This section is from the book "Robbery Under Arms; A Story Of Life And Adventure In The Bush And In The Australian Goldfields", by Rolf Boldrewood. Also available from Amazon: Robbery under Arms; a story of life and adventure in the bush and in the Australian goldfields.
We knew from the other prisoners that men had tried from time to time to get away. Three had been caught. One had been shot dead -- he was lucky -- another had fallen off the wall and broke his leg. Two had got clear off, and had never been heard of since.
We were all locked up in our cells every evening, and at five o'clock, too. We didn't get out till six in the morning; a long, long time. Cold enough in the bitter winter weather, that had then come in, and a long, weary, wretched time to wait and watch for daylight.
Well, first of all, we had to get the cell door open. That was the easiest part of the lot. There's always men in a big gaol that all kinds of keys and locks are like large print to. They can make most locks fly open like magic; what's more, they're willing to do it for anybody else, or show them how. It keeps their hand in; they have a pleasure in spiting those above them whenever they can do it.
The getting out of the cell was easy enough, but there was a lot of danger after you had got out. A passage to cross, where the warder, with his rifle, walked up and down every half-hour all night; then a big courtyard; then another smaller door in the wall; then the outer yard for those prisoners who are allowed to work at stone-cutting or out-of-door trades.
After all this there was the great outer wall to climb up and drop down from on the other side.
We managed to pick our night well. A French convict, who liked that sort of thing, gave me the means of undoing the cell door. It was three o'clock in the morning, when in winter most people are sleepy that haven't much on their minds. The warder that came down the passage wasn't likely to be asleep, but he might have made it up in his mind that all was right, and not taken as much notice as usual. This was what we trusted to. Besides, we had got a few five-pound notes smuggled in to us; and though I wouldn't say that we were able to bribe any of the gaolers, we didn't do ourselves any harm in one or two little ways by throwing a few sovereigns about.
I did just as I was told by the Frenchman, and I opened the cell door as easy as a wooden latch. I had to shut it again for fear the warder would see it and begin to search and sound the alarm at once. Just as I'd done this he came down the passage. I had only time to crouch down in the shadow when he passed me. That was right; now he would not be back for half-an-hour.
I crawled and scrambled, and crept along like a snake until little by little I got to the gate through the last wall but one. The lock here was not so easy as the cell door, and took me more time. While I stood there I was in a regular tremble with fright, thinking some one might come up, and all my chance would be gone. After a bit the lock gave way, and I found myself in the outer yard. I went over to the wall and crept along it till I came to one of the angles. There I was to meet Starlight. He was not there, and he was to bring some spikes to climb the wall with, and a rope, with two or three other things.
I waited and waited for half-an-hour, which seemed a month. What was I to do if he didn't come? I could not climb the thirty-foot wall by myself. One had to be cautious, too, for there were towers at short distances along the wall; in every one of these a warder, armed with a rifle, which he was sure to empty at any one that looked like gaol-breaking. I began to think he had made a mistake in the night. Then, that he had been discovered and caught the moment he tried to get out of the cell. I was sure to be caught if he was prevented from coming; and shutting up would be harder to bear than ever.
Then I heard a man's step coming up softly; I knew it was Starlight. I knew his step, and thought I would always tell it from a thousand other men's; it was so light and firm, so quick and free. Even in a prison it was different from other men's; and I remembered everything he had ever said about walking and running, both of which he was wonderfully good at.
He was just as cool as ever. 'All right, Dick; take these spikes.' He had half-a-dozen stout bits of iron; how ever he got them I know no more than the dead, but there they were, and a light strong coil of rope as well. I knew what the spikes were for, of course; to drive into the wall between the stones and climb up by. With the rope we were to drop ourselves over the wall the other side. It was thirty feet high -- no fool of a drop. More than one man had been picked up disabled at the bottom of it. He had a short stout piece of iron that did to hammer the spikes in; and that had to be done very soft and quiet, you may be sure.
It took a long time. I thought the night would be over and the daylight come before it was all done; it was so slow. I could hear the tick-tack of his iron every time he knocked one of the spikes in. Of course he went higher every time. They were just far enough apart for a man to get his foot on from one to another. As he went up he had one end of the coil of the rope round his wrist. When he got to the top he was to draw it up to fasten to the top spike, and lower himself down by it to the ground on the other side. At last I felt him pull hard on the rope. I held it, and put my foot on the first spike. I don't know that I should have found it so very easy in the dark to get up by the spikes -- it was almost blackfellows' work, when they put their big toe into a notch cut in the smooth stem of a gum tree that runs a hundred feet without a branch, and climb up the outside of it -- but Jim and I had often practised this sort of climbing when we were boys, and were both pretty good at it. As for Starlight, he had been to sea when he was young, and could climb like a cat.
When I got to the top I could just see his head above the wall. The rope was fastened well to the top spike, which was driven almost to the head into the wall. Directly he saw me, he began to lower himself down the rope, and was out of sight in a minute. I wasn't long after him, you may be sure. In my hurry I let the rope slip through my hands so fast they were sore for a week afterwards. But I didn't feel it then. I should hardly have felt it if I had cut them in two, for as my feet touched the ground in the darkness I heard the stamp of a horse's hoof and the jingle of a bit -- not much of a sound, but it went through my heart like a knife, along with the thought that I was a free man once more; that is, free in a manner of speaking. I knew we couldn't be taken then, bar accidents, and I felt ready to ride through a regiment of soldiers.
As I stood up a man caught my hand and gave it a squeeze as if he'd have crushed my fingers in. I knew it was Jim. Of course, I'd expected him to be there, but wasn't sure if he'd be able to work it. We didn't speak, but started to walk over to where two horses were standing, with a man holding 'em. It was pretty dark, but I could see Rainbow's star -- just in his forehead it was -- the only white he had about him. Of course it was Warrigal that was holding them.
'We must double-bank my horse,' whispers Jim, 'for a mile or two, till we're clear of the place; we didn't want to bring a lot of horses about.'
He jumped up, and I mounted behind him. Starlight was on Rainbow in a second. The half-caste disappeared, he was going to keep dark for a few days and send us the news. Jim's horse went off as if he had only ten stone on his back instead of pretty nigh five-and-twenty. And we were free! Lord God! to think that men can be such fools as ever to do anything of their own free will and guiding that puts their liberty in danger when there's such a world outside of a gaol wall -- such a heaven on earth as long as a man's young and strong, and has all the feelings of a free man, in a country like this. Would I do the first crooked thing again if I had my life to live over again, and knew a hundredth part of what I know now? Would I put my hand in the fire out of laziness or greed? or sit still and let a snake sting me, knowing I should be dead in twelve hours? Any man's fool enough to do one that'll do the other. Men and women don't know this in time, that's the worst of it; they won't believe half they're told by them that do know and wish 'em well. They run on heedless and obstinate, too proud to take advice, till they do as we did. The world's always been the same, I suppose, and will to the end. Most of the books say so, anyway.