For the Term of His Natural Life

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CHAPTER1

I. THE PRISON SHIP. In the breathless stillness of a tropical afternoon, when the air was hot and heavy, and the sky b razen and cloudless, th e shadow of the Malabar lay solitary on the surface of the glittering s ea. The sun?w ho rose on the left hand every morning a blazing ball, to move slowly through the unbeara ble blue, until he sank fiery red in mingling glories of sky and ocean on the right hand?had just got l ow enough to peep beneath the awning that covered the poop-deck, and awaken a young man, in an undress military uniform, who was dozing on a coil of rope. ?Hang it!? said he, rising and stretching himself, with the weary sigh of a man who has nothing to do, ?I must have been asleep; and then, holding by a stay, he turned about and looked down into the waist of the ship. Save for the man at the wheel and the guard at the quarter-railing, he was alone on the deck. A few birds flew round about the vessel, and seemed to pass under her stern windows only to appear again at her bows. A lazy albatross, wi th the w hite water flashing from his wings, rose with a dabbling sound to leeward, and in the place where he h ad been gli ded the hid eous fin of a silently- 24 of 898 For the Term of His Natural Life swimming shark. The seams of the well-scrubbed deck were sticky with melted pitch, and the brass plate of the compass-case sparkled in th e sun like a jewel. There was no breeze, and as the clumsy ship rolled and lurched on the heaving sea, her idle sails flapp ed against h er masts with a regularly recurrin g noise, and her bowsprit would seem to rise higher wit h the water?s swell, to dip again with a jerk that made each rope tremble and tauten. On the forecastle, some half-dozen soldiers, in all varieties of undress, were playing at cards, smo king, or watching th e fishing-lines hanging over the catheads. So far the a ppearance o f the vessel differed in no wise from that of an ordinary tr ansport. But in the waist a curious sight presented itself. It was as though one had built a cattle -pen there. At the foot of the foremast, and at the quarter-deck, a strong barricade, loop-holed and furnished wi th doors for ingress and egress, ran across the deck from bulwark to bulwark. Outside this ca ttle-pen an armed sentry stood on guard; in side, standing, sitting, or walking monotonously, within range of the shining barrels in the arm chest on the poo p, were some sixty men and boys, dressed in uniform grey. The men and boys were prisoners of the Crown, and the cattle-pen was their exercise ground. Their prison was down the main 25 of 898 For the Term of His Natural Life hatchw ay, on the ?tween decks, and the barricade, continued down, made its side walls. It was the fag end of the tw o hours? exercise graciously permitted each afternoon by Hi s Maj esty King George the Fourth to pr isoners of the Crown, and the prisoners of the Crown were enjoying themselves. It was n ot, p erhaps, so pleasant as under the awning on the poop-deck, but that sacred shade was only for such great men as the captai n and his officers, Surgeon Pine, Lieutenant Maurice Frere, and, most i mportant pe rsonages of all, Captain Vickers and his wife. That the co nvict leanin g against the bulwarks would like to have been able to get rid of his enemy the sun for a moment, w as probable enough. His companions, sitting on the co mbings of the main- hatch, or crouched in careless fashi on on the shady side of the barricade, were laughing and talking, with blasphemous and obscene merriment hideous to cont emplate; but he, with cap pulled over his brows, and hands thr ust into the pockets of his coarse grey garment s, held aloof from their dismal joviality. The sun poured his hottest rays on his head unheeded, and though every cranny and se am in the deck sweltered hot pitch under the fierce heat, the man stood there, 26 of 898 For the Term of His Natural Life motionless a nd morose, staring at th e sleepy sea. He had stood thus, in one pl ace or another, ever since the groaning ves sel had escaped from the rollers of the Bay of Biscay, and the miserable hundred and eighty creatures among whom he was classed had been freed from their irons, and allowed to sniff fresh air twice a day. The low-browed, coarse-featured ruffians grouped about the deck cast many a leer of contempt at the solitary figure, but their remarks were confined to gestures only. There are degrees in crime, and Rufus Dawes, the convicted felon, who had but escape d the gallows to toil for all his life in irons, was a man of mark. He had been tried for the robbery and murder of Lord Bellasis. The friendless vagabond?s lame sto ry of finding on the Heath a dying man would not have avail ed him, but for the curious fact sworn to by the landlord of the Spani ards? Inn, that the murdered nobleman had shaken his head when asked if the prisoner was his assassin. The vagabond was acquitted of the murder, but condemned to de ath for the robbery, and London, w ho took some interest in the trial, considered him fortunate when his sentence was commuted to transportation for life. It was customary on board these floating pr isons to keep each man?s crime a secret from his fellow s, so tha t if 27 of 898 For the Term of His Natural Life he chose, and the caprice of his gaolers allowed him, he could lead a new life in his adopted home, without being taunted wi th his former misdeeds. B ut, like othe r excellent devices, the expedient was only a nominal one, and few out of the d oomed hundred and eighty were ignorant of the offence which their compani ons had commi tted. The more guilty boasted of their superiority in vice; the petty criminals swore that their guilt was blacker than it appeared. Moreover, a deed so bloodthirsty and a respite so unexpected, had invested the name of Rufus Dawes with a grim distinction, which hi s superior mental abilities, no less than his haug hty temper and powe rful frame, combined to support. A young man of two-and-twenty owning to no friends, and e xisting a mong them but by the fact of his criminality, he wa s respected and admi red. The vilest of all the vile horde penned between decks, if they laughed at his ?fine airs? be hind his back, cri nged and submitted when they met him face to face?for in a convict ship the greatest villa in is the greatest hero, and the only nobility acknowledged by that hideous commonwealth is that Ord er of the Halter which is conferred by the hand of the hangman. 28 of 898 For the Term of His Natural Life The young man on the poop caught sight of the tall figure leaning against the bulwarks, and it gave him an excuse to break the monotony of his employment. ?Here, you!? he called with an oath, ?get out of the gangway! ?Rufus Dawes was not in the gangway?was, in fact, a good two feet from it, but at the sound of Lieutenant Frere?s voic e he sta rted, and went obediently towards the hatchw ay. ?Touch your hat, you dog!? cries Frere, coming to the quarter-railing. ?Touch your damned hat! Do you hear?? Rufus Daw es touched his cap, saluting in hal f military fashion. ?I?ll make so me of you fellows sm art, if you don?t have a care, ? went on the angry Frere, half to himself. ?Insolent blackguards!? And then th e noise of the sentry, on the quarter-deck below him, grounding arms, turned the current of his thoughts. A thin, tall, soldi er-like man, with a cold blue eye, and prim features, ca me out of the cuddy below, handing out a fair-haired, affected, mincing lady, of middle age. Captain V ickers, of Mr. Frere?s regiment, ordered for service in Van Diemen?s Land, was bringing his lady on deck to get an appetite for dinner. Mrs. Vickers was forty -two (she owned to thirty- three), and had been a garrison-belle for eleven weary 29 of 898 For the Term of His Natural Life years before she married prim John Vickers. The marriage was not a happy one. Vickers found his wife ext ravagant, vain, and snappish, and she found him harsh, disenchanted, and commonplace. A daughter, born two years after their marriage, was the only link that bound the ill-assorted pair. Vickers idolized little Sylvia, and when the recommendation of a long sea-voyage for his failing health induced him to e xchange into the ? th, he insisted upon bringing the child with him, despite Mrs. Vickers?s reiterated objections on th e score of educational difficulties. ?He could educate her himself, if need be,? he said; ?and she should not stay at home.? So Mrs. Vickers, after a hard struggle, gave up the point and her dreams of Bath togethe r, and followed her husband wi th the best grace she coul d muster. When fairly out to sea she seemed reconciled to her fate, and employed the intervals between scolding her daughter and her maid, in fascinating the boorish young Lieutenant, Maurice Frere. Fascination was an integral portion of Julia Vi ckers?s nature; admiration was all she lived for: and even in a convict ship , with her husband at her elbow, she mus t flirt, or peris h of mental inanition. There was no harm in the creature. She was simply a vain, middle-aged woman, 30 of 898 For the Term of His Natural Life and Frere took her attentions for what they were worth. Moreover, her good feeling towards him was useful, for reasons which will shortly appear. Running down the ladder, cap in hand, he offered her his assi stan ce. ?Thank you, Mr. Frere. These horrid ladders. I really? he, he?quite tremble at them . Ho t! Yes, dear me, most oppressive. John, the camp-stool. Pray, Mr. Frere?oh, thank you! Sylvia! Sylvia! John, have you my smelling salts? Still a calm, I suppose? These dreadful calms!? This semi-fa shionable sli p-slop, with in twenty y ards of the wild beasts? den, on the other side of the barricade, sounded str ange; but Mr. Frere t hought nothing of it. Familiarity destroys terror, and the incurable flirt, fluttered her muslins, and played off her second-rate graces, under the noses of the grinning conv icts, wi th as mu ch complacency as if she had been in a Chatham b all-room. Indeed, if t here had b een nobody else near, it is not unlikely that she would have disdainfully fascinated the ?tween-decks, and made eyes at the most presentable of the convicts there. Vickers, with a bow to Frere, saw his wife up the ladder, and t hen turned f or his daughter. 31 of 898 For the Term of His Natural Life She was a delicate-looking ch ild of six years old, with blue eyes and bright hair. T hough indulged by her father, and spoiled by her mother, the natural sweetness of her disposition saved her from being disagreeable, and the effects of her education as yet only sh owed themselves in a thousand i mperious prettinesses, which mad e her the darling of the ship. Little Miss Sy lvia was privileged to go anywhere and do anything, and even convictism shut its foul mouth in her presence. Runni ng to her father?s side, the child chattered with all th e volubility of flattered self- esteem. She ran hith er and thither, asked questions, invented answers, laughed, sang, gambolled, peered into the compa ss-case, felt i n the pockets of the man at the helm, put her tiny hand into the big palm of the officer of the watch, even ran down to the quarter-deck and pulled the coat-tails of the sentry on duty. At last, tired of running about , she took a little striped leather ball from the bosom of her frock, and call ing to her father, threw it up to him as he stood on the poop. He returned it, and, shouting with laughter, clapping her hands between each throw, the child kept up the game. The convicts?whose slice of fresh air was nearly eaten?turned with eagerness to watch thi s new source of amusement. Innocent laughter and childish prattle were 32 of 898 For the Term of His Natural Life strange to them. Some smiled, and nodded with interest in the varying fortunes of the game. One young lad could hardly restrain himself fr om applaudi ng. It was as though, out of the sultry heat which brooded over the ship, a cool breeze had suddenly arisen. In the mid st of thi s mi rth, the o fficer of the watch, glancing round the fast cri msoni ng horizon, paused abruptly, and shading his eyes with his hand, looked out intently to the westward. Frere, who found Mrs. Vickers?s conversation a little tiresome, and had been glancing from time to ti me at the compani on, as thoug h in expectati on of someone appearing, noticed the action. ?What is it, Mr. Best?? ?I don?t know exactly. It looks to me like a cloud of smoke.? And , taking the glass, he swept the horizon. ?Let me see,? said Frere; a nd he looked also. On the extreme horizon, just to the left of the si nking sun, rested, or seemed to rest, a tiny black clo ud. The gold and crimson, splashed all about the sky, had overflowed around it, and rendered a clear view a lmost imp ossible. ?I can?t quite make it out ,? says Frere, handing back the telescope. ?We can see as soon as the sun goe s down a little.? 33 of 898 For the Term of His Natural Life Then Mrs. Vickers must, of course, look al so, a nd wa s prettily affected about the foc us of the glass, applying herself to that instrument wit h much girlish giggling, and finally declaring, after shutting one eye with her fair hand, that p ositivel y she ?could see nothing but sky, and believed that wicked Mr. Frere was doing it on purpose.? By and by, Captain Blunt appeared, and, taking the glass from hi s officer, looked through it long and carefully. Then the mizentop was appealed to, and declared that he could see nothing; and at la st the sun went down with a jerk, as though it had slipped through a sli t in the sea, and the black sp ot, swall owed up in the gathering haze, was seen no more. As the sun sank, the relief guard came up the after hatchway, and the relieved guard p repared to superintend the descent of the convi cts. At this moment Syl via missed her ball, which, taking advantage of a sudden lur ch of the vessel, hopped over the barricade, and rolled to the feet of Rufus Daw es, who was still leaning, apparently lost in thought, against the side. The bright spot of colour rolling across the white deck caught his eye; stooping mechani call y, he picked up the ball, and ste pped forward to return it. The door of the barricade was open and the sentr y?a young soldier, 34 of 898 For the Term of His Natural Life occupied in staring at the relief guard?did not notice the prisoner pass through it. In another instant he w as on the sacred quarter-deck. Heated with the game, her cheek s aglow, her eyes sparkling, her golden hair afloat, Sylvia had turned to leap after her plaything, but even as she turned, from under the shadow of the cuddy glided a rounded white arm; and a shapely hand caught the child by the sash and drew her back. The next mome nt the you ng man in grey had placed the toy in her hand. Maurice Frere, descending the poop ladder, had not witnessed this little incident; on reaching the deck, he saw only the unexplained presence of the convict uniform. ?Thank you,? said a voice, as Rufus Dawes stooped before the pouting Sylvia. The convict raised his eyes and saw a young girl of eighteen or nineteen years of age, tall , and well d eveloped, who, dressed in a loose-sleeved robe of some white material, was standi ng in the doorway. She had black hair, coiled around a narrow and flat head, a small foot, white skin, well-shaped hands, and large dark eyes, and as she smiled at him, her scarlet lips showed her white even teeth. 35 of 898 For the Term of His Natural Life He knew her at once. She was Sarah Purfoy, Mrs. Vickers?s maid, but he never had been so close to her before; and it seemed to him that he was in the presence of some strange tropical flower, which exhaled a heavy and intoxicating perfume. For an instant the two l ooked at each other, and then Rufus Daw es was seized from behi nd by his collar, and flung with a shock upon the deck. Leaping to his feet, his first impulse was to rush upon his a ssaila nt, but he saw the ready bayonet of the sentry gleam, and he checked himself with an effort, for his assailant was Mr. Maurice Frere. ?What the devil do you do here?? asked the gentleman with an oath. ?You lazy, sku lking hound, what brings you here? If I catch you putting your foot on the quarter-deck again, I?ll give you a week in irons!? Rufus Dawe s, pale with rage and mortification, opened his mouth to justify himself, but he allowed the words to die on his lips. What was the use? ?Go down below, and remember what I?ve told you,? cried Frere; and comprehending at once what had occurred, he made a mental minute of the name of the defaulting sentry. The convict, wiping the blood from his face, turned on his heel without a word, and went back thr ough the 36 of 898 For the Term of His Natural Life strong oak door into his den. Frere leant forward and took the girl?s shapely hand with an easy g esture, but she drew it away, with a flash of her black eyes . ?You coward!? she said. The stolid soldier close beside them heard it, a nd his eye twinkled. Frere bit his thic k lips with mortification, as he followed the girl into the cuddy. Sarah Purfoy, however, taking the astonished Sylvia by the hand, glided into her mi stress?s cabin with a scornful laugh, and shut the door behind her. 37 of 898 For the Term of His Natural Life
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