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relapsing, in his excitement, into the convict vernacular. “She knows me. Tell her that I’ve got my eyes on her. Let her remember her bargain. If she runs any rigs on me, let her take care.” In his suspicious wrath he so savagely and unwarily struck downwards with the open pen-knife that it shut upon his fingers, and cut him to the bone.

“I’ll tell her,” said Blunt, wiping his brow. “I’m sure she wouldn’t go to sell you. But I’ll look in when I come back, sir.” When he got outside he drew a long breath. “By the Lord Harry, but it’s a ticklish game to play,” he said to himself, with a lively recollection of the dreaded Frere’s vehemence; “and there’s only one woman in the world I’d be fool enough to play it for.”

Maurice Frere, oppressed with suspicions, ordered his horse that afternoon, and rode down to see the cottage which the owner of “Purfoy Stores” had purchased. He found it a low white building, situated four miles from the city, at the extreme end of a tongue of land which ran into the deep waters of the harbour. A garden carefully cultivated, stood between the roadway and the house, and in this garden he saw a man digging.

“Does Mrs. Purfoy live here?” he asked, pushing open one of the iron gates.

The man replied in the affirmative, staring at the visitor with some suspicion.

“Is she at home?”

“No.”

“You are sure?”

“If you don’t believe me, ask at the house,” was the reply, given in the uncourteous tone of a free man.

Frere pushed his horse through the gate, and walked up the broad and well-kept carriage drive. A man-servant in livery, answering his ring, told him that Mrs. Purfoy had gone to town, and then shut the door in his face. Frere, more astonished than ever at these outward and visible signs of independence, paused, indignant, feeling half inclined to enter despite opposition. As he looked through the break of the trees, he saw the masts of a brig lying at anchor off the extremity of the point on which the house was built, and understood that the cottage commanded communication by water as well as by land. Could there be a special motive in choosing such a situation, or was it mere chance? He was uneasy, but strove to dismiss his alarm.

Sarah had kept faith with him so far. She had entered upon a new and more reputable life, and why should he seek to imagine evil where perhaps no evil was? Blunt was evidently honest. Women like Sarah Purfoy often emerged into a condition of comparative riches and domestic virtue. It was likely that, after all, some wealthy merchant was the real owner of the house and garden, pleasure yacht, and tallow warehouse, and that he had no cause for fear.

The experienced convict disciplinarian did not rate the ability of John Rex high enough.

From the instant the convict had heard his sentence of life banishment, he had determined upon escaping, and had brought all the powers of his acute and unscrupulous intellect to the consideration of the best method of achieving his purpose. His first care was to procure money. This he thought to do by writing to Blick, but when informed by Meekin of the fate of his letter, he adopted the–to him–less pleasant alternative of procuring it through Sarah Purfoy.

It was peculiar to the man’s hard and ungrateful nature that, despite the attachment of the woman who had followed him to his place of durance, and had made it the object of her life to set him free, he had cherished for her no affection. It was her beauty that had attracted him, when, as Mr. Lionel Crofton, he swaggered in the night-society of London. Her talents and her devotion were secondary considerations–useful to him as attributes of a creature he owned, but not to be thought of when his fancy wearied of its choice. During the twelve years which had passed since his rashness had delivered him into the hands of the law at the house of Green, the coiner, he had been oppressed with no regrets for her fate. He had, indeed, seen and suffered so much that the old life had been put away from him. When, on his return, he heard that Sarah Purfoy was still in Hobart Town, he was glad, for he knew that he had an ally who would do her utmost to help him–she had shown that on board the Malabar. But he was also sorry, for he remembered that the price she would demand for her services was his affection, and that had cooled long ago. However, he would make use of her. There might be a way to discard her if she proved troublesome.

His pretended piety had accomplished the end he had assumed it for. Despite Frere’s exposure of his cryptograph, he had won the confidence of Meekin; and into that worthy creature’s ear he poured a strange and sad story. He was the son, he said, of a clergyman of the Church of England, whose real name, such was his reverence for the cloth, should never pass his lips. He was transported for a forgery which he did not commit. Sarah Purfoy was his wife–his erring, lost and yet loved wife. She, an innocent and trusting girl, had determined– strong in the remembrance of that promise she had made at the altar– to follow her husband to his place of doom, and had hired herself as lady’s-maid to Mrs. Vickers. Alas! fever prostrated that husband on a bed of sickness, and Maurice Frere, the profligate and the villain, had taken advantage of the wife’s unprotected state to ruin her! Rex darkly hinted how the seducer made his power over the sick and helpless husband a weapon against the virtue of the wife and so terrified poor Meekin that, had it not “happened so long ago”, he would have thought it necessary to look with some disfavour upon the boisterous son-in-law of Major Vickers.

“I bear him no ill-will, sir,” said Rex. “I did at first. There was a time when I could have killed him, but when I had him in my power, I–as you know– forbore to strike. No, sir, I could not commit murder!”

“Very proper,” says Meekin, “very proper indeed.” “God will punish him in His own way, and His own time,” continued Rex.

“My great sorrow is for the poor woman. She is in Sydney, I have heard, living respectably, sir; and my heart bleeds for her.” Here Rex heaved a sigh that would have made his fortune on the boards.

“My poor fellow,” said Meekin. “Do you know where she is?”

“I do, sir.”

“You might write to her.”

John Rex appeared to hesitate, to struggle with himself, and finally to take a deep resolve. “No, Mr. Meekin, I will not write.”

“Why not?”

“You know the orders, sir–the Commandant reads all the letters sent. Could I write to my poor Sarah what other eyes were to read?” and he watched the parson slyly.

“N–no, you could not,” said Meekin, at last.

“It is true, sir,” said Rex, letting his head sink on his breast. The next day, Meekin, blushing with the consciousness that what he was about to do was wrong, said to his penitent, “If you will promise to write nothing that the Commandant might not see, Rex, I will send your letter to your wife.”

“Heaven bless you, sir,”. said Rex, and took two days to compose an epistle which should tell Sarah Purfoy how to act. The letter was a model of composition in one way. It stated everything clearly and succinctly. Not a detail that could assist was omitted–not a line that could embarrass was suffered to remain. John Rex’s scheme of six months’ deliberation was set down in the clearest possible manner. He brought his letter unsealed to Meekin. Meekin looked at it with an interest that was half suspicion. “Have I your word that there is nothing in this that might not be read by the Commandant?”

John Rex was a bold man, but at the sight of the deadly thing fluttering open in the clergyman’s hand, his knees knocked together. Strong in his knowledge of human nature, however, he pursued his desperate plan. “Read it, sir,” he said turning away his face reproachfully. “You are a gentleman. I can trust you.”

“No, Rex,” said Meekin, walking loftily into the pitfall; “I do not read private letters.” It was sealed, and John Rex felt as if somebody had withdrawn a match from a powder barrel.

In a month Mr. Meekin received a letter, beautifully written, from “Sarah Rex”, stating briefly that she had heard of his goodness, that the enclosed letter was for her husband, and that if it was against the rules to give it him, she begged it might be returned to her unread. Of course Meekin gave it to Rex, who next morning handed to Meekin a most touching pious production, begging him to read it. Meekin did so, and any suspicions he may have had were at once disarmed. He was ignorant of the fact that the pious letter contained a private one intended for John Rex only, which letter John Rex thought so highly of, that, having read it twice through most attentively, he ate it.

The plan of escape was after all a simple one. Sarah Purfoy was to obtain from Blicks the moneys he held in trust, and to embark the sum thus obtained in any business which would suffer her to keep a vessel hovering round the southern coast of Van Diemen’s Land without exciting suspicion. The escape was to be made in the winter months, if possible, in June or July. The watchful vessel was to be commanded by some trustworthy person, who was to frequently land on the south-eastern side, and keep a look-out for any extraordinary appearance along the coast. Rex himself must be left to run the gauntlet of the dogs and guards unaided. “This seems a desperate scheme,” wrote Rex, “but it is not so wild as it looks. I have thought over a dozen others, and rejected them all. This is the only way. Consider it well. I have my own plan for escape, which is easy if rescue be at hand. All depends upon placing a trustworthy man in charge of the vessel. You ought to know a dozen such. I will wait eighteen months to give you time to make all arrangements.” The eighteen months had now nearly passed over, and the time for the desperate attempt drew near. Faithful to his cruel philosophy, John Rex had provided scape-goats, who, by their vicarious agonies, should assist him to his salvation.

He had discovered that of the twenty men in his gang eight had already determined on an effort for freedom. The names of these eight were Gabbett, Vetch, Bodenham, Cornelius, Greenhill, Sanders, called the “Moocher”, Cox, and Travers. The leading spirits were Vetch and Gabbett, who, with profound reverence, requested the “Dandy” to join. John Rex, ever suspicious, and feeling repelled by the giant’s strange eagerness, at first refused, but by degrees allowed himself to appear to be drawn into the scheme. He would urge these men to their fate, and take advantage of the excitement attendant on their absence to effect his own escape. “While all the island is looking for these eight boobies, I shall have a good chance to slip away unmissed.” He wished, however, to have a companion. Some strong man, who, if pressed hard, would turn and keep the pursuers at bay, would be useful without doubt; and this comrade-victim he sought in Rufus Dawes.

Beginning, as we have seen, from a purely selfish motive, to urge his fellow-prisoner to abscond with him, John Rex gradually found himself attracted into something like friendliness by the sternness with which his overtures were repelled. Always a keen student of human nature, the scoundrel saw beneath the roughness with which it had pleased the unfortunate man to shroud his agony, how faithful a friend and how ardent and undaunted a spirit was concealed. There was, moreover, a mystery about Rufus Dawes which Rex, the reader of hearts, longed to fathom.

“Have you no friends whom you would wish to see?” he asked, one evening, when Rufus Dawes had proved more than usually deaf to his arguments.

“No,” said Dawes gloomily. “My friends are all dead to me.”

“What, all?” asked the other. “Most men have some one whom they wish to see.”

Rufus Dawes laughed a slow, heavy laugh. “I am better here.”

“Then are you content to live this dog’s life?”

“Enough, enough,” said Dawes. “I am resolved.”

“Pooh! Pluck up a spirit,” cried Rex. “It can’t fail. I’ve been thinking of it for eighteen months, and it can’t fail.”

“Who are going?” asked the other, his eyes fixed on the ground. John Rex enumerated the eight, and Dawes raised his head. “I won’t go. I have had two trials at it; I don’t want another. I would advise you not to attempt it either.”

“Why not?”

“Gabbett bolted twice before,” said Rufus Dawes, shuddering at the remembrance of the ghastly object he had seen in the sunlit glen at Hell’s Gates. “Others went with him, but each time he returned alone.”

“What do you mean?” asked Rex, struck by the tone of his companion.

“What became of the others?”

“Died, I suppose,” said the Dandy, with a forced laugh.

“Yes; but how? They were all without food. How came the surviving monster to live six weeks?”

John Rex grew a shade paler, and did not reply. He recollected the sanguinary legend that pertained to Gabbett’s rescue. But he did not intend to make the journey in his company, so, after all, he had no cause for fear. “Come with me then,” he said, at length. “We will try our luck together.”

“No. I have resolved. I stay here.”

“And leave your innocence unproved.”

“How can I prove it?” cried Rufus Dawes, roughly impatient. “There are crimes committed which are never brought to light, and this is one of them.”

“Well,” said Rex, rising, as if weary of the discussion, “have it your own way, then. You know best. The private detective game is hard work. I, myself, have gone on a wild-goose chase before now. There’s a mystery about a certain ship-builder’s son which took me four months to unravel, and then I lost the thread.”

“A ship-builder’s son! Who was he?”

John Rex paused in wonderment at the eager interest with which the question was put, and then hastened to take advantage of this new opening for conversation. “A queer story. A well-known character in my time– Sir Richard Devine. A miserly old curmudgeon, with a scapegrace son.”

Rufus Dawes bit his lips to avoid showing his emotion. This was the second time that the name of his dead father had been spoken in his hearing. “I think I remember something of him,” he said, with a voice that sounded strangely calm in his own ears.

“A curious story,” said Rex, plunging into past memories. “Amongst other matters, I dabbled a little in the Private Inquiry line of business, and the old man came to me. He had a son who had gone abroad–a wild young dog, by all accounts–and he wanted particulars of him.”

“Did you get them?”

“To a certain extent. I hunted him through Paris into Brussels, from Brussels to Antwerp, from Antwerp back to Paris. I lost him there. A miserable end to a long and expensive search. I got nothing but a portmanteau with a lot of letters from his mother. I sent the particulars to the ship-builder, and by all accounts the news killed him, for he died not long after.”

“And the son?”

“Came to the queerest end of all. The old man had left him his fortune– a large one, I believe–but he’d left Europe, it seems, for India, and was lost in the Hydaspes. Frere was his cousin.”

“Ah!”

“By Gad, it annoys me when I think of it,” continued Rex, feeling, by force of memory, once more the adventurer of fashion. “With the resources I had, too. Oh, a miserable failure! The days and nights I’ve spent walking about looking for Richard Devine, and never catching a glimpse of him. The old man gave me his son’s portrait, with full particulars of his early life, and I suppose I carried that ivory gimcrack in my breast for nearly three months, pulling it out to refresh my memory every half-hour. By Gad, if the young gentleman was anything like his picture, I could have sworn to him if I’d met him in Timbuctoo.”

“Do you think you’d know him again?” asked Rufus Dawes in a low voice, turning away his head.

There may have been something in the attitude in which the speaker had put himself that awakened memory, or perhaps the subdued eagerness of the tone, contrasting so strangely with the comparative inconsequence of the theme, that caused John Rex’s brain to perform one of those feats of automatic synthesis at which we afterwards wonder. The profligate son– the likeness to the portrait–the mystery of Dawes’s life! These were the links of a galvanic chain. He closed the circuit, and a vivid flash revealed to him–THE MAN.

Warder Troke, coming up, put his hand on Rex’s shoulder. “Dawes,” he said, “you’re wanted at the yard”; and then, seeing his mistake, added with a grin, “Curse you two; you’re so much alike one can’t tell t’other from which.”

Rufus Dawes walked off moodily; but John Rex’s evil face turned pale, and a strange hope made his heart leap. “Gad, Troke’s right; we are alike. I’ll not press him to escape any more.”

CHAPTER XXIII.

RUNNING THE GAUNTLET.

The Pretty Mary–as ugly and evil-smelling a tub as ever pitched under a southerly burster–had been lying on and off Cape Surville for nearly three weeks. Captain Blunt was getting wearied. He made strenuous efforts to find the oyster-beds of which he was ostensibly in search, but no success attended his efforts. In vain did he take boat and pull into every cove and nook between the Hippolyte Reef and Schouten’s Island. In vain did he run the Pretty Mary as near to the rugged cliffs as he dared to take her, and make perpetual expeditions to the shore. In vain did he–in his eagerness for the interests of Mrs. Purfoy–clamber up the rocks, and spend hours in solitary soundings in Blackman’s Bay. He never found an oyster. “If I don’t find something in three or four days more,” said he to his mate, “I shall go back again. It’s too dangerous cruising here.”

* * * * * *

On the same evening that Captain Blunt made this resolution, the watchman at Signal Hill saw the arms of the semaphore at the settlement make three motions, thus:

The semaphore was furnished with three revolving arms, fixed one above the other. The upper one denoted units, and had six motions, indicating ONE to SIX. The middle one denoted tens, TEN to SIXTY. The lower one marked hundreds, from ONE HUNDRED to SIX HUNDRED.

The lower and upper arms whirled out. That meant THREE HUNDRED AND SIX.

A ball ran up to the top of the post. That meant ONE THOUSAND.

Number 1306, or, being interpreted, “PRISONERS ABSCONDED”.

“By George, Harry,” said Jones, the signalman, “there’s a bolt!”

The semaphore signalled again: “Number 1411”.

“WITH ARMS!” Jones said, translating as he read. “Come here, Harry! here’s a go!”

But Harry did not reply, and, looking down, the watchman saw a dark figure suddenly fill the doorway. The boasted semaphore had failed this time, at all events. The “bolters” had arrived as soon as the signal!

The man sprang at his carbine, but the intruder had already possessed himself of it. “It’s no use making a fuss, Jones! There are eight of us. Oblige me by attending to your signals.”

Jones knew the voice. It was that of John Rex. “Reply, can’t you?” said Rex coolly. “Captain Burgess is in a hurry.” The arms of the semaphore at the settlement were, in fact, gesticulating with comical vehemence.

Jones took the strings in his hands, and, with his signal-book open before him, was about to acknowledge the message, when Rex stopped him. “Send this message,” he said. “NOT SEEN! SIGNAL SENT TO EAGLEHAWK!”

Jones paused irresolutely. He was himself a convict, and dreaded the inevitable cat that he knew would follow this false message. “If they finds me out–” he said. Rex cocked the carbine with so decided a meaning in his black eyes that Jones–who could be brave enough on occasions–banished his hesitation at once, and began to signal eagerly. There came up a clinking of metal, and a murmur from below. “What’s keepin’ yer, Dandy?”

“All right. Get those irons off, and then we’ll talk, boys. I’m putting salt on old Burgess’s tail.” The rough jest was received with a roar, and Jones, looking momentarily down from his window on the staging, saw, in the waning light, a group of men freeing themselves from their irons with a hammer taken from the guard-house; while two, already freed, were casting buckets of water on the beacon wood-pile. The sentry was lying bound at a little distance.

“Now,” said the leader of this surprise party, “signal to Woody Island.” Jones perforce obeyed. “Say, ‘AN ESCAPE AT THE MINES! WATCH ONE-TREE POINT! SEND ON TO EAGLEHAWK!’ Quick now!”

Jones–comprehending at once the force of this manoeuvre, which would have the effect of distracting attention from the Neck–executed the order with a grin. “You’re a knowing one, Dandy Jack,” said he.

John Rex acknowledged the compliment by uncocking the carbine. “Hold out your hands!–Jemmy Vetch!” “Ay, ay,” replied the Crow, from beneath. “Come up and tie our friend Jones. Gabbett, have you got the axes?” “There’s only one,” said Gabbett, with an oath. “Then bring that, and any tucker you can lay your hands on. Have you tied him? On we go then.” And in the space of five minutes from the time when unsuspecting Harry had been silently clutched by two forms, who rushed upon him out of the shadows of the huts, the Signal Hill Station was deserted.

At the settlement Burgess was foaming. Nine men to seize the Long Bay boat, and get half an hour’s start of the alarm signal, was an unprecedented achievement! What could Warder Troke have been about! Warder Troke, however, found eight hours afterwards, disarmed, gagged, and bound in the scrub, had been guilty of no negligence. How could he tell that, at a certain signal from Dandy Jack, the nine men he had taken to Stewart’s Bay would “rush” him; and, before he could draw a pistol, truss him like a chicken? The worst of the gang, Rufus Dawes, had volunteered for the hated duties of pile-driving, and Troke had felt himself secure. How could he possibly guess that there was a plot, in which Rufus Dawes, of all men, had refused to join?

Constables, mounted and on foot, were despatched to scour the bush round the settlement. Burgess, confident from the reply of the Signal Hill semaphore, that the alarm had been given at Eaglehawk Isthmus, promised himself the re-capture of the gang before many hours; and, giving orders to keep the communications going, retired to dinner. His convict servants had barely removed the soup when the result of John Rex’s ingenuity became manifest.

The semaphore at Signal Hill had stopped working.

“Perhaps the fools can’t see,” said Burgess. “Fire the beacon–and saddle my horse.” The beacon was fired. All right at Mount Arthur, Mount Communication, and the Coal Mines. To the westward the line was clear. But at Signal Hill was no answering light. Burgess stamped with rage. “Get me my boat’s crew ready; and tell the Mines to signal to Woody Island.” As he stood on the jetty, a breathless messenger brought the reply. “A BOAT’S CREW GONE TO ONE-TREE POINT! FIVE MEN SENT FROM EAGLEHAWK IN OBEDIENCE TO ORDERS!” Burgess understood it at once. The fellows had decoyed the Eaglehawk guard. “Give way, men!” And the boat, shooting into the darkness, made for Long Bay. “I won’t be far behind ’em,” said the Commandant, “at any rate.”

Between Eaglehawk and Signal Hill were, for the absconders, other dangers. Along the indented coast of Port Bunche were four constables’ stations. These stations–mere huts within signalling distance of each other–fringed the shore, and to avoid them it would be necessary to make a circuit into the scrub. Unwilling as he was to lose time, John Rex saw that to attempt to run the gauntlet of these four stations would be destruction. The safety of the party depended upon the reaching of the Neck while the guard was weakened by the absence of some of the men along the southern shore, and before the alarm could be given from the eastern arm of the peninsula. With this view, he ranged his men in single file; and, quitting the road near Norfolk Bay, made straight for the Neck. The night had set in with a high westerly wind, and threatened rain. It was pitch dark; and the fugitives were guided only by the dull roar of the sea as it beat upon Descent Beach. Had it not been for the accident of a westerly gale, they would not have had even so much assistance.

The Crow walked first, as guide, carrying a musket taken from Harry. Then came Gabbett, with an axe; followed by the other six, sharing between them such provisions as they had obtained at Signal Hill. John Rex, with the carbine, and Troke’s pistols, walked last. It had been agreed that if attacked they were to run each one his own way. In their desperate case, disunion was strength. At intervals, on their left, gleamed the lights of the constables’ stations, and as they stumbled onward they heard plainer and more plainly the hoarse murmur of the sea, beyond which was liberty or death.

After nearly two hours of painful progress, Jemmy Vetch stopped, and whispered them to approach. They were on a sandy rise. To the left was a black object–a constable’s hut; to the right was a dim white line– the ocean; in front was a row of lamps, and between every two lamps leapt and ran a dusky, indistinct body. Jemmy Vetch pointed with his lean forefinger.

“The dogs!”

Instinctively they crouched down, lest even at that distance the two sentries, so plainly visible in the red light of the guard-house fire, should see them.

“Well, bo’s,” said Gabbett, “what’s to be done now?”

As he spoke, a long low howl broke from one of the chained hounds, and the whole kennel burst into hideous outcry. John Rex, who perhaps was the bravest of the party, shuddered. “They have smelt us,” he said. “We must go on.”

Gabbett spat in his palm, and took firmer hold of the axe-handle.

“Right you are,” he said. “I’ll leave my mark on some of them before this night’s out!”

On the opposite shore lights began to move, and the fugitives could hear the hurrying tramp of feet.

“Make for the right-hand side of the jetty,” said Rex in a fierce whisper. “I think I see a boat there. It is our only chance now. We can never break through the station. Are we ready? Now! All together!”

Gabbett was fast outstripping the others by some three feet of distance. There were eleven dogs, two of whom were placed on stages set out in the water, and they were so chained that their muzzles nearly touched. The giant leapt into the line, and with a blow of his axe split the skull of the beast on his right hand. This action unluckily took him within reach of the other dog, which seized him by the thigh.

“Fire!” cried McNab from the other side of the lamps.

The giant uttered a cry of rage and pain, and fell with the dog under him. It was, however, the dog who had pulled him down, and the musket-ball intended for him struck Travers in the jaw. The unhappy villain fell– like Virgil’s Dares–“spitting blood, teeth, and curses.”

Gabbett clutched the mastiff’s throat with iron hand, and forced him to loose his hold; then, bellowing with fury, seized his axe and sprang forward, mangled as he was, upon the nearest soldier. Jemmy Vetch had been beforehand with him. Uttering a low snarl of hate, he fired, and shot the sentry through the breast. The others rushed through the now broken cordon, and made headlong for the boat.

“Fools!” cried Rex behind them. “You have wasted a shot! LOOK TO YOUR LEFT!”

Burgess, hurried down the tramroad by his men, had tarried at Signal Hill only long enough to loose the surprised guard from their bonds, and taking the Woody Island boat was pulling with a fresh crew to the Neck. The reinforcement was not ten yards from the jetty.

The Crow saw the danger, and, flinging himself into the water, desperately seized McNab’s boat.

“In with you for your lives!” he cried. Another volley from the guard spattered the water around the fugitives, but in the darkness the ill-aimed bullets fell harmless. Gabbett swung himself over the sheets, and seized an oar.

“Cox, Bodenham, Greenhill! Now, push her off! Jump, Tom, jump!” and as Burgess leapt to land, Cornelius was dragged over the stern, and the whale-boat floated into deep water.

McNab, seeing this, ran down to the water-side to aid the Commandant.

“Lift her over the Bar, men!” he shouted. “With a will–So!” And, raised in twelve strong arms, the pursuing craft slid across the isthmus.

“We’ve five minutes’ start,” said Vetch coolly, as he saw the Commandant take his place in the stern sheets. “Pull away, my jolly boys, and we’ll best ’em yet.”

The soldiers on the Neck fired again almost at random, but the blaze of their pieces only served to show the Commandant’s boat a hundred yards astern of that of the mutineers, which had already gained the deep water of Pirates’ Bay.

Then, for the first time, the six prisoners became aware that John Rex was not among them.

CHAPTER XXIV.

IN THE NIGHT.

John Rex had put into execution the first part of his scheme.

At the moment when, seeing Burgess’s boat near the sand-spit, he had uttered the warning cry heard by Vetch, he turned back into the darkness, and made for the water’s edge at a point some distance from the Neck. His desperate hope was that, the attention of the guard being concentrated on the escaping boat, he might, favoured by the darkness and the confusion–swim to the peninsula. It was not a very marvellous feat to accomplish, and he had confidence in his own powers. Once safe on the peninsula, his plans were formed. But, owing to the strong westerly wind, which caused an incoming tide upon the isthmus, it was necessary for him to attain some point sufficiently far to the southward to enable him, on taking the water, to be assisted, not impeded, by the current. With this view, he hurried over the sandy hummocks at the entrance to the Neck, and ran backwards towards the sea. In a few strides he had gained the hard and sandy shore, and, pausing to listen, heard behind him the sound of footsteps. He was pursued. The footsteps stopped, and then a voice cried–

“Surrender!”

It was McNab, who, seeing Rex’s retreat, had daringly followed him. John Rex drew from his breast Troke’s pistol and waited.

“Surrender!” cried the voice again, and the footsteps advanced two paces.

At the instant that Rex raised the weapon to fire, a vivid flash of lightning showed him, on his right hand, on the ghastly and pallid ocean, two boats, the hindermost one apparently within a few yards of him. The men looked like corpses. In the distance rose Cape Surville, and beneath Cape Surville was the hungry sea. The scene vanished in an instant–swallowed up almost before he had realized it. But the shock it gave him made him miss his aim, and, flinging away the pistol with a curse, he turned down the path and fled. McNab followed.

The path had been made by frequent passage from the station, and Rex found it tolerably easy running. He had acquired–like most men who live much in the dark–that cat-like perception of obstacles which is due rather to increased sensitiveness of touch than increased acuteness of vision. His feet accommodated themselves to the inequalities of the ground; his hands instinctively outstretched themselves towards the overhanging boughs; his head ducked of its own accord to any obtrusive sapling which bent to obstruct his progress. His pursuer was not so fortunate. Twice did John Rex laugh mentally, at a crash and scramble that told of a fall, and once–in a valley where trickled a little stream that he had cleared almost without an effort– he heard a splash that made him laugh outright. The track now began to go uphill, and Rex redoubled his efforts, trusting to his superior muscular energy to shake off his pursuer. He breasted the rise, and paused to listen. The crashing of branches behind him had ceased, and it seemed that he was alone.

He had gained the summit of the cliff. The lights of the Neck were invisible. Below him lay the sea. Out of the black emptiness came puffs of sharp salt wind. The tops of the rollers that broke below were blown off and whirled away into the night–white patches, swallowed up immediately in the increasing darkness. From the north side of the bay was borne the hoarse roar of the breakers as they dashed against the perpendicular cliffs which guarded Forrestier’s Peninsula. At his feet arose a frightful shrieking and whistling, broken at intervals by reports like claps of thunder. Where was he? Exhausted and breathless, he sank down into the rough scrub and listened. All at once, on the track over which he had passed, he heard a sound that made him bound to his feet in deadly fear– the bay of a dog!

He thrust his hand to his breast for the remaining pistol, and uttered a cry of alarm. He had dropped it. He felt round about him in the darkness for some stick or stone that might serve as a weapon. In vain. His fingers clutched nothing but prickly scrub and coarse grass. The sweat ran down his face. With staring eyeballs, and bristling hair, he stared into the darkness, as if he would dissipate it by the very intensity of his gaze. The noise was repeated, and, piercing through the roar of wind and water, above and below him, seemed to be close at hand. He heard a man’s voice cheering the dog in accents that the gale blew away from him before he could recognize them. It was probable that some of the soldiers had been sent to the assistance of McNab. Capture, then, was certain. In his agony, the wretched man almost promised himself repentance, should he escape this peril. The dog, crashing through the underwood, gave one short, sharp howl, and then ran mute.

The darkness had increased the gale. The wind, ravaging the hollow heaven, had spread between the lightnings and the sea an impenetrable curtain of black cloud. It seemed possible to seize upon this curtain and draw its edge yet closer, so dense was it. The white and raging waters were blotted out, and even the lightning seemed unable to penetrate that intense blackness. A large, warm drop of rain fell upon Rex’s outstretched hand, and far overhead rumbled a wrathful peal of thunder. The shrieking which he had heard a few moments ago had ceased, but every now and then dull but immense shocks, as of some mighty bird flapping the cliff with monstrous wings, reverberated around him, and shook the ground where he stood. He looked towards the ocean, and a tall misty Form–white against the all-pervading blackness– beckoned and bowed to him. He saw it distinctly for an instant, and then, with an awful shriek, as of wrathful despair, it sank and vanished. Maddened with a terror he could not define, the hunted man turned to meet the material peril that was so close at hand.

With a ferocious gasp, the dog flung himself upon him. John Rex was borne backwards, but, in his desperation, he clutched the beast by the throat and belly, and, exerting all his strength, flung him off. The brute uttered one howl, and seemed to lie where he had fallen; while above his carcase again hovered that white and vaporous column. It was strange that McNab and the soldier did not follow up the advantage they had gained. Courage–perhaps he should defeat them yet! He had been lucky to dispose of the dog so easily. With a fierce thrill of renewed hope, he ran forward; when at his feet, in his face, arose that misty Form, breathing chill warning, as though to wave him back. The terror at his heels drove him on. A few steps more, and he should gain the summit of the cliff. He could feel the sea roaring in front of him in the gloom. The column disappeared; and in a lull of wind, uprose from the place where it had been such a hideous medley of shrieks, laughter, and exultant wrath, that John Rex paused in horror. Too late. The ground gave way–it seemed–beneath his feet. He was falling–clutching, in vain, at rocks, shrubs, and grass. The cloud-curtain lifted, and by the lightning that leaped and played about the ocean, John Rex found an explanation of his terrors, more terrible than they themselves had been. The track he had followed led to that portion of the cliff in which the sea had excavated the tunnel-spout known as the Devil’s Blow-hole.

Clinging to a tree that, growing half-way down the precipice, had arrested his course, he stared into the abyss. Before him–already high above his head–was a gigantic arch of cliff. Through this arch he saw, at an immense distance below him, the raging and pallid ocean. Beneath him was an abyss splintered with black rocks, turbid and raucous with tortured water. Suddenly the bottom of this abyss seemed to advance to meet him; or, rather, the black throat of the chasm belched a volume of leaping, curling water, which mounted to drown him. Was it fancy that showed him, on the surface of the rising column, the mangled carcase of the dog?

The chasm into which John Rex had fallen was shaped like a huge funnel set up on its narrow end. The sides of this funnel were rugged rock, and in the banks of earth lodged here and there upon projections, a scrubby vegetation grew. The scanty growth paused abruptly half-way down the gulf, and the rock below was perpetually damp from the upthrown spray. Accident–had the convict been a Meekin, we might term it Providence– had lodged him on the lowest of these banks of earth. In calm weather he would have been out of danger, but the lightning flash revealed to his terror-sharpened sense a black patch of dripping rock on the side of the chasm some ten feet above his head. It was evident that upon the next rising of the water-spout the place where he stood would be covered with water.

The roaring column mounted with hideous swiftness. Rex felt it rush at him and swing him upward. With both arms round the tree, he clutched the sleeves of his jacket with either hand. Perhaps if he could maintain his hold he might outlive the shock of that suffocating torrent. He felt his feet rudely seized, as though by the hand of a giant, and plucked upwards. Water gurgled in his ears. His arms seemed about to be torn from their sockets. Had the strain lasted another instant, he must have loosed his hold; but, with a wild hoarse shriek, as though it was some sea-monster baffled of its prey, the column sank, and left him gasping, bleeding, half-drowned, but alive. It was impossible that he could survive another shock, and in his agony he unclasped his stiffened fingers, determined to resign himself to his fate. At that instant, however, he saw on the wall of rock that hollowed on his right hand, a red and lurid light, in the midst of which fantastically bobbed hither and thither the gigantic shadow of a man. He cast his eyes upwards and saw, slowly descending into the gulf, a blazing bush tied to a rope. McNab was taking advantage of the pause in the spouting to examine the sides of the Blow-hole.

A despairing hope seized John Rex. In another instant the light would reveal his figure, clinging like a limpet to the rock, to those above. He must be detected in any case; but if they could lower the rope sufficiently, he might clutch it and be saved. His dread of the horrible death that was beneath him overcame his resolution to avoid recapture. The long-drawn agony of the retreating water as it was sucked back again into the throat of the chasm had ceased, and he knew that the next tremendous pulsation of the sea below would hurl the spuming destruction up upon him. The gigantic torch slowly descended, and he had already drawn in his breath for a shout which should make itself heard above the roar of the wind and water, when a strange appearance on the face of the cliff made him pause. About six feet from him–glowing like molten gold in the gusty glow of the burning tree–a round sleek stream of water slipped from the rock into the darkness, like a serpent from its hole. Above this stream a dark spot defied the torchlight, and John Rex felt his heart leap with one last desperate hope as he comprehended that close to him was one of those tortuous drives which the worm-like action of the sea bores in such caverns as that in which he found himself. The drive, opened first to the light of the day by the natural convulsion which had raised the mountain itself above ocean level, probably extended into the bowels of the cliff. The stream ceased to let itself out of the crevice; it was then likely that the rising column of water did not penetrate far into this wonderful hiding-place.

Endowed with a wisdom, which in one placed in less desperate position would have been madness, John Rex shouted to his pursuers. “The rope! the rope!” The words, projected against the sides of the enormous funnel, were pitched high above the blast, and, reduplicated by a thousand echoes, reached the ears of those above.

“He’s alive!” cried McNab, peering into the abyss. “I see him. Look!”

The soldier whipped the end of the bullock-hide lariat round the tree to which he held, and began to oscillate it, so that the blazing bush might reach the ledge on which the daring convict sustained himself. The groan which preceded the fierce belching forth of the torrent was cast up to them from below.

“God be gude to the puir felly!” said the pious young Scotchman, catching his breath.

A white spume was visible at the bottom of the gulf, and the groan changed into a rapidly increasing bellow. John Rex, eyeing the blazing pendulum, that with longer and longer swing momentarily neared him, looked up to the black heaven for the last time with a muttered prayer. The bush–the flame fanned by the motion–flung a crimson glow upon his frowning features which, as he caught the rope, had a sneer of triumph on them. “Slack out! slack out!” he cried; and then, drawing the burning bush towards him, attempted to stamp out the fire with his feet.

The soldier set his body against the tree trunk, and gripped the rope hard, turning his head away from the fiery pit below him. “Hold tight, your honour,” he muttered to McNab. “She’s coming!”

The bellow changed into a roar, the roar into a shriek, and with a gust of wind and spray, the seething sea leapt up out of the gulf. John Rex, unable to extinguish the flame, twisted his arm about the rope, and the instant before the surface of the rising water made a momentary floor to the mouth of the cavern, he spurned the cliff desperately with his feet, and flung himself across the chasm. He had already clutched the rock, and thrust himself forward, when the tremendous volume of water struck him. McNab and the soldier felt the sudden pluck of the rope and saw the light swing across the abyss. Then the fury of the waterspout burst with a triumphant scream, the tension ceased, the light was blotted out, and when the column sank, there dangled at the end of the lariat nothing but the drenched and blackened skeleton of the she-oak bough. Amid a terrific peal of thunder, the long pent-up rain descended, and a sudden ghastly rending asunder of the clouds showed far below them the heaving ocean, high above them the jagged and glistening rocks, and at their feet the black and murderous abyss of the Blowhole–empty.

They pulled up the useless rope in silence; and another dead tree lighted and lowered showed them nothing.

“God rest his puir soul,” said McNab, shuddering. “He’s out o’ our han’s now.”

CHAPTER XXV.

THE FLIGHT.

Gabbett, guided by the Crow, had determined to beach the captured boat on the southern point of Cape Surville. It will be seen by those who have followed the description of the topography of Colonel Arthur’s Penitentiary, that nothing but the desperate nature of the attempt could have justified so desperate a measure. The perpendicular cliffs seemed to render such an attempt certain destruction; but Vetch, who had been employed in building the pier at the Neck, knew that on the southern point of the promontory was a strip of beach, upon which the company might, by good fortune, land in safety. With something of the decision of his leader, Rex, the Crow determined at once that in their desperate plight this was the only measure, and setting his teeth as he seized the oar that served as a rudder, he put the boat’s head straight for the huge rock that formed the northern horn of Pirates’ Bay.

Save for the faint phosphorescent radiance of the foaming waves, the darkness was intense, and Burgess for some minutes pulled almost at random in pursuit. The same tremendous flash of lightning which had saved the life of McNab, by causing Rex to miss his aim, showed to the Commandant the whale-boat balanced on the summit of an enormous wave, and apparently about to be flung against the wall of rock which–magnified in the flash– seemed frightfully near to them. The next instant Burgess himself– his boat lifted by the swiftly advancing billow–saw a wild waste of raging seas scooped into abysmal troughs, in which the bulk of a leviathan might wallow. At the bottom of one of these valleys of water lay the mutineers’ boat, looking, with its outspread oars, like some six-legged insect floating in a pool of ink. The great cliff, whose every scar and crag was as distinct as though its huge bulk was but a yard distant, seemed to shoot out from its base towards the struggling insect, a broad, flat straw, that was a strip of dry land. The next instant the rushing water, carrying the six-legged atom with it, creamed up over this strip of beach; the giant crag, amid the thunder-crash which followed upon the lightning, appeared to stoop down over the ocean, and as it stooped, the billow rolled onwards, the boat glided down into the depths, and the whole phantasmagoria was swallowed up in the tumultuous darkness of the tempest.

Burgess–his hair bristling with terror–shouted to put the boat about, but he might with as much reason have shouted at an avalanche. The wind blew his voice away, and emptied it violently into the air. A snarling billow jerked the oar from his hand. Despite the desperate efforts of the soldiers, the boat was whirled up the mountain of water like a leaf on a water-spout, and a second flash of lightning showed them what seemed a group of dolls struggling in the surf, and a walnut-shell bottom upwards was driven by the recoil of the waves towards them. For an instant all thought that they must share the fate which had overtaken the unlucky convicts; but Burgess succeeded in trimming the boat, and, awed by the peril he had so narrowly escaped, gave the order to return. As the men set the boat’s head to the welcome line of lights that marked the Neck, a black spot balanced upon a black line was swept under their stern and carried out to sea. As it passed them, this black spot emitted a cry, and they knew that it was one of the shattered boat’s crew clinging to an oar.

“He was the only one of ’em alive,” said Burgess, bandaging his sprained wrist two hours afterwards at the Neck, “and he’s food for the fishes by this time!”

He was mistaken, however. Fate had in reserve for the crew of villains a less merciful death than that of drowning. Aided by the lightning, and that wonderful “good luck” which urges villainy to its destruction, Vetch beached the boat, and the party, bruised and bleeding, reached the upper portion of the shore in safety. Of all this number only Cox was lost. He was pulling stroke-oar, and, being something of a laggard, stood in the way of the Crow, who, seeing the importance of haste in preserving his own skin, plucked the man backwards by the collar, and passed over his sprawling body to the shore. Cox, grasping at anything to save himself, clutched an oar, and the next moment found himself borne out with the overturned whale-boat by the under-tow. He was drifted past his only hope of rescue–the guard-boat–with a velocity that forbade all attempts at rescue, and almost before the poor scoundrel had time to realize his condition, he was in the best possible way of escaping the hanging that his comrades had so often humorously prophesied for him. Being a strong and vigorous villain, however, he clung tenaciously to his oar, and even unbuckling his leather belt, passed it round the slip of wood that was his salvation, girding himself to it as firmly as he was able. In this condition, plus a swoon from exhaustion, he was descried by the helmsman of the Pretty Mary, a few miles from Cape Surville, at daylight next morning. Blunt, with a wild hope that this waif and stray might be the lover of Sarah Purfoy, dead, lowered a boat and picked him up. Nearly bisected by the belt, gorged with salt water, frozen with cold, and having two ribs broken, the victim of Vetch’s murderous quickness retained sufficient life to survive Blunt’s remedies for nearly two hours. During that time he stated that his name was Cox, that he had escaped from Port Arthur with eight others, that John Rex was the leader of the expedition, that the others were all drowned, and that he believed John Rex had been retaken. Having placed Blunt in possession of these particulars, he further said that it pricked him to breathe, cursed Jemmy Vetch, the settlement, and the sea, and so impenitently died. Blunt smoked three pipes, and then altered the course of the Pretty Mary two points to the eastward, and ran for the coast. It was possible that the man for whom he was searching had not been retaken, and was even now awaiting his arrival. It was clearly his duty–hearing of the planned escape having been actually attempted–not to give up the expedition while hope remained.

“I’ll take one more look along,” said he to himself.

The Pretty Mary, hugging the coast as closely as she dared, crawled in the thin breeze all day, and saw nothing. It would be madness to land at Cape Surville, for the whole station would be on the alert; so Blunt, as night was falling, stood off a little across the mouth of Pirates’ Bay. He was walking the deck, groaning at the folly of the expedition, when a strange appearance on the southern horn of the bay made him come to a sudden halt. There was a furnace blazing in the bowels of the mountain! Blunt rubbed his eyes and stared. He looked at the man at the helm. “Do you see anything yonder, Jem?”

Jem–a Sydney man, who had never been round that coast before– briefly remarked, “Lighthouse.”

Blunt stumped into the cabin and got out his charts. No lighthouse was laid down there, only a mark like an anchor, and a note, “Remarkable Hole at this Point.” A remarkable hole indeed; a remarkable “lime kiln” would have been more to the purpose!

Blunt called up his mate, William Staples, a fellow whom Sarah Purfoy’s gold had bought body and soul. William Staples looked at the waxing and waning glow for a while, and then said, in tones trembling with greed, “It’s a fire. Lie to, and lower away the jolly-boat. Old man, that’s our bird for a thousand pounds!”

The Pretty Mary shortened sail, and Blunt and Staples got into the jolly-boat.

“Goin’ a-hoysterin’, sir?” said one of the crew, with a grin, as Blunt threw a bundle into the stern-sheets.

Staples thrust his tongue into his cheek. The object of the voyage was now pretty well understood among the carefully picked crew. Blunt had not chosen men who were likely to betray him, though, for that matter, Rex had suggested a precaution which rendered betrayal almost impossible.

“What’s in the bundle, old man?” asked Will Staples, after they had got clear of the ship.

“Clothes,” returned Blunt. “We can’t bring him off, if it is him, in his canaries. He puts on these duds, d’ye see, sinks Her Majesty’s livery, and comes aboard, a ‘shipwrecked mariner’.”

“That’s well thought of. Whose notion’s that? The Madam’s, I’ll be bound.”

“Ay.”

“She’s a knowing one.”

And the sinister laughter of the pair floated across the violet water.

“Go easy, man,” said Blunt, as they neared the shore. “They’re all awake at Eaglehawk; and if those cursed dogs give tongue there’ll be a boat out in a twinkling. It’s lucky the wind’s off shore.”

Staples lay on his oar and listened. The night was moonless, and the ship had already disappeared from view. They were approaching the promontory from the south-east, and this isthmus of the guarded Neck was hidden by the outlying cliff. In the south-western angle of this cliff, about midway between the summit and the sea, was an arch, which vomited a red and flickering light, that faintly shone upon the sea in the track of the boat. The light was lambent and uncertain, now sinking almost into insignificance, and now leaping up with a fierceness that caused a deep glow to throb in the very heart of the mountain. Sometimes a black figure would pass across this gigantic furnace-mouth, stooping and rising, as though feeding the fire. One might have imagined that a door in Vulcan’s Smithy had been left inadvertently open, and that the old hero was forging arms for a demigod.

Blunt turned pale. “It’s no mortal,” he whispered. “Let’s go back.”

“And what will Madam say?” returned dare-devil Will Staples who would have plunged into Mount Erebus had he been paid for it. Thus appealed to in the name of his ruling passion, Blunt turned his head, and the boat sped onward.

CHAPTER XXVI.

THE WORK OF THE SEA.

The lift of the water-spout had saved John Rex’s life. At the moment when it struck him he was on his hands and knees at the entrance of the cavern. The wave, gushing upwards, at the same time expanded, laterally, and this lateral force drove the convict into the mouth of the subterranean passage. The passage trended downwards, and for some seconds he was rolled over and over, the rush of water wedging him at length into a crevice between two enormous stones, which overhung a still more formidable abyss. Fortunately for the preservation of his hard-fought-for life, this very fury of incoming water prevented him from being washed out again with the recoil of the wave. He could hear the water dashing with frightful echoes far down into the depths beyond him, but it was evident that the two stones against which he had been thrust acted as breakwaters to the torrent poured in from the outside, and repelled the main body of the stream in the fashion he had observed from his position on the ledge. In a few seconds the cavern was empty.

Painfully extricating himself, and feeling as yet doubtful of his safety, John Rex essayed to climb the twin-blocks that barred the unknown depths below him. The first movement he made caused him to shriek aloud. His left arm–with which he clung to the rope–hung powerless. Ground against the ragged entrance, it was momentarily paralysed. For an instant the unfortunate wretch sank despairingly on the wet and rugged floor of the cave; then a terrible gurgling beneath his feet warned him of the approaching torrent, and, collecting all his energies, he scrambled up the incline. Though nigh fainting with pain and exhaustion, he pressed desperately higher and higher. He heard the hideous shriek of the whirlpool which was beneath him grow louder and louder. He saw the darkness grow darker as the rising water-spout covered the mouth of the cave. He felt the salt spray sting his face, and the wrathful tide lick the hand that hung over the shelf on which he fell. But that was all. He was out of danger at last! And as the thought blessed his senses, his eyes closed, and the wonderful courage and strength which had sustained the villain so long exhaled in stupor.

When he awoke the cavern was filled with the soft light of dawn. Raising his eyes, he beheld, high above his head, a roof of rock, on which the reflection of the sunbeams, playing upwards through a pool of water, cast flickering colours. On his right hand was the mouth of the cave, on his left a terrific abyss, at the bottom of which he could hear the sea faintly lapping and washing. He raised himself and stretched his stiffened limbs. Despite his injured shoulder, it was imperative that he should bestir himself. He knew not if his escape had been noticed, or if the cavern had another inlet, by which McNab, returning, might penetrate. Moreover, he was wet and famished. To preserve the life which he had torn from the sea, he must have fire and food. First he examined the crevice by which he had entered. It was shaped like an irregular triangle, hollowed at the base by the action of the water which in such storms as that of the preceding night was forced into it by the rising of the sea. John Rex dared not crawl too near the edge, lest he should slide out of the damp and slippery orifice, and be dashed upon the rocks at the bottom of the Blow-hole. Craning his neck, he could see, a hundred feet below him, the sullenly frothing water, gurgling, spouting, and creaming, in huge turbid eddies, occasionally leaping upwards as though it longed for another storm to send it raging up to the man who had escaped its fury. It was impossible to get down that way. He turned back into the cavern, and began to explore in that direction. The twin-rocks against which he had been hurled were, in fact, pillars which supported the roof of the water-drive. Beyond them lay a great grey shadow which was emptiness, faintly illumined by the sea-light cast up through the bottom of the gulf. Midway across the grey shadow fell a strange beam of dusky brilliance, which cast its flickering light upon a wilderness of waving sea-weeds. Even in the desperate position in which he found himself, there survived in the vagabond’s nature sufficient poetry to make him value the natural marvel upon which he had so strangely stumbled. The immense promontory, which, viewed from the outside, seemed as solid as a mountain, was in reality but a hollow cone, reft and split into a thousand fissures by the unsuspected action of the sea for centuries. The Blow-hole was but an insignificant cranny compared with this enormous chasm. Descending with difficulty the steep incline, he found himself on the brink of a gallery of rock, which, jutting out over the pool, bore on its moist and weed-bearded edges signs of frequent submersion. It must be low tide without the rock. Clinging to the rough and root-like algae that fringed the ever-moist walls, John Rex crept round the projection of the gallery, and passed at once from dimness to daylight. There was a broad loop-hole in the side of the honey-combed and wave-perforated cliff. The cloudless heaven expanded above him; a fresh breeze kissed his cheek and, sixty feet below him, the sea wrinkled all its lazy length, sparkling in myriad wavelets beneath the bright beams of morning. Not a sign of the recent tempest marred the exquisite harmony of the picture. Not a sign of human life gave evidence of the grim neighbourhood of the prison. From the recess out of which he peered nothing was visible but a sky of turquoise smiling upon a sea of sapphire.

The placidity of Nature was, however, to the hunted convict a new source of alarm. It was a reason why the Blow-hole and its neighbourhood should be thoroughly searched. He guessed that the favourable weather would be an additional inducement to McNab and Burgess to satisfy themselves as to the fate of their late prisoner. He turned from the opening, and prepared to descend still farther into the rock pathway. The sunshine had revived and cheered him, and a sort of instinct told him that the cliff, so honey-combed above, could not be without some gully or chink at its base, which at low tide would give upon the rocky shore. It grew darker as he descended, and twice he almost turned back in dread of the gulfs on either side of him. It seemed to him, also, that the gullet of weed-clad rock through which he was crawling doubled upon itself, and led only into the bowels of the mountain. Gnawed by hunger, and conscious that in a few hours at most the rising tide would fill the subterranean passage and cut off his retreat, he pushed desperately onwards. He had descended some ninety feet, and had lost, in the devious windings of his downward path, all but the reflection of the light from the gallery, when he was rewarded by a glimpse of sunshine striking upwards. He parted two enormous masses of seaweed, whose bubble-headed fronds hung curtainwise across his path, and found himself in the very middle of the narrow cleft of rock through which the sea was driven to the Blow-hole.

At an immense distance above him was the arch of cliff. Beyond that arch appeared a segment of the ragged edge of the circular opening, down which he had fallen. He looked in vain for the funnel-mouth whose friendly shelter had received him. It was now indistinguishable. At his feet was a long rift in the solid rock, so narrow that he could almost have leapt across it. This rift was the channel of a swift black current which ran from the sea for fifty yards under an arch eight feet high, until it broke upon the jagged rocks that lay blistering in the sunshine at the bottom of the circular opening in the upper cliff. A shudder shook the limbs of the adventurous convict. He comprehended that at high tide the place where he stood was under water, and that the narrow cavern became a subaqueous pipe of solid rock forty feet long, through which were spouted the league-long rollers of the Southern Sea.

The narrow strip of rock at the base of the cliff was as flat as a table. Here and there were enormous hollows like pans, which the retreating tide had left full of clear, still water. The crannies of the rock were inhabited by small white crabs, and John Rex found to his delight that there was on this little shelf abundance of mussels, which, though lean and acrid, were sufficiently grateful to his famished stomach. Attached to the flat surfaces of the numerous stones, moreover, were coarse limpets. These, however, John Rex found too salt to be palatable, and was compelled to reject them. A larger variety, however, having a succulent body as thick as a man’s thumb, contained in long razor-shaped shells, were in some degree free from this objection, and he soon collected the materials for a meal. Having eaten and sunned himself, he began to examine the enormous rock, to the base of which he had so strangely penetrated. Rugged and worn, it raised its huge breast against wind and wave, secure upon a broad pedestal, which probably extended as far beneath the sea as the massive column itself rose above it. Rising thus, with its shaggy drapery of seaweed clinging about its knees, it seemed to be a motionless but sentient being–some monster of the deep, a Titan of the ocean condemned ever to front in silence the fury of that illimitable and rarely-travelled sea. Yet–silent and motionless as he was–the hoary ancient gave hint of the mysteries of his revenge. Standing upon the broad and sea-girt platform where surely no human foot but his had ever stood in life, the convict saw, many feet above him, pitched into a cavity of the huge sun-blistered boulders, an object which his sailor eye told him at once was part of the top hamper of some large ship. Crusted with shells, and its ruin so overrun with the ivy of the ocean that its ropes could barely be distinguished from the weeds with which they were encumbered, this relic of human labour attested the triumph of nature over human ingenuity. Perforated below by the relentless sea, exposed above to the full fury of the tempest; set in solitary defiance to the waves, that rolling from the ice-volcano of the Southern Pole, hurled their gathered might unchecked upon its iron front, the great rock drew from its lonely warfare the materials of its own silent vengeance. Clasped in iron arms, it held its prey, snatched from the jaws of the all-devouring sea. One might imagine that, when the doomed ship, with her crew of shrieking souls, had splintered and gone down, the deaf, blind giant had clutched this fragment, upheaved from the seething waters, with a thrill of savage and terrible joy.

John Rex, gazing up at this memento of a forgotten agony, felt a sensation of the most vulgar pleasure. “There’s wood for my fire!” thought he; and mounting to the spot, he essayed to fling down the splinters of timber upon the platform. Long exposed to the sun, and flung high above the water-mark of recent storms, the timber had dried to the condition of touchwood, and would burn fiercely. It was precisely what he required. Strange accident that had for years stored, upon a desolate rock, this fragment of a vanished and long-forgotten vessel, that it might aid at last to warm the limbs of a villain escaping from justice!

Striking the disintegrated mass with his iron-shod heel, John Rex broke off convenient portions; and making a bag of his shirt by tying the sleeves and neck, he was speedily staggering into the cavern with a supply of fuel. He made two trips, flinging down the wood on the floor of the gallery that overlooked the sea, and was returning for a third, when his quick ear caught the dip of oars. He had barely time to lift the seaweed curtain that veiled the entrance to the chasm, when the Eaglehawk boat rounded the promontory. Burgess was in the stern-sheets, and seemed to be making signals to someone on the top of the cliff. Rex, grinning behind his veil, divined the manoeuvre. McNab and his party were to search above, while the Commandant examined the gulf below. The boat headed direct for the passage, and for an instant John Rex’s undaunted soul shivered at the thought that, perhaps, after all, his pursuers might be aware of the existence of the cavern. Yet that was unlikely. He kept his ground, and the boat passed within a foot of him, gliding silently into the gulf. He observed that Burgess’s usually florid face was pale, and that his left sleeve was cut open, showing a bandage on the arm. There had been some fighting, then, and it was not unlikely that all his fellow-desperadoes had been captured! He chuckled at his own ingenuity and good sense. The boat, emerging from the archway, entered the pool of the Blow-hole, and, held with the full strength of the party, remained stationary. John Rex watched Burgess scan the rocks and eddies, saw him signal to McNab, and then, with much relief, beheld the boat’s head brought round to the sea-board.

He was so intent upon watching this dangerous and difficult operation that he was oblivious of an extraordinary change which had taken place in the interior of the cavern. The water which, an hour ago, had left exposed a long reef of black hummock-rocks, was now spread in one foam-flecked sheet over the ragged bottom of the rude staircase by which he had descended. The tide had turned, and the sea, apparently sucked in through some deeper tunnel in the portion of the cliff which was below water, was being forced into the vault with a rapidity which bid fair to shortly submerge the mouth of the cave. The convict’s feet were already wetted by the incoming waves, and as he turned for one last look at the boat he saw a green billow heave up against the entrance to the chasm, and, almost blotting out the daylight, roll majestically through the arch. It was high time for Burgess to take his departure if he did not wish his whale-boat to be cracked like a nut against the roof of the tunnel. Alive to his danger, the Commandant abandoned the search after his late prisoner’s corpse, and he hastened to gain the open sea. The boat, carried backwards and upwards on the bosom of a monstrous wave, narrowly escaped destruction, and John Rex, climbing to the gallery, saw with much satisfaction the broad back of his out-witted gaoler disappear round the sheltering promontory. The last efforts of his pursuers had failed, and in another hour the only accessible entrance to the convict’s retreat was hidden under three feet of furious seawater.

His gaolers were convinced of his death, and would search for him no more. So far, so good. Now for the last desperate venture–the escape from the wonderful cavern which was at once his shelter and his prison. Piling his wood together, and succeeding after many efforts, by the aid of a flint and the ring which yet clung to his ankle, in lighting a fire, and warming his chilled limbs in its cheering blaze, he set himself to meditate upon his course of action. He was safe for the present, and the supply of food that the rock afforded was amply sufficient to sustain life in him for many days, but it was impossible that he could remain for many days concealed. He had no fresh water, and though, by reason of the soaking he had received, he had hitherto felt little inconvenience from this cause, the salt and acrid mussels speedily induced a raging thirst, which he could not alleviate. It was imperative that within forty-eight hours at farthest he should be on his way to the peninsula. He remembered the little stream into which–in his flight of the previous night– he had so nearly fallen, and hoped to be able, under cover of the darkness, to steal round the reef and reach it unobserved. His desperate scheme was then to commence. He had to run the gauntlet of the dogs and guards, gain the peninsula, and await the rescuing vessel. He confessed to himself that the chances were terribly against him. If Gabbett and the others had been recaptured–as he devoutly trusted–the coast would be comparatively clear; but if they had escaped, he knew Burgess too well to think that he would give up the chase while hope of re-taking the absconders remained to him. If indeed all fell out as he had wished, he had still to sustain life until Blunt found him–if haply Blunt had not returned, wearied with useless and dangerous waiting.

As night came on, and the firelight showed strange shadows waving from the corners of the enormous vault, while the dismal abysses beneath him murmured and muttered with uncouth and ghastly utterance, there fell upon the lonely man the terror of Solitude. Was this marvellous hiding-place that he had discovered to be his sepulchre? Was he–a monster amongst his fellow-men–to die some monstrous death, entombed in this mysterious and terrible cavern of the sea? He had tried to drive away these gloomy thoughts by sketching out for himself a plan of action– but in vain. In vain he strove to picture in its completeness that –as yet vague–design by which he promised himself to wrest from the vanished son of the wealthy ship-builder his name and heritage. His mind, filled with forebodings of shadowy horror, could not give the subject the calm consideration which it needed. In the midst of his schemes for the baffling of the jealous love of the woman who was to save him, and the getting to England, in shipwrecked and foreign guise, as the long-lost heir to the fortune of Sir Richard Devine, there arose ghastly and awesome shapes of death and horror, with whose terrible unsubstantiality he must grapple in the lonely recesses of that dismal cavern. He heaped fresh wood upon his fire, that the bright light might drive out the gruesome things that lurked above, below, and around him. He became afraid to look behind him, lest some shapeless mass of mid-sea birth–some voracious polype, with far-reaching arms and jellied mouth ever open to devour–might slide up over the edge of the dripping caves below, and fasten upon him in the darkness. His imagination–always sufficiently vivid, and spurred to an unnatural effect by the exciting scenes of the previous night–painted each patch of shadow, clinging bat-like to the humid wall, as some globular sea-spider ready to drop upon him with its viscid and clay-cold body, and drain out his chilled blood, enfolding him in rough and hairy arms. Each splash in the water beneath him, each sigh of the multitudinous and melancholy sea, seemed to prelude the laborious advent of some mis-shapen and ungainly abortion of the ooze. All the sensations induced by lapping water and regurgitating waves took material shape and surrounded him. All creatures that could be engendered by slime and salt crept forth into the firelight to stare at him. Red dabs and splashes that were living beings, having a strange phosphoric light of their own, glowed upon the floor. The livid encrustations of a hundred years of humidity slipped from off the walls and painfully heaved their mushroom surfaces to the blaze. The red glow of the unwonted fire, crimsoning the wet sides of the cavern, seemed to attract countless blisterous and transparent shapelessnesses, which elongated themselves towards him. Bloodless and bladdery things ran hither and thither noiselessly. Strange carapaces crawled from out of the rocks. All the horrible unseen life of the ocean seemed to be rising up and surrounding him. He retreated to the brink of the gulf, and the glare of the upheld brand fell upon a rounded hummock, whose coronal of silky weed out-floating in the water looked like the head of a drowned man. He rushed to the entrance of the gallery, and his shadow, thrown into the opening, took the shape of an avenging phantom, with arms upraised to warn him back. The naturalist, the explorer, or the shipwrecked seaman would have found nothing frightful in this exhibition of the harmless life of the Australian ocean. But the convict’s guilty conscience, long suppressed and derided, asserted itself in this hour when it was alone with Nature and Night. The bitter intellectual power which had so long supported him succumbed beneath imagination–the unconscious religion of the soul. If ever he was nigh repentance it was then. Phantoms of his past crimes gibbered at him, and covering his eyes with his hands, he fell shuddering upon his knees. The brand, loosening from his grasp, dropped into the gulf, and was extinguished with a hissing noise. As if the sound had called up some spirit that lurked below, a whisper ran through the cavern.

“John Rex!” The hair on the convict’s flesh stood up, and he cowered to the earth.

“John Rex?”

It was a human voice! Whether of friend or enemy he did not pause to think. His terror over-mastered all other considerations.

“Here! here!” he cried, and sprang to the opening of the vault.

Arrived at the foot of the cliff, Blunt and Staples found themselves in almost complete darkness, for the light of the mysterious fire, which had hitherto guided them, had necessarily disappeared. Calm as was the night, and still as was the ocean, the sea yet ran with silent but dangerous strength through the channel which led to the Blow-hole; and Blunt, instinctively feeling the boat drawn towards some unknown peril, held off the shelf of rocks out of reach of the current. A sudden flash of fire, as from a flourished brand, burst out above them, and floating downwards through the darkness, in erratic circles, came an atom of burning wood. Surely no one but a hunted man would lurk in such a savage retreat.

Blunt, in desperate anxiety, determined to risk all upon one venture. “John Rex!” he shouted up through his rounded hands. The light flashed again at the eye-hole of the mountain, and on the point above them appeared a wild figure, holding in its hands a burning log, whose fierce glow illumined a face so contorted by deadly fear and agony of expectation that it was scarce human.

“Here! here!”

“The poor devil seems half-crazy,” said Will Staples, under his breath; and then aloud, “We’re FRIENDS!” A few moments sufficed to explain matters. The terrors which had oppressed John Rex disappeared in human presence, and the villain’s coolness returned. Kneeling on the rock platform, he held parley.

“It is impossible for me to come down now,” he said. “The tide covers the only way out of the cavern.”

“Can’t you dive through it?” said Will Staples.

“No, nor you neither,” said Rex, shuddering at the thought of trusting himself to that horrible whirlpool.

“What’s to be done? You can’t come down that wall.” “Wait until morning,” returned Rex coolly. “It will be dead low tide at seven o’clock. You must send a boat at six, or there-abouts. It will be low enough for me to get out, I dare say, by that time.”

“But the Guard?”

” Won’t come here, my man. They’ve got their work to do in watching the Neck and exploring after my mates. They won’t come here. Besides, I’m dead.”

“Dead!”

“Thought to be so, which is as well–better for me, perhaps. If they don’t see your ship, or your boat, you’re safe enough.”

“I don’t like to risk it,” said Blunt. “It’s Life if we’re caught.”

“It’s Death if I’m caught!” returned the other, with a sinister laugh. “But there’s no danger if you are cautious. No one looks for rats in a terrier’s kennel, and there’s not a station along the beach from here to Cape Pillar. Take your vessel out of eye-shot of the Neck, bring the boat up Descent Beach, and the thing’s done.”

“Well,” says Blunt, “I’ll try it.”

“You wouldn’t like to stop here till morning? It is rather lonely,” suggested Rex, absolutely making a jest of his late terrors.

Will Staples laughed. “You’re a bold boy!” said he. “We’ll come at daybreak.”

“Have you got the clothes as I directed?”

“Yes.”

“Then good night. I’ll put my fire out, in case somebody else might see it, who wouldn’t be as kind as you are.”

“Good night.”

“Not a word for the Madam,” said Staples, when they reached the vessel.

“Not a word, the ungrateful dog,” asserted Blunt, adding, with some heat, “That’s the way with women. They’ll go through fire and water for a man that doesn’t care a snap of his fingers for ’em; but for any poor fellow who risks his neck to pleasure ’em they’ve nothing but sneers! I wish I’d never meddled in the business.”

“There are no fools like old fools,” thought Will Staples, looking back through the darkness at the place where the fire had been, but he did not utter his thoughts aloud.

At eight o’clock the next morning the Pretty Mary stood out to sea with every stitch of canvas set, alow and aloft. The skipper’s fishing had come to an end. He had caught a shipwrecked seaman, who had been brought on board at daylight, and was then at breakfast in the cabin. The crew winked at each other when the haggard mariner, attired in garments that seemed remarkably well preserved, mounted the side. But they, none of them, were in a position to controvert the skipper’s statement.

“Where are we bound for?” asked John Rex, smoking Staples’s pipe in lingering puffs of delight. “I’m entirely in your hands, Blunt.”

“My orders are to cruise about the whaling grounds until I meet my consort,” returned Blunt sullenly, “and put you aboard her. She’ll take you back to Sydney. I’m victualled for a twelve-months’ trip.”

“Right!” cried Rex, clapping his preserver on the back. “I’m bound to get to Sydney somehow; but, as the Philistines are abroad, I may as well tarry in Jericho till my beard be grown. Don’t stare at my Scriptural quotation, Mr. Staples,” he added, inspirited by creature comforts, and secure amid his purchased friends. “I assure you that I’ve had the very best religious instruction. Indeed, it is chiefly owing to my worthy spiritual pastor and master that I am enabled to smoke this very villainous tobacco of yours at the present moment!”

CHAPTER XXVII.

THE VALLEY OF THE SHADOW OF DEATH.

It was not until they had scrambled up the beach to safety that the absconders became fully aware of the loss of another of their companions. As they stood on the break of the beach, wringing the water from their clothes, Gabbett’s small eye, counting their number, missed the stroke oar.

“Where’s Cox?”

“The fool fell overboard,” said Jemmy Vetch shortly. “He never had as much sense in that skull of his as would keep it sound on his shoulders.”

Gabbett scowled. “That’s three of us gone,” he said, in the tones of a man suffering some personal injury.

They summed up their means of defence against attack. Sanders and Greenhill had knives. Gabbett still retained the axe in his belt. Vetch had dropped his musket at the Neck, and Bodenham and Cornelius were unarmed.

“Let’s have a look at the tucker,” said Vetch.

There was but one bag of provisions. It contained a piece of salt pork, two loaves, and some uncooked potatoes. Signal Hill station was not rich in edibles.

“That ain’t much,” said the Crow, with rueful face. “Is it, Gabbett?”

“It must do, any way,” returned the giant carelessly.

The inspection over, the six proceeded up the shore, and encamped under the lee of a rock. Bodenham was for lighting a fire, but Vetch, who, by tacit consent, had been chosen leader of the expedition, forbade it, saying that the light might betray them. “They’ll think we’re drowned, and won’t pursue us,” he said. So all that night the miserable wretches crouched fireless together.

Morning breaks clear and bright, and–free for the first time in ten years– they comprehend that their terrible journey has begun. “Where are we to go? How are we to live?” asked Bodenham, scanning the barren bush that stretches to the barren sea. “Gabbett, you’ve been out before–how’s it done?”

“We’ll make the shepherds’ huts, and live on their tucker till we get a change o’ clothes,” said Gabbett evading the main question. “We can follow the coast-line.”

“Steady, lads,” said prudent Vetch; “we must sneak round yon sandhills, and so creep into the scrub. If they’ve a good glass at the Neck, they can see us.”

“It does seem close,” said Bodenham; “I could pitch a stone on to the guard-house. Good-bye, you Bloody Spot!” he adds, with sudden rage, shaking his fist vindictively at the Penitentiary; “I don’t want to see you no more till the Day o’ Judgment.”

Vetch divides the provisions, and they travel all that day until dark night. The scrub is prickly and dense. Their clothes are torn, their hands and feet bleeding. Already they feel out-wearied. No one pursuing, they light a fire, and sleep. The second day they come to a sandy spit that runs out into the sea, and find that they have got too far to the eastward, and must follow the shore line to East Bay Neck. Back through the scrub they drag their heavy feet. That night they eat the last crumb of the loaf. The third day at high noon–after some toilsome walking–they reach a big hill, now called Collins’ Mount, and see the upper link of the earring, the isthmus of East Bay Neck, at their feet. A few rocks are on their right hand, and blue in the lovely distance lies hated Maria Island. “We must keep well to the eastward,” said Greenhill, “or we shall fall in with the settlers and get taken.” So, passing the isthmus, they strike into the bush along the shore, and tightening their belts over their gnawing bellies, camp under some low-lying hills.

The fourth day is notable for the indisposition of Bodenham, who is a bad walker, and, falling behind, delays the party by frequent cooees. Gabbett threatens him with a worse fate than sore feet if he lingers. Luckily, that evening Greenhill espies a hut, but, not trusting to the friendship of the occupant, they wait until he quits it in the morning, and then send Vetch to forage. Vetch, secretly congratulating himself on having by his counsel prevented violence, returns bending under half a bag of flour. “You’d better carry the flour,” said he to Gabbett, “and give me the axe.” Gabbett eyes him for a while, as if struck by his puny form, but finally gives the axe to his mate Sanders. That day they creep along cautiously between the sea and the hills, camping at a creek. Vetch, after much search, finds a handful of berries, and adds them to the main stock. Half of this handful is eaten at once, the other half reserved for “to-morrow”. The next day they come to an arm of the sea, and as they struggle northward, Maria Island disappears, and with it all danger from telescopes. That evening they reach the camping ground by twos and threes; and each wonders between the paroxysms of hunger if his face is as haggard, and his eyes as bloodshot, as those of his neighbour.

On the seventh day, Bodenham says his feet are so bad he can’t walk, and Greenhill, with a greedy look at the berries, bids him stay behind. Being in a very weak condition, he takes his companion at his word, and drops off about noon the next day. Gabbett, discovering this defection, however, goes back, and in an hour or so appears, driving the wretched creature before him with blows, as a sheep is driven to the shambles. Greenhill remonstrates at another mouth being thus forced upon the party, but the giant silences him with a hideous glance. Jemmy Vetch remembers that Greenhill accompanied Gabbett once before, and feels uncomfortable. He gives hint of his suspicions to Sanders, but Sanders only laughs. It is horribly evident that there is an understanding among the three.

The ninth sun of their freedom, rising upon sandy and barren hillocks, bristling thick with cruel scrub, sees the six famine-stricken wretches cursing their God, and yet afraid to die. All around is the fruitless, shadeless, shelterless bush. Above, the pitiless heaven. In the distance, the remorseless sea. Something terrible must happen. That grey wilderness, arched by grey heaven stooping to grey sea, is a fitting keeper of hideous secrets. Vetch suggests that Oyster Bay cannot be far to the eastward–the line of ocean is deceitfully close–and though such a proceeding will take them out of their course, they resolve to make for it. After hobbling five miles, they seem no nearer than before, and, nigh dead with fatigue and starvation, sink despairingly upon the ground. Vetch thinks Gabbett’s eyes have a wolfish glare in them, and instinctively draws off from him. Said Greenhill, in the course of a dismal conversation, “I am so weak that I could eat a piece of a man.”

On the tenth day Bodenham refuses to stir, and the others, being scarce able to drag along their limbs, sit on the ground about him. Greenhill, eyeing the prostrate man, said slowly, “I have seen the same done before, boys, and it tasted like pork.”

Vetch, hearing his savage comrade give utterance to a thought all had secretly cherished, speaks out, crying, “It would be murder to do it, and then, perhaps we couldn’t eat it.”

“Oh,” said Gabbett, with a grin, “I’ll warrant you that, but you must all have a hand in it.”

Gabbett, Sanders and Greenhill then go aside, and presently Sanders, coming to the Crow, said, “He consented to act as flogger. He deserves it.”

“So did Gabbett, for that matter,” shudders Vetch.

“Ay, but Bodenham’s feet are sore,” said Sanders, “and ’tis a pity to leave him.”

Having no fire, they make a little breakwind; and Vetch, half-dozing behind this at about three in the morning, hears someone cry out “Christ!” and awakes, sweating ice.

No one but Gabbett and Greenhill would eat that night. That savage pair, however, make a fire, fling ghastly fragments on the embers, and eat the broil before it is right warm. In the morning the frightful carcase is divided. That day’s march takes place in silence, and at midday halt Cornelius volunteers to carry the billy, affecting great restoration from the food. Vetch gives it to him, and in half an hour afterwards Cornelius is missing. Gabbett and Greenhill pursue him in vain, and return with curses. “He’ll die like a dog,” said Greenhill, “alone in the bush.” Jemmy Vetch, with his intellect acute as ever, thinks that Cornelius may prefer such a death, but says nothing.

The twelfth morning dawns wet and misty, but Vetch, seeing the provision running short, strives to be cheerful, telling stories of men who have escaped greater peril. Vetch feels with dismay that he is the weakest of the party, but has some sort of ludicro-horrible consolation in remembering that he is also the leanest. They come to a creek that afternoon, and look, until nightfall, in vain for a crossing-place. The next day Gabbett and Vetch swim across, and Vetch directs Gabbett to cut a long sapling, which, being stretched across the water, is seized by Greenhill and the Moocher, who are dragged over.

“What would you do without me?” said the Crow with a ghastly grin.

They cannot kindle a fire, for Greenhill, who carries the tinder, has allowed it to get wet. The giant swings his axe in savage anger at enforced cold, and Vetch takes an opportunity to remark privately to him what a big man Greenhill is.

On the fourteenth day they can scarcely crawl, and their limbs pain them. Greenhill, who is the weakest, sees Gabbett and the Moocher go aside to consult, and crawling to the Crow, whimpers: “For God’s sake, Jemmy, don’t let ’em murder me!”

“I can’t help you,” says Vetch, looking about in terror. “Think of poor Tom Bodenham.”

“But he was no murderer. If they kill me, I shall go to hell with Tom’s blood on my soul.” He writhes on the ground in sickening terror, and Gabbett arriving, bids Vetch bring wood for the fire. Vetch, going, sees Greenhill clinging to wolfish Gabbett’s knees, and Sanders calls after him, “You will hear it presently, Jem.”

The nervous Crow puts his hand to his ears, but is conscious of a dull crash and a groan. When he comes back, Gabbett is putting on the dead man’s shoes, which are better than his own.

“We’ll stop here a day or so and rest,” said he, “now we’ve got provisions.”

Two more days pass, and the three, eyeing each other suspiciously, resume their march. The third day–the sixteenth of their awful journey– such portions of the carcase as they have with them prove unfit to eat. They look into each other’s famine-sharpened faces, and wonder “who’s next?”

“We must all die together,” said Sanders quickly, “before anything else must happen.”

Vetch marks the terror concealed in the words, and when the dreaded giant is out of earshot, says, “For God’s sake, let’s go on alone, Alick. You see what sort of a cove that Gabbett is–he’d kill his father before he’d fast one day.”

They made for the bush, but the giant turned and strode towards them. Vetch skipped nimbly on one side, but Gabbett struck the Moocher on the forehead with the axe. “Help! Jem, help!” cried the victim, cut, but not fatally, and in the strength of his desperation tore the axe from the monster who bore it, and flung it to Vetch. “Keep it, Jemmy,” he cried; “let’s have no more murder done!”

They fare again through the horrible bush until nightfall, when Vetch, in a strange voice, called the giant to him.

“He must die.”

“Either you or he,” laughs Gabbett. “Give me the axe.”

“No, no,” said the Crow, his thin, malignant face distorted by a horrible resolution. “I’ll keep the axe. Stand back! You shall hold him, and I’ll do the job.”

Sanders, seeing them approach, knew his end was come, and submitted, crying, “Give me half an hour to pray for myself.” They consent, and the bewildered wretch knelt down and folded his hands like a child. His big, stupid face worked with emotion. His great cracked lips moved in desperate agony. He wagged his head from side to side, in pitiful confusion of his brutalized senses. “I can’t think o’ the words, Jem!”

“Pah,” snarled the cripple, swinging the axe, “we can’t starve here all night.”

Four days had passed, and the two survivors of this awful journey sat watching each other. The gaunt giant, his eyes gleaming with hate and hunger, sat sentinel over the dwarf. The dwarf, chuckling at his superior sagacity, clutched the fatal axe. For two days they had not spoken to each other. For two days each had promised himself that on the next his companion must sleep–and die. Vetch comprehended the devilish scheme of the monster who had entrapped five of his fellow-beings to aid him by their deaths to his own safety, and held aloof. Gabbett watched to snatch the weapon from his companion, and make the odds even once and for ever. In the day-time they travelled on, seeking each a pretext to creep behind the other. In the night-time when they feigned slumber, each stealthily raising a head caught the wakeful glance of his companion. Vetch felt his strength deserting him, and his brain overpowered by fatigue. Surely the giant, muttering, gesticulating, and slavering at the mouth, was on the road to madness. Would the monster find opportunity to rush at him, and, braving the blood-stained axe, kill him by main force? or would he sleep, and be himself a victim? Unhappy Vetch! It is the terrible privilege of insanity to be sleepless.

On the fifth day, Vetch, creeping behind a tree, takes off his belt, and makes a noose. He will hang himself. He gets one end of the belt over a bough, and then his cowardice bids him pause. Gabbett approaches; he tries to evade him, and steal away into the bush. In vain. The insatiable giant, ravenous with famine, and sustained by madness, is not to be shaken off. Vetch tries to run, but his legs bend under him. The axe that has tried to drink so much blood feels heavy as lead. He will fling it away. No–he dares not. Night falls again. He must rest, or go mad. His limbs are powerless. His eyelids are glued together. He sleeps as he stands. This horrible thing must be a dream. He is at Port Arthur, or will wake on his pallet in the penny lodging-house he slept at when a boy. Is that the Deputy come to wake him to the torment of living? It is not time–surely not time yet. He sleeps–and the giant, grinning with ferocious joy, approaches on clumsy tiptoe and seizes the coveted axe.

On the north coast of Van Diemen’s Land is a place called St Helen’s Point, and a certain skipper, being in want of fresh water; landing there with a boat’s crew, found on the banks of the creek a gaunt and blood-stained man, clad in tattered yellow, who carried on his back an axe and a bundle. When the sailors came within sight of him, he made signs to them to approach, and, opening his bundle with much ceremony, offered them some of its contents. Filled with horror at what the maniac displayed, they seized and bound him. At Hobart Town he was recognized as the only survivor of the nine desperadoes who had escaped from Colonel Arthur’s “Natural Penitentiary”.

END OF BOOK THE THIRD

BOOK IV.–NORFOLK ISLAND. 1846.

CHAPTER I.

EXTRACTED FROM THE DIARY OF THE REV. JAMES NORTH.

Bathurst, February 11th, 1846.

In turning over the pages of my journal, to note the good fortune that has just happened to me, I am struck by the utter desolation of my life for the last seven years.

Can it be possible that I, James North, the college-hero, the poet, the prizeman, the Heaven knows what else, have been content to live on at this dreary spot–an animal, eating and drinking, for tomorrow I die? Yet it has been so. My world, that world of which I once dreamt so much, has been–here. My fame–which was to reach the ends of the earth– has penetrated to the neighbouring stations. I am considered a “good preacher” by my sheep-feeding friends. It is kind of them.

Yet, on the eve of leaving it, I confess that this solitary life has not been without its charms. I have had my books and my thoughts– though at times the latter were but grim companions. I have striven with my familiar sin, and have not always been worsted. Melancholy reflection. “Not always!” “But yet” is as a gaoler to bring forth some monstrous malefactor. I vowed, however, that I would not cheat myself in this diary of mine, and I will not. No evasions, no glossings over of my own sins. This journal is my confessor, and I bare my heart to it.

It is curious the pleasure I feel in setting down here in black and white these agonies and secret cravings of which I dare not speak. It is for the same reason, I suppose, that murderers make confession to dogs and cats, that people with something “on their mind” are given to thinking aloud, that the queen of Midas must needs whisper to the sedges the secret of her husband’s infirmity. Outwardly I am a man of God, pious and grave and softly spoken. Inwardly–what? The mean, cowardly, weak sinner that this book knows me…Imp! I could tear you in pieces!…One of these days I will. In the meantime, I will keep you under lock and key, and you shall hug my secrets close. No, old friend, with whom I have communed so long, forgive me, forgive me. You are to me instead of wife or priest.

I tell to your cold blue pages–how much was it I bought you for in Parramatta, rascal?–these stories, longings, remorses, which I would fain tell to human ear could I find a human being as discreet as thou. It has been said that a man dare not write all his thoughts and deeds; the words would blister the paper. Yet your sheets are smooth enough, you fat rogue! Our neighbours of Rome know human nature. A man must confess. One reads of wretches who have carried secrets in their bosoms for years, and blurted them forth at last. I, shut up here without companionship, without sympathy, without letters, cannot lock up my soul, and feed on my own thoughts. They will out, and so I whisper them to thee.

What art thou, thou tremendous power
Who dost inhabit us without our leave, And art, within ourselves, another self, A master self that loves to domineer?

What? Conscience? That is a word to frighten children. The conscience of each man is of his own making. My friend the shark-toothed cannibal whom Staples brought in his whaler to Sydney would have found his conscience reproach him sorely did he refuse to partake of the feasts made sacred by the customs of his ancestors. A spark of divinity? The divinity that, according to received doctrine; sits apart, enthroned amid sweet music, and leaves poor humanity to earn its condemnation as it may? I’ll have none of that–though I preach it. One must soothe the vulgar senses of the people. Priesthood has its “pious frauds”. The Master spoke in parables. Wit? The wit that sees how ill-balanced are our actions and our aspirations? The devilish wit born of our own brain, that sneers at us for our own failings? Perhaps madness? More likely, for there are few men who are not mad one hour of the waking twelve. If differing from the judgment of the majority of mankind in regard to familiar things be madness, I suppose I am mad–or too wise. The speculation draws near to hair-splitting. James North, recall your early recklessness, your ruin, and your redemption; bring your mind back to earth. Circumstances have made you what you are, and will shape your destiny for you without your interference. That’s comfortably settled!

Now supposing–to take another canter on my night-mare–that man is the slave of circumstances (a doctrine which I am inclined to believe, though unwilling to confess); what circumstance can have brought about the sudden awakening of the powers that be to James North’s fitness for duty?

HOBART TOWN, Jan. 12th.

“DEAR NORTH,–I have much pleasure in informing you that you can be appointed Protestant chaplain at Norfolk Island, if you like. It seems that they did not get on well with the last man, and when my advice was asked, I at once recommended you for the office. The pay is small, but you have a house and so on. It is certainly better than Bathurst, and indeed is considered rather a prize in the clerical lottery.

“There is to be an investigation into affairs down there. Poor old Pratt–who went down, as you know, at the earnest solicitation of the Government–seems to have become absurdly lenient with the prisoners, and it is reported that the island is in a frightful state. Sir Eardley is looking out for some disciplinarian to take the place in hand.

“In the meantime, the chaplaincy is vacant, and I thought of you.”

I must consider this seeming good fortune further.

February 19th.–I accept. There is work to be done among those unhappy men that may be my purgation. The authorities shall hear me yet–though inquiry was stifled at Port Arthur. By the way, a Pharaoh had arisen who knows not Joseph. It is evident that the meddlesome parson, who complained of men being flogged to death, is forgotten, as the men are! How many ghosts must haunt the dismal loneliness of that prison shore! Poor Burgess is gone the way of all flesh. I wonder if his spirit revisits the scenes of its violences? I have written “poor” Burgess.

It is strange how we pity a man gone out of this life. Enmity is extinguished when one can but remember injuries. If a man had injured me, the fact of his living at all would be sufficient grounds for me to hate him; if I had injured him, I should hate him still more. Is that the reason I hate myself at times–my greatest enemy, and one whom I have injured beyond forgiveness? There are offences against one’s own nature that are not to be forgiven. Isn’t it Tacitus who says “the hatred of those most nearly related is most inveterate”? But–I am taking flight again.

February 27th, 11.30 p.m.–Nine Creeks Station. I do like to be accurate in names, dates, etc. Accuracy is a virtue. To exercise it, then. Station ninety miles from Bathurst. I should say about 4,000 head of cattle. Luxury without refinement. Plenty to eat, drink, and read. Hostess’s name–Carr. She is a well-preserved creature, about thirty-four years of age, and a clever woman–not in a poetical sense, but in the widest worldly acceptation of the term. At the same time, I should be sorry to be her husband. Women have no business with a brain like hers–that is, if they wish to be women and not sexual monsters. Mrs. Carr is not a lady, though she might have been one. I don’t think she is a good woman either. It is possible, indeed, that she has known the factory before now. There is a mystery about her, for I was informed that she was a Mrs. Purfoy, the widow of a whaling captain, and had married one of her assigned servants, who had deserted her five years ago, as soon as he obtained his freedom. A word or two at dinner set me thinking. She had received some English papers, and, accounting for her pre-occupied manner, grimly said, “I think I have news of my husband.” I should not like to be in Carr’s shoes if she has news of him! I don’t think she would suffer indignity calmly. After all, what business is it of mine? I was beguiled into taking more wine at dinner than I needed. Confessor, do you hear me? But I will not allow myself to be carried away. You grin, you fat Familiar! So may I, but I shall be eaten with remorse tomorrow.

March 3rd.–A place called Jerrilang, where I have a head and heartache. “One that hath let go himself from the hold and stay of reason, and lies open to the mercy of all temptations.”

March 20th.–Sydney. At Captain Frere’s.–Seventeen days since I have opened you, beloved and detested companion of mine. I have more than half a mind to never open you again! To read you is to recall to myself all I would most willingly forget; yet not to read you would be to forget all that which I should for my sins remember.

The last week has made a new man of me. I am no longer morose, despairing, and bitter, but genial, and on good terms with fortune. It is strange that accident should have induced me to stay a week under the same roof with that vision of brightness which has haunted me so long. A meeting in the street, an introduction, an invitation– the thing is done.

The circumstances which form our fortunes are certainly curious things. I had thought never again to meet the bright young face to which I felt so strange an attraction–and lo! here it is smiling on me daily. Captain Frere should be a happy man. Yet there is a skeleton in this house also. That young wife, by nature so lovable and so mirthful, ought not to have the sadness on her face that twice to-day has clouded it. He seems a passionate and boorish creature, this wonderful convict disciplinarian. His convicts–poor devils–are doubtless disciplined enough. Charming little Sylvia, with your quaint wit and weird beauty, he is not good enough for you–and yet it was a love match.

March 21st.–I have read family prayers every night since I have been here– my black coat and white tie gave me the natural pre-eminence in such matters– and I feel guilty every time I read. I wonder what the little lady of the devotional eyes would say if she knew that I am a miserable hypocrite, preaching that which I do not practise, exhorting others to believe those marvels which I do not believe? I am a coward not to throw off the saintly mask, and appear as a Freethinker. Yet, am I a coward? I urge upon myself that it is for the glory of God I hold my peace. The scandal of a priest turned infidel would do more harm than the reign of reason would do good. Imagine this trustful woman for instance– she would suffer anguish at the thoughts of such a sin, though another were the sinner. “If anyone offend one of these little ones it were better for him that a millstone be hanged about his neck and that he be cast into the sea.” Yet truth is truth, and should be spoken–should it not, malignant monitor, who remindest me how often I fail to speak it? Surely among all his army of black-coats our worthy Bishop must have some men like me, who cannot bring their reason to believe in things contrary to the experience of mankind and the laws of nature.

March 22nd.–This unromantic Captain Frere had had some romantic incidents in his life, and he is fond of dilating upon them. It seems that in early life he expected to have been left a large fortune by an uncle who had quarrelled with his heir. But the uncle dies on the day fixed for the altering of the will, the son disappears, and is thought to be drowned. The widow, however, steadfastly refuses to believe in any report of the young man’s death, and having a life-interest in the property, holds it against all comers. My poor host in consequence comes out here on his pay, and, three years ago, just as he is hoping that the death of his aunt may give him opportunity to enforce a claim as next of kin to some portion of the property, the long-lost son returns, is recognized by his mother and the trustees, and installed in due heirship! The other romantic story is connected with Frere’s marriage. He told me after dinner to-night how his wife had been wrecked when a child, and how he had saved her life, and defended her from the rude hands of an escaped convict–one of the monsters our monstrous system breeds. “That was how we fell in love,” said he, tossing off his wine complacently.

“An auspicious opportunity,” said I. To which he nodded. He is not overburdened with brains, I fancy. Let me see if I can set down some account of this lovely place and its people.

A long low white house, surrounded by a blooming garden. Wide windows opening on a lawn. The ever glorious, ever changing sea beneath. It is evening. I am talking with Mrs. Frere, of theories of social reform, of picture galleries, of sunsets, and new books. There comes a sound of wheels on the gravel. It is the magistrate returned from his convict-discipline. We hear him come briskly up the steps, but we go on talking. (I fancy there was a time when the lady would have run to meet him.) He enters, coldly kisses his wife, and disturbs at once the current of our thoughts. “It has been hot to-day. What, still no letter from head-quarters, Mr. North! I saw Mrs. Golightly in town, Sylvia, and she asked for you. There is to be a ball at Government House. We must go.” Then he departs, and is heard in the distance indistinctly cursing because the water is not hot enough, or because Dawkins, his convict servant, has not brushed his trousers sufficiently. We resume our chat, but he returns all hungry, and bluff, and whisker-brushed. “Dinner. Ha-ha! I’m ready for it. North, take Mrs. Frere.” By and by it is, “North, some sherry? Sylvia, the soup is spoilt again. Did you go out to-day? No?” His eyebrows contract here, and I know he says inwardly, “Reading some trashy novel, I suppose.” However, he grins, and obligingly relates how the police have captured Cockatoo Bill, the noted bushranger.

After dinner the disciplinarian and I converse–of dogs and horses, gamecocks, convicts, and moving accidents by flood and field. I remember old college feats, and strive to keep pace with him in the relation of athletics. What hypocrites we are!–for all the time I am longing to get to the drawing-room, and finish my criticism of the new poet, Mr. Tennyson, to Mrs. Frere. Frere does not read Tennyson– nor anybody else. Adjourned to the drawing-room, we chat–Mrs. Frere and I– until supper. (He eats supper.) She is a charming companion, and when I talk my best–I can talk, you must admit, O Familiar– her face lightens up with an interest I rarely see upon it at other times. I feel cooled and soothed by this companionship. The quiet refinement of this house, after bullocks and Bathurst, is like the shadow of a great rock in a weary land.