For the Term of His Natural Life, by Marcus Clarke

Chapter IV.

The Bolter.

It was not far to the sheds, and after a few minutes’ walk through the wooden palisades they reached a long stone building, two storeys high, from which issued a horrible growling, pierced with shrilly screamed songs. At the sound of the musket butts clashing on the pine-wood flagging, the noises ceased, and a silence more sinister than sound fell on the place.

Passing between two rows of warders, the two officers reached a sort of ante-room to the gaol, containing a pine-log stretcher, on which a mass of something was lying. On a roughly-made stool, by the side of this stretcher, sat a man, in the grey dress (worn as a contrast to the yellow livery) of “good conduct” prisoners. This man held between his knees a basin containing gruel, and was apparently endeavouring to feed the mass on the pine logs.

“Won’t he eat, Steve?” asked Vickers.

And at the sound of the Commandant’s voice, Steve arose.

“Dunno what’s wrong wi’ ’un, sir,” he said, jerking up a finger to his forehead. “He seems jest muggy-pated. I can’t do nothin’ wi’ ’un.”

“Gabbett!”

The intelligent Troke, considerately alive to the wishes of his superior officers, dragged the mass into a sitting posture.

Gabbett — for it was he — passed one great hand over his face, and leaning exactly in the position in which Troke placed him, scowled, bewildered, at his visitors.

“Well, Gabbett,” says Vickers, “you’ve come back again, you see. When will you learn sense, eh? Where are your mates?”

The giant did not reply.

“Do you hear me? Where are your mates?”

“Where are your mates?” repeated Troke.

“Dead,” says Gabbett.

“All three of them?”

“Ay.”

“And how did you get back?”

Gabbett, in eloquent silence, held out a bleeding foot.

“We found him on the point, sir,” said Troke, jauntily explaining, “and brought him across in the boat. He had a basin of gruel, but he didn’t seem hungry.”

“Are you hungry?”

“Yes.”

“Why don’t you eat your gruel?”

Gabbett curled his great lips.

“I have eaten it. Ain’t yer got nuffin’ better nor that to flog a man on? Ugh! yer a mean lot! Wot’s it to be this time, Major? Fifty?”

And laughing, he rolled down again on the logs.

“A nice specimen!” said Vickers, with a hopeless smile. “What can one do with such a fellow?”

“I’d flog his soul out of his body,” said Frere, “if he spoke to me like that!”

Troke and the others, hearing the statement, conceived an instant respect for the new-comer. He looked as if he would keep his word.

The giant raised his great head and looked at the speaker, but did not recognize him. He saw only a strange face — a visitor perhaps. “You may flog, and welcome, master,” said he, “if you’ll give me a fig o’ tibbacky.” Frere laughed. The brutal indifference of the rejoinder suited his humour, and, with a glance at Vickers, he took a small piece of cavendish from the pocket of his pea-jacket, and gave it to the recaptured convict. Gabbett snatched it as a cur snatches at a bone, and thrust it whole into his mouth.

“How many mates had he?” asked Maurice, watching the champing jaws as one looks at a strange animal, and asking the question as though a “mate” was something a convict was born with — like a mole, for instance.

“Three, sir.”

“Three, eh? Well, give him thirty lashes, Vickers.”

“And if I ha’ had three more,” growled Gabbett, mumbling at his tobacco, “you wouldn’t ha’ had the chance.”

“What does he say?”

But Troke had not heard, and the “good-conduct” man, shrinking as it seemed, slightly from the prisoner, said he had not heard either. The wretch himself, munching hard at his tobacco, relapsed into his restless silence, and was as though he had never spoken.

As he sat there gloomily chewing, he was a spectacle to shudder at. Not so much on account of his natural hideousness, increased a thousand-fold by the tattered and filthy rags which barely covered him. Not so much on account of his unshaven jaws, his hare-lip, his torn and bleeding feet, his haggard cheeks, and his huge, wasted frame. Not only because, looking at the animal, as he crouched, with one foot curled round the other, and one hairy arm pendant between his knees, he was so horribly unhuman, that one shuddered to think that tender women and fair children must, of necessity, confess to fellowship of kind with such a monster. But also because, in his slavering mouth, his slowly grinding jaws, his restless fingers, and his bloodshot, wandering eyes, there lurked a hint of some terror more awful than the terror of starvation — a memory of a tragedy played out in the gloomy depths of that forest which had vomited him forth again; and the shadow of this unknown horror, clinging to him, repelled and disgusted, as though he bore about with him the reek of the shambles.

“Come,” said Vickers, “Let us go back. I shall have to flog him again, I suppose. Oh, this place! No wonder they call it ‘Hell’s Gates’.”

“You are too soft-hearted, my dear sir,” said Frere, half-way up the palisaded path. “We must treat brutes like brutes.”

Major Vickers, inured as he was to such sentiments, sighed. “It is not for me to find fault with the system,” he said, hesitating, in his reverence for “discipline”, to utter all the thought; “but I have sometimes wondered if kindness would not succeed better than the chain and the cat.”

“Your old ideas!” laughed his companion. “Remember, they nearly cost us our lives on the Malabar. No, no. I’ve seen something of convicts — though, to be sure, my fellows were not so bad as yours — and there’s only one way. Keep ’em down, sir. Make ’em feel what they are. They’re there to work, sir. If they won’t work, flog ’em until they will. If they work well — why a taste of the cat now and then keeps ’em in mind of what they may expect if they get lazy.” They had reached the verandah now. The rising moon shone softly on the bay beneath them, and touched with her white light the summit of the Grummet Rock.

“That is the general opinion, I know,” returned Vickers. “But consider the life they lead. Good God!” he added, with sudden vehemence, as Frere paused to look at the bay. “I’m not a cruel man, and never, I believe, inflicted an unmerited punishment, but since I have been here ten prisoners have drowned themselves from yonder rock, rather than live on in their misery. Only three weeks ago, two men, with a wood-cutting party in the hills, having had some words with the overseer, shook hands with the gang, and then, hand in hand, flung themselves over the cliff. It’s horrible to think of!”

“They shouldn’t get sent here,” said practical Frere. “They knew what they had to expect. Serve ’em right.”

“But imagine an innocent man condemned to this place!”

“I can’t,” said Frere, with a laugh. “Innocent man be hanged! They’re all innocent, if you’d believe their own stories. Hallo! what’s that red light there?”

“Dawes’s fire, on Grummet Rock,” says Vickers, going in; “the man I told you about. Come in and have some brandy-and-water, and we’ll shut the door in place.”

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