For the Term of His Natural Life, by Marcus Clarke

Chapter III.

A Social Evening.

In the house of Major Vickers, Commandant of Macquarie Harbour, there was, on this evening of December 3rd, unusual gaiety.

Lieutenant Maurice Frere, late in command at Maria Island, had unexpectedly come down with news from head-quarters. The Ladybird, Government schooner, visited the settlement on ordinary occasions twice a year, and such visits were looked forward to with no little eagerness by the settlers. To the convicts the arrival of the Ladybird meant arrival of new faces, intelligence of old comrades, news of how the world, from which they were exiled, was progressing. When the Ladybird arrived, the chained and toil-worn felons felt that they were yet human, that the universe was not bounded by the gloomy forests which surrounded their prison, but that there was a world beyond, where men, like themselves, smoked, and drank, and laughed, and rested, and were Free. When the Ladybird arrived, they heard such news as interested them — that is to say, not mere foolish accounts of wars or ship arrivals, or city gossip, but matters appertaining to their own world — how Tom was with the road gangs, Dick on a ticket-of-leave, Harry taken to the bush, and Jack hung at the Hobart Town Gaol. Such items of intelligence were the only news they cared to hear, and the new-comers were well posted up in such matters. To the convicts the Ladybird was town talk, theatre, stock quotations, and latest telegrams. She was their newspaper and post-office, the one excitement of their dreary existence, the one link between their own misery and the happiness of their fellow-creatures. To the Commandant and the “free men” this messenger from the outer life was scarcely less welcome. There was not a man on the island who did not feel his heart grow heavier when her white sails disappeared behind the shoulder of the hill.

On the present occasion business of more than ordinary importance had procured for Major Vickers this pleasurable excitement. It had been resolved by Governor Arthur that the convict establishment should be broken up. A succession of murders and attempted escapes had called public attention to the place, and its distance from Hobart Town rendered it inconvenient and expensive. Arthur had fixed upon Tasman’s Peninsula — the earring of which we have spoken — as a future convict depôt, and naming it Port Arthur, in honour of himself, had sent down Lieutenant Maurice Frere with instructions for Vickers to convey the prisoners of Macquarie Harbour thither.

In order to understand the magnitude and meaning of such an order as that with which Lieutenant Frere was entrusted, we must glance at the social condition of the penal colony at this period of its history.

Nine years before, Colonel Arthur, late Governor of Honduras, had arrived at a most critical moment. The former Governor, Colonel Sorrell, was a man of genial temperament, but little strength of character. He was, moreover, profligate in his private life; and, encouraged by his example, his officers violated all rules of social decency. It was common for an officer to openly keep a female convict as his mistress. Not only would compliance purchase comforts, but strange stories were afloat concerning the persecution of women who dared to choose their own lovers. To put down this profligacy was the first care of Arthur; and in enforcing a severe attention to etiquette and outward respectability, he perhaps erred on the side of virtue. Honest, brave, and high-minded, he was also penurious and cold, and the ostentatious good humour of the colonists dashed itself in vain against his polite indifference. In opposition to this official society created by Governor Arthur was that of the free settlers and the ticket-of-leave men. The latter were more numerous than one would be apt to suppose. On the 2nd November, 1829, thirty-eight free pardons and fifty-six conditional pardons appeared on the books; and the number of persons holding tickets-of-leave, on the 26th of September the same year, was seven hundred and forty-five.

Of the social condition of these people at this time it is impossible to speak without astonishment. According to the recorded testimony of many respectable persons–Government officials, military officers, and free settlers-the profligacy of the settlers was notorious. Drunkenness was a prevailing vice. Even children were to be seen in the streets intoxicated. On Sundays, men and women might be observed standing round the public-house doors, waiting for the expiration of the hours of public worship, in order to continue their carousing. As for the condition of the prisoner population, that, indeed, is indescribable. Notwithstanding the severe punishment for sly grog-selling, it was carried on to a large extent. Men and women were found intoxicated together, and a bottle of brandy was considered to be cheaply bought at the price of twenty lashes. In the factory — a prison for females — the vilest abuses were committed, while the infamies current, as matters of course, in chain gangs and penal settlements, were of too horrible a nature to be more than hinted at here. All that the vilest and most bestial of human creatures could invent and practise, was in this unhappy country invented and practised without restraint and without shame.

Seven classes of criminals were established in 1826, when the new barracks for prisoners at Hobart Town were finished. The first class were allowed to sleep out of barracks, and to work for themselves on Saturday; the second had only the last-named indulgence; the third were only allowed Saturday afternoon; the fourth and fifth were “refractory and disorderly characters — to work in irons;” the sixth were “men of the most degraded and incorrigible character — to be worked in irons, and kept entirely separate from the other prisoners;” while the seventh were the refuse of this refuse — the murderers, bandits, and villains, whom neither chain nor lash could tame. They were regarded as socially dead, and shipped to Hell’s Gates, or Maria Island. Hells Gates was the most dreaded of all these houses of bondage. The discipline at the place was so severe, and the life so terrible, that prisoners would risk all to escape from it. In one year, of eighty-five deaths there, only thirty were from natural causes; of the remaining dead, twenty-seven were drowned, eight killed accidentally, three shot by the soldiers, and twelve murdered by their comrades. In 1822, one hundred and sixty-nine men out of one hundred and eighty-two were punished to the extent of two thousand lashes. During the ten years of its existence, one hundred and twelve men escaped, out of whom sixty-two only were found-dead. The prisoners killed themselves to avoid living any longer, and if so fortunate as to penetrate the desert of scrub, heath, and swamp, which lay between their prison and the settled districts, preferred death to recapture. Successfully to transport the remnant of this desperate band of doubly-convicted felons to Arthur’s new prison, was the mission of Maurice Frere.

He was sitting by the empty fire-place, with one leg carelessly thrown over the other, entertaining the company with his usual indifferent air. The six years that had passed since his departure from England had given him a sturdier frame and a fuller face. His hair was coarser, his face redder, and his eye more hard, but in demeanour he was little changed. Sobered he might be, and his voice had acquired that decisive, insured tone which a voice exercised only in accents of command invariably acquires, but his bad qualities were as prominent as ever. His five years’ residence at Maria Island had increased that brutality of thought, and overbearing confidence in his own importance, for which he had been always remarkable, but it had also given him an assured air of authority, which covered the more unpleasant features of his character. He was detested by the prisoners — as he said, “it was a word and a blow with him”— but, among his superiors, he passed for an officer, honest and painstaking, though somewhat bluff and severe.

“Well, Mrs. Vickers,” he said, as he took a cup of tea from the hands of that lady, “I suppose you won’t be sorry to get away from this place, eh? Trouble you for the toast, Vickers!”

“No indeed,” says poor Mrs. Vickers, with the old girlishness shadowed by six years; “I shall be only too glad. A dreadful place! John’s duties, however, are imperative. But the wind! My dear Mr. Frere, you’ve no idea of it; I wanted to send Sylvia to Hobart Town, but John would not let her go.”

“By the way, how is Miss Sylvia?” asked Frere, with the patronising air which men of his stamp adopt when they speak of children.

“Not very well, I’m sorry to say,” returned Vickers. “You see, it’s lonely for her here. There are no children of her own age, with the exception of the pilot’s little girl, and she cannot associate with her. But I did not like to leave her behind, and endeavoured to teach her myself.”

“Hum! There was a-ha-governess, or something, was there not?” said Frere, staring into his tea-cup. “That maid, you know-what was her name?”

“Miss Purfoy,” said Mrs. Vickers, a little gravely. “Yes, poor thing! A sad story, Mr. Frere.”

Frere’s eye twinkled.

“Indeed! I left, you know, shortly after the trial of the mutineers, and never heard the full particulars.” He spoke carelessly, but he awaited the reply with keen curiosity.

“A sad story!” repeated Mrs. Vickers. “She was the wife of that wretched man, Rex, and came out as my maid in order to be near him. She would never tell me her history, poor thing, though all through the dreadful accusations made by that horrid doctor — I always disliked that man — I begged her almost on my knees. You know how she nursed Sylvia and poor John. Really a most superior creature. I think she must have been a governess.”

Mr. Frere raised his eyebrows abruptly, as though he would say, Governess! Of course. Happy suggestion. Wonder it never occurred to me before. “However, her conduct was most exemplary — really most exemplary — and during the six months we were in Hobart Town she taught little Sylvia a great deal. Of course she could not help her wretched husband, you know. Could she?”

“Certainly not!” said Frere heartily. “I heard something about him too. Got into some scrape, did he not? Half a cup, please.”

“Miss Purfoy, or Mrs. Rex, as she really was, though I don’t suppose Rex is her real name either — sugar and milk, I think you said — came into a little legacy from an old aunt in England.” Mr. Frere gave a little bluff nod, meaning thereby, Old aunt! Exactly. Just what might have been expected. “And left my service. She took a little cottage on the New Town road, and Rex was assigned to her as her servant.”

“I see. The old dodge!” says Frere, flushing a little. “Well?”

“Well, the wretched man tried to escape, and she helped him. He was to get to Launceston, and so on board a vessel to Sydney; but they took the unhappy creature, and he was sent down here. She was only fined, but it ruined her.”

“Ruined her?”

“Well, you see, only a few people knew of her relationship to Rex, and she was rather respected. Of course, when it became known, what with that dreadful trial and the horrible assertions of Dr. Pine — you will not believe me, I know, there was something about that man I never liked — she was quite left alone. She wanted me to bring her down here to teach Sylvia; but John thought that it was only to be near her husband, and wouldn’t allow it.”

“Of course it was,” said Vickers, rising. “Frere, if you’d like to smoke, we’ll go on the verandah. She will never be satisfied until she gets that scoundrel free.” “He’s a bad lot, then?” says Frere, opening the glass window, and leading the way to the sandy garden. “You will excuse my roughness, Mrs. Vickers, but I have become quite a slave to my pipe. Ha, ha, it’s wife and child to me!”

“Oh, a very bad lot,” returned Vickers; “quiet and silent, but ready for any villainy. I count him one of the worst men we have. With the exception of one or two more, I think he is the worst.”

“Why don’t you flog ’em?” says Frere, lighting his pipe in the gloom. “ By George, sir, I cut the hides off my fellows if they show any nonsense!”

“Well,” says Vickers, “I don’t care about too much cat myself. Barton, who was here before me, flogged tremendously, but I don’t think it did any good. They tried to kill him several times. You remember those twelve fellows who were hung? No! Ah, of course, you were away.”

“What do you do with ’em?”

“Oh, flog the worst, you know; but I don’t flog more than a man a week, as a rule, and never more than fifty lashes. They’re getting quieter now. Then we iron, and dumb-cells, and maroon them.”

“Do what?”

“Give them solitary confinement on Grummet Island. When a man gets very bad, we clap him into a boat with a week’s provisions and pull him over to Grummet. There are cells cut in the rock, you see, and the fellow pulls up his commissariat after him, and lives there by himself for a month or so. It tames them wonderfully.”

“Does it?” said Frere. “By Jove! it’s a capital notion. I wish I had a place of that sort at Maria.”

“I’ve a fellow there now,” says Vickers; “Dawes. You remember him, of course — the ringleader of the mutiny in the Malabar. A dreadful ruffian. He was most violent the first year I was here. Barton used to flog a good deal, and Dawes had a childish dread of the cat. When I came in — when was it? — in ’29, he’d made a sort of petition to be sent back to the settlement. Said that he was innocent of the mutiny, and that the accusation against him was false.”

“The old dodge,” said Frere again. “A match? Thanks.”

“Of course, I couldn’t let him go; but I took him out of the chain-gang, and put him on the Osprey. You saw her in the dock as you came in. He worked for some time very well, and then tried to bolt again.”

“The old trick. Ha! ha! don’t I know it?” says Mr. Frere, emitting a streak of smoke in the air, expressive of preternatural wisdom.

“Well, we caught him, and gave him fifty. Then he was sent to the chain-gang, cutting timber. Then we put him into the boats, but he quarrelled with the coxswain, and then we took him back to the timber-rafts. About six weeks ago he made another attempt — together with Gabbett, the man who nearly killed you — but his leg was chafed with the irons, and we took him. Gabbett and three more, however, got away.”

“Haven’t you found ’em?” asked Frere, puffing at his pipe.

“No. But they’ll come to the same fate as the rest,” said Vickers, with a sort of dismal pride. “No man ever escaped from Macquarie Harbour.”

Frere laughed. “By the Lord!” said he, “it will be rather hard for ’em if they don’t come back before the end of the month, eh?”

“Oh,” said Vickers, “they’re sure to come — if they can come at all; but once lost in the scrub, a man hasn’t much chance for his life.”

“When do you think you will be ready to move?” asked Frere.

“As soon as you wish. I don’t want to stop a moment longer than I can help. It is a terrible life, this.”

“Do you think so?” asked his companion, in unaffected surprise. “I like it. It’s dull, certainly. When I first went to Maria I was dreadfully bored, but one soon gets used to it. There is a sort of satisfaction to me, by George, in keeping the scoundrels in order. I like to see the fellows’ eyes glint at you as you walk past ’em. Gad, they’d tear me to pieces, if they dared, some of ’em!” and he laughed grimly, as though the hate he inspired was a thing to be proud of.

“How shall we go?” asked Vickers. “Have you got any instructions?”

“No,” says Frere; “it’s all left to you. Get ’em up the best way you can, Arthur said, and pack ’em off to the new peninsula. He thinks you too far off here, by George! He wants to have you within hail.”

“It’s dangerous taking so many at once,” suggested Vickers.

“Not a bit. Batten ’em down and keep the sentries awake, and they won’t do any harm.”

“But Mrs. Vickers and the child?”

“I’ve thought of that. You take the Ladybird with the prisoners, and leave me to bring up Mrs. Vickers in the Osprey.”

“We might do that. Indeed, it’s the best way, I think. I don’t like the notion of having Sylvia among those wretches, and yet I don’t like to leave her.”

“Well,” says Frere, confident of his own ability to accomplish anything he might undertake, “I’ll take the Ladybird, and you the Osprey. Bring up Mrs. Vickers yourself.”

“No, no,” said Vickers, with a touch of his old pomposity, “that won’t do. By the King’s Regulations —”

“All right,” interjected Frere, “you needn’t quote ’em. ‘The officer commanding is obliged to place himself in charge’— all right, my dear sir. I’ve no objection in life.”

“It was Sylvia that I was thinking of,” said Vickers.

“Well, then,” cries the other, as the door of the room inside opened, and a little white figure came through into the broad verandah. “Here she is! Ask her yourself. Well, Miss Sylvia, will you come and shake hands with an old friend?”

The bright-haired baby of the Malabar had become a bright-haired child of some eleven years old, and as she stood in her simple white dress in the glow of the lamplight, even the unaesthetic mind of Mr. Frere was struck by her extreme beauty. Her bright blue eyes were as bright and as blue as ever. Her little figure was as upright and as supple as a willow rod; and her innocent, delicate face was framed in a nimbus of that fine golden hair — dry and electrical, each separate thread shining with a lustre of its own — with which the dreaming painters of the middle ages endowed and glorified their angels.

“Come and give me a kiss, Miss Sylvia!” cries Frere. “You haven’t forgotten me, have you?”

But the child, resting one hand on her father’s knee, surveyed Mr. Frere from head to foot with the charming impertinence of childhood, and then, shaking her head, inquired: “Who is he, papa?”

“Mr. Frere, darling. Don’t you remember Mr. Frere, who used to play ball with you on board the ship, and who was so kind to you when you were getting well? For shame, Sylvia!”

There was in the chiding accents such an undertone of tenderness, that the reproof fell harmless.

“I remember you,” said Sylvia, tossing her head; “but you were nicer then than you are now. I don’t like you at all.”

“You don’t remember me,” said Frere, a little disconcerted, and affecting to be intensely at his ease. “I am sure you don’t. What is my name?”

“Lieutenant Frere. You knocked down a prisoner who picked up my ball. I don’t like you.”

“You’re a forward young lady, upon my word!” said Frere, with a great laugh. “Ha! ha! so I did, begad, I recollect now. What a memory you’ve got!”

“He’s here now, isn’t he, papa?” went on Sylvia, regardless of interruption. “Rufus Dawes is his name, and he’s always in trouble. Poor fellow, I’m sorry for him. Danny says he’s queer in his mind.”

“And who’s Danny?” asked Frere, with another laugh.

“The cook,” replied Vickers. “An old man I took out of hospital. Sylvia, you talk too much with the prisoners. I have forbidden you once or twice before.”

“But Danny is not a prisoner, papa — he’s a cook,” says Sylvia, nothing abashed, “and he’s a clever man. He told me all about London, where the Lord Mayor rides in a glass coach, and all the work is done by free men. He says you never hear chains there. I should like to see London, papa!”

“So would Mr. Danny, I have no doubt,” said Frere.

“No — he didn’t say that. But he wants to see his old mother, he says. Fancy Danny’s mother! What an ugly old woman she must be! He says he’ll see her in Heaven. Will he, papa?”

“I hope so, my dear.”

“Papa!”

“Yes.”

“Will Danny wear his yellow jacket in Heaven, or go as a free man?”

Frere burst into a roar at this.

“You’re an impertinent fellow, sir!” cried Sylvia, her bright eyes flashing. “How dare you laugh at me? If I was papa, I’d give you half an hour at the triangles. Oh, you impertinent man!” and, crimson with rage, the spoilt little beauty ran out of the room. Vickers looked grave, but Frere was constrained to get up to laugh at his ease.

“Good! ’Pon honour, that’s good! The little vixen! — Half an hour at the triangles! Ha-ha! ha, ha, ha!”

“She is a strange child,” said Vickers, “and talks strangely for her age; but you mustn’t mind her. She is neither girl nor woman, you see; and her education has been neglected. Moreover, this gloomy place and its associations — what can you expect from a child bred in a convict settlement?”

“My dear sir,” says the other, “she’s delightful! Her innocence of the world is amazing!”

“She must have three or four years at a good finishing school at Sydney. Please God, I will give them to her when we go back — or send her to England if I can. She is a good-hearted girl, but she wants polishing sadly, I’m afraid.”

Just then someone came up the garden path and saluted.

“What is it, Troke?”

“Prisoner given himself up, sir.”

“Which of them?”

“Gabbett. He came back to-night.”

“Alone?” “Yes, sir. The rest have died — he says.”

“What’s that?” asked Frere, suddenly interested.

“The bolter I was telling you about — Gabbett, your old friend. He’s returned.”

“How long has he been out?”

“Nigh six weeks, sir,” said the constable, touching his cap.

“Gad, he’s had a narrow squeak for it, I’ll be bound. I should like to see him.”

“He’s down at the sheds,” said the ready Troke — a “good conduct” burglar. You can see him at once, gentlemen, if you like.”

“What do you say, Vickers?”

“Oh, by all means.”

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