For the Term of His Natural Life/Book III/Chapter VI
Chapter VI: Mr. Meekin Administers Consolation
Rex told Mr. Meekin, who, the next day, did him the honour to visit him, that, "under Providence, he owed his escape from death to the kind manner in which Captain Frere had spoken of him."
"I hope your escape will be a warning to you, my man," said Mr. Meekin, "and that you will endeavour to make the rest of your life, thus spared by the mercy of Providence, an atonement for your early errors."
"Indeed I will, sir," said John Rex, who had taken Mr. Meekin's measure very accurately, "and it is very kind of you to condescend to speak so to a wretch like me."
"Not at all," said Meekin, with affability; "it is my duty. I am a Minister of the Gospel."
"Ah! sir, I wish I had attended to the Gospel's teachings when I was younger. I might have been saved from all this."
"You might, indeed, poor man; but the Divine Mercy is infinite—quite infinite, and will be extended to all of us—to you as well as to me." (This with the air of saying, "What do you think of that!") "Remember the penitent thief, Rex—the penitent thief."
"Indeed I do, sir."
"And read your Bible, Rex, and pray for strength to bear your punishment."
"I will, Mr. Meekin. I need it sorely, sir—physical as well as spiritual strength, sir—for the Government allowance is sadly insufficient."
"I will speak to the authorities about a change in your dietary scale," returned Meekin, patronizingly. "In the meantime, just collect together in your mind those particulars of your adventures of which you spoke, and have them ready for me when next I call. Such a remarkable history ought not to be lost."
"Thank you kindly, sir. I will, sir. Ah! I little thought when I occupied the position of a gentleman, Mr. Meekin"—the cunning scoundrel had been piously grandiloquent concerning his past career—"that I should be reduced to this. But it is only just, sir."
"The mysterious workings of Providence are always just, Rex," returned Meekin, who preferred to speak of the Almighty with well-bred vagueness.
"I am glad to see you so conscious of your errors. Good morning."
"Good morning, and Heaven bless you, sir," said Rex, with his tongue in his cheek for the benefit of his yard mates; and so Mr. Meekin tripped gracefully away, convinced that he was labouring most successfully in the Vineyard, and that the convict Rex was really a superior person.
"I will send his narrative to the Bishop," said he to himself. "It will amuse him. There must be many strange histories here, if one could but find them out."
As the thought passed through his brain, his eye fell upon the "notorious Dawes", who, while waiting for the schooner to take him back to Port Arthur, had been permitted to amuse himself by breaking stones. The prison-shed which Mr. Meekin was visiting was long and low, roofed with iron, and terminating at each end in the stone wall of the gaol. At one side rose the cells, at the other the outer wall of the prison. From the outer wall projected a weatherboard under-roof, and beneath this were seated forty heavily-ironed convicts. Two constables, with loaded carbines, walked up and down the clear space in the middle, and another watched from a sort of sentry-box built against the main wall. Every half-hour a third constable went down the line and examined the irons. The admirable system of solitary confinement—which in average cases produces insanity in the space of twelve months—was as yet unknown in Hobart Town, and the forty heavily-ironed men had the pleasure of seeing each other's faces every day for six hours.
The other inmates of the prison were at work on the roads, or otherwise bestowed in the day time, but the forty were judged too desperate to be let loose. They sat, three feet apart, in two long lines, each man with a heap of stones between his outstretched legs, and cracked the pebbles in leisurely fashion. The double row of dismal woodpeckers tapping at this terribly hollow beech-tree of penal discipline had a semi-ludicrous appearance. It seemed so painfully absurd that forty muscular men should be ironed and guarded for no better purpose than the cracking of a cartload of quartz-pebbles. In the meantime the air was heavy with angry glances shot from one to the other, and the passage of the parson was hailed by a grumbling undertone of blasphemy. It was considered fashionable to grunt when the hammer came in contact with the stone, and under cover of this mock exclamation of fatigue, it was convenient to launch an oath. A fanciful visitor, seeing the irregularly rising hammers along the line, might have likened the shed to the interior of some vast piano, whose notes an unseen hand was erratically fingering. Rufus Dawes was seated last on the line—his back to the cells, his face to the gaol wall. This was the place nearest the watching constable, and was allotted on that account to the most ill-favoured. Some of his companions envied him that melancholy distinction.
"Well, Dawes," says Mr. Meekin, measuring with his eye the distance between the prisoner and himself, as one might measure the chain of some ferocious dog. "How are you this morning, Dawes?"
Dawes, scowling in a parenthesis between the cracking of two stones, was understood to say that he was very well.
"I am afraid, Dawes," said Mr. Meekin reproachfully, "that you have done yourself no good by your outburst in court on Monday. I understand that public opinion is quite incensed against you."
Dawes, slowly arranging one large fragment of bluestone in a comfortable basin of smaller fragments, made no reply.
"I am afraid you lack patience, Dawes. You do not repent of your offences against the law, I fear."
The only answer vouchsafed by the ironed man—if answer it could be called—was a savage blow, which split the stone into sudden fragments, and made the clergyman skip a step backward.
"You are a hardened ruffian, sir! Do you not hear me speak to you?"
"I hear you," said Dawes, picking up another stone.
"Then listen respectfully, sir," said Meekin, roseate with celestial anger. "You have all day to break those stones."
"Yes, I have all day," returned Rufus Dawes, with a dogged look upward, "and all next day, for that matter. Ugh!" and again the hammer descended.
"I came to console you, man—to console you," says Meekin, indignant at the contempt with which his well-meant overtures had been received. "I wanted to give you some good advice!"
The self-important annoyance of the tone seemed to appeal to whatever vestige of appreciation for the humorous, chains and degradation had suffered to linger in the convict's brain, for a faint smile crossed his features.
"I beg your pardon, sir," he said. "Pray, go on."
"I was going to say, my good fellow, that you have done yourself a great deal of injury by your ill-advised accusation of Captain Frere, and the use you made of Miss Vickers's name."
A frown, as of pain, contracted the prisoner's brows, and he seemed with difficulty to put a restraint upon his speech. "Is there to be no inquiry, Mr. Meekin?" he asked, at length. "What I stated was the truth—the truth, so help me God!"
"No blasphemy, sir," said Meekin, solemnly. "No blasphemy, wretched man. Do not add to the sin of lying the greater sin of taking the name of the Lord thy God in vain. He will not hold him guiltless, Dawes. He will not hold him guiltless, remember. No, there is to be no inquiry."
"Are they not going to ask her for her story?" asked Dawes, with a pitiful change of manner. "They told me that she was to be asked. Surely they will ask her."
"I am not, perhaps, at liberty," said Meekin, placidly unconscious of the agony of despair and rage that made the voice of the strong man before him quiver, "to state the intentions of the authorities, but I can tell you that Miss Vickers will not be asked anything about you. You are to go back to Port Arthur on the 24th, and to remain there."
A groan burst from Rufus Dawes; a groan so full of torture that even the comfortable Meekin was thrilled by it.
"It is the Law, you know, my good man. I can't help it," he said. "You shouldn't break the Law, you know."
"Curse the Law!" cries Dawes. "It's a Bloody Law; it's——there, I beg your pardon," and he fell to cracking his stones again, with a laugh that was more terrible in its bitter hopelessness of winning attention or sympathy, than any outburst of passion could have been.
"Come," says Meekin, feeling uneasily constrained to bring forth some of his London-learnt platitudes. "You can't complain. You have broken the Law, and you must suffer. Civilized Society says you sha'n't do certain things, and if you do them you must suffer the penalty Civilized Society imposes. You are not wanting in intelligence, Dawes, more's the pity—and you can't deny the justice of that."
Rufus Dawes, as if disdaining to answer in words, cast his eyes round the yard with a glance that seemed to ask grimly if Civilized Society was progressing quite in accordance with justice, when its civilization created such places as that stone-walled, carbine-guarded prison-shed, and filled it with such creatures as those forty human beasts, doomed to spend the best years of their manhood cracking pebbles in it.
"You don't deny that?" asked the smug parson, "do you, Dawes?"
"It's not my place to argue with you, sir," said Dawes, in a tone of indifference, born of lengthened suffering, so nicely balanced between contempt and respect, that the inexperienced Meekin could not tell whether he had made a convert or subjected himself to an impertinence; "but I'm a prisoner for life, and don't look at it in the same way that you do."
This view of the question did not seem to have occurred to Mr. Meekin, for his mild cheek flushed. Certainly, the fact of being a prisoner for life did make some difference. The sound of the noonday bell, however, warned him to cease argument, and to take his consolations out of the way of the mustering prisoners.
With a great clanking and clashing of irons, the forty rose and stood each by his stone-heap. The third constable came round, rapping the leg-irons of each man with easy nonchalance, and roughly pulling up the coarse trousers (made with buttoned flaps at the sides, like Mexican calzoneros, in order to give free play to the ankle fetters), so that he might assure himself that no tricks had been played since his last visit. As each man passed this ordeal he saluted, and clanked, with wide-spread legs, to the place in the double line. Mr. Meekin, though not a patron of field sports, found something in the scene that reminded him of a blacksmith picking up horses' feet to examine the soundness of their shoes.
"Upon my word," he said to himself, with a momentary pang of genuine compassion, "it is a dreadful way to treat human beings. I don't wonder at that wretched creature groaning under it. But, bless me, it is near one o'clock, and I promised to lunch with Major Vickers at two. How time flies, to be sure!"