For the Term of His Natural Life, by Marcus Clarke

Chapter VII.

Typhus Fever.

The felon Rufus Dawes had stretched himself in his bunk and tried to sleep. But though he was tired and sore, and his head felt like lead, he could not but keep broad awake. The long pull through the pure air, if it had tired him, had revived him, and he felt stronger; but for all that, the fatal sickness that was on him maintained its hold; his pulse beat thickly, and his brain throbbed with unnatural heat. Lying in his narrow space — in the semi-darkness — he tossed his limbs about, and closed his eyes in vain — he could not sleep. His utmost efforts induced only an oppressive stagnation of thought, through which he heard the voices of his fellow-convicts; while before his eyes was still the burning Hydaspes — that vessel whose destruction had destroyed for ever all trace of the unhappy Richard Devine.

It was fortunate for his comfort, perhaps, that the man who had been chosen to accompany him was of a talkative turn, for the prisoners insisted upon hearing the story of the explosion a dozen times over, and Rufus Dawes himself had been roused to give the name of the vessel with his own lips. Had it not been for the hideous respect in which he was held, it is possible that he might have been compelled to give his version also, and to join in the animated discussion which took place upon the possibility of the saving of the fugitive crew. As it was, however, he was left in peace, and lay unnoticed, trying to sleep.

The detachment of fifty being on deck — airing — the prison was not quite so hot as at night, and many of the convicts made up for their lack of rest by snatching a dog-sleep in the bared bunks. The four volunteer oarsmen were allowed to “take it out.”

As yet there had been no alarm of fever. The three seizures had excited some comment, however, and had it not been for the counter-excitement of the burning ship, it is possible that Pine’s precaution would have been thrown away. The “Old Hands”— who had been through the Passage before — suspected, but said nothing, save among themselves. It was likely that the weak and sickly would go first, and that there would be more room for those remaining. The Old Hands were satisfied.

Three of these Old Hands were conversing together just behind the partition of Dawes’s bunk. As we have said, the berths were five feet square, and each contained six men. No. 10, the berth occupied by Dawes, was situated on the corner made by the joining of the starboard and centre lines, and behind it was a slight recess, in which the scuttle was fixed. His “mates” were at present but three in number, for John Rex and the cockney tailor had been removed to the hospital. The three that remained were now in deep conversation in the shelter of the recess. Of these, the giant — who had the previous night asserted his authority in the prison — seemed to be the chief. His name was Gabbett. He was a returned convict, now on his way to undergo a second sentence for burglary. The other two were a man named Sanders, known as the “Moocher”, and Jemmy Vetch, the Crow. They were talking in whispers, but Rufus Dawes, lying with his head close to the partition, was enabled to catch much of what they said.

At first the conversation turned on the catastrophe of the burning ship and the likelihood of saving the crew. From this it grew to anecdote of wreck and adventure, and at last Gabbett said something which made the listener start from his indifferent efforts to slumber, into sudden broad wakefulness.

It was the mention of his own name, coupled with that of the woman he had met on the quarter-deck, that roused him.

“I saw her speaking to Dawes yesterday,” said the giant, with an oath. “We don’t want no more than we’ve got. I ain’t goin’ to risk my neck for Rex’s woman’s fancies, and so I’ll tell her.”

“It was something about the kid,” says the Crow, in his elegant slang. “I don’t believe she ever saw him before. Besides, she’s nuts on Jack, and ain’t likely to pick up with another man.”

“If I thort she was agoin’ to throw us over, I’d cut her throat as soon as look at her!” snorts Gabbett savagely.

“Jack ud have a word in that,” snuffles the Moocher; “and he’s a curious cove to quarrel with.”

“Well, stow yer gaff,” grumbled Mr. Gabbett, “and let’s have no more chaff. If we’re for bizness, let’s come to bizness.”

“What are we to do now?” asked the Moocher. “Jack’s on the sick list, and the gal won’t stir a’thout him.”

“Ay,” returned Gabbett, “that’s it.”

“My dear friends,” said the Crow, “my keyind and keristian friends, it is to be regretted that when natur’ gave you such tremendously thick skulls, she didn’t put something inside of ’em. I say that now’s the time. Jack’s in the ’orspital; what of that? That don’t make it no better for him, does it? Not a bit of it; and if he drops his knife and fork, why then, it’s my opinion that the gal won’t stir a peg. It’s on his account, not ours, that she’s been manoovering, ain’t it?”

“Well!” says Mr. Gabbett, with the air of one who was but partly convinced, “I s’pose it is.”

“All the more reason of getting it off quick. Another thing, when the boys know there’s fever aboard, you’ll see the rumpus there’ll be. They’ll be ready enough to join us then. Once get the snapper chest, and we’re right as ninepenn’orth o’ hapence.”

This conversation, interspersed with oaths and slang as it was, had an intense interest for Rufus Dawes. Plunged into prison, hurriedly tried, and by reason of his surroundings ignorant of the death of his father and his own fortune, he had hitherto — in his agony and sullen gloom — held aloof from the scoundrels who surrounded him, and repelled their hideous advances of friendship. He now saw his error. He knew that the name he had once possessed was blotted out, that any shred of his old life which had clung to him hitherto, was shrivelled in the fire that consumed the “Hydaspes”. The secret, for the preservation of which Richard Devine had voluntarily flung away his name, and risked a terrible and disgraceful death, would be now for ever safe; for Richard Devine was dead — lost at sea with the crew of the ill-fated vessel in which, deluded by a skilfully-sent letter from the prison, his mother believed him to have sailed. Richard Devine was dead, and the secret of his birth would die with him. Rufus Dawes, his alter ego, alone should live. Rufus Dawes, the convicted felon, the suspected murderer, should live to claim his freedom, and work out his vengeance; or, rendered powerful by the terrible experience of the prison-sheds, should seize both, in defiance of gaol or gaoler.

With his head swimming, and his brain on fire, he eagerly listened for more. It seemed as if the fever which burnt in his veins had consumed the grosser part of his sense, and given him increased power of hearing. He was conscious that he was ill. His bones ached, his hands burned, his head throbbed, but he could hear distinctly, and, he thought, reason on what he heard profoundly.

“But we can’t stir without the girl,” Gabbett said. “She’s got to stall off the sentry and give us the orfice.”

The Crow’s sallow features lighted up with a cunning smile.

“Dear old caper merchant! Hear him talk!” said he, “as if he had the wisdom of Solomon in all his glory? Look here!”

And he produced a dirty scrap of paper, over which his companions eagerly bent their heads.

“Where did yer get that?”

“Yesterday afternoon Sarah was standing on the poop throwing bits o’ toke to the gulls, and I saw her a-looking at me very hard. At last she came down as near the barricade as she dared, and throwed crumbs and such like up in the air over the side. By and by a pretty big lump, doughed up round, fell close to my foot, and, watching a favourable opportunity, I pouched it. Inside was this bit o’ rag-bag.”

“Ah!” said Mr. Gabbett, “that’s more like. Read it out, Jemmy.”

The writing, though feminine in character, was bold and distinct. Sarah had evidently been mindful of the education of her friends, and had desired to give them as little trouble as possible.

“All is right. Watch me when I come up to-morrow evening at three bells. If I drop my handkerchief, get to work at the time agreed on. The sentry will be safe.”

Rufus Dawes, though his eyelids would scarcely keep open, and a terrible lassitude almost paralysed his limbs, eagerly drank in the whispered sentence. There was a conspiracy to seize the ship. Sarah Purfoy was in league with the convicts — was herself the wife or mistress of one of them. She had come on board armed with a plot for his release, and this plot was about to be put in execution. He had heard of the atrocities perpetrated by successful mutineers. Story after story of such nature had often made the prison resound with horrible mirth. He knew the characters of the three ruffians who, separated from him by but two inches of planking, jested and laughed over their plans of freedom and vengeance. Though he conversed but little with his companions, these men were his berth mates, and he could not but know how they would proceed to wreak their vengeance on their gaolers.

True, that the head of this formidable chimera — John Rex, the forger — was absent, but the two hands, or rather claws — the burglar and the prison-breaker — were present, and the slimly-made, effeminate Crow, if he had not the brains of the master, yet made up for his flaccid muscles and nerveless frame by a cat-like cunning, and a spirit of devilish volatility that nothing could subdue. With such a powerful ally outside as the mock maid-servant, the chance of success was enormously increased. There were one hundred and eighty convicts and but fifty soldiers. If the first rush proved successful — and the precautions taken by Sarah Purfoy rendered success possible — the vessel was theirs. Rufus Dawes thought of the little bright-haired child who had run so confidingly to meet him, and shuddered.

“There!” said the Crow, with a sneering laugh, “what do you think of that? Does the girl look like nosing us now?”

“No,” says the giant, stretching his great arms with a grin of delight, as one stretches one’s chest in the sun, “that’s right, that is. That’s more like bizness.”

“England, home and beauty!” said Vetch, with a mock-heroic air, strangely out of tune with the subject under discussion. “You’d like to go home again, wouldn’t you, old man?”

Gabbett turned on him fiercely, his low forehead wrinkled into a frown of ferocious recollection.

“You!” he said —“You think the chain’s fine sport, don’t yer? But I’ve been there, my young chicken, and I knows what it means.”

There was silence for a minute or two. The giant was plunged in gloomy abstraction, and Vetch and the Moocher interchanged a significant glance. Gabbett had been ten years at the colonial penal settlement of Macquarie Harbour, and he had memories that he did not confide to his companions. When he indulged in one of these fits of recollection, his friends found it best to leave him to himself.

Rufus Dawes did not understand the sudden silence. With all his senses stretched to the utmost to listen, the cessation of the whispered colloquy affected him strangely. Old artillery-men have said that, after being at work for days in the trenches, accustomed to the continued roar of the guns, a sudden pause in the firing will cause them intense pain. Something of this feeling was experienced by Rufus Dawes. His faculties of hearing and thinking — both at their highest pitch — seemed to break down. It was as though some prop had been knocked from under him. No longer stimulated by outward sounds, his senses appeared to fail him. The blood rushed into his eyes and ears. He made a violent, vain effort to retain his consciousness, but with a faint cry fell back, striking his head against the edge of the bunk.

The noise roused the burglar in an instant. There was someone in the berth! The three looked into each other’s eyes, in guilty alarm, and then Gabbett dashed round the partition.

“It’s Dawes!” said the Moocher. “We had forgotten him!”

“He’ll join us, mate — he’ll join us!” cried Vetch, fearful of bloodshed.

Gabbett uttered a furious oath, and flinging himself on to the prostrate figure, dragged it, head foremost, to the floor. The sudden vertigo had saved Rufus Dawes’s life. The robber twisted one brawny hand in his shirt, and pressing the knuckles down, prepared to deliver a blow that should for ever silence the listener, when Vetch caught his arm. “He’s been asleep,” he cried. “Don’t hit him! See, he’s not awake yet.”

A crowd gathered round. The giant relaxed his grip, but the convict gave only a deep groan, and allowed his head to fall on his shoulder. “You’ve killed him!” cried someone.

Gabbett took another look at the purpling face and the bedewed forehead, and then sprang erect, rubbing at his right hand, as though he would rub off something sticking there.

“He’s got the fever!” he roared, with a terror-stricken grimace.

“The what?” asked twenty voices.

“The fever, ye grinning fools!” cried Gabbett. “I’ve seen it before to-day. The typhus is aboard, and he’s the fourth man down!”

The circle of beast-like faces, stretched forward to “see the fight,” widened at the half-uncomprehended, ill-omened word. It was as though a bombshell had fallen into the group. Rufus Dawes lay on the deck motionless, breathing heavily. The savage circle glared at his prostrate body. The alarm ran round, and all the prison crowded down to stare at him. All at once he uttered a groan, and turning, propped his body on his two rigid arms, and made an effort to speak. But no sound issued from his convulsed jaws.

“He’s done,” said the Moocher brutally. “He didn’t hear nuffin’, I’ll pound it.”

The noise of the heavy bolts shooting back broke the spell. The first detachment were coming down from “exercise.” The door was flung back, and the bayonets of the guard gleamed in a ray of sunshine that shot down the hatchway. This glimpse of sunlight — sparkling at the entrance of the foetid and stifling prison — seemed to mock their miseries. It was as though Heaven laughed at them. By one of those terrible and strange impulses which animate crowds, the mass, turning from the sick man, leapt towards the doorway. The interior of the prison flashed white with suddenly turned faces. The gloom scintillated with rapidly moving hands. “Air! air! Give us air!”

“That’s it!” said Sanders to his companions. “I thought the news would rouse ’em.”

Gabbett — all the savage in his blood stirred by the sight of flashing eyes and wrathful faces — would have thrown himself forward with the rest, but Vetch plucked him back.

“It’ll be over in a moment,” he said. “It’s only a fit they’ve got.” He spoke truly. Through the uproar was heard the rattle of iron on iron, as the guard “stood to their arms,” and the wedge of grey cloth broke, in sudden terror of the levelled muskets.

There was an instant’s pause, and then old Pine walked, unmolested, down the prison and knelt by the body of Rufus Dawes.

The sight of the familiar figure, so calmly performing its familiar duty, restored all that submission to recognized authority which strict discipline begets. The convicts slunk away into their berths, or officiously ran to help “the doctor,” with affectation of intense obedience. The prison was like a schoolroom, into which the master had suddenly returned. “Stand back, my lads! Take him up, two of you, and carry him to the door. The poor fellow won’t hurt you.” His orders were obeyed, and the old man, waiting until his patient had been safely received outside, raised his hand to command attention. “I see you know what I have to tell. The fever has broken out. That man has got it. It is absurd to suppose that no one else will be seized. I might catch it myself. You are much crowded down here, I know; but, my lads, I can’t help that; I didn’t make the ship, you know.” “ ’Ear, ’ear!”

“It is a terrible thing, but you must keep orderly and quiet, and bear it like men. You know what the discipline is, and it is not in my power to alter it. I shall do my best for your comfort, and I look to you to help me.”

Holding his grey head very erect indeed, the brave old fellow passed straight down the line, without looking to the right or left. He had said just enough, and he reached the door amid a chorus of “’Ear, ’ear!” “Bravo!” “True for you, docther!” and so on. But when he got fairly outside, he breathed more freely. He had performed a ticklish task, and he knew it.

“’Ark at ’em,” growled the Moocher from his corner, “a-cheerin’ at the bloody noos!”

“Wait a bit,” said the acuter intelligence of Jemmy Vetch. “Give ’em time. There’ll be three or four more down afore night, and then we’ll see!”

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