Part 2 out of 11
I can't refuse to take 'em in."
"No," says Pine gloomily, "I suppose you can't. If they come,
I must stow 'em somewhere. We'll have to run for the Cape, with the first
breeze, if they do come, that is all I can see for it," and he turned away
to watch the burning vessel.
THE FATE OF THE "HYDASPES".
In the meanwhile the two boats made straight for the red column
that uprose like a gigantic torch over the silent sea.
As Blunt had said, the burning ship lay a good twelve miles from the Malabar,
and the pull was a long and a weary one. Once fairly away from
the protecting sides of the vessel that had borne them thus far
on their dismal journey, the adventurers seemed to have come into
a new atmosphere. The immensity of the ocean over which they slowly moved
revealed itself for the first time. On board the prison ship,
surrounded with all the memories if not with the comforts of the shore
they had quitted, they had not realized how far they were from
that civilization which had given them birth. The well-lighted,
well-furnished cuddy, the homely mirth of the forecastle, the setting
of sentries and the changing of guards, even the gloom and terror
of the closely-locked prison, combined to make the voyagers feel secure
against the unknown dangers of the sea. That defiance of Nature
which is born of contact with humanity, had hitherto sustained them,
and they felt that, though alone on the vast expanse of waters,
they were in companionship with others of their kind, and that the perils one
man had passed might be successfully dared by another. But now--with one ship
growing smaller behind them, and the other, containing they knew not
what horror of human agony and human helplessness, lying a burning wreck
in the black distance ahead of them--they began to feel their own littleness.
The Malabar, that huge sea monster, in whose capacious belly
so many human creatures lived and suffered, had dwindled to a walnut-shell,
and yet beside her bulk how infinitely small had their own frail cockboat
appeared as they shot out from under her towering stern! Then the black hull
rising above them, had seemed a tower of strength, built to defy
the utmost violence of wind and wave; now it was but a slip of wood
floating--on an unknown depth of black, fathomless water. The blue light,
which, at its first flashing over the ocean, had made the very stars
pale their lustre, and lighted up with ghastly radiance the enormous vault
of heaven, was now only a point, brilliant and distinct it is true,
but which by its very brilliance dwarfed the ship into insignificance.
The Malabar lay on the water like a glow-worm on a floating leaf,
and the glare of the signal-fire made no more impression on the darkness than
the candle carried by a solitary miner would have made
on the abyss of a coal-pit.
And yet the Malabar held two hundred creatures like themselves!
The water over which the boats glided was black and smooth,
rising into huge foamless billows, the more terrible because they were silent.
When the sea hisses, it speaks, and speech breaks the spell of terror;
when it is inert, heaving noiselessly, it is dumb, and seems to brood
over mischief. The ocean in a calm is like a sulky giant; one dreads
that it may be meditating evil. Moreover, an angry sea looks less vast
in extent than a calm one. Its mounting waves bring the horizon nearer,
and one does not discern how for many leagues the pitiless billows
repeat themselves. To appreciate the hideous vastness of the ocean
one must see it when it sleeps.
The great sky uprose from this silent sea without a cloud. The stars hung low
in its expanse, burning in a violent mist of lower ether. The heavens were
emptied of sound, and each dip of the oars was re-echoed in space
by a succession of subtle harmonies. As the blades struck the dark water,
it flashed fire, and the tracks of the boats resembled two sea-snakes writhing
with silent undulations through a lake of quicksilver.
It had been a sort of race hitherto, and the rowers, with set teeth
and compressed lips, had pulled stroke for stroke. At last the foremost boat
came to a sudden pause. Best gave a cheery shout and passed her,
steering straight into the broad track of crimson that already reeked
on the sea ahead.
"What is it?" he cried.
But he heard only a smothered curse from Frere, and then his consort
pulled hard to overtake him.
It was, in fact, nothing of consequence--only a prisoner "giving in".
"Curse it!" says Frere, "What's the matter with you? Oh, you, is it?--Dawes!
Of course, Dawes. I never expected anything better from such a skulking hound.
Come, this sort of nonsense won't do with me. It isn't as nice as lolloping
about the hatchways, I dare say, but you'll have to go on, my fine fellow."
"He seems sick, sir," said compassionate bow.
"Sick! Not he. Shamming. Come, give way now! Put your backs into it!"
and the convict having picked up his oar, the boat shot forward again.
But, for all Mr. Frere's urging, he could not recover the way he had lost,
and Best was the first to run in under the black cloud that hung
over the crimsoned water.
At his signal, the second boat came alongside.
"Keep wide," he said. "If there are many fellows yet aboard,
they'll swamp us; and I think there must be, as we haven't met the boats,"
and then raising his voice, as the exhausted crew lay on their oars,
he hailed the burning ship.
She was a huge, clumsily-built vessel, with great breadth of beam,
and a lofty poop-deck. Strangely enough, though they had so lately
seen the fire, she was already a wreck, and appeared to be completely deserted.
The chief hold of the fire was amidships, and the lower deck was one mass
of flame. Here and there were great charred rifts and gaps in her sides,
and the red-hot fire glowed through these as through the bars of a grate.
The main-mast had fallen on the starboard side, and trailed a blackened wreck
in the water, causing the unwieldy vessel to lean over heavily.
The fire roared like a cataract, and huge volumes of flame-flecked smoke
poured up out of the hold, and rolled away in a low-lying black cloud
over the sea.
As Frere's boat pulled slowly round her stern, he hailed the deck
again and again.
Still there was no answer, and though the flood of light that dyed the water
blood-red struck out every rope and spar distinct and clear, his straining eyes
could see no living soul aboard. As they came nearer, they could distinguish
the gilded letters of her name.
"What is it, men?" cried Frere, his voice almost drowned amid the roar
of the flames. "Can you see?"
Rufus Dawes, impelled, it would seem, by some strong impulse of curiosity,
stood erect, and shaded his eyes with his hand.
"Well--can't you speak? What is it?"
The Hydaspes! The ship in which his cousin Richard Devine had sailed!
The ship for which those in England might now look in vain! The Hydaspes
which--something he had heard during the speculations as to this missing cousin
flashed across him.
"Back water, men! Round with her! Pull for your lives!"
Best's boat glided alongside.
"Can you see her name?"
Frere, white with terror, shouted a reply.
"The Hydaspes! I know her. She is bound for Calcutta, and she has
five tons of powder aboard!"
There was no need for more words. The single sentence explained
the whole mystery of her desertion. The crew had taken to the boats
on the first alarm, and had left their death-fraught vessel to her fate.
They were miles off by this time, and unluckily for themselves, perhaps,
had steered away from the side where rescue lay.
The boats tore through the water. Eager as the men had been to come,
they were more eager to depart. The flames had even now reached the poop;
in a few minutes it would be too late. For ten minutes or more
not a word was spoken. With straining arms and labouring chests,
the rowers tugged at the oars, their eyes fixed on the lurid mass
they were leaving. Frere and Best, with their faces turned back to the terror
they fled from, urged the men to greater efforts. Already the flames
had lapped the flag, already the outlines of the stern carvings were blurred
by the fire.
Another moment, and all would be over. Ah! it had come at last.
A dull rumbling sound; the burning ship parted asunder; a pillar of fire,
flecked with black masses that were beams and planks, rose up out of the ocean;
there was a terrific crash, as though sea and sky were coming together;
and then a mighty mountain of water rose, advanced, caught, and passed them,
and they were alone--deafened, stunned, and breathless, in a sudden horror
of thickest darkness, and a silence like that of the tomb.
The splashing of the falling fragments awoke them from their stupor,
and then the blue light of the Malabar struck out a bright pathway
across the sea, and they knew that they were safe.
* * * * * *
On board the Malabar two men paced the deck, waiting for dawn.
It came at last. The sky lightened, the mist melted away, and then a long,
low, far-off streak of pale yellow light floated on the eastern horizon.
By and by the water sparkled, and the sea changed colour, turning from black
to yellow, and from yellow to lucid green. The man at the masthead
hailed the deck. The boats were in sight, and as they came towards the ship,
the bright water flashing from the labouring oars, a crowd of spectators
hanging over the bulwarks cheered and waved their hats.
"Not a soul!" cried Blunt. "No one but themselves. Well, I'm glad
they're safe anyway."
The boats drew alongside, and in a few seconds Frere was upon deck.
"Well, Mr. Frere?"
"No use," cried Frere, shivering. "We only just had time to get away.
The nearest thing in the world, sir."
"Didn't you see anyone?"
"Not a soul. They must have taken to the boats."
"Then they can't be far off," cried Blunt, sweeping the horizon with his glass.
"They must have pulled all the way, for there hasn't been enough wind
to fill a hollow tooth with." "Perhaps they pulled in the wrong direction,"
said Frere. "They had a good four hours' start of us, you know."
Then Best came up, and told the story to a crowd of eager listeners.
The sailors having hoisted and secured the boats, were hurried off
to the forecastle, there to eat, and relate their experience between mouthfuls,
and the four convicts were taken in charge and locked below again.
"You had better go and turn in, Frere," said Pine gruffly. "It's no use
whistling for a wind here all day."
Frere laughed--in his heartiest manner. "I think I will," he said.
"I'm dog tired, and as sleepy as an owl," and he descended the poop ladder.
Pine took a couple of turns up and down the deck, and then
catching Blunt's eye, stopped in front of Vickers.
"You may think it a hard thing to say, Captain Vickers, but it's just as well
if we don't find these poor devils. We have quite enough on our hands
as it is."
"What do you mean, Mr. Pine?" says Vickers, his humane feelings
getting the better of his pomposity. "You would not surely leave
the unhappy men to their fate."
"Perhaps," returned the other, "they would not thank us
for taking them aboard."
"I don't understand you."
"The fever has broken out."
Vickers raised his brows. He had no experience of such things;
and though the intelligence was startling, the crowded condition of the prison
rendered it easy to be understood, and he apprehended no danger to himself.
"It is a great misfortune; but, of course, you will take such steps--"
"It is only in the prison, as yet," says Pine, with a grim emphasis
on the word; "but there is no saying how long it may stop there.
I have got three men down as it is." "Well, sir, all authority in the matter
is in your hands. Any suggestions you make, I will, of course,
do my best to carry out."
"Thank ye. I must have more room in the hospital to begin with.
The soldiers must lie a little closer."
"I will see what can be done."
"And you had better keep your wife and the little girl as much on deck
Vickers turned pale at the mention of his child. "Good Heaven!
do you think there is any danger?"
"There is, of course, danger to all of us; but with care we may escape it.
There's that maid, too. Tell her to keep to herself a little more.
She has a trick of roaming about the ship I don't like. Infection
is easily spread, and children always sicken sooner than grown-up people."
Vickers pressed his lips together. This old man, with his harsh,
dissonant voice, and hideous practicality, seemed like a bird of ill omen.
Blunt, hitherto silently listening, put in a word for defence
of the absent woman. "The wench is right enough, Pine," said he.
"What's the matter with her?"
"Yes, she's all right, I've no doubt. She's less likely to take it
than any of us. You can see her vitality in her face--as many lives as a cat.
But she'd bring infection quicker than anybody."
"I'll--I'll go at once," cried poor Vickers, turning round.
The woman of whom they were speaking met him on the ladder.
Her face was paler than usual, and dark circles round her eyes
gave evidence of a sleepless night. She opened her red lips to speak,
and then, seeing Vickers, stopped abruptly.
"Well, what is it?"
She looked from one to the other. "I came for Dr. Pine."
Vickers, with the quick intelligence of affection, guessed her errand.
"Someone is ill?"
"Miss Sylvia, sir. It is nothing to signify, I think. A little feverish
and hot, and my mistress--"
Vickers was down the ladder in an instant, with scared face.
Pine caught the girl's round firm arm. "Where have you been?"
Two great flakes of red came out in her white cheeks,
and she shot an indignant glance at Blunt.
"Come, Pine, let the wench alone!"
"Were you with the child last night?" went on Pine, without turning his head.
"No; I have not been in the cabin since dinner yesterday.
Mrs. Vickers only called me in just now. Let go my arm, sir, you hurt me."
Pine loosed his hold as if satisfied at the reply. "I beg your pardon,"
he said gruffly. "I did not mean to hurt you. But the fever has broken out
in the prison, and I think the child has caught it. You must be careful
where you go." And then, with an anxious face, he went in pursuit of Vickers.
Sarah Purfoy stood motionless for an instant, in deadly terror.
Her lips parted, her eyes glittered, and she made a movement as though
to retrace her steps.
"Poor soul!" thought honest Blunt, "how she feels for the child!
D---- that lubberly surgeon, he's hurt her!--Never mind, my lass,"
he said aloud. It was broad daylight, and he had not as much courage
in love-making as at night. "Don't be afraid. I've been in ships with fever
Awaking, as it were, at the sound of his voice, she came closer to him.
"But ship fever! I have heard of it! Men have died like rotten sheep
in crowded vessels like this."
"Tush! Not they. Don't be frightened; Miss Sylvia won't die,
nor you neither." He took her hand. "It may knock off a few dozen prisoners
or so. They are pretty close packed down there--"
She drew her hand away; and then, remembering herself, gave it him again.
"What is the matter?"
"Nothing--a pain. I did not sleep last night."
"There, there; you are upset, I dare say. Go and lie down."
She was staring away past him over the sea, as if in thought.
So intently did she look that he involuntarily turned his head,
and the action recalled her to herself. She brought her fine straight brows
together for a moment, and then raised them with the action of a thinker
who has decided on his course of conduct.
"I have a toothache," said she, putting her hand to her face.
"Take some laudanum," says Blunt, with dim recollections of
his mother's treatment of such ailments. "Old Pine'll give you some."
To his astonishment she burst into tears.
"There--there! Don't cry, my dear. Hang it, don't cry.
What are you crying about?"
She dashed away the bright drops, and raised her face with a rainy smile
of trusting affection. "Nothing! I am lonely. So far from home;
and--and Dr. Pine hurt my arm. Look!"
She bared that shapely member as she spoke, and sure enough
there were three red marks on the white and shining flesh.
"The ruffian!" cried Blunt, "it's too bad." And after a hasty look around him,
the infatuated fellow kissed the bruise. "I'll get the laudanum for you,"
he said. "You shan't ask that bear for it. Come into my cabin."
Blunt's cabin was in the starboard side of the ship, just under
the poop awning, and possessed three windows--one looking out over the side,
and two upon deck. The corresponding cabin on the other side was occupied
by Mr. Maurice Frere. He closed the door, and took down a small medicine
chest, cleated above the hooks where hung his signal-pictured telescope.
"Here," said he, opening it. "I've carried this little box for years,
but it ain't often I want to use it, thank God. Now, then,
put some o' this into your mouth, and hold it there."
"Good gracious, Captain Blunt, you'll poison me! Give me the bottle;
I'll help myself."
"Don't take too much," says Blunt. "It's dangerous stuff, you know."
"You need not fear. I've used it before."
The door was shut, and as she put the bottle in her pocket,
the amorous captain caught her in his arms.
"What do you say? Come, I think I deserve a kiss for that."
Her tears were all dry long ago, and had only given increased colour
to her face. This agreeable woman never wept long enough to make herself
distasteful. She raised her dark eyes to his for a moment, with a saucy smile.
"By and by," said she, and escaping, gained her cabin. It was next to that
of her mistress, and she could hear the sick child feebly moaning.
Her eyes filled with tears--real ones this time.
"Poor little thing," she said; "I hope she won't die."
And then she threw herself on her bed, and buried her hot head in the pillow.
The intelligence of the fever seemed to have terrified her. Had the news
disarranged some well-concocted plan of hers? Being near the accomplishment
of some cherished scheme long kept in view, had the sudden and unexpected
presence of disease falsified her carefully-made calculations,
and cast an almost insurmountable obstacle in her path?
"She die! and through me? How did I know that he had the fever?
Perhaps I have taken it myself--I feel ill." She turned over on the bed,
as if in pain, and then started to a sitting position, stung by
a sudden thought. "Perhaps he might die! The fever spreads quickly,
and if so, all this plotting will have been useless. It must be done at once.
It will never do to break down now," and taking the phial from her pocket,
she held it up, to see how much it contained. It was three parts full.
"Enough for both," she said, between her set teeth. The action of holding up
the bottle reminded her of the amorous Blunt, and she smiled.
"A strange way to show affection for a man," she said to herself,
"and yet he doesn't care, and I suppose I shouldn't by this time.
I'll go through with it, and, if the worst comes to the worst,
I can fall back on Maurice." She loosened the cork of the phial,
so that it would come out with as little noise as possible, and then placed it
carefully in her bosom. "I will get a little sleep if I can," she said.
"They have got the note, and it shall be done to-night."
The felon Rufus Dawes had stretched himself in his bunk and tried to sleep.
But though he was tired and sore, and his head felt like lead,
he could not but keep broad awake. The long pull through the pure air,
if it had tired him, had revived him, and he felt stronger; but for all that,
the fatal sickness that was on him maintained its hold; his pulse beat thickly,
and his brain throbbed with unnatural heat. Lying in his narrow space--in the
semi-darkness--he tossed his limbs about, and closed his eyes in vain--he could
not sleep. His utmost efforts induced only an oppressive stagnation
of thought, through which he heard the voices of his fellow-convicts;
while before his eyes was still the burning Hydaspes--that vessel
whose destruction had destroyed for ever all trace of the unhappy
It was fortunate for his comfort, perhaps, that the man who had been chosen
to accompany him was of a talkative turn, for the prisoners insisted upon
hearing the story of the explosion a dozen times over, and Rufus Dawes himself
had been roused to give the name of the vessel with his own lips.
Had it not been for the hideous respect in which he was held, it is possible
that he might have been compelled to give his version also, and to join in
the animated discussion which took place upon the possibility of the saving
of the fugitive crew. As it was, however, he was left in peace,
and lay unnoticed, trying to sleep.
The detachment of fifty being on deck--airing--the prison was not quite so hot
as at night, and many of the convicts made up for their lack of rest
by snatching a dog-sleep in the bared bunks. The four volunteer oarsmen
were allowed to "take it out."
As yet there had been no alarm of fever. The three seizures had excited
some comment, however, and had it not been for the counter-excitement
of the burning ship, it is possible that Pine's precaution would have been
thrown away. The "Old Hands"--who had been through the Passage
before--suspected, but said nothing, save among themselves. It was likely
that the weak and sickly would go first, and that there would be
more room for those remaining. The Old Hands were satisfied.
Three of these Old Hands were conversing together just behind the partition
of Dawes's bunk. As we have said, the berths were five feet square,
and each contained six men. No. 10, the berth occupied by Dawes,
was situated on the corner made by the joining of the starboard
and centre lines, and behind it was a slight recess, in which the scuttle
was fixed. His "mates" were at present but three in number, for John Rex
and the cockney tailor had been removed to the hospital. The three
that remained were now in deep conversation in the shelter of the recess.
Of these, the giant--who had the previous night asserted his authority
in the prison--seemed to be the chief. His name was Gabbett.
He was a returned convict, now on his way to undergo a second sentence
for burglary. The other two were a man named Sanders, known as the "Moocher",
and Jemmy Vetch, the Crow. They were talking in whispers, but Rufus Dawes,
lying with his head close to the partition, was enabled to catch
much of what they said.
At first the conversation turned on the catastrophe of the burning ship
and the likelihood of saving the crew. From this it grew to anecdote
of wreck and adventure, and at last Gabbett said something which made
the listener start from his indifferent efforts to slumber,
into sudden broad wakefulness.
It was the mention of his own name, coupled with that of the woman
he had met on the quarter-deck, that roused him.
"I saw her speaking to Dawes yesterday," said the giant, with an oath.
"We don't want no more than we've got. I ain't goin' to risk my neck
for Rex's woman's fancies, and so I'll tell her."
"It was something about the kid," says the Crow, in his elegant slang.
"I don't believe she ever saw him before. Besides, she's nuts on Jack,
and ain't likely to pick up with another man."
"If I thort she was agoin' to throw us over, I'd cut her throat
as soon as look at her!" snorts Gabbett savagely.
"Jack ud have a word in that," snuffles the Moocher; "and he's
a curious cove to quarrel with."
"Well, stow yer gaff," grumbled Mr. Gabbett, "and let's have no more chaff.
If we're for bizness, let's come to bizness."
"What are we to do now?" asked the Moocher. "Jack's on the sick list,
and the gal won't stir a'thout him."
"Ay," returned Gabbett, "that's it."
"My dear friends," said the Crow, "my keyind and keristian friends,
it is to be regretted that when natur' gave you such tremendously thick skulls,
she didn't put something inside of 'em. I say that now's the time.
Jack's in the 'orspital; what of that? That don't make it no better for him,
does it? Not a bit of it; and if he drops his knife and fork, why then,
it's my opinion that the gal won't stir a peg. It's on his account, not ours,
that she's been manoovering, ain't it?"
"Well!" says Mr. Gabbett, with the air of one who was but partly convinced,
"I s'pose it is."
"All the more reason of getting it off quick. Another thing,
when the boys know there's fever aboard, you'll see the rumpus there'll be.
They'll be ready enough to join us then. Once get the snapper chest,
and we're right as ninepenn'orth o' hapence."
This conversation, interspersed with oaths and slang as it was,
had an intense interest for Rufus Dawes. Plunged into prison, hurriedly tried,
and by reason of his surroundings ignorant of the death of his father
and his own fortune, he had hitherto--in his agony and sullen gloom--held aloof
from the scoundrels who surrounded him, and repelled their hideous advances
of friendship. He now saw his error. He knew that the name
he had once possessed was blotted out, that any shred of his old life
which had clung to him hitherto, was shrivelled in the fire
that consumed the "Hydaspes". The secret, for the preservation of which
Richard Devine had voluntarily flung away his name, and risked a terrible
and disgraceful death, would be now for ever safe; for Richard Devine
was dead--lost at sea with the crew of the ill-fated vessel in which,
deluded by a skilfully-sent letter from the prison, his mother believed him
to have sailed. Richard Devine was dead, and the secret of his birth
would die with him. Rufus Dawes, his alter ego, alone should live.
Rufus Dawes, the convicted felon, the suspected murderer, should live
to claim his freedom, and work out his vengeance; or, rendered powerful
by the terrible experience of the prison-sheds, should seize both,
in defiance of gaol or gaoler.
With his head swimming, and his brain on fire, he eagerly listened for more.
It seemed as if the fever which burnt in his veins had consumed
the grosser part of his sense, and given him increased power of hearing.
He was conscious that he was ill. His bones ached, his hands burned,
his head throbbed, but he could hear distinctly, and, he thought,
reason on what he heard profoundly.
"But we can't stir without the girl," Gabbett said. "She's got to stall off
the sentry and give us the orfice."
The Crow's sallow features lighted up with a cunning smile.
"Dear old caper merchant! Hear him talk!" said he, "as if he had the wisdom
of Solomon in all his glory? Look here!"
And he produced a dirty scrap of paper, over which his companions
eagerly bent their heads.
"Where did yer get that?"
"Yesterday afternoon Sarah was standing on the poop throwing bits o' toke
to the gulls, and I saw her a-looking at me very hard. At last she came down
as near the barricade as she dared, and throwed crumbs and such like
up in the air over the side. By and by a pretty big lump, doughed up round,
fell close to my foot, and, watching a favourable opportunity, I pouched it.
Inside was this bit o' rag-bag."
"Ah!" said Mr. Gabbett, "that's more like. Read it out, Jemmy."
The writing, though feminine in character, was bold and distinct.
Sarah had evidently been mindful of the education of her friends,
and had desired to give them as little trouble as possible.
"All is right. Watch me when I come up to-morrow evening at three bells.
If I drop my handkerchief, get to work at the time agreed on.
The sentry will be safe."
Rufus Dawes, though his eyelids would scarcely keep open,
and a terrible lassitude almost paralysed his limbs, eagerly drank in
the whispered sentence. There was a conspiracy to seize the ship.
Sarah Purfoy was in league with the convicts--was herself the wife or mistress
of one of them. She had come on board armed with a plot for his release,
and this plot was about to be put in execution. He had heard of
the atrocities perpetrated by successful mutineers. Story after story
of such nature had often made the prison resound with horrible mirth.
He knew the characters of the three ruffians who, separated from him
by but two inches of planking, jested and laughed over their plans of freedom
and vengeance. Though he conversed but little with his companions,
these men were his berth mates, and he could not but know how
they would proceed to wreak their vengeance on their gaolers.
True, that the head of this formidable chimera--John Rex,
the forger--was absent, but the two hands, or rather claws--the burglar
and the prison-breaker--were present, and the slimly-made, effeminate Crow,
if he had not the brains of the master, yet made up for his flaccid muscles
and nerveless frame by a cat-like cunning, and a spirit of devilish volatility
that nothing could subdue. With such a powerful ally outside
as the mock maid-servant, the chance of success was enormously increased.
There were one hundred and eighty convicts and but fifty soldiers.
If the first rush proved successful--and the precautions taken by Sarah Purfoy
rendered success possible--the vessel was theirs. Rufus Dawes thought
of the little bright-haired child who had run so confidingly to meet him,
"There!" said the Crow, with a sneering laugh, "what do you think of that?
Does the girl look like nosing us now?"
"No," says the giant, stretching his great arms with a grin of delight,
as one stretches one's chest in the sun, "that's right, that is.
That's more like bizness."
"England, home and beauty!" said Vetch, with a mock-heroic air,
strangely out of tune with the subject under discussion. "You'd like
to go home again, wouldn't you, old man?"
Gabbett turned on him fiercely, his low forehead wrinkled into a frown
of ferocious recollection.
"You!" he said--"You think the chain's fine sport, don't yer?
But I've been there, my young chicken, and I knows what it means."
There was silence for a minute or two. The giant was plunged
in gloomy abstraction, and Vetch and the Moocher interchanged
a significant glance. Gabbett had been ten years at the colonial
penal settlement of Macquarie Harbour, and he had memories that he did not
confide to his companions. When he indulged in one of these fits
of recollection, his friends found it best to leave him to himself.
Rufus Dawes did not understand the sudden silence. With all his senses
stretched to the utmost to listen, the cessation of the whispered colloquy
affected him strangely. Old artillery-men have said that,
after being at work for days in the trenches, accustomed to the continued roar
of the guns, a sudden pause in the firing will cause them intense pain.
Something of this feeling was experienced by Rufus Dawes. His faculties
of hearing and thinking--both at their highest pitch--seemed to break down.
It was as though some prop had been knocked from under him.
No longer stimulated by outward sounds, his senses appeared to fail him.
The blood rushed into his eyes and ears. He made a violent, vain effort
to retain his consciousness, but with a faint cry fell back,
striking his head against the edge of the bunk.
The noise roused the burglar in an instant. There was someone in the berth!
The three looked into each other's eyes, in guilty alarm, and then
Gabbett dashed round the partition.
"It's Dawes!" said the Moocher. "We had forgotten him!"
"He'll join us, mate--he'll join us!" cried Vetch, fearful of bloodshed.
Gabbett uttered a furious oath, and flinging himself on to the prostrate
figure, dragged it, head foremost, to the floor. The sudden vertigo
had saved Rufus Dawes's life. The robber twisted one brawny hand in his shirt,
and pressing the knuckles down, prepared to deliver a blow that should
for ever silence the listener, when Vetch caught his arm. "He's been asleep,"
he cried. "Don't hit him! See, he's not awake yet."
A crowd gathered round. The giant relaxed his grip, but the convict gave
only a deep groan, and allowed his head to fall on his shoulder.
"You've killed him!" cried someone.
Gabbett took another look at the purpling face and the bedewed forehead,
and then sprang erect, rubbing at his right hand, as though he would rub off
something sticking there.
"He's got the fever!" he roared, with a terror-stricken grimace.
"The what?" asked twenty voices.
"The fever, ye grinning fools!" cried Gabbett. "I've seen it before to-day.
The typhus is aboard, and he's the fourth man down!"
The circle of beast-like faces, stretched forward to "see the fight,"
widened at the half-uncomprehended, ill-omened word. It was as though
a bombshell had fallen into the group. Rufus Dawes lay on the deck motionless,
breathing heavily. The savage circle glared at his prostrate body.
The alarm ran round, and all the prison crowded down to stare at him.
All at once he uttered a groan, and turning, propped his body
on his two rigid arms, and made an effort to speak. But no sound issued
from his convulsed jaws.
"He's done," said the Moocher brutally. "He didn't hear nuffin',
I'll pound it."
The noise of the heavy bolts shooting back broke the spell. The first
detachment were coming down from "exercise." The door was flung back,
and the bayonets of the guard gleamed in a ray of sunshine that shot down
the hatchway. This glimpse of sunlight--sparkling at the entrance
of the foetid and stifling prison--seemed to mock their miseries.
It was as though Heaven laughed at them. By one of those terrible
and strange impulses which animate crowds, the mass, turning from the sick man,
leapt towards the doorway. The interior of the prison flashed white
with suddenly turned faces. The gloom scintillated with rapidly moving hands.
"Air! air! Give us air!"
"That's it!" said Sanders to his companions. "I thought the news
would rouse 'em."
Gabbett--all the savage in his blood stirred by the sight of flashing eyes
and wrathful faces--would have thrown himself forward with the rest,
but Vetch plucked him back.
"It'll be over in a moment," he said. "It's only a fit they've got."
He spoke truly. Through the uproar was heard the rattle of iron on iron,
as the guard "stood to their arms," and the wedge of grey cloth broke,
in sudden terror of the levelled muskets.
There was an instant's pause, and then old Pine walked, unmolested,
down the prison and knelt by the body of Rufus Dawes.
The sight of the familiar figure, so calmly performing its familiar duty,
restored all that submission to recognized authority which strict discipline
begets. The convicts slunk away into their berths, or officiously ran to help
"the doctor," with affectation of intense obedience. The prison
was like a schoolroom, into which the master had suddenly returned.
"Stand back, my lads! Take him up, two of you, and carry him to the door.
The poor fellow won't hurt you." His orders were obeyed, and the old man,
waiting until his patient had been safely received outside, raised his hand
to command attention. "I see you know what I have to tell. The fever
has broken out. That man has got it. It is absurd to suppose
that no one else will be seized. I might catch it myself. You are
much crowded down here, I know; but, my lads, I can't help that;
I didn't make the ship, you know."
"It is a terrible thing, but you must keep orderly and quiet,
and bear it like men. You know what the discipline is, and it is not
in my power to alter it. I shall do my best for your comfort,
and I look to you to help me."
Holding his grey head very erect indeed, the brave old fellow passed
straight down the line, without looking to the right or left.
He had said just enough, and he reached the door amid a chorus of
"'Ear, 'ear!" "Bravo!" "True for you, docther!" and so on.
But when he got fairly outside, he breathed more freely. He had performed
a ticklish task, and he knew it.
"'Ark at 'em," growled the Moocher from his corner, "a-cheerin'
at the bloody noos!"
"Wait a bit," said the acuter intelligence of Jemmy Vetch. "Give 'em time.
There'll be three or four more down afore night, and then we'll see!"
A DANGEROUS CRISIS.
It was late in the afternoon when Sarah Purfoy awoke from her uneasy slumber.
She had been dreaming of the deed she was about to do, and was flushed
and feverish; but, mindful of the consequences which hung upon the success
or failure of the enterprise, she rallied herself, bathed her face and hands,
and ascended with as calm an air as she could assume to the poop-deck.
Nothing was changed since yesterday. The sentries' arms glittered
in the pitiless sunshine, the ship rolled and creaked on the swell
of the dreamy sea, and the prison-cage on the lower deck was crowded
with the same cheerless figures, disposed in the attitudes of the day before.
Even Mr. Maurice Frere, recovered from his midnight fatigues,
was lounging on the same coil of rope, in precisely the same position.
Yet the eye of an acute observer would have detected some difference
beneath this outward varnish of similarity. The man at the wheel
looked round the horizon more eagerly, and spit into the swirling,
unwholesome-looking water with a more dejected air than before.
The fishing-lines still hung dangling over the catheads,
but nobody touched them. The soldiers and sailors on the forecastle,
collected in knots, had no heart even to smoke, but gloomily stared
at each other. Vickers was in the cuddy writing; Blunt was in his cabin;
and Pine, with two carpenters at work under his directions,
was improvising increased hospital accommodation. The noise of mallet
and hammer echoed in the soldiers' berth ominously; the workmen might have
been making coffins. The prison was strangely silent, with the
lowering silence which precedes a thunderstorm; and the convicts on deck
no longer told stories, nor laughed at obscene jests, but sat together,
moodily patient, as if waiting for something. Three men--two prisoners
and a soldier--had succumbed since Rufus Dawes had been removed
to the hospital; and though as yet there had been no complaint
or symptom of panic, the face of each man, soldier, sailor, or prisoner,
wore an expectant look, as though he wondered whose turn would come next.
On the ship--rolling ceaselessly from side to side, like some wounded creature,
on the opaque profundity of that stagnant ocean--a horrible shadow had fallen.
The Malabar seemed to be enveloped in an electric cloud, whose sullen gloom
a chance spark might flash into a blaze that should consume her.
The woman who held in her hands the two ends of the chain that would produce
this spark, paused, came up upon deck, and, after a glance round,
leant against the poop railing, and looked down into the barricade.
As we have said, the prisoners were in knots of four and five, and to one group
in particular her glance was directed. Three men, leaning carelessly
against the bulwarks, watched her every motion.
"There she is, right enough," growled Mr. Gabbett, as if in continuation
of a previous remark. "Flash as ever, and looking this way, too."
"I don't see no wipe," said the practical Moocher.
"Patience is a virtue, most noble knuckler!" says the Crow,
with affected carelessness. "Give the young woman time."
"Blowed if I'm going to wait no longer," says the giant, licking
his coarse blue lips. "'Ere we've been bluffed off day arter day,
and kep' dancin' round the Dandy's wench like a parcel o' dogs.
The fever's aboard, and we've got all ready. What's the use o' waitin'?
Orfice, or no orfice, I'm for bizness at once!--"
"--There, look at that," he added, with an oath, as the figure of Maurice Frere
appeared side by side with that of the waiting-maid, and the two turned away
up the deck together.
"It's all right, you confounded muddlehead!" cried the Crow, losing patience
with his perverse and stupid companion. "How can she give us the office
with that cove at her elbow?"
Gabbett's only reply to this question was a ferocious grunt,
and a sudden elevation of his clenched fist, which caused Mr. Vetch
to retreat precipitately. The giant did not follow; and Mr. Vetch,
folding his arms, and assuming an attitude of easy contempt,
directed his attention to Sarah Purfoy. She seemed an object of
general attraction, for at the same moment a young soldier ran up the ladder
to the forecastle, and eagerly bent his gaze in her direction.
Maurice Frere had come behind her and touched her on the shoulder.
Since their conversation the previous evening, he had made up his mind
to be fooled no longer. The girl was evidently playing with him,
and he would show her that he was not to be trifled with.
"Well, Mr. Frere," dropping her hand, and turning round with a smile.
"How well you are looking to-day! Positively lovely!"
"You have told me that so often," says she, with a pout.
"Have you nothing else to say?"
"Except that I love you." This in a most impassioned manner.
"That is no news. I know you do."
"Curse it, Sarah, what is a fellow to do?" His profligacy was
failing him rapidly. "What is the use of playing fast and loose
with a fellow this way?"
"A 'fellow' should be able to take care of himself, Mr. Frere.
I didn't ask you to fall in love with me, did I? If you don't please me,
it is not your fault, perhaps."
"What do you mean?"
"You soldiers have so many things to think of--your guards and sentries,
and visits and things. You have no time to spare for a poor woman like me."
"Spare!" cries Frere, in amazement. "Why, damme, you won't let a fellow spare!
I'd spare fast enough, if that was all." She cast her eyes down to the deck
and a modest flush rose in her cheeks. "I have so much to do," she said,
in a half-whisper. "There are so many eyes upon me, I cannot stir
without being seen."
She raised her head as she spoke, and to give effect to her words,
looked round the deck. Her glance crossed that of the young soldier
on the forecastle, and though the distance was too great for her to distinguish
his features, she guessed who he was--Miles was jealous. Frere,
smiling with delight at her change of manner, came close to her,
and whispered in her ear. She affected to start, and took the opportunity
of exchanging a signal with the Crow.
"I will come at eight o'clock," said she, with modestly averted face.
"They relieve the guard at eight," he said deprecatingly.
She tossed her head. "Very well, then, attend to your guard; I don't care."
"But, Sarah, consider--"
"As if a woman in love ever considers!" said she, turning upon him
a burning glance, which in truth might have melted a more icy man than he.
--She loved him then! What a fool he would be to refuse. To get her to come
was the first object; how to make duty fit with pleasure would be
considered afterwards. Besides, the guard could relieve itself for once
without his supervision.
"Very well, at eight then, dearest."
"Hush!" said she. "Here comes that stupid captain."
And as Frere left her, she turned, and with her eyes fixed
on the convict barricade, dropped the handkerchief she held in her hand
over the poop railing. It fell at the feet of the amorous captain,
and with a quick upward glance, that worthy fellow picked it up,
and brought it to her.
"Oh, thank you, Captain Blunt," said she, and her eyes spoke
more than her tongue.
"Did you take the laudanum?" whispered Blunt, with a twinkle in his eye.
"Some of it," said she. "I will bring you back the bottle to-night."
Blunt walked aft, humming cheerily, and saluted Frere with a slap on the back.
The two men laughed, each at his own thoughts, but their laughter
only made the surrounding gloom seem deeper than before.
Sarah Purfoy, casting her eyes toward the barricade, observed a change
in the position of the three men. They were together once more, and the Crow,
having taken off his prison cap, held it at arm's length with one hand,
while he wiped his brow with the other. Her signal had been observed.
During all this, Rufus Dawes, removed to the hospital, was lying
flat on his back, staring at the deck above him, trying to think of something
he wanted to say.
When the sudden faintness, which was the prelude to his sickness,
had overpowered him, he remembered being torn out of his bunk
by fierce hands--remembered a vision of savage faces, and the presence
of some danger that menaced him. He remembered that, while lying
on his blankets, struggling with the coming fever, he had overheard
a conversation of vital importance to himself and to the ship,
but of the purport of that conversation he had not the least idea.
In vain he strove to remember--in vain his will, struggling with delirium,
brought back snatches and echoes of sense; they slipped from him again
as fast as caught. He was oppressed with the weight of half-recollected
thought. He knew that a terrible danger menaced him; that could he but force
his brain to reason connectedly for ten consecutive minutes,
he could give such information as would avert that danger, and save the ship.
But, lying with hot head, parched lips, and enfeebled body,
he was as one possessed--he could move nor hand nor foot.
The place where he lay was but dimly lighted. The ingenuity of Pine
had constructed a canvas blind over the port, to prevent the sun striking
into the cabin, and this blind absorbed much of the light. He could but
just see the deck above his head, and distinguish the outlines
of three other berths, apparently similar to his own. The only sounds
that broke the silence were the gurgling of the water below him,
and the Tap tap, Tap tap, of Pine's hammers at work upon the new partition.
By and by the noise of these hammers ceased, and then the sick man could hear
gasps, and moans, and mutterings--the signs that his companions yet lived.
All at once a voice called out, "Of course his bills are worth
four hundred pounds; but, my good sir, four hundred pounds to a man
in my position is not worth the getting. Why, I've given four hundred pounds
for a freak of my girl Sarah! Is it right, eh, Jezebel? She's a good girl,
though, as girls go. Mrs. Lionel Crofton, of the Crofts, Sevenoaks,
A gleam of light broke in on the darkness which wrapped
Rufus Dawes's tortured brain. The man was John Rex, his berth mate.
With an effort he spoke.
"Yes, yes. I'm coming; don't be in a hurry. The sentry's safe,
and the howitzer is but five paces from the door. A rush upon deck,
lads, and she's ours! That is, mine. Mine and my wife's,
Mrs. Lionel Crofton, of Seven Crofts, no oaks--Sarah Purfoy,
lady's-maid and nurse--ha! ha!--lady's-maid and nurse!"
This last sentence contained the name-clue to the labyrinth
in which Rufus Dawes's bewildered intellects were wandering.
"Sarah Purfoy!" He remembered now each detail of the conversation
he had so strangely overheard, and how imperative it was that he should,
without delay, reveal the plot that threatened the ship. How that plot
was to be carried out, he did not pause to consider; he was conscious that
he was hanging over the brink of delirium, and that, unless he
made himself understood before his senses utterly deserted him, all was lost.
He attempted to rise, but found that his fever-thralled limbs refused to obey
the impulse of his will. He made an effort to speak, but his tongue
clove to the roof of his mouth, and his jaws stuck together. He could not
raise a finger nor utter a sound. The boards over his head waved
like a shaken sheet, and the cabin whirled round, while the patch of light
at his feet bobbed up and down like the reflection from a wavering candle.
He closed his eyes with a terrible sigh of despair, and resigned himself
to his fate. At that instant the sound of hammering ceased,
and the door opened. It was six o'clock, and Pine had come to have a last look
at his patients before dinner. It seemed that there was somebody with him,
for a kind, though somewhat pompous, voice remarked upon the scantiness
of accommodation, and the "necessity--the absolute necessity" of complying
with the King's Regulations.
Honest Vickers, though agonized for the safety of his child,
would not abate a jot of his duty, and had sternly come to visit the sick men,
aware as he was that such a visit would necessitate his isolation
from the cabin where his child lay. Mrs. Vickers--weeping
and bewailing herself coquettishly at garrison parties--had often said
that "poor dear John was such a disciplinarian, quite a slave to the service."
"Here they are," said Pine; "six of 'em. This fellow"--going to the side
of Rex--"is the worst. If he had not a constitution like a horse,
I don't think he could live out the night."
"Three, eighteen, seven, four," muttered Rex; "dot and carry one.
Is that an occupation for a gentleman? No, sir. Good night, my lord,
good night. Hark! The clock is striking nine; five, six, seven, eight!
Well, you've had your day, and can't complain."
"A dangerous fellow," says Pine, with the light upraised.
"A very dangerous fellow--that is, he was. This is the place,
you see--a regular rat-hole; but what can one do?"
"Come, let us get on deck," said Vickers, with a shudder of disgust.
Rufus Dawes felt the sweat break out into beads on his forehead.
They suspected nothing. They were going away. He must warn them.
With a violent effort, in his agony he turned over in the bunk
and thrust out his hand from the blankets.
"Hullo! what's this?" cried Pine, bringing the lantern to bear upon it.
"Lie down, my man. Eh!--water, is it? There, steady with it now";
and he lifted a pannikin to the blackened, froth-fringed lips.
The cool draught moistened his parched gullet, and the convict
made a last effort to speak.
"Sarah Purfoy--to-night--the prison--MUTINY!"
The last word, almost shrieked out, in the sufferer's desperate efforts
to articulate, recalled the wandering senses of John Rex.
"Hush!" he cried. "Is that you, Jemmy? Sarah's right.
Wait till she gives the word."
"He's raving," said Vickers.
Pine caught the convict by the shoulder. "What do you say, my man?
A mutiny of the prisoners!"
With his mouth agape and his hands clenched, Rufus Dawes,
incapable of further speech, made a last effort to nod assent,
but his head fell upon his breast; the next moment, the flickering light,
the gloomy prison, the eager face of the doctor, and the astonished face
of Vickers, vanished from before his straining eyes. He saw the two men
stare at each other, in mingled incredulity and alarm, and then he was
floating down the cool brown river of his boyhood, on his way--in company with
Sarah Purfoy and Lieutenant Frere--to raise the mutiny of the Hydaspes,
that lay on the stocks in the old house at Hampstead.
The two discoverers of this awkward secret held a council of war.
Vickers was for at once calling the guard, and announcing to the prisoners
that the plot--whatever it might be--had been discovered; but Pine,
accustomed to convict ships, overruled this decision.
"You don't know these fellows as well as I do," said he. "In the first place
there may be no mutiny at all. The whole thing is, perhaps, some absurdity
of that fellow Dawes--and should we once put the notion of attacking us
into the prisoners' heads, there is no telling what they might do."
"But the man seemed certain," said the other. "He mentioned
my wife's maid, too!"
"Suppose he did?--and, begad, I dare say he's right--I never liked
the look of the girl. To tell them that we have found them out this time
won't prevent 'em trying it again. We don't know what their scheme is either.
If it is a mutiny, half the ship's company may be in it. No, Captain Vickers,
allow me, as surgeon-superintendent, to settle our course of action.
You are aware that--"
"--That, by the King's Regulations, you are invested with full powers,"
interrupted Vickers, mindful of discipline in any extremity. "Of course,
I merely suggested--and I know nothing about the girl, except that
she brought a good character from her last mistress--a Mrs. Crofton
I think the name was. We were glad to get anybody to make a voyage like this."
"Well," says Pine, "look here. Suppose we tell these scoundrels
that their design, whatever it may be, is known. Very good.
They will profess absolute ignorance, and try again on the next opportunity,
when, perhaps, we may not know anything about it. At all events,
we are completely ignorant of the nature of the plot and the names
of the ringleaders. Let us double the sentries, and quietly get the men
under arms. Let Miss Sarah do what she pleases, and when the mutiny
breaks out, we will nip it in the bud; clap all the villains we get in irons,
and hand them over to the authorities in Hobart Town. I am not a cruel man,
sir, but we have got a cargo of wild beasts aboard, and we must be careful."
"But surely, Mr. Pine, have you considered the probable loss of life?
I--really--some more humane course perhaps? Prevention, you know--"
Pine turned round upon him with that grim practicality which was
a part of his nature. "Have you considered the safety of the ship,
Captain Vickers? You know, or have heard of, the sort of things
that take place in these mutinies. Have you considered what will befall
those half-dozen women in the soldiers' berths? Have you thought of the fate
of your own wife and child?"
"Have it your way, Mr. Pine; you know best perhaps. But don't risk
more lives than you can help."
"Be easy, sir," says old Pine; "I am acting for the best; upon my soul I am.
You don't know what convicts are, or rather what the law has made 'em--yet--"
"Poor wretches!" says Vickers, who, like many martinets, was in reality
tender-hearted. "Kindness might do much for them. After all,
they are our fellow-creatures."
"Yes," returned the other, "they are. But if you use that argument to them
when they have taken the vessel, it won't avail you much. Let me manage, sir;
and for God's sake, say nothing to anybody. Our lives may hang upon a word."
Vickers promised, and kept his promise so far as to chat cheerily with Blunt
and Frere at dinner, only writing a brief note to his wife to tell her that,
whatever she heard, she was not to stir from her cabin until he came to her;
he knew that, with all his wife's folly, she would obey unhesitatingly,
when he couched an order in such terms.
According to the usual custom on board convict ships, the guards
relieved each other every two hours, and at six p.m. the poop guard
was removed to the quarter-deck, and the arms which, in the daytime,
were disposed on the top of the arm-chest, were placed in an arm-rack
constructed on the quarter-deck for that purpose. Trusting nothing
to Frere--who, indeed, by Pine's advice, was, as we have seen,
kept in ignorance of the whole matter--Vickers ordered all the men,
save those who had been on guard during the day, to be under arms
in the barrack, forbade communication with the upper deck, and placed
as sentry at the barrack door his own servant, an old soldier,
on whose fidelity he could thoroughly rely. He then doubled the guards,
took the keys of the prison himself from the non-commissioned officer
whose duty it was to keep them, and saw that the howitzer on the lower deck
was loaded with grape. It was a quarter to seven when Pine and he
took their station at the main hatchway, determined to watch until morning.
At a quarter past seven, any curious person looking through the window
of Captain Blunt's cabin would have seen an unusual sight.
That gallant commander was sitting on the bed-place, with a glass
of rum and water in his hand, and the handsome waiting-maid of Mrs. Vickers
was seated on a stool by his side. At a first glance it was perceptible
that the captain was very drunk. His grey hair was matted all ways
about his reddened face, and he was winking and blinking like an owl
in the sunshine. He had drunk a larger quantity of wine than usual at dinner,
in sheer delight at the approaching assignation, and having got out
the rum bottle for a quiet "settler" just as the victim of his fascinations
glided through the carefully-adjusted door, he had been persuaded
to go on drinking.
"Cuc-come, Sarah," he hiccuped. "It's all very fine, my lass,
but you needn't be so--hic--proud, you know. I'm a plain sailor--plain s'lor,
Srr'h. Ph'n'as Bub--blunt, commander of the Mal-Mal- Malabar.
Wors' 'sh good talkin'?"
Sarah allowed a laugh to escape her, and artfully protruded an ankle
at the same time. The amorous Phineas lurched over, and made shift
to take her hand.
"You lovsh me, and I--hic--lovsh you, Sarah. And a preshus tight little craft
you--hic--are. Giv'sh--kiss, Sarah."
Sarah got up and went to the door.
"Wotsh this? Goin'! Sarah, don't go," and he staggered up;
and with the grog swaying fearfully in one hand, made at her.
The ship's bell struck the half-hour. Now or never was the time.
Blunt caught her round the waist with one arm, and hiccuping with love and rum,
approached to take the kiss he coveted. She seized the moment,
surrendered herself to his embrace, drew from her pocket the laudanum bottle,
and passing her hand over his shoulder, poured half its contents into the glass
"Think I'm--hic--drunk, do yer? Nun--not I, my wench."
"You will be if you drink much more. Come, finish that and be quiet,
or I'll go away."
But she threw a provocation into her glance as she spoke, which belied
her words, and which penetrated even the sodden intellect of poor Blunt.
He balanced himself on his heels for a moment, and holding by the moulding
of the cabin, stared at her with a fatuous smile of drunken admiration,
then looked at the glass in his hand, hiccuped with much solemnity thrice,
and, as though struck with a sudden sense of duty unfulfilled,
swallowed the contents at a gulp. The effect was almost instantaneous.
He dropped the tumbler, lurched towards the woman at the door,
and then making a half-turn in accordance with the motion of the vessel,
fell into his bunk, and snored like a grampus.
Sarah Purfoy watched him for a few minutes, and then having blown out
the light, stepped out of the cabin, and closed the door behind her.
The dusky gloom which had held the deck on the previous night
enveloped all forward of the main-mast. A lantern swung in the forecastle,
and swayed with the motion of the ship. The light at the prison door
threw a glow through the open hatch, and in the cuddy, at her right hand,
the usual row of oil-lamps burned. She looked mechanically for Vickers,
who was ordinarily there at that hour, but the cuddy was empty.
So much the better, she thought, as she drew her dark cloak around her,
and tapped at Frere's door. As she did so, a strange pain
shot through her temples, and her knees trembled. With a strong effort
she dispelled the dizziness that had almost overpowered her,
and held herself erect. It would never do to break down now.
The door opened, and Maurice Frere drew her into the cabin.
"So you have come?" said he.
"You see I have. But, oh! if I should be seen!"
"Seen? Nonsense! Who is to see you?"
"Captain Vickers, Doctor Pine, anybody."
"Not they. Besides, they've gone off down to Pine's cabin since dinner.
They're all right."
Gone off to Pine's cabin! The intelligence struck her with dismay.
What was the cause of such an unusual proceeding? Surely they did not suspect!
"What do they want there?" she asked.
Maurice Frere was not in the humour to argue questions of probability.
"Who knows? I don't. Confound 'em," he added, "what does it matter to us?
We don't want them, do we, Sarah?"
She seemed to be listening for something, and did not reply.
Her nervous system was wound up to the highest pitch of excitement.
The success of the plot depended on the next five minutes.
"What are you staring at? Look at me, can't you? What eyes you have!
And what hair!"
At that instant the report of a musket-shot broke the silence.
The mutiny had begun!
The sound awoke the soldier to a sense of his duty. He sprang to his feet,
and disengaging the arms that clung about his neck, made for the door.
The moment for which the convict's accomplice had waited approached.
She hung upon him with all her weight. Her long hair swept across his face,
her warm breath was on his cheek, her dress exposed her round, smooth shoulder.
He, intoxicated, conquered, had half-turned back, when suddenly
the rich crimson died away from her lips, leaving them an ashen grey colour.
Her eyes closed in agony; loosing her hold of him, she staggered to her feet,
pressed her hands upon her bosom, and uttered a sharp cry of pain.
The fever which had been on her two days, and which, by a strong exercise
of will, she had struggled against--encouraged by the violent excitement
of the occasion--had attacked her at this supreme moment.
Deathly pale and sick, she reeled to the side of the cabin.
There was another shot, and a violent clashing of arms; and Frere,
leaving the miserable woman to her fate, leapt out on to the deck.
At seven o'clock there had been also a commotion in the prison.
The news of the fever had awoke in the convicts all that love of liberty
which had but slumbered during the monotony of the earlier part of the voyage.
Now that death menaced them, they longed fiercely for the chance of escape
which seemed permitted to freemen. "Let us get out!" they said,
each man speaking to his particular friend. "We are locked up here
to die like sheep." Gloomy faces and desponding looks met the gaze of each,
and sometimes across this gloom shot a fierce glance that lighted up
its blackness, as a lightning-flash renders luridly luminous
the indigo dullness of a thunder-cloud. By and by, in some inexplicable way,
it came to be understood that there was a conspiracy afloat,
that they were to be released from their shambles, that some amongst them
had been plotting for freedom. The 'tween decks held its foul breath
in wondering anxiety, afraid to breathe its suspicions. The influence
of this predominant idea showed itself by a strange shifting of atoms.
The mass of villainy, ignorance, and innocence began to be animated
with something like a uniform movement. Natural affinities came together,
and like allied itself to like, falling noiselessly into harmony,
as the pieces of glass and coloured beads in a kaleidoscope
assume mathematical forms. By seven bells it was found that the prison
was divided into three parties--the desperate, the timid, and the cautious.
These three parties had arranged themselves in natural sequence.
The mutineers, headed by Gabbett, Vetch, and the Moocher, were nearest
to the door; the timid--boys, old men, innocent poor wretches condemned
on circumstantial evidence, or rustics condemned to be turned into thieves
for pulling a turnip--were at the farther end, huddling together in alarm;
and the prudent--that is to say, all the rest, ready to fight or fly,
advance or retreat, assist the authorities or their companions,
as the fortune of the day might direct--occupied the middle space.
The mutineers proper numbered, perhaps, some thirty men, and of these thirty
only half a dozen knew what was really about to be done.
The ship's bell strikes the half-hour, and as the cries of the three sentries
passing the word to the quarter-deck die away, Gabbett, who has been leaning
with his back against the door, nudges Jemmy Vetch.
"Now, Jemmy," says he in a whisper, "tell 'em!"
The whisper being heard by those nearest the giant, a silence ensues,
which gradually spreads like a ripple over the surface of the crowd,
reaching even the bunks at the further end.
"Gentlemen," says Mr. Vetch, politely sarcastic in his own hangdog fashion,
"myself and my friends here are going to take the ship for you.
Those who like to join us had better speak at once, for in about half an hour
they will not have the opportunity."
He pauses, and looks round with such an impertinently confident air,
that three waverers in the party amidships slip nearer to hear him.
"You needn't be afraid," Mr. Vetch continues, "we have arranged it all for you.
There are friends waiting for us outside, and the door will be open directly.
All we want, gentlemen, is your vote and interest--I mean your--"
"Gaffing agin!" interrupts the giant angrily. "Come to business, carn't yer?
Tell 'em they may like it or lump it, but we mean to have the ship,
and them as refuses to join us we mean to chuck overboard.
That's about the plain English of it!"
This practical way of putting it produces a sensation,
and the conservative party at the other end look in each other's faces
with some alarm. A grim murmur runs round, and somebody near Mr. Gabbett
laughs a laugh of mingled ferocity and amusement, not reassuring
to timid people. "What about the sogers?" asked a voice
from the ranks of the cautious.
"D--- the sogers!" cries the Moocher, moved by a sudden inspiration.
"They can but shoot yer, and that's as good as dyin' of typhus anyway!"
The right chord had been struck now, and with a stifled roar the prison
admitted the truth of the sentiment. "Go on, old man!" cries Jemmy Vetch
to the giant, rubbing his thin hands with eldritch glee. "They're all right!"
And then, his quick ears catching the jingle of arms, he said,
"Stand by now for the door--one rush'll do it."
It was eight o'clock and the relief guard was coming from the after deck.
The crowd of prisoners round the door held their breath to listen.
"It's all planned," says Gabbett, in a low growl. "W'en the door h'opens
we rush, and we're in among the guard afore they know where they are.
Drag 'em back into the prison, grab the h'arm-rack, and it's all over."
"They're very quiet about it," says the Crow suspiciously.
"I hope it's all right."
"Stand from the door, Miles," says Pine's voice outside,
in its usual calm accents.
The Crow was relieved. The tone was an ordinary one, and Miles was the soldier
whom Sarah Purfoy had bribed not to fire. All had gone well.
The keys clashed and turned, and the bravest of the prudent party,
who had been turning in his mind the notion of risking his life for a pardon,
to be won by rushing forward at the right moment and alarming the guard,
checked the cry that was in his throat as he saw the men round the door
draw back a little for their rush, and caught a glimpse of
the giant's bristling scalp and bared gums.
"NOW!" cries Jemmy Vetch, as the iron-plated oak swung back,
and with the guttural snarl of a charging wild boar, Gabbett hurled himself
out of the prison.
The red line of light which glowed for an instant through the doorway
was blotted out by a mass of figures. All the prison surged forward,
and before the eye could wink, five, ten, twenty, of the most desperate
were outside. It was as though a sea, breaking against a stone wall,
had found some breach through which to pour its waters. The contagion
of battle spread. Caution was forgotten; and those at the back,
seeing Jemmy Vetch raised upon the crest of that human billow
which reared its black outline against an indistinct perspective
of struggling figures, responded to his grin of encouragement by rushing
Suddenly a horrible roar like that of a trapped wild beast was heard.
The rushing torrent choked in the doorway, and from out the lantern glow
into which the giant had rushed, a flash broke, followed by a groan,
as the perfidious sentry fell back shot through the breast.
The mass in the doorway hung irresolute, and then by sheer weight of pressure
from behind burst forward, and as it so burst, the heavy door crashed
into its jambs, and the bolts were shot into their places.
All this took place by one of those simultaneous movements which are so rapid
in execution, so tedious to describe in detail. At one instant the prison door
had opened, at the next it had closed. The picture which had presented itself
to the eyes of the convicts was as momentary as are those of the thaumatoscope.
The period of time that had elapsed between the opening and the shutting
of the door could have been marked by the musket shot.
The report of another shot, and then a noise of confused cries,
mingled with the clashing of arms, informed the imprisoned men that
the ship had been alarmed. How would it go with their friends on deck?
Would they succeed in overcoming the guards, or would they be beaten back?
They would soon know; and in the hot dusk, straining their eyes
to see each other, they waited for the issue Suddenly the noises ceased,
and a strange rumbling sound fell upon the ears of the listeners.
* * * * * *
What had taken place?
This--the men pouring out of the darkness into the sudden glare
of the lanterns, rushed, bewildered, across the deck. Miles,
true to his promise, did not fire, but the next instant Vickers had snatched
the firelock from him, and leaping into the stream, turned about and fired
down towards the prison. The attack was more sudden then he had expected,
but he did not lose his presence of mind. The shot would serve
a double purpose. It would warn the men in the barrack, and perhaps
check the rush by stopping up the doorway with a corpse. Beaten back,
struggling, and indignant, amid the storm of hideous faces,
his humanity vanished, and he aimed deliberately at the head
of Mr. James Vetch; the shot, however, missed its mark,
and killed the unhappy Miles.
Gabbett and his companions had by this time reached the foot
of the companion ladder, there to encounter the cutlasses of the doubled guard
gleaming redly in the glow of the lanterns. A glance up the hatchway
showed the giant that the arms he had planned to seize were defended
by ten firelocks, and that, behind the open doors of the partition
which ran abaft the mizenmast, the remainder of the detachment
stood to their arms. Even his dull intellect comprehended that
the desperate project had failed, and that he had been betrayed.
With the roar of despair which had penetrated into the prison,
he turned to fight his way back, just in time to see the crowd in the gangway
recoil from the flash of the musket fired by Vickers. The next instant,
Pine and two soldiers, taking advantage of the momentary cessation
of the press, shot the bolts, and secured the prison.
The mutineers were caught in a trap.
The narrow space between the barracks and the barricade was choked
with struggling figures. Some twenty convicts, and half as many soldiers,
struck and stabbed at each other in the crowd. There was barely elbow-room,
and attacked and attackers fought almost without knowing whom they struck.
Gabbett tore a cutlass from a soldier, shook his huge head,
and calling on the Moocher to follow, bounded up the ladder,
desperately determined to brave the fire of the watch. The Moocher,
close at the giant's heels, flung himself upon the nearest soldier,
and grasping his wrist, struggled for the cutlass. A brawny,
bull-necked fellow next him dashed his clenched fist in the soldier's face,
and the man maddened by the blow, let go the cutlass, and drawing his pistol,
shot his new assailant through the head. It was this second shot
that had aroused Maurice Frere.
As the young lieutenant sprang out upon the deck, he saw by the position
of the guard that others had been more mindful of the safety of the ship
than he. There was, however, no time for explanation, for,
as he reached the hatchway, he was met by the ascending giant,
who uttered a hideous oath at the sight of this unexpected adversary, and,
too close to strike him, locked him in his arms. The two men
were drawn together. The guard on the quarter-deck dared not fire
at the two bodies that, twined about each other, rolled across the deck,
and for a moment Mr. Frere's cherished existence hung upon
the slenderest thread imaginable.
The Moocher, spattered with the blood and brains of his unfortunate comrade,
had already set his foot upon the lowest step of the ladder,
when the cutlass was dashed from his hand by a blow from a clubbed firelock,
and he was dragged roughly backwards. As he fell upon the deck,
he saw the Crow spring out of the mass of prisoners who had been,
an instant before, struggling with the guard, and, gaining the cleared space
at the bottom of the ladder, hold up his hands, as though to shield himself
from a blow. The confusion had now become suddenly stilled,
and upon the group before the barricade had fallen that mysterious silence
which had perplexed the inmates of the prison.
They were not perplexed for long. The two soldiers who, with the assistance
of Pine, had forced-to the door of the prison, rapidly unbolted that trap-door
in the barricade, of which mention has been made in a previous chapter,
and, at a signal from Vickers, three men ran the loaded howitzer
from its sinister shelter near the break of the barrack berths, and,
training the deadly muzzle to a level with the opening in the barricade,
stood ready to fire.
"Surrender!" cried Vickers, in a voice from which all "humanity" had vanished.
"Surrender, and give up your ringleaders, or I'll blow you to pieces!"
There was no tremor in his voice, and though he stood, with Pine by his side,
at the very mouth of the levelled cannon, the mutineers perceived,
with that acuteness which imminent danger brings to the most stolid of brains,
that, did they hesitate an instant, he would keep his word.
There was an awful moment of silence, broken only by a skurrying noise
in the prison, as though a family of rats, disturbed at a flour cask,
were scampering to the ship's side for shelter. This skurrying noise
was made by the convicts rushing to their berths to escape
the threatened shower of grape; to the twenty desperadoes cowering
before the muzzle of the howitzer it spoke more eloquently than words.
The charm was broken; their comrades would refuse to join them.
The position of affairs at this crisis was a strange one. From the opened
trap-door came a sort of subdued murmur, like that which sounds
within the folds of a sea-shell, but, in the oblong block of darkness
which it framed, nothing was visible. The trap-door might have been a window
looking into a tunnel. On each side of this horrible window,
almost pushed before it by the pressure of one upon the other, stood Pine,
Vickers, and the guard. In front of the little group lay the corpse
of the miserable boy whom Sarah Purfoy had led to ruin; and forced close upon,
yet shrinking back from the trampled and bloody mass, crouched
in mingled terror and rage, the twenty mutineers. Behind the mutineers,
withdrawn from the patch of light thrown by the open hatchway,
the mouth of the howitzer threatened destruction; and behind the howitzer,
backed up by an array of brown musket barrels, suddenly glowed the tiny fire
of the burning match in the hand of Vickers's trusty servant.
The entrapped men looked up the hatchway, but the guard had already closed in
upon it, and some of the ship's crew--with that carelessness of danger
characteristic of sailors--were peering down upon them. Escape was hopeless.
"One minute!" cried Vickers, confident that one second
would be enough--"one minute to go quietly, or--"
"Surrender, mates, for God's sake!" shrieked some unknown wretch
from out of the darkness of the prison. "Do you want to be the death of us?"
Jemmy Vetch, feeling, by that curious sympathy which nervous natures possess,
that his comrades wished him to act as spokesman, raised his shrill tones.
"We surrender," he said. "It's no use getting our brains blown out."
And raising his hands, he obeyed the motion of Vickers's fingers,
and led the way towards the barrack.
"Bring the irons forward, there!" shouted Vickers, hastening
from his perilous position; and before the last man had filed past
the still smoking match, the cling of hammers announced that
the Crow had resumed those fetters which had been knocked off his dainty limbs
a month previously in the Bay of Biscay.
In another moment the trap-door was closed, the howitzer rumbled
back to its cleatings, and the prison breathed again.
* * * * * *
In the meantime, a scene almost as exciting had taken place on the upper deck.
Gabbett, with the blind fury which the consciousness of failure brings
to such brute-like natures, had seized Frere by the throat,
determined to put an end to at least one of his enemies. But desperate
though he was, and with all the advantage of weight and strength upon his side,
he found the young lieutenant a more formidable adversary
than he had anticipated.
Maurice Frere was no coward. Brutal and selfish though he might be,
his bitterest enemies had never accused him of lack of physical courage.
Indeed, he had been--in the rollicking days of old that were gone--celebrated
for the display of very opposite qualities. He was an amateur at manly sports.
He rejoiced in his muscular strength, and, in many a tavern brawl
and midnight riot of his own provoking, had proved the fallacy of the proverb
which teaches that a bully is always a coward. He had the tenacity
of a bulldog--once let him get his teeth in his adversary,
and he would hold on till he died. In fact he was, as far as
personal vigour went, a Gabbett with the education of a prize-fighter;
and, in a personal encounter between two men of equal courage,
science tells more than strength. In the struggle, however,
that was now taking place, science seemed to be of little value.
To the inexperienced eye, it would appear that the frenzied giant,
gripping the throat of the man who had fallen beneath him, must rise
from the struggle an easy victor. Brute force was all that was needed--there
was neither room nor time for the display of any cunning of fence.
But knowledge, though it cannot give strength, gives coolness.
Taken by surprise as he was, Maurice Frere did not lose his presence of mind.
The convict was so close upon him that there was no time to strike;
but, as he was forced backwards, he succeeded in crooking his knee
round the thigh of his assailant, and thrust one hand into his collar.
Over and over they rolled, the bewildered sentry not daring to fire,
until the ship's side brought them up with a violent jerk, and Frere realized
that Gabbett was below him. Pressing with all the might of his muscles,
he strove to resist the leverage which the giant was applying to turn him over,
but he might as well have pushed against a stone wall.
With his eyes protruding, and every sinew strained to its uttermost,
he was slowly forced round, and he felt Gabbett releasing his grasp,
in order to draw back and aim at him an effectual blow. Disengaging
his left hand, Frere suddenly allowed himself to sink, and then,
drawing up his right knee, struck Gabbett beneath the jaw,
and as the huge head was forced backwards by the blow, dashed his fist
into the brawny throat. The giant reeled backwards, and, falling on his hands
and knees, was in an instant surrounded by sailors.
Now began and ended, in less time than it takes to write it,
one of those Homeric struggles of one man against twenty,
which are none the less heroic because the Ajax is a convict,
and the Trojans merely ordinary sailors. Shaking his assailants to the deck
as easily as a wild boar shakes off the dogs which clamber upon
his bristly sides, the convict sprang to his feet, and, whirling
the snatched-up cutlass round his head, kept the circle at bay.
Four times did the soldiers round the hatchway raise their muskets,
and four times did the fear of wounding the men who had flung
themselves upon the enraged giant compel them to restrain their fire.
Gabbett, his stubbly hair on end, his bloodshot eyes glaring with fury,
his great hand opening and shutting in air, as though it gasped
for something to seize, turned himself about from side to side--now here,
now there, bellowing like a wounded bull. His coarse shirt,
rent from shoulder to flank, exposed the play of his huge muscles.
He was bleeding from a cut on his forehead, and the blood, trickling down
his face, mingled with the foam on his lips, and dropped sluggishly
on his hairy breast. Each time that an assailant came within reach
of the swinging cutlass, the ruffian's form dilated with a fresh access
of passion. At one moment bunched with clinging adversaries--his arms,
legs, and shoulders a hanging mass of human bodies--at the next, free,
desperate, alone in the midst of his foes, his hideous countenance
contorted with hate and rage, the giant seemed less a man than a demon,
or one of those monstrous and savage apes which haunt the solitudes
of the African forests. Spurning the mob who had rushed in at him,
he strode towards his risen adversary, and aimed at him one final blow
that should put an end to his tyranny for ever. A notion that Sarah Purfoy
had betrayed him, and that the handsome soldier was the cause of the betrayal,
had taken possession of his mind, and his rage had concentrated itself
upon Maurice Frere. The aspect of the villain was so appalling,
that, despite his natural courage, Frere, seeing the backward sweep
of the cutlass, absolutely closed his eyes with terror,
and surrendered himself to his fate.
As Gabbett balanced himself for the blow, the ship, which had been
rocking gently on a dull and silent sea, suddenly lurched--the convict
lost his balance, swayed, and fell. Ere he could rise he was pinioned
by twenty hands.
Authority was almost instantaneously triumphant on the upper and lower decks.
The mutiny was over.
DISCOVERIES AND CONFESSIONS.
The shock was felt all through the vessel, and Pine, who had been watching
the ironing of the last of the mutineers, at once divined its cause.
"Thank God!" he cried, "there's a breeze at last!" and as the overpowered
Gabbett, bruised, bleeding, and bound, was dragged down the hatchway,
the triumphant doctor hurried upon deck to find the Malabar plunging
through the whitening water under the influence of a fifteen-knot breeze.
"Stand by to reef topsails! Away aloft, men, and furl the royals!"
cries Best from the quarter-deck; and in the midst of the cheery confusion
Maurice Frere briefly recapitulated what had taken place, taking care,
however, to pass over his own dereliction of duty as rapidly as possible.
Pine knit his brows. "Do you think that she was in the plot?" he asked.
"Not she!" says Frere--eager to avert inquiry. "How should she be?
Plot! She's sickening of fever, or I'm much mistaken."
Sure enough, on opening the door of the cabin, they found Sarah Purfoy
lying where she had fallen a quarter of an hour before. The clashing
of cutlasses and the firing of muskets had not roused her.
"We must make a sick-bay somewhere," says Pine, looking at the senseless
figure with no kindly glance; "though I don't think she's likely
to be very bad. Confound her! I believe that she's the cause of all this.
I'll find out, too, before many hours are over; for I've told those fellows
that unless they confess all about it before to-morrow morning,
I'll get them six dozen a-piece the day after we anchor in Hobart Town.
I've a great mind to do it before we get there. Take her head, Frere,
and we'll get her out of this before Vickers comes up. What a fool you are,
to be sure! I knew what it would be with women aboard ship.
I wonder Mrs. V. hasn't been out before now. There--steady past the door.
Why, man, one would think you never had your arm round a girl's waist before!
Pooh! don't look so scared--I won't tell. Make haste, now, before
that little parson comes. Parsons are regular old women to chatter";
and thus muttering Pine assisted to carry Mrs. Vickers's maid into her cabin.
"By George, but she's a fine girl!" he said, viewing the inanimate body
with the professional eye of a surgeon. "I don't wonder at you
making a fool of yourself. Chances are, you've caught the fever,
though this breeze will help to blow it out of us, please God.
That old jackass, Blunt, too!--he ought to be ashamed of himself, at his age!"
"What do you mean?" asked Frere hastily, as he heard a step approach.
"What has Blunt to say about her?"
"Oh, I don't know," returned Pine. "He was smitten too,
that's all. Like a good many more, in fact."
"A good many more!" repeated the other, with a pretence of carelessness.
"Yes!" laughed Pine. "Why, man, she was making eyes at every man in the ship!
I caught her kissing a soldier once."
Maurice Frere's cheeks grew hot. The experienced profligate had been taken in,
deceived, perhaps laughed at. All the time he had flattered himself
that he was fascinating the black-eyed maid, the black-eyed maid had been
twisting him round her finger, and perhaps imitating his love-making
for the gratification of her soldier-lover. It was not a pleasant thought;
and yet, strange to say, the idea of Sarah's treachery did not make him
dislike her. There is a sort of love--if love it can be called--which thrives
under ill-treatment. Nevertheless, he cursed with some appearance of disgust.
Vickers met them at the door. "Pine, Blunt has the fever. Mr. Best found him
in his cabin groaning. Come and look at him."
The commander of the Malabar was lying on his bunk in the betwisted condition
into which men who sleep in their clothes contrive to get themselves.
The doctor shook him, bent down over him, and then loosened his collar.
"He's not sick," he said; "he's drunk! Blunt! wake up! Blunt!"
But the mass refused to move.
"Hallo!" says Pine, smelling at the broken tumbler, "what's this?
Smells queer. Rum? No. Eh! Laudanum! By George, he's been hocussed!"
"I see it," slapping his thigh. "It's that infernal woman! She's drugged him,
and meant to do the same for--"(Frere gave him an imploring look)--"for anybody
else who would be fool enough to let her do it. Dawes was right, sir.
She's in it; I'll swear she's in it."
"What! my wife's maid? Nonsense!" said Vickers.
"Nonsense!" echoed Frere.
"It's no nonsense. That soldier who was shot, what's his name?--Miles,
he--but, however, it doesn't matter. It's all over now." "The men will confess
before morning," says Vickers, "and we'll see." And he went off
to his wife's cabin.
His wife opened the door for him. She had been sitting by the child's bedside,
listening to the firing, and waiting for her husband's return without a murmur.
Flirt, fribble, and shrew as she was, Julia Vickers had displayed,
in times of emergency, that glowing courage which women of her nature
at times possess. Though she would yawn over any book above the level
of a genteel love story; attempt to fascinate, with ludicrous assumption
of girlishness, boys young enough to be her sons; shudder at a frog,
and scream at a spider, she could sit throughout a quarter of an hour
of such suspense as she had just undergone with as much courage as if
she had been the strongest-minded woman that ever denied her sex.
"Is it all over?" she asked.
"Yes, thank God!" said Vickers, pausing on the threshold. "All is safe now,
though we had a narrow escape, I believe. How's Sylvia?" The child was lying
on the bed with her fair hair scattered over the pillow, and her tiny hands
moving restlessly to and fro.
"A little better, I think, though she has been talking a good deal."
The red lips parted, and the blue eyes, brighter than ever,
stared vacantly around. The sound of her father's voice seemed to have
roused her, for she began to speak a little prayer: "God bless papa and mamma,
and God bless all on board this ship. God bless me, and make me a good girl,
for Jesus Christ's sake, our Lord. Amen."
The sound of the unconscious child's simple prayer had something awesome in it,
and John Vickers, who, not ten minutes before, would have sealed
his own death warrant unhesitatingly to preserve the safety of the vessel,
felt his eyes fill with unwonted tears. The contrast was curious.
From out the midst of that desolate ocean--in a fever-smitten prison ship,
leagues from land, surrounded by ruffians, thieves, and murderers,
the baby voice of an innocent child called confidently on Heaven.
* * * * * *
Two hours afterwards--as the Malabar, escaped from the peril which had
menaced her, plunged cheerily through the rippling water--the mutineers,
by the spokesman, Mr. James Vetch, confessed.
"They were very sorry, and hoped that their breach of discipline
would be forgiven. It was the fear of the typhus which had driven them to it.
They had no accomplices either in the prison or out of it,
but they felt it but right to say that the man who had planned the mutiny
was Rufus Dawes."
The malignant cripple had guessed from whom the information
which had led to the failure of the plot had been derived,
and this was his characteristic revenge.
A NEWSPAPER PARAGRAPH.
Extracted from the Hobart Town Courier of the 12th November, 1827:--
"The examination of the prisoners who were concerned in the attempt
upon the Malabar was concluded on Tuesday last. The four ringleaders,
Dawes Gabbett, Vetch, and Sanders, were condemned to death;
but we understand that, by the clemency of his Excellency the Governor,
their sentence has been commuted to six years at the penal settlement
of Macquarie Harbour."
END OF BOOK THE FIRST
BOOK II.--MACQUARIE HARBOUR. 1833.
THE TOPOGRAPHY OF VAN DIEMEN'S LAND.
The south-east coast of Van Diemen's Land, from the solitary Mewstone
to the basaltic cliffs of Tasman's Head, from Tasman's Head to Cape Pillar,
and from Cape Pillar to the rugged grandeur of Pirates' Bay, resembles
a biscuit at which rats have been nibbling. Eaten away by the continual action
of the ocean which, pouring round by east and west, has divided the peninsula
from the mainland of the Australasian continent--and done for Van Diemen's Land
what it has done for the Isle of Wight--the shore line is broken and ragged.
Viewed upon the map, the fantastic fragments of island and promontory
which lie scattered between the South-West Cape and the greater Swan Port,
are like the curious forms assumed by melted lead spilt into water.
If the supposition were not too extravagant, one might imagine that
when the Australian continent was fused, a careless giant upset the crucible,
and spilt Van Diemen's land in the ocean. The coast navigation is as dangerous
as that of the Mediterranean. Passing from Cape Bougainville to the east
of Maria Island, and between the numerous rocks and shoals which lie beneath
the triple height of the Three Thumbs, the mariner is suddenly checked
by Tasman's Peninsula, hanging, like a huge double-dropped ear-ring,
from the mainland. Getting round under the Pillar rock through Storm Bay
to Storing Island, we sight the Italy of this miniature Adriatic.
Between Hobart Town and Sorrell, Pittwater and the Derwent, a strangely-shaped
point of land--the Italian boot with its toe bent upwards--projects
into the bay, and, separated from this projection by a narrow channel,
dotted with rocks, the long length of Bruny Island makes, between
its western side and the cliffs of Mount Royal, the dangerous passage
known as D'Entrecasteaux Channel. At the southern entrance
of D'Entrecasteaux Channel, a line of sunken rocks, known by the generic name
of the Actaeon reef, attests that Bruny Head was once joined with the shores
of Recherche Bay; while, from the South Cape to the jaws of Macquarie Harbour,
the white water caused by sunken reefs, or the jagged peaks of single rocks
abruptly rising in mid sea, warn the mariner off shore.
It would seem as though nature, jealous of the beauties of her silver Derwent,
had made the approach to it as dangerous as possible; but once through
the archipelago of D'Entrecasteaux Channel, or the less dangerous
eastern passage of Storm Bay, the voyage up the river is delightful.
From the sentinel solitude of the Iron Pot to the smiling banks of New Norfolk,
the river winds in a succession of reaches, narrowing to a deep channel
cleft between rugged and towering cliffs. A line drawn due north
from the source of the Derwent would strike another river winding out
from the northern part of the island, as the Derwent winds out from the south.
The force of the waves, expended, perhaps, in destroying the isthmus which,
two thousand years ago, probably connected Van Diemen's Land with the continent
has been here less violent. The rounding currents of the Southern Ocean,
meeting at the mouth of the Tamar, have rushed upwards over the isthmus
they have devoured, and pouring against the south coast of Victoria,
have excavated there that inland sea called Port Philip Bay. If the waves
have gnawed the south coast of Van Diemen's Land, they have bitten
a mouthful out of the south coast of Victoria. The Bay is a millpool,
having an area of nine hundred square miles, with a race between the heads
two miles across.
About a hundred and seventy miles to the south of this mill-race
lies Van Diemen's Land, fertile, fair, and rich, rained upon by
the genial showers from the clouds which, attracted by the Frenchman's Cap,
Wyld's Crag, or the lofty peaks of the Wellington and Dromedary range,
pour down upon the sheltered valleys their fertilizing streams.
No parching hot wind--the scavenger, if the torment, of the continent--blows
upon her crops and corn. The cool south breeze ripples gently the blue waters
of the Derwent, and fans the curtains of the open windows of the city
which nestles in the broad shadow of Mount Wellington. The hot wind,
born amid the burning sand of the interior of the vast Australian continent,
sweeps over the scorched and cracking plains, to lick up their streams
and wither the herbage in its path, until it meets the waters of
the great south bay; but in its passage across the straits it is reft
of its fire, and sinks, exhausted with its journey, at the feet of
the terraced slopes of Launceston.
The climate of Van Diemen's Land is one of the loveliest in the world.
Launceston is warm, sheltered, and moist; and Hobart Town,
protected by Bruny Island and its archipelago of D'Entrecasteaux Channel
and Storm Bay from the violence of the southern breakers, preserves
the mean temperature of Smyrna; whilst the district between these two towns
spreads in a succession of beautiful valleys, through which glide
clear and sparkling streams. But on the western coast, from the steeple-rocks
of Cape Grim to the scrub-encircled barrenness of Sandy Cape,
and the frowning entrance to Macquarie Harbour, the nature of the country
entirely changes. Along that iron-bound shore, from Pyramid Island
and the forest-backed solitude of Rocky Point, to the great Ram Head,
and the straggling harbour of Port Davey, all is bleak and cheerless.
Upon that dreary beach the rollers of the southern sea complete their circuit
of the globe, and the storm that has devastated the Cape,
and united in its eastern course with the icy blasts which sweep northward
from the unknown terrors of the southern pole, crashes unchecked
upon the Huon pine forests, and lashes with rain the grim front
of Mount Direction. Furious gales and sudden tempests affright the natives
of the coast. Navigation is dangerous, and the entrance to the "Hell's Gates"
of Macquarie Harbour--at the time of which we are writing (1833),
in the height of its ill-fame as a convict settlement--is only to be attempted
in calm weather. The sea-line is marked with wrecks. The sunken rocks
are dismally named after the vessels they have destroyed. The air is chill
and moist, the soil prolific only in prickly undergrowth and noxious weeds,
while foetid exhalations from swamp and fen cling close to the humid,
spongy ground. All around breathes desolation; on the face of nature
is stamped a perpetual frown. The shipwrecked sailor, crawling painfully
to the summit of basalt cliffs, or the ironed convict, dragging his tree trunk
to the edge of some beetling plateau, looks down upon a sea of fog,
through which rise mountain-tops like islands; or sees through
the biting sleet a desert of scrub and crag rolling to the feet
of Mount Heemskirk and Mount Zeehan--crouched like two sentinel lions
keeping watch over the seaboard.
THE SOLITARY OF "HELL'S GATES".
"Hell's Gates," formed by a rocky point, which runs abruptly northward,
almost touches, on its eastern side, a projecting arm of land which guards
the entrance to King's River. In the middle of the gates is
a natural bolt--that is to say, an island-which, lying on a sandy bar
in the very jaws of the current, creates a double whirlpool, impossible to pass
in the smoothest weather. Once through the gates, the convict,
chained on the deck of the inward-bound vessel, sees in front of him
the bald cone of the Frenchman's Cap, piercing the moist air at a height
of five thousand feet; while, gloomed by overhanging rocks, and shadowed by
gigantic forests, the black sides of the basin narrow to the mouth
of the Gordon. The turbulent stream is the colour of indigo, and,
being fed by numerous rivulets, which ooze through masses of decaying vegetable
matter, is of so poisonous a nature that it is not only undrinkable,
but absolutely kills the fish, which in stormy weather are driven in
from the sea. As may be imagined, the furious tempests which beat upon
this exposed coast create a strong surf-line. After a few days
of north-west wind the waters of the Gordon will be found salt
for twelve miles up from the bar. The head-quarters of the settlement
were placed on an island not far from the mouth of this inhospitable river,
called Sarah Island.
Though now the whole place is desolate, and a few rotting posts and logs
alone remain-mute witnesses of scenes of agony never to be revived--in the year
1833 the buildings were numerous and extensive. On Philip's Island,
on the north side of the harbour, was a small farm, where vegetables were grown
for the use of the officers of the establishment; and, on Sarah Island,
were sawpits, forges, dockyards, gaol, guard-house, barracks, and jetty.
The military force numbered about sixty men, who, with convict-warders
and constables, took charge of more than three hundred and fifty prisoners.
These miserable wretches, deprived of every hope, were employed
in the most degrading labour. No beast of burden was allowed
on the settlement; all the pulling and dragging was done by human beings.
About one hundred "good-conduct" men were allowed the lighter toil
of dragging timber to the wharf, to assist in shipbuilding;
the others cut down the trees that fringed the mainland, and carried them
on their shoulders to the water's edge. The denseness of the scrub
and bush rendered it necessary for a "roadway," perhaps a quarter of a mile
in length, to be first constructed; and the trunks of trees,
stripped of their branches, were rolled together in this roadway,
until a "slide" was made, down which the heavier logs could be shunted
towards the harbour. The timber thus obtained was made into rafts,
and floated to the sheds, or arranged for transportation to Hobart Town.
The convicts were lodged on Sarah Island, in barracks flanked
by a two-storied prison, whose "cells" were the terror of the most hardened.
Each morning they received their breakfast of porridge, water, and salt,
and then rowed, under the protection of their guard,
to the wood-cutting stations, where they worked without food, until night.
The launching and hewing of the timber compelled them to work
up to their waists in water. Many of them were heavily ironed.
Those who died were buried on a little plot of ground, called Halliday's Island
(from the name of the first man buried there), and a plank
stuck into the earth, and carved with the initials of the deceased,
was the only monument vouchsafed him.
Sarah Island, situated at the south-east corner of the harbour,
is long and low. The commandant's house was built in the centre,
having the chaplain's house and barracks between it and the gaol.
The hospital was on the west shore, and in a line with it lay
the two penitentiaries. Lines of lofty palisades ran round the settlement,
giving it the appearance of a fortified town. These palisades were built
for the purpose of warding off the terrific blasts of wind, which,
shrieking through the long and narrow bay as through the keyhole of a door,
had in former times tore off roofs and levelled boat-sheds. The little town
was set, as it were, in defiance of Nature, at the very extreme
of civilization, and its inhabitants maintained perpetual warfare
with the winds and waves.
But the gaol of Sarah Island was not the only prison in this desolate region.