Chapter XV

Rolf Boldrewood

AFTER the conclusion of the sitting of the Court as presided over by His Honour Judge Buckthorne, when Lance and Ned had been carried off to undergo their allotted sentences, it was observed that Kate Lawless and Sergeant Dayrell, while apparently strolling aimlessly together along the street, were engaged in an earnest and apparently confidential conversation.

‘Well, that chap was got to rights if ever a man was,’ observed the Sergeant. ‘There’ll be some of the flashness taken out of him before he comes out again.’

The girl looked at him searchingly before she answered. When she did there was no triumph in her voice.

‘Poor devil! it was hard lines, when you come to think of it. And all for a horse that he knew no more about than the dead! He looked at me, as he walked out, so sad and fiercelike I couldn’t help pitying him.’

‘You mean you might have pitied him if he hadn’t thrown you over for the girl at home—if he hadn’t treated you like the dirt beneath his feet after promising to marry you—after amusing himself by making love to you as if you were a South Sea Island wahine!’

‘Perhaps he did. Suppose he did,’ replied the girl musingly, evidently in one of those fits of reactionary regret which so often in the feminine nature—strange and enigmatical always—are prone to succeed the exaltation of passion. ‘For all that, I feel sorry, now it’s over. I can’t get him out of my head, locked up in one of those beastly cells.’

‘Your brother Ned’s in one too. You don’t seem to think of him.’

‘No, I don’t not so much. Ned’s different. He’s been working for it these years. He’s lost the deal and has to pay up. He’s not one to whine either, and I’d take the odds he’s out again and in the mountains long before his time’s up. But when I think of Lance and what a swell chap he was, so hearty and jolly when we first seen him, I feel like a good cry.’

‘Perhaps you’d like to pass him over to Tessie when he comes out,’ sneered! the Sergeant. ‘She’d be so happy to console him.’

‘I’ve that feeling for him yet, bad as he’s treated me,’ said the girl, raising her head and stamping her foot, ‘that I’d kill any woman that took him from me, even now. He’s played me false and thrown me over, I know, and yet, by George!’ she cried, suddenly facing round upon the Sergeant, while her eyes flashed and her bosom heaved with sudden passion, ‘I wonder if he did write all you showed me? I can’t read a line, more shame to father and mother that never had me taught like that Tessie. So what’s to prevent you putting down anything you liked and saying he wrote it? Suppose you’d been working a cross all along? Frank Dayrell, if I ever find out as you turned dog on me that way your last hour’s come. By ——! I’d shoot you like a crow, and if I didn’t I’d find somebody that would. Don’t you make any mistake.’

Dayrell smiled in his old scornful way as he pointed out the extreme improbability of Lance’s writing to his affianced bride in England in any other way. What else was he to say to her? ‘Why, you never thought he would marry you, did you, Kate?’

‘Why did he make a fool of me then?’ said the girl, standing slightly back and facing the trooper as if, like the tigress which such women are said to resemble, she needed but another spark of anger to cause her to spring upon him and rend with tooth and talon. ‘Why shouldn’t he marry me? I’d have made him as good a wife as that girl or any other in the world, I don’t care who she was. I know I’m ignorant and all that, but one woman’s as good as another if she takes to a man. That makes all the difference, and I’d have blacked his boots and waited on him hand and foot, and been a good woman too, if he’d been true to me—as God hears me, I could—I would!’

And here, wrought up by a strange admixture of feelings’remorse, regret, disappointment, doubt, and suspicion—newly aroused, the half-wild daughter of the woods burst into tears and abandoned herself to the womanly indulgence of a fit of passionate lamentation.

‘It’s too late now, Kate,’ he said after a while, coolly removing his cigar, which he had lighted at the first appearance of lamentation. ‘Better clear out for Eumeralla and make it up with Trevenna. I believe you carried on with him till Lance came on the scene. He’s a handsome fellow, and Tessie, you know, and some other people couldn’t tell the difference.’

Then he laughed in a sardonic, derisive manner, as though the joke was an exceedingly good one—irresistible indeed.

Kate Lawless dried her eyes and looked keenly at him with an expression of contempt and dislike which, in spite of his habitual indifference, he by no means relished.

‘Frank Dayrell,’ she said, ‘I believe you’re the very devil himself; I see your game partly now. You’d a down on Lance because Tessie was gone on him, and wouldn’t look at you. That’s a nice reason to lag a man for, isn’t it? And if you’d play false in one thing, you would in another. I see how you’ve worked it, partly. When I find out the rest it’ll be a bad day for you, mark my words. Good-bye.’

‘Good-bye, Miss Lawless!’ here he made her a deferential and elaborate bow. ‘You’d better be civil though, or I may have to run in Larry Trevenna. That’ll make a double widow of you—the man you’ll marry and the man you were going to marry. Smart work that, eh?’

‘You look out for yourself, Dayrell,’ she replied, as she moved slowly away from him. ‘You’re pretty smart, but that mightn’t save you some day. You take my tip and leave us alone from this day out.’

Thus they parted. The girl walked sullenly away—the Sergeant, strolling in another direction, hummed an air from an opera, stepping lightly as might a man without a care in the world. Had he but known the future! How heedless are the feet of men, surrounded by the traps and pitfalls of Fate, all ignorant, mercifully, that a few inches one way or the other means instant, irrevocable destruction. As for the woman, she went on her way and he saw her no more.

‘I wonder what the deuce will become of the fair Kate?’ he said musingly, and half aloud, as he strolled along leisurely towards the police camp. ‘If she marries this fellow Trevenna she’ll be paid out for her sins, whatever they are. He’s the making of one of the most precious scoundrels that even this colony ever saw. The Lawlesses crowd can’t teach him much. If he marries her there’ll be murder or something like it before long. I think I see my way to another sensational case before the game’s played out—more than one indeed.’

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The town at which the coach had stopped, on this his first and memorable journey as a prisoner accommodated with legirons and hand-cuffs, was Geelong, to the gaol of which town Lance was relegated for the purpose of being forwarded to the hulk President. Accordingly, after due course of procedure, Lance found himself one morning in a police boat seated between his two Ballarat warders in near proximity to the celebrated Sacramento. When they came within a certain distance of the vessel they rested on their oars and commenced a conversation. The ship’s trumpet replied, but afforded no manner of information to Lance. Apparently the colloquy was satisfactory. The sentry, who had been steadily pointing his musket in their direction, presented it towards the lighthouse, and all requisite permission being obtained the momentous embarkation was commenced.

The hulk President was a plain solid barque of one thousand tons register, broad in the beam. Dutch-built was she, and had been strong to encounter storms, but was destined to defy such forces no more.

On the fore part of her deck an iron roof protected the galley and water-tank, giving her an expression of being settled in life. In front of and around her bows was a planked and railed gangway, along which a warder with a loaded rifle marched to and fro.

The heat of the summer suns reflected from the cloudless sky, the shimmering water plain, had blistered the paint—a staring dreadful yellow it was—upon her weather-worn hull. Armed figures walked on either side of this terrible vessel. Except the solitary boat in which Lance was a passenger, nothing seemed to come near. To his excited fancy she seemed a plague ship. He could imagine the dead in their heavily-weighted shrouds being cast in scores from her gloomy port-holes. He stared at her in sullen silence. He had lost the habit of ejaculation. What did it matter—what did anything matter? He was in hell. In hell! What difference did the depth of the pit, more or less, make, once within the Inferno?

There was a swell, consequent on a gale which had been blowing on the previous night. The boat rocked and pitched as she came alongside of the grim ungainly hulk. His fetters made it difficult for him to step from the boat to the ladder. He tripped, and one of the warders was constrained to hold him up.

‘Look out! you mustn’t drop overboard and cheat Her Majesty’s Government like Dickson did last month. Blest if you wouldn’t go down like a stone with them clinks on.’

A quick regret passed through Lance’s heart that he had not dropped quietly overboard, and so exchanged this torture-ship for eternal rest and peace. But he clambered up with one warder in front and one immediately behind.

At the deck he was met by the first and second officers, to whom an important-looking document was presented by the senior warder who had come down in charge.

‘H—m, ha!’ remarked the dignitary, opening it with deliberation and then glancing searchingly at Lance. ‘Refractory, determined, and—put him into number fifty-six. If lower deck don’t suit him, we must move him aft. Show the way, Mr. Grastow.’

The ‘way’ led down a narrow ladder, the gradient of which was such that the fettered man, heavily weighted as he was, had some difficulty in getting down safe. However, as before, one warder preceding and one following, he was partly supported, partly led. As he touched the deck he looked round, and for an instant laughed aloud at the grim pleasantry which, like a ray of light in a dungeon cell, had found access to his brain. He was on board a slaver! His boyhood rose up before him, and he saw himself again reading Tom Cringle’s Log under the King’s oak at Wychwood. There were the iron gratings above, through which the sun came grudgingly, which afforded the only air and light to the long low corridor into which the deck had been altered. Rows of small cells on either side, each duly numbered, into which a herd of some forty or fifty chained men were being driven, as it appeared to him. In the gloom of the half-lighted passage their dark or sallow countenances, in which the eyes and teeth alone gleamed in relief, might well have passed for those of negroes. They laughed and talked or cursed and swore with a freedom which surprised Lance, used to the strict and silent rule of the Ballarat gaol. It was their recreation hour, he found. They had returned from their exercise on deck.

As he scanned these foul and hideous countenances, from which all semblance of the higher human attributes had departed, he shuddered involuntarily, and a groan so deep and hollow came from him that the warders who had accompanied him were affected.

‘Don’t you take on, Number Fifty-six,’ said one, ‘it’s a deal worse than Ballarat, but you go in for good conduct now and your time won’t be so long in runnin’ out. See what you’ve got by behaving awkward, and they’re a deal worse, if you go contrairy here, than ever our lot was.’

‘Down the ladder,’ said the officer of the President; ‘we’ve no time to spare in this ship.’

Lower, lower still, another ladder, another deck. Here the gratings were nearer to the floor, the cells were smaller and more numerous, the whole arrangement still more nearly resembling his fancy of the slave-ship. Had there been a row of miserable Africans sitting down, with another row between their knees, and another yet in the same condition, as was formerly the human method of packing the ‘goods’ so largely dealt in by our good friends the Spaniards, Portuguese, and French, and indeed our own most merciful and Christian nation, the illusion would have been complete. They would have sold well in Victoria at that time, doubtless, labour being so very scarce and valuable. The air, foetid with the odours and emanations from three hundred men, having even to be filtered through the crowded deck above them, was indescribably offensive. In spite of ordinary precautions, the odour was that of galley-slaves. Below the level of the waters of the bay as this deck was, Lance could hear the waves washing beside the prison-house, while from the cells, the bolts of which were partially drawn and the opening secured with a chain, came ribald songs, yells, and curses, with an occasional noise of weeping and bursts of yet more dreadful laughter.

Walking forward still towards the stern, they came to a cell numbered fifty-six on the south side of the vessel. At no great distance, and dividing it from the after-cabin, which was used as a sort of store-room, was a grating of massive iron bars extending from one side of the ship to the other.

The padlock was unlocked, the massive bolt shot back from the staple, and Lance saw his habitation. A low, narrow cell, with heavy timber on every side, only excepting a small port-hole narrowing outwards and capable of being closed at will. The length to the concave wall of the vessel’s side was about eight feet, the width scarcely six. From two iron hooks hung a rude canvas hammock. Here he must abide for the present. It would depend upon himself whether he remained there.

From the timbers of the vessel’s side protruded an iron ring with a short chain dependent from it.

‘What’s that for?’ said one of the Ballarat gaolers.

‘Oh, nothing,’ returned the hulk warder, ‘it’s there in case it’s wanted.’

The narrow door closed, the heavy bolt shot into its place, the padlock-key turned, and Trevanion was alone and at sea once more. Once more Lance Trevanion found himself on ship-board, but under what different circumstances. He felt the heaving deck under his feet. The day was dark and squally, and the barque rolled and pitched in a sufficiently lively manner. The familiar movement recalled the scenes which he had loved so welL He was a born sailor, and of the breed of men that joy in the strife of wind and wave. The revulsion of feeling was so great that he staggered and well-nigh fell.

How well he remembered the last time he had been at sea; the voyage out, so free and joyous in spite of minor discomforts; the perfect independence, the hearty, unconventional comradeship, the delight with which all greeted the first step on terra firma; the general wonder, excitement, and eager expectation of rapid fortunes to be acquired in this strange new land of gold.

And now he was a chained and guarded felon, reserved for Heaven alone knew what new degradation, even torture, in this sea dungeon. Long before dark—the days were short in July—a warder came with bread and water.

‘When do we go on shore to work?’ asked Lance, thinking to adapt himself to his changed condition.

‘Work? They don’t do no work in the President; this is the punishment hulk. All you chaps is supposed to belong to the ’fractory lot—my word! some of ’em just are, and no mistake. You gets one hour a day exercise on deck. Ten on yer’s sent up in the cage at a time. The rest of the twenty-four hours has to be took out in the cell.’

‘My God!’ groaned out the unhappy man, ‘can this be true, twenty-three hours in this den? Surely such cruelty can never be permitted.’

‘That’s about the size of it, Fifty-six,’ answered the warder, preparing to lock up and depart. ‘And the sooner you make up your mind to man it, the better it’ll be for you and the sooner you’ll be drafted to the Success, when you’ll have a chance of fresh air. So long.’

The lock closed, the bolt clanged, and Lance was left to sit down where the last captive had leaned his weary frame, till his prison shoes—not heavy either—had worn into the solid planking, and when at last heart and brain had risen in wild revolt and he had cast away the wasted life which had become so valueless and unendurable.

From the time when the door that closed upon hope and the outer world clanged to, Lance Trevanion sat statue-like and motionless. The day passed, the cell grew darker, the night came with no cessation of the subdued but truly infernal din of noise to which nearly every cell contributed its quota. The wind rose and moaned, the ship rocked more heavily, the waves plashed around and above his cell, and still Lance Trevanion stirred not. He must have slept at length, worn out and overfatigued, for he started suddenly from a dream of Wychwood and the first meet of the season to feel the sun feebly lighting up his prison, to listen and shudder as his irons clanked with the instinctive movement.

He sat up and gazed around for a while in the half-stupefied condition produced by conflicting sensations. He endeavoured to collect his thoughts and to resolve upon a course of action. What was he to do? At present the mode of life—rather the living death—to which he felt himself condemned seemed intolerable. But much would depend upon the duration of the strictly penal term. If it were a matter of months only, it might be borne. Then he would be ‘promoted’ to the Success, would enjoy the favoured position of being permitted to work for ten hours a day in a quarry—heavily ironed, of course—and on an equality and in company with some of the most atrocious scoundrels that any country had ever produced. It was not an alluring prospect. Still, he had at any rate no actually malignant enemy like Bracker. It might be possible to establish a friendly feeling with some of his guardians. He would make the attempt. Even escape did not seem so altogether impossible. He remembered Tessie’s words. He knew that what one woman could do she would accomplish. A man here and there had escaped from the hulks and got clear off, several had been drowned, two had been shot. Still these were fair risks. The twenty-three hours a day in the cell constituted a maddening monotony of captivity. Yet, from whatever reason, whether from the sea air, his unexpected meeting with Tessie Lawless, or ‘something which never can be expressed,’ Lance Trevanion’s spirits rose higher than they had done since the day of his conviction, and in the depth of his saddened heart stirred a feeling that was almost hope.

When his gaoler made his appearance with the one-pound loaf of bread which was to serve for his daily dole and the can of water similarly apportioned, he assumed a cheerful air. ‘When do we go up for exercise?’ he said.

‘Your batch’ll be sent up at eleven o’clock, Fifty-six. Then you get down just in time for dinner, half-pound boiled beef for you then, so you can save some for supper; half-pound of vegetables. That’ll be the lot.’

‘Now look here, I don’t know your name oh,—Grastow! what I want to say is, I have only two years to serve. When I get out I shall have plenty of money. I can make it WELL worth your while to help me; what do you say? Is there any harm in that?’

‘I don’t know as there is, Fifty -six,’ replied the gaoler warily. ‘But a many of the crew of the President (we call ’em the crew among ourselves) says the same thing. When they gets out they nat’rally forgets. What are we to do? We can’t summons ’em in the Small Debts Court; how am I to know ye ain’t on that lay?’

‘I can show you how if you’ll carry a note from me on shore and leave it in the post-office. I’ll guarantee a five-pound note is sent to any address you name within twenty-four hours.’

‘Ten-pun’ note might do something,’ answered the warder reflectively. ‘The risk’s a big ’un. If I’m nabbed I lose my berth straight off and stand a blessed good chance of being brought into one of these here fancy shops myself.’

‘Why, who’s to know?’

‘Well,’ replied the warder, looking round, ‘it ’ud stun yer to count the spies that seem to be bred regular in a place like this, one man watching another for the reward. But I’ll chance it, I will, the first time I go ashore. Now then, you Fifty-five, what are you making all that row for?’

The occupant of the next cell, Number Fifty-five, as he was in due sequence, had apparently gone mad. He raved and shrieked, cursed and yelled continuously. He banged at the door, which he could not well kick as they had taken away his boots. But ever and anon he amused himself with wildly extravagant rhapsodies, as well as by devoting his gaolers to the infernal deities, as also the heads of any Church running counter to his sectarian prejudices. Then he was taken out, secured, and hauled before the chief officer for punishment. That autocrat ordered the sullen-visaged ‘Vandemonian,’ as the warders designated him, to undergo several days in the ‘box’ on bread and water. He was carried off, struggling and cursing, by main force, being crammed into the ‘box’ aforesaid. This retreat, which was inspected by Lance on another occasion, appeared to be a species of oubliette, apparently in the very keel of the vessel, so constructed that the delinquent could neither stand up, lie down, nor sit with ease. In addition to this rigorous confinement a gag was placed in the mouth of the offender if he refused to stop his unseemly outcry.

A few minutes before eleven o’clock Lance’s door was unlocked, and he was summoned forth to take part in a new portion of the programme. Being marched into the centre of the passage, he there saw a large iron cage, of which the door, just sufficiently large to admit one man, was opened. On either side stood an armed sentry with rifle at the poise.

An additional pair of warders was in attendance. The inmates of the cells, called by number, not by name, shuffled or stumbled out and made for the door of the cage, like tamed wild beasts under the keeper’s whip.

It was a piteous, strangely-moving sight to a lover of his kind, had such been there. Men of various types and all ages obeyed the summons—the white-haired convict, reckless and hopeless, the larger half of whose life had been spent within prison walls, and who was now doomed to linger out the last years of a ruined life in places of confinement. The whole expression of the face denoted the human wreck which the forçat had become. The evil eye, furtive yet ferocious, the animal mouth and jaw, the shaven, sallow cheek—every faculty once capable of rising to the loftier attributes of manhood seemed obliterated—the residuum but approached the type of the simian anthropoid—bestial, savage, obscene.

‘Great God!’ thought Lance, as one by one the felons passed into this cage, some young and hardly developed into fullest manhood like himself, some of middle age, some stunted and decrepit, bowed and misshapen from constant confinement and the weight of their irons, yet all with the same criminal impress upon form and feature,—‘Great God! shall I ever become like these men? And yet once I had as little fear of becoming what I am——’

He passed in last, the door was shut, the cage commenced to ascend. His companions grinned and chuckled as, with a brutal oath, the older convict asked what he was sent on board for.

Lance hesitated for a moment, and then, reflecting that if he attempted to show what his companions in misery might consider airs of superiority they would find some way of revenging themselves, answered in as careless a manner as he could assume——

‘Well, I knocked over the head warder at Ballarat.’

‘Good boy! What for?’

‘He had been “running”—me wanted to make me break out, I suppose. I couldn’t stand it any longer and went for him.’

‘Why didn’t yer choke the —— wretch?’

‘Because I hadn’t time.’ Here the savage joy which he experienced when his enemy lay gasping beneath him came with a rush of recollection, and the old fire, so long absent, glowed lurid in his eyes. ‘Another second or two and Bracker would have been a dead man.’

‘Bracker, was it?’ said one of the younger convicts. ‘I was under him at Pentridge, and a —— dog he was! He tormented a cove there till he hanged himself. I’m dashed glad he copped it, anyhow.’

‘You’re a right ’un, anyhow,’ said the older convict approvingly. ‘It wants a chap like you now and then to straighten them infernal wretches that think a man’s like a log of wood as you chop and chip at till it’s all done. I learned one of ’em different on the other side, and there’s one or two here as’ll get a surprise yet if they don’t look out.’

At this stage of the conversation the slowly-ascending contrivance reached the upper’ deck, and the inmates became as stolidly silent as Eastern mutes.

One by one, covered by the rifles of the deck guards, they stepped out and followed each other in the shuffling walk peculiar to heavily-ironed men along and around the deck. Each man was a certain distance behind the one immediately preceding him. The foremost man walked to the bow of the vessel. When reached, he turned stiffly round as if by machinery, and resumed the same monotonous tramp in the opposite direction.

Melancholy treadmill and mockery of locomotion as was this parade, still it was not wholly without its attractions. The vision arose before their aching eyes of the blue sky, the dancing wave, the far-off purple mountain. There drove seaward an outgoing steamer. Alas, alas! what a world of vain regrets did she evoke in Lance’s mind! There were white-winged gulls, yachts and skiffs that resembled them in free and graceful flight. All these constituted a pageant impossible of production within prison walls. Then the ocean breeze, with every inspiration after the foetid atmosphere of the lower deck, revived and in a sense exhilarated them. These joys and glories of the sea could not be shut out even from the gaze of the fettered captives, unless the further refinement of punishment of blindfolding had been added. And even in the President none of the officials had hit upon this deterrent device.

So by the time that Lance and his fellows had completed their allotted tramp, at the end of which time he was fatigued, unused as he was to lift his legs with such an encumbering weight, he felt, somewhat to his surprise, that his general tone had been raised. He saw the shore, then known as Liardet’s Beach, which did not seem so great a distance away. He could imagine in the night, when a dense fog enveloped the mud flats of the bay, the low sandy beach, the thickets of the tall ti-tree (melaleuca), that either by swimming or with friendly aid a prisoner might cross the intervening stretch of mud flat, so dreary and darksome at low water, and, disappearing into the thickets, be as little likely to be again seen as a ghost flitting at cock-crow.

During the remainder of this day Lance was sensible of an unusual feeling of exaltation, so much so that when night came,—the dreary night commencing so early and ending so late, when sleep would have been the most precious of boons,—he was wholly unable to compose himself to rest, as the phrase in orthodox fiction runs: Compose himself!—irony of ironies!—with the murmur of the prison herd in his ears, in which ever and anon a maniacal shriek shrilled through the murky midnight air.

The waves plashed and the rising gale moaned as if in natural protest against the foul cargo of crime, misery, and despair amid which he lay.

In the strange half-delirious fancies which coursed through his brain, he saw, plainly as it seemed to him, the face of the God-forsaken, desperate criminal who had last occupied this very cell. He saw him sitting crouched, hour after hour, day after day, in the very place where he sat. He marked the spot where his boot-heels had worn the solid plank. He saw him taken out to punishment. He saw him return more dogged, hopeless, and defiant than before. Lastly, he could see him apparently standing upright, but in reality suspended by the twisted woollen cord, his blanket torn into strips, gone to carry his case into that ultimate court of appeal where the wrongs of earth shall be righted by the justice of Heaven.

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From this time Lance Trevanion experienced a complete change of sensation. ‘Cabined, cribbed, confined’ as he was most literally, there seemed to have been breathed into his soul with the salt scent of the ocean that which no art of man could shut out—the hope of freedom, the promise of escape. Moreover, a brief note had reached the address agreed upon between him and Tessie, and the warder, finding it transmutable into sovereigns, had formed a different opinion of Number Fifty-six. He began to look upon him as a victim of oppression, as something out of the run of the ordinary ‘crew’ of the President; finally as a young man who was worth taking a little trouble about, and for whom it might in the end be worth encountering even the serious risk of dismissal. After all, if made worth his while, what did dismissal from the Government service amount to? It involved no moral stigma, no personal disadvantage. If he cleared out with cash enough to set up a public-house, or even a store, at some of these new goldfields which were ‘breaking out’ every day, how could he do better?

Having established friendly relations with his immediate attendant, Lance soon proceeded to reap the benefit of confidential intercourse. Articles of food, ‘medical comforts’—luxuries, even—were smuggled in to Number Fifty-six. With the aid of these and recovered appetite, born of the sea air, and the tonic ideas which now pervaded his system, Lance improved measurably. He was reported to the chief officer for good conduct, and that dread official was pleased to address him one day, and, remarking upon his behaviour, to inform him that he would be transferred to the hulk Success at the end of three months, being much earlier than, from the grave nature of his offence, he might have calculated upon. Lance touched his cap, smiling bitterly as he shuffled off on his mechanical round with the faint rattle which his chains would make, however carefully he might be-wrap and bandage them.

At the end of three months! Well, the first week was over. It had seemed a month, and there were eleven more to follow before the penal period would be completed. In Heaven’s name, what was he to do until then, hour after hour in solitude? But one little hour on deck, again to feel the free ocean breeze, to note the curling waves, the gliding seabird. Sometimes, indeed, even this faint solace was debarred. When the weather was rough and the hulk unsteady at her moorings, the hour’s exercise, that precious respite, was forbidden. It was too difficult to haul up the cage, to supervise satisfactorily the deck occupants. So the dark dull day was fated to end in gloom and sadness as it had commenced. Sometimes, indeed, the second day passed over without the blessed interval. Not until the bad weather came to an end were the ill-fated captives permitted the scanty dole of fresh air and sunshine.

As much of Lance’s leisure time while at exercise as he could devote to this sort of reconnoitring he managed to concentrate on the mud flats, which at low tide were hardly a mile distant. These he carefully examined. He learnt by heart their bearings from the shore; satisfied himself that once there he could manage for himself. Of course there was the reverse side of the shield. The hulks—more especially the President, as holding a sample of the worst and most desperate criminals of the whole prison population—were most closely watched. No boats but those of the water police were permitted to come within an area marked by buoys, more than half a mile square. Was it worth while to run the risk of being caught and run down by these, or would it be more prudent to await his transfer to the Success and take the chance of escaping from the quarries?

The latter idea seemed feasible. Amid a regiment of convicts nearly a thousand strong, who worked from 7 A.M. to 5 P.M. in the quarries, at the piers, or the building of a lighthouse—surely amid such an army of labourers some opportunity of escape would be afforded him.

Meanwhile, in spite of adverse circumstances, matters were decidedly improving. His friendly gaoler showed him how he could keep his port-hole open in fine weather, even after locking up time for the night, and by other concessions materially lightened for him the weary hours.

More than once too had he received a letter from Tessie, carefully written on the smallest possible scrap of paper, but with its few words of priceless value and comfort to the captive. In the last one a distinct plan of escape was devised.

At this time, among the various pursuits and avocations by means of which men of gentle nurture who had been unsuccessful at the goldfields procured a living while leading an independent life, that of wild-fowling ranked high. Game of all sorts was readily saleable at fabulous prices to the hotel and restaurant keepers of Melbourne. Every day scores of men, with pockets stuffed with bank notes, came to the metropolis eager to embark for England with what seemed a fortune to them, or to enjoy a season of revelry preparatory to returning to Ballarat or Bendigo. There was, as the miner’s phrase then went, ‘plenty more where that came from.’ With such freehanded customers a rechercé dinner, with fish, game, and fruit, preceding a theatre party, was indispensable. The cost was not counted. Bills were despised in those days when every river in favoured districts was a Pactolus. Hotel-keepers and tradesfolk were reproached for their meanness in not swelling their totals to a respectable sum. The free-handed miner, whose drafts, payable in the rich red gold Dame Nature was so proud to honour, mocked at expense, and exacted profusion at his quasi-luxurious banquets. Such being the state of affairs, with teal and widgeon at ten shillings a brace, and black duck at a sovereign the pair, a reduced gentleman, with a punt and duck gun, was enabled to lead a philosophical, remunerative, and far from laborious existence.

Nevermore - Contents    |     Chapter XVI

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