Robbery Under Arms/Chapter 41


We hadn't been long at home, just enough to get tired of doing nothing, when we got a letter from Bella Barnes, telling us that she was going to get married the day after the Turon races, and reminding Starlight that he had promised to come to her wedding. If he didn't think it was too risky, she hoped he'd come. There was going to be a race ball, and it was sure to be good fun. It would be a good wind-up, and Maddie was coming out a great swell. Sir Ferdinand would be there, but there'd be such a crowd anybody would pass muster, and so on.

`Yours sincerely,
`Isabella Barnes.

`P.S.— There was a big handicap, with 500 added; hadn't we a good horse enough?'

`Well done, Bella!' says Starlight. `I vote we go, Dick. I never went to a hop with a price on my head before. A thousand pounds too! Quite a new sensation. It settles the question. And we'll enter Rainbow for the handicap. He ought to be good enough for anything they're likely to have.'

`Captain Starlight's Rainbow, 9 st. 8 lb.,' I said, `with Dick Marston to lead him up to the judge's box. How will that wash? And what are the police going to be about all the time? Bella's gone out of her senses about her marriage and thinks we are too.'

`You're a good fellow, Richard, and stanch, but you're like your father—you haven't any imagination. I see half-a-dozen ways of doing the whole thing. Besides, our honour's concerned. I never made a promise yet, for good or for evil, that I didn't carry out, and some have cost me dearly enough, God knows. Fancy running our horses and going to the ball under the noses of the police—the idea is delicious!'

`I daresay you're about tired of your life,' I said. `I'm pretty sure I am; but why we should ride straight into the lion's mouth, to please a silly girl, I can't see. I haven't over much sense, I know, or I shouldn't be here; but I'm not such a dashed fool as all that comes to.'

`My mind is made up, Richard—I have decided irrevocably. Of course, you needn't come, if you see objections; but I'll bet you my Dean and Adams revolver and the Navy Colt against your repeating rifle that I do all I've said, and clear out safe.'

`Done!' I said. `I've no doubt you'll try; but you might as well try to pull down the walls of Berrima Gaol with a hay-rake. You'll make Sir Ferdinand's fortune, that's all. He always said he'd die happy if he could only bag you and the Marstons. He'll be made Inspector-General of Police.'

Starlight smiled in his queer, quiet way.

`If he doesn't rise to the top of the tree until he takes me—alive, I mean—he'll die a sub-inspector. But we'd better sleep on it. This is an enterprise of great pith and moment, and requires no end of thought. We must get your sister to come over. That will crown all.'

`Good-night,' I said, rather hasty. `We'd better turn the Hollow into Tarban Creek, and advertise for boarders.'

Next morning I expected he'd think better of it—we'd had a glass or two of grog; but no, he was more set on it than ever, and full of dodges to work it to rights. He certainly was wonderful clever in all sorts of ways when there was any devilment to be carried out. Half as much in the straight way would have made a man of him. But that's the way of the world all over. He ain't the only one.

As for father, he was like me, and looked on the notion as rank foolishness. He swore straight on end for about twenty minutes, and then said he expected Starlight would have his own way as usual; but he'd play at that game once too often. He supposed he'd be left in the Hollow all by himself, with Warrigal and the dog for company.

`Warrigal goes with me—might want him,' says Starlight. `You're losing your nerve, governor. Perhaps you'd like to go to the ball too?'

Father gave a sort of growl, and lit his pipe and wouldn't say no more. Starlight and I regular talked it out, and, after I'd heard all he had to say, it didn't look quite so impossible as it did at first. We were to work apart. He was to get in with some of the betting men or sporting people that always came to country races, and I was to find out some of our old digger mates and box up with them. Warrigal would shift for himself and look after the horses, and have them ready in case we had to clear at short notice.

`And who was to enter Rainbow and look after him?'

`Couldn't we get old Jacob Benton; he's the best trainer I've seen since I left home? Billy the Boy told us the other day he was out of a job, and was groom at Jonathan's; had been sacked for getting drunk, and so on. He'll be all the more likely to keep sober for a month.'

`The very man,' I said. `He can ride the weight, and train too. But we can't have him here, surely!'

`No; but I can send the horse to him at Jonathan's, and he can get him fit there as well as anywhere. There's nearly a month yet; he's pretty hard, and he's been regularly exercised lately.'

Jacob Benton was a wizened, dried-up old Yorkshireman. He'd been head man in a good racing stable, but drink had been the ruin of him—lost him his place, and sent him out here. He could be trusted to go right through with a job like ours, for all that. Like many men that drink hard, he was as sober as a judge between one burst and another. And once he took over a horse in training he touched nothing but water till the race was run and the horse back in his box. Then he most times went in an awful perisher—took a month to it, and was never sober day or night the whole time. When he'd spent all his money he'd crawl out of the township and get away into the country more dead than alive, and take the first job that offered. But he was fonder of training a good horse than anything else in the world; and if he'd got a regular flyer, and was treated liberal, he'd hardly allow himself sleep or time to eat his meals till he'd got him near the mark. He could ride, too, and was an out-and-out judge of pace.

When we'd regular chalked it out about entering Rainbow for the Grand Turon Handicap, we sent Warrigal over to Billy the Boy, and got him to look up old Jacob. He agreed to take the old horse, the week before the races, and give him a last bit of French-polish if we'd keep him in steady work till then. From what he was told of the horse he expected he would carry any weight he was handicapped for and pull it off easy. He was to enter him in his own name, the proper time before the races. If he won he was to have ten per cent on winnings; if he lost, a ten-pound note would do him. He could ride the weight with some lead in his saddle, and he'd never wet his lips with grog till the race was over.

So that part of the work was chalked out. The real risky business was to come. I never expected we should get through all straight. But the more I hung back the more shook on it Starlight seemed to be. He was like a boy home from school sometimes—mad for any kind of fun with a spice of devilment in it.

About a week before the races we all cleared out, leaving father at home, and pretty sulky too. Warrigal led Rainbow; he was to take him to Jonathan Barnes's, and meet old Jacob there. He was to keep him until it was time to go to Turon. We didn't show there ourselves this time; we were afraid of drawing suspicion on the place.

We rode right into Turon, taking care to be well after dark. A real pleasure it was to see the old place again. The crooked streets, the lighted-up shops, the crowd of jolly diggers walking about smoking, or crowding round the public-house bars, the row of the stampers in the quartz-crushing machines going night and day. It all reminded me of the pleasant year Jim and I had spent here. I wished we'd never had to leave it. We parted just outside the township for fear of accidents. I went to a little place I knew, where I put up my horse—could be quiet there, and asked no questions. Starlight, as usual, went to the best hotel, where he ordered everybody about and was as big a swell as ever. He had been out in the north-west country, and was going to Sydney to close for a couple of stations that had been offered to him.

That night he went to the barber, had his hair cut and his beard shaved, only leaving his moustache and a bit of whisker like a ribbon. He put on a suit of tweed, all one colour, and ordered a lot more clothes, which he paid for, and were to be left at the hotel till he returned from Sydney.

Next day he starts for Sydney; what he was going to do there he didn't say, and I didn't ask him. He'd be back the day before the races, and in good time for all the fun, and Bella's wedding into the bargain. I managed to find out that night that Kate Mullockson had left Turon. She and her husband had sold their place and gone to another diggings just opened. I was glad enough of this, for I knew that her eyes were sharp enough to spy me out whatever disguise I had on; and even if she didn't I should always have expected to find her eyes fixed upon me. I breathed freer after I heard this bit of news.

The gold was better even than when we were there. A lot of men who were poor enough when we were there had made fortunes. The field never looked better, and the hard-driving, well-paid, jolly mining life was going on just the same as ever; every one making money fast—spending it faster—and no one troubling themselves about anything except how much the washdirt went to the load, and whether the sinking was through the false bottom or not.

When I first came I had a notion of mating in with some diggers, but when I saw how quiet everybody took it, and what thousands of strangers there were all over the place, I gave myself out for a speculator in mining shares from Melbourne. So I shaved off most of my beard, had my hair cut short, and put on a tall hat. I thought that would shift any sort of likeness there might be to my old self, and, though it was beastly uncomfortable, I stuck to it all the time.

I walked about among the stables and had a good look at all the horses that were in training. Two or three good ones, as usual, and a lot of duffers. If Rainbow wasn't beat on his condition, he had pace and weight-carrying for the best of them. I hardly thought he could lose it, or a bigger stake in better company. I was that fond of the horse I thought he was good enough for an English Derby.

Well, I kept dark, you be sure, and mooned about, buying a share at a low price now and then just to let 'em see I had money and meant something. My name was Mr. Bromford, and I lived at Petersham, near Sydney.

The day before the races there was a lot of excitement in the town. Strangers kept pouring in from everywhere round about, and all the hotels were crammed full. Just as I was wondering whether Starlight was going to turn up till next day I saw a four-in-hand drag rattle down the street to the principal inn, and a crowd gather round it as three gentlemen got out and went into the inn.

`You'll see after all our luggage, will you, ostler?' says one of them to the groom, `and whatever you do don't forget my umbwella!'

Some of the diggers laughed.

`Know those coves?' I said to a man that stopped at the same house as I did.

`Don't you know? Them's the two Mr. Dawsons, of Wideview, great sporting men, natives, and ever so rich. They've some horses to run to-morrow. That's a new chum from England that's come up with 'em.'

I hardly knew him at first. His own mother wouldn't, I believe. He'd altered himself that wonderful as I could hardly even now think it was Starlight; and yet he wasn't a bit like the young Englishman he gammoned to be last year, or the Hon. Frank Haughton either. He had an eyeglass this time, and was a swell from top to toe. How and when he'd picked up with the Mr. Dawsons I couldn't tell; but he'd got a knack of making people like him—especially when they didn't know him. Not that it was worse when they did. It wasn't for that. He was always the same. The whitest man I ever knew, or ever shall—that I say and stick to—but of course people can't be expected to associate with men that have `done time'. Well, next day was the races. I never saw such a turn-out in the colony before. Every digger on the field had dropped work for the day; all the farmers, and squatters, and country people had come in for miles round on all sides. The Commissioner and all the police were out in full uniform, and from the first moment the hotels were opened in the morning till breakfast time all the bars were full, and the streets crowded with miners and strangers and people that seemed to have come from the ends of the earth. When I saw the mob there was I didn't see so much to be jerran about, as it was fifty to one in favour of any one that was wanted, in the middle of such a muster of queer cattle as was going on at Turon that day.

About eleven o'clock every one went out to the course. It wasn't more than a mile from town. The first race wasn't to be run till twelve; but long before that time the road was covered with horsemen, traps of every kind and sort, every horse and mare in the whole district.

Most of the miners went in four-horse coaches and 'buses that were plying all day long from the town and back; very few walked. The country people mostly drove in spring-carts, or rode on horseback. Any young fellows that had a good horse liked to show him off, of course; the girls in habits of their own make, perhaps, and now and then a top hat, though they looked very well too. They could ride, some of them, above a bit, and it made me think of the old days when Jim and I and Aileen used to ride into Bargo races together, and how proud we were of her, even when she was a little thing, and we used to groom up the old pony till we nearly scrubbed the hide off him.

It was no use thinking of that kind of thing, and I began to wonder how Starlight was getting on with his friends, when I saw the Dawsons' drag come up the straight, with four upstanding ripping bay horses in top condition, and well matched. There was Starlight on the box seat, alongside of Jack Dawson, the eldest brother, who could handle the ribbons in style, and was a man every inch of him, only a bit too fast; didn't care about anything but horses and dogs, and lived every day of his life. The other brother was standing up behind, leaning over and talking to Starlight, who was `in great form', as he used to say himself, and looked as if he'd just come out of a bandbox.

He had on a silk coat buttoned round him, a white top hat with a blue silk veil. His eyeglass was stuck in his eye all the time, and he had kid gloves on that fitted his hands like wax. I really couldn't hardly take my oath he was the same man, and no wonder nobody else couldn't. I was wondering why Sir Ferdinand wasn't swelling about, bowing to all the ladies, and making that thoroughbred of his dance and arch his neck, when I heard some one say that he'd got news that Moran and the rest of 'em had stuck up a place about forty miles off, towards Forbes, and Sir Ferdinand had sworn at his luck for having to miss the races; but started off just as he was, and taken all the troopers but two with him.

`Who brought the news?'

`Oh! a youngster called William Jones—said he lived out there. A black boy came with him that couldn't hardly speak English; he went with 'em to show the way.'

`Well, but how did they know it was true?' says I. `It might have been only a stall.'

`Oh, the young fellow brought a letter from the overseer, saying they might hold out for a few hours, if the police came along quick.'

`It's a good thing they started at once,' says I. `Them boys are very useful sometimes, and blackfellows too.'

I went off then, and had a laugh to myself. I was pretty middling certain it was Billy the Boy and Warrigal. Starlight had wrote the note before we started, only I didn't think they'd be game to deliver it themselves.

Now the police was away, all but a couple of young fellows—I went and had a look to make sure—that didn't know any of us by sight, I thought we might enjoy ourselves for once in a way without watching every one that came nigh us. And we did enjoy ourselves. I did, I know; though you'd think, as we carried our lives in our hands, in a manner of speaking, the fun couldn't have been much. But it's a queer world! Men like us, that don't know what's to happen to them from one day to another, if they can only see their way for a week ahead, often have more real pleasure in the bit of time they have to themselves than many a man has in a year that has no call to care about time or money or be afraid of anybody.

As for Starlight, if he'd been going to be hung next week it would have been all one to him. He'd have put off thinking about it until about an hour before, and then would have made all his arrangements and done the whole business quietly and respectably, without humbug, but without any flashness either. You couldn't put him wrong, or make him do or say anything that was out of place.

However, this time nobody was going to be hung or took or anything else. We'd as good as got a free pardon for the time being, now the police was away; no one else would have meddled with us if we'd had our names printed on our hats. So we made the most of it, I expect. Starlight carried on all sorts of high ropes. He was introduced to all the nobs, and I saw him in the grand stand and the saddling-paddock, taking the odds in tens and fifties from the ringmen—he'd brought a stiffish roll of notes with him—and backing the Dawson stable right out.

It turned out afterwards that he'd met them at an inn on the mountains, and helped them to doctor one of their leaders that had been griped. So they took a fancy to him, and, being free-hearted sort of fellows, asked him to keep them company in the drag, and let one of the grooms ride his horse. Once he started he kept them alive, you may be sure, and by the time they got to Turon they were ready to go round the world with him, and swore they'd never met such a man in their lives—very likely they hadn't, either. He was introduced to the judge and the stewards and the Commissioner and the police magistrate, and as much fuss made over him as if he was the Governor's son. It was as good as a play. I got up as near as I dared once or twice, and I couldn't hardly keep from bursting out laughing when I saw how grave he talked and drawled and put up his eyeglass, and every now and then made 'em all laugh, or said something reminded him of India, where he'd last come from.

Well, that was a regular fizzer of a spree, if we never had another. The racing was very fair, and, as luck would have it, the Dawson horses won all the big money, and, as they started at longish odds, they must have made a pot of money, and Starlight too, as he'd gone in a docker for their stable. This made them better friends than ever, and it was Dawson here and Lascelles there all over the course.

Well, the day went over at last, and all of them that liked a little fun and dancing better than heavy drinking made it up to go to the race ball. It was a subscription affair—guinea tickets, just to keep out the regular roughs, and the proceeds to go to the Turon Jockey Club Fund. All the swells had to go, of course, and, though they knew it would be a crush and pretty mixed, as I heard Starlight say, the room was large, the band was good, and they expected to get a fair share of dancing after an hour or so.

Starlight and the Dawsons dined at the camp, and were made a good deal of — their health drunk and what not—and Starlight told us afterwards he returned thanks for the strangers and visitors; said he'd been told Australia was a rough place, but he never expected to find so much genuine kindness and hospitality and, he might add, so much refinement and gentlemanly feeling. Speaking for himself, he had never expected, considering his being a total stranger, to be welcomed so cordially and entertained so handsomely, more particularly at the mess of her Majesty's goldfields officials, whose attention on this occasion they might be assured he would never forget. He would repeat, the events of this particular day would never be effaced from his memory. (Tremendous cheering.)

After dinner, and when the champagne had gone round pretty reasonable, the Commissioner proposed they should all adjourn to the ball, when, if Mr. Lascelles cared about dancing, he ventured to think a partner or two could be found for him. So they all got up and went away down to the hall of the Mechanics' Institute—a tremendous big room that had been built to use as a theatre, and to give lectures and concerts in. These sort of things are very popular at diggings. Miners like to be amused, and have plenty of money to spend when times are good. There was hardly a week passed without some kind of show being on when we went there.

I walked down quietly an hour or so before most of the people, so as to be in the way to see if Aileen came. We'd asked her to come on the chance of meeting us there, but we hadn't got any word, and didn't know whether she could manage it nor whether George would bring her. I had a sort of half-and-half notion that perhaps Gracey might come, but I didn't like to think of it for fear of being disappointed, and tried to make believe I didn't expect her.

I gave in my ticket and walked in about eight o'clock, and sat down pretty close to the door so that I could see the people as they came in. I didn't feel much up to dancing myself, but I'd have ridden a thousand miles to have had the chance of seeing those two girls that night.

I waited and waited while one after another came in, till the big hall was pretty near filled, and at nine o'clock or so the music struck up, and the first dance began. That left the seats pretty bare, and between listening to the music and looking at the people, and thinking I was back again at the old claim and passing half-an-hour at a dance-house, I didn't mind the door so much till I heard somebody give a sort of sigh not very far off, and I looked towards the door and saw two women sitting between me and it.

They were Aileen and Gracey sure enough. My head almost turned round, and I felt my heart beat—beat in a way it never did when the bullets were singing and whistling all about. It was the suddenness of it, I expect. I looked at them for a bit. They didn't see me, and were just looking about them as I did. They were dressed very quiet, but Gracey had a little more ornament on her, and a necklace or something round her neck. Aileen was very pale, but her beautiful dark hair was dressed up a bit with one rosebud in it, and her eyes looked bigger and brighter than they used to do. She looked sad enough, but every now and then Gracey said something that made her smile a bit, and then I thought she was the handsomest girl in the room. Gracey had just the same steady, serious, kind face as ever; she'd hardly changed a bit, and seemed pleased, just like a child at the play, with all that was going on round about.

There was hardly anybody near the corner where they were, so I got up and went over. They both looked at me for a minute as if they'd never seen me before, and then Aileen turned as pale as death, and Gracey got altogether as red, and both held out their hands. I sat down by the side of Aileen, and we all began to talk. Not much at first, and very quiet, for fear notice might be taken, but I managed to let them know that the police had all been called off in another direction, and that we should be most likely safe till to-morrow or next day.

`Oh dear!' says Gracey, `wasn't it awfully rash of you to come here and run all this risk just to come to Bella Barnes's wedding? I believe I ought to be jealous of that girl.'

`All Starlight's fault,' I said; `but anyhow, it's through him we've had this meeting here. I was dead against coming all the time, and I never expected things to turn out so lucky as they have done.'

`Will he be here to-night?' Aileen says, very soft and timid like. `I almost wished I'd stayed away, but Gracey here would come. Young Cyrus Williams brought us. He wanted to show his wife the races, and take her to the ball. There they are, dancing together. George is away at the races.'

`You will see Starlight about ten or eleven o'clock, I expect,' I said. `He's dining with the Commissioner and the camp officers. They'll all come together, most likely.'

`Dining at the camp!' says Aileen, looking regularly perished. `You don't mean to say they've taken him?'

`I mean what I say. He's here with the Mr. Dawsons, of Wideview, and has been hand-and-glove with all the swells. I hardly think you'll know him. It's as much as I did.'

Poor Aileen gave another sigh.

`Do you think he'll know me?' she says. `Oh! what a foolish girl I was to think for a moment that he could care about a girl like me. Oh! I wish I had never come.'

`Nonsense,' says Gracey, who looked a deal brighter on it. `Why, if he's the man you say he is, this will only bring him out a bit. What do you think, Di— I mean Mr. Jones?'

`That's right, Miss Storefield,' says I. `Keep to the company manners to-night. We don't know who may be listening; but I'm not much afraid of being bowled out this particular night. Somehow I feel ready to chance everything for an hour's happiness like this.'

Gracey said nothing, but looked down, and Aileen kept turning towards the door as if she half hoped and was half afraid of seeing him come in. By and by we heard some one say, `Here comes the Commissioner; all the camp will be here now,' and there was a bit of a move to look at them as they came in.