Part 4 out of 11
by adventitious aid--had left him. The musket shot had reduced him
to the ranks. He was now no more than anyone else; indeed, he was less
than many, for those who held the firearms were the ruling powers.
With a groan he resigned himself to his fate, and looking at the sleeve
of the undress uniform he wore, it seemed to him that virtue had gone
out of it. When they reached the brig, they found that the jolly-boat
had been lowered and laid alongside. In her were eleven persons;
Bates with forehead gashed, and hands bound, the stunned Grimes,
Russen and Fair pulling, Lyon, Riley, Cheshire, and Lesly with muskets,
and John Rex in the stern sheets, with Bates's pistols in his trousers' belt,
and a loaded musket across his knees. The white object which had been seen
by the men in the whale-boat was a large white shawl
which wrapped Mrs. Vickers and Sylvia.
Frere muttered an oath of relief when he saw this white bundle.
He had feared that the child was injured. By the direction of Rex
the whale-boat was brought alongside the jolly-boat, and Cheshire and Lesly
boarded her. Lesly then gave his musket to Rex, and bound Frere's hands
behind him, in the same manner as had been done for Bates.
Frere attempted to resist this indignity, but Cheshire, clapping his musket
to his ear, swore he would blow out his brains if he uttered another syllable;
Frere, catching the malignant eye of John Rex, remembered how easily
a twitch of the finger would pay off old scores, and was silent.
"Step in here, sir, if you please," said Rex, with polite irony.
"I am sorry to be compelled to tie you, but I must consult my own safety
as well as your convenience." Frere scowled, and, stepping awkwardly
into the jolly-boat, fell. Pinioned as he was, he could not rise
without assistance, and Russen pulled him roughly to his feet
with a coarse laugh. In his present frame of mind, that laugh galled him
worse than his bonds.
Poor Mrs. Vickers, with a woman's quick instinct, saw this, and,
even amid her own trouble, found leisure to console him. "The wretches!"
she said, under her breath, as Frere was flung down beside her,
"to subject you to such indignity!" Sylvia said nothing,
and seemed to shrink from the lieutenant. Perhaps in her childish fancy
she had pictured him as coming to her rescue, armed cap-a-pie,
and clad in dazzling mail, or, at the very least, as a muscular hero,
who would settle affairs out of hand by sheer personal prowess.
If she had entertained any such notion, the reality must have struck coldly
upon her senses. Mr. Frere, purple, clumsy, and bound, was not at all heroic.
"Now, my lads," says Rex--who seemed to have endured the cast-off authority
of Frere--"we give you your choice. Stay at Hell's Gates, or come with us!"
The soldiers paused, irresolute. To join the mutineers meant
a certainty of hard work, with a chance of ultimate hanging.
Yet to stay with the prisoners was--as far as they could see--
to incur the inevitable fate of starvation on a barren coast.
As is often the case on such occasions, a trifle sufficed to turn the scale.
The wounded Grimes, who was slowly recovering from his stupor,
dimly caught the meaning of the sentence, and in his obfuscated condition
of intellect must needs make comment upon it. "Go with him, ye beggars!;"
said he, "and leave us honest men! Oh, ye'll get a tying-up for this."
The phrase "tying-up" brought with it recollection of the worst portion
of military discipline, the cat, and revived in the minds of the pair
already disposed to break the yoke that sat so heavily upon them,
a train of dismal memories. The life of a soldier on a convict station
was at that time a hard one. He was often stinted in rations,
and of necessity deprived of all rational recreation, while punishment
for offences was prompt and severe. The companies drafted
to the penal settlements were not composed of the best material,
and the pair had good precedent for the course they were about to take.
"Come," says Rex, "I can't wait here all night. The wind is freshening,
and we must make the Bar. Which is it to be?"
"We'll go with you!" says the man who had pulled the stroke in the whale-boat,
spitting into the water with averted face. Upon which utterance
the convicts burst into joyous oaths, and the pair were received
with much hand-shaking.
Then Rex, with Lyon and Riley as a guard, got into the whale boat,
and having loosed the two prisoners from their bonds, ordered them
to take the place of Russen and Fair. The whale-boat was manned
by the seven mutineers, Rex steering, Fair, Russen, and the two recruits
pulling, and the other four standing up, with their muskets levelled
at the jolly-boat. Their long slavery had begotten such a dread of authority
in these men that they feared it even when it was bound and menaced
by four muskets. "Keep your distance!" shouted Cheshire,
as Frere and Bates, in obedience to orders, began to pull the jolly-boat
towards the shore; and in this fashion was the dismal little party
conveyed to the mainland.
It was night when they reached it, but the clear sky began to thrill
with a late moon as yet unrisen, and the waves, breaking gently upon the beach,
glimmered with a radiance born of their own motion. Frere and Bates,
jumping ashore, helped out Mrs. Vickers, Sylvia, and the wounded Grimes.
This being done under the muzzles of the muskets, Rex commanded
that Bates and Frere should push the jolly-boat as far as they could
from the shore, and Riley catching her by a boat-hook as she came towards them,
she was taken in tow.
"Now, boys," says Cheshire, with a savage delight, "three cheers
for old England and Liberty!"
Upon which a great shout went up, echoed by the grim hills
which had witnessed so many miseries.
To the wretched five, this exultant mirth sounded like a knell of death.
"Great God!" cried Bates, running up to his knees in water
after the departing boats, "would you leave us here to starve?"
The only answer was the jerk and dip of the retreating oars.
LEFT AT "HELL'S GATES."
There is no need to dwell upon the mental agonies of that miserable night.
Perhaps, of all the five, the one least qualified to endure it
realized the prospect of suffering most acutely. Mrs. Vickers--
lay-figure and noodle as she was--had the keen instinct of approaching danger,
which is in her sex a sixth sense. She was a woman and a mother,
and owned a double capacity for suffering. Her feminine imagination
pictured all the horrors of death by famine, and having realized
her own torments, her maternal love forced her to live them over again
in the person of her child. Rejecting Bates's offer of a pea-jacket
and Frere's vague tenders of assistance, the poor woman withdrew
behind a rock that faced the sea, and, with her daughter in her arms,
resigned herself to her torturing thoughts. Sylvia, recovered from her terror,
was almost content, and, curled in her mother's shawl, slept.
To her little soul this midnight mystery of boats and muskets
had all the flavour of a romance. With Bates, Frere, and her mother
so close to her, it was impossible to be afraid; besides, it was obvious
that papa--the Supreme Being of the settlement--must at once return
and severely punish the impertinent prisoners who had dared to insult
his wife and child, and as Sylvia dropped off to sleep, she caught herself,
with some indignation, pitying the mutineers for the tremendous scrape
they had got themselves into. How they would be flogged when papa came back!
In the meantime this sleeping in the open air was novel and rather pleasant.
Honest Bates produced a piece of biscuit, and, with all the generosity
of his nature, suggested that this should be set aside for the sole use
of the two females, but Mrs. Vickers would not hear of it.
"We must all share alike," said she, with something of the spirit
that she knew her husband would have displayed under like circumstance;
and Frere wondered at her apparent strength of mind. Had he been gifted
with more acuteness, he would not have wondered; for when a crisis comes
to one of two persons who have lived much together, the influence
of the nobler spirit makes itself felt. Frere had a tinder-box in his pocket,
and he made a fire with some dry leaves and sticks. Grimes fell asleep,
and the two men sitting at their fire discussed the chances of escape.
Neither liked to openly broach the supposition that they had been
finally deserted. It was concluded between them that unless the brig sailed
in the night--and the now risen moon showed her yet lying at anchor--
the convicts would return and bring them food. This supposition
proved correct, for about an hour after daylight they saw the whale-boat
pulling towards them.
A discussion had arisen amongst the mutineers as to the propriety
of at once making sail, but Barker, who had been one of the pilot-boat crew,
and knew the dangers of the Bar, vowed that he would not undertake
to steer the brig through the Gates until morning; and so the boats
being secured astern, a strict watch was set, lest the helpless Bates
should attempt to rescue the vessel. During the evening--the excitement
attendant upon the outbreak having passed away, and the magnitude
of the task before them being more fully apparent to their minds--a feeling
of pity for the unfortunate party on the mainland took possession of them.
It was quite possible that the Osprey might be recaptured,
in which case five useless murders would have been committed;
and however callous in bloodshed were the majority of the ten,
not one among them could contemplate in cold blood, without a twinge
of remorse, the death of the harmless child of the Commandant.
John Rex, seeing how matters were going, made haste to take to himself
the credit of mercy. He ruled, and had always ruled, his ruffians
not so much by suggesting to them the course they should take,
as by leading them on the way they had already chosen for themselves.
"I propose," said he, "that we divide the provisions. There are five of them
and twelve of us. Then nobody can blame us."
"Ay," said Porter, mindful of a similar exploit, "and if we're taken,
they can tell what we have done. Don't let our affair be like that
of the Cypress, to leave them to starve." "Ay, ay," says Barker,
"you're right! When Fergusson was topped at Hobart Town, I heard old Troke
say that if he'd not refused to set the tucker ashore,
he might ha' got off with a whole skin."
Thus urged, by self-interest, as well as sentiment, to mercy,
the provision was got upon deck by daylight, and a division was made.
The soldiers, with generosity born of remorse, were for giving half
to the marooned men, but Barker exclaimed against this. "When the schooner
finds they don't get to headquarters, she's bound to come back
and look for 'em," said he; "and we'll want all the tucker we can get,
maybe, afore we sights land."
This reasoning was admitted and acted upon. There was in the harness-cask
about fifty pounds of salt meat, and a third of this quantity,
together with half a small sack of flour, some tea and sugar mixed together
in a bag, and an iron kettle and pannikin, was placed in the whale-boat.
Rex, fearful of excesses among his crew, had also lowered down
one of the two small puncheons of rum which the store-room contained.
Cheshire disputed this, and stumbling over a goat that had been taken on board
from Philip's Island, caught the creature by the leg, and threw it
into the sea, bidding Rex take that with him also. Rex dragged the poor beast
into the boat, and with this miscellaneous cargo pushed off to the shore.
The poor goat, shivering, began to bleat piteously, and the men laughed.
To a stranger it would have appeared that the boat contained a happy party
of fishermen, or coast settlers, returning with the proceeds
of a day's marketing.
Laying off as the water shallowed, Rex called to Bates to come for the cargo,
and three men with muskets standing up as before, ready to resist
any attempt at capture, the provisions, goat and all, were carried ashore.
"There!" says Rex, "you can't say we've used you badly, for we've divided
the provisions." The sight of this almost unexpected succour
revived the courage of the five, and they felt grateful.
After the horrible anxiety they had endured all that night, they were prepared
to look with kindly eyes upon the men who had come to their assistance.
"Men," said Bates, with something like a sob in his voice,
"I didn't expect this. You are good fellows, for there ain't much
tucker aboard, I know."
"Yes," affirmed Frere, "you're good fellows."
Rex burst into a savage laugh. "Shut your mouth, you tyrant," said he,
forgetting his dandyism in the recollection of his former suffering.
"It ain't for your benefit. You may thank the lady and the child for it."
Julia Vickers hastened to propitiate the arbiter of her daughter's fate.
"We are obliged to you," she said, with a touch of quiet dignity
resembling her husband's; "and if I ever get back safely, I will take care
that your kindness shall be known."
The swindler and forger took off his leather cap with quite an air.
It was five years since a lady had spoken to him, and the old time
when he was Mr. Lionel Crofton, a "gentleman sportsman", came back again
for an instant. At that moment, with liberty in his hand, and fortune
all before him, he felt his self-respect return, and he looked the lady
in the face without flinching.
"I sincerely trust, madam," said he, "that you will get back safely.
May I hope for your good wishes for myself and my companions?"
Listening, Bates burst into a roar of astonished enthusiasm.
"What a dog it is!" he cried. "John Rex, John Rex, you were never made
to be a convict, man!"
Rex smiled. "Good-bye, Mr. Bates, and God preserve you!"
"Good-bye," says Bates, rubbing his hat off his face, "and I--I--damme,
I hope you'll get safe off--there! for liberty's sweet to every man."
"Good-bye, prisoners!" says Sylvia, waving her handkerchief;
"and I hope they won't catch you, too."
So, with cheers and waving of handkerchiefs, the boat departed.
In the emotion which the apparently disinterested conduct of John Rex
had occasioned the exiles, all earnest thought of their own position
had vanished, and, strange to say, the prevailing feeling was that of anxiety
for the ultimate fate of the mutineers. But as the boat grew smaller
and smaller in the distance, so did their consciousness of their own situation
grow more and more distinct; and when at last the boat had disappeared
in the shadow of the brig, all started, as if from a dream,
to the wakeful contemplation of their own case.
A council of war was held, with Mr. Frere at the head of it,
and the possessions of the little party were thrown into common stock.
The salt meat, flour, and tea were placed in a hollow rock at some distance
from the beach, and Mr. Bates was appointed purser, to apportion to each,
without fear or favour, his stated allowance. The goat was tethered
with a piece of fishing line sufficiently long to allow her to browse.
The cask of rum, by special agreement, was placed in the innermost recess
of the rock, and it was resolved that its contents should not be touched
except in case of sickness, or in last extremity. There was no lack of water,
for a spring ran bubbling from the rocks within a hundred yards of the spot
where the party had landed. They calculated that, with prudence,
their provisions would last them for nearly four weeks.
It was found, upon a review of their possessions, that they had among them
three pocket knives, a ball of string, two pipes, matches and a fig of tobacco,
fishing lines with hooks, and a big jack-knife which Frere had taken
to gut the fish he had expected to catch. But they saw with dismay
that there was nothing which could be used axe-wise among the party.
Mrs. Vickers had her shawl, and Bates a pea-jacket, but Frere and Grimes
were without extra clothing. It was agreed that each should retain
his own property, with the exception of the fishing lines,
which were confiscated to the commonwealth.
Having made these arrangements, the kettle, filled with water from the spring,
was slung from three green sticks over the fire, and a pannikin of weak tea,
together with a biscuit, served out to each of the party, save Grimes,
who declared himself unable to eat. Breakfast over, Bates made a damper,
which was cooked in the ashes, and then another council was held
as to future habitation.
It was clearly evident that they could not sleep in the open air.
It was the middle of summer, and though no annoyance from rain was apprehended,
the heat in the middle of the day was most oppressive. Moreover,
it was absolutely necessary that Mrs. Vickers and the child should have
some place to themselves. At a little distance from the beach
was a sandy rise, that led up to the face of the cliff, and on the eastern side
of this rise grew a forest of young trees. Frere proposed to cut down
these trees, and make a sort of hut with them. It was soon discovered,
however, that the pocket knives were insufficient for this purpose,
but by dint of notching the young saplings and then breaking them down,
they succeeded, in a couple of hours, in collecting wood enough
to roof over a space between the hollow rock which contained the provisions
and another rock, in shape like a hammer, which jutted out
within five yards of it. Mrs. Vickers and Sylvia were to have this hut
as a sleeping-place, and Frere and Bates, lying at the mouth of the larder,
would at once act as a guard to it and them. Grimes was to make for himself
another hut where the fire had been lighted on the previous night.
When they got back to dinner, inspirited by this resolution,
they found poor Mrs. Vickers in great alarm. Grimes, who,
by reason of the dint in his skull, had been left behind, was walking about
the sea-beach, talking mysteriously, and shaking his fist at an imaginary foe.
On going up to him, they discovered that the blow had affected his brain,
for he was delirious. Frere endeavoured to soothe him, without effect;
and at last, by Bates's advice, the poor fellow was rolled in the sea.
The cold bath quelled his violence, and, being laid beneath the shade
of a rock hard by, he fell into a condition of great muscular exhaustion,
The damper was then portioned out by Bates, and, together with a small piece
of meat, it formed the dinner of the party. Mrs. Vickers reported
that she had observed a great commotion on board the brig,
and thought that the prisoners must be throwing overboard such portions
of the cargo as were not absolutely necessary to them, in order to lighten her.
This notion Bates declared to be correct, and further pointed out
that the mutineers had got out a kedge-anchor, and by hauling on
the kedge-line, were gradually warping the brig down the harbour.
Before dinner was over a light breeze sprang up, and the Osprey,
running up the union-jack reversed, fired a musket, either in farewell
or triumph, and, spreading her sails, disappeared round the western horn
of the harbour.
Mrs. Vickers, taking Sylvia with her, went away a few paces,
and leaning against the rugged wall of her future home, wept bitterly.
Bates and Frere affected cheerfulness, but each felt that he had hitherto
regarded the presence of the brig as a sort of safeguard, and had never
fully realized his own loneliness until now.
The necessity for work, however, admitted of no indulgence of vain sorrow,
and Bates setting the example, the pair worked so hard that by nightfall
they had torn down and dragged together sufficient brushwood to complete
Mrs. Vickers's hut. During the progress of this work they were
often interrupted by Grimes, who persisted in vague rushes at them,
exclaiming loudly against their supposed treachery in leaving him
at the mercy of the mutineers. Bates also complained of the pain
caused by the wound in his forehead, and that he was afflicted with a giddiness
which he knew not how to avert. By dint of frequently bathing his head
at the spring, however, he succeeded in keeping on his legs, until the work
of dragging together the boughs was completed, when he threw himself
on the ground, and declared that he could rise no more.
Frere applied to him the remedy that had been so successfully tried
upon Grimes, but the salt water inflamed his wound and rendered
his condition worse. Mrs. Vickers recommended that a little spirit and water
should be used to wash the cut, and the cask was got out and broached
for that purpose. Tea and damper formed their evening meal;
and by the light of a blazing fire, their condition looked less desperate.
Mrs. Vickers had set the pannikin on a flat stone, and dispensed the tea
with an affectation of dignity which would have been absurd
had it not been heart-rending. She had smoothed her hair and
pinned the white shawl about her coquettishly; she even ventured to lament
to Mr. Frere that she had not brought more clothes. Sylvia was
in high spirits, and scorned to confess hunger. When the tea had been drunk,
she fetched water from the spring in the kettle, and bathed
Bates's head with it. It was resolved that, on the morrow,
a search should be made for some place from which to cast the fishing line,
and that one of the number should fish daily.
The condition of the unfortunate Grimes now gave cause for the greatest
uneasiness. From maundering foolishly he had taken to absolute violence,
and had to be watched by Frere. After much muttering and groaning,
the poor fellow at last dropped off to sleep, and Frere, having assisted Bates
to his sleeping-place in front of the rock, and laid him down on a heap
of green brushwood, prepared to snatch a few hours' slumber.
Wearied by excitement and the labours of the day, he slept heavily, but,
towards morning, was awakened by a strange noise.
Grimes, whose delirium had apparently increased, had succeeded
in forcing his way through the rude fence of brushwood, and had thrown himself
upon Bates with the ferocity of insanity. Growling to himself,
he had seized the unfortunate pilot by the throat, and the pair
were struggling together. Bates, weakened by the sickness that had followed
upon his wound in the head, was quite unable to cope with his
desperate assailant, but calling feebly upon Frere for help,
had made shift to lay hold upon the jack-knife of which we have before spoken.
Frere, starting to his feet, rushed to the assistance of the pilot,
but was too late. Grimes, enraged by the sight of the knife,
tore it from Bates's grasp, and before Frere could catch his arm,
plunged it twice into the unfortunate man's breast.
"I'm a dead man!" cried Bates faintly.
The sight of the blood, together with the exclamation of his victim,
recalled Grimes to consciousness. He looked in bewilderment
at the bloody weapon, and then, flinging it from him, rushed away
towards the sea, into which he plunged headlong.
Frere, aghast at this sudden and terrible tragedy, gazed after him,
and saw from out the placid water, sparkling in the bright beams of morning,
a pair of arms, with outstretched hands, emerge; a black spot,
that was a head, uprose between these stiffening arms, and then,
with a horrible cry, the whole disappeared, and the bright water sparkled
as placidly as before. The eyes of the terrified Frere,
travelling back to the wounded man, saw, midway between this sparkling water
and the knife that lay on the sand, an object that went far to explain
the maniac's sudden burst of fury. The rum cask lay upon its side
by the remnants of last night's fire, and close to it was a clout,
with which the head of the wounded man had been bound. It was evident
that the poor creature, wandering in his delirium, had come across
the rum cask, drunk a quantity of its contents, and been maddened
by the fiery spirit.
Frere hurried to the side of Bates, and lifting him up, strove to staunch
the blood that flowed from his chest. It would seem that he had been
resting himself on his left elbow, and that Grimes, snatching the knife
from his right hand, had stabbed him twice in the right breast.
He was pale and senseless, and Frere feared that the wound was mortal.
Tearing off his neck-handkerchief, he endeavoured to bandage the wound,
but found that the strip of silk was insufficient for the purpose.
The noise had roused Mrs. Vickers, who, stifling her terror,
made haste to tear off a portion of her dress, and with this a bandage
of sufficient width was made. Frere went to the cask to see if, haply,
he could obtain from it a little spirit with which to moisten the lips
of the dying man, but it was empty. Grimes, after drinking his fill,
had overturned the unheaded puncheon, and the greedy sand had absorbed
every drop of liquor. Sylvia brought some water from the spring,
and Mrs. Vickers bathing Bates's head with this, he revived a little.
By-and-by Mrs. Vickers milked the goat--she had never done such a thing before
in all her life--and the milk being given to Bates in a pannikin,
he drank it eagerly, but vomited it almost instantly.
It was evident that he was sinking from some internal injury.
None of the party had much appetite for breakfast, but Frere,
whose sensibilities were less acute than those of the others,
ate a piece of salt meat and damper. It struck him, with a curious feeling
of pleasant selfishness, that now Grimes had gone, the allowance
of provisions would be increased, and that if Bates went also,
it would be increased still further. He did not give utterance
to his thoughts, however, but sat with the wounded man's head on his knees,
and brushed the settling flies from his face. He hoped, after all,
that the pilot would not die, for he should then be left alone
to look after the women. Perhaps some such thought was agitating
Mrs. Vickers also. As for Sylvia, she made no secret of her anxiety.
"Don't die, Mr. Bates--oh, don't die!" she said, standing piteously near,
but afraid to touch him. "Don't leave mamma and me alone
in this dreadful place!"
Poor Bates, of course, said nothing, but Frere frowned heavily,
and Mrs. Vickers said reprovingly, "Sylvia!" just as if they had been
in the old house on distant Sarah Island.
In the afternoon Frere went away to drag together some wood for the fire,
and when he returned he found the pilot near his end. Mrs. Vickers said
that for an hour he had lain without motion, and almost without breath.
The major's wife had seen more than one death-bed, and was calm enough;
but poor little Sylvia, sitting on a stone hard by, shook with terror.
She had a dim notion that death must be accompanied by violence.
As the sun sank, Bates rallied; but the two watchers knew that
it was but the final flicker of the expiring candle. "He's going!"
said Frere at length, under his breath, as though fearful of awaking
his half-slumbering soul. Mrs. Vickers, her eyes streaming with silent tears,
lifted the honest head, and moistened the parched lips
with her soaked handkerchief. A tremor shook the once stalwart limbs,
and the dying man opened his eyes. For an instant he seemed bewildered,
and then, looking from one to the other, intelligence returned to his glance,
and it was evident that he remembered all. His gaze rested upon the pale face
of the affrighted Sylvia, and then turned to Frere. There could be
no mistaking the mute appeal of those eloquent eyes.
"Yes, I'll take care of her," said Frere.
Bates smiled, and then, observing that the blood from his wound had stained
the white shawl of Mrs. Vickers, he made an effort to move his head.
It was not fitting that a lady's shawl should be stained with the blood
of a poor fellow like himself. The fashionable fribble, with quick instinct,
understood the gesture, and gently drew the head back upon her bosom.
In the presence of death the woman was womanly. For a moment all was silent,
and they thought he had gone; but all at once he opened his eyes
and looked round for the sea
"Turn my face to it once more," he whispered; and as they raised him,
he inclined his ear to listen. "It's calm enough here, God bless it,"
he said; "but I can hear the waves a-breaking hard upon the Bar!"
And so his head dropped, and he died.
As Frere relieved Mrs. Vickers from the weight of the corpse,
Sylvia ran to her mother. "Oh, mamma, mamma," she cried, "why did God
let him die when we wanted him so much?"
Before it grew dark, Frere made shift to carry the body to the shelter
of some rocks at a little distance, and spreading the jacket over the face,
he piled stones upon it to keep it steady. The march of events had been
so rapid that he scarcely realized that since the previous evening
two of the five human creatures left in this wilderness had escaped from it.
As he did realize it, he began to wonder whose turn it would be next.
Mrs. Vickers, worn out by the fatigue and excitement of the day,
retired to rest early; and Sylvia, refusing to speak to Frere,
followed her mother. This manifestation of unaccountable dislike
on the part of the child hurt Maurice more than he cared to own.
He felt angry with her for not loving him, and yet he took no pains
to conciliate her. It was with a curious pleasure that he remembered
how she must soon look up to him as her chief protector. Had Sylvia been
just a few years older, the young man would have thought himself
in love with her.
The following day passed gloomily. It was hot and sultry, and a dull haze
hung over the mountains. Frere spent the morning in scooping a grave
in the sand, in which to inter poor Bates. Practically awake
to his own necessities, he removed such portions of clothing from the body
as would be useful to him, but hid them under a stone, not liking
to let Mrs. Vickers see what he had done. Having completed the grave
by midday, he placed the corpse therein, and rolled as many stones as possible
to the sides of the mound. In the afternoon he cast the fishing line
from the point of a rock he had marked the day before, but caught nothing.
Passing by the grave, on his return, he noticed that Mrs. Vickers
had placed at the head of it a rude cross, formed by tying
two pieces of stick together.
After supper--the usual salt meat and damper--he lit an economical pipe, and
tried to talk to Sylvia. "Why won't you be friends with me, missy?" he asked.
"I don't like you," said Sylvia. "You frighten me."
"You are not kind. I don't mean that you do cruel things; but you are--oh,
I wish papa was here!" "Wishing won't bring him!" says Frere,
pressing his hoarded tobacco together with prudent forefinger.
"There! That's what I mean! Is that kind? 'Wishing won't bring him!'
Oh, if it only would!"
"I didn't mean it unkindly," says Frere. "What a strange child you are."
"There are persons," says Sylvia, "who have no Affinity for each other.
I read about it in a book papa had, and I suppose that's what it is.
I have no Affinity for you. I can't help it, can I?"
"Rubbish!" Frere returned. "Come here, and I'll tell you a story."
Mrs. Vickers had gone back to her cave, and the two were alone by the fire,
near which stood the kettle and the newly-made damper. The child,
with some show of hesitation, came to him, and he caught and placed her
on his knee. The moon had not yet risen, and the shadows cast
by the flickering fire seemed weird and monstrous. The wicked wish
to frighten this helpless creature came to Maurice Frere.
"There was once," said he, "a Castle in an old wood, and in this Castle
there lived an Ogre, with great goggle eyes."
"You silly man!" said Sylvia, struggling to be free. "You are trying
to frighten me!"
"And this Ogre lived on the bones of little girls. One day a little girl was
travelling the wood, and she heard the Ogre coming. 'Haw! haw! Haw! haw!'"
"Mr. Frere, let me down!"
"She was terribly frightened, and she ran, and ran, and ran, until
all of a sudden she saw--"
A piercing scream burst from his companion. "Oh! oh! What's that?"
she cried, and clung to her persecutor.
Beyond the fire stood the figure of a man. He staggered forward,
and then, falling on his knees, stretched out his hands,
and hoarsely articulated one word--"Food." It was Rufus Dawes.
The sound of a human voice broke the spell of terror that was on the child,
and as the glow from the fire fell upon the tattered yellow garments,
she guessed at once the whole story. Not so Maurice Frere.
He saw before him a new danger, a new mouth to share the scanty provision,
and snatching a brand from the fire he kept the convict at bay.
But Rufus Dawes, glaring round with wolfish eyes, caught sight of the damper
resting against the iron kettle, and made a clutch at it. Frere dashed
the brand in his face. "Stand back!" he cried. "We have no food to spare!"
The convict uttered a savage cry, and raising the iron gad,
plunged forward desperately to attack this new enemy; but, quick as thought,
the child glided past Frere, and, snatching the loaf, placed it in the hands
of the starving man, with "Here, poor prisoner, eat!" and then,
turning to Frere, she cast upon him a glance so full of horror,
indignation, and surprise, that the man blushed and threw down the brand.
As for Rufus Dawes, the sudden apparition of this golden-haired girl
seemed to have transformed him. Allowing the loaf to slip through his fingers,
he gazed with haggard eyes at the retreating figure of the child,
and as it vanished into the darkness outside the circle of firelight,
the unhappy man sank his face upon his blackened, horny hands,
and burst into tears.
The coarse tones of Maurice Frere roused him. "What do you want?" he asked.
Rufus Dawes, raising his head, contemplated the figure before him,
and recognized it. "Is it you?" he said slowly.
"What do you mean? Do you know me?" asked Frere, drawing back.
But the convict did not reply. His momentary emotion passed away,
the pangs of hunger returned, and greedily seizing upon the piece of damper,
he began to eat in silence.
"Do you hear, man?" repeated Frere, at length. "What are you?"
"An escaped prisoner. You can give me up in the morning. I've done my best,
and I'm beat."
The sentence struck Frere with dismay. The man did not know
that the settlement had been abandoned!
"I cannot give you up. There is no one but myself and a woman and child
on the settlement." Rufus Dawes, pausing in his eating, stared at him
in amazement. "The prisoners have gone away in the schooner.
If you choose to remain free, you can do so as far as I am concerned.
I am as helpless as you are."
"But how do you come here?"
Frere laughed bitterly. To give explanations to convicts was foreign
to his experience, and he did not relish the task. In this case, however,
there was no help for it. "The prisoners mutinied and seized the brig."
A terrible light broke upon Rufus Dawes, and he began to understand
how he had again missed his chance. "Who took her?"
"That double-dyed villain, John Rex," says Frere, giving vent to his passion.
"May she sink, and burn, and--"
"Have they gone, then?" cried the miserable man, clutching at his hair
with a gesture of hopeless rage.
"Yes; two days ago, and left us here to starve." Rufus Dawes
burst into a laugh so discordant that it made the other shudder.
"We'll starve together, Maurice Frere," said he, "for while you've a crust,
I'll share it. If I don't get liberty, at least I'll have revenge!"
The sinister aspect of this famished savage, sitting with his chin
on his ragged knees, rocking himself to and fro in the light of the fire,
gave Mr. Maurice Frere a new sensation. He felt as might have felt
that African hunter who, returning to his camp fire, found a lion there.
"Wretch!" said he, shrinking from him, "why should you wish
to be revenged on me?"
The convict turned upon him with a snarl. "Take care what you say!
I'll have no hard words. Wretch! If I am a wretch, who made me one?
If I hate you and myself and the world, who made me hate it?
I was born free--as free as you are. Why should I be sent to herd with beasts,
and condemned to this slavery, worse than death? Tell me that,
Maurice Frere--tell me that!" "I didn't make the laws," says Frere,
"why do you attack me?"
"Because you are what I was. You are FREE! You can do as you please.
You can love, you can work, you can think. I can only hate!"
He paused as if astonished at himself, and then continued, with a low laugh.
"Fine words for a convict, eh! But, never mind, it's all right, Mr. Frere;
we're equal now, and I sha'n't die an hour sooner than you,
though you are a 'free man'!"
Frere began to think that he was dealing with another madman.
"Die! There's no need to talk of dying," he said, as soothingly
as it was possible for him to say it. "Time enough for that by-and-by."
"There spoke the free man. We convicts have an advantage over you gentlemen.
You are afraid of death; we pray for it. It is the best thing
that can happen to us. Die! They were going to hang me once.
I wish they had. My God, I wish they had!"
There was such a depth of agony in this terrible utterance that Maurice Frere
was appalled at it. "There, go and sleep, my man," he said.
"You are knocked up. We'll talk in the morning."
"Hold on a bit!" cried Rufus Dawes, with a coarseness of manner
altogether foreign to that he had just assumed. "Who's with ye?"
"The wife and daughter of the Commandant," replied Frere, half afraid
to refuse an answer to a question so fiercely put.
"No one else?"
"No." "Poor souls!" said the convict, "I pity them." And then
he stretched himself, like a dog, before the blaze, and went to sleep
instantly. Maurice Frere, looking at the gaunt figure of this addition
to the party, was completely puzzled how to act. Such a character
had never before come within the range of his experience. He knew not
what to make of this fierce, ragged, desperate man, who wept and threatened
by turns--who was now snarling in the most repulsive bass of the convict gamut,
and now calling upon Heaven in tones which were little less than eloquent.
At first he thought of precipitating himself upon the sleeping wretch
and pinioning him, but a second glance at the sinewy, though wasted, limbs
forbade him to follow out the rash suggestion of his own fears.
Then a horrible prompting--arising out of his former cowardice--
made him feel for the jack-knife with which one murder had already
been committed. Their stock of provisions was so scanty, and after all,
the lives of the woman and child were worth more than that of this
unknown desperado! But, to do him justice, the thought no sooner shaped itself
than he crushed it out. "We'll wait till morning, and see how he shapes,"
said Frere to himself; and pausing at the brushwood barricade,
behind which the mother and daughter were clinging to each other,
he whispered that he was on guard outside, and that the absconder slept.
But when morning dawned, he found that there was no need for alarm.
The convict was lying in almost the same position as that
in which he had left him, and his eyes were closed. His threatening outbreak
of the previous night had been produced by the excitement of his sudden rescue,
and he was now incapable of violence. Frere advanced,
and shook him by the shoulder.
"Not alive!" cried the poor wretch, waking with a start,
and raising his arm to strike. "Keep off!"
"It's all right," said Frere. "No one is going to harm you. Wake up."
Rufus Dawes glanced around him stupidly, and then remembering
what had happened, with a great effort, he staggered to his feet.
"I thought they'd got me!" he said, "but it's the other way, I see.
Come, let's have breakfast, Mr. Frere. I'm hungry."
"You must wait," said Frere. "Do you think there is no one here but yourself?"
Rufus Dawes, swaying to and fro from weakness, passed his shred of a cuff
over his eyes. "I don't know anything about it. I only know I'm hungry."
Frere stopped short. Now or never was the time to settle future relations.
Lying awake in the night, with the jack-knife ready to his hand,
he had decided on the course of action that must be adopted.
The convict should share with the rest, but no more. If he rebelled at that,
there must be a trial of strength between them. "Look you here," he said.
"We have but barely enough food to serve us until help comes--if it does come.
I have the care of that poor woman and child, and I will see fair play
for their sakes. You shall share with us to our last bit and drop,
but, by Heaven, you shall get no more."
The convict, stretching out his wasted arms, looked down upon them
with the uncertain gaze of a drunken man. "I am weak now," he said.
"You have the best of me"; and then he sank suddenly down upon the ground,
exhausted. "Give me a drink," he moaned, feebly motioning with his hand.
Frere got him water in the pannikin, and having drunk it, he smiled
and lay down to sleep again. Mrs. Vickers and Sylvia, coming out
while he still slept, recognized him as the desperado of the settlement.
"He was the most desperate man we had," said Mrs. Vickers, identifying herself
with her husband. "Oh, what shall we do?"
"He won't do much harm," returned Frere, looking down at the notorious ruffian
with curiosity. "He's as near dead as can be."
Sylvia looked up at him with her clear child's glance. "We mustn't
let him die," said she. "That would be murder." "No, no," returned Frere,
hastily, "no one wants him to die. But what can we do?"
"I'll nurse him!" cried Sylvia.
Frere broke into one of his coarse laughs, the first one that he had
indulged in since the mutiny. "You nurse him! By George, that's a good one!"
The poor little child, weak and excitable, felt the contempt in the tone,
and burst into a passion of sobs. "Why do you insult me, you wicked man?
The poor fellow's ill, and he'll--he'll die, like Mr. Bates.
Oh, mamma, mamma, Let's go away by ourselves."
Frere swore a great oath, and walked away. He went into the little wood
under the cliff, and sat down. He was full of strange thoughts,
which he could not express, and which he had never owned before.
The dislike the child bore to him made him miserable, and yet he took delight
in tormenting her. He was conscious that he had acted the part
of a coward the night before in endeavouring to frighten her,
and that the detestation she bore him was well earned; but he had
fully determined to stake his life in her defence, should the savage
who had thus come upon them out of the desert attempt violence,
and he was unreasonably angry at the pity she had shown. It was not fair
to be thus misinterpreted. But he had done wrong to swear,
and more so in quitting them so abruptly. The consciousness
of his wrong-doing, however, only made him more confirmed in it.
His native obstinacy would not allow him to retract what he had said--
even to himself. Walking along, he came to Bates's grave,
and the cross upon it. Here was another evidence of ill-treatment.
She had always preferred Bates. Now that Bates was gone, she must needs
transfer her childish affections to a convict. "Oh," said Frere to himself,
with pleasant recollections of many coarse triumphs in love-making,
"if you were a woman, you little vixen, I'd make you love me!"
When he had said this, he laughed at himself for his folly--he was
turning romantic! When he got back, he found Dawes stretched upon
the brushwood, with Sylvia sitting near him.
"He is better," said Mrs. Vickers, disdaining to refer to the scene
of the morning. "Sit down and have something to eat, Mr. Frere."
"Are you better?" asked Frere, abruptly.
To his surprise, the convict answered quite civilly, "I shall be strong again
in a day or two, and then I can help you, sir."
"Help me? How?" "To build a hut here for the ladies. And we'll live here
all our lives, and never go back to the sheds any more."
"He has been wandering a little," said Mrs. Vickers. "Poor fellow,
he seems quite well behaved."
The convict began to sing a little German song, and to beat the refrain
with his hand. Frere looked at him with curiosity. "I wonder what the story
of that man's life has been," he said. "A queer one, I'll be bound."
Sylvia looked up at him with a forgiving smile. "I'll ask him
when he gets well," she said, "and if you are good, I'll tell you,
Frere accepted the proffered friendship. "I am a great brute, Sylvia,
sometimes, ain't I?" he said, "but I don't mean it."
"You are," returned Sylvia, frankly, "but let's shake hands, and be friends.
It's no use quarrelling when there are only four of us, is it?"
And in this way was Rufus Dawes admitted a member of the family circle.
Within a week from the night on which he had seen the smoke of Frere's fire,
the convict had recovered his strength, and had become an important personage.
The distrust with which he had been at first viewed had worn off,
and he was no longer an outcast, to be shunned and pointed at,
or to be referred to in whispers. He had abandoned his rough manner,
and no longer threatened or complained, and though at times
a profound melancholy would oppress him, his spirits were more even than those
of Frere, who was often moody, sullen, and overbearing. Rufus Dawes
was no longer the brutalized wretch who had plunged into the dark waters
of the bay to escape a life he loathed, and had alternately cursed and wept
in the solitudes of the forests. He was an active member of society--
a society of four--and he began to regain an air of independence and authority.
This change had been wrought by the influence of little Sylvia.
Recovered from the weakness consequent upon this terrible journey,
Rufus Dawes had experienced for the first time in six years the soothing power
of kindness. He had now an object to live for beyond himself.
He was of use to somebody, and had he died, he would have been regretted.
To us this means little; to this unhappy man it meant everything.
He found, to his astonishment, that he was not despised, and that,
by the strange concurrence of circumstances, he had been brought into
a position in which his convict experiences gave him authority.
He was skilled in all the mysteries of the prison sheds. He knew how
to sustain life on as little food as possible. He could fell trees
without an axe, bake bread without an oven, build a weatherproof hut
without bricks or mortar. From the patient he became the adviser;
and from the adviser, the commander. In the semi-savage state
to which these four human beings had been brought, he found that
savage accomplishments were of most value. Might was Right,
and Maurice Frere's authority of gentility soon succumbed
to Rufus Dawes's authority of knowledge.
As the time wore on, and the scanty stock of provisions decreased,
he found that his authority grew more and more powerful. Did a question arise
as to the qualities of a strange plant, it was Rufus Dawes who could pronounce
upon it. Were fish to be caught, it was Rufus Dawes who caught them.
Did Mrs. Vickers complain of the instability of her brushwood hut,
it was Rufus Dawes who worked a wicker shield, and plastering it with clay,
produced a wall that defied the keenest wind. He made cups out of pine-knots,
and plates out of bark-strips. He worked harder than any three men.
Nothing daunted him, nothing discouraged him. When Mrs. Vickers fell sick,
from anxiety and insufficient food, it was Rufus Dawes who gathered
fresh leaves for her couch, who cheered her by hopeful words,
who voluntarily gave up half his own allowance of meat that she might
grow stronger on it. The poor woman and her child called him "Mr." Dawes.
Frere watched all this with dissatisfaction that amounted at times
to positive hatred. Yet he could say nothing, for he could not but acknowledge
that, beside Dawes, he was incapable. He even submitted to take orders
from this escaped convict--it was so evident that the escaped convict
knew better than he. Sylvia began to look upon Dawes as a second Bates.
He was, moreover, all her own. She had an interest in him, for she had nursed
and protected him. If it had not been for her, this prodigy
would not have lived. He felt for her an absorbing affection
that was almost a passion. She was his good angel, his protectress,
his glimpse of Heaven. She had given him food when he was starving,
and had believed in him when the world--the world of four--
had looked coldly on him. He would have died for her, and, for love of her,
hoped for the vessel which should take her back to freedom
and give him again into bondage.
But the days stole on, and no vessel appeared. Each day they eagerly scanned
the watery horizon; each day they longed to behold the bowsprit
of the returning Ladybird glide past the jutting rock that shut out the view
of the harbour--but in vain. Mrs. Vickers's illness increased,
and the stock of provisions began to run short. Dawes talked
of putting himself and Frere on half allowance. It was evident that,
unless succour came in a few days, they must starve.
Frere mooted all sorts of wild plans for obtaining food.
He would make a journey to the settlement, and, swimming the estuary,
search if haply any casks of biscuit had been left behind in the hurry
of departure. He would set springes for the seagulls, and snare the pigeons
at Liberty Point. But all these proved impracticable, and with blank faces
they watched their bag of flour grow smaller and smaller daily.
Then the notion of escape was broached. Could they construct a raft?
Impossible without nails or ropes. Could they build a boat?
Equally impossible for the same reason. Could they raise a fire
sufficient to signal a ship? Easily; but what ship would come within reach
of that doubly-desolate spot? Nothing could be done but wait for a vessel,
which was sure to come for them sooner or later; and,
growing weaker day by day, they waited.
One morning Sylvia was sitting in the sun reading the "English History",
which, by the accident of fright, she had brought with her on the night
of the mutiny. "Mr. Frere," said she, suddenly, "what is an alchemist?"
"A man who makes gold," was Frere's not very accurate definition.
"Do you know one?"
"Do you, Mr. Dawes?"
"I knew a man once who thought himself one."
"What! A man who made gold?"
"After a fashion."
"But did he make gold?" persisted Sylvia.
"No, not absolutely make it. But he was, in his worship of money,
an alchemist for all that."
"What became of him?"
"I don't know," said Dawes, with so much constraint in his tone
that the child instinctively turned the subject.
"Then, alchemy is a very old art?"
"Did the Ancient Britons know it?"
"No, not as old as that!"
Sylvia suddenly gave a little scream. The remembrance of the evening
when she read about the Ancient Britons to poor Bates came vividly
into her mind, and though she had since re-read the passage
that had then attracted her attention a hundred times, it had never before
presented itself to her in its full significance. Hurriedly turning
the well-thumbed leaves, she read aloud the passage which had provoked remark:-
"'The Ancient Britons were little better than Barbarians.
They painted their bodies with Woad, and, seated in their light coracles
of skin stretched upon slender wooden frames, must have presented
a wild and savage appearance.'"
"A coracle! That's a boat! Can't we make a coracle, Mr. Dawes?"
WHAT THE SEAWEED SUGGESTED.
The question gave the marooned party new hopes. Maurice Frere,
with his usual impetuosity, declared that the project was a most feasible one,
and wondered--as such men will wonder--that it had never occurred to him
before. "It's the simplest thing in the world!" he cried. "Sylvia,
you have saved us!" But upon taking the matter into more earnest consideration,
it became apparent that they were as yet a long way from the realization
of their hopes. To make a coracle of skins seemed sufficiently easy,
but how to obtain the skins! The one miserable hide of the unlucky she-goat
was utterly inadequate for the purpose. Sylvia--her face beaming
with the hope of escape, and with delight at having been the means
of suggesting it--watched narrowly the countenance of Rufus Dawes,
but she marked no answering gleam of joy in those eyes. "Can't it be done,
Mr. Dawes?" she asked, trembling for the reply.
The convict knitted his brows gloomily.
"Come, Dawes!" cried Frere, forgetting his enmity for an instant
in the flash of new hope, "can't you suggest something?"
Rufus Dawes, thus appealed to as the acknowledged Head of the little society,
felt a pleasant thrill of self-satisfaction. "I don't know," he said.
"I must think of it. It looks easy, and yet--" He paused as something
in the water caught his eye. It was a mass of bladdery seaweed
that the returning tide was wafting slowly to the shore. This object,
which would have passed unnoticed at any other time, suggested to Rufus Dawes
a new idea. "Yes," he added slowly, with a change of tone, "it may be done.
I think I can see my way."
The others preserved a respectful silence until he should speak again.
"How far do you think it is across the bay?" he asked of Frere.
"What, to Sarah Island?"
"No, to the Pilot Station."
"About four miles."
The convict sighed. "Too far to swim now, though I might have done it once.
But this sort of life weakens a man. It must be done after all."
"What are you going to do?" asked Frere.
"To kill the goat."
Sylvia uttered a little cry; she had become fond of her dumb companion.
"Kill Nanny! Oh, Mr. Dawes! What for?"
"I am going to make a boat for you," he said, "and I want hides,
and thread, and tallow."
A few weeks back Maurice Frere would have laughed at such a sentence,
but he had begun now to comprehend that this escaped convict
was not a man to be laughed at, and though he detested him for his superiority,
he could not but admit that he was superior.
"You can't get more than one hide off a goat, man?" he said,
with an inquiring tone in his voice--as though it was just possible
that such a marvellous being as Dawes could get a second hide,
by virtue of some secret process known only to himself.
"I am going to catch other goats." "Where?"
"At the Pilot Station."
"But how are you going to get there?"
"Float across. Come, there is not time for questioning! Go and cut down
some saplings, and let us begin!"
The lieutenant-master looked at the convict prisoner with astonishment,
and then gave way to the power of knowledge, and did as he was ordered.
Before sundown that evening the carcase of poor Nanny, broken into various
most unbutcherly fragments, was hanging on the nearest tree; and Frere,
returning with as many young saplings as he could drag together,
found Rufus Dawes engaged in a curious occupation. He had killed the goat,
and having cut off its head close under the jaws, and its legs
at the knee-joint, had extracted the carcase through a slit
made in the lower portion of the belly, which slit he had now sewn together
with string. This proceeding gave him a rough bag, and he was busily engaged
in filling this bag with such coarse grass as he could collect.
Frere observed, also, that the fat of the animal was carefully preserved,
and the intestines had been placed in a pool of water to soak.
The convict, however, declined to give information as to what
he intended to do. "It's my own notion," he said. "Let me alone.
I may make a failure of it." Frere, on being pressed by Sylvia,
affected to know all about the scheme, but to impose silence on himself.
He was galled to think that a convict brain should contain a mystery
which he might not share.
On the next day, by Rufus Dawes's direction, Frere cut down some rushes
that grew about a mile from the camping ground, and brought them
in on his back. This took him nearly half a day to accomplish.
Short rations were beginning to tell upon his physical powers. The convict,
on the other hand, trained by a woeful experience in the Boats
to endurance of hardship, was slowly recovering his original strength.
"What are they for?" asked Frere, as he flung the bundles down.
His master condescended to reply. "To make a float."
The other shrugged his broad shoulders. "You are very dull, Mr. Frere.
I am going to swim over to the Pilot Station, and catch some of those goats.
I can get across on the stuffed skin, but I must float them back on the reeds."
"How the doose do you mean to catch 'em?" asked Frere,
wiping the sweat from his brow.
The convict motioned to him to approach. He did so, and saw that his companion
was cleaning the intestines of the goat. The outer membrane
having been peeled off, Rufus Dawes was turning the gut inside out.
This he did by turning up a short piece of it, as though it were a coat-sleeve,
and dipping the turned-up cuff into a pool of water. The weight of the water
pressing between the cuff and the rest of the gut, bore down a further portion;
and so, by repeated dippings, the whole length was turned inside out.
The inner membrane having been scraped away, there remained
a fine transparent tube, which was tightly twisted, and set to dry in the sun.
"There is the catgut for the noose," said Dawes. "I learnt that trick
at the settlement. Now come here."
Frere, following, saw that a fire had been made between two stones,
and that the kettle was partly sunk in the ground near it.
On approaching the kettle, he found it full of smooth pebbles.
"Take out those stones," said Dawes.
Frere obeyed, and saw at the bottom of the kettle a quantity of sparkling
white powder, and the sides of the vessel crusted with the same material.
"What's that?" he asked.
"How did you get it?"
"I filled the kettle with sea-water, and then, heating those pebbles red-hot
in the fire, dropped them into it. We could have caught the steam
in a cloth and wrung out fresh water had we wished to do so.
But, thank God, we have plenty."
Frere started. "Did you learn that at the settlement, too?" he asked.
Rufus Dawes laughed, with a sort of bitterness in his tones.
"Do you think I have been at 'the settlement' all my life?
The thing is very simple, it is merely evaporation."
Frere burst out in sudden, fretful admiration: "What a fellow you are, Dawes!
What are you--I mean, what have you been?"
A triumphant light came into the other's face, and for the instant
he seemed about to make some startling revelation. But the light faded,
and he checked himself with a gesture of pain.
"I am a convict. Never mind what I have been. A sailor, a shipbuilder,
prodigal, vagabond--what does it matter? It won't alter my fate, will it?"
"If we get safely back," says Frere, "I'll ask for a free pardon for you.
You deserve it."
"Come," returned Dawes, with a discordant laugh. "Let us wait
until we get back."
"You don't believe me?"
"I don't want favour at your hands," he said, with a return
of the old fierceness. "Let us get to work. Bring up the rushes here,
and tie them with a fishing line."
At this instant Sylvia came up. "Good afternoon, Mr. Dawes. Hard at work?
Oh! what's this in the kettle?" The voice of the child acted like a charm
upon Rufus Dawes. He smiled quite cheerfully.
"Salt, miss. I am going to catch the goats with that."
"Catch the goats! How? Put it on their tails?" she cried merrily.
"Goats are fond of salt, and when I get over to the Pilot Station
I shall set traps for them baited with this salt. When they come to lick it,
I shall have a noose of catgut ready to catch them--do you understand?"
"But how will you get across?"
"You will see to-morrow."
A WONDERFUL DAY'S WORK.
The next morning Rufus Dawes was stirring by daylight. He first got his catgut
wound upon a piece of stick, and then, having moved his frail floats
alongside the little rock that served as a pier, he took a fishing line
and a larger piece of stick, and proceeded to draw a diagram on the sand.
This diagram when completed represented a rude outline of a punt,
eight feet long and three broad. At certain distances were eight points--
four on each side--into which small willow rods were driven.
He then awoke Frere and showed the diagram to him.
"Get eight stakes of celery-top pine," he said. "You can burn them
where you cannot cut them, and drive a stake into the place of each
of these willow wands. When you have done that, collect as many willows
as you can get. I shall not be back until tonight. Now give me a hand
with the floats."
Frere, coming to the pier, saw Dawes strip himself, and piling his clothes
upon the stuffed goat-skin, stretch himself upon the reed bundles,
and, paddling with his hands, push off from the shore. The clothes floated
high and dry, but the reeds, depressed by the weight of the body,
sank so that the head of the convict alone appeared above water.
In this fashion he gained the middle of the current, and the out-going tide
swept him down towards the mouth of the harbour.
Frere, sulkily admiring, went back to prepare the breakfast--
they were on half rations now, Dawes having forbidden the slaughtered goat
to be eaten, lest his expedition should prove unsuccessful--wondering at
the chance which had thrown this convict in his way. "Parsons would call it
'a special providence,'" he said to himself. "For if it hadn't been for him,
we should never have got thus far. If his 'boat' succeeds, we're all right,
I suppose. He's a clever dog. I wonder who he is." His training
as a master of convicts made him think how dangerous such a man would be
on a convict station. It would be difficult to keep a fellow
of such resources. "They'll have to look pretty sharp after him
if they ever get him back," he thought. "I'll have a fine tale to tell
of his ingenuity." The conversation of the previous day occurred to him.
"I promised to ask for a free pardon. He wouldn't have it, though.
Too proud to accept it at my hands! Wait until we get back.
I'll teach him his place; for, after all, it is his own liberty
that he is working for as well as mine--I mean ours." Then a thought came
into his head that was in every way worthy of him. "Suppose we took the boat,
and left him behind!" The notion seemed so ludicrously wicked
that he laughed involuntarily.
"What is it, Mr. Frere?"
"Oh, it's you, Sylvia, is it? Ha, ha, ha! I was thinking of something
"Indeed," said Sylvia, "I am glad of that. Where's Mr. Dawes?"
Frere was displeased at the interest with which she asked the question.
"You are always thinking of that fellow. It's Dawes, Dawes, Dawes
all day long. He has gone."
"Oh!" with a sorrowful accent. "Mamma wants to see him."
"What about?" says Frere roughly. "Mamma is ill, Mr. Frere."
"Dawes isn't a doctor. What's the matter with her?"
"She is worse than she was yesterday. I don't know what is the matter."
Frere, somewhat alarmed, strode over to the little cavern.
The "lady of the Commandant" was in a strange plight. The cavern was lofty,
but narrow. In shape it was three-cornered, having two sides open to the wind.
The ingenuity of Rufus Dawes had closed these sides with wicker-work
and clay, and a sort of door of interlaced brushwood hung at one of them.
Frere pushed open this door and entered. The poor woman was lying
on a bed of rushes strewn over young brushwood, and was moaning feebly.
From the first she had felt the privation to which she was subjected
most keenly, and the mental anxiety from which she suffered
increased her physical debility. The exhaustion and lassitude
to which she had partially succumbed soon after Dawes's arrival,
had now completely overcome her, and she was unable to rise.
"Cheer up, ma'am," said Maurice, with an assumption of heartiness.
"It will be all right in a day or two."
"Is it you? I sent for Mr. Dawes."
"He is away just now. I am making a boat. Did not Sylvia tell you?"
"She told me that he was making one."
"Well, I--that is, we--are making it. He will be back again tonight.
Can I do anything for you?"
"No, thank you. I only wanted to know how he was getting on.
I must go soon--if I am to go. Thank you, Mr. Frere. I am much obliged
to you. This is a--he-e--dreadful place to have visitors, isn't it?"
"Never mind," said Frere, again, "you will be back in Hobart Town
in a few days now. We are sure to get picked up by a ship.
But you must cheer up. Have some tea or something."
"No, thank you--I don't feel well enough to eat. I am tired."
Sylvia began to cry.
"Don't cry, dear. I shall be better by and by. Oh, I wish
Mr. Dawes was back."
Maurice Frere went out indignant. This "Mr." Dawes was everybody,
it seemed, and he was nobody. Let them wait a little. All that day,
working hard to carry out the convict's directions, he meditated
a thousand plans by which he could turn the tables. He would accuse Dawes
of violence. He would demand that he should be taken back as an "absconder".
He would insist that the law should take its course, and that the "death"
which was the doom of all who were caught in the act of escape
from a penal settlement should be enforced. Yet if they got safe to land,
the marvellous courage and ingenuity of the prisoner would tell strongly
in his favour. The woman and child would bear witness to his tenderness
and skill, and plead for him. As he had said, the convict deserved a pardon.
The mean, bad man, burning with wounded vanity and undefined jealousy,
waited for some method to suggest itself, by which he might claim
the credit of the escape, and snatch from the prisoner, who had dared
to rival him, the last hope of freedom.
Rufus Dawes, drifting with the current, had allowed himself to coast along
the eastern side of the harbour until the Pilot Station appeared in view
on the opposite shore. By this time it was nearly seven o'clock.
He landed at a sandy cove, and drawing up his raft, proceeded to unpack
from among his garments a piece of damper. Having eaten sparingly,
and dried himself in the sun, he replaced the remains of his breakfast,
and pushed his floats again into the water. The Pilot Station lay
some distance below him, on the opposite shore. He had purposely made
his second start from a point which would give him this advantage of position;
for had he attempted to paddle across at right angles, the strength
of the current would have swept him out to sea. Weak as he was,
he several times nearly lost his hold on the reeds. The clumsy bundle
presenting too great a broadside to the stream, whirled round and round,
and was once or twice nearly sucked under. At length, however,
breathless and exhausted, he gained the opposite bank, half a mile below
the point he had attempted to make, and carrying his floats out of reach
of the tide, made off across the hill to the Pilot Station.
Arrived there about midday, he set to work to lay his snares.
The goats, with whose hides he hoped to cover the coracle,
were sufficiently numerous and tame to encourage him to use every exertion.
He carefully examined the tracks of the animals, and found that they converged
to one point--the track to the nearest water. With much labour
he cut down bushes, so as to mask the approach to the waterhole on all sides
save where these tracks immediately conjoined. Close to the water,
and at unequal distances along the various tracks, he scattered the salt
he had obtained by his rude distillation of sea-water. Between this
scattered salt and the points where he judged the animals would be likely
to approach, he set his traps, made after the following manner.
He took several pliant branches of young trees, and having stripped them
of leaves and twigs, dug with his knife and the end of the rude paddle
he had made for the voyage across the inlet, a succession of holes,
about a foot deep. At the thicker end of these saplings he fastened,
by a piece of fishing line, a small cross-bar, which swung loosely,
like the stick handle which a schoolboy fastens to the string of his pegtop.
Forcing the ends of the saplings thus prepared into the holes,
he filled in and stamped down the earth all around them. The saplings,
thus anchored as it were by the cross-pieces of stick, not only stood firm,
but resisted all his efforts to withdraw them. To the thin ends
of these saplings he bound tightly, into notches cut in the wood,
and secured by a multiplicity of twisting, the catgut springes he had brought
from the camping ground. The saplings were then bent double,
and the gutted ends secured in the ground by the same means
as that employed to fix the butts. This was the most difficult part
of the business, for it was necessary to discover precisely the amount
of pressure that would hold the bent rod without allowing it to escape
by reason of this elasticity, and which would yet "give" to a slight pull
on the gut. After many failures, however, this happy medium was discovered;
and Rufus Dawes, concealing his springes by means of twigs,
smoothed the disturbed sand with a branch and retired to watch the effect
of his labours. About two hours after he had gone, the goats came to drink.
There were five goats and two kids, and they trotted calmly along the path
to the water. The watcher soon saw that his precautions had been
in a manner wasted. The leading goat marched gravely into the springe,
which, catching him round his neck, released the bent rod,
and sprang him off his legs into the air. He uttered a comical bleat,
and then hung kicking. Rufus Dawes, though the success of the scheme
was a matter of life and death, burst out laughing at the antics of the beast.
The other goats bounded off at this sudden elevation of their leader,
and three more were entrapped at a little distance. Rufus Dawes
now thought it time to secure his prize, though three of the springes
were as yet unsprung. He ran down to the old goat, knife in hand,
but before he could reach him the barely-dried catgut gave way,
and the old fellow, shaking his head with grotesque dismay,
made off at full speed. The others, however, were secured and killed.
The loss of the springe was not a serious one, for three traps
remained unsprung, and before sundown Rufus Dawes had caught four more goats.
Removing with care the catgut that had done such good service,
he dragged the carcases to the shore, and proceeded to pack them
upon his floats. He discovered, however, that the weight was too great,
and that the water, entering through the loops of the stitching
in the hide, had so soaked the rush-grass as to render the floats
no longer buoyant. He was compelled, therefore, to spend two hours
in re-stuffing the skin with such material as he could find.
Some light and flock-like seaweed, which the action of the water
had swathed after the fashion of haybands along the shore,
formed an excellent substitute for grass, and, having bound
his bundle of rushes lengthwise, with the goat-skin as a centre-piece,
he succeeded in forming a sort of rude canoe, upon which
the carcases floated securely.
He had eaten nothing since the morning, and the violence of his exertions
had exhausted him. Still, sustained by the excitement of the task
he had set himself, he dismissed with fierce impatience the thought of rest,
and dragged his weary limbs along the sand, endeavouring to kill fatigue
by further exertion. The tide was now running in, and he knew
it was imperative that he should regain the further shore while the current
was in his favour. To cross from the Pilot Station at low water
was impossible. If he waited until the ebb, he must spend another day
on the shore, and he could not afford to lose an hour. Cutting a long sapling,
he fastened to one end of it the floating bundle, and thus guided it
to a spot where the beach shelved abruptly into deep water.
It was a clear night, and the risen moon large and low, flung a rippling streak
of silver across the sea. On the other side of the bay all was bathed
in a violet haze, which veiled the inlet from which he had started
in the morning. The fire of the exiles, hidden behind a point of rock,
cast a red glow into the air. The ocean breakers rolled in upon the cliffs
outside the bar, with a hoarse and threatening murmur; and the rising tide
rippled and lapped with treacherous melody along the sand.
He touched the chill water and drew back. For an instant he determined to wait
until the beams of morning should illumine that beautiful but treacherous sea,
and then the thought of the helpless child, who was, without doubt,
waiting and watching for him on the shore, gave new strength
to his wearied frame; and fixing his eyes on the glow that,
hovering above the dark tree-line, marked her presence, he pushed the raft
before him out into the sea. The reeds sustained him bravely,
but the strength of the current sucked him underneath the water,
and for several seconds he feared that he should be compelled
to let go his hold. But his muscles, steeled in the slow fire
of convict-labour, withstood this last strain upon them, and, half-suffocated,
with bursting chest and paralysed fingers, he preserved his position,
until the mass, getting out of the eddies along the shore-line,
drifted steadily down the silvery track that led to the settlement.
After a few moments' rest, he set his teeth, and urged his strange canoe
towards the shore. Paddling and pushing, he gradually edged it
towards the fire-light; and at last, just when his stiffened limbs refused
to obey the impulse of his will, and he began to drift onwards
with the onward tide, he felt his feet strike firm ground.
Opening his eyes--closed in the desperation of his last efforts--
he found himself safe under the lee of the rugged promontory
which hid the fire. It seemed that the waves, tired of persecuting him,
had, with disdainful pity, cast him ashore at the goal of his hopes.
Looking back, he for the first time realized the frightful peril
he had escaped, and shuddered. To this shudder succeeded a thrill of triumph.
"Why had he stayed so long, when escape was so easy?" Dragging the carcases
above high-water mark, he rounded the little promontory and made for the fire.
The recollection of the night when he had first approached it came upon him,
and increased his exultation. How different a man was he now from then!
Passing up the sand, he saw the stakes which he had directed Frere to cut
whiten in the moonshine. His officer worked for him! In his own brain alone
lay the secret of escape! He--Rufus Dawes--the scarred, degraded "prisoner",
could alone get these three beings back to civilization.
Did he refuse to aid them, they would for ever remain in that prison,
where he had so long suffered. The tables were turned--he had become a gaoler!
He had gained the fire before the solitary watcher there heard his footsteps,
and spread his hands to the blaze in silence. He felt as Frere
would have felt, had their positions been reversed, disdainful of the man
who had stopped at home.
Frere, starting, cried, "It is you! Have you succeeded?"
Rufus Dawes nodded.
"What! Did you catch them?"
"There are four carcases down by the rocks. You can have meat
for breakfast to-morrow!"
The child, at the sound of the voice, came running down from the hut.
"Oh, Mr. Dawes! I am so glad! We were beginning to despair--mamma and I."
Dawes snatched her from the ground, and bursting into a joyous laugh,
swung her into the air. "Tell me," he cried, holding up the child
with two dripping arms above him, "what you will do for me
if I bring you and mamma safe home again?"
"Give you a free pardon," says Sylvia, "and papa shall make you his servant!"
Frere burst out laughing at this reply, and Dawes, with a choking sensation
in his throat, put the child upon the ground and walked away.
This was in truth all he could hope for. All his scheming, all his courage,
all his peril, would but result in the patronage of a great man
like Major Vickers. His heart, big with love, with self-denial,
and with hopes of a fair future, would have this flattering unction laid to it.
He had performed a prodigy of skill and daring, and for his reward
he was to be made a servant to the creatures he had protected.
Yet what more could a convict expect? Sylvia saw how deeply
her unconscious hand had driven the iron, and ran up to the man
she had wounded. "And, Mr. Dawes, remember that I shall love you always."
The convict, however, his momentary excitement over, motioned her away;
and she saw him stretch himself wearily under the shadow of a rock.
In the morning, however, Rufus Dawes was first at work, and made no allusion
to the scene of the previous evening. He had already skinned one of the goats,
and he directed Frere to set to work upon another. "Cut down the rump
to the hock, and down the brisket to the knee," he said. "I want the hides
as square as possible." By dint of hard work they got the four goats skinned,
and the entrails cleaned ready for twisting, by breakfast time;
and having broiled some of the flesh, made a hearty meal. Mrs. Vickers
being no better, Dawes went to see her, and seemed to have made friends again
with Sylvia, for he came out of the hut with the child's hand in his.
Frere, who was cutting the meat in long strips to dry in the sun,
saw this, and it added fresh fuel to the fire in his unreasonable envy
and jealousy. However, he said nothing, for his enemy had not yet shown him
how the boat was to be made. Before midday, however, he was a partner
in the secret, which, after all, was a very simple one.
Rufus Dawes took two of the straightest and most tapered
of the celery-top pines which Frere had cut on the previous day,
and lashed them tightly together, with the butts outwards. He thus produced
a spliced stick about twelve feet long. About two feet from either end
he notched the young tree until he could bend the extremities upwards;
and having so bent them, he secured the bent portions in their places
by means of lashings of raw hide. The spliced trees now presented
a rude outline of the section of a boat, having the stem, keel, and stern
all in one piece. This having been placed lengthwise between the stakes,
four other poles, notched in two places, were lashed from stake to stake,
running crosswise to the keel, and forming the knees. Four saplings
were now bent from end to end of the upturned portions of the keel
that represented stem and stern. Two of these four were placed above,
as gunwales; two below as bottom rails. At each intersection the sticks
were lashed firmly with fishing line. The whole framework being complete,
the stakes were drawn out, and there lay upon the ground the skeleton
of a boat eight feet long by three broad.
Frere, whose hands were blistered and sore, would fain have rested;
but the convict would not hear of it. "Let us finish," he said
regardless of his own fatigue; "the skins will be dry if we stop."
"I can work no more," says Frere sulkily; "I can't stand.
You've got muscles of iron, I suppose. I haven't."
"They made me work when I couldn't stand, Maurice Frere. It is wonderful
what spirit the cat gives a man. There's nothing like work
to get rid of aching muscles--so they used to tell me."
"Well, what's to be done now?"
"Cover the boat. There, you can set the fat to melt, and sew
these hides together. Two and two, do you see? and then sew the pair
at the necks. There is plenty of catgut yonder."
"Don't talk to me as if I was a dog!" says Frere suddenly.
"Be civil, can't you."
But the other, busily trimming and cutting at the projecting pieces of sapling,
made no reply. It is possible that he thought the fatigued lieutenant
beneath his notice. About an hour before sundown the hides were ready,
and Rufus Dawes, having in the meantime interlaced the ribs of the skeleton
with wattles, stretched the skins over it, with the hairy side inwards.
Along the edges of this covering he bored holes at intervals,
and passing through these holes thongs of twisted skin, he drew the whole
to the top rail of the boat. One last precaution remained.
Dipping the pannikin into the melted tallow, he plentifully anointed the seams
of the sewn skins. The boat, thus turned topsy-turvy, looked like
a huge walnut shell covered with red and reeking hide, or the skull
of some Titan who had been scalped. "There!" cried Rufus Dawes, triumphant.
"Twelve hours in the sun to tighten the hides, and she'll swim like a duck."
The next day was spent in minor preparations. The jerked goat-meat
was packed securely into as small a compass as possible. The rum barrel
was filled with water, and water bags were improvised out of portions
of the intestines of the goats. Rufus Dawes, having filled these last
with water, ran a wooden skewer through their mouths, and twisted it tight,
tourniquet fashion. He also stripped cylindrical pieces of bark,
and having sewn each cylinder at the side, fitted to it a bottom
of the same material, and caulked the seams with gum and pine-tree resin.
Thus four tolerable buckets were obtained. One goatskin yet remained,
and out of that it was determined to make a sail. "The currents are strong,"
said Rufus Dawes, "and we shall not be able to row far with such oars
as we have got. If we get a breeze it may save our lives."
It was impossible to "step" a mast in the frail basket structure,
but this difficulty was overcome by a simple contrivance.
From thwart to thwart two poles were bound, and the mast,
lashed between these poles with thongs of raw hide, was secured by shrouds
of twisted fishing line running fore and aft. Sheets of bark were placed
at the bottom of the craft, and made a safe flooring. It was late
in the afternoon on the fourth day when these preparations were completed,
and it was decided that on the morrow they should adventure the journey.
"We will coast down to the Bar," said Rufus Dawes, "and wait for the slack
of the tide. I can do no more now."
Sylvia, who had seated herself on a rock at a little distance,
called to them. Her strength was restored by the fresh meat,
and her childish spirits had risen with the hope of safety.
The mercurial little creature had wreathed seaweed about her head,
and holding in her hand a long twig decorated with a tuft of leaves
to represent a wand, she personified one of the heroines of her books.
"I am the Queen of the Island," she said merrily, "and you are
my obedient subjects. Pray, Sir Eglamour, is the boat ready?"
"It is, your Majesty," said poor Dawes.
"Then we will see it. Come, walk in front of me. I won't ask you
to rub your nose upon the ground, like Man Friday, because that would be
uncomfortable. Mr. Frere, you don't play?"
"Oh, yes!" says Frere, unable to withstand the charming pout
that accompanied the words. "I'll play. What am I to do?"
"You must walk on this side, and be respectful. Of course it is only Pretend,
you know," she added, with a quick consciousness of Frere's conceit.
"Now then, the Queen goes down to the Seashore surrounded by her Nymphs!
There is no occasion to laugh, Mr. Frere. Of course, Nymphs are
very different from you, but then we can't help that."
Marching in this pathetically ridiculous fashion across the sand,
they halted at the coracle. "So that is the boat!" says the Queen,
fairly surprised out of her assumption of dignity. "You are a Wonderful Man,
Rufus Dawes smiled sadly. "It is very simple."
"Do you call this simple?" says Frere, who in the general joy
had shaken off a portion of his sulkiness. "By George, I don't!
This is ship-building with a vengeance, this is. There's no scheming
about this--it's all sheer hard work."
"Yes!" echoed Sylvia, "sheer hard work--sheer hard work by good Mr. Dawes!"
And she began to sing a childish chant of triumph, drawing lines and letters
in the sand the while, with the sceptre of the Queen.
"Good Mr. Dawes!
Good Mr. Dawes!
This is the work of Good Mr. Dawes!"
Maurice could not resist a sneer.
"See-saw, Margery Daw,
Sold her bed, and lay upon straw!"
"Good Mr. Dawes!" repeated Sylvia. "Good Mr. Dawes! Why shouldn't I say it?
You are disagreeable, sir. I won't play with you any more,"
and she went off along the sand.
"Poor little child," said Rufus Dawes. "You speak too harshly to her."
Frere--now that the boat was made--had regained his self-confidence.
Civilization seemed now brought sufficiently close to him
to warrant his assuming the position of authority to which his social position
entitled him. "One would think that a boat had never been built before
to hear her talk," he said. "If this washing-basket had been one
of my old uncle's three-deckers, she couldn't have said much more.
By the Lord!" he added, with a coarse laugh, "I ought to have a natural talent
for ship-building; for if the old villain hadn't died when he did,
I should have been a ship-builder myself."
Rufus Dawes turned his back at the word "died", and busied himself
with the fastenings of the hides. Could the other have seen his face,
he would have been struck by its sudden pallor.
"Ah!" continued Frere, half to himself, and half to his companion,
"that's a sum of money to lose, isn't it?"
"What do you mean?" asked the convict, without turning his face.
"Mean! Why, my good fellow, I should have been left a quarter of a million
of money, but the old hunks who was going to give it to me died
before he could alter his will, and every shilling went to a scapegrace son,
who hadn't been near the old man for years. That's the way of the world,
Rufus Dawes, still keeping his face away, caught his breath
as if in astonishment, and then, recovering himself, he said in a harsh voice,
"A fortunate fellow--that son!"
"Fortunate!" cries Frere, with another oath. "Oh yes, he was fortunate!
He was burnt to death in the Hydaspes, and never heard of his luck.
His mother has got the money, though. I never saw a shilling of it."
And then, seemingly displeased with himself for having allowed his tongue
to get the better of his dignity, he walked away to the fire,
musing, doubtless, on the difference between Maurice Frere,
with a quarter of a million, disporting himself in the best society
that could be procured, with command of dog-carts, prize-fighters,
and gamecocks galore; and Maurice Frere, a penniless lieutenant,
marooned on the barren coast of Macquarie Harbour, and acting as boat-builder
to a runaway convict.
Rufus Dawes was also lost in reverie. He leant upon the gunwale
of the much-vaunted boat, and his eyes were fixed upon the sea,
weltering golden in the sunset, but it was evident that he saw nothing
of the scene before him. Struck dumb by the sudden intelligence
of his fortune, his imagination escaped from his control,
and fled away to those scenes which he had striven so vainly to forget.
He was looking far away--across the glittering harbour and the wide sea
beyond it--looking at the old house at Hampstead, with its well-remembered
gloomy garden. He pictured himself escaped from this present peril,
and freed from the sordid thraldom which so long had held him.
He saw himself returning, with some plausible story of his wanderings,
to take possession of the wealth which was his--saw himself living once more,
rich, free, and respected, in the world from which he had been
so long an exile. He saw his mother's sweet pale face, the light
of a happy home circle. He saw himself--received with tears of joy
and marvelling affection--entering into this home circle as one risen
from the dead. A new life opened radiant before him, and he was lost
in the contemplation of his own happiness.
So absorbed was he that he did not hear the light footstep
of the child across the sand. Mrs. Vickers, having been told of the success
which had crowned the convict's efforts, had overcome her weakness
so far as to hobble down the beach to the boat, and now, heralded by Sylvia,
approached, leaning on the arm of Maurice Frere.
"Mamma has come to see the boat, Mr. Dawes!" cries Sylvia,
but Dawes did not hear.
The child reiterated her words, but still the silent figure did not reply.
"Mr. Dawes!" she cried again, and pulled him by the coat-sleeve.
The touch aroused him, and looking down, he saw the pretty,
thin face upturned to his. Scarcely conscious of what he did,
and still following out the imagining which made him free, wealthy,
and respected, he caught the little creature in his arms--as he might have
caught his own daughter--and kissed her. Sylvia said nothing;
but Mr. Frere--arrived, by his chain of reasoning, at quite another conclusion
as to the state of affairs--was astonished at the presumption of the man.
The lieutenant regarded himself as already reinstated in his old position,
and with Mrs. Vickers on his arm, reproved the apparent insolence
of the convict as freely as he would have done had they both been
at his own little kingdom of Maria Island. "You insolent beggar!"
he cried. "Do you dare! Keep your place, sir!"
The sentence recalled Rufus Dawes to reality. His place was that of a convict.
What business had he with tenderness for the daughter of his master?
Yet, after all he had done, and proposed to do, this harsh judgment upon him
seemed cruel. He saw the two looking at the boat he had built.
He marked the flush of hope on the cheek of the poor lady,
and the full-blown authority that already hardened the eye of Maurice Frere,
and all at once he understood the result of what he had done.
He had, by his own act, given himself again to bondage. As long as escape
was impracticable, he had been useful, and even powerful.
Now he had pointed out the way of escape, he had sunk into the beast of burden
once again. In the desert he was "Mr." Dawes, the saviour;
in civilized life he would become once more Rufus Dawes, the ruffian,
the prisoner, the absconder. He stood mute, and let Frere point out
the excellences of the craft in silence; and then, feeling that
the few words of thanks uttered by the lady were chilled by her consciousness
of the ill-advised freedom he had taken with the child, he turned on his heel,
and strode up into the bush.
"A queer fellow," said Frere, as Mrs. Vickers followed the retreating figure
with her eyes. "Always in an ill temper." "Poor man! He has behaved
very kindly to us," said Mrs. Vickers. Yet even she felt the change
of circumstance, and knew that, without any reason she could name,
her blind trust and hope in the convict who had saved their lives
had been transformed into a patronizing kindliness which was
quite foreign to esteem or affection.
"Come, let us have some supper," says Frere. "The last we shall eat here,
I hope. He will come back when his fit of sulks is over."
But he did not come back, and, after a few expressions of wonder
at his absence, Mrs. Vickers and her daughter, rapt in the hopes and fears
of the morrow, almost forgot that he had left them. With marvellous credulity
they looked upon the terrible stake they were about to play for as already won.
The possession of the boat seemed to them so wonderful,
that the perils of the voyage they were to make in it were altogether
lost sight of. As for Maurice Frere, he was rejoiced that the convict
was out of the way. He wished that he was out of the way altogether.
THE WRITING ON THE SAND.
Having got out of eye-shot of the ungrateful creatures he had befriended,
Rufus Dawes threw himself upon the ground in an agony of mingled rage
and regret. For the first time for six years he had tasted the happiness
of doing good, the delight of self-abnegation. For the first time
for six years he had broken through the selfish misanthropy
he had taught himself. And this was his reward! He had held his temper
in check, in order that it might not offend others. He had banished
the galling memory of his degradation, lest haply some shadow of it might seem
to fall upon the fair child whose lot had been so strangely cast with his.
He had stifled the agony he suffered, lest its expression should give pain
to those who seemed to feel for him. He had forborne retaliation,
when retaliation would have been most sweet. Having all these years waited
and watched for a chance to strike his persecutors, he had held his hand
now that an unlooked-for accident had placed the weapon of destruction
in his grasp. He had risked his life, forgone his enmities,
almost changed his nature--and his reward was cold looks and harsh words,
so soon as his skill had paved the way to freedom. This knowledge
coming upon him while the thrill of exultation at the astounding news
of his riches yet vibrated in his brain, made him grind his teeth with rage
at his own hard fate. Bound by the purest and holiest of ties--the affection
of a son to his mother--he had condemned himself to social death,
rather than buy his liberty and life by a revelation which would shame
the gentle creature whom he loved. By a strange series of accidents,
fortune had assisted him to maintain the deception he had practised.
His cousin had not recognized him. The very ship in which he was believed
to have sailed had been lost with every soul on board. His identity
had been completely destroyed--no link remained which could connect
Rufus Dawes, the convict, with Richard Devine, the vanished heir
to the wealth of the dead ship-builder.
Oh, if he had only known! If, while in the gloomy prison,
distracted by a thousand fears, and weighed down by crushing evidence
of circumstance, he had but guessed that death had stepped between
Sir Richard and his vengeance, he might have spared himself the sacrifice
he had made. He had been tried and condemned as a nameless sailor,
who could call no witnesses in his defence, and give no particulars
as to his previous history. It was clear to him now that he might have
adhered to his statement of ignorance concerning the murder,
locked in his breast the name of the murderer, and have yet been free.
Judges are just, but popular opinion is powerful, and it was not impossible
that Richard Devine, the millionaire, would have escaped the fate
which had overtaken Rufus Dawes, the sailor. Into his calculations
in the prison--when, half-crazed with love, with terror, and despair,
he had counted up his chances of life--the wild supposition that he had
even then inherited the wealth of the father who had disowned him,
had never entered. The knowledge of that fact would have altered
the whole current of his life, and he learnt it for the first time now--
too late. Now, lying prone upon the sand; now, wandering aimlessly
up and down among the stunted trees that bristled white beneath
the mist-barred moon; now, sitting--as he had sat in the prison long ago--
with the head gripped hard between his hands, swaying his body to and fro,
he thought out the frightful problem of his bitter life. Of little use
was the heritage that he had gained. A convict-absconder,
whose hands were hard with menial service, and whose back was scarred
with the lash, could never be received among the gently nurtured.
Let him lay claim to his name and rights, what then? He was a convicted felon,
and his name and rights had been taken from him by the law.
Let him go and tell Maurice Frere that he was his lost cousin.
He would be laughed at. Let him proclaim aloud his birth and innocence,
and the convict-sheds would grin, and the convict overseer set him
to harder labour. Let him even, by dint of reiteration,
get his wild story believed, what would happen? If it was heard in England--
after the lapse of years, perhaps--that a convict in the chain-gang
in Macquarie Harbour--a man held to be a murderer, and whose convict career
was one long record of mutiny and punishment--claimed to be the heir
to an English fortune, and to own the right to dispossess staid and worthy
English folk of their rank and station, with what feeling
would the announcement be received? Certainly not with a desire to redeem
this ruffian from his bonds and place him in the honoured seat
of his dead father. Such intelligence would be regarded as a calamity,
an unhappy blot upon a fair reputation, a disgrace to an honoured
and unsullied name. Let him succeed, let him return again to the mother
who had by this time become reconciled, in a measure, to his loss;
he would, at the best, be to her a living shame, scarcely less degrading
than that which she had dreaded.
But success was almost impossible. He did not dare to retrace his steps
through the hideous labyrinth into which he had plunged. Was he to show
his scarred shoulders as a proof that he was a gentleman and an innocent man?
Was he to relate the nameless infamies of Macquarie Harbour as a proof
that he was entitled to receive the hospitalities of the generous,
and to sit, a respected guest, at the tables of men of refinement?
Was he to quote the horrible slang of the prison-ship, and retail
the filthy jests of the chain-gang and the hulks, as a proof
that he was a fit companion for pure-minded women and innocent children?
Suppose even that he could conceal the name of the real criminal,
and show himself guiltless of the crime for which he had been condemned,
all the wealth in the world could not buy back that blissful ignorance
of evil which had once been his. All the wealth in the world
could not purchase the self-respect which had been cut out of him by the lash,
or banish from his brain the memory of his degradation.
For hours this agony of thought racked him. He cried out as though
with physical pain, and then lay in a stupor, exhausted with actual
physical suffering. It was hopeless to think of freedom and of honour.
Let him keep silence, and pursue the life fate had marked out for him.
He would return to bondage. The law would claim him as an absconder,
and would mete out to him such punishment as was fitting.
Perhaps he might escape severest punishment, as a reward for his exertions
in saving the child. He might consider himself fortunate if such was permitted
to him. Fortunate! Suppose he did not go back at all, but wandered away
into the wilderness and died? Better death than such a doom as his.
Yet need he die? He had caught goats, he could catch fish.
He could build a hut. In here was, perchance, at the deserted settlement
some remnant of seed corn that, planted, would give him bread.
He had built a boat, he had made an oven, he had fenced in a hut.
Surely he could contrive to live alone savage and free. Alone!
He had contrived all these marvels alone! Was not the boat he himself
had built below upon the shore? Why not escape in her, and leave to their fate
the miserable creatures who had treated him with such ingratitude?
The idea flashed into his brain, as though someone had spoken the words
into his ear. Twenty strides would place him in possession of the boat,
and half an hour's drifting with the current would take him beyond pursuit.
Once outside the Bar, he would make for the westward, in the hopes
of falling in with some whaler. He would doubtless meet with one
before many days, and he was well supplied with provision and water
in the meantime. A tale of shipwreck would satisfy the sailors,
and--he paused--he had forgotten that the rags which he wore would betray him.
With an exclamation of despair, he started from the posture
in which he was lying. He thrust out his hands to raise himself,
and his fingers came in contact with something soft. He had been lying
at the foot of some loose stones that were piled cairnwise beside
a low-growing bush; and the object that he had touched was protruding
from beneath these stones. He caught it and dragged it forth.
It was the shirt of poor Bates. With trembling hands he tore away the stones,
and pulled forth the rest of the garments. They seemed as though
they had been left purposely for him. Heaven had sent him
the very disguise he needed.
The night had passed during his reverie, and the first faint streaks of dawn
began to lighten in the sky. Haggard and pale, he rose to his feet,
and scarcely daring to think about what he proposed to do,
ran towards the boat. As he ran, however, the voice that he had heard
encouraged him. "Your life is of more importance than theirs.
They will die, but they have been ungrateful and deserve death.
You will escape out of this Hell, and return to the loving heart
who mourns you. You can do more good to mankind than by saving the lives
of these people who despise you. Moreover, they may not die.
They are sure to be sent for. Think of what awaits you when you return--
an absconded convict!"
He was within three feet of the boat, when he suddenly checked himself,
and stood motionless, staring at the sand with as much horror
as though he saw there the Writing which foretold the doom of Belshazzar.
He had come upon the sentence traced by Sylvia the evening before,
and glittering in the low light of the red sun suddenly risen from out the sea,
it seemed to him that the letters had shaped themselves at his very feet,
GOOD MR. DAWES.
"Good Mr. Dawes"! What a frightful reproach there was to him in that
simple sentence! What a world of cowardice, baseness, and cruelty,
had not those eleven letters opened to him! He heard the voice of the child
who had nursed him, calling on him to save her. He saw her at that instant
standing between him and the boat, as she had stood when she held out to him
the loaf, on the night of his return to the settlement.
He staggered to the cavern, and, seizing the sleeping Frere by the arm,
shook him violently. "Awake! awake!" he cried, "and let us leave this place!"
Frere, starting to his feet, looked at the white face and bloodshot eyes
of the wretched man before him with blunt astonishment. "What's the matter
with you, man?" he said. "You look as if you'd seen a ghost!"
At the sound of his voice Rufus Dawes gave a long sigh,
and drew his hand across his eyes.
"Come, Sylvia!" shouted Frere. "It's time to get up. I am ready to go!"
The sacrifice was complete. The convict turned away, and
two great glistening tears rolled down his rugged face, and fell upon the sand.
An hour after sunrise, the frail boat, which was the last hope
of these four human beings, drifted with the outgoing current
towards the mouth of the harbour. When first launched she had come
nigh swamping, being overloaded, and it was found necessary
to leave behind a great portion of the dried meat. With what pangs
this was done can be easily imagined, for each atom of food seemed
to represent an hour of life. Yet there was no help for it. As Frere said,
it was "neck or nothing with them". They must get away at all hazards.
That evening they camped at the mouth of the Gates, Dawes being afraid
to risk a passage until the slack of the tide, and about ten o'clock
at night adventured to cross the Bar. The night was lovely, and the sea calm.
It seemed as though Providence had taken pity on them; for,
notwithstanding the insecurity of the craft and the violence of the breakers,
the dreaded passage was made with safety. Once, indeed, when they had
just entered the surf, a mighty wave, curling high above them,
seemed about to overwhelm the frail structure of skins and wickerwork;
but Rufus Dawes, keeping the nose of the boat to the sea,
and Frere baling with his hat, they succeeded in reaching deep water.
A great misfortune, however, occurred. Two of the bark buckets,
left by some unpardonable oversight uncleated, were washed overboard,
and with them nearly a fifth of their scanty store of water.
In the face of the greater peril, the accident seemed trifling; and as,
drenched and chilled, they gained the open sea, they could not but admit
that fortune had almost miraculously befriended them.
They made tedious way with their rude oars; a light breeze from the north-west
sprang up with the dawn, and, hoisting the goat-skin sail,
they crept along the coast. It was resolved that the two men should keep watch
and watch; and Frere for the second time enforced his authority
by giving the first watch to Rufus Dawes. "I am tired," he said,
"and shall sleep for a little while."
Rufus Dawes, who had not slept for two nights, and who had done
all the harder work, said nothing. He had suffered so much
during the last two days that his senses were dulled to pain.
Frere slept until late in the afternoon, and, when he woke,
found the boat still tossing on the sea, and Sylvia and her mother
both seasick. This seemed strange to him. Sea-sickness appeared to be
a malady which belonged exclusively to civilization. Moodily watching
the great green waves which curled incessantly between him and the horizon,
he marvelled to think how curiously events had come about. A leaf had,
as it were, been torn out of his autobiography. It seemed a lifetime
since he had done anything but moodily scan the sea or shore. Yet,
on the morning of leaving the settlement, he had counted the notches
on a calendar-stick he carried, and had been astonished to find them
but twenty-two in number. Taking out his knife, he cut two nicks
in the wicker gunwale of the coracle. That brought him to twenty-four days.
The mutiny had taken place on the 13th of January; it was now
the 6th of February. "Surely," thought he, "the Ladybird might have returned
by this time." There was no one to tell him that the Ladybird had been driven
into Port Davey by stress of weather, and detained there for seventeen days.
That night the wind fell, and they had to take to their oars.
Rowing all night, they made but little progress, and Rufus Dawes suggested
that they should put in to the shore and wait until the breeze sprang up.
But, upon getting under the lee of a long line of basaltic rocks
which rose abruptly out of the sea, they found the waves breaking furiously
upon a horseshoe reef, six or seven miles in length. There was nothing for it
but to coast again. They coasted for two days, without a sign of a sail,
and on the third day a great wind broke upon them from the south-east,
and drove them back thirty miles. The coracle began to leak,
and required constant bailing. What was almost as bad, the rum cask,
that held the best part of their water, had leaked also, and was now
half empty. They caulked it, by cutting out the leak, and then
plugging the hole with linen.
"It's lucky we ain't in the tropics," said Frere. Poor Mrs. Vickers,
lying in the bottom of the boat, wrapped in her wet shawl,