Baron Wald by John Lang
"WHAT led to the old gentleman's misfortune," said the old lady,
who told me the story one afternoon, "that is to say, what crime he
had committed, I am not quite sure; but I think my husband said the
baron's offence was following to England a countryman of his own, and
shooting him in the streets of London, in order to avenge the wrong
which the victim had inflicted on a member of his ancient family. As
the offence was committed on British soil, he became amenable to
British laws, which punish murder with death, except in those cases
where the sovereign exercises his prerogative--as George the Third
did in the case of the baron, who, immediately on his arrival, was
provided with separate apartments in the prisoners' barracks, and
informed that he might employ his time as he pleased. There could be
no question that the baron was a person of some importance in
Germany; for I happen to know that special instructions were
forwarded from home to the Colonial Government, and periodical
reports required as to his state of health and the nature of his
occupations. It was, in short, evident that, although the old baron
had grossly violated our laws, and had paid, or was paying, the
modified penalty thereof, he was still regarded by some of the
loftiest in the mother--country as an object of sympathy and
"My husband had a grant of land about seventeen or eighteen miles
from Sydney. Through this land the river--called George's
River--runs. There are several very pretty sites for houses; but
there is one in particular, where the river bends itself very
fantastically, and tall Australian oak-trees grow upon the very edge
of the banks. The river is not very broad, not broader, perhaps, than
the Thames at Eton.
"It was not my husband's intention to build on this property. He
merely wanted it as a place where he might keep a few brood mares;
and a few cows--just sufficient to supply us every week with butter.
The land was fenced in, and a hut erected thereon; but nothing
further was laid out upon this grant of three hundred and twenty
acres, to which no name even had yet been given. It was usually
alluded to as the George's River farm. You must know that, in those
days, officers connected with the administration of affairs had farms
in all directions. Many were grants, many were purchases. Land was of
very little value then. This very place of which I am speaking was
not worth more than sixty pounds. No one would have given fifty
pounds for it. Why, four acres and a half in George Street, nearly
opposite to the barrack gates, my husband sold to a man who had been
a regimental tailor, for the following articles:"
Twelve dozens of port wine.
Six gallons of Hollands.
Two pieces of broadcloth.
Twenty-five pounds of American tobacco
One chest of tea.
Two bags of sugar.
One set of harness for gig.
One saddle and bridle.
One single-barrelled fowling-piece.
Two canisters of powder, and
Four bags of shot.
"And a noble bargain it was considered by every one; though I have
lived to see that same allotment sold in little pieces, and realize
upwards of fifty thousand pounds. Where the Post-Office now stands
was the boundary of our paddock. But never mind these stupid
statistics, which have really nothing to do with the old baron.
"One day the major was driving out in his gig to visit this
George's River farm, and give some instructions to the servant in
charge of it, when he overtook the baron, about four miles from
Sydney, walking along the Paramatta Road. The major pulled up, and
inquired the destination of the old gentleman.
"'I am going,' said he, 'to George's River, to see Colonel
Johnstone, from whom I wish to ask a favour. I called at Annandale,
and they told me that the colonel had ridden to the farm, and I am
now in pursuit of him.'
"The baron had made himself a perfect master of the English
language, though he spoke with a foreign accent.
"'Jump in, baron,' said the major; 'I, too am going to George's
"They had not driven far before they overtook the colonel. He was
talking to an elderly man in the road--a man whom my husband
recognized as one who had been a sergeant in the regiment when
Colonel Johnstone marched it to Government House, deposed Governor
Bligh, and placed himself at the head of affairs."
"Did you know Colonel Johnstone?" I asked.
"My husband," replied the old lady, "was a captain in the
regiment; but, fortunately for him, he was not at the head of his
company when it proceeded to enforce that strong measure. Colonel
Johnstone was the godfather of my eldest boy. I can remember his
giving an account of what took place on that memorable occasion of
his deposing Governor Bligh. 'We could not find him for a long time,'
said he, 'and at last discovered him under a bed. We had to pull him
out by the legs, for he would not come out of his own accord, nor
when I commanded him.' The colonel was sentenced by the court-martial
that was held upon him in England to be shot. But his interest was
too powerful to admit of the sentence being carried out, and be was
suffered to return to and end his days in the colony.
"My husband, who knew the colonel's temperament so well, saw that
he was in anything but a good humour; and, whispering to the baron to
forego his request for the present, they bade the colonel 'Good-day!'
and drove on at a rapid pace.
"'The favour that I wished to ask Colonel Johnstone is this,' said
the baron, 'to permit me to occupy a small piece of land on this farm
of his; and in return I will take care that his fences shall not be
destroyed, and his cattle stray away. I do not like the locality of
Sydney. I care not for ocean scenery. I wish to be in a lonely place,
and live on the banks of a pretty river.'
"'I have just such a place on this farm of mine which we are
approaching,' said the major; 'and if you approve of it, we shall
have no difficulty in agreeing about the terms, baron.'
"A few minutes afterwards the major and the baron were standing on
the site I have already described to you. The latter was in
ecstasies; and, clasping his hands, exclaimed.
"'Wie herrlich! wie friedlich!' (How charming! how peaceful!)
"The terms were very soon settled. The baron was to rent that
piece of land in the centre of the grant, containing in all about ten
acres, and henceforward to be known as Waldsthal, on a lease for
twenty-one years, at one dollar per year, paid quarterly. Spanish
dollars and cents were the currency in those days.
"There was an abundance of timber of all kinds, and available for
building purposes, on the land; and the major could at all times
command as much convict labour as he pleased, including artisans of
every class. He drafted from the barracks, sawyers, carpenters,
blacksmiths, plasterers, labourers, and subsequently painters and
glaziers. These men were sent to the farm, and placed at the disposal
of the baron. They were previously informed that any disobedience or
disrespect towards the baron would be visited by summary corporal
punishment at Liverpool (then a little out--settlement three miles
from the farm), and a transfer to an iron-gang. Inasmuch as the
major, though far from being a cruel man or a hard master, invariably
kept his word with the felonry of the colony, there was not the least
occasion for him to repeat the admonition; and at the end of three
months there was erected on Waldsthal one of the prettiest little
weather--boarded cottages that the imagination can conceive. The
baron was his own architect, and had combined comfort with good
taste. There was his little dining-room, about thirteen feet by
twelve; his little drawing-room, of the same dimensions; his little
library; his store-room; and his cellar and larder; and his hall. The
bedroom and dressing-room were the only large rooms in the cottage.
The flower and kitchen gardens were also very prettily laid out, and
proportioned exactly in size to that of the cottage. On the whole, it
was a perfect gem of a cottage residence; and it was furnished with a
neatness and a simplicity which were really touching.
"Now and then--say half a dozen times in the year--the major and
myself used to visit the baron, and spend the day with him. Upon all
occasions, while walking round the grounds with him, the old
gentleman was to me very communicative. Amongst other things, he told
me that he had never been married; but that he had a sister who was
the mother of three sons and two daughters; that he had served in the
army of his native country, and that the military decorations which
were suspended over his fireplace in the drawing-room were the
rewards for his services in various fields of battle. These little
matters, together with his sword, he said, had been forwarded to him
through the kindness and consideration of a distinguished military
man of rank in the service of the King of England.
"Generally, we gave the baron notice of our intention to visit
him; but on several occasions, when we had suddenly made up our minds
for the excursion, we omitted this little formality, and took our
chance of finding him ready to receive us. It would not have been
strange had a gentleman living, like the baron, in almost utter
seclusion in the Bush, been negligent of his personal appearance. But
it was not so. Go when we would--with notice or without notice--we
found him invariably as cleanly in person, and as neat in his attire,
as though he had been a resident of any capital in Europe, and in the
habit of daily mixing in its society. One Saturday afternoon, when we
invaded him unexpectedly, we found him in the farm--yard,
superintending the feeding of his poultry; but dressed, as usual,
à la Frederick the Great, in Hessian boots, a brown velvet
coat, elaborate frills and ruffles, a pigtail, and a three-cornered
hat. His establishment consisted of two men servants (convicts
assigned to the major) and an old woman who had been transported, but
emancipated shortly after her arrival in the colony, for giving
timely notice of an intended rise and general revolt amongst the
convicts in Sydney and its vicinity. This old woman did the washing
and the cooking, and kept the cottage in that very good order on
which the baron doubtless insisted. He was not a witty man by any
means; but he had an inexhaustible stock of entertaining anecdotes,
which he told remarkably well, and at the proper moment. He was,
moreover, an excellent musician, and played upon the violin with the
skill of a professor. Moreover, he took likenesses with a facility
and faithfulness which were truly astonishing.
"A few years after he had first taken up his abode in the cottage,
the baron was presented with a free pardon, which bore the autograph
of his Majesty George the Third; and he was informed that, if he
desired to return to Germany, the Colonial Government were instructed
to provide him a passage in any vessel in which he might think proper
to select a cabin. It was painful to witness, as I did, the emotion
of the old baron, when the major Communicated to him this piece of
information. The king's pardon he was compelled to accept, and he did
so in the most graceful manner; but he expressed a wish to remain at
his 'little paradise' on the George's River farm so long as he lived,
and on his death that he might be buried there.
"In all, the baron lived at Waldsthal for eleven years; and during
that period had several visits from those pests called bushrangers.
On the first occasion, they handcuffed the baron and the old woman
together, and locked them up in the stables, whence they were unable
to effect an escape. The men servants they tied separately to trees,
and bound them so tightly that they could not extricate themselves.
For upwards of forty hours they did not taste food or drink. When
discovered, by the merest accident, they were all nearly famished.
The culprits were captured several months afterwards, and were hanged
in the jail at Sydney for a series of robberies on the highway. (The
old baron, by the bye, declined to give evidence against them.) The
major asked for the dead bodies, and they were given up to him. He
caused them to be suspended in chains from the bough of a large tree
on the Liverpool Road, and nearly opposite, though half a mile
distant from, the old baron's cottage. This, however, did not operate
as an example or terror to the desperate criminals with whom we had
to deal, for the next party, four in number, who went to rob the
baron, cut down the dead bodies; and, locking the baron and his
household up in the same room with them, rifled the premises, and
took their departure. These men were also captured and hanged. At the
baron's request the major did not ask for their bodies. He (the
baron) said they were very disagreeable people to come in contact
with when living; but, if possible, worse when they had been dead
"The major's turn came for doing duty at Norfolk Island as
Commandant, and we went to that terrestrial paradise; where the
clanking of chains and the fall of the lash rang in the ear from
daylight till dark--these sounds accompanied occasionally by the
report of a discharged musket, and the shriek of some wretch who had
fallen mortally wounded. These shots became so frequent that, at
last, they ceased to disturb us, even at our meals. Our house was
behind a rampart, surmounted by a battery of guns, loaded to the
muzzles with bullets, bits of iron, tenpenny-nails, and
tenter--hooks. By day and night sentries guarded the doors with
loaded muskets and fixed bayonets. 'Kill the commandant!' was always
the first article of the agreement these desperate monsters came to
when they entertained an idea of escape. In the morning when they
were brought out, heavily ironed, to go to work, the guard that had
been on duty all night was drawn up opposite to them. The relieving
guard then came from the barracks; and, in the presence of the
commandant, obeyed the order 'Prime and load.' Then came the ringing
of the iron ramrod in the barrel. Then the order 'Fix bayonets;'
followed by the flashing of the bright steel in the sun's rays. Many
a time have I, from my window, seen these incorrigibles smile and
grin during this ceremony, albeit they knew that, upon very slight
provocation, they would receive the bullet or taste the steel.
"During the twelve months that we were on the island, one hundred
and nine were shot by the sentries in self-defence, and sixty-three
bayoneted to death, while the average number of lashes administered
every day was six hundred. Yet, to my certain knowledge, almost every
officer who acted as commandant at Norfolk Island tried to be as
lenient as possible, but soon discovered that, instead of making
matters better, they made them worse, and they were, in consequence,
compelled to resort, for security's sake, to the ready use of the
bullet and bayonet, and the constant use of the lash. That part of
the punishment which galled these wretched prisoners most was the
perpetual silence that was insisted upon. They were not allowed to
speak a word to each other. One day when the major was inspecting
them, they addressed him through a spokesman, who had been originally
a surgeon, and who had been transported for a most diabolical
offence. He was a very plausible man, and made a most ingenious
speech, which he finished thus:--
"'Double, if you will, the weight of our irons and our arm-chains,
reduce the amount of the food we now receive by way of ration: but,
in the name of humanity, permit us the use of our tongues and our
ears, that we may have at least the consolation of confessing to each
other the justice of the punishment we have to undergo!'
"The major turned a deaf ear to this harangue, and when he related
it to me laughed at it. I, however, very foolishly took a different
view of the case, and teased him into trying the effect of such
indulgence. What was the result? The use they made of their tongues
was to concoct a plan for butchering the garrison, and every free
man, and seizing the next vessel that brought a fresh cargo of
convicts to the island. There would have been a frightful encounter
and awful bloodshed, and it is impossible to say which side would
have gained the mastery. It was a Jew who betrayed his
fellow-criminals, and gave my husband the information just in time;
for on the morning following the expected vessel hove in sight. The
convicts, however, were all safely locked up, and had their bread and
water handed in to them through the strong iron bars of the small
windows of their cells. My husband called a council of war, and it
was resolved that several of the ringleaders should be shot. For
doing this, by the way, he received a severe reprimand from the
Governor of New South Wales who informed him that it was his duty to
send them to Sydney to be tried and hanged. This, next to effecting
an escape, would have been precisely what the culprits most desired.
The Jew who gave the information was sent to Sydney (his life would
have been taken on the island); a ticket-of-leave was granted to him,
and he became a street hawker. Subsequently, he was emancipated, and
became an innkeeper and money-lender. Eventually, he obtained a free
pardon, visited England, bought a ship and cargo, and became a
merchant. He is now in possession of landed and other property of
enormous worth. The first time I saw that man he was a manacled
felon, working on Norfolk Island amongst his compeers in infamy. The
last time I saw him he was lolling in a handsome carriage, dressed in
what he conceived the acmé of fashion, and was drawn by two
"In talking of Norfolk Island I have lost sight of the dear old
baron. While we were away, we received a letter from him, in which he
stated that he had been visited for a third time by bushrangers, but
that they had not robbed him, they had only been guilty of a mauvaise
plaisanterie. They had merely made him and the old woman exchange
garments, and dance for them while they drank some spirits and water,
and smoked their short clay pipes. It was very humiliating to him, he
remarked, but to them it was, no doubt, very funny.
"Eventually the old baron became very ill. Several military
surgeons went to see him; but they all declared to my husband that
his case was a hopeless one. And so it proved to be; for he lingered
on until he died. Amongst his papers was found a will--a very short
one--by which he bequeathed to my husband (whom he appointed his sole
executor), all that he might die possessed of in the colony of New
South Wales. His effects, as may be supposed, were not very valuable
intrinsically; but we prized them very highly in remembrance of the
old gentleman. He was buried at Waldsthal, and his tombstone is still
there. The cottage was accidentally burnt down, and the place has
since become a ruin."