One day I was told that a lady wanted to see me. When the door of the cell opened who should walk in but Aileen! I didn't look to have seen her. I didn't bother my head about who was coming. What did it matter, as I kept thinking, who came or who went for the week or two that was to pass before the day? Yes, the day, that Thursday, when poor Dick Marston would walk over the threshold of his cell, and never walk over one again.
The warder—him that stopped with me day and night—every man in the condemned cell has to be watched like that—stepped outside the door and left us together. We both looked at one another. She was dressed all in black, and her face was that pale I hardly knew her at first. Then she said, `Oh, Dick—my poor Dick! is this the way we meet?' and flings herself into my arms. How she cried and sobbed, to be sure. The tears ran down her cheeks like rain, and every time the leg-irons rattled she shook and trembled as if her heart was breaking.
I tried to comfort her; it was no use.
`Let me cry on, Dick,' she said; `I have not shed a tear since I first heard the news—the miserable truth that has crushed all our vain hopes and fancies; my heart has nearly burst for want of relief. This will do me good. To think—to think that this should be the end of all! But it is just! I cannot dare to doubt Heaven's mercy. What else could we expect, living as we all did—in sin—in mortal sin? I am punished rightly.'
She told me all about poor mother's death. She never held up her head after she heard of Jim's death. She never said a hard word about any one. It was God's will, she thought, and only for His mercy things might have gone worse. The only pleasure she had in her last days was in petting Jim's boy. He was a fine little chap, and had eyes like his father, poor old Jim! Then Aileen broke down altogether, and it was a while before she could speak again.
Jeanie was the same as she had been from the first, only so quiet they could hardly know how much she felt. She wouldn't leave the little cottage where she had been so happy with Jim, and liked to work in the chair opposite to where Jim used to sit and smoke his pipe in the evenings. Most of her friends lived in Melbourne, and she reckoned to stay there for the rest of her life.
As to father, they had never heard a word from him—hardly knew whether he was dead or alive. There was some kind of report that Warrigal had been seen making towards Nulla Mountain, looking very weak and miserable, on a knocked-up horse; but they did not know whether it was true or false.
Poor Aileen stopped till we were all locked up for the night. She seemed as if she couldn't bear to leave me. She had no more hope or tie in life, she said. I was the only one of her people she was likely to see again, and this was the last time—the last time.
`Oh, Dick! oh, my poor lost brother,' she said, `how clearly I seem to see all things now. Why could we not do so before? I have had my sinful worldly dream of happiness, and death has ended it. When I heard of his death and Jim's my heart turned to stone. All the strength I have shall be given to religion from this out. I can ease my heart and mortify the flesh for the good of my soul. To God—to the Holy Virgin—who hears the sorrows of such as me, I can pray day and night for their souls' welfare—for mine, for yours. And oh, Dick! think when that day, that dreadful day, comes that Aileen is praying for you—will pray for you till her own miserable life ends. And now good-bye; we shall meet on this earth no more. Pray—say that you will pray—pray now that we may meet in heaven.'
She half drew me to my knees. She knelt down herself on the cold stone floor of the cell; and I—well—I seemed to remember the old days when we were both children and used to kneel down by mother's bed, the three of us, Aileen in the middle and one of us boys on each side. The old time came back to me, and I cried like a child.
I wasn't ashamed of it; and when she stood up and said, `Good-bye—good-bye, Dick,' I felt a sort of rushing of the blood to my head, and all my wounds seemed as if they would break out again. I very near fell down, what with one thing and another. I sat myself down on my bed, and I hid my face in my hands. When I looked up she was gone.
After that, day after day went on and I scarcely kept count, until somehow I found out it was the last week. They partly told me on the Sunday. The parson—a good, straight, manly man he was—he had me told for fear I should go too close up to it, and not have time to prepare.
Prepare! How was a man like me to prepare? I'd done everything I'd a mind to for years and years. Some good things—some bad—mostly bad. How was I to repent? Just to say I was sorry for them. I wasn't that particular sorry either—that was the worst of it. A deal of the old life was dashed good fun, and I'd not say, if I had the chance, that I wouldn't do just the same over again.
Sometimes I felt as if I ought to understand what the parson tried to hammer into my head; but I couldn't do anything but make a jumble of it. It came natural to me to do some things, and I did them. If I had stopped dead and bucked at father's wanting me and Jim to help duff those weaners, I really believe all might have come right. Jim said afterwards he'd made up his mind to have another try at getting me to join with George Storefield in that fencing job. After that we could have gone into the outside station work with him—just the thing that would have suited the pair of us; and what a grand finish we might have made of it if we ran a waiting race; and where were we now?—Jim dead, Aileen dead to the world, and me to be hanged on Thursday, poor mother dead and broken-hearted before her time. We couldn't have done worse. We might, we must have, done better.
I did repent in that sort of way of all we'd done since that first wrong turn. It's the wrong turn-off that makes a man lose his way; but as for the rest I had only a dull, heavy feeling that my time was come, and I must make the best of it, and meet it like a man.
So the day came. The last day! What a queer feeling it was when I lay down that night, that I should never want to sleep again, or try to do it. That I had seen the sun set—leastways the day grow dark—for the last time; the very last time.
Somehow I wasn't that much in fear of it as you might think; it was strange like, but made one pull himself together a bit. Thousands and millions of people had died in all sorts of ways and shapes since the beginning of the world. Why shouldn't I be able to go through with it like another?
I was a long time lying and thinking before I thought of sleeping. All the small, teeny bits of a man's life, as well as the big, seemed to come up before me as I lay there—the first things I could recollect at Rocky Flat; then the pony; mother a youngish woman; father always hard-looking, but so different from what he came to be afterwards. Aileen a little girl, with her dark hair falling over her shoulders; then a grown woman, riding her own horse, and full of smiles and fun; then a pale, weeping woman all in black, looking like a mourner at a funeral. Jim too, and Starlight—now galloping along through the forest at night—laughing, drinking, enjoying themselves at Jonathan Barnes's, with the bright eyes of Bella and Maddie shining with fun and devilment.
Then both of them lying dead at the flat by Murrynebone Creek—Starlight with the half-caste making his wild moan over him; Jim, quiet in death as in life, lying in the grass, looking as if he had slid off his horse in that hot weather to take a banje; and now, no get away, the rope—the hangman!
I must have gone to sleep, after all, for the sun was shining into the cell when I stirred, and I could see the chains on my ankles that I had worn all these weary weeks. How could I sleep? but I had, for all that. It was daylight; more than that—sunrise. I listened, and, sure enough, I heard two or three of the bush-birds calling. It reminded me of being a boy again, and listening to the birds at dawn just before it was time to get up. When I was a boy!—was I ever a boy? How long was it ago—and now—O my God, my God! That ever it should have come to this! What am I waiting for to hear now? The tread of men; the smith that knocks the irons off the limbs that are so soon to be as cold as the jangling chains. Yes! at last I hear their footsteps—here they come!
The warder, the blacksmith, the parson, the head gaoler, just as I expected. The smith begins to cut the rivets. Somehow they none of them look so solemn as I expected. Surely when a man is to be killed by law, choked to death in cold blood, people might look a bit serious. Mind you, I believe men ought to be hanged. I don't hold with any of that rot that them as commits murder shouldn't pay for it with their own lives. It's the only way they can pay for it, and make sure they don't do it again. Some men can stand anything but the rope. Prison walls don't frighten them; but Jack Ketch does. They can't gammon him.
`Knock off his irons quick,' says Mr. Fairleigh, the parson; `he will not want them again just yet.'
`I didn't think you would make a joke of that sort, sir,' says I. `It's a little hard on a man, ain't it? But we may as well take it cheerful, too.'
`Tell him all, Mr. Strickland,' he says to the head gaoler. `I see he can bear it now.'
`Prisoner Richard Marston,' says the gaoler, standing up before me, `it becomes my duty to inform you that, owing to representations made in your favour by the Hon. Mr. Falkland, the Hon. Mr. Storefield, and other gentlemen who have interested themselves in your case, setting forth the facts that, although mixed up with criminals and known to be present when the escort and various other cases of robbery under arms have taken place, wherein life has been taken, there is no distinct evidence of your having personally taken life. On the other hand, in several instances, yourself, with the late James Marston and the deceased person known as Starlight, have aided in the protection of life and property. The Governor and the Executive Council have therefore graciously been pleased to commute your sentence of death to that of fifteen years' imprisonment.'
When I came to I was lying on my blankets in a different cell, as I could see by the shape of it. The irons didn't rattle when I moved. I was surprised when I looked and saw they were took off. Bit by bit it all came back to me. I was not to be hanged. My life was saved, if it was worth saving, by the two or three good things we'd done in our time, and almost, I thought, more for poor old Jim's sake than my own.
Was I glad or sorry now it was all over? I hardly knew. For a week or two I felt as if they'd better have finished me off when I was ready and ha' done with me, but after a while I began to feel different. Then the gaoler talked to me a bit. He never said much to prisoners, and what he said he meant.
`Prisoner Marston,' says he, `you'd better think over your situation and don't mope. Make up your mind like a man. You may have friends that you'd like to live for. Pull yourself together and face your sentence like a man. You're a young man now, and you won't be an old one when you're let out. If your conduct is uniformly good you'll be out in twelve years. Settle yourself to serve that—and you're a lucky man to have no more—and you may have some comfort in your life yet.'
Then he went out. He didn't wait to see what effect it had on me. If I wasn't a fool, he thought to himself, I must take it in; if I was, nothing would do me any good.
I took his advice, and settled myself down to think it over. It was a good while—a weary lot of years to wait, year by year—but, still, if I got out in twelve years I should not be so out and out broke down after all—not much over forty, and there's a deal of life for a man sometimes after that.
And then I knew that there would be one that would be true to me anyhow, that would wait for me when I went out, and that would not be too proud to join in her life with mine, for all that had come and gone. Well, this might give me strength. I don't think anything else could, and from that hour I made up my mind to tackle it steady and patient, to do the best I could, and to work out my sentence, thankful for the mercy that had been showed me, and, if ever a man was in this world, resolved to keep clear of all cross ways for the future.
So I began to steady myself and tried to bear it the best way I could. Other men were in for long sentences, and they seemed to be able to keep alive, so why shouldn't I? Just at the first I wasn't sure whether I could. Year after year to be shut up there, with the grass growin' and the trees wavin' outside, and the world full of people, free to walk or ride, to work or play, people that had wives and children, and friends and relations—it seemed awful. That I should be condemned to live in this shut-up tomb all those long, weary years, and there was nothing else for it. I couldn't eat or sleep at first, and kept starting up at night, thinking they was coming for me to carry me off to the gallows. Then I'd dream that Jim and Starlight was alive, and that we'd all got out of gaol and were riding through the bush at night to the Hollow again. Then I'd wake up and know they were dead and I was here. Time after time I've done that, and I was that broken down and low that I burst out crying like a child.