Moondyne/The Child's Grave

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Moondyne by John Boyle O'Reilly
The Child's Grave

The Houguemont, chartered by the Government to carry the convicts to West Australia, lay in Portland Roads. She rode within the dark shadow of the gloomy cliff, upon which is built one of the greatest of the English imperial prisons. She was a large, old-fashioned merchant ship, of two thousand tons burden; a slow sailor, but a strong and roomy vessel.

She was fitted in the usual way of convict ships. Her main deck and her lower deck were divided into separate compartments, the dividing walls below being heavy and strong bulkheads, while those on deck were wooden barriers about nine feet high, with side doors, for the passage of the sailors while working the ship. At each of these doors, during the entire voyage, stood two soldiers, with fixed bayonets on their loaded rifles.

The hatch coverings opening to the lower deck, where the convicts were confined, were removed, and around each hatchway, reaching from the upper deck, or roof of the convict's room, to the lower deck or floor, was one immense grating, formed of strong iron bars. This arrangement gave plenty of air and a good deal of light, the only obstruction being the bars.

Seen from below, on the convicts' deck, every hatchway stood in the centre of the ship like a great iron cage, with a door by which the warders entered, and a ladder to reach the upper deck.

The convicts below never tired of looking upwards through the bars, though they could see nothing above but the swaying ropes and sails, and at night the beautiful sky and the stars.

In the forward and smallest compartment of the ship between decks lived the crew, who went up and down by their own hatchway. In the next, and largest compartment, lived the male convicts, three hundred in number. The central compartment was the hospital; and next to this the compartment for the female convicts. The after compartment between decks was occupied by the sixty soldiers who kept guard on the ship.

The main, or upper deck, was divided as follows: the after part, under the poop deck, was occupied by the staterooms for officers and passengers, and the richly-furnished cabin dining room. Forward of this, beginning at the front of the poop, was a division of the deck to which the female convicts were allowed at certain hours of the day. The next section was the deck where the male convicts were allowed to exercise, one hundred at a time, throughout the day.

The fore part of the main deck, running out to the bowsprit like a ^ was roofed in, the angular section taking in the bowsprit. The front of this section, running across the deck, was composed of enormous bars, thicker than a man's arm, like those around the hatches, and within these bars, in sight of the male convicts on deck, were confined the malefactors, or rule-breakers.

This triangular section was the punishment cell of the ship. It was entered by a ponderous door, composed of bars also. Its two rear walls were the acute angle of the ship's bulwarks; its front was the row of bars running from side to side of the vessel, and facing aft on the main deck.

The evil-doers confined here for punishment had neither bed nor seat; they sat upon the deck, and worked at heavy tasks of oakum picking. They could not shirk, for a warder kept sentry outside the cage.

As these refractory ones looked through their bars at the deck, they saw, strapped to the foremast, a black gaff or spar with iron rings, which, when the spar was lowered horizontally, corresponded to rings screwed into the deck.

This was the triangle, where the unruly convicts were triced up and flogged every morning.

Above this triangle, tied around the foremast, was a new and very fine hempen rope, leading away to the end of the foreyard. This was the ultimate appeal—the law's last terrible engine—the halter which swung mutineers and murderers out over the hissing sea to eternity.

The Houguemont had taken on board her terrible cargo. From early dawn the chains had been marching down the steep hill from Portland Prison, and passing on tugs to her deck where the convict officers unlocked their chains, called their rolls, and sent them below to their berths.

Last of all, the female convicts bad come, fifty in number, in five chains.

As they stood huddled on the deck of the transport, answering to their numbers, there were hysterical sounds and wild eyes among them. At last their chains were unlocked, and the female warders handed to each the number of her berth, and sent her below.

Towards the end of one of the chains stood a prisoner with a white face and a strangely calm air. She did not stare around in the dazed way of her unfortunate sisters; but remained on the spot where they bade her stand, motionless. She only turned her head once, with a smile of silent comfort to some unhappy one near her who had made the hysterical sound.

When the key came to her link of the chain and unlocked it, and she stood unshackled, another warder thrust into her band a card, and pushed her towards the hatch. She tottered beneath the rough and needless force, and would have fallen down the open hatchway, had she not caught at a swinging rope, and saved herself. As she recovered, she gave a kind of pitiful short cry or moan, and looked round bewildered, the tears springing to her eyes. The rough and busy warder again approached her, and she shrank aside in terror.

At this moment she felt a soft hand take her own, and hold it tightly. The touch restored her confidence. She turned and met the sweet face and kindly smile of Sister Cecilia. The warder at the same moment respectfully saluted the nun.

"This is my hospital assistant, warder," said Sister Cecilia still holding Alice's hand. "She is to be allowed to go to my room."

"All right, ma'am," said the warder, who, in reality, was not harsh, but only rude and hurried in manner; "pass on, Number Four. Here," she shouted to the next on the chain, "take this card—and down you go, quick!"

And as Alice stood aside with a great sense of relief and thankfulness, and with swimming eyes, the warder whispered to Sister Cecilia: "I'm glad she's not going among 'em—we're all glad on it."

Sister Cecilia, holding Alice's hand, led her along a narrow boarded way, at the end of which was a door opening, into a pleasant room, one side of which was covered with a large medicine case, and off which lay two bright little sleeping rooms. When the door was closed, Sister Cecilia took Alice's white face between her hands with hearty force, and kissed her.

"Thank God, my child!" she cried, "you are safe at last!

Alice could not speak; but she controlled herself, and kept from sobbing. She looked around wonderingly.

"This is my room, Alice," said Sister Cecilia; "my room and yours. This narrow passage is for us alone. It leads straight to the female compartment and the hospital; and no one can come here but you and I—not a soul, for the next four months. Just think of that, child! Look out of that pretty little window, and say 'good-bye' to gloomy old England and her prisons. We'll be all alone till we arrive in Australia— except when we are attending the sick."

Alice Walmsley did not answer in words—her heart overflowed; and the kind little nun led her into the pleasanter sleeping room of the two, and left her, saying that this was her own room for the voyage.

When she had gone, Alice sank on her knees with such a flood of feeling as seemed to melt her very heart. With eyes drowned in tears she raised her hands towards the frowning cliffs of Portland, while her quivering lips moved in yearning words.

She was saying farewell, not to England, but to that which was greater to her than England—to the little spot of earth where lay the body of her dead child. O true heart of motherhood, that never changes, never forgets, never loses the sound of the maternal music, once the immortal key has been struck.

"Good-bye, my darling! O, if I had only one single withered blade of grass to cherish" cried the poor mother; and as she spoke she saw clearly in her mind's eye the little neglected and forgotten grave. "Good-bye, my darling—for ever—for ever!"

She buried her face in the bed, and wept bitterly and long. Sister Cecilia came twice to the room softly, and looked in at the mourner, but did not disturb her. The second time she came, Alice was weeping with bowed head.

Sister Cecilia leant over her, and placed beside her hand a little box, covered with white paper, on which lay a sealed letter. Having done so, the Sister laid her hand caressingly on Alice's head, and withdrew quietly.

It was many minutes before Alice raised her tear-stained face. As she did so, she laid her hand on the little box, and, saw the letter. She did not heed it at first, thinking it was Sister Cecilia's. But another instant, and she had read her own name—"Alice Walmsley"—written on the letter, and in a hand that was strangely familiar. The written name itself was not more familiar than the handwriting.

Something thrilled her as she took the little box in her hand, and opened it. She found within a piece of soft mould, in which some sweet young grass was growing, and on one side a fresh wild flower, that must have been pulled that day.

As she looked, with blurred sight, the meaning of the blessed gift poured into her heart like balm, and her thought rose up to heaven in an ecstasy of gratitude.

She did not need to look at the letter; she divined its contents. But at length she took it, and broke the seal, and read the few words it contained:—

"Dear Alice,—The grass and flowers were growing this morning on your baby's grave. The wild flowers have covered it for years. I have it shall never be neglected nor disturbed."

Yours faithfully

WILLIAM SHERIDAN

An hour later, Sister Cecilia entered the outer room, purposely making a noise to distract Alice's reverie. But she had to come at last and touch her arm, and take the box and the letter from her hands, before Alice realized the revelation that had come to her. She did not see it even then as a whole; but piece by piece in her mind the incredible happiness dawned upon her, that she actually had with her the precious grass, with young life in it, fresh from her darling's grave.

And later on, slowly, but by sure degrees, entered another thought, that rested like a holy thing beside this pure affection.

The last words of the letter repeated themselves like a strain of distant music in her ears: "Yours faithfully—yours faithfully"—and though the sense that was touched had in it a tone of pain and reproach that smote her, it roused her from further dwelling on her own unhappiness.