For the Term of His Natural Life, by Marcus Clarke

Chapter XII.

At Port Arthur.

The usual clanking and hammering was prevalent upon the stone jetty of Port Arthur when the schooner bearing the returned convict, Rufus Dawes, ran alongside. On the heights above the esplanade rose the grim front of the soldiers’ barracks; beneath the soldiers’ barracks was the long range of prison buildings with their workshops and tan-pits; to the left lay the Commandant’s house, authoritative by reason of its embrasured terrace and guardian sentry; while the jetty, that faced the purple length of the “Island of the Dead,” swarmed with parti-coloured figures, clanking about their enforced business, under the muskets of their gaolers.

Rufus Dawes had seen this prospect before, had learnt by heart each beauty of rising sun, sparkling water, and wooded hill. From the hideously clean jetty at his feet, to the distant signal station, that, embowered in bloom, reared its slender arms upwards into the cloudless sky, he knew it all. There was no charm for him in the exquisite blue of the sea, the soft shadows of the hills, or the soothing ripple of the waves that crept voluptuously to the white breast of the shining shore. He sat with his head bowed down, and his hands clasped about his knees, disdaining to look until they roused him.

“Hallo, Dawes!” says Warder Troke, halting his train of ironed yellow-jackets. “So you’ve come back again! Glad to see yer, Dawes! It seems an age since we had the pleasure of your company, Dawes!” At this pleasantry the train laughed, so that their irons clanked more than ever. They found it often inconvenient not to laugh at Mr. Troke’s humour. “Step down here, Dawes, and let me introduce you to your h’old friends. They’ll be glad to see yer, won’t yer, boys? Why, bless me, Dawes, we thort we’d lost yer! We thort yer’d given us the slip altogether, Dawes. They didn’t take care of yer in Hobart Town, I expect, eh, boys? We’ll look after yer here, Dawes, though. You won’t bolt any more.”

“Take care, Mr. Troke,” said a warning voice, “you’re at it again! Let the man alone!”

By virtue of an order transmitted from Hobart Town, they had begun to attach the dangerous prisoner to the last man of the gang, riveting the leg-irons of the pair by means of an extra link, which could be removed when necessary, but Dawes had given no sign of consciousness. At the sound of the friendly tones, however, he looked up, and saw a tall, gaunt man, dressed in a shabby pepper-and-salt raiment, and wearing a black handkerchief knotted round his throat. He was a stranger to him.

“I beg yer pardon, Mr. North,” said Troke, sinking at once the bully in the sneak. “I didn’t see yer reverence.”

“A parson!” thought Dawes with disappointment, and dropped his eyes.

“I know that,” returned Mr. North, coolly. “If you had, you would have been all butter and honey. Don’t trouble yourself to tell a lie; it’s quite unnecessary.”

Dawes looked up again. This was a strange parson.

“What’s your name, my man?” said Mr. North, suddenly, catching his eye.

Rufus Dawes had intended to scowl, but the tone, sharply authoritative, roused his automatic convict second nature, and he answered, almost despite himself, “Rufus Dawes.”

“Oh,” said Mr. North, eyeing him with a curious air of expectation that had something pitying in it. “This is the man, is it? I thought he was to go to the Coal Mines.”

“So he is,” said Troke, “but we hain’t a goin’ to send there for a fortnit, and in the meantime I’m to work him on the chain.”

“Oh!” said Mr. North again. “Lend me your knife, Troke.”

And then, before them all, this curious parson took a piece of tobacco out of his ragged pocket, and cut off a “chaw” with Mr. Troke’s knife. Rufus Dawes felt what he had not felt for three days — an interest in something. He stared at the parson in unaffected astonishment. Mr. North perhaps mistook the meaning of his fixed stare, for he held out the remnant of tobacco to him.

The chain line vibrated at this, and bent forward to enjoy the vicarious delight of seeing another man chew tobacco. Troke grinned with a silent mirth that betokened retribution for the favoured convict. “Here,” said Mr. North, holding out the dainty morsel upon which so many eyes were fixed. Rufus Dawes took the tobacco; looked at it hungrily for an instant, and then — to the astonishment of everybody — flung it away with a curse.

“I don’t want your tobacco,” he said; “keep it.”

From convict mouths went out a respectful roar of amazement, and Mr. Troke’s eyes snapped with pride of outraged janitorship. “You ungrateful dog!” he cried, raising his stick.

Mr. North put up a hand. “That will do, Troke,” he said; “I know your respect for the cloth. Move the men on again.”

“Get on!” said Troke, rumbling oaths beneath his breath, and Dawes felt his newly-riveted chain tug. It was some time since he had been in a chain-gang, and the sudden jerk nearly overbalanced him. He caught at his neighbour, and looking up, met a pair of black eyes which gleamed recognition. His neighbour was John Rex. Mr. North, watching them, was struck by the resemblance the two men bore to each other. Their height, eyes, hair, and complexion were similar. Despite the difference in name they might be related. “They might be brothers,” thought he. “Poor devils! I never knew a prisoner refuse tobacco before.” And he looked on the ground for the despised portion. But in vain. John Rex, oppressed by no foolish sentiment, had picked it up and put it in his mouth.

So Rufus Dawes was relegated to his old life again, and came back to his prison with the hatred of his kind, that his prison had bred in him, increased a hundred-fold. It seemed to him that the sudden awakening had dazed him, that the flood of light so suddenly let in upon his slumbering soul had blinded his eyes, used so long to the sweetly-cheating twilight. He was at first unable to apprehend the details of his misery. He knew only that his dream-child was alive and shuddered at him, that the only thing he loved and trusted had betrayed him, that all hope of justice and mercy had gone from him for ever, that the beauty had gone from earth, the brightness from Heaven, and that he was doomed still to live. He went about his work, unheedful of the jests of Troke, ungalled by his irons, unmindful of the groans and laughter about him. His magnificent muscles saved him from the lash; for the amiable Troke tried to break him down in vain. He did not complain, he did not laugh, he did not weep. His “mate” Rex tried to converse with him, but did not succeed. In the midst of one of Rex’s excellent tales of London dissipation, Rufus Dawes would sigh wearily. “There’s something on that fellow’s mind,” thought Rex, prone to watch the signs by which the soul is read. “He has some secret which weighs upon him.”

It was in vain that Rex attempted to discover what this secret might be. To all questions concerning his past life — however artfully put — Rufus Dawes was dumb. In vain Rex practised all his arts, called up all his graces of manner and speech — and these were not few — to fascinate the silent man and win his confidence. Rufus Dawes met his advances with a cynical carelessness that revealed nothing; and, when not addressed, held a gloomy silence. Galled by this indifference, John Rex had attempted to practise those ingenious arts of torment by which Gabbett, Vetch, or other leading spirits of the gang asserted their superiority over their quieter comrades. But he soon ceased. “I have been longer in this hell than you,” said Rufus Dawes, “and I know more of the devil’s tricks than you can show me. You had best be quiet.” Rex neglected the warning, and Rufus Dawes took him by the throat one day, and would have strangled him, but that Troke beat off the angered man with a favourite bludgeon. Rex had a wholesome respect for personal prowess, and had the grace to admit the provocation to Troke. Even this instance of self-denial did not move the stubborn Dawes. He only laughed. Then Rex came to a conclusion. His mate was plotting an escape. He himself cherished a notion of the kind, as did Gabbett and Vetch, but by common distrust no one ever gave utterance to thoughts of this nature. It would be too dangerous. “He would be a good comrade for a rush,” thought Rex, and resolved more firmly than ever to ally himself to this dangerous and silent companion.

One question Dawes had asked which Rex had been able to answer: “Who is that North?”

“A chaplain. He is only here for a week or so. There is a new one coming. North goes to Sydney. He is not in favour with the Bishop.”

“How do you know?”

“By deduction,” says Rex, with a smile peculiar to him. “He wears coloured clothes, and smokes, and doesn’t patter Scripture. The Bishop dresses in black, detests tobacco, and quotes the Bible like a concordance. North is sent here for a month, as a warming-pan for that ass Meekin. Ergo, the Bishop don’t care about North.”

Jemmy Vetch, who was next to Rex, let the full weight of his portion of tree-trunk rest upon Gabbett, in order to express his unrestrained admiration of Mr. Rex’s sarcasm. “Ain’t the Dandy a one’er?” said he.

“Are you thinking of coming the pious?” asked Rex. “It’s no good with North. Wait until the highly-intelligent Meekin comes. You can twist that worthy successor of the Apostles round your little finger!”

“Silence there!” cries the overseer. “Do you want me to report yer?”

Amid such diversions the days rolled on, and Rufus Dawes almost longed for the Coal Mines. To be sent from the settlement to the Coal Mines, and from the Coal Mines to the settlement, was to these unhappy men a “trip”. At Port Arthur one went to an out-station, as more fortunate people go to Queenscliff or the Ocean Beach now-a-days for “change of air”.

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