Page:Life of John Boyle O'Reilly.djvu/92

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Through the thick drizzle of the early morning the convicts were marched in gangs to their daily tasks; some to build new walls within the prison precincts, some to break stone in the round yard, encircled by enormous iron railings fifteen feet high, some to the great kitchen of the prison, and to the different workshops. About one third of the prisoners marched outside the walls by the lower entrance; for the prison stands on a hill, at the foot of which stretches the most forsaken and grisly waste in all Dartmoor.

The task of the convicts for two hundred years had been the reclamation of this wide waste, which was called "The Farm." The French prisoners of war, taken in the Napoleonic wars that ended with Waterloo, had dug trenches to drain the waste. The American prisoners of the War of 1812 had laid roadways through the marsh. The Irish rebels of six generations had toiled in the tear-scalded footsteps of the French and American captives. And all the time the main or "stock" supply of English criminals, numbering usually about four hundred men, had spent their weary years in toiling and broiling at "The Farm."

Standing at the lower gate of the prison, from which a steep road descended to the marsh looking over "The Farm," it was hard to see anything like a fair return for such continued and patient labor. Deep trenches filled with claret-colored water drained innumerable patches of sickly vegetation. About a hundred stunted fruit trees and as many bedraggled haystacks were all that broke the surface line.

To the left of the gate, on the sloping side of the hill, was a quadrangular space of about thirty by twenty yards, round which was built a low wall of evidently great antiquity. The few courses of stones were huge granite bowlders and slabs torn and rolled from the hillside. There was no gateway or break in the square; to enter the inclosure one must climb over the wall, which was easy enough to do.

Inside the square was a rough heap of granite, a cairn, gray with lichens, in the center of which stood, or rather leaned, a tall, square block of granite, like a dolmen. So great was the age of this strange obelisk that the lichens had encrusted it to the top. The stone had once stood upright; but it now leaned toward the marsh, the cairn having slowly yielded on the lower side.


Geoffrey, who had been employed in the office of the Governor of the prison, and who had, on hearing this old monument was to be repaired, volunteered on behalf of the three others to do the work, now told the story of the old monument as he had learned it from the prison records which he had been transcribing:

"In the wars of the Great Napoleon," Geoffrey said, "the French prisoners captured by England were confined in hulks on the seacoast till the hulks overflowed. Then this prison was built, and filled with