For the Term of His Natural Life, by Marcus Clarke

Chapter XIII.

The Commandant’s Butler.

Rufus Dawes had been a fortnight at the settlement when a new-comer appeared on the chain-gang. This was a young man of about twenty years of age, thin, fair, and delicate. His name was Kirkland, and he belonged to what were known as the “educated” prisoners. He had been a clerk in a banking house, and was transported for embezzlement, though, by some, grave doubts as to his guilt were entertained. The Commandant, Captain Burgess, had employed him as butler in his own house, and his fate was considered a “lucky” one. So, doubtless, it was, and might have been, had not an untoward accident occurred. Captain Burgess, who was a bachelor of the “old school”, confessed to an amiable weakness for blasphemy, and was given to condemning the convicts’ eyes and limbs with indiscriminate violence. Kirkland belonged to a Methodist family and owned a piety utterly out of place in that region. The language of Burgess made him shudder, and one day he so far forgot himself and his place as to raise his hands to his ears. “My blank!” cried Burgess. “You blank blank, is that your blank game? I’ll blank soon cure you of that!” and forthwith ordered him to the chain-gang for “insubordination”.

He was received with suspicion by the gang, who did not like white-handed prisoners. Troke, by way of experiment in human nature, perhaps, placed him next to Gabbett. The day was got through in the usual way, and Kirkland felt his heart revive.

The toil was severe, and the companionship uncouth, but despite his blistered hands and aching back, he had not experienced anything so very terrible after all. When the muster bell rang, and the gang broke up, Rufus Dawes, on his silent way to his separate cell, observed a notable change of custom in the disposition of the new convict. Instead of placing him in a cell by himself, Troke was turning him into the yard with the others.

“I’m not to go in there?” says the ex-bank clerk, drawing back in dismay from the cloud of foul faces which lowered upon him.

“By the Lord, but you are, then!” says Troke. “The Governor says a night in there’ll take the starch out of ye. Come, in yer go.”

“But, Mr. Troke —”

“Stow your gaff,” says Troke, with another oath, and impatiently striking the lad with his thong —“I can’t argue here all night. Get in.” So Kirkland, aged twenty-two, and the son of Methodist parents, went in.

Rufus Dawes, among whose sinister memories this yard was numbered, sighed. So fierce was the glamour of the place, however, that when locked into his cell, he felt ashamed for that sigh, and strove to erase the memory of it. “What is he more than anybody else?” said the wretched man to himself, as he hugged his misery close.

About dawn the next morning, Mr. North — who, amongst other vagaries not approved of by his bishop, had a habit of prowling about the prison at unofficial hours — was attracted by a dispute at the door of the dormitory.

“What’s the matter here?” he asked.

“A prisoner refractory, your reverence,” said the watchman. “Wants to come out.”

“Mr. North! Mr. North!” cried a voice, “for the love of God, let me out of this place!”

Kirkland, ghastly pale, bleeding, with his woollen shirt torn, and his blue eyes wide open with terror, was clinging to the bars.

“Oh, Mr. North! Mr. North! Oh, Mr. North! Oh, for God’s sake, Mr. North!”

“What, Kirkland!” cried North, who was ignorant of the vengeance of the Commandant. “What do you do here?”

But Kirkland could do nothing but cry — “Oh, Mr. North! For God’s sake, Mr. North!” and beat on the bars with white and sweating hands.

“Let him out, watchman!” said North.

“Can’t sir, without an order from the Commandant.”

“I order you, sir!” North cried, indignant.

“Very sorry, your reverence; but your reverence knows that I daren’t do such a thing.” “Mr. North!” screamed Kirkland. “Would you see me perish, body and soul, in this place? Mr. North! Oh, you ministers of Christ — wolves in sheep’s clothing — you shall be judged for this!”

“Let him out!” cried North again, stamping his foot.

“It’s no good,” returned the gaoler. “I can’t. If he was dying, I can’t.”

North rushed away to the Commandant, and the instant his back was turned, Hailes, the watchman, flung open the door, and darted into the dormitory.

“Take that!” he cried, dealing Kirkland a blow on the head with his keys, that stretched him senseless. “There’s more trouble with you bloody aristocrats than enough. Lie quiet!”

The Commandant, roused from slumber, told Mr. North that Kirkland might stop where he was, and that he’d thank the chaplain not to wake him up in the middle of the night because a blank prisoner set up a blank howling.

“But, my good sir,” protested North, restraining his impulse to overstep the bounds of modesty in his language to his superior officer, “you know the character of the men in that ward. You can guess what that unhappy boy has suffered.”

“Impertinent young beggar!” said Burgess. “Do him good, curse him! Mr. North, I’m sorry you should have had the trouble to come here, but will you let me go to sleep?”

North returned to the prison disconsolately, found the dutiful Hailes at his post, and all quiet.

“What’s become of Kirkland?” he asked.

“Fretted hisself to sleep, yer reverence,” said Hailes, in accents of parental concern. “Poor young chap! It’s hard for such young ’uns.”

In the morning, Rufus Dawes, coming to his place on the chain-gang, was struck by the altered appearance of Kirkland. His face was of a greenish tint, and wore an expression of bewildered horror.

“Cheer up, man!” said Dawes, touched with momentary pity. “It’s no good being in the mopes, you know.”

“What do they do if you try to bolt?” whispered Kirkland.

“Kill you,” returned Dawes, in a tone of surprise at so preposterous a question.

“Thank God!” said Kirkland.

“Now then, Miss Nancy,” said one of the men, “what’s the matter with you!” Kirkland shuddered, and his pale face grew crimson.

“Oh,” he said, “that such a wretch as I should live!”

“Silence!” cried Troke. “No. 44, if you can’t hold your tongue I’ll give you something to talk about. March!”

The work of the gang that afternoon was the carrying of some heavy logs to the water-side, and Rufus Dawes observed that Kirkland was exhausted long before the task was accomplished. “They’ll kill you, you little beggar!” said he, not unkindly. “What have you been doing to get into this scrape?”

“Have you ever been in that — that place I was in last night?” asked Kirkland.

Rufus Dawes nodded.

“Does the Commandant know what goes on there?”

“I suppose so. What does he care?”

“Care! Man, do you believe in a God?” “No,” said Dawes, “not here. Hold up, my lad. If you fall, we must fall over you, and then you’re done for.”

He had hardly uttered the words, when the boy flung himself beneath the log. In another instant the train would have been scrambling over his crushed body, had not Gabbett stretched out an iron hand, and plucked the would-be suicide from death.

“Hold on to me, Miss Nancy,” said the giant, “I’m big enough to carry double.”

Something in the tone or manner of the speaker affected Kirkland to disgust, for, spurning the offered hand, he uttered a cry and then, holding up his irons with his hands, he started to run for the water.

“Halt! you young fool,” roared Troke, raising his carbine. But Kirkland kept steadily on for the river. Just as he reached it, however, the figure of Mr. North rose from behind a pile of stones. Kirkland jumped for the jetty, missed his footing, and fell into the arms of the chaplain.

“You young vermin — you shall pay for this,” cries Troke. “You’ll see if you won’t remember this day.”

“Oh, Mr. North,” says Kirkland, “why did you stop me? I’d better be dead than stay another night in that place.”

“You’ll get it, my lad,” said Gabbett, when the runaway was brought back. “Your blessed hide’ll feel for this, see if it don’t.”

Kirkland only breathed harder, and looked round for Mr. North, but Mr. North had gone. The new chaplain was to arrive that afternoon, and it was incumbent on him to be at the reception. Troke reported the ex-bank clerk that night to Burgess, and Burgess, who was about to go to dinner with the new chaplain, disposed of his case out of hand. “Tried to bolt, eh! Must stop that. Fifty lashes, Troke. Tell Macklewain to be ready — or stay, I’ll tell him myself — I’ll break the young devil’s spirit, blank him.”

“Yes, sir,” said Troke. “Good evening, sir.”

“Troke — pick out some likely man, will you? That last fellow you had ought to have been tied up himself. His flogging wouldn’t have killed a flea.”

“You can’t get ’em to warm one another, your honour,” says Troke.

“They won’t do it.”

“Oh, yes, they will, though,” says Burgess, “or I’ll know the reason why. I won’t have my men knocked up with flogging these rascals. If the scourger won’t do his duty, tie him up, and give him five-and-twenty for himself. I’ll be down in the morning myself if I can.”

“Very good, your honour,” says Troke.

Kirkland was put into a separate cell that night; and Troke, by way of assuring him a good night’s rest, told him that he was to have “fifty” in the morning. “And Dawes’ll lay it on,” he added. “He’s one of the smartest men I’ve got, and he won’t spare yer, yer may take your oath of that.”

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