For the Term of His Natural Life, by Marcus Clarke

Chapter IX.

The Longest Straw.

Rufus Dawes hearing, when “on the chain” the next day, of the wanton torture of his friend, uttered no threat of vengeance, but groaned only. “I am not so strong as I was,” said he, as if in apology for his lack of spirit. “They have unnerved me.” And he looked sadly down at his gaunt frame and trembling hands.

“I can’t stand it no longer,” said Mooney, grimly. “I’ve spoken to Bland, and he’s of my mind. You know what we resolved to do. Let’s do it.”

Rufus Dawes stared at the sightless orbs turned inquiringly to his own. The fingers of his hand, thrust into his bosom, felt a token which lay there. A shudder thrilled him. “No, no. Not now,” he said.

“You’re not afeard, man?” asked Mooney, stretching out his hand in the direction of the voice. “You’re not going to shirk?” The other avoided the touch, and shrank away, still staring. “You ain’t going to back out after you swored it, Dawes? You’re not that sort. Dawes, speak, man!”

“Is Bland willing?” asked Dawes, looking round, as if to seek some method of escape from the glare of those unspeculative eyes.

“Ay, and ready. They flogged him again yesterday.”

“Leave it till to-morrow,” said Dawes, at length.

“No; let’s have it over,” urged the old man, with a strange eagerness. “I’m tired o’ this.”

Rufus Dawes cast a wistful glance towards the wall behind which lay the house of the Commandant. “Leave it till to-morrow,” he repeated, with his hand still in his breast.

They had been so occupied in their conversation that neither had observed the approach of their common enemy. “What are you hiding there?” cried Frere, seizing Dawes by the wrist. “More tobacco, you dog?” The hand of the convict, thus suddenly plucked from his bosom, opened involuntarily, and a withered rose fell to the earth. Frere at once, indignant and astonished, picked it up. “Hallo! What the devil’s this? You’ve not been robbing my garden for a nosegay, Jack?” The Commandant was wont to call all convicts “Jack” in his moments of facetiousness. It was a little humorous way he had.

Rufus Dawes uttered one dismal cry, and then stood trembling and cowed. His companions, hearing the exclamation of rage and grief that burst from him, looked to see him snatch back the flower or perform some act of violence. Perhaps such was his intention, but he did not execute it. One would have thought that there was some charm about this rose so strangely cherished, for he stood gazing at it, as it twirled between Captain Frere’s strong fingers, as though it fascinated him. “You’re a pretty man to want a rose for your buttonhole! Are you going out with your sweetheart next Sunday, Mr. Dawes?” The gang laughed. “How did you get this?” Dawes was silent. “You’d better tell me.” No answer. “Troke, let us see if we can’t find Mr. Dawes’s tongue. Pull off your shirt, my man. I expect that’s the way to your heart — eh, boys?”

At this elegant allusion to the lash, the gang laughed again, and looked at each other astonished. It seemed possible that the leader of the “Ring” was going to turn milksop. Such, indeed, appeared to be the case, for Dawes, trembling and pale, cried, “Don’t flog me again, sir! I picked it up in the yard. It fell out of your coat one day.” Frere smiled with an inward satisfaction at the result of his spirit-breaking. The explanation was probably the correct one. He was in the habit of wearing flowers in his coat and it was impossible that the convict should have obtained one by any other means. Had it been a fig of tobacco now, the astute Commandant knew plenty of men who would have brought it into the prison. But who would risk a flogging for so useless a thing as a flower? “You’d better not pick up any more, Jack,” he said. “We don’t grow flowers for your amusement.” And contemptuously flinging the rose over the wall, he strode away.

The gang, left to itself for a moment, bestowed their attention upon Dawes. Large tears were silently rolling down his face, and he stood staring at the wall as one in a dream. The gang curled their lips. One fellow, more charitable than the rest, tapped his forehead and winked. “He’s going cranky,” said this good-natured man, who could not understand what a sane prisoner had to do with flowers. Dawes recovered himself, and the contemptuous glances of his companions seemed to bring back the colour to his cheeks.

“We’ll do it to-night,” whispered he to Mooney, and Mooney smiled with pleasure.

Since the “tobacco trick”, Mooney and Dawes had been placed in the new prison, together with a man named Bland, who had already twice failed to kill himself. When old Mooney, fresh from the torture of the gag-and-bridle, lamented his hard case, Bland proposed that the three should put in practice a scheme in which two at least must succeed. The scheme was a desperate one, and attempted only in the last extremity. It was the custom of the Ring, however, to swear each of its members to carry out to the best of his ability this last invention of the convict-disciplined mind should two other members crave his assistance.

The scheme — like all great ideas — was simplicity itself.

That evening, when the cell-door was securely locked, and the absence of a visiting gaoler might be counted upon for an hour at least, Bland produced a straw, and held it out to his companions. Dawes took it, and tearing it into unequal lengths, handed the fragments to Mooney.

“The longest is the one,” said the blind man. “Come on, boys, and dip in the lucky-bag!”

It was evident that lots were to be drawn to determine to whom fortune would grant freedom. The men drew in silence, and then Bland and Dawes looked at each other. The prize had been left in the bag. Mooney — fortunate old fellow — retained the longest straw. Bland’s hand shook as he compared notes with his companion. There was a moment’s pause, during which the blank eyeballs of the blind man fiercely searched the gloom, as if in that awful moment they could penetrate it.

“I hold the shortest,” said Dawes to Bland. “’Tis you that must do it.”

“I’m glad of that,” said Mooney.

Bland, seemingly terrified at the danger which fate had decreed that he should run, tore the fatal lot into fragments with an oath, and sat gnawing his knuckles in excess of abject terror. Mooney stretched himself out upon his plank-bed. “Come on, mate,” he said. Bland extended a shaking hand, and caught Rufus Dawes by the sleeve.

“You have more nerve than I. You do it.”

“No, no,” said Dawes, almost as pale as his companion. “I’ve run my chance fairly. ’Twas your own proposal.” The coward who, confident in his own luck, would seem to have fallen into the pit he had dug for others, sat rocking himself to and fro, holding his head in his hands.

“By Heaven, I can’t do it,” he whispered, lifting a white, wet face.

“What are you waiting for?” said fortunate Mooney. “Come on, I’m ready.”

“I— I— thought you might like to — to — pray a bit,” said Bland.

The notion seemed to sober the senses of the old man, exalted too fiercely by his good fortune.

“Ay!” he said. “Pray! A good thought!” and he knelt down; and shutting his blind eyes —’twas as though he was dazzled by some strong light — unseen by his comrades, moved his lips silently. The silence was at last broken by the footsteps of the warder in the corridor. Bland hailed it as a reprieve from whatever act of daring he dreaded. “We must wait until he goes,” he whispered eagerly. “He might look in.”

Dawes nodded, and Mooney, whose quick ear apprised him very exactly of the position of the approaching gaoler, rose from his knees radiant. The sour face of Gimblett appeared at the trap cell-door.

“All right?” he asked, somewhat — so the three thought — less sourly than usual.

“All right,” was the reply, and Mooney added, “Good-night, Mr. Gimblett.”

“I wonder what is making the old man so cheerful,” thought Gimblett, as he got into the next corridor.

The sound of his echoing footsteps had scarcely died away, when upon the ears of the two less fortunate casters of lots fell the dull sound of rending woollen. The lucky man was tearing a strip from his blanket. “I think this will do,” said he, pulling it between his hands to test its strength. “I am an old man.” It was possible that he debated concerning the descent of some abyss into which the strip of blanket was to lower him. “Here, Bland, catch hold. Where are ye? — don’t be faint-hearted, man. It won’t take ye long.”

It was quite dark now in the cell, but as Bland advanced his face was like a white mask floating upon the darkness, it was so ghastly pale. Dawes pressed his lucky comrade’s hand, and withdrew to the farthest corner. Bland and Mooney were for a few moments occupied with the rope — doubtless preparing for escape by means of it. The silence was broken only by the convulsive jangling of Bland’s irons — he was shuddering violently. At last Mooney spoke again, in strangely soft and subdued tones.

“Dawes, lad, do you think there is a Heaven?”

“I know there is a Hell,” said Dawes, without turning his face.

“Ay, and a Heaven, lad. I think I shall go there. You will, old chap, for you’ve been good to me — God bless you, you’ve been very good to me.”

* * * * * *

When Troke came in the morning he saw what had occurred at a glance, and hastened to remove the corpse of the strangled Mooney.

“We drew lots,” said Rufus Dawes, pointing to Bland, who crouched in the corner farthest from his victim, “and it fell upon him to do it. I’m the witness.”

“They’ll hang you for all that,” said Troke.

“I hope so,” said Rufus Dawes.

The scheme of escape hit upon by the convict intellect was simply this. Three men being together, lots were drawn to determine whom should be murdered. The drawer of the longest straw was the “lucky” man. He was killed. The drawer of the next longest straw was the murderer. He was hanged. The unlucky one was the witness. He had, of course, an excellent chance of being hung also, but his doom was not so certain, and he therefore looked upon himself as unfortunate.

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