For the Term of His Natural Life, by Marcus Clarke

Chapter VIII.

An Escape.

A few days after this — on the 23rd of December — Maurice Frere was alarmed by a piece of startling intelligence. The notorious Dawes had escaped from gaol!

Captain Frere had inspected the prison that very afternoon, and it had seemed to him that the hammers had never fallen so briskly, nor the chains clanked so gaily, as on the occasion of his visit. “Thinking of their Christmas holiday, the dogs!” he had said to the patrolling warder. “Thinking about their Christmas pudding, the luxurious scoundrels!” and the convict nearest him had laughed appreciatively, as convicts and schoolboys do laugh at the jests of the man in authority. All seemed contentment. Moreover, he had — by way of a pleasant stroke of wit — tormented Rufus Dawes with his ill-fortune. “The schooner sails to-morrow, my man,” he had said; “you’ll spend your Christmas at the mines.” And congratulated himself upon the fact that Rufus Dawes merely touched his cap, and went on with his stone-cracking in silence. Certainly double irons and hard labour were fine things to break a man’s spirit. So that, when in the afternoon of that same day he heard the astounding news that Rufus Dawes had freed himself from his fetters, climbed the gaol wall in broad daylight, run the gauntlet of Macquarie Street, and was now supposed to be safely hidden in the mountains, he was dumbfounded.

“How the deuce did he do it, Jenkins?” he asked, as soon as he reached the yard.

“Well, I’m blessed if I rightly know, your honour,” says Jenkins. “He was over the wall before you could say ‘knife’. Scott fired and missed him, and then I heard the sentry’s musket, but he missed him, too.”

“Missed him!” cries Frere. “Pretty fellows you are, all of you! I suppose you couldn’t hit a haystack at twenty yards? Why, the man wasn’t three feet from the end of your carbine!”

The unlucky Scott, standing in melancholy attitude by the empty irons, muttered something about the sun having been in his eyes. “I don’t know how it was, sir. I ought to have hit him, for certain. I think I did touch him, too, as he went up the wall.”

A stranger to the customs of the place might have imagined that he was listening to a conversation about a pigeon match.

“Tell me all about it,” says Frere, with an angry curse. “I was just turning, your honour, when I hears Scott sing out ‘Hullo!’ and when I turned round, I saw Dawes’s irons on the ground, and him a-scrambling up the heap o’ stones yonder. The two men on my right jumped up, and I thought it was a made-up thing among ’em, so I covered ’em with my carbine, according to instructions, and called out that I’d shoot the first that stepped out. Then I heard Scott’s piece, and the men gave a shout like. When I looked round, he was gone.”

“Nobody else moved?”

“No, sir. I was confused at first, and thought they were all in it, but Parton and Haines they runs in and gets between me and the wall, and then Mr. Short he come, and we examined their irons.”

“All right?”

“All right, your honour; and they all swore they knowed nothing of it. I know Dawes’s irons was all right when he went to dinner.”

Frere stopped and examined the empty fetters. “All right be hanged,” he said. “If you don’t know your duty better than this, the sooner you go somewhere else the better, my man. Look here!”

The two ankle fetters were severed. One had been evidently filed through, and the other broken transversely. The latter was bent, as from a violent blow.

“Don’t know where he got the file from,” said Warder Short.

“Know! Of course you don’t know. You men never do know anything until the mischief’s done. You want me here for a month or so. I’d teach you your duty! Don’t know — with things like this lying about? I wonder the whole yard isn’t loose and dining with the Governor.”

“This” was a fragment of delft pottery which Frere’s quick eye had detected among the broken metal.

“I’d cut the biggest iron you’ve got with this; and so would he and plenty more, I’ll go bail. You ought to have lived with me at Sarah Island, Mr. Short. Don’t know!”

“Well, Captain Frere, it’s an accident,” says Short, “and can’t be helped now.”

“An accident!” roared Frere. “What business have you with accidents? How, in the devil’s name, you let the man get over the wall, I don’t know.”

“He ran up that stone heap,” says Scott, “and seemed to me to jump at the roof of the shed. I fired at him, and he swung his legs over the top of the wall and dropped.”

Frere measured the distance from his eye, and an irrepressible feeling of admiration, rising out of his own skill in athletics, took possession of him for an instant.

“By the Lord Harry, but it’s a big jump!” he said; and then the instinctive fear with which the consciousness of the hideous wrong he had done the now escaped convict inspired him, made him add: “A desperate villain like that wouldn’t stick at a murder if you pressed him hard. Which way did he go?”

“Right up Macquarie Street, and then made for the mountain. There were few people about, but Mr. Mays, of the Star Hotel, tried to stop him, and was knocked head over heels. He says the fellow runs like a deer.”

“We’ll have the reward out if we don’t get him to-night,” says Frere, turning away; “and you’d better put on an extra warder. This sort of game is catching.” And he strode away to the Barracks.

From right to left, from east to west, through the prison city flew the signal of alarm, and the patrol, clattering out along the road to New Norfolk, made hot haste to strike the trail of the fugitive. But night came and found him yet at large, and the patrol returning, weary and disheartened, protested that he must be lying hid in some gorge of the purple mountain that overshadowed the town, and would have to be starved into submission. Meanwhile the usual message ran through the island, and so admirable were the arrangements which Arthur the reformer had initiated, that, before noon of the next day, not a signal station on the coast but knew that No. 8942, etc., etc., prisoner for life, was illegally at large. This intelligence, further aided by a paragraph in the Gazette anent the “Daring Escape”, noised abroad, the world cared little that the Mary Jane, Government schooner, had sailed for Port Arthur without Rufus Dawes.

But two or three persons cared a good deal. Major Vickers, for one, was indignant that his boasted security of bolts and bars should have been so easily defied, and in proportion to his indignation was the grief of Messieurs Jenkins, Scott, and Co., suspended from office, and threatened with absolute dismissal. Mr. Meekin was terribly frightened at the fact that so dangerous a monster should be roaming at large within reach of his own saintly person. Sylvia had shown symptoms of nervous terror, none the less injurious because carefully repressed; and Captain Maurice Frere was a prey to the most cruel anxiety. He had ridden off at a hand-gallop within ten minutes after he had reached the Barracks, and had spent the few hours of remaining daylight in scouring the country along the road to the North. At dawn the next day he was away to the mountain, and with a black-tracker at his heels, explored as much of that wilderness of gully and chasm as nature permitted to him. He had offered to double the reward, and had examined a number of suspicious persons. It was known that he had been inspecting the prison a few hours before the escape took place, and his efforts were therefore attributed to zeal, not unmixed with chagrin. “Our dear friend feels his reputation at stake,” the future chaplain of Port Arthur said to Sylvia at the Christmas dinner. “He is so proud of his knowledge of these unhappy men that he dislikes to be outwitted by any of them.”

Notwithstanding all this, however, Dawes had disappeared. The fat landlord of the Star Hotel was the last person who saw him, and the flying yellow figure seemed to have been as completely swallowed up by the warm summer’s afternoon as if it had run headlong into the blackest night that ever hung above the earth.

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