For the Term of His Natural Life/Book I/Chapter VIII
Chapter VIII: A Dangerous Crisis
It was late in the afternoon when Sarah Purfoy awoke from her uneasy slumber. She had been dreaming of the deed she was about to do, and was flushed and feverish; but, mindful of the consequences which hung upon the success or failure of the enterprise, she rallied herself, bathed her face and hands, and ascended with as calm an air as she could assume to the poop-deck.
Nothing was changed since yesterday. The sentries' arms glittered in the pitiless sunshine, the ship rolled and creaked on the swell of the dreamy sea, and the prison-cage on the lower deck was crowded with the same cheerless figures, disposed in the attitudes of the day before. Even Mr. Maurice Frere, recovered from his midnight fatigues, was lounging on the same coil of rope, in precisely the same position.
Yet the eye of an acute observer would have detected some difference beneath this outward varnish of similarity. The man at the wheel looked round the horizon more eagerly, and spit into the swirling, unwholesome-looking water with a more dejected air than before. The fishing-lines still hung dangling over the catheads, but nobody touched them. The soldiers and sailors on the forecastle, collected in knots, had no heart even to smoke, but gloomily stared at each other. Vickers was in the cuddy writing; Blunt was in his cabin; and Pine, with two carpenters at work under his directions, was improvising increased hospital accommodation. The noise of mallet and hammer echoed in the soldiers' berth ominously; the workmen might have been making coffins. The prison was strangely silent, with the lowering silence which precedes a thunderstorm; and the convicts on deck no longer told stories, nor laughed at obscene jests, but sat together, moodily patient, as if waiting for something. Three men—two prisoners and a soldier—had succumbed since Rufus Dawes had been removed to the hospital; and though as yet there had been no complaint or symptom of panic, the face of each man, soldier, sailor, or prisoner, wore an expectant look, as though he wondered whose turn would come next. On the ship—rolling ceaselessly from side to side, like some wounded creature, on the opaque profundity of that stagnant ocean—a horrible shadow had fallen. The Malabar seemed to be enveloped in an electric cloud, whose sullen gloom a chance spark might flash into a blaze that should consume her.
The woman who held in her hands the two ends of the chain that would produce this spark, paused, came up upon deck, and, after a glance round, leant against the poop railing, and looked down into the barricade. As we have said, the prisoners were in knots of four and five, and to one group in particular her glance was directed. Three men, leaning carelessly against the bulwarks, watched her every motion.
"There she is, right enough," growled Mr. Gabbett, as if in continuation of a previous remark. "Flash as ever, and looking this way, too."
"I don't see no wipe," said the practical Moocher.
"Patience is a virtue, most noble knuckler!" says the Crow, with affected carelessness. "Give the young woman time."
"Blowed if I'm going to wait no longer," says the giant, licking his coarse blue lips. "'Ere we've been bluffed off day arter day, and kep' dancin' round the Dandy's wench like a parcel o' dogs. The fever's aboard, and we've got all ready. What's the use o' waitin'? Orfice, or no orfice, I'm for bizness at once!——"
"——There, look at that," he added, with an oath, as the figure of Maurice Frere appeared side by side with that of the waiting-maid, and the two turned away up the deck together.
"It's all right, you confounded muddlehead!" cried the Crow, losing patience with his perverse and stupid companion. "How can she give us the office with that cove at her elbow?"
Gabbett's only reply to this question was a ferocious grunt, and a sudden elevation of his clenched fist, which caused Mr. Vetch to retreat precipitately. The giant did not follow; and Mr. Vetch, folding his arms, and assuming an attitude of easy contempt, directed his attention to Sarah Purfoy. She seemed an object of general attraction, for at the same moment a young soldier ran up the ladder to the forecastle, and eagerly bent his gaze in her direction.
Maurice Frere had come behind her and touched her on the shoulder. Since their conversation the previous evening, he had made up his mind to be fooled no longer. The girl was evidently playing with him, and he would show her that he was not to be trifled with.
"Well, Mr. Frere," dropping her hand, and turning round with a smile.
"How well you are looking to-day! Positively lovely!"
"You have told me that so often," says she, with a pout. "Have you nothing else to say?"
"Except that I love you." This in a most impassioned manner.
"That is no news. I know you do."
"Curse it, Sarah, what is a fellow to do?" His profligacy was failing him rapidly. "What is the use of playing fast and loose with a fellow this way?"
"A 'fellow' should be able to take care of himself, Mr. Frere. I didn't ask you to fall in love with me, did I? If you don't please me, it is not your fault, perhaps."
"What do you mean?"
"You soldiers have so many things to think of—your guards and sentries, and visits and things. You have no time to spare for a poor woman like me."
"Spare!" cries Frere, in amazement. "Why, damme, you won't let a fellow spare! I'd spare fast enough, if that was all."
She cast her eyes down to the deck and a modest flush rose in her cheeks. "I have so much to do," she said, in a half-whisper. "There are so many eyes upon me, I cannot stir without being seen."
She raised her head as she spoke, and to give effect to her words, looked round the deck. Her glance crossed that of the young soldier on the forecastle, and though the distance was too great for her to distinguish his features, she guessed who he was—Miles was jealous. Frere, smiling with delight at her change of manner, came close to her, and whispered in her ear. She affected to start, and took the opportunity of exchanging a signal with the Crow.
"I will come at eight o'clock," said she, with modestly averted face.
"They relieve the guard at eight," he said deprecatingly.
She tossed her head. "Very well, then, attend to your guard; I don't care."
"But, Sarah, consider——"
"As if a woman in love ever considers!" said she, turning upon him a burning glance, which in truth might have melted a more icy man than he.
——She loved him then! What a fool he would be to refuse. To get her to come was the first object; how to make duty fit with pleasure would be considered afterwards. Besides, the guard could relieve itself for once without his supervision.
"Very well, at eight then, dearest."
"Hush!" said she. "Here comes that stupid captain."
And as Frere left her, she turned, and with her eyes fixed on the convict barricade, dropped the handkerchief she held in her hand over the poop railing. It fell at the feet of the amorous captain, and with a quick upward glance, that worthy fellow picked it up, and brought it to her.
"Oh, thank you, Captain Blunt," said she, and her eyes spoke more than her tongue.
"Did you take the laudanum?" whispered Blunt, with a twinkle in his eye.
"Some of it," said she. "I will bring you back the bottle to-night."
Blunt walked aft, humming cheerily, and saluted Frere with a slap on the back. The two men laughed, each at his own thoughts, but their laughter only made the surrounding gloom seem deeper than before.
Sarah Purfoy, casting her eyes toward the barricade, observed a change in the position of the three men. They were together once more, and the Crow, having taken off his prison cap, held it at arm's length with one hand, while he wiped his brow with the other. Her signal had been observed.
During all this, Rufus Dawes, removed to the hospital, was lying flat on his back, staring at the deck above him, trying to think of something he wanted to say.
When the sudden faintness, which was the prelude to his sickness, had overpowered him, he remembered being torn out of his bunk by fierce hands—remembered a vision of savage faces, and the presence of some danger that menaced him. He remembered that, while lying on his blankets, struggling with the coming fever, he had overheard a conversation of vital importance to himself and to the ship, but of the purport of that conversation he had not the least idea. In vain he strove to remember—in vain his will, struggling with delirium, brought back snatches and echoes of sense; they slipped from him again as fast as caught. He was oppressed with the weight of half-recollected thought. He knew that a terrible danger menaced him; that could he but force his brain to reason connectedly for ten consecutive minutes, he could give such information as would avert that danger, and save the ship. But, lying with hot head, parched lips, and enfeebled body, he was as one possessed—he could move nor hand nor foot.
The place where he lay was but dimly lighted. The ingenuity of Pine had constructed a canvas blind over the port, to prevent the sun striking into the cabin, and this blind absorbed much of the light. He could but just see the deck above his head, and distinguish the outlines of three other berths, apparently similar to his own. The only sounds that broke the silence were the gurgling of the water below him, and the Tap tap, Tap tap, of Pine's hammers at work upon the new partition. By and by the noise of these hammers ceased, and then the sick man could hear gasps, and moans, and mutterings—the signs that his companions yet lived.
All at once a voice called out, "Of course his bills are worth four hundred pounds; but, my good sir, four hundred pounds to a man in my position is not worth the getting. Why, I've given four hundred pounds for a freak of my girl Sarah! Is it right, eh, Jezebel? She's a good girl, though, as girls go. Mrs. Lionel Crofton, of the Crofts, Sevenoaks, Kent—Sevenoaks, Kent—Seven——"
A gleam of light broke in on the darkness which wrapped Rufus Dawes's tortured brain. The man was John Rex, his berth mate. With an effort he spoke.
"Yes, yes. I'm coming; don't be in a hurry. The sentry's safe, and the howitzer is but five paces from the door. A rush upon deck, lads, and she's ours! That is, mine. Mine and my wife's, Mrs. Lionel Crofton, of Seven Crofts, no oaks—Sarah Purfoy, lady's-maid and nurse—ha! ha!—lady's-maid and nurse!"
This last sentence contained the name-clue to the labyrinth in which Rufus Dawes's bewildered intellects were wandering. "Sarah Purfoy!" He remembered now each detail of the conversation he had so strangely overheard, and how imperative it was that he should, without delay, reveal the plot that threatened the ship. How that plot was to be carried out, he did not pause to consider; he was conscious that he was hanging over the brink of delirium, and that, unless he made himself understood before his senses utterly deserted him, all was lost.
He attempted to rise, but found that his fever-thralled limbs refused to obey the impulse of his will. He made an effort to speak, but his tongue clove to the roof of his mouth, and his jaws stuck together. He could not raise a finger nor utter a sound. The boards over his head waved like a shaken sheet, and the cabin whirled round, while the patch of light at his feet bobbed up and down like the reflection from a wavering candle. He closed his eyes with a terrible sigh of despair, and resigned himself to his fate. At that instant the sound of hammering ceased, and the door opened. It was six o'clock, and Pine had come to have a last look at his patients before dinner. It seemed that there was somebody with him, for a kind, though somewhat pompous, voice remarked upon the scantiness of accommodation, and the "necessity—the absolute necessity" of complying with the King's Regulations.
Honest Vickers, though agonized for the safety of his child, would not abate a jot of his duty, and had sternly come to visit the sick men, aware as he was that such a visit would necessitate his isolation from the cabin where his child lay. Mrs. Vickers—weeping and bewailing herself coquettishly at garrison parties—had often said that "poor dear John was such a disciplinarian, quite a slave to the service."
"Here they are," said Pine; "six of 'em. This fellow"—going to the side of Rex—"is the worst. If he had not a constitution like a horse, I don't think he could live out the night."
"Three, eighteen, seven, four," muttered Rex; "dot and carry one. Is that an occupation for a gentleman? No, sir. Good night, my lord, good night. Hark! The clock is striking nine; five, six, seven, eight! Well, you've had your day, and can't complain."
"A dangerous fellow," says Pine, with the light upraised. "A very dangerous fellow—that is, he was. This is the place, you see—a regular rat-hole; but what can one do?"
"Come, let us get on deck," said Vickers, with a shudder of disgust.
Rufus Dawes felt the sweat break out into beads on his forehead. They suspected nothing. They were going away. He must warn them. With a violent effort, in his agony he turned over in the bunk and thrust out his hand from the blankets.
"Hullo! what's this?" cried Pine, bringing the lantern to bear upon it. "Lie down, my man. Eh!—water, is it? There, steady with it now"; and he lifted a pannikin to the blackened, froth-fringed lips. The cool draught moistened his parched gullet, and the convict made a last effort to speak.
"Sarah Purfoy—to-night—the prison—MUTINY!"
The last word, almost shrieked out, in the sufferer's desperate efforts to articulate, recalled the wandering senses of John Rex.
"Hush!" he cried. "Is that you, Jemmy? Sarah's right. Wait till she gives the word."
"He's raving," said Vickers.
Pine caught the convict by the shoulder. "What do you say, my man? A mutiny of the prisoners!"
With his mouth agape and his hands clenched, Rufus Dawes, incapable of further speech, made a last effort to nod assent, but his head fell upon his breast; the next moment, the flickering light, the gloomy prison, the eager face of the doctor, and the astonished face of Vickers, vanished from before his straining eyes. He saw the two men stare at each other, in mingled incredulity and alarm, and then he was floating down the cool brown river of his boyhood, on his way—in company with Sarah Purfoy and Lieutenant Frere—to raise the mutiny of the Hydaspes, that lay on the stocks in the old house at Hampstead.