For the Term of His Natural Life

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marcus clarke

In the breathless stillness of a tropical afternoon, when the air was hot and heavy, and the sky brazen and cloudless, the shadow of the Malabar lay solitary on the surface of the glittering sea.

The sun–who rose on the left hand every morning a blazing ball, to move slowly through the unbearable blue, until he sank fiery red in mingling glories of sky and ocean on the right hand–had just got low 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, with the white water flashing from his wings, rose with a dabbling sound to leeward, and in the place where he had been glided the hideous fin of a silently-swimming shark. The seams of the well-scrubbed deck were sticky with melted pitch, and the brass plate of the compass-case sparkled in the sun like a jewel. There was no breeze, and as the clumsy ship rolled and lurched on the heaving sea, her idle sails flapped against her masts with a regularly recurring noise, and her bowsprit would seem to rise higher with 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, smoking, or watching the fishing-lines hanging over the catheads.

So far the appearance of the vessel differed in no wise from that of an ordinary transport. 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 with doors for ingress and egress, ran across the deck from bulwark to bulwark. Outside this cattle-pen an armed sentry stood on guard; inside, standing, sitting, or walking monotonously, within range of the shining barrels in the arm chest on the poop, 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 hatchway, on the ‘tween decks, and the barricade, continued down, made its side walls.

It was the fag end of the two hours’ exercise graciously permitted each afternoon by His Majesty King George the Fourth to prisoners of the Crown, and the prisoners of the Crown were enjoying themselves. It was not, perhaps, so pleasant as under the awning on the poop-deck, but that sacred shade was only for such great men as the captain and his officers, Surgeon Pine, Lieutenant Maurice Frere, and, most important personages of all, Captain Vickers and his wife.

That the convict leaning against the bulwarks would like to have been able to get rid of his enemy the sun for a moment, was probable enough. His companions, sitting on the combings of the main-hatch, or crouched in careless fashion on the shady side of the barricade, were laughing and talking, with blasphemous and obscene merriment hideous to contemplate; but he, with cap pulled over his brows, and hands thrust into the pockets of his coarse grey garments, held aloof from their dismal joviality.

The sun poured his hottest rays on his head unheeded, and though every cranny and seam in the deck sweltered hot pitch under the fierce heat, the man stood there, motionless and morose, staring at the sleepy sea. He had stood thus, in one place or another, ever since the groaning vessel 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 escaped 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 story of finding on the Heath a dying man would not have availed him, but for the curious fact sworn to by the landlord of the Spaniards’ 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 death for the robbery, and London, who 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 prisons to keep each man’s crime a secret from his fellows, so that if he chose, and the caprice of his gaolers allowed him, he could lead a new life in his adopted home, without being taunted with his former misdeeds. But, like other excellent devices, the expedient was only a nominal one, and few out of the doomed hundred and eighty were ignorant of the offence which their companions had committed. 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 his superior mental abilities, no less than his haughty temper and powerful frame, combined to support. A young man of two-and-twenty owning to no friends, and existing among them but by the fact of his criminality, he was respected and admired. The vilest of all the vile horde penned between decks, if they laughed at his ‘fine airs’ behind his back, cringed and submitted when they met him face to face–for in a convict ship the greatest villain is the greatest hero, and the only nobility acknowledged by that hideous commonwealth is that Order of the Halter which is conferred by the hand of the hangman.

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 voice he started, and went obediently towards the hatchway.

‘Touch your hat, you dog!’ cries Frere, coming to the quarter-railing. ‘Touch your damned hat! Do you hear?’

Rufus Dawes touched his cap, saluting in half military fashion. ‘I’ll make some of you fellows smart, if you don’t have a care,’ went on the angry Frere, half to himself. ‘Insolent blackguards!’

And then the noise of the sentry, on the quarter-deck below him, grounding arms, turned the current of his thoughts. A thin, tall, soldier-like man, with a cold blue eye, and prim features, came out of the cuddy below, handing out a fair-haired, affected, mincing lady, of middle age. Captain Vickers, 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.

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