A TALE OF THE PENAL COLONY OF WEST AUSTRALIA.
by John Boyle O'Reilly
'I’LL have it, I tell you! Curse you!—there!'
The long knife glittered, was sheathed, and was bare.
The sawyer staggered and tripped and fell,
And falling he uttered a frightened yell:
His face to the sky, he shuddered and gasped,
And tried to put from him the man he had grasped
A moment before in the terrible strife.
'I'll have it, I tell you, or have your life!
Where is it?' The sawyer grew weak, but still
His brown face gleamed with a desperate will.
'Where is it?' he heard, and the red knife's drip
In his slayer's hand fell down on his lip.
'Will you give it?' 'Never!' A curse, the knife
Was raised and buried.
Thus closed the life
Of Samuel Jones, known as 'Number Ten'
On his Ticket-of-Leave; and of all the men
In the Western Colony, bond or free,
None had manlier heart or hand than he.
In digging a sawpit, while all alone,—
For his mate was sleeping,—Sam struck a stone
With the edge of the spade, and it gleamed like fire,
And looked at Sam from its bed in the mire,
Till he dropped the spade and stooped and raised
The wonderful stone that glittered and blazed
As if it were mad at the spade's rude blow;
But its blaze set the sawyer's heart aglow
As he looked and trembled, then turned him round,
And crept from the pit, and lay on the ground,
Looking over the mold-heap at the camp
Where his mate still slept. Then down to the swamp
He ran with the stone, and washed it bright,
And felt like a drunken man at the sight
Of a diamond pure as spring-water and sun,
And larger than ever man's eyes looked on!
Then down sat Sam with the stone on his knees,
And fancies came to him, like swarms of bees
To a sugar-creamed hive; and he dreamed awake
Of the carriage and four in which he'd take
His pals from the Dials to Drury Lane,
The silks and the satins for Susan Jane,
The countless bottles of brandy and beer
He'd call for and pay for, and every year
The dinner he'd give to the Brummagem lads,—
He'd be king among cracksmen and chief among pads,
And he'd sport a—
Over him stooped his mate,
A pick in his hand, and his face all hate.
Sam saw the shadow, and guessed the pick,
And closed his dream with a spring so quick
The purpose was baffled of Aaron Mace,
And the sawyer mates stood face to face.
Sam folded his arms across his chest,
Having thrust the stone in his loose shirt-breast,
While he tried to think where he dropped the spade.
But Aaron Mace wore a long, keen blade
In his belt,—he drew it,—sprang on his man:
What happened, you read when the tale began.
Then he looked—the murderer, Aaron Mace—
At the gray-blue lines in the dead man's face;
And he turned away, for he feared its frown
More in death than life. Then he knelt him down,—
Not to pray,—but he shrank from the staring eyes,
And felt in the breast for the fatal prize.
And this was the man, and this was the way
That he took the stone on its natal day;
And for this he was cursed for evermore
By the West Australian Koh-i-nor.
In the half-dug pit the corpse was thrown,
And the murderer stood in the camp alone.
Alone? No, no! never more was he
To part from the terrible company
Of that gray-blue face and the bleeding breast
And the staring eyes in their awful rest.
The evening closed on the homicide,
And the blood of the buried sawyer cried
Through the night to God, and the shadows dark
That crossed the camp had the stiff and stark,
And horrible look of a murdered man!
Then he piled the fire, and crept within
The ring of its light, that closed him in
Like tender mercy, and drove away
For a time the specters that stood at bay,
And waited to clutch him as demons wait,
Shut out from the sinner by Faith's bright gate.
But the fire burnt low, and the slayer slept,
And the key of his sleep was always kept
By the leaden hand of him he had slain,
That oped the door but to drench the brain
With agony cruel. The night wind crept
Like a snake on the shuddering form that slept
And dreamt, and woke and shrieked; for there,
With its gray-blue lines and its ghastly stare,
Cutting into the vitals of Aaron Mace,
In the flickering light was the sawyer's face!
Evermore 'twas with him, that dismal sight,—
The white face set in the frame of night.
He wandered away from the spot, but found
No inch of the West Australian ground
Where he could hide from the bleeding breast,
Or sink his head in a dreamless rest.
And always with him he bore the prize
In a pouch of leather: the staring eyes
Might burn his soul, but the diamond's gleam
Was solace and joy for the haunted dream.
So the years rolled on, while the murderer's mind
Was bent on a futile quest,—to find
A way of escape from the blood-stained soil
And the terrible wear of the penal toil.
But this was a part of the diamond's curse,—
The toil that was heavy before grew worse,
Till the panting wretch in his fierce unrest
Would clutch the pouch as it lay on his breast,
And waking cower, with sob and moan,
Or shriek wild curses against the stone
That was only a stone; for he could not sell,
And he dare not break, and he feared to tell
Of his wealth: so he bore it through hopes and fears—
His God and his devil—for years and years.
And thus did he draw near the end of his race,
With a form bent double and horror-lined face,
And a piteous look, as if asking for grace
Or for kindness from some one; but no kind word
Was flung to his misery: shunned, abhorred,
E'en by wretches themselves, till his life was a curse,
And he thought that e'en death could bring nothing worse
Than the phantoms that stirred at the diamond's weight,—
His own life's ghost and the ghost of his mate.
So he turned one day from the haunts of men,
And their friendless faces: an old man then,
In a convict's garb, with white flowing hair,
And a brow deep seared with the word, 'Despair.'
He gazed not back as his way he took
To the untrod forest; and oh! the look,
The piteous look in his sunken eyes,
Told that life was the bitterest sacrifice.
But little was heard of his later days:
'Twas deemed in the West that in change of ways
He tried with his tears to wash out the sin.
'Twas told by some natives who once came in
From the Kojunnp Hills, that lonely there
They had seen a figure with long white hair;
They encamped close by where his hut was made,
And were scared at night when they saw he prayed
To the white man's God; and on one wild night
They had heard his voice till the morning light.
Years passed, and a sandal wood-cutter stood
At a ruined hut in a Kojunup wood:
The rank weeds covered the desolate floor,
And an ant-hill stood on the fallen door;
The cupboard within to the snakes was loot,
And the hearth was the home of the bandicoot.
But neither at hut nor snake nor rat
Was the woodcutter staring intent, but at
A human skeleton clad in gray,
The hands clasped over the breast, as they
Had fallen in peace when he ceased to pray.
As the bushman looked on the form, he saw
In the breast a paper: he stooped to draw
What might tell him the story, but at his touch
From under the hands rolled a leathern pouch,
And he raised it too,—on the paper's face
He read 'Ticket-of-Leave of Aaron Mace.'
Then he opened the pouch, and in dazed surprise
At its contents strange he unblessed his eyes:
'Twas a lump of quartz,—a pound weight in full,-
And it fell from his hand on the skeleton's skull!