Page:Life of John Boyle O'Reilly.djvu/110

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empire could not buy this peerless work of nature. The word of an unlettered ruler of a convict gang was potent enough for its destruction; for it lay right in the middle of the surveyed road. The order was given to cut it down. O'Reilly argued and pleaded for its preservation, but in vain. All that he could obtain was a reluctantly granted reprieve, and appeal to a higher power. He went—this absurd poet in a striped suit—to the commander of the district, and pleaded for the tree. The official was so amused at his astounding audacity that he told his wife, who, being a woman, had a soul above surveys and rights of way. She insisted on visiting the tree, and the result of her visit was a phenomenon. The imperial road was turned from its course, and a grand work of nature stands in the West Australian forests as a monument to the convict poet.

The scum of civilization amid which O'Reilly was anchored lay just above the depths of primitive savagery; there was no intermediate layer. But there was one immeasurable gulf between the naked savage and the branded outcast of civilization. The savage was free. The white man envied him, as one who drowns may envy him who swims in the dangerous waves. The savage was free, because he could live in the Bush.

There was no need of fetters or warders to prevent the criminal's escape. Nature had provided a wall absolutely impassable in the boundless Bush, in whose thorny depths the fugitive was lost at the first plunge. Could he bury himself in its recesses, and hide his trail from the keen scent of the native trackers, employed as sleuth-hounds by the Government, he would still be almost as helpless as a traveler lost in the desert, or a mariner on a plank in mid-ocean. He had no weapons with which to kill game; he was ignorant of the country and liable to perish of thirst or hunger; above all he had no definite goal in sight. The pathless Bush lay before him, thousands of miles in one direction,—the wide, deserted Indian Ocean in the other. He might eke out a precarious existence for a while in the Bush, living a life lower than that of the lowest savage,