For the Term of His Natural Life, by Marcus Clarke

Chapter III.

The Monotony Breaks.

They looked again, the tiny spark still burned, and immediately over it there grew out of the darkness a crimson spot, that hung like a lurid star in the air. The soldiers and sailors on the forecastle had seen it also, and in a moment the whole vessel was astir. Mrs. Vickers, with little Sylvia clinging to her dress, came up to share the new sensation; and at the sight of her mistress, the modest maid withdrew discreetly from Frere’s side. Not that there was any need to do so; no one heeded her. Blunt, in his professional excitement, had already forgotten her presence, and Frere was in earnest conversation with Vickers.

“Take a boat?” said that gentleman. “Certainly, my dear Frere, by all means. That is to say, if the captain does not object, and it is not contrary to the Regulations —”

“Captain, you’ll lower a boat, eh? We may save some of the poor devils,” cries Frere, his heartiness of body reviving at the prospect of excitement.

“Boat!” said Blunt, “why, she’s twelve miles off and more, and there’s not a breath o’ wind!”

“But we can’t let ’em roast like chestnuts!” cried the other, as the glow in the sky broadened and became more intense.

“What is the good of a boat?” said Pine. “The long-boat only holds thirty men, and that’s a big ship yonder.”

“Well, take two boats — three boats! By Heaven, you’ll never let ’em burn alive without stirring a finger to save ’em!”

“They’ve got their own boats,” says Blunt, whose coolness was in strong contrast to the young officer’s impetuosity; “and if the fire gains, they’ll take to ’em, you may depend. In the meantime, we’ll show ’em that there’s someone near ’em.” And as he spoke, a blue light flared hissing into the night.

“There, they’ll see that, I expect!” he said, as the ghastly flame rose, extinguishing the stars for a moment, only to let them appear again brighter in a darker heaven.

“Mr. Best — lower and man the quarter-boats! Mr. Frere — you can go in one, if you like, and take a volunteer or two from those grey jackets of yours amidships. I shall want as many hands as I can spare to man the long-boat and cutter, in case we want ’em. Steady there, lads! Easy!” and as the first eight men who could reach the deck parted to the larboard and starboard quarter-boats, Frere ran down on the main-deck.

Mrs. Vickers, of course, was in the way, and gave a genteel scream as Blunt rudely pushed past her with a scarce-muttered apology; but her maid was standing erect and motionless, by the quarter-railing, and as the captain paused for a moment to look round him, he saw her dark eyes fixed on him admiringly. He was, as he said, over forty-two, burly and grey-haired, but he blushed like a girl under her approving gaze. Nevertheless, he said only, “That wench is a trump!” and swore a little.

Meanwhile Maurice Frere had passed the sentry and leapt down into the ’tween decks. At his nod, the prison door was thrown open. The air was hot, and that strange, horrible odour peculiar to closely-packed human bodies filled the place. It was like coming into a full stable.

He ran his eye down the double tier of bunks which lined the side of the ship, and stopped at the one opposite him.

There seemed to have been some disturbance there lately, for instead of the six pair of feet which should have protruded therefrom, the gleam of the bull’s -eye showed but four.

“What’s the matter here, sentry?” he asked.

“Prisoner ill, sir. Doctor sent him to hospital.”

“But there should be two.”

The other came from behind the break of the berths. It was Rufus Dawes. He held by the side as he came, and saluted.

“I felt sick, sir, and was trying to get the scuttle open.”

The heads were all raised along the silent line, and eyes and ears were eager to see and listen. The double tier of bunks looked terribly like a row of wild beast cages at that moment.

Maurice Frere stamped his foot indignantly.

“Sick! What are you sick about, you malingering dog? I’ll give you something to sweat the sickness out of you. Stand on one side here!”

Rufus Dawes, wondering, obeyed. He seemed heavy and dejected, and passed his hand across his forehead, as though he would rub away a pain there.

“Which of you fellows can handle an oar?” Frere went on. “There, curse you, I don’t want fifty! Three’ll do. Come on now, make haste! ”

The heavy door clashed again, and in another instant the four “volunteers” were on deck. The crimson glow was turning yellow now, and spreading over the sky.

“Two in each boat!” cries Blunt. “I’ll burn a blue light every hour for you, Mr. Best; and take care they don’t swamp you. Lower away, lads!” As the second prisoner took the oar of Frere’s boat, he uttered a groan and fell forward, recovering himself instantly. Sarah Purfoy, leaning over the side, saw the occurrence.

“What is the matter with that man?” she said. “Is he ill?”

Pine was next to her, and looked out instantly. “It’s that big fellow in No. 10,” he cried. “Here, Frere!”

But Frere heard him not. He was intent on the beacon that gleamed ever brighter in the distance. “Give way, my lads!” he shouted. And amid a cheer from the ship, the two boats shot out of the bright circle of the blue light, and disappeared into the darkness.

Sarah Purfoy looked at Pine for an explanation, but he turned abruptly away. For a moment the girl paused, as if in doubt; and then, ere his retreating figure turned to retrace its steps, she cast a quick glance around, and slipping down the ladder, made her way to the ’tween decks.

The iron-studded oak barricade that, loop-holed for musketry, and perforated with plated trapdoor for sterner needs, separated soldiers from prisoners, was close to her left hand, and the sentry at its padlocked door looked at her inquiringly. She laid her little hand on his big rough one — a sentry is but mortal — and opened her brown eyes at him.

“The hospital,” she said. “The doctor sent me”; and before he could answer, her white figure vanished down the hatch, and passed round the bulkhead, behind which lay the sick man.

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