For the Term of His Natural Life, by Marcus Clarke

Chapter V.

The Barracoon.

In the prison of the ’tween decks reigned a darkness pregnant with murmurs. The sentry at the entrance to the hatchway was supposed to “prevent the prisoners from making a noise,” but he put a very liberal interpretation upon the clause, and so long as the prisoners refrained from shouting, yelling, and fighting — eccentricities in which they sometimes indulged — he did not disturb them. This course of conduct was dictated by prudence, no less than by convenience, for one sentry was but little over so many; and the convicts, if pressed too hard, would raise a sort of bestial boo-hoo, in which all voices were confounded, and which, while it made noise enough and to spare, utterly precluded individual punishment. One could not flog a hundred and eighty men, and it was impossible to distinguish any particular offender. So, in virtue of this last appeal, convictism had established a tacit right to converse in whispers, and to move about inside its oaken cage.

To one coming in from the upper air, the place would have seemed in pitchy darkness, but the convict eye, accustomed to the sinister twilight, was enabled to discern surrounding objects with tolerable distinctness. The prison was about fifty feet long and fifty feet wide, and ran the full height of the ’tween decks, viz., about five feet ten inches high. The barricade was loop-holed here and there, and the planks were in some places wide enough to admit a musket barrel. On the aft side, next the soldiers’ berths, was a trap door, like the stoke-hole of a furnace. At first sight this appeared to be contrived for the humane purpose of ventilation, but a second glance dispelled this weak conclusion. The opening was just large enough to admit the muzzle of a small howitzer, secured on the deck below. In case of a mutiny, the soldiers could sweep the prison from end to end with grape shot. Such fresh air as there was, filtered through the loopholes, and came, in somewhat larger quantity, through a wind-sail passed into the prison from the hatchway. But the wind-sail, being necessarily at one end only of the place, the air it brought was pretty well absorbed by the twenty or thirty lucky fellows near it, and the other hundred and fifty did not come so well off. The scuttles were open, certainly, but as the row of bunks had been built against them, the air they brought was the peculiar property of such men as occupied the berths into which they penetrated. These berths were twenty-eight in number, each containing six men. They ran in a double tier round three sides of the prison, twenty at each side, and eight affixed to that portion of the forward barricade opposite the door. Each berth was presumed to be five feet six inches square, but the necessities of stowage had deprived them of six inches, and even under that pressure twelve men were compelled to sleep on the deck. Pine did not exaggerate when he spoke of the custom of overcrowding convict ships; and as he was entitled to half a guinea for every man he delivered alive at Hobart Town, he had some reason to complain.

When Frere had come down, an hour before, the prisoners were all snugly between their blankets. They were not so now; though, at the first clink of the bolts, they would be back again in their old positions, to all appearances sound asleep. As the eye became accustomed to the foetid duskiness of the prison, a strange picture presented itself. Groups of men, in all imaginable attitudes, were lying, standing, sitting, or pacing up and down. It was the scene on the poop-deck over again; only, here being no fear of restraining keepers, the wild beasts were a little more free in their movements. It is impossible to convey, in words, any idea of the hideous phantasmagoria of shifting limbs and faces which moved through the evil-smelling twilight of this terrible prison-house. Callot might have drawn it, Dante might have suggested it, but a minute attempt to describe its horrors would but disgust. There are depths in humanity which one cannot explore, as there are mephitic caverns into which one dare not penetrate.

Old men, young men, and boys, stalwart burglars and highway robbers, slept side by side with wizened pickpockets or cunning-featured area-sneaks. The forger occupied the same berth with the body-snatcher. The man of education learned strange secrets of house-breakers’ craft, and the vulgar ruffian of St. Giles took lessons of self-control from the keener intellect of the professional swindler. The fraudulent clerk and the flash “cracksman” interchanged experiences. The smuggler’s stories of lucky ventures and successful runs were capped by the footpad’s reminiscences of foggy nights and stolen watches. The poacher, grimly thinking of his sick wife and orphaned children, would start as the night-house ruffian clapped him on the shoulder and bade him, with a curse, to take good heart and “be a man.” The fast shopboy whose love of fine company and high living had brought him to this pass, had shaken off the first shame that was on him, and listened eagerly to the narratives of successful vice that fell so glibly from the lips of his older companions. To be transported seemed no such uncommon fate. The old fellows laughed, and wagged their grey heads with all the glee of past experience, and listening youth longed for the time when it might do likewise. Society was the common foe, and magistrates, gaolers, and parsons were the natural prey of all noteworthy mankind. Only fools were honest, only cowards kissed the rod, and failed to meditate revenge on that world of respectability which had wronged them. Each new-comer was one more recruit to the ranks of ruffianism, and not a man penned in that reeking den of infamy but became a sworn hater of law, order, and “free-men.” What he might have been before mattered not. He was now a prisoner, and — thrust into a suffocating barracoon, herded with the foulest of mankind, with all imaginable depths of blasphemy and indecency sounded hourly in his sight and hearing — he lost his self-respect, and became what his gaolers took him to be — a wild beast to be locked under bolts and bars, lest he should break out and tear them.

The conversation ran upon the sudden departure of the four. What could they want with them at that hour?

“I tell you there’s something up on deck,” says one to the group nearest him. “Don’t you hear all that rumbling and rolling?”

“What did they lower boats for? I heard the dip o’ the oars.”

“Don’t know, mate. P’r’aps a burial job,” hazarded a short, stout fellow, as a sort of happy suggestion.

“One of those coves in the parlour!” said another; and a laugh followed the speech.

“No such luck. You won’t hang your jib for them yet awhile. More like the skipper agone fishin’.”

“The skipper don’t go fishin’, yer fool. What would he do fishin’? — special in the middle o’ the night.”

“That ’ud be like old Dovery, eh?” says a fifth, alluding to an old grey-headed fellow, who — a returned convict — was again under sentence for body-snatching.

“Ay,” put in a young man, who had the reputation of being the smartest “crow” (the “look-out” man of a burglars’ gang) in London —"‘fishers of men,’ as the parson says.”

The snuffling imitation of a Methodist preacher was good, and there was another laugh.

Just then a miserable little cockney pickpocket, feeling his way to the door, fell into the party.

A volley of oaths and kicks received him.

“I beg your pardon, gen’l’men,” cries the miserable wretch, “but I want h’air.”

“Go to the barber’s and buy a wig, then!” says the “Crow”, elated at the success of his last sally.

“Oh, sir, my back!”

“Get up!” groaned someone in the darkness. “Oh, Lord, I’m smothering! Here, sentry!”

“Vater!” cried the little cockney. “Give us a drop o’ vater, for mercy’s sake. I haven’t moist’ned my chaffer this blessed day.”

“Half a gallon a day, bo’, and no more,” says a sailor next him.

“Yes, what have yer done with yer half-gallon, eh?” asked the Crow derisively. “Someone stole it,” said the sufferer.

“He’s been an’ blued it,” squealed someone. “Been an’ blued it to buy a Sunday veskit with! Oh, ain’t he a vicked young man?” And the speaker hid his head under the blankets, in humorous affectation of modesty.

All this time the miserable little cockney — he was a tailor by trade — had been grovelling under the feet of the Crow and his companions.

“Let me h’up, gents” he implored —“let me h’up. I feel as if I should die — I do.”

“Let the gentleman up,” says the humorist in the bunk. “Don’t yer see his kerridge is avaitin’ to take him to the Hopera?”

The conversation had got a little loud, and, from the topmost bunk on the near side, a bullet head protruded.

“Ain’t a cove to get no sleep?” cried a gruff voice. “My blood, if I have to turn out, I’ll knock some of your empty heads together.”

It seemed that the speaker was a man of mark, for the noise ceased instantly; and, in the lull which ensued, a shrill scream broke from the wretched tailor.

“Help! they’re killing me! Ah-h-h–!”

“Wot’s the matter,” roared the silencer of the riot, jumping from his berth, and scattering the Crow and his companions right and left. “Let him be, can’t yer?”

“H’air!” cried the poor devil —“h’air; I’m fainting!”

Just then there came another groan from the man in the opposite bunk. “Well, I’m blessed!” said the giant, as he held the gasping tailor by the collar and glared round him. “Here’s a pretty go! All the blessed chickens ha’ got the croup!”

The groaning of the man in the bunk redoubled.

“Pass the word to the sentry,” says someone more humane than the rest. “Ah,” says the humorist, “pass him out; it’ll be one the less. We’d rather have his room than his company.”

“Sentry, here’s a man sick.”

But the sentry knew his duty better than to reply. He was a young soldier, but he had been well informed of the artfulness of convict stratagems; and, moreover, Captain Vickers had carefully apprised him “that by the King’s Regulations, he was forbidden to reply to any question or communication addressed to him by a convict, but, in the event of being addressed, was to call the non-commissioned officer on duty.” Now, though he was within easy hailing distance of the guard on the quarter-deck, he felt a natural disinclination to disturb those gentlemen merely for the sake of a sick convict, and knowing that, in a few minutes, the third relief would come on duty, he decided to wait until then.

In the meantime the tailor grew worse, and began to moan dismally.

“Here! ’ullo!” called out his supporter, in dismay. “Hold up ’ere! Wot’s wrong with yer? Don’t come the drops ’ere. Pass him down, some of yer,” and the wretch was hustled down to the doorway.

“Vater!” he whispered, beating feebly with his hand on the thick oak.

“Get us a drink, mister, for Gord’s sake!”

But the prudent sentry answered never a word, until the ship’s bell warned him of the approach of the relief guard; and then honest old Pine, coming with anxious face to inquire after his charge, received the intelligence that there was another prisoner sick. He had the door unlocked and the tailor outside in an instant. One look at the flushed, anxious face was enough.

“Who’s that moaning in there?” he asked.

It was the man who had tried to call for the sentry an hour back, and Pine had him out also; convictism beginning to wonder a little.

“Take ’em both aft to the hospital,” he said; “and, Jenkins, if there are any more men taken sick, let them pass the word for me at once. I shall be on deck.”

The guard stared in each other’s faces, with some alarm, but said nothing, thinking more of the burning ship, which now flamed furiously across the placid water, than of peril nearer home; but as Pine went up the hatchway he met Blunt.

“We’ve got the fever aboard!”

“Good God! Do you mean it, Pine?”

Pine shook his grizzled head sorrowfully.

“It’s this cursed calm that’s done it; though I expected it all along, with the ship crammed as she is. When I was in the Hecuba —”

“Who is it?”

Pine laughed a half-pitying, half-angry laugh.

“A convict, of course. Who else should it be? They are reeking like bullocks at Smithfield down there. A hundred and eighty men penned into a place fifty feet long, with the air like an oven — what could you expect?”

Poor Blunt stamped his foot.

“It isn’t my fault,” he cried. “The soldiers are berthed aft. If the Government will overload these ships, I can’t help it.”

“The Government! Ah! The Government! The Government don’t sleep, sixty men a-side, in a cabin only six feet high. The Government don’t get typhus fever in the tropics, does it?”

“No — but —”

“But what does the Government care, then?”

Blunt wiped his hot forehead.

“Who was the first down?”

“No. 97 berth; ten on the lower tier. John Rex he calls himself.”

“Are you sure it’s the fever?”

“As sure as I can be yet. Head like a fire-ball, and tongue like a strip of leather. Gad, don’t I know it?” and Pine grinned mournfully. “I’ve got him moved into the hospital. Hospital! It is a hospital! As dark as a wolf’s mouth. I’ve seen dog kennels I liked better.”

Blunt nodded towards the volume of lurid smoke that rolled up out of the glow. —“Suppose there is a shipload of those poor devils? I can’t refuse to take ’em in.”

“No,” says Pine gloomily, “I suppose you can’t. If they come, I must stow ’em somewhere. We’ll have to run for the Cape, with the first breeze, if they do come, that is all I can see for it,” and he turned away to watch the burning vessel.

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