Robbery Under Arms/Chapter 18

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179858Robbery Under Arms — Chapter 18Rolf Boldrewood


Mr. Runnimall, the auctioneer, swore that the older prisoner placed certain cattle in his hands, to arrive, for sale in the usual way, stating that his name was Mr. Charles Carisforth, and that he had several stations in other colonies. Had no reason for doubting him. Prisoner was then very well dressed, was gentlemanly in his manners, and came to his office with a young gentleman of property whom he knew well. The cattle were sold in the usual way for rather high prices, as the market was good. The proceeds in cash were paid over to the prisoner, whom he now knew by the name of Starlight. He accounted for there being an unusual number of brands by saying publicly at the sale that the station had been used as a depot for other runs of his, and the remainder lots of store cattle kept there.

He had seen a short-horn bull outside of the court this day branded `J-E' on the shoulder. He identified him as one of the cattle placed in his hands for sale by the prisoner Starlight. He sold and delivered him according to instructions. He subsequently handed over the proceeds to the said prisoner. He included the purchase money in a cheque given for the bull and other cattle sold on that day. He could swear positively to the bull; he was a remarkable animal. He had not the slightest doubt as to his identity.

`Had he seen the prisoner Marston when the cattle were sold now alleged to belong to Mr. Hood?'

`Yes; he was confident that prisoner was there with some other men whom he (witness) did not particularly remark. He helped to draft the cattle, and to put them in pens on the morning of the sale.'

`Was he prepared to swear that prisoner Marston was not a hired servant of prisoner Starlight?'

`No; he could not swear. He had no way of knowing what the relations were between the two. They were both in the robbery; he could see that.'

`How could you see that?' said our lawyer. `Have you never seen a paid stockman do all that you saw prisoner Marston do?'

`Well, I have; but somehow I fancy this man was different.'

`We have nothing to do with your fancies, sir,' says our man, mighty hot, as he turns upon him; `you are here to give evidence as to facts, not as to what you fancy. Have you any other grounds for connecting prisoner Marston with the robbery in question?'

`No, he had not.'

`You can go down, sir, and I only wish you may live to experience some of the feelings which fill the breasts of persons who are unjustly convicted.'

This about ended the trial. There was quite enough proved for a moderate dose of transportation. A quiet, oldish-looking man got up now and came forward to the witness-box. I didn't know who he was; but Starlight nodded to him quite pleasant. He had a short, close-trimmed beard, and was one of those nothing-particular-looking old chaps. I'm blessed if I could have told what he was. He might have been a merchant, or a squatter, or a head clerk, or a wine merchant, or a broker, or lived in the town, or lived in the country; any of half-a-dozen trades would suit him. The only thing that was out of the common was his eyes. They had a sort of curious way of looking at you, as if he wondered whether you was speaking true, and yet seein' nothing and tellin' nothing. He regular took in Starlight (he told me afterwards) by always talking about the China Seas; he'd been there, it seems; he'd been everywhere; he'd last come from America; he didn't say he'd gone there to collar a clerk that had run off with two or three thousand pounds, and to be ready to meet him as he stepped ashore.

Anyhow he'd watched Starlight in Canterbury when he was riding and flashing about, and had put such a lot of things together that he took a passage in the same boat with him to Melbourne. Why didn't he arrest him in New Zealand? Because he wasn't sure of his man. It was from something Starlight let out on board ship. He told me himself afterwards that he made sure of his being the man he wanted; so he steps into the witness-box, very quiet and respectable-looking, with his white waistcoat and silk coat—it was hot enough to fry beefsteaks on the roof of the courthouse that day—and looks about him. The Crown Prosecutor begins with him as civil as you please.

`My name is Stephen Stillbrook. I am a sergeant of detective police in the service of the Government of New South Wales. From information received, I proceeded to Canterbury, in New Zealand, about the month of September last. I saw there the older prisoner, who was living at a first-class hotel in Christchurch. He was moving in good society, and was apparently possessed of ample means. He frequently gave expensive entertainments, which were attended by the leading inhabitants and high officials of the place. I myself obtained an introduction to him, and partook of his hospitality on several occasions. I attempted to draw him out in conversation about New South Wales; but he was cautious, and gave me to understand that he had been engaged in large squatting transactions in another colony. From his general bearing and from the character of his associates, I came to the belief that he was not the individual named in the warrant, and determined to return to Sydney. I was informed that he had taken his passage to Melbourne in a mail steamer. From something which I one day heard his half-caste servant say, who, being intoxicated, was speaking carelessly, I determined to accompany them to Melbourne. My suspicions were confirmed on the voyage. As we went ashore at the pier at Sandridge I accosted him. I said, "I arrest you on suspicion of having stolen a herd of cattle, the property of Walter Hood, of Momberah." Prisoner was very cool and polite, just as any other gentleman would be, and asked me if I did not think I'd made a most ridiculous mistake. The other passengers began to laugh, as if it was the best joke in the world. Starlight never moved a muscle. I've seen a good many cool hands in my time, but I never met any one like him. I had given notice to one of the Melbourne police as he came aboard, and he arrested the half-caste, known as Warrigal. I produced a warrant, the one now before the court, which is signed by a magistrate of the territory of New South Wales.'

The witnessing part was all over. It took the best part of the day, and there we were all the time standing up in the dock, with the court crammed with people staring at us. I don't say that it felt as bad as it might have done nigh home. Most of the Nomah people looked upon fellows stealing cattle or horses, in small lots or big, just like most people look at boys stealing fruit out of an orchard, or as they used to talk of smugglers on the English coast, as I've heard father tell of. Any man might take a turn at that sort of thing, now and then, and not be such a bad chap after all. It was the duty of the police to catch him. If they caught him, well and good, it was so much the worse for him; if they didn't, that was their look-out. It wasn't anybody else's business anyhow. And a man that wasn't caught, or that got turned up at his trial, was about as good as the general run of people; and there was no reason for any one to look shy at him.

After the witnesses had said all they knew our lawyer got up and made a stunning speech. He made us out such first-rate chaps that it looked as if we ought to get off flying. He blew up the squatters in a general way for taking all the country, and not giving the poor man a chance—for neglecting their immense herds of cattle and suffering them to roam all over the country, putting temptation in the way of poor people, and causing confusion and recklessness of all kinds. Some of these cattle are never seen from the time they are branded till they are mustered, every two or three years apparently. They stray away hundreds of miles—probably a thousand—who is to know? Possibly they are sold. It was admitted by the prosecutor that he had sold 10,000 head of cattle during the last six years, and none had been rebranded to his knowledge. What means had he of knowing whether these cattle that so much was said about had not been legally sold before? It was a most monstrous thing that men like his clients—men who were an honour to the land they lived in—should be dragged up to the very centre of the continent upon a paltry charge like this—a charge which rested upon the flimsiest evidence it had ever been his good fortune to demolish.

With regard to the so-called imported bull the case against his clients was apparently stronger, but he placed no reliance upon the statements of the witnesses, who averred that they knew him so thoroughly that they could not be deceived in him. He distrusted their evidence and believed the jury would distrust it too. The brand was as different as possible from the brand seen to have been on the beast originally. One short-horn was very like another. He would not undertake to swear positively in any such case, and he implored the jury, as men of the world, as men of experience in all transactions relating to stock (here some of the people in the court grinned) to dismiss from their minds everything of the nature of prejudice, and looking solely at the miserable, incomplete, unsatisfactory nature of the evidence, to acquit the prisoners.

It sounded all very pleasant after everything before had been so rough on our feelings, and the jury looked as if they'd more than half made up their minds to let us off.

Then the judge put on his glasses and began to go all over the evidence, very grave and steady like, and read bits out of the notes which he'd taken very careful all the time. Judges don't have such an easy time of it as some people thinks they have. I've often wondered as they take so much trouble, and works away so patient trying to find out the rights and wrongs of things for people that they never saw before, and won't see again. However, they try to do their best, all as I've ever seen, and they generally get somewhere near the right and justice of things. So the judge began and read—went over the evidence bit by bit, and laid it all out before the jury, so as they couldn't but see it where it told against us, and, again, where it was a bit in our favour.

As for the main body of the cattle, he made out that there was strong grounds for thinking as we'd taken and sold them at Adelaide, and had the money too. The making of a stockyard at the back of Momberah was not the thing honest men would do. But neither of us prisoners had been seen there. There was no identification of the actual cattle, branded `HOD', alleged to have been stolen, nor could Mr. Hood swear positively that they were his cattle, had never been sold, and were a portion of his herd. It was in the nature of these cases that identification of live stock, roaming over the immense solitudes of the interior, should be difficult, occasionally impossible. Yet he trusted that the jury would give full weight to all the circumstances which went to show a continuous possession of the animals alleged to be stolen. The persons of both prisoners had been positively sworn to by several witnesses as having been seen at the sale of the cattle referred to. They were both remarkable-looking men, and such as if once seen would be retained in the memory of the beholder.

But the most important piece of evidence (here the judge stopped and took a pinch of snuff) was that afforded by the short-horn bull, Fifteenth Duke of Cambridge—he had been informed that was his name. That animal, in the first place, was sworn to most positively by Mr. Hood, and claimed as his property. Other credible witnesses testified also to his identity, and corroborated the evidence of Mr. Hood in all respects; the ownership and identity of the animal are thus established beyond all doubt.

Then there was the auctioneer, Mr. Runnimall, who swore that this animal had been, with other cattle, placed in his hands for sale by the older prisoner. The bull is accordingly sold publicly by him, and in the prisoner's presence. He subsequently receives from the witness the price, about 270 Pounds, for which the bull was sold. The younger prisoner was there at the same time, and witnessed the sale of the bull and other cattle, giving such assistance as would lead to the conclusion that he was concerned in the transaction.

He did not wish to reflect upon this or any other jury, but he could not help recalling the fact that a jury in that town once committed the unpardonable fault, the crime, he had almost said, of refusing to find a prisoner guilty against whom well confirmed evidence had been brought. It had been his advice to the Minister for Justice, so glaring was the miscarriage of justice to which he referred, that the whole of the jurymen who had sat upon that trial should be struck off the roll. This was accordingly done.

He, the judge, was perfectly convinced in his own mind that no impropriety of this sort was likely to be committed by the intelligent, respectable jury whom he saw before him; but it was his duty to warn them that, in his opinion, they could not bring in any verdict but `Guilty' if they respected their oaths. He should leave the case confidently in their hands, again impressing upon them that they could only find one verdict if they believed the evidence.

The jury all went out. Then another case was called on, and a fresh jury sworn in for to try it. We sat in the dock. The judge told Starlight he might sit down, and we waited till they came back. I really believe that waiting is the worst part of the whole thing, the bitterest part of the punishment. I've seen men when they were being tried for their lives—haven't I done it, and gone through it myself?—waiting there an hour—two hours, half through the night, not knowing whether they was to be brought in guilty or not. What a hell they must have gone through in that time—doubt and dread, hope and fear, wretchedness and despair, over and over and over again. No wonder some of 'em can't stand it, but keeps twitching and shifting and getting paler and turning faint when the jury comes back, and they think they see one thing or the other written in their faces. I've seen a strong man drop down like a dead body when the judge opened his mouth to pass sentence on him. I've seen 'em faint, too, when the foreman of the jury said `Not guilty.' One chap, he was an innocent up-country fellow, in for his first bit of duffing, like we was once, he covered his face with his hands when he found he was let off, and cried like a child. All sorts and kinds of different ways men takes it. I was in court once when the judge asked a man who'd just been found guilty if he'd anything to say why he shouldn't pass sentence of death upon him. He'd killed a woman, cut her throat, and a regular right down cruel murder it was (only men 'll kill women and one another, too, for some causes, as long as the world lasts); and he just leaned over the dock rails, as if he'd been going to get three months, and said, cool and quiet, `No, your Honour; not as I know of.' He'd made up his mind to it from the first, you see, and that makes all the difference. He knew he hadn't the ghost of a chance to get out of it, and when his time came he faced it. I remember seeing his worst enemy come into the court, and sit and look at him then just to see how he took it, but he didn't make the least sign. That man couldn't have told whether he seen him or not.

Starlight and I wasn't likely to break down—not much—whatever the jury did or the judge said. All the same, after an hour had passed, and we still waiting there, it began to be a sickening kind of feeling. The day had been all taken up with the evidence and the rest of the trial; all long, dragging hours of a hot summer's day. The sun had been blazing away all day on the iron roof of the courthouse and the red dust of the streets, that lay inches deep for a mile all round the town. The flies buzzed all over the courthouse, and round and round, while the lawyers talked and wrangled with each other; and still the trial went on. Witness after witness was called, and cross-examined and bullied, and confused and contradicted till he was afraid to say what he knew or what he didn't know. I began to think it must be some kind of performance that would go on for ever and never stop, and the day and it never could end.

At last the sun came shining level with the lower window, and we knew it was getting late. After a while the twilight began to get dimmer and grayer. There isn't much out there when the sun goes down. Then the judge ordered the lamps to be lighted.

Just at that time the bailiff came forward.

`Your Honour, the jury has agreed.' I felt my teeth shut hard; but I made no move or sign. I looked over at Starlight. He yawned. He did, as I'm alive.

`I wish to heaven they'd make more haste,' he said quietly; `his Honour and we are both being done out of our dinners.'

I said nothing. I was looking at the foreman's face. I thought I knew the word he was going to say, and that word was `Guilty.' Sure enough I didn't hear anything more for a bit. I don't mind owning that. Most men feel that way the first time. There was a sound like rushing waters in my ears, and the courthouse and the people all swam before my eyes.

The first I heard was Starlight's voice again, just as cool and leisurely as ever. I never heard any difference in it, and I've known him speak in a lot of different situations. If you shut your eyes you couldn't tell from the tone of his voice whether he was fighting for his life or asking you to hand him the salt. When he said the hardest and fiercest thing—and he could be hard and fierce—he didn't raise his voice; he only seemed to speak more distinct like. His eyes were worse than his voice at such times. There weren't many men that liked to look back at him, much less say anything.

Now he said, `That means five years of Berrima, Dick, if not seven. It's cooler than these infernal logs, that's one comfort.'

I said nothing. I couldn't joke. My throat was dry, and I felt hot and cold by turns. I thought of the old hut by the creek, and could see mother sitting rocking herself, and crying out loud, and Aileen with a set dull look on her face as if she'd never speak or smile again. I thought of the days, months, years that were to pass under lock and key, with irons and shame and solitude all for company. I wondered if the place where they shut up mad people was like a gaol, and why we were not sent there instead.

I heard part of what the judge said, but not all—bits here and there. The jury had brought in a most righteous verdict; just what he should have expected from the effect of the evidence upon an intelligent, well-principled Nomah jury. (We heard afterwards that they were six to six, and then agreed to toss up how the verdict was to go.) `The crime of cattle and horse stealing had assumed gigantic proportions. Sheep, as yet, appeared to be safe; but then there were not very many within a few hundred miles of Nomah. It appeared to him that the prisoner known as Starlight, though from old police records his real name appeared to be——'

Here he drew himself up and faced the judge in defiance. Then like lightning he seemed to change, and said—

`Your Honour, I submit that it can answer no good purpose to disclose my alleged name. There are others—I do not speak for myself.'

The judge stopped a bit; then hesitated. Starlight bowed. `I do not—a—know whether there is any necessity to make public a name which many years since was not better known than honoured. I say the—a—prisoner known as Starlight has, from the evidence, taken the principal part in this nefarious transaction. It is not the first offence, as I observe from a paper I hold in my hand. The younger prisoner, Marston, has very properly been found guilty of criminal complicity with the same offence. It may be that he has been concerned in other offences against the law, but of that we have no proof before this court. He has not been previously convicted. I do not offer advice to the elder criminal; his own heart and conscience, the promptings of which I assume to be dulled, not obliterated, I feel convinced, have said more to him in the way of warning, condemnation, and remorse than could the most impressive rebuke, the most solemn exhortation from a judicial bench. But to the younger man, to him whose vigorous frame has but lately attained the full development of early manhood, I feel compelled to appeal with all the weight which age and experience may lend. I adjure him to accept the warning which the sentence I am about to pass will convey to him, to endure his confinement with submission and repentance, and to lead during his remaining years, which may be long and comparatively peaceful, the free and necessarily happy life of an honest man. The prisoner Starlight is sentenced to seven years' imprisonment; the prisoner Richard Marston to five years' imprisonment; both in Berrima Gaol.'

I heard the door of the dock unclose with a snap. We were taken out; I hardly knew how. I walked like a man in his sleep. `Five years, Berrima Gaol! Berrima Gaol!' kept ringing in my ears.

The day was done, the stars were out, as we moved across from the courthouse to the lock-up. The air was fresh and cool. The sun had gone down; so had the sun of our lives, never to rise again.

Morning came. Why did it ever come again? I thought. What did we want but night?—black as our hearts—dark as our fate—dismal as the death which likely would come quick as a living tomb, and the sooner the better. Mind you, I only felt this way the first time. All men do, I suppose, that haven't been born in gaols and workhouses. Afterwards they take a more everyday view of things.

`You're young and soft, Dick,' Starlight said to me as we were rumbling along in the coach next day, with hand and leg-irons on, and a trooper opposite to us. `Why don't I feel like it? My good fellow, I have felt it all before. But if you sear your flesh or your horse's with a red-hot iron you'll find the flesh hard and callous ever after. My heart was seared once—ay, twice—and deeply, too. I have no heart now, or if I ever feel at all it's for a horse. I wonder how old Rainbow gets on.'

`You were sorry father let us come in the first time,' I said. `How do you account for that, if you've no heart?'

`Really! Well, listen, Richard. Did I? If you guillotine a man—cut off his head, as they do in France, with an axe that falls like the monkey of a pile-driver—the limbs quiver and stretch, and move almost naturally for a good while afterwards. I've seen the performance more than once. So I suppose the internal arrangements immediately surrounding my heart must have performed some kind of instinctive motion in your case and Jim's. By the way, where the deuce has Jim been all this time? Clever James!'

`Better ask Evans here if the police knows. It is not for want of trying if they don't.'

`By the Lord Harry, no!' said the trooper, a young man who saw no reason not to be sociable. `It's the most surprisin' thing out where he's got to. They've been all round him, reg'lar cordon-like, and he must have disappeared into the earth or gone up in a balloon to get away.'