Mr. Dawson drove pretty near the stand then, and they all stood up in the drag. I went back to Aileen and Gracey Storefield. We were close by the winning post when they came past; they had to go another time round.
The Sydney horses were first and second, the diggers' favourite third; but old Rainbow, lying well up, was coming through the ruck hard held and looking full of running. They passed close by us. What a sight it is to see a dozen blood horses in top condition come past you like a flash of lightning! How their hoofs thunder on the level turf! How the jockeys' silk jackets rustle in the wind they make! How muscle and sinew strain as they pretty near fly through the air! No wonder us young fellows, and the girls too, feel it's worth a year of their lives to go to a good race. Yes, and will to the world's end. `O you darling Rainbow!' I heard Aileen say. `Are you going to win this race and triumph over all these grand horses? What a sight it will be! I didn't think I could have cared for a race so much.'
It didn't seem hardly any time before they were half-way round again, and the struggle was on, in good downright earnest. One of the Sydney horses began to shake his tail. The other still kept the lead. Then the Turon favourite—a real game pebble of a little horse—began to show up.
`Hotspur, Hotspur! No. Bronzewing has it—Bronzewing. It's Bronzewing's race. Turon for ever!' the crowd kept yelling.
`Oh! look at Rainbow!' says Aileen. And just then, at the turn, old Jacob sat down on him. The old horse challenged Bronzewing, passed him, and collared Hotspur. `Darkie! Darkie!' shouts everybody. `No! Hotspur—Darkie's coming—Darkie—Darkie! I tell yer Darkie.' And as old Jacob made one last effort, and landed him a winner by a clear head, there was a roar went up from the whole crowd that might have been heard at Nulla Mountain.
Starlight jumps off the drag and leads the old horse into the weighing yard. The steward says `Dismount.' No fear of old Jacob getting down before he heard that. He takes his saddle in his lap and gets into the scales. `Weight,' says the clerk. Then the old fellow mounts and rides past the judge's box. `I declare Mr. Benton's horse Darkie to be the winner of the Turon Grand Handicap, Bronzewing second horse, Hotspur third,' says he.
Well, there was great cheering and hollering, though none knew exactly whose horse he was or anything about him; but an Australian crowd always likes to see the best horse win—and they like fair play—so Darkie was cheered over and over again, and old Jacob too.
Aileen stroked and petted him and patted his neck and rubbed his nose, and you'd raly thought the old horse knew her, he seemed so gentle-like. Then the Commissioner came down and said Mrs. Hautley, the police magistrate's wife, and some other ladies wanted to see the horse that had won the race. So he was taken over there and admired and stroked till old Jacob got quite crusty.
`It's an odd thing, Dawson,' says the Commissioner, `nobody here knows this horse, where he was bred, or anything about him. Such a grand animal as he is, too! I wish Morringer could have seen him; he's always raving about horses. How savage he'll be to have missed all the fun!'
`He's a horse you don't see every day,' says Bill Dawson. `I'll give a couple of hundred for him right off.'
`Not for sale at present,' says old Jacob, looking like a cast-iron image. `I'll send ye word when he is.'
`All right,' says Mr. Dawson. `What a shoulder, what legs, what loins he has! Ah! well, he'll be weighted out now, and you will be glad to sell him soon.'
`Our heads won't ache then,' says Jacob, as he turns round and rides away.
`Very neat animal, shows form,' drawls Starlight. `Worth three hundred in the shires for a hunter; if he can jump, perhaps more; but depends on his manners—must have manners in the hunting-field, Dawson, you know.'
`Manners or not,' says Bill Dawson, `it's my opinion he could have won that race in a canter. I must find out more about him and buy him if I can.'
`I'll go you halves if you like,' says Starlight. `I weally believe him to be a good animal.'
Just then up rides Warrigal. He looks at the old horse as if he had never seen him before, nor us neither. He rides close by the heads of Mr. Dawson's team, and as he does so his hat falls off, by mistake, of course. He jumps off and picks it up, and rides slowly down towards the tent.
It was the signal to clear. Something was up.
I rode back to town with Aileen and Gracey; said good-bye—a hard matter it was, too—and sloped off to where my horse was, and was out of sight of Turon in twenty minutes.
Starlight hails a cabby (he told me this afterwards) and gets him to drive him over to the inn where he was staying, telling the Dawsons he'd have the wine put in ice for the dinner, that he wanted to send off a letter to Sydney by the post, and he'd be back on the course in an hour in good time for the last race.
In about half-an-hour back comes the same cabman and puts a note into Bill Dawson's hand. He looks at it, stares, swears a bit, and then crumples it up and puts it into his pocket.
Just as it was getting dark, and the last race just run, back comes Sir Ferdinand and all the police. They'd ridden hard, as their horses showed, and Sir Ferdinand (they say) didn't look half as good-natured as he generally did.
`You've lost a great meeting, Morringer,' says the Commissioner. `Great pity you had to be off just when you did. But that's just like these infernal scoundrels of bush-rangers. They always play up at the most inconvenient time. How did you get on with them?'
`Get on with them?' roars Sir Ferdinand, almost making a hole in his manners—he was that tired out and done he could hardly sit on his horse—`why, we've been sold as clean as a whistle. I believe some of the brutes have been here all the time.'
`That's impossible,' says the Commissioner. `There's been no one here that the police are acquainted with; not that I suppose Jackson and Murphy know many of the cross boys.'
`No strange men nor horses, no disguises?' says Sir Ferdinand. Here he brings out a crumpled bit of paper, written on—
If sur firdnand makes haist back heel be in time to see Starlite's Raneboe win the handy capp. Billy the Boy.
`I firmly believe that young scoundrel, who will be hanged yet, strung us on after Moran ever so far down south, just to leave the coast clear for the Marstons, and then sent me this, too late to be of any use.'
`Quite likely. But the Marstons couldn't be here, let alone Starlight, unless—by Jove! but that's impossible. Impossible! Whew! Here, Jack Dawson, where's your Indian friend?'
`Gone back to the inn. Couldn't stand the course after the handicap. You're to dine with us, Commissioner; you too, Scott; kept a place, Sir Ferdinand, for you on the chance.'
`One moment, pardon me. Who's your friend?'
`Name Lascelles. Just from home—came by India. Splendid fellow! Backed Darkie for the handicap—we did too—won a pot of money.'
`What sort of a horse is this Darkie?'
`Very grand animal. Old fellow had him in a tent, about a mile down the creek; dark bay, star in forehead. Haven't seen such a horse for years. Like the old Emigrant lot.'
Sir Ferdinand beckoned to a senior constable.
`There's a tent down there near the creek, I think you said, Dawson. Bring up the racehorse you find there, and any one in charge.'
`And now I think I'll drive in with you, Dawson' (dismounting, and handing his horse to a trooper). `I suppose a decent dinner will pick me up, though I feel just as much inclined to hang myself as do anything else at present. I should like to meet this travelled friend of yours; strangers are most agreeable.'
Sir Ferdinand was right in thinking it was hardly worth while going through the form of seeing whether we had waited for him. Lieutenant Lascelles, on leave from his regiment in India, had taken French leave. When inquiry was made at the hotel, where dinner had been ordered by Mr. Dawson and covers laid for a dozen, he had just stepped out. No one seemed to know exactly where to find him. The hotel people thought he was with the Mr. Dawsons, and they thought he was at the hotel. When they surrounded the tent, and then rushed it, all that it contained was the body of old Jacob Benton, lying dead drunk on the floor. A horse-rug was over him, his racing saddle under his head, and his pockets stuffed with five-pound notes. He had won his race and got his money, so he was not bound in honour to keep sober a minute longer.
Rainbow was gone, and there was nothing to be got out of him as to who had taken him or which way he had gone. Nobody seemed to have `dropped' to me. I might have stayed at Turon longer if I'd liked. But it wasn't good enough by a long way.
We rode away straight home, and didn't lose time on the road, you bet. Not out-and-out fast, either; there was no need for that. We had a clear two hours' start of the police, and their horses were pretty well knocked up by the pace they'd come home at, so they weren't likely to overhaul us easy.
It was a grand night, and, though we didn't feel up to much in the way of talking, it wasn't bad in its way. Starlight rode Rainbow, of course; and the old horse sailed away as if a hundred miles or a thousand made no odds to him.
Warrigal led the way in front. He always went as straight as a line, just the same as if he'd had a compass in his forehead. We never had any bother about the road when he led the way.
`There's nothing like adventure,' says Starlight, at last. `As some one says, who would have thought we should have come out so well? Fortune favours the brave, in a general way, there's no doubt. By George! what a comfort it was to feel one's self a gentleman again and to associate with one's equals. Ha! ha! how savage Sir Ferdinand is by this time, and the Commissioner! As for the Dawsons, they'll make a joke of it. Fancy my dining at the camp! It's about the best practical joke I ever carried out, and I've been in a good many.'
`The luckiest turn we've ever had,' says I. `I never expected to see Gracey and Aileen there, much less to go to a ball with them and no one to say no. It beats the world.'
`It makes it all the rougher going back, that's the worst of it,' says he. `Good God! what fools, idiots, raving lunatics, we've all been! Why, but for our own infernal folly, should we be forced to shun our fellow-men, and hide from the light like beasts of prey? What are we better? Better?—nay, a hundred times worse. Some day I shall shoot myself, I know I shall. What a muff Sir Ferdinand must be, he's missed me twice already.'
Here he rode on, and never opened his mouth again till we began to rise the slope at the foot of Nulla Mountain. When the dark fit was on him it was no use talking to him. He'd either not seem to hear you, or else he'd say something which made you sorry for opening your mouth at all. It gave us all we could do to keep along with him. He never seemed to look where he was going, and rode as if he had a spare neck at any rate. When we got near the pass to the mountain, I called out to him that he'd better pull up and get off. Do you think he'd stop or make a sign he heard me? Not a bit of it. He just started the old horse down when he came to the path in the cliff as if it was the easiest road in the world. He kept staring straight before him while the horse put down his feet, as if it was regular good fun treading up rugged sharp rocks and rolling stones, and turf wasn't worth going over. It seemed to me as if he wanted to kill himself for some reason or other. It would have been easy enough with some horses, but you could have ridden Rainbow down the roof of a house and jumped him into the front balcony, I firmly believe. You couldn't throw him down; if he'd dropped into a well he'd have gone in straight and landed on his legs.
Dad was glad enough to see us; he was almost civil, and when he heard that Rainbow had won the `big money' he laughed till I thought he'd do himself mischief, not being used to it. He made us tell him over again about Starlight and I going to the ball, and our seeing Aileen and Gracey there; and when he came to the part where Starlight made the bride a present of a diamond ring I thought he never would have done chuckling to himself. Even old Crib looked at me as if he didn't use to think me much of a fellow, but after this racket had changed his mind.
`Won't there be a jolly row in the papers when they get all these different characters played by one chap, and that man the Captain?' says he. `I knew he was clever enough for anything; but this beats all. I don't believe now, Captain, you'll ever be took.'
`Not alive!' says Starlight, rather grim and gloomy-looking; then he walks off by himself.
We stabled Rainbow, of course, for a week or two after this—being in training it wouldn't do to turn him out straight at once. Hardy as he was, no horse could stand that altogether; so we kept him under shelter in a roughish kind of a loose box we had knocked up, and fed him on bush hay. We had a small stack of that in case we wanted to keep a horse in—which we did sometimes. In the daytime he was loose in the yard. After a bit, when he was used to the weather, he was turned out again with his old mob, and was never a hair the worse of it. We took it easy ourselves, and sent out Warrigal for the letters and papers. We expected to knock a good bit of fun out of them when they came.
Sure enough, there was the deuce and all to pay when the big Sydney papers got hold of it, as well as the little `Turon Star' and the Banner.
Was it true that the police had again been hoodwinked, justice derided, and the law set at defiance by a gang of ruffians who would have been run down in a fortnight had the police force been equal to the task entrusted to them? Was the moral sentiment of the country population so perverted, so obliterated, that robbers and murderers could find safe harbourage, trustworthy friends, and secret intelligence? Could they openly show themselves in places of public resort, mingle in amusements, and frequent the company of unblemished and distinguished citizens; and yet more, after this flagrant insult to the Government of the land, to every sacred principle of law and order, they could disappear at will, apparently invisible and invulnerable to the officers of the peace and the guardians of the public safety? It was incredible, it was monstrous, degrading, nay, intolerable, and a remedy would have to be found either in the reorganisation of an inefficient police force or in the resignation of an incapable Ministry.
`Good for the Sydney Monitor,' says Starlight; `that reporter knows how to double-shot his guns, and winds up with a broadside. Let us see what the "Star" says. I had a bet with the editor, and paid it, as it happened. Perhaps he'll temper justice with mercy. Now for a start:—
'That we have had strong casts from time to time and exciting performances at our local theatres, no one will deny; but perhaps the inhabitants of Turon never witnessed a more enthralling melodrama than was played during the first two days of our race meeting before a crowded and critical audience, and never, we can state from a somewhat extended experience of matters dramatic, did they gaze on a more finished actor than the gentleman who performed the leading part. Celebrated personages have ere now graced our provincial boards. On the occasion of the burning of the Theatre Royal in Sydney, we were favoured with the presence in our midst of artists who rarely, if ever before, had quitted the metropolitan stage. But our jeune premier in one sense has eclipsed every darling of the tragic or the comic muse.
'Where is there a member of the profession who could have sustained his part with faultless ease and self-possession, being the whole time aware of the fact that he smiled and conversed, danced and diced, dined and slept (ye gods! did he sleep?), with a price upon his head—with the terrible doom of dishonour and inevitable death hanging over him, consequent upon a detection which might occur at any moment?
'Yet was there a stranger guest among us who did all this and more with unblenching brow, unruffled self-possession, unequalled courtesy, who, if discovered, would have been arrested and consigned to a lock-up, only to be exchanged for the gloom and the manacles of the condemned cell. He, indeed, after taking a prominent part in all the humours of the vast social gathering by which the Turon miners celebrated their annual games, disappeared with the almost magical mystery which has already marked his proceedings.
'Whom could we possibly allude to but the celebrated, the illustrious, we grieve to be compelled to add, the notorious Starlight, the hero of a hundred legends, the Australian Claude Duval?
'Yes, almost incredible as it may seem to our readers and persons at a distance imperfectly acquainted with exceptional phases of colonial life, the robber chief (and, for all we know, more than one of his aides-de-camp) was among us, foremost among the betting men, the observed of all observers in the grand stand, where, with those popular country gentlemen, the Messrs. Dawson, he cheered the winners in the two great races, both of which, with demoniac luck, he had backed heavily.
'We narrate as a plain, unvarnished truth that this accomplished and semi-historical personage raced a horse of his own, which turns out now to have been the famous Rainbow, an animal of such marvellous speed, courage, and endurance that as many legends are current about him as of Dick Turpin's well-known steed. He attended the marriage, in St. Matthew's Church, of Miss Isabel Barnes, the daughter of our respected neighbour, Mr. Jonathan Barnes, when he presented the bride with a costly and beautiful diamond ring, completing the round of his vagaries by dining on invitation with the Commissioner at the camp mess, and, with that high official, honouring our race ball with his presence, and sunning himself in the smiles of our fairest maidens.
'We are afraid that we shall have exhausted the fund of human credulity, and added a fresh and original chapter to those tales of mystery and imagination of which the late Edgar Allan Poe was so masterly a delineator.
'More familiarly rendered, it seems that the fascinating Captain Starlight—"as mild a mannered man" (like Lambre) "as ever scuttled a ship or cut a throat," presented himself opportunely at one of the mountain hostelries, to the notice of our good-hearted squires of Wideview, Messrs. William and John Dawson. One of their wheelers lay at the point of death—a horse of great value—when the agreeable stranger suggested a remedy which effected a sudden cure.
'With all their generous instincts stirred, the Messrs. Dawson invited the gentleman to take a seat in their well-appointed drag. He introduced himself as Mr. Lascelles, holding a commission in an Indian regiment of Irregular Horse, and now on leave, travelling chiefly for health.
'Just sufficiently sunburned, perfect in manner, full of information, humorous and original in conversation, and with all the "prestige" of the unknown, small wonder that "The Captain" was regarded as a prize, socially considered, and introduced right and left. Ha! ha! What a most excellent jest, albeit rather keen, as far as Sir Ferdinand is concerned! We shall never, never cease to recall the humorous side of the whole affair. Why, we ourselves, our august editorial self, actually had a bet in the stand with the audacious pretender, and won it, too. Did he pay up? Of course he did. A "pony", to wit, and on the nail. He does nothing by halves, notre capitaine. We have been less promptly reimbursed, indeed, not paid at all, by gentlemen boasting a fairer record. How graciously he smiled and bowed as, with his primrose kid gloves, he disengaged the two tenners and a five-pound note from his well-filled receptacle.
The last time we had seen him was in the dock at Nomah, being tried in the great cattle case, that cause celebre. To do him justice, he was quite as cool and unconcerned there, and looked as if he was doing the amateur casual business without ulterior liabilities.
Adieu! fare thee well, Starlight, bold Rover of the Waste; we feel inclined to echo the lament of the ancient Lord Douglas —
"'Tis pity of him, too," he cried;
"Bold can he speak, and fairly ride;
I warrant him a warrior tried."
It is in the interests of justice, doubtless, that thou be hunted down, and expiate by death-doom the crimes which thou and thy myrmidons have committed against society in the sight of God and man. But we cannot, for the life of us, take a keen interest in thy capture. We owe thee much, Starlight; many a slashing leader, many a spicy paragraph, many a stately reflection on contemporary morals hast thou furnished us with. Shall we haste to the slaughter of the rarest bird—golden ovaried? We trow not. Get thee to the wilderness, and repent thee of thy sins. Why should we judge thee? Thou hast, if such dubious donation may avail, an editor's blessing. Depart, and "stick up" no more.
Well done, the Turon Star!' says Starlight, after he read it all out. `I call that very fair. There's a flavour of good feeling underneath much of that nonsense, as well as of porter and oysters. It does a fellow a deal more good than slanging him to believe that he's human after all, and that men think so.'
`Do you reckon that chap was sober when he wrote that?' says father. `Blest if I can make head or tail of it. Half what them fellows puts down is regular rot. Why couldn't he have cut it a bit shorter, too?'