For the Term of His Natural Life, by Marcus Clarke

Chapter IV.

“The Notorious Dawes.”

The mutineers of the Osprey had been long since given up as dead, and the story of their desperate escape had become indistinct to the general public mind. Now that they had been recaptured in a remarkable manner, popular belief invested them with all sorts of strange surroundings. They had been — according to report — kings over savage islanders, chiefs of lawless and ferocious pirates, respectable married men in Java, merchants in Singapore, and swindlers in Hong Kong. Their adventures had been dramatized at a London theatre, and the popular novelist of that day was engaged in a work descriptive of their wondrous fortunes.

John Rex, the ringleader, was related, it was said, to a noble family, and a special message had come out to Sir John Franklin concerning him. He had every prospect of being satisfactorily hung, however, for even the most outspoken admirers of his skill and courage could not but admit that he had committed an offence which was death by the law. The Crown would leave nothing undone to convict him, and the already crowded prison was re-crammed with half a dozen life sentence men, brought up from Port Arthur to identify the prisoners. Amongst this number was stated to be “the notorious Dawes”.

This statement gave fresh food for recollection and invention. It was remembered that “the notorious Dawes” was the absconder who had been brought away by Captain Frere, and who owed such fettered life as he possessed to the fact that he had assisted Captain Frere to make the wonderful boat in which the marooned party escaped. It was remembered, also, how sullen and morose he had been on his trial five years before, and how he had laughed when the commutation of his death sentence was announced to him. The Hobart Town Gazette published a short biography of this horrible villain — a biography setting forth how he had been engaged in a mutiny on board the convict ship, how he had twice escaped from the Macquarie Harbour, how he had been repeatedly flogged for violence and insubordination, and how he was now double-ironed at Port Arthur, after two more ineffectual attempts to regain his freedom. Indeed, the Gazette, discovering that the wretch had been originally transported for highway robbery, argued very ably it would be far better to hang such wild beasts in the first instance than suffer them to cumber the ground, and grow confirmed in villainy. “Of what use to society,” asked the Gazette, quite pathetically, “has this scoundrel been during the last eleven years?” And everybody agreed that he had been of no use whatever.

Miss Sylvia Vickers also received an additional share of public attention. Her romantic rescue by the heroic Frere, who was shortly to reap the reward of his devotion in the good old fashion, made her almost as famous as the villain Dawes, or his confederate monster John Rex. It was reported that she was to give evidence on the trial, together with her affianced husband, they being the only two living witnesses who could speak to the facts of the mutiny. It was reported also that her lover was naturally most anxious that she should not give evidence, as she was — an additional point of romantic interest — affected deeply by the illness consequent on the suffering she had undergone, and in a state of pitiable mental confusion as to the whole business. These reports caused the Court, on the day of the trial, to be crowded with spectators; and as the various particulars of the marvellous history of this double escape were detailed, the excitement grew more intense. The aspect of the four heavily-ironed prisoners caused a sensation which, in that city of the ironed, was quite novel, and bets were offered and taken as to the line of defence which they would adopt. At first it was thought that they would throw themselves on the mercy of the Crown, seeking, in the very extravagance of their story, to excite public sympathy; but a little study of the demeanour of the chief prisoner, John Rex, dispelled that conjecture. Calm, placid, and defiant, he seemed prepared to accept his fate, or to meet his accusers with some plea which should be sufficient to secure his acquittal on the capital charge. Only when he heard the indictment, setting forth that he had “feloniously pirated the brig Osprey,” he smiled a little.

Mr. Meekin, sitting in the body of the Court, felt his religious prejudices sadly shocked by that smile. “A perfect wild beast, my dear Miss Vickers,” he said, returning, in a pause during the examination of the convicts who had been brought to identify the prisoner, to the little room where Sylvia and her father were waiting. “He has quite a tigerish look about him.”

“Poor man!” said Sylvia, with a shudder.

“Poor! My dear young lady, you do not pity him?”

“I do,” said Sylvia, twisting her hands together as if in pain. “I pity them all, poor creatures.”

“Charming sensibility!” says Meekin, with a glance at Vickers. “The true woman’s heart, my dear Major.”

The Major tapped his fingers impatiently at this ill-timed twaddle. Sylvia was too nervous just then for sentiment. “Come here, Poppet,” he said, “and look through this door. You can see them from here, and if you do not recognize any of them, I can’t see what is the use of putting you in the box; though, of course, if it is necessary, you must go.”

The raised dock was just opposite to the door of the room in which they were sitting, and the four manacled men, each with an armed warder behind him, were visible above the heads of the crowd. The girl had never before seen the ceremony of trying a man for his life, and the silent and antique solemnities of the business affected her, as it affects all who see it for the first time. The atmosphere was heavy and distressing. The chains of the prisoners clanked ominously. The crushing force of judge, gaolers, warders, and constables assembled to punish the four men, appeared cruel. The familiar faces, that in her momentary glance, she recognized, seemed to her evilly transfigured. Even the countenance of her promised husband, bent eagerly forward towards the witness-box, showed tyrannous and bloodthirsty. Her eyes hastily followed the pointing finger of her father, and sought the men in the dock. Two of them lounged, sullen and inattentive; one nervously chewed a straw, or piece of twig, pawing the dock with restless hand; the fourth scowled across the Court at the witness-box, which she could not see. The four faces were all strange to her.

“No, papa,” she said, with a sigh of relief, “I can’t recognize them at all.”

As she was turning from the door, a voice from the witness-box behind her made her suddenly pale and pause to look again. The Court itself appeared, at that moment, affected, for a murmur ran through it, and some official cried, “Silence!”

The notorious criminal, Rufus Dawes, the desperado of Port Arthur, the wild beast whom the Gazette had judged not fit to live, had just entered the witness-box. He was a man of thirty, in the prime of life, with a torso whose muscular grandeur not even the ill-fitting yellow jacket could altogether conceal, with strong, embrowned, and nervous hands, an upright carriage, and a pair of fierce, black eyes that roamed over the Court hungrily.

Not all the weight of the double irons swaying from the leathern thong around his massive loins, could mar that elegance of attitude which comes only from perfect muscular development. Not all the frowning faces bent upon him could frown an accent of respect into the contemptuous tones in which he answered to his name, “Rufus Dawes, prisoner of the Crown”.

“Come away, my darling,” said Vickers, alarmed at his daughter’s blanched face and eager eyes.

“Wait,” she said impatiently, listening for the voice whose owner she could not see. “Rufus Dawes! Oh, I have heard that name before!”

“You are a prisoner of the Crown at the penal settlement of Port Arthur?”

“Yes.”

“For life?”

“For life.”

Sylvia turned to her father with breathless inquiry in her eyes. “Oh, papa! who is that speaking? I know the name! the voice!”

“That is the man who was with you in the boat, dear,” says Vickers gravely. “The prisoner.”

The eager light died out of her eyes, and in its place came a look of disappointment and pain. “I thought it was a good man,” she said, holding by the edge of the doorway. “It sounded like a good voice.”

And then she pressed her hands over her eyes and shuddered. “There, there,” says Vickers soothingly, “don’t be afraid, Poppet; he can’t hurt you now.”

“No, ha! ha!” says Meekin, with great display of off-hand courage, “the villain’s safe enough now.”

The colloquy in the Court went on. “Do you know the prisoners in the dock?”

“Yes.” “Who are they?”

“John Rex, Henry Shiers, James Lesly, and, and — I’m not sure about the last man.” “You are not sure about the last man. Will you swear to the three others?”

“Yes.”

“You remember them well?”

“I was in the chain-gang at Macquarie Harbour with them for three years.” Sylvia, hearing this hideous reason for acquaintance, gave a low cry, and fell into her father’s arms.

“Oh, papa, take me away! I feel as if I was going to remember something terrible!”

Amid the deep silence that prevailed, the cry of the poor girl was distinctly audible in the Court, and all heads turned to the door. In the general wonder no one noticed the change that passed over Rufus Dawes. His face flushed scarlet, great drops of sweat stood on his forehead, and his black eyes glared in the direction from whence the sound came, as though they would pierce the envious wood that separated him from the woman whose voice he had heard. Maurice Frere sprang up and pushed his way through the crowd under the bench.

“What’s this?” he said to Vickers, almost brutally. “What did you bring her here for? She is not wanted. I told you that.”

“I considered it my duty, sir,” says Vickers, with stately rebuke.

“What has frightened her? What has she heard? What has she seen?” asked Frere, with a strangely white face. “Sylvia, Sylvia!”

She opened her eyes at the sound of his voice. “Take me home, papa; I’m ill. Oh, what thoughts!”

“What does she mean?” cried Frere, looking in alarm from one to the other.

“That ruffian Dawes frightened her,” said Meekin. “A gush of recollection, poor child. There, there, calm yourself, Miss Vickers. He is quite safe.”

“Frightened her, eh?” “Yes,” said Sylvia faintly, “he frightened me, Maurice. I needn’t stop any longer, dear, need I?”

“No,” says Frere, the cloud passing from his face. “Major, I beg your pardon, but I was hasty. Take her home at once. This sort of thing is too much for her.” And so he went back to his place, wiping his brow, and breathing hard, as one who had just escaped from some near peril.

Rufus Dawes had remained in the same attitude until the figure of Frere, passing through the doorway, roused him. “Who is she?” he said, in a low, hoarse voice, to the constable behind him. “Miss Vickers,” said the man shortly, flinging the information at him as one might fling a bone to a dangerous dog.

“Miss Vickers,” repeated the convict, still staring in a sort of bewildered agony. “They told me she was dead!”

The constable sniffed contemptuously at this preposterous conclusion, as who should say, “If you know all about it, animal, why did you ask?” and then, feeling that the fixed gaze of his interrogator demanded some reply, added, “You thort she was, I’ve no doubt. You did your best to make her so, I’ve heard.”

The convict raised both his hands with sudden action of wrathful despair, as though he would seize the other, despite the loaded muskets; but, checking himself with sudden impulse, wheeled round to the Court.

“Your Honour! — Gentlemen! I want to speak.”

The change in the tone of his voice, no less than the sudden loudness of the exclamation, made the faces, hitherto bent upon the door through which Mr. Frere had passed, turn round again. To many there it seemed that the “notorious Dawes” was no longer in the box, for, in place of the upright and defiant villain who stood there an instant back, was a white-faced, nervous, agitated creature, bending forward in an attitude almost of supplication, one hand grasping the rail, as though to save himself from falling, the other outstretched towards the bench. “Your Honour, there has been some dreadful mistake made. I want to explain about myself. I explained before, when first I was sent to Port Arthur, but the letters were never forwarded by the Commandant; of course, that’s the rule, and I can’t complain. I’ve been sent there unjustly, your Honour. I made that boat, your Honour. I saved the Major’s wife and daughter. I was the man; I did it all myself, and my liberty was sworn away by a villain who hated me. I thought, until now, that no one knew the truth, for they told me that she was dead.” His rapid utterance took the Court so much by surprise that no one interrupted him. “I was sentenced to death for bolting, sir, and they reprieved me because I helped them in the boat. Helped them! Why, I made it! She will tell you so. I nursed her! I carried her in my arms! I starved myself for her! She was fond of me, sir. She was indeed. She called me ‘Good Mr. Dawes’.”

At this, a coarse laugh broke out, which was instantly checked. The judge bent over to ask, “Does he mean Miss Vickers?” and in this interval Rufus Dawes, looking down into the Court, saw Maurice Frere staring up at him with terror in his eyes. “I see you, Captain Frere, coward and liar! Put him in the box, gentlemen, and make him tell his story. She’ll contradict him, never fear. Oh, and I thought she was dead all this while!”

The judge had got his answer from the clerk by this time. “Miss Vickers had been seriously ill, had fainted just now in the Court. Her only memories of the convict who had been with her in the boat were those of terror and disgust. The sight of him just now had most seriously affected her. The convict himself was an inveterate liar and schemer, and his story had been already disproved by Captain Frere.”

The judge, a man inclining by nature to humanity, but forced by experience to receive all statements of prisoners with caution, said all he could say, and the tragedy of five years was disposed of in the following dialogue:–

JUDGE: This is not the place for an accusation against Captain Frere, nor the place to argue upon your alleged wrongs. If you have suffered injustice, the authorities will hear your complaint, and redress it.

RUFUS DAWES: I have complained, your Honour. I wrote letter after letter to the Government, but they were never sent. Then I heard she was dead, and they sent me to the Coal Mines after that, and we never hear anything there.

JUDGE: I can’t listen to you. Mr. Mangles, have you any more questions to ask the witness?

But Mr. Mangles not having any more, someone called, “Matthew Gabbett,” and Rufus Dawes, still endeavouring to speak, was clanked away with, amid a buzz of remark and surmise.

* * * * * *

The trial progressed without further incident. Sylvia was not called, and, to the astonishment of many of his enemies, Captain Frere went into the witness-box and generously spoke in favour of John Rex. “He might have left us to starve,” Frere said; “he might have murdered us; we were completely in his power. The stock of provisions on board the brig was not a large one, and I consider that, in dividing it with us, he showed great generosity for one in his situation.” This piece of evidence told strongly in favour of the prisoners, for Captain Frere was known to be such an uncompromising foe to all rebellious convicts that it was understood that only the sternest sense of justice and truth could lead him to speak in such terms. The defence set up by Rex, moreover, was most ingenious. He was guilty of absconding, but his moderation might plead an excuse for that. His only object was his freedom, and, having gained it, he had lived honestly for nearly three years, as he could prove. He was charged with piratically seizing the brig Osprey, and he urged that the brig Osprey, having been built by convicts at Macquarie Harbour, and never entered in any shipping list, could not be said to be “piratically seized”, in the strict meaning of the term. The Court admitted the force of this objection, and, influenced doubtless by Captain Frere’s evidence, the fact that five years had passed since the mutiny, and that the two men most guilty (Cheshire and Barker) had been executed in England, sentenced Rex and his three companions to transportation for life to the penal settlements of the colony.

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