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XI “The Push Book”

MY uncle received me with some show of ill-temper. “Was I not ashamed to keep the council waiting?” he demanded. I replied in such a manner as to soothe his mood, but secretly I mocked his anger with a reflection on the fact that he stood in debt to a woman with eyes of amber that he had not had to wait for me for all time. It is a strange world, and the machinery of fate is curiously complicated. Those five men sitting round my table were full of life, and glad to live, hopeful, too, to live long. They had been resolving my future, while I thought of nothing but death, or slept awaiting death. An unexampled chain of dreadful happenings had left them undisturbed, but had robbed me of the joy of life, and had filled my mind with tortures keen enough to make me plot my own destruction. A single glance from a woman's eyes had given me back my fortitude, and touched me with ambition. I contrasted myself with Temple's guardsman, who fought unscathed through a score of battles, and came to death through a piece of orange-peel. Perhaps I, having escaped the orange-peel, would die in a more romantic fashion. At all these thoughts I could not help but smile.

“Attend to me, sir. What are you thinking of?” asked my uncle, angrily.

“Orange peel,” I answered, laughing bitterly.




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He regarded me with some anxiety. “You are not ill, boy?”

“No, uncle, but awhile ago I slipped on the rocks and almost fell. Had I fallen I would have been food for fishes by now. The thought of it made me laugh.”

The councillors looked at each other, nodding their heads like Chinese figures.

“He needs a change,” said Daly.

“Time he went,” observed Dave Gardner.

“Looks like a ghost,” commented Robin.

“Strikes me he ought to get away to-morrow,” said Jerry Brown.

The councillors were full of sympathy with me; their eyes were pitiful, proprietorial perhaps, but infinitely kind. I shuddered to remember how cruel they could look, perhaps in kicking a defenceless man to death, and forbade myself to be grateful.

“Lucas,” said my uncle, “attend to me. To-morrow you've got to clear out, pretty early in the mornin', and without any fuss. We'll have no speech-makin' or leave-takin', as we don't want the cops to get a hint of our ideas, nor nobody else, yet. After you've gone I'll put it about you've come into your fortune.”

I felt warm and good all over. It was comfort, this. I nodded.

“It's for your health's sake most,” said my uncle. “You need a change, as any fool can see with half an eye; but anyway it's best. It wouldn't do for you to leave here and go straight to the Uni.; someone might drop to our little game. You'd better go somewhere up the mountains for the next few weeks, and then start on at the Uni. in March.”

“Yes, uncle.”

“First, you'd better go to some pub for a day or two, and fix up about lodgings, though. I'll give you £50 when you're goin', and the same every quarter-day. You'll come here for it, and each time you come, I'll arrange a quiet little meeting, so the Dogs can see how you're gettin' on, and you can make them a speech; that's right, boys, ain't it?”

The councillors expressed their approval.




  ― 93 ―

“Well now, Lucas,” proceeded the king, “there's only one thing left to do before you go, and that is for the protection of the Push who are puttin' so much trust in you, and spendin' so much money on you.”

“What is that, uncle?”

He cleared his throat, and looked at me steadily. “Sign the Push Book,” he replied.

“But I have already. I did when I joined.”

My uncle crossed his legs, and spread out his hands with a gesture of impatience. “Ye see it's the rule, boy; you're goin' away from our district, and the Push must have some hold on you—a sort of guarantee of good conduct like. You see?”

“What do they want me to do?”

“Sign the Push Book.”

“You said that before; I don't understand.”

My uncle undid his coat, and abstracted from beneath his vest the portfolio which I had once before seen and signed. As he did so Jerry Brown and Dave Gardner got up and put their backs against the door. To my astonishment each held a cocked revolver.

“What is this?” I cried; “you threaten me?”

“Don't be a fool, boy!” said my uncle, very gruffly. “There's no sentinels posted, and we've got to take precautions for the book. It's got nothing to do with you.”

“I'm glad to hear it,” I retorted. “I thought it was for me.”

Everyone laughed. “Blimey, Lucas,” said Jerry Brown, “you'd ought to know us better; why we wouldn't pull a hair off yer nut for a river full of rot-gut (colonial beer); you're vallable, yer are!”

“I should think not,” said my uncle, who was busily unfastening the portfolio. He presently selected a sheet of paper, and, taking up a pen, laboriously commenced to write. When he had finished he leaned back in his chair, looked sharply about him, and in a low, thick whisper read:

“I, Lucas Rowe, for some months member of the Dogs' Push, being about to quit, am desirous of exonerating all members of the Dogs' Push of having had a hand in the


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killing of senior constable Tobin. Jim McGrath and I killed him between us. I unreservedly, and of my own free will, and without force, threat, or persuasion, make this confession, which I leave in the hands of the Dogs' Push for the sake of clearing themselves of suspicion after my death, but not for use beforehand, unless I ever try to do anything against the Push in the meantime. Signed and confessed by me.”

Hardly had my uncle finished this infernally obvious recital when the councillors rather heatedly broke in.

“Why's Jim McGrath brought in?” cried one.

“Why's ‘not for use beforehand’ in it? It's irregular!” objected another.

All had a grievance to put forward.

“Boys,” explained the king, “poor old Jim's dead to the world, he don't count; besides, can't you see it would be rot to say that Lucas had cooked him alone. Didn't the coppers see the body? one man couldn't have done all that kickin' in half a day. Then ‘not for use beforehand, unless he goes against the Push.’ That's only fair for the boy's sake; he's not leaving us for good, like the others did. It's irregular certainly, but the circs. are different.”

The councillors subsided. I had never before been presented with such a convincing object-lesson of their complete and profound ignorance. It suddenly struck me that a confession of this sort would be, after all, quite as dangerous to themselves as to the person upon whom they sought to fasten the whole burden of their common crime. I had recently read the report of a case in which a man was convicted for felony as an accessory after the fact, and his only fault had been to know who committed the crime, and to conceal his knowledge. Surely such a precedent would apply here. I remembered the confession of James Rayne, which my uncle had read to the assembled Push on the night of my initiation. I wondered, in the light of the happenings of the last few moments, was that a more truthful document than the one which my uncle evidently expected me to sign. I moved to the table upon which the Push Book was lying open. “May I look at the Book?” I asked.




  ― 95 ―

“Yes!” said he; “you are a confirmed member, you have the right.”

I glanced through the pages. It was not a bulky volume, but it contained at least eighty separate confessions. Many of them referred to the same murder, and in one case six different men had individually declared themselves solely responsible for the death of a man named “Codrington.”

The secret of all this was in my grasp. I realised that the Push treasured these ghastly memorials, fatuously supposing that their united guilt was by them transferred to the shoulders of absent individuals. I realised also the inner meaning of the scheme. The men who made the confessions were no doubt guilty of having shared in the crimes confessed, and just as ignorant of law as the remainder of their companions. They all apparently had signed these confessions on the eve of departure from the Push district. Conscious of what they had done, and believing themselves rendered solely punishable for the crimes confessed, the confessions must have represented in their understanding, Damocletian swords suspended over their heads, as permanent guarantees of their fidelity and rigid observance of secrecy, so far as Push secrets were concerned. No exiled Dog could ever be tempted to turn Queen's evidence, and betray his old companions, while he knew that in their hands such an admission of his sole guilt reposed. I thought to myself, “This book once in the hands of the police would hang every member of the Push as murderers and accessories; but while in the possession of the Push it is an awful weapon of terrorism, and a dangerous instrument of self-preservation.” It reminded me of an incident I had witnessed in a circus. Two men, in consequence of an accident, became suspended at a great height from the ground by a single rope drawn across a beam. Each held a free end of the rope, and their bodies balanced. They swung thus, staring into each other's pallid faces. While each retained his hold, both were safe; but if the grasp of either relaxed, both must inevitably fall, and be dashed to pieces. The Push Book intimately resembled that piece of rope. Thus, if the Push were to attempt to use any of its confessions, or any confessing member turn


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traitor, both the Push and the subscriber to the confession must be destroyed. But the Push did not know this, I felt sure; and would probably never learn it, save in some day of giant folly, when one or other of those mentioned possibilities should realise itself.

Besides the confessions, the Push Book contained a register of all members past and present, and the signatures of subscription. I saw at once that these signatures disposed in that portfolio would constitute every member an accessory after the fact to all the crimes mentioned in the confessions. The idea gave me a thrill. I understood that already I was liable at law to be hanged as an accessory for crimes I had never heard of till that moment. The knowledge made me reckless. I turned to my uncle. “Have you ever made use of a confession?” I asked.

“No.”

“Never had cause to,” said Jack Robin. “No Dog, past, present, or departed, has ever been a traitor.”

“What if one were to?” I asked, quietly.

“How do you mean?”

“Supposing someone were to go and turn Queen's evidence about Tobin's murder, what would you do?”

“Kill him.”

“But reflect, my friends, in the case I have suggested you would be all immediately arrested, arrested before you knew who had betrayed you!”

“We'd wait till afterwards.”

“After you were hanged, eh?”

“They couldn't hang us. They'd have to prove it; how could they?”

“The traitor's evidence would be sufficient.”

“To hang the lot of us!”

“I think so.”

They laughed heartily. “I guess we'll chance that,” said my uncle, with a derisive smile. “We're not afraid of anyone turning traitor while he's in the Push; we can look after ourselves for that. It's when they clear out we get nervous; then we've got no holt of them, 'cept with one of these,” and he significantly pointed to the confessions.

“But,” I pursued, “suppose in defiance of having signed


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a confession someone turned traitor. In that case what would you do?”

“Hang the cow!” cried all in a breath.

I was satisfied. Their ignorance was perfect; I decided not to enlighten it; a glance indeed assured me that any trouble in that direction would be thrown away, so doggedly did they appear to be set in their opinions. My uncle pushed the paper he had written out before me, and offered me a pen.

I signed the abominable thing without hesitation. I argued that the confession did not make me guilty, since I was not guilty, and in any case it scarcely increased my criminal liability as a member of the Push.

“Supposing I had refused to sign!” I asked, curiously, as I pushed the document across the table for the witnesses to examine.

“Blimey, you're as bad as a woman,” said my uncle. “You're full of questions as an egg's full of meat.”

“Nevertheless, answer me!”

“You're very high and haughty.”

“Please, uncle.”

“Ask Jack.”

“Tell me, Jack!”

Jack Robin shrugged his shoulders. “You ought to know, Lucas; you have a head on your shoulders.”

“I want you to tell me, Jack; I hate guess work.”

“Well,” he replied, with a frown. “There would have been another disappearance; pretty soon, I reckon. Are you satisfied?”

“Quite.” I could smile, for my old dread of death had vanished, though my horror of murder had intensified.

“Now!” I said, presently, after the witnesses had signed; “I want you all to promise me that the Push will never be allowed to kill another man on any pretext whatsoever!”

I had entertained a faint doubt that my uncle had not told me the truth in saying that the Push had willingly agreed to his proposal in this regard. I fancied he might have lied in order to cajole me; but I had done him an injustice.

The councillors unhesitatingly gave me the required


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promise, making, however, a reservation in the case of treachery, to which I consented. My uncle then took from his pocket a roll of notes, which he put into my hands. “Your first quarter's allowance,” he said.

I thanked him very gravely. He made no reply, but gathered up his papers, shut up the Push Book, and, after hiding it under his vest, opened the trapdoor.

“Go early!” he said, while pausing on the ladder, “before nine if you can!”

His voice was strangely husky. I wondered at him. “But I'll see you again, uncle!” I cried.

“No, you won't.”

“Won't you be back to-night?”

“No.”

“What are you going to do?”

“Get drunk!” he answered, fiercely. He gave me one strange, half-wild, half-despairing glance, then hurried down the ladder.

I turned in astonishment to the others.

“Don't notice!” said Robin; “he's cut up at losing yer!” From the cellar issued a queer, raucous noise.

“He's sobbing; he's all broke up,” said Jerry Brown. “Poor old cove, he takes it hard.”

I rushed to the trapdoor, my heart on fire. “Uncle, dear old uncle!” I cried. But only silence answered me, and the councillors roughly pulled me back. They shook hands with me in turn as each passed down the ladder.

To my wild amaze they were all blubbing. Could they then have human hearts, I asked myself, these brutal murderers? This is how they answered me:

Pat Daly, first to go, put in my hands a small but handsome gold watch. “God bless you!” he said, and the tears streamed down his face.

Jerry Brown slipped into my pocket a lot of jingling coins—“for cigarettes,” he muttered, greeting like a babe.

Dave Gardner forced on me a pencil-case of solid gold; he said nothing, twice he gasped but could not speak, he descended the ladder biting his lips.

Jack Robin gave me a ten-pound note. “If you get hard up, write to me; don't worry the king,” he whispered.




  ― 99 ―

“Don't forget us, lad, and don't fag too hard. Good-bye. God bless you!” and he wrung my hand, but looking hard away, for his eyes were wet. I might have been going for ever from them. I did not answer any. I was deeply moved, and stood for a long while gazing at the trapdoor, and the yawning hole before it, but I could not weep. That was the single occasion on which I have heard any members of the Dogs' Push use the name of God legitimately. It seemed most strange. I knew then, as I know now, that no man has ever been created either entirely good or entirely wicked. The conviction soothed me like a charm. After all, these murderers were capable of love; seeing that they loved me; it was, indeed, impossible to doubt it; how then could I hate them? I made a resolve. I determined to devote myself to their regeneration. I did not know how to set about the task; I did not seek to know, but full of emotional wonder, and in a turmoil of conflicting thoughts, I threw myself upon my bed. Before I slept my heart went out in a wave of warm feeling to the woman with the eyes of amber, because she had saved my life. For my life was no longer a meaningless and empty dream. It was suddenly touched with purpose, irradiated with an ambition not all selfish and not all unworthy.

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