Part 10 out of 11
however, to swear each of its members to carry out to the best of his ability
this last invention of the convict-disciplined mind should two other members
crave his assistance.
The scheme--like all great ideas--was simplicity itself.
That evening, when the cell-door was securely locked, and the absence
of a visiting gaoler might be counted upon for an hour at least,
Bland produced a straw, and held it out to his companions. Dawes took it,
and tearing it into unequal lengths, handed the fragments to Mooney.
"The longest is the one," said the blind man. "Come on, boys,
and dip in the lucky-bag!"
It was evident that lots were to be drawn to determine to whom fortune
would grant freedom. The men drew in silence, and then Bland and Dawes
looked at each other. The prize had been left in the bag.
Mooney--fortunate old fellow--retained the longest straw. Bland's hand shook
as he compared notes with his companion. There was a moment's pause,
during which the blank eyeballs of the blind man fiercely searched the gloom,
as if in that awful moment they could penetrate it.
"I hold the shortest," said Dawes to Bland. "'Tis you that must do it."
"I'm glad of that," said Mooney.
Bland, seemingly terrified at the danger which fate had decreed that he
should run, tore the fatal lot into fragments with an oath, and sat
gnawing his knuckles in excess of abject terror. Mooney stretched himself
out upon his plank-bed. "Come on, mate," he said. Bland extended
a shaking hand, and caught Rufus Dawes by the sleeve.
"You have more nerve than I. You do it."
"No, no," said Dawes, almost as pale as his companion. "I've run my chance
fairly. 'Twas your own proposal." The coward who, confident in his own luck,
would seem to have fallen into the pit he had dug for others,
sat rocking himself to and fro, holding his head in his hands.
"By Heaven, I can't do it," he whispered, lifting a white, wet face.
"What are you waiting for?" said fortunate Mooney. "Come on, I'm ready."
"I--I--thought you might like to--to--pray a bit," said Bland.
The notion seemed to sober the senses of the old man, exalted too fiercely
by his good fortune.
"Ay!" he said. "Pray! A good thought!" and he knelt down; and shutting
his blind eyes--'twas as though he was dazzled by some strong light--unseen
by his comrades, moved his lips silently. The silence was at last broken
by the footsteps of the warder in the corridor. Bland hailed it as a reprieve
from whatever act of daring he dreaded. "We must wait until he goes,"
he whispered eagerly. "He might look in."
Dawes nodded, and Mooney, whose quick ear apprised him very exactly
of the position of the approaching gaoler, rose from his knees radiant.
The sour face of Gimblett appeared at the trap cell-door.
he asked, somewhat--so the three thought--less sourly than usual.
"All right," was the reply, and Mooney added, "Good-night, Mr. Gimblett."
"I wonder what is making the old man so cheerful," thought Gimblett,
as he got into the next corridor.
The sound of his echoing footsteps had scarcely died away, when upon the ears
of the two less fortunate casters of lots fell the dull sound
of rending woollen. The lucky man was tearing a strip from his blanket.
"I think this will do," said he, pulling it between his hands
to test its strength. "I am an old man." It was possible that he debated
concerning the descent of some abyss into which the strip of blanket
was to lower him. "Here, Bland, catch hold. Where are ye?--don't be
faint-hearted, man. It won't take ye long."
It was quite dark now in the cell, but as Bland advanced his face
was like a white mask floating upon the darkness, it was so ghastly pale.
Dawes pressed his lucky comrade's hand, and withdrew to the farthest corner.
Bland and Mooney were for a few moments occupied with the rope--doubtless
preparing for escape by means of it. The silence was broken only by
the convulsive jangling of Bland's irons--he was shuddering violently.
At last Mooney spoke again, in strangely soft and subdued tones.
"Dawes, lad, do you think there is a Heaven?"
"I know there is a Hell," said Dawes, without turning his face.
"Ay, and a Heaven, lad. I think I shall go there. You will, old chap,
for you've been good to me--God bless you, you've been very good to me."
* * * * * *
When Troke came in the morning he saw what had occurred at a glance,
and hastened to remove the corpse of the strangled Mooney.
"We drew lots," said Rufus Dawes, pointing to Bland, who crouched
in the corner farthest from his victim, "and it fell upon him to do it.
I'm the witness."
"They'll hang you for all that," said Troke.
"I hope so," said Rufus Dawes.
The scheme of escape hit upon by
the convict intellect was simply this. Three men being together,
lots were drawn to determine whom should be murdered. The drawer
of the longest straw was the "lucky" man. He was killed.
The drawer of the next longest straw was the murderer. He was hanged.
The unlucky one was the witness. He had, of course, an excellent chance
of being hung also, but his doom was not so certain, and he therefore
looked upon himself as unfortunate.
John Rex found the "George" disagreeably prepared for his august arrival.
Obsequious waiters took his dressing-bag and overcoat, the landlord himself
welcomed him at the door. Two naval gentlemen came out of the coffee-room
to stare at him. "Have you any more luggage, Mr. Devine?" asked the landlord,
as he flung open the door of the best drawing-room. It was awkwardly evident
that his wife had no notion of suffering him to hide his borrowed light
under a bushel.
A supper-table laid for two people gleamed bright from the cheeriest corner.
A fire crackled beneath the marble mantelshelf. The latest evening paper
lay upon a chair; and, brushing it carelessly with her costly dress,
the woman he had so basely deserted came smiling to meet him.
"Well, Mr. Richard Devine," said she, "you did not expect to see me again,
Although, on his journey down, he had composed an elaborate speech
wherewith to greet her, this unnatural civility dumbfounded him.
"Sarah! I never meant to--"
"Hush, my dear Richard--it must be Richard now, I suppose. This is not
the time for explanations. Besides, the waiter might hear you.
Let us have some supper; you must be hungry, I am sure." He advanced
to the table mechanically. "But how fat you are!" she continued.
"Too good living, I suppose. You were not so fat at Port Ar---Oh,
I forgot, my dear! Come and sit down. That's right. I have told them
all that I am your wife, for whom you have sent. They regard me
with some interest and respect in consequence. Don't spoil
their good opinion of me."
He was about to utter an imprecation, but she stopped him by a glance.
"No bad language, John, or I shall ring for a constable. Let us understand
one another, my dear. You may be a very great man to other people,
but to me you are merely my runaway husband--an escaped convict.
If you don't eat your supper civilly, I shall send for the police."
"Sarah!" he burst out, "I never meant to desert you. Upon my word.
It is all a mistake. Let me explain."
"There is no need for explanations yet, Jack--I mean Richard.
Have your supper. Ah! I know what you want."
She poured out half a tumbler of brandy, and gave it to him. He took
the glass from her hand, drank the contents, and then, as though warmed
by the spirit, laughed. "What a woman you are, Sarah. I have been
a great brute, I confess."
"You have been an ungrateful villain," said she, with sudden passion,
"a hardened, selfish villain."
"Don't touch me!" "'Pon my word, you are a fine creature, and I was a fool
to leave you." The compliment seemed to soothe her, for her tone changed
somewhat. "It was a wicked, cruel act, Jack. You whom I saved
from death--whom I nursed--whom I enriched. It was the act of a coward."
"I admit it. It was." "You admit it. Have you no shame then? Have you
no pity for me for what I have suffered all these years?"
"I don't suppose you cared much."
"Don't you? You never thought about me at all. I have cared this much,
John Rex--bah! the door is shut close enough--that I have spent a fortune
in hunting you down; and now I have found you, I will make you suffer
in your turn."
He laughed again, but uneasily. "How did you discover me?"
With a readiness which showed that she had already prepared an answer
to the question, she unlocked a writing-case, which was on the side table,
and took from it a newspaper. "By one of those strange accidents
which are the ruin of men like you. Among the papers sent to the overseer
from his English friends was this one."
She held out an illustrated journal--a Sunday organ of sporting opinion--
and pointed to a portrait engraved on the centre page. It represented
a broad-shouldered, bearded man, dressed in the fashion affected by turfites
and lovers of horse-flesh, standing beside a pedestal on which were piled
a variety of racing cups and trophies. John Rex read underneath
this work of art the name,
MR. RICHARD DEVINE,
THE LEVIATHAN OF THE TURF.
"And you recognized me?"
"The portrait was sufficiently like you to induce me to make inquiries,
and when I found that Mr. Richard Devine had suddenly returned
from a mysterious absence of fourteen years, I set to work in earnest.
I have spent a deal of money, Jack, but I've got you!"
"You have been clever in finding me out; I give you credit for that."
"There is not a single act of your life, John Rex, that I do not know,"
she continued, with heat. "I have traced you from the day you stole out
of my house until now. I know your continental trips, your journeyings
here and there in search of a lost clue. I pieced together the puzzle,
as you have done, and I know that, by some foul fortune, you have stolen
the secret of a dead man to ruin an innocent and virtuous family."
"Hullo! hullo!" said John Rex. "Since when have you learnt to talk of virtue?"
"It is well to taunt, but you have got to the end of your tether now, Jack.
I have communicated with the woman whose son's fortune you have stolen.
I expect to hear from Lady Devine in a day or so."
"Well--and when you hear?"
"I shall give back the fortune at the price of her silence!"
"Ho! ho! Will you?"
"Yes; and if my husband does not come back and live with me quietly,
I shall call the police."
John Rex sprang up. "Who will believe you, idiot?" he cried.
"I'll have you sent to gaol as an impostor."
"You forget, my dear," she returned, playing coquettishly with her rings,
and glancing sideways as she spoke, "that you have already acknowledged me
as your wife before the landlord and the servants. It is too late
for that sort of thing. Oh, my dear Jack, you think you are very clever,
but I am as clever as you."
Smothering a curse, he sat down beside her. "Listen, Sarah. What is the use
of fighting like a couple of children. I am rich--"
"So am I." "Well, so much the better. We will join our riches together.
I admit that I was a fool and a cur to leave you; but I played for
a great stake. The name of Richard Devine was worth nearly half a million
in money. It is mine. I won it. Share it with me! Sarah, you and I defied
the world years ago. Don't let us quarrel now. I was ungrateful. Forget it.
We know by this time that we are not either of us angels. We started
in life together--do you remember, Sally, when I met you first?--determined
to make money. We have succeeded. Why then set to work to destroy
each other? You are handsomer than ever, I have not lost my wits.
Is there any need for you to tell the world that I am a runaway convict,
and that you are--well, no, of course there is no need. Kiss and be friends,
Sarah. I would have escaped you if I could, I admit. You have found me out.
I accept the position. You claim me as your husband. You say you are
Mrs. Richard Devine. Very well, I admit it. You have all your life
wanted to be a great lady. Now is your chance!" Much as she had cause
to hate him, well as she knew his treacherous and ungrateful character,
little as she had reason to trust him, her strange and distempered affection
for the scoundrel came upon her again with gathering strength.
As she sat beside him, listening to the familiar tones of the voice
she had learned to love, greedily drinking in the promise of a future fidelity
which she was well aware was made but to be broken, her memory recalled
the past days of trust and happiness, and her woman's fancy once more
invested the selfish villain she had reclaimed with those attributes
which had enchained her wilful and wayward affections. The unselfish devotion
which had marked her conduct to the swindler and convict was, indeed,
her one redeeming virtue; and perhaps she felt dimly--poor woman--that
it were better for her to cling to that, if she lost all the world beside.
Her wish for vengeance melted under the influence of these thoughts.
The bitterness of despised love, the shame and anger of desertion,
ingratitude, and betrayal, all vanished. The tears of a sweet forgiveness
trembled in her eyes, the unreasoning love of her sex--faithful to nought
but love, and faithful to love in death--shook in her voice.
She took his coward hand and kissed it, pardoning all his baseness
with the sole reproach, "Oh, John, John, you might have trusted me after all?"
John Rex had conquered, and he smiled as he embraced her. "I wish I had,"
said he; "it would have saved me many regrets; but never mind. Sit down;
now we will have supper."
"Your preference has one drawback, Sarah," he said, when the meal
was concluded, and the two sat down to consider their immediate course
of action, "it doubles the chance of detection."
"People have accepted me without inquiry, but I am afraid not without dislike.
Mr. Francis Wade, my uncle, never liked me; and I fear I have not played
my cards well with Lady Devine. When they find I have a mysterious wife
their dislike will become suspicion. Is it likely that I should have
been married all these years and not have informed them?"
"Very unlikely," returned Sarah calmly, "and that is just the reason
why you have not been married all these years. Really," she added,
with a laugh, "the male intellect is very dull. You have already told
ten thousand lies about this affair, and yet you don't see your way
to tell one more."
"What do you mean?"
"Why, my dear Richard, you surely cannot have forgotten that you married me
last year on the Continent? By the way, it was last year that you were there,
was it not? I am the daughter of a poor clergyman of the Church of England;
name--anything you please- and you met me--where shall we say? Baden, Aix,
Brussels? Cross the Alps, if you like, dear, and say Rome." John Rex
put his hand to his head. "Of course--I am stupid," said he. "I have
not been well lately. Too much brandy, I suppose."
"Well, we will alter all that," she returned with a laugh,
which her anxious glance at him belied. "You are going to be domestic now,
Jack--I mean Dick."
"Go on," said he impatiently. "What then?"
"Then, having settled these little preliminaries, you take me up to London
and introduce me to your relatives and friends."
He started. "A bold game."
"Bold! Nonsense! The only safe one. People don't, as a rule, suspect
unless one is mysterious. You must do it; I have arranged for your doing it.
The waiters here all know me as your wife. There is not the least danger--
unless, indeed, you are married already?" she added, with a quick
and angry suspicion.
"You need not be alarmed. I was not such a fool as to marry another woman
while you were alive--had I even seen one I would have cared to marry.
But what of Lady Devine? You say you have told her."
"I have told her to communicate with Mrs. Carr, Post Office, Torquay,
in order to hear something to her advantage. If you had been rebellious,
John, the 'something' would have been a letter from me telling her
who you really are. Now you have proved obedient, the 'something'
will be a begging letter of a sort which she has already received hundreds,
and which in all probability she will not even answer. What do you think
of that, Mr. Richard Devine?"
"You deserve success, Sarah," said the old schemer, in genuine admiration.
"By Jove, this is something like the old days, when we were
Mr. and Mrs. Crofton."
"Or Mr. and Mrs. Skinner, eh, John?" she said, with as much tenderness
in her voice as though she had been a virtuous matron recalling her honeymoon.
"That was an unlucky name, wasn't it, dear? You should have taken
my advice there." And immersed in recollection of their past rogueries,
the worthy pair pensively smiled. Rex was the first to awake
from that pleasant reverie.
"I will be guided by you, then," he said. "What next?"
"Next--for, as you say, my presence doubles the danger--we will contrive
to withdraw quietly from England. The introduction to your mother over,
and Mr. Francis disposed of, we will go to Hampstead, and live there
for a while. During that time you must turn into cash as much property
as you dare. We will then go abroad for the 'season'--and stop there.
After a year or so on the Continent you can write to our agent to sell
more property; and, finally, when we are regarded as permanent absentees--
and three or four years will bring that about--we will get rid of everything,
and slip over to America. Then you can endow a charity if you like,
or build a church to the memory of the man you have displaced."
John Rex burst into a laugh. "An excellent plan. I like the idea
of the charity--the Devine Hospital, eh?"
"By the way, how did you find out the particulars of this man's life.
He was burned in the Hydaspes, wasn't he?"
"No," said Rex, with an air of pride. "He was transported in the Malabar
under the name of Rufus Dawes. You remember him. It is a long story.
The particulars weren't numerous, and if the old lady had been half sharp
she would have bowled me out. But the fact was she wanted to find
the fellow alive, and was willing to take a good deal on trust. I'll tell you
all about it another time. I think I'll go to bed now; I'm tired,
and my head aches as though it would split."
"Then it is decided that you follow my directions?"
She rose and placed her hand on the bell. "What are you going to do?"
he said uneasily.
"I am going to do nothing. You are going to telegraph to your servants
to have the house in London prepared for your wife, who will return with you
the day after to-morrow."
John Rex stayed her hand with a sudden angry gesture. "This is all
devilish fine," he said, "but suppose it fails?"
"That is your affair, John. You need not go on with this business at all,
unless you like. I had rather you didn't."
"What the deuce am I to do, then?"
"I am not as rich as you are, but, with my station and so on,
I am worth seven thousand a year. Come back to Australia with me,
and let these poor people enjoy their own again. Ah, John, it is the best
thing to do, believe me. We can afford to be honest now."
"A fine scheme!" cried he. "Give up half a million of money, and go back
to Australia! You must be mad!"
"But, my dear--"
"Hush, here's the waiter."
As he wrote, John Rex felt gloomily that, though he had succeeded
in recalling her affection, that affection was as imperious as of yore.
EXTRACTED FROM THE DIARY OF THE REV. JAMES NORTH.
December 7th.--I have made up my mind to leave this place, to bury myself
again in the bush, I suppose, and await extinction. I try to think
that the reason for this determination is the frightful condition of misery
existing among the prisoners; that because I am daily horrified and sickened
by scenes of torture and infamy, I decide to go away; that, feeling myself
powerless to save others, I wish to spare myself. But in this journal,
in which I bind myself to write nothing but truth, I am forced to confess
that these are not the reasons. I will write the reason plainly:
"I covet my neighbour's wife." It does not look well thus written.
It looks hideous. In my own breast I find numberless excuses for my passion.
I said to myself, "My neighbour does not love his wife, and her unloved life
is misery. She is forced to live in the frightful seclusion
of this accursed island, and she is dying for want of companionship.
She feels that I understand and appreciate her, that I could love her
as she deserves, that I could render her happy. I feel that I have met
the only woman who has power to touch my heart, to hold me back from the ruin
into which I am about to plunge, to make me useful to my fellows--a man,
and not a drunkard." Whispering these conclusions to myself, I am urged
to brave public opinion, and make two lives happy. I say to myself,
or rather my desires say to me--"What sin is there in this? Adultery?
No; for a marriage without love is the coarsest of all adulteries.
What tie binds a man and woman together--that formula of license
pronounced by the priest, which the law has recognized as a 'legal bond'?
Surely not this only, for marriage is but a partnership--a contract
of mutual fidelity--and in all contracts the violation of the terms
of the agreement by one of the contracting persons absolves the other.
Mrs. Frere is then absolved, by her husband's act. I cannot but think so.
But is she willing to risk the shame of divorce or legal offence? Perhaps.
Is she fitted by temperament to bear such a burden of contumely as must needs
fall upon her? Will she not feel disgust at the man who entrapped her
into shame? Do not the comforts which surround her compensate for the lack
of affections?" And so the torturing catechism continues, until I am
driven mad with doubt, love, and despair.
Of course I am wrong; of course I outrage my character as a priest;
of course I endanger--according to the creed I teach--my soul and hers.
But priests, unluckily, have hearts and passions as well as other men.
Thank God, as yet, I have never expressed my madness in words.
What a fate is mine! When I am in her presence I am in torment;
when I am absent from her my imagination pictures her surrounded
by a thousand graces that are not hers, but belong to all the women
of my dreams--to Helen, to Juliet, to Rosalind. Fools that we are
of our own senses! When I think of her I blush; when I hear her name
my heart leaps, and I grow pale. Love! What is the love of two pure souls,
scarce conscious of the Paradise into which they have fallen,
to this maddening delirium? I can understand the poison of Circe's cup;
it is the sweet-torment of a forbidden love like mine! Away gross materialism,
in which I have so long schooled myself! I, who laughed at passion
as the outcome of temperament and easy living--I, who thought in my intellect,
to sound all the depths and shoals of human feeling--I, who analysed
my own soul--scoffed at my own yearnings for an immortality--am forced
to deify the senseless power of my creed, and believe in God, that I may pray
to Him. I know now why men reject the cold impersonality that reason
tells us rules the world--it is because they love. To die, and be no more;
to die, and rendered into dust, be blown about the earth; to die
and leave our love defenceless and forlorn, till the bright soul
that smiled to ours is smothered in the earth that made it! No! To love
is life eternal. God, I believe in Thee! Aid me! Pity me! Sinful wretch
that I am, to have denied Thee! See me on my knees before Thee! Pity me,
or let me die!
December 9th.--I have been visiting the two condemned prisoners,
Dawes and Bland, and praying with them. O Lord, let me save one soul
that may plead with Thee for mine! Let me draw one being alive
out of this pit! I weep--I weary Thee with my prayers, O Lord!
Look down upon me. Grant me a sign. Thou didst it in old times to men
who were not more fervent in their supplications than am I. So says Thy Book.
Thy Book which I believe--which I believe. Grant me a sign--one little sign,
O Lord!--I will not see her. I have sworn it. Thou knowest my grief--
my agony--my despair. Thou knowest why I love her. Thou knowest how
I strive to make her hate me. Is that not a sacrifice? I am so lonely--
a lonely man, with but one creature that he loves--yet, what is mortal love
to Thee? Cruel and implacable, Thou sittest in the heavens men have built
for Thee, and scornest them! Will not all the burnings and slaughters
of the saints appease Thee? Art Thou not sated with blood and tears,
O God of vengeance, of wrath, and of despair! Kind Christ, pity me.
Thou wilt--for Thou wast human! Blessed Saviour, at whose feet knelt
the Magdalen! Divinity, who, most divine in Thy despair, called on Thy cruel
God to save Thee--by the memory of that moment when Thou didst deem Thyself
forsaken--forsake not me! Sweet Christ, have mercy on Thy sinful servant.
I can write no more. I will pray to Thee with my lips. I will shriek
my supplications to Thee. I will call upon Thee so loud that all the world
shall hear me, and wonder at Thy silence--unjust and unmerciful God!
December 14th.--What blasphemies are these which I have uttered in my despair?
Horrible madness that has left me prostrate, to what heights of frenzy
didst thou not drive my soul! Like him of old time, who wandered
among the tombs, shrieking and tearing himself, I have been possessed
by a devil. For a week I have been unconscious of aught save torture.
I have gone about my daily duties as one who in his dreams repeats
the accustomed action of the day, and knows it not. Men have looked at me
strangely. They look at me strangely now. Can it be that my disease
of drunkenness has become the disease of insanity? Am I mad, or do I
but verge on madness? O Lord, whom in my agonies I have confessed,
leave me my intellect--let me not become a drivelling spectacle for the curious
to point at or to pity! At least, in mercy, spare me a little.
Let not my punishment overtake me here. Let her memories of me be clouded
with a sense of my rudeness or my brutality; let me for ever seem to her the
ungrateful ruffian I strive to show myself--but let her not behold me--that!
THE STRANGE BEHAVIOUR OF Mr. NORTH.
On or about the 8th of December, Mrs. Frere noticed a sudden and unaccountable
change in the manner of the chaplain. He came to her one afternoon, and,
after talking for some time, in a vague and unconnected manner,
about the miseries of the prison and the wretched condition of some
of the prisoners, began to question her abruptly concerning Rufus Dawes.
"I do not wish to think of him," said she, with a shudder. "I have
the strangest, the most horrible dreams about him. He is a bad man.
He tried to murder me when a child, and had it not been for my husband,
he would have done so. I have only seen him once since then--at Hobart Town,
when he was taken." "He sometimes speaks to me of you," said North, eyeing her.
"He asked me once to give him a rose plucked in your garden."
Sylvia turned pale. "And you gave it him?"
"Yes, I gave it him. Why not?"
"It was valueless, of course, but still--to a convict?"
"You are not angry?"
"Oh, no! Why should I be angry?" she laughed constrainedly. "It was
a strange fancy for the man to have, that's all."
"I suppose you would not give me another rose, if I asked you."
"Why not?" said she, turning away uneasily. "You? You are a gentleman."
"Not I--you don't know me."
"What do you mean?"
"I mean that it would be better for you if you had never seen me."
"Mr. North!" Terrified at the wild gleam in his eyes, she had risen hastily.
"You are talking very strangely."
"Oh, don't be alarmed, madam. I am not drunk!"--he pronounced the word
with a fierce energy. "I had better leave you. Indeed, I think the less
we see of each other the better."
Deeply wounded and astonished at this extraordinary outburst,
Sylvia allowed him to stride away without a word. She saw him pass through
the garden and slam the little gate, but she did not see the agony
on his face, or the passionate gesture with which--when out of eyeshot--
he lamented the voluntary abasement of himself before her. She thought
over his conduct with growing fear. It was not possible that he was
intoxicated--such a vice was the last one of which she could have believed
him guilty. It was more probable that some effects of the fever,
which had recently confined him to his house, yet lingered. So she thought;
and, thinking, was alarmed to realize of how much importance the well-being
of this man was to her.
The next day he met her, and, bowing, passed swiftly. This pained her.
Could she have offended him by some unlucky word? She made Maurice ask him
to dinner, and, to her astonishment, he pleaded illness as an excuse
for not coming. Her pride was hurt, and she sent him back his books and music.
A curiosity that was unworthy of her compelled her to ask the servant
who carried the parcel what the clergyman had said. "He said nothing--
only laughed." Laughed! In scorn of her foolishness! His conduct
was ungentlemanly and intemperate. She would forget, as speedily as possible,
that such a being had ever existed. This resolution taken, she was
unusually patient with her husband.
So a week passed, and Mr. North did not return. Unluckily for the poor wretch,
the very self-sacrifice he had made brought about the precise condition
of things which he was desirous to avoid. It is possible that,
had the acquaintance between them continued on the same staid footing,
it would have followed the lot of most acquaintanceships of the kind--
other circumstances and other scenes might have wiped out the memory
of all but common civilities between them, and Sylvia might never
have discovered that she had for the chaplain any other feeling
but that of esteem. But the very fact of the sudden wrenching away
of her soul-companion, showed her how barren was the solitary life
to which she had been fated. Her husband, she had long ago admitted,
with bitter self-communings, was utterly unsuited to her. She could find
in his society no enjoyment, and for the sympathy which she needed
was compelled to turn elsewhere. She understood that his love for her
had burnt itself out--she confessed, with intensity of self-degradation,
that his apparent affection had been born of sensuality, and had perished
in the fires it had itself kindled. Many women have, unhappily, made
some such discovery as this, but for most women there is some
distracting occupation. Had it been Sylvia's fate to live in the midst
of fashion and society, she would have found relief in the conversation
of the witty, or the homage of the distinguished. Had fortune cast her lot
in a city, Mrs. Frere might have become one of those charming women
who collect around their supper-tables whatever of male intellect
is obtainable, and who find the husband admirably useful to open
his own champagne bottles. The celebrated women who have stepped out
of their domestic circles to enchant or astonish the world, have
almost invariably been cursed with unhappy homes. But poor Sylvia
was not destined to this fortune. Cast back upon herself,
she found no surcease of pain in her own imaginings, and meeting with a man
sufficiently her elder to encourage her to talk, and sufficiently clever
to induce her to seek his society and his advice, she learnt,
for the first time, to forget her own griefs; for the first time she suffered
her nature to expand under the sun of a congenial influence. This sun,
suddenly withdrawn, her soul, grown accustomed to the warmth and light,
shivered at the gloom, and she looked about her in dismay at the dull
and barren prospect of life which lay before her. In a word, she found
that the society of North had become so far necessary to her that
to be deprived of it was a grief--notwithstanding that her husband
remained to console her.
After a week of such reflections, the barrenness of life grew insupportable
to her, and one day she came to Maurice and begged to be sent back
to Hobart Town. "I cannot live in this horrible island," she said.
"I am getting ill. Let me go to my father for a few months, Maurice."
Maurice consented. His wife was looking ill, and Major Vickers
was an old man--a rich old man--who loved his only daughter. It was not
undesirable that Mrs. Frere should visit her father; indeed, so little
sympathy was there between the pair that, the first astonishment over,
Maurice felt rather glad to get rid of her for a while. "You can go back
in the Lady Franklin if you like, my dear," he said. "I expect her
every day." At this decision--much to his surprise--she kissed him
with more show of affection than she had manifested since the death
of her child.
The news of the approaching departure became known, but still North
did not make his appearance. Had it not been a step beneath the dignity
of a woman, Mrs. Frere would have gone herself and asked him the meaning
of his unaccountable rudeness, but there was just sufficient morbidity
in the sympathy she had for him to restrain her from an act which
a young girl--though not more innocent- would have dared without hesitation.
Calling one day upon the wife of the surgeon, however, she met the chaplain
face to face, and with the consummate art of acting which most women possess,
rallied him upon his absence from her house. The behaviour of the poor devil,
thus stabbed to the heart, was curious. He forgot gentlemanly behaviour
and the respect due to a woman, flung one despairingly angry glance
at her and abruptly retired. Sylvia flushed crimson, and endeavoured
to excuse North on account of his recent illness. The surgeon's wife
looked askance, and turned the conversation. The next time Sylvia bowed
to this lady, she got a chilling salute in return that made her blood boil.
"I wonder how I have offended Mrs. Field?" she asked Maurice.
"She almost cut me to-day." "Oh, the old cat!" returned Maurice.
"What does it matter if she did?" However, a few days afterwards,
it seemed that it did matter, for Maurice called upon Field and conversed
seriously with him. The issue of the conversation being reported
to Mrs. Frere, the lady wept indignant tears of wounded pride and shame.
It appeared that North had watched her out of the house, returned,
and related--in a "stumbling, hesitating way", Mrs. Field said--how he
disliked Mrs. Frere, how he did not want to visit her, and how flighty
and reprehensible such conduct was in a married woman of her rank and station.
This act of baseness--or profound nobleness--achieved its purpose.
Sylvia noticed the unhappy priest no more. Between the Commandant
and the chaplain now arose a coolness, and Frere set himself,
by various petty tyrannies, to disgust North, and compel him to a resignation
of his office. The convict-gaolers speedily marked the difference
in the treatment of the chaplain, and their demeanour changed.
For respect was substituted insolence; for alacrity, sullenness;
for prompt obedience, impertinent intrusion. The men whom North favoured
were selected as special subjects for harshness, and for a prisoner to be seen
talking to the clergyman was sufficient to ensure for him a series
of tyrannies. The result of this was that North saw the souls he laboured
to save slipping back into the gulf; beheld the men he had half won
to love him meet him with averted faces; discovered that to show interest
in a prisoner was to injure him, not to serve him. The unhappy man
grew thinner and paler under this ingenious torment. He had deprived himself
of that love which, guilty though it might be, was, nevertheless,
the only true love he had known; and he found that, having won this victory,
he had gained the hatred of all living creatures with whom he came in contact.
The authority of the Commandant was so supreme that men lived
but by the breath of his nostrils. To offend him was to perish and the man
whom the Commandant hated must be hated also by all those who wished to exist
in peace. There was but one being who was not to be turned from
his allegiance--the convict murderer, Rufus Dawes, who awaited death.
For many days he had remained mute, broken down beneath his weight of sorrow
or of sullenness; but North, bereft of other love and sympathy,
strove with that fighting soul, if haply he might win it back to peace.
It seemed to the fancy of the priest--a fancy distempered, perhaps, by excess,
or superhumanly exalted by mental agony--that this convict, over whom
he had wept, was given to him as a hostage for his own salvation.
"I must save him or perish," he said. "I must save him, though I redeem him
with my own blood."
Frere, unable to comprehend the reason of the calmness with which
the doomed felon met his taunts and torments, thought that he was
shamming piety to gain some indulgence of meat and drink, and redoubled
his severity. He ordered Dawes to be taken out to work just before the hour
at which the chaplain was accustomed to visit him. He pretended that the man
was "dangerous", and directed a gaoler to be present at all interviews,
"lest the chaplain might be murdered". He issued an order that all
civil officers should obey the challenges of convicts acting as watchmen;
and North, coming to pray with his penitent, would be stopped ten times
by grinning felons, who, putting their faces within a foot of his,
would roar out, "Who goes there?" and burst out laughing at the reply.
Under pretence of watching more carefully over the property of the chaplain,
he directed that any convict, acting as constable, might at any time
"search everywhere and anywhere" for property supposed to be in the possession
of a prisoner. The chaplain's servant was a prisoner, of course;
and North's drawers were ransacked twice in one week by Troke.
North met these impertinences with unruffled brow, and Frere could in no way
account for his obstinacy, until the arrival of the Lady Franklin explained
the chaplain's apparent coolness. He had sent in his resignation
two months before, and the saintly Meekin had been appointed in his stead.
Frere, unable to attack the clergyman, and indignant at the manner
in which he had been defeated, revenged himself upon Rufus Dawes.
MR. NORTH SPEAKS.
The method and manner of Frere's revenge became a subject of whispered
conversation on the island. It was reported that North had been forbidden
to visit the convict, but that he had refused to accept the prohibition,
and by a threat of what he would do when the returning vessel had landed him
in Hobart Town, had compelled the Commandant to withdraw his order.
The Commandant, however, speedily discovered in Rufus Dawes signs
of insubordination, and set to work again to reduce still further
the "spirit" he had so ingeniously "broken". The unhappy convict
was deprived of food, was kept awake at nights, was put to the hardest labour,
was loaded with the heaviest irons. Troke, with devilish malice,
suggested that, if the tortured wretch would decline to see the chaplain,
some amelioration of his condition might be effected; but his suggestions
were in vain. Fully believing that his death was certain, Dawes clung
to North as the saviour of his agonized soul, and rejected all such
insidious overtures. Enraged at this obstinacy, Frere sentenced his victim
to the "spread eagle" and the "stretcher".
Now the rumour of the obduracy of this undaunted convict who had been
recalled to her by the clergyman at their strange interview, had reached
Sylvia's ears. She had heard gloomy hints of the punishments inflicted
on him by her husband's order, and as--constantly revolving in her mind
was that last conversation with the chaplain--she wondered at
the prisoner's strange fancy for a flower, her brain began to thrill
with those undefined and dreadful memories which had haunted her childhood.
What was the link between her and this murderous villain? How came it
that she felt at times so strange a sympathy for his fate, and that he--
who had attempted her life--cherished so tender a remembrance of her
as to beg for a flower which her hand had touched?
She questioned her husband concerning the convict's misdoings,
but with the petulant brutality which he invariably displayed when the name
of Rufus Dawes intruded itself into their conversation, Maurice Frere
harshly refused to satisfy her. This but raised her curiosity higher.
She reflected how bitter he had always seemed against this man--she remembered
how, in the garden at Hobart Town, the hunted wretch had caught her dress
with words of assured confidence--she recollected the fragment of cloth
he passionately flung from him, and which her affianced lover
had contemptuously tossed into the stream. The name of "Dawes", detested
as it had become to her, bore yet some strange association of comfort and hope.
What secret lurked behind the twilight that had fallen upon her childish
memories? Deprived of the advice of North--to whom, a few weeks back,
she would have confided her misgivings--she resolved upon a project that,
for her, was most distasteful. She would herself visit the gaol and judge
how far the rumours of her husband's cruelty were worthy of credit.
One sultry afternoon, when the Commandant had gone on a visit of inspection,
Troke, lounging at the door of the New Prison, beheld, with surprise,
the figure of the Commandant's lady.
"What is it, mam?" he asked, scarcely able to believe his eyes.
"I want to see the prisoner Dawes."
Troke's jaw fell.
"See Dawes?" he repeated.
"Yes. Where is he?"
Troke was preparing a lie. The imperious voice, and the clear,
steady gaze, confused him.
"Let me see him."
"He's--he's under punishment, mam."
"What do you mean? Are they flogging him?"
"No; but he's dangerous, mam. The Commandant--"
"Do you mean to open the door or not, Mr. Troke?"
Troke grew more confused. It was evident that he was most unwilling
to open the door. "The Commandant has given strict orders--"
"Do you wish me to complain to the Commandant?" cries Sylvia,
with a touch of her old spirit, and jumped hastily at the conclusion
that the gaolers were, perhaps, torturing the convict for their own
entertainment. "Open the door at once!--at once!"
Thus commanded, Troke, with a hasty growl of its "being no affair of his,
and he hoped Mrs. Frere would tell the captain how it happened"
flung open the door of a cell on the right hand of the doorway.
It was so dark that, at first, Sylvia could distinguish nothing but
the outline of a framework, with something stretched upon it that resembled
a human body. Her first thought was that the man was dead,
but this was not so--he groaned. Her eyes, accustoming themselves
to the gloom, began to see what the "punishment" was. Upon the floor
was placed an iron frame about six feet long, and two and a half feet wide,
with round iron bars, placed transversely, about twelve inches apart.
The man she came to seek was bound in a horizontal position upon this frame,
with his neck projecting over the end of it. If he allowed his head to hang,
the blood rushed to his brain, and suffocated him, while the effort
to keep it raised strained every muscle to agony pitch. His face was purple,
and he foamed at the mouth. Sylvia uttered a cry. "This is no punishment;
it's murder! Who ordered this?"
"The Commandant," said Troke sullenly.
"I don't believe it. Loose him!"
"I daren't mam," said Troke.
"Loose him, I say! Hailey!--you, sir, there!" The noise had brought
several warders to the spot. "Do you hear me? Do you know who I am?
Loose him, I say!" In her eagerness and compassion she was on her knees
by the side of the infernal machine, plucking at the ropes
with her delicate fingers. "Wretches, you have cut his flesh! He is dying!
Help! You have killed him!" The prisoner, in fact, seeing this angel
of mercy stooping over him, and hearing close to him the tones of a voice
that for seven years he had heard but in his dreams, had fainted.
Troke and Hailey, alarmed by her vehemence, dragged the stretcher out
into the light, and hastily cut the lashings. Dawes rolled off like a log,
and his head fell against Mrs. Frere. Troke roughly pulled him aside,
and called for water. Sylvia, trembling with sympathy and pale with passion,
turned upon the crew. "How long has he been like this?"
"An hour," said Troke.
"A lie!" said a stern voice at the door. "He has been there nine hours!"
"Wretches!" cried Sylvia, "you shall hear more of this. Oh, oh!
I am sick!"--she felt for the wall--"I--I--" North watched her with agony
on his face, but did not move. "I faint. I--"--she uttered a despairing cry
that was not without a touch of anger. "Mr. North! do you not see?
Oh! Take me home--take me home!" and she would have fallen across the body
of the tortured prisoner had not North caught her in his arms.
Rufus Dawes, awaking from his stupor, saw, in the midst of a sunbeam
which penetrated a window in the corridor, the woman who came to save his body
supported by the priest who came to save his soul; and staggering to his knees,
he stretched out his hands with a hoarse cry. Perhaps something in the action
brought back to the dimmed remembrance of the Commandant's wife the image
of a similar figure stretching forth its hands to a frightened child
in the mysterious far-off time. She started, and pushing back her hair,
bent a wistful, terrified gaze upon the face of the kneeling man,
as though she would fain read there an explanation of the shadowy memory
which haunted her. It is possible that she would have spoken,
but North--thinking the excitement had produced one of those hysterical crises
which were common to her--gently drew her, still gazing, back towards the gate.
The convict's arms fell, and an undefinable presentiment of evil chilled him
as he beheld the priest--emotion pallid in his cheeks--slowly draw
the fair young creature from out the sunlight into the grim shadow
of the heavy archway. For an instant the gloom swallowed them, and it seemed
to Dawes that the strange wild man of God had in that instant become a man
of Evil--blighting the brightness and the beauty of the innocence that clung
to him. For an instant--and then they passed out of the prison archway
into the free air of heaven--and the sunlight glowed golden on their faces.
"You are ill," said North. "You will faint. Why do you look so wildly?"
"What is it?" she whispered, more in answer to her own thoughts than to
his question--"what is it that links me to that man? What deed--what terror--
what memory? I tremble with crowding thoughts, that die ere they can whisper
to me. Oh, that prison!"
"Look up; we are in the sunshine."
She passed her hand across her brow, sighing heavily, as one awaking
from a disturbed slumber--shuddered, and withdrew her arm from his.
North interpreted the action correctly, and the blood rushed to his face.
"Pardon me, you cannot walk alone; you will fall. I will leave you
at the gate."
In truth she would have fallen had he not again assisted her. She turned
upon him eyes whose reproachful sorrow had almost forced him to a confession,
but he bowed his head and held silence. They reached the house,
and he placed her tenderly in a chair. "Now you are safe, madam,
I will leave you."
She burst into tears. "Why do you treat me thus, Mr. North? What have I done
to make you hate me?"
"Hate you!" said North, with trembling lips. "Oh, no, I do not--do not
hate you. I am rude in my speech, abrupt in my manner. You must forget it,
and--and me." A horse's feet crashed upon the gravel, and an instant after
Maurice Frere burst into the room. Returning from the Cascades,
he had met Troke, and learned the release of the prisoner. Furious
at this usurpation of authority by his wife, his self-esteem wounded
by the thought that she had witnessed his mean revenge upon the man
he had so infamously wronged, and his natural brutality enhanced by brandy,
he had made for the house at full gallop, determined to assert his authority.
Blind with rage, he saw no one but his wife. "What the devil's this I hear?
You have been meddling in my business! You release prisoners! You--"
"Captain Frere!" said North, stepping forward to assert the restraining
presence of a stranger. Frere started, astonished at the intrusion
of the chaplain. Here was another outrage of his dignity, another insult
to his supreme authority. In its passion, his gross mind leapt
to the worst conclusion. "You here, too! What do you want here--with my wife!
This is your quarrel, is it?" His eyes glanced wrathfully from one
to the other; and he strode towards North. "You infernal hypocritical
lying scoundrel, if it wasn't for your black coat, I'd--"
"Maurice!" cried Sylvia, in an agony of shame and terror, striving to place
a restraining hand upon his arm. He turned upon her with so fiercely infamous
a curse that North, pale with righteous rage, seemed prompted to strike
the burly ruffian to the earth. For a moment, the two men faced each other,
and then Frere, muttering threats of vengeance against each and all--convicts,
gaolers, wife, and priest--flung the suppliant woman violently from him,
and rushed from the room. She fell heavily against the wall, and as
the chaplain raised her, he heard the hoof-strokes of the departing horse.
"Oh," cried Sylvia, covering her face with trembling hands,
"let me leave this place!"
North, enfolding her in his arms, strove to soothe her with incoherent words
of comfort. Dizzy with the blow she had received, she clung to him sobbing.
Twice he tried to tear himself away, but had he loosed his hold
she would have fallen. He could not hold her--bruised, suffering,
and in tears--thus against his heart, and keep silence. In a torrent
of agonized eloquence the story of his love burst from his lips.
"Why should you be thus tortured?" he cried. "Heaven never willed you
to be mated to that boor--you, whose life should be all sunshine.
Leave him--leave him. He has cast you off. We have both suffered.
Let us leave this dreadful place--this isthmus between earth and hell!
I will give you happiness."
"I am going," she said faintly. "I have already arranged to go."
North trembled. "It was not of my seeking. Fate has willed it.
We go together!"
They looked at each other--she felt the fever of his blood, she read
his passion in his eyes, she comprehended the "hatred" he had affected
for her, and, deadly pale, drew back the cold hand he held.
"Go!" she murmured. "If you love me, leave me--leave me! Do not see me
or speak to me again--" her silence added the words she could not utter,
GETTING READY FOR SEA.
Maurice Frere's passion had spent itself in that last act of violence.
He did not return to the prison, as he promised himself, but turned
into the road that led to the Cascades. He repented him of his suspicions.
There was nothing strange in the presence of the chaplain. Sylvia had always
liked the man, and an apology for his conduct had doubtless removed her anger.
To make a mountain out of a molehill was the act of an idiot. It was natural
that she should release Dawes--women were so tender-hearted. A few
well-chosen, calmly-uttered platitudes anent the necessity for the treatment
that, to those unaccustomed to the desperate wickedness of convicts,
must appear harsh, would have served his turn far better than bluster
and abuse. Moreover, North was to sail in the Lady Franklin, and might put
in execution his threats of official complaint, unless he was carefully
dealt with. To put Dawes again to the torture would be to show
to Troke and his friends that the "Commandant's wife" had acted
without the "Commandant's authority", and that must not be shown.
He would now return and patch up a peace. His wife would sail in the same
vessel with North, and he would in a few days be left alone on the island
to pursue his "discipline" unchecked. With this intent he returned
to the prison, and gravely informed poor Troke that he was astonished
at his barbarity. "Mrs. Frere, who most luckily had appointed to meet me
this evening at the prison, tells me that the poor devil Dawes had been
on the stretcher since seven o'clock this morning."
"You ordered it fust thing, yer honour," said Troke.
"Yes, you fool, but I didn't order you to keep the man there for nine hours,
did I? Why, you scoundrel, you might have killed him!" Troke scratched
his head in bewilderment. "Take his irons off, and put him in a separate cell
in the old gaol. If a man is a murderer, that is no reason you should take
the law into your own hands, is it? You'd better take care, Mr. Troke."
On the way back he met the chaplain, who, seeing him, made for a by-path
in curious haste. "Halloo!" roared Frere. "Hi! Mr. North!" Mr. North paused,
and the Commandant made at him abruptly. "Look here, sir, I was rude to you
just now--devilish rude. Most ungentlemanly of me. I must apologize."
North bowed, without speaking, and tried to pass.
"You must excuse my violence," Frere went on. "I'm bad-tempered, and I didn't
like my wife interfering. Women, don't you know, don't see these things--
don't understand these scoundrels." North again bowed. "Why, d--n it,
how savage you look! Quite ghastly, bigod! I must have said most outrageous
things. Forget and forgive, you know. Come home and have some dinner."
"I cannot enter your house again, sir," said North, in tones more agitated
than the occasion would seem to warrant.
Frere shrugged his great shoulders with a clumsy affectation of good humour,
and held out his hand. "Well, shake hands, parson. You'll have to take care
of Mrs. Frere on the voyage, and we may as well make up our differences
before you start. Shake hands."
"Let me pass, sir!" cried North, with heightened colour; and ignoring
the proffered hand, strode savagely on.
"You've a d--d fine temper for a parson," said Frere to himself.
"However, if you won't, you won't. Hang me if I'll ask you again."
Nor, when he reached home, did he fare better in his efforts at reconciliation
with his wife. Sylvia met him with the icy front of a woman whose pride
has been wounded too deeply for tears.
"Say no more about it," she said. "I am going to my father. If you want
to explain your conduct, explain it to him."
"Come, Sylvia," he urged; "I was a brute, I know. Forgive me."
"It is useless to ask me," she said; "I cannot. I have forgiven you
so much during the last seven years."
He attempted to embrace her, but she withdrew herself loathingly from his arms.
He swore a great oath at her, and, too obstinate to argue farther,
sulked. Blunt, coming in about some ship matters, the pair drank rum.
Sylvia went to her room and occupied herself with some minor details
of clothes-packing (it is wonderful how women find relief from thoughts
in household care), while North, poor fool, seeing from his window the light
in hers, sat staring at it, alternately cursing and praying. In the meantime,
the unconscious cause of all of this--Rufus Dawes--sat in his new cell,
wondering at the chance which had procured him comfort, and blessing
the fair hands that had brought it to him. He doubted not but that Sylvia
had interceded with his tormentor, and by gentle pleading brought him ease.
"God bless her," he murmured. "I have wronged her all these years.
She did not know that I suffered." He waited anxiously for North to visit him,
that he might have his belief confirmed. "I will get him to thank her for me,"
he thought. But North did not come for two whole days. No one came
but his gaolers; and, gazing from his prison window upon the sea
that almost washed its walls, he saw the schooner at anchor, mocking him
with a liberty he could not achieve. On the third day, however, North came.
His manner was constrained and abrupt. His eyes wandered uneasily,
and he seemed burdened with thoughts which he dared not utter.
"I want you to thank her for me, Mr. North," said Dawes.
The unhappy priest shuddered at hearing the name.
"I do not think you owe any thanks to her. Your irons were removed
by the Commandant's order."
"But by her persuasion. I feel sure of it. Ah, I was wrong to think
she had forgotten me. Ask her for her forgiveness."
"Forgiveness!" said North, recalling the scene in the prison. "What have you
done to need her forgiveness?"
"I doubted her," said Rufus Dawes. "I thought her ungrateful and treacherous.
I thought she delivered me again into the bondage from whence I had escaped.
I thought she had betrayed me--betrayed me to the villain whose base life
I saved for her sweet sake."
"What do you mean?" asked North. "You never spoke to me of this."
"No, I had vowed to bury the knowledge of it in my own breast--it was
too bitter to speak."
"Saved his life!"
"Ay, and hers! I made the boat that carried her to freedom. I held her
in my arms, and took the bread from my own lips to feed her!"
"She cannot know this," said North in an undertone.
"She has forgotten it, perhaps, for she was but a child. But you will
remind her, will you not? You will do me justice in her eyes before I die?
You will get her forgiveness for me?"
North could not explain why such an interview as the convict desired
was impossible, and so he promised.
"She is going away in the schooner," said he, concealing the fact
of his own departure. "I will see her before she goes, and tell her."
"God bless you, sir," said poor Dawes. "Now pray with me"; and the wretched
priest mechanically repeated one of the formulae his Church prescribes.
The next day he told his penitent that Mrs. Frere had forgiven him.
This was a lie. He had not seen her; but what should a lie be to him now?
Lies were needful in the tortuous path he had undertaken to tread.
Yet the deceit he was forced to practise cost him many a pang. He had
succumbed to his passion, and to win the love for which he yearned
had voluntarily abandoned truth and honour; but standing thus alone
with his sin, he despised and hated himself. To deaden remorse and drown
reflection, he had recourse to brandy, and though the fierce excitement
of his hopes and fears steeled him against the stupefying action of the liquor,
he was rendered by it incapable of calm reflection. In certain nervous
conditions our mere physical powers are proof against the action of alcohol,
and though ten times more drunk than the toper, who, incoherently stammering,
reels into the gutter, we can walk erect and talk with fluency. Indeed,
in this artificial exaltation of the sensibilities, men often display
a brilliant wit, and an acuteness of comprehension, calculated to delight
their friends, and terrify their physicians. North had reached this condition
of brain-drunkenness. In plain terms, he was trembling on the verge
The days passed swiftly, and Blunt's preparations for sea were completed.
There were two stern cabins in the schooner, one of which was appropriated
to Mrs. Frere, while the other was set apart for North. Maurice had not
attempted to renew his overtures of friendship, and the chaplain
had not spoken. Mindful of Sylvia's last words, he had resolved
not to meet her until fairly embarked upon the voyage which he intended
should link their fortunes together. On the morning of the 19th December,
Blunt declared himself ready to set sail, and in the afternoon
the two passengers came on board.
Rufus Dawes, gazing from his window upon the schooner that lay
outside the reef, thought nothing of the fact that, after the Commandant's
boat had taken away the Commandant's wife another boat should put off
with the chaplain. It was quite natural that Mr. North should desire
to bid his friends farewell, and through the hot, still afternoon
he watched for the returning boat, hoping that the chaplain would bring
him some message from the woman whom he was never to see more on earth.
The hours wore on, however, and no breath of wind ruffled the surface
of the sea. The day was exceedingly close and sultry, heavy dun clouds
hung on the horizon, and it seemed probable that unless a thunder-storm
should clear the air before night, the calm would continue. Blunt, however,
with a true sailor's obstinacy in regard to weather, swore there would be
a breeze, and held to his purpose of sailing. The hot afternoon passed away
in a sultry sunset, and it was not until the shades of evening had begun
to fall that Rufus Dawes distinguished a boat detach itself from the sides
of the schooner, and glide through the oily water to the jetty.
The chaplain was returning, and in a few hours perhaps would be with him,
to bring him the message of comfort for which his soul thirsted.
He stretched out his unshackled limbs, and throwing himself upon his stretcher,
fell to recalling the past--his boat-building, the news of his fortune,
his love, and his self-sacrifice.
North, however, was not returning to bring to the prisoner a message
of comfort, but he was returning on purpose to see him, nevertheless.
The unhappy man, torn by remorse and passion, had resolved upon a course
of action which seemed to him a penance for his crime of deceit.
He determined to confess to Dawes that the message he had brought was
wholly fictitious, that he himself loved the wife of the Commandant,
and that with her he was about to leave the island for ever.
"I am no hypocrite," he thought, in his exaltation. "If I choose to sin,
I will sin boldly; and this poor wretch, who looks up to me as an angel,
shall know me for my true self."
The notion of thus destroying his own fame in the eyes of the man
whom he had taught to love him, was pleasant to his diseased imagination.
It was the natural outcome of the morbid condition of mind into which
he had drifted, and he provided for the complete execution of his scheme
with cunning born of the mischief working in his brain. It was desirable
that the fatal stroke should be dealt at the last possible instant;
that he should suddenly unveil his own infamy, and then depart,
never to be seen again. To this end he had invented an excuse for returning
to the shore at the latest possible moment. He had purposely left
in his room a dressing-bag--the sort of article one is likely to forget
in the hurry of departure from one's house, and so certain to remember
when the time comes to finally prepare for settling in another.
He had ingeniously extracted from Blunt the fact that "he didn't expect
a wind before dark, but wanted all ship-shape and aboard", and then,
just as darkness fell, discovered that it was imperative for him to go ashore.
Blunt cursed, but, if the chaplain insisted upon going,
there was no help for it.
"There'll be a breeze in less than two hours," said he. "You've plenty
of time, but if you're not back before the first puff, I'll sail without you,
as sure as you're born." North assured him of his punctuality. "Don't wait
for me, Captain, if I'm not here," said he with the lightness of tone
which men use to mask anxiety. "I'd take him at his word, Blunt,"
said the Commandant, who was affably waiting to take final farewell
of his wife. "Give way there, men," he shouted to the crew, "and wait
at the jetty. If Mr. North misses his ship through your laziness,
you'll pay for it." So the boat set off, North laughing uproariously
at the thought of being late. Frere observed with some astonishment
that the chaplain wrapped himself in a boat cloak that lay in the stern sheets.
"Does the fellow want to smother himself in a night like this!"
was his remark. The truth was that, though his hands and head were burning,
North's teeth chattered with cold. Perhaps this was the reason why,
when landed and out of eyeshot of the crew, he produced a pocket-flask
of rum and eagerly drank. The spirit gave him courage for the ordeal
to which he had condemned himself; and with steadied step, he reached the door
of the old prison. To his surprise, Gimblett refused him admission!
"But I have come direct from the Commandant," said North.
"Got any order, sir?"
"I can't let you in, your reverence," said Gimblett.
"I want to see the prisoner Dawes. I have a special message for him.
I have come ashore on purpose."
"I am very sorry, sir--"
"The ship will sail in two hours, man, and I shall miss her," said North,
indignant at being frustrated in his design. "Let me pass."
"Upon my honour, sir, I daren't," said Gimblett, who was not without
his good points. "You know what authority is, sir."
North was in despair, but a bright thought struck him--a thought that,
in his soberer moments, would never have entered his head--he would
buy admission. He produced the rum flask from beneath the sheltering cloak.
"Come, don't talk nonsense to me, Gimblett. You don't suppose I would
come here without authority. Here, take a pull at this, and let me through."
Gimblett's features relaxed into a smile. "Well, sir, I suppose
it's all right, if you say so," said he. And clutching the rum bottle
with one hand, he opened the door of Dawes's cell with the other.
North entered, and as the door closed behind him, the prisoner,
who had been lying apparently asleep upon his bed, leapt up,
and made as though to catch him by the throat.
Rufus Dawes had dreamt a dream. Alone, amid the gathering glooms,
his fancy had recalled the past, and had peopled it with memories.
He thought that he was once more upon the barren strand where he had first met
with the sweet child he loved. He lived again his life of usefulness
and honour. He saw himself working at the boat, embarking,
and putting out to sea. The fair head of the innocent girl was again pillowed
on his breast; her young lips again murmured words of affection
in his greedy ear. Frere was beside him, watching him, as he had watched
before. Once again the grey sea spread around him, barren of succour.
Once again, in the wild, wet morning, he beheld the American brig bearing down
upon them, and saw the bearded faces of the astonished crew. He saw Frere
take the child in his arms and mount upon the deck; he heard the shout
of delight that went up, and pressed again the welcoming hands which greeted
the rescued castaways. The deck was crowded. All the folk he had ever known
were there. He saw the white hair and stern features of Sir Richard Devine,
and beside him stood, wringing her thin hands, his weeping mother.
Then Frere strode forward, and after him John Rex, the convict, who,
roughly elbowing through the crowd of prisoners and gaolers, would have
reached the spot where stood Sir Richard Devine, but that the corpse
of the murdered Lord Bellasis arose and thrust him back. How the hammers
clattered in the shipbuilder's yard! Was it a coffin they were making?
Not for Sylvia--surely not for her! The air grows heavy, lurid with flame,
and black with smoke. The Hydaspes is on fire! Sylvia clings to her husband.
Base wretch, would you shake her off! Look up; the midnight heaven
is glittering with stars; above the smoke the air breathes delicately!
One step--another! Fix your eyes on mine--so--to my heart! Alas! she turns;
he catches at her dress. What! It is a priest--a priest--who,
smiling with infernal joy, would drag her to the flaming gulf
that yawns for him. The dreamer leaps at the wretch's throat, and crying,
"Villain, was it for this fate I saved her?"--and awakes to find himself
struggling with the monster of his dream, the idol of his
waking senses--"Mr. North."
North, paralysed no less by the suddenness of the attack than by the words
with which it was accompanied, let fall his cloak, and stood trembling
before the prophetic accusation of the man whose curses he had come to earn.
"I was dreaming," said Rufus Dawes. "A terrible dream! But it has passed now.
The message--you have brought me a message, have you not? Why--what ails you?
You are pale--your knees tremble. Did my violence----?"
North recovered himself with a great effort. "It is nothing. Let us talk,
for my time is short. You have thought me a good man--one blessed of God,
one consecrated to a holy service; a man honest, pure, and truthful.
I have returned to tell you the truth. I am none of these things."
Rufus Dawes sat staring, unable to comprehend this madness. "I told you
that the woman you loved--for you do love her--sent you a message
of forgiveness. I lied."
"I never told her of your confession. I never mentioned your name to her."
"And she will go without knowing--Oh, Mr. North, what have you done?"
"Wrecked my own soul!" cried North, wildly, stung by the reproachful agony
of the tone. "Do not cling to me. My task is done. You will hate me now.
That is my wish--I merit it. Let me go, I say. I shall be too late."
"Too late! For what?" He looked at the cloak--through the open window
came the voices of the men in the boat--the memory of the rose, of the scene
in the prison, flashed across him, and he understood it all.
"Great Heaven, you go together!"
"Let me go," repeated North, in a hoarse voice.
Rufus Dawes stepped between him and the door. "No, madman, I will not
let you go, to do this great wrong, to kill this innocent young soul,
who--God help her--loves you!" North, confounded at this sudden reversal
of their position towards each other, crouched bewildered against the wall.
"I say you shall not go! You shall not destroy your own soul and hers!
You love her! So do I! and my love is mightier than yours,
for it shall save her!"
"In God's name--" cried the unhappy priest, striving to stop his ears.
"Ay, in God's name! In the name of that God whom in my torments
I had forgotten! In the name of that God whom you taught me to remember!
That God who sent you to save me from despair, gives me strength to save you
in my turn! Oh, Mr. North--my teacher--my friend--my brother--by the sweet
hope of mercy which you preached to me, be merciful to this erring woman!"
North lifted agonized eyes. "But I love her! Love her, do you hear?
What do you know of love?"
"Love!" cried Rufus Dawes, his pale face radiant. "Love! Oh, it is you
who do not know it. Love is the sacrifice of self, the death of all desire
that is not for another's good. Love is Godlike! You love?--no, no,
your love is selfishness, and will end in shame! Listen, I will tell you
the history of such a love as yours."
North, enthralled by the other's overmastering will, fell back trembling.
"I will tell you the secret of my life, the reason why I am here.
* * * * * *
The house in Clarges Street was duly placed at the disposal of
Mrs. Richard Devine, who was installed in it, to the profound astonishment
and disgust of Mr. Smithers and his fellow-servants. It now only remained
that the lady should be formally recognized by Lady Devine. The rest
of the ingenious programme would follow as a matter of course.
John Rex was well aware of the position which, in his assumed personality,
he occupied in society. He knew that by the world of servants, of waiters,
of those to whom servants and waiters could babble; of such turfites
and men-about-town as had reason to inquire concerning Mr. Richard's
domestic affairs--no opinion could be expressed, save that "Devine's married
somebody, I hear," with variations to the same effect. He knew well
that the really great world, the Society, whose scandal would have been
socially injurious, had long ceased to trouble itself with
Mr. Richard Devine's doings in any particular. If it had been reported
that the Leviathan of the Turf had married his washerwoman,
Society would only have intimated that "it was just what might have been
expected of him". To say the truth, however, Mr. Richard had rather hoped
that--disgusted at his brutality--Lady Devine would have nothing more
to do with him, and that the ordeal of presenting his wife would not be
necessary. Lady Devine, however, had resolved on a different line of conduct.
The intelligence concerning Mr. Richard Devine's threatened proceedings
seemed to nerve her to the confession of the dislike which had been
long growing in her mind; seemed even to aid the formation of those doubts,
the shadows of which had now and then cast themselves upon her belief
in the identity of the man who called himself her son. "His conduct
is brutal," said she to her brother. "I cannot understand it."
"It is more than brutal; it is unnatural," returned Francis Wade,
and stole a look at her. "Moreover, he is married."
"Married!" cried Lady Devine.
"So he says," continued the other, producing the letter sent to him
by Rex at Sarah's dictation. "He writes to me stating that his wife,
whom he married last year abroad, has come to England, and wishes us
to receive her."
"I will not receive her!" cried Lady Devine, rising and pacing down the path.
"But that would be a declaration of war," said poor Francis, twisting
an Italian onyx which adorned his irresolute hand. "I would not advise that."
Lady Devine stopped suddenly, with the gesture of one who has finally made
a difficult and long-considered resolution. "Richard shall not sell
this house," she said.
"But, my dear Ellinor," cried her brother, in some alarm at this
unwonted decision, "I am afraid that you can't prevent him."
"If he is the man he says he is, I can," returned she, with effort.
Francis Wade gasped. "If he is the man! It is true--I have sometimes
thought--Oh, Ellinor, can it be that we have been deceived?"
She came to him and leant upon him for support, as she had leant upon her son
in the garden where they now stood, nineteen years ago. "I do not know,
I am afraid to think. But between Richard and myself is a secret--a shameful
secret, Frank, known to no other living person. If the man who threatens me
does not know that secret, he is not my son. If he does know it----"
"Well, in Heaven's name, what then?"
"He knows that he has neither part nor lot in the fortune
of the man who was my husband."
"Ellinor, you terrify me. What does this mean?"
"I will tell you if there be need to do so," said the unhappy lady.
"But I cannot now. I never meant to speak of it again, even to him.
Consider that it is hard to break a silence of nearly twenty years.
Write to this man, and tell him that before I receive his wife,
I wish to see him alone. No--do not let him come here until the truth
be known. I will go to him."
It was with some trepidation that Mr. Richard, sitting with his wife
on the afternoon of the 3rd May, 1846, awaited the arrival of his mother.
He had been very nervous and unstrung for some days past, and the prospect
of the coming interview was, for some reason he could not explain to himself,
weighty with fears. "What does she want to come alone for? And what
can she have to say?" he asked himself. "She cannot suspect anything
after all these years, surely?" He endeavoured to reason with himself,
but in vain; the knock at the door which announced the arrival
of his pretended mother made his heart jump.
"I feel deuced shaky, Sarah," he said. "Let's have a nip of something."
"You've been nipping too much for the last five years, Dick." (She had quite
schooled her tongue to the new name.) "Your 'shakiness' is the result
of 'nipping', I'm afraid."
"Oh, don't preach; I am not in the humour for it."
"Help yourself, then. You are quite sure that you are ready with your story?"
The brandy revived him, and he rose with affected heartiness. "My dear mother,
allow me to present to you--" He paused, for there was that in Lady Devine's
face which confirmed his worst fears.
"I wish to speak to you alone," she said, ignoring with steady eyes
the woman whom she had ostensibly come to see.
John Rex hesitated, but Sarah saw the danger, and hastened to confront it.
"A wife should be a husband's best friend, madam. Your son married me
of his own free will, and even his mother can have nothing to say to him
which it is not my duty and privilege to hear. I am not a girl as you can see,
and I can bear whatever news you bring."
Lady Devine bit her pale lips. She saw at once that the woman before her
was not gently-born, but she felt also that she was a woman of higher mental
calibre than herself. Prepared as she was for the worst, this sudden
and open declaration of hostilities frightened her, as Sarah had calculated.
She began to realize that if she was to prove equal to the task she
had set herself, she must not waste her strength in skirmishing.
Steadily refusing to look at Richard's wife, she addressed herself to Richard.
"My brother will be here in half an hour," she said, as though the mention
of his name would better her position in some way. "But I begged him
to allow me to come first in order that I might speak to you privately."
"Well," said John Rex, "we are in private. What have you to say?"
"I want to tell you that I forbid you to carry out the plan you have
for breaking up Sir Richard's property."
"Forbid me!" cried Rex, much relieved. "Why, I only want to do
what my father's will enables me to do."
"Your father's will enables you to do nothing of the sort, and you know it."
She spoke as though rehearsing a series of set-speeches, and Sarah watched her
with growing alarm.
"Oh, nonsense!" cries John Rex, in sheer amazement. "I have
a lawyer's opinion on it."
"Do you remember what took place at Hampstead this day nineteen years ago?"
"At Hampstead!" said Rex, grown suddenly pale. "This day nineteen years ago.
No! What do you mean?"
"Do you not remember?" she continued, leaning forward eagerly,
and speaking almost fiercely. "Do you not remember the reason why you left
the house where you were born, and which you now wish to sell to strangers?"
John Rex stood dumbfounded, the blood suffusing his temples. He knew
that among the secrets of the man whose inheritance he had stolen
was one which he had never gained--the secret of that sacrifice
to which Lady Devine had once referred--and he felt that this secret
was to be revealed to crush him now.
Sarah, trembling also, but more with rage than terror, swept towards
Lady Devine. "Speak out!" she said, "if you have anything to say!
Of what do you accuse my husband?"
"Of imposture!" cried Lady Devine, all her outraged maternity nerving her
to abash her enemy. "This man may be your husband, but he is not my son!"
Now that the worst was out, John Rex, choking with passion, felt all the devil
within him rebelling against defeat. "You are mad," he said. "You have
recognized me for three years, and now, because I want to claim
that which is my own, you invent this lie. Take care how you provoke me.
If I am not your son--you have recognized me as such. I stand upon the law
and upon my rights."
Lady Devine turned swiftly, and with both hands to her bosom, confronted him.
"You shall have your rights! You shall have what the law allows you!
Oh, how blind I have been all these years. Persist in your infamous
imposture. Call yourself Richard Devine still, and I will tell the world
the shameful secret which my son died to hide. Be Richard Devine!
Richard Devine was a bastard, and the law allows him--nothing!"
There was no doubting the truth of her words. It was impossible that even
a woman whose home had been desecrated, as hers had been, would invent a lie
so self-condemning. Yet John Rex forced himself to appear to doubt,
and his dry lips asked, "If then your husband was not the father
of your son, who was?"
"My cousin, Armigell Esmè Wade, Lord Bellasis," answered Lady Devine.
John Rex gasped for breath. His hand, tugging at his neck-cloth,
rent away the linen that covered his choking throat. The whole horizon
of his past was lit up by a lightning flash which stunned him. His brain,
already enfeebled by excess, was unable to withstand this last shock.
He staggered, and but for the cabinet against which he leant,
would have fallen. The secret thoughts of his heart rose to his lips,
and were uttered unconsciously. "Lord Bellasis! He was my father also,
and--I killed him!"
A dreadful silence fell, and then Lady Devine, stretching out her hands
towards the self-confessed murderer, with a sort of frightful respect,
said in a whisper, in which horror and supplication were strangely mingled,
"What did you do with my son? Did you kill him also?"
But John Rex, wagging his head from side to side, like a beast in the shambles
that has received a mortal stroke, made no reply. Sarah Purfoy,
awed as she was by the dramatic force of the situation, nevertheless
remembered that Francis Wade might arrive at any moment, and saw her last
opportunity for safety. She advanced and touched the mother on the shoulder.
"Your son is alive!"
"Will you promise not to hinder us leaving this house if I tell you?"
"Will you promise to keep the confession which you have heard secret,
until we have left England?"
"I promise anything. In God's name, woman, if you have a woman's heart,
speak! Where is my son?"
Sarah Purfoy rose over the enemy who had defeated her, and said in level,
deliberate accents, "They call him Rufus Dawes. He is a convict
at Norfolk Island, transported for life for the murder which you have heard
my husband confess to having committed--Ah!----"
Lady Devine had fainted.
Sarah flew to Rex. "Rouse yourself, John, for Heaven's sake.
We have not a moment." John Rex passed his hand over his forehead wearily.
"I cannot think. I am broken down. I am ill. My brain seems dead."
Nervously watching the prostrate figure on the floor, she hurried on bonnet,
cloak, and veil, and in a twinkling had him outside the house and into a cab.
"Thirty-nine, Lombard Street. Quick!"
"You won't give me up?" said Rex, turning dull eyes upon her.
"Give you up? No. But the police will be after us as soon as that woman
can speak, and her brother summon his lawyer. I know what her promise
is worth. We have only got about fifteen hours start."
"I can't go far, Sarah," said he; "I am sleepy and stupid."
She repressed the terrible fear that tugged at her heart,
and strove to rally him.
"You've been drinking too much, John. Now sit still and be good,
while I go and get some money for you."
She hurried into the bank, and her name secured her an interview
with the manager at once.
"That's a rich woman," said one of the clerks to his friend.
"A widow, too! Chance for you, Tom," returned the other; and, presently,
from out the sacred presence came another clerk with a request for
"a draft on Sydney for three thousand, less premium", and bearing a cheque
signed "Sarah Carr" for £200, which he "took" in notes, and so returned again.
From the bank she was taken to Green's Shipping Office. "I want a cabin
in the first ship for Sydney, please."
The shipping-clerk looked at a board. "The Highflyer goes in twelve days,
madam, and there is one cabin vacant."
"I want to go at once--to-morrow or next day."
He smiled. "I am afraid that is impossible," said he. Just then
one of the partners came out of his private room with a telegram in his hand,
and beckoned the shipping-clerk. Sarah was about to depart for another office,
when the clerk came hastily back.
"Just the thing for you, ma'am," said he. "We have got a telegram
from a gentleman who has a first cabin in the Dido, to say that his wife
has been taken ill, and he must give up his berth."
"When does the Dido sail?"
"To-morrow morning. She is at Plymouth, waiting for the mails. If you go
down to-night by the mail-train which leaves at 9.30, you will be
in plenty of time, and we will telegraph."
"I will take the cabin. How much?"
"One hundred and thirty pounds, madam," said he.
She produced her notes. "Pray count it yourself. We have been delayed
in the same manner ourselves. My husband is a great invalid, but I was not
so fortunate as to get someone to refund us our passage-money."
"What name did you say?" asked the clerk, counting. "Mr. and Mrs. Carr.
Thank you," and he handed her the slip of paper.
"Thank you," said Sarah, with a bewitching smile, and swept down
to her cab again. John Rex was gnawing his nails in sullen apathy.
She displayed the passage-ticket. "You are saved. By the time
Mr. Francis Wade gets his wits together, and his sister recovers her speech,
we shall be past pursuit."
"To Sydney!" cries Rex angrily, looking at the warrant. "Why there
of all places in God's earth?"
Sarah surveyed him with an expression of contempt. "Because your scheme
has failed. Now this is mine. You have deserted me once; you will do so
again in any other country. You are a murderer, a villain, and a coward,
but you suit me. I save you, but I mean to keep you. I will bring you
to Australia, where the first trooper will arrest you at my bidding
as an escaped convict. If you don't like to come, stay behind. I don't care.
I am rich. I have done no wrong. The law cannot touch me--Do you agree?
Then tell the man to drive to Silver's in Cornhill for your outfit."
Having housed him at last--all gloomy and despondent--in a quiet tavern
near the railway station, she tried to get some information
as to this last revealed crime.
"How came you to kill Lord Bellasis?" she asked him quietly.
"I had found out from my mother that I was his natural son,
and one day riding home from a pigeon match I told him so. He taunted me--
and I struck him. I did not mean to kill him, but he was an old man,
and in my passion I struck hard. As he fell, I thought I saw a horseman
among the trees, and I galloped off. My ill-luck began then,
for the same night I was arrested at the coiner's."
"But I thought there was robbery," said she.
"Not by me. But, for God's sake, talk no more about it. I am sick--my brain
is going round. I want to sleep."
"Be careful, please! Lift him gently!" said Mrs. Carr, as the boat ranged
alongside the Dido, gaunt and grim, in the early dawn of a bleak May morning.
"What's the matter?" asked the officer of the watch, perceiving the bustle
in the boat.
"Gentleman seems to have had a stroke," said a boatman.
It was so. There was no fear that John Rex would escape again from the woman
he had deceived. The infernal genius of Sarah Purfoy had saved her lover
at last--but saved him only that she might nurse him till he died--
died ignorant even of her tenderness, a mere animal, lacking the intellect
he had in his selfish wickedness abused.
* * * * * *
----"That is my story. Let it plead with you to turn you from your purpose,
and to save her. The punishment of sin falls not upon the sinner only.
A deed once done lives in its consequence for ever, and this tragedy
of shame and crime to which my felon's death is a fitting end,
is but the outcome of a selfish sin like yours!"
It had grown dark in the prison, and as he ceased speaking, Rufus Dawes felt
a trembling hand seize his own. It was that of the chaplain.
"Let me hold your hand!--Sir Richard Devine did not murder your father.
He was murdered by a horseman who, riding with him, struck him and fled."
"Merciful God! How do you know this?"
"Because I saw the murder committed, because--don't let go my hand--
I robbed the body."
"In my youth I was a gambler. Lord Bellasis won money from me, and to pay him
I forged two bills of exchange. Unscrupulous and cruel, he threatened
to expose me if I did not give him double the sum. Forgery was death
in those days, and I strained every nerve to buy back the proofs of my folly.
I succeeded. I was to meet Lord Bellasis near his own house at Hampstead
on the night of which you speak, to pay the money and receive the bills.
When I saw him fall I galloped up, but instead of pursuing his murderer
I rifled his pocket-book of my forgeries. I was afraid to give evidence
at the trial, or I might have saved you.--Ah! you have let go my hand!"
"God forgive you!" said Rufus Dawes, and then was silent.
"Speak!" cried North. "Speak, or you will make me mad. Reproach me!
Spurn me! Spit upon me! You cannot think worse of me than I do myself."
But the other, his head buried in his hands, did not answer,
and with a wild gesture North staggered out of the cell.
Nearly an hour had passed since the chaplain had placed the rum flask
in his hand, and Gimblett observed, with semi-drunken astonishment,
that it was not yet empty. He had intended, in the first instance,
to have taken but one sup in payment of his courtesy--for Gimblett
was conscious of his own weakness in the matter of strong waters--
but as he waited and waited, the one sup became two, and two three,
and at length more than half the contents of the bottle had moistened
his gullet, and maddened him for more. Gimblett was in a quandary.
If he didn't finish the flask, he would be oppressed with an everlasting
regret. If he did finish it he would be drunk; and to be drunk on duty
was the one unpardonable sin. He looked across the darkness of the sea,
to where the rising and falling light marked the schooner. The Commandant
was a long way off! A faint breeze, which had--according to
Blunt's prophecy--arisen with the night, brought up to him the voices
of the boat's crew from the jetty below him. His friend Jack Mannix
was coxswain of her. He would give Jack a drink. Leaving the gate,
he advanced unsteadily to the edge of the embankment, and,
putting his head over, called out to his friend. The breeze, however,
which was momentarily freshening, carried his voice away; and Jack Mannix,
hearing nothing, continued his conversation. Gimblett was just drunk enough
to be virtuously indignant at this incivility, and seating himself
on the edge of the bank, swallowed the remainder of the rum at a draught.
The effect upon his enforcedly temperate stomach was very touching.
He made one feeble attempt to get upon his legs, cast a reproachful glance
at the rum bottle, essayed to drink out of its spirituous emptiness,
and then, with a smile of reckless contentment, cursed the island
and all its contents, and fell asleep.
North, coming out of the prison, did not notice the absence of the gaoler;
indeed, he was not in a condition to notice anything. Bare-headed,
without his cloak, with staring eyes and clenched hands, he rushed through
the gates into the night as one who flies headlong from some fearful vision.
It seemed that, absorbed in his own thoughts, he took no heed of his steps,
for instead of taking the path which led to the sea, he kept along
the more familiar one that led to his own cottage on the hill.
"This man a convict!" he cried. "He is a hero--a martyr! What a life!
Love! Yes, that is love indeed! Oh, James North, how base art thou
in the eyes of God beside this despised outcast!" And so muttering,
tearing his grey hair, and beating his throbbing temples with clenched hands,
he reached his own room, and saw, by the light of the new-born moon,
the dressing-bag and candle standing on the table as he had left them.
They brought again to his mind the recollection of the task that was
before him. He lighted the candle, and, taking the bag in his hand,
cast one last look round the chamber which had witnessed his futile struggles
against that baser part of himself which had at last triumphed. It was so.
Fate had condemned him to sin, and he must now fulfil the doom he might
once have averted. Already he fancied he could see the dim speck
that was the schooner move slowly away from the prison shore.
He must not linger; they would be waiting for him at the jetty. As he turned,
the moonbeams--as yet unobscured by the rapidly gathering clouds--flung
a silver streak across the sea, and across that streak North saw a boat pass.
Was his distracted brain playing him false?--in the stern sat,
wrapped in a cloak, the figure of a man! A fierce gust of wind drove
the sea-rack over the moon, and the boat disappeared, as though swallowed up
by the gathering storm. North staggered back as the truth struck him.
He remembered how he had said, "I will redeem him with my own blood!"
Was it possible that a just Heaven had thus decided to allow the man
whom a coward had condemned, to escape, and to punish the coward
who remained? Oh, this man deserved freedom; he was honest, noble, truthful!
How different from himself--a hateful self-lover, an unchaste priest,
a drunkard. The looking-glass, in which the saintly face of Meekin
was soon to be reflected, stood upon the table, and North, peering into it,
with one hand mechanically thrust into the bag, started in insane rage
at the pale face and bloodshot eyes he saw there. What a hateful wretch
he had become! The last fatal impulse of insanity which seeks relief
from its own hideous self came upon him, and his fingers closed convulsively
upon the object they had been seeking.
"It is better so," he muttered, addressing, with fixed eyes, his own
detested image. "I have examined you long enough. I have read your heart,
and written out your secrets! You are but a shell--the shell that holds
a corrupted and sinful heart. He shall live; you shall die!" The rapid motion
of his arm overturned the candle, and all was dark.
Rufus Dawes, overpowered by the revelation so suddenly made to him,
had remained for a few moments motionless in his cell, expecting to hear
the heavy clang of the outer door, which should announce to him the departure
of the chaplain. But he did not hear it, and it seemed to him that the air
in the cell had grown suddenly cooler. He went to the door, and looked
into the narrow corridor, expecting to see the scowling countenance
of Gimblett. To his astonishment the door of the prison was wide open,
and not a soul in sight. His first thought was of North. Had the story
he had told, coupled with the entreaties he had lavished, sufficed
to turn him from his purpose?
He looked around. The night was falling suddenly; the wind was mounting;
from beyond the bar came the hoarse murmur of an angry sea. If the schooner
was to sail that night, she had best get out into deep waters. Where was
the chaplain? Pray Heaven the delay had been sufficient, and they had sailed
without him. Yet they would be sure to meet. He advanced a few steps nearer,
and looked about him. Was it possible that, in his madness,
the chaplain had been about to commit some violence which had drawn
the trusty Gimblett from his post? "Gr-r-r-r! Ouph!" The trusty Gimblett
was lying at his feet--dead drunk!
"Hi! Hiho! Hillo there!" roared somebody from the jetty below.
"Be that you, Muster Noarth? We ain't too much tiam, sur!"
From the uncurtained windows of the chaplain's house on the hill
beamed the newly-lighted candle. They in the boat did not see it, but it
brought to the prisoner a wild hope that made his heart bound. He ran back
to the cell, clapped on North's wide-awake, and flinging the cloak hastily
about him, came quickly down the steps. If the moon should shine out now!
"Jump in, sir," said unsuspecting Mannix, thinking only of the flogging
he had been threatened with. "It'll be a dirty night, this night!
Put this over your knees, sir. Shove her off! Give way!" And they
were afloat. But one glimpse of moonlight fell upon the slouched hat
and cloaked figure, and the boat's crew, engaged in the dangerous task
of navigating the reef in the teeth of the rising gale, paid no attention
to the chaplain.
"By George, lads, we're but just in time!" cried Mannix; and they laid
alongside the schooner, black in blackness. "Up ye go, yer honour,
quick!" The wind had shifted, and was now off the shore. Blunt,
who had begun to repent of his obstinacy, but would not confess it,
thought the next best thing to riding out the gale was to get out to open sea.
"Damn the parson," he had said, in all heartiness; "we can't wait all night
for him. Heave ahead, Mr. Johnson!" And so the anchor was atrip
as Rufus Dawes ran up the side.
The Commandant, already pulling off in his own boat, roared a coarse farewell.
"Good-bye, North! It was touch and go with ye!" adding, "Curse the fellow,
he's too proud to answer!"
The chaplain indeed spoke to no one, and plunging down the hatchway,
made for the stern cabins. "Close shave, your reverence!" said a respectful
somebody, opening a door. It was; but the clergyman did not say so.
He double-locked the door, and hardly realizing the danger he had escaped,
flung himself on the bunk, panting. Over his head he heard the rapid tramp
of feet and the cheery
Yo hi-oh! and a rumbelow!
of the men at the capstan. He could smell the sea, and through the open
window of the cabin could distinguish the light in the chaplain's house
on the hill. The trampling ceased, the vessel began to move slowly--
the Commandant's boat appeared below him for an instant, making her way back--
the Lady Franklin had set sail. With his eyes fixed on the tiny light,
he strove to think what was best to be done. It was hopeless to think
that he could maintain the imposture which, favoured by the darkness
and confusion, he had hitherto successfully attempted. He was certain
to be detected at Hobart Town, even if he could lie concealed during his long
and tedious voyage. That mattered little, however. He had saved Sylvia,
for North had been left behind. Poor North! As the thought of pity
came to him, the light he looked at was suddenly extinguished, and Rufus Dawes,
compelled thereto as by an irresistible power, fell upon his knees
and prayed for the pardon and happiness of the man who had redeemed him.
* * * * * *
"That's a gun from the shore," said Partridge the mate, "and they're burning
a red light. There's a prisoner escaped. Shall we lie-to?"
"Lie-to!" cried old Blunt, with a tremendous oath. "We'll have suthin'
else to do. Look there!"
The sky to the northward was streaked with a belt of livid green colour,
above which rose a mighty black cloud, whose shape was ever changing.
Blunt, recognising the meteoric heralds of danger, had begun to regret
his obstinacy. He saw that a hurricane was approaching.
Along the south coast of the Australian continent, though the usual
westerly winds and gales of the highest latitudes prevail during
the greater portion of the year, hurricanes are not infrequent.
Gales commence at NW with a low barometer, increasing at W and SW,
and gradually veering to the south. True cyclones occur at New Zealand.
The log of the Adelaide for 29th February, 1870, describes one which travelled
at the rate of ten miles an hour, and had all the veerings, calm centre,
etc., of a true tropical hurricane. Now a cyclone occurring off the west coast
of New Zealand would travel from the New Hebrides, where such storms
are hideously frequent, and envelop Norfolk Island, passing directly across
the track of vessels coming from South America to Sydney. It was one of these
rotatory storms, an escaped tempest of the tropics, which threatened
the Lady Franklin.
The ominous calm which had brooded over the island during the day
had given place to a smart breeze from the north-east, and though the schooner
had been sheltered at her anchorage under the lee of the island
(the "harbour" looked nearly due south), when once fairly out to sea,
Blunt saw it would be impossible to put back in the teeth of the gale.
Haply, however, the full fury of the storm would not overtake them
till they had gained sea-room.
Rufus Dawes, exhausted with the excitement through which he had passed,
had slept for two or three hours, when he was awakened by the motion
of the vessel going on the other tack. He rose to his feet, and found himself
in complete darkness. Overhead was the noise of trampling feet,
and he could distinguish the hoarse tones of Blunt bellowing orders.
Astonished at the absence of the moonlight which had so lately silvered
the sea, he flung open the cabin window and looked out. As we have said,
the cabin allotted to North was one of the two stern cabins, and from it
the convict had a full view of the approaching storm.
The sight was one of wild grandeur. The huge, black cloud which hung
in the horizon had changed its shape. Instead of a curtain it was an arch.
Beneath this vast and magnificent portal shone a dull phosphoric light.
Across this livid space pale flashes of sheet-lightning passed noiselessly.
Behind it was a dull and threatening murmur, made up of the grumbling
of thunder, the falling of rain, and the roar of contending wind and water.
The lights of the prison-island had disappeared, so rapid had been
the progress of the schooner under the steady breeze, and the ocean
stretched around, black and desolate. Gazing upon this gloomy expanse,
Rufus Dawes observed a strange phenomenon--lightning appeared to burst
upwards from the sullen bosom of the sea. At intervals, the darkly-rolling
waves flashed fire, and streaks of flame shot upwards. The wind increased
in violence, and the arch of light was fringed with rain. A dull,
red glow hung around, like the reflection of a conflagration. Suddenly,
a tremendous peal of thunder, accompanied by a terrific downfall of rain,
rattled along the sky. The arch of light disappeared, as though
some invisible hand had shut the slide of a giant lantern. A great wall
of water rushed roaring over the level plain of the sea, and with
an indescribable medley of sounds, in which tones of horror, triumph,
and torture were blended, the cyclone swooped upon them.