For the Term of His Natural Life, by Marcus Clarke

Chapter XXI.

A Visit of Inspection.

One afternoon ever-active semaphores transmitted a piece of intelligence which set the peninsula agog. Captain Frere, having arrived from head-quarters, with orders to hold an inquiry into the death of Kirkland, was not unlikely to make a progress through the stations, and it behoved the keepers of the Natural Penitentiary to produce their Penitents in good case. Burgess was in high spirits at finding so congenial a soul selected for the task of reporting upon him.

“It’s only a nominal thing, old man,” Frere said to his former comrade, when they met. “That parson has made meddling, and they want to close his mouth.”

“I am glad to have the opportunity of showing you and Mrs. Frere the place,” returned Burgess. “I must try and make your stay as pleasant as I can, though I’m afraid that Mrs. Frere will not find much to amuse her.”

“Frankly, Captain Burgess,” said Sylvia, “I would rather have gone straight to Sydney. My husband, however, was obliged to come, and of course I accompanied him.”

“You will not have much society,” said Meekin, who was of the welcoming party. “Mrs. Datchett, the wife of one of our stipendiaries, is the only lady here, and I hope to have the pleasure of making you acquainted with her this evening at the Commandant’s . Mr. McNab, whom you know, is in command at the Neck, and cannot leave, or you would have seen him.”

“I have planned a little party,” said Burgess, “but I fear that it will not be so successful as I could wish.”

“You wretched old bachelor,” said Frere; “you should get married, like me.”

“Ah!” said Burgess, with a bow, “that would be difficult.”

Sylvia was compelled to smile at the compliment, made in the presence of some twenty prisoners, who were carrying the various trunks and packages up the hill, and she remarked that the said prisoners grinned at the Commandant’s clumsy courtesy. “I don’t like Captain Burgess, Maurice,” she said, in the interval before dinner. “I dare say he did flog that poor fellow to death. He looks as if he could do it.”

“Nonsense!” said Maurice, pettishly; “he’s a good fellow enough. Besides, I’ve seen the doctor’s certificate. It’s a trumped-up story. I can’t understand your absurd sympathy with prisoners.”

“Don’t they sometimes deserve sympathy?”

“No, certainly not — a set of lying scoundrels. You are always whining over them, Sylvia. I don’t like it, and I’ve told you before about it.”

Sylvia said nothing. Maurice was often guilty of these small brutalities, and she had learnt that the best way to meet them was by silence. Unfortunately, silence did not mean indifference, for the reproof was unjust, and nothing stings a woman’s fine sense like an injustice. Burgess had prepared a feast, and the “Society” of Port Arthur was present. Father Flaherty, Meekin, Doctor Macklewain, and Mr. and Mrs. Datchett had been invited, and the dining-room was resplendent with glass and flowers.

“I’ve a fellow who was a professional gardener,” said Burgess to Sylvia during the dinner, “and I make use of his talents.”

“We have a professional artist also,” said Macklewain, with a sort of pride. “That picture of the ‘Prisoner of Chillon’ yonder was painted by him. A very meritorious production, is it not?”

“I’ve got the place full of curiosities,” said Burgess; “quite a collection. I’ll show them to you to-morrow. Those napkin rings were made by a prisoner.”

“Ah!” cried Frere, taking up the daintily-carved bone, “very neat!”

“That is some of Rex’s handiwork,” said Meekin. “He is very clever at these trifles. He made me a paper-cutter that was really a work of art.”

“We will go down to the Neck to-morrow or next day, Mrs. Frere,” said Burgess, “and you shall see the Blow-hole. It is a curious place.”

“Is it far?” asked Sylvia.

“Oh no! We shall go in the train.”

“The train!”

“Yes — don’t look so astonished. You’ll see it to-morrow. Oh, you Hobart Town ladies don’t know what we can do here.”

“What about this Kirkland business?” Frere asked. “I suppose I can have half an hour with you in the morning, and take the depositions?”

“Any time you like, my dear fellow,” said Burgess. “It’s all the same to me.”

“I don’t want to make more fuss than I can help,” Frere said apologetically — the dinner had been good —“but I must send these people up a ‘full, true and particular’, don’t you know.”

“Of course,” cried Burgess, with friendly nonchalance. “That’s all right. I want Mrs. Frere to see Point Puer.”

“Where the boys are?” asked Sylvia.

“Exactly. Nearly three hundred of ’em. We’ll go down to-morrow, and you shall be my witness, Mrs. Frere, as to the way they are treated.”

“Indeed,” said Sylvia, protesting, “I would rather not. I— I don’t take the interest in these things that I ought, perhaps. They are very dreadful to me.”

“Nonsense!” said Frere, with a scowl. “We’ll come, Burgess, of course.” The next two days were devoted to sight-seeing. Sylvia was taken through the hospital and the workshops, shown the semaphores, and shut up by Maurice in a “dark cell”. Her husband and Burgess seemed to treat the prison like a tame animal, whom they could handle at their leisure, and whose natural ferocity was kept in check by their superior intelligence. This bringing of a young and pretty woman into immediate contact with bolts and bars had about it an incongruity which pleased them. Maurice penetrated everywhere, questioned the prisoners, jested with the gaolers, even, in the munificence of his heart, bestowed tobacco on the sick.

With such graceful rattlings of dry bones, they got by and by to Point Puer, where a luncheon had been provided.

An unlucky accident had occurred at Point Puer that morning, however, and the place was in a suppressed ferment. A refractory little thief named Peter Brown, aged twelve years, had jumped off the high rock and drowned himself in full view of the constables. These “jumpings off” had become rather frequent lately, and Burgess was enraged at one happening on this particular day. If he could by any possibility have brought the corpse of poor little Peter Brown to life again, he would have soundly whipped it for its impertinence.

“It is most unfortunate,” he said to Frere, as they stood in the cell where the little body was laid, “that it should have happened to-day.”

“Oh,” says Frere, frowning down upon the young face that seemed to smile up at him. “It can’t be helped. I know those young devils. They’d do it out of spite. What sort of a character had he?”

“Very bad — Johnson, the book.”

Johnson bringing it, the two saw Peter Brown’s iniquities set down in the neatest of running hand, and the record of his punishments ornamented in quite an artistic way with flourishes of red ink

“20th November, disorderly conduct, 12 lashes. 24th November, insolence to hospital attendant, diet reduced. 4th December, stealing cap from another prisoner, 12 lashes. 15th December, absenting himself at roll call, two days’ cells. 23rd December, insolence and insubordination, two days’ cells. 8th January, insolence and insubordination, 12 lashes. 20th January, insolence and insubordination, 12 lashes. 22nd February, insolence and insubordination, 12 lashes and one week’s solitary. 6th March, insolence and insubordination, 20 lashes.”

“That was the last?” asked Frere.

“Yes, sir,” says Johnson.

“And then he — hum — did it?”

“Just so, sir. That was the way of it.”

Just so! The magnificent system starved and tortured a child of twelve until he killed himself. That was the way of it.

After luncheon the party made a progress. Everything was most admirable. There was a long schoolroom, where such men as Meekin taught how Christ loved little children; and behind the schoolroom were the cells and the constables and the little yard where they gave their “twenty lashes”. Sylvia shuddered at the array of faces. From the stolid nineteen years old booby of the Kentish hop-fields, to the wizened, shrewd, ten years old Bohemian of the London streets, all degrees and grades of juvenile vice grinned, in untameable wickedness, or snuffed in affected piety. “Suffer little children to come unto Me, and forbid them not, for of such is the Kingdom of Heaven,” said, or is reported to have said, the Founder of our Established Religion. Of such it seemed that a large number of Honourable Gentlemen, together with Her Majesty’s faithful commons in Parliament assembled, had done their best to create a Kingdom of Hell .

After the farce had been played again, and the children had stood up and sat down, and sung a hymn, and told how many twice five were, and repeated their belief in “One God the Father Almighty, maker of Heaven and Earth”, the party reviewed the workshops, and saw the church, and went everywhere but into the room where the body of Peter Brown, aged twelve, lay starkly on its wooden bench, staring at the gaol roof which was between it and Heaven.

Just outside this room, Sylvia met with a little adventure. Meekin had stopped behind, and Burgess, being suddenly summoned for some official duty, Frere had gone with him, leaving his wife to rest on a bench that, placed at the summit of the cliff, overlooked the sea. While resting thus, she became aware of another presence, and, turning her head, beheld a small boy, with his cap in one hand and a hammer in the other. The appearance of the little creature, clad in a uniform of grey cloth that was too large for him, and holding in his withered little hand a hammer that was too heavy for him, had something pathetic about it.

“What is it, you mite?” asked Sylvia.

“We thought you might have seen him, mum,” said the little figure, opening its blue eyes with wonder at the kindness of the tone. “Him! Whom?”

“Cranky Brown, mum,” returned the child; “him as did it this morning. Me and Billy knowed him, mum; he was a mate of ours, and we wanted to know if he looked happy.”

“What do you mean, child?” said she, with a strange terror at her heart; and then, filled with pity at the aspect of the little being, she drew him to her, with sudden womanly instinct, and kissed him. He looked up at her with joyful surprise. “Oh!” he said.

Sylvia kissed him again.

“Does nobody ever kiss you, poor little man?” said she.

“Mother used to,” was the reply, “but she’s at home. Oh, mum,” with a sudden crimsoning of the little face, “may I fetch Billy?”

And taking courage from the bright young face, he gravely marched to an angle of the rock, and brought out another little creature, with another grey uniform and another hammer.

“This is Billy, mum,” he said. “Billy never had no mother. Kiss Billy.”

The young wife felt the tears rush to her eyes. “You two poor babies!” she cried. And then, forgetting that she was a lady, dressed in silk and lace, she fell on her knees in the dust, and, folding the friendless pair in her arms, wept over them.

“What is the matter, Sylvia?” said Frere, when he came up. “You’ve been crying.”

“Nothing, Maurice; at least, I will tell you by and by.”

When they were alone that evening, she told him of the two little boys, and he laughed. “Artful little humbugs,” he said, and supported his argument by so many illustrations of the precocious wickedness of juvenile felons, that his wife was half convinced against her will.

* * * * * *

Unfortunately, when Sylvia went away, Tommy and Billy put into execution a plan which they had carried in their poor little heads for some weeks.

“I can do it now,” said Tommy. “I feel strong.”

“Will it hurt much, Tommy?” said Billy, who was not so courageous.

“Not so much as a whipping.”

“I’m afraid! Oh, Tom, it’s so deep! Don’t leave me, Tom!”

The bigger boy took his little handkerchief from his neck, and with it bound his own left hand to his companion’s right.

“Now I can’t leave you.”

“What was it the lady that kissed us said, Tommy?”

“Lord, have pity on them two fatherless children!” repeated Tommy. “Let’s say it together.”

And so the two babies knelt on the brink of the cliff, and, raising the bound hands together, looked up at the sky, and ungrammatically said, “Lord have pity on we two fatherless children!” And then they kissed each other, and “did it”.

* * * * * *

The intelligence, transmitted by the ever-active semaphore, reached the Commandant in the midst of dinner, and in his agitation he blurted it out.

“These are the two poor things I saw in the morning,” cried Sylvia. “Oh, Maurice, these two poor babies driven to suicide!”

“Condemning their young souls to everlasting fire,” said Meekin, piously.

“Mr. Meekin! How can you talk like that? Poor little creatures! Oh, it’s horrible! Maurice, take me away.” And she burst into a passion of weeping. “I can’t help it, ma’am,” says Burgess, rudely, ashamed. “It ain’t my fault.”

“She’s nervous,” says Frere, leading her away. “You must excuse her. Come and lie down, dearest.”

“I will not stay here longer,” said she. “Let us go to-morrow.”

“We can’t,” said Frere.

“Oh, yes, we can. I insist. Maurice, if you love me, take me away.”

“Well,” said Maurice, moved by her evident grief, “I’ll try.”

He spoke to Burgess. “Burgess, this matter has unsettled my wife, so that she wants to leave at once. I must visit the Neck, you know. How can we do it?”

“Well,” says Burgess, “if the wind only holds, the brig could go round to Pirates’ Bay and pick you up. You’ll only be a night at the barracks.”

“I think that would be best,” said Frere. “We’ll start to-morrow, please, and if you’ll give me a pen and ink I’ll be obliged.”

“I hope you are satisfied,” said Burgess.

“Oh yes, quite,” said Frere. “I must recommend more careful supervision at Point Puer, though. It will never do to have these young blackguards slipping through our fingers in this way.”

So a neatly written statement of the occurrence was appended to the ledgers in which the names of William Tomkins and Thomas Grove were entered. Macklewain held an inquest, and nobody troubled about them any more. Why should they? The prisons of London were full of such Tommys and Billys.

* * * * * *

Sylvia passed through the rest of her journey in a dream of terror. The incident of the children had shaken her nerves, and she longed to be away from the place and its associations. Even Eaglehawk Neck with its curious dog stages and its “natural pavement”, did not interest her. McNab’s blandishments were wearisome. She shuddered as she gazed into the boiling abyss of the Blow-hole, and shook with fear as the Commandant’s “train” rattled over the dangerous tramway that wound across the precipice to Long Bay. The “train” was composed of a number of low wagons pushed and dragged up the steep inclines by convicts, who drew themselves up in the wagons when the trucks dashed down the slope, and acted as drags. Sylvia felt degraded at being thus drawn by human beings, and trembled when the lash cracked, and the convicts answered to the sting — like cattle. Moreover, there was among the foremost of these beasts of burden a face that had dimly haunted her girlhood, and only lately vanished from her dreams. This face looked on her — she thought — with bitterest loathing and scorn, and she felt relieved when at the midday halt its owner was ordered to fall out from the rest, and was with four others re-chained for the homeward journey. Frere, struck with the appearance of the five, said, “By Jove, Poppet, there are our old friends Rex and Dawes, and the others. They won’t let ’em come all the way, because they are such a desperate lot, they might make a rush for it.” Sylvia comprehended now the face was the face of Dawes; and as she looked after him, she saw him suddenly raise his hands above his head with a motion that terrified her. She felt for an instant a great shock of pitiful recollection. Staring at the group, she strove to recall when and how Rufus Dawes, the wretch from whose clutches her husband had saved her, had ever merited her pity, but her clouded memory could not complete the picture, and as the wagons swept round a curve, and the group disappeared, she awoke from her reverie with a sigh.

“Maurice,” she whispered, “how is it that the sight of that man always makes me sad?”

Her husband frowned, and then, caressing her, bade her forget the man and the place and her fears. “I was wrong to have insisted on your coming,” he said. They stood on the deck of the Sydney-bound vessel the next morning, and watched the “Natural Penitentiary” grow dim in the distance. “You were not strong enough.”

* * * * * *

“Dawes,” said John Rex, “you love that girl! Now that you’ve seen her another man’s wife, and have been harnessed like a beast to drag him along the road, while he held her in his arms! — now that you’ve seen and suffered that, perhaps you’ll join us.”

Rufus Dawes made a movement of agonized impatience.

“You’d better. You’ll never get out of this place any other way. Come, be a man; join us!”

“No!”

“It is your only chance. Why refuse it? Do you want to live here all your life?”

“I want no sympathy from you or any other. I will not join you.”

Rex shrugged his shoulders and walked away. “If you think to get any good out of that ‘inquiry’, you are mightily mistaken,” said he, as he went. “Frere has put a stopper upon that, you’ll find.” He spoke truly. Nothing more was heard of it, only that, some six months afterwards, Mr. North, when at Parramatta, received an official letter (in which the expenditure of wax and printing and paper was as large as it could be made) which informed him that the “Comptroller–General of the Convict Department had decided that further inquiry concerning the death of the prisoner named in the margin was unnecessary”, and that some gentleman with an utterly illegible signature “had the honour to be his most obedient servant”.

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