FOR THE TERM OF HIS NATURAL LIFE
By Marcus Clarke
DEDICATION TO SIR CHARLES GAVAN DUFFY
My Dear Sir Charles, I take leave to dedicate this work to you, not merely because your nineteen years of political and literary life in Australia render it very fitting that any work written by a resident in the colonies, and having to do with the history of past colonial days, should bear your name upon its dedicatory page; but because the publication of my book is due to your advice and encouragement.
The convict of fiction has been hitherto shown only at the beginning or at the end of his career. Either his exile has been the mysterious end to his misdeeds, or he has appeared upon the scene to claim interest by reason of an equally unintelligible love of crime acquired during his experience in a penal settlement. Charles Reade has drawn the interior of a house of correction in England, and Victor Hugo has shown how a French convict fares after the fulfilment of his sentence. But no writer—so far as I am aware—has attempted to depict the dismal condition of a felon during his term of transportation.
I have endeavoured in "His Natural Life" to set forth the working and the results of an English system of transportation carefully considered and carried out under official supervision; and to illustrate in the manner best calculated, as I think, to attract general attention, the inexpediency of again allowing offenders against the law to be herded together in places remote from the wholesome influence of public opinion, and to be submitted to a discipline which must necessarily depend for its just administration upon the personal character and temper of their gaolers.
Your critical faculty will doubtless find, in the construction and artistic working of this book, many faults. I do not think, however, that you will discover any exaggerations. Some of the events narrated are doubtless tragic and terrible; but I hold it needful to my purpose to record them, for they are events which have actually occurred, and which, if the blunders which produced them be repeated, must infallibly occur again. It is true that the British Government have ceased to deport the criminals of England, but the method of punishment, of which that deportation was a part, is still in existence. Port Blair is a Port Arthur filled with Indian-men instead of Englishmen; and, within the last year, France has established, at New Caledonia, a penal settlement which will, in the natural course of things, repeat in its annals the history of Macquarie Harbour and of Norfolk Island.
With this brief preface I beg you to accept this work. I would that its merits were equal either to your kindness or to my regard.
My dear Sir Charles,
THE PUBLIC LIBRARY, MELBOURNE
BOOK I.—THE SEA. 1827.
I. THE PRISON SHIP II. SARAH PURFOY III. THE MONOTONY BREAKS IV. THE HOSPITAL V. THE BARRACOON VI. THE FATE OF THE "HYDASPES" VII. TYPHUS FEVER VIII. A DANGEROUS CRISIS IX. WOMAN'S WEAPONS X. EIGHT BELLS XI. DISCOVERIES AND CONFESSIONS XII. A NEWSPAPER PARAGRAPH
BOOK II.—MACQUARIE HARBOUR. 1833.
I. THE TOPOGRAPHY OF VAN DIEMEN'S LAND II. THE SOLITARY OF "HELL'S GATES" III. A SOCIAL EVENING IV. THE BOLTER V. SYLVIA VI. A LEAP IN THE DARK VII. THE LAST OF MACQUARIE HARBOUR VIII. THE POWER OF THE WILDERNESS IX. THE SEIZURE OF THE "OSPREY" X. JOHN REX'S REVENGE XI. LEFT AT "HELL'S GATES" XII. "MR." DAWES XIII. WHAT THE SEAWEED SUGGESTED XIV. A WONDERFUL DAY'S WORK XV. THE CORACLE XVI. THE WRITING ON THE SAND XVII. AT SEA
BOOK III.—PORT ARTHUR. 1838.
I. A LABOURER IN THE VINEYARD II. SARAH PURFOY'S REQUEST III. THE STORY OF TWO BIRDS OF PREY IV. "THE NOTORIOUS DAWES" V. MAURICE FRERE'S GOOD ANGEL VI. MR. MEEKIN ADMINISTERS CONSOLATION VII. RUFUS DAWES'S IDYLL VIII. AN ESCAPE IX. JOHN REX'S LETTER HOME X. WHAT BECAME OF THE MUTINEERS OF THE "OSPREY" XI. A RELIC OF MACQUARIE HARBOUR XII. AT PORT ARTHUR XIII. THE COMMANDANT'S BUTLER XIV. MR. NORTH'S INDISPOSITION XV. ONE HUNDRED LASHES XVI. KICKING AGAINST THE PRICKS XVII. CAPTAIN AND MRS. FRERE XVIII. IN THE HOSPITAL XIX. THE CONSOLATIONS OF RELIGION XX. A NATURAL PENITENTIARY XXI. A VISIT OF INSPECTION XXII. GATHERING IN THE THREADS XXIII RUNNING THE GAUNTLET XXIV. IN THE NIGHT XXV. THE FLIGHT XXVI. THE WORK OF THE SEA XXVII. THE VALLEY OF THE SHADOW OF DEATH
BOOK IV.—NORFOLK ISLAND. 1846.
I. EXTRACTED FROM THE DIARY OF THE REV. JAMES NORTH II. THE LOST HEIR III. EXTRACTED FROM THE DIARY OF THE REV. JAMES NORTH IV. EXTRACTED FROM THE DIARY OF THE REV. JAMES NORTH V. MR. RICHARD DEVINE SURPRISED VI. IN WHICH THE CHAPLAIN IS TAKEN ILL VII. BREAKING A MAN'S SPIRIT VIII. EXTRACTED FROM THE DIARY OF THE REV. JAMES NORTH IX. THE LONGEST STRAW X. A MEETING XI. EXTRACTED FROM THE DIARY OF THE REV. JAMES NORTH XII. THE STRANGE BEHAVIOUR OF MR. NORTH XIII. MR. NORTH SPEAKS XIV. GETTING READY FOR SEA XV. THE DISCOVERY XVI. FIFTEEN HOURS XVII. THE REDEMPTION XVIII. THE CYCLONE
HIS NATURAL LIFE.
On the evening of May 3, 1827, the garden of a large red-brick bow-windowed mansion called North End House, which, enclosed in spacious grounds, stands on the eastern height of Hampstead Heath, between Finchley Road and the Chestnut Avenue, was the scene of a domestic tragedy.
Three persons were the actors in it. One was an old man, whose white hair and wrinkled face gave token that he was at least sixty years of age. He stood erect with his back to the wall, which separates the garden from the Heath, in the attitude of one surprised into sudden passion, and held uplifted the heavy ebony cane upon which he was ordinarily accustomed to lean. He was confronted by a man of two-and-twenty, unusually tall and athletic of figure, dresses in rough seafaring clothes, and who held in his arms, protecting her, a lady of middle age. The face of the young man wore an expression of horror-stricken astonishment, and the slight frame of the grey-haired woman was convulsed with sobs.
These three people were Sir Richard Devine, his wife, and his only son Richard, who had returned from abroad that morning.
"So, madam," said Sir Richard, in the high-strung accents which in crises of great mental agony are common to the most self-restrained of us, "you have been for twenty years a living lie! For twenty years you have cheated and mocked me. For twenty years—in company with a scoundrel whose name is a byword for all that is profligate and base—you have laughed at me for a credulous and hood-winked fool; and now, because I dared to raise my hand to that reckless boy, you confess your shame, and glory in the confession!"
"Mother, dear mother!" cried the young man, in a paroxysm of grief, "say that you did not mean those words; you said them but in anger! See, I am calm now, and he may strike me if he will."
Lady Devine shuddered, creeping close, as though to hide herself in the broad bosom of her son.
The old man continued: "I married you, Ellinor Wade, for your beauty; you married me for my fortune. I was a plebeian, a ship's carpenter; you were well born, your father was a man of fashion, a gambler, the friend of rakes and prodigals. I was rich. I had been knighted. I was in favour at Court. He wanted money, and he sold you. I paid the price he asked, but there was nothing of your cousin, my Lord Bellasis and Wotton, in the bond."
"Spare me, sir, spare me!" said Lady Ellinor faintly.
"Spare you! Ay, you have spared me, have you not? Look ye," he cried, in sudden fury, "I am not to be fooled so easily. Your family are proud. Colonel Wade has other daughters. Your lover, my Lord Bellasis, even now, thinks to retrieve his broken fortunes by marriage. You have confessed your shame. To-morrow your father, your sisters, all the world, shall know the story you have told me!"
"By Heaven, sir, you will not do this!" burst out the young man.
"Silence, bastard!" cried Sir Richard. "Ay, bite your lips; the word is of your precious mother's making!"
Lady Devine slipped through her son's arms and fell on her knees at her husband's feet.
"Do not do this, Richard. I have been faithful to you for two-and-twenty years. I have borne all the slights and insults you have heaped upon me. The shameful secret of my early love broke from me when in your rage, you threatened him. Let me go away; kill me; but do not shame me."
Sir Richard, who had turned to walk away, stopped suddenly, and his great white eyebrows came together in his red face with a savage scowl. He laughed, and in that laugh his fury seemed to congeal into a cold and cruel hate.
"You would preserve your good name then. You would conceal this disgrace from the world. You shall have your wish—upon one condition."
"What is it, sir?" she asked, rising, but trembling with terror, as she stood with drooping arms and widely opened eyes.
The old man looked at her for an instant, and then said slowly, "That this impostor, who so long has falsely borne my name, has wrongfully squandered my money, and unlawfully eaten my bread, shall pack! That he abandon for ever the name he has usurped, keep himself from my sight, and never set foot again in house of mine."
"You would not part me from my only son!" cried the wretched woman.
"Take him with you to his father then."
Richard Devine gently loosed the arms that again clung around his neck, kissed the pale face, and turned his own—scarcely less pale—towards the old man.
"I owe you no duty," he said. "You have always hated and reviled me. When by your violence you drove me from your house, you set spies to watch me in the life I had chosen. I have nothing in common with you. I have long felt it. Now when I learn for the first time whose son I really am, I rejoice to think that I have less to thank you for than I once believed. I accept the terms you offer. I will go. Nay, mother, think of your good name."
Sir Richard Devine laughed again. "I am glad to see you are so well disposed. Listen now. To-night I send for Quaid to alter my will. My sister's son, Maurice Frere, shall be my heir in your stead. I give you nothing. You leave this house in an hour. You change your name; you never by word or deed make claim on me or mine. No matter what strait or poverty you plead—if even your life should hang upon the issue—the instant I hear that there exists on earth one who calls himself Richard Devine, that instant shall your mother's shame become a public scandal. You know me. I keep my word. I return in an hour, madam; let me find him gone."
He passed them, upright, as if upborne by passion, strode down the garden with the vigour that anger lends, and took the road to London.
"Richard!" cried the poor mother. "Forgive me, my son! I have ruined you."
Richard Devine tossed his black hair from his brow in sudden passion of love and grief.
"Mother, dear mother, do not weep," he said. "I am not worthy of your tears. Forgive! It is I—impetuous and ungrateful during all your years of sorrow—who most need forgiveness. Let me share your burden that I may lighten it. He is just. It is fitting that I go. I can earn a name—a name that I need not blush to bear nor you to hear. I am strong. I can work. The world is wide. Farewell! my own mother!"
"Not yet, not yet! Ah! see he has taken the Belsize Road. Oh, Richard, pray Heaven they may not meet."
"Tush! They will not meet! You are pale, you faint!"
"A terror of I know not what coming evil overpowers me. I tremble for the future. Oh, Richard, Richard! Forgive me! Pray for me."
"Hush, dearest! Come, let me lead you in. I will write. I will send you news of me once at least, ere I depart. So—you are calmer, mother!"
* * * * *
Sir Richard Devine, knight, shipbuilder, naval contractor, and millionaire, was the son of a Harwich boat carpenter. Early left an orphan with a sister to support, he soon reduced his sole aim in life to the accumulation of money. In the Harwich boat-shed, nearly fifty years before, he had contracted—in defiance of prophesied failure—to build the Hastings sloop of war for His Majesty King George the Third's Lords of the Admiralty. This contract was the thin end of that wedge which eventually split the mighty oak block of Government patronage into three-deckers and ships of the line; which did good service under Pellew, Parker, Nelson, Hood; which exfoliated and ramified into huge dockyards at Plymouth, Portsmouth, and Sheerness, and bore, as its buds and flowers, countless barrels of measly pork and maggoty biscuit. The sole aim of the coarse, pushing and hard-headed son of Dick Devine was to make money. He had cringed and crawled and fluttered and blustered, had licked the dust off great men's shoes, and danced attendance in great men's ante-chambers. Nothing was too low, nothing too high for him. A shrewd man of business, a thorough master of his trade, troubled with no scruples of honour or of delicacy, he made money rapidly, and saved it when made. The first hint that the public received of his wealth was in 1796, when Mr. Devine, one of the shipwrights to the Government, and a comparatively young man of forty-four or thereabouts, subscribed five thousand pounds to the Loyalty Loan raised to prosecute the French war. In 1805, after doing good, and it was hinted not unprofitable, service in the trial of Lord Melville, the Treasurer of the Navy, he married his sister to a wealthy Bristol merchant, one Anthony Frere, and married himself to Ellinor Wade, the eldest daughter of Colonel Wotton Wade, a boon companion of the Regent, and uncle by marriage of a remarkable scamp and dandy, Lord Bellasis. At that time, what with lucky speculations in the Funds—assisted, it was whispered, by secret intelligence from France during the stormy years of '13, '14, and '15—and the legitimate profit on his Government contracts, he had accumulated a princely fortune, and could afford to live in princely magnificence. But the old-man-of-the-sea burden of parsimony and avarice which he had voluntarily taken upon him was not to be shaken off, and the only show he made of his wealth was by purchasing, on his knighthood, the rambling but comfortable house at Hampstead, and ostensibly retiring from active business.
His retirement was not a happy one. He was a stern father and a severe master. His servants hated, and his wife feared him. His only son Richard appeared to inherit his father's strong will and imperious manner. Under careful supervision and a just rule he might have been guided to good; but left to his own devices outside, and galled by the iron yoke of parental discipline at home, he became reckless and prodigal. The mother—poor, timid Ellinor, who had been rudely torn from the love of her youth, her cousin, Lord Bellasis—tried to restrain him, but the head-strong boy, though owning for his mother that strong love which is often a part of such violent natures, proved intractable, and after three years of parental feud, he went off to the Continent, to pursue there the same reckless life which in London had offended Sir Richard. Sir Richard, upon this, sent for Maurice Frere, his sister's son—the abolition of the slave trade had ruined the Bristol House of Frere—and bought for him a commission in a marching regiment, hinting darkly of special favours to come. His open preference for his nephew had galled to the quick his sensitive wife, who contrasted with some heart-pangs the gallant prodigality of her father with the niggardly economy of her husband. Between the houses of parvenu Devine and long-descended Wotton Wade there had long been little love. Sir Richard felt that the colonel despised him for a city knight, and had heard that over claret and cards Lord Bellasis and his friends had often lamented the hard fortune which gave the beauty, Ellinor, to so sordid a bridegroom. Armigell Esme Wade, Viscount Bellasis and Wotton, was a product of his time. Of good family (his ancestor, Armigell, was reputed to have landed in America before Gilbert or Raleigh), he had inherited his manor of Bellasis, or Belsize, from one Sir Esme Wade, ambassador from Queen Elizabeth to the King of Spain in the delicate matter of Mendoza, and afterwards counsellor to James I, and Lieutenant of the Tower. This Esme was a man of dark devices. It was he who negotiated with Mary Stuart for Elizabeth; it was he who wormed out of Cobham the evidence against the great Raleigh. He became rich, and his sister (the widow of Henry de Kirkhaven, Lord of Hemfleet) marrying into the family of the Wottons, the wealth of the house was further increased by the union of her daughter Sybil with Marmaduke Wade. Marmaduke Wade was a Lord of the Admiralty, and a patron of Pepys, who in his diary [July 17,1668] speaks of visiting him at Belsize. He was raised to the peerage in 1667 by the title of Baron Bellasis and Wotton, and married for his second wife Anne, daughter of Philip Stanhope, second Earl of Chesterfield. Allied to this powerful house, the family tree of Wotton Wade grew and flourished.
In 1784, Philip, third Baron, married the celebrated beauty, Miss Povey, and had issue Armigell Esme, in whose person the family prudence seemed to have run itself out.
The fourth Lord Bellasis combined the daring of Armigell, the adventurer, with the evil disposition of Esme, the Lieutenant of the Tower. No sooner had he become master of his fortune than he took to dice, drink, and debauchery with all the extravagance of the last century. He was foremost in every riot, most notorious of all the notorious "bloods" of the day.
Horace Walpole, in one of his letters to Selwyn in 1785, mentions a fact which may stand for a page of narrative. "Young Wade," he says, "is reported to have lost one thousand guineas last night to that vulgarest of all the Bourbons, the Duc de Chartres, and they say the fool is not yet nineteen." From a pigeon Armigell Wade became a hawk, and at thirty years of age, having lost together with his estates all chance of winning the one woman who might have saved him—his cousin Ellinor—he became that most unhappy of all beings, a well-born blackleg. When he was told by thin-lipped, cool Colonel Wade that the rich shipbuilder, Sir Richard Devine, had proposed an alliance with fair-haired gentle Ellinor, he swore, with fierce knitting of his black brows, that no law of man nor Heaven should further restrain him in his selfish prodigality. "You have sold your daughter and ruined me," he said; "look to the consequences." Colonel Wade sneered at his fiery kinsman: "You will find Sir Richard's house a pleasant one to visit, Armigell; and he should be worth an income to so experienced a gambler as yourself." Lord Bellasis did visit at Sir Richard's house during the first year of his cousin's marriage; but upon the birth of the son who is the hero of this history, he affected a quarrel with the city knight, and cursing him to the Prince and Poins for a miserly curmudgeon, who neither diced nor drank like a gentleman, departed, more desperately at war with fortune than ever, for his old haunts. The year 1827 found him a hardened, hopeless old man of sixty, battered in health and ruined in pocket; but who, by dint of stays, hair-dye, and courage, yet faced the world with undaunted front, and dined as gaily in bailiff-haunted Belsize as he had dined at Carlton House. Of the possessions of the House of Wotton Wade, this old manor, timberless and bare, was all that remained, and its master rarely visited it.
On the evening of May 3, 1827, Lord Bellasis had been attending a pigeon match at Hornsey Wood, and having resisted the importunities of his companion, Mr. Lionel Crofton (a young gentleman-rake, whose position in the sporting world was not the most secure), who wanted him to go on into town, he had avowed his intention of striking across Hampstead to Belsize. "I have an appointment at the fir trees on the Heath," he said.
"With a woman?" asked Mr. Crofton.
"Not at all; with a parson."
"You stare! Well, he is only just ordained. I met him last year at Bath on his vacation from Cambridge, and he was good enough to lose some money to me."
"And now waits to pay it out of his first curacy. I wish your lordship joy with all my soul. Then, we must push on, for it grows late."
"Thanks, my dear sir, for the 'we,' but I must go alone," said Lord Bellasis dryly. "To-morrow you can settle with me for the sitting of last week. Hark! the clock is striking nine. Good night."
* * * * *
At half-past nine Richard Devine quitted his mother's house to begin the new life he had chosen, and so, drawn together by that strange fate of circumstances which creates events, the father and son approached each other.
* * * * *
As the young man gained the middle of the path which led to the Heath, he met Sir Richard returning from the village. It was no part of his plan to seek an interview with the man whom his mother had so deeply wronged, and he would have slunk past in the gloom; but seeing him thus alone returning to a desolated home, the prodigal was tempted to utter some words of farewell and of regret. To his astonishment, however, Sir Richard passed swiftly on, with body bent forward as one in the act of falling, and with eyes unconscious of surroundings, staring straight into the distance. Half-terrified at this strange appearance, Richard hurried onward, and at a turn of the path stumbled upon something which horribly accounted for the curious action of the old man. A dead body lay upon its face in the heather; beside it was a heavy riding whip stained at the handle with blood, and an open pocket-book. Richard took up the book, and read, in gold letters on the cover, "Lord Bellasis."
The unhappy young man knelt down beside the body and raised it. The skull had been fractured by a blow, but it seemed that life yet lingered. Overcome with horror—for he could not doubt but that his mother's worst fears had been realized—Richard knelt there holding his murdered father in his arms, waiting until the murderer, whose name he bore, should have placed himself beyond pursuit. It seemed an hour to his excited fancy before he saw a light pass along the front of the house he had quitted, and knew that Sir Richard had safely reached his chamber. With some bewildered intention of summoning aid, he left the body and made towards the town. As he stepped out on the path he heard voices, and presently some dozen men, one of whom held a horse, burst out upon him, and, with sudden fury, seized and flung him to the ground.
At first the young man, so rudely assailed, did not comprehend his own danger. His mind, bent upon one hideous explanation of the crime, did not see another obvious one which had already occurred to the mind of the landlord of the Three Spaniards.
"God defend me!" cried Mr. Mogford, scanning by the pale light of the rising moon the features of the murdered man, "but it is Lord Bellasis!—oh, you bloody villain! Jem, bring him along here, p'r'aps his lordship can recognize him!"
"It was not I!" cried Richard Devine. "For God's sake, my lord say—" then he stopped abruptly, and being forced on his knees by his captors, remained staring at the dying man, in sudden and ghastly fear.
Those men in whom emotion has the effect of quickening circulation of the blood reason rapidly in moments of danger, and in the terrible instant when his eyes met those of Lord Bellasis, Richard Devine had summed up the chances of his future fortune, and realized to the full his personal peril. The runaway horse had given the alarm. The drinkers at the Spaniards' Inn had started to search the Heath, and had discovered a fellow in rough costume, whose person was unknown to them, hastily quitting a spot where, beside a rifled pocket-book and a blood-stained whip, lay a dying man.
The web of circumstantial evidence had enmeshed him. An hour ago escape would have been easy. He would have had but to cry, "I am the son of Sir Richard Devine. Come with me to yonder house, and I will prove to you that I have but just quitted it,"—to place his innocence beyond immediate question. That course of action was impossible now. Knowing Sir Richard as he did, and believing, moreover, that in his raging passion the old man had himself met and murdered the destroyer of his honour, the son of Lord Bellasis and Lady Devine saw himself in a position which would compel him either to sacrifice himself, or to purchase a chance of safety at the price of his mother's dishonour and the death of the man whom his mother had deceived. If the outcast son were brought a prisoner to North End House, Sir Richard—now doubly oppressed of fate—would be certain to deny him; and he would be compelled, in self-defence, to reveal a story which would at once bring his mother to open infamy, and send to the gallows the man who had been for twenty years deceived—the man to whose kindness he owed education and former fortune. He knelt, stupefied, unable to speak or move.
"Come," cried Mogford again; "say, my lord, is this the villain?"
Lord Bellasis rallied his failing senses, his glazing eyes stared into his son's face with horrible eagerness; he shook his head, raised a feeble arm as though to point elsewhere, and fell back dead.
"If you didn't murder him, you robbed him," growled Mogford, "and you shall sleep at Bow Street to-night. Tom, run on to meet the patrol, and leave word at the Gate-house that I've a passenger for the coach!—Bring him on, Jack!—What's your name, eh?"
He repeated the rough question twice before his prisoner answered, but at length Richard Devine raised a pale face which stern resolution had already hardened into defiant manhood, and said "Dawes—Rufus Dawes."
* * * * *
His new life had begun already: for that night one, Rufus Dawes, charged with murder and robbery, lay awake in prison, waiting for the fortune of the morrow.
Two other men waited as eagerly. One, Mr. Lionel Crofton; the other, the horseman who had appointment with the murdered Lord Bellasis under the shadow of the fir trees on Hampstead Heath. As for Sir Richard Devine, he waited for no one, for upon reaching his room he had fallen senseless in a fit of apoplexy.
BOOK I.—THE SEA. 1827.
CHAPTER I. THE PRISON SHIP.
In the breathless stillness of a tropical afternoon, when the air was hot and heavy, and the sky brazen and cloudless, the shadow of the Malabar lay solitary on the surface of the glittering sea.
The sun—who rose on the left hand every morning a blazing ball, to move slowly through the unbearable blue, until he sank fiery red in mingling glories of sky and ocean on the right hand—had just got low enough to peep beneath the awning that covered the poop-deck, and awaken a young man, in an undress military uniform, who was dozing on a coil of rope.
"Hang it!" said he, rising and stretching himself, with the weary sigh of a man who has nothing to do, "I must have been asleep"; and then, holding by a stay, he turned about and looked down into the waist of the ship.
Save for the man at the wheel and the guard at the quarter-railing, he was alone on the deck. A few birds flew round about the vessel, and seemed to pass under her stern windows only to appear again at her bows. A lazy albatross, with the white water flashing from his wings, rose with a dabbling sound to leeward, and in the place where he had been glided the hideous fin of a silently-swimming shark. The seams of the well-scrubbed deck were sticky with melted pitch, and the brass plate of the compass-case sparkled in the sun like a jewel. There was no breeze, and as the clumsy ship rolled and lurched on the heaving sea, her idle sails flapped against her masts with a regularly recurring noise, and her bowsprit would seem to rise higher with the water's swell, to dip again with a jerk that made each rope tremble and tauten. On the forecastle, some half-dozen soldiers, in all varieties of undress, were playing at cards, smoking, or watching the fishing-lines hanging over the catheads.
So far the appearance of the vessel differed in no wise from that of an ordinary transport. But in the waist a curious sight presented itself. It was as though one had built a cattle-pen there. At the foot of the foremast, and at the quarter-deck, a strong barricade, loop-holed and furnished with doors for ingress and egress, ran across the deck from bulwark to bulwark. Outside this cattle-pen an armed sentry stood on guard; inside, standing, sitting, or walking monotonously, within range of the shining barrels in the arm chest on the poop, were some sixty men and boys, dressed in uniform grey. The men and boys were prisoners of the Crown, and the cattle-pen was their exercise ground. Their prison was down the main hatchway, on the 'tween decks, and the barricade, continued down, made its side walls.
It was the fag end of the two hours' exercise graciously permitted each afternoon by His Majesty King George the Fourth to prisoners of the Crown, and the prisoners of the Crown were enjoying themselves. It was not, perhaps, so pleasant as under the awning on the poop-deck, but that sacred shade was only for such great men as the captain and his officers, Surgeon Pine, Lieutenant Maurice Frere, and, most important personages of all, Captain Vickers and his wife.
That the convict leaning against the bulwarks would like to have been able to get rid of his enemy the sun for a moment, was probable enough. His companions, sitting on the combings of the main-hatch, or crouched in careless fashion on the shady side of the barricade, were laughing and talking, with blasphemous and obscene merriment hideous to contemplate; but he, with cap pulled over his brows, and hands thrust into the pockets of his coarse grey garments, held aloof from their dismal joviality.
The sun poured his hottest rays on his head unheeded, and though every cranny and seam in the deck sweltered hot pitch under the fierce heat, the man stood there, motionless and morose, staring at the sleepy sea. He had stood thus, in one place or another, ever since the groaning vessel had escaped from the rollers of the Bay of Biscay, and the miserable hundred and eighty creatures among whom he was classed had been freed from their irons, and allowed to sniff fresh air twice a day.
The low-browed, coarse-featured ruffians grouped about the deck cast many a leer of contempt at the solitary figure, but their remarks were confined to gestures only. There are degrees in crime, and Rufus Dawes, the convicted felon, who had but escaped the gallows to toil for all his life in irons, was a man of mark. He had been tried for the robbery and murder of Lord Bellasis. The friendless vagabond's lame story of finding on the Heath a dying man would not have availed him, but for the curious fact sworn to by the landlord of the Spaniards' Inn, that the murdered nobleman had shaken his head when asked if the prisoner was his assassin. The vagabond was acquitted of the murder, but condemned to death for the robbery, and London, who took some interest in the trial, considered him fortunate when his sentence was commuted to transportation for life.
It was customary on board these floating prisons to keep each man's crime a secret from his fellows, so that if he chose, and the caprice of his gaolers allowed him, he could lead a new life in his adopted home, without being taunted with his former misdeeds. But, like other excellent devices, the expedient was only a nominal one, and few out of the doomed hundred and eighty were ignorant of the offence which their companions had committed. The more guilty boasted of their superiority in vice; the petty criminals swore that their guilt was blacker than it appeared. Moreover, a deed so bloodthirsty and a respite so unexpected, had invested the name of Rufus Dawes with a grim distinction, which his superior mental abilities, no less than his haughty temper and powerful frame, combined to support. A young man of two-and-twenty owning to no friends, and existing among them but by the fact of his criminality, he was respected and admired. The vilest of all the vile horde penned between decks, if they laughed at his "fine airs" behind his back, cringed and submitted when they met him face to face—for in a convict ship the greatest villain is the greatest hero, and the only nobility acknowledged by that hideous commonwealth is that Order of the Halter which is conferred by the hand of the hangman.
The young man on the poop caught sight of the tall figure leaning against the bulwarks, and it gave him an excuse to break the monotony of his employment.
"Here, you!" he called with an oath, "get out of the gangway!" Rufus Dawes was not in the gangway—was, in fact, a good two feet from it, but at the sound of Lieutenant Frere's voice he started, and went obediently towards the hatchway.
"Touch your hat, you dog!" cries Frere, coming to the quarter-railing. "Touch your damned hat! Do you hear?"
Rufus Dawes touched his cap, saluting in half military fashion. "I'll make some of you fellows smart, if you don't have a care," went on the angry Frere, half to himself. "Insolent blackguards!"
And then the noise of the sentry, on the quarter-deck below him, grounding arms, turned the current of his thoughts. A thin, tall, soldier-like man, with a cold blue eye, and prim features, came out of the cuddy below, handing out a fair-haired, affected, mincing lady, of middle age. Captain Vickers, of Mr. Frere's regiment, ordered for service in Van Diemen's Land, was bringing his lady on deck to get an appetite for dinner.
Mrs. Vickers was forty-two (she owned to thirty-three), and had been a garrison-belle for eleven weary years before she married prim John Vickers. The marriage was not a happy one. Vickers found his wife extravagant, vain, and snappish, and she found him harsh, disenchanted, and commonplace. A daughter, born two years after their marriage, was the only link that bound the ill-assorted pair. Vickers idolized little Sylvia, and when the recommendation of a long sea-voyage for his failing health induced him to exchange into the —th, he insisted upon bringing the child with him, despite Mrs. Vickers's reiterated objections on the score of educational difficulties. "He could educate her himself, if need be," he said; "and she should not stay at home."
So Mrs. Vickers, after a hard struggle, gave up the point and her dreams of Bath together, and followed her husband with the best grace she could muster. When fairly out to sea she seemed reconciled to her fate, and employed the intervals between scolding her daughter and her maid, in fascinating the boorish young Lieutenant, Maurice Frere.
Fascination was an integral portion of Julia Vickers's nature; admiration was all she lived for: and even in a convict ship, with her husband at her elbow, she must flirt, or perish of mental inanition. There was no harm in the creature. She was simply a vain, middle-aged woman, and Frere took her attentions for what they were worth. Moreover, her good feeling towards him was useful, for reasons which will shortly appear.
Running down the ladder, cap in hand, he offered her his assistance.
"Thank you, Mr. Frere. These horrid ladders. I really—he, he—quite tremble at them. Hot! Yes, dear me, most oppressive. John, the camp-stool. Pray, Mr. Frere—oh, thank you! Sylvia! Sylvia! John, have you my smelling salts? Still a calm, I suppose? These dreadful calms!"
This semi-fashionable slip-slop, within twenty yards of the wild beasts' den, on the other side of the barricade, sounded strange; but Mr. Frere thought nothing of it. Familiarity destroys terror, and the incurable flirt, fluttered her muslins, and played off her second-rate graces, under the noses of the grinning convicts, with as much complacency as if she had been in a Chatham ball-room. Indeed, if there had been nobody else near, it is not unlikely that she would have disdainfully fascinated the 'tween-decks, and made eyes at the most presentable of the convicts there.
Vickers, with a bow to Frere, saw his wife up the ladder, and then turned for his daughter.
She was a delicate-looking child of six years old, with blue eyes and bright hair. Though indulged by her father, and spoiled by her mother, the natural sweetness of her disposition saved her from being disagreeable, and the effects of her education as yet only showed themselves in a thousand imperious prettinesses, which made her the darling of the ship. Little Miss Sylvia was privileged to go anywhere and do anything, and even convictism shut its foul mouth in her presence. Running to her father's side, the child chattered with all the volubility of flattered self-esteem. She ran hither and thither, asked questions, invented answers, laughed, sang, gambolled, peered into the compass-case, felt in the pockets of the man at the helm, put her tiny hand into the big palm of the officer of the watch, even ran down to the quarter-deck and pulled the coat-tails of the sentry on duty.
At last, tired of running about, she took a little striped leather ball from the bosom of her frock, and calling to her father, threw it up to him as he stood on the poop. He returned it, and, shouting with laughter, clapping her hands between each throw, the child kept up the game.
The convicts—whose slice of fresh air was nearly eaten—turned with eagerness to watch this new source of amusement. Innocent laughter and childish prattle were strange to them. Some smiled, and nodded with interest in the varying fortunes of the game. One young lad could hardly restrain himself from applauding. It was as though, out of the sultry heat which brooded over the ship, a cool breeze had suddenly arisen.
In the midst of this mirth, the officer of the watch, glancing round the fast crimsoning horizon, paused abruptly, and shading his eyes with his hand, looked out intently to the westward.
Frere, who found Mrs. Vickers's conversation a little tiresome, and had been glancing from time to time at the companion, as though in expectation of someone appearing, noticed the action.
"What is it, Mr. Best?"
"I don't know exactly. It looks to me like a cloud of smoke." And, taking the glass, he swept the horizon.
"Let me see," said Frere; and he looked also.
On the extreme horizon, just to the left of the sinking sun, rested, or seemed to rest, a tiny black cloud. The gold and crimson, splashed all about the sky, had overflowed around it, and rendered a clear view almost impossible.
"I can't quite make it out," says Frere, handing back the telescope. "We can see as soon as the sun goes down a little."
Then Mrs. Vickers must, of course, look also, and was prettily affected about the focus of the glass, applying herself to that instrument with much girlish giggling, and finally declaring, after shutting one eye with her fair hand, that positively she "could see nothing but sky, and believed that wicked Mr. Frere was doing it on purpose."
By and by, Captain Blunt appeared, and, taking the glass from his officer, looked through it long and carefully. Then the mizentop was appealed to, and declared that he could see nothing; and at last the sun went down with a jerk, as though it had slipped through a slit in the sea, and the black spot, swallowed up in the gathering haze, was seen no more.
As the sun sank, the relief guard came up the after hatchway, and the relieved guard prepared to superintend the descent of the convicts. At this moment Sylvia missed her ball, which, taking advantage of a sudden lurch of the vessel, hopped over the barricade, and rolled to the feet of Rufus Dawes, who was still leaning, apparently lost in thought, against the side.
The bright spot of colour rolling across the white deck caught his eye; stooping mechanically, he picked up the ball, and stepped forward to return it. The door of the barricade was open and the sentry—a young soldier, occupied in staring at the relief guard—did not notice the prisoner pass through it. In another instant he was on the sacred quarter-deck.
Heated with the game, her cheeks aglow, her eyes sparkling, her golden hair afloat, Sylvia had turned to leap after her plaything, but even as she turned, from under the shadow of the cuddy glided a rounded white arm; and a shapely hand caught the child by the sash and drew her back. The next moment the young man in grey had placed the toy in her hand.
Maurice Frere, descending the poop ladder, had not witnessed this little incident; on reaching the deck, he saw only the unexplained presence of the convict uniform.
"Thank you," said a voice, as Rufus Dawes stooped before the pouting Sylvia.
The convict raised his eyes and saw a young girl of eighteen or nineteen years of age, tall, and well developed, who, dressed in a loose-sleeved robe of some white material, was standing in the doorway. She had black hair, coiled around a narrow and flat head, a small foot, white skin, well-shaped hands, and large dark eyes, and as she smiled at him, her scarlet lips showed her white even teeth.
He knew her at once. She was Sarah Purfoy, Mrs. Vickers's maid, but he never had been so close to her before; and it seemed to him that he was in the presence of some strange tropical flower, which exhaled a heavy and intoxicating perfume.
For an instant the two looked at each other, and then Rufus Dawes was seized from behind by his collar, and flung with a shock upon the deck.
Leaping to his feet, his first impulse was to rush upon his assailant, but he saw the ready bayonet of the sentry gleam, and he checked himself with an effort, for his assailant was Mr. Maurice Frere.
"What the devil do you do here?" asked the gentleman with an oath. "You lazy, skulking hound, what brings you here? If I catch you putting your foot on the quarter-deck again, I'll give you a week in irons!"
Rufus Dawes, pale with rage and mortification, opened his mouth to justify himself, but he allowed the words to die on his lips. What was the use? "Go down below, and remember what I've told you," cried Frere; and comprehending at once what had occurred, he made a mental minute of the name of the defaulting sentry.
The convict, wiping the blood from his face, turned on his heel without a word, and went back through the strong oak door into his den. Frere leant forward and took the girl's shapely hand with an easy gesture, but she drew it away, with a flash of her black eyes.
"You coward!" she said.
The stolid soldier close beside them heard it, and his eye twinkled. Frere bit his thick lips with mortification, as he followed the girl into the cuddy. Sarah Purfoy, however, taking the astonished Sylvia by the hand, glided into her mistress's cabin with a scornful laugh, and shut the door behind her.
CHAPTER II. SARAH PURFOY.
Convictism having been safely got under hatches, and put to bed in its Government allowance of sixteen inches of space per man, cut a little short by exigencies of shipboard, the cuddy was wont to pass some not unpleasant evenings. Mrs. Vickers, who was poetical and owned a guitar, was also musical and sang to it. Captain Blunt was a jovial, coarse fellow; Surgeon Pine had a mania for story-telling; while if Vickers was sometimes dull, Frere was always hearty. Moreover, the table was well served, and what with dinner, tobacco, whist, music, and brandy and water, the sultry evenings passed away with a rapidity of which the wild beasts 'tween decks, cooped by sixes in berths of a mere five feet square, had no conception.
On this particular evening, however, the cuddy was dull. Dinner fell flat, and conversation languished.
"No signs of a breeze, Mr. Best?" asked Blunt, as the first officer came in and took his seat.
"These—he, he!—awful calms," says Mrs. Vickers. "A week, is it not, Captain Blunt?"
"Thirteen days, mum," growled Blunt.
"I remember, off the Coromandel coast," put in cheerful Pine, "when we had the plague in the Rattlesnake—"
"Captain Vickers, another glass of wine?" cried Blunt, hastening to cut the anecdote short.
"Thank you, no more. I have the headache."
"Headache—um—don't wonder at it, going down among those fellows. It is infamous the way they crowd these ships. Here we have over two hundred souls on board, and not boat room for half of 'em."
"Two hundred souls! Surely not," says Vickers. "By the King's Regulations—"
"One hundred and eighty convicts, fifty soldiers, thirty in ship's crew, all told, and—how many?—one, two three—seven in the cuddy. How many do you make that?"
"We are just a little crowded this time," says Best.
"It is very wrong," says Vickers, pompously. "Very wrong. By the King's Regulations—"
But the subject of the King's Regulations was even more distasteful to the cuddy than Pine's interminable anecdotes, and Mrs. Vickers hastened to change the subject.
"Are you not heartily tired of this dreadful life, Mr. Frere?"
"Well, it is not exactly the life I had hoped to lead," said Frere, rubbing a freckled hand over his stubborn red hair; "but I must make the best of it."
"Yes, indeed," said the lady, in that subdued manner with which one comments upon a well-known accident, "it must have been a great shock to you to be so suddenly deprived of so large a fortune."
"Not only that, but to find that the black sheep who got it all sailed for India within a week of my uncle's death! Lady Devine got a letter from him on the day of the funeral to say that he had taken his passage in the Hydaspes for Calcutta, and never meant to come back again!"
"Sir Richard Devine left no other children?"
"No, only this mysterious Dick, whom I never saw, but who must have hated me."
"Dear, dear! These family quarrels are dreadful things. Poor Lady Devine, to lose in one day a husband and a son!"
"And the next morning to hear of the murder of her cousin! You know that we are connected with the Bellasis family. My aunt's father married a sister of the second Lord Bellasis."
"Indeed. That was a horrible murder. So you think that the dreadful man you pointed out the other day did it?"
"The jury seemed to think not," said Mr. Frere, with a laugh; "but I don't know anybody else who could have a motive for it. However, I'll go on deck and have a smoke."
"I wonder what induced that old hunks of a shipbuilder to try to cut off his only son in favour of a cub of that sort," said Surgeon Pine to Captain Vickers as the broad back of Mr. Maurice Frere disappeared up the companion.
"Some boyish follies abroad, I believe; self-made men are always impatient of extravagance. But it is hard upon Frere. He is not a bad sort of fellow for all his roughness, and when a young man finds that an accident deprives him of a quarter of a million of money and leaves him without a sixpence beyond his commission in a marching regiment under orders for a convict settlement, he has some reason to rail against fate."
"How was it that the son came in for the money after all, then?"
"Why, it seems that when old Devine returned from sending for his lawyer to alter his will, he got a fit of apoplexy, the result of his rage, I suppose, and when they opened his room door in the morning they found him dead."
"And the son's away on the sea somewhere," said Mr. Vickers "and knows nothing of his good fortune. It is quite a romance."
"I am glad that Frere did not get the money," said Pine, grimly sticking to his prejudice; "I have seldom seen a face I liked less, even among my yellow jackets yonder."
"Oh dear, Dr. Pine! How can you?" interjected Mrs. Vickers. "'Pon my soul, ma'am, some of them have mixed in good society, I can tell you. There's pickpockets and swindlers down below who have lived in the best company."
"Dreadful wretches!" cried Mrs. Vickers, shaking out her skirts. "John, I will go on deck."
At the signal, the party rose.
"Ecod, Pine," says Captain Blunt, as the two were left alone together, "you and I are always putting our foot into it!"
"Women are always in the way aboard ship," returned Pine.
"Ah! Doctor, you don't mean that, I know," said a rich soft voice at his elbow.
It was Sarah Purfoy emerging from her cabin.
"Here is the wench!" cries Blunt. "We are talking of your eyes, my dear." "Well, they'll bear talking about, captain, won't they?" asked she, turning them full upon him.
"By the Lord, they will!" says Blunt, smacking his hand on the table. "They're the finest eyes I've seen in my life, and they've got the reddest lips under 'm that—"
"Let me pass, Captain Blunt, if you please. Thank you, doctor."
And before the admiring commander could prevent her, she modestly swept out of the cuddy.
"She's a fine piece of goods, eh?" asked Blunt, watching her. "A spice o' the devil in her, too."
Old Pine took a huge pinch of snuff.
"Devil! I tell you what it is, Blunt. I don't know where Vickers picked her up, but I'd rather trust my life with the worst of those ruffians 'tween decks, than in her keeping, if I'd done her an injury."
"I don't believe she'd think much of sticking a man, either!" he said, rising. "But I must go on deck, doctor." Pine followed him more slowly. "I don't pretend to know much about women," he said to himself, "but that girl's got a story of her own, or I'm much mistaken. What brings her on board this ship as lady's-maid is more than I can fathom." And as, sticking his pipe between his teeth, he walked down the now deserted deck to the main hatchway, and turned to watch the white figure gliding up and down the poop-deck, he saw it joined by another and a darker one, he muttered, "She's after no good, I'll swear."
At that moment his arm was touched by a soldier in undress uniform, who had come up the hatchway. "What is it?"
The man drew himself up and saluted.
"If you please, doctor, one of the prisoners is taken sick, and as the dinner's over, and he's pretty bad, I ventured to disturb your honour."
"You ass!" says Pine—who, like many gruff men, had a good heart under his rough shell—"why didn't you tell me before?" and knocking the ashes out of his barely-lighted pipe, he stopped that implement with a twist of paper and followed his summoner down the hatchway.
In the meantime the woman who was the object of the grim old fellow's suspicions was enjoying the comparative coolness of the night air. Her mistress and her mistress's daughter had not yet come out of their cabin, and the men had not yet finished their evening's tobacco. The awning had been removed, the stars were shining in the moonless sky, the poop guard had shifted itself to the quarter-deck, and Miss Sarah Purfoy was walking up and down the deserted poop, in close tete-a-tete with no less a person than Captain Blunt himself. She had passed and repassed him twice silently, and at the third turn the big fellow, peering into the twilight ahead somewhat uneasily, obeyed the glitter of her great eyes, and joined her.
"You weren't put out, my wench," he asked, "at what I said to you below?"
She affected surprise.
"What do you mean?"
"Why, at my—at what I—at my rudeness, there! For I was a bit rude, I admit."
"I? Oh dear, no. You were not rude."
"Glad you think so!" returned Phineas Blunt, a little ashamed at what looked like a confession of weakness on his part.
"You would have been—if I had let you."
"How do you know?"
"I saw it in your face. Do you think a woman can't see in a man's face when he's going to insult her?"
"Insult you, hey! Upon my word!"
"Yes, insult me. You're old enough to be my father, Captain Blunt, but you've no right to kiss me, unless I ask you."
"Haw, haw!" laughed Blunt. "I like that. Ask me! Egad, I wish you would, you black-eyed minx!"
"So would other people, I have no doubt." "That soldier officer, for instance. Hey, Miss Modesty? I've seen him looking at you as though he'd like to try."
The girl flashed at him with a quick side glance.
"You mean Lieutenant Frere, I suppose. Are you jealous of him?"
"Jealous! Why, damme, the lad was only breeched the other day. Jealous!"
"I think you are—and you've no need to be. He is a stupid booby, though he is Lieutenant Frere."
"So he is. You are right there, by the Lord."
Sarah Purfoy laughed a low, full-toned laugh, whose sound made Blunt's pulse take a jump forward, and sent the blood tingling down to his fingers ends.
"Captain Blunt," said she, "you're going to do a very silly thing."
He came close to her and tried to take her hand.
She answered by another question.
"How old are you?"
"Forty-two, if you must know."
"Oh! And you are going to fall in love with a girl of nineteen."
"Who is that?"
"Myself!" she said, giving him her hand and smiling at him with her rich red lips.
The mizen hid them from the man at the wheel, and the twilight of tropical stars held the main-deck. Blunt felt the breath of this strange woman warm on his cheek, her eyes seemed to wax and wane, and the hard, small hand he held burnt like fire.
"I believe you are right," he cried. "I am half in love with you already."
She gazed at him with a contemptuous sinking of her heavily fringed eyelids, and withdrew her hand.
"Then don't get to the other half, or you'll regret it."
"Shall I?" asked Blunt. "That's my affair. Come, you little vixen, give me that kiss you said I was going to ask you for below," and he caught her in his arms.
In an instant she had twisted herself free, and confronted him with flashing eyes.
"You dare!" she cried. "Kiss me by force! Pooh! you make love like a schoolboy. If you can make me like you, I'll kiss you as often as you will. If you can't, keep your distance, please."
Blunt did not know whether to laugh or be angry at this rebuff. He was conscious that he was in rather a ridiculous position, and so decided to laugh.
"You're a spitfire, too. What must I do to make you like me?"
She made him a curtsy.
"That is your affair," she said; and as the head of Mr. Frere appeared above the companion, Blunt walked aft, feeling considerably bewildered, and yet not displeased.
"She's a fine girl, by jingo," he said, cocking his cap, "and I'm hanged if she ain't sweet upon me."
And then the old fellow began to whistle softly to himself as he paced the deck, and to glance towards the man who had taken his place with no friendly eyes. But a sort of shame held him as yet, and he kept aloof.
Maurice Frere's greeting was short enough.
"Well, Sarah," he said, "have you got out of your temper?"
"What did you strike the man for? He did you no harm."
"He was out of his place. What business had he to come aft? One must keep these wretches down, my girl."
"Or they will be too much for you, eh? Do you think one man could capture a ship, Mr. Maurice?"
"No, but one hundred might."
"Nonsense! What could they do against the soldiers? There are fifty soldiers."
"So there are, but—"
"Well, never mind. It's against the rules, and I won't have it."
"'Not according to the King's Regulations,' as Captain Vickers would say."
Frere laughed at her imitation of his pompous captain.
"You are a strange girl; I can't make you out. Come," and he took her hand, "tell me what you are really."
"Will you promise not to tell?"
"Upon your word?"
"Upon my word."
"Well, then—but you'll tell?"
"Not I. Come, go on."
"Lady's-maid in the family of a gentleman going abroad."
"Sarah, you can't be serious?" "I am serious. That was the advertisement I answered."
"But I mean what you have been. You were not a lady's-maid all your life?"
She pulled her shawl closer round her and shivered.
"People are not born ladies' maids, I suppose?"
"Well, who are you, then? Have you no friends? What have you been?"
She looked up into the young man's face—a little less harsh at that moment than it was wont to be—and creeping closer to him, whispered—"Do you love me, Maurice?"
He raised one of the little hands that rested on the taffrail, and, under cover of the darkness, kissed it.
"You know I do," he said. "You may be a lady's-maid or what you like, but you are the loveliest woman I ever met."
She smiled at his vehemence.
"Then, if you love me, what does it matter?" "If you loved me, you would tell me," said he, with a quickness which surprised himself.
"But I have nothing to tell, and I don't love you—yet."
He let her hand fall with an impatient gesture; and at that moment Blunt—who could restrain himself no longer—came up.
"Fine night, Mr. Frere?"
"Yes, fine enough."
"No signs of a breeze yet, though."
"No, not yet."
Just then, from out of the violet haze that hung over the horizon, a strange glow of light broke.
"Hallo," cries Frere, "did you see that?"
All had seen it, but they looked for its repetition in vain. Blunt rubbed his eyes.
"I saw it," he said, "distinctly. A flash of light." They strained their eyes to pierce through the obscurity.
"Best saw something like it before dinner. There must be thunder in the air."
At that instant a thin streak of light shot up and then sank again. There was no mistaking it this time, and a simultaneous exclamation burst from all on deck. From out the gloom which hung over the horizon rose a column of flame that lighted up the night for an instant, and then sunk, leaving a dull red spark upon the water.
"It's a ship on fire," cried Frere.
CHAPTER III. THE MONOTONY BREAKS.
They looked again, the tiny spark still burned, and immediately over it there grew out of the darkness a crimson spot, that hung like a lurid star in the air. The soldiers and sailors on the forecastle had seen it also, and in a moment the whole vessel was astir. Mrs. Vickers, with little Sylvia clinging to her dress, came up to share the new sensation; and at the sight of her mistress, the modest maid withdrew discreetly from Frere's side. Not that there was any need to do so; no one heeded her. Blunt, in his professional excitement, had already forgotten her presence, and Frere was in earnest conversation with Vickers.
"Take a boat?" said that gentleman. "Certainly, my dear Frere, by all means. That is to say, if the captain does not object, and it is not contrary to the Regulations."
"Captain, you'll lower a boat, eh? We may save some of the poor devils," cries Frere, his heartiness of body reviving at the prospect of excitement.
"Boat!" said Blunt, "why, she's twelve miles off and more, and there's not a breath o' wind!"
"But we can't let 'em roast like chestnuts!" cried the other, as the glow in the sky broadened and became more intense.
"What is the good of a boat?" said Pine. "The long-boat only holds thirty men, and that's a big ship yonder."
"Well, take two boats—three boats! By Heaven, you'll never let 'em burn alive without stirring a finger to save 'em!"
"They've got their own boats," says Blunt, whose coolness was in strong contrast to the young officer's impetuosity; "and if the fire gains, they'll take to 'em, you may depend. In the meantime, we'll show 'em that there's someone near 'em." And as he spoke, a blue light flared hissing into the night.
"There, they'll see that, I expect!" he said, as the ghastly flame rose, extinguishing the stars for a moment, only to let them appear again brighter in a darker heaven.
"Mr. Best—lower and man the quarter-boats! Mr. Frere—you can go in one, if you like, and take a volunteer or two from those grey jackets of yours amidships. I shall want as many hands as I can spare to man the long-boat and cutter, in case we want 'em. Steady there, lads! Easy!" and as the first eight men who could reach the deck parted to the larboard and starboard quarter-boats, Frere ran down on the main-deck.
Mrs. Vickers, of course, was in the way, and gave a genteel scream as Blunt rudely pushed past her with a scarce-muttered apology; but her maid was standing erect and motionless, by the quarter-railing, and as the captain paused for a moment to look round him, he saw her dark eyes fixed on him admiringly. He was, as he said, over forty-two, burly and grey-haired, but he blushed like a girl under her approving gaze. Nevertheless, he said only, "That wench is a trump!" and swore a little.
Meanwhile Maurice Frere had passed the sentry and leapt down into the 'tween decks. At his nod, the prison door was thrown open. The air was hot, and that strange, horrible odour peculiar to closely-packed human bodies filled the place. It was like coming into a full stable.
He ran his eye down the double tier of bunks which lined the side of the ship, and stopped at the one opposite him.
There seemed to have been some disturbance there lately, for instead of the six pair of feet which should have protruded therefrom, the gleam of the bull's-eye showed but four.
"What's the matter here, sentry?" he asked.
"Prisoner ill, sir. Doctor sent him to hospital."
"But there should be two."
The other came from behind the break of the berths. It was Rufus Dawes. He held by the side as he came, and saluted.
"I felt sick, sir, and was trying to get the scuttle open."
The heads were all raised along the silent line, and eyes and ears were eager to see and listen. The double tier of bunks looked terribly like a row of wild beast cages at that moment.
Maurice Frere stamped his foot indignantly.
"Sick! What are you sick about, you malingering dog? I'll give you something to sweat the sickness out of you. Stand on one side here!"
Rufus Dawes, wondering, obeyed. He seemed heavy and dejected, and passed his hand across his forehead, as though he would rub away a pain there.
"Which of you fellows can handle an oar?" Frere went on. "There, curse you, I don't want fifty! Three'll do. Come on now, make haste!"
The heavy door clashed again, and in another instant the four "volunteers" were on deck. The crimson glow was turning yellow now, and spreading over the sky.
"Two in each boat!" cries Blunt. "I'll burn a blue light every hour for you, Mr. Best; and take care they don't swamp you. Lower away, lads!" As the second prisoner took the oar of Frere's boat, he uttered a groan and fell forward, recovering himself instantly. Sarah Purfoy, leaning over the side, saw the occurrence.
"What is the matter with that man?" she said. "Is he ill?"
Pine was next to her, and looked out instantly. "It's that big fellow in No. 10," he cried. "Here, Frere!"
But Frere heard him not. He was intent on the beacon that gleamed ever brighter in the distance. "Give way, my lads!" he shouted. And amid a cheer from the ship, the two boats shot out of the bright circle of the blue light, and disappeared into the darkness.
Sarah Purfoy looked at Pine for an explanation, but he turned abruptly away. For a moment the girl paused, as if in doubt; and then, ere his retreating figure turned to retrace its steps, she cast a quick glance around, and slipping down the ladder, made her way to the 'tween decks.
The iron-studded oak barricade that, loop-holed for musketry, and perforated with plated trapdoor for sterner needs, separated soldiers from prisoners, was close to her left hand, and the sentry at its padlocked door looked at her inquiringly. She laid her little hand on his big rough one—a sentry is but mortal—and opened her brown eyes at him.
"The hospital," she said. "The doctor sent me"; and before he could answer, her white figure vanished down the hatch, and passed round the bulkhead, behind which lay the sick man.
CHAPTER IV. THE HOSPITAL.
The hospital was nothing more nor less than a partitioned portion of the lower deck, filched from the space allotted to the soldiers. It ran fore and aft, coming close to the stern windows, and was, in fact, a sort of artificial stern cabin. At a pinch, it might have held a dozen men.
Though not so hot as in the prison, the atmosphere of the lower deck was close and unhealthy, and the girl, pausing to listen to the subdued hum of conversation coming from the soldiers' berths, turned strangely sick and giddy. She drew herself up, however, and held out her hand to a man who came rapidly across the misshapen shadows, thrown by the sulkily swinging lantern, to meet her. It was the young soldier who had been that day sentry at the convict gangway.
"Well, miss," he said, "I am here, yer see, waiting for yer."
"You are a good boy, Miles; but don't you think I'm worth waiting for?"
Miles grinned from ear to ear.
"Indeed you be," said he.
Sarah Purfoy frowned, and then smiled.
"Come here, Miles; I've got something for you."
Miles came forward, grinning harder.
The girl produced a small object from the pocket of her dress. If Mrs. Vickers had seen it she would probably have been angry, for it was nothing less than the captain's brandy-flask.
"Drink," said she. "It's the same as they have upstairs, so it won't hurt you."
The fellow needed no pressing. He took off half the contents of the bottle at a gulp, and then, fetching a long breath, stood staring at her.
"Is it? I dare say it is." She had been looking at him with unaffected disgust as he drank. "Brandy is all you men understand." Miles—still sucking in his breath—came a pace closer.
"Not it," said he, with a twinkle in his little pig's eyes. "I understand something else, miss, I can tell yer."
The tone of the sentence seemed to awaken and remind her of her errand in that place. She laughed as loudly and as merrily as she dared, and laid her hand on the speaker's arm. The boy—for he was but a boy, one of those many ill-reared country louts who leave the plough-tail for the musket, and, for a shilling a day, experience all the "pomp and circumstance of glorious war"—reddened to the roots of his closely-cropped hair.
"There, that's quite close enough. You're only a common soldier, Miles, and you mustn't make love to me."
"Not make love to yer!" says Miles. "What did yer tell me to meet yer here for then?"
She laughed again.
"What a practical animal you are! Suppose I had something to say to you?"
Miles devoured her with his eyes.
"It's hard to marry a soldier," he said, with a recruit's proud intonation of the word; "but yer might do worse, miss, and I'll work for yer like a slave, I will."
She looked at him with curiosity and pleasure. Though her time was evidently precious, she could not resist the temptation of listening to praises of herself.
"I know you're above me, Miss Sarah. You're a lady, but I love yer, I do, and you drives me wild with yer tricks."
"Do yer? Yes, yer do. What did yer come an' make up to me for, and then go sweetheartin' with them others?"
"Why, the cuddy folk—the skipper, and the parson, and that Frere. I see yer walkin' the deck wi' un o' nights. Dom 'um, I'd put a bullet through his red head as soon as look at un."
"Hush! Miles dear—they'll hear you."
Her face was all aglow, and her expanded nostrils throbbed. Beautiful as the face was, it had a tigerish look about it at that moment.
Encouraged by the epithet, Miles put his arm round her slim waist, just as Blunt had done, but she did not resent it so abruptly. Miles had promised more.
"Hush!" she whispered, with admirably-acted surprise—"I heard a noise!" and as the soldier started back, she smoothed her dress complacently.
"There is no one!" cried he.
"Isn't there? My mistake, then. Now come here, Miles."
"Who is in the hospital?"
"Well, I want to go in."
Miles scratched his head, and grinned.
"Why not? You've let me in before." "Against the doctor's orders. He told me special to let no one in but himself."
"It ain't nonsense. There was a convict brought in to-night, and nobody's to go near him."
"A convict!" She grew more interested. "What's the matter with him?"
"Dunno. But he's to be kep' quiet until old Pine comes down."
She became authoritative.
"Come, Miles, let me go in."
"Don't ask me, miss. It's against orders, and—"
"Against orders? Why, you were blustering about shooting people just now."
The badgered Miles grew angry. "Was I? Bluster or no bluster, you don't go in." She turned away. "Oh, very well. If this is all the thanks I get for wasting my time down here, I shall go on deck again."
Miles became uneasy.
"There are plenty of agreeable people there."
Miles took a step after her.
"Mr. Frere will let me go in, I dare say, if I ask him."
Miles swore under his breath.
"Dom Mr. Frere! Go in if yer like," he said. "I won't stop yer, but remember what I'm doin' of."
She turned again at the foot of the ladder, and came quickly back.
"That's a good lad. I knew you would not refuse me"; and smiling at the poor lad she was befooling, she passed into the cabin.
There was no lantern, and from the partially-blocked stern windows came only a dim, vaporous light. The dull ripple of the water as the ship rocked on the slow swell of the sea made a melancholy sound, and the sick man's heavy breathing seemed to fill the air. The slight noise made by the opening door roused him; he rose on his elbow and began to mutter. Sarah Purfoy paused in the doorway to listen, but she could make nothing of the low, uneasy murmuring. Raising her arm, conspicuous by its white sleeve in the gloom, she beckoned Miles.
"The lantern," she whispered, "bring me the lantern!"
He unhooked it from the rope where it swung, and brought it towards her. At that moment the man in the bunk sat up erect, and twisted himself towards the light. "Sarah!" he cried, in shrill sharp tones. "Sarah!" and swooped with a lean arm through the dusk, as though to seize her.
The girl leapt out of the cabin like a panther, struck the lantern out of her lover's hand, and was back at the bunk-head in a moment. The convict was a young man of about four-and-twenty. His hands—clutched convulsively now on the blankets—were small and well-shaped, and the unshaven chin bristled with promise of a strong beard. His wild black eyes glared with all the fire of delirium, and as he gasped for breath, the sweat stood in beads on his sallow forehead.
The aspect of the man was sufficiently ghastly, and Miles, drawing back with an oath, did not wonder at the terror which had seized Mrs. Vickers's maid. With open mouth and agonized face, she stood in the centre of the cabin, lantern in hand, like one turned to stone, gazing at the man on the bed.
"Ecod, he be a sight!" says Miles, at length. "Come away, miss, and shut the door. He's raving, I tell yer."
The sound of his voice recalled her.
She dropped the lantern, and rushed to the bed.
"You fool; he's choking, can't you see? Water! give me water!"
And wreathing her arms around the man's head, she pulled it down on her bosom, rocking it there, half savagely, to and fro.
Awed into obedience by her voice, Miles dipped a pannikin into a small puncheon, cleated in the corner of the cabin, and gave it her; and, without thanking him, she placed it to the sick prisoner's lips. He drank greedily, and closed his eyes with a grateful sigh.
Just then the quick ears of Miles heard the jingle of arms. "Here's the doctor coming, miss!" he cried. "I hear the sentry saluting. Come away! Quick!"
She seized the lantern, and, opening the horn slide, extinguished it.
"Say it went out," she said in a fierce whisper, "and hold your tongue. Leave me to manage."
She bent over the convict as if to arrange his pillow, and then glided out of the cabin, just as Pine descended the hatchway.
"Hallo!" cried he, stumbling, as he missed his footing; "where's the light?"
"Here, sir," says Miles, fumbling with the lantern. "It's all right, sir. It went out, sir."
"Went out! What did you let it go out for, you blockhead!" growled the unsuspecting Pine. "Just like you boobies! What is the use of a light if it 'goes out', eh?" As he groped his way, with outstretched arms, in the darkness, Sarah Purfoy slipped past him unnoticed, and gained the upper deck.
CHAPTER V. THE BARRACOON.
In the prison of the 'tween decks reigned a darkness pregnant with murmurs. The sentry at the entrance to the hatchway was supposed to "prevent the prisoners from making a noise," but he put a very liberal interpretation upon the clause, and so long as the prisoners refrained from shouting, yelling, and fighting—eccentricities in which they sometimes indulged—he did not disturb them. This course of conduct was dictated by prudence, no less than by convenience, for one sentry was but little over so many; and the convicts, if pressed too hard, would raise a sort of bestial boo-hoo, in which all voices were confounded, and which, while it made noise enough and to spare, utterly precluded individual punishment. One could not flog a hundred and eighty men, and it was impossible to distinguish any particular offender. So, in virtue of this last appeal, convictism had established a tacit right to converse in whispers, and to move about inside its oaken cage.
To one coming in from the upper air, the place would have seemed in pitchy darkness, but the convict eye, accustomed to the sinister twilight, was enabled to discern surrounding objects with tolerable distinctness. The prison was about fifty feet long and fifty feet wide, and ran the full height of the 'tween decks, viz., about five feet ten inches high. The barricade was loop-holed here and there, and the planks were in some places wide enough to admit a musket barrel. On the aft side, next the soldiers' berths, was a trap door, like the stoke-hole of a furnace. At first sight this appeared to be contrived for the humane purpose of ventilation, but a second glance dispelled this weak conclusion. The opening was just large enough to admit the muzzle of a small howitzer, secured on the deck below. In case of a mutiny, the soldiers could sweep the prison from end to end with grape shot. Such fresh air as there was, filtered through the loopholes, and came, in somewhat larger quantity, through a wind-sail passed into the prison from the hatchway. But the wind-sail, being necessarily at one end only of the place, the air it brought was pretty well absorbed by the twenty or thirty lucky fellows near it, and the other hundred and fifty did not come so well off. The scuttles were open, certainly, but as the row of bunks had been built against them, the air they brought was the peculiar property of such men as occupied the berths into which they penetrated. These berths were twenty-eight in number, each containing six men. They ran in a double tier round three sides of the prison, twenty at each side, and eight affixed to that portion of the forward barricade opposite the door. Each berth was presumed to be five feet six inches square, but the necessities of stowage had deprived them of six inches, and even under that pressure twelve men were compelled to sleep on the deck. Pine did not exaggerate when he spoke of the custom of overcrowding convict ships; and as he was entitled to half a guinea for every man he delivered alive at Hobart Town, he had some reason to complain.
When Frere had come down, an hour before, the prisoners were all snugly between their blankets. They were not so now; though, at the first clink of the bolts, they would be back again in their old positions, to all appearances sound asleep. As the eye became accustomed to the foetid duskiness of the prison, a strange picture presented itself. Groups of men, in all imaginable attitudes, were lying, standing, sitting, or pacing up and down. It was the scene on the poop-deck over again; only, here being no fear of restraining keepers, the wild beasts were a little more free in their movements. It is impossible to convey, in words, any idea of the hideous phantasmagoria of shifting limbs and faces which moved through the evil-smelling twilight of this terrible prison-house. Callot might have drawn it, Dante might have suggested it, but a minute attempt to describe its horrors would but disgust. There are depths in humanity which one cannot explore, as there are mephitic caverns into which one dare not penetrate.
Old men, young men, and boys, stalwart burglars and highway robbers, slept side by side with wizened pickpockets or cunning-featured area-sneaks. The forger occupied the same berth with the body-snatcher. The man of education learned strange secrets of house-breakers' craft, and the vulgar ruffian of St. Giles took lessons of self-control from the keener intellect of the professional swindler. The fraudulent clerk and the flash "cracksman" interchanged experiences. The smuggler's stories of lucky ventures and successful runs were capped by the footpad's reminiscences of foggy nights and stolen watches. The poacher, grimly thinking of his sick wife and orphaned children, would start as the night-house ruffian clapped him on the shoulder and bade him, with a curse, to take good heart and "be a man." The fast shopboy whose love of fine company and high living had brought him to this pass, had shaken off the first shame that was on him, and listened eagerly to the narratives of successful vice that fell so glibly from the lips of his older companions. To be transported seemed no such uncommon fate. The old fellows laughed, and wagged their grey heads with all the glee of past experience, and listening youth longed for the time when it might do likewise. Society was the common foe, and magistrates, gaolers, and parsons were the natural prey of all noteworthy mankind. Only fools were honest, only cowards kissed the rod, and failed to meditate revenge on that world of respectability which had wronged them. Each new-comer was one more recruit to the ranks of ruffianism, and not a man penned in that reeking den of infamy but became a sworn hater of law, order, and "free-men." What he might have been before mattered not. He was now a prisoner, and—thrust into a suffocating barracoon, herded with the foulest of mankind, with all imaginable depths of blasphemy and indecency sounded hourly in his sight and hearing—he lost his self-respect, and became what his gaolers took him to be—a wild beast to be locked under bolts and bars, lest he should break out and tear them.
The conversation ran upon the sudden departure of the four. What could they want with them at that hour?
"I tell you there's something up on deck," says one to the group nearest him. "Don't you hear all that rumbling and rolling?"
"What did they lower boats for? I heard the dip o' the oars."
"Don't know, mate. P'r'aps a burial job," hazarded a short, stout fellow, as a sort of happy suggestion.
"One of those coves in the parlour!" said another; and a laugh followed the speech.
"No such luck. You won't hang your jib for them yet awhile. More like the skipper agone fishin'."
"The skipper don't go fishin', yer fool. What would he do fishin'?—special in the middle o' the night."
"That 'ud be like old Dovery, eh?" says a fifth, alluding to an old grey-headed fellow, who—a returned convict—was again under sentence for body-snatching.
"Ay," put in a young man, who had the reputation of being the smartest "crow" (the "look-out" man of a burglars' gang) in London—"'fishers of men,' as the parson says."
The snuffling imitation of a Methodist preacher was good, and there was another laugh.
Just then a miserable little cockney pickpocket, feeling his way to the door, fell into the party.
A volley of oaths and kicks received him.
"I beg your pardon, gen'l'men," cries the miserable wretch, "but I want h'air."
"Go to the barber's and buy a wig, then!" says the "Crow", elated at the success of his last sally.
"Oh, sir, my back!"
"Get up!" groaned someone in the darkness. "Oh, Lord, I'm smothering! Here, sentry!"
"Vater!" cried the little cockney. "Give us a drop o' vater, for mercy's sake. I haven't moist'ned my chaffer this blessed day."
"Half a gallon a day, bo', and no more," says a sailor next him.
"Yes, what have yer done with yer half-gallon, eh?" asked the Crow derisively. "Someone stole it," said the sufferer.
"He's been an' blued it," squealed someone. "Been an' blued it to buy a Sunday veskit with! Oh, ain't he a vicked young man?" And the speaker hid his head under the blankets, in humorous affectation of modesty.
All this time the miserable little cockney—he was a tailor by trade—had been grovelling under the feet of the Crow and his companions.
"Let me h'up, gents" he implored—"let me h'up. I feel as if I should die—I do."
"Let the gentleman up," says the humorist in the bunk. "Don't yer see his kerridge is avaitin' to take him to the Hopera?"
The conversation had got a little loud, and, from the topmost bunk on the near side, a bullet head protruded.
"Ain't a cove to get no sleep?" cried a gruff voice. "My blood, if I have to turn out, I'll knock some of your empty heads together."
It seemed that the speaker was a man of mark, for the noise ceased instantly; and, in the lull which ensued, a shrill scream broke from the wretched tailor.
"Help! they're killing me! Ah-h-h-!"
"Wot's the matter," roared the silencer of the riot, jumping from his berth, and scattering the Crow and his companions right and left. "Let him be, can't yer?"
"H'air!" cried the poor devil—"h'air; I'm fainting!"
Just then there came another groan from the man in the opposite bunk. "Well, I'm blessed!" said the giant, as he held the gasping tailor by the collar and glared round him. "Here's a pretty go! All the blessed chickens ha' got the croup!"
The groaning of the man in the bunk redoubled.
"Pass the word to the sentry," says someone more humane than the rest. "Ah," says the humorist, "pass him out; it'll be one the less. We'd rather have his room than his company."
"Sentry, here's a man sick."
But the sentry knew his duty better than to reply. He was a young soldier, but he had been well informed of the artfulness of convict stratagems; and, moreover, Captain Vickers had carefully apprised him "that by the King's Regulations, he was forbidden to reply to any question or communication addressed to him by a convict, but, in the event of being addressed, was to call the non-commissioned officer on duty." Now, though he was within easy hailing distance of the guard on the quarter-deck, he felt a natural disinclination to disturb those gentlemen merely for the sake of a sick convict, and knowing that, in a few minutes, the third relief would come on duty, he decided to wait until then.
In the meantime the tailor grew worse, and began to moan dismally.
"Here! 'ullo!" called out his supporter, in dismay. "Hold up 'ere! Wot's wrong with yer? Don't come the drops 'ere. Pass him down, some of yer," and the wretch was hustled down to the doorway.
"Vater!" he whispered, beating feebly with his hand on the thick oak.
"Get us a drink, mister, for Gord's sake!"
But the prudent sentry answered never a word, until the ship's bell warned him of the approach of the relief guard; and then honest old Pine, coming with anxious face to inquire after his charge, received the intelligence that there was another prisoner sick. He had the door unlocked and the tailor outside in an instant. One look at the flushed, anxious face was enough.
"Who's that moaning in there?" he asked.
It was the man who had tried to call for the sentry an hour back, and Pine had him out also; convictism beginning to wonder a little.
"Take 'em both aft to the hospital," he said; "and, Jenkins, if there are any more men taken sick, let them pass the word for me at once. I shall be on deck."
The guard stared in each other's faces, with some alarm, but said nothing, thinking more of the burning ship, which now flamed furiously across the placid water, than of peril nearer home; but as Pine went up the hatchway he met Blunt.
"We've got the fever aboard!"
"Good God! Do you mean it, Pine?"
Pine shook his grizzled head sorrowfully.
"It's this cursed calm that's done it; though I expected it all along, with the ship crammed as she is. When I was in the Hecuba—"
"Who is it?"
Pine laughed a half-pitying, half-angry laugh.
"A convict, of course. Who else should it be? They are reeking like bullocks at Smithfield down there. A hundred and eighty men penned into a place fifty feet long, with the air like an oven—what could you expect?"
Poor Blunt stamped his foot.
"It isn't my fault," he cried. "The soldiers are berthed aft. If the Government will overload these ships, I can't help it."
"The Government! Ah! The Government! The Government don't sleep, sixty men a-side, in a cabin only six feet high. The Government don't get typhus fever in the tropics, does it?"
"But what does the Government care, then?"
Blunt wiped his hot forehead.
"Who was the first down?"
"No. 97 berth; ten on the lower tier. John Rex he calls himself."
"Are you sure it's the fever?"
"As sure as I can be yet. Head like a fire-ball, and tongue like a strip of leather. Gad, don't I know it?" and Pine grinned mournfully. "I've got him moved into the hospital. Hospital! It is a hospital! As dark as a wolf's mouth. I've seen dog kennels I liked better."
Blunt nodded towards the volume of lurid smoke that rolled up out of the glow.—"Suppose there is a shipload of those poor devils? I can't refuse to take 'em in."
"No," says Pine gloomily, "I suppose you can't. If they come, I must stow 'em somewhere. We'll have to run for the Cape, with the first breeze, if they do come, that is all I can see for it," and he turned away to watch the burning vessel.
CHAPTER VI. THE FATE OF THE "HYDASPES".
In the meanwhile the two boats made straight for the red column that uprose like a gigantic torch over the silent sea.
As Blunt had said, the burning ship lay a good twelve miles from the Malabar, and the pull was a long and a weary one. Once fairly away from the protecting sides of the vessel that had borne them thus far on their dismal journey, the adventurers seemed to have come into a new atmosphere. The immensity of the ocean over which they slowly moved revealed itself for the first time. On board the prison ship, surrounded with all the memories if not with the comforts of the shore they had quitted, they had not realized how far they were from that civilization which had given them birth. The well-lighted, well-furnished cuddy, the homely mirth of the forecastle, the setting of sentries and the changing of guards, even the gloom and terror of the closely-locked prison, combined to make the voyagers feel secure against the unknown dangers of the sea. That defiance of Nature which is born of contact with humanity, had hitherto sustained them, and they felt that, though alone on the vast expanse of waters, they were in companionship with others of their kind, and that the perils one man had passed might be successfully dared by another. But now—with one ship growing smaller behind them, and the other, containing they knew not what horror of human agony and human helplessness, lying a burning wreck in the black distance ahead of them—they began to feel their own littleness. The Malabar, that huge sea monster, in whose capacious belly so many human creatures lived and suffered, had dwindled to a walnut-shell, and yet beside her bulk how infinitely small had their own frail cockboat appeared as they shot out from under her towering stern! Then the black hull rising above them, had seemed a tower of strength, built to defy the utmost violence of wind and wave; now it was but a slip of wood floating—on an unknown depth of black, fathomless water. The blue light, which, at its first flashing over the ocean, had made the very stars pale their lustre, and lighted up with ghastly radiance the enormous vault of heaven, was now only a point, brilliant and distinct it is true, but which by its very brilliance dwarfed the ship into insignificance. The Malabar lay on the water like a glow-worm on a floating leaf, and the glare of the signal-fire made no more impression on the darkness than the candle carried by a solitary miner would have made on the abyss of a coal-pit.
And yet the Malabar held two hundred creatures like themselves!
The water over which the boats glided was black and smooth, rising into huge foamless billows, the more terrible because they were silent. When the sea hisses, it speaks, and speech breaks the spell of terror; when it is inert, heaving noiselessly, it is dumb, and seems to brood over mischief. The ocean in a calm is like a sulky giant; one dreads that it may be meditating evil. Moreover, an angry sea looks less vast in extent than a calm one. Its mounting waves bring the horizon nearer, and one does not discern how for many leagues the pitiless billows repeat themselves. To appreciate the hideous vastness of the ocean one must see it when it sleeps.
The great sky uprose from this silent sea without a cloud. The stars hung low in its expanse, burning in a violent mist of lower ether. The heavens were emptied of sound, and each dip of the oars was re-echoed in space by a succession of subtle harmonies. As the blades struck the dark water, it flashed fire, and the tracks of the boats resembled two sea-snakes writhing with silent undulations through a lake of quicksilver.
It had been a sort of race hitherto, and the rowers, with set teeth and compressed lips, had pulled stroke for stroke. At last the foremost boat came to a sudden pause. Best gave a cheery shout and passed her, steering straight into the broad track of crimson that already reeked on the sea ahead.
"What is it?" he cried.
But he heard only a smothered curse from Frere, and then his consort pulled hard to overtake him.
It was, in fact, nothing of consequence—only a prisoner "giving in".
"Curse it!" says Frere, "What's the matter with you? Oh, you, is it?—Dawes! Of course, Dawes. I never expected anything better from such a skulking hound. Come, this sort of nonsense won't do with me. It isn't as nice as lolloping about the hatchways, I dare say, but you'll have to go on, my fine fellow."
"He seems sick, sir," said (with) compassionate bow.
"Sick! Not he. Shamming. Come, give way now! Put your backs into it!" and the convict having picked up his oar, the boat shot forward again.
But, for all Mr. Frere's urging, he could not recover the way he had lost, and Best was the first to run in under the black cloud that hung over the crimsoned water.
At his signal, the second boat came alongside.
"Keep wide," he said. "If there are many fellows yet aboard, they'll swamp us; and I think there must be, as we haven't met the boats," and then raising his voice, as the exhausted crew lay on their oars, he hailed the burning ship.
She was a huge, clumsily-built vessel, with great breadth of beam, and a lofty poop-deck. Strangely enough, though they had so lately seen the fire, she was already a wreck, and appeared to be completely deserted. The chief hold of the fire was amidships, and the lower deck was one mass of flame. Here and there were great charred rifts and gaps in her sides, and the red-hot fire glowed through these as through the bars of a grate. The main-mast had fallen on the starboard side, and trailed a blackened wreck in the water, causing the unwieldy vessel to lean over heavily. The fire roared like a cataract, and huge volumes of flame-flecked smoke poured up out of the hold, and rolled away in a low-lying black cloud over the sea.
As Frere's boat pulled slowly round her stern, he hailed the deck again and again.
Still there was no answer, and though the flood of light that dyed the water blood-red struck out every rope and spar distinct and clear, his straining eyes could see no living soul aboard. As they came nearer, they could distinguish the gilded letters of her name.
"What is it, men?" cried Frere, his voice almost drowned amid the roar of the flames. "Can you see?"
Rufus Dawes, impelled, it would seem, by some strong impulse of curiosity, stood erect, and shaded his eyes with his hand.
"Well—can't you speak? What is it?"
The Hydaspes! The ship in which his cousin Richard Devine had sailed! The ship for which those in England might now look in vain! The Hydaspes which—something he had heard during the speculations as to this missing cousin flashed across him.
"Back water, men! Round with her! Pull for your lives!"
Best's boat glided alongside.
"Can you see her name?"
Frere, white with terror, shouted a reply.
"The Hydaspes! I know her. She is bound for Calcutta, and she has five tons of powder aboard!"
There was no need for more words. The single sentence explained the whole mystery of her desertion. The crew had taken to the boats on the first alarm, and had left their death-fraught vessel to her fate. They were miles off by this time, and unluckily for themselves, perhaps, had steered away from the side where rescue lay.
The boats tore through the water. Eager as the men had been to come, they were more eager to depart. The flames had even now reached the poop; in a few minutes it would be too late. For ten minutes or more not a word was spoken. With straining arms and labouring chests, the rowers tugged at the oars, their eyes fixed on the lurid mass they were leaving. Frere and Best, with their faces turned back to the terror they fled from, urged the men to greater efforts. Already the flames had lapped the flag, already the outlines of the stern carvings were blurred by the fire.
Another moment, and all would be over. Ah! it had come at last. A dull rumbling sound; the burning ship parted asunder; a pillar of fire, flecked with black masses that were beams and planks, rose up out of the ocean; there was a terrific crash, as though sea and sky were coming together; and then a mighty mountain of water rose, advanced, caught, and passed them, and they were alone—deafened, stunned, and breathless, in a sudden horror of thickest darkness, and a silence like that of the tomb.
The splashing of the falling fragments awoke them from their stupor, and then the blue light of the Malabar struck out a bright pathway across the sea, and they knew that they were safe.
* * * * *
On board the Malabar two men paced the deck, waiting for dawn.
It came at last. The sky lightened, the mist melted away, and then a long, low, far-off streak of pale yellow light floated on the eastern horizon. By and by the water sparkled, and the sea changed colour, turning from black to yellow, and from yellow to lucid green. The man at the masthead hailed the deck. The boats were in sight, and as they came towards the ship, the bright water flashing from the labouring oars, a crowd of spectators hanging over the bulwarks cheered and waved their hats.
"Not a soul!" cried Blunt. "No one but themselves. Well, I'm glad they're safe anyway."
The boats drew alongside, and in a few seconds Frere was upon deck.
"Well, Mr. Frere?"
"No use," cried Frere, shivering. "We only just had time to get away. The nearest thing in the world, sir."
"Didn't you see anyone?"
"Not a soul. They must have taken to the boats."
"Then they can't be far off," cried Blunt, sweeping the horizon with his glass. "They must have pulled all the way, for there hasn't been enough wind to fill a hollow tooth with." "Perhaps they pulled in the wrong direction," said Frere. "They had a good four hours' start of us, you know."
Then Best came up, and told the story to a crowd of eager listeners. The sailors having hoisted and secured the boats, were hurried off to the forecastle, there to eat, and relate their experience between mouthfuls, and the four convicts were taken in charge and locked below again.
"You had better go and turn in, Frere," said Pine gruffly. "It's no use whistling for a wind here all day."
Frere laughed—in his heartiest manner. "I think I will," he said. "I'm dog tired, and as sleepy as an owl," and he descended the poop ladder. Pine took a couple of turns up and down the deck, and then catching Blunt's eye, stopped in front of Vickers.