For the Term of His Natural Life, by Marcus Clarke

Chapter XIV.

A Wonderful Day’s Work.

The next morning Rufus Dawes was stirring by daylight. He first got his catgut wound upon a piece of stick, and then, having moved his frail floats alongside the little rock that served as a pier, he took a fishing line and a larger piece of stick, and proceeded to draw a diagram on the sand. This diagram when completed represented a rude outline of a punt, eight feet long and three broad. At certain distances were eight points — four on each side — into which small willow rods were driven. He then awoke Frere and showed the diagram to him.

“Get eight stakes of celery-top pine,” he said. “You can burn them where you cannot cut them, and drive a stake into the place of each of these willow wands. When you have done that, collect as many willows as you can get. I shall not be back until tonight. Now give me a hand with the floats.”

Frere, coming to the pier, saw Dawes strip himself, and piling his clothes upon the stuffed goat-skin, stretch himself upon the reed bundles, and, paddling with his hands, push off from the shore. The clothes floated high and dry, but the reeds, depressed by the weight of the body, sank so that the head of the convict alone appeared above water. In this fashion he gained the middle of the current, and the out-going tide swept him down towards the mouth of the harbour.

Frere, sulkily admiring, went back to prepare the breakfast — they were on half rations now, Dawes having forbidden the slaughtered goat to be eaten, lest his expedition should prove unsuccessful — wondering at the chance which had thrown this convict in his way. “Parsons would call it ‘a special providence,’” he said to himself. “For if it hadn’t been for him, we should never have got thus far. If his ‘boat’ succeeds, we’re all right, I suppose. He’s a clever dog. I wonder who he is.” His training as a master of convicts made him think how dangerous such a man would be on a convict station. It would be difficult to keep a fellow of such resources. “They’ll have to look pretty sharp after him if they ever get him back,” he thought. “I’ll have a fine tale to tell of his ingenuity.” The conversation of the previous day occurred to him. “I promised to ask for a free pardon. He wouldn’t have it, though. Too proud to accept it at my hands! Wait until we get back. I’ll teach him his place; for, after all, it is his own liberty that he is working for as well as mine — I mean ours.” Then a thought came into his head that was in every way worthy of him. “Suppose we took the boat, and left him behind!” The notion seemed so ludicrously wicked that he laughed involuntarily.

“What is it, Mr. Frere?”

“Oh, it’s you, Sylvia, is it? Ha, ha, ha! I was thinking of something — something funny.”

“Indeed,” said Sylvia, “I am glad of that. Where’s Mr. Dawes?”

Frere was displeased at the interest with which she asked the question.

“You are always thinking of that fellow. It’s Dawes, Dawes, Dawes all day long. He has gone.”

“Oh!” with a sorrowful accent. “Mamma wants to see him.”

“What about?” says Frere roughly. “Mamma is ill, Mr. Frere.”

“Dawes isn’t a doctor. What’s the matter with her?”

“She is worse than she was yesterday. I don’t know what is the matter.”

Frere, somewhat alarmed, strode over to the little cavern.

The “lady of the Commandant” was in a strange plight. The cavern was lofty, but narrow. In shape it was three-cornered, having two sides open to the wind. The ingenuity of Rufus Dawes had closed these sides with wicker-work and clay, and a sort of door of interlaced brushwood hung at one of them. Frere pushed open this door and entered. The poor woman was lying on a bed of rushes strewn over young brushwood, and was moaning feebly. From the first she had felt the privation to which she was subjected most keenly, and the mental anxiety from which she suffered increased her physical debility. The exhaustion and lassitude to which she had partially succumbed soon after Dawes’s arrival, had now completely overcome her, and she was unable to rise.

“Cheer up, ma’am,” said Maurice, with an assumption of heartiness. “It will be all right in a day or two.”

“Is it you? I sent for Mr. Dawes.”

“He is away just now. I am making a boat. Did not Sylvia tell you?”

“She told me that he was making one.”

“Well, I— that is, we — are making it. He will be back again tonight. Can I do anything for you?”

“No, thank you. I only wanted to know how he was getting on. I must go soon — if I am to go. Thank you, Mr. Frere. I am much obliged to you. This is a — he-e — dreadful place to have visitors, isn’t it?”

“Never mind,” said Frere, again, “you will be back in Hobart Town in a few days now. We are sure to get picked up by a ship. But you must cheer up. Have some tea or something.”

“No, thank you — I don’t feel well enough to eat. I am tired.”

Sylvia began to cry.

“Don’t cry, dear. I shall be better by and by. Oh, I wish Mr. Dawes was back.”

Maurice Frere went out indignant. This “Mr.” Dawes was everybody, it seemed, and he was nobody. Let them wait a little. All that day, working hard to carry out the convict’s directions, he meditated a thousand plans by which he could turn the tables. He would accuse Dawes of violence. He would demand that he should be taken back as an “absconder”. He would insist that the law should take its course, and that the “death” which was the doom of all who were caught in the act of escape from a penal settlement should be enforced. Yet if they got safe to land, the marvellous courage and ingenuity of the prisoner would tell strongly in his favour. The woman and child would bear witness to his tenderness and skill, and plead for him. As he had said, the convict deserved a pardon. The mean, bad man, burning with wounded vanity and undefined jealousy, waited for some method to suggest itself, by which he might claim the credit of the escape, and snatch from the prisoner, who had dared to rival him, the last hope of freedom.

Rufus Dawes, drifting with the current, had allowed himself to coast along the eastern side of the harbour until the Pilot Station appeared in view on the opposite shore. By this time it was nearly seven o’clock. He landed at a sandy cove, and drawing up his raft, proceeded to unpack from among his garments a piece of damper. Having eaten sparingly, and dried himself in the sun, he replaced the remains of his breakfast, and pushed his floats again into the water. The Pilot Station lay some distance below him, on the opposite shore. He had purposely made his second start from a point which would give him this advantage of position; for had he attempted to paddle across at right angles, the strength of the current would have swept him out to sea. Weak as he was, he several times nearly lost his hold on the reeds. The clumsy bundle presenting too great a broadside to the stream, whirled round and round, and was once or twice nearly sucked under. At length, however, breathless and exhausted, he gained the opposite bank, half a mile below the point he had attempted to make, and carrying his floats out of reach of the tide, made off across the hill to the Pilot Station.

Arrived there about midday, he set to work to lay his snares. The goats, with whose hides he hoped to cover the coracle, were sufficiently numerous and tame to encourage him to use every exertion. He carefully examined the tracks of the animals, and found that they converged to one point — the track to the nearest water. With much labour he cut down bushes, so as to mask the approach to the waterhole on all sides save where these tracks immediately conjoined. Close to the water, and at unequal distances along the various tracks, he scattered the salt he had obtained by his rude distillation of sea-water. Between this scattered salt and the points where he judged the animals would be likely to approach, he set his traps, made after the following manner. He took several pliant branches of young trees, and having stripped them of leaves and twigs, dug with his knife and the end of the rude paddle he had made for the voyage across the inlet, a succession of holes, about a foot deep. At the thicker end of these saplings he fastened, by a piece of fishing line, a small cross-bar, which swung loosely, like the stick handle which a schoolboy fastens to the string of his pegtop. Forcing the ends of the saplings thus prepared into the holes, he filled in and stamped down the earth all around them. The saplings, thus anchored as it were by the cross-pieces of stick, not only stood firm, but resisted all his efforts to withdraw them. To the thin ends of these saplings he bound tightly, into notches cut in the wood, and secured by a multiplicity of twisting, the catgut springes he had brought from the camping ground. The saplings were then bent double, and the gutted ends secured in the ground by the same means as that employed to fix the butts. This was the most difficult part of the business, for it was necessary to discover precisely the amount of pressure that would hold the bent rod without allowing it to escape by reason of this elasticity, and which would yet “give” to a slight pull on the gut. After many failures, however, this happy medium was discovered; and Rufus Dawes, concealing his springes by means of twigs, smoothed the disturbed sand with a branch and retired to watch the effect of his labours. About two hours after he had gone, the goats came to drink. There were five goats and two kids, and they trotted calmly along the path to the water. The watcher soon saw that his precautions had been in a manner wasted. The leading goat marched gravely into the springe, which, catching him round his neck, released the bent rod, and sprang him off his legs into the air. He uttered a comical bleat, and then hung kicking. Rufus Dawes, though the success of the scheme was a matter of life and death, burst out laughing at the antics of the beast. The other goats bounded off at this sudden elevation of their leader, and three more were entrapped at a little distance. Rufus Dawes now thought it time to secure his prize, though three of the springes were as yet unsprung. He ran down to the old goat, knife in hand, but before he could reach him the barely-dried catgut gave way, and the old fellow, shaking his head with grotesque dismay, made off at full speed. The others, however, were secured and killed. The loss of the springe was not a serious one, for three traps remained unsprung, and before sundown Rufus Dawes had caught four more goats. Removing with care the catgut that had done such good service, he dragged the carcases to the shore, and proceeded to pack them upon his floats. He discovered, however, that the weight was too great, and that the water, entering through the loops of the stitching in the hide, had so soaked the rush-grass as to render the floats no longer buoyant. He was compelled, therefore, to spend two hours in re-stuffing the skin with such material as he could find. Some light and flock-like seaweed, which the action of the water had swathed after the fashion of haybands along the shore, formed an excellent substitute for grass, and, having bound his bundle of rushes lengthwise, with the goat-skin as a centre-piece, he succeeded in forming a sort of rude canoe, upon which the carcases floated securely.

He had eaten nothing since the morning, and the violence of his exertions had exhausted him. Still, sustained by the excitement of the task he had set himself, he dismissed with fierce impatience the thought of rest, and dragged his weary limbs along the sand, endeavouring to kill fatigue by further exertion. The tide was now running in, and he knew it was imperative that he should regain the further shore while the current was in his favour. To cross from the Pilot Station at low water was impossible. If he waited until the ebb, he must spend another day on the shore, and he could not afford to lose an hour. Cutting a long sapling, he fastened to one end of it the floating bundle, and thus guided it to a spot where the beach shelved abruptly into deep water. It was a clear night, and the risen moon large and low, flung a rippling streak of silver across the sea. On the other side of the bay all was bathed in a violet haze, which veiled the inlet from which he had started in the morning. The fire of the exiles, hidden behind a point of rock, cast a red glow into the air. The ocean breakers rolled in upon the cliffs outside the bar, with a hoarse and threatening murmur; and the rising tide rippled and lapped with treacherous melody along the sand. He touched the chill water and drew back. For an instant he determined to wait until the beams of morning should illumine that beautiful but treacherous sea, and then the thought of the helpless child, who was, without doubt, waiting and watching for him on the shore, gave new strength to his wearied frame; and fixing his eyes on the glow that, hovering above the dark tree-line, marked her presence, he pushed the raft before him out into the sea. The reeds sustained him bravely, but the strength of the current sucked him underneath the water, and for several seconds he feared that he should be compelled to let go his hold. But his muscles, steeled in the slow fire of convict-labour, withstood this last strain upon them, and, half-suffocated, with bursting chest and paralysed fingers, he preserved his position, until the mass, getting out of the eddies along the shore-line, drifted steadily down the silvery track that led to the settlement. After a few moments’ rest, he set his teeth, and urged his strange canoe towards the shore. Paddling and pushing, he gradually edged it towards the fire-light; and at last, just when his stiffened limbs refused to obey the impulse of his will, and he began to drift onwards with the onward tide, he felt his feet strike firm ground. Opening his eyes — closed in the desperation of his last efforts — he found himself safe under the lee of the rugged promontory which hid the fire. It seemed that the waves, tired of persecuting him, had, with disdainful pity, cast him ashore at the goal of his hopes. Looking back, he for the first time realized the frightful peril he had escaped, and shuddered. To this shudder succeeded a thrill of triumph. “Why had he stayed so long, when escape was so easy?” Dragging the carcases above high-water mark, he rounded the little promontory and made for the fire. The recollection of the night when he had first approached it came upon him, and increased his exultation. How different a man was he now from then! Passing up the sand, he saw the stakes which he had directed Frere to cut whiten in the moonshine. His officer worked for him! In his own brain alone lay the secret of escape! He — Rufus Dawes — the scarred, degraded “prisoner”, could alone get these three beings back to civilization. Did he refuse to aid them, they would for ever remain in that prison, where he had so long suffered. The tables were turned — he had become a gaoler! He had gained the fire before the solitary watcher there heard his footsteps, and spread his hands to the blaze in silence. He felt as Frere would have felt, had their positions been reversed, disdainful of the man who had stopped at home.

Frere, starting, cried, “It is you! Have you succeeded?”

Rufus Dawes nodded.

“What! Did you catch them?”

“There are four carcases down by the rocks. You can have meat for breakfast to-morrow!”

The child, at the sound of the voice, came running down from the hut. “Oh, Mr. Dawes! I am so glad! We were beginning to despair — mamma and I.”

Dawes snatched her from the ground, and bursting into a joyous laugh, swung her into the air. “Tell me,” he cried, holding up the child with two dripping arms above him, “what you will do for me if I bring you and mamma safe home again?”

“Give you a free pardon,” says Sylvia, “and papa shall make you his servant!” Frere burst out laughing at this reply, and Dawes, with a choking sensation in his throat, put the child upon the ground and walked away.

This was in truth all he could hope for. All his scheming, all his courage, all his peril, would but result in the patronage of a great man like Major Vickers. His heart, big with love, with self-denial, and with hopes of a fair future, would have this flattering unction laid to it. He had performed a prodigy of skill and daring, and for his reward he was to be made a servant to the creatures he had protected. Yet what more could a convict expect? Sylvia saw how deeply her unconscious hand had driven the iron, and ran up to the man she had wounded. “And, Mr. Dawes, remember that I shall love you always.” The convict, however, his momentary excitement over, motioned her away; and she saw him stretch himself wearily under the shadow of a rock.

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