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Vicissitudes of Bush Life in Australia and New Zealand

Chapter X

Chapter X.

The morrow dawned gloriously. It was the springtime of the year and everything looked fresh and bright. The green grass clothed the sandhills—usually so bare in summer—with tempting food for the sheep, who showed their appreciation of it by the keenness with which they ran towards it—where they could, for this dainty pasture was in some places especially reserved for the breeding flocks. The innumerable cockatoos, and flocks of variegated parroquets, as if in joyful harmony with the beauty of the morning, expressed their feeling of satisfaction in their own way, by filling the air with discordant cries.

After breakfast we all—that is, Mr. Rolleston, Lilly, and myself—started off to view the cattle, for the inspection and purchase of which we had been summoned down from the Darling, and as the weather looked so tempting, the two young ladies could not forego the pleasure of accompanying us on part of our way that lay along the banks of the Murray far on in the direction they were going, in order to pay a visit at a neighbouring station a few miles off. We were all in high spirits; who would not be, in such company, and with such surroundings? but ere the end of our journey an untimely accident was like to have changed our gay laughter into bitter mourning. It happened in this wise. The station to which the ladies were bound was on the bank of the river opposite to that on which Mr. Rolleston's station was situated. On arriving opposite the station, it was found that the punt in which travellers were usually ferried across was then high and dry, on the station side, undergoing some repairs, and the only conveyance that did duty in its place was represented by a very shaky-looking bark canoe that was paddled to and fro by a black fellow. To any ordinary ladies this would have been deemed an insurmountable barrier to the further prosecution of their journey, or rather, I should say, page 66 to the completion of it, seeing that there was but the river between them and the place for which they were bound. But Miss Rolleston, fearless by nature, and made more so by her hardy bush training, simply laughed at the idea of letting her visit be deferred on this account, and even in Mary Campbell's eyes, though constitutionally more timid than her companion, such a frail-looking means of transit did not appear very appalling.

The question at first was how they should manage about their horses; but it being suggested that they could easily be made to swim across, the next thing was to gauge the carrying capacity of the canoe. Two persons was the usual freight borne by these frail barks, but this appeared to be a large one.

By this time I had ridden my horse a little down the bank, below where our party was standing, to see where there was a convenient place to let Selim get at the water for a drink. Looking up whilst the horse was thus engaged, I called out to the ladies, warning them to go over only one at a time.

“Nonsense,” cried Miss Rolleston rather petulantly, “it will be all the greater fun to go together; we can tuck our skirts closely round us, and there will be plenty of room. Come along, Mary.” Mary looked a little doubtful, and even the sable Charon appeared to look grave at the prospect of such a heavy freight for his frail canoe. “Bail budgery,”* I heard him remonstrate; but remonstrance was vain—the strong-willed Miss Rolleston would have her own way, and her weaker companion succumbed to her influence. But the black fellow's words sounded so forebodingly in my ears—for I knew that they but expressed this simple child of Nature's knowledge of the canoe's capacity—that I called out still more earnestly, “Mr. Rolleston, do not let them both go together; depend on it, when the black objects, it is unsafe to do so”.

“Never mind them, Mr. Farquharson,” he replied, “Rachel will have her own way. I make no doubt but they will be safe enough.” I said no more, and the canoe was pushed off, the black pilot using his paddle skilfully. The canoe, though evidently over-weighted, as its depth in the water showed, was still being rapidly paddled across to the other side, and might have reached it in safety, but for a sudden movement on the part of Miss Rolleston. Seeing a large cod-fish suddenly dart under the canoe, and uttering a loud exclamation, the thoughtless girl suddenly leant over the side to catch a further glimpse of it, and thereby communicated such lateral impetus to the canoe (already over-laden, and which, naturally, could only preserve its equilibrium under conditions of the most perfect steadiness on the part of its occupants), that, lurching into page 67 the water, it was instantly swamped, and all its passengers, with a wild shriek from the ladies, were left struggling near the middle of the current.

What followed I can hardly detail.

With a loud oath Lilly flung himself from his horse, and kicking off his boots, dashed into the river and swam with desperate strokes to where the black fellow was bravely endeavouring to support the fainting form of Rachel Rolleston, a matter that her riding skirt dragging in the current rendered one of considerable difficulty. But Mary Campbell, whom the black fellow had failed to grasp, or perhaps thinking he had sufficient to do in trying to save Miss Rolleston, had not tried to grasp, was left in imminent peril of going to the bottom of the Murray.

I have said already that I had gone down the bank a little way to water Selim. Be it understood that the wash of the current tended directly from the centre of the stream towards the bank where I was then watering the horse. As it happened I had remained seated in the saddle while Selim was drinking; also, through the natural leeway that the canoe made while being paddled across the stream, it was almost opposite to where I then was.

From my boyhood I have been a practised swimmer, but I did not trust to my own powers in attempting to rescue either of the endangered ladies, having much more efficient means for that purpose then under me. With Selim, at any time when it was necessary to swim a river with him, I merely needed to ride him into the deep waters, when, without the slightest hesitation, on feeling himself getting beyond his depth, he would strike out, and being a noble swimmer as a rule ensured me a dry seat in the saddle. Therefore on the present occasion, instantaneously with the canoe catastrophe, I dashed my spurs into his flanks, and with a loud shout urged him into the deep water, which he entered with a bound that caused him to sink almost over his head, the waters rising over my own shoulders. Instantly on his rising to his proper position, I urged him on to where Mary Campbell was struggling wildly in the water. She had providentially caught hold of the black fellow's paddle, at about the middle, which she held convulsively with both hands. She thus in her struggles had been unconsciously making it aid in keeping her on the surface longer than she could otherwise have managed. With Selim's powerful strokes bearing me swiftly through the water, I was soon at the poor girl's side, and at once seized her by the arm and drew her cautiously (for fear of overbalancing Selim) up half way out of the water, requesting her at the page 68 same time to let go her hold of the paddle, a request she had sense enough to comprehend, and at once complied with. Instead of returning to the side of the river I had just quitted, I now headed Selim to the opposite bank, from which a canoe was then being rapidly paddled to where Miss Rolleston, by the united efforts of Lilly and the black fellow, was also being propelled. The black fellow, intent only on bringing her to land anyhow, was endeavouring to bear his burthen to the bank she had just left, till Lilly reached him, when by his directions they faced about and made for the opposite side. This bank, though the furthest to reach, Lilly's quick sense prompted him to make for, with his almost fainting charge, because of the house and friends who were there—and the same thought had come to me—for there the drenched girls would be at once relieved of their wet clothing, and by careful nursing, protected against any possible ill effects from their ducking and fright.

While attending to Mary I had been collected enough to observe from the first that, with the black fellow's timely assistance, and Lilly's immediate co-operation, there was no occasion for anxiety on account of Miss Rolleston's safety, and now, whilst swimming shorewards with Mary, I observed that the canoe despatched by the owner of the station, who had been a horrified spectator of the catastrophe, had reached Miss Rolleston, and into it she had been lifted, by the combined efforts of the black in the canoe and Lilly and his black assistant; the two latter swimming alongside of the canoe as it returned to the bank.

Now, although I had a most genuine regard for Mary Camp-bell, and was sincerely grateful for having been enabled to render her the service that I did, yet I was not a little chagrined now that I had been privileged to enact so conspicuous a part in the rescue of one of these ladies, that fate had not so ordered it that the one who was the very nearest to my heart had not been also the one that had fallen the nearest to me in the water. What a noble opportunity this would have afforded, I rather disconsolately reflected, of advancing myself in her eyes, and by such a signal service giving myself some title to her affectionate gratitude! However, for this disappointment I was partially consoled by the reflection that in view of the temptation I had had for being guided by such merely selfish considerations, which might have diverted me from the path of obvious duty, my action in what I had done, had been all the more purely disinterested.

Both ladies, more frightened than hurt after their severe ducking, were at once conveyed to their friend's house, where, after about an hour, through the kind and tender nursing that page 69 they received, they, with heightened colour, were merrily chatting over the incidents of their late danger, as if they rather enjoyed the recollection of it than otherwise. After a change of clothes Lilly and I returned across the river in the canoe—Selim swimming behind—along with Mr. Rolleston, who had come across meanwhile by the same conveyance, and who, as may well be imagined, had been not a little shaken by the sight of what might have proved a tragedy enacted before his eyes. Then, remounting our horses, we resumed our business journey, for a while commenting animatedly on the scene that had just occurred; then, as the more prosaic thoughts connected with our present business reasserted themselves over our minds, gradually seeming to forget all about it.

Of the business we had in hand suffice it to say that both Lilly and I highly approved of a mixed lot of about fifty cattle, amongst which was a most lordly looking bull of superior breed, and the transaction of the sale being soon completed, we were on our way home by the afternoon.

Calling in on our way at a roadside public-house, then the only residence in what I now believe to be the considerable township of Euston, Mr. Rolleston ordered some spirits for the party, and took up the latest paper, that, as it happened, had just been left there by the mounted postman. After scanning its contents for a little while, his eye fell on the following paragraph, under the conspicuous heading of “Daring Bank Robbery,” which he read aloud. “We have to record the most daring bank robbery that has ever been perpetrated in this town (Adelaide) since its foundation. Six scoundrels, all dressed in blue shirts, one of them a powerful looking ruffian with bushy black beard acting as leader, deliberately perpetrated this audacious robbery in the midst of a populous town, in broad daylight.

“Their plan of action appeared to have been as simple as its execution was prompt. Dividing their number to avoid exciting suspicion, by so many being seen together, three of these men were seen riding leisurely down the street till they approached the Bank of South Australia, when they dismounted and quietly hung their horses' bridles over the posts in front of the bank, into which the black-bearded ruffian at once entered, whilst his two companions, as if awaiting his return, stood quietly by their horses. Almost immediately after this, the other three, on the opposite side of the street and from an apparently opposite direction, rode quietly down, and also dismounted from their horses a few yards above the Bank of Australasia, and stood apparently waiting for some one, gazing mean while carelessly about them. This much we know of them from the testimony of a bystander, who, without having had his suspicions roused suspicions roused page 70 by their manner, yet chanced to have noticed them from a neighbouring corner at which he was loitering. On entering the bank, as we have said, the inmates—the usual officials and four men who were transacting business at the counter—were suddenly startled by the stern order of the bushranger, accompanied by the threat of his levelled revolver, to hold up their hands. On this order having being mechanically obeyed—for in the determined and savage lineaments of the robber leader, the alternative of death on the first symptoms of refusal or resistance, was clearly written—his two companions entered, and, first closing the outer door, they then with cords, evidently provided for the purpose, at once proceeded to bind and gag every one in the bank, first compelling the cashier, with a revolver held at his head, to disclose and unlock the safes. All the gold and silver—notes and coppers they discarded—that amounted to no less than £4000, they at once stowed away in bags they had brought with them concealed under their blue shirts. Whilst this booty was being secured by his companions, the leader went outside and across to the Bank of Australasia, when the same scene was instantly re-enacted there; and although there were seven business men here in addition to the staff, yet such was the consternation with which all were seized, that all thoughts of active resistance were quelled. Here the robbers secured £3700 worth of booty, and then, mounting their horses, they all made off in different directions. They must have been gone for fully two hours ere public attention began to be fully aroused at the unwonted appearance of closed doors at both banks during business hours. This led to an inquiry that ended in the doors being forced and the inmates of each bank found as already described. An alarm was at once raised. The rumour of this robbery spread like wildfire through the town, and the consternation at its audacity was great. Evidently, though apparently carried out in so simple a manner, the plans of the robbers had been ably matured. From their knowledge of the mysterious robbery that occurred at the south end of the town a few days ago, which the police have since been busily investigating, the scoundrels no doubt deliberately planned the present outrage, feeling secure of the absence of the police from the centre of the town for this cause—nay, who knows but that this robbery too may have been their own handiwork, deliberately executed as a diversion to draw the police thither in order to give them a better chance of effecting their more daring project with safety. As the police are, however, now in active pursuit, and Billy, the celebrated black tracker, is amongst them, it is to be hoped that such a flagrant violation of the law, committed in the very face of the guardians of its majesty, will page 71 soon be visited by condign punishment. There is every reason to believe that the bushrangers are trying to escape to the Northern Territory.”

“Well, I must say that was a pretty cool proceeding,” remarked Mr. Rolleston, on laying down the paper, after reading the above account.

“My faith,” replied Lilly, “these fellows were up to their trade; it is easy seeing by the smart and determined way in which they did their work, that it has been an old game with them.”

“The rascals! it is to be hoped the police will soon get hold of them,” remarked Mr. Rolleston, who, being a man of property, had no sympathy with such instances of smartness as were hazarded at the expense of his class interests.

Our horses having been now sufficiently baited, we desired that they should be brought round to the verandah front for us, and, mounting them, we quietly rode on, reaching home at about dusk.

* No good.