For the Term of His Natural Life, by Marcus Clarke

Chapter XI.

Discoveries and Confessions.

The shock was felt all through the vessel, and Pine, who had been watching the ironing of the last of the mutineers, at once divined its cause.

“Thank God!” he cried, “there’s a breeze at last!” and as the overpowered Gabbett, bruised, bleeding, and bound, was dragged down the hatchway, the triumphant doctor hurried upon deck to find the Malabar plunging through the whitening water under the influence of a fifteen-knot breeze.

“Stand by to reef topsails! Away aloft, men, and furl the royals!” cries Best from the quarter-deck; and in the midst of the cheery confusion Maurice Frere briefly recapitulated what had taken place, taking care, however, to pass over his own dereliction of duty as rapidly as possible.

Pine knit his brows. “Do you think that she was in the plot?” he asked.

“Not she!” says Frere — eager to avert inquiry. “How should she be? Plot! She’s sickening of fever, or I’m much mistaken.”

Sure enough, on opening the door of the cabin, they found Sarah Purfoy lying where she had fallen a quarter of an hour before. The clashing of cutlasses and the firing of muskets had not roused her.

“We must make a sick-bay somewhere,” says Pine, looking at the senseless figure with no kindly glance; “though I don’t think she’s likely to be very bad. Confound her! I believe that she’s the cause of all this. I’ll find out, too, before many hours are over; for I’ve told those fellows that unless they confess all about it before to-morrow morning, I’ll get them six dozen a-piece the day after we anchor in Hobart Town. I’ve a great mind to do it before we get there. Take her head, Frere, and we’ll get her out of this before Vickers comes up. What a fool you are, to be sure! I knew what it would be with women aboard ship. I wonder Mrs. V. hasn’t been out before now. There — steady past the door. Why, man, one would think you never had your arm round a girl’s waist before! Pooh! don’t look so scared — I won’t tell. Make haste, now, before that little parson comes. Parsons are regular old women to chatter”; and thus muttering Pine assisted to carry Mrs. Vickers’s maid into her cabin.

“By George, but she’s a fine girl!” he said, viewing the inanimate body with the professional eye of a surgeon. “I don’t wonder at you making a fool of yourself. Chances are, you’ve caught the fever, though this breeze will help to blow it out of us, please God. That old jackass, Blunt, too! — he ought to be ashamed of himself, at his age!”

“What do you mean?” asked Frere hastily, as he heard a step approach. “What has Blunt to say about her?”

“Oh, I don’t know,” returned Pine. “He was smitten too, that’s all. Like a good many more, in fact.”

“A good many more!” repeated the other, with a pretence of carelessness.

“Yes!” laughed Pine. “Why, man, she was making eyes at every man in the ship! I caught her kissing a soldier once.”

Maurice Frere’s cheeks grew hot. The experienced profligate had been taken in, deceived, perhaps laughed at. All the time he had flattered himself that he was fascinating the black-eyed maid, the black-eyed maid had been twisting him round her finger, and perhaps imitating his love-making for the gratification of her soldier-lover. It was not a pleasant thought; and yet, strange to say, the idea of Sarah’s treachery did not make him dislike her. There is a sort of love — if love it can be called — which thrives under ill-treatment. Nevertheless, he cursed with some appearance of disgust.

Vickers met them at the door. “Pine, Blunt has the fever. Mr. Best found him in his cabin groaning. Come and look at him.”

The commander of the Malabar was lying on his bunk in the betwisted condition into which men who sleep in their clothes contrive to get themselves. The doctor shook him, bent down over him, and then loosened his collar. “He’s not sick,” he said; “he’s drunk! Blunt! wake up! Blunt!”

But the mass refused to move.

“Hallo!” says Pine, smelling at the broken tumbler, “what’s this? Smells queer. Rum? No. Eh! Laudanum! By George, he’s been hocussed!”

“Nonsense!”

“I see it,” slapping his thigh. “It’s that infernal woman! She’s drugged him, and meant to do the same for —"(Frere gave him an imploring look)—“for anybody else who would be fool enough to let her do it. Dawes was right, sir. She’s in it; I’ll swear she’s in it.”

“What! my wife’s maid? Nonsense!” said Vickers.

“Nonsense!” echoed Frere.

“It’s no nonsense. That soldier who was shot, what’s his name? — Miles, he — but, however, it doesn’t matter. It’s all over now.” “The men will confess before morning,” says Vickers, “and we’ll see.” And he went off to his wife’s cabin.

His wife opened the door for him. She had been sitting by the child’s bedside, listening to the firing, and waiting for her husband’s return without a murmur. Flirt, fribble, and shrew as she was, Julia Vickers had displayed, in times of emergency, that glowing courage which women of her nature at times possess. Though she would yawn over any book above the level of a genteel love story; attempt to fascinate, with ludicrous assumption of girlishness, boys young enough to be her sons; shudder at a frog, and scream at a spider, she could sit throughout a quarter of an hour of such suspense as she had just undergone with as much courage as if she had been the strongest-minded woman that ever denied her sex. “Is it all over?” she asked.

“Yes, thank God!” said Vickers, pausing on the threshold. “All is safe now, though we had a narrow escape, I believe. How’s Sylvia?” The child was lying on the bed with her fair hair scattered over the pillow, and her tiny hands moving restlessly to and fro.

“A little better, I think, though she has been talking a good deal.”

The red lips parted, and the blue eyes, brighter than ever, stared vacantly around. The sound of her father’s voice seemed to have roused her, for she began to speak a little prayer: “God bless papa and mamma, and God bless all on board this ship. God bless me, and make me a good girl, for Jesus Christ’s sake, our Lord. Amen.”

The sound of the unconscious child’s simple prayer had something awesome in it, and John Vickers, who, not ten minutes before, would have sealed his own death warrant unhesitatingly to preserve the safety of the vessel, felt his eyes fill with unwonted tears. The contrast was curious. From out the midst of that desolate ocean — in a fever-smitten prison ship, leagues from land, surrounded by ruffians, thieves, and murderers, the baby voice of an innocent child called confidently on Heaven.

* * * * * *

Two hours afterwards — as the Malabar, escaped from the peril which had menaced her, plunged cheerily through the rippling water — the mutineers, by the spokesman, Mr. James Vetch, confessed.

“They were very sorry, and hoped that their breach of discipline would be forgiven. It was the fear of the typhus which had driven them to it. They had no accomplices either in the prison or out of it, but they felt it but right to say that the man who had planned the mutiny was Rufus Dawes.”

The malignant cripple had guessed from whom the information which had led to the failure of the plot had been derived, and this was his characteristic revenge.

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:37