He settled comfortably into his capacious mahogany arm-chair. He had always been generously proportioned, but in the years since I had seen him he seemed to have expanded in every sense.
“It is good to see you looking so well, Sir,” I said.
“As I have often told you, young David,” he replied, “Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen pounds nineteen and six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds nought and six, result misery. In this bountiful Commonwealth of Australia we have been fortunate enough to arrive at the desirable equilibrium, and I might say at a rather higher annual level than twenty pounds. But it is generous of you to take the time to see an old friend. What brings you to Port Middlebay?”
“I have a commission to write about life in your adoptive country, and, apart from the pleasure of renewing our acquaintance and that of your wife; I thought you might have interesting experiences to recount.”
“Many, indeed, and some that would bring tears to your eyes, but I suppose your readers will be looking for excitement and adventure?” I affirmed that this was so.
“Then let me recount the time when I met one of our most celebrated and dangerous bushrangers. You are familiar with the term?” I shook my head. “It means a dangerous criminal, an outlaw. I was still a magistrate at the time, though I have now retired, and I was visiting a colleague in Glenrowan. He was just forewarning me about a police plan to ambush one of these rascals when we heard an alarming racket, the sound of gun-shots and extraordinary clanging sounds. Peering out of the window, we saw the remarkable sight of several men clad in a kind of armour made out of I know not what off-cuts of metal and leather engaged in a gun battle with the police force. The rascals were outnumbered and the armour was not very robust so in spite of its protection they were soon captured.
It was determined to send them for trial to Melbourne, but as a member of the magistracy I was allowed to visit them in gaol. Their leader was a young man called Ned Kelly, an immense Irishman with an immense beard. He talked with great candour and indeed, he caught my sympathy for, as you know, I too have been through many misfortunes and have frequently found myself apparently bereft of all help. All I could find to say to him was “Something will turn up”, but having bid him farewell in his solitary cell I walked away profoundly troubled.
Something did indeed turn up. That evening, walking in the woods, I came across the body of a man. He was but a tramp, not local, and who knows of what he had died, but I thought he could be useful. As it happened, I had been accompanied on my visit not only by my beloved wife but also by a couple of the many grandsons with whom we have been blessed. They were eager for any adventure and later that night we were able to smuggle the body into the gaol. I had taken the earlier precaution of sending a large bottle of whisky to the gaoler as a thank you for his courtesy, and he was soundly if somewhat noisily asleep. The keys to the cells were hanging on a hook, so we released Kelly and replaced him with the dead tramp. To add a touch of drama, we strung the corpse up as if he had hanged himself. Kelly made off into the eucalyptus forest and we retired to bed.”
“What an astounding story,” I exclaimed. “What happened when the deception was discovered?”
“Absolutely nothing,” he replied. “To my great surprise, there was no uproar at all. Later, there were press reports that Ned Kelly had been tried, found guilty and sentenced to death and then hanged at Melbourne gaol. Perhaps they found the body, did not perceive the substitution and hurriedly buried it. Perhaps, on the other hand, the police were simply unwilling to admit that he had escaped. Either way, it appears that they together with the judicial authorities concocted these bogus reports.”
“It would seem so,” I agreed, and I wondered whether I should investigate further. However, I said nothing if this to him.
He rose with some difficulty from his throne-like chair. “It would give us great pleasure if you would dine with us this evening. My wife would be enchanted to meet you again – she often enquires whether I have had any news of you.”
“Thank you, Mr. Micawber, it would be a great pleasure. Incidentally, do you know what happened to this Ned Kelly after his escape?”
“Ah, that is another story.”