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Vicissitudes of Bush Life in Australia and New Zealand

Chapter XXXIX

Chapter XXXIX.

Leaving the wounded policeman in the tent, his companion, who until our return had remained on guard over the two prisoners, having then mounted his horse and ridden hastily to the township to bring medical assistance to him, we all started off with our prisoners, and in about an hour and a half afterwards had the satisfaction of seeing them all lodged in secure custody. Up to that time—ever since Howden's capture—the detective had maintained a stern watch over his charge, as if on the look-out against every possible contingency in the way of an attempt to escape, or an ambushed rescue, and uttering nothing the while beyond brief, necessary directions.

But with the responsibility of this duty off his shoulders, his taciturnity at once gave place to a more considerate manner. Heartily shaking the hands of Lilly and myself, he thanked us for the valuable service that we had rendered. Whilst to the other officials present, he frankly confessed that, but for us, his own efforts in attempting to secure Howden would have been utterly abortive.

“But what sort of a horse is that of yours, Mr. Farquharson?” page 276 he added, “has he claws on these hoofs of his, that he went up that ridge in the cat-like way that he did? I should not have believed it possible for any horse to accomplish such a feat as that, unless I had seen it done with my own eyes, as I saw yours do it; it took me all my time to drag up my horse on foot behind me, and he is not the clumsiest-footed horse either, that I have seen.”

“Aye, mate,” replied Lilly, patting Selim on the neck with almost as much pride as if the old horse had belonged to himself. “You are not like to see two such horses as this in a lifetime, I fancy; aye, old Selim,” he continued, addressing the old horse as seriously as if he reckoned that the animal could actually understand him, while Selim acknowledged his sense of the praise he was receiving in his own way, by vigorously using Lilly's shoulder as a convenient rubbing post for his head. “Aye, Selim, old boy,” he said, “we have to thank your pluck for our luck this night; but for your gameness in climbing up that face, and sticking to that fellow afterwards as you did— flash horse and all as he had—that dog might have been far enough away in the bush by this time.”

“Yes, that is true,” replied Duval, critically examining Selim's various points; for the detective was evidently a judge of horseflesh. That the result of the scrutiny satisfied him was evident, for he added:—

“I would give something now to own a horse like that. And this horse is fully as good as he looks ! How he did go crashing through that scrub, to be sure, for although I could not see him I could hear him. I should have enjoyed being on his back during that chase.”

“You might have found it more exciting than safe, if you have not been accustomed to stock riding,” replied Lilly, bluntly, adding, “it takes practised men like Mr. Farquharson here and me to keep on Selim's back when he is hunting after anything through scrub, I can tell you. I once had a trial of him, and I know what it means to stick to him in such places. My own mare, Coleena, there, isn't bad, but she isn't a patch to him among scrub or perhaps anywhere else.”

“Well,” replied Duval, “I should imagine that there is a good deal of truth in what you say there. On a level or steeplechase course I would stick to any horse that ever was girthed, but I daresay even a man like me would require some little practice to fit him for keeping his seat with such sudden halts and sharp bolts to the one side or the other as I saw that horse give when I came in sight of you, at the time when Howden attempted to double back. To me at that time your horse appeared to literally wheel on a pivot; his action was so simultaneous page 277 with every change of movement on the part of Howden's horse, that I marvelled even then how you managed to retain your seat so easily as you seemed to do.”

“My dear sir,” I replied, “I just then kept my eyes open for all possible contingencies. Doubtless, however, the secret of the whole matter is practice, by which one's body acquires a kind of instinctive habit of accommodating itself to all sorts of possible emergencies without any conscious effort of the mind. Again, on such occasions, my experience of my horse enables me to leave his conduct in the matter entirely to his own discretion. I content myself then with looking out for the safety of my own head and seat. I know that is all that is required for heading or blocking any animal that he is in pursuit of. My horse understands fully as well as I should myself all that there is to do; and he certainly would perceive any sign of a change in the animal's motions much more quickly. Aye, sir, and what you have lately seen is but a slight sample of my horse's spirit. To see him at his best he should be seen confronted by a wild charging bullock among timber as thick as that of our late scene of action. To keep on his back there, or to prevent yourself from being dashed against a tree branch in such sharp work is what a Yankee might well term ‘a caution to snakes,’ as, now darting like lightning to either side and again over a log or under a low spreading tree, Selim, reckless of all obstacles, instantly wheels, or darts ahead, or halts, with every corresponding movement of the bullock, or, if at length charged by the infuriated animal, then on the signal of the slightest pressure of my hand on his mane or wither, with a lightning-like wheel he sends both heels into the stubborn brute's forehead, a mode of dealing with him that generally sickens the most contumacious bullock. Aye, sir, he is a noble horse, and such a one as I never intend to part with while he has life in his body and I have life in mine.”

Soon after this, the wounded policeman was brought into camp, when the doctor who had accompanied him examined the wounds of both Lilly and Howden.

Both were pronounced by him to be but flesh wounds, there being no broken bones in either case. Lilly was hit on the side of his chest just close up to the arm-pit, and Howden, more deeply, on one side of the loin. The wounds of both, though by this time beginning to feel sore and inflamed, were now properly dressed, and would probably be well in the course of a few weeks.

On the next day, when the prisoners, for the sake of identification, were brought before the magistrates, I observed among the audience, towards the door, the sad pale countenance and page 278 lady-like figure of Rachel Rolleston: still lady-like and refined in spite of the misery and degradation of the last few years of her life. Now, under the confirmed conviction of this degradation, I felt a sort of compunction at making myself known to her, not because of any abhorrence on my own part in addressing her, but because of the probable effect that a sudden meeting in her present circumstances with one who had known her so intimately in her happy days might occasion her.

I, at all events, resolved to postpone the necessity of discovering myself to her until this could be more effectively accomplished in the privacy of her own home. My purpose was, if possible, to reclaim her and restore her to her father, and I felt that in return for my services the police would help me to ferret out her present place of abode.

For this end, as my evidence was not required in the examination of the prisoners I during its progress kept my back studiously turned towards her.

As the identification of the prisoners was easy, the examination was soon over, and in virtue of an intercolonial warrant they were formally handed over to the charge of Duval, though kept under lock and key, until the departure of the first vessel to Australia, when he would be able to sail with them to Melbourne. As it happened, this took place the following day.

As I felt no little curiosity about Marsden, or Howden as he was now properly called, I requested and obtained permission to visit him in the lock-up.

From his known character and the insecurity of the structure that did duty as a jail, he was kept manacled and vigilantly guarded. His two companions were confined together in a separate cell, but as I had nothing to say to them I did not disturb them.

Howden's features, altered as I knew they were by my brief glimpse of them in the dancing-room, presented now a still more haggard and wasted appearance—the work of the maddening sense of his loss of liberty, together with the loss of blood from his wound, which seemed to have exhausted even his strong frame. To me, in his unkempt state and with his fierce expression, he suggested the idea of some untamed beast of prey that had suddenly been brought in from its native jungle and there bound, and was glaring with all its native ferocity at the spectators, that its chain alone prevented it from at once springing upon and tearing to pieces.

On my entrance, he at once remarked with a fierce scowl (for he had recognised both Lilly and me at once during the chase and capture): “So, sir, you seem to have known page 279 how to show a due sense of gratitude to me for my having once saved your precious life from the hands of those who in a minute more would have made dead meat of you: for that act of weakness on my part, has led to your being a main instrument of my being run to earth, and consigned to the life of a felon”.

“For my present action, sir,” I calmly replied, “you have only to blame your own unprincipled conduct in seducing to a life of shame and misery one whose virtue and grace so well fitted her to adorn the sphere that her fortune entitled her to move in. It was solely to bring you to justice for that heartless act that my friend Lilly and I were among the most bitter and unrelenting of your pursuers, and that, by God's blessing upon our efforts, we have been the chief means of a period being put to your career of unbridled lawlessness.”

“And you have come here, sir, I presume,” retorted Howden fiercely, “to torment my spirit!—as if that was not sufficiently maddened by other thoughts, without having to listen to one of your canting lectures on moral propriety.”

“No, Howden—for that I now understand is your proper name—I have come here for no such purpose: the gaol chaplain is far more fitted than I to give you such advice. Although, let me say, it would have been to your advantage, even in a worldly sense, if you had paid a little more attention to such lectures than you ever seem to have done. You would not now stand there like a beast of prey restrained by irons, if you had. Indeed, I hardly know why I have taken the trouble to come and see a man whom personally I have only reason to regard with the deepest hatred, unless from a strange sort of curiosity and wish to find out what the motives were that could have impelled you to perpetrate such an act of villainy, as to so degrade that high-spirited, impulsive, but foolishly romantic girl. In distress and danger you went to her father's house, and were treated there not only as a gentleman, but almost as a relative; if you had been one, the attention to your comfort and the studied courtesy of their bearing towards you, could not have been exceeded. Was your nature akin to that of the hyaenas, that no kindness can affect, that your flinty heart felt no compunction at the crime you meditated towards those who so cherished you?”

“Sir,” Howden answered, “think not that for an instant my conscience will be touched by such high-flown language as that. Yet still I will choose to stoop to your own level of argument. I'll show you, little as you seem to think it, that I too, have a basis of reason for my actions, that I am not altogether the slave of mere passion, or that my own caprice page 280 only has been my rule of life in all that I have done. You suppose my nature to be akin to the hyaenas. And what pray has reduced me to that state? Because I was born with a nature that has ever been at war with restraint, am I to be reviled for simply following the dictates of my own heart? Because I committed a fault, to enable me to retain my position in society, a fault that I honestly meant to repair had I been allowed time! In rebelling against the undue severity of the punishment meted out to me on that score, have I forfeited the privileges of my manhood? Without a home, and hunted like a wolf, was it an additional crime in me to yield to the instincts of nature, when I met with one whose mind, rising superior to conventional forms, I found in harmony with my own? or was I not to be allowed the privilege of mating like the wolf? You speak of the sphere in which she once moved. Was that sphere superior to that which I once occupied? or was the subsequent descent from that position greater in her case, than it has been in mine? You speak of the treatment that I received at her father's hands, and my subsequent ingratitude. Would such treatment have been accorded me by that wealthy conventionalist, had my true character been suspected by him? If you infer such an understanding on his part, your reproach holds good, not otherwise. I accepted his hospitality at its own value, well knowing, that had a real suspicion of my true character and pursuits dawned upon the mind of the prudent and correct Mr. Rolleston, I should have been at once hunted from his place with no more compunction than he would have shown to the dingoes that worried his sheep.”

Thus did Howden seek to justify his own unprincipled life by the plea, that his own peculiar situation was the proper basis to which his rule of action should conform. In reply I said to him. “Your sole argument seems to be, that because you were ruined, you were therefore justified in dragging down this innocent girl in the same ruin with yourself. Why, sir, such an argument as that, can simply apply to the condition of a beast of prey; but you are not a beast, and such sentiments show that you glory in your shame—the desire to obey your hellish instinct to prey upon any thing or person you choose to take a fancy to, no matter how good or unsuspecting that thing or person may be. Surely, sir, your moral understanding is not so utterly crushed, as to be wholly blind to the fact of an original principle of right and wrong? To make my meaning plainer, can you not recognise, that the original offence, that occasioned your first punishment, was in itself a crime against the laws of society? Why then should you pretend to arrogate to yourself the right of immunity from a punishment that you had brought upon page 281 yourself? Have I, for instance, the right, for the sake of easing my circumstances, to commit a breach of the law by committing forgery? and if I do this, ought I to expect to escape the con-sequences of this crime? Or, having committed the wrong, do you think I should be justified and have a claim upon the public sympathy if, instead of bearing my punishment patiently, I persisted in fighting against the law of the land, and continually added to my crime?”

To reason with this man was hopeless. His conscience seemed to be deadened by the pernicious effects of a long habit of false reasoning; and the only effect upon him, of my argument against the root of his so-called justification, was only to add to his fierce impatience. It is only too true, that a long habit of sinful indulgence tends to blunt the moral faculties, until that which appears so reasonable, so logically convincing, to a person whose moral nature has not been warped, to the sin-hardened criminal is utterly incomprehensible.

“Enough of this, sir,” he replied, “and of this interview at the same time. We look at the question from different planes, and that which I occupy I shall continue to occupy to the end of the chapter. Yet, ere you go, I would ask one favour of you and only one, and were it not that I know you for a man of spirit and courage, even this favour I would not seek at your hands; but courage is the only virtue that I respect, and in its possession I can always feel that I can repose some sort of confidence. You loved that woman: I know it. She is both spirited and loyal, and for that cause only I plead guilty to some feelings of compunction for the position I have brought her to. But low as has been the life which she has led with me, I believe that she is still honourable. I understand that we are to sail from here to-morrow, and I have a foreboding that I shall see her no more. To-night I would rather not see her, as her pale, patient face would seem to reproach me, and as it is, with all my d——d reminiscences, I suffer quite enough of that kind of thing already. Will you use your influence to restore her to her father? She is now destitute of means. Had you and that other bloodhound not so cleverly circumvented my plans, I had hopes, with the rise I should have made with the booty from that bank, to have taken her with me to America or India, and there to have turned over a new leaf in my life, and to have blotted out the hateful memory of the past. Your zeal has helped to prevent all that, and therefore all the satisfaction that your action in the cause of morality and injured virtue may give you, I wish you joy of. Now, sir, would you be pleased to leave me?”

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“Ere I go,” I replied, “have you no word for your brother Charles?”

“My brother Charles,” he answered, quickly lifting up his head, while an expression of intense astonishment overspread his rugged features, “What the d—— do you know about my brother Charles?”

“That which a two years' residence in his vicinity ought to teach me of a man of whom the more I knew the more I wished to know. It was chiefly to talk to you of him that I came to visit you, for on hearing your true name from Mr. Duval, who, however, has given me no other particulars of your life, I concluded that you must be the same wild brother to whom I, on one momentous occasion, heard Charles Howden so sadly refer.”

“And this momentous occasion—what was it, that Charles Howden should find sympathy enough in his heart to refer to me?”

“The occasion, sir,” I answered sternly, “of a most foul attempt to murder him, when, through God's providence, I was just in time to prevent your brother being strangled by two cowardly ruffians.”

“Ha! do you say so?” he answered, hastily, while a troubled expression passed across his countenance. “And pray who were the would-be assassins? Were they taken, or did you identify them?”

“These same villains from whose clutches you were once man enough to set me free, but whose companionship you still seem to delight in, notwithstanding. Was it by your direction, sir, that these same miscreants attempted to murder and rob the brother who had so often tried to befriend you? It seems so palpable that without information from you they could hardly have found out his place of residence in that far and out-of-the-way corner of the land.”

“The cowards,” cried Howden, grinding his teeth in passion, “it is well for them (or rather it might have been better, for they are both now bound to be hung) that we are all under lock and key now, for had it been otherwise I would have shot both the poltroons like crows! No, Farquharson, whatever I may be, I trust I am not so bad as to connive at an act of butchery on anyone, let alone on a brother against whom I have no other cause of complaint than that of his continual reproaches against my mode of life. But, being reduced to the most desperate straits whilst in hiding about Melbourne, as a last resource I thought if I could only let him know of my condition he might—as he had often done before—give me as much help as would at least keep the wolf from the door. This and no more than this was my intention in letting Morgan, with whom I contrived to keep up communication, and who was in as page 283 desperate circumstances as myself, though not under such vigilant espionage from the police, know of my brother's whereabouts. But the villain! I might have guessed that his avarice could be restrained by no sense of manliness or even of thievish “honour.”

“That being the case, for your own, and your brother's sake, Howden, I am glad that you have cleared yourself from the horrid suspicion of complicity in your brother's intended murder, until now this has looked black against you. I would again ask ere I go, then, have you no parting message for me to bear to this brother?”

“Parting message!” said he bitterly; “what parting message could I send that he would care to hear from me, whose life can offer such excellent matter for reflection to his virtuous mind? Yet stay; why should I express myself in this way of one who I know had ever my welfare at heart? You can tell him then, Farquharson” he added—whilst for an instant his face softened into a more tender expression than I had ever before seen there —” did I feel assured that I was at this moment on the threshold of eternity, from which it strikes me that I am not very far removed, I would say this, ‘had I hearkened to his wise counsels, it would have been for my good this day, and that my last thought of him on earth will be a kind one’. And now, sir, farewell; I desire you to leave me. Remember your promise about my wife.”

“Your wife, sir?” I replied in astonishment. “Am I to think then from your words that——”

“Enough, sir; please leave me now. I am sick of these explanation” As his softened manner had again given place to his usual look of fierce austerity, I saw that further conversation would be useless, and left him.

The word “wife” had arrested my attention, but the idea that his use of such a word suggested was instantly dispelled by the look of stern impatience which followed immediately upon my seeking fuller information on the subject; so, concluding that he had made use of the word in a careless sense, I thought no more about it.

On the ensuing day Howden, with his two companions, was embarked on board a steamer, in Duval's charge. But Melbourne he never reached. Taking advantage of a slight confusion—consequent on their passing between the passengers that crowded the steamer's deck—Howden, finding Duval's vigilance flag for a moment, manacled as he was, made a sudden dart to one side, and in another instant was seen bounding over the side of the steamer, whilst at the same moment a bullet from Duval's revolver entered his side.

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Sinking below the water, he never came to the surface again alive; and it was only after a long search that it was found that the determined man had managed to dive completely under the steamer's bottom, where, in spite of his irons, he succeeded in retaining his position, by clutching, with all the tenacity of a death-hold, the off-side paddle-wheel, until life was extinct; showing thus that he had deliberately designed to end a life that, with his fierce intractable spirit, he found insupportable under restraint.

Thus died Randal Howden in his thirty-fifth year, a man endowed with great natural abilities and a fierce energy, that, turned to a right end, might have won for him a glorious name in military annals. Yet, a victim to his own passions, and misled by his unconquerable egotism, and the atheistical principles that loosened his mind from a sense of all moral responsibility for his actions, these talents but enabled him to sustain for a while the part of hero of an inglorious career, whose dark record was at times but faintly relieved by the gleams of a better spirit in the acts of daring generosity that he could occasionally display; and the humanity—still conspicuous amid the fierceness of his disposition—that always restrained him from securing his depredations by the shedding of blood. Morgan and Wilson, on the other hand, for the committal of a most foul murder—the proofs of which were fully brought home to them—were both hung shortly after their arrival at Melbourne.