Geoffrey Hamlyn, by Henry Kingsley

Chapter 42

The Fight Among the Fern-trees.

Then Desborough cried aloud to ride at them, and spare no man. And, as he spoke, every golden fernbough, and every coigne of vantage among the rocks, began to blaze and crackle with gun and pistol shot. Jim’s horse sprung aloft and fell, hurling him forcibly to the ground, and a tall young trooper, dropping his carbine, rolled heavily off his saddle, and lay on the grass face downward, quite still, as if asleep.

“There’s the first man killed,” said the Major, very quietly. “Sam, my boy, don’t get excited, but close on the first fellow you see a chance at.” And Sam, looking in his father’s face as he spoke, saw a light in his eyes, that he had never seen there before — the light of battle. The Major caught a carbine from the hands of a trooper who rode beside him, and took a snap shot, quick as lightning, at a man whom they saw running from one cover to another. The poor wretch staggered and put his hands to his head, then stumbled and fell heavily down.

Now the fight became general and confused. All about among the fern and the flowers, among the lemanshrubs, and the tangled vines, men fought, and fired, and struck, and cursed; while the little brown bandiroots scudded swiftly away, and the deadly snake hid himself in his darkest lair, affrighted. Shots were cracking on all sides, two riderless horses, confused in the MELEE, were galloping about neighing, and a third lay squealing on the ground in the agonies of death.

Sam saw a man fire at his father, whose horse went down, while the Major arose unhurt. He rode at the ruffian, who was dismounted, and cut him so deep between the shoulder and the neck, that he fell and never spoke again. Then seeing Halbert and the Doctor on the right, fiercely engaged with four men who were fighting with clubbed muskets and knives, he turned to help them, but ere he reached them, a tall, handsome young fellow dashed out of the shrub, and pulling his horse short up, took deliberate aim at him, and fired.

Sam heard the bullet go hissing past his ear, and got mad. “That young dog shall go down,” said he. “I know him. He is the one who rode first yesterday.” And as this passed through his mind, he rode straight at him, with his sword hand upon his left shoulder. He came full against him in a moment, and as the man held up his gun to guard himself, his cut descended, so full and hard that it shore through the gunbarrel as through a stick, and ere he could bring his hand to his cheek, his opponent had grappled him, and the two rolled off their horses together, locked in a deadly embrace.

Then began an awful and deadly fight between these two young fellows. Sam’s sword had gone from his hand in the fall, and he was defenceless, save by such splendid physical powers as he had by nature. But his adversary, though perhaps a little lighter, was a terrible enemy, and fought with the strength and litheness of a leopard. He had his hand at Sam’s throat, and was trying to choke him. Sam saw that one great effort was necessary, and with a heave of his whole body, threw the other beneath him, and struck downwards, three quick blows, with the whole strength of his ponderous fist, on the face of the man, as he lay beneath him. The hold on his throat loosened, and seeing that they had rolled within reach of his sword, in a moment he had clutched it, and drawing back his elbow, prepared to plunge it in his adversary’s chest.

But he hesitated. He could not do it. Maddened as he was with fighting, the sight of that bloody face, bruised beyond recognition by his terrible blows, and the wild fierce eyes, full of rage and terror, looking into his own, stayed his hand, and while he paused the man spoke, thick and indistinctly, for his jaw was broken.

“If you will spare me,” he said, “I will be King’s evidence.”

“Then turn on your face,” said Sam; “and I will tie you up.”

And as he spoke a trooper ran up, and secured the prisoner, who appealed to Sam for his handkerchief. “I fought you fair,” he said; “and you’re a man worth fighting. But you have broken something in my face with your fist. Give me something to tie it up with?”

“God save us all!” said Sam, giving him his handkerchief. “This is miserable work! I hope it is all over.”

It seemed so. All he heard were the fearful screams of a wounded man lying somewhere among the fern.

“Where are they all, Jackson?” said he.

“All away to the right, sir,” said the trooper. “One of my comrades is killed, your father has had his horse shot, the Doctor is hit in the arm, and Mr. James Brentwood has got his leg broke with the fall of his horse. They are minding him now. We’ve got all the gang, alive or dead, except two. Captain Desborough is up the valley now after the head man, and young Mr. Hawker is with him. D— n it all! hark to that.”

Two shots were fired in quick succession in the direction indicated; and Sam having caught his horse, gallopped off to see what was going on.


Desborough fought neither against small nor great, but only against one man, and he was George Hawker. Him he had sworn he would bring home, dead or alive. When he and his party had first broken through the fern, he had caught sight of his quarry, and had instantly made towards him, as quick as the broken, scrub-tangled ground would allow.

They knew one another; and, as soon as Hawker saw that he was recognised, he made to the left, away from the rest of his gang, trying to reach, as Desborough could plainly see, the only practicable way that led from the amphitheatre in which they were back into the mountains.

They fired at one another without effect at the first. Hawker was now pushing in full flight, though the scrub was so dense that neither made much way. Now the ground got more open and easier travelled, when Desborough was aware of one who came charging recklessly up alongside of him, and, looking round, he recognised Charles Hawker.

“Good lad,” he said; “come on. I must have that fellow before us there. He is the arch-devil of the lot. If we follow him to h-ll, we must have him!”

“We’ll have him, safe enough!” said Charles. “Push to the left, Captain, and we shall get him against those fallen rocks.”

Desborough saw the excellence of this advice. This was the last piece of broken ground there was. On the right the cliff rose precipitous, and from its side had tumbled a confused heap of broken rock, running out into the glen. Once past this, the man they were pursuing would have the advantage, for he was splendidly mounted, and beyond was clear galloping ground. As it was, he was in a recess, and Desborough and Charles, pushing forward, succeeded in bringing him to bay. Alas, too well!

George Hawker reined up his horse when he saw escape was impossible, and awaited their coming with a double-barrelled pistol in his hand. As the other two came on, calling on him to surrender, Desborough’s horse received a bullet in his chest, and down went horse and man together. But Charles pushed on till he was within twenty yards of the bushranger, and levelled his pistol to fire.

So met father and son the second time in their lives, all unconsciously. For an instant they glared on one another with wild threatening eyes, as the father made his aim more certain and deadly. Was there no lightning in heaven to strike him dead, and save him from this last horrid crime? Was there no warning voice to tell him that this was his son?

None. The bullet sped, and the poor boy tumbled from his saddle, clutching wildly, with crooked, convulsive fingers at the grass and flowers — shot through the the chest!

Then, ere Desborough had disentangled himself from his fallen horse, George Hawker rode off laughing — out through the upper rock walls into the presence of the broad bald snow-line that rolled above his head in endless lofty tiers towards the sky.

Desborough arose, swearing and stamping; but, ere he could pick up his cap, Sam was alongside of him, breathless, and with him another common-looking man — my man, Dick, no other — and they both cried out together, “What has happened?”

“Look there!” said Desborough, pointing to something dark among the grass — “that’s what has happened. What lies there was Charles Hawker, and the villain is off.”

“Who shot Charles Hawker?” said Dick.

“His namesake,” said Desborough.

“His own father!” said Dick; “that’s terrible.”

“What do you mean?” they both asked, aghast.

“Never mind now,” he answered. “Captain Desborough, what are you going to do? Do you know where he’s gone?”

“Up into the mountain, to lie by, I suppose,” said Desborough.

“Not at all, sir! He is going to cross the snow, and get to the old hut, near the Murray Gate.”

“What! Merryman’s hut?” said the Captain. “Impossible! He could not get through that way.”

“I tell you he can. That is where they came from at first; that is where they went to when they landed; and this is the gully they came through.”

“Are you deceiving me?” said Desborough. “It will be worse for you if you are! I ain’t in a humour for that sort of thing. Who are you?”

“I am Mr. Hamlyn’s groom — Dick. Strike me dead if I ain’t telling the truth!”

“Do you know this man, Buckley?” said Desborough, calling out to Sam, who was sitting beside poor Charles Hawker, holding his head up.

“Know him! of course I do,” he replied; “ever since I was a child.”

“Then, look here,” said Desborough to Dick; “I shall trust you. Now, you say he will cross the snow. If I were to go round by the Parson’s I shouldn’t get much snow.”

“That’s just it, don’t you see? You can be round at the huts before him. That’s what I mean,” said Dick. “Take Mr. Buckley’s horse, and ride him till he drops, and you’ll get another at the Parson’s. If you have any snow, it will be on Broadsaddle; but it won’t signify. You go round the low side of Tambo, and sight the lake, and you’ll be there before him.”

“How far?”

“Sixty miles, or thereabouts, plain sailing. It ain’t eleven o’clock yet.”

“Good; I’ll remember you for this. Buckley, I want your horse. Is the lad dead?”

“No; but he is very bad. I’ll try to get him home. Take the horse; he is not so good a one as Widderin, but he’ll carry you to the Parson’s. God speed you.”

They watched him ride away almost south, skirting the ridges of the mountain as long as he could; then they saw him scrambling up a lofty wooded ridge, and there he disappeared.

They raised poor Charles Hawker up, and Sam, mounting Dick’s horse, took the wounded man up before him, and started to go slowly home. After a time, he said, “Do you feel worse, Charles?” and the other replied, “No; but I am very cold.” After that he stayed quite still, with his arm round Sam Buckley’s neck, until they reached the Brentwoods’ door.

Some came out to the door to meet them, and, among others, Alice. “Take him from me,” said Sam to one of the men. “Be very gentle: he is asleep.” And so they took the dead man’s arm from off the living man’s shoulder, and carried him in; for Charles Hawker was asleep indeed — in the sleep that knows no waking.


That was one of the fiercest and firmest stands that was ever made by bushrangers against the authorities. Of the latter five were shot down, three wounded, and the rest captured, save two. The gang was destroyed at once, and life and property once more secure, though at a sad sacrifice.

One trooper was shot dead at the first onset — a fine young fellow, just picked from his regiment for good conduct to join the police. Another was desperately wounded, who died the next day. On the part of the independent men assisting, there were Charles Hawker killed, Doctor Mulhaus shot in the left arm, and Jim with his leg broke; so that, on that evening, Captain Brentwood’s house was like a hospital.

Captain Brentwood set his son’s leg, under Dr. Mulhaus’ directions, the Doctor keeping mighty brave, though once or twice his face twisted with pain, and he was nearly fainting. Alice was everywhere, pale and calm, helping every one who needed it, and saying nothing. Eleanor, the cook, pervaded the house, doing the work of seven women, and having the sympathies of fourteen. She told them that this was as bad a job as she’d ever seen; worse, in fact. That the nearest thing she’d ever seen to it was when Mat Steeman’s mob were broke up by the squatters; “But then,” she added, “there were none but prisoners killed.”

But when Alice had done all she could, and the house was quiet, she went up to her father, and said —

“Now, father, comes the worst part of the matter for me. Who is to tell Mrs. Hawker?”

“Mrs. Buckley, my dear, would be the best person. But she is at the Mayfords’, I am afraid.”

“Mrs. Hawker must be told at once, father, by some of us. I do so dread her hearing of it by some accident, when none of her friends are with her. Oh, dear! oh, dear! I never thought to have had such times as these.”

“Alice, my darling,” said her father, “do you think that you have strength to carry the news to her? If Major Buckley went with you, he could tell her, you know; and it would be much better for her to have him, an old friend, beside her. It would be such a delay to go round and fetch his wife. Have you courage?”

“I will make courage,” she said. “Speak to Major Buckley, father, and I will get ready.”

She went to Sam. “I am going on a terrible errand,” she said; “I am going to tell Mrs. Hawker about this dreadful, dreadful business. Now, what I want to say is, that you mustn’t come; your father is going with me, and I’ll get through it alone, Sam. Now please,” she added, seeing Sam was going to speak, “don’t argue about it; I am very much upset as it is, and I want you to stay here. You won’t follow us, will you?”

“Whatever you order, Alice, is law,” said Sam. “I won’t come if you don’t wish it; but I can’t see ——”

“There now. Will you get me my horse? And please stay by poor Jim, for my sake.”

Sam complied; and Alice, getting on her riding-habit, came back trembling, and trying not to cry, to tell Major Buckley that she was ready.

He took her in his arms, and kissed her. “You are a brave, noble girl,” he said; “I thank God for such a daughter-in-law. Now, my dear, let us hurry off, and not think of what is to come.”

It was about five o’clock when they went off. Sam and Halbert, having let them out of the paddock, went indoors to comfort poor Jim’s heart, and to get something to eat, if it were procurable. Jim lay on his bed tossing about, and the Doctor sat beside him, talking to him; pale and grim, waiting for the doctor who had been sent for; no other than his drunken old enemy.

“This is about as nice a kettle of fish,” said Jim, when they came and sat beside him, “as a man could possibly wish to eat. Poor Cecil and Charley; both gone, eh? Well, I know it ain’t decent for a fellow with a broken leg to feel wicked; but I do, nevertheless. I wish now that I had had a chance at some of them before that stupid brute of a horse got shot.”

“If you don’t lie still, you Jim,” said Sam, “your leg will never set; and then you must have it taken off, you know. How is your arm, Doctor?”

“Shooting a little,” said the Doctor; “nothing to signify, I believe. At least, nothing in the midst of such a tragedy as this. Poor Mary Hawker; the pretty little village-maid we all loved so well. To come to such an end as this!”

“Is it true, then, Doctor, that Hawker, the bushranger, is her husband?”

“Quite true, alas! Every one must know it now. But I pray you, Sam, to keep the darkest part of it all from her; don’t let her know that the boy fell by the hand of his father.”

“I could almost swear,” said Sam, “that one among the gang is his son too. When they rode past Alice and myself yesterday morning, one was beside him so wonderfully like him, that even at that time I set them down for father and son.”

“If Hamlyn’s strange tale be true, it is so,” said the Doctor. “Is the young man you speak of among the prisoners, do you know?”

“Yes; I helped to capture him myself,” said Sam. “What do you mean by Hamlyn’s story?”

“Oh, a long one. He met him in a hut the night after we picnic’d at Mirngish, and found out who he was. The secret not being ours, your father and I never told any of you young people of the fact of this bushranger being poor Mrs. Hawker’s husband. I wish we had; all this might have been avoided. But the poor soul always desired that the secret of his birth might be kept from Charles, and you see the consequences. I’ll never keep a secret again. Come here with me; let us see both of them.”

They followed him, and he turned into a little side room at the back of the house. It was a room used for chance visitors or strangers, containing two small beds, which now bore an unaccustomed burden, for beneath the snow-white coverlids, lay two figures, indistinct indeed, but unmistakeable.

“Which is he?” whispered the Doctor.

Sam raised the counterpane from the nearest one, but it was not Charles. It was a young, handsome face that he saw, lying so quietly and peacefully on the white pillow, that he exclaimed —

“Surely this man is not dead?”

The Doctor shook his head. “I have often seen them like that,” he said. “He is shot through the heart.”

Then they went to the other bed, where poor Charles lay. Sam gently raised the black curls from his face, but none of them spoke a word for a few minutes, till the Doctor said, “Now let us come and see his brother.”

They crossed the yard, to a slab outbuilding, before which one of the troopers was keeping guard, with a loaded carbine, and, the Sergeant coming across, admitted them.

Seven or eight fearfully ill-looking ruffians lay about on the floor, handcuffed. They were most of them of the usual convict stamp, dark, saturnine looking fellows, though one offered a strange contrast by being an Albino, and another they could not see plainly, for he was huddled up in a dark corner, bending down over a basin of water, and dabbing his face. The greater part of them cursed and blasphemed desperately, as is the manner of such men when their blood is up, and they are reckless; while the wounded ones lay in a fierce sullen silence, more terrible almost than the foul language of the others.

“He is not here,” said Sam. “Stay, that must be him wiping his face!”

He went towards him, and saw he was right. The young man he had taken looked wildly up like a trapped animal into his face, and the Doctor could not suppress an exclamation when he saw the likeness to his father.

“Is your face very bad?” said Sam quietly.

The other turned away in silence.

“I’ll tie it up for you, if you like,” said Sam.

“It don’t want no tying up.”

He turned his face to the wall, and remained obstinately silent. They perceived that nothing more was to be got from him, and departed. But, turning at the door, they still saw him crouched in the corner like a wild beast, wiping his bruised face every now and then with Sam’s handkerchief, apparently thinking of nothing, hoping for nothing. Such a pitiful sight — such an example of one who was gone beyond feeling pity, or sorrow, or aught else, save physical pain, that the Doctor’s gorge rose, and he said, stamping on the gravel —

“A man, who says that that is not the saddest, saddest sight he ever saw, is a disgrace to the mother that bore him. To see a young fellow like that with such a PHYSIQUE— and God only knows what undeveloped qualities in him, only ripe for the gallows at five-and-twenty, is enough to make the angels weep. He knows no evil but physical pain, and that he considers but a temporary one. He knows no good save, perhaps, to be faithful to his confederates. He has been brought up from his cradle to look on every man as his enemy. He never knew what it was to love a human being in his life. Why, what does such a man regard this world as? As the antechamber of hell, if he ever heard of such a place. I want to know what either of us three would have been if we had had his training. I want to know that now. We might have been as much worse than him as a wolf is worse than an evil-tempered dog.”

A beautiful colley came up to the Doctor and fawned on him, looking into his face with her deep, expressive, hazel eyes.

“We must do something for that fellow, Sam. If it’s only for his name’s sake,” said the Doctor.


That poor boy, sitting crouched there in the corner, with a broken jaw, and just so much of human feeling as one may suppose a polecat to have, caught in a gin, is that same baby that we saw Ellen Lee nursing on the door-step in the rain, when our poor Mary came upon her on one wild night in Exeter.

Base-born, workhouse-bred! Tossed from workhouse to prison, from prison to hulk — every man’s hand against him — an Arab of society. As hopeless a case, my lord judge, as you ever had to deal with; and yet I think, my lord, that your big heart grows a little pitiful, when you see that handsome face before you, blank and careless, and you try, fruitlessly, to raise some blush of shame, or even anger in it, by your eloquence.

Gone beyond that, my lord. Your thunderbolts fall harmless here, and the man you say is lost, and naturally. Yet, give that same man room to breathe and act; keep temptation from him, and let his good qualities, should he have any, have fair play, and, even yet, he may convert you to the belief that hardened criminals may be reformed, to the extent of one in a dozen; beyond that no reasonable man will go.

Let us see the end of this man. For now the end of my tale draws near, and I must begin gathering up the threads of the story, to tie them in a knot, and release my readers from duty. Here is all I can gather about him —

Sam and the Doctor moved heaven, earth, and the Colonial Secretary, to get his sentence commuted, and with success. So when his companions were led out to execution, he was held back; reserved for penal servitude for life.

He proved himself quiet and docile; so much so that when our greatest, boldest explorer was starting for his last hopeless journey to the interior, this man was selected as one of the twelve convicts who were to accompany him. What follows is an extract which I have been favoured with from his private journal. You will not find it in the published history of the expedition:—

“Date — lat. — long. — Morning. It is getting hopeless now, and tomorrow I turn. Sand, and nothing but sand. The salsolaceous plants, so long the only vegetation we have seen, are gone; and the little sienite peak, the last symptom of a water-bearing country, has disappeared behind us. The sandhills still roll away towards the setting sun, but get less and less elevated. The wild fowl are still holding their mysterious flight to the north-west, but I have not wings to follow them. Oh, my God! if I only knew what those silly birds know. It is hopeless to go on, and, I begin to fear, hopeless to go back. Will it never rain again?

“Afternoon. — My servant Hawker, one of the convicts assigned to me by Government, died today at noon. I had got fond of this man, as the most patient and the bravest, where all have been so patient and so brave. He was a very silent and reserved man, and had never complained, so that I was deeply shocked on his sending for me at dinner-time, to find that he was dying.

“He asked me not to deceive him, but to tell him if there was any truth in what the gaol-chaplain had said, about there being another life after death. I told him earnestly that I knew it as surely as I knew that the earth was under my feet; and went on comforting him as one comforts a dying man. But he never spoke again; and we buried him in the hot sand at sundown. The first wind will obliterate the little mound we raised over him, and none will ever cross this hideous desert again. So that he will have as quiet a grave as he could wish.

“Eleven o’clock at night. — God be praised. Heavy clouds and thunder to the north. —”

So this poor workhouse-bred lad lies out among the sands of the middle desert.

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Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 21:44