Ralph Rashleigh, by James Tucker

Chapter 32

One, midst the forests of the west,

By a dark stream is laid ——

The indian knows his place of rest,

Far in the cedar shade.

The Sea Mew swiftly breasted the bounding billows, bearing the lost children to the arms of their sorrowing parent; but the thoughts of our exile, as he marked hill after hill of the coast that were so rapidly left behind him on his return but had cost him so much toil to pass upon his journey northward, were of a very foreboding cast.

“True,” thought he, “I may fairly claim sorne consideration from the Colonel for preserving the lives of his children and for restoring them to his embrace in safety and in honour. But is it likely that an officer so high in the service will deem that he can even owe thanks to a doubly convicted felon? Will it not appear to him to be his duty to give me up to the law for punishment, which cannot fail to award me an ignominious death as having participated in an act of piracy, for such no doubt they will call the seizure of the little boat, especially as it was attended with a resistance to the authorities of Newcastle that ended in the death of at least one commissioned officer in the army.”

At length he bethought himself that as all his boat companions were dead it would be impossible for anyone to prove he had ever been of their party, and as there were every day, generally, some prisoners running away from the limeburners, who for the most part either perished miserably in the bush of starvation or joined the blacks, why might he not be believed if he stated that he had absconded by land as so many others had done before him? This result appeared so probable, and in case it should prove to be true, the consequences so trifling, that he resolved to attempt this method of escaping from the difficulty of his position, as he knew that at the worst the period of his banishment to the Coal river having long since expired, the only punishment likely to be inflicted on him for absconding would be perhaps fifty lashes, when he would revert to the condition of an ordinary convict.

The day prior to that of their expected arrival at Sydney, Rashleigh sought an interview with Mrs Marby and acquainted her, after apologizing for not having told her the truth before, that he was, in fact, a runaway, and that he trusted, in consideration of his services to her, she would endeavour to prevail upon Colonel Woodville to use Ins interest in obtaining pardon from the Governor for his colonial offences.

The lady heard his tale with great surprise, though she remarked she had often wondered at his superior intelligence; but with ready female wit she added, “As you have deceived me and all that are on board this vessel, you may deceive many others into the belief you are really an aboriginal black. So, for fear the Colonel may not have the power to get you your liberty, I desire you will not perrnit any other person to share in the secret you have told me until I shall request it. For, to say the least of it, it would be such a dreadful thing that you should lose your freedom through saving our lives as I cannot bear to think of; and it were better for you to fly into the wildest bush again, there to persevere in the savage mode of life you have now become accustomed to, than that you should again be subject to the miseries you relate having suffered at the place you ran away from. At any rate, I will do my best to interest my father in your behalf; but until I can do this, pray remain black, although I should like to see what kind of a white man you would make!”

There was an air of truthfulness in this lady’s address which inspired Rashleigh with confidence, so he lay down to rest with a much lighter heart; and ere he awoke next morning the Sea Mew was running up the harbour of Port Jackson. To the surprise of Captain Bell, our exile, instead of dressing himself in the best European clothes he had got, stripped himself of those he then wore, and assuming the opossum cloak and other paraphernalia of a native warrior, caused Enee to paint his body and dress up his hair with grass and feathers before he went on shore.

Colonel Woodville, having been informed of the safe arrival of his daughters, sent a carriage for them to the wharf, himself being confined to his bed of sickness. Mrs Marby requested our adventurer to accompany them to his residence, and Rashleigh left the schooner, promising the captain, who was very loath to part with him, that he would soon return. The Colonel’s domestics, who idolized their young ladies and had understood the obligations they lay under to the sooty personage who followed them, received Rashleigh very cordially, welcoming him to the house, where they said it was their master’s order an apartment was to be provided for Bealla — the native name of our exile — and his two gins. The former, however, was rather puzzled and not a little annoyed at the absurd remarks that greeted his every word and action, proceeding from the female servants, who were not long in the Colony and appeared to consider a native black of Australia as only a higher sort of brute; and they were consequently much astonished to observe that Ralph knew the usages of civilized life, until he told them he had been bred in a white family, when their exclamations of surprise at his having again taken to the bush almost deafened him.

In the afternoon Mrs Marby sent for our exile and informed him that the joy of their meeting had so much overpowered the Colonel as to make him rather worse. She said she had therefore postponed until another day any mention of the real position of their deliverer, whom, however, their father was most anxious to see, that he might return thanks in person for those exertions that had preserved his daughters. The lady also offered Rashleigh money and begged of him to bring Tita and Enee home to their house, which she insisted none of them were to quit any more, as the Colonel had declared, while he had a shilling left, Bealla and his gins should have a portion of it.

Ralph returned thanks for all this kindness and promised next day to bring the two females with him. He declined to receive any money, however, as he had several pieces of gold in his belt, and besides, only intended to go back on board the Sea Mew for that night. He then took his leave and returned to the vessel, where he found Captain Bell eagerly awaiting his arrival, and Tita and Enee not less so, the latter being very impatient to display a whole milliner’s shop of finery, which the captain and crew had purchased for their use, and both these sable specimens of feminine loveliness were now arrayed in costume which, considering that expense had not been spared to make a show, and that the steward, who purveyed the “rigging”, as he called it, had endeavoured as closely as he could to copy the dress worn by Poll Blazer of Portsmouth point, had at least the merit, perhaps a questionable one, of being exceedingly original; though to judge from the extraordinary attitudes assumed by both Tita and Enee, the latter considered their pink silk bonnets with enormous green veils streaming behind them in the breeze — as Captain Bell swore, like the commodious broad pendant — and surmounted by a host of magnificent blue and white feathers, as being the very ne plus ultra of black elegance. A burst of uproarious laughter from Ralph, as he surveyed the extraordinary. garb of the gins, rather discomposed the majestic airs of the latter; but Captain Bell, taking their part against our adventurer, good-humouredly said that he only laughed to conceal his anger at not being able to cut such a dash himself, when Enee at once pulled off her bonnet and begged Bealla to put it on. Nor was it until Ralph promised to go and dress himself that the gin could he induced to desist in pressing that novel head-dress for a male upon his notice.

At length they, and the urgent entreaties of the sailors, induced Rashleigh to array himself once more in European clothing; and although he put on a pair of broad pink-striped seaman’s trousers and an anchor-patterned shirt, with a flowing handkerchief, and all else to correspond, he was scarcely fine enough for the fastidious taste of the crew, who, with their captain at their head, now insisted on the whole party adjourning to a public-house, known as the Old Black Dog, on the Rocks, where a separate room, two fiddlers and a proportionate number of nymphs of the pavé being engaged, the jovial mariners passed the night in having what they called “a jolly good spree”, the party not breaking up until an hour after sunrise next morning, when they were fairly dead beat.

Night after night the same sport was pursued by the crew, and they would fain have had both Rashleigh and the gins to accompany them; but the former often excused himself, and the latter, who now lived with the ladies at Colonel Woodville’s mansion, could not be induced to go among the females on the Rocks any more, for they had been quite frightened by a fight that took place the first night between two of the ladies, and they used to say, “White man sometimes pretty quiet, but white woman big devil when they drink fire-water.”

It was nearly a month before Colonel Woodville recovered sufficiently to see our adventurer. When he did so he returned his warmest thanks to him as the preserver of three beings so dear to him that he declared he felt as if he could not have survived their loss. And the old gentleman, moved even to tears, on concluding, said, “Now, Bealla, if there’s anything in the world I can do for you, you have only got to name it. At any rate, you will always stop here, and I will take care neither you nor yours shall ever want.”

Rashleigh was much affected, and on looking to Mrs Marby, who was present, he thought he read in that lady’s eye permission to tell his true history to her father. So he said, “I hope, Colonel Woodville, for your daughter’s sake, you will pardon my having attempted to deceive you, for it was Mrs Marby that desired me to wait your recovery before I sought to make you acquainted with my true position. You see before you, Colonel, a runaway convict, one driven to abscond by such sufferings as rarely fall to the lot of human beings, but whose colonial career, at least, has been unstained by the commission of any crime, save that of attempting his escape from too galling a servitude.”

Colonel Woodville looked with amazement upon our exile, but spoke not for several minutes. At length he said, “I never felt until now how hard it may become to perform a duty. Still, hard though it be, it must be done. So long as I thought you to be unstained by crime, my home and all its comforts were free to you; but now that you have yourself avowed you are a fugitive criminal, I have but one course to adopt.”

Mrs Marby here stopped her father’s hand as he was about to ring the bell, saying in tones of the deepest emotion. “Oh papa, what are you about to do?”

“My duty, child, to give the runaway up,” replied her father, almost as much agitated as his daughter.

“What! Because he has saved all our lives and confided in your generosity, will you hand him back to those cruel beings that tortured him nearly to death before? Fly, Rashleigh! Seek the bush again! There you can live and there you must strive to forget the ingratitude of your countrymen; but if ever I can help you, you shall not reproach a woman with ingratitude.”

“No, lady!” replied our exile. “I do not blame the Colonel, for I know he is only about to do his duty. But I trust, if he should find what I have stated respecting my colonial career being free from crime is true, that he will intercede to prevent my being again sent back to the horrid scenes which I absconded to avoid.”

The Colonel had sunk into a seat. His head was buried in his hands. He said, “Neither man nor woman before could ever accuse Hugh Woodville of ingratitude. And you, Lucy, know not how you have wrung your father’s heart. But listen to me,” he added, seeing Mrs Marby about to speak, “I will do all and more than Rashleigh requests. A strict investigation shall take place into his colonial history; and if I find he is not all corrupt, I will exert my interest to procure his freedom.”

“That’s spoken like my own papa!” said the lady, embracing her sire. “And I am sure from Rashleigh’s conduct towards two helpless women that he will be proved to merit your interference.”

It was now decided that next morning the Colonel should wait upon the chief convict officer, to whom he was to speak on Ralph’s behalf, the latter giving himself up at the same time, while Mrs Marby, her sister, and son were to solicit an audience from the Governor and acquaint him with their rescue.

About ten o’clock the next forenoon, our exile repaired to Hyde Park Barracks, where in a little while Colonel Woodville arrived on horseback. In a short time the former was summoned into the presence of the head of his department, who, with ill-subdued austerity, questioned him as to where he had spent his servitude, and being replied to, Mr H. ordered an attending official to bring that volume of the records of convicts’ punishmerit which contained the letter “R”.

On opening this huge and melancholy tome, the chief enquired what ship our exile had arrived in the Colony by, and being answered, he turned over the leaves muttering, “Ralph Rashleigh, per Magnet . . . Um . . . Aye, here he is . . . First offence, absconding and robbery, sentenced death, respited . . . Hum . . . Newcastle, three years . . . Hum . . . Aye . . . How many times did you get punished at Newcastle?” addressing our adventurer.

“Nine times, sir,” replied Ralph.

“Hum . . . A troublesome fellow, I’ll be bound. How many robberies did you commit while you were in the bush?”

“Not one, sir,” answered the accused.

“Oh, of course not,” remarked the haughty official with a sneer. “But how did you live then?”

Rashleigh here related the circumstances attending his first meeting with Foxley and made much the same defence as he had done at his trial.

“A very pretty and well-got-up story, indeed!” observed the great man. “Now, sir, can you bring any tittle of evidence that you have spoken the truth?”

Rashleigh related what had happened at Shanavan’s and mentioned how Mrs McGuffin had interfered on his behalf.

Colonel Woodville paid the greatest attention to all that passed. He took down Shanavan’s direction, saying that he would go thither and ascertain the truth of this statement, while the Superintendent of Convicts engaged to write to Newcastle forthwith in order to see under what circumstances our exile had absconded.

Rashleigh was now ordered to be strictly confined; but the Colonel interceded to prevent this, saying, “He came to me of his own accord yesterday, Mr H., and told me his tale, which I rather think is true. So I cannot believe he will run away any more, and I wish therefore you would oblige me by treating him well until these enquiries are made.”

This was courteously complied with by the great officer, who fully marked his estimation of the wide difference between a colonel and a convict by exhibiting as much fawning servility towards the former as he displayed haughty scorn to the latter. Our adventurer went among the other prisoners in the barrack yard, who all, taking him for a negro, a race that was rather scarce at that period in the Colony, began to play an manner of tricks with him, having christened him “Sambo”. And they annoyed him so much that at length in self-defence he thrashed two or three of the foremost.

The same evening Colonel Woodville’s footman was sent by his young lady to acquaint our exile that His Excellency had received them very kindly but would promise nothing in his behalf until his colonial character could he ascertained. Mrs Marby requested that her preserver — for so she still called our convict — would keep up his spirits, as he should not be forgotten by her, in proof of which she sent him an ample supply of money and directed if he required anything that he should send to her for it. Rashleigh was very grateful and requested the man to bring him some nitrous ether from a chemist’s shop, with two or three other compounds; and having procured these, he set himself sedulously to work to remove the now useless disguise of his sable skin.

The application of the lotion he had mixed caused the skin to peel off; so that the morning after he had first put it on, the outer coat that had been stained black was all hanging in rags on every part of him, to the great amazement of his convict companions, who now called him the piebald man. And it was fully a week before his person had resumed its former appearance, when the newly-formed cuticle, though extremely tender at first, appeared to him much more delicate and pure than ever he could recollect it to have been before; and it produced such a youthful effect in his appearance as quite surprised him when he looked at his face in a mirror.

Ten days had elapsed, during which our exile continually received. kind messages from Mrs Marby and her sister but began to sigh for even savage freedom, when one bright morning, the brightest indeed that had ever beamed for Ralph Rashleigh in New South Wales, Colonel Woodville rode into Hyde Park Barracks, and directly after the name of our adventurer was lustily shouted by the boatswain of the yard.

He was ushered once more into the office of the Chief Superintendent, who stared at him for a moment and then said, “Who are you, sir?”

“Ralph Rashleigh, sir,” was the reply.

At the sound of the voice the Colonel burst out laughing and said, “I am sure, so strong are first impressions, I always expected to see you black! And I can hardly be sure it is the same man now that saved my daughters.”

The Superintendent then said, using rather a kinder tone than customary while addressing a convict, “You may thank Colonel Woodville all the days of your life, and you ought to serve him very faithfully, for he has saved you from going back to the Coal river to finish your sentence there, and you are now assigned to him for the present.”

The Colonel here remarked that was all the favour he could as yet obtain from the Governor for our exile, and a promise, if the latter behaved himself well for one year, that he should be recommended to the home government for a pardon.

Rashleigh was now directed to repair to the house of the Colonel; but the latter requested he would await his arrival ere he saw Mrs Marby, as he had a desire to be present at the first interview of his daughter with one whom she had always known as a black, but who was now turned white.

In compliance with this request, it was three o’clock before Ralph was sent for to the drawing-room. having spent the intermediate hours in the apartment of the stewards, who had by the Colonel’s command provided him with a respectable suit of clothes.

Mrs Marby, her son and sister were seated with their father when the latter sent for Rashleigh, and on his entrance the Colonel said, “Ladies, permit me to introduce my new servant to you.”

Mrs Marby looked at the stranger — so did the others — then at the old gentleman, who smiled and said, “Have you no tongue, sire. Pray, what’s your name?”

Our exile felt that he must look simple enough, so he merely replied, “Ralph Rashleigh, sir.”

At the sound of his voice the little boy ran to him and sought his favourite resting-place in our adventurer’s arms. But the ladies absolutely screamed with surprise, while Mrs Marby remarked, “Well, to be sure, it ought not to excite any surprise in us that you have resumed your natural colour again. And yet I shall always think of my preserver as a black man, such is the power of habit. However, black or white, you are welcome, for I am certain you will prove to my papa that my good opinion of you was well founded.”

“I do not doubt it, Lucy,” here observed the Colonel, “for I have heard another excellent account of his conduct in trying to save a poor girl from destruction. And I cannot believe that a person who is amenable to such generous impulses as have prompted Rashleigh can possess a corrupt heart!”

“Well, well, let us hope all our troubles are over now,” exclaimed Mrs Marby. “Rashleigh shall go and be overseer on my farm at the Hawkesbury and for his wages shall have half the profits of the land. Will that satisfy you?” turning to our exile, who of course thanked her for so liberal an offer.

One thing rather surprised our adventurer, and that was neither Tita nor Enee could ever be brought to treat him with any familiarity after his metamorphosis; for though they had seen him as a white man once before, yet suffering and toil had then so much embrowned his complexion that it differed but little from the hue he had so long borrowed. His attempts to enter into conversation in the native tongue with either were ever after repulsed with distant respect, and though he saw them repeatedly in subsequent years and sometimes playfully addressed them in aboriginal terms of endearment, they would resist all his attempts to lead them into any lengthened converse, generally saying, “You white gentleman now. No more blackfellow!” and depart to attend upon their mistresses, in whose service both still remain, though Mrs Marby now resides in India, and Miss Woodville in England.

Shortly after our adventurer’s liberation from Hyde Park Barracks, he went to take charge of an estate on the Hawkesbury, the property of the former lady, and having received a conditional pardon for his services to her and her sister, in a few years removed to New England, then a recently opened pastoral country. The attention of the Australian settlers having been more directed to sheep-farming than before, Captain Marby had purchased some sheep, and Rashleigh was retained to manage them.

The sufferings of his early career in the Colony produced such an effect of reformation in his mind that he was ever after respected as a man of scrupulous integrity by all that knew him, who united sincerely in lamenting his premature death, which took place in 1844 after the following manner.

A party of hostile aborigines had been long committing depredations on the flocks of the squatters near Beardie Plains, and Rashleigh chanced to be visiting a friend there on an occasion when a breathless messenger entered to acquaint the latter that one of his shepherds had been killed and the flock driven off by the blacks. The two superintendents mounted their horses and galloped away in pursuit. It was nearly sunset ere they overtook the marauding party, who were encamped, having penned up the sheep in a rude stockyard formed of houghs. The sable plunderers instantly took to flight on the appearance of the horsemen, who proceeded to drive the flock homewards; but as they passed a dense thicket, the native war-whoop sounded as the prelude to a volley of spears, seven of which piercing the unfortunate Rashleigh, he fell from his horse and could only urge his friend to fly and save his life ere he died. His companion galloped off to the nearest station and returned as quickly as possible to the spot; but the unhappy Ralph had long been dead, his remains having been cruelly maltreated by these bloodthirsty barbarians, whom the mock philanthropy of the age characterises as inoffensive and injured beings.

Reader, the corpse of the exile slumbers in peace on the banks of the Barwon, far from his native land. Let us hope that his sufferings and untimely death, alas, have expiated the errors of his early years.

This web edition published by:

eBooks@Adelaide
The University of Adelaide Library
University of Adelaide
South Australia 5005

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/t/tucker/james/1952/chapter32.html

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