Robbery Under Arms, by Rolph Boldrewood

Chapter 42

A good many gentlemen and ladies that lived in the town and in the diggings, or near it, had come before this and had been dancing away and enjoying themselves, though the room was pretty full of diggers and all sorts of people. But as everybody was quiet and well behaved, it didn’t make much odds who was there.

But, of course, the Commissioner was the great man of the whole place, and the principal visitors, like the Mr. Dawsons and some others, were bound to come along with him. Then there were the other Government officers, the bankers and surveyors, lawyers and doctors, and so on. All of them took care to come a little late with their wives and families so as to be in the room at the same time as the swell lot.

Bella Barnes was going to marry a surveyor, a wildish young fellow, but a good one to work as ever was. She was going to chance his coming straight afterwards. He was a likely man to rise in his office, and she thought she’d find a way to keep him out of debt and drinking and gambling too.

Well, in comes the Commissioner and his friends, very grand indeed, all dressed like swells always do in the evening, I believe, black all over, white tie, shining boots, white kid gloves, flower in their buttonhole, all regular. People may laugh, but they did look different from the others — showed more blood like. I don’t care what they say, there is such a thing.

Close by the Commissioner, laughing and talking, was the two Mr. Dawsons; and — I saw Aileen give a start — who should come next, cheek by jowl with the police magistrate, whom he’d been making laugh with something he’d said as they came in, but Starlight himself, looking like a regular prince — their pictures anyhow — and togged out to the nines like all the rest of ’em. Aileen kept looking at him as he lounged up the ballroom, and I thought she’d fall down in a faint or bring herself to people’s notice by the wild, earnest, sad way she looked at him. However he’d got his clothes and the rest of it that fitted him like as if they’d been grown for him, I couldn’t think. But of course he’d made all that right when he went to Sydney, and had ’em sent up with his luggage in Mr. Dawson’s drag.

Though he didn’t seem to notice anything, I saw that he knew us. He looked round for a moment, and smiled at Aileen.

‘That’s a pretty girl,’ he said to one of the young fellows; ‘evidently from the country. I must get introduced to her.’

‘Oh, we’ll introduce you,’ says the other man. ‘They’re not half bad fun, these bush girls, some of them.’

Well, a new dance was struck up by the band just after they’d got up to the top of the room, and we saw Starlight taken up and introduced to a grand lady, the wife of the head banker. The Commissioner and some of the other big wigs danced in the same quadrille. We all moved a bit higher to get a good look at him. His make-up was wonderful. We could hardly believe our eyes. His hair was a deal shorter than he ever wore it (except in one place), and he’d shaved nearly all but his moustache. That was dark brown and heavy. You couldn’t see his mouth except when he smiled, and then his teeth were as white as Warrigal’s nearly and as regular. There was a softness, too, about his eyes when he was in a good temper and enjoying himself that I hardly ever saw in a man’s face. I could see Aileen watching him when he talked to this lady and that, and sometimes she looked as if she didn’t enjoy it.

He was only waiting his chance, though, for after he’d had a dance or two we saw him go up to one of the stewards. They had big rosettes on, and presently they walked round to us, and the steward asked the favour of Aileen’s name, and then begged, by virtue of his office, to present Lieutenant Lascelles, a gentleman lately from India, who had expressed a wish to be introduced to her. Such a bow Starlight made, too. We could hardly help staring. Poor Aileen hardly knew whether to laugh or to cry when he sat down beside her and asked for the pleasure of a dance.

She wouldn’t do that. She only came there to see him, she said, and me; but he persuaded her to walk round the room, and then they slipped into one of the supper-rooms, where they were able to talk without being disturbed, and say what they had in their hearts. I got Gracey to take a turn with me, and we were able to have our little say. She was, like Aileen, miserable enough and afraid to think of our ever having the chance of getting married and living happy like other people, but she told me she would wait and remain faithful to me — if it was to her life’s end — and that as soon as I could get away from the country and promise her to leave our wild lives behind she was ready to join us and follow me all over the world. Over and over again she tried to persuade me to get away like Jim, and said how happy he was now, and how much better it was than stopping where we were, and running terrible risks every day and every hour. It was the old story over again; but I felt better for it, and really meant to try and cut loose from all this cross work. We hadn’t too much time. Aileen was fetched back to her seat, and then Starlight went off to his friends at the other end of the room, and was chaffed for flirting with a regular currency lass by one of the Dawsons.

‘I admire his taste,’ says the Commissioner. ‘I really think she’s the prettiest girl in the room if she was well dressed and had a little more animation. I wonder who she is? What’s her name, Lascelles? I suppose you know all about her by this time.’

‘Her name is Martin, or Marston, or some such name,’ answered Starlight, quite cool and pleasant. ‘Deuced nice, sensible girl, painfully quiet, though. Wouldn’t dance, though, at all, and talked very little.’

‘By Jove! I know who she is,’ says one of the young chaps. ‘That’s Aileen Marston, sister to Dick and Jim. No wonder she isn’t over lively. Why, she has two brothers bush-rangers, regular out-and-outers. There’s a thousand on each of their heads.’

‘Good gad!’ says Starlight, ‘you don’t say so! Poor girl! What a most extraordinary country! You meet with surpwises every day, don’t you?’

‘It’s a pity Sir Ferdinand isn’t here,’ said the Commissioner. ‘I believe she’s an acquaintance of his. I’ve always heard she was a splendid girl, though, poor thing, frets to death about her family. I think you seem to have cheered her up, though, Lascelles. She doesn’t look half so miserable as she did an hour ago.’

‘Naturally, my dear fellow,’ says Starlight, pulling his moustache; ‘even in this savage country — beg your pardon — one’s old form seems to be appreciated. Pardon me, I must regain my partner; I am engaged for this dance.’

‘You seem disposed to make the most of your opportunities,’ says the Commissioner. ‘Dawson, you’ll have to look after your friend. Who’s the enslaver now?’

‘I didn’t quite catch her name,’ says Starlight lazily; ‘but it’s that tall girl near the pillar, with the pale face and dark eyes.’

‘You’re not a bad judge for a new chum,’ says one of the goldfield subs. ‘Why, that’s Maddie Barnes. I think she’s the pick of all the down-the-river girls, and the best dancer here, out-and-out. Her sister’s to be married tomorrow, and we’re all going to see her turned off.’

‘Really, now?’ says Starlight, putting up his eyeglass. ‘I begin to think I must write a book. I’m falling upon adventures hourly. Oh, the “Morgen-blatter”. What a treat! Can she valse, do you think?’

‘You try her,’ says the young fellow. ‘She’s a regular stunner.’

It was a fine, large room, and the band, mostly Germans, struck up some outlandish queer sort of tune that I’d never heard anything like before; whatever it was it seemed to suit most of the dancing people, for the floor was pretty soon full up, and everybody twisting round and round as if they were never going to stop. But, to my mind, there was not a couple there that was a patch on Maddie and Starlight. He seemed to move round twice as light and easy as any one else; he looked somehow different from all the others. As for Maddie, wherever she picked it up she went like a bird, with a free, springy sort of sliding step, and all in time to the music, anybody could see. After a bit some of the people sat down, and I could hear them passing their remarks and admiring both of ’em till the music stopped. I couldn’t make out whether Aileen altogether liked it or not; anyhow she didn’t say anything.

About an hour afterwards the camp party left the room, and took Starlight with them. Some one said there was a little loo and hazard at the Commissioner’s rooms. Cyrus Williams was not in a hurry to go home, or his young wife either, so I stayed and walked about with the two girls, and we had ever so much talk together, and enjoyed ourselves for once in a quiet way. A good crowd was sure to be at Bella Barnes’s wedding next day. It was fixed for two o’clock, so as not to interfere with the races. The big handicap was to be run at three, so we should be able to be at the church when Bella was turned off, and see Rainbow go for the great race of the day afterwards. When that was run we intended to clear. It would be time for us to go then. Things were middling straight, but it mightn’t last.

Next day was the great excitement of the meeting. The ‘big money’ was all in the handicap, and there was a big field, with two or three cracks up from Sydney, and a very good local horse that all the diggers were sweet on. It was an open race, and every man that had a note or a fiver laid it out on one horse or another.

Rainbow had been entered in proper time and all regular by old Jacob, under the name of Darkie, which suited in all ways. He was a dark horse, sure enough; dark in colour, and dark enough as to his performances — nobody knew much about them. We weren’t going to enter him in his right name, of course.

Old Jacob was a queer old fellow in all his ways and notions, so we couldn’t stable him in any of the stables in Turon, for fear of his being ‘got at’, or something. So when I wanted to see him the day before, the old fellow grinned, and took me away about a mile from the course; and there was old Rainbow, snug enough — in a tent, above all places! — but as fine as a star, and as fit as ever a horse was brought to the post.

‘What’s the fun of having him under canvas?’ I said. ‘Who ever heard of a horse being trained in a tent before? — not but what he looks first-chop.’

‘I’ve seen horses trained in more ways than one,’ says he, ‘and I can wind ’em up, in the stable and out of it, as mighty few in this country can — that is, when I put the muzzle on. There’s a deal in knowing the way horses is brought up. Now this here’s an excitable hoss in a crowd.’

‘Is he?’ I said. ‘Why, he’s as cool and steady as an old trooper when ——’

‘When powder’s burning and bullets is flying,’ says the old chap, grinning again; ‘but this here’s a different crowd. When he’s got a training saddle and seven or eight stone up, and there’s two or three hundred horses rattling about this side on him and that, it brings out the old racehorse feeling that’s in his blood, and never had a chance to show itself afore.’

‘I see, and so you want to keep him quiet till the last minute?’

‘That’s just it,’ says he; ‘I’ve got the time to a second’ — here he pulls out a big old turnip of a silver watch — ‘and I’ll have him up just ready to be weighed out last. I never was late in my life.’

‘All right,’ I said, ‘but don’t draw it too fine. Have you got your weight all right?’

‘Right to a hounce,’ says he, ‘nine stun four they’ve put on him, and him an untried horse. I told ’em it was weighting him out of the race, but they laughed at me. Never you mind, though, he can carry weight and stay too. My ten per cent’s as safe as the bank. He’ll put the stuns on all them nobs, too, that think a racehorse must always come out of one of their training stables.’

‘Well, good-bye, old man,’ says I, ‘and good luck. One of us will come and lead you into the weighing yard, if you pull it off, and chance the odds, if Sir Ferdinand himself was at the gate.’

‘All right,’ says he, ‘I’ll look out for you,’ and off he goes. I went back and told Aileen and Gracey, and we settled that they were to drive out to the course with Cyrus Williams and his wife. I rode, thinking myself safer on horseback, for fear of accidents. Starlight, of course, went in the Dawsons’ drag, and was going to enjoy himself to the last minute. He had his horse ready at a moment’s notice, and Warrigal was not far off to give warning, or to bring up his horse if we had to ride for it.

Well, the first part of the day went well enough, and then about half-past one we all went down to the church. The young fellow that was to marry Bella Barnes was known on the field and well liked by the miners, so a good many of them made it up to go and see the wedding. They’d heard of Bella and Maddie, and wanted to see what they looked like.

The church was on the side of the town next the racecourse, so they hadn’t far to go. By and by, as the crowd moved that way, Starlight says to the Commissioner —

‘Where are all these good folks making for?’

‘Why, the fact is there’s to be a wedding,’ he says, ‘and it excites a good deal of attention as the young people are well known on the field and popular. Bella Barnes and her sister are very fine girls in their way. Suppose we go and look on too! There won’t be anything now before the big race.’

‘By Jove! a first-rate ideah,’ says Starlight. ‘I should like to see an Australian wedding above all things.’

‘This will be the real thing, then,’ says Mr. Jack Dawson. ‘Let’s drive up to our hotel, put up the horses, have a devil and a glass of champagne, and we can be back easy in time for the race.’ So away they went. Cyrus drove the girls and his wife in his dogcart, so we were there all ready to see the bride come up.

It looked a regular grand affair, my word. The church was that crammed there was hardly a place to sit or stand in. Every woman, young and old, in the countryside was there, besides hundreds of diggers who sat patiently waiting as if some wonderful show were going to take place. Aileen and Gracey had come in early and got a pew next to the top almost. I stood outside. There was hardly a chance for any one else to get in.

By and by up comes old Jonathan, driving a respectable-looking carriage, with his wife and Bella and Maddie all in white silk and satin, and looking splendid. Out he gets, and takes Bella to walk up the middle of the church. When he went in with Bella, Maddie had one look in, and it seemed so crammed full of people that she looked frightened and drew back. Just then up comes the Mr. Dawsons and Starlight, with the Commissioner and a few more.

Directly he sees Maddie draw back, Starlight takes the whole thing in, and walked forward.

‘My dear young lady,’ says he, ‘will you permit me to escort you up the aisle? The bride appears to have preceded you.’

He offered her his arm, and, if you’ll believe me, the girl didn’t know him a bit in the world, and stared at him like a perfect stranger.

‘It’s all right, Miss Maddie,’ says the Commissioner. He had a way of knowing all the girls, as far as a laugh or a bit of chaff went, especially if they were good-looking. ‘Mr. Lascelles is an English gentleman, newly arrived, and a friend of mine. He’s anxious to learn Australian ways.’

She took his arm then and walked on, never looking at him, but quite shy-like, till he whispered a word in her ear which brought more colour into her face than any one had seen there before for a year.

‘My word, Lascelles knows how to talk to ’em,’ says Jack Dawson. ‘He’s given that girl a whip that makes her brighten up. What a chap he is; you can’t lick him.’

‘Pretty fair all round, I should say,’ says the other brother, Bill. ‘Hullo! are we to go on the platform with the parson and the rest of ’em?’

The reason was that as we went up the church all together, all in a heap, with the Barneses and the bride, they thought we must be related to ’em; and the church being choke-full they shunted us on to the place inside the rails, where we found ourselves drafted into the small yard with the bridegroom, the bride, the parson, and all that mob.

There wasn’t much time to spare, what with the racing and the general bustle of the day. The miners gave a sort of buzz of admiration as Bella and Maddie and the others came up the aisle. They looked very well, there’s no manner of doubt. They were both tallish girls, slight, but well put together, and had straight features and big bright eyes, with plenty of fun and meaning in ’em. All they wanted was a little more colour like, and between the hurry for time and Bella getting married, a day’s work that don’t come often in any one’s life, and having about a thousand people to look at ’em, both the girls were flushed up a good deal. It set them off first-rate. I never saw either of them look so handsome before. Old Barnes had come down well for once, and they were dressed in real good style — hadn’t overdone it neither.

When the tying-up fakement was over everything went off first-rate. The bridegroom was a hardy-looking, upstanding young chap that looked as if work was no trouble to him. Next to a squatter I think a Government surveyor’s the best billet going. He can change about from one end of the district to another. He has a good part of his time the regular free bush life, with his camp and his men, and the harder he works the more money he makes. Then when he comes back to town he can enjoy himself and no mistake. He is not tied to regular hours like other men in the service, and can go and come when he likes pretty well. Old Barnes would be able to give Bella and her sister a tidy bit of money some day, and if they took care they’d be comfortable enough off after a few years. He might have looked higher, but Bella would make any man she took to a slashing good wife, and so she did him. So the parson buckles them to, and the last words were said. Starlight steps forward and says, ‘I believe it’s the custom in all circles to salute the bride, which I now do,’ and he gave Bella a kiss before every one in the most high and mighty and respectful manner, just as if he was a prince of the blood. At the same time he says, ‘I wish her every happiness and good fortune in her married life, and I beg of her to accept this trifling gift as a souvenir of the happy occasion.’ Then he pulls off a ring from his little finger and slips it on hers. The sun glittered on it for a moment. We could see the stones shine. It was a diamond ring, every one could see. Then the Commissioner steps forward and begs to be permitted the same privilege, which made Bella laugh and blush a bit. Directly after Mr. Chanewood, who had stood quiet enough alongside of his wife, tucked her arm inside of his and walked away down the church, as if he thought this kind of thing was well enough in its way, but couldn’t be allowed to last all day.

When they got into the carriage and drove off the whole church was cleared, and they got such a cheer as you might have heard at Tambaroora. The parson was the only living soul left near the building in five minutes. Everybody was in such a hurry to get back to the course and see the big race of the meeting.

Starlight slipped away in the crowd from his two friends, and managed to get a quiet few minutes with me and Gracey and Aileen; she was scolding him between jest and earnest for the kissing business, and said she thought he was going to leave off these sort of attentions to other girls.

‘Not that she knew you at first, a bit in the world,’ Aileen said. ‘I watched her face pretty close, and I’m sure she thought you were some grand gentleman, a friend of the Commissioner’s and the Mr. Dawsons.’

‘My dearest girl,’ said he, ‘it was a promise I made months since that I should attend Bella’s wedding, and I never break my word, as I hope you will find. These girls have been good friends and true to us in our need. We all owe them much. I don’t suppose we shall cross each other’s path again.’

There wasn’t much more time. We both had to move off. He had just time to catch his drag, and I had to get my horse. The Dawsons bullied him a bit for keeping them waiting, and swore he had stayed behind to flirt with some of the girls in the church after the wedding was over.

‘You’re not to be trusted when there’s temptation going,’ Jack Dawson said. ‘Saw you talking to that Marston girl. If you don’t mind you’ll have your head knocked off. They’re a rum lot to deal with, I can tell you.’

‘I must take care of myself,’ he said, laughing. ‘I have done so in other lands, and I suppose yours is no exception.’

‘This is a dashed queer country in some ways, and with deuced strange people in it, too, as you’ll find by the time you’ve had your colonial experience,’ says Bill Dawson; ‘but there goes the saddling-bell!’

The course had 20,000 people on it now if there was one. About a dozen horses stood stripped for the race, and the betting men were yelling out the odds as we got close enough to the stand to hear them. We had a good look at the lot. Three or four good-looking ones among them, and one or two flyers that had got in light as usual. Rainbow was nowhere about. Darkie was on the card, but no one seemed to know where he was or anything about him. We expected he’d start at 20 to 1, but somehow it leaked out that he was entered by old Jacob Benton, and that acted as a damper on the layers of the odds. ‘Old Jake’s generally there or thereabouts. If he’s a duffer, it’s the first one he’s brought to the post. Why don’t the old varmint show up?’

This was what I heard about and round, and we began to get uneasy ourselves, for fear that something might have happened to him or the horse. About 8 or 9 to 1 was all we could get, and that we took over and over again.

As the horses came up the straight, one after the other, having their pipe-openers, you’d have thought no race had been run that week, to see the interest all the people took in it. My word, Australia is a horsey country, and no mistake. With the exception of Arabia, perhaps, as they tell us about, I can’t think as there’s a country on the face of the earth where the people’s fonder of horses. From the time they’re able to walk, boys and girls, they’re able to ride, and ride well. See the girls jump on bare-backed, with nothing but a gunny-bag under ’em, and ride over logs and stones, through scrub and forest, down gullies, or along the side of a mountain. And a horse race, don’t they love it? Wouldn’t they give their souls almost — and they do often enough — for a real flyer, a thoroughbred, able to run away from everything in a country race. The horse is a fatal animal to us natives, and many a man’s ruin starts from a bit of horse-flesh not honestly come by.

But our racing ain’t going forward, and the day’s passing fast. As I said, everybody was looking at the horses — coming along with the rush of the thoroughbred when he’s ‘on his top’ for condition; his coat like satin, and his legs like iron. There were lots of the bush girls on horseback, and among them I soon picked out Maddie Barnes. She was dressed in a handsome habit and hat. How she’d had time to put them on since the wedding I couldn’t make out, but women manage to dress faster some times than others. She’d wasted no time anyhow.

She was mounted on a fine, tall, upstanding chestnut, and Joe Moreton was riding alongside of her on a good-looking bay, togged out very superior also. Maddie was in one of her larking humours, and gave Joe quite enough to do to keep time with her.

‘I don’t see my horse here yet,’ she says to Joe, loud enough for me to hear; but she knew enough not to talk to me or pretend to know me. ‘I want to back him for a fiver. I hope that old Jacob hasn’t gone wrong.’

‘What do you call your horse?’ says Joe. ‘I didn’t know your father had one in this race.’

‘No fear,’ says Maddie; ‘only this horse was exercised for a bit near our place. He’s a regular beauty, and there isn’t a horse in this lot fit to see the way he goes.’

‘Who does he belong to?’ says Joe.

‘That’s a secret at present,’ says she; ‘but you’ll know some day, when you’re a bit older, if you behave yourself. He’s Mr. Jacob Benton’s Darkie now, and you bet on him to the coat on your back.’

‘I’ll see what I think of him first,’ says Joe, who didn’t fancy having a horse rammed down his throat like that.

‘If you don’t like him you don’t like me,’ says Maddie. ‘So mind that, Joe Moreton.’

Just as she spoke there was a stir in the crowd, and old Jacob came along across the course leading a horse with a sheet on, just as easy-going as if he’d a day to spare. One of the stewards rode up to him, and asked him what he meant by being so late.

The old chap pulls out his watch. ‘You’ll stick to your advertised time, won’t you? I’ve time to weigh, time to pull off this here sheet and my overcoat, time to mount, and a minute to spare. I never was late in my life, governor.’

Most of the riding mob was down with the racehorses, a distance or so from the stand, where they was to start, the course being over two miles. So the weighing yard and stand was pretty well empty, which was just what old Jacob expected.

The old man walks over to the scales and has himself weighed all regular, declaring a pound overweight for fear of accidents. He gets down as quiet and easy as possible to the starting point, and just in time to walk up steadily with the other horses, when down goes the starter’s flag, and ‘Off’ was the word. Starlight and the Dawsons were down there waiting for him. As they went away one of the ringmen says, ‘Ten to one against Darkie. I lay Darkie.’ ‘Done,’ says Starlight; ‘will you do it in tens?’ ‘All right,’ says the ‘book’. ‘I’ll take you,’ says both the Dawsons, and he entered their names.

They’d taken all they could get the night before at the hotel; and as no one knew anything about Darkie, and he had top weight, he hadn’t many backers.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31