Delane, for an instance, to desert from his regiment, to join in with us who are beyond the law, to place himself in peril of the law—for what? Why, for not having two buttons buttoned in his jacket when his august highness chanced to cast his evil eye upon him. He has flogged an old man for having a quid of tobacco in his mouth when he looked at him. He has flogged an old comrade-in-arms for not addressing him as 'sir.' Shall I call evidence, my lord, to prove what I say?"
"We don't want any ividence," screeched the old man, banging a gnarled fist on the table. "Luk at th' black face of him! 'Tis ividince enough, so it is. The on'y ividence th' coort is afther wantin' to take is at th' inquist. An th' sooner that's got to th' betther. Th' coort sintinces ye, ye black-faced villain, to be hanged where ye shtand. Git along wid it, bhoys, an' shwing him high."
"Ain't hangin' too good for th' dog, Dinny?" cried one of the gang. "He don't feel it long enough. Give him a taste of his own medicine—th' cat—before we turn him off. Flog th' courage out of him. Leave him just enough life in him so as he'll taste th' pleasure of bein' turned off. Spread it out a bit—make him feel it."
A chorus of approval greeted this happy suggestion.
"Aye—skin th' varmint!" yelled one.
"Give him a taste of fire!" howled another.
"Crucify the carrion!" gently suggested a third.
"Yis, yis," cried old Cassidy eagerly, shaking his fist at the major. The idea pleased him immensely. "That's it, b'ys! We'll flog th' dog till he howls. An' 'tis me an Moiles as'll do th' floggin'. 'Tis only right an' just it should be so. We'll give him a sore back—t' show whin he parades afore Ould Nick! So we will!"
"You hear, my dear Major? The court proposes to add to your enjoyment. Take him down, boys. It is a good notion," said the Jewboy. "We will postpone his execution for half an hour or so."
Half a dozen of them, yelling and cursing, lifted the major from the packing case. They handled him roughly. One cur smacked him across the mouth with the back of his hand. They tore his coat, waistcoat, and shirt from his back, slashing the clothing with their knives in order to get it free from his bound arms. One of them cut the lashing round his wrists, remarking that his elbows would save his skin if they were left in that position.
"Tie him to a tree," cried the Jewboy. "His arms round the trunk. Here is one that will just fit him."
They dragged him to where their leader pointed, and bound him to a box-tree that was a little more than a foot in diameter. His feet they secured to it at the ground, and about the buttocks they set another lashing, to assist in keeping him in an upright position.
"There, now, Major, I think you are quite comfortable," laughed the Jewboy. "My only regret is that we have not some of your friends here to witness your enjoyable situation. I am sure it would entertain them."
In all this rough handling they had not succeeded in drawing a word from John Vane. Trussed up to the tree, with a little trickle of blood, drawn by the ruffian who had struck him, running down over his chin, stripped to the waist, and in as degrading a situation as a man could be, this undaunted victim of their savagery would not give them the satisfaction of letting them see him falter. He was deadly pale, but that was the only sign of an appreciation of his position that he gave. His face was black and set, and the rage that tortured him was evident enough—but by no word, no plea for mercy, would he seek to save himself.
Dick Delane sat through the wretched business without taking any share in it. It had gone further than he had bargained for. Davis had told him that all that was to be done to the major was to humiliate him, to make him a ridiculous butt for the pleasantries of the gang—maybe to give him sufficient whipping to enable him to understand that there were two aspects to a flogging—that of the flogged as well as of the floggers. But it was evident that the ruffians who had him at their mercy were carried away by their desire for revenge against the system under which they had suffered, as personified in their prisoner. They would know no restraint. They would not understand that the major had already suffered more agony than he had ever experienced before. Their own feelings lay in their skins. They would not be satisfied with anything less than physical torture and death.
He turned to Marvel, when the crowd had surged across to the tree that was to serve as whipping post, and spoke to him in a low tone.
"By heavens, man, we can't stand this!"
"For why not?" growled the other. "Don't the dog deserve it?"
"He deserves a good deal—but, by heavens, this is going too far. Why, these fellows mean to kill him. There is no play about this!"
"Did you think there was?" said the other hoarsely. "Did you think that the Jewboy meant anything less? It was me who put him on to it. The night I had my flogging I was down at the riverside seeking to cool my back, when I came across him reconnoitrin' Castle Vane. I tells him about the devil Vane. 'Well,' he says, 'will ye join in with us if I punish him for ye?' An' so 'twas all arranged. The dray was took yesterday afternoon, as you know. You'd time enough to say your say when Davis was explainin'. Sure, you were never soft enough to think that we were goin' to let him off with a talkin' to an' a whippin', did ye? What's come to ye, man? Wouldn't he have cut the back off you, too; for less than nothing? Let them flog him to pieces, and hang him after. Old Dinny may do my share—he'll give him all I would."
Hardly knowing what to do, Delane looked up to see what was happening.
One man was busy with the great green-hide bullock whip—unravelling its coarse strands—whilst another was whittling down a stick to make a short handle. They were fashioning an impromptu cat-o'-nine tails. The convict crew crowded about the bound, half-naked figure of the major, shrieking insults at him and indescribable obscenities and filth. One man set a fashion by spitting in his face, another kicked him behind, and they all followed suit. Old Cassidy danced and raved round the tree.
"Hurry up b'ys—hurry up!" he howled. "Me arm's itchin' to be at him. I'll cut th' heart out av him! I'll do Marvel's share as well—sure, he won't be grudgin' an ould man his little bit of divarshin. Oh, be th' saints, me name's not Dinis Cassidy if I leave him wid more than jist enough life in his carcase to be squazed out av him wid th' rope!"
They cut the thongs of the bullock whip into lengths a yard long, and bound nine of them to the short handle that had been improvised. The thongs were hard and twisted, and made a fearful weapon of punishment. They passed it to the Jewboy for approval. He handled it smilingly, and nodded his head, then gave it back to them, and moved into a position where he could watch the major's face.
Never a word of protest or plea for mercy issued from that inflexible mouth.
"He's game enough!" muttered the ex-soldier beside Delane.
The little, bent old man, trembling with excitement, and his hand shaking as with a palsy, eagerly grasped the "cat" when they passed it to him. Someone passed him a bottle of brandy.
"Take a swig for luck, Dinny—'twill strengthen y'r arm!" He took a great gulp of the raw spirit, and stepped back from the major. With a short run, and a little jump, he brought the fearful lash down on the white back.
"Hooroo!" he yelled. "Wan for ye, ye dog!"
Dick could stand it no longer. With an oath, he jumped to his feet, and dashed into the little crowd about the tree, scattering it left and right. He sprang straight at the Jewboy, and dealt him a mighty knock-out blow on the point of the jaw, so that he collapsed in a heap where he stood, and lay insensible on the turf.
IN an instant there was a wild uproar. For a second or two the little mob of half-drunken scoundrels stood still, bewildered by this sudden diversion. The only quick wit amongst them was incapable of exerting itself, and there was no one in the band, save Delane, who could direct them as a leader. They were slow and dull animals naturally, and the life that each of them had led, before tasting the liberties of their bushranging career—as cattle under the goads of the merciless drivers of the convict system—had not added anything to the quickness of their perceptive faculties. It took time for them to grasp what was happening. When they saw the Jewboy go down under Delane's blow, it paralysed them momentarily.
Tearing a clasp knife from the pocket of his jacket, Dick ran to the major, and, in less time than it takes to tell it, he had severed the cords that bound him to the tree, and had thrust a pistol into his hands.
"Quick, sir! We must fight. Tackle them at once. They are nearly drunk, most of them."
The moment that he felt himself free the major dashed at his tormentors. He was a tough and powerful man, in the prime of life, and he was maddened and infuriated by the treatment he had received at the hands of the gang. With a passing blow at old Cassidy, that brought the aged instrument of convict vengeance to his knees, he jumped in amongst the startled men, making straight for the fellow who masqueraded with his sword. In an instant he had snatched the sword from his faltering grasp. Then he drew back a pace, and deliberately ran the man through the body. With the still unused pistol in his left hand, he laid about him in so effective a fashion as speedily to drive the astonished outlaws back a few paces, some with wounds, leaving their dying comrade grovelling in a pool of blood formed from the stream that gushed from his distorted mouth.
Dick had charged too, armed only with his fists. But he knew how to use them, and his vigour and activity were such that none of the bewildered crew could stand up to him. The man Albert dropped on one knee, and fired point blank at him with his musket, but in a moment Delane was upon him, had wrested the piece from his hold, and stretched him out upon the grass with the butt across his temple.
Miles Marvel had sat, dazed, upon the chair after Dick had jumped up, hardly realizing what the latter was about. When it came to him that his fellow-soldier was seeking the deliverance of his persecutor he was minded for a moment to side with the members of the gang against him, and jumped to his feet with every intention of doing as much. But a sudden revulsion of feeling swept over him, and only realizing that he was either to fight with the old regiment or against it, he decided to cast in his weight on the side of his late comrades in arms, even though one of them was the bitterly-hated major. With a shout of "Perishers! Perishers to the rescue!"—a slogan known in many an English and Irish garrison town and Indian cantonment—he jumped into the fray, picking up the handle of the mutilated bullock whip, and laying about him with its butt. He took the bushrangers in flank.
The convicts broke and gave ground before the fury of this three-sided attack, and ran back to the bullock dray, where most of them had left their muskets.
"To the horses, major—to the horses!" yelled Dick.
He ran to where the three men who had been bailed up with the dray were lashed to the trees, and in a few seconds had cut their bonds.
"Run for your lives! Make for Castle Vane," he cried to them. "They will rally presently."
The three free men needed no urging. They dived into the bush, and were lost to sight in an instant. What became of Marvel, Delane had no time to observe.
He and the major ran to where the Jewboy's horse and the major's stallion were tethered to some bushes, hastily unfastened their bridles, clambered into the saddles, and, flogging them into a gallop, fled through the trees in the direction of the homestead. A spattering fire of musketry followed them, and a few bullets whistled by, but did no damage. They raced a full mile before the major drew rein, and Dick checked his horse and rode beside him.
"I thank you, Delane," said the major. "It was more than I expected of you."
"It was no more than I could help doing," replied Dick coldly. "I am not a murderer—or a brutal savage."
"Yet you connived at my capture by that blackguard Jew?"
"I did so because I had a score against you, sir. You drove me from the regiment—you sentenced me to torture and disgrace. For a trivial piece of carelessness, you ruined my life. It is ruined now—but not in the degrading fashion that you would have brought about. I have not been scourged like a beast. No thanks to Major John Vane for that, though. You'd have cut the manhood out of me if I'd not run away—just as it's been cut out of any of that pack we've but just escaped from."
The major was silent. It came to him that this youngster was a better man than himself. For the first time in many years, John Vane felt a glow of generosity—of humble admission to himself that all things were not shaped to the glory of John Vane. He put out his hand, and laid it upon the younger man's arm.
"Delane," he said—more softly than the soldier had ever heard him speak before, "Delane—it may be that I am a hard man—have been a hard, perhaps a cruel, man all my life. But this last hour, when I was in the hands of those ruffians, has taught me something. How does it go? 'Judge not that ye be not judged'—that is the lesson that I think I have learned. I ask your forgiveness for the wrong I have done you. Will you give it me?"
It was a strange scene, there in the sunlit bush, between these two men—the one young, handsome, athletic; the other strong, stern, carrying his native dignity in spite of the disarray of his clothing, his bleeding, lacerated body, and his blood-stained face.
Delane felt something of pity for John Vane. It was no easy thing for such a man to abase himself to one whom he had but yesterday looked upon as the smallest cog in the military machine—a cog that might be broken carelessly, without doing harm to anybody, or without giving himself any concern at all. He knew that the words he had just heard were genuine enough—that nothing but very real and deep feeling could have prompted their utterance.
And yet he felt that he owed Vane still another grudge for having been compelled to come to his rescue. It was hideously ironical that he should be forced by his own action into a friendship with this man whom he had schooled himself to hate and to regard as the evil genius of his life. It was unfair. He would have tried to save anyone in such circumstances. That the man he had saved should have been his bitterest enemy gave him no satisfaction at all.
He looked the major in the face, and in his own was a dislike and antipathy which the latter could not fail to remark.
"Sir," he said, "I am sorry that I struck you that morning in Sydney. You give me to understand that you regret having ordered me to the triangles for a paltry offence. Well, then—let it rest at that. What is done can't be done over again. You can no more give me back my red coat and clean sheet—for I had a clean sheet before that morning—than you can raise from the dead that man whom you killed back there a short while since. I am a deserter. I have committed one of the most serious crimes that exist in the military calendar—that of striking my superior officer. The facts remain—that I am an outcast and an outlaw, and that you are my natural enemy. Forget, if you will, that you owe me anything, and if we should meet again, only remember that it is your duty to apprehend a deserter, and to run an outlaw to earth. I ask for no recognition of what I have done this morning. I am sorry that I had to do it."
Major Vane flushed, and his face set into the hard lines that those who knew him were used to.
"Well—so let it be, Delane. I can offer no more." He shook his bridle reins, wheeled his horse about, and cantered through the timber, back towards Castle Vane.
Dick Delane sat staring after him, a prey to his own gloomy thoughts. He was aroused from his semi-stupor by hearing his name called. He turned his head, and saw Miles Marvel running towards him.
"Quick, Dick," he called; "they are after us. The Jewboy has come to, and swears he will cut your heart out for the blow you gave him. Can you take me up behind you? Remember, I came to your help. By heavens! It will go hard with us if we fall into the hands of that gang. I'm for the bush myself—but it will have to be in other company than the Jewboy's."
Dick roused himself, and recognized that Marvel was right.
He laughed bitterly.
"By thunder," he said, "I'm out with all of them now. Come along, Miles. Put your foot in the stirrup"—he withdrew his own. "This is a good mount of Davis's. I think he'll carry us both out of danger."
The other climbed up behind him, and Dick urged the horse through the forest. They could hear the shouts of their pursuers, but knew that they had not yet been seen, and before long, after a smart gallop over the undulating, well-wooded country, they came out on the river flats, a couple of miles below Castle Vane. They halted to consider a plan of action.
"The Jewboy was making down the country," said Dick, as they sat on a log at the edge of the steep, alluvial bank. "He has some notion of paying a visit to Sydney, and leaving the gang to operate, as he calls it, from the mountains about the Wollombi. What he wants to go to Sydney for I've no notion. I fancy there's a woman in the case. But there's one thing—if he's away for any length of time, and leaves that precious collection of his to their own devices, he'll find very little of it left by the time he comes back. They're the worst collection of louts I've ever come across—crawlers, loafers, boozers. That little Cockney, Albert Hogg's the only one of them with half a notion of sense. The rest are a hopeless lot. It's only the personal influence of Davis that keeps them together. He's rather a remarkable man, that fellow, but a cruel brute. Some of the things he brags of doing are damnable. This is the first active service I've seen with them. They've been laying low for the last three months, up in the mountains to the north of here—living on the proceeds of some robberies of station stores they'd looted just before I joined them, after I got away from Sydney. It's going to be the last, too, for I've got heartily sick of them. They're a poor lot, Miles, and it's a poor life. You've not missed much by falling out with them at the start. The bold bushranger may boast that the life's a free and merry one—but there's very little romance in it, as far as I could see. It's saying the most of it when you class it as just a degree better than life in a chain-gang."
"Well, it seems to be the only choice that we've got left—bushranging or roadmaking," said the other, dejectedly. "Even if we never bail up man, woman, or child, and live honestly on 'possum and wild honey, we're still classed as bushrangers. I'm a runaway convict, and you're a deserter. And now we've chucked the other side, too. Seems to me we're between the devil and the deep sea."
"There isn't a very bright look-out for us, and that's a fact. But one thing's pretty certain. We've got to get away from here. If the Jewboy's fellows get hold of us it won't be too healthy for us, and if the police should round us up it'll be pretty well as bad. We'll simply have to wait and see how things shape, and in the meantime get away from here. But I've got an idea about what we'd better do for a start—a sort of plan of campaign, such as it is."
"Let's hear it."
"You see that big mountain up there—the one with the round hump and a sort of neck, and then another big hump?"
He pointed northward to the ranges sleeping in the morning sunlight, deep blue against the lighter azure of the cloudless sky.
"The one that looks like the outline of a big cat lying down and looking this way. That's Mount Murulla—or the Murlow, as they call it. Well, up in one of the creeks that run down from there is where the Jewboy has had his headquarters for some months past—ever since I joined the gang. It's about twenty miles from here as the crow flies—say thirty as we have to travel. He has left two fellows in charge—one an old man, and the other crippled. Got a bullet in his leg six months ago. Our best notion, I think, is to get up there, surprise his caretakers, and fit ourselves out from his plant. It's stolen property, of course, but it's our only show. And then we might cross the ranges, and make out across the plains to the north-west. Plenty of new stations are being formed there, and we ought easily to pick up a couple of jobs that suit us. There won't be much chance of our being identified out there. They don't ask many questions as to a man's antecedents, I believe. What do you say? It's a vague kind of programme, but as far as I can see it's our only one. We'll take turns with this horse of the Jewboy's. There are some others at his depot, and we can help ourselves. I've got a few pounds, and can slip into Scone to-night and purchase some provisions. Nobody knows me there. How about it?"
"It's about all we can do, Dick. I'm with you. Come along, then, the sooner we're away from here the better."
They crossed the river, and commenced their journey northward, taking Mount Murulla as a guiding landmark.
As Dick remarked to his companion, they were making a choice of the deep sea rather than the devil.
THE two soldiers kept on through the bush until they were opposite to the little settlement which some good Scot had named after the ancient royal burgh of his native land.
Scone was a primitive little bush township in 1840—one of those milestones of the colonization that was rapidly spreading north and north-west of the head of the Hunter Valley. Already the valley had become a highway to the wide lands beyond—lands watered by the Namoi and the Barwon, and their tributaries—that stretched away in fertile and virgin splendor into Queensland, and out into the vast and unexplored territories of the huge continent of Australia. Settlement of a sort had quickly followed in the tracks of Major Mitchell, the Surveyor-General, and the little villages along the valley, besides being the centre of the rich districts surrounding them, flourished also by reason of the ever-growing traffic that passed through to the north.
They halted in a clump of timber, half a mile to the eastward of the township. Dick handed the reins of the Jewboy's horse to his companion.
"Listen," he said. "I will go into the place on foot, and you must wait for me here. I don't think there's any chance of my being recognized as one of the gang. I've never been out with them before, and I only consented to come this time because I wanted to help despoil Major Vane, and to assist in making some sort of fool of him. I little thought I'd be compelled to save his life. But I know this horse is a well-bred one, and was taken from some station down the river. There may be someone in the town who would know him. We won't want very much in the way of provisions—only sufficient for three or four meals at the outside. There is plenty, and to spare, at the gang's hiding-place in the ranges. I'll see whether I can hear anything about the gang. I hardly think it is likely that they will make back again. More likely, I should think, to keep away along the line of rough country to the westward, giving a wide berth to the settlements. There's no doubt that this attempt upon the major's life will set the whole countryside buzzing. They will have to take cover for a while."
"How long do you think you'll be?" asked Marvel.
"Perhaps two hours—maybe less. It depends on circumstances. But don't you move from here. Remember, you are a runaway convict, and there must be several people hereabouts who would recognize you as an assigned servant at Castle Vane. My face isn't known—except to the major and the Jewboy gang—and they're hardly likely to come looking for me in Scone."
He left his companion in the timber, and walked across the flats towards the outskirts of the township.
Dick rapidly reviewed the situation as he made his way cautiously towards the small cluster of houses that peeped through the trees. The more he studied it the more puzzling it seemed to grow. He had hastily outlined the only plan he could think of, a little while before, for the benefit of Marvel, but as to its merits or chances he had to confess himself uncertain.
It was a queer position that he found himself in. Delane was not very old, but he was old enough to have a "past." It was the "past" that had driven him to enlist in the 146th, then under orders for India, four years before. What it was we will keep to ourselves until we reach a later stage in this veracious narrative. The only thing about it is that it is necessary to chronicle the fact of its existence, and the further fact that the only person in the colony who had any knowledge of it was the old Jew, Jacob Losky. How he knew, Dick could only surmise, but that he did know he had very plainly given him to understand.
For his own reasons, Delane desired that his whereabouts should remain a mystery in England. He had hoped for a long time that his death might have been presumed by all who had had anything to do with him. And he felt, instinctively, that the reason why the old man took so much interest in him as to have shown him the secret of the trap-door in the shop, and to have assisted in his escape from Sydney, was because of his knowledge as to who he really was. Even when he had been waiting in the tunnel beneath the Jew's house, on that eventful day at the beginning of the year, he had had his doubts about the wisdom of putting himself into the power of the old man to any further extent. But the certainty of his terrible fate, had he been re-taken by the military authorities, had left him no alternative to act otherwise than by availing himself, as he had, of the refuge of the Free Company.
What he had seen of the last-named organization had opened his eyes as to the real character of the bookseller of George Street. The old man was a master craftsman in crime. For years he had been a receiver of stolen property, an agent and promoter of all sorts of robbery and swindling. There was no pie, however unwholesome, into which he would not put his fingers—provided that the pie contained plums which he could pull out for himself, and was not so hot as to burn him in the process. Losky had no scruples as to sharing in its distribution. He was a wily and cunning criminal, with a truly marvellous capacity for covering up his operations.
The Free Company was nothing else than a consolidation of his many illegal interests. He saw how he might exploit the crime into which escaped convicts and all sorts of unfortunates were driven by necessity. He realized the profits of roguery on a wholesale scale. But he took care that, save to a very few, he was unknown as the head and brains of his curious organization. And only two or three of them fully understood the lines upon which he ran it.
It had not taken long for Dick Delane to find himself altogether disgusted with the fact that he had placed himself in Jacob Losky's power so completely, nor was he long in the society of the Jewboy and his associates before he began to cast round for some means of escaping from all connection with the gang. He had resolutely refused to take an active part in their bushranging exploits, and his presence with them on the present occasion had only been due, as he had told Miles Marvel a short time before, to a desire to witness the discomfiture of the man who had driven him from the army. And now the events of the last twenty-four hours had solved his perplexities, and he found himself cut adrift from the gang—even in actual hostility to it, and the Free Company as well.
But he was also in hostility with the forces of law and order. As Marvel had put it, he was truly between the devil and the deep sea. He could not take his place amongst honest men, and he would not be a rogue. The more he thought over his position the more difficult did it become. However, he told himself, sufficient unto the day was the evil thereof. Just now his business was to procure some food. The future would have to remain an uncertainty for a few days.
He came into the little township, and found it agog with excitement. Word had just been brought in from Castle Vane of the outrage upon the major. The latter had despatched a messenger to the police-magistrate with news of the affair and an urgent request for assistance in following up the gang.
It had been ascertained that they were making across the mountains behind Muswellbrook, Major Vane was all for a hot pursuit. He would come in himself, in an hour or two, as soon as he had had his injuries attended and had taken a little rest after the rough handling he had received. In the meantime, he begged that a party might be raised in Scone to assist in the chase of the outlaws.
But the police-magistrate was hardly a man of action. He was an easy-going official of somewhat staid and decorous habit. He held it to be no part of his duty to lead an armed posse in pursuit of the bushrangers. There was only one mounted constable in the town, and it would be obvious folly to send him out after such a party as the one Davis had with him. He would await the arrival of Major Vane, and, in the meantime, make out warrants for the apprehension of the Jewboy, and such of his following as might have been identified, either by the major or his three employees who had been in charge of the dray. That was all, the worthy police-magistrate contended, that he could do for the present.
So Mr. McNab, who was himself the bearer of the major's message, had not scrupled to call the police-magistrate "a ——- ijeet," and had ridden back to acquaint his master with the hopelessness of stirring him up towards taking any energetic measures against the outlaws.
Dick obtained some tea, sugar, flour, and bacon at the little store that was kept by the proprietor of the only inn, one Wilkie. He also bought a small billy-can and a couple of pannikins, together with a supply of tobacco, and a clean shirt for his companion. He was fortunate enough to espy some pots of healing ointment on the shelves, and purchased one for the benefit of Marvel's lacerated back. He filled a sack with his stores, and, after looking about the township, and talking to one or two of the inhabitants in order to allay suspicion, turned his steps towards the place where he had left his fellow refugee.
He had hardly got beyond the last cottage when he ran into Major Vane himself, riding into the town, with a face black with anger against the easy-going police-magistrate. He had met McNab a little way out, who, having acquainted him with the unsatisfactory slackness of that official, had been sent back to Castle Vane to organize and arm a small party of such of the servants who could be trusted, in order to give chase to the Jewboy. The major would see what he could do in the way of raising a small force of the townspeople to avenge the insults and violence which had been offered to him that morning.
The major drew rein when he recognized the man who was carrying the sack.
"Delane!" he exclaimed. "Where are you going?"
Dick halted, and looked up at his interrogator doubtfully. He hardly knew how to answer him.
"You are not going to rejoin the bushrangers?" asked the major.
"No, I have cut loose from them," replied Dick, realizing that he must say something.
"Come with me and help to capture them! I need a man like you with me."
"You forget that I am a deserter and an outlaw myself!"
"No, I do not. But here is a chance for you to earn a pardon. Why not take it? The capture of that gang would wipe out everything for you. I would see to that. Come! It is the best you can do."
Dick thought for a while, looking down at the ground, whilst the major continued to urge him to take the course he suggested. At last the young man looked up. He shook his head.
"No, sir. I doubt if you and I would suit one another, Major Vane. We had better part. I hope you will be successful—I have no liking for that band of blackguards. But I will not join you."
"Is that final, Delane?" asked the major, frowning down at him.
"Yes—I will go my own way."
"As you will. You need never fear that I will seek to interfere with your freedom. I am too grateful for what you have done for me to-day. Come to me if you think better of it. I want to be your friend."
With a gesture that almost indicated dislike for any such idea, Dick shouldered his load and walked into the bush. The major put spurs to his horse, and galloped into the town. There was a bad quarter of an hour in store for the police-magistrate. And he experienced it.
It was well past midday by the time that Dick rejoined his companion, and they were very ready for a meal. So, leading the Jewboy's horse, they travelled on slowly, intending to halt when they should reach the first water. They had not gone half a mile before they came to a small watercourse that trickled down from a long mountain spur ending abruptly just opposite to Scone, on the right hand side. Here they secured the horse to a sapling, and set about the preparation of food. Dick carried flint and steel, and it was not long before they had the billy over the fire, whilst Miles mixed a small damper, and Dick attended to the broiling of some slices of the bacon. They made a hearty meal, and afterwards rested for an hour or so, smoking and discussing their route in the immediate future.
The valley up which they were making has its head beneath the shadow of the high dome of Mount Murulla. It is a rich strip of more or less flat country, stretching in a narrowing fashion into the Liverpool Ranges. A little creek, the Kingdon Ponds, runs down its midst, and empties into the Hunter a few miles below Scone. Over a spur of Mount Murulla the northern road leads into the valley of the Page, another and longer tributary of the main river, that joins it further to the east. At the head of that valley, beyond Murrurundi, the Main Dividing Range is crossed, and the western watershed entered.
Dick's plan, which he imparted to Marvel as they lay smoking their pipes after dinner, was to cross the valley diagonally, and follow the Kingdon Ponds up towards Mount Murulla, along its further side. They would thus avoid the traffic up and down the road, which keeps to the eastward of the creek. It was a dozen miles—possibly nearer fifteen—to the wild part of the jumble of rugged mountains where the Jewboy had his northern outpost. They could hardly make the place that night, and, indeed, Dick was not sure that he could find his way through the narrow gorges and wild approaches that led to it in the darkness.
They would camp somewhere within a few miles of the place, and reconnoitre it at daylight. He hoped that they would be able to surprise the old man who had been left in charge. They could easily overpower, and make prisoners of, both him and the injured man who had been left behind.
So, all the afternoon, they pressed on up the valley, after they had crossed over to its further side. It was long after sunset when they decided to make their camp for the night. Dick said that he was sure they were within a mile or so of the creek that ran down the gorge in which the bushrangers' hiding-place was situated. They lit a fire, and settled themselves down until morning. And being, of course, without blankets, they passed a cold and comfortless night.
LONG before dawn they had rekindled the fire into a dancing blaze. It was bitterly cold, and they greatly appreciated the hot billy of tea which was their first consideration.
Dick decided, with some regret, to let the horse go. He was a splendid animal, and it seemed a wasteful business to turn him loose. He could only hope that some honest man might come across him in the valley, who would recognize his brand, and restore him to his rightful owner. They could not take him with them this morning. If they were to approach the bushrangers' retreat unobserved, they would have to make their way through the scrubs and rocky defiles that lay between them and it, over country through which they could not possibly lead a horse.
After they had breakfasted, and just as the first coming of the dawn was paling the stars in the east, they started off, keeping parallel with the direction of the line of sandstone and conglomerate cliffs which skirted the lower slopes of the mountains, and through which numerous streams from the high country behind have cut precipitous passages. It was for the mouth of a certain one of these gorges that Dick was keeping a look-out. There was little difference between any of the entrances to the range, and Marvel asked him how he was going to tell when he came to the right one.
"There is a big blue-gum tree standing below a high white bluff, where the rock has been broken down," he replied. "The tree is on the right bank of the creek, as you face towards its source. If we were opposite here, out in the valley, you would be able to see the white face of the rock. The members of the gang use it to shape their direction when they are making for their hiding-place. We can't very well miss it."
"And when we get up to these fellows, what do you reckon we're going to do? I suppose they have firearms. How are we going to tackle them without any?"
"We must get close up to the hut, and see how the land lies. It may be that we'll have to wait until night before we tackle them. But we'll know soon enough. We've got to get the best of them somehow—unless we want to starve."
"And what then, Dick?"
"Then we'll fit ourselves out, and make over the ranges. It's all we can do. We've got to give the slip to police and bushrangers both. A cheerful outlook—but it's our only one."
They crossed the mouths of two ravines that broke the wall of rock, and, just as the sun rose over the high broken country opposite across the valley, Dick, who was a little way in front, called to his companion:—
"Here we are—here's the blue-gum. See the white rock above it there, just catching the sunlight."
There was no mistaking the two landmarks, and they sat on a fallen rock to rest for a few minutes before starting up the creek—a larger one, with a greater volume of water, than the two they had passed by, but still only a swiftly-running brook, with here and there a pool perhaps three or four feet deep.
"What's that smoke rising away over there, across the valley—on the side of that hill? Look—where that bare red place is."
Marvel pointed to where a great scar appeared in the blue ridges opposite, and a faint eddy of thin smoke drifted up into the sunlight, about three miles away.
"Oh that—that's the Burning Mountain—Wingen."
"No—only burning coal seams near the surface. It's a queer place. I walked over to it once, with the Jewboy. That bare strip is the burnt-out track of the fire. It's burning on the slope of a ridge that's away from us here. But come on—we'd better be moving."
He led the way into the dark gorge through which the little mountain rivulet tinkled out of its parent hills. They followed a faintly seen footpath, that crossed and recrossed the stream continually. The narrow gorge was deeply carpeted with ferns, and from the trees that arched overhead, great supple-jack vines, as thick as a man's wrist, hung downwards. In many places they had almost to force a way through the scrub—for the path was little better than a wallaby track. It was a cold and gloomy passage—almost dark in places, where the tree tops interlaced overhead—and dripping with moisture from the melting frost upon leaves and limbs.
Great stag-horns grew on the rock faces and in the forks of dead and damp old forest giants. Every now and again a little brown rock wallaby scuttled up from the water, interrupted at his morning drink. Up above them, the wild hullabaloo of the laughing-jackasses, noisily celebrating the coming of a new day, echoed and re-echoed amongst the crags and hills. And high overhead the tree tops were turned to green and gold by the climbing sun. Every now and again they could catch glimpses of the higher mountains before them, their crests changing from a cold dark indigo into a sort of golden purple as the sunlight crept down their steep slopes.
They penetrated almost a mile along this gloomy rift in the conglomerate, shivering with the cold, and almost wet through by reason of the continual dripping from the leaves and the dampness of the ferns that grew knee-deep all along the track. Dick held up his hand as a signal to his companion to halt.
"We're nearly at the end of the gully now," he said. "It opens out into a sort of basin in the mountains. The entrance is not more than about thirty feet wide, and they've built a fence, with slip-rails, across it, to keep their horses and cattle from straying out of the hollow. It's an ideal place for such a purpose as theirs. The hills rise up steeply on every side, and though there are one or two places where you can ride or lead a horse up over the ranges, this is really the only entrance to it that's of any use. The stock never stray up to the summits—simply because there is any amount of feed in the hollow, and on the lower slopes. The creek always runs as strongly as it does now, even in the driest weather. It has its source in a spring at the foot of the opposite side to this."
"Do we go in through the mouth of the passage, then?" asked Marvel.
"No—we'd better not. When the Jewboy's here he always insists upon a watch being kept upon the entrance, and, for all I know, the old man Gately might have some sort of a look-out. There is a little bark shelter for the look-out, near the slip-rails, and he might have camped there during the night. I heard Davis telling him to keep a careful guard when we left here three days ago. We'll climb over here to the left. It's pretty rough, but there's a way over."
They scrambled up the left side of the creek, between great moss-grown boulders and through clinging shrubs. In one place they had to climb a sapling in order to negotiate a little impassable precipice, and several times they had to slip off their boots and clamber up over almost perpendicular rock face's. At last, however, they found themselves on the flat, scrub-covered crest of a spur that formed one of the walls of this mountain fastness. They forced a way through the bushes, and lay down on the edge of a steep declivity to reconnoitre.
It was a magnificent piece of mountain scenery into which they gazed. They were on the edge of a vast amphitheatre—a place that would have made an ideal arena for some great series of athletic games. On all sides the mountain walls towered up for a thousand feet and more—steep and wall-like, and densely clothed with timber. The place was almost a circle, and was about half a mile in diameter, the creek dividing it into two nearly equal portions. Immediately below them, not one hundred yards from where they lay peering over the rim of the great basin, were two substantial slab huts with bark roofs, well and strongly built, and not far away from them was a stockyard, in one corner of which was a killing pen, with a gallows for hoisting up the carcases of cattle for dressing.
Marvel looked over to where Dick lay, after they had examined the place intently for a minute or so, and noted a puzzled expression in his face.
"Seems pretty quiet down there, Dick, don't it? Those two must be late risers."
"I can't make it out," replied Delane. "No smoke from the chimney—no sign of life anywhere. Gately would be about by now, ordinarily. It's well after seven o'clock. They've cleared out, or something's happened to them. Come—we'll crawl down and investigate. Keep under cover as much as you can. He's a queer-tempered devil, old Gately, and he'd be quite likely to take a pot-shot through one of the loop-holes, if he saw anyone creeping up towards the hut from behind."
They scrambled down through the rocks without much difficulty, and presently were walking quietly through the trees, across a gentle slope, towards the rear of the buildings. Suddenly Marvel trod on a dry stick, which broke with a crack that sounded startingly clear and loud in the stillness of the place. Almost instantly, the loud barking of a dog broke the uncanny quiet, and a blue cattle-dog raced round the end of the hut nearest them. The dog saw them, but ran round the end of the hut for a moment, and then came back, and set up his lamentation again.
"There's something wrong," said Dick. "That's old Gately's dog, Bluey. Let's go down."
As they came closer, the dog rushed out at them, snarling and snapping, but, suddenly recognizing Delane, came jumping about him, looking as if he felt relieved at seeing someone whom he knew. Every now and then he would whimper and crouch down, with his ears pricked, as if listening for something. Dick patted the dog, and spoke soothingly to him, and the two men walked round to the front of the hut. Here a strange sight met their horrified gaze.
Sitting on the ground, with his back against the slabs of the hut, his head sunk on his chest, and with his legs sprawled out in front, was an old, white-bearded, bald-headed man—apparently asleep. Beside him was a two-gallon spirit-keg, and, with his left forefinger crooked through its handle, a tin pannikin half full of rum rested on the ground beside him.
"Good heavens!" said Dick. "It's old Gately—drunk!"
He stepped forward and put his hand on the old man's shoulder.
"Hi—Micky!" he cried. "Come—wake up!" He shook him gently.
The old man tumbled over on his right side, stiffly keeping in the sitting posture. The left arm stuck up in the air, and the pannikin rolled on the ground.
"By Jove! He's dead!" said Marvel hoarsely. "Dead as Aaron—and stiff."
Dick stooped over, and felt for the old man's heart-beat, inside his shirt. He wore no coat. He straightened up immediately.
"Yes—he'd dead, right enough. Quite cold. By Jove's he's broken into their grog store, and got a skinful, and gone to sleep out here—probably in the sunshine yesterday, and slept into the night, and the frost's finished him. That's about what it is. That's probably the size of it. Look—the door of the other hut's open. That's the store. I know the Jewboy had it locked up when we came away. He handed out a month's supply of provisions to the old man, and locked it up again. Gately's broken in, and helped himself to the rum. But I wonder where the wounded man is? Let's get inside."
The door of the living hut was ajar, and they went in. It was a large hut, with a big open fire-place, and canvas bunks, stretched on saplings, were arranged round three walls. There was a long white table in the middle, with some unwashed tin plates and pannikins upon it. The ashes in the fire-place were quite cold. Tumbled blankets in two of the bunks testified to their recent occupation. But there was no sign of the other man.
"Maybe he's drunk—or dead—in the storehouse," suggested Marvel.
"We'll go and see," said Dick, stepping to the door.
They walked across to the other hut, Dick in the lead. He put one foot across the threshold, and then started back.
"Look here!" he gasped.
Marvel came behind, and peeped over his shoulder.
Just inside the door, lying in a pool of blood, was the body of the other man—his head beaten to a pulp, and his face smashed in with blows that had disfigured it beyond recognition. A rudely fashioned crutch lay across the body.
"Murdered—by George!" whispered Marvel. "Holy Sarah! What a doing the poor devil's had!"
Dick gazed at the corpse for a moment or two, morbidly fascinated by the horror of the spectacle. Then he stepped back into the sunshine and spat on the ground.
"Phew!" he whistled. "That's the story, in three words. Grog, a drunken quarrel, and then murder. The old fellow, Gately, was a perfect devil in drink. Did you see how he'd hacked at the fellow? There's a tomahawk beside the body, in the blood. That's it. I suppose they'd been drinking ever since we left the place the other day."
"What'll we do with them?" asked Marvel.
"We'll have to set to and dig a grave, I suppose," replied Dick. "Not a pleasant job—but it's got to be done. There are some tools in the other hut. Go and get them, and we'll finish the job at once. We'll have to stay here a day or two—and it won't be pleasant with these two gentlemen lying about. They're not a pretty sight, either of them, are they?"
"By Jove—they're not. It's made me sick to look at them," replied Marvel in disgust. "The sooner we get away from this God-forsaken spot, the better I'll be pleased. Yes—we'd better get it over."
By mid-day they had finished their gruesome task. They found plenty of provisions in the store, and cooked themselves a good dinner.
As they sat smoking afterwards, Dick outlined his ideas as to what they had better do.
"We'll fit ourselves out with everything we want. There are muskets and pistols—a regular armory—in the store. Then, to-morrow, we'll run in what horses they have left, and take our choice. There are a couple of saddles under that corner bunk. And then we'll set fire to the two huts, and get away from the infernal spot. You've seen what that gang is. We may be outcasts from society ourselves, but we can at least do it the good turn of destroying this stronghold and arsenal of the Jewboy's. Maybe it will atone a little for our ever having been mixed up with the ruffians."
ON the evening of the first week in June, soon after Mr. Jacob Losky had put up the shutters of his book-shop, and was seated with his granddaughter at supper, a loud knocking on the street door resounded through the little house in George Street that was opposite to the Barrack gates. The old man got up from his seat, and, taking one of the candles, went to see whom his visitor might be.
The door was strongly barred, and it took some little time to undo all the fastenings that secured it. In the meantime the knocking repeated itself. Losky called out impatiently, "All right, all right! Who are you that is in so great a hurry to come into my house?"
The reply somewhat startled him.
Losky hastened to open the door. On the threshold stood a tall man in the quaint costume of a constable of the period—glazed top hat, white pantaloons, and blue, swallow-tailed coat complete. He was a tall, well-made man, with reddish side-whiskers, and, as the old man dropped back to permit his entrance, he stepped across the threshold, holding out a folded paper to the Jew.
"For you," he said. "Read it!"
The Jew—his hand shaking a little—put down the candle on the counter, and, taking the paper from the constable, unfolded it, and held it up to the light to read.
"Read it aloud," ordered the policeman.
The old man hastened to comply.
"To Jacob Losky," he read. "Take notice, at your peril, that you are hereby commanded to receive into your house, for safe keeping, the body and soul of Ned Davis."
Losky stopped, and looked up in surprise.
"Why, I declare, if it's not Ned himself! Well, of all the jokes to play upon an old friend!" He took up the light again and examined his visitor critically from head to foot. "'Tis a good disguise, Ned," he said admiringly, "and you carry it off well. But, in the name of Father Abraham, what are you doing here in Sydney? Have you said good-bye to life, then, that you must come putting your head into the noose like this? Man, I think you must be mad, to come to Sydney! But come in, come in. Rachel," he called into the other room, "here is an old friend of yours come to supper. Set another place, my girl—'tis Ned Davis, come from Hunter's River to spend the evening with us."
"Ned Davis!" exclaimed the girl in surprise—"The Jewboy!"
"No; only Police-constable X," laughed the outlaw, "come to court the cook."
They went into the back room, and the girl put out her hand to him by way of greeting. He took it, and sought to draw her to him, but she drew back.
"What—not a kiss, my Rachel, after all these months?"
"Not now, Ned," she murmured hurriedly. "Later on, perhaps."
"Ha, ha! She is shy about her old grandfather," laughed the old man. "Or maybe she is shy of having too much to do with the police, Ned. 'Tis a sound instinct, my children—a sound instinct."
"Well, well!" said the Jewboy, sitting down and looking at the girl with admiration in his handsome face. "Afterwards must suffice, I suppose. And how does Father Jacob do? Prospering as ever, no doubt. Growing rich upon the labours of us poor field workers. Tell me, Jacob—does the company prosper too? How are its other ventures turning out? I think you have little reason to complain of the part that our branch on the Hunter has played in advancing its fortunes. Have you?"
"None whatever, Ned. You have been industrious, and your labours well rewarded. It is a profitable district, the Hunter. From no other part of the colony have we done nearly so well as in the stretch of it over which you exercise supervision and levy taxation. Long may it continue so. We had two of our men hanged in Goulburn Gaol last week—most unfortunate!"
"Ah—who were they?" He sat himself at the table and began to eat.
"Long Tom Allan and Paddy the Ram. They murdered a shepherd at Goulburn Plains, and all they took from him was a tin tobacco-box—empty!"
"A cheap business, indeed. But the game has its risks. Even your own neck is not absolutely safe, Father Jacob. We cannot always be upon our guard."
"That is so. But it is safer than yours is, I think, Ned. Especially here in Sydney. Tell me—what is it brings you to town? It is not for the mere sake of a holiday that you have taken such a fearful risk. There is some better reason than that behind it. What is it?"
"I will tell you—over our pipes and some hot grog. I am hungry now. I have had nothing to eat since I left Broken Bay this morning, and it's nearly nine o'clock. Give me a chance."
"Eat your fill, my son—we have the night before us."
The Jewboy made a hearty meal, his wants attended to by Rachel. At last he heaved a sigh of satisfaction, pushing his plate aside.
"The best I have eaten in months, my dear Rachel. We live fairly well up in our mountain home, but it is the pleasure of feeding at your fair hands that gives a sauce to the victuals. And now, Father Jacob, a glass of grog, a churchwarden pipe, and your good attention—and we'll get to business. I have plenty to tell you."
"Good, my son."
He got up and went to a shelf, on which were a box of long clay pipes and a tobacco jar. He placed the latter on the table, together with a couple of the churchwardens.
"Brew us a bowl of punch, Rachel. She knows how to mix it to your liking, I think, Ned. I'll warrant she's not forgotten the proportions."
They filled and lit their pipes, and the Jewboy smoked for a couple of minutes in silence. Then he turned in his chair, and looked across the table at the old man.
"Jacob," he began, "I've some bad news for you."
"Bad news!" said the old man. "How? What has happened? I thought that things had been going well with you. The last letter from you told me so. What is the matter?"
"The matter is simply this—that the gang has had a set-back. Tell me—you got our last consignment safely? It was a valuable one. The silver, I mean—Major Vane's silver."
"Yes. I have it in the vaults beneath us. It all reached me safely. The schooner picked it up in Broken Bay. It was all as you had said in your letter."
"What do you estimate its worth to be?"
"Five hundred pounds—if a penny. 'Twas a fine haul, Ned—the best and cheapest we have made so far."
"It might be the best, but it wasn't the cheapest."
"How? Why do you say that? A man's life was but a small price to pay for it."
"It will have cost more than one man's life by the time that it is paid for. It may cost yours, and mine, too—which is more important, though I daresay you don't hold with that."
"Tell me what you mean."
"We paid more for that dray of Major Vane's and its contents than I quite like to reckon on or to think about. It is like this," he began, laying down his half-smoked pipe. At that moment Rachel entered the room, bearing a steaming bowl of punch.
"Ah, that is good." He sniffed the vapour of the fragrant brew as the girl placed it on the table between them. She brought glasses from the sideboard, and a ladle for filling them. "Fill us each a glass, Rachel. You have not forgotten my recipe, I see."
They drank in silence, the old man anxiously awaiting what the bushranger had to say.
"Go on!" he said, impatiently. "Tell me what you are driving at."
"Only this, Father Jacob—that I begin to see the beginning of the end."
"The end? How the end? Of the gang, do you mean?"
"Nonsense," snorted Losky. "If you are careful, it should be a long time yet before you begin to think of the breaking up of your command. I look to you to last for a year or two yet."
"Maybe. But I don't."
"What has made you doubtful of yourself? You used not to lack in confidence."
"This, then. In my letter I told you how we had bailed up the dray in which Major Vane was conveying his household goods from Morpeth to his station on the Hunter River, and how we lost a man in the affair. But I did not tell you everything."
"And why not? Had I not the right to know all?"
"Yes, yes—but this part of it was outside the actual business. It was a little whim of my own. You remember the letter of introduction you wrote for me in the character of a wealthy investor in station property, using my own name and the name of Major Vane's agents—I had asked for it in case I should ever wish to meet the redoubtable major, with a view of levying a distress upon him?"
"I do," replied the old man, a little proudly. "'Twas a fine piece of penmanship."
"Well, some devilment prompted me to make use of it on the night we took the dray. We intercepted it quite close to Castle Vane, and, with the letter in my pocket, I rode in to the station and introduced myself to the major. With the excellent address for which you have often given me credit, Father Jacob, and your letter of introduction, my little bit of play-acting was altogether successful. He received me most cordially, and we spent a really pleasant evening. That was as far as I had meant it to go, but in the course of my visit I learned that this bloody-minded tyrant had, but the day before, sent in two of his Government men to the magistrates in Scone, and had them cruelly scourged—the one for chewing tobacco when paraded before his high-mightiness, and the other for omitting to 'sir' him when replying to a question of some trivial sort. This angered me more than perhaps I can make you understand. I have told you how I myself was unjustly flogged at Norfolk Island; and how I have always vowed that, whenever it was in my power to do so, I would punish the users of the lash in the severest manner I could. I determined to exact a penalty upon this man Vane that would be a lesson to his brother scourgers. After retiring to my room for the night, and when the household was asleep, I sought out these two men whom he had had flogged, and told them of my plan. I offered them the freedom of the gang, and sent them off that night to join it and to tell the men whom I had left camped with the dray to have everything ready to carry out the performance which I intended for the next morning. I sent a note with them to that fellow Delane, apprising him of the fact that he might expect the major as a prisoner on the morrow, and that I intended submitting him to some humiliation as a punishment for his cruelty. But I did not hint to him how far I intended to go with the business."
"Yes—and I suppose he agreed? Though I have no approval for these dramatic touches of yours, Ned. The business is the main thing."
"He seemed to approve when I appeared with the major in the morning. I had ridden with him when he went to meet his caravan, under the pretence that I had to return to Muswellbrook over a matter of some cattle. But Delane is a treacherous dog. I arranged a mock trial, in which the major was to be judged by the oldest of the two men he had punished, and was, as a result, to be flogged by both of them. Then I had intended to swing him to a tree, and let him down almost at his last gasp, to recover as he might, while we fled with the booty. I did not intend to take his life, only to go as near to doing so as I could."
"And you did this?"
"No. As soon as the old man began the flogging this Delane interfered. He took me by surprise, knocked me unconscious with a blow of his fist—the fellow is as strong as an ox—released the captive, and his three men, whom we had bound to trees to witness the punishment, drove back my cowardly followers, and escaped with the major. And the other man who had been flogged escaped with them. We got away with the booty—as you are aware from the fact that it is in your possession now—but were chased hard for a day and a half by a party raised by that black devil, Vane."
"And Delane—what became of him?" the old man asked eagerly.
"We made for the Wollombi, and finally to the depot in the mountains behind Brisbane Water. It seems that the two soldiers went back to the hiding-place which we use, just on this side of the mountains from Page's River. There they fell upon the two men I had left in charge, murdered them, helped themselves to whatever they were in need of from our storehouse, and set fire to the huts. Where they made for after that I know not, but suspect it was over the ranges, into the plains country to the north-west. I sent a man back to the northern depot a fortnight ago, and he brought me word at the Hawkesbury, only a few days since, that things were as I have said. That is all I know. But I am uneasy about it. I fear that this fellow means to put us away—that he will bring about the destruction of the gang. I have an idea, as I have said, that this is but the beginning of the end. If ever I lay my hands upon him, he dies. Damme, I was but giving him satisfaction, also, upon the major. Did ever you hear of such ingratitude?"
"Do you think you can lay your hands upon him?" asked the old man excitedly. "Do you think it will be possible to find him?"
"It might be—if he has not gone too far afield. Our organization is a good one, as you know. We have men out in the new country whom I can rely upon. I may have word from them. As a matter of fact, I have already despatched a messenger over the ranges to see whether he can find tidings of them. But why do you want the fellow? Once I have him he will not be much use to anyone. I'll burn the hound alive for that blow he gave me!"
"Listen to me, Ned. You must find that man Delane—and you must not injure a hair of his head. He is too valuable. You must find him, and keep him safely until I can see him."
"In the name of God—why?"
"It is for a strange reason. Listen to me, and I will tell it you. This is the story of that young man. When you have heard it, you will agree with me that we must have him safely in our power again, and that no harm must come to him."
"IN the first place," said the old man, "I may as well tell you that his name is not Richard Delane at all."
"Not Delane! Then what is it?" asked the Jewboy.
"What! Not one of the——"
"Yes. One of the Marshfords of Marshford, with whom, my friend, you have had something to do."
The bushranger laid down his pipe, and stared at the old man for a full half minute, before he spoke.
"Then he is——"
Losky interrupted him with uplifted hand.
"He is not one of the family of whom you have any knowledge, Ned,—intimately acquainted though you be with the affairs of the present earl. He is altogether outside your knowledge. You could not guess correctly who this young man is if you tried for a month to do so. You would never guess. There is no man outside or inside the family who knows his lordship so well as you—who has had greater opportunity than yourself of becoming acquainted with the details of his private life—and yet there is one part of it that was as closely hidden from you as from the rest of the world. Indeed, it was a thing that happened before your time—although the consequences of it were still active enough in his life, during the years that you were with him."
"Strange if I did not know anything that there was to be known!"
"It is strange—but it is a fact that you did not know this."
"Are you sure that it is not some mare's nest that you have discovered?"
The old man laughed.
"No, it is no mare's nest. Of that you may rest assured. It is as much a reality as that you and I sit here to-night, drinking punch and smoking our pipes—you, Edward Davis, the bushranger, and I, Jacob Losky, the—ah—bookseller and dealer in antiques—and other things."
"Especially other things," said the Jewboy, with a smile. "And do you mean to tell me what this mystery is that has been hidden from me?"
"Yes. But you must give me your assurance that you will believe me. I cannot show you proof—at least, not proof absolute—this side of London."
"You have my assurance. Proceed."
"But will you agree to act in accordance with what I tell you—with regard to this young man Delane?"
"What is there for me in it? Do I stand in with you in whatever is to be gained? I know that there must be something, or you would not be so interested in the fellow. Father Jacob does little for nothing."
"Yes—there is much to be gained," said the old man slowly. "And you will share with me on equal terms."
"Well, Father Jacob, I have always known you to be honest in your dishonest capacity—as you are dishonest in your honest one. I will agree to smother my own inclinations as to this fellow, and to act towards him in accordance with your direction. Come, now—the story. I confess I am as anxious to hear of this unfamiliar side of the Earl of Marshford as I am to learn the origin of Dick Delane."
The old man leaned back in his chair and folded his hands, looking at the Jewboy over the top of his glasses.
"You have heard of Fanny Delane?"
"The actress—who used to play at Drury Lane?"
"She was before my time, of course—but all who know anything of the history of the British stage have heard of her. It is a famous name."
"She was this boy's mother."
"Can you guess who his father was?"
"Of course not—tell me. Maybe Fanny Delane could not guess herself."
The old man sprang to his feet, trembling with passion. He shook his fist at the Jewboy.
"Dog!" he shouted. "No better woman ever lived. She was pure and virtuous and unsullied until the day of her death."
"Gently, gently—old man," said the Jewboy. "Calm yourself. What does it matter whether she was or not? There is no need to excite yourself. What was she to you?"
"She was my daughter," said the old man, subsiding into his seat. It was the Jewboy's turn to show excitement.
"Good heavens!" he said. "Then this fellow is your grandson—and Rachel's brother?"
"No. Rachel is the daughter of my son Abe—him that was hanged at Newgate. They are cousins."
"But there is no trace of our race in this Dick Delane's features?"
"None whatever. But neither was there in his mother's face. My wife was a Christian. And Dick is the living image of what his father was as a man of his age."
"Ah, yes—his father. Who was his father?"
"The Earl of Marshford."
For a long time the Jewboy stared at Jacob Losky with wondering eyes, without speaking.
"Well, well," he said at last. "Tell me about it. I think you will tell me the truth. Tell me the story."
The old man emptied his glass, and began.
"As you know, Ned, I began life as a call boy at Drury Lane Theatre. Then I became assistant to the stage carpenter, and a sort of generally useful man about the theatre. I was sometimes a scene-shifter, and sometimes in the box-office. For a little time I went on the boards myself—but I never had more than minor parts to play. I am a better actor off the stage than on it. Finally I became a dresser—the best in all the theatrical world of London. I was a sort of Joshua Reynolds in my branch of art—had a genius for making up faces. No one could disguise a face, or alter it, as I could—a thing that has often stood my friends in good part since I came to this side of the world. My services commanded high fees, since there was keen competition for them amongst the heads of the theatrical profession, and in course of time, being always a careful and methodical man, with the frugal instincts of our race strongly developed, I became fairly well to do. My clients were numbered not only amongst those who trod the boards, but in the houses of the aristocracy as well. I was a wonderful hairdresser, and could generally name my own fee for attendance upon ladies of the nobility who required my services in the arrangement of their coiffures for some important society function or other. I became a sort of fashion—just as a doctor becomes one. More than once my assistance has been invoked towards the adornment of his late Royal Highness, the Prince Regent. Not a little of his taste in dress was my taste.
"I married a lady's maid in one of the rich houses where my services were often called in. She bore me two children—that fool Abe, the father of Rachel, and my daughter Fanny, who became the mother of Richard Delane, and was the celebrated actress of her day, whom all the world flocked to see and hear.
"Fanny was a beauty. She inherited all her mother's good looks, and cleverness, and virtues—and all my brains. From a little child she was in love with the stage. She would come with me to Drury Lane, and sit in a corner of the dressing-rooms, whilst I attended to the make-up of the most notable actors and actresses of the day. The atmosphere of the theatre became essential to her. She was a beautiful child, and attracted notice everywhere. Before she could read or write, she had acted children's parts at Drury Lane. As you know, she was a leading lady when she was eighteen. I had given her a good education, with all the accomplishments. Many of my patrons delighted in the tuition of such a pupil as she was. She worked hard to perfect herself, and all the world knows how well she succeeded. She went from triumph to triumph. But it did not turn her head. She always remained the same sweet-natured, kind-hearted girl, with not a trace of vanity or of frivolity in her conduct, either in the theatre or out of it.
"I was immensely proud of her, and of the admiration she evoked. Her mother died while she was yet a child, and she was all I had. I was an honest man then, Ned. My collecting of curios—to put it politely—came later, when she had gone from me. Her brother Abraham was a graceless young scoundrel from his boyhood. A born criminal. That did not come from his mother—it was my gift to him, I suppose. The pity is he was not hung earlier than he was. It was not because he did not deserve it.
"Women are deep mysteries to us, Edward. I never knew anything until after it was over. You have heard how suddenly she disappeared from the theatre? I had suspected nothing—knew nothing, until I received a letter from her, written from Dover on her way to Paris, acquainting me that she had run away with young Richard Delane, Lord Marsh, the son and heir to Lord Marshford. It never came out. It was never a nine-days wonder in London. She only lived a year after. She died giving birth to a son. And that son is our friend, the ex-soldier of the 146th."
"Then he would be the heir to the earl—if he were not illegitimate," interrupted the Jewboy.
"He is the heir, my friend. His parents were married in Dover. There is no doubt about that. They were properly married, according to the rites of the Anglican Church. I have seen the record, and it still exists. There is no doubt that my girl was the wife of Lord Marsh—that she was the Countess of Marshford before her death. The old earl died within a month of the elopement, but his son did not return to England, to take up his title and estate, until after my daughter's death and the birth of his son.
"But he never acknowledged his son—he always lived as a bachelor, and posed as a woman hater."
"He did—for some strange whim. He hated the boy, because his coming was the death of his mother. But he saw to his bringing up and his education. He might have done something for him—if the lad hadn't run away to sea. He was a wild young imp, full of a longing for adventure. Somehow he found out the truth about his parentage, and became filled with anger against his father for his treatment of his mother's memory—suffering it to remain to the world as that of his mistress, and not of his wife—and swore that he'd have nothing to do with him. So he lost himself about the world, from his eighteenth to his twentieth birthday. He was here in a ship once, and I became acquainted with him. He was always fond of books and reading, and I was able to assist him in satisfying his literary appetites, so we became friends. In a burst of boyish confidence, on the eve of his departure, he told me his story. I communicated with friends in England, and was able to confirm it. But he was away in the ship before I could form any plan about him for the advantage of anyone. The next thing is that he turns up here as a full private in the 146th Regiment. As for the latter part of his story—you know as much as I do."
"It is a strange business," said the Jewboy. "So this fellow is properly Lord Marsh—that is the title of the heirs to the Marshford earldom—and the son of my old master. And to think that I, who knew so much of the earl, had no suspicion of this! I always felt that the old man had depths in his character which might not be easily fathomed. But I never dreamed of anything of this kind. He would have been much older than your daughter, of course?"
"Nearly twenty years," replied the old man. "Let me see. My daughter was twenty-three when they ran away—he was forty-two. Dick is about twenty-five or twenty-six now. That makes the old man nearly seventy."
"He seemed to be that when I knew him," the Jewboy said, "but he was a man who had aged prematurely. And now, tell me, Father Jacob, what is all this worth to you? And—more to the point—how does it affect me?"
"There are two alternatives, Ned. Of course, as you probably understand, I only look at the affair from the point of view of how it may be turned to our material benefit. It does not matter a straw to me, or to you, who becomes the next Earl of Marshford. But there is this about it."
He paused a moment, and was lost in thought.
"Well, what, Father Jacob? What is there in it?" the other exclaimed impatiently.
"Lord Marshford might reward us handsomely for finding his heir. We might make terms with him. We should have to approach him carefully. Or the man who is at present his heir might, when he comes into his inheritance, be glad to remain uninterfered with. He might be made to pay handsomely for the—shall we say—suppression of the rightful heir. In any case, you see that Richard Delane is a valuable asset to us. You must find him, Ned. He is too good to lose. Do you think that you can trace him in the north?"
"I can try. I think it is possible. But for my own sake—apart from his value to us financially—I would rather find him dead than alive. It would gratify me to be able to assist him to a better world."
"No, no! You must not think of that. Find him, and then we must keep him safely. You do not think I assisted him to escape the consequences of his assault upon his superior officer, and sent him up to join your party, for his own sake, do you?"
"Well, I confess I could not understand your motive, Father Jacob. But I do not always pretend to understand your motives. I hardly thought that your interest in Delane was wholly of an unselfish kind."
"No, it was not. You see what it is. It is to your interest to assist. I am sure you will?"
"I will do my best."
SINCE the fortunate escape which he had had from the murderous attentions of the Jewboy gang, Major Vane had taken many precautions to ensure his own safety, and that of his household at Castle Vane, from further attack by the outlaws.
The station itself had been turned into a veritable fortress. Round the back of the house he had set his assigned servants, under the direction of the capable McNab, to the building of a high stone wall, that completely shut in the kitchen and offices in a compound, the sole entrance to which was a small postern gate made of hardwood timber, and strongly clamped and bound with iron. He had had heavy iron shutters made for the front windows, and the walls pierced with loop-holes for musketry. In some junk store in Sydney his agents had picked up two small ship's cannon, of the swivel pattern, which were mounted on the verandah, and protected by low stone turrets on either side of the short flight of steps leading up to the entrance to the house.
Nearly three months had gone by since he had entertained—to his everlasting chagrin—the leader of the gang upon the occasion of his impudent and nearly disastrous visit to Castle Vane, and matters had progressed quietly enough in the district. The chase of the outlaws, which the major had organized on the day of his experience of their murderous intentions towards himself, had been fruitless. The start of several hours which they had obtained, and the excellence of the horseflesh with which they were provided, had enabled them to reach the cover of the ranges, and, although for several days their pursuers had been close upon their trail, they finally succeeded in eluding capture.
They were, it was said, lying low in the rough and wild country at the back of Brisbane Water, only committing occasional robberies of stock that were being driven overland to the Sydney market, and bailing up an unfortunate traveller here and there, for what he had upon him. They had not attempted anything, recently, upon a large scale, and the district of the Upper Hunter was beginning to congratulate itself upon being left in peace by the murderous band of ruffians.
The major's domestic affairs were not of the happiest. His beautiful wife was altogether a misfit in her present situation. A cold, vain, selfish, and incapable woman—she was as little suited to the life of the bush in which she found herself as a delicate hot-house flower would have been suited to the climate of the Antarctic. Her husband surrounded her with every luxury he could procure for her in Sydney, sought to study and satisfy her every whim and caprice, but to no purpose. She declared that the country bored her to death, that she could not bear the conditions of life she was called upon to face—finally, that if the major insisted upon her remaining at Castle Vane, he might just as well prepare a grave for her, for she would be ready to occupy it in six months. At last, in despair, he took her to Sydney, installed her in a suite of rooms at the Royal Hotel, and returned to the Hunter without her.
To finish the history of the lady, without much regretting her fate, it may be recorded that in less than six months she had run away with an American merchant captain, leaving a legacy of debts for settlement by the major—a circumstance which by no means added to the sweetness of his temper.
At the time of which we are writing, the major had just returned from settling his wife in Sydney.
Caroline was now installed as mistress of Castle Vane. From McNab down to the youngest pickaninny in the blacks' camp pitched on the river flat at the back of the house, she was beloved and respected by every soul about the place. Even the worst of the convict servants gave her their nearest approach to a blessing. Louis Pinaud, the French cook, delighted in teaching her his art. The dour McNab would do anything for her. And John O'Toole, the taciturn butler, an old soldier-servant of the major's, silent and stern automaton as he was, was occasionally seen to smile as he looked after her when she passed by.
"If her mother had lived—shure, it's a lady she was—an' his honor had not gone off his head over that jade indoors—what with such a daughter as Miss Carry, 'tis the happier man he'd be to-day," he confided to M. Pinaud, one afternoon, before the departure of his mistress.
"A —— —— good riddance!" he observed when that event took place.
Caroline was happy in her new home—that is to say, after the departure of her step-mother. She loved the freedom and spaciousness of station life, and the many interests of the new land appealed to her tremendously.
It is true that she was almost completely cut off from the society which is indispensable to most girls of her age. Nearly all their neighbours were hard-working, hard-living people, who had little time to spare from the carving out of their fortunes, and the development of their lands, for the lighter aspects of life. Such visitors as they had were, for the most part, cattle buyers and commercial men. Very rarely the major had invited an officer of his old regiment up from Sydney, to spend a few weeks of his leave. But he was not a man who had many intimate friends, and those who enjoyed his hospitality were most often middle-aged and of little interest to the young girl.
The major spoke of seeking out some companions for her of her own sex, or of sending her to Sydney again, to live with Mrs. Vane. But she answered him that she was perfectly contented, had no need of companionship, and could find plenty to interest her in Castle Vane and her household duties. So she stayed on at the station, happy enough in the novelty and undoubted charm of the beautiful country in which her home was situated.
McNab saw to it that she was provided with two or three excellent mounts, which he had broken in himself, and schooled to the riding habit. She often made long, solitary excursions up and down the river and into the mountain country to the east, accompanied only by her dogs. She had no fear of any danger. The blacks about the place were harmless enough, and the convicts were either too terrified of her father, or too grateful to Caroline herself for the many little kindnesses she was constantly doing them, to think of harming or annoying her.
One beautiful afternoon, she had ridden away from the station with her dogs, on one of these excursions, intending to ride around by Scone, in order to carry out some necessary small shopping, and to call at the post-office for the mail.
It was a glorious day in late September. The sky was cloudless, and the blue mountains that lay round and about the top of the valley slept in a flood of sunshine that was the beginning of summer, and yet had the mildness and balm of spring in its pleasant warmth and bracing freshness.
She crossed the river, and rode over the flats opposite to the house, passing through the tall belt of river timber, and coming out beside a wide strip that a gang of convicts was clearing for the plough.
McNab had just ridden up from the other side, and sat upon his horse in the middle of the clearing, giving directions concerning the work to the overseer whom he had left in charge of that particular gang. She waved a salutation to him with her riding whip, and he took off his hat to her as she rode past. Two or three of the men nearest did the same, and she smilingly nodded a greeting to them as she passed by.
"There goes a —— angel!" remarked Big Peter, one of the "hardest cases" in the gang, and the man who was cock of the walk amongst the rest of them. She had nursed him through an attack of pneumonia six weeks before, and Heaven help the man who had anything to say of her that was not all it should be, while Big Peter was within earshot.
She cantered along the track, singing to herself, and calling to her dogs, as they raced and gambolled in and out amongst the tree trunks, chasing each other in play, and sometimes, with a chorus of yelps, dashing off in pursuit of a kangaroo-rat or a scrub-wallaby that invariably out-distanced her two fat pets.
She was a couple of miles from the homestead when, skirting a clump of timber, in an open piece of country, she heard a man's voice calling to her, and looked round in surprise.
She became aware of a tall, handsome young man standing beneath a tree, holding the reins of his horse in one hand, and with his hat in the other, who looked as if he wished to speak to her. She pulled up her horse, wondering who it could be, and what he wanted.
He was dressed in the ordinary garb of a bushman—riding breeches, top-boots, and a dark-blue flannel shirt open at the neck. The hat in his hand was a wide brimmed cabbage-tree. His coat was strapped across the pummel of the saddle.
He looked up at her with a serious face.
"Is it Miss Vane?" he asked.
"Yes—I am Miss Vane," she replied wonderingly. It never occurred to her to be frightened of this stranger. "May I ask who you may be, sir?"
"Miss Vane," he said hurriedly, disregarding the last part of her acknowledgment, "wheel your horse about, and ride slowly back towards home. Don't go out of a walk until I tell you to do so. But be ready to gallop your horse as fast as he can go. I'll tell you what is the matter as we ride along."
He gathered up his own reins, and swung easily and lightly into the saddle.
Something about him impressed her, and she did as he had suggested.
"Miss Vane," he asked, as he drew up beside her, "is the major—is your father at home?"
"Yes," she said. "But, tell me, what is the matter? Is it some danger you are warning me to avoid, that you bid me ride back the way I have come."
"Yes—the very gravest danger. You remember the Jewboy and his gang—the ruffians who sought your father's life a few months ago?"
"Of course I do. What of them?"
"They are surrounding the station even now—drawing in to attack it from this side and the others. They mean that they will have your father's life, this time, without any chance of failure, and they mean to burn Castle Vane to the ground. The Jewboy himself is with them."
"How did you learn this?"
"By the merest chance, as I came down the Northern Road to-day. I chanced upon a messenger of the Jewboy's, who was riding to summon some of his men who have been hiding in the mountains at the head of the valley. His horse had fallen with him, and his leg was broken. I knew him, and he boasted to me that they were going to do for the major thoroughly this time. He was a little drunk, I think. There was an empty bottle of rum on the ground beside him. He was to have brought those others down from Mount Murulla to assist in the sacking of the place to-morrow, and in carrying off the spoil. The Jewboy has a large party with him this time—a choice collection of blackguards and cut-throats. As I came across the flat, I saw you in the distance, and waited by these trees to warn you to go back. You would be a welcome hostage in their hands, and the brutes would stick at nothing in using you to force your father to surrender."
"But who are you, please?" asked the girl. "You know the gang, and are apparently on familiar terms with the Jewboy's messenger—so much so that he trusts you with their plans—and yet you come to warn us against them."
He looked at her for a moment before he replied.
"Maybe you have heard your father speak of one Richard Delane."
She looked up into his face with sudden interest.
"The soldier—the deserter—the man who saved him from the Jewboy in May last? The man who broke his nose in the barracks? Yes. I thank you for doing your last good turn to my father—though the first was rather a severe measure, wasn't it?" she laughed.
"Yes, I am the man who broke your father's nose, Miss Vane. And I saved his life against my own will. I am doing it again. There is little love lost between your father and myself. But I can do no less. I have no sympathy with the bushrangers."
As he was speaking a shot rang out behind them.
"Ah!" he cried, "I thought they were not far away. Ride, Miss Vane—ride your hardest. I will come and help. We have a good start of them, and can warn the men in the fields."
Side by side they raced back through the timber to the river crossing.
HALTING for a moment to acquaint Mr. McNab, superintending the forest-clearing gang near the river, with the news of the coming of the Jewboy and his men, Caroline and Dick rode through the crossing and up to the house.
Major Vane was standing in front of his homestead, when he saw the two of them coming up from the river at a fast canter. He was puzzled, at first, to think whom the young man might be who accompanied his daughter. To say that he was astonished when he realized that it was Delane is to put it mildly.
Delane was the last man whom he had expected to receive at Castle Vane. The recollections of the almost contemptuous manner in which the ex-soldier had taken the expression of his gratitude, when he had offered it to him after his escape from the Jewboy's hands, and a few hours later in the same day, when he had met him coming out of Scone, was still a sore point with the major. To owe his life to the man who had struck him whilst seated upon his own particular throne in the orderly-room in Sydney was humiliating enough. To feel compelled to acknowledge his indebtedness was, truly, an act of grace to be accounted to him. To have his friendly advances repulsed with what was nothing else but scorn and insolence, was the most galling thing that had ever occurred to him in all his military career—indeed, in all his life.
It would have been contrary to human nature if he had felt any pleasure in their meeting. However, to do him justice, Major Vane was, after his own peculiar definition, a gentleman. As Dick dismounted, he came down to the gate and held out his hand. To his bitter mortification, which pride forbade him to exhibit, Dick seemed to make a point of not noticing it. The major turned to Caroline.
"Why, what is the matter, Carry? Has anything happened?"
The girl's face was flushed, and her eyes shone with excitement.
"This gentleman will tell you, father—what he has told me."
Major Vane turned to Dick again, eyeing him coldly.
"Delane—you have seen fit to reject my advances of reconciliation towards you. I do feel inclined to make them afresh. May I ask to what cause I owe the honour of this visit?"
"Sir," said Dick, "It is not my fault that I cannot find any affection for the man who would have flogged me over two buttons—and neither is it my fault that circumstances always seem to force me into a position of coming to your assistance. But there is not much time to bandy words. I thank God that it was my good fortune to meet your daughter a short while ago, in time to save her from falling into the hands of those brutes. Major Vane, that cursed scoundrel Davis—the Jewboy—is coming to attack Castle Vane, to seek to destroy you and your household. We had to ride hard to keep ahead of them. They are closing in on all sides. It is the purest accident that I learned of their intentions—only owing to my having met one of the Jewboy's messengers, lying injured on the Northern Road, did I hear of it. I should say that they will be here within the hour. Make what preparations you can for a defence—I beg of you. They mean mischief—bad mischief."
The old soldier in the major had stiffened at the prospect of a fight. His face set in determined lines. Again he held out his hand. This time, with a little hesitation, Dick grasped and shook it.
"I thank you, Delane," was all the major said, simply. "And I thank God we are well prepared. Caroline!"
"Yes, papa," said the girl eagerly.
"You know what to do. Get O'Toole, and close all the shutters. Tell him and Louis to bring the horses in out of the stables into the courtyard. See to the muskets."
She ran inside.
"Delane, we will lead these horses round the back, and put them into the yard too. Did my daughter warn the overseer as you came in? You must have passed close to where the gang was working, if you came along the track from Scone."
"Yes—Miss Vane thought of it. Ah—here he comes now—up from the river."
The major turned and looked. Mr. McNab was riding up the hill at a gallop—alone.
"Ah—as I thought. The servants have deserted us. Well—one could hardly expect more from them. Though I think some of them will hide, rather than join the bushrangers. Wait a moment, and we will hear what McNab has to tell us."
The Scotch overseer, with a white and startled face, reined in his horse at the gate, and flung himself from the saddle. He was tremendously excited.
"By heavens, sir—th' dom wretches hung back. Refused tae come up to th' hoose for tae defend it, as I called on 'em to do. One fellie—that Irishman Clancy—came at me with an axe, and I shot him. They were howling after me that they'd join the Jewboy."
"All right—all right, McNab. Don't excite yourself. We will beat the blackguards off, I have no doubt. Get your horse round to the back. Delane, come along—we must see to our armory."
He walked round to the back of the house, leading his daughter's horse. McNab and Delane followed. Delane noted with relief the high wall that entirely surrounded the back premises of the homestead, the massive door that blocked the entrance to it after they had passed through, and the loop-holes in the wall. Clearly, the major was not a general to be caught napping.
All the windows of the house—a large stone cottage, massively constructed—were closed with their iron shutters, which Caroline had been fastening whilst they secured the horses. Four valuable animals from the stables were tied up in the court-yard to ringbolts in the walls. There was a well in the centre of the yard, and a shed well stored with hay. It looked as though the place had been prepared to stand a siege—as indeed it had, since the major's experience with the bushrangers early in the year.
All told, the garrison of Castle Vane numbered nine rank and file. These were the major, Dick, Mr. McNab, O'Toole the butler, the French cook, Louis Pinaud, Caroline, and three convicts—trustworthy men—who were employed about the house. It was not a strong garrison, but Dick judged that it was one that would be disinclined to surrender.
The major disposed of his little force.
"McNab," he said, "you remain at the front of the house. There is communication between every room, and you can keep an eye on them through the loop-hole by the hall door. Grice and Jenkin"—naming two of the convicts—"you will take the east end of the house. Pinaud, you and Jones"—the other convict—"will take the other end. O'Toole—you stay in the yard. You and I, Delane, will remain unattached, ready to reinforce where we are required. Caroline, you will load the guns, and hand them to us. We shall beat the ruffians back, if they attack us, I have not the slightest fear. We have plenty of arms and ammunition. Now I will attend to the two guns. Delane, help me to bring them inside. They are only ornaments in their present positions."
They were only small pieces, able to throw a three-pound shot; and they lifted them from their swivels, and brought them into the house. The major pointed out where mountings had been prepared for them in the hall, so that they commanded the doorway from a short distance inside it. The major explained that he would presently load them with heavy slugs, and that, if they decided to use them, they would throw open the front door and fire across the threshold.
Down towards the river, seen through the still opened door, the landscape as yet contained no sight of the attackers. They could hear, now and again, faint cheering from beyond the river. It was the audible manifestation of rebellion among the servants, no doubt, observed McNab in broad Scots.
An hour passed slowly by, and there was still no sign of the attack. Down by the river all was quiet. Once they heard a single shot, far away beyond the trees, and were at a loss to account for it.
"Perhaps," said the major, "the fellow finds it necessary to urge his brave troops on. He may have had to make an example."
Evening drew on, and the green tops of the river trees were bathed with gold. It was a lovely, clear evening, and so still that any sound of voices would have travelled miles through the quiet atmosphere—but they heard nothing.
The major and Dick stood on the verandah, smoking, and gazing towards the quarter whence they expected the raiders to make an appearance. For the most part they were silent. There was a constraint between the two men, which neither of them found easy to lessen. But at last the major addressed a direct question to his companion.
"Delane," he said, "do you mind my asking what became of you after you left here in May? I do not seek to pry into your affairs, but I would be interested to hear. Anything you tell me is, I need hardly say, confidential. Where did you go after I saw you outside Scone? You did not continue in the freebooting line of business, I presume?"
Dick laughed, and shook his head.
"No, Major Vane—I fear I was not cut out for a bushranger. There is little to tell you. Miles Marvel——"
The major interrupted him.
"Ah, yes. The young man who was to have flogged me, but wouldn't—Delane, I wish I could ask his pardon."
"You'll never be able to do that. He was drowned in the Namoi, two months ago."
The major made a gesture with his hand, that might have been some indication of regret. He said nothing.
"Marvel and I went, first of all, to the Jewboy's lair in the ranges—up there yonder, below Mount Murulla, opposite to the Burning Mountain at Wingen. We had determined to overpower the man he had left in charge of it, together with another one who had been wounded. But we found them both dead. They had broken into the spirits, and the injured man had been murdered by the other. We buried them, fitted ourselves out from the Jewboy's store, and then set fire to the huts that the bushrangers had built.
"You are not much in sympathy with such ruffians—I am glad to hear it."
"I am not a criminal—nor do I come of a criminal stock," said Dick coldly.
"Pardon. Proceed, if you please."
"Then we crossed over the mountains down into the valley of the Page. We had taken horses from the Jewboy's mob, and fire-arms and provisions. We led a pack-horse, with our effects on his back. From the Page we crossed over the Liverpool Range, and struck out across the plain country. It was not long before we obtained employment on a new station that was being formed on the Namoi, I was made an overseer, and Marvel became stockman. There I have been ever since. As I said just now, my companion was drowned whilst swimming his horse across the river when it was in flood."
"And how came you back into this district?"
"I had been sent down to Maitland to take charge of a mob of cattle which Boyce Brothers—my employers—had purchased. I went to hire drovers and travel them up to the station. Today, on the other side of Scone, I came across the Jewboy's messenger lying in the road with a broken leg, half-drunk beside. He bragged to me of what was on foot—so I came to warn you."
"A thousand thanks, Delane. But for your—your kindness and forgiveness, I should have been caught napping."
Dick looked up, and was about to speak—when suddenly the major gripped his arm.
"Look, Delane—look! They are coming."
He pointed to a little group that had appeared on the flat along the river bank—perhaps two hundred yards from where they stood.
"What is that? They've got a white flag hoisted," exclaimed Dick.
"Some d——d treachery, no doubt," said the major. "However, we'll let them open the ball. We'll see what terms of capitulation they offer." He laughed grimly.
The sun was just setting as half a dozen men, one of them mounted, came slowly across the narrow flat, and up the gentle slope that led to Castle Vane. They had a white handkerchief affixed to a slim sapling, which they waved from side to side, as if desirous of attracting attention.
"That's the Jewboy, himself, on the horse," said Dick. "I wonder what the little game is? Some piece of extravagant posing, I've no doubt. The fellow always loves to act the role of some great commander. He calls himself 'Captain' Davis."
"I wonder at his modesty," commented the major. "He might have made himself a general as easily. However, it is time he was halted. We will signal him to heave to, with a shot across his bows."
He picked up a double-barrelled gun, and fired over the heads of the advancing group. They stopped instantly. They were not more than a hundred yards from the house by this time.
"A flag of truce," bawled one of them. "Would ye fire on the white flag?"
"We will hear what they have to say," said the major quietly. "Have your gun ready, Delane. It may be some trick." He shouted to the bushrangers:—
"Let your leader come to the gate, unarmed—the rest of you stay where you are. We will open fire if you advance."
Slowly the Jewboy rode up the slope. He reined in his horse just outside the wicket fence of the garden.
The handsome bushranger was most handsomely arrayed. He wore a tall cabbage-tree hat. A crimson silk shirt, over which he wore a brown velvet coat, fawn riding-breeches, and top-boots shiningly polished, completed his costume. He saluted the major, who looked sternly at him, without making any acknowledgment.
"I have the honour, Major Vane, to call upon you to surrender to superior force," he began grandiloquently. "We outnumber you ten to one. The party which you see behind me is but the advance guard of my little army, which has been considerably reinforced by the defection of your own servants. I call upon you to surrender, in order to save the useless effusion of blood." He noticed Dick for the first time.
"Ah, Delane," he said, "so this is where you are! I have been seeking you for months. You need have no apprehensions as to your own safety. I have forgiven your hasty action—your extremely ill-considered action—in turning upon me last May, long ago. Your place in our company is still open to you."
"To hell with you and your company," growled Dick.
"And I say Amen to that," cried the major. "Turn your horse about, and join your precious 'army,' you blackguard. If you are not off at once, I will give you a charge of buckshot. I make no terms with such as you."
"Very well then, major. The consequences be upon your own head."
"Go!" roared the major. "You have half a minute."
Just as the sun sank to rest, and the cold half-lights of the short evening swallowed up the last of the golden glow on tree-tops and hill-tops, the Jewboy turned his horse's head, and rode slowly down the flat.
"Just a piece of his theatrical posturing," said Dick. "He can't do without it. What now, major?"
"We will sound the 'commence fire,'" replied the major. "Let them have it lads."
He fired the second barrel of his piece in the direction of the group of bushrangers. Dick followed suit. From his loop-hole McNab did likewise. The men who were the target fell flat on the ground. The defenders could not tell whether their shots had done any execution.
"Come on and be d——d to you!" cried the major.
He and Dick retired inside, and closed the iron door. Half a dozen muskets spoke from in front, and as many bullets flattened harmlessly on the stone front of the house.
FOR a little while the firing continued from both sides. Bullets cracked on the stone walls and clanged on the iron shutters. Whether they did any damage to the bushrangers, the defenders were unable to tell. The fast gathering dusk made it difficult to see them, and the major, Dick, and McNab could only fire at the flashes of the outlaws' muskets.
Then they heard a shot at the back of the house. O'Toole, the butler, had come into action. Telling the overseer to keep a sharp look-out, the major called to Dick to follow him, and ran through the house into the courtyard.
A chorus of yells and threats came from outside. O'Toole was calmly reloading his double-barrelled gun.
"I bagged one of the men, yer honor," he said to the major. "They've taken cover behind the stables. This buckshot is a fine thing at close quarters."
The major and Dick each established himself at a loop-hole. They occasionally caught a glimpse of a man, who would step out from behind the corner of the stables, fire a shot, and hastily retreat. Whenever they did so, one or other of them would fire—not with much hope of doing any execution, but as a sort of defiance of the attackers.
After a little of this exercise, the major hailed Dick.
"Delane," he said, "it is almost dark now, and I think that as soon as the light is all gone they will try and rush the front—probably with some sort of a battering-ram to break in the front door. Will you remain here with O'Toole and keep these fellows occupied? I will go in and get the little swivels ready, so that we can give them a warm welcome. Keep up your firing, so that they may think we expect the main attack from the rear. I will send out for you if they come on. I think that our artillery ought to be rather a surprise for General Jewboy. He can hardly have expected to face cannon! I fancy the attack will come soon, for the moon rises in an hour or so, and it will be almost as bright as day."
He went inside, and Dick and O'Toole continued their desultory mode of warfare in which no great harm was done on either side.
It was difficult to see how the outlaws could hope to capture Castle Vane by any means short of artillery. The stone walls and iron doors and shutters made the place impregnable. Their only possible hope of gaining an entrance would be by battering down either of the doors, at front or rear. There was no other method available. And for this, as he had announced, the major was prepared.
Half an hour and more had slipped by, when Dick felt a touch upon his arm. He looked round. It was the major's daughter.
"Mr. Delane," she said, in a low tone, "father wishes you to join him. He thinks that they are coming up in the dark. Quickly, he says."
Dick followed her indoors. He spoke to the girl as they crossed the courtyard.
"You have no fear, Miss Vane?" he said.
"Fear—no!" she laughed. "I am a soldier's daughter, you know, Mr. Delane. I am not permitted to indulge in the luxury of fear."
In the hall, in absolute darkness, Dick found the major.
"Can you find your way, Delane?" he said. "We cannot show a light. I am sure they are creeping up to the garden-gate—McNab heard them sneaking about, a little while ago, as if to reconnoitre. And I think I did too. Now, what I am going to do is this. This little gun ought to settle the business. When we are certain that they are near the fence, I will get you to swing the door open. They will not be able to see that it is open; the doorway only shows as a black oblong against the white sandstone. Feel—here is the gun, all primed and ready, with the other one beside it. I think one will be enough. Caroline has a slow-match burning in the drawing-room. When I call to her, she will bring it out, and we will touch off our little beauty here. I rather fancy that this should damp their ardour."
"Hist!" came from McNab, at the door of the next room. "They're gathering round the gate, major. I can hear them whispering."
Dick and the major applied their ears to the loop-holes on either side of the door. Yes—there was no doubt. They could hear whispered conversations down on the other side of the low fence.
"We'll give it to them now!" said the major. "I don't want to blow them to pieces. This stuff will scatter pretty well. At any rate, it ought to terrify them a little. They hardly expect it. Come, Caroline, the match!"
She came out of the drawing-room, with the glowing match in her hand, and passed it to her father.
"Back—out of the passage, my dear," he said. "Now, Delane—just pull the door towards you—all the bolts and bars are unfastened—and step back here beside me."
Dick pulled the door towards him as the major had requested. It swung back noiselessly. The major kept the match hidden behind his back. Dick stepped to the rear of the little cannon.
The major applied the match to the touch-hole.
There was a flash and a bang, and the little gun jumped back off its stand. The hall was filled with white smoke. From the garden there came a pandemonium of sound. Yells, curses, howls succeeded the explosion. A few shots cracked against the front of the house. Then there was silence, broken only by the moans of wounded men.
"Now for the counter-stroke!" cried the major. "Delane! McNab! Charge them. Come, Jenkin, Jones, Grice," he shouted to the three convict servants who had remained faithful. "Charge. Give it to them, my lads! Ten pounds to the man who takes the Jewboy!"
Surprised and stunned by the roar and flash of the little gun, and many of them injured by the pellets which it scattered amongst them, the bushrangers broke and ran, leaving several of their number stretched upon the ground. The six defenders of Castle Vane followed them to the little gate, firing after the dark figures that ran into the darkness.
Suddenly they heard Caroline's voice from the verandah behind them.
"Father—Mr. Delane! Come back; they are breaking into the court-yard. Quick! They are smashing down the gate."
Calling off his men, the major dashed back to the house, crying: "Shut the door, Delane. Into the yard, lads. They are making their real attack there. This was only a feint."
They were just in time.
As they entered the yard, the door in the wall crashed inwards. In the flashes of the muskets and pistols which were being discharged on either side, and which momentarily lit the yard, they had glimpses of savage faces pressing inwards through the opening. The horses were rearing and plunging in their fright. Dick caught a momentary view of the tall figure of O'Toole, fighting valiantly to stop the rush of the outlaws. A second or two afterwards, as he ran to his assistance, he saw him go down. He fired a pistol over his body, and the flash lit up the pale face of the Jewboy. With a shout, Dick hurled his pistol at him, jumped over the prostrate butler, and closed with the leader of the gang. The two men swayed for a moment, and then, coming down to the ground, rolled over and over upon one another, in a fierce struggle for mastery.
They were both powerful men, in the pink of good condition, and their fierce contest might have gone either way in its result—had it not been for a strange mishap, which gave the advantage to the Jewboy. Dick had wrenched an arm loose from the strangling hold which the other had round his body, and had flung it out for a moment, in his struggles, so that it was stretched upon the ground. As he did so, McNab, running haphazard into the scrimmage, trod with his heavy boot across the wrist. Dick felt the bones of his fore-arm snap. As it happened, the Jewboy scrambled up, drew a pistol from his pocket, and fired point-blank into the face of his adversary. Dick saw the flash—and that was all he saw, beyond a fleeting impression of the Jewboy's face, white and distorted with rage.
When he came to, the light of the risen moon was flooding the court-yard, and he had a dim consciousness of water on his face, and of gentle fingers, that did something—he hardly knew what—that tended to relieve him of a throbbing pain in the head. The bright moonlight dazzled him, and the quietness seemed strange and unreal. He closed his eyes again.
After a long time he became newly conscious of things, and opened his eyes once more. He was really conscious this time, and saw the major standing near him with a candle in one hand and a bottle in the other. But he was most conscious of the fact that Caroline was supporting his head, and washing the blood from his face. Somehow—why he did not know—her gentle ministration, and the touch of her hands, did him a world of good and gave him strength. Painfully, he managed to sit up. And then he became aware of his broken right arm. Caroline said to him:—
"There now. How do you feel?"
"Oh—better!" He laughed at the strange weakness of his own voice.
"By Jove!" the major said, "you've had a narrow escape, Delane. The Jewboy's bullet just grazed the side of your head. You're minus the left ear, I'm sorry to say—but it might have been the left side of your skull."
"Did you beat them off?"
"Yes—they're gone. We have given them a bad time of it. Three or four dead in the front of the house, and one here—besides three wounded men."
"Poor O'Toole is killed. McNab is slightly wounded in the leg, and Grice, one of the servants, in the chest—dangerously, I'm afraid."
"What of the Jewboy? Did you get him?"
"He escaped. Led the retreat immediately after he had fired at you. They have all gone. Louis Pinaud crept down to the riverside just now, and saw them riding away in the moonlight. I think they have had a lesson that they won't forget in a hurry. But, here, take a pull at this brandy and water, and see if you can get inside. We must put you to bed. I'll send in to Scone in the morning for Dr. Morgan, and we'll get that arm of yours attended to."
Assisted by Caroline, Dick scrambled to his feet. She supported him into the house, where the major helped him to undress, and presently he was between the sheets, with a bandage round his head, and his injured arm supported on a small table at the side of the bed.
The rest of the night passed quietly enough, though there was little sleep for anyone. The major insisted that a careful watch should be kept, in case the bushrangers should possibly take it into their heads to return. He sent one of the servants down to keep a look-out at the river. Caroline busied herself in attending to the wounded. The dead, with the exception of O'Toole, were carried into the stables, to await the inevitable inquest.
It was a welcome dawn, when day broke over Castle Vane.
A curious feature of the affair was the return of the convict servants on the following morning. With the exception of some half-dozen—probably those who had been injured in the attack, and therefore bore wounds whose evidence alone would have been sufficient to hang them—they all returned. Their excuse for their defection was, of course, that they had been terrorized by the bushrangers into joining them, and could not help themselves.
"Well," said the major, "I'll give you the benefit of the doubt—although I don't believe you. However, you will all be sent back to the Hyde Park Barracks, in Sydney, as soon as possible. Some other master may have the benefit of your faithful services. I intend, for the future, to work Castle Vane with free men. Your sort are not worth their rations. I will begin with three free men, Grice, Jones, and Jenkin. They have earned the absolute pardon for which it is my intention to apply to his Excellency the Governor on their behalf."
The major came into Dick's room that afternoon, and sat down. For a while he seemed to be at a loss for something to say.
At last, clearing his throat, he began.
"Delane, I am come humbly to beg your pardon for the unjust and wicked provocation I gave you to strike me, in the beginning of the year. I think I am a changed man, since the morning in May, when you saved me from the terrible fate which those scoundrels intended for me. In a measure, I can realize that I have deserved to incur the resentful fury of such men. I have been a hard man—too hard and severe towards those beneath me. I think I have to thank you for first bringing me into a frame of mind that enables me to understand this. I hope I may ask your forgiveness this time without fearing your refusal of it?"
There was something almost plaintive in his tone. Dick looked into his eyes for a moment, and saw that they were brimming with tears. He put out his uninjured left hand across the bed, and the major took it.
"It is not the proper hand, major, to clench a bargain with, but it must do until the right is available. I do, indeed, forgive you, as I hope you forgive my hasty blow. May we remain friends always! You will always have my respect as a brave man." (He might have added, "With a charming daughter," but did not).
"Good. Then you will stay here until your bones are mended?"
"I thank you, major. It is very good of you."
"And then, Delane, if you will think over it, we might arrange for you to remain in my service. I do not ask for a reply to this proposal yet—take your time to consider it. I think I can condone your desertion from the army—in fact, I am sure I can. There are, you understand, wheels within wheels. At any rate, I mean to try. I feel pretty sure that I can succeed."
"Thank you again, Major Vane. I am glad to escape from being a bushranger," laughed Dick.
THE first cold light before the dawn was climbing the eastern sky and swallowing up the stars, as Edward Davis, the Jewboy, aroused his followers. He had thrown a dry branch or two on the embers of the camp fire, and the flickering light lit up in spasmodic gleams the blanket-shrouded forms of the bushrangers lying in a circle about it, with their heads pillowed on their saddles, their firearms beside them, and their effects scattered about on the grass below the great trees that overshadowed them.
"Come, Ruggy—hullo there, Marshall—show a leg, show a leg. Time we were moving, boys. There's business afoot this morning. Come—up with ye! We must be on the road by sunrise."
The Jewboy went from heap to heap, stirring up the sleeping bushrangers with his foot, and sometimes stooping down to shake too sound a sleeper roughly by the shoulder.
"Rouse yourselves, my brave lads," he cried. "Rouse up for the road. We've work to do to-day!"
One by one the sleeping men unwillingly crawled from their blankets, and grouped themselves about the fire, shivering in the dampness of the morning.
"Now then, boys," he urged them mercilessly, "ye can't stand warming yourselves all day long. See to the horses some of you. Saddle up, and make ready for the road. Fill the pots and boil some tea—you, Chitty. You know we've got an appointment to keep on the main road this morning. Look lively, now!"
Before long, urged by their leader, the outlaws had saddled their horses, and were seated round the fire, drinking tea and devouring mutton and damper.
"'Tis poor rations we're having lately, Ned," grumbled the unprepossessing person whom the Jewboy had addressed as Ruggy. "Is there no place hereabouts where they live on better fare than this? That was a poor concern we struck last night. We ought to have punished the people for not treating us better."
"We got all they had," replied the Jewboy. "But never mind, Ruggy—two or three hours will see us in the midst of full and plenty."
"What is it this time?" asked one of the men. "Is it a public-house or a store?"
"Both, Johnny. There's both bite and sup in store for you. But not too much of the sup, mind. Our business is to get out across the ranges into the plains. This country's becoming too hot for us, and we'll have to seek pastures new. Now, mind what I say, lads! There's to be no hard drinking at to-day's crib. Those fellows from Sydney are too close upon our trail to permit of any risks. If any of you get drunk—drunk enough to be helpless, I mean—he'll be left behind. But he'll be left behind dead. We can't chance anything. I'll shoot the man myself, who endangers the safety of the band. There's no sense in drinking when we are on duty. We'll take enough with us for a good old spree when we get to a place of safety—but there's to be nothing like a spree until we do that. Now, mind what I say—every man Jack of you!"
As they rode away from their camping place, the sun was just rising. Behind them lay the rugged mountain country between the Wollombi and the Hawkesbury, and they were coming out into the flats of the Lower Hunter, a little above the town of Maitland. They were making a forced march towards the north, driven out of their down-country haunts by reason of the pressure of a special party of mounted police which had been sent up from Sydney and had been altogether too persistent in its pursuit of them, from place to place, to suit the Jewboy's liking.
As he had said, they were bound for the more recently opened up country out in the north-west. He had come to a conclusion that there was nothing for it but to lead his little command further afield. The hiding-place below Mount Murulla was, he knew, watched too closely to permit of his making further use of it. It was with regret that he came to this decision, for the place was an ideal one for their purposes—sheltered, well watered, and easily defended. But he knew that, if there was no one else who cared to interfere with him, the owner of Castle Vane would be ever remorselessly upon his tracks, if he remained in the district. He had a wholesome distaste for Castle Vane, since the defeat which the major had inflicted upon him a couple of months before, and had no intention of calling upon that gentleman, as he passed by on this occasion.
The band of robbers was well mounted and well equipped. Each man led a pack-horse, and only three of them were loaded, so that the remaining three were available for what booty they might pick up during their northward march. They were well armed, and had plenty of ammunition. Every man carried a double-barrelled gun and a brace of pistols. As some sort of badge of office, Davis himself had a sword—looted from some outlying Sydney residence—hanging to his saddle.
Mr. Thomas Denison, of the Rest Inn, on the Great Northern Road, ten miles, or thereabouts, outside West Maitland, had just finished his breakfast, and was filling his pipe before his front door, when he observed a party of horsemen riding up the long hill, upon the crest of which stood his inn, his store, and his blacksmith's shop. They made a considerable cloud of dust as they travelled along the dry highway, and Mr. Denison reflected pleasantly that such dust, in conjunction with the heat of the day, was by no means a bad selling agent for the very excellent ale with which his cellars were stocked. He prepared himself to extend a genial welcome to the, no doubt, thirsty travellers whom he beheld approaching.
To his surprise, however, the party halted about three hundred yards away, and appeared to be holding a consultation of some sort. For a few minutes they seemed to be deliberating among themselves.
Then he saw them separate. Two men remained with the led horses, and the remainder rode on towards the inn. They had not progressed a few yards before they set spurs to their horses, and came galloping up the road, yelling and shouting, and making a prodigious clatter in the still, sunny morning. For a moment he stared at them, astonished. Then, suddenly realizing the situation, he dropped his jaw and his clay pipe, threw his arms above his head, and ran inside, calling out at the top of his voice:—
"By heavens! The bushrangers!"
He slammed the door, as the howling cavalcade pulled up before the inn, but it was too late. Several gunshots cracked out, and bullets pierced the door and broke a window.
"Surrender!" cried the Jewboy.
Being a man of discretion, Mr. Denison very promptly did so, and indicated as much by hastily reopening the door, and appearing on the threshold with his hands extended, palm outward, above his head.
"Good morning to you, sir," said the Jewboy, in mock politeness. "That's right—keep your hands so. It is the safest plan. Who is inside? Stay—I will see for myself."
He dismounted, and advanced, gun in hand and ready cocked, towards the terrified Mr. Denison.
"Who are you, sir, and wh-what do you want?" trembling inquired that unhappy gentleman.
"You may have heard of me, landlord. I'm known as the Jewboy—and these worthy fellows are my troopers."
"Yes—the only plucky Jew I've ever known. I'm the Jewboy. I can see you've heard of me. Now, Mr. Landlord, just step out here, while I see whom else we have to deal with."
Pulling the scared host out of the doorway, he went inside.
One of the outlaws had ridden past the inn, up the road, to act as an outpost, and another made his way round the house to the back. Another entered the store that stood beside the inn, and another rode to the front of the blacksmith's shop, and speedily had the scowling blacksmith, with his assistant, standing in the roadway.
Presently the Jewboy drove the inmates of the house out through the open door—the buxom Mrs. Denison, a female cook, and an old man. The bushranger who had gone to the back of the inn returned with the stableman, and the storekeeper, a young man, was haled from behind the counter. The little group was marched out across the road, and each individual of it made fast to separate trees—with the exception of the landlord himself.
"We will need you, Mr. Denison. You must do the honours of your house for us," pleasantly remarked the Jewboy.
The poor landlord said nothing. He appeared to be utterly overcome by the sudden audacity of the business.
The Jewboy marched him inside.
"Now, Mr. Denison," he said. "We want your money. Where do you keep it?"
With an ill grace, the landlord opened the till.
"Here you are," he said; "this is all I have in the place. I just sent in to the bank in Maitland yesterday all the takings of the last month."
The Jewboy went behind the counter and emptied the drawer. He counted out the coins.
"Five pounds seventeen and sixpence! Well, now, that's not much, Mr. Denison. Are you quite sure you've no little nest-egg stowed away anywhere—up the chimney, or under the bed, or in your good woman's stocking? Come now!"
"That is every penny," said the landlord, hesitating. "There is nothing more—if I die for it."
The Jewboy looked at him suspiciously. He was not satisfied. He had a notion that the stout landlord was lying stoutly, and all the instincts of his race were aroused. He thought for a few moments, and then moved towards the door.
"Jack Shea," he called out into the roadway. "Come in here, I want you." One of the men entered the bar-room.
"Jack, do you keep watch on this fat liar. I think he's hiding something from us. I'll soon find out."
He walked across the road towards the prisoners. Taking off his hat, he bowed to the terrified Mrs. Denison.
"Madam," he asked, "did any of your household go to Maitland yesterday?"
The frightened woman regarded him fearfully, as she replied, in a weak voice:
"No, sir—'tis over a month since any of us went to town. Oh, sir—I beg you to have mercy on us. We've always been good friends to the gentlemen of the road, so we have. Why, only last week——"
He interrupted her.
"Mrs. Denison," he said sternly, "do you see that limb above your head? Do you think it will support the weight of your husband? Because he's very likely to be hung up to it soon."
The poor woman screamed.
"Oh, sir! Oh, no, no, no!"
The Jewboy looked at her savagely for a few moments, allowing her to steep herself in terror. Then he pulled out her husband's watch.
"He has five minutes to live, Mrs. Denison—unless you tell me where your money is hid. Come—tell me at once to save trouble. Where is it?"
The unfortunate landlady blubbered wildly that it was all in a bag beneath the mattress of their bed. She was not a lady of even such moral fortitude as her husband.
"Thank you," said the Jewboy, and went inside.
He passed by the landlord without addressing him, and went into the bedroom of the couple, whence he speedily emerged, carrying a heavy canvas bag in his hands, the sight of which caused the landlord to turn white.
"How much is in it?" asked the Jewboy.
"Two hundred and twenty pounds in gold, silver, and notes," sulkily replied the landlord.
"Now then, Mr. Denison, don't you think you're a bit of liar?" said the Jewboy. "I think you must be punished. Jack, take him outside and flog him."
With sheer delight the enthusiastic Shea shoved his prisoner through the doorway.
"Here, boys!" he cried. "Come and hold this fellie while I belt him. The Captain's caught him lying about his money. He says, I'm to flog him."
In spite of his appeals for mercy, and the screams of his frantic spouse, the unhappy landlord was soundly thrashed.
When this little ceremony was finished, the Jewboy called the gang together, telling them to take what they wanted from the store, and to bring him one of the packhorses, which he would load up with liquor. He would not permit any of them to have more than a glass of ale in the bar.
"We must get out of this," he said, "and away from the road. It's a miracle no one has come by as yet. We'll find a suitable spot, my lads, and have a picnic with the grog. We've not done so badly—and can afford to spend an hour or so in drinking one another's healths."
They presently rode away, leaving the unhappy Denison family tied to the trees, to await release at the hands of the first passer-by along the highway.
It was a much relieved and very tearful Mrs. Denison, who saw them ride away from the Rest Inn.
IT was a warm evening in December, and again a round moon flooded Castle Vane with its pale radiance as it had done on that memorable night three months before, when the Jewboy and his gang had attacked the station. Major Vane, his daughter, and Dick Delane sat in the verandah after dinner, talking idly, and gazing out up the moonlit valley to the distant sleeping mountains in the north.
Caroline had revived the topic of the bushrangers, by remembering that it was on just such a night as this that the battle with the Jewboy's gang had been fought.
"So it was," said the major. "I wonder what has become of the cut-throats? They have been keeping pretty quiet, Delane. Do you think they can have left the country?"
"I hardly think so, sir," replied Dick. "But there can be no doubt that they have left this part of it again. The constant watch which we have kept on their hiding-place, up yonder, has discouraged them. No; they have not gone. I rather fancy that they may be found somewhere between the Wollombi and Brisbane Water, in their old, original haunts, which they used to frequent before they ever intruded into the valley of the Hunter. The Jewboy is probably preparing for some big raid. He always lies low for a while, so as to lull people into a false sense of security, before he breaks out. I don't doubt but that we shall hear of him again before long."
"I had a letter the other day from Clare—you remember him, the adjutant of the 146th—in which he told me that a large and well-equipped party of mounted police, under the command of a subaltern officer of that body, had been organized in Sydney. They were to proceed—almost immediately, he said, and his letter is a fortnight old—to the Brisbane Water district, and had orders to devote themselves to rooting out and destroying the band. I should think it is not at all unlikely that, if they are driven out of their fastnesses down there, they may again pay us a visit. Well, if they do come, and intend to honour Castle Vane with another attack, I fancy we will be able to give them as warm a reception as the last one. What do you say, Delane?"
"I think so, sir. But this time we ought to make sure of them by following them up, and wiping them out altogether."
A servant came out on to the verandah.
"What is it, Casey?" asked Caroline. "Do you want to see me?"
"No, miss. 'Tis a letter for th' major. A young man from Muswellbrook have just been afther bringin' it. He's in the kitchen, awaitin' for an answer."
"For me, Casey?" said the major, rising from his chair, and taking the note which the man held out to him. "Excuse me a moment, my dear. I must go into the light to read this."
In a few minutes the major came back. His step was brisk, he spoke eagerly, and in a tone of subdued excitement.
"By jove, Delane—'talk of the devil!' Listen to this. It is from Mr. Day, the police-magistrate from the next district. Come into the light, will you, while I read it."
Caroline and Dick followed the major into the lamp-lit drawing-room.
"Is it about the bushrangers, father?" asked Caroline, growing a little pale. "Those dreadful men! How I hate to hear of them. What have they done now?"
"Listen. Mr. Day has sent this over to me to-night."
"My dear Vane," he read. "Can you join me here at once? The gang of bushrangers led by the ruffian Davis has once again invaded the Hunter River district, and I am organizing a party to hunt them down. Come well mounted, and bring any assistance that may be available. It will be a stern chase, but I intend to follow them up, and force them to a fight. I am, yours obediently, Edward Denny Day."
"Denny Day! I know of him," said Dick; "he has a great name in his district down the river, as a fearless and determined magistrate. He is a strong contrast with that duffer in Scone. Mr. Day evidently knows him, and is determined to ignore him. I'm with you, major. We'd better start at once."
"Yes, the sooner the better. Caroline, you will be quite safe here with McNab and the other men. No; on second thoughts, you had better come into Muswellbrook with us. There is just a possibility that they may pay Castle Vane a visit. I would be easier in my mind if I was certain that you were in safety. You can stay at the parsonage until we return. By jove, I'm delighted with this chance. Come along, Delane, it's boot and saddle. Put on your riding habit, Caroline, and we will see to the horses. You had better bring clothes enough to last you for a week or so. We ought to be back by that time, if fortune favours us."
It was a little short of midnight when they reached Muswellbrook. They rode straight to the inn whence Mr. Day had dated his letter.
He and the major were old friends, having known one another in India, before the 146th had come to New South Wales. The police-magistrate was an ex-army officer, who, coming to the colony in the first place on sick leave, had liked it so well that he had resigned his commission, and settled down in a civil position. He had been police-magistrate for the Maitland and Port Macquarie districts for a year or two before this time.
The major introduced his daughter and Dick to Mr. Day, and, when the former had retired to her room, the police-magistrate outlined his plan of campaign.
"I am determined, Vane, to keep on the tracks of these fellows until I can bring them to account. They have committed one or two robberies on their way up here, close to the Wollombi, and I have an idea that, finding the more closely-settled districts becoming too hot for them, they intend to make across the Liverpool Ranges into the plains country. We are fairly close to them now, and by morning, when I have assembled a party for their pursuit, they should not have a very long start of us. I have sent out messengers to several gentlemen of the neighbourhood, who can be depended upon to do their best to bring these ruffians to justice, and whom I know personally, and we should be ready to start as soon as we know for certain what direction they have taken. In the meantime, I think we had better get to bed. We have several hard days in front of us."
The following day was Sunday, and the police-magistrate lost no time in making his preparations. Several landholders of the neighbourhood had ridden into Muswellbrook in the early morning, before breakfast, in answer to the police-magistrate's summons, and, although that somewhat autocratic personage, had rejected the services of two or three, as being too old for what was likely to be a somewhat severe test of endurance, he was able to form a compact little party of seven, including the major and Dick, and two troopers of the Border Police, as the mounted arm of the constabulary service was then entitled in the bush.
Each member of the party was well horsed, and every man had a double-barrelled gun and a brace of pistols. They were to ride light, carrying nothing but their ammunition and a little food. Mr. Day announced it as his intention, once he was sure of the direction the bushrangers were taking, to keep on after them without a halt, in the hope of forcing them to give battle.
"If you once compel those fellows to stand and fight," he said, "they are as good as captured—for each man knows that he fights with a rope about his neck, and so he fights with a heavy heart."
"The fellows have sworn never to be taken alive," said one of the party.
"Yes, I know. But when it comes to the pinch, it's a different matter. They see quite a lengthy period between themselves and the gallows, when they surrender peacefully. However, if the villains are not for giving in, we must destroy them. That is all."
Early in the morning the police-magistrate had sent out scouts in all directions, to seek tidings of the gang. All day long the party of pursuit awaited some definite information in Muswellbrook as to which way the bushrangers had gone. There was little use in starting out on any trail but the one that would bring them up with the outlaws in the quickest possible time. They had looted a store on the afternoon before, but since then had disappeared, and whether they had gone east, north, or west was a moot point.
Midday passed without any word being brought back, and the afternoon wore into evening, and still there was no news. Mr. Day chafed at the delay, as they all did, but there was no help for it; they had to wait. It was not until 2 o'clock in the morning that anything definite was learned.
It seemed that the gang had taken shelter in a secluded spot not very far from the scene of their last crime, in the broken country to the west of the town. It was not until after dark on the Sunday evening that they were seen moving camp towards the north.
As soon as he received word, Mr. Day lost no time in rousing up his party. They were saddled up, had breakfasted, and were ready to start in less than an hour. Caroline came down, hastily dressed, to say good-bye. Perhaps the major did not hear her say, as she wished Delane "farewell" in the softest and shyest of voices, "Good-bye, Dick. God keep you!"
It was nearly four o'clock when the party started, and day was just breaking as they rode out of Muswellbrook. They little realized how far and hard they were to ride before dark should overtake them again. It was the morning of December 21.
News travelled slowly in those days. Six days later a Sydney newspaper published the following from its correspondent in Scone. It is quoted here as a specimen of the journalism of the "forties." It accounts for the doings of the gang in the early part of the day, whilst their pursuers were picking up their tracks.
"The Rubicon is past, and human blood is again shed by one of the most lawless gangs of bushrangers that ever infested the Hunter. Blood that cries aloud for retribution at the hands of our vacillating Government. Blood—yes, blood—the first of a long list which it is anticipated will mark the career of the Hunter River bushrangers. My last letter feebly narrated the career of this gang at the Wollombi, of their assault on the late Constable McDougall, and the murderous attack on one of Mr. Crawford's men; of their rencontre at the Red House; and other particulars of their misdeeds. This, though not so full of particulars, will be more full of horror. It appears that on leaving the Wollombi they were joined by six others, thus making their number 10, when they proceeded to Scone, simultaneously attacking the inn of Mrs. Chivers and the stores of Mr. Thomas Dangar; their approach, however, was observed by a young man, clerk to Mr. Dangar, named Graham, who injudiciously armed himself with a pistol, which he fired at the advancing party, when one of them (Marshall, it is thought) levelled his gun and shot him dead at the door of his master's house, whose property he was defending. Davis, the chief of the robbers, on hearing the report, came forward; he seemed to regret it much, but I will quote his own words: 'I would give a thousand pounds that this had not happened, but as well a hundred now as one.' We may, therefore, expect that this one murder mentioned is the precursor of others, each more sanguinary than the other. The last report we have heard of them is at the Page."
Mr. Day led his little party first of all to the spot where the bushrangers had camped. The man who had seen them estimated roughly that they numbered about half a dozen, and the leader of the pursuit felt that the tracks of such a large body would not be difficult to follow, even though they were without the services of a tracker.
They found the place where the outlaws had passed the night—in a deep gully, in some broken country a little to the north-westward of Muswellbrook. The remains of a slaughtered sheep and an assortment of empty bottles littered the ground. It was evident that they had rested themselves and their horses in this place, securely, all through the Sunday, whilst the police-magistrate's scouts were seeking to determine their line of march.
It was early in the afternoon when the pursuers rode into Scone, and became aware of the further crime which was to be charged against the gang.
It was a pitiable business. The young storekeeper was a fine specimen of the immigrant who was beginning to come into Australia. It was over his body that Mr. Day delivered himself of sundry forcible expressions of opinion concerning his brother-magistrate—to whom he did not extend the courtesy of an apology for trespassing on his district—and the people of Scone generally.
"It is people like these," he said to the major, in the hearing of a group of the townspeople, "who encourage crime. If half a dozen of them had the manhood of this young fellow, we might have had the Jewboy and his gang in irons by this time."
Mr. Day permitted no long halt in Scone. They waited not more than half an hour, to water and feed the horses and to snatch a few mouthfuls of food themselves. Then he had them into the saddle once more, and they started up the valley of the Kingdon Ponds in hot pursuit of the bushrangers.
ALL through the warm afternoon they pressed on up the valley, sparing neither their horses nor themselves.
The hunters were hot on the trail—the bushrangers could scarcely be more than three hours ahead of them, and they were evidently riding hard and fast to escape the vengeance which the Jewboy realized that their last murder would call for. He was not deceived by the cowardice which had been displayed in Scone. He must have known, at any rate—whether he was aware of Mr. Day's pursuit or not—that, as soon as he heard of it, Major Vane, for one, would turn out in chase of him. It was imperatively necessary for him to get out of the circumscribed area of the narrowing valley, and to place the Liverpool Ranges between himself and the men who would surely by this time be hunting him and his band to destruction.
The knowledge of this, also was an incentive to Mr. Day to press the pursuit hard. While the bushrangers were in the valley of the Hunter's tributaries—the Kingdon Ponds and the Page—they must necessarily keep more or less close together. The nature of the country itself ensured as much as this. But once over the pass above Murrurundi they could scatter out along the western slopes of the range, or into the plains, until it suited their purpose to come together again. He must try and catch up with them before they got to the head of the Page valley.
The major remarked once that he thought there was little chance of picking the gang up before they reached the pass. Mr. Day laughed, and shook his head.
"I don't agree with you there, Vane," he said. "It is true that they have some hours' start of us, and that their horses have had some rest, and have not travelled so far as ours have—but we have one great advantage over them."
"What is that, sir?" asked Dick, as they cantered along side by side.
"A very important one, Mr. Delane. We do not require to pull up at every public-house we come to along the road. These fellows will never pass one—though I am told that the Jewboy is an abstemious man, especially when he is what he calls 'on duty.' Now, there is an excellent inn at the Page—Atkinson's—and I would not be at all astonished if that very tavern was not the means of their capture. Mark my words, and see whether I am right."
By the time that they had reached the foot of Warland's Range—the dividing range between the valley of the Kingdon Ponds and the Page—their horses were beginning to feel the distance and the pace which they had maintained since early morning. It was well over thirty miles from Muswellbrook to this place by the road, and they had ridden considerably more than that distance, when the first stage of the march round by the outlaws' last camping-place is considered. They were compelled to slacken their pace as they climbed up the heavy gradients of the range, and at the top they took a few minutes' rest, in order to breathe the horses.
"Look round, Major," cried Mr. Day. "I'll engage you have seldom seen a more beautiful view than this. Isn't it shameful that such a lovely countryside should be polluted by such scum as these fellows we are after?"
"It is indeed a glorious view," enthusiastically assented the major.
"Ah—but there's better to come," said Dick. "Wait until we are able to look back along the Page."
Presently they pushed on, down the long slope that leads to the pretty river in the beautiful valley. They were obliged to walk their tired horses more frequently now, and the five or six miles that lay between Warland's Range and the little settlement of Murrurundi, further up the valley, was the slowest stage of the journey. It was after five o'clock before they came to Atkinson's Inn.
Here they found a great commotion and the most intense excitement. Mr. Atkinson, seeing the armed party coming up the road, had first of all retired into his house, closing the door. He came fearfully to a window, in answer to Mr. Day's furious knocking and loud demands for admission. When he was convinced that the party was not another relay of bushrangers, his satisfaction was immense. He opened the front door.
"But, by h—l, Mr. Day, saving your presence—you're too late. The Jewboy has been gone but twenty minutes or half an hour. And the dogs were here a good two hours."
"Can you supply us with remounts, Atkinson?" asked the police-magistrate. "Our horses are about done. We have ridden since daylight, and from Muswellbrook."
"From Muswellbrook!" cried their host, almost incredulous. "Why, Mr. Day—let me see—'tis forty-three miles from here to the 'Brook, if it's a yard."
"We have done it, at any rate. Come—have you any horses? We should catch up with them by dusk—if we can get fresh mounts."
"The brutes have taken every hoof of horseflesh I had in my stables, Mr. Day. They've left four knocked-up mokes that are as badly used up as your own. But perhaps, by an hour's time, say, we might be able to hunt up something in the neighbourhood. Come in and rest, gentlemen. You've surely earned it. And what will you all be pleased to take? It is with the house this time. No one has ever been so welcome as yourselves."
"Thank you for the refreshment, Mr. Atkinson," said the police-magistrate. "We shall be most grateful for it. But we cannot wait an hour. Ten minutes' rest is all we can afford. We must push on, even if our horses drop under us. Don't you think so, Major?"
"I agree with you, Day—if it is possible. But would it not be better to wait for remounts?"
"No, I will explain why. I know this country fairly well. Just over the range, a few miles from here, there is a fine camping-place called Doughboy Hollow, with good grass and water. I feel certain that the gang will halt there, for a few hours, if not for the night. If we can come on them there, we have them. If we fail to do so, we must inevitably lose them. I say push on, at whatever cost—even if we have to finish the last mile on hands and knees. It is worth while, I assure you."
"I am agreeable, Day—and I have no doubt these other gentlemen also see the force of what you say. A drink for the horses, one for ourselves—and a forced march. What say you, gentlemen?"
There was a chorus of willing assent, and, after a short rest, the pursuers stumbled wearily forward, worn out in all but spirit and determination.
The road led up the narrow valley between steep mountain sides. To their left lay the great pile of Mount Murulla, with the Square Mountain west of it, and Warland's Barn beyond. Immediately ahead of them there was a gap in the encircling ranges, and it was over this that the route lay to the Liverpool Plains and the north-western country. Until they came almost to the foot of the pass, the road was fairly level, but when it began to wind up the spur it was too much for the weary horses, and Mr. Day called a momentary halt.
"We must save the horses," he said, "Dismount, and lead them. It is pretty clear they cannot carry us up here. We have not far to go now, gentlemen. I hope and trust that we will find our men below us, when we reach the crest of the Divide."
They straggled slowly up the winding roadway, each man towing his dejected charger, Mr. Day, the major, and Dick leading the way.
The sinking sun was nearly behind the ridge above them by this time. The major joked about it to Mr. Day.
"Well, Day, we are favoured in one respect, at least. We are not permitted to delay the sunset, as Joshua was whilst he finished his battle, but we have the longest possible use of the luminary. You have arranged it excellently. If our men are here, daylight is all we want."
"How so, Major? What have we to do with the sun?"
"Don't you recollect the date—December the twenty-first? It's the longest day in the year. By Jove—if we were in England, we'd have had to yield to darkness before we reached the Page."
"I'm not so sure that I'd have given up the chase with darkness," said Mr. Day, setting his determined jaws. "The only way with these fellows is to give them no rest. I feel certain that we will find them here. I don't know why I am so sure of it—but I am."
"Let us hope you are right. We deserve some reward for our toil. I never felt so tired in my life—or so desirous of battle," said the major.
With the red sun just above the far horizon they topped the pass.
"What fools—not to leave an outpost up here," said Dick. "This would have been an ideal place for their defence. I suppose they think that they have outdistanced us."
"Most likely," said the police-magistrate. "Now, gentlemen, will you please tie your horses to the trees. Delane, if you will come with me, we will form an advance guard and seek what we may find. Major, I leave you in command of the main body. Should you hear firing, hurry in the direction of its sound. But unless we are discovered first, I will send Delane back to you."
"Very good, Day," replied the major. "I hope you will find them there. We will be all ready to attack."
Leaving their horses with the others on the ridge, Mr. Day and Dick made their way stealthily down the western side of the dividing range. The neck of land that separates the waters of the Darling from those of the Hunter is so narrow at this point that it is almost literally true that if a man spits towards the rising sun he adds to the Tasman Sea, and if to the westward, swells the waters of the Southern Ocean.
They had not a great distance to go. Mr. Day was a little way in advance, when Dick saw him halt and raise his arm as a signal. He was peering down at something. Presently he beckoned to Dick to come down to where he stood, partly under cover, behind a big iron-bark tree. As noiselessly as possible, Delane made his way down to the edge of the steep slope.
The sun had now set, and the short twilight lay over the spurs of the mountains. In the west was the crimson and orange afterglow, and away from them stretched a vast, vague expanse of country, mistily blue in the summer evening.
Down below was Doughboy Hollow, a little dip, or bay, in the ranges, through which ran a mountain brooklet. The thin blue smoke of camp fires curled up into the evening air. There were waggons camped there, their fires just beginning to show redly amongst the trees. For a moment Dick felt a pang of disappointment, in the belief that the outlaws were not before them.
"Where are they?" he whispered to Mr. Day.
"There—by that larger fire," said the police-magistrate in a low voice. "Do you see them—on this side of the drays. Hurry back, Mr. Delane, and acquaint the major, will you? Tell him to come at once, on foot, and to be careful to make no noise. We will rush them from here."
Dick departed quickly, to bring up the main body. In ten minutes they were all with the police-magistrate, gazing down upon the unsuspecting bushrangers.
"Look," whispered the major to Mr. Day. "There is the Jewboy. By heavens, they are careless! Not even a sentry—and see how far off their horses are hobbled. Why, there's not a man of them has his gun beside him!"
The laughter and talk of the outlaws carried plainly to them in the still air of evening. Some of them were engaged in cooking, others were drinking from bottles and flasks which had, no doubt, recently been the stock-in-trade of Host Atkinson. A smell of frying meat whetted the appetite of the hungry attackers.
Mr. Day made a speedy disposition of his little force. They were to charge down the steep slope, each one picking his quarry, and to endeavour to shoot or capture his man. Two of them he told off to run through the camp to try to secure, or, if that was impossible, to stampede, the horses. He looked round to see that every man was ready, and then yelled out, at the top of his voice: "Hurrah—my lads! Charge!"
The startled outlaws sprang to their feet, and, picking up their weapons from the ground, each of them made for the cover of a tree, from which they opened a scattering fire upon the attackers. The latter never hesitated in their rush, but came on through the timber, firing as they ran into the bushrangers' bivouac.
Mr. Day made straight for the Jewboy. The latter promptly fired at him without effect. He fired his second barrel, and again missed. The police-magistrate, from a distance of a few yards, sent a bullet through the leader's shoulder, and then, dropping his gun, jumped forward, and closed with him, desirous of taking him alive. They wrestled fiercely for half a minute or so, and then the old soldier threw his man, and stunned him with a blow from the butt of a pistol which he wrested from the Jewboy.
Dick had been one of those who were deputed to look after the horses, and beyond firing, as he passed, at a man whom he saw taking aim at the major, had no part in the brief struggle. He and his assistant reached the horses, and, as they were hobbled, had no difficulty in controlling them.
Major Vane slightly wounded the man whom he tackled, and who turned out to be one Ruggy, an accomplished villain, and the Jewboy's second in command—and then, rushing him, overpowered him, and bore him to the ground.
Seeing their leader go down, the remainder of the gang lost heart, and speedily surrendered. One man escaped, but was afterwards taken by some of the carriers, who handed him over to Mr. Day.
In a short time the outlaws were all handcuffed in pairs, and, with sentries over them, sullenly submitted themselves to the inevitable.
The Jewboy, however, affected a certain jauntiness that seemed to be his idea of the behaviour suitable to a brave and unfortunate commander compelled to capitulate to a superior force. As he stood handcuffed between Mr. Day and Major Vane, he saw Dick approaching.
"Good evening, my lord!" he saluted him.
"What did you say? What did you call him?" exclaimed the major, in astonishment.
"I merely saluted the gentleman, my dear major, by his proper title."
Dick paused and reddened as he looked at the bushranger. "Be quiet!" he said.
"Oh, not at all, my lord. Your lordship is too modest."
"What is this?" said the major, puzzled. "Why do you address Mr. Delane in this fashion?"
"I merely accord him his right. You will find that I am correct, my dear major. I have the honour to address my compliments to Richard Vane Temple Delane, Earl of Marshford."
IT was late in the afternoon, and the trial of the bushrangers was drawing to a close. The court was crowded, for it was some little time since so many as seven men had been tried for their lives together—not since the participants in the crime of Myall Creek, a year or two before, had faced judge and jury—and Sydney was always fond of these judicial proceedings—en masse, so to speak. There was something intensely fascinating in the contemplation of a penful of men who faced the grim fact that unless a great amount of good fortune and inconceivable luck came their way, they would before long dangle from the same beam. It was entertaining to compare the demeanour of the individuals who made up the company assembled together in the narrow, spike-fenced arena, in which they were not only the principal performers, but also the most interested audience in this edifying and instructive drama.
For the most part, interest centred in the trial as it affected the leading man in the drama—Edward Davis, the celebrated Jewboy. There was nothing very uncertain about the fate of his companions. As the court crier had put it, "they would hang, as surely as God made little apples." Nobody was to be found who would dispute either proposition.
But the case of the Jewboy was different. It seemed that he had many friends, who were not only able to provide funds for the feeing of the best available counsel for the defence, but who also stoutly believed and maintained that his death at the hands of the hangman would be a distinct loss to the world, something of an injustice, and a wholly regrettable miscarriage of the judicial process.
The Jewish community had rallied to his salvation, and nothing at all had been left undone that might secure his acquittal for the charge of murder, or of attempted murder, or any other of the several capital charges under which he was arraigned at the bar. It was evident that his co-religionists found something in the man that redeemed him, that they were genuinely anxious to save his life, if they could not hope to obtain his liberty. That was, of course, out of the question altogether—since he was indisputably a runaway convict.
But it was a very noticeable fact that at least one prominent Sydney Hebrew, whom everyone knew and most people respected—Mr. Jacob Losky, the bookseller and curio dealer of George Street—did not take any part whatever in the attempt to save Davis from the consequences of his career as a freebooter. It was a fact that was widely commented upon, and was little understood, but which, nevertheless, remained a very obvious fact.
Counsel for the defence—a very eloquent and pathetic gentleman, with a rich endowment of ready tears—had pleaded hard with the jury. He had wept for the jury. He had extolled the high perception and the divine sense of justice of that common-place dozen of Sydney's citizens. And, being a very eminent counsel, with undoubted gifts in the swaying of juries, it looked not at all unlikely that his efforts, his eloquence, and his tears might be rewarded with some small measure of success. Apparently that was the opinion of the smiling, well-dressed, and not unprepossessing subject of his discourse.
"Gentlemen," he concluded, "I leave it to you. I leave the fate of my unfortunate client in your hands. I resume my seat with every confidence that you will fairly and courageously administer justice in the case of this perhaps misguided man, who has practised folly, has been guilty of crime—but who, gentlemen, is not a murderer either by deed or intent. By no means, it has been proved to you, can he be held to have had a share in the killing of the young man Graham, at Mr. Dangar's store, at Scone. You have heard how he always counselled his associates towards the avoidance of bloodshed. You have evidence before you that, at the time of the capture of the gang by Mr. Day and his party, he deliberately refrained, when it was in his power to further his escape by so doing, from taking the life of that gentleman or any of his companions. I leave his fate to you, gentlemen. I leave it to you."
He sat down, with bowed head, and all the court could see the glittering tears that bedewed his fat and florid jowl.
He had made a deep impression. But the prosecutor made a deeper one. The Solicitor-General arose quietly and said:
"Recall Mr. Day."
Mr. Day was recalled, and took his stand in the witness-box.
"Mr. Day, I will ask you one question only," said the Crown Law Officer. "When the prisoner fired upon you at the time of his capture, did he point his gun at you?"
"Yes," briefly replied Mr. Day.
"That will do—you may go down, Mr. Day."
And very speedily it became known that on the morning when the company in the dock was to make its final appearance, it would not be lacking the support of its leading member.
"Well—I am glad that is over," said the major, as he, Delane, and Caroline sat at dinner in the evening in his private apartment at Petty's Hotel, up on Church Hill. Mr. Day was not present, having pleaded, as an excuse for not accepting the major's invitation, that he had to catch the steam-packet for Morpeth at nine o'clock, and had some business to attend to in the meantime.
"So am I," said Dick. "They all deserved their sentence, but there is something beastly about seeing men cast for death whom you have fought with in the open. The Jewboy took it pretty coolly, didn't he? They say that he still expects to get off."
"Little chance, I think," the major said. "And he doesn't deserve it. Those fellows who are to suffer with him were only stupid louts, or half-witted criminals. He it was who worked upon their ignorance, with his posings and his fanciful notions—which, mind you, I think he half believed himself—of the glorious freedom of a bushranger's life. The only wonder is that he did not do more harm. He is a persuasive fellow—a clever rogue. And a taking way with him, too—I mean not 'taking' in the sense of annexing one's property, so much as one's liking and esteem. Do you know, I conceived quite a regard for the scoundrel that evening when he came to Castle Vane, on the night before you rescued me? He was as pleasant a casual acquaintance as ever I met. How did you find him, Carry?"
"Oh—I found him charming, papa. I used to think that I did not like Jews until I met him. Nobody could have been more pleasant than he was. And then to propose to torture you to death in the morning—the wretch! How did he appear in court?"
"Oh, very jaunty indeed," answered Dick. "You know, I think the fellow quite enjoyed himself as the centre of attraction. His speech, when they asked him if he had anything to say against sentence of death, was a little masterpiece. He knew it was no use, but none the less he thoroughly enjoyed making it. The man is full of conceit of himself."
"Delane," said the major, after a pause, "you have never yet told us why, on that evening when we took the gang in Doughboy Hollow, he addressed you as Lord Marshford. You have always fought shy of this subject whenever I tried to reopen it. But you can't escape now—can he, Caroline? You know, we are interested immensely. I am a nephew of his lordship—a nephew without expectations, it is true, but nevertheless a close relation. What did he mean by it?"
"Yes, tell us, do!" pleaded Caroline.
Dick found escape difficult. He looked from one to the other, and read no mercy in their eyes. It seemed, at last, that it must all come out—what he thought was his closely guarded secret, known to no one in the colony save the old Jew, Losky.
His eyes turned to Caroline. He knew that he loved her. He knew that one day he would ask her father for her. He had entirely lost that dread and hatred for Major Vane which had possessed him so strongly. It had changed into liking and genuine esteem—just as the major's hardness and disregard for the rights and opinions of those beneath him had changed. And Dick felt a sincere pity for the major—the pity of real friendship. It was only a month since the worthless wife, whom he had idolized so much, had sailed away with her Yankee sea-captain. And, although he showed it little, Dick knew how deeply miserable his friend really was.
He made up his mind to tell his story—only stipulating that he should be allowed to remain Richard Delane.
But, in a strange fashion, the story was told otherwise. These things really do happen so sometimes.
A knock came to the door.
"Come in," called the major.
It was the stiff and pompous head waiter of the hotel. He bowed to the company, coughed deferentially behind his hand, and made a little speech.
"Major Vane, sir—there his two persons hin the hentrance 'all as is desirous of a-comin' up, sir—to hinterview you and Mr. Delane. Hi hin-formed the two persons that such was him-possible. They would not be—ahem—prewailed hupon, 'owever—and so I 'ave made bold, your honors both, to make you acquainted with the fack that these two—persons—is desirous of comin' hupstairs."
Mr. Sims did not mention that he had been 'prewailed hupon' with a small gold coin of the realm, upon which was stamped the image of England's young Queen.
"Two persons, Sims. Who are they—what are they like?" asked the major, smiling a little as he contemplated the grave magnificence of Mr. Sims.
"Her—won is a lady, your honor, and the other is—ahem—a female."
"Oh, show them up. Don't go, Caroline. We may need all the assistance your sex can give us, in dealing with two mysterious persons of lady-like and female appearance. Yes, we will see them, Sims. Be good enough to ask them to step up here."
The grave Mr. Sims bowed again, and withdrew. A minute afterwards he opened the door, and announced the visitors:
"Miss Rachel Losky—hand Mrs. Davis."
The major rose in astonishment, and Dick, no less surprised, rose also. He stepped round the table, and placed chairs for the two women. Caroline sat wonderingly surveying the scene.
"Miss Losky?" said the major, bowing.
The beautiful Jewess inclined her head. Dick thought he had never before seen her looking so handsome. He had never seen her looking sad before. He sat down again, and left the talking to the major.
"May I inquire, Miss Losky, what I—what we—can do for you? Will you be so good as to state your business?"
The other woman was heavily veiled. She raised it now, as if the better to take part, and Dick recognized her face with a start. It was the woman whom he had rescued from the harbour on the night when he had fled from Sydney to join the Jewboy!
Rachel began to speak, evenly and clearly; but with a note of misery in her voice that went to the soft heart of the major's daughter.
"Major Vane, I have come to see you and Dick Delane here, because—because I had to. I do not come for my own sake—only for the sake of an unhappy woman who has something to tell you, and a boon to crave of you. I do not need your help, but this poor woman does. All I ask for myself is your promise that I shall be let alone—I mean that the law will not be set in motion against me—for what I have to say."
The major looked grave.
"Miss Losky," he said, "you are, no doubt, the daughter of Mr. Jacob Losky, who keeps the book shop in George Street, opposite to the Barrack gates? Could not your father, who has a reputation for benevolence as well as acumen—could he not better assist you than I?"
"My father is dead, sir."
"Yes, he took his own life, but three hours ago—as soon as he heard of the verdict against my husb——against the gang of bushrangers."
The major was startled, and so was Dick. They looked from one to another. There was a pause, and presently the major signed to Rachel to go on.
"He took poison," she continued. "He left a note for me. It was only a few words. Shall I read it? It concerns those present—I mean yourselves."
The major nodded.
"Do, if you please, Miss Losky."
Rachel took a folded paper from her bosom, and opened it.
"Go to Major Vane," she read, "and see him in the presence of Richard Delane. Give him the papers that concern Dick, and tell him everything. That is all. Farewell, my daughter. I take the course that is least disagreeable to myself, and of most benefit to you. With my death, nothing will come out. The Jewboy will hang, and he will talk before he hangs, if I am still alive. But if I am dead, he will not seek to injure you. Lose no time. Go to Major Vane this evening."
The major looked around. Caroline sat with wondering eyes fixed upon the handsome daughter of the bookseller. Dick leaned forward, staring at her too, his face pale, and a frown contracting his brow.
"Pray, Miss Losky, then—what have you to tell us? We are all attention. Please proceed."
"It is this, Major Vane; Dick—Mr. Delane I mean—is the Earl of Marshford, and my cousin. He is also your cousin, and the second cousin, I take it, of this lady here. These papers—which I am to leave with you—prove it."
The major turned to Dick.
"Delane, what have you to say to this? Please explain."
Dick was startled, but calm and collected. He cleared his throat, looked appealingly at Caroline, and replied.
"I am not the Earl of Marshford," he said, "so far as I am at present aware. It is true I was his son. But I have yet to learn of his death."
"Have you seen the English newspapers which arrived by the mail that was landed in Sydney to-day?" asked Rachel, turning her dark and lovely eyes upon him. "I have the 'Morning Post' here. The passage is marked. Read it aloud."
She took a newspaper from her reticule. Dick rose and took it from her, and unfolded it. He bent over the table, and read the passage that was marked. He looked up, and found the major's questioning eyes upon him.
"Shall I read it, sir?" he said, a little shakily.
"If you please, Delane," replied Major Vane.
"The paper is dated August the 10th, of last year," he said. ''This is what it says:
'We regret to announce the death at his country seat of Marshford, in Hampshire, of the Right Honourable Richard, Seventh Earl of Marshford, P.C., K.C.B., etc., in his sixty-ninth year. The late Earl was for many years in the Diplomatic Service of his country, and successively filled the positions of British Ambassador at Madrid and St. Petersburg. Since his retirement, he has lived quietly at his country seat, seldom coming to town, and then only for short visits. It was during one of these that he was taken ill at his London residence, 42 Clarges Street, Mayfair. He returned home to die. The late Earl was unmarried, and the estate, which is not entailed, goes to his nephew, Major John Hilary Vane, late of Her Majesty's 146th Regiment, who is at present resident in New South Wales.'
He laid the paper down and stared at the major. Caroline broke the silence that ensued.
"Dick," she said, "then we are cousins?"
"But these papers," said the major to Rachel. "You say they prove it. How came they into the possession of your father, and why was he interested?"
"Mr. Delane is my cousin also. His mother was my father's daughter—the actress, Fanny Delane. They were secretly married, and she died a year afterwards," said Rachel.
"Well—I am—thunderstruck!" said the major. "And you my cousin, Delane—and I came near flogging you! How strange it all is. If it is true, then I do you the injury of robbing you of your estate, and leaving you only the title."
Dick looked up.
"That may be compensated for, sir," he said in a low voice.
"How? In what way?"
"I will speak of it with you afterwards, sir," said Dick, looking at Caroline, who blushed and lowered her eyelids. "Had we not better inquire of these ladies what it is that they wish concerning themselves?"
"Perhaps so," said the major. "Will you enlighten us, Miss Losky?"
"There is not much," said the Jewess, "and I think, myself, that you can do nothing for us. But I have said to her that I would plead with you for him. This woman is the wife of Edward Davis. He married her in London, spent her money, and abandoned her. Mr. Delane rescued her from the harbour on the night that he escaped from Sydney, last year. She thinks that you might have sufficient influence to secure his reprieve. I tell her that nothing can save him, but she clings to any hope. Can you do anything, sir? I beg you, also—for I thought that he was my husband too—and indeed I love him." The Jewboy's wife was crying softly. There were tears in the eyes of the beautiful girl who was speaking.
The major was silent for a long time. At last he shook his head.
"Madam," he said, "nothing can save him from his fate. I beg you to put it out of your hopes, and to help this poor woman to bear your common grief. He has dealt hardly with you both—but you are a good woman, Miss Losky, and I respect you. However, come to me in the morning, and I will go with you to the Governor. He is no friend of mine, but it is the best I can do. I hold out no hope."
Rachel rose, bowed to the major, and the two women left the room.
"And now, Delane—or I suppose I should say Marshford—let me congratulate you. Of course, I shall not touch the estate. But what was the compensation you mentioned? I owe you much already."
Dick looked at Caroline. Caroline looked up at the major, and a little smile dimpled her blushing cheeks. She rose up from her chair, and stood beside Dick. He took her hand and held it out towards the major. His eyes spoke.
"This!" he said.
For a moment the major seemed bewildered. He gazed at them both for a few seconds. Then he sat down in his chair at the head of the table.
"Dick," he said, "I think if you will pull the bell-cord we will respectfully request Mr. Sims to bring in a bottle of wine. I feel that I should like to drink the health of the future Countess of Marshford—and I have no doubt that you will join me in doing so."
Dick turned to the happy girl beside him and kissed her. "God bless you. Major," he said huskily. "All's well."
Extract from Sydney Herald, March 17th, 1841:—
"The gang of ruffians recently convicted in the Supreme Court of bushranging and murder, and who for several months previously had infested the Hunter's River district (even extending their depredations to Brisbane Water), paid the forfeit of their lives on the scaffold, in the rear of Sydney Gaol, yesterday. The malefactors were all transported felons from the Mother Country, and their names, ages, etc., were as follows:—
"Edward Davis, aged 26, arrived in 1833, per ship Camden; Robert Chitty, 37, arrived in 1829, per Sophia; James Everett, 25, arrived in 1832, per Mangles; John Marshall, 27, arrived in 1832, per Clyde; Richard Glanville, 31, arrived in 1831, per Lord Lyndoch; and John Shea, 27, arrived in 1837, per Calcutta.
"These men terminated a long series of systematic burglaries and wholesale plunder by the more heinous crime of deliberate murder. They attacked, on the 21st of December last, the station of Mr. Dangar, at Scone, and meeting with some opposition from Mr. Graham (Mr. Dangar's storekeeper), one of the ruffians followed the unfortunate young man into the bush and deliberately shot him.
"The notoriety which the crimes of these men have attained drew together a large concourse of spectators to witness their execution. The entrance to the gaol, in George Street, was besieged for admission long before the arrival, at nine o'clock, of a strong military guard from the barracks, and so great was the pressure of the crowd that it required the unremitting exertions of Captain Innes to preserve order.
"At ten past nine the culprits were strongly pinioned and conducted from the cells to the area in front of the drop, where they knelt down. Chitty, Everett, Marshall, and Glanville were attended by the Rev. William Cowper and the Rev. John Elder. Rev. Mr. Murphy, Catholic priest, accompanied Shea; and Davis (being of the Jewish persuasion) was attended by Mr. Isaacs, minister of the Jewish congregation in New South Wales. All the culprits (if we except Everett) deeply lamented their having committed the crimes for which they were about to die, and acknowledged the justice of their sentences. Everett ascended the scaffold hurriedly, and in an evident state of excitement. He was followed by Chitty, Marshall, and Glanville, all three of whom, on reaching the scaffold, sang the first verse of the Morning Hymn, to be found in many editions of the Book of Common Prayer, commencing, "Awake, my soul, and with the sun."
"This act of devotion, we have since heard, was entirely spontaneous, not having been suggested or even expected by either of the reverend gentlemen who attended to administer the consolations of religion according to the rites of the Protestant Church.
"The ropes were speedily adjusted, and the white caps drawn over the faces of the wretched criminals. In the short interval which elapsed before the withdrawal of the fatal bolt, Marshall and Glanville were engaged in loud and apparently fervent prayer, and we observed the culprit Davis (who was attired in a suit of mourning) thank the Jewish minister for the attention paid him in his last moments. The struggles of all the men were of short duration.
"The immense crowd dispersed peaceably. It will be remembered that these men were apprehended chiefly through the active exertions of Mr. Day, Police Magistrate, Maitland."
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