For the Term of His Natural Life/Book III/Chapter XXII
Chapter XXII: Gathering in the Threads
Maurice found his favourable expectations of Sydney fully realized. His notable escape from death at Macquarie Harbour, his alliance with the daughter of so respected a colonist as Major Vickers, and his reputation as a convict disciplinarian rendered him a man of note. He received a vacant magistracy, and became even more noted for hardness of heart and artfulness of prison knowledge than before. The convict population spoke of him as "that —— Frere," and registered vows of vengeance against him, which he laughed—in his bluffness—to scorn.
One anecdote concerning the method by which he shepherded his flock will suffice to show his character and his value. It was his custom to visit the prison-yard at Hyde Park Barracks twice a week. Visitors to convicts were, of course, armed, and the two pistol-butts that peeped from Frere's waistcoat attracted many a longing eye. How easy would it be for some fellow to pluck one forth and shatter the smiling, hateful face of the noted disciplinarian! Frere, however, brave to rashness, never would bestow his weapons more safely, but lounged through the yard with his hands in the pockets of his shooting-coat, and the deadly butts ready to the hand of anyone bold enough to take them.
One day a man named Kavanagh, a captured absconder, who had openly sworn in the dock the death of the magistrate, walked quickly up to him as he was passing through the yard, and snatched a pistol from his belt. The yard caught its breath, and the attendant warder, hearing the click of the lock, instinctively turned his head away, so that he might not be blinded by the flash. But Kavanagh did not fire. At the instant when his hand was on the pistol, he looked up and met the magnetic glance of Frere's imperious eyes. An effort, and the spell would have been broken. A twitch of the finger, and his enemy would have fallen dead. There was an instant when that twitch of the finger could have been given, but Kavanagh let that instant pass. The dauntless eye fascinated him. He played with the pistol nervously, while all remained stupefied. Frere stood, without withdrawing his hands from the pockets into which they were plunged.
"That's a fine pistol, Jack," he said at last.
Kavanagh, down whose white face the sweat was pouring, burst into a hideous laugh of relieved terror, and thrust the weapon, cocked as it was, back again into the magistrate's belt.
Frere slowly drew one hand from his pocket, took the cocked pistol and levelled it at his recent assailant. "That's the best chance you'll ever get, Jack," said he.
Kavanagh fell on his knees. "For God's sake, Captain Frere!"
Frere looked down on the trembling wretch, and then uncocked the pistol, with a laugh of ferocious contempt. "Get up, you dog," he said. "It takes a better man than you to best me. Bring him up in the morning, Hawkins, and we'll give him five-and-twenty."
As he went out—so great is the admiration for Power—the poor devils in the yard cheered him.
One of the first things that this useful officer did upon his arrival in Sydney was to inquire for Sarah Purfoy. To his astonishment, he discovered that she was the proprietor of large export warehouses in Pitt-street, owned a neat cottage on one of the points of land which jutted into the bay, and was reputed to possess a banking account of no inconsiderable magnitude. He in vain applied his brains to solve this mystery. His cast-off mistress had not been rich when she left Van Diemen's Land—at least, so she had assured him, and appearances bore out her assurance. How had she accumulated this sudden wealth? Above all, why had she thus invested it? He made inquiries at the banks, but was snubbed for his pains. Sydney banks in those days did some queer business.
Mrs. Purfoy had come to them "fully accredited," said the manager with a smile.
"But where did she get the money?" asked the magistrate. "I am suspicious of these sudden fortunes. The woman was a notorious character in Hobart Town, and when she left hadn't a penny."
"My dear Captain Frere," said the acute banker—his father had been one of the builders of the "Rum Hospital"—"it is not the custom of our bank to make inquiries into the previous history of its customers. The bills were good, you may depend, or we should not have honoured them. Good morning!"
"The bills!" Frere saw but one explanation. Sarah had received the proceeds of some of Rex's rogueries. Rex's letter to his father and the mention of the sum of money "in the old house in Blue Anchor Yard" flashed across his memory. Perhaps Sarah had got the money from the receiver and appropriated it. But why invest it in an oil and tallow warehouse? He had always been suspicious of the woman, because he had never understood her, and his suspicions redoubled. Convinced that there was some plot hatching, he determined to use all the advantages that his position gave him to discover the secret and bring it to light. The name of the man to whom Rex's letters had been addressed was "Blicks". He would find out if any of the convicts under his care had heard of Blicks. Prosecuting his inquiries in the proper direction, he soon obtained a reply. Blicks was a London receiver of stolen goods, known to at least a dozen of the black sheep of the Sydney fold. He was reputed to be enormously wealthy, had often been tried, but never convicted. Frere was thus not much nearer enlightenment than before, and an incident occurred a few months afterwards which increased his bewilderment He had not been long established in his magistracy, when Blunt came to claim payment for the voyage of Sarah Purfoy. "There's that schooner going begging, one may say, sir," said Blunt, when the office door was shut.
Now the Franklin was a vessel of three hundred and twenty tons which plied between Norfolk Island and Sydney, as the Osprey had plied in the old days between Macquarie Harbour and Hobart Town. "I am afraid that is rather stiff, Blunt," said Frere. "That's one of the best billets going, you know. I doubt if I have enough interest to get it for you. Besides," he added, eyeing the sailor critically, "you are getting oldish for that sort of thing, ain't you?"
Phineas Blunt stretched his arms wide, and opened his mouth, full of sound white teeth. "I am good for twenty years more yet, sir," he said. "My father was trading to the Indies at seventy-five years of age. I'm hearty enough, thank God; for, barring a drop of rum now and then, I've no vices to speak of. However, I ain't in a hurry, Captain, for a month or so; only I thought I'd jog your memory a bit, d'ye see."
"Oh, you're not in a hurry; where are you going then?"
"Well," said Blunt, shifting on his seat, uneasy under Frere's convict-disciplined eye, "I've got a job on hand."
"Glad of it, I'm sure. What sort of a job?"
"A job of whaling," said Blunt, more uneasy than before.
"Oh, that's it, is it? Your old line of business. And who employs you now?" There was no suspicion in the tone, and had Blunt chosen to evade the question, he might have done so without difficulty, but he replied as one who had anticipated such questioning, and had been advised how to answer it.
"What!" cried Frere, scarcely able to believe his ears.
"She's got a couple of ships now, Captain, and she made me skipper of one of 'em. We look for beshdellamare [bêche-de-la-mer], and take a turn at harpooning sometimes."
Frere stared at Blunt, who stared at the window. There was—so the instinct of the magistrate told him—some strange project afoot. Yet that common sense which so often misleads us, urged that it was quite natural Sarah should employ whaling vessels to increase her trade. Granted that there was nothing wrong about her obtaining the business, there was nothing strange about her owning a couple of whaling vessels. There were people in Sydney, of no better origin, who owned half-a-dozen. "Oh," said he. "And when do you start?"
"I'm expecting to get the word every day," returned Blunt, apparently relieved, "and I thought I'd just come and see you first, in case of anything falling in." Frere played with a pen-knife on the table in silence for a while, allowing it to fall through his fingers with a series of sharp clicks, and then he said, "Where does she get the money from?"
"Blest if I know!" said Blunt, in unaffected simplicity. "That's beyond me. She says she saved it. But that's all my eye, you know."
"You don't know anything about it, then?" cried Frere, suddenly fierce.
"No, not I."
"Because, if there's any game on, she'd better take care," he cried, relapsing, in his excitement, into the convict vernacular. "She knows me. Tell her that I've got my eyes on her. Let her remember her bargain. If she runs any rigs on me, let her take care." In his suspicious wrath he so savagely and unwarily struck downwards with the open pen-knife that it shut upon his fingers, and cut him to the bone.
"I'll tell her," said Blunt, wiping his brow. "I'm sure she wouldn't go to sell you. But I'll look in when I come back, sir." When he got outside he drew a long breath. "By the Lord Harry, but it's a ticklish game to play," he said to himself, with a lively recollection of the dreaded Frere's vehemence; "and there's only one woman in the world I'd be fool enough to play it for."
Maurice Frere, oppressed with suspicions, ordered his horse that afternoon, and rode down to see the cottage which the owner of "Purfoy Stores" had purchased. He found it a low white building, situated four miles from the city, at the extreme end of a tongue of land which ran into the deep waters of the harbour. A garden carefully cultivated, stood between the roadway and the house, and in this garden he saw a man digging.
"Does Mrs. Purfoy live here?" he asked, pushing open one of the iron gates.
The man replied in the affirmative, staring at the visitor with some suspicion.
"Is she at home?"
"You are sure?"
"If you don't believe me, ask at the house," was the reply, given in the uncourteous tone of a free man.
Frere pushed his horse through the gate, and walked up the broad and well-kept carriage drive. A man-servant in livery, answering his ring, told him that Mrs. Purfoy had gone to town, and then shut the door in his face. Frere, more astonished than ever at these outward and visible signs of independence, paused, indignant, feeling half inclined to enter despite opposition. As he looked through the break of the trees, he saw the masts of a brig lying at anchor off the extremity of the point on which the house was built, and understood that the cottage commanded communication by water as well as by land. Could there be a special motive in choosing such a situation, or was it mere chance? He was uneasy, but strove to dismiss his alarm.
Sarah had kept faith with him so far. She had entered upon a new and more reputable life, and why should he seek to imagine evil where perhaps no evil was? Blunt was evidently honest. Women like Sarah Purfoy often emerged into a condition of comparative riches and domestic virtue. It was likely that, after all, some wealthy merchant was the real owner of the house and garden, pleasure yacht, and tallow warehouse, and that he had no cause for fear.
The experienced convict disciplinarian did not rate the ability of John Rex high enough.
From the instant the convict had heard his sentence of life banishment, he had determined upon escaping, and had brought all the powers of his acute and unscrupulous intellect to the consideration of the best method of achieving his purpose. His first care was to procure money. This he thought to do by writing to Blick, but when informed by Meekin of the fate of his letter, he adopted the—to him—less pleasant alternative of procuring it through Sarah Purfoy.
It was peculiar to the man's hard and ungrateful nature that, despite the attachment of the woman who had followed him to his place of durance, and had made it the object of her life to set him free, he had cherished for her no affection. It was her beauty that had attracted him, when, as Mr. Lionel Crofton, he swaggered in the night-society of London. Her talents and her devotion were secondary considerations—useful to him as attributes of a creature he owned, but not to be thought of when his fancy wearied of its choice. During the twelve years which had passed since his rashness had delivered him into the hands of the law at the house of Green, the coiner, he had been oppressed with no regrets for her fate. He had, indeed, seen and suffered so much that the old life had been put away from him. When, on his return, he heard that Sarah Purfoy was still in Hobart Town, he was glad, for he knew that he had an ally who would do her utmost to help him—she had shown that on board the Malabar. But he was also sorry, for he remembered that the price she would demand for her services was his affection, and that had cooled long ago. However, he would make use of her. There might be a way to discard her if she proved troublesome.
His pretended piety had accomplished the end he had assumed it for. Despite Frere's exposure of his cryptograph, he had won the confidence of Meekin; and into that worthy creature's ear he poured a strange and sad story. He was the son, he said, of a clergyman of the Church of England, whose real name, such was his reverence for the cloth, should never pass his lips. He was transported for a forgery which he did not commit. Sarah Purfoy was his wife—his erring, lost and yet loved wife. She, an innocent and trusting girl, had determined— strong in the remembrance of that promise she had made at the altar— to follow her husband to his place of doom, and had hired herself as lady's-maid to Mrs. Vickers. Alas! fever prostrated that husband on a bed of sickness, and Maurice Frere, the profligate and the villain, had taken advantage of the wife's unprotected state to ruin her! Rex darkly hinted how the seducer made his power over the sick and helpless husband a weapon against the virtue of the wife and so terrified poor Meekin that, had it not "happened so long ago", he would have thought it necessary to look with some disfavour upon the boisterous son-in-law of Major Vickers.
"I bear him no ill-will, sir," said Rex. "I did at first. There was a time when I could have killed him, but when I had him in my power, I—as you know—forbore to strike. No, sir, I could not commit murder!"
"Very proper," says Meekin, "very proper indeed."
"God will punish him in His own way, and His own time," continued Rex. "My great sorrow is for the poor woman. She is in Sydney, I have heard, living respectably, sir; and my heart bleeds for her." Here Rex heaved a sigh that would have made his fortune on the boards.
"My poor fellow," said Meekin. "Do you know where she is?"
"I do, sir."
"You might write to her."
John Rex appeared to hesitate, to struggle with himself, and finally to take a deep resolve. "No, Mr. Meekin, I will not write."
"You know the orders, sir—the Commandant reads all the letters sent. Could I write to my poor Sarah what other eyes were to read?" and he watched the parson slyly.
"N—no, you could not," said Meekin, at last.
"It is true, sir," said Rex, letting his head sink on his breast.
The next day, Meekin, blushing with the consciousness that what he was about to do was wrong, said to his penitent, "If you will promise to write nothing that the Commandant might not see, Rex, I will send your letter to your wife."
"Heaven bless you, sir,". said Rex, and took two days to compose an epistle which should tell Sarah Purfoy how to act. The letter was a model of composition in one way. It stated everything clearly and succinctly. Not a detail that could assist was omitted—not a line that could embarrass was suffered to remain. John Rex's scheme of six months' deliberation was set down in the clearest possible manner. He brought his letter unsealed to Meekin. Meekin looked at it with an interest that was half suspicion. "Have I your word that there is nothing in this that might not be read by the Commandant?"
John Rex was a bold man, but at the sight of the deadly thing fluttering open in the clergyman's hand, his knees knocked together. Strong in his knowledge of human nature, however, he pursued his desperate plan. "Read it, sir," he said turning away his face reproachfully. "You are a gentleman. I can trust you."
"No, Rex," said Meekin, walking loftily into the pitfall; "I do not read private letters." It was sealed, and John Rex felt as if somebody had withdrawn a match from a powder barrel.
In a month Mr. Meekin received a letter, beautifully written, from "Sarah Rex", stating briefly that she had heard of his goodness, that the enclosed letter was for her husband, and that if it was against the rules to give it him, she begged it might be returned to her unread. Of course Meekin gave it to Rex, who next morning handed to Meekin a most touching pious production, begging him to read it. Meekin did so, and any suspicions he may have had were at once disarmed. He was ignorant of the fact that the pious letter contained a private one intended for John Rex only, which letter John Rex thought so highly of, that, having read it twice through most attentively, he ate it.
The plan of escape was after all a simple one. Sarah Purfoy was to obtain from Blicks the moneys he held in trust, and to embark the sum thus obtained in any business which would suffer her to keep a vessel hovering round the southern coast of Van Diemen's Land without exciting suspicion. The escape was to be made in the winter months, if possible, in June or July. The watchful vessel was to be commanded by some trustworthy person, who was to frequently land on the south-eastern side, and keep a look-out for any extraordinary appearance along the coast. Rex himself must be left to run the gauntlet of the dogs and guards unaided. "This seems a desperate scheme," wrote Rex, "but it is not so wild as it looks. I have thought over a dozen others, and rejected them all. This is the only way. Consider it well. I have my own plan for escape, which is easy if rescue be at hand. All depends upon placing a trustworthy man in charge of the vessel. You ought to know a dozen such. I will wait eighteen months to give you time to make all arrangements." The eighteen months had now nearly passed over, and the time for the desperate attempt drew near. Faithful to his cruel philosophy, John Rex had provided scape-goats, who, by their vicarious agonies, should assist him to his salvation.
He had discovered that of the twenty men in his gang eight had already determined on an effort for freedom. The names of these eight were Gabbett, Vetch, Bodenham, Cornelius, Greenhill, Sanders, called the "Moocher", Cox, and Travers. The leading spirits were Vetch and Gabbett, who, with profound reverence, requested the "Dandy" to join. John Rex, ever suspicious, and feeling repelled by the giant's strange eagerness, at first refused, but by degrees allowed himself to appear to be drawn into the scheme. He would urge these men to their fate, and take advantage of the excitement attendant on their absence to effect his own escape. "While all the island is looking for these eight boobies, I shall have a good chance to slip away unmissed." He wished, however, to have a companion. Some strong man, who, if pressed hard, would turn and keep the pursuers at bay, would be useful without doubt; and this comrade-victim he sought in Rufus Dawes.
Beginning, as we have seen, from a purely selfish motive, to urge his fellow-prisoner to abscond with him, John Rex gradually found himself attracted into something like friendliness by the sternness with which his overtures were repelled. Always a keen student of human nature, the scoundrel saw beneath the roughness with which it had pleased the unfortunate man to shroud his agony, how faithful a friend and how ardent and undaunted a spirit was concealed. There was, moreover, a mystery about Rufus Dawes which Rex, the reader of hearts, longed to fathom.
"Have you no friends whom you would wish to see?" he asked, one evening, when Rufus Dawes had proved more than usually deaf to his arguments.
"No," said Dawes gloomily. "My friends are all dead to me."
"What, all?" asked the other. "Most men have some one whom they wish to see."
Rufus Dawes laughed a slow, heavy laugh. "I am better here."
"Then are you content to live this dog's life?"
"Enough, enough," said Dawes. "I am resolved."
"Pooh! Pluck up a spirit," cried Rex. "It can't fail. I've been thinking of it for eighteen months, and it can't fail."
"Who are going?" asked the other, his eyes fixed on the ground.
John Rex enumerated the eight, and Dawes raised his head. "I won't go. I have had two trials at it; I don't want another. I would advise you not to attempt it either."
"Gabbett bolted twice before," said Rufus Dawes, shuddering at the remembrance of the ghastly object he had seen in the sunlit glen at Hell's Gates. "Others went with him, but each time he returned alone."
"What do you mean?" asked Rex, struck by the tone of his companion.
"What became of the others?"
"Died, I suppose," said the Dandy, with a forced laugh.
"Yes; but how? They were all without food. How came the surviving monster to live six weeks?"
John Rex grew a shade paler, and did not reply. He recollected the sanguinary legend that pertained to Gabbett's rescue. But he did not intend to make the journey in his company, so, after all, he had no cause for fear. "Come with me then," he said, at length. "We will try our luck together."
"No. I have resolved. I stay here."
"And leave your innocence unproved."
"How can I prove it?" cried Rufus Dawes, roughly impatient. "There are crimes committed which are never brought to light, and this is one of them."
"Well," said Rex, rising, as if weary of the discussion, "have it your own way, then. You know best. The private detective game is hard work. I, myself, have gone on a wild-goose chase before now. There's a mystery about a certain ship-builder's son which took me four months to unravel, and then I lost the thread."
"A ship-builder's son! Who was he?"
John Rex paused in wonderment at the eager interest with which the question was put, and then hastened to take advantage of this new opening for conversation. "A queer story. A well-known character in my time—Sir Richard Devine. A miserly old curmudgeon, with a scapegrace son."
Rufus Dawes bit his lips to avoid showing his emotion. This was the second time that the name of his dead father had been spoken in his hearing. "I think I remember something of him," he said, with a voice that sounded strangely calm in his own ears.
"A curious story," said Rex, plunging into past memories. "Amongst other matters, I dabbled a little in the Private Inquiry line of business, and the old man came to me. He had a son who had gone abroad—a wild young dog, by all accounts—and he wanted particulars of him."
"Did you get them?"
"To a certain extent. I hunted him through Paris into Brussels, from Brussels to Antwerp, from Antwerp back to Paris. I lost him there. A miserable end to a long and expensive search. I got nothing but a portmanteau with a lot of letters from his mother. I sent the particulars to the ship-builder, and by all accounts the news killed him, for he died not long after."
"And the son?"
"Came to the queerest end of all. The old man had left him his fortune—a large one, I believe—but he'd left Europe, it seems, for India, and was lost in the Hydaspes. Frere was his cousin."
"By Gad, it annoys me when I think of it," continued Rex, feeling, by force of memory, once more the adventurer of fashion. "With the resources I had, too. Oh, a miserable failure! The days and nights I've spent walking about looking for Richard Devine, and never catching a glimpse of him. The old man gave me his son's portrait, with full particulars of his early life, and I suppose I carried that ivory gimcrack in my breast for nearly three months, pulling it out to refresh my memory every half-hour. By Gad, if the young gentleman was anything like his picture, I could have sworn to him if I'd met him in Timbuctoo."
"Do you think you'd know him again?" asked Rufus Dawes in a low voice, turning away his head.
There may have been something in the attitude in which the speaker had put himself that awakened memory, or perhaps the subdued eagerness of the tone, contrasting so strangely with the comparative inconsequence of the theme, that caused John Rex's brain to perform one of those feats of automatic synthesis at which we afterwards wonder. The profligate son—the likeness to the portrait—the mystery of Dawes's life! These were the links of a galvanic chain. He closed the circuit, and a vivid flash revealed to him—The Man.
Warder Troke, coming up, put his hand on Rex's shoulder. "Dawes," he said, "you're wanted at the yard"; and then, seeing his mistake, added with a grin, "Curse you two; you're so much alike one can't tell t'other from which."
Rufus Dawes walked off moodily; but John Rex's evil face turned pale, and a strange hope made his heart leap.
"Gad, Troke's right; we are alike. I'll not press him to escape any more."