Robbery Under Arms/Chapter 44
`The Banner comes next,' says Starlight, tearing it open. `We shall have something short and sweet after the Star. How's this?
'This mercurial brigand, it would appear, has paid Turon another visit, but, with the exception of what may be considered the legalised robbery of the betting ring, has not levied contributions. Rather the other way, indeed. A hasty note for Mr. Dawson, whom he had tricked into temporary association by adopting one of the disguises he can so wonderfully assume, requested that gentleman to receive the Handicap Stakes, won by his horse, Darkie, alias Rainbow, and to hand them over to the treasurer of the Turon Hospital, which was accordingly done.
'Sir Ferdinand and the police had been decoyed away previously nearly 100 miles by false intelligence as to Moran and his gang. Our town and treasure were thus left undefended for forty-eight hours, while a daring criminal and his associates mingled unsuspected with all classes. We have always regarded the present system—facetiously called police protection—as a farce. This latter fiasco will probably confirm the idea with the public at large. We, unlike a contemporary, have no morbid sympathy with crime—embroidered or otherwise; our wishes, as loyal subjects, are confined to a short shrift and a high gallows for all who dare to obstruct the Queen's highway.'
`That's easy to understand, barrin' a word here and there,' says father, taking his pipe out of his mouth and laying it down; `that's the way they used to talk to us in the old days. Dashed if I don't think it's the best way after all. You know where you are. The rest's flummery. All on us as takes to the cross does it with our eyes open, and deserves all we gets.'
`I'm afraid you're right, governor; but why didn't these moral ideas occur to you, for instance, and others earlier in life?'
`Why?' says father, getting up and glaring with his eyes, `because I was a blind, ignorant dog when I was young, as had never been taught nothing, and knowed nothing, not so much as him there' (pointing to Crib), `for he knows what his business is, and I didn't. I was thrashed and starved, locked up in a gaol, chained and flogged after that, and half the time for doing what I didn't know was wrong, and couldn't know more than one of them four-year-old colts out there that knocks his head agin the yard when he's roped, and falls backards and breaks his neck if he ain't watched. Whose business was it to have learned me better? That I can't rightly say, but it seemed it was the business of the Government people to gaol me, and iron me, and flog me. Was that justice? Any man's sense 'll tell him it wasn't. It's been them and me for it since I got my liberty, and if I had had a dozen lives they'd all have gone the same road!'
We none of us felt in the humour to say much after that. Father had got into one of his tantrums, and when he did he was fit to be tied; only I'd not have took the contract for something. Whatever it was that had happened to him in the old times when he was a Government man he didn't talk about. Only every now and then he'd let out just as he did now, as if nothing could ever set him straight again, or keep him from fighting against them, as he called the swells and the Government, and everybody almost that was straightgoing and honest. He'd been at it a good many years, one way and another, and any one that knew him didn't think it likely he'd change.
The next dust we got into was all along of a Mr. Knightley, who lived a good way down to the south, and it was one of the worst things we ever were mixed up in. After the Turon races and all that shine, somehow or other we found that things had been made hotter for us than ever since we first turned out. Go where we would, we found the police always quick on our trail, and we had two or three very close shaves of it. It looked as if our luck was dead out, and we began to think our chance of getting across the border to Queensland, and clear out of the colony that way, looked worse every day.
Dad kept foraging about to get information, and we sent Warrigal and Billy the Boy all over the country to find out how it was things were turning out so contrary.
Sir Ferdinand was always on the move, but we knew he couldn't do it all himself unless he got the office from some one who knew the ropes better than he did.
Last of all we dropped on to it.
There was one of the goldfields commissioners, a Mr. Knightley, a very keen, cool hand; he was a great sporting man, and a dead shot, like Mr. Hamilton. Well, this gentleman took it into his head to put on extra steam and try and run us down. He'd lost some gold by us in the escort robbery, and not forgotten it; so it seems he'd been trying his best to fit us ever since. Just at first he wasn't able for much, but later on he managed to get information about us and our beat, whenever we left the Hollow, and he put two and two together, and very nearly dropped on us, as I said before, two or three times. We heard, too, that he should say he'd never rest till he had Starlight and the Marstons, and that if he could get picked police he'd bring us in within a month, dead or alive.
We didn't care much about blowing of this sort in a general way; but one of dad's telegraphs sent word in that Mr. Knightley had a couple of thousand pounds worth of gold from a new diggings lodged at his private residence for a few days till he could get the escort to call for it; that there was only him and a German doctor, a great scholar he was, named Schiller, in the house.
Moran and Daly knew about this, and they were dead on for sticking up the place and getting hold of the gold. Besides that, we felt savage about his trying to run us in. Of course, it was his duty and that of all magistrates and commissioners in a general way. But he wasn't an officer of police, and we thought he was going outside of his line. So when all came to all, we made up our minds to learn him a lesson to stick to his own work; besides, a thousand ounces of gold was no foolish touch, and we could kill two birds with one stone. Moran, Daly, and Joe Wall were to be in it besides. We didn't like working with them. Starlight and I were dead against it. But we knew they'd tackle it by themselves if we backed out. So we agreed to make one thing of it. We were to meet at a place about ten miles off and ride over there together.
Just about ten o'clock we closed in on the place, and left Billy the Boy and Warrigal with the horses, while we sneaked up. We couldn't get near, though, without his knowing it, for he always had a lot of sporting dogs—pointers, retrievers, kangaroo dogs, no end. They kicked up a deuce of a row, and barked and howled enough to raise the dead, before we got within a quarter of a mile from the house.
Of course he was on his guard then, and before long the bullets began to fly pretty thick among us, and we had to take cover to return fire and keep as dark as we could. No doubt this Dr. Schiller loaded the guns and handed them to him, else he couldn't have made such play as he did.
We blazed away too, and as there was no stable at the back we surrounded the house and tried hard to find an opening. Devil a chance there seemed to be; none of us dared show. So sure as we did we could hear one of those Winchester rifle bullets sing through the air, almost on the top of us. We all had a close shave more than once for being too fast.
For more than half the night he kept cannonading away, and we didn't seem able to get any nearer the place. At last we drew lots which should try and get up close to the place, so as to make a rush while we poured in our broadside and open a door to let us in.
The lot fell upon Patsey Daly. `Good-bye, all,' he said. `I'm dashed if I don't think Knightley will bag me. I don't half like charging him, and that's God's truth. Anyhow I'll try for that barrel there; and if I get behind it I can fire from short range and make him come out.'
He made a rush, half on his hands and knees, and managed to get behind this barrel, where he was safe from being hit as long as he kept well behind it. Then he peppered away, right and left.
On the left of the verandah there was a door stood partly open, and after a bit a man in a light overcoat and a white hat, like Mr. Knightley always wore, showed himself for a second. Daly raps away at this, and the man staggers and falls. Patsey shows himself for a moment from behind the cask, thinking to make a rush forward; that minute Mr. Knightley, who was watching him from a window (the other was only an image), lets drive at him, cool and steady, and poor Patsey drops like a cock, and never raised his head again. He was shot through the body. He lingered a bit; but in less than an hour he was a dead man.
We began to think at last that we had got in for a hot thing, and that we should have to drop it like Moran's mob at Kadombla. However, Starlight was one of those men that won't be beat, and he kept getting more and more determined to score. He crept away to the back of the building, where he could see to fire at a top window close by where the doctor and Mr. Knightley had been potting at us.
He had the repeating rifle he'd won from me; he never let it go afterwards, and he could make wonderful shooting with it. He kept it going so lively that they began to be hard pressed inside, and had to fire away twice as much ammunition as they otherwise would. It always beat me how they contrived to defend so many points at once. We tried back and front, doors and windows. Twenty times we tried a rush, but they were always ready—so it seemed—and their fire was too hot for us to stand up to, unless we wanted to lose every second man.
The shooting was very close. Nearly every one of us had a scratch—Starlight rather the worst, as he was more in the front and showed himself more. His left arm was bleeding pretty free, but he tied a handkerchief over it and went on as if nothing had happened, only I could see that his face had that set look he only got now and then, and his eyes began to show out a fierce light.
At last we began to see that the return fire was slacking off, while ours was as brisk as ever.
`Hurrah!' says Starlight, `I believe they'll give in soon. If they had any cartridges they would have had every man of us in that last rush. Let's try another dodge. Here goes for a battering-ram, Dick!'
He pointed to a long, heavy sapling which had been fetched in for a sleeper or something of that sort. We picked it up, and, taking a run back, brought it with all its weight against the front door. In it went like a sheet of bark; we almost fell as we ran forward and found ourselves in a big, dark hall. It seemed very queer and strange, everything was so silent and quiet.
We half expected another volley. But nothing came. We could only stand and wait. The others had gone round the side of the house.
`Get to a corner, Dick; they're always the safest places. We must mind it isn't an ambush. What the devil's the matter? Are they going to suicide, like the people in the round tower of Jhansi?'
`There are no women here,' I said. `There's no saying what Mr. Knightley might do if his wife had been here.'
`Thank God, she's away at Bathurst,' said Starlight. `I hate seeing women put out. Besides, everybody bows down to Mrs. Knightley. She's as good as she's handsome, I believe, and that's saying a great deal.'
Just then Moran and Wall managed to find their way into the other side of the house, and they came tearing into the hall like a pair of colts. They looked rather queer when they saw us three and no one else.
`What in thunder's up?' says Moran. `Are they all gone to bed, and left us the spare rooms? Poor Patsey won't want one, anyhow.'
`Better make some search upstairs,' says Starlight. `Who'll go first? You make a start, Moran; you like fighting people.'
`Couldn't think of going before the Captain,' says Moran, with a grin. `I'll follow where you lead.'
`All right!' says Starlight; `here goes,' and he started to walk upstairs, when all of a sudden he stopped and looked up as if something had surprised him above a bit. Then he stepped back and waited. I noticed he took off his hat and leaned against the wall.
It was an old-fashioned house for that part of the world, built a good many years ago by a rich settler, who was once the owner of all that side of the country. The staircase was all stone, ornamented every way it could be. Three or four people could walk abreast easy enough.
Just about half-way up was a broad landing, and on this, all of a sudden, appeared four people, inclined by their ways to come down to where we were, while we were all wondering, for a reason you'll see afterwards.
It was Mr. Knightley who took the lady's arm—it was his wife, and she had been there all the time, firing at us as like as not, or at any rate helping. The others followed, and they all walked quite solemn and steady-like down the stairs together.
It was a strange sight. There we were standing and leaning about the dark hall, staring and wondering, and these people walking down to meet us like ghosts, without speaking or anything else.
Mr. Knightley was a tall, handsome man, with a grand black beard that came down to his chest. He walked like a lord, and had that kind of manner with him that comes to people that have always been used to be waited on and have everything found for them in this world. As for his wife, she was given in to be the handsomest woman in the whole countryside—tall and graceful, with a beautiful smile, and soft fair hair. Everybody liked and respected her, gentle and simple—everybody had a good word for her. You couldn't have got any one to say different for a hundred pounds. There are some people, here and there, like this among the gentlefolk, and, say what you like, it does more to make coves like us look a little closer at things and keep away from what's wrong and bad than all the parsons' talk twice over. Mrs. Knightley was the only woman that ever put me in mind of Miss Falkland, and I can't say more than that.
So, as I said before, it was quite a picture to see them walk slowly and proudly down and sweep into the hall as if they'd been marching into a ballroom. We had both seen them at the ball at the Turon, and everybody agreed they were the handsomest couple there.
Now they were entering their own hall in a different way. But you couldn't have told much of what they felt by their faces. He was a proud man, and felt bitterly enough that he had to surrender to a gang of men that he hated and despised, that he'd boasted he could run down and capture in a month. Now the tables were turned. He and his beautiful wife were in our power, and, to make matters worse, one of our band lay dead, beside the inner wall, killed by his hand.
What was to be his doom? And who could say how such a play might end?
I looked at our men. As they stepped on to the floor of the hall and looked round Mrs. Knightley smiled. She looked to me like an angel from heaven that had come by chance into the other place and hadn't found out her mistake. I saw Starlight start as he looked at her. He was still leaning against the wall, and there was a soft, sorrowful look in his eyes, like I remember noticing once before while he was talking to Aileen about his early days, a thing he never did but once. Part of her hair had straggled down, and hung in a sort of ringlet by her face. It was pale, but clear and bright-looking, and there was a thin streak of blood across her forehead that showed as she came underneath the lamp-light from the landing above.
I looked over at Moran. He and Wall sat in a corner, looking as grim and savage as possible, while his deadly black eyes had a kind of gloomy fire in them that made him look like a wild beast in a cage.
Mr. Knightley was a man that always had the first word in everything, and generally the best of an argument—putting down anybody who differed from him in a quiet, superior sort of way.
He began now. `Well, my men, I have come down to surrender, and I'm sorry to be obliged to do so. But we have fired our last cartridge—the doctor thought we had a thousand left—in which case, I may as well tell you, you'd never have had this pleasure. Captain Starlight, I surrender my sword—or should do so if I had one. We trust to receive honourable treatment at your hands.'
`I'm sure the Captain will never permit any harm to come to me,' says Mrs. Knightley, with a look in her eyes that, in spite of herself, said a deal more than words. `Why, I danced vis-a-vis to him in a quadrille at the Turon ball.'
`I shall never forget the honour,' says Starlight, walking forward and bowing low. `Permit me to offer you a chair, madam; you look faint.'
As he did so she sank down in it, and really looked as if she would faint away. It wouldn't have been much wonder if she had after what she'd gone through that night.
Then Mr. Knightley began again. He wanted to know how he stood. He didn't like the look of Moran and Wall—they were a deal too quiet for him, and he could read men's faces like a book. The other two prisoners were the German Dr. Schiller—a plucky old chap, who'd been a rebel and a conspirator and I don't know what all in his own country. He'd seen too much of that kind of thing to trouble himself over much about a trifle of this kind. The old woman was a family servant, who had been with them for years and years. She was a kind of worshipper of theirs, and was ready to live or die with her mistress.