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IX A Vow

ABOUT six o'clock my uncle knocked softly at the door. I unlocked it, and he entered. We gazed at one another with painful intentness for a dreadful apocalyptic moment.

“Well?” he muttered at last. I had never seen him so grave and careworn; his eyes were puffed and swollen as from many successive nights of feverish unrest, his cheeks hung over his jaws in two hollow, flabby bags.

“Uncle!” I cried, and threw out my hands despairingly.

He put his arms about me, and half led, half carried me to the bed. “My poor, poor boy,” he said, his voice was inexpressibly pathetic. I broke down at that, and wept like a child; he soothed me with the tenderness of the gentlest mother. He had never been so lovable and kind. I knew him for a black murderer, and his touch burned me; yet my heart so yearned for sympathy, for a grain of comfort, that I welcomed his caresses though they seemed to blacken all my soul. My tears gave me no relief, they soon dried up, and I lay gasping for breath, shuddering from the anguish of my thoughts.

“Is he dead?” I whispered at last.

My uncle nodded; he seemed to choke, and put up his hand to his throat. “McGrath was copped,” he groaned.

“What!”

“Yes, they caught him!”

“He'll betray us!” I cried, wildly.

“No; but they'll hang him, poor fellow. He's as good as dead.”




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“Anyone else?”

“No.”

Strange as it may seem, I experienced a profound pity for McGrath. I do not know why; he deserved none, and I hated him.

“You'll help him?” I whispered. I was caught in a spasm of mortal pain, to which a shivering fit succeeded. By turns I was cold as death and hot as fire, and the bed shook with my shudders. But my uncle was deeply preoccupied, and noticed nothing.

“As soon as he's committed, I'll get either Pilcher or George Reid to defend him. His mother will be here soon; I'll send her to Wallace, he's the best criminal solicitor. Luckily we have plenty of gants in hand; but this 'll run to hundreds, and never a chance to get the poor cove off, I'm afraid.” Seemingly forgetful of me he maundered on.

“You are in no danger, are you?” I muttered, my teeth chattering, as I spoke, like castanets.

He shook his head. “No, they can't touch me. Luckily a king never has to take a hand in those affairs.”

“You are exempt because of your position?”

“Yes. I'm treasurer, you see. We must always save the treasurer scot free, else how could we run the show at all?”

My shivering fit passed. I turned wearily in the bed. “Uncle, I am so sick!” I said.

He patted my head. “You must brace up, boy; you'll have to go to work so as to nark the cops. They'll be round us like hornets to-day; they're sure to arrest lots on suspicion. You mustn't give 'em a show.”

“I'll die if they come near me,” I cried.

He shook his head. “You're not fit for this sort of thing, Lucas boy. I've known it for a long while, but it's all over now. Keep a stiff upper lip a bit longer.”

“Uncle!” I cried, raising myself in bed. “Rather than go through another night like last I'd cut my throat. I swear to you by God, I would.”

“Hush,” he answered, soothingly; “you've no cause to growl. I have a plan mapped out for you. I'm goin' to send you away.”

“Where?”




  ― 77 ―

“You're confirmed now, that was all as was wanted; so when this biz is over, you'll go, not far, but far enough. It's all arranged. I had it out with the Push a month ago in a secret meeting, and they all agreed to it. I've been keepin' it as a surprise for you.”

“Where, where?” I muttered, feverishly.

“To Forest Lodge, or Newtown, close to the Uni.”

“But why, why?” impatience was consuming me.

“So you can go to the Uni.”

I almost swooned with amaze. “The University, you mean?” I gasped.

“Yes.” He sat down beside the bed. “The Push 'll do the payin'; they're sendin' you.”

I could not speak. He proceeded, with suddenly kindling eyes: “It's been my ambition for years. The whole thing's like this. You're to live right away from us, never come here 'cept now an' then to see me. It'll be give out to outsiders that you've come in for money from your father's folk in England, and that you're goin' to take your degree at the Uni, and go in for politics like a gentleman. And you're to make yourself a gentleman—mind (he interjected, fiercely), a real gentleman, and no shenanikin, copper-bottomed A1 at Lloyd's. Then, ye see, when ye stand for member later on, you'll get respectable, all-round support as well as from the Push. See my blimey dart? You'll be sure to go in slick then! See my dart?”

I nodded helplessly, but I was aflame with excitement.

“No one 'll know at the Uni. where you come from, or who you really are,” he pursued, “that is, if you play the game right. It's for that reason you've been really kept in bounds here these years past, so that none of your future mates could place you. Ain't I a cute old cuss, eh?”

“Wonderful!” I gasped.

“You'll board at some good house, an' live like a toff. I'll allow you four quid a week; that's enough to live on handsome, and pay your lecture fees besides. I found out from your old schoolmaster.”

“Does he know?”

“Think I'm a blasted ass?” he growled. “He know?—if


  ― 78 ―
he knew, everyone might as well. Not much. I wormed it out of him!”

“This is November; lectures recommence in March!” I cried.

“March will do,” replied my uncle. “We'll fix it at March; you've passed your Matric., so you can sail in straight off and win. How do you like the plan?”

“I love it.”

“I'll hate to lose you,” he remarked, “so'll the boys—but it's for the good of the Push!”

“Uncle!” I muttered, “why don't you stop this murder business? It's bound to come out some day!”

He frowned. “It keeps 'em together, boy.”

“It's horrible,” I groaned. “They are all murderers, are they—all; tell me, uncle?”

“You are the last,” he answered, grimly, “but we'll be having some more recruits presently. Three lads reached seventeen last week, and all have given notice they want to join.”

“Will they have to assist in a murder, too?”

“Yes; but we don't call it murder, Lucas; it's vengeance!”

“But what for—what did poor Tobin do to merit so terrible a punishment?”

“Poor Tobin!—you'd not call him poor Tobin if you'd ever fallen into his clutches. All the cops are brutes, but he was the worst of the lot, a reg'lar bloodhound. Do you know what he used to do when he got hold of a Dog?”

“No.”

“As soon as he'd got the poor beggar in a cell—no matter how quiet he'd taken the arrest—Tobin'd lambaste him nigh to death, just 'cos he was a Dog, and then next morning charge him with assaultin' him—him—in the execution of his duty, as well as whatever he'd copped him for. I've known the cops tear their uniforms a-purpose to get our fellows lagged. They hate us payin' up the fines; it's their biz to lag us.”

“But why?”

“Out of spite and ill-feeling; the cops are all that down on pushes, you wouldn't believe. It's the cops what makes


  ― 79 ―
us as bad as we are; there wouldn't be much done if it wasn't for them.”

“How many have the Push killed this year?” I whispered, presently.

“Three—two outsiders, and Tobin. We don't often get a chance at a cop. Tobin is the first for years.”

“What did you kill the others for?”

“They gave evidence against a Dog in a trial over a year ago for burglary. It was to teach people to mind their own business.”

“I never heard of it,” I cried, shuddering. “Was anyone caught and hanged for the crimes?”

My uncle laughed grimly. “They was too well managed, boy. No one interfered with the boys at their work.”

I watched him, fascinated with horror.

“What did they do?” I gasped.

“Oh, we planted the bodies well. They wasn't found for weeks, and the coroner's jury brought in suicide in each case. They thought they had drowned themselves.”

“You buried the bodies at sea then?”

“Off the cliffs at Bondi, one; he was washed ashore at Coogee. The other we sunk off Garden Island, and the current took him to Watson's Bay. You see, it's this way—we never use any weapon, only boots; always kick 'em to death, Lucas, and then after a day or two in the water not a mark shows!”

The infernal genius of the plan dazed me. My brain commenced to swim, and for a while I thought I must be sick. But soon the mist left my eyes, and I could see again. I was tortured with a dreadful curiosity. I wanted to know all there was to know. I felt labouring under some terrible spell.

“Tell me,” I muttered, “has my case been different from the others?”

“Nought a bit.”

“They all had to go through the same?”

“Yes.”

“We could all be hanged then if it was known?”

“We're not going to be hanged,” said my uncle, firmly.

“How many men have the Push killed altogether?”




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“Since I've been king, about two a year; that makes about forty-four.”

“Do you like it, uncle?”

“Can't say as I do,” he frowned.

“Why don't you stop it then?” I asked, fiercely.

He shook his head. “The boys won't. Them as is in for it's not likely to let in other coveys on the soft; it'd be too dangerous, there would soon be traitors croppin' up, and then the old hands 'd have to swing. There's no way out of it that I can see,” he added, despondently.

“They are devils,” I muttered; “just devils.”

My uncle turned pale. “That's not for you to say,” he muttered, angrily.

I made a sudden desperate resolution. “Uncle,” I said, as calmly as I could, “you'd better kill me!”

He stared at me in the profoundest surprise. “What?” he stammered. “What?”

“I have done with the Push,” I said, slowly. I could feel the perspiration oozing out through all my pores.

I thought my uncle would fall in a fit. His eyes were blood-shot and glaring. “What's that you say?” he roared.

“Unless you swear to me that the Push will never commit another murder, uncle, I give you my word of honour as a gentleman—my father was a gentleman, uncle. I vow it by the memory of him, I shall kill myself the first opportunity I get. I would not turn traitor whatever happened, but I will not belong to a gang of men who are always plotting murder. What has been done is past, and no one can help the past; but we can control the future. Do you think I would work and devote my life to wretches like that? No, uncle, I'll die first.”

“You are mad, clean mad,” he stuttered.

“No, uncle, I have never been so sane, so quiet and cool. Look at my hands.” I lifted them for his inspection. A great and blessed calm had fallen upon my senses. Some inner voice—a sort of spirit—told me that I was doing well, and my heart was filled with courage and determination. It was like a wonderful benediction. I feared nothing any more; neither man nor fiend, neither life nor death. If my uncle had knifed me as I lay before him, I would have


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died with a smile upon my lips. My thin fingers were as moveless as stone.

“Think of the Uni., Lucas,” muttered my uncle. To my surprise he also was calm, he had suppressed his rage. Marvelling at him, I smiled and shook my head. “I shall be almost glad to die,” I said. “It will be a happy escape from a life of crime and terror.”

“How would you like to be kicked to death?” he asked, “like Tobin!”

I did not even shudder. “Please, uncle, stun me first,” I answered.

A look of terror crossed his face. He got up and paced the room, treading, in spite of his agitation, softly, like a cat. He stopped after a few moments and faced me. “I could never change the boys,” he said.

“Uncle, you know you could do anything with them!”

“It wouldn't be a Push any longer.”

“What do you want a Push to be; a political society, don't you? Is not that your ambition? You don't want to murder men for that, uncle.”

He buried his head in his hands. “I'll think it out,” he said, at last, and moved towards the door.

“Goodbye!” I muttered.

He paused, glanced at me, and of a sudden went ashen grey.

“What do you mean?” he cried.

“When you have thought out your thoughts I shall be dead.”

He gave a low, hoarse cry and rushed to the bed. “I'll strap you down,” he cried.

“That would postpone it a while,” I answered, calmly. Our eyes met, and it seemed to me that our souls spoke to each other.

“You mean it?” he asked, hesitatingly.

“Yes, you know I do.” I felt lifted from the earth. My spirit seemed already half released from its shackles. I experienced a sensation of measureless power and elation. of boundless indifference of life; and yet of profound and awful melancholy. With all my heart I wished to die.




  ― 82 ―

“Boy, you don't know how much I care for you!” he groaned.

“Prove it, uncle!” A dream came over me. I felt my spirit completely detached from my body. I seemed to hover about the bed an invisible essence, all the weaknesses and temptations of the flesh things of an inexpressibly distant past. I thought I must be dying.

“Lucas, I'd do anything for you.”

“Uncle, you know what I want you to do.” My eyes were gradually closing, my lips moved of their own accord.

“I'll do it,” said my uncle.

“Swear!”

“I swear!”

“By God?”

I heard a faint echo repeat the words “By God!” I heard footsteps, and the bang of a sharply-closed door. Then I floated dreamily into a maze of soft, sweet shadows, which gradually enclosed me, growing dark and ever darker. I had swooned.

I was awakened with passionate caresses. Judith Kelly was raining kisses upon my lips, my eyes, my cheeks, eating my face with her kisses. Quite suddenly I was strong. I pushed her from me, regarding her flushing face without either pleasure or resentment.

“Jim's killed a cop. He'll be hanged,” said Judith; “then I'll be free again, and we——” She paused, frozen by my glance, I think. I shrank from her outstretched arms, loathing her for her callous heart, and passed swiftly from the house. Breakfast I could not touch. I worked that day like a slave.

The police did not visit Jack Robin's workshop; he bore too respectable a name, and was not known to them as a Dog, so I, too, escaped their attentions. The afternoon papers told us that McGrath had been committed for trial for wilful murder; he had reserved his defence. The trial would take place within the month; meanwhile many further arrests had been made. I scanned the police report, shuddering to read the terrible words which the journal used in describing the crime which I had so involuntarily witnessed. They appeared to apply to me. All the


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Dogs I met stared at me curiously; many came up and shook me by the hand. I hated them all, and in the evening hurried home in order to escape their attentions. The quarter was alive with police, but I was not stopped. None visited our house. I afterwards discovered that in consonance with a time-honoured Push precedent my uncle had taken care to establish an unquestionable alibi so far as he was concerned, in order to preserve his kingship untainted by suspicion. For that purpose, he had at the time poor Tobin was being murdered, visited the nearest police-station in order to lay some imaginary complaint before the officer in charge. As a consequence the police gave him no thought, and he was free to work for McGrath's defence. This he managed very cleverly through his councillor's mother, and made no public appearance in the matter at all. Before the day was over the best obtainable solicitor, and one of the most eminent pleaders at the Sydney Bar, had been retained, under great expense, to conduct the prisoner's defence. I wonder from what source the lawyers could have fancied that their big fees were derived. Surely they might have guessed that a simple boiler-maker could not have found them of himself. That night the funds of the Push were depleted by two hundred pounds. When my uncle told me, I said to myself, “With half that sum I would count myself blessed indeed. I would steal away and hide myself at the world's end!” But then I remembered my uncle's promise to me, his sworn promise, and I tried to rest satisfied.

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