For the Term of His Natural Life, by Marcus Clarke

Chapter XI.

Left at “Hell’s Gates.”

There is no need to dwell upon the mental agonies of that miserable night. Perhaps, of all the five, the one least qualified to endure it realized the prospect of suffering most acutely. Mrs. Vickers — lay-figure and noodle as she was — had the keen instinct of approaching danger, which is in her sex a sixth sense. She was a woman and a mother, and owned a double capacity for suffering. Her feminine imagination pictured all the horrors of death by famine, and having realized her own torments, her maternal love forced her to live them over again in the person of her child. Rejecting Bates’s offer of a pea-jacket and Frere’s vague tenders of assistance, the poor woman withdrew behind a rock that faced the sea, and, with her daughter in her arms, resigned herself to her torturing thoughts. Sylvia, recovered from her terror, was almost content, and, curled in her mother’s shawl, slept. To her little soul this midnight mystery of boats and muskets had all the flavour of a romance. With Bates, Frere, and her mother so close to her, it was impossible to be afraid; besides, it was obvious that papa — the Supreme Being of the settlement — must at once return and severely punish the impertinent prisoners who had dared to insult his wife and child, and as Sylvia dropped off to sleep, she caught herself, with some indignation, pitying the mutineers for the tremendous scrape they had got themselves into. How they would be flogged when papa came back! In the meantime this sleeping in the open air was novel and rather pleasant.

Honest Bates produced a piece of biscuit, and, with all the generosity of his nature, suggested that this should be set aside for the sole use of the two females, but Mrs. Vickers would not hear of it. “We must all share alike,” said she, with something of the spirit that she knew her husband would have displayed under like circumstance; and Frere wondered at her apparent strength of mind. Had he been gifted with more acuteness, he would not have wondered; for when a crisis comes to one of two persons who have lived much together, the influence of the nobler spirit makes itself felt. Frere had a tinder-box in his pocket, and he made a fire with some dry leaves and sticks. Grimes fell asleep, and the two men sitting at their fire discussed the chances of escape. Neither liked to openly broach the supposition that they had been finally deserted. It was concluded between them that unless the brig sailed in the night — and the now risen moon showed her yet lying at anchor — the convicts would return and bring them food. This supposition proved correct, for about an hour after daylight they saw the whale-boat pulling towards them.

A discussion had arisen amongst the mutineers as to the propriety of at once making sail, but Barker, who had been one of the pilot-boat crew, and knew the dangers of the Bar, vowed that he would not undertake to steer the brig through the Gates until morning; and so the boats being secured astern, a strict watch was set, lest the helpless Bates should attempt to rescue the vessel. During the evening — the excitement attendant upon the outbreak having passed away, and the magnitude of the task before them being more fully apparent to their minds — a feeling of pity for the unfortunate party on the mainland took possession of them. It was quite possible that the Osprey might be recaptured, in which case five useless murders would have been committed; and however callous in bloodshed were the majority of the ten, not one among them could contemplate in cold blood, without a twinge of remorse, the death of the harmless child of the Commandant.

John Rex, seeing how matters were going, made haste to take to himself the credit of mercy. He ruled, and had always ruled, his ruffians not so much by suggesting to them the course they should take, as by leading them on the way they had already chosen for themselves. “I propose,” said he, “that we divide the provisions. There are five of them and twelve of us. Then nobody can blame us.”

“Ay,” said Porter, mindful of a similar exploit, “and if we’re taken, they can tell what we have done. Don’t let our affair be like that of the Cypress, to leave them to starve.” “Ay, ay,” says Barker, “you’re right! When Fergusson was topped at Hobart Town, I heard old Troke say that if he’d not refused to set the tucker ashore, he might ha’ got off with a whole skin.”

Thus urged, by self-interest, as well as sentiment, to mercy, the provision was got upon deck by daylight, and a division was made. The soldiers, with generosity born of remorse, were for giving half to the marooned men, but Barker exclaimed against this. “When the schooner finds they don’t get to headquarters, she’s bound to come back and look for ’em,” said he; “and we’ll want all the tucker we can get, maybe, afore we sights land.”

This reasoning was admitted and acted upon. There was in the harness-cask about fifty pounds of salt meat, and a third of this quantity, together with half a small sack of flour, some tea and sugar mixed together in a bag, and an iron kettle and pannikin, was placed in the whale-boat. Rex, fearful of excesses among his crew, had also lowered down one of the two small puncheons of rum which the store-room contained. Cheshire disputed this, and stumbling over a goat that had been taken on board from Philip’s Island, caught the creature by the leg, and threw it into the sea, bidding Rex take that with him also. Rex dragged the poor beast into the boat, and with this miscellaneous cargo pushed off to the shore. The poor goat, shivering, began to bleat piteously, and the men laughed. To a stranger it would have appeared that the boat contained a happy party of fishermen, or coast settlers, returning with the proceeds of a day’s marketing.

Laying off as the water shallowed, Rex called to Bates to come for the cargo, and three men with muskets standing up as before, ready to resist any attempt at capture, the provisions, goat and all, were carried ashore. “There!” says Rex, “you can’t say we’ve used you badly, for we’ve divided the provisions.” The sight of this almost unexpected succour revived the courage of the five, and they felt grateful. After the horrible anxiety they had endured all that night, they were prepared to look with kindly eyes upon the men who had come to their assistance.

“Men,” said Bates, with something like a sob in his voice, “I didn’t expect this. You are good fellows, for there ain’t much tucker aboard, I know.”

“Yes,” affirmed Frere, “you’re good fellows.”

Rex burst into a savage laugh. “Shut your mouth, you tyrant,” said he, forgetting his dandyism in the recollection of his former suffering. “It ain’t for your benefit. You may thank the lady and the child for it.”

Julia Vickers hastened to propitiate the arbiter of her daughter’s fate. “We are obliged to you,” she said, with a touch of quiet dignity resembling her husband’s; “and if I ever get back safely, I will take care that your kindness shall be known.”

The swindler and forger took off his leather cap with quite an air. It was five years since a lady had spoken to him, and the old time when he was Mr. Lionel Crofton, a “gentleman sportsman”, came back again for an instant. At that moment, with liberty in his hand, and fortune all before him, he felt his self-respect return, and he looked the lady in the face without flinching.

“I sincerely trust, madam,” said he, “that you will get back safely. May I hope for your good wishes for myself and my companions?”

Listening, Bates burst into a roar of astonished enthusiasm. “What a dog it is!” he cried. “John Rex, John Rex, you were never made to be a convict, man!”

Rex smiled. “Good-bye, Mr. Bates, and God preserve you!”

“Good-bye,” says Bates, rubbing his hat off his face, “and I— I— damme, I hope you’ll get safe off — there! for liberty’s sweet to every man.”

“Good-bye, prisoners!” says Sylvia, waving her handkerchief; “and I hope they won’t catch you, too.”

So, with cheers and waving of handkerchiefs, the boat departed.

In the emotion which the apparently disinterested conduct of John Rex had occasioned the exiles, all earnest thought of their own position had vanished, and, strange to say, the prevailing feeling was that of anxiety for the ultimate fate of the mutineers. But as the boat grew smaller and smaller in the distance, so did their consciousness of their own situation grow more and more distinct; and when at last the boat had disappeared in the shadow of the brig, all started, as if from a dream, to the wakeful contemplation of their own case.

A council of war was held, with Mr. Frere at the head of it, and the possessions of the little party were thrown into common stock. The salt meat, flour, and tea were placed in a hollow rock at some distance from the beach, and Mr. Bates was appointed purser, to apportion to each, without fear or favour, his stated allowance. The goat was tethered with a piece of fishing line sufficiently long to allow her to browse. The cask of rum, by special agreement, was placed in the innermost recess of the rock, and it was resolved that its contents should not be touched except in case of sickness, or in last extremity. There was no lack of water, for a spring ran bubbling from the rocks within a hundred yards of the spot where the party had landed. They calculated that, with prudence, their provisions would last them for nearly four weeks.

It was found, upon a review of their possessions, that they had among them three pocket knives, a ball of string, two pipes, matches and a fig of tobacco, fishing lines with hooks, and a big jack-knife which Frere had taken to gut the fish he had expected to catch. But they saw with dismay that there was nothing which could be used axe-wise among the party. Mrs. Vickers had her shawl, and Bates a pea-jacket, but Frere and Grimes were without extra clothing. It was agreed that each should retain his own property, with the exception of the fishing lines, which were confiscated to the commonwealth.

Having made these arrangements, the kettle, filled with water from the spring, was slung from three green sticks over the fire, and a pannikin of weak tea, together with a biscuit, served out to each of the party, save Grimes, who declared himself unable to eat. Breakfast over, Bates made a damper, which was cooked in the ashes, and then another council was held as to future habitation.

It was clearly evident that they could not sleep in the open air. It was the middle of summer, and though no annoyance from rain was apprehended, the heat in the middle of the day was most oppressive. Moreover, it was absolutely necessary that Mrs. Vickers and the child should have some place to themselves. At a little distance from the beach was a sandy rise, that led up to the face of the cliff, and on the eastern side of this rise grew a forest of young trees. Frere proposed to cut down these trees, and make a sort of hut with them. It was soon discovered, however, that the pocket knives were insufficient for this purpose, but by dint of notching the young saplings and then breaking them down, they succeeded, in a couple of hours, in collecting wood enough to roof over a space between the hollow rock which contained the provisions and another rock, in shape like a hammer, which jutted out within five yards of it. Mrs. Vickers and Sylvia were to have this hut as a sleeping-place, and Frere and Bates, lying at the mouth of the larder, would at once act as a guard to it and them. Grimes was to make for himself another hut where the fire had been lighted on the previous night.

When they got back to dinner, inspirited by this resolution, they found poor Mrs. Vickers in great alarm. Grimes, who, by reason of the dint in his skull, had been left behind, was walking about the sea-beach, talking mysteriously, and shaking his fist at an imaginary foe. On going up to him, they discovered that the blow had affected his brain, for he was delirious. Frere endeavoured to soothe him, without effect; and at last, by Bates’s advice, the poor fellow was rolled in the sea. The cold bath quelled his violence, and, being laid beneath the shade of a rock hard by, he fell into a condition of great muscular exhaustion, and slept.

The damper was then portioned out by Bates, and, together with a small piece of meat, it formed the dinner of the party. Mrs. Vickers reported that she had observed a great commotion on board the brig, and thought that the prisoners must be throwing overboard such portions of the cargo as were not absolutely necessary to them, in order to lighten her. This notion Bates declared to be correct, and further pointed out that the mutineers had got out a kedge-anchor, and by hauling on the kedge-line, were gradually warping the brig down the harbour. Before dinner was over a light breeze sprang up, and the Osprey, running up the union-jack reversed, fired a musket, either in farewell or triumph, and, spreading her sails, disappeared round the western horn of the harbour.

Mrs. Vickers, taking Sylvia with her, went away a few paces, and leaning against the rugged wall of her future home, wept bitterly. Bates and Frere affected cheerfulness, but each felt that he had hitherto regarded the presence of the brig as a sort of safeguard, and had never fully realized his own loneliness until now.

The necessity for work, however, admitted of no indulgence of vain sorrow, and Bates setting the example, the pair worked so hard that by nightfall they had torn down and dragged together sufficient brushwood to complete Mrs. Vickers’s hut. During the progress of this work they were often interrupted by Grimes, who persisted in vague rushes at them, exclaiming loudly against their supposed treachery in leaving him at the mercy of the mutineers. Bates also complained of the pain caused by the wound in his forehead, and that he was afflicted with a giddiness which he knew not how to avert. By dint of frequently bathing his head at the spring, however, he succeeded in keeping on his legs, until the work of dragging together the boughs was completed, when he threw himself on the ground, and declared that he could rise no more.

Frere applied to him the remedy that had been so successfully tried upon Grimes, but the salt water inflamed his wound and rendered his condition worse. Mrs. Vickers recommended that a little spirit and water should be used to wash the cut, and the cask was got out and broached for that purpose. Tea and damper formed their evening meal; and by the light of a blazing fire, their condition looked less desperate. Mrs. Vickers had set the pannikin on a flat stone, and dispensed the tea with an affectation of dignity which would have been absurd had it not been heart-rending. She had smoothed her hair and pinned the white shawl about her coquettishly; she even ventured to lament to Mr. Frere that she had not brought more clothes. Sylvia was in high spirits, and scorned to confess hunger. When the tea had been drunk, she fetched water from the spring in the kettle, and bathed Bates’s head with it. It was resolved that, on the morrow, a search should be made for some place from which to cast the fishing line, and that one of the number should fish daily.

The condition of the unfortunate Grimes now gave cause for the greatest uneasiness. From maundering foolishly he had taken to absolute violence, and had to be watched by Frere. After much muttering and groaning, the poor fellow at last dropped off to sleep, and Frere, having assisted Bates to his sleeping-place in front of the rock, and laid him down on a heap of green brushwood, prepared to snatch a few hours’ slumber. Wearied by excitement and the labours of the day, he slept heavily, but, towards morning, was awakened by a strange noise.

Grimes, whose delirium had apparently increased, had succeeded in forcing his way through the rude fence of brushwood, and had thrown himself upon Bates with the ferocity of insanity. Growling to himself, he had seized the unfortunate pilot by the throat, and the pair were struggling together. Bates, weakened by the sickness that had followed upon his wound in the head, was quite unable to cope with his desperate assailant, but calling feebly upon Frere for help, had made shift to lay hold upon the jack-knife of which we have before spoken. Frere, starting to his feet, rushed to the assistance of the pilot, but was too late. Grimes, enraged by the sight of the knife, tore it from Bates’s grasp, and before Frere could catch his arm, plunged it twice into the unfortunate man’s breast.

“I’m a dead man!” cried Bates faintly.

The sight of the blood, together with the exclamation of his victim, recalled Grimes to consciousness. He looked in bewilderment at the bloody weapon, and then, flinging it from him, rushed away towards the sea, into which he plunged headlong.

Frere, aghast at this sudden and terrible tragedy, gazed after him, and saw from out the placid water, sparkling in the bright beams of morning, a pair of arms, with outstretched hands, emerge; a black spot, that was a head, uprose between these stiffening arms, and then, with a horrible cry, the whole disappeared, and the bright water sparkled as placidly as before. The eyes of the terrified Frere, travelling back to the wounded man, saw, midway between this sparkling water and the knife that lay on the sand, an object that went far to explain the maniac’s sudden burst of fury. The rum cask lay upon its side by the remnants of last night’s fire, and close to it was a clout, with which the head of the wounded man had been bound. It was evident that the poor creature, wandering in his delirium, had come across the rum cask, drunk a quantity of its contents, and been maddened by the fiery spirit.

Frere hurried to the side of Bates, and lifting him up, strove to staunch the blood that flowed from his chest. It would seem that he had been resting himself on his left elbow, and that Grimes, snatching the knife from his right hand, had stabbed him twice in the right breast. He was pale and senseless, and Frere feared that the wound was mortal. Tearing off his neck-handkerchief, he endeavoured to bandage the wound, but found that the strip of silk was insufficient for the purpose. The noise had roused Mrs. Vickers, who, stifling her terror, made haste to tear off a portion of her dress, and with this a bandage of sufficient width was made. Frere went to the cask to see if, haply, he could obtain from it a little spirit with which to moisten the lips of the dying man, but it was empty. Grimes, after drinking his fill, had overturned the unheaded puncheon, and the greedy sand had absorbed every drop of liquor. Sylvia brought some water from the spring, and Mrs. Vickers bathing Bates’s head with this, he revived a little. By-and-by Mrs. Vickers milked the goat — she had never done such a thing before in all her life — and the milk being given to Bates in a pannikin, he drank it eagerly, but vomited it almost instantly. It was evident that he was sinking from some internal injury.

None of the party had much appetite for breakfast, but Frere, whose sensibilities were less acute than those of the others, ate a piece of salt meat and damper. It struck him, with a curious feeling of pleasant selfishness, that now Grimes had gone, the allowance of provisions would be increased, and that if Bates went also, it would be increased still further. He did not give utterance to his thoughts, however, but sat with the wounded man’s head on his knees, and brushed the settling flies from his face. He hoped, after all, that the pilot would not die, for he should then be left alone to look after the women. Perhaps some such thought was agitating Mrs. Vickers also. As for Sylvia, she made no secret of her anxiety.

“Don’t die, Mr. Bates — oh, don’t die!” she said, standing piteously near, but afraid to touch him. “Don’t leave mamma and me alone in this dreadful place!”

Poor Bates, of course, said nothing, but Frere frowned heavily, and Mrs. Vickers said reprovingly, “Sylvia!” just as if they had been in the old house on distant Sarah Island.

In the afternoon Frere went away to drag together some wood for the fire, and when he returned he found the pilot near his end. Mrs. Vickers said that for an hour he had lain without motion, and almost without breath. The major’s wife had seen more than one death-bed, and was calm enough; but poor little Sylvia, sitting on a stone hard by, shook with terror. She had a dim notion that death must be accompanied by violence. As the sun sank, Bates rallied; but the two watchers knew that it was but the final flicker of the expiring candle. “He’s going!” said Frere at length, under his breath, as though fearful of awaking his half-slumbering soul. Mrs. Vickers, her eyes streaming with silent tears, lifted the honest head, and moistened the parched lips with her soaked handkerchief. A tremor shook the once stalwart limbs, and the dying man opened his eyes. For an instant he seemed bewildered, and then, looking from one to the other, intelligence returned to his glance, and it was evident that he remembered all. His gaze rested upon the pale face of the affrighted Sylvia, and then turned to Frere. There could be no mistaking the mute appeal of those eloquent eyes.

“Yes, I’ll take care of her,” said Frere.

Bates smiled, and then, observing that the blood from his wound had stained the white shawl of Mrs. Vickers, he made an effort to move his head. It was not fitting that a lady’s shawl should be stained with the blood of a poor fellow like himself. The fashionable fribble, with quick instinct, understood the gesture, and gently drew the head back upon her bosom. In the presence of death the woman was womanly. For a moment all was silent, and they thought he had gone; but all at once he opened his eyes and looked round for the sea

“Turn my face to it once more,” he whispered; and as they raised him, he inclined his ear to listen. “It’s calm enough here, God bless it,” he said; “but I can hear the waves a-breaking hard upon the Bar!”

And so his head dropped, and he died.

As Frere relieved Mrs. Vickers from the weight of the corpse, Sylvia ran to her mother. “Oh, mamma, mamma,” she cried, “why did God let him die when we wanted him so much?”

Before it grew dark, Frere made shift to carry the body to the shelter of some rocks at a little distance, and spreading the jacket over the face, he piled stones upon it to keep it steady. The march of events had been so rapid that he scarcely realized that since the previous evening two of the five human creatures left in this wilderness had escaped from it. As he did realize it, he began to wonder whose turn it would be next.

Mrs. Vickers, worn out by the fatigue and excitement of the day, retired to rest early; and Sylvia, refusing to speak to Frere, followed her mother. This manifestation of unaccountable dislike on the part of the child hurt Maurice more than he cared to own. He felt angry with her for not loving him, and yet he took no pains to conciliate her. It was with a curious pleasure that he remembered how she must soon look up to him as her chief protector. Had Sylvia been just a few years older, the young man would have thought himself in love with her.

The following day passed gloomily. It was hot and sultry, and a dull haze hung over the mountains. Frere spent the morning in scooping a grave in the sand, in which to inter poor Bates. Practically awake to his own necessities, he removed such portions of clothing from the body as would be useful to him, but hid them under a stone, not liking to let Mrs. Vickers see what he had done. Having completed the grave by midday, he placed the corpse therein, and rolled as many stones as possible to the sides of the mound. In the afternoon he cast the fishing line from the point of a rock he had marked the day before, but caught nothing. Passing by the grave, on his return, he noticed that Mrs. Vickers had placed at the head of it a rude cross, formed by tying two pieces of stick together.

After supper — the usual salt meat and damper — he lit an economical pipe, and tried to talk to Sylvia. “Why won’t you be friends with me, missy?” he asked.

“I don’t like you,” said Sylvia. “You frighten me.”

“Why?”

“You are not kind. I don’t mean that you do cruel things; but you are — oh, I wish papa was here!” “Wishing won’t bring him!” says Frere, pressing his hoarded tobacco together with prudent forefinger.

“There! That’s what I mean! Is that kind? ‘Wishing won’t bring him!’ Oh, if it only would!”

“I didn’t mean it unkindly,” says Frere. “What a strange child you are.”

“There are persons,” says Sylvia, “who have no Affinity for each other. I read about it in a book papa had, and I suppose that’s what it is. I have no Affinity for you. I can’t help it, can I?”

“Rubbish!” Frere returned. “Come here, and I’ll tell you a story.”

Mrs. Vickers had gone back to her cave, and the two were alone by the fire, near which stood the kettle and the newly-made damper. The child, with some show of hesitation, came to him, and he caught and placed her on his knee. The moon had not yet risen, and the shadows cast by the flickering fire seemed weird and monstrous. The wicked wish to frighten this helpless creature came to Maurice Frere.

“There was once,” said he, “a Castle in an old wood, and in this Castle there lived an Ogre, with great goggle eyes.”

“You silly man!” said Sylvia, struggling to be free. “You are trying to frighten me!”

“And this Ogre lived on the bones of little girls. One day a little girl was travelling the wood, and she heard the Ogre coming. ‘Haw! haw! Haw! haw!’”

“Mr. Frere, let me down!”

“She was terribly frightened, and she ran, and ran, and ran, until all of a sudden she saw —”

A piercing scream burst from his companion. “Oh! oh! What’s that?” she cried, and clung to her persecutor.

Beyond the fire stood the figure of a man. He staggered forward, and then, falling on his knees, stretched out his hands, and hoarsely articulated one word —“Food.” It was Rufus Dawes.

The sound of a human voice broke the spell of terror that was on the child, and as the glow from the fire fell upon the tattered yellow garments, she guessed at once the whole story. Not so Maurice Frere. He saw before him a new danger, a new mouth to share the scanty provision, and snatching a brand from the fire he kept the convict at bay. But Rufus Dawes, glaring round with wolfish eyes, caught sight of the damper resting against the iron kettle, and made a clutch at it. Frere dashed the brand in his face. “Stand back!” he cried. “We have no food to spare!”

The convict uttered a savage cry, and raising the iron gad, plunged forward desperately to attack this new enemy; but, quick as thought, the child glided past Frere, and, snatching the loaf, placed it in the hands of the starving man, with “Here, poor prisoner, eat!” and then, turning to Frere, she cast upon him a glance so full of horror, indignation, and surprise, that the man blushed and threw down the brand.

As for Rufus Dawes, the sudden apparition of this golden-haired girl seemed to have transformed him. Allowing the loaf to slip through his fingers, he gazed with haggard eyes at the retreating figure of the child, and as it vanished into the darkness outside the circle of firelight, the unhappy man sank his face upon his blackened, horny hands, and burst into tears.

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