For the Term of His Natural Life, by Marcus Clarke

Chapter VI.

A Leap in the Dark.

Two or three mornings after the arrival of the Ladybird, the solitary prisoner of the Grummet Rock noticed mysterious movements along the shore of the island settlement. The prison boats, which had put off every morning at sunrise to the foot of the timbered ranges on the other side of the harbour, had not appeared for some days. The building of a pier, or breakwater, running from the western point of the settlement, was discontinued; and all hands appeared to be occupied with the newly-built Osprey, which was lying on the slips. Parties of soldiers also daily left the Ladybird, and assisted at the mysterious work in progress. Rufus Dawes, walking his little round each day, in vain wondered what this unusual commotion portended. Unfortunately, no one came to enlighten his ignorance.

A fortnight after this, about the 15th of December, he observed another curious fact. All the boats on the island put off one morning to the opposite side of the harbour, and in the course of the day a great smoke arose along the side of the hills. The next day the same was repeated; and on the fourth day the boats returned, towing behind them a huge raft. This raft, made fast to the side of the Ladybird, proved to be composed of planks, beams, and joists, all of which were duly hoisted up, and stowed in the hold of the brig.

This set Rufus Dawes thinking. Could it possibly be that the timber-cutting was to be abandoned, and that the Government had hit upon some other method of utilizing its convict labour? He had hewn timber and built boats, and tanned hides and made shoes. Was it possible that some new trade was to be initiated? Before he had settled this point to his satisfaction, he was startled by another boat expedition. Three boats’ crews went down the bay, and returned, after a day’s absence, with an addition to their number in the shape of four strangers and a quantity of stores and farming implements. Rufus Dawes, catching sight of these last, came to the conclusion that the boats had been to Philip’s Island, where the “garden” was established, and had taken off the gardeners and garden produce. Rufus Dawes decided that the Ladybird had brought a new commandant — his sight, trained by his half-savage life, had already distinguished Mr. Maurice Frere — and that these mysteries were “improvements” under the new rule. When he arrived at this point of reasoning, another conjecture, assuming his first to have been correct, followed as a natural consequence. Lieutenant Frere would be a more severe commandant than Major Vickers. Now, severity had already reached its height, so far as he was concerned; so the unhappy man took a final resolution — he would kill himself. Before we exclaim against the sin of such a determination, let us endeavour to set before us what the sinner had suffered during the past six years.

We have already a notion of what life on a convict ship means; and we have seen through what a furnace Rufus Dawes had passed before he set foot on the barren shore of Hell’s Gates. But to appreciate in its intensity the agony he suffered since that time, we must multiply the infamy of the ’tween decks of the Malabar a hundred fold. In that prison was at least some ray of light. All were not abominable; all were not utterly lost to shame and manhood. Stifling though the prison, infamous the companionship, terrible the memory of past happiness — there was yet ignorance of the future, there was yet hope. But at Macquarie Harbour was poured out the very dregs of this cup of desolation. The worst had come, and the worst must for ever remain. The pit of torment was so deep that one could not even see Heaven. There was no hope there so long as life remained. Death alone kept the keys of that island prison.

Is it possible to imagine, even for a moment, what an innocent man, gifted with ambition, endowed with power to love and to respect, must have suffered during one week of such punishment? We ordinary men, leading ordinary lives — walking, riding, laughing, marrying and giving in marriage — can form no notion of such misery as this. Some dim ideas we may have about the sweetness of liberty and the loathing that evil company inspires; but that is all. We know that were we chained and degraded, fed like dogs, employed as beasts of burden, driven to our daily toil with threats and blows, and herded with wretches among whom all that savours of decency and manliness is held in an open scorn, we should die, perhaps, or go mad. But we do not know, and can never know, how unutterably loathsome life must become when shared with such beings as those who dragged the tree-trunks to the banks of the Gordon, and toiled, blaspheming, in their irons, on the dismal sandpit of Sarah Island. No human creature could describe to what depth of personal abasement and self-loathing one week of such a life would plunge him. Even if he had the power to write, he dared not. As one whom in a desert, seeking for a face, should come to a pool of blood, and seeing his own reflection, fly — so would such a one hasten from the contemplation of his own degrading agony. Imagine such torment endured for six years!

Ignorant that the sights and sounds about him were symptoms of the final abandonment of the settlement, and that the Ladybird was sent down to bring away the prisoners, Rufus Dawes decided upon getting rid of that burden of life which pressed upon him so heavily. For six years he had hewn wood and drawn water; for six years he had hoped against hope; for six years he had lived in the valley of the shadow of Death. He dared not recapitulate to himself what he had suffered. Indeed, his senses were deadened and dulled by torture. He cared to remember only one thing — that he was a Prisoner for Life. In vain had been his first dream of freedom. He had done his best, by good conduct, to win release; but the villainy of Vetch and Rex had deprived him of the fruit of his labour. Instead of gaining credit by his exposure of the plot on board the Malabar, he was himself deemed guilty, and condemned, despite his asseverations of innocence. The knowledge of his “treachery”— for so it was deemed among his associates — while it gained for him no credit with the authorities, procured for him the detestation and ill-will of the monsters among whom he found himself. On his arrival at Hell’s Gates he was a marked man — a Pariah among those beings who were Pariahs to all the world beside. Thrice his life was attempted; but he was not then quite tired of living, and he defended it. This defence was construed by an overseer into a brawl, and the irons from which he had been relieved were replaced. His strength — brute attribute that alone could avail him — made him respected after this, and he was left at peace. At first this treatment was congenial to his temperament; but by and by it became annoying, then painful, then almost unendurable. Tugging at his oar, digging up to his waist in slime, or bending beneath his burden of pine wood, he looked greedily for some excuse to be addressed. He would take double weight when forming part of the human caterpillar along whose back lay a pine tree, for a word of fellowship. He would work double tides to gain a kindly sentence from a comrade. In his utter desolation he agonized for the friendship of robbers and murderers. Then the reaction came, and he hated the very sound of their voices. He never spoke, and refused to answer when spoken to. He would even take his scanty supper alone, did his chain so permit him. He gained the reputation of a sullen, dangerous, half-crazy ruffian. Captain Barton, the superintendent, took pity on him, and made him his gardener. He accepted the pity for a week or so, and then Barton, coming down one morning, found the few shrubs pulled up by the roots, the flower-beds trampled into barrenness, and his gardener sitting on the ground among the fragments of his gardening tools. For this act of wanton mischief he was flogged. At the triangles his behaviour was considered curious. He wept and prayed to be released, fell on his knees to Barton, and implored pardon. Barton would not listen, and at the first blow the prisoner was silent. From that time he became more sullen than ever, only at times he was observed, when alone, to fling himself on the ground and cry like a child. It was generally thought that his brain was affected.

When Vickers came, Dawes sought an interview, and begged to be sent back to Hobart Town. This was refused, of course, but he was put to work on the Osprey. After working there for some time, and being released from his irons, he concealed himself on the slip, and in the evening swam across the harbour. He was pursued, retaken, and flogged. Then he ran the dismal round of punishment. He burnt lime, dragged timber, and tugged at the oar. The heaviest and most degrading tasks were always his. Shunned and hated by his companions, feared by the convict overseers, and regarded with unfriendly eyes by the authorities, Rufus Dawes was at the very bottom of that abyss of woe into which he had voluntarily cast himself. Goaded to desperation by his own thoughts, he had joined with Gabbett and the unlucky three in their desperate attempt to escape; but, as Vickers stated, he had been captured almost instantly. He was lamed by the heavy irons he wore, and though Gabbett — with a strange eagerness for which after events accounted — insisted that he could make good his flight, the unhappy man fell in the first hundred yards of the terrible race, and was seized by two volunteers before he could rise again. His capture helped to secure the brief freedom of his comrades; for Mr. Troke, content with one prisoner, checked a pursuit which the nature of the ground rendered dangerous, and triumphantly brought Dawes back to the settlement as his peace-offering for the negligence which had resulted in the loss of the other four. For this madness the refractory convict had been condemned to the solitude of the Grummet Rock.

In that dismal hermitage, his mind, preying on itself, had become disordered. He saw visions and dreamt dreams. He would lie for hours motionless, staring at the sun or the sea. He held converse with imaginary beings. He enacted the scene with his mother over again. He harangued the rocks, and called upon the stones about him to witness his innocence and his sacrifice. He was visited by the phantoms of his early friends, and sometimes thought his present life a dream. Whenever he awoke, however, he was commanded by a voice within himself to leap into the surges which washed the walls of his prison, and to dream these sad dreams no more.

In the midst of this lethargy of body and brain, the unusual occurrences along the shore of the settlement roused in him a still fiercer hatred of life. He saw in them something incomprehensible and terrible, and read in them threats of an increase of misery. Had he known that the Ladybird was preparing for sea, and that it had been already decided to fetch him from the Rock and iron him with the rest for safe passage to Hobart Town, he might have paused; but he knew nothing, save that the burden of life was insupportable, and that the time had come for him to be rid of it.

In the meantime, the settlement was in a fever of excitement. In less than three weeks from the announcement made by Vickers, all had been got ready. The Commandant had finally arranged with Frere as to his course of action. He would himself accompany the Ladybird with the main body. His wife and daughter were to remain until the sailing of the Osprey, which Mr. Frere — charged with the task of final destruction — was to bring up as soon as possible. “I will leave you a corporal’s guard, and ten prisoners as a crew,” Vickers said. “You can work her easily with that number.” To which Frere, smiling at Mrs. Vickers in a self-satisfied way, had replied that he could do with five prisoners if necessary, for he knew how to get double work out of the lazy dogs.

Among the incidents which took place during the breaking up was one which it is necessary to chronicle. Near Philip’s Island, on the north side of the harbour, is situated Coal Head, where a party had been lately at work. This party, hastily withdrawn by Vickers to assist in the business of devastation, had left behind it some tools and timber, and at the eleventh hour a boat’s crew was sent to bring away the débris. The tools were duly collected, and the pine logs — worth twenty-five shillings apiece in Hobart Town — duly rafted and chained. The timber was secured, and the convicts, towing it after them, pulled for the ship just as the sun sank. In the general relaxation of discipline and haste, the raft had not been made with as much care as usual, and the strong current against which the boat was labouring assisted the negligence of the convicts. The logs began to loosen, and although the onward motion of the boat kept the chain taut, when the rowers slackened their exertions the mass parted, and Mr. Troke, hooking himself on to the side of the Ladybird, saw a huge log slip out from its fellows and disappear into the darkness. Gazing after it with an indignant and disgusted stare, as though it had been a refractory prisoner who merited two days’ “solitary”, he thought he heard a cry from the direction in which it had been borne. He would have paused to listen, but all his attention was needed to save the timber, and to prevent the boat from being swamped by the struggling mass at her stern.

The cry had proceeded from Rufus Dawes. From his solitary rock he had watched the boat pass him and make for the Ladybird in the channel, and he had decided — with that curious childishness into which the mind relapses on such supreme occasions — that the moment when the gathering gloom swallowed her up, should be the moment when he would plunge into the surge below him. The heavily-labouring boat grew dimmer and dimmer, as each tug of the oars took her farther from him. Presently, only the figure of Mr. Troke in the stern sheets was visible; then that also disappeared, and as the nose of the timber raft rose on the swell of the next wave, Rufus Dawes flung himself into the sea.

He was heavily ironed, and he sank like a stone. He had resolved not to attempt to swim, and for the first moment kept his arms raised above his head, in order to sink the quicker. But, as the short, sharp agony of suffocation caught him, and the shock of the icy water dispelled the mental intoxication under which he was labouring, he desperately struck out, and, despite the weight of his irons, gained the surface for an instant. As he did so, all bewildered, and with the one savage instinct of self-preservation predominant over all other thoughts, be became conscious of a huge black mass surging upon him out of the darkness. An instant’s buffet with the current, an ineffectual attempt to dive beneath it, a horrible sense that the weight at his feet was dragging him down — and the huge log, loosened from the raft, was upon him, crushing him beneath its rough and ragged sides. All thoughts of self-murder vanished with the presence of actual peril, and uttering that despairing cry which had been faintly heard by Troke, he flung up his arms to clutch the monster that was pushing him down to death. The log passed completely over him, thrusting him beneath the water, but his hand, scraping along the splintered side, came in contact with the loop of hide rope that yet hung round the mass, and clutched it with the tenacity of a death grip. In another instant he got his head above water, and making good his hold, twisted himself, by a violent effort, across the log.

For a moment he saw the lights from the stern windows of the anchored vessels low in the distance, Grummet Rock disappeared on his left, then, exhausted, breathless, and bruised, he closed his eyes, and the drifting log bore him swiftly and silently away into the darkness.

* * * * * *

At daylight the next morning, Mr. Troke, landing on the prison rock found it deserted. The prisoner’s cap was lying on the edge of the little cliff, but the prisoner himself had disappeared. Pulling back to the Ladybird, the intelligent Troke pondered on the circumstance, and in delivering his report to Vickers mentioned the strange cry he had heard the night before. “It’s my belief, sir, that he was trying to swim the bay,” he said. “He must ha’ gone to the bottom anyhow, for he couldn’t swim five yards with them irons.”

Vickers, busily engaged in getting under weigh, accepted this very natural supposition without question. The prisoner had met his death either by his own act, or by accident. It was either a suicide or an attempt to escape, and the former conduct of Rufus Dawes rendered the latter explanation a more probable one. In any case, he was dead. As Mr. Troke rightly surmised, no man could swim the bay in irons; and when the Ladybird, an hour later, passed the Grummet Rock, all on board her believed that the corpse of its late occupant was lying beneath the waves that seethed at its base.

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