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Vicissitudes of Bush Life in Australia and New Zealand

Chapter XXXVII

page 259

Chapter XXXVII.

Not desiring to make myself known to Rachel where she was, as I thought I should be able to do more for her by quietly interviewing her at her own abode, I now resolved to attempt to follow her there, wherever it might be. With this thought, I quietly remained where I was, with the determination of keeping an eye upon her until she should go out, and then to dog her steps.

For a short time she sat as I have described her, wholly disregarding the unfavourable comments of her friend on the depressing effect of the song she had just sung, for Kate evidently had not observed the stranger whose sudden entrance had caused poor Rachel to collapse so suddenly, Kate having been listening to Rachel's song with drooped head; and the entrance and exit, having all taken place in such a short space of time that she had been unaware of the circumstance until Rachel rose and in a whisper appeared to communicate it to her, and then immediately went out. On her heels I quickly followed, keeping well in her wake as she went along the street. While thus engaged, I was soon made aware that I had a companion with me on the same lay, in the person of the disguised detective; but at first disregarding this circumstance, I kept my eyes steadily fixed upon Rachel's movements.

I watched her enter several shops that were still open, as it was not yet past ten o'clock, and in which she was evidently obtaining supplies of necessary stores, and the various parcels, though all placed inside of a Maori kit, seemed to weigh a considerable amount, for she carried it with some signs of distress, judging by the frequency with which she shifted the load from shoulder to shoulder.

Always keeping well in the shade of the timber, for it was a clear moonlight night, I followed her steadily as she quitted the town, and struck off into the bush by the way of an old timber track. Pursuing this track, she kept on till it struck the bank of the river, along which there was now more difficulty in progressing owing to the tangled nature of the under-scrub, so that at times to avoid it she had occasionally to turn into the bush, where the openings, running parallel with her course, admitted of her progress by that way.

All this time Rachel never once turned her head to see if anyone were following her.

Suddenly turning from one of these openings in the bush, she went directly towards the river, when she almost instantly disappeared among the scrub. As I was cautiously endeavouring page 260 to follow the direction in which she had disappeared, I was suddenly joined by the detective, for till then, though both pursuing the same object, we had kept somewhat apart. Neither spoke; yet with the same instinctive thought we here paused and gazed around to take note of the appearance of the spot. This a momentary glance at once revealed. We saw that the level space where we were then standing had become narrowed by the proximity of a mountain spur, that a short way further on appeared to abut directly upon the river's bank. Between that, however, and where we then were, the ground was thickly covered with an undergrowth of tangled scrub, besides other timber. As I have said, it was among this scrub that Rachel had disappeared.

Glancing carefully about, in a little while my companion discovered a path leading into it, and (for the first time speaking) whispering the information to me, we both—first feeling that our revolvers were placed conveniently in case of emergency—proceeded cautiously along this path for about a hundred yards to where further progress along the river appeared to be blocked up by the spur, that there reached down to the bank. We then suddenly observed the gleam of a light coming from the midst of a thick tangle of lawyer scrub and other parasites, in the midst of which a space had been cleared sufficient to allow of the erection of a tolerably large tent.

We now, on hands and knees, approached close enough to the tent to admit of our hearing any conversation that might possibly take place inside it. We had scarcely attained to this desirable position when the sounds of a hasty, heavy stride coming down the spur, which immediately passed within a very few yards of where we were concealed, startled us not a little. But the new comer, without the least suspicion of our proximity, strode on, and at once entered the tent. His form I did not see, but the voice, immediately afterwards sounding clear and distinct within the tent, would have revealed to me at once the identity of the speaker, even had I not been prepared from the events of the evening to make such a discovery.

It was Marsden—the same who about two hours ago had so suddenly entered and so abruptly left the dancing-room. Although, with that passion-worn countenance, had I met him under other circumstances, I should, in all probability have failed to identify in him the gentlemanly yet impenetrable Marsden, who had been such a source of mystery and jealous fear to me about six years before on the Murray and Darling. Yet, on reflection, from the glimpse I had caught of them at the dance-room door, the features were indeed the same, but with this difference—that whereas when I before knew them, page 261 they were kept masked by his determination to conceal the storm of passion that ever raged within, the mask was now removed and the passion allowed free vent.

He was now speaking harshly to the woman whose prospects in life he had ruined, and whose spirit he had broken.

“Well, what ails you now, girl, that you assume such a whining look? Why don't you look pleasant and smile cheerfully when a man comes to see you? I might as well go and camp, and root with the pigs on the range, as come here for comfort, I can see.”

“Why do you chide me so, Randal? have I not always done my best to please and satisfy you?”

“Done your best? humph! perhaps yes, and perhaps no. You can't say you are doing so very much to please me, when after such a long absence, you can meet me with that reproachful look of yours that you know I hate. Why should you reproach me?”

“I am not aware, Randal that I do; indeed I do not mean to reproach you. God knows that it is only myself that I reproach!”

“Why should you reproach anyone, or yourself either?” he replied, speaking in a loud harsh tone. “What have you to complain of? Who is hurting you? Have you not plenty to eat and to wear? If not, it is your own silly fault. What have you to complain of, then?”

“Of nothing, if I only had the mind of the brute that perishes; of nothing, if I had not been reared in affluence and love; of nothing, if my mind had not been expanded by education to enable me more fully to appreciate the advantages I have for ever forfeited; of nothing, if my tastes had not been trained to loathe the nature of the associations that I have so long been surrounded with, and to realise all the repulsiveness of the abyss into which I have been dragged. Yet Randal, I do not wish to reproach you, though I cannot forget what I have once been, and the bright position that in my love for you I have for ever forfeited.”

“What you have been!” he seemed to retort fiercely, “and what have I been, might I ask? have I forfeited no position? Or, were your prospects and surroundings ever more promising than mine were? Are thief and robber proper designations for me, or their degraded professions my fitting calling by birth and education? I, who was once looked up to and respected, as my commission of captain in the Queen's army entitled me to be respected. And what am I now? A hunted felon, without a place in which to hide my head, except in a scrub, like a wood-hen. You will tell me that it was my own mad pranks that landed me page 262 in this position, that I gambled and forged; true, I did do so, but it was under temptation; it was a wrong that, had I been allowed time, it was my full purpose to have rectified. But, how does a slip such as that compare with the deed of the bankrupt, who by deliberate and systematic fraud cheats his creditors of several thousands of pounds, yet he is acquitted of his villainy, and is—by the same impartial law, that now hunts me as a felon for my comparatively venial transgression, for which I fully resolved to make honourable restitution—permitted to go free, and to set up again in the same nefarious lines as before: aye, is looked up to and respected all the time, as a godly, church-going man by his fellow townsmen. Yet, I must be consigned with other felons to the charge of a devil incarnate, whose brutality drove what feelings of manly pride I had left, out of my bosom: I mean that fiend Price. He was murdered shortly afterwards, and so far it was well for me, for I had sworn to tear his cowardly heart from his body though I should swing for it afterwards!

“Look here, Rachel,” said Marsden, here suddenly softening his tone, “I have behaved badly to you I know; I decoyed you away from a luxurious home with false ideas of what my position really was; but it was revenge that made me do so. I was, through ill-treatment, at war with all the world; but, coarsely and brutally as I have used you, I declare to you now, when I see how loyal to me you still are, in sticking to me through my evil fortune, that I feel that there are still some ties common to myself and humanity. There is another, too, but it's useless now referring to him—he was always too stern and uncompromising in his strait-lacedness for me; yet that he has borne much with me also, I must freely admit. But now I will tell you what our present plan of operations must be.

“Morgan and Wilson are already here. I could not get into this neighbourhood until two days ago, and have been skulking about ever since; but even in that time I have seen a chance of robbing the New Zealand Bank that will give me a rise that will enable me to get away to America: and when there I will begin life again with a clean sheet, on which for the future I trust only honourable actions will be recorded. The Bank seems to be quite unguarded, and without any blood-shedding—which, bad as I am, I always avoid—we shall be able to make a clean lift of all its contents. To-morrow, about midnight or a little after, the job is to be done. Now, quick, girl, get me something to eat, for I am hungry enough by this time, I can tell you.”

At this point, hearing the hurried tramp of approaching steps, that we divined to be those of the two men referred to by page 263 Marsden, and considering the task of arresting these three desperate men to be more than it would be wise for us to attempt alone, and, being besides furnished with full information as to their plans, we both withdrew in the same stealthy manner in which we had approached the bushranger's camp. I have said we, for from the first sight of him, I had reckoned myself to be hand and glove in whatever measures should be taken for securing Marsden.

“Well, sir,” I asked my companion, “what is your opinion of that nice plot, and of the plausible scoundrel who is projecting it? Do you think that with those companions he will have the resolution to undertake it?”

“A nest of villains,” he replied, without directly noticing my question; “however, I am glad that I have plumped upon their camp at last. I have been along time on the look-out for them. Has that man the resolution to undertake that project, do you ask? Aye, faith he has! I should like to know what that man has not nerve enough to undertake! Whatever his crimes may be, want of courage at least is what no man can lay to his charge.”

“They have come over from Victoria, or at least Australia,” I said. “You are a detective from there I presume?”

“You have guessed rightly, sir; by-the-bye, you seem to have been acquainted with that wench, that you followed her so closely to-night?”

“So well,” I answered, “that at one time such a term as that applied to her in my hearing would have been instantly answered by a blow from my fist.”

“Rather rough, that way of answering,” he replied coolly; “but I have heard that at one time she occupied a good position in society, and even now—although such a term comes sort of natural to me, being a north of England man—I believe though the poor girl has had a hard time of it with him, she keeps pretty straight, although she lives with him, and I don't suppose that they were ever married.”

“And of the man Marsden who betrayed and seduced her, what might you know of his career?”

“Rather too much for his good,” he answered almost sadly, then continued more abruptly, “let it be sufficient for the present to say of him that a more daring and troublesome bushranger than he, has never been in Australia. At first condemned to three years' penal servitude for forgery, he within two years broke out of jail and escaped, remaining at large for near two years, during which he committed some daring robberies in Victoria and in the neighbouring colonies. He was trapped at last, being pounced upon whilst fast asleep; but some time ago he again effected his escape, since which his vigilance has been page 264 such as to baffle every effort to secure him. Fortunately, however, I kept my eyes upon Rachel's movements, for by her continual attachment and loyalty to him I knew that she was either his wife or mistress; and feeling certain that she maintained some mode of communicating with him, I, as soon as I understood that she had sailed for New Zealand, at once followed on her track to Hokitika, where I have been watching her every night for the last month.”

“How did she manage to get that tent fixed up there: do you think she did it all herself?”

“No; I can't say how she contrived it. I fancy that Morgan and Wilson must have done that, and let her know by letter, not to herself (for I have been watching at the post office for her letters), but by means of some intermediate friend; and I rather think now that that girl Kate, who took her part so fiercely to-night, and was whispering so closely to her at times, knows something of these matters. I know that Kate has come from the Upper Murray, where this Marsden, as you call him, was hanging about for a long time.”

“Were both of these men, Morgan and Wilson, in jail with Marsden?”

“They formerly were, and it was by his means that they managed to make their escape with him. But on the last occasion when their Captain got taken they managed to keep clear; but my belief is, that they had all along contrived to keep up a kind of correspondence with Miss Bachel, and through her with him.”

“That suspicion of yours then makes that poor girl guilty of collusion with the deeds of all these desperadoes.”

“Aye,” he answered, with professional coolness; “I guess that, demure as she looks, she has always had a shrewd suspicion of all that was in the wind between them; and yet it is just possible that for the sake of their own safety, what correspondence they may have had through her, may have been so disguised in its language as to have given her a very obscure idea as to what it was all about—a sort of thieves' cipher maybe. As for Marsden as you call him (though I guess he was never christened under that name), I shouldn't wonder if he has not been quietly planted in Melbourne all the time, to get the police thrown off his scent, till he saw a favourable chance of getting over here.”

Conversing thus we reached the town, when, after warning me to observe a strict silence as to what I had seen or heard, he went to the police camp to concoct a plan with the officers there for securing the bushrangers, and setting a watch round the Bank.