no next

  ― 313 ―

Beneath the Summer Sun

THE blue infinitudes of the skies and the distant ranges were swimming in a lustrous haze to the eastward—but to the far westward, smoke upon smoke, thunderous in its aspect and in the rumble of its rapid encroachment on the doomed timber. And the men, hauling their sleeping caravan up the steep hill, beyond where Hartley Bridge now throws its span, shivered, as they gasped under the stress of their labour and in the stifling heat. They prayed for the night-fall. But it was as yet only high noon. And they knew as they prayed that their prayer was not to be answered. God might be willing to listen, but the System had cut off connection during working hours.

God might be merciful, but the new road organization was just. Being high noon, there would be no temporary lull in the labour for an hour, and no stoppage of it for six hours. Let the heavens burst with their brassiness, the new road regulations

  ― 314 ―
were imperative. So Ensign Manning, of the ——th Regiment, believed.

To do him justice, he believed it. All his instincts—he was but a boy—leaned to the side of good-comradeship and sympathy. But his orders were clear and precise—and this was his first command—and he was anxious, of course, to acquit himself well; and equally of course, the transports under him were terrible fellows! If they were not terrible fellows, justly smitten of fate, completely beyond reform, why, of course again, his superiors in Sydney would not have ordered them to the iron-bound gangs on the mountain roads. English law was ever just; and it was not his to reason why; and his privilege and his obligation as a true Englishman was to do his duty; and—and so forth.

Being only a boy, how was he to understand that never yet did the devil forge so potent an instrument of evil (save one) as an Englishman's belief that when he acts from a sense of duty he must be right? And that exceptional one was the mediæval Spaniard's notion that the more finished fiend he proved himself the more exquisite pleasure he conferred upon the Mother of God and the Saints.

  ― 315 ―

Now the Road Regulations, the Bible of the Blue Mountain iron-gang, were explicit as to the hours of work. The gangs were not supposed to labour between one and two p.m., but were supposed to be wielding the merry pick or the tamping-iron, or performing other soul-saving exertion, between five-thirty a.m. and six p.m.

And by the kinder grace of the Authorities, the dragging over ridge and range of their lumbering hell-upon-wheels was regarded as work upon the roads. The more brutal system of the earlier days had demanded that transports should remove their sleeping-vans from depôt to depôt in their own time, but the System at the epoch of this our present story was becoming humane, and it conferred upon the men the sweet boon of their own leisure. It was, however, a just system as well as a humane one—and therefore in the System's time the men had to work.

So they bent to the cable-thick rope, for all that the strands burnt and blistered like red-hot iron, and they trembled and stumbled step by step—to the length of their fetters. Which were not like red-hot iron, but were.

They had reached the razor-edge of a ridge. The caravan poised its twelve-feet length of unwieldiness on the crest, and the sergeant of the

  ― 316 ―
guard, walking a yard behind the van on one side of the road—so that such shade as was obtainable from the withered gums might refresh him—called across the road to the subaltern in command.

“Let ’em chock her a bit, sir!” Beneath the respectfulness of his tone was a sympathy, and more than one head beneath the leathern caps turned and sent a thankful look through dull eyes. He had done what he dared.

“They will have an hour's rest at one o'clock!” It was not Manning's fault if the earth spewed heat as well as the heavens. The regulations were imperative, and duty was duty. So the wheels were unchocked—then.

No. 8 was an old man. There was the benignancy of age in the grey hair and the white furrowed face. An uneducated man, that was plain, too, but from the glazing eye glimpses of intelligence slid out at moments; and feeling—the dumb, inarticulate feeling that you see in the eye of a dog. He was the sort of man of whom Wesley made his earliest class-leaders—who spoke of what they felt and not of what they knew, for they knew nothing save the desperate need of sinning souls and the goodness of God. This, at least, is what you could have read in his face. At

  ― 317 ―
the same time you would have been, so the Systemers would have told you, quite in error. For Bill Cousins, No. 8, was a mighty offender. The law had held him in bonds these ten years, and would do so for ten years more. His offence was heinous, and the portion of the wicked here and hereafter was his, or to be his. Even as he stands here, deceptively venerable in aspect, gasping long, long breaths, and praying mutely to his God to forgive him the sin of repining at his lot—for he does repine sometimes—it is questionable whether he should be allowed to live. The law had sentenced him to be hanged, drawn, and quartered, but the gracious prerogative of mercy had been exercised and his worthless life had been spared so that he might repent of his awful crime. And—that crime?

There are some offences against the law that may not be named audibly. This is one of them; hence, let us whisper it: “No. 8” had thrown a stone against a Bristol merchant's window in a Reform Bill riot.

There are many thousands in the indictment—a copy lies open before us now—but that is the plain meaning of the volume of involved verbiage. The Crown called it treason, but really he broke a window!

  ― 318 ―

And so old Bill Cousins deserves no sympathy from us, though he be sixty years of age, and tender of heart, and prayerful of speech, and mild of temper—and panting for breath beneath the burning blue of a January sky in a droughty summer.

The “hell-upon-wheels” swung upon the ridge, as six of the twelve men held her up with their backs against her, while the rest of the twelve eased her down with their crowbars. The privates of the guard, distant (as per regulation) ten paces on either side, watched the operation and were grateful for it. They got some shade, and stood easy resting on their muskets.

Slowly she descends. The three-foot diameter wheels, solid circles of timber, revolve reluctantly, and grate and crumble the granite rubble of the rocks. Perhaps one in fifty is the gradient, no great task to achieve even for a laden bullock-team in these days, when the art of the bullocky is dying out of the coast-lands; but a fit job for human refuse, such as No. 8, in the hot summer days of the early epoch. There was not one of the twelve that did not go maddened and desperate, as they fought that dreadful home of theirs. For she became endowed with life—she quivered—she

  ― 319 ―
reeled—she shrieked terribly as the devil in her, in the moment of contact with a boulder, twisted out the rude axle-pin, jerked off the left rear-wheel, and stretched her ponderous mass on her back. Over the cries of the gang, over the clank of the irons, over the crash of the beaten-in timber, over the groans of—of some one, rings stridently from among the spare shadows cast by a lank bloodwood—“Father!”

From side to side, struck this way, struck that way, went the gangers, who in the fear of the first shock had grouped themselves on the near side of the overturned caravan. The sergeant parted them with stinging blows, thrusting them apart as the diver does the waves. And they had not recovered their balance—there is no elasticity of step when the feet are drawing behind them seven-pound chains—when he, somewhat inconsistently as it may seem, considering his immediately preceding action, called upon them to help him.

“For God's sake! Wells, Beattie, Western—all o' you, help me! He's my father!”

And the eyes in the grey head just protruding beyond the edge of the van timbers open slowly at the words. The lids separate with a feeble tremulousness—but the light that shone in them!

  ― 320 ―
It shamed the blazing of the noon-day; and no wonder, for their luminousness was not of this world.

“Don' ’ee, Jimsey! I—be—aw’ reet!” And then the sergeant and the transports saw enough to convince them that to move the van would be to hasten death.

The sergeant, dashing his shako to the ground, knelt beside the prostrate, overlain form.

“O, father—father—I was feered o' this!” The piteous tearless sobs of the stricken man shook him fiercely. “I knew 'twould be so, sooner nor later!”

“Don' ’ee,—Jimsey,—lad! Now, don' ’ee!” The old man crooned this, and then his face changed fearfully. The terror of a great agony was in it, and it was not good to look upon. He pleaded (in a voice that brought the sweat to the gangers’ brows, and to the boy subaltern, who was the symbol to them of the Great and Merciful and Just British Empire, a faintness that he never forgot) for the fast-speeding death to come quicker.

“O God—O good God! Be ’ee merciful now, an' take I quick!”

The sergeant turned his head and showed a ghostly face to the gang.

  ― 321 ―

“Go ’ee ’way, men!” And he stooped once more over his dying father.

The gangers withdrew some paces—stealthily as though they were in a sick chamber. Some stooped as they moved and drew up the block of wood to which their chains were attached, so they should not clank.

Ensign Manning alone stayed where he stood. In his glance around the sergeant had not seen his officer, and perhaps would not now have noticed him had not the Ensign spoken.

“Is he really your father, sergeant? And can't we do anything? Can't we get him from under?”

The sergeant sprang up, and stood for one instant swaying on his feet as though nerving himself, after counting the cost of striking his officer, to dash Manning to the ground.

Manning certainly expected a blow, but did not flinch.

The blow, if intended, did not fall. For the old man spoke.

“Jimsey, now—don' ’ee! Yo' promised I as yo'd do yo' dooty!”

The sergeant knelt again. “Eh, dad—I did! An' I'll do it yet, for all they killed yo'!”

“An', Jimsey—yo'll seek—th' Kingdom, lad?

  ― 322 ―
Yo'd no go to the bad now poor old dad es gone? Thou was allus good t' I!”

“I tried to, father!” The sobs were not tearless now.

Manning turned away. He made a false clutch for his scabbard at his side. He had to make a second clutch before he grasped it.

What immediately happened then, no one of the gang or of the guard could say later.

Whether the old man, moved by his pangs, asked his son, or whether it was the sergeant's own thought, no one to this day knows. But a private of the guard saw the sergeant bend down and press his father's lips with his own, and then brush his clammy forehead with them. And then they heard a shot, and while yet dumb and stupefied with the report, they saw the non-com. rise from the side of his dead, and pass to where Ensign Manning was standing. He saluted, and holding out the still smoking pistol said—“’Twar better so, sir! There be no doctor nearer’n Emu or Bathurst. An' I couldna bear t' see th' o'd dad suffer. I give mysen up, sir!”

The Ensign would not order him into arrest.

  ― 323 ―

There are other meetings of convict father and soldier son recorded in the painful annals of the convict times. Only one, however, was more tragic in its results. And in that one also did a “hell-upon-wheels” play a part.

no next