For the Term of His Natural Life/Book II/Chapter VII
Chapter VII: The Last of MacQuarie Harbour
Rufus Dawes was believed to be dead by the party on board the Ladybird, and his strange escape was unknown to those still at Sarah Island. Maurice Frere, if he bestowed a thought upon the refractory prisoner of the Rock, believed him to be safely stowed in the hold of the schooner, and already half-way to Hobart Town; while not one of the eighteen persons on board the Osprey suspected that the boat which had put off for the marooned man had returned without him. Indeed the party had little leisure for thought; Mr. Frere, eager to prove his ability and energy, was making strenuous exertions to get away, and kept his unlucky ten so hard at work that within a week from the departure of the Ladybird the Osprey was ready for sea. Mrs. Vickers and the child, having watched with some excusable regret the process of demolishing their old home, had settled down in their small cabin in the brig, and on the evening of the 11th of January, Mr. Bates, the pilot, who acted as master, informed the crew that Lieutenant Frere had given orders to weigh anchor at daybreak.
At daybreak accordingly the brig set sail, with a light breeze from the south-west, and by three o'clock in the afternoon anchored safely outside the Gates. Unfortunately the wind shifted to the north-west, which caused a heavy swell on the bar, and prudent Mr. Bates, having consideration for Mrs. Vickers and the child, ran back ten miles into Wellington Bay, and anchored there again at seven o'clock in the morning. The tide was running strongly, and the brig rolled a good deal. Mrs. Vickers kept to her cabin, and sent Sylvia to entertain Lieutenant Frere. Sylvia went, but was not entertaining. She had conceived for Frere one of those violent antipathies which children sometimes own without reason, and since the memorable night of the apology had been barely civil to him. In vain did he pet her and compliment her, she was not to be flattered into liking him. "I do not like you, sir," she said in her stilted fashion, "but that need make no difference to you. You occupy yourself with your prisoners; I can amuse myself without you, thank you." "Oh, all right," said Frere, "I don't want to interfere"; but he felt a little nettled nevertheless. On this particular evening the young lady relaxed her severity of demeanour. Her father away, and her mother sick, the little maiden felt lonely, and as a last resource accepted her mother's commands and went to Frere. He was walking up and down the deck, smoking.
"Mr. Frere, I am sent to talk to you."
"Are you? All right—go on."
"Oh dear, no. It is the gentleman's place to entertain. Be amusing!"
"Come and sit down then," said Frere, who was in good humour at the success of his arrangements. "What shall we talk about?"
"You stupid man! As if I knew! It is your place to talk. Tell me a fairy story."
"'Jack and the Beanstalk'?" suggested Frere.
"Jack and the grandmother! Nonsense. Make one up out of your head, you know."
"I can't," he said. "I never did such a thing in my life."
"Then why not begin? I shall go away if you don't begin."
Frere rubbed his brows. "Well, have you read—have you read 'Robinson Crusoe?'"—as if the idea was a brilliant one.
"Of course I have," returned Sylvia, pouting. "Read it?—yes. Everybody's read 'Robinson Crusoe!'"
"Oh, have they? Well, I didn't know; let me see now." And pulling hard at his pipe, he plunged into literary reflection.
Sylvia, sitting beside him, eagerly watching for the happy thought that never came, pouted and said, "What a stupid, stupid man you are! I shall be so glad to get back to papa again. He knows all sorts of stories, nearly as many as old Danny."
"Danny knows some, then?"
"Danny!"—with as much surprise as if she said "Walter Scott!" "Of course he does. I suppose now," putting her head on one side, with an amusing expression of superiority, "you never heard the story of the 'Banshee'?"
"No, I never did."
"Nor the 'White Horse of the Peppers'?"
"No, I suppose not. Nor the 'Changeling'? nor the 'Leprechaun'?" "No."
Sylvia got off the skylight on which she had been sitting, and surveyed the smoking animal beside her with profound contempt.
"Mr. Frere, you are really a most ignorant person. Excuse me if I hurt your feelings; I have no wish to do that; but really you are a most ignorant person—for your age, of course."
Maurice Frere grew a little angry. "You are very impertinent, Sylvia," said he.
"Miss Vickers is my name, Lieutenant Frere, and I shall go and talk to Mr. Bates."
Which threat she carried out on the spot; and Mr. Bates, who had filled the dangerous office of pilot, told her about divers and coral reefs, and some adventures of his—a little apocryphal—in the China Seas. Frere resumed his smoking, half angry with himself, and half angry with the provoking little fairy. This elfin creature had a fascination for him which he could not account for.
However, he saw no more of her that evening, and at breakfast the next morning she received him with quaint haughtiness.
"When shall we be ready to sail? Mr. Frere, I'll take some marmalade. Thank you."
"I don't know, missy," said Bates. "It's very rough on the Bar; me and Mr. Frere was a soundin' of it this marnin', and it ain't safe yet."
"Well," said Sylvia, "I do hope and trust we sha'n't be shipwrecked, and have to swim miles and miles for our lives."
"Ho, ho!" laughed Frere; "don't be afraid. I'll take care of you."
"Can you swim, Mr. Bates?" asked Sylvia.
"Yes, miss, I can."
"Well, then, you shall take me; I like you. Mr. Frere can take mamma. We'll go and live on a desert island, Mr. Bates, won't we, and grow cocoa-nuts and bread-fruit, and—what nasty hard biscuits!— I'll be Robinson Crusoe, and you shall be Man Friday. I'd like to live on a desert island, if I was sure there were no savages, and plenty to eat and drink."
"That would be right enough, my dear, but you don't find them sort of islands every day."
"Then," said Sylvia, with a decided nod, "we won't be ship-wrecked, will we?"
"I hope not, my dear."
"Put a biscuit in your pocket, Sylvia, in case of accidents," suggested Frere, with a grin.
"Oh! you know my opinion of you, sir. Don't speak; I don't want any argument".
"Don't you?—that's right."
"Mr. Frere," said Sylvia, gravely pausing at her mother's cabin door, "if I were Richard the Third, do you know what I should do with you?"
"No," says Frere, eating complacently; "what would you do?"
"Why, I'd make you stand at the door of St. Paul's Cathedral in a white sheet, with a lighted candle in your hand, until you gave up your wicked aggravating ways—you Man!"
The picture of Mr. Frere in a white sheet, with a lighted candle in his hand, at the door of St. Paul's Cathedral, was too much for Mr. Bates's gravity, and he roared with laughter. "She's a queer child, ain't she, sir? A born natural, and a good-natured little soul."
"When shall we be able to get away, Mr. Bates?" asked Frere, whose dignity was wounded by the mirth of the pilot.
Bates felt the change of tone, and hastened to accommodate himself to his officer's humour. "I hopes by evening, sir," said he; "if the tide slackens then I'll risk it; but it's no use trying it now."
"The men were wanting to go ashore to wash their clothes," said Frere.
"If we are to stop here till evening, you had better let them go after dinner."
"All right, sir," said Bates.
The afternoon passed off auspiciously. The ten prisoners went ashore and washed their clothes. Their names were James Barker, James Lesly, John Lyon, Benjamin Riley, William Cheshire, Henry Shiers, William Russen, James Porter, John Fair, and John Rex.
This last scoundrel had come on board latest of all. He had behaved himself a little better recently, and during the work attendant upon the departure of the Ladybird, had been conspicuously useful. His intelligence and influence among his fellow-prisoners combined to make him a somewhat important personage, and Vickers had allowed him privileges from which he had been hitherto debarred. Mr. Frere, however, who superintended the shipment of some stores, seemed to be resolved to take advantage of Rex's evident willingness to work. He never ceased to hurry and find fault with him. He vowed that he was lazy, sulky, or impertinent. It was "Rex, come here! Do this! Do that!" As the prisoners declared among themselves, it was evident that Mr. Frere had a "down" on the "Dandy". The day before the Ladybird sailed, Rex—rejoicing in the hope of speedy departure—had suffered himself to reply to some more than usually galling remark and Mr. Frere had complained to Vickers. "The fellow's too ready to get away," said he. "Let him stop for the Osprey, it will be a lesson to him."
Vickers assented, and John Rex was informed that he was not to sail with the first party. His comrades vowed that this order was an act of tyranny; but he himself said nothing. He only redoubled his activity, and—despite all his wish to the contrary—Frere was unable to find fault. He even took credit to himself for "taming" the convict's spirit, and pointed out Rex—silent and obedient—as a proof of the excellence of severe measures. To the convicts, however, who knew John Rex better, this silent activity was ominous.
He returned with the rest, however, on the evening of the 13th, in apparently cheerful mood. Indeed Mr. Frere, who, wearied by the delay, had decided to take the whale-boat in which the prisoners had returned, and catch a few fish before dinner, observed him laughing with some of the others, and again congratulated himself.
The time wore on. Darkness was closing in, and Mr. Bates, walking the deck, kept a look-out for the boat, with the intention of weighing anchor and making for the Bar. All was secure. Mrs. Vickers and the child were safely below. The two remaining soldiers (two had gone with Frere) were upon deck, and the prisoners in the forecastle were singing. The wind was fair, and the sea had gone down. In less than an hour the Osprey would be safely outside the harbour.