For the Term of His Natural Life, by Marcus Clarke

Chapter XVII.

At Sea.

An hour after sunrise, the frail boat, which was the last hope of these four human beings, drifted with the outgoing current towards the mouth of the harbour. When first launched she had come nigh swamping, being overloaded, and it was found necessary to leave behind a great portion of the dried meat. With what pangs this was done can be easily imagined, for each atom of food seemed to represent an hour of life. Yet there was no help for it. As Frere said, it was “neck or nothing with them”. They must get away at all hazards.

That evening they camped at the mouth of the Gates, Dawes being afraid to risk a passage until the slack of the tide, and about ten o’clock at night adventured to cross the Bar. The night was lovely, and the sea calm. It seemed as though Providence had taken pity on them; for, notwithstanding the insecurity of the craft and the violence of the breakers, the dreaded passage was made with safety. Once, indeed, when they had just entered the surf, a mighty wave, curling high above them, seemed about to overwhelm the frail structure of skins and wickerwork; but Rufus Dawes, keeping the nose of the boat to the sea, and Frere baling with his hat, they succeeded in reaching deep water. A great misfortune, however, occurred. Two of the bark buckets, left by some unpardonable oversight uncleated, were washed overboard, and with them nearly a fifth of their scanty store of water. In the face of the greater peril, the accident seemed trifling; and as, drenched and chilled, they gained the open sea, they could not but admit that fortune had almost miraculously befriended them.

They made tedious way with their rude oars; a light breeze from the north-west sprang up with the dawn, and, hoisting the goat-skin sail, they crept along the coast. It was resolved that the two men should keep watch and watch; and Frere for the second time enforced his authority by giving the first watch to Rufus Dawes. “I am tired,” he said, “and shall sleep for a little while.”

Rufus Dawes, who had not slept for two nights, and who had done all the harder work, said nothing. He had suffered so much during the last two days that his senses were dulled to pain.

Frere slept until late in the afternoon, and, when he woke, found the boat still tossing on the sea, and Sylvia and her mother both seasick. This seemed strange to him. Sea-sickness appeared to be a malady which belonged exclusively to civilization. Moodily watching the great green waves which curled incessantly between him and the horizon, he marvelled to think how curiously events had come about. A leaf had, as it were, been torn out of his autobiography. It seemed a lifetime since he had done anything but moodily scan the sea or shore. Yet, on the morning of leaving the settlement, he had counted the notches on a calendar-stick he carried, and had been astonished to find them but twenty-two in number. Taking out his knife, he cut two nicks in the wicker gunwale of the coracle. That brought him to twenty-four days. The mutiny had taken place on the 13th of January; it was now the 6th of February. “Surely,” thought he, “the Ladybird might have returned by this time.” There was no one to tell him that the Ladybird had been driven into Port Davey by stress of weather, and detained there for seventeen days.

That night the wind fell, and they had to take to their oars. Rowing all night, they made but little progress, and Rufus Dawes suggested that they should put in to the shore and wait until the breeze sprang up. But, upon getting under the lee of a long line of basaltic rocks which rose abruptly out of the sea, they found the waves breaking furiously upon a horseshoe reef, six or seven miles in length. There was nothing for it but to coast again. They coasted for two days, without a sign of a sail, and on the third day a great wind broke upon them from the south-east, and drove them back thirty miles. The coracle began to leak, and required constant bailing. What was almost as bad, the rum cask, that held the best part of their water, had leaked also, and was now half empty. They caulked it, by cutting out the leak, and then plugging the hole with linen.

“It’s lucky we ain’t in the tropics,” said Frere. Poor Mrs. Vickers, lying in the bottom of the boat, wrapped in her wet shawl, and chilled to the bone with the bitter wind, had not the heart to speak. Surely the stifling calm of the tropics could not be worse than this bleak and barren sea.

The position of the four poor creatures was now almost desperate. Mrs. Vickers, indeed, seemed completely prostrated; and it was evident that, unless some help came, she could not long survive the continued exposure to the weather. The child was in somewhat better case. Rufus Dawes had wrapped her in his woollen shirt, and, unknown to Frere, had divided with her daily his allowance of meat. She lay in his arms at night, and in the day crept by his side for shelter and protection. As long as she was near him she felt safe. They spoke little to each other, but when Rufus Dawes felt the pressure of her tiny hand in his, or sustained the weight of her head upon his shoulder, he almost forgot the cold that froze him, and the hunger that gnawed him.

So two more days passed, and yet no sail. On the tenth day after their departure from Macquarie Harbour they came to the end of their provisions. The salt water had spoiled the goat-meat, and soaked the bread into a nauseous paste. The sea was still running high, and the wind, having veered to the north, was blowing with increased violence. The long low line of coast that stretched upon their left hand was at times obscured by a blue mist. The water was the colour of mud, and the sky threatened rain. The wretched craft to which they had entrusted themselves was leaking in four places. If caught in one of the frequent storms which ravaged that iron-bound coast, she could not live an hour. The two men, wearied, hungry, and cold, almost hoped for the end to come quickly. To add to their distress, the child was seized with fever. She was hot and cold by turns, and in the intervals of moaning talked deliriously. Rufus Dawes, holding her in his arms, watched the suffering he was unable to alleviate with a savage despair at his heart. Was she to die after all?

So another day and night passed, and the eleventh morning saw the boat yet alive, rolling in the trough of the same deserted sea. The four exiles lay in her almost without breath.

All at once Dawes uttered a cry, and, seizing the sheet, put the clumsy craft about. “A sail! a sail!” he cried. “Do you not see her?”

Frere’s hungry eyes ranged the dull water in vain.

“There is no sail, fool!” he said. “You mock us!”

The boat, no longer following the line of the coast, was running nearly due south, straight into the great Southern Ocean. Frere tried to wrest the thong from the hand of the convict, and bring the boat back to her course. “Are you mad?” he asked, in fretful terror, “to run us out to sea?”

“Sit down!” returned the other, with a menacing gesture, and staring across the grey water. “I tell you I see a sail!”

Frere, overawed by the strange light which gleamed in the eyes of his companion, shifted sulkily back to his place. “Have your own way,” he said, “madman! It serves me right for putting off to sea in such a devil’s craft as this!”

After all, what did it matter? As well be drowned in mid-ocean as in sight of land.

The long day wore out, and no sail appeared. The wind freshened towards evening, and the boat, plunging clumsily on the long brown waves, staggered as though drunk with the water she had swallowed, for at one place near the bows the water ran in and out as through a slit in a wine skin. The coast had altogether disappeared, and the huge ocean — vast, stormy, and threatening — heaved and hissed all around them. It seemed impossible that they should live until morning. But Rufus Dawes, with his eyes fixed on some object visible alone to him, hugged the child in his arms, and drove the quivering coracle into the black waste of night and sea. To Frere, sitting sullenly in the bows, the aspect of this grim immovable figure, with its back-blown hair and staring eyes, had in it something supernatural and horrible. He began to think that privation and anxiety had driven the unhappy convict mad.

Thinking and shuddering over his fate, he fell — as it seemed to him — into a momentary sleep, in the midst of which someone called to him. He started up, with shaking knees and bristling hair. The day had broken, and the dawn, in one long pale streak of sickly saffron, lay low on the left hand. Between this streak of saffron-coloured light and the bows of the boat gleamed for an instant a white speck.

“A sail! a sail!” cried Rufus Dawes, a wild light gleaming in his eyes, and a strange tone vibrating in his voice. “Did I not tell you that I saw a sail?”

Frere, utterly confounded, looked again, with his heart in his mouth, and again did the white speck glimmer. For an instant he felt almost safe, and then a blanker despair than before fell upon him. From the distance at which she was, it was impossible for the ship to sight the boat.

“They will never see us!” he cried. “Dawes — Dawes! Do you hear? They will never see us!”

Rufus Dawes started as if from a trance. Lashing the sheet to the pole which served as a gunwale, he laid the sleeping child by her mother, and tearing up the strip of bark on which he had been sitting, moved to the bows of the boat.

“They will see this! Tear up that board! So! Now, place it thus across the bows. Hack off that sapling end! Now that dry twist of osier! Never mind the boat, man; we can afford to leave her now. Tear off that outer strip of hide. See, the wood beneath is dry! Quick — you are so slow.”

“What are you going to do?” cried Frere, aghast, as the convict tore up all the dry wood he could find, and heaped it on the sheet of bark placed on the bows.

“To make a fire! See!”

Frere began to comprehend. “I have three matches left,” he said, fumbling, with trembling fingers, in his pocket. “I wrapped them in one of the leaves of the book to keep them dry.”

The word “book” was a new inspiration. Rufus Dawes seized upon the English History, which had already done such service, tore out the drier leaves in the middle of the volume, and carefully added them to the little heap of touchwood.

“Now, steady!”

The match was struck and lighted. The paper, after a few obstinate curlings, caught fire, and Frere, blowing the young flame with his breath, the bark began to burn. He piled upon the fire all that was combustible, the hides began to shrivel, and a great column of black smoke rose up over the sea.

“Sylvia!” cried Rufus Dawes. “Sylvia! My darling! You are saved!”

She opened her blue eyes and looked at him, but gave no sign of recognition. Delirium had hold of her, and in the hour of safety the child had forgotten her preserver. Rufus Dawes, overcome by this last cruel stroke of fortune, sat down in the stern of the boat, with the child in his arms, speechless. Frere, feeding the fire, thought that the chance he had so longed for had come. With the mother at the point of death, and the child delirious, who could testify to this hated convict’s skilfulness? No one but Mr. Maurice Frere, and Mr. Maurice Frere, as Commandant of convicts, could not but give up an “absconder” to justice.

The ship changed her course, and came towards this strange fire in the middle of the ocean. The boat, the fore part of her blazing like a pine torch, could not float above an hour. The little group of the convict and the child remained motionless. Mrs. Vickers was lying senseless, ignorant even of the approaching succour.

The ship — a brig, with American colours flying — came within hail of them. Frere could almost distinguish figures on her deck. He made his way aft to where Dawes was sitting, unconscious, with the child in his arms, and stirred him roughly with his foot.

“Go forward,” he said, in tones of command, “and give the child to me.”

Rufus Dawes raised his head, and, seeing the approaching vessel, awoke to the consciousness of his duty. With a low laugh, full of unutterable bitterness, he placed the burden he had borne so tenderly in the arms of the lieutenant, and moved to the blazing bows.

* * * * * *

The brig was close upon them. Her canvas loomed large and dusky, shadowing the sea. Her wet decks shone in the morning sunlight. From her bulwarks peered bearded and eager faces, looking with astonishment at this burning boat and its haggard company, alone on that barren and stormy ocean.

Frere, with Sylvia in his arms, waited for her.

End of Book the Second

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