Ralph Rashleigh, by James Tucker

Chapter 20

That night it was my lot to gain

A reliquary and a chain. . .

Demand not how the prize I hold!

It was not given, or lent, or sold.

Upon approaching the western road, the party lay to in a thicket, while McCoy, who was now dressed in Huggins’s clothes, was sent forward to reconnoitre. He carried a pistol, a pair of handcuffs, and a letter which had been found in their victim’s pocket, and was instructed by Foxley, in the event of being met and questioned, what he should say, so that he might pass for a constable proceeding from Penrith, with a letter for Overseer Huggins.

He was away nearly two hours, and on his return he reported that the coast was clear, when the rest of the party recrossed with him the avenue they had so much dreaded to pass. All that day they wandered about in the vicinity of the road without food, and after nightfall McCoy was dispatched with directions to endeavour to procure some eatables from a station which they knew to be at no great distance. Rashleigh, worn out by hunger and fatigue, had long been asleep in their temporary hiding-place, when, far in the night, their emissary returned. Our adventurer, however, was awakened by Foxley, who bade him “bear a hand, rouse up, and eat that”, at the same time throwing him a piece of bread and a lump of raw salt meat, as, independent of their desire for speed, they dared not light a fire to cook anything, being too close to the road and settled part of the country. When he had partly devoured this primitive meal, he was handcuffed to Smith, who was, for the present, divested of his arms and destined with himself to enact the part of a prisoner in charge of Foxley and McCoy, who both of them assumed the character of constables, escorting prisoners to Penrith lock-up house.

They now went boldly on to the high-road, along which they proceeded in silence about two miles, until Rashleigh came to a place he recognised as being on the top of Lapstone hill, the last eminence of the Blue mountains eastward, and but a short distance from Ralph’s old quarters at Emu Plains. At the foot of the hill, a usual halting place, they found two drays, the drivers of which, according to their general practice, were encamped under them. The sham constables here diverged from the road and went up to the fires left alight by the travellers. The oxen were grazing around, but the dogs quickly aroused the sleepers, of whom there were four in all. The mock prisoners were now ordered to halt by Foxley and McCoy, who asked if they could have a drink of water. One of the men replied, “Certainly”, and gave them some, adding that if they would wait a few minutes, some tea should be prepared for them.

“Why, neither I nor my mate,” returned Foxley, “care about tea; but if you’ve a mind to give these poor devils of prisoners any, I dare say they would be glad of a feed, before they get to their journey’s end in the chokey (lock-up).”

“If that’s like to be the end of their travels,” observed the kind-hearted bullock-driver, “I pity them, with all my heart.” And he half-filled a large iron pot in order to boil it for tea.

The rest of the travellers were now assembled round the fire, helping to get ready a feed; for these wayfarers on the roads of New South Wales were at that time remarkably hospitable, as their erratic mode of life placed them completely at the mercy of any of the many small bands of armed plunderers who were so frequently levying contributions on the King’s highway in those days; and the ordinary carriers always paid great court to the convict population, perhaps imagining they might often escape being plundered, if they could only acquire the name of good fellows among that class. In the present case, therefore, while they treated the supposed constables with only ordinary civility, they paid most solicitous attention to their sham prisoners, supplying them with pipes and tobacco, and hastening the preparation of food for their use.

At length, all being ready, the new-comers sat down to eat, their hosts excusing themselves from joining in the repast, upon the ground that they had supped at a very late hour, and they sat in various positions telling, or seeking after news. At length one of the bullock-drivers asked what the prisoners were charged with, and McCoy replied, “They are bolters (runaway convicts). They belonged to that mob of Foxley the bushranger’s; but they won’t tell us where we could find him, or else we’d very soon have him as well as them.”

The name of Foxley caused an instant sensation. All the travellers began at once to question their visitors.

“Was Foxley near this? — How long since he’d been heard of? — What way was it thought he was going?” And the last querist enquired what was the last robbery or murder he had done.

To these hasty queries McCoy replied that it was thought Foxley was now somewhere near Bathurst, but had been heard of going back to the south, where he had lately been robbing all the country, concluding by stating that “Foxley might be a great terror to the south country constables, but he only wished that himself and his mate could come across the scoundrel, that was all!”

At this the elder of the bullock-drivers very politically observed, “For my part, I’d like to make a child’s bargain with Foxley: let be for let be. For folks do say he’s a regular devil, a complete fire-eater; and at any rate, it don’t answer, you know, for us folks that’s on the road to be meeting with gentlemen of his sort very often.”

“Och, botheration to your clack,” now struck in a sprightly Hibernian among the travellers, whose face betokened his unquestionable Milesian origin. “What a clatter you keep about Foxley! As if nobody knew anything about him at all at all but yourself. Sure, an’t Phil Foxley my own uncle’s wife’s shister’s husband’s sixth cousin? And oughtn’t I to know him, whin we used to be gossoons together playing at hurley in ould Ireland? And mark my words, sure you’d see if Phil was forenenst me now” (and the speaker looked direct at Foxley) “all that would be in id: he’d say at wanst, ‘Murtagh Cassidy, my jewel, is id yourself that’s in id?’ And he’d thrate me to the besht that was to be got!”

“But did you ever see Foxley since you came to this country?” now enquired McCoy, having been prompted to ask this ingenious gentleman the question by the real Simon Pure, who in fact appeared much to enjoy the rhodomontade of his Irish relation.

“Is id me see him?” responded the other, nothing abashed. “Faix thin, Mr Consthable, maybe id’s wanting to thrap me you are, in the regard ov my poor cuzin Phil, bein’ onlooky and the like. But, you see, I’ll only tell you I seen him a good many times in the counthry, and I won’t tell you neither whin nor whare we met. So you can’t take no hould of that, you see. Oh, I don’t mean any harm,” replied McCoy; “but only I’d like to know what like a man he is in size, as everybody talks so much about him. I’ve got a description of him from the runaway list; but then, that was took a long time ago, when he first came to the country, you know.”

“Och faix. As to that, if id’s your look to take the poor boy a presnor, ‘why, God’s will be done! What soort of a man is he, agrah? Faix thin, he looks just like meself; and we used always to be took for brothers even, if you plaze, whin we’d be together.”

Now the only difference between the appearance of Foxley and his veracious pretended kinsman were these: the former was as swarthy as an Italian, the latter as red as a fox; Philip was about sixteen stone weight, Murtagh not more than seven; Foxley was a strongly built, muscular and well-proportioned man, Cassidy was a little lean fretful-looking being, with ferret eyes, fiery hair and a confirmed snub nose. So, after all, their general favour could never have been so exceedingly alike, but the fact was, the whole tale was no more than a pure invention of the fertile brain of this ingenious off-side bullock-driver, who was very fond of what is by the vulgar in the Colony called “lifting himself”, that is, seeking for respect from others at the expense of truth.

Another of the bullock-drivers hereupon observed, “It’s all very well for you to talk about such things; but I should only just like to know whether there is any chance of our falling in with the same Foxley, for I could guess what to do in such a case.”

“Indeed!” said the bushranger chief. “Then I can tell you I have real good reasons for believing that Phil Foxley is not so far off as my mate here seems to think. In fact, I am certain I have been quite close to him this very day, and I’ll swear I will be alongside of him tonight yet, let him look as sharp as he likes; for I won’t sleep until I do. But, you know, when we came across these two men, we was forced to take them to the lock-up before we could go after the others.”

“Well then, if he’s so close as that,” returned the bullock-driver, “we must begin to look a little sharp, for he may be paying us a visit, if he knows we are on the road. I’ll just get my musket ready, and I’d advise you to do the same, Jem.”

Accordingly, Jem and the last speaker disappeared under the dray and presently returned with two old soldiers’ firelocks, which they began to arrange. Jem remarked that the charge had been so long in his gun he should draw it out, and began to do so; but Foxley, seeing that the screw on the end of his ram-rod was broken, offered to do it for him, and the other thanked him, resigning the weapon for this purpose.

In the mean time McCoy had got hold of the other man’s piece under pretence of looking at it. He turned round to Foxley. Their eyes met. Both lay down the travellers’ muskets and presented their own at the astonished bullock-drivers, whom they ordered to stand still on peril of their lives. “For,” added Foxley, in a tone of thunder, “I am Foxley the bushranger!”

Master Cassidy at that moment was stooping to light his pipe; but no sooner did he hear this dreaded mandate than, letting fall both pipe and knife into the fire in a paroxysm of fright, he leaped backwards over a heap of bullock bows, yokes and chains and ran off with the speed of a hunted deer.

McCoy presented his piece; but Foxley, who burst into an uproarious fit of laughter at the hasty retreat of his so-called cousin, thrust up the muzzle of the other’s musket, and as soon as he could speak cried, “Damn him, how he runs away from his relation. Come back, you fool, to your cousin phil! No. he won’t! Well then, blast him, let him run. He can’t get any help within three miles, at any rate, and I strongly suspect he’s too much bothered by his fright to know what way to go to look for it at all.”

The handcuffs were now taken off the pretended prisoners. Smith, being equipped with a gun, was posted as a guard over the remaining three travellers, whose persons were then closely searched by McCoy, who deprived them of their valuables with considerable address and some jokes as to how nicely they were taken in by the supposed constables. In the mean time Foxley had nearly unloaded both the bullock drays and selected such articles as he thought fit from their lading, all this being completed in a marvellously short space of time. The bullock-drivers were lashed fast to the poles and wheel of their drays, and the bushrangers, heavily laden, departed under the guidance of their chief.

The neighbourhood seemed to be quite familiar to Foxley, who led them by a most circuitous route until they again reached the foot of the mountains, where they are washed by the Nepean at the northern end of the Emu Plains. Here, in a most sequestered spot, they halted as the morning dawned, and took their first regular meal for forty-eight hours; after this they examined their booty, which comprised half a chest of tea, a bag of Mauritius sugar, a basket of Brazilian tobacco and a quantity of wearing apparel, shawls and handkerchiefs. They had also secured some flour and pork, and fancied themselves freed from apprehensions of famine, at least for a week. The greater part of the day was spent in sleep, and at the approach of night, McCoy was again dispatched to reconnoitre. After a short absence he returned and led the party to the river bank at a spot where they found a large bark canoe, which it seemed he had stolen from some settler’s wharf hard by.

In this they paddled along very softly for some hours, keeping under the shade of the mountains as much as possible, for the opposite bank of the river was crowded with human habitations, and it was sometimes so narrow that even the slight noise they unavoidably made in using their rude oars alarmed the farmers’ dogs, who ran along the shore baying with all their might and thus aroused their masters and mistresses, who then appeared in grotesque groups on the heights beside the stream, bearing bark torches in their hands, and hailing, to know whether there was anyone upon the river. But as the depredators in the canoe, of course, did not choose to reply, and as the precautions taken by these good folks in bringing out their flaring flambeaux effectually prevented themselves from seeing any object at the distance of a dozen yards from their noses, they could not discover the cause of the incessant din created by their wiser as well as more sharp-sighted canine guardians, and the party proceeded unmolested until the first blush of dawn tinged the eastern sky; when, finding themselves near a favourable spot, they ran their canoe close in among the reeds, unloaded her, concealed their cargo in various places, and then betook themselves to a fastness in the North Rocks, where they slept without fear.

Upon awakening in the evening, Foxley and McCoy had a short conversation with Smith, and leaving him, as it seemed, to watch Rashleigh, they set off towards the river. From conversation with his companion in their absence, Ralph discovered that their present hiding-place was the North Rocks, near Richmond, and that the other two bushrangers had now gone to that place in order to find out a purchaser for the fruits of their enterprise. They did not return until very early in the morning, when all of the party set to work collecting the goods they had hidden, and placing them together, the person with whom they had agreed to become a purchaser being expected every moment.

There was a man, at that time, whom every person in the neighbourhood of Richmond knew by the name of Sobersides. Originally a prisoner, and one of the greatest scamps even among that most scampish body, he for a very long period endeavoured to acquire the enviable notoriety of a flash man; that is, in the terms of the immortal Shakspeare,

A ruffian that will swear, drink, dance,
Revel the night, rob, murder, and commit
The oldest sins the newest kind of ways!

But alas, he found that fame did not flow upon him so quickly through this channel as he had expected, probably owing to the number of skilful competitors with whom he had to contend in the race for this very amiable distinction. He therefore suddenly altered his whole plan, and, as many other vulgar-minded men in New South Wales have done, nay, are daily doing after a long career of villainy, Mr Sobersides turned hypocrite, no doubt expecting that the éclat which was denied to his previous course of atrocity would readily be granted to the brilliant novelty of his conversion. And in his common daily conversation, which had heretofore been a disgusting olla-podrida of the most brutal sensuality and soul-destroying imprecations, he now expatiated with vast unction upon the marvellous power of grace which had plucked him, as it were, like a brand from the burning, and delivered him from the domination of the world, the flesh and the devil!

So great a proficient did this consummate schemer become in his new art that his hypocrisy very shortly deceived both the village parson, who appointed him his clerk and sexton, and the village magistrate, who appointed him district constable. In this united capacity Mr Sobersides had now continued to officiate for several years, during the course of which he contrived to accumulate a very considerable portion of the world’s wealth; the rather that though he was extremely Pharisaical in his outward deportment, and no man could utter the responses on Sunday in his elevated station before the assembled inhabitants with a more solemn and edifyingly sanctified tone, yet he, in truth, possessed a most accommodating conscience, and never scrupled to overlook any violation of the law, so long as he obtained good and sufficient reasons of Sterling weight for doing so. But it is to be observed that he invariably atoned for his deviations from the strict line of duty in favour of those who could pay him well for his lenity, by a double portion of rigour towards all those rapscallions who, though they were so poor as to be unable to afford the harbinger of justice a douceur, yet had the unparalleled audacity to commit a breach of law or decorum, and their slightest faults were always magnified by him into crimes of heinous turpidity before “Their washups” until he thus became a perfect terror to all the miserable wretches of government men in his neighbourhood who fell under the displeasure of their masters for non-performance of the allotted quota of labour which the government regulations of that day exacted from each assigned convict.

Such was Mr Sobersides, whose terror to the minute fry of evil-doers illustrated the saying that “laws are like cobwebs, which catch the small flies, but allow the large ones to escape”; and his fame for pitiless execution of his duty having long before extended to Emu Plains, it may be supposed that Rashleigh’s astonishment was great when he saw this vigilant conservator of public peace and morality appear in the North Rocks in the capacity of a customer for the spoils of the lawless Foxley and his desperate associates, whose freebooting exploits, it seemed, he had often before profited by, heedless that by so doing he supported and encouraged a band of bloodthirsty ruffians who would stop at the commission of no act of atrocity to glut their eager desire for spoil.

In order to guard against any unpleasant recognition in after times on the part of their visitor, the bushrangers all wore pieces of crape upon their faces and were directed by Foxley not to speak during the bargain, which was to be carried on solely by himself. From the easy and unrestrained manner of both parties, it was evident they had frequently transacted business together before; nor were they long at present in making a deal, when he departed, leaving behind him a sack full of empty bags, into which the tea, sugar and other articles were transferred from their original packages. The replenished sacks were stowed away in a secret nook, the tea chest, bags and basket, which had been taken from the dray, being carefully buried by the bushrangers.

The latter now retreated to a place of security in the neighbourhood, where the day was spent subsequently in sleeping by Foxley and McCoy, who had apparently been up all night, Smith and Rashleigh being directed to maintain a sharp look-out; though from the nature of their present nearly inaccessible retreat there was indeed little danger of interruption.

The North Rocks of Richmond is the name given to a most singular valley that appears to have suffered some extraordinary convulsion of nature, being completely filled with immense masses of stone, apparently vomited out of the bowels of the earth by the agency of an earthquake, and left lying wherever chance had directed their fall, so that it was absolutely choked with

Rocks, mounds, and crags, confusedly hurled,
The relics of an earlier world.

At the upper end of this valley rises a precipitous hill, in the face of which appear many horizontal chasms. One of these, in particular, near its base, though possessing a very low entrance, is internally of great extent, and in most places from ten to twelve feet high. The floor of this cavern is composed of the débris of the sandstone that forms one stratum of the hill, and is perfectly dry, save in a corner, where a single drop of pellucid water continually falls from a joint in the rock; and this, through its long sustained action, has worn a basin about two feet wide and eighteen inches in depth, which is constantly full of most beautifully clear and cold water.

At the opposite side of the cavern from this spring is a narrow perpendicular slit in the rocky roof, open to the heavens, but fringed with brushwood so as to be nearly invisible from any distance, either above or beneath. This orifice admits a considerable quantity of light to the interior of the cave, which was selected for their retreat by Foxley, who had obviously made use of it for a similar purpose before, as he led the way to the opening, that admitted them without any difficulty, though it was so very low and well concealed by an overhanging rock that any person unaware of its existence might pass to and fro its front daily for years and still never discover it. In fact, it was necessary to creep into it on all fours; but after their having gone a few feet in this manner, the rock that formed its roof receded so much that the tallest man could stand erect. In this secluded spot did the party of bushrangers spend the rest of the day. A fire was made under the cleft before spoken of, on a spot that indicated having been appropriated to the same purpose before, and the materials for which they found lying near.

At nightfall they conveyed their plunder to the bank of the river under the guidance of Foxley, and very shortly after they had done so could observe, from the concealment in which they stood, that a boat approached, sculled by a single person, who proved to be Mr Sobersides, bearing the money agreed on between himself and Foxley as the price of the spoil. A few moments served to transfer the bags into the boat, which now disappeared, and the marauders retraced their steps towards the cavern, as it seemed to Rashleigh; but after travelling a short distance, the leader and his two companions held a consultation which ended in their turning abruptly again towards the river and reaching the bank at a different spot to the one they had so lately quitted. McCoy now searched among the reeds for some time, and then called to the others, who, on obeying his summons, found him guiding a catamaran, upon which they all got and quickly crossed the stream.

After they had ascended the high river bank, many lights were visible, and the busy hum of voices was heard directly in their route. Foxley and McCoy walked on either side of Rashleigh, whom the former cautioned to be silent, and they thus went on for about half an hour, until they had left the greater part of the houses behind. They then halted and McCoy went forward alone; but upon his returning in a few moments, the whole party again proceeded and presently arrived at a house standing by itself. Lights appeared within and the voice of a female was heard singing. Foxley tapped at the door and the travellers were admitted.

The apartment was a spacious one, of the usual humble order as regards furniture, etc., with those belonging to the greater portion of settlers; still, from many circumstances, it was obvious the occupants of the dwelling were in easy circumstances. The female that admitted them was a young and handsome Australian, who appeared overjoyed to see McCoy, whom she welcomed with many kisses. in a few moments two other girls and an elderly man and woman came in, who seemed happy to see the new arrivals, to whom food was pressingly offered, but declined by all; and McCoy, taking one of the girls aside, spoke something to her, finishing his conversation by giving her money. She went Out, and Foxley and Smith, who had by this time attached themselves to the other two girls, maintained a conversation with them, abounding, as it seemed, with some very merry topics, for ever and anon a loud and hearty peal of laughter accompanied their sallies.

The absent fair one now returned, bringing on her head a keg, the arrival of which was hailed with acclamations; and the party, excepting our adventurer, drew up to the table. Cards were produced, rum served round, and all preparations made for spending a social evening. Foxley had told Rashleigh, before he joined the group at the table, to sit in a certain part of the room, warning him that if he offered to leave it but for one instant without acquainting either himself or McCoy, then he would shoot him dead; and he cocked one of the pistols he wore at his belt, with a glance that spoke volumes, as he whispered this caution.

Near to the stool on which our adventurer was seated there was a table with a few books. One of these he found to be the Arabian nights, which was wonderfully tattered and dog’s-cared, while a volume alongside of it, The whole duty of man, was scarcely soiled, and though of an ancient edition, had more than half its leaves uncut. Rashleigh took the former and was quickly lost to all sense of the outer world, as well as the noisy mirth of the group around him, while perusing its pages, which frequently filled him with painful recollections, as it reminded him of the happy and guiltless days of his youth, when he had last delighted in the gorgeous delineations of Oriental magnificence with which these tales abound.

In the mean time his companions were rapidly getting furious with intoxication. They began to sing, to bellow and to rave, until at length, Foxley’s eye resting upon Ralph, he got up, staggered towards him, and asked what was the reason he did not drink; was he too much of a gentleman for his company? In vain did the other assure his tyrant that he had drunk abundantly and proffered evidence of his having just emptied a teacup full of rum and water.

“A tea-cup!” hiccupped the desperado. “To the devil with such an egg shell as a tea-cup.” And going to the fireplace, he seized on an empty quart pot which, after spilling a great deal, he at length succeeded in filling with raw rum from the keg.

Then, returning with it, he addressed his prisoner thus, “Here, damn your snivelling carcase. Take that and drink it off, directly. Do you think I’m going to let you keep sober while we all get drunk, so that you may go and bring the bloody traps (constables) upon us? So drink that at once, d’ye hear?”

Rashleigh remonstrated. The eyes of Foxley flashed fire; he drew the cocked pistol from his waist and presented it full at Rashleigh’s head, roaring, “Drink, you beggar, or die!”

This effectually put a stop to any further scruples, so our wretched adventurer took the pot and raised it to his lips, while Foxley kept on shouting, “Down with it, every drop,” still menacing with the pistol. Thus perforce compelled, Ralph drained the vessel of its burning contents. A savage laugh of exultation rang in his ears, and he sank senseless on the floor.

When Rashleigh recovered his consciousness, he was oppressed with a sensation of parching thirst. The torments of the damned raged in his whole frame. He attempted to rise, but fell again to the earth. He strove to speak, but his tongue clave to the roof of his mouth, and he thus lay in agony, but perfectly sensible. In a little while he heard the voice of Foxley, engaged in conversation with a female. They appeared to have been awakened by the noise of Ralph’s fall, and were sleeping in the same room at no great distance from him. Presently their alarm respecting the disturbance subsided, and their conversation took another rum, in the course of which the female seemed anxious to impress upon the mind of Foxley the magnitude of some booty that he would acquire by engaging in a certain enterprise, which, it appeared, they had been conversing about before, winding up her exordium by saying that she should soon find out whether her present bedfellow really loved her, as, if he did, he would not let that saucy Nancy Doughboy wear a silk gown while she had only a printed one! To all this Foxley replied in a suitable manner, so as to remove any doubts of his resolution from the mind of his chère amie, and silence was soon again restored.

This dialogue set our adventurer’s rum-bewildered brains in a complete ferment, for by it he well knew some new and most probably atrocious act of turpitude was resolved upon by Foxley; and the state of Rashleigh’s sensorium conjured up the most appalling visions of demons, furies and disembodied spirits colleagued to punish his wicked and guilty companions as well as to lavish torments upon himself for being even their unwilling associate. Never did poor mortal pass hours of such intense pain, both bodily and mental; but the former, sharp though it was, almost enough to bid his throbbing temples split, was yet as nothing to the latter, for his diseased imagination presented the most vivid representation to his inward vision of the last dread place of final torment spread with lakes of never-dying flame, where foul and gibbering monster fiends of all kind of hideous and indescribable shapes exhausted their ingenuity in inventing fresh and unendurable tortures for himself and the bushrangers.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/t/tucker/james/1952/chapter20.html

Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 20:05