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.
I heard it all as if it had been the parson reading out of a book about some other man. The words went into my ears and out again. I hardly heard them, only the last word, free -- free -- free! What a blessed word it is! I couldn't say anything, or make a try to walk out. I sat down on my blankets on the floor, and wondered if I was going mad. The head gaoler walked over to me, and put his hand on my shoulder. He was a kind enough man, but, from being 'took in' so often, he was cautious. 'Come, Dick,' he says, 'pull yourself together. It's a shake for you, I daresay, but you'll be all right in a day or so. I believe you'll be another man when you get out, and give the lie to these fellows that say you'll be up to your old tricks in a month. I'll back you to go straight; if you don't, you're not the man I take you for.'
I got up and steadied myself. 'I thank you with all my heart, Mr. ----,' I said. 'I'm not much of a talker, but you'll see, you'll see; that's the best proof. The fools, do they think I want to come back here? I wish some of them had a year of it.'
As soon as there was a chance of my going out, I had been allowed to 'grow', as they call it in there. That is, to leave off having my face scraped every morning by the prison barber with his razor, that was sometimes sharp and more times rough enough to rasp the skin off you, particularly if it was a cold morning. My hair was let alone, too. My clothes -- the suit I was taken in twelve years ago -- had been washed and cleaned and folded up, and put away and numbered in a room with a lot of others. I remember I'd got 'em new just before I started away from the Hollow. They was brought to me, and very well they looked, too. I never had a suit that lasted that long before.
That minds me of a yarn I heard at Jonathan Barnes's one day. There was a young chap that they used to call 'Liverpool Jack' about then. He was a free kind of fellow, and good-looking, and they all took to him. He went away rather sudden, and they heard nothing of him for about three years. Then he came back, and as it was the busy season old Jonathan put him on, and gave him work. It was low water with him, and he seemed glad to get a job.
When the old man came in he says, 'Who do you think came up the road to-day? -- Liverpool Jack. He looked rather down on his luck, so I gave him a job to mend up the barn. He's a handy fellow. I wonder he doesn't save more money. He's a careful chap, too.'
'Careful,' says Maddie. 'How do ye make that out?'
'Why,' says Jonathan, 'I'm dashed if he ain't got the same suit of clothes on he had when he was here three years ago.'
The old man didn't tumble, but both the girls burst out laughing. He'd been in the jug all the time!
I dressed myself in my own clothes -- how strange it seemed -- even to the boots, and then I looked in the glass. I hadn't done that lately. I regularly started back; I didn't know myself; I came into prison a big, stout, brown-haired chap, full of life, and able to jump over a dray and bullocks almost. I did once jump clean over a pair of polers for a lark.
And how was I going out? A man with a set kind of face, neither one thing nor the other, as if he couldn't be glad or sorry, with a fixed staring look about the eyes, a half-yellowish skin, with a lot of wrinkles in it, particularly about the eyes, and gray hair. Big streaks of gray in the hair of the head, and as for my beard it was white -- white. I looked like an old man, and walked like one. What was the use of my going out at all?
When I went outside the walls by a small gate the head gaoler shook hands with me. 'You're a free man now, Dick,' he says, 'and remember this -- no man can touch you. No man has the right to pull you up or lay a finger on you. You're as independent as the best gentleman in the land so long as you keep straight. Remember that. I see there's a friend waiting for you.'
Sure enough there was a man that I knew, and that lived near Rocky Flat. He was a quiet, steady-going sort of farmer, and never would have no truck with us in our flash times. He was driving a springcart, with a good sort of horse in it.
'Come along with me, Dick,' says he. 'I'm going your way, and I promised George Storefield I'd call and give you a lift home. I'm glad to see you out again, and there's a few more round Rocky Flat that's the same.'
We had a long drive -- many a mile to go before we were near home. I couldn't talk; I didn't know what to say, for one thing. I could only feel as if I was being driven along the road to heaven after coming from the other place. I couldn't help wondering whether it was possible that I was a free man going back to life and friends and happiness. Was it possible? Could I ever be happy again? Surely it must be a dream that would all melt away, and I'd wake up as I'd done hundreds of times and find myself on the floor of the cell, with the bare walls all round me.
When we got nearer the old place I began to feel that queer and strange that I didn't know which way to look. It was coming on for spring, and there'd been a middling drop of rain, seemingly, that had made the grass green and everything look grand. What a time had passed over since I thought whether it was spring, or summer, or winter! It didn't make much odds to me in there, only to drive me wild now and again with thinkin' of what was goin' on outside, and how I was caged up and like to be for months and years.
Things began little by little to look the way they used to do long and long ago. Now it was an old overhanging limb that had arched over the road since we were boys; then there was a rock with a big kurrajong tree growing near it. When we came to the turn off where we could see Nulla Mountain everything came back to me. I seemed to have had two lives; the old one -- then a time when I was dead, or next door to it -- now this new life. I felt as if I was just born.