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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 commiseration.

"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 River.'

"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 some time.

"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 thoroughbred-horses.

"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."

End.

 
 
 
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