For the Term of His Natural Life/Book II/Chapter XII
Chapter XII: "Mr." Dawes
The coarse tones of Maurice Frere roused him. "What do you want?" he asked.
Rufus Dawes, raising his head, contemplated the figure before him, and recognized it. "Is it you?" he said slowly.
"What do you mean? Do you know me?" asked Frere, drawing back. But the convict did not reply. His momentary emotion passed away, the pangs of hunger returned, and greedily seizing upon the piece of damper, he began to eat in silence.
"Do you hear, man?" repeated Frere, at length. "What are you?"
"An escaped prisoner. You can give me up in the morning. I've done my best, and I'm beat."
The sentence struck Frere with dismay. The man did not know that the settlement had been abandoned!
"I cannot give you up. There is no one but myself and a woman and child on the settlement." Rufus Dawes, pausing in his eating, stared at him in amazement. "The prisoners have gone away in the schooner. If you choose to remain free, you can do so as far as I am concerned. I am as helpless as you are."
"But how do you come here?"
Frere laughed bitterly. To give explanations to convicts was foreign to his experience, and he did not relish the task. In this case, however, there was no help for it. "The prisoners mutinied and seized the brig."
A terrible light broke upon Rufus Dawes, and he began to understand how he had again missed his chance. "Who took her?"
"That double-dyed villain, John Rex," says Frere, giving vent to his passion. "May she sink, and burn, and——"
"Have they gone, then?" cried the miserable man, clutching at his hair with a gesture of hopeless rage.
"Yes; two days ago, and left us here to starve." Rufus Dawes burst into a laugh so discordant that it made the other shudder. "We'll starve together, Maurice Frere," said he, "for while you've a crust, I'll share it. If I don't get liberty, at least I'll have revenge!"
The sinister aspect of this famished savage, sitting with his chin on his ragged knees, rocking himself to and fro in the light of the fire, gave Mr. Maurice Frere a new sensation. He felt as might have felt that African hunter who, returning to his camp fire, found a lion there. "Wretch!" said he, shrinking from him, "why should you wish to be revenged on me?"
The convict turned upon him with a snarl. "Take care what you say! I'll have no hard words. Wretch! If I am a wretch, who made me one? If I hate you and myself and the world, who made me hate it? I was born free—as free as you are. Why should I be sent to herd with beasts, and condemned to this slavery, worse than death? Tell me that, Maurice Frere—tell me that!" "I didn't make the laws," says Frere, "why do you attack me?"
"Because you are what I was. You are free! You can do as you please. You can love, you can work, you can think. I can only hate!" He paused as if astonished at himself, and then continued, with a low laugh. "Fine words for a convict, eh! But, never mind, it's all right, Mr. Frere; we're equal now, and I sha'n't die an hour sooner than you, though you are a 'free man'!"
Frere began to think that he was dealing with another madman. "Die! There's no need to talk of dying," he said, as soothingly as it was possible for him to say it. "Time enough for that by-and-by."
"There spoke the free man. We convicts have an advantage over you gentlemen. You are afraid of death; we pray for it. It is the best thing that can happen to us. Die! They were going to hang me once. I wish they had. My God, I wish they had!"
There was such a depth of agony in this terrible utterance that Maurice Frere was appalled at it. "There, go and sleep, my man," he said. "You are knocked up. We'll talk in the morning."
"Hold on a bit!" cried Rufus Dawes, with a coarseness of manner altogether foreign to that he had just assumed. "Who's with ye?"
"The wife and daughter of the Commandant," replied Frere, half afraid to refuse an answer to a question so fiercely put.
"No one else?"
"Poor souls!" said the convict, "I pity them." And then he stretched himself, like a dog, before the blaze, and went to sleep instantly.
Maurice Frere, looking at the gaunt figure of this addition to the party, was completely puzzled how to act. Such a character had never before come within the range of his experience. He knew not what to make of this fierce, ragged, desperate man, who wept and threatened by turns—who was now snarling in the most repulsive bass of the convict gamut, and now calling upon Heaven in tones which were little less than eloquent. At first he thought of precipitating himself upon the sleeping wretch and pinioning him, but a second glance at the sinewy, though wasted, limbs forbade him to follow out the rash suggestion of his own fears. Then a horrible prompting—arising out of his former cowardice— made him feel for the jack-knife with which one murder had already been committed. Their stock of provisions was so scanty, and after all, the lives of the woman and child were worth more than that of this unknown desperado! But, to do him justice, the thought no sooner shaped itself than he crushed it out. "We'll wait till morning, and see how he shapes," said Frere to himself; and pausing at the brushwood barricade, behind which the mother and daughter were clinging to each other, he whispered that he was on guard outside, and that the absconder slept. But when morning dawned, he found that there was no need for alarm. The convict was lying in almost the same position as that in which he had left him, and his eyes were closed. His threatening outbreak of the previous night had been produced by the excitement of his sudden rescue, and he was now incapable of violence. Frere advanced, and shook him by the shoulder.
"Not alive!" cried the poor wretch, waking with a start, and raising his arm to strike. "Keep off!"
"It's all right," said Frere. "No one is going to harm you. Wake up."
Rufus Dawes glanced around him stupidly, and then remembering what had happened, with a great effort, he staggered to his feet. "I thought they'd got me!" he said, "but it's the other way, I see. Come, let's have breakfast, Mr. Frere. I'm hungry."
"You must wait," said Frere. "Do you think there is no one here but yourself?"
Rufus Dawes, swaying to and fro from weakness, passed his shred of a cuff over his eyes. "I don't know anything about it. I only know I'm hungry."
Frere stopped short. Now or never was the time to settle future relations. Lying awake in the night, with the jack-knife ready to his hand, he had decided on the course of action that must be adopted. The convict should share with the rest, but no more. If he rebelled at that, there must be a trial of strength between them. "Look you here," he said. "We have but barely enough food to serve us until help comes—if it does come. I have the care of that poor woman and child, and I will see fair play for their sakes. You shall share with us to our last bit and drop, but, by Heaven, you shall get no more."
The convict, stretching out his wasted arms, looked down upon them with the uncertain gaze of a drunken man. "I am weak now," he said. "You have the best of me"; and then he sank suddenly down upon the ground, exhausted. "Give me a drink," he moaned, feebly motioning with his hand.
Frere got him water in the pannikin, and having drunk it, he smiled and lay down to sleep again. Mrs. Vickers and Sylvia, coming out while he still slept, recognized him as the desperado of the settlement.
"He was the most desperate man we had," said Mrs. Vickers, identifying herself with her husband. "Oh, what shall we do?"
"He won't do much harm," returned Frere, looking down at the notorious ruffian with curiosity. "He's as near dead as can be."
Sylvia looked up at him with her clear child's glance. "We mustn't let him die," said she. "That would be murder."
"No, no," returned Frere, hastily, "no one wants him to die. But what can we do?"
"I'll nurse him!" cried Sylvia.
Frere broke into one of his coarse laughs, the first one that he had indulged in since the mutiny. "You nurse him! By George, that's a good one!" The poor little child, weak and excitable, felt the contempt in the tone, and burst into a passion of sobs. "Why do you insult me, you wicked man? The poor fellow's ill, and he'll—he'll die, like Mr. Bates. Oh, mamma, mamma, Let's go away by ourselves."
Frere swore a great oath, and walked away. He went into the little wood under the cliff, and sat down. He was full of strange thoughts, which he could not express, and which he had never owned before. The dislike the child bore to him made him miserable, and yet he took delight in tormenting her. He was conscious that he had acted the part of a coward the night before in endeavouring to frighten her, and that the detestation she bore him was well earned; but he had fully determined to stake his life in her defence, should the savage who had thus come upon them out of the desert attempt violence, and he was unreasonably angry at the pity she had shown. It was not fair to be thus misinterpreted. But he had done wrong to swear, and more so in quitting them so abruptly. The consciousness of his wrong-doing, however, only made him more confirmed in it. His native obstinacy would not allow him to retract what he had said— even to himself. Walking along, he came to Bates's grave, and the cross upon it. Here was another evidence of ill-treatment. She had always preferred Bates. Now that Bates was gone, she must needs transfer her childish affections to a convict. "Oh," said Frere to himself, with pleasant recollections of many coarse triumphs in love-making, "if you were a woman, you little vixen, I'd make you love me!" When he had said this, he laughed at himself for his folly—he was turning romantic! When he got back, he found Dawes stretched upon the brushwood, with Sylvia sitting near him.
"He is better," said Mrs. Vickers, disdaining to refer to the scene of the morning. "Sit down and have something to eat, Mr. Frere."
"Are you better?" asked Frere, abruptly.
To his surprise, the convict answered quite civilly, "I shall be strong again in a day or two, and then I can help you, sir."
"Help me? How?" "To build a hut here for the ladies. And we'll live here all our lives, and never go back to the sheds any more."
"He has been wandering a little," said Mrs. Vickers. "Poor fellow, he seems quite well behaved."
The convict began to sing a little German song, and to beat the refrain with his hand. Frere looked at him with curiosity. "I wonder what the story of that man's life has been," he said. "A queer one, I'll be bound."
Sylvia looked up at him with a forgiving smile. "I'll ask him when he gets well," she said, "and if you are good, I'll tell you, Mr. Frere."
Frere accepted the proffered friendship. "I am a great brute, Sylvia, sometimes, ain't I?" he said, "but I don't mean it."
"You are," returned Sylvia, frankly, "but let's shake hands, and be friends. It's no use quarrelling when there are only four of us, is it?" And in this way was Rufus Dawes admitted a member of the family circle.
Within a week from the night on which he had seen the smoke of Frere's fire, the convict had recovered his strength, and had become an important personage. The distrust with which he had been at first viewed had worn off, and he was no longer an outcast, to be shunned and pointed at, or to be referred to in whispers. He had abandoned his rough manner, and no longer threatened or complained, and though at times a profound melancholy would oppress him, his spirits were more even than those of Frere, who was often moody, sullen, and overbearing. Rufus Dawes was no longer the brutalized wretch who had plunged into the dark waters of the bay to escape a life he loathed, and had alternately cursed and wept in the solitudes of the forests. He was an active member of society— a society of four—and he began to regain an air of independence and authority. This change had been wrought by the influence of little Sylvia. Recovered from the weakness consequent upon this terrible journey, Rufus Dawes had experienced for the first time in six years the soothing power of kindness. He had now an object to live for beyond himself. He was of use to somebody, and had he died, he would have been regretted. To us this means little; to this unhappy man it meant everything. He found, to his astonishment, that he was not despised, and that, by the strange concurrence of circumstances, he had been brought into a position in which his convict experiences gave him authority. He was skilled in all the mysteries of the prison sheds. He knew how to sustain life on as little food as possible. He could fell trees without an axe, bake bread without an oven, build a weatherproof hut without bricks or mortar. From the patient he became the adviser; and from the adviser, the commander. In the semi-savage state to which these four human beings had been brought, he found that savage accomplishments were of most value. Might was Right, and Maurice Frere's authority of gentility soon succumbed to Rufus Dawes's authority of knowledge.
As the time wore on, and the scanty stock of provisions decreased, he found that his authority grew more and more powerful. Did a question arise as to the qualities of a strange plant, it was Rufus Dawes who could pronounce upon it. Were fish to be caught, it was Rufus Dawes who caught them. Did Mrs. Vickers complain of the instability of her brushwood hut, it was Rufus Dawes who worked a wicker shield, and plastering it with clay, produced a wall that defied the keenest wind. He made cups out of pine-knots, and plates out of bark-strips. He worked harder than any three men. Nothing daunted him, nothing discouraged him. When Mrs. Vickers fell sick, from anxiety and insufficient food, it was Rufus Dawes who gathered fresh leaves for her couch, who cheered her by hopeful words, who voluntarily gave up half his own allowance of meat that she might grow stronger on it. The poor woman and her child called him "Mr." Dawes.
Frere watched all this with dissatisfaction that amounted at times to positive hatred. Yet he could say nothing, for he could not but acknowledge that, beside Dawes, he was incapable. He even submitted to take orders from this escaped convict—it was so evident that the escaped convict knew better than he. Sylvia began to look upon Dawes as a second Bates. He was, moreover, all her own. She had an interest in him, for she had nursed and protected him. If it had not been for her, this prodigy would not have lived. He felt for her an absorbing affection that was almost a passion. She was his good angel, his protectress, his glimpse of Heaven. She had given him food when he was starving, and had believed in him when the world—the world of four— had looked coldly on him. He would have died for her, and, for love of her, hoped for the vessel which should take her back to freedom and give him again into bondage.
But the days stole on, and no vessel appeared. Each day they eagerly scanned the watery horizon; each day they longed to behold the bowsprit of the returning Ladybird glide past the jutting rock that shut out the view of the harbour—but in vain. Mrs. Vickers's illness increased, and the stock of provisions began to run short. Dawes talked of putting himself and Frere on half allowance. It was evident that, unless succour came in a few days, they must starve.
Frere mooted all sorts of wild plans for obtaining food. He would make a journey to the settlement, and, swimming the estuary, search if haply any casks of biscuit had been left behind in the hurry of departure. He would set springes for the seagulls, and snare the pigeons at Liberty Point. But all these proved impracticable, and with blank faces they watched their bag of flour grow smaller and smaller daily. Then the notion of escape was broached. Could they construct a raft? Impossible without nails or ropes. Could they build a boat? Equally impossible for the same reason. Could they raise a fire sufficient to signal a ship? Easily; but what ship would come within reach of that doubly-desolate spot? Nothing could be done but wait for a vessel, which was sure to come for them sooner or later; and, growing weaker day by day, they waited.
One morning Sylvia was sitting in the sun reading the "English History", which, by the accident of fright, she had brought with her on the night of the mutiny. "Mr. Frere," said she, suddenly, "what is an alchemist?"
"A man who makes gold," was Frere's not very accurate definition.
"Do you know one?"
"Do you, Mr. Dawes?"
"I knew a man once who thought himself one."
"What! A man who made gold?"
"After a fashion."
"But did he make gold?" persisted Sylvia.
"No, not absolutely make it. But he was, in his worship of money, an alchemist for all that."
"What became of him?"
"I don't know," said Dawes, with so much constraint in his tone that the child instinctively turned the subject.
"Then, alchemy is a very old art?"
"Did the Ancient Britons know it?"
"No, not as old as that!"
Sylvia suddenly gave a little scream. The remembrance of the evening when she read about the Ancient Britons to poor Bates came vividly into her mind, and though she had since re-read the passage that had then attracted her attention a hundred times, it had never before presented itself to her in its full significance. Hurriedly turning the well-thumbed leaves, she read aloud the passage which had provoked remark:-
"'The Ancient Britons were little better than Barbarians. They painted their bodies with Woad, and, seated in their light coracles of skin stretched upon slender wooden frames, must have presented a wild and savage appearance.'"
"A coracle! That's a boat! Can't we make a coracle, Mr. Dawes?"