Ralph Rashleigh, by James Tucker

Chapter 23

There are more things in heaven and earth, horatio,

Than are dreamed of in your philosophy.

It was many weeks before McCoy was judged sufficiently out of danger to travel, in the tender estimation of the medical gentlemen, who were most assiduous in their attention to him, so that he might be sufficiently recovered to grace the gallows with proper éclat. At length they set forward in a bullock-cart, well guarded by a posse of mounted police. Both Rashleigh and the other were heavily ironed, and at their departure, so far from attracting any execrations from the crowd that had assembled to see them set out, most of the bystanders seemed to pity them very much; and what our adventurer thought more strange than all, the women in particular gave vent to many tears of commiseration, especially devoted to McCoy, whose yet languid motions and pallid features showed the severity of the sufferings occasioned by his wound; and many were the gifts of money, tobacco, spirits and provisions that were made to the prisoners before they left Bathurst.

They were ten days in journeying about a hundred miles, resting at lock-up houses, the quarters of road gangs, or the various military stations on the mountains, frequently passing large parties of their fellow-convicts, either with or without irons on their legs, who were employed in the formation of those stupendous roads which traverse that once impassable district. As often as any of these men expressed their sympathy with the prisoners, whose death by the hangman all looked upon as certain, McCoy would reply in accents of triumph,

“Well, I’ve had a merry life, if ’twas only a short one; and I’d go and be hanged a hundred times over rather than drudge like slaves as you chaps are doing now.” And he would sometimes add, “Why don’t you all turn out like men, and then the blasted tyrants would soon be put an end to?”

The corporal in charge of the escort was asked by an overseer on the road why he did not stop this kind of talk, as it was obviously inciting the minds of those who heard it to mutiny, to which query he replied, laughing, “Why, how can I hinder the poor devil from talking? He’s got but a very little while longer to live, and it would be a pity not to let him spout away as he likes. Besides,” and here the speaker assumed a most comically knowing look, “don’t you know, friend, that the more runaways there are, the more rewards there will be for taking them; and if there were no bushrangers, what would be the use of the mounted police?”

This settled the matter apparently to the satisfaction of the other, who, no doubt, like many of his brother convict overseers, had not the least objection to earn a pound now and then by taking any such men as he could first persuade to run away; and a large sum of money was then annually paid in reward, for apprehending men who had absconded, to such personages as the speaker, who afterwards gave a small portion of the bonus to those whom they had taken.

Journeying in this manner, they at length reached the lock-up at Penrith, where Ralph was quickly recognised as having not long before belonged to Emu Plains. Among a crowd that had assembled to look at the remains of “Foxley’s gang” our adventurer soon observed those three girls that had acted so prominent a part with the bushrangers at Richmond. They were now very much over-dressed in the spoils acquired at the robbery of Shanavan’s place, which had led to the unremitting pursuit that resulted in the capture of their former acquaintances.

These frail fair ones pressed to the side of the vehicle and seemed to vie with each other in expressions of tenderness towards McCoy, as well as lamentations over his present position and the unhappy fate of his companions.

The constables at length removed the prisoners, and Rashleigh and his associate in misfortune were now for the first time since their capture locked up together by themselves.

McCoy began a conversation by asking Ralph, “Well, what do you think of it now? Would it not have been as well for you to have joined Phil Foxley and the rest of us at first, seeing that you led the life of a dog all the while you was with us, and now, in spite of all you can say, you are sure to die the death of one.”

To this cheering as well as sensible speech, our adventurer only replied, “As for death, it must come sooner or later, and though I have no great fancy for the gallows, I have quite as much liking for that as I have for such a wretched life of cruelty and crime, attended by frequent starvation and toil, as was led by the scoundrel Foxley and those that were with him.”

“You dared not call him a scoundrel while he lived,” replied McCoy, “and you are an unmanly rascal to do so now.”

“Hark ye, McCoy,” said Ralph, who began to grow enraged, “I’d have you to know that if Foxley had been alone with me, unarmed as I was, or if I had been able once to have laid hold of a loaded musket while I was with him, he would have found out what Ralph Rashleigh dared to do. And as for you, were it not for your weakness, I would just this instant beat your brains out against that wall to repay you for your treatment me when I was helpless.”

McCoy jumped up, and throwing off his jacket, cried, “Come on, you crawling beggar, I’ll soon let you see how weak I am.”

A hundred recollections of this man’s ill usage during his career of crime, when he had his ruffian associates to assist him, crowded upon the mind of our adventurer, and maddened by fury at these thoughts, Ralph rushed upon him.

Rashleigh knew nothing of what is called the science of pugilism, in which McCoy was very expert. Thus, in spite of his superior strength, our exile was likely to get the worst of it, until exerting himself suddenly, he beat down his antagonist’s guard, and seizing his head by the ears, bore him back into a corner, where he pounded the unlucky McCoy’s skull against the wall until the other roared for mercy, and the turnkey came in, who wanted to know what the matter was. But as McCoy did not tell him, Rashleigh would not. The official then enquired which of the two was called McCoy, and this question being replied to, the janitor asked what the other would stand provided he were to allow one of the titters (girls) that was outside to pass the night with him.

To this McCoy replied that he would give a pound. The turnkey grinned acquiescence and withdrew. But when it became quite dark the door again opened, and the young woman who has before been spoken of as McCoy’s sweetheart made her entrée, bringing a basket with her, while the screwsman, who followed her with a quantity of bedding, said, as he placed the latter on the floor, “There’s your sister, young fellow; and here’s all the bedstuff I can muster for the three of you, so you must do the best you can.”

He then retired, carefully securing the massy fastenings of several doors as he went out.

McCoy and his “ladye love” after many endearments, began to converse in a low tone; and in a short time, a candle being lighted, a quantity of provisions and two bottles of spirits were produced from the basket, which the young woman invited Rashleigh to share.

He declined to do so very abruptly, but she said, “Why, I hope you an’t any ways offended with me. And if you and Sandy have had a few words or a blow or two, that’s nothing . . . Surely you can make it up again, especially as you have not got long to be together, at any rate.”

McCoy then observed, “You may as well not quarrel with the victuals, but come and get some, for maybe you won’t get another chance soon.”

Rashleigh at length consented to share the meal, in the course of which the girl remarked that it just put her in mind of her last sweetheart’s last night on earth, for he was then confined in Windsor lock-up and was shot dead in an attempt to escape from it early next morning. This young woman proved herself to be perfectly au fait and well inured to scenes like the present, nor did she appear to be at all cast down at the thoughts of the fate that was in store for McCoy, whom she only exhorted to “die like a trump, and split (tell) nothing.”

In fact, it seemed great part of her present errand to ascertain whether there was any probability of either McCoy or Rashleigh betraying herself and family for harbouring the marauders while they were in the bush or for receiving the property they had stolen from Shanavan’s, part of which she now wore. After she had apparently satisfied herself that no danger was to be apprehended from McCoy, she led the conversation to the nature of the charge against our adventurer, and said to her lover that if he thought fit, he could get the young man out of it, as it was pretty generally understood he had never taken a very active part in committing depredations.

To this McCoy replied, with an oath, that “he’d be blowed if he would though, or any crawler like him . . . No, no, Soph,” continued the desperado. “Let the beggar die as well as me, and then he can’t tell any tales!”

Upon this the girl dropped her endeavours, and after having drunk the spirits among them, all three lay down to rest.

The next morning “Soph” took a tender leave of her paramour, promising to follow them to Sydney in a day or two; and then, turning to Rashleigh, she observed, “I hope you won’t bring anybody else into trouble, young fellow, for that won’t do you any good; but if you must die, do so like a man!”

Ralph assured her that whatever might be his fate, he would never turn informer. They then parted; nor did the latter ever see this fair specimen of frailty more.

In the space of two days from this our criminals reached the old gaol of Sydney, a building of which it has often been remarked that if the sentries and fetters did not keep the prisoners from breaking out, the strength of the edifice never would. The inmates of this pandemonium may be far better conceived than described, especially when it is reflected that as New South Wales was the proper receptacle for the offscourings of villainy from three mighty kingdoms and all their vast dependencies, so this choice den was the great cesspit for the moral filth of the convict colony; and, of course, all undreamed-of and scarcely imaginable wickedness flourished within these walls in its fullest and rankest luxuriance of growth.

The authorities invested with the command of the gaol, confining their whole ideas of prison discipline to the mere safe custody of the offenders committed to their charge, did not greatly trouble themselves what enormities they were guilty of among themselves; and of this Rashleigh and his companion soon received ample proof, for no sooner had they arrived within the doors of the room to which they were ushered than every article of clothing was torn from their backs by the mere force of numbers. and they were left completely naked save for the rags they had tied round their legs to keep their fetters from chafing them, and in which Ralph had taken care to conceal his small stock of cash.

Their plunderers however restored them a few articles of their clothing after they had been minutely searched for money, and the new-comers were then declared free of H. M. Gaol at Sydney, which was understood to mean that they were thenceforward at liberty to do unto others even as they had been done unto.

The apartment in which they were confined was about forty feet long and twenty feet wide. In this were huddled generally, during the period of our adventurer’s confinement, not less than 120 human beings of all ages, from the hoary scoundrel of sixty to the not less villainous scamp of sixteen, and here Rashleigh was plunged into deeper despair than ever at the contemplation of his future lot, which, even if life itself were spared, appeared to be the doom of passing all the remaining portion of it in the society of ruffians like these he now saw. In thoughts of this kind days lengthened into weeks, and the hour of trial was rapidly approaching.

Ralph Rashleigh was moodily contemplating the probable issue of this, his second appearance at the bar as a capitally criminal offender, when one morning, as he walked for the short allotted space in the prison yard, a turnkey halloed his name most lustily, and he went to the hall door. Here he saw McGuffin, their captor, accompanied by a female whose face he thought he knew, which was shortly afterwards assured to him by the former observing, “This is my wife, young man, Miss Shanavan that was.” And the young woman rejoined, “Yes, and I am come to see you, for I have not forgotten the cruel knock on the head you got from that wretch that’s dead for trying to save me and my poor sister.”

Here she burst into tears, but McGuffin added, “We have brought you a few things to comfort you, for though I did not see you get the blow my wife speaks of, yet I can believe her, because I know I should not have got away from that blasted gang of scoundrels if you had not turned obstinate on Foxley’s hands; so if I can do you any good on your trial, I will do it with pleasure.” They then went away, and Rashleigh felt much relieved by their visit, because he conceived the proffered evidence of McGuffin might be very serviceable to his case.

The eventful day at length arrived. McCoy was first placed upon his trial. He persisted in pleading guilty, for he said, or rather shouted, from the dock, “What’s the use of being humbugged by such a set of blasted old wretches as that judge and jury? They are determined to hang me, 1 know; and I don’t care a curse for it! The only thing I am sorry for now is that I was so merciful when I was out; for if 1 had killed a score or two more they could only have topped me at last!”

Here he was stopped with some difficulty, and the learned judge commenced passing the sentence of death upon him, during which, however, he was repeatedly interrupted by the prisoner in the coarsest language; and the latter, when all was over, commenced pouring forth a torrent of ribaldry, obscenity and abuse on all and sundry, it finally requiring the united efforts of four strong constables to drag him from the bar by main force.

Rashleigh’s case came next. He was charged with being present, aiding and abetting in the commission of a robbery attended with violence, he being at the time a runaway convict. The evidence of one of the men belonging to the hut on the Comnaroy was now taken, and was supported by that of McGuffin as to his apprehension. The prisoner being called on for his defence, he related the manner in which he had at first been taken by the bushrangers, and called upon McGuffin to prove what he had seen, in testimony of his being only their unwilling agent. The latter stated what had taken place at Shanavan’s, coupled with the fact of Ralph’s not bearing arms at the time of the affray that led to their capture.

The learned judge summed up, leaving it to the jury to say whether it was possible the prisoner could have been compelled for so long a period to remain with these lawless men unless he had wished to do so, or whether he might not have escaped from them, if he had thought fit, at some time. The jury apparently did not require much time for consideration. They merely whispered together and returned a verdict of “Guilty”, upon which the wretched criminal clasped his hands together over his face and quite lost all sense of feeling. The Chief justice addressed an eloquent harangue to the convicted felon, but he heard it not; and when all was passed, he followed the turnkey out of the dock mechanically.

So completely was he entranced by his wretched doom that the full period of fourteen days had elapsed, during which he remembered nothing whatever, that term being quite blotted out of his memory, and he did not return to consciousness until the day fixed for his execution. The morning sun beamed brightly on the floor of his cell through the open door, and the clergyman in his robes stood without, ready to accompany him to the place of death.

The dread reality now poured upon his mind like a flood. He looked at the cavalcade that were in waiting; but the detested form of the hangman, bearing some of the appurtenances of his revolting office, seemed to fill the whole field of his vision after his eye had once rested on him. Nor could he withdraw his gaze, although the sensation of loathing that seized upon his soul was indescribable. The voice of the prison chaplain now sounded in his cars. The principal turnkey entered his cell, and gently taking his arm, led him forth.

It was a lovely day, and from the terraced esplanade in front of his cell door, on which they now stood, could be seen all the varied beauties of flood and fell that adorn the scenery of Port Jackson and far away, even the blue surface of that vast field of waters that severed the exile from his native land. Short was the gaze, however, that was permitted to the doomed wretch, who deemed he had now too surely looked his last upon the outer world.

The melancholy procession was quickly formed. McCoy. supported by two Presbyterian ministers, went foremost, followed by Rashleigh and the Protestant clergyman. They were attended by the Sheriff, the officers of the gaol, and a very few strangers, led by curiosity, perhaps, to witness the parting struggles of an immortal spirit ere it was finally severed from its frail tenement of clay. The divines became more impressive in their exhortations and more earnest in their petitions for mercy to the unhappy souls about to depart, as the sad train entered the gallows yard, around which were ranged many files of prisoners, most part of them heavily ironed, who were always thus drawn up to witness the last expiation of the crimes of their fellows.

Many of these who stood near paid their parting adieux to the condemned, and the foot of the fatal tree was now attained. The turnkey, who had not hitherto ceased to support the powerless frame of our unhappy adventurer, here left his side for an instant. Ralph tottered and would certainly have fallen had not the executioner hastily stepped up, seized his arm, and cried, “Keep up your heart, my cock; it will soon be over!”

This rude mode of consolation, in some measure, recalled the strength of the doomed man, who shrunk from the touch of the abhorred official as he would have done from contact with a serpent. His comrade in suffering was now placed on the dread platform, and Rashleigh, nerving himself as for a last effort, ran, rather than walked, up the flight of steps.

Within a few feet of him, outside the wall, were a crowd of the townspeople, who stood upon a flat piece of rock that almost overhung the area occupied by the engine of death; and these about to die could hear their conversation as plainly as the words of the ministers of grace, who were pouring the hopes of salvation through the merits of a crucified redeemer into ears about to be closed for ever.

Yes, here were assembled the gay, the idle, the thoughtless and the profligate, amusing themselves with — at best — the unmeaning nothings of ordinary gossip, full in view of two fellow-beings for whom in ten minutes time would have passed away and eternity, that dread and undefinable abyss, would have opened its bosom to receive them. Nor were there wanting among this assemblage beings in the garb of females, who vented ribald jokes and disgusting tirades of obscenity to their compartions, levelled either at the appearance of the unhappy convicts or that of those who with them occupied the fell apparatus of death.

Ralph Rashleigh beheld the scene with dim and glazing eyes, for he felt as if already the hand of death had clasped his soul in its icy grip. The executioner had now adjusted the rope round the neck of his companion, and according to custom, was about to shake hands with his victim, when McCoy, throwing the whole weight of his body forward, pushed the detested functionary with such force that he reeled and fell from the fatal platform, a distance of at least sixteen feet, into the paved courtyard beneath, while the criminal no sooner heard the fall than he exclaimed, “There, you beggar, I hope I’ve broke your blasted neck.”

A clamour of applause burst from the assembled convicts beneath, which yet resounded in the cars of Rashleigh when, without the least note of preparation, the drop fell. The thundering noise of that awful engine was the last sound of which our adventurer was conscious for many weeks; and when he again returned to a sense of his suffering and sorrowful existence, he was stretched upon a sick bed in the gaol hospital, where he soon learned that his life had been spared at the intercession of Mrs McGuffin, who had gone personally to the Governor with a petition on his behalf, in consequence of which his sentence had been commuted to a period of three years’ labour at the penal settlement of Newcastle.


Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00