For the Term of His Natural Life/Book III/Chapter XXV
Chapter XXV: The Flight
Gabbett, guided by the Crow, had determined to beach the captured boat on the southern point of Cape Surville. It will be seen by those who have followed the description of the topography of Colonel Arthur's Penitentiary, that nothing but the desperate nature of the attempt could have justified so desperate a measure. The perpendicular cliffs seemed to render such an attempt certain destruction; but Vetch, who had been employed in building the pier at the Neck, knew that on the southern point of the promontory was a strip of beach, upon which the company might, by good fortune, land in safety. With something of the decision of his leader, Rex, the Crow determined at once that in their desperate plight this was the only measure, and setting his teeth as he seized the oar that served as a rudder, he put the boat's head straight for the huge rock that formed the northern horn of Pirates' Bay.
Save for the faint phosphorescent radiance of the foaming waves, the darkness was intense, and Burgess for some minutes pulled almost at random in pursuit. The same tremendous flash of lightning which had saved the life of McNab, by causing Rex to miss his aim, showed to the Commandant the whale-boat balanced on the summit of an enormous wave, and apparently about to be flung against the wall of rock which—magnified in the flash—seemed frightfully near to them. The next instant Burgess himself—his boat lifted by the swiftly advancing billow—saw a wild waste of raging seas scooped into abysmal troughs, in which the bulk of a leviathan might wallow. At the bottom of one of these valleys of water lay the mutineers' boat, looking, with its outspread oars, like some six-legged insect floating in a pool of ink. The great cliff, whose every scar and crag was as distinct as though its huge bulk was but a yard distant, seemed to shoot out from its base towards the struggling insect, a broad, flat straw, that was a strip of dry land. The next instant the rushing water, carrying the six-legged atom with it, creamed up over this strip of beach; the giant crag, amid the thunder-crash which followed upon the lightning, appeared to stoop down over the ocean, and as it stooped, the billow rolled onwards, the boat glided down into the depths, and the whole phantasmagoria was swallowed up in the tumultuous darkness of the tempest.
Burgess—his hair bristling with terror—shouted to put the boat about, but he might with as much reason have shouted at an avalanche. The wind blew his voice away, and emptied it violently into the air. A snarling billow jerked the oar from his hand. Despite the desperate efforts of the soldiers, the boat was whirled up the mountain of water like a leaf on a water-spout, and a second flash of lightning showed them what seemed a group of dolls struggling in the surf, and a walnut-shell bottom upwards was driven by the recoil of the waves towards them. For an instant all thought that they must share the fate which had overtaken the unlucky convicts; but Burgess succeeded in trimming the boat, and, awed by the peril he had so narrowly escaped, gave the order to return. As the men set the boat's head to the welcome line of lights that marked the Neck, a black spot balanced upon a black line was swept under their stern and carried out to sea. As it passed them, this black spot emitted a cry, and they knew that it was one of the shattered boat's crew clinging to an oar.
"He was the only one of 'em alive," said Burgess, bandaging his sprained wrist two hours afterwards at the Neck, "and he's food for the fishes by this time!"
He was mistaken, however. Fate had in reserve for the crew of villains a less merciful death than that of drowning. Aided by the lightning, and that wonderful "good luck" which urges villainy to its destruction, Vetch beached the boat, and the party, bruised and bleeding, reached the upper portion of the shore in safety. Of all this number only Cox was lost. He was pulling stroke-oar, and, being something of a laggard, stood in the way of the Crow, who, seeing the importance of haste in preserving his own skin, plucked the man backwards by the collar, and passed over his sprawling body to the shore. Cox, grasping at anything to save himself, clutched an oar, and the next moment found himself borne out with the overturned whale-boat by the under-tow. He was drifted past his only hope of rescue—the guard-boat—with a velocity that forbade all attempts at rescue, and almost before the poor scoundrel had time to realize his condition, he was in the best possible way of escaping the hanging that his comrades had so often humorously prophesied for him. Being a strong and vigorous villain, however, he clung tenaciously to his oar, and even unbuckling his leather belt, passed it round the slip of wood that was his salvation, girding himself to it as firmly as he was able. In this condition, plus a swoon from exhaustion, he was descried by the helmsman of the Pretty Mary, a few miles from Cape Surville, at daylight next morning. Blunt, with a wild hope that this waif and stray might be the lover of Sarah Purfoy, dead, lowered a boat and picked him up. Nearly bisected by the belt, gorged with salt water, frozen with cold, and having two ribs broken, the victim of Vetch's murderous quickness retained sufficient life to survive Blunt's remedies for nearly two hours. During that time he stated that his name was Cox, that he had escaped from Port Arthur with eight others, that John Rex was the leader of the expedition, that the others were all drowned, and that he believed John Rex had been retaken. Having placed Blunt in possession of these particulars, he further said that it pricked him to breathe, cursed Jemmy Vetch, the settlement, and the sea, and so impenitently died.
Blunt smoked three pipes, and then altered the course of the Pretty Mary two points to the eastward, and ran for the coast. It was possible that the man for whom he was searching had not been retaken, and was even now awaiting his arrival. It was clearly his duty—hearing of the planned escape having been actually attempted—not to give up the expedition while hope remained.
"I'll take one more look along," said he to himself.
The Pretty Mary, hugging the coast as closely as she dared, crawled in the thin breeze all day, and saw nothing. It would be madness to land at Cape Surville, for the whole station would be on the alert; so Blunt, as night was falling, stood off a little across the mouth of Pirates' Bay. He was walking the deck, groaning at the folly of the expedition, when a strange appearance on the southern horn of the bay made him come to a sudden halt. There was a furnace blazing in the bowels of the mountain! Blunt rubbed his eyes and stared. He looked at the man at the helm.
"Do you see anything yonder, Jem?"
Jem—a Sydney man, who had never been round that coast before— briefly remarked, "Lighthouse."
Blunt stumped into the cabin and got out his charts. No lighthouse was laid down there, only a mark like an anchor, and a note, "Remarkable Hole at this Point." A remarkable hole indeed; a remarkable "lime kiln" would have been more to the purpose!
Blunt called up his mate, William Staples, a fellow whom Sarah Purfoy's gold had bought body and soul. William Staples looked at the waxing and waning glow for a while, and then said, in tones trembling with greed, "It's a fire. Lie to, and lower away the jolly-boat. Old man, that's our bird for a thousand pounds!"
The Pretty Mary shortened sail, and Blunt and Staples got into the jolly-boat.
"Goin' a-hoysterin', sir?" said one of the crew, with a grin, as Blunt threw a bundle into the stern-sheets.
Staples thrust his tongue into his cheek. The object of the voyage was now pretty well understood among the carefully picked crew. Blunt had not chosen men who were likely to betray him, though, for that matter, Rex had suggested a precaution which rendered betrayal almost impossible.
"What's in the bundle, old man?" asked Will Staples, after they had got clear of the ship.
"Clothes," returned Blunt. "We can't bring him off, if it is him, in his canaries. He puts on these duds, d'ye see, sinks Her Majesty's livery, and comes aboard, a 'shipwrecked mariner'."
"That's well thought of. Whose notion's that? The Madam's, I'll be bound."
"She's a knowing one."
And the sinister laughter of the pair floated across the violet water.
"Go easy, man," said Blunt, as they neared the shore. "They're all awake at Eaglehawk; and if those cursed dogs give tongue there'll be a boat out in a twinkling. It's lucky the wind's off shore."
Staples lay on his oar and listened. The night was moonless, and the ship had already disappeared from view. They were approaching the promontory from the south-east, and this isthmus of the guarded Neck was hidden by the outlying cliff. In the south-western angle of this cliff, about midway between the summit and the sea, was an arch, which vomited a red and flickering light, that faintly shone upon the sea in the track of the boat. The light was lambent and uncertain, now sinking almost into insignificance, and now leaping up with a fierceness that caused a deep glow to throb in the very heart of the mountain. Sometimes a black figure would pass across this gigantic furnace-mouth, stooping and rising, as though feeding the fire. One might have imagined that a door in Vulcan's Smithy had been left inadvertently open, and that the old hero was forging arms for a demigod.
Blunt turned pale. "It's no mortal," he whispered. "Let's go back."
"And what will Madam say?" returned dare-devil Will Staples who would have plunged into Mount Erebus had he been paid for it. Thus appealed to in the name of his ruling passion, Blunt turned his head, and the boat sped onward.