For the Term of His Natural Life/Book II/Chapter VIII

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117436For the Term of His Natural Life — Book II, Chapter VIIIMarcus Clarke

Chapter VIII: The Power of the Wilderness


The drifting log that had so strangely served as a means of saving Rufus Dawes swam with the current that was running out of the bay. For some time the burden that it bore was an insensible one. Exhausted with his desperate struggle for life, the convict lay along the rough back of this Heaven-sent raft without motion, almost without breath. At length a violent shock awoke him to consciousness, and he perceived that the log had become stranded on a sandy point, the extremity of which was lost in darkness. Painfully raising himself from his uncomfortable posture, he staggered to his feet, and crawling a few paces up the beach, flung himself upon the ground and slept.

When morning dawned, he recognized his position. The log had, in passing under the lee of Philip's Island, been cast upon the southern point of Coal Head; some three hundred yards from him were the mutilated sheds of the coal gang. For some time he lay still, basking in the warm rays of the rising sun, and scarcely caring to move his bruised and shattered limbs. The sensation of rest was so exquisite, that it overpowered all other considerations, and he did not even trouble himself to conjecture the reason for the apparent desertion of the huts close by him. If there was no one there—well and good. If the coal party had not gone, he would be discovered in a few moments, and brought back to his island prison. In his exhaustion and misery, he accepted the alternative and slept again.

As he laid down his aching head, Mr. Troke was reporting his death to Vickers, and while he still slept, the Ladybird, on her way out, passed him so closely that any one on board her might, with a good glass, have espied his slumbering figure as it lay upon the sand.

When he woke it was past midday, and the sun poured its full rays upon him. His clothes were dry in all places, save the side on which he had been lying, and he rose to his feet refreshed by his long sleep. He scarcely comprehended, as yet, his true position. He had escaped, it was true, but not for long. He was versed in the history of escapes, and knew that a man alone on that barren coast was face to face with starvation or recapture. Glancing up at the sun, he wondered indeed, how it was that he had been free so long. Then the coal sheds caught his eye, and he understood that they were untenanted. This astonished him, and he began to tremble with vague apprehension. Entering, he looked around, expecting every moment to see some lurking constable, or armed soldier. Suddenly his glance fell upon the food rations which lay in the corner where the departing convicts had flung them the night before. At such a moment, this discovery seemed like a direct revelation from Heaven. He would not have been surprised had they disappeared. Had he lived in another age, he would have looked round for the angel who had brought them.

By and by, having eaten of this miraculous provender, the poor creature began—reckoning by his convict experience—to understand what had taken place. The coal workings were abandoned; the new Commandant had probably other work for his beasts of burden to execute, and an absconder would be safe here for a few hours at least. But he must not stay. For him there was no rest. If he thought to escape, it behoved him to commence his journey at once. As he contemplated the meat and bread, something like a ray of hope entered his gloomy soul. Here was provision for his needs. The food before him represented the rations of six men. Was it not possible to cross the desert that lay between him and freedom on such fare? The very supposition made his heart beat faster. It surely was possible. He must husband his resources; walk much and eat little; spread out the food for one day into the food for three. Here was six men's food for one day, or one man's food for six days. He would live on a third of this, and he would have rations for eighteen days. Eighteen days! What could he not do in eighteen days? He could walk thirty miles a day—forty miles a day—that would be six hundred miles and more. Yet stay; he must not be too sanguine; the road was difficult; the scrub was in places impenetrable. He would have to make détours, and turn upon his tracks, to waste precious time. He would be moderate, and say twenty miles a day. Twenty miles a day was very easy walking. Taking a piece of stick from the ground, he made the calculation in the sand. Eighteen days, and twenty miles a day—three hundred and sixty miles. More than enough to take him to freedom. It could be done! With prudence, it could be done! He must be careful and abstemious! Abstemious! He had already eaten too much, and he hastily pulled a barely-tasted piece of meat from his mouth, and replaced it with the rest. The action which at any other time would have seemed disgusting, was, in the case of this poor creature, merely pitiable.

Having come to this resolution, the next thing was to disencumber himself of his irons. This was more easily done than he expected. He found in the shed an iron gad, and with that and a stone he drove out the rivets. The rings were too strong to be "ovalled", [1] or he would have been free long ago. He packed the meat and bread together, and then pushing the gad into his belt—it might be needed as a weapon of defence—he set out on his journey.

His intention was to get round the settlement to the coast, reach the settled districts, and, by some tale of shipwreck or of wandering, procure assistance. As to what was particularly to be done when he found himself among free men, he did not pause to consider. At that point his difficulties seemed to him to end. Let him but traverse the desert that was before him, and he would trust to his own ingenuity, or the chance of fortune, to avert suspicion. The peril of immediate detection was so imminent that, beside it, all other fears were dwarfed into insignificance.

Before dawn next morning he had travelled ten miles, and by husbanding his food, he succeeded by the night of the fourth day in accomplishing forty more. Footsore and weary, he lay in a thicket of the thorny melaleuca, and felt at last that he was beyond pursuit. The next day he advanced more slowly. The bush was unpropitious. Dense scrub and savage jungle impeded his path; barren and stony mountain ranges arose before him. He was lost in gullies, entangled in thickets, bewildered in morasses. The sea that had hitherto gleamed, salt, glittering, and hungry upon his right hand, now shifted to his left. He had mistaken his course, and he must turn again. For two days did this bewilderment last, and on the third he came to a mighty cliff that pierced with its blunt pinnacle the clustering bush. He must go over or round this obstacle, and he decided to go round it. A natural pathway wound about its foot. Here and there branches were broken, and it seemed to the poor wretch, fainting under the weight of his lessening burden, that his were not the first footsteps which had trodden there. The path terminated in a glade, and at the bottom of this glade was something that fluttered. Rufus Dawes pressed forward, and stumbled over a corpse!

In the terrible stillness of that solitary place he felt suddenly as though a voice had called to him. All the hideous fantastic tales of murder which he had read or heard seemed to take visible shape in the person of the loathly carcase before him, clad in the yellow dress of a convict, and lying flung together on the ground as though struck down. Stooping over it, impelled by an irresistible impulse to know the worst, he found the body was mangled. One arm was missing, and the skull had been beaten in by some heavy instrument! The first thought—that this heap of rags and bones was a mute witness to the folly of his own undertaking, the corpse of some starved absconder—gave place to a second more horrible suspicion. He recognized the number imprinted on the coarse cloth as that which had designated the younger of the two men who had escaped with Gabbett. He was standing on the place where a murder had been committed! A murder!—and what else? Thank God the food he carried was not yet exhausted! He turned and fled, looking back fearfully as he went. He could not breathe in the shadow of that awful mountain.

Crashing through scrub and brake, torn, bleeding, and wild with terror, he reached a spur on the range, and looked around him. Above him rose the iron hills, below him lay the panorama of the bush. The white cone of the Frenchman's Cap was on his right hand, on his left a succession of ranges seemed to bar further progress. A gleam, as of a lake, streaked the eastward. Gigantic pine trees reared their graceful heads against the opal of the evening sky, and at their feet the dense scrub through which he had so painfully toiled, spread without break and without flaw. It seemed as though he could leap from where he stood upon a solid mass of tree-tops. He raised his eyes, and right against him, like a long dull sword, lay the narrow steel-blue reach of the harbour from which he had escaped. One darker speck moved on the dark water. It was the Osprey making for the Gates. It seemed that he could throw a stone upon her deck. A faint cry of rage escaped him. During the last three days in the bush he must have retraced his steps, and returned upon his own track to the settlement! More than half his allotted time had passed, and he was not yet thirty miles from his prison. Death had waited to overtake him in this barbarous wilderness. As a cat allows a mouse to escape her for a while, so had he been permitted to trifle with his fate, and lull himself into a false security. Escape was hopeless now. He never could escape; and as the unhappy man raised his despairing eyes, he saw that the sun, redly sinking behind a lofty pine which topped the opposite hill, shot a ray of crimson light into the glade below him. It was as though a bloody finger pointed at the corpse which lay there, and Rufus Dawes, shuddering at the dismal omen, averting his face, plunged again into the forest.

For four days he wandered aimlessly through the bush. He had given up all hopes of making the overland journey, and yet, as long as his scanty supply of food held out, he strove to keep away from the settlement. Unable to resist the pangs of hunger, he had increased his daily ration; and though the salted meat, exposed to rain and heat, had begun to turn putrid, he never looked at it but he was seized with a desire to eat his fill. The coarse lumps of carrion and the hard rye-loaves were to him delicious morsels fit for the table of an emperor. Once or twice he was constrained to pluck and eat the tops of tea-trees and peppermint shrubs. These had an aromatic taste, and sufficed to stay the cravings of hunger for a while, but they induced a raging thirst, which he slaked at the icy mountain springs. Had it not been for the frequency of these streams, he must have died in a few days. At last, on the twelfth day from his departure from the Coal Head, he found himself at the foot of Mount Direction, at the head of the peninsula which makes the western side of the harbour. His terrible wandering had but led him to make a complete circuit of the settlement, and the next night brought him round the shores of Birches Inlet to the landing-place opposite to Sarah Island. His stock of provisions had been exhausted for two days, and he was savage with hunger. He no longer thought of suicide. His dominant idea was now to get food. He would do as many others had done before him—give himself up to be flogged and fed. When he reached the landing-place, however, the guard-house was empty. He looked across at the island prison, and saw no sign of life. The settlement was deserted!

The shock of this discovery almost deprived him of reason. For days, that had seemed centuries, he had kept life in his jaded and lacerated body solely by the strength of his fierce determination to reach the settlement; and now that he had reached it, after a journey of unparalleled horror, he found it deserted. He struck himself to see if he was not dreaming. He refused to believe his eyesight. He shouted, screamed, and waved his tattered garments in the air. Exhausted by these paroxysms, he said to himself, quite calmly, that the sun beating on his unprotected head had dazed his brain, and that in a few minutes he should see well-remembered boats pulling towards him. Then, when no boat came, he argued that he was mistaken in the place; the island yonder was not Sarah Island, but some other island like it, and that in a second or so he would be able to detect the difference. But the inexorable mountains, so hideously familiar for six weary years, made mute reply, and the sea, crawling at his feet, seemed to grin at him with a thin-lipped, hungry mouth. Yet the fact of the desertion seemed so inexplicable that he could not realize it. He felt as might have felt that wanderer in the enchanted mountains, who, returning in the morning to look for his companions, found them turned to stone.

At last the dreadful truth forced itself upon him; he retired a few paces, and then, with a horrible cry of furious despair, stumbled forward towards the edge of the little reef that fringed the shore. Just as he was about to fling himself for the second time into the dark water, his eyes, sweeping in a last long look around the bay, caught sight of a strange appearance on the left horn of the sea beach. A thin, blue streak, uprising from behind the western arm of the little inlet, hung in the still air. It was the smoke of a fire!

The dying wretch felt inspired with new hope. God had sent him a direct sign from Heaven. The tiny column of bluish vapour seemed to him as glorious as the Pillar of Fire that led the Israelites. There were yet human beings near him!—and turning his face from the hungry sea, he tottered with the last effort of his failing strength towards the blessed token of their presence.

  1. Ovalled—"To oval" is a term in use among convicts, and means so to bend the round ring of the ankle fetter that the heel can be drawn up through it.