― 49 ―

The Humbling of Sergeant Mahone

THE first winter rains had come with a vengeance. The sun had set and the rain driving before a cutting west wind was coming down in torrents. It had washed the limestone streets of the little seaport town clean; they were slippery and slimy now, almost dangerous to walk upon, and the gas lamps at far distances apart—for gas is dear at Warrnambool—sent out long streaks of light that were reflected on the wet surfaces as in a mirror, and the gutters were running as high as the kerb. All the foot passengers had pulled their collars up above their ears and buttoned their coats close round them. The water streamed from the mackintosh cape of Sergeant Mahone, it trickled off his shiny helmet into his eyes, and his little pointed beard and fierce moustache were limp with wet.

It was a miserable winter's evening, and as he strolled along he whistled to himself a suitable tune, “A policeman's lot is not a happy one.”

Another man came along the street briskly. He had on only a little short jacket, but he held up his head and put his hands in his pockets as if he defied the elements to hurt him. When he reached the sergeant he swung himself half round on his heels, and pursing up his lips, sent out a sound that was half a defiance and wholly a challenge. Sergeant Mahone stopped dead and the other man looked him full in the face in the gathering darkness and then went on. The light from the lamps streamed out of the big druggist's shop and

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showed every feature, and the sergeant knew him at once.

“That scamp Bryan O'Daly,” he said. “Now what devilment is he up to?”

Bryan O'Daly's sins were many. He was known well to the police, but at present he was not wanted on any specific charge, and Sergeant Mahone as he walked on began turning over in his own mind what particular iniquity he might be meditating, for that was a challenge, he was sure enough of that. Burglary? No; burglary was not in Bryan's line. Assault? He had often enough been up for assault, but that was only when he got the drink in him, and was not premeditated. This was evidently premeditated. Bryan wasn't a bad sort if it weren't for that chronic trouble connected with that private still, and, of course—he brought down his hand on his thigh with a sounding smack—of course he was going to run a load of whisky down to the port, and he challenged him to stop him. Sergeant Mahone leaned up against the wall and laughed aloud. And O'Daly thought himself a better man than the whole force of the police ranged against him; and he laughed so loud and so long that the druggist coming to his door to see what fool had the heart to laugh on such a dismal night, remonstrated with him.

“Well, upon my word, sergeant, it's luck that must have come your way. Such a day, too. Pass a little of it on. Nothing to-day has come in at these doors bar five lodge prescriptions and a donkey who wanted a sixpenny bottle of lavender and musk. It won't pay for the gas let alone the rent.”

“Ah, my boy,” said the sergeant, wiping his eyes, “we've got to look smart these times. It isn't once in a blue moon such a stroke of luck comes to a chap as I've had to-night,” and he vanished in the darkness and the rain in the direction of the police station.

The inspector listened to his story dubiously.

“It was just a piece of cheek on his part possibly.”

“Cheek, was it? He's the cheek of the old gentleman

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himself, the misbegotten beggar, but he meant it this time, sir. ‘I'll be runnin' a load of stuff as has never paid duty some time this week or next an' I dare ye to stop me.' I'm as sure of it as if he said them very words.”

“Well, well, and it wouldn't tell us much if he did say them.”

The inspector was much inclined to leave Bryan O'Daly alone. He had a high respect for that gentleman's abilities.

“Sure,” said the sergeant earnestly, “it can come but one way. His selection's away out Nirrandira way, and the tea-tree scrub's that thick a cow couldn't get through let alone a load of whisky, and they can only cross the river at the bridge at Allansford. To be sure there's Slippery Jim's ford, but it's ten miles up and a devil of a crossing in the winter. If they want to bring the whisky down to Warrnambool, and they do, of course, it'll have to cross the bridge at Allansford. Give me a couple of men, sir, and I'll hold them like winking.”

It was another wet, wintry night when the sergeant and his two men took up their position on the lee side of a big box-thorn hedge on the Allansford road. The bridge was just beneath them, and when every now and again the moon burst through the heavy clouds they caught glimpses of the water running at the bottom of the high banks. Just opposite them was a farmhouse, and the stacks loomed large masses against the wintry sky, and from the chimney every now and then there came a burst of sparks that told of a roaring fire within. It was mighty dull work waiting, and men and horses were fidgeting wearily before even the watch had begun.

“May we light a pipe?” asked one of the troopers.

“Oh yes, it's an open road, and a whiff of tobacco will tell no tales. But mind now, no colloguing with the girls. It's the women spoil these little games.”

“Faith,” said the other man, “there's only O'Brien's girl to be talking to in this God-forsaken place, and

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I'm thinking you've the whip hand of us there, sergeant.”

The sergeant smiled in the darkness. He certainly did flatter himself that Maggie O'Brien looked with a favourable eye on his stalwart proportions, and he had every intention, once he had brought off this little affair, to ask her to come and take possession of those comfortable quarters of his in the police camp. But on one thing he was determined—she should have no hand in this business.

It was a dreary night—so long and dreary. Once a belated wood cart passed, once a man riding like mad for the doctor, once a woman crying as if her heart were breaking. There might be tragedy behind all these—very likely there was—but the sergeant kept his men back and they passed. Then there came a long stretch of still, dark, cold, wet night when the minutes dragged like hours, and nothing happened to break the monotony. Long before the dawn broke, cold and grey and reluctant, the people at the farmhouse opposite were astir. The watchers could see the lanterns flitting about the milking yards, and by and by more than one cart passed on its way to the creamery.

Sergeant Mahone rose and stretched himself, and a trooper came trotting casually along the road.

“Here's our relief. Better luck to-morrow, boys.”

The next night was not so wet, but the wind was keen and cold and the sergeant was beginning to weary of his self-imposed task. Still he was not going to confess himself beaten. That stuff must come into Warrnambool, and it must come along this same road. There was no other way.

Nothing came along the road that night. It almost seemed as if all traffic had stopped, and it was very dull and cold. The men moved about uneasily, then hitched their horses to the post and rail fence and lay down under the hedge to get what shelter they could from the cutting wind. A sort of shadow seemed to cross the road a little higher up, and the sergeant

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started when he felt a hand on his arm. He would have spoken, but the hand quickly travelled to his lips.

“Whisht, don't be givin' me away, sergeant dear. It's yoursilf sure. I thought I seen ye last night. And what are yez waitin' for out in the cowld for the love av God?”

It was Maggie O'Brien, and the sergeant felt his heart glow, and it was no longer a bitter night.

“Whisht, me darling,” he said. “I can't be telling ye my business. Run in now like a good girl. It's warmth and comfort ye've brought with your sweet self. Go in now.” And bolder than he had ever been, he drew her towards him and would have imprinted a kiss on the lips so close to his own. She yielded a moment, then drew herself quickly away.

“Get away with ye now. Ye're spillin' the tea. I'm just after bringing yez a quart pot of tea, and the scones is just out av the oven. But don't be tellin' a soul now. Me father'd pretty nigh kill me if he caught me.” She started to go back and then paused a moment. “Yez can give the other poor chaps some, but don't be sayin' 'twas me as brought it,” and she vanished in the darkness and the wild wind covered the sound of her footsteps.

Now a quart pot of hot tea, well sugared and with plenty of cream in it, and another pot full to the brim of light, feathery, well-buttered scones straight from the oven is surely a very innocent love gift, and surely on a cold night a very welcome one. Not the stern inspector himself could have seen guile in such a present, and the sergeant called to the other two and shared it amicably with them.

“Ask no questions now, and be thankful,” said he, and Mounted Constable Campbell gave Mounted Constable O'Neill a poke in the ribs that made him choke over his first drink of tea, but they neither said a word.

Such a long night. Would it never end? The novelty had worn off, and more than once the sergeant had to shake his men into wakefulness. And nothing happened. Once a stray horse lolloped along as if

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something had startled it, and again a couple of calves strayed up as if looking for a suitable resting place. But nothing else happened, nothing at all. Sergeant Mahone began to think that Bryan O'Daly's crowing was just a piece of bravado to keep him on the alert and wear his life out.

He was very much of this opinion when the dawn broke, and he roused up his now nodding men and took them back to Warrnambool; but evening saw him starting out once more. He must have meant something, thought the sergeant. At any rate he would see the week out.

It was a worse night than ever. A biting wind came from the east that swept right across the road and made the box-thorn hedge that had stood them in such good stead for the last two nights as a breakwind of no use at all. The men groaned and the patient horses hunched themselves up and shivered in the bitter wind. Now if this night, too, were going to be a fruitless vigil their case would be hard indeed. One consolation the sergeant had that the men could not share. He hoped that before the evening had worn away Maggie O'Brien would pay him a visit. She had come about seven o'clock the night before, and not unnaturally as seven o'clock approached he expected her again.

But eight came, nine came; still no Maggie. By half-past he had given up hope, and was as cross and grumpy as the men themselves. He drew his cape up over his face and huddled down close to his horse, when suddenly up to his nostrils was wafted the grateful odour he had been expecting all the evening, the smell of warm tea and hot buttered scones, and Maggie was beside him. Where she had come from heaven could only tell, but the sergeant was too pleased to see her to ask any questions.

“Is it yourself, Maggie darling?”

“I couldn't get away before,” she whispered, “till that bold boy, Terence, was in bed. 'Tis the devil is in him for keepin' his eye on me. But, oh, sergeant darlin', 'tis an awful place yez got. Ye have to be

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holdin' on to everything for yer life,” as her shawl blew out behind her like a sail.

With one hand the gallant sergeant relieved her of the tea and scones, with the other he held down the shawl round her waist. She did not resist him, and he could see the light in her eyes and feel her warm breath on his cheek.

“Oh, sergeant dear, must ye stay out in the cowld here? It'll be the death of yez, to say nothing of the horses.”

“It doesn't matter about us,” whispered back the amorous sergeant, “but if anything happens to the horses there'll be the devil to pay.”

“'Tis a mercy if they don't take cowld here in the wind,” said she. “See now, I'll open the gate and ye can put them in the shed in the paddock there. There's room for yez, too, if ye like. But don't tell father for the love av God, and come out before the milkin' in the mornin'.”

The sergeant considered a moment. It was undoubtedly a good offer, and it was made for love of him. He would accept it in the spirit in which it was made.

“God bless ye for a sweet colleen!”

The gate was locked, but the girl, who had grown bolder now and did not seem to mind if the men did see her, took a small key from her pocket and undid the padlock. She pointed to the shed looming up faintly against the dark sky.

“Yez can keep a good look-out along the road from there without bein' in the wind at all at all.”

The sergeant wanted to come back with her but she refused to let him. Her father, she declared, was wandering round, “restless like wid the wind,” and might ask questions.

It was delightfully comfortable in the shed out of reach of the shrieking wind. They all three ate hot scones and drank tea, and the sergeant leaned up against the wall and indulged in dreams of wildest happiness. If he got these smugglers he could have

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nothing left to wish for. Whether he got them or not he was a very happy man. The shed was close to the road. He would have sheltered there before but that the heavy gate was locked; but this little girl had made everything easy for him, God bless her! And if the night passed slowly it was not passing unpleasantly.

Nothing came along the road, nothing at all. Then about midnight Maggie came again. Her shawl was wrapped tight round her head and she was sobbing bitterly.

“For the love av God, sergeant, come outside wan minit.”

The other men turned their heads discreetly aside. The sergeant was going it strong, they thought; and for a quiet, decent-spoken girl, Maggie O'Brien was making the running.

“Och sergeant, oh sergeant! How'll my tongue be tellin' yez?”

“What is it, Maggie, my girl?” asked the sergeant tenderly, fully making up his mind that her father had found out about the tea and scones, and was making things unpleasant. It was on the tip of his tongue to tell her that she knew she had only to name the day, and the sooner the better, so that he was not much distressed.

“Oh that I should ever tell yez!”

“It's all right, my girl, sure 'tis all right.”

“Oh sure, 'tis all wrong it is. Me father's in the drink, dacint man, and it's murdherin' me mother he is. Come quick for the love av God!”

“Hold on, I'll get Campbell and——”

“Oh, sergeant dear, don't be shamin' me before them, an' me father, too, that's a dacint man when he hasn't the drink in him. It's not yoursilf he'd be mindin' but the other two.” She flung out her hands as if to show she would have none of them.

O'Brien was only a little wizened man. The sergeant thought he could overcome him with one hand if necessary; so he just shouted back:

“Keep a good look-out, boys, I'll be back in a brace

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of shakes,” and followed her across the road and into the farmyard.

It was very dark here among the buildings, and he could not have found his way at all but that a warm hand stole into his and guided him. Everything was very still but for the shrieking of the wind among the roofs, and he was going to remark there were no sounds of a scuffle when an exclamation of “Oh, murdher!” reached his ears, but it did not sound as if the person who cried out were really in fear of her life.

“'Tis all right, mavourneen, he isn't hurting her.”

“Come in here,” said the girl, quickly drawing him into a little room with a brick floor and a tiny window high up in the wall. There was a guttering candle standing on one of the shelves, and he could see it was used as a place to keep the milk buckets and milk cans in. Everything was ready to begin work before dawn in the morning. “Maybe he's quiet now and I wouldn't have ye in if he is. Stay here and I'll slip round and see.”

She gave the hand she held a tender squeeze and was out of the door without waiting for an answer, closing it after her. The sergeant thought he heard the bolt shot and the sound of scampering feet, and a cold sweat broke out over him as he began to think he had been sold. He strode up and put his stalwart shoulder to the door and shook it violently. But it was a stout door and it stood firm. He called, “Maggie, Maggie O'Brien!” and his tones were by no means loverlike.

“Oh, sergeant dear,” came back the answer in quavering tones, “sure 'tis that thief av the world, Terence, has played an ill trick on us.”

“Open the door, I say, open it.”

“Sure, 'tis Terence has the key. Kape quiet, sergeant dear, or me father'll be hearin' us.” Her voice was broken with sobs now, whether of laughter or tears the unlucky policeman could not tell, but he strongly suspected the former. His love was dying

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rapidly; still she was on the right side of the door, and it behoved him to see what blarney would do.

“Sure, Maggie dear, 'tis a bolt,” said he. “Undo it now and I'll give yez the purtiest ring to be had in Warrnambool.”

But she was adamant to his blandishments.

“I'll be findin' Terence,” said she, and he heard her going out into the yard again.

The sergeant turned round, and in spite of his long training and discipline he smashed every tin and bucket he could lay his hands on; he yelled, he shouted, he flung himself against the door, and for all the effect it had upon the household they might have been dead. Then he paused and rested, looking grimly at the destruction he had wrought, and through the open window—that window which was too small for a man to pass through—he heard, borne on the wild wind, the sound he had waited so long to hear, the sound of heavily-laden drays coming down the road.

The language that respectable non-commissioned officer of police made use of on that occasion ought to have raised the roof, but it had absolutely no effect on the door. He listened desperately, there was a challenge, he knew it was Campbell's voice, and—Mahone cursed him solemnly for a born idiot—he only shouted:

“Hold up there, Bryan O'Daly, hold up or I'll make ye.”

“Serves me right,” groaned the poor prisoner, “for leaving things to a fool-headed recruit. He's not such a fool as to take any notice of that. Ride after him, ride after him,” he yelled at the top of his voice, “don't let him out of your sight.”

Alas, the wind that brought their voices down to him carried his away. Besides, Maggie O'Brien had very kindly locked the gate again, and they had no means of getting the horses out of the paddock, as they refused to jump in the dark.

But O'Neill made another effort.

“Stop in the King's name,” he shouted, “or I'll fire,” and the report of two carbines rang out.

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“Worse than useless if they didn't shoot one of the horses,” groaned the unlucky sergeant as he heard the horses lashed to a gallop and fleeing down the road to the bridge. Even now a determined man might stop them at the bridge, and he yelled and shouted again, “O'Brien, O'Brien, I call on you to help in the King's name.”

The constables were getting their horses out of the paddock by the summary method of breaking down the fence. He could hear them at it, but it was too late now. The drays were out of earshot, and he heard, too, a shambling footstep coming along to his door.

The bolt was shot back, and Farmer O'Brien stood before him, a candle in one hand, while with the other he was scratching his head sleepily.

“Faix! is hell broke loose? Och! sergeant!”

“Why didn't you come before?” asked the sergeant, angrily shaking him. “Haven't I been shouting fit to raise the dead the last hour?”

“Och, faix, who'd be thinkin' 'twas the sergeant of perlice was smashin' my milk cans? Sure the boys does be always stravagin' after Maggie, and I thought she'd locked wan in for the fun av the thing. He'd pay up for certin.”

The sergeant groaned and threw the old man aside. In the gloom he caught sight of other forms and heard some stifled laughter. Then he dashed across the road, got his horse, and clattered down across the bridge.

But it was too late. The whisky was safely brought into Warrnambool and shipped for Melbourne. A nice little keg was also left on the veranda of the police station as a delicate present.

And that was not the end of it either, for Bryan O'Daly sued the police for sticking him up and firing on him when he was peacefully engaged in travelling along the main road with a couple of carts laden with skim milk from the Allansford butter factory.

“Oh yes, to be sure, 'twas late, but wan of the carts had broken down early in the evenin', an' 'tisn't poor folks can be payin' attention to the time when there's

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work to be done. An' how was the likes av him to know it was the perlice? He thought they was stickin' him up, an' he beat his horses to a gallop, an' 'twas only the Virgin herself saved him when they fired on him.”

And the judge severely reprimanded the police for interfering with an honest farmer and putting him in danger of his life, and he left the court triumphant, and married Maggie O'Brien before the month was out.

And at Warrnambool they always call whisky skim milk.