For the Term of His Natural Life/Book III/Chapter X
Chapter X: What Became of the Mutineers of the "Osprey"
At the bottom of the long luxuriant garden-ground was a rustic seat abutting upon the low wall that topped the lane. The branches of the English trees (planted long ago) hung above it, and between their rustling boughs one could see the reach of the silver river. Sitting with her face to the bay and her back to the house, Sylvia opened the manuscript she had carried off from Meekin, and began to read. It was written in a firm, large hand, and headed—
Of the sufferings and adventures of certain of the ten convicts who seized the brig "Osprey", at Macquarie Harbour, in Van Diemen's Land, related by one of the said convicts while lying under sentence for this offence in the gaol at Hobart Town."
Sylvia, having read this grandiloquent sentence, paused for a moment. The story of the mutiny, which had been the chief event of her childhood, lay before her, and it seemed to her that, were it related truly, she would comprehend something strange and terrible, which had been for many years a shadow upon her memory. Longing, and yet fearing, to proceed, she held the paper, half unfolded, in her hand, as, in her childhood, she had held ajar the door of some dark room, into which she longed and yet feared to enter. Her timidity lasted but an instant.
"When orders arrived from head-quarters to break up the penal settlement of Macquarie Harbour, the Commandant (Major Vickers, —th Regiment) and most of the prisoners embarked on board a colonial vessel, and set sail for Hobart Town, leaving behind them a brig that had been built at Macquarie Harbour, to be brought round after them, and placing Captain Maurice Frere in command. Left aboard her was Mr. Bates, who had acted as pilot at the settlement, also four soldiers, and ten prisoners, as a crew to work the vessel. The Commandant's wife and child were also aboard."
"How strangely it reads," thought the girl.
"On the 12th of January, 1834, we set sail, and in the afternoon anchored safely outside the Gates; but a breeze setting in from the north-west caused a swell on the Bar, and Mr. Bates ran back to Wellington Bay. We remained there all next day; and in the afternoon Captain Frere took two soldiers and a boat, and went a-fishing. There were then only Mr. Bates and the other two soldiers aboard, and it was proposed by William Cheshire to seize the vessel. I was at first unwilling, thinking that loss of life might ensue; but Cheshire and the others, knowing that I was acquainted with navigation—having in happier days lived much on the sea—threatened me if I refused to join. A song was started in the folksle, and one of the soldiers, coming to listen to it, was seized, and Lyon and Riley then made prisoner of the sentry. Forced thus into a project with which I had at first but little sympathy, I felt my heart leap at the prospect of freedom, and would have sacrificed all to obtain it. Maddened by the desperate hopes that inspired me, I from that moment assumed the command of my wretched companions; and honestly think that, however culpable I may have been in the eyes of the law, I prevented them from the display of a violence to which their savage life had unhappily made them but too accustomed."
"Poor fellow," said Sylvia, beguiled by Master Rex's specious paragraphs, "I think he was not to blame."
"Mr. Bates was below in the cabin, and on being summoned by Cheshire to surrender, with great courage attempted a defence. Barker fired at him through the skylight, but fearful of the lives of the Commandant's wife and child, I struck up his musket, and the ball passed through the mouldings of the stern windows. At the same time, the soldiers whom we had bound in the folksle forced up the hatch and came on deck. Cheshire shot the first one, and struck the other with his clubbed musket. The wounded man lost his footing, and the brig lurching with the rising tide, he fell into the sea. This was—by the blessing of God—the only life lost in the whole affair.
"Mr. Bates, seeing now that we had possession of the deck, surrendered, upon promise that the Commandant's wife and child should be put ashore in safety. I directed him to take such matters as he needed, and prepared to lower the jolly-boat. As she swung off the davits, Captain Frere came alongside in the whale-boat, and gallantly endeavoured to board us, but the boat drifted past the vessel. I was now determined to be free—indeed, the minds of all on board were made up to carry through the business—and hailing the whale-boat, swore to fire into her unless she surrendered. Captain Frere refused, and was for boarding us again, but the two soldiers joined with us, and prevented his intention. Having now got the prisoners into the jolly-boat, we transferred Captain Frere into her, and being ourselves in the whale-boat, compelled Captain Frere and Mr. Bates to row ashore. We then took the jolly-boat in tow, and returned to the brig, a strict watch being kept for fear that they should rescue the vessel from us.
"At break of day every man was upon deck, and a consultation took place concerning the parting of the provisions. Cheshire was for leaving them to starve, but Lesly, Shiers, and I held out for an equal division. After a long and violent controversy, Humanity gained the day, and the provisions were put into the whale-boat, and taken ashore. Upon the receipt of the provisions, Mr. Bates thus expressed himself: 'Men, I did not for one moment expect such kind treatment from you, regarding the provisions you have now brought ashore for us, out of so little which there was on board. When I consider your present undertaking, without a competent navigator, and in a leaky vessel, your situation seems most perilous; therefore I hope God will prove kind to you, and preserve you from the manifold dangers you may have to encounter on the stormy ocean.' Mrs. Vickers also was pleased to say that I had behaved kindly to her, that she wished me well, and that when she returned to Hobart Town she would speak in my favour. They then cheered us on our departure, wishing we might be prosperous on account of our humanity in sharing the provisions with them.
"Having had breakfast, we commenced throwing overboard the light cargo which was in the hold, which employed us until dinnertime. After dinner we ran out a small kedge-anchor with about one hundred fathoms of line, and having weighed anchor, and the tide being slack, we hauled on the kedge-line, and succeeded in this manner by kedging along, and we came to two islands, called the Cap and Bonnet. The whole of us then commenced heaving the brig short, sending the whale-boat to take her in tow, after we had tripped the anchor. By this means we got her safe across the Bar. Scarcely was this done when a light breeze sprang up from the south-west, and firing a musket to apprize the party we had left of our safety, we made sail and put out to sea."
Having read thus far, Sylvia paused in an agony of recollection. She remembered the firing of the musket, and that her mother had wept over her. But beyond this all was uncertainty. Memories slipped across her mind like shadows—she caught at them, and they were gone. Yet the reading of this strange story made her nerves thrill. Despite the hypocritical grandiloquence and affected piety of the narrative, it was easy to see that, save some warping of facts to make for himself a better case, and to extol the courage of the gaolers who had him at their mercy, the narrator had not attempted to better his tale by the invention of perils. The history of the desperate project that had been planned and carried out five years before was related with grim simplicity which (because it at once bears the stamp of truth, and forces the imagination of the reader to supply the omitted details of horror), is more effective to inspire sympathy than elaborate description. The very barrenness of the narration was hideously suggestive, and the girl felt her heart beat quicker as her poetic intellect rushed to complete the terrible picture sketched by the convict. She saw it all—the blue sea, the burning sun, the slowly moving ship, the wretched company on the shore; she heard—— Was that a rustling in the bushes below her? A bird! How nervous she was growing!
"Being thus fairly rid—as we thought—of our prison life, we cheerfully held consultation as to our future course. It was my intention to get among the islands in the South Seas, and scuttling the brig, to pass ourselves off among the natives as shipwrecked seamen, trusting to God's mercy that some homeward bound vessel might at length rescue us. With this view, I made James Lesly first mate, he being an experienced mariner, and prepared myself, with what few instruments we had, to take our departure from Birches Rock. Having hauled the whale-boat alongside, we stove her, together with the jolly-boat, and cast her adrift. This done, I parted the landsmen with the seamen, and, steering east south-east, at eight p.m. we set our first watch. In little more than an hour after this came on a heavy gale from the south-west. I, and others of the landsmen, were violently sea-sick, and Lesly had some difficulty in handling the brig, as the boisterous weather called for two men at the helm. In the morning, getting upon deck with difficulty, I found that the wind had abated, but upon sounding the well discovered much water in the hold. Lesly rigged the pumps, but the starboard one only could be made to work. From that time there were but two businesses aboard—from the pump to the helm. The gale lasted two days and a night, the brig running under close-reefed topsails, we being afraid to shorten sail lest we might be overtaken by some pursuing vessel, so strong was the terror of our prison upon us.
"On the 16th, at noon, I again forced myself on deck, and taking a meridian observation, altered the course of the brig to east and by south, wishing to run to the southward of New Zealand, out of the usual track of shipping; and having a notion that, should our provisions hold out, we might make the South American coast, and fall into Christian hands. This done, I was compelled to retire below, and for a week lay in my berth as one at the last gasp. At times I repented my resolution, Fair urging me to bestir myself, as the men were not satisfied with our course. On the 21st a mutiny occurred, led by Lyons, who asserted we were heading into the Pacific, and must infallibly perish. This disaffected man, though ignorant of navigation, insisted upon steering to the south, believing that we had run to the northward of the Friendly Islands, and was for running the ship ashore and beseeching the protection of the natives. Lesly in vain protested that a southward course would bring us into icefields. Barker, who had served on board a whaler, strove to convince the mutineers that the temperature of such latitudes was too warm for such an error to escape us. After much noise, Lyons rushed to the helm, and Russen, drawing one of the pistols taken from Mr. Bates, shot him dead, upon which the others returned to their duty. This dreadful deed was, I fear, necessary to the safety of the brig; and had it occurred on board a vessel manned by free-men, would have been applauded as a stern but needful measure.
"Forced by these tumults upon deck, I made a short speech to the crew, and convinced them that I was competent to perform what I had promised to do, though at the time my heart inwardly failed me, and I longed for some sign of land. Supported at each arm by Lesly and Barker, I took an observation, and altered our course to north by east, the brig running eleven knots an hour under single-reefed topsails, and the pumps hard at work. So we ran until the 31st of January, when a white squall took us, and nearly proved fatal to all aboard.
"Lesly now committed a great error, for, upon the brig righting (she was thrown upon her beam ends, and her spanker boom carried away), he commanded to furl the fore-top sail, strike top-gallant yards, furl the main course, and take a reef in the maintopsail, leaving her to scud under single-reefed maintopsail and fore-sail. This caused the vessel to leak to that degree that I despaired of reaching land in her, and prayed to the Almighty to send us speedy assistance. For nine days and nights the storm continued, the men being utterly exhausted. One of the two soldiers whom we had employed to fish the two pieces of the spanker boom, with some quartering that we had, was washed overboard and drowned. Our provision was now nearly done, but the gale abating on the ninth day, we hastened to put provisions on the launch. The sea was heavy, and we were compelled to put a purchase on the fore and main yards, with preventers to windward, to ease the launch in going over the side. We got her fairly afloat at last, the others battening down the hatches in the brig. Having dressed ourselves in the clothes of Captain Frere and the pilot, we left the brig at sundown, lying with her channel plates nearly under water.
"The wind freshening during the night, our launch, which might, indeed, be termed a long-boat, having been fitted with mast, bowsprit, and main boom, began to be very uneasy, shipping two seas one after the other. The plan we could devise was to sit, four of us about, in the stern sheets, with our backs to the sea, to prevent the water pooping us. This itself was enough to exhaust the strongest men. The day, however, made us some amends for the dreadful night. Land was not more than ten miles from us; approaching as nearly as we could with safety, we hauled our wind, and ran along in, trusting to find some harbour. At half-past two we sighted a bay of very curious appearance, having two large rocks at the entrance, resembling pyramids. Shiers, Russen, and Fair landed, in hopes of discovering fresh water, of which we stood much in need. Before long they returned, stating that they had found an Indian hut, inside of which were some rude earthenware vessels. Fearful of surprise, we lay off the shore all that night, and putting into the bay very early in the morning, killed a seal. This was the first fresh meat I had tasted for four years. It seemed strange to eat it under such circumstances. We cooked the flippers, heart, and liver for breakfast, giving some to a cat which we had taken with us out of the brig, for I would not, willingly, allow even that animal to perish. After breakfast, we got under weigh; and we had scarcely been out half an hour when we had a fresh breeze, which carried us along at the rate of seven knots an hour, running from bay to bay to find inhabitants. Steering along the shore, as the sun went down, we suddenly heard the bellowing of a bullock, and James Barker, whom, from his violent conduct, I thought incapable of such sentiment, burst into tears.
"In about two hours we perceived great fires on the beach and let go anchor in nineteen fathoms of water. We lay awake all that night. In the morning, we rowed further inshore, and moored the boat to some seaweed. As soon as the inhabitants caught sight of us, they came down to the beach. I distributed needles and thread among the Indians, and on my saying 'Valdivia,' a woman instantly pointed towards a tongue of land to the southward, holding up three fingers, and crying 'leaghos!' which I conjectured to be three leagues; the distance we afterwards found it to be.
"About three o'clock in the afternoon, we weathered the point pointed out by the woman, and perceived a flagstaff and a twelve-gun battery under our lee. I now divided among the men the sum of six pounds ten shillings that I had found in Captain Frere's cabin, and made another and more equal distribution of the clothing. There were also two watches, one of which I gave to Lesly, and kept the other for myself. It was resolved among us to say that we were part crew of the brig Julia, bound for China and wrecked in the South Seas. Upon landing at the battery, we were heartily entertained, though we did not understand one word of what they said. Next morning it was agreed that Lesly, Barker, Shiers, and Russen should pay for a canoe to convey them to the town, which was nine miles up the river; and on the morning of the 6th March they took their departure. On the 9th March, a boat, commanded by a lieutenant, came down with orders that the rest of us should be conveyed to town; and we accordingly launched the boat under convoy of the soldiers, and reached the town the same evening, in some trepidation. I feared lest the Spaniards had obtained a clue as to our real character, and was not deceived—the surviving soldier having betrayed us. This fellow was thus doubly a traitor—first, in deserting his officer, and then in betraying his comrades.
"We were immediately escorted to prison, where we found our four companions. Some of them were for brazening out the story of shipwreck, but knowing how confused must necessarily be our accounts, were we examined separately, I persuaded them that open confession would be our best chance of safety. On the 14th we were taken before the Intendente or Governor, who informed us that we were free, on condition that we chose to live within the limits of the town. At this intelligence I felt my heart grow light, and only begged in the name of my companions that we might not be given up to the British Government; 'rather than which,' said I, 'I would beg to be shot dead in the palace square.' The Governor regarded us with tears in his eyes, and spoke as follows: 'My poor men, do not think that I would take that advantage over you. Do not make an attempt to escape, and I will be your friend, and should a vessel come tomorrow to demand you, you shall find I will be as good as my word. All I have to impress upon you is, to beware of intemperance, which is very prevalent in this country, and when you find it convenient, to pay Government the money that was allowed you for subsistence while in prison.'
"The following day we all procured employment in launching a vessel of three hundred tons burden, and my men showed themselves so active that the owner said he would rather have us than thirty of his own countrymen; which saying pleased the Governor, who was there with almost the whole of the inhabitants and a whole band of music, this vessel having been nearly three years on the stocks. After she was launched, the seamen amongst us helped to fit her out, being paid fifteen dollars a month, with provisions on board. As for myself, I speedily obtained employment in the shipbuilder's yard, and subsisted by honest industry, almost forgetting, in the unwonted pleasures of freedom, the sad reverse of fortune which had befallen me. To think that I, who had mingled among gentlemen and scholars, should be thankful to labour in a shipwright's yard by day, and sleep on a bundle of hides by night! But this is personal matter, and need not be obtruded.
"In the same yard with me worked the soldier who had betrayed us, and I could not but regard it as a special judgment of Heaven when he one day fell from a great height and was taken up for dead, dying in much torment in a few hours. The days thus passed on in comparative happiness until the 20th of May, 1836, when the old Governor took his departure, regretted by all the inhabitants of Valdivia, and the Achilles, a one-and-twenty-gun brig of war, arrived with the new Governor. One of the first acts of this gentleman was to sell our boat, which was moored at the back of Government-house. This proceeding looked to my mind indicative of ill-will; and, fearful lest the Governor should deliver us again into bondage, I resolved to make my escape from the place. Having communicated my plans to Barker, Lesly, Riley, Shiers, and Russen, I offered the Governor to get built for him a handsome whale-boat, making the iron work myself. The Governor consented, and in a little more than a fortnight we had completed a four-oared whale-boat, capable of weathering either sea or storm. We fitted her with sails and provisions in the Governor's name, and on the 4th of July, being a Saturday night, we took our departure from Valdivia, dropping down the river shortly after sunset. Whether the Governor, disgusted at the trick we had played him, decided not to pursue us, or whether—as I rather think—our absence was not discovered until the Monday morning, when we were beyond reach of capture, I know not, but we got out to sea without hazard, and, taking accurate bearings, ran for the Friendly Islands, as had been agreed upon amongst us.
"But it now seemed that the good fortune which had hitherto attended us had deserted us, for after crawling for four days in sultry weather, there fell a dead calm, and we lay like a log upon the sea for forty-eight hours. For three days we remained in the midst of the ocean, exposed to the burning rays of the sun, in a boat without water or provisions. On the fourth day, just as we had resolved to draw lots to determine who should die for the sustenance of the others, we were picked up by an opium clipper returning to Canton. The captain, an American, was most kind to us, and on our arrival at Canton, a subscription was got up for us by the British merchants of that city, and a free passage to England obtained for us. Russen, however, getting in drink, made statements which brought suspicion upon us. I had imposed upon the Consul with a fictitious story of a wreck, but had stated that my name was Wilson, forgetting that the sextant which had been preserved in the boat had Captain Bates's name engraved upon it. These circumstances together caused sufficient doubts in the Consul's mind to cause him to give directions that, on our arrival in London, we were to be brought before the Thames Police Court. There being no evidence against us, we should have escaped, had not a Dr. Pine, who had been surgeon on board the Malabar transport, being in the Court, recognized me and swore to my identity. We were remanded, and, to complete the chain of evidence, Mr. Capon, the Hobart Town gaoler, was, strangely enough, in London at the time, and identified us all. Our story was then made public, and Barker and Lesly, turning Queen's evidence against Russen, he was convicted of the murder of Lyons, and executed. We were then placed on board the Leviathan hulk, and remained there until shipped in the Lady Jane, which was chartered, with convicts, for Van Diemen's Land, in order to be tried in the colony, where the offence was committed, for piratically seizing the brig Osprey, and arrived here on the 15th December, 1838."
Coming, breathless, to the conclusion of this wonderful relation, Sylvia suffered her hand to fall into her lap, and sat meditative. The history of this desperate struggle for liberty was to her full of vague horror. She had never before realized among what manner of men she had lived. The sullen creatures who worked in the chain-gangs, or pulled in the boats—their faces brutalized into a uniform blankness—must be very different men from John Rex and his companions. Her imagination pictured the voyage in the leaky brig, the South American slavery, the midnight escape, the desperate rowing, the long, slow agony of starvation, and the heart-sickness that must have followed upon recapture and imprisonment. Surely the punishment of "penal servitude" must have been made very terrible for men to dare such hideous perils to escape from it. Surely John Rex, the convict, who, alone, and prostrated by sickness, quelled a mutiny and navigated a vessel through a storm-ravaged ocean, must possess qualities which could be put to better use than stone-quarrying. Was the opinion of Maurice Frere the correct one after all, and were these convict monsters gifted with unnatural powers of endurance, only to be subdued and tamed by unnatural and inhuman punishments of lash and chain? Her fancies growing amid the fast gathering gloom, she shuddered as she guessed to what extremities of evil might such men proceed did an opportunity ever come to them to retaliate upon their gaolers. Perhaps beneath each mask of servility and sullen fear that was the ordinary prison face, lay hid a courage and a despair as mighty as that which sustained those ten poor wanderers over the Pacific Ocean. Maurice had told her that these people had their secret signs, their secret language. She had just seen a specimen of the skill with which this very Rex—still bent upon escape—could send a hidden message to his friends beneath the eyes of his gaolers. What if the whole island was but one smouldering volcano of revolt and murder—the whole convict population but one incarnated conspiracy, bound together by crime and suffering! Terrible to think of—yet not impossible.
Oh, how strangely must the world have been civilized, that this most lovely corner of it must needs be set apart as a place of banishment for the monsters that civilization had brought forth and bred! She cast her eyes around, and all beauty seemed blotted out from the scene before her. The graceful foliage melting into indistinctness in the gathering twilight, appeared to her horrible and treacherous. The river seemed to flow sluggishly, as though thickened with blood and tears. The shadow of the trees seemed to hold lurking shapes of cruelty and danger. Even the whispering breeze bore with it sighs, and threats, and mutterings of revenge. Oppressed by a terror of loneliness, she hastily caught up the manuscript, and turned to seek the house, when, as if summoned from the earth by the power of her own fears, a ragged figure barred her passage.
To the excited girl this apparition seemed the embodiment of the unknown evil she had dreaded. She recognized the yellow clothing, and marked the eager hands outstretched to seize her. Instantly upon her flashed the story that three days since had set the prison-town agog. The desperado of Port Arthur, the escaped mutineer and murderer, was before her, with unchained arms, free to wreak his will of her.
"Sylvia! It is you! Oh, at last! I have escaped, and come to ask——What? Do you not know me?"
Pressing both hands to her bosom, she stepped back a pace, speechless with terror.
"I am Rufus Dawes," he said, looking in her face for the grateful smile of recognition that did not come—"Rufus Dawes."
The party at the house had finished their wine, and, sitting on the broad verandah, were listening to some gentle dullness of the clergyman, when there broke upon their ears a cry.
"What's that?" said Vickers.
Frere sprang up, and looked down the garden. He saw two figures that seemed to struggle together. One glance was enough, and, with a shout, he leapt the flower-beds, and made straight at the escaped prisoner.
Rufus Dawes saw him coming, but, secure in the protection of the girl who owed to him so much, he advanced a step nearer, and loosing his respectful clasp of her hand, caught her dress.
"Oh, help, Maurice, help!" cried Sylvia again.
Into the face of Rufus Dawes came an expression of horror-stricken bewilderment. For three days the unhappy man had contrived to keep life and freedom, in order to get speech with the one being who, he thought, cherished for him some affection. Having made an unparalleled escape from the midst of his warders, he had crept to the place where lived the idol of his dreams, braving recapture, that he might hear from her two words of justice and gratitude. Not only did she refuse to listen to him, and shrink from him as from one accursed, but, at the sound of his name, she summoned his deadliest foe to capture him. Such monstrous ingratitude was almost beyond belief. She, too,—the child he had nursed and fed, the child for whom he had given up his hard-earned chance of freedom and fortune, the child of whom he had dreamed, the child whose image he had worshipped—she, too, against him! Then there was no justice, no Heaven, no God! He loosed his hold of her dress, and, regardless of the approaching footsteps, stood speechless, shaking from head to foot. In another instant Frere and McNab flung themselves upon him, and he was borne to the ground. Though weakened by starvation, he shook them off with scarce an effort, and, despite the servants who came hurrying from the alarmed house, might even then have turned and made good his escape. But he seemed unable to fly. His chest heaved convulsively, great drops of sweat beaded his white face, and from his eyes tears seemed about to break. For an instant his features worked convulsively, as if he would fain invoke upon the girl, weeping on her father's shoulder, some hideous curse. But no words came—only thrusting his hand into his breast, with a supreme gesture of horror and aversion, he flung something from him. Then a profound sigh escaped him, and he held out his hands to be bound.
There was something so pitiable about this silent grief that, as they led him away, the little group instinctively averted their faces, lest they should seem to triumph over him.