For the Term of His Natural Life, by Marcus Clarke

Chapter XIII.

What the Seaweed Suggested.

The question gave the marooned party new hopes. Maurice Frere, with his usual impetuosity, declared that the project was a most feasible one, and wondered — as such men will wonder — that it had never occurred to him before. “It’s the simplest thing in the world!” he cried. “Sylvia, you have saved us!” But upon taking the matter into more earnest consideration, it became apparent that they were as yet a long way from the realization of their hopes. To make a coracle of skins seemed sufficiently easy, but how to obtain the skins! The one miserable hide of the unlucky she-goat was utterly inadequate for the purpose. Sylvia — her face beaming with the hope of escape, and with delight at having been the means of suggesting it — watched narrowly the countenance of Rufus Dawes, but she marked no answering gleam of joy in those eyes. “Can’t it be done, Mr. Dawes?” she asked, trembling for the reply.

The convict knitted his brows gloomily.

“Come, Dawes!” cried Frere, forgetting his enmity for an instant in the flash of new hope, “can’t you suggest something?”

Rufus Dawes, thus appealed to as the acknowledged Head of the little society, felt a pleasant thrill of self-satisfaction. “I don’t know,” he said. “I must think of it. It looks easy, and yet —” He paused as something in the water caught his eye. It was a mass of bladdery seaweed that the returning tide was wafting slowly to the shore. This object, which would have passed unnoticed at any other time, suggested to Rufus Dawes a new idea. “Yes,” he added slowly, with a change of tone, “it may be done. I think I can see my way.”

The others preserved a respectful silence until he should speak again. “How far do you think it is across the bay?” he asked of Frere.

“What, to Sarah Island?”

“No, to the Pilot Station.”

“About four miles.”

The convict sighed. “Too far to swim now, though I might have done it once. But this sort of life weakens a man. It must be done after all.”

“What are you going to do?” asked Frere.

“To kill the goat.”

Sylvia uttered a little cry; she had become fond of her dumb companion. “Kill Nanny! Oh, Mr. Dawes! What for?”

“I am going to make a boat for you,” he said, “and I want hides, and thread, and tallow.”

A few weeks back Maurice Frere would have laughed at such a sentence, but he had begun now to comprehend that this escaped convict was not a man to be laughed at, and though he detested him for his superiority, he could not but admit that he was superior.

“You can’t get more than one hide off a goat, man?” he said, with an inquiring tone in his voice — as though it was just possible that such a marvellous being as Dawes could get a second hide, by virtue of some secret process known only to himself.

“I am going to catch other goats.” “Where?”

“At the Pilot Station.”

“But how are you going to get there?”

“Float across. Come, there is not time for questioning! Go and cut down some saplings, and let us begin!”

The lieutenant-master looked at the convict prisoner with astonishment, and then gave way to the power of knowledge, and did as he was ordered. Before sundown that evening the carcase of poor Nanny, broken into various most unbutcherly fragments, was hanging on the nearest tree; and Frere, returning with as many young saplings as he could drag together, found Rufus Dawes engaged in a curious occupation. He had killed the goat, and having cut off its head close under the jaws, and its legs at the knee-joint, had extracted the carcase through a slit made in the lower portion of the belly, which slit he had now sewn together with string. This proceeding gave him a rough bag, and he was busily engaged in filling this bag with such coarse grass as he could collect. Frere observed, also, that the fat of the animal was carefully preserved, and the intestines had been placed in a pool of water to soak.

The convict, however, declined to give information as to what he intended to do. “It’s my own notion,” he said. “Let me alone. I may make a failure of it.” Frere, on being pressed by Sylvia, affected to know all about the scheme, but to impose silence on himself. He was galled to think that a convict brain should contain a mystery which he might not share.

On the next day, by Rufus Dawes’s direction, Frere cut down some rushes that grew about a mile from the camping ground, and brought them in on his back. This took him nearly half a day to accomplish. Short rations were beginning to tell upon his physical powers. The convict, on the other hand, trained by a woeful experience in the Boats to endurance of hardship, was slowly recovering his original strength.

“What are they for?” asked Frere, as he flung the bundles down. His master condescended to reply. “To make a float.”

“Well?”

The other shrugged his broad shoulders. “You are very dull, Mr. Frere. I am going to swim over to the Pilot Station, and catch some of those goats. I can get across on the stuffed skin, but I must float them back on the reeds.”

“How the doose do you mean to catch ’em?” asked Frere, wiping the sweat from his brow.

The convict motioned to him to approach. He did so, and saw that his companion was cleaning the intestines of the goat. The outer membrane having been peeled off, Rufus Dawes was turning the gut inside out. This he did by turning up a short piece of it, as though it were a coat-sleeve, and dipping the turned-up cuff into a pool of water. The weight of the water pressing between the cuff and the rest of the gut, bore down a further portion; and so, by repeated dippings, the whole length was turned inside out. The inner membrane having been scraped away, there remained a fine transparent tube, which was tightly twisted, and set to dry in the sun.

“There is the catgut for the noose,” said Dawes. “I learnt that trick at the settlement. Now come here.”

Frere, following, saw that a fire had been made between two stones, and that the kettle was partly sunk in the ground near it. On approaching the kettle, he found it full of smooth pebbles.

“Take out those stones,” said Dawes.

Frere obeyed, and saw at the bottom of the kettle a quantity of sparkling white powder, and the sides of the vessel crusted with the same material.

“What’s that?” he asked.

“Salt.”

“How did you get it?”

“I filled the kettle with sea-water, and then, heating those pebbles red-hot in the fire, dropped them into it. We could have caught the steam in a cloth and wrung out fresh water had we wished to do so. But, thank God, we have plenty.”

Frere started. “Did you learn that at the settlement, too?” he asked.

Rufus Dawes laughed, with a sort of bitterness in his tones. “Do you think I have been at ‘the settlement’ all my life? The thing is very simple, it is merely evaporation.”

Frere burst out in sudden, fretful admiration: “What a fellow you are, Dawes! What are you — I mean, what have you been?”

A triumphant light came into the other’s face, and for the instant he seemed about to make some startling revelation. But the light faded, and he checked himself with a gesture of pain.

“I am a convict. Never mind what I have been. A sailor, a shipbuilder, prodigal, vagabond — what does it matter? It won’t alter my fate, will it?”

“If we get safely back,” says Frere, “I’ll ask for a free pardon for you. You deserve it.”

“Come,” returned Dawes, with a discordant laugh. “Let us wait until we get back.”

“You don’t believe me?”

“I don’t want favour at your hands,” he said, with a return of the old fierceness. “Let us get to work. Bring up the rushes here, and tie them with a fishing line.”

At this instant Sylvia came up. “Good afternoon, Mr. Dawes. Hard at work? Oh! what’s this in the kettle?” The voice of the child acted like a charm upon Rufus Dawes. He smiled quite cheerfully.

“Salt, miss. I am going to catch the goats with that.”

“Catch the goats! How? Put it on their tails?” she cried merrily.

“Goats are fond of salt, and when I get over to the Pilot Station I shall set traps for them baited with this salt. When they come to lick it, I shall have a noose of catgut ready to catch them — do you understand?”

“But how will you get across?”

“You will see to-morrow.”

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