I.—The Convening Of The Ring.


CAPTAIN MACONOCHIE, who, with Major Anderson, supplied the non-demoniac element in the reigns of Norfolk Island Commandants, in pursuance of his theory that the convict should be encouraged to hope not alone for an alleviation of his physical condition, but also for “a new moral nature,” hit upon an expedient for developing, even in hardened souls, those softening and refining tendencies which flow from a heart-felt solicitude for the welfare of others. By detaching transports into groups, or “sub-gangs,” of three or five members, and holding each man of the three or five responsible for the good behaviour of his comrades, an irresistible appeal was at once made to the curiously-confused notions that swayed the average convict mind. An argument which had regard only to their own comfort or freedom from

  ― 22 ―
punishment would, in the case of nine out of ten “old hands”—the doubly-convicted convicts transported from the mainland or Van Diemen's Land— be welcomed by an oath or a ribald jest. When callousness in infamy was deemed to be an honour— when irons were thought the insignia of chivalry— and “connoisseurs in murder” felt it a privilege to take the hand of a “locked-boot” victim—it was an insult to suggest an immunity from penalties as a reason for right action. Take another course, however, and appeal to the sense of fraternity, which seldom died out even in the “best” men, and that caution in conduct and that eternal obedience to the regulations which a “good” man would never think of exerting in his own interests, would be at once exercised for the benefit of his group-mates. Most of Maconochie's attempts at penal reform sprang from his heart, and were seldom based on a hard, logical apprehension of facts as they were. But, in respect to his grouping system, his heart and his head acted together. His judgment and his experience of the “old hands” taught him that it was literally and absolutely a point of honour with them never to procure punishment for another transport who manifested “spunk.” And his heart showed him how to take advantage of this characteristic.

  ― 23 ―
What “old hands” would not do for themselves they should do for others. They should respect regulations and official practices, because violation of them would cause the infliction of punishment upon their colleagues of the group.

Between the principal settlement (which was supposed to change its name according to the sex of the reigning sovereign, and, therefore, should have been called Queenstown in the present reign, but which, notwithstanding, was more often spoken of as Kingstown than Queenstown) and the outlying barracks at Longridge, the Commandant laid out, in March and April, 184–, a number of farms of six to ten acres each. On each farm a hut or cottage was erected, and a company of from three to five men was assigned to each hut and farm. For the first year, no rental was demanded by the Commandant. For succeeding years each group of tenants had to contribute a rental of twelve bushels of maize for each cleared acre, this quota being estimated to equal one-third of the average crop per acre raised by labour under direct taxation. And every group was constituted a “mutual responsibility” sub-gang. That is to say, for the misdeeds of any one member of a group, the other members would suffer.

The group tenanting the hut on Section 5 B was

  ― 24 ―
constituted by some “old hands” whose records were of the very “best.”note Tested by the official standards of the elder System, they would have been welcomed by Lucifer with a “Hail, fellows, well met!” And thereupon the soft-hearted Commandant resolved they should have a chance to reform. Very much to the amusement of the Commissariat and other officials did he announce this determination.

The sub-gangers were five in number. Osborne, of whom we dare say no more than that it was a daily wonder to his comrades how he escaped hanging; Peake, a small-skulled, thirty-year-old lump of a physical deformity that rivalled his moral nature; a gentlemanly ex-forger who was popularly known as “Barrington” from the circumstance that he knew off by heart the account of that immortal scoundrel's career; a “Swinger”note—Felix—less sullen than brutish in feature, and of gigantic physical strength; and Reynell, a former soldier of the “Fighting Half-Hundred,” who had been transported to Norfolk

  ― 25 ―
Island by a V.D.L. military court for desertion to Maori-land in a whaler.

A tall, strapping fellow, who carried himself with military erectness, was Reynell, and it was his boast that his parchment record was as long as himself. Of course, the assertion was a slight exaggeration, but Reynell was given to little whimsicalities. A devil when roused, he was, as a rule, a merry soul, who was pleasantly cynical. He entered into crime with the same zest as into a battle-square. “It was but putting the bayonet into the law instead of the enemy,” he said to Mr. Pery, Superintendent of Agriculture, one day when Pery asked him why he would persist in setting the authorities at defiance. “I have to let the devil out of me somehow, sir, and as her gracious Majesty—God bless her!—won't employ me against her enemies, I have to make enemies of my own. And the law's a grand enemy to fight, sir! It'll take such a lot of beating!”

Against a criminal of this temper the Law had used everything in its dread armoury, except “the spread-eagle,” the gallows, and—a kind word and good faith. These last two instruments of unusual punishment Captain Maconochie now determined to supply. He appointed Reynell leader of 5 B

  ― 26 ―
sub-gang at a Sunday morning “after chapel” muster at the Iron Room.

“Henry Reynell, per Coquette, colonial transport,” called the mustering-overseer.

“Reynell, how do you come to be included among ‘old hands’ when you're a ‘colonial’?” questioned the Commandant, with his pleasant resonance of voice, as soon as the man had replied with his “Here!”

“The honourable Court gave me fourteen years, y'r Honour, and as I didn't think it enough I got 'em to make it life.” There was a ripple of laughter in the ranks.

“How?” asked the Captain, who took no notice of the demonstration.

“I struck the corporal of the Court guard—and so the honourable Court gave me what I wanted.”

“Not the same Court? It could not act at once and without being formally convened by the Colonel-Commanding?”

“As to that, sir, I can't say. All I know is that same Court convicted me—and I came here with a double sentence. Therefore, Major Ryan thought me entitled, sir, to all the emoluments, rights, and privileges of an old hand. I've been in irons all the time I've been here.”

  ― 27 ―

“Will you take a word of advice from me, Reynell?” said the Commandant.

“Will—I—what, y'r Honour?” asked Reynell, with a choking breath in his voice that might have been amusement, or might have been sheer amazement at the autocrat of a penal settlement assuming so extraordinary a tone.

“Take my advice, my good fellow, just to drop that sneering manner of speech.” There was a genuine kindness in the words. Reynell drew himself up to his full height and clenched his fist. Those who stood by thought he was about to transform recklessness of tongue into madness of action. The line between a murderer and a hero is often but a hair's-breadth, and this man, who might easily become a hero, might as easily pass the line.

However, other answer than this he did not make. He flung out his closed hand and said—“So easy to preach, y'r Honour! With the iron in the soul, and the cat on the back, and the bayonet-point in the body, what wonder the sneer's on the lip? So easy for you gentlemen to deal with heartless numbers. You say, Numbers 37-189—that's me—and 39-204 —that's Felix—don't feel. God above—don't we! And what weapon ha' we to fight the System with

  ― 28 ―
if you won't allow us to use our tongues? Even at our peril we must use 'em!”

He stopped and gathered strength for a last phrase which quivered with the under-thrill of his bitterness. “It's fighting that's our last hope of keeping something of manhood to ourselves, sir! Fight!—I'd die if I did not fight—die or go mad!”

Outbursts of this sort were common enough among the more intelligent convicts, but Maconochie never ceased to be impressed by them. The receptive sympathy of the man—which proved his ruin as an administrator—was always stirred when the note of strength and sincerity ran through the transport's utterances. He listened now to Reynell with a patience that to his under-strappers and to the felons at muster seemed at once wonderful and childish.

With mutual nods and winks (in hearty enjoyment of the joke) the gentlemen of the Commissariat who accompanied him listened to his ludicrously feeble reception of Convict Reynell's attack on the System's amenities.

“Reynell,” he said, stepping a pace nearer to the ranks as he spoke, “I am going to trust you—I will give you a farm—you and any four others you may choose to pick out of the old hands!”

“You—are—not jollying—me, your Honour?”

  ― 29 ―

“No—you will find by and by that I never ‘jolly!’”

“Then, by G—, sir, I'll be true man to you!”

From the rank of men from which Reynell had been called out came in two or three distinct voices a shout of—

“The Ring'll see 'bout that! The Oath! The Oath!”


Reynell, instantly flushed with the strenuous hope that had been created by Maconochie's words, paled as instantly. Then—

“I'll take it back, y'r Honour. I'll remain as I am—a ‘good’ man!”

“That's right, that's right, my man!” rejoined the Commandant, genially. Again, a sibilant chorus from the ranks. The transports were tickled agreeably at what they thought his misapprehension. They had understood Reynell. Reynell, they knew, was simply adopting the vocabulary of the damned, in which “darkness was light and light darkness.” But the laughter stopped instantly as Maconochie raised his hand—and did the fatallest thing of his commandancy.

“Men!” he exclaimed, “no more of that! And now listen!”

  ― 30 ―

A rubbing and clinking of irons and a shuffling of feet rose on the calm air as the men settled themselves into position. They had heard they had got a “bad” preaching Commandant—and now Fate was about to confirm the report by cursing them with a second sermon on the one day.

“Men, listen! A threat has been used about the Ring. Now, I tell you—Ring members and non-members of the Ring—that I am resolved to crush that society out of existence.”

From among the massed men a confused clamour arose. “So other Com'dants have said—and they failed!” “Better not try!” “Ye'll ha' to croak first!” A chorus of defiance in which rumbled an accent of triumph. The System for three generations of Islanders had been trying to kill the Ring, and the Ring was still immutable and impregnable. The men who were of the Ring feared its despotism, but gloried in its traditions and its power. The men whose names were not scored in its mysteriously-kept roll, respected it and admired it, for was it not a rock that withstood the shocks of the Authorities?—an empire supreme over an empire otherwise omnipotent?

Now, Maconochie had meant to say that the only uprooting force he intended to apply to the Ring

  ― 31 ―
was that of kindness and justice. His wish was to render the Secret Society innocuous by depriving it of any occasion for the exercise of its undoubtedly enormous capacity for desperate action. But he was given no chance of explaining himself. Though they thought that the loss of their Sunday dinner—deeply cherished treat!—was involved in the uproar, the one hundred and fifty men, moved by a common impulse of passion, which, like a tornado-wave, swept all before it, continued and increased their clamour. They shouted, whistled, clanked their irons. Every sound was an inflection of evil. To the officials inured by years of familiarity with the Island life to such demonstrations, there was nothing particularly alarming—certainly nothing distressing in the storm. To the Commandant, however, sensitive in feeling, exalted in imagination, and subject to a curious persistence of reasoning which convinced him every transport was less an offender against society than a victim of society's errors and stupidities, the noise was a literal shock.

He held his hand up to command silence. A strong hiss from the centre greeted the gesture.

He folded his arms, as though to wait patiently for the cessation of the tumult. The challenge was responded to by shrieks of laughter.

  ― 32 ―

He lifted his cap and passed his handkerchief across his forehead. Fifty hands derisively copied the action. It was an admission that he was beaten, and they delighted in it as their nostrils would have done in the scent of roast meat.

He turned his back upon the ironed men, and motioned to a gaol-warder. Assistant-Deputy-Commissary-General Shanks thought he purposed to order up the main-guard, and for the first time was prepared to confess to himself that the Commandant was something more than a dreamer. And—Mr. Shanks was to be disappointed.

Instead of bringing up at the “double” a file of twelve men—instead of issuing in bloody sequence, incisive commands: “Ready! Present! Fire!” Captain Maconochie had sent to his own stores for—tobacco! The imbecility of that act!—how it started Mr. Shanks! How it spoilt his Sunday's dinner and compelled him to sacrifice his afternoon nap so that he might write to Governor Gipps and Mr. E. Deas-Thomson!

“Tobacco for rebels! The establishment is going to the devil!” he groaned later to Mrs. Shanks. “Tobacco!—when they should have had lead. If he had made requisition upon me, and not have drawn from his own store, I'd have refused there

  ― 33 ―
and then!” For Mr. Shanks' heart was sore within him.

As for the gentry of the Iron Room, their turbulence held till the box of tobacco was placed at the Commandant's feet. And then it faded, with a final hiss and splatter as a breaking wave dies against the shingle. They were stupefied at this unique form of punishment.

“'E's a-goin' to 'eap coals o' fire on our 'eads!” exclaimed some one, but the remark passed unheeded. The mass were too surprised even for ribald comments.


“Reynell!” Maconochie called.

Reynell looked round before answering. Did the Ring raise objection? If it did, there was no visible or audible sign of its refusal. And he stepped forward; and, to the Commandant's pleasure, saluted.

“Reynell, call out four men to assist you!”

“What for, sir?”

“To distribute that tobacco—half a fig to a man.”

Reynell stared at the Captain—then gazed back at the massed men. For guidance—for a hint as to whether he dare take the bribe on their behalf? Most likely so. And so near is weak kindness to

  ― 34 ―
refined cruelty, there was not one man there in those ranks of ironed, yellow, brown-and-grey garbed felons with the symbols of shame on their bodies and the glare of the human beast in their eyes, but hated Maconochie in that moment of ordeal. Not a man there but would have risked severe penalties to obtain a fraction of a fig; scarcely a score of the one hundred and fifty but what had already gone through the mire of humiliation for a “bit.” Therefore their hearts beat with a venomous strength—because he tempted them sorely. For why did they not answer to Reynell's unspoken inquiry?

Those who were not of the Ring dare not speak. In collective action the Ring led the “private” convicts.

And those who were of the Society grew weak with the temptation. But then—to accept it was to acknowledge Maconochie's supremacy, and to confess a defeat.

For half a minute the two parties stood silent. The surf, half a mile away, drove its monotone over the still air. From the wooded sides of Mount Pitt, on the other hand, travelled, not unmelodiously, the screech of parrots. A wedge-tailed eagle poised majestically over the square, and hoarsely flung a taunt to the imprisoned creatures. Save for these

  ― 35 ―
sounds, the parade was as silent as is the lull before the revolt of thunder against its confines.

Then—first one sharp “No!”—next, two or three were joined in the repetition—and finally, in impetuous volume, the fierce negatives rolled from the ranks. Never did monk of the desert make so great a renunciation! In that volleyed monosyllable those outcasts of civilization refused a pleasure for which, under other circumstances, they would have gleefully bartered their souls.

“No!” A brazen, defiant “No!” which epitomized the curses of Tophet.

Reynell marched back to his place; and Maconochie knew, as the storm of curses and cheers burst out again, that the Ring was triumphant.


Unless ——

Commissariat-Officer Shanks suggested, with a semi-sneer, the application of old methods. “Try, Captain Maconochie, a platoon! There's pretty considerable of a quietening influence in a volley, sir! That is mutiny, and if you don't get the better of them now, they'll have every iron off their ankles in an hour, and then you'll have to shoot the lot, unless you want us all killed.”

  ― 36 ―

“No!” replied the Commandant. “Ball-cartridge is the last thing I propose to use on society's wrecks. Mr. Gaoler—this thing has gone far enough. Finish the muster and give 'em their dinners!”

“What, sir! Their dinners!” Really, the gaoler was to be excused for his patent astonishment.

“Ay,—the poor fellows shan't suffer for my blunder in tactics. The mistake was mine—I've taken 'em the wrong way to-day.”

And with this remark, so subversive of all the conventions and principles of the System—for whenever before did a penal commandant admit he was in error?—Captain Maconochie touched his cap, in graceful acknowledgement of the salute of his subordinates, and left the muster-yard.

The whole of the Iron Room transports enjoyed their dinners the more for the sauce of triumph. For dessert they were gratified by another delicious morsel.

The Commandant sent an order to the gaoler to despatch by 6.30 a.m. on Monday, Henry Reynell, per Coquette (Colonial), and “four other men that the said prisoner should nominate,” to Farm 5 B, therein to be installed as “sub-gang in charge.” The proceeding was, it is needless to say, altogether

  ― 37 ―
exceptional. But then the Island owned an altogether exceptional commander, and it had proved a day of exceptional occurrences. And it was, doubtless, in accordance with the spirit of the joke that the gaoler, as he communicated the decision to Reynell, mocked him by doffing his cabbage-tree, and addressed him with a scoffing irony.

“Would it please Mr. Reynell to nominate the gentlemen who were to accompany him?”

Reynell took the jest admirably. He craved five minutes to make his selection, and within that time had informed the officer that Osborne, Peake, Barrington, and “Swinger” Felix would form his comradeship. For the committee of the Ring had raised no objection. “'Twarn't going out to the farmsteads, Reynell,” said a high ruler of the league—a Three—“that we complain of, but your promise to be a true man! No chap in the fellowship shall go ‘bad’ without permission. It's breaking oath!”

And consent being thus obtained—we translate the “flash” language habitually employed in Ring business—the choice was, as we have said, made, and 5 B group constituted.

On Monday, when the dormitories turned out at 5.30, the first thing done by the new sub-gang was

  ― 38 ―
to present themselves at the “blacksmith's shop” and have the rivets driven from the bazils.

Felix was last at the low anvil. As the bazil of his left leg fell to the ground he expanded the massive brawniness of his chest with long draughts of tonic morning air; and then clutched Reynell with a wrestler's grasp.

“Why, lad, I be tha' man for ever an' a day. I never 'ud ha' got rid o' them damned clinks but for thee until the day I wed the worms. Felix is tha' man for ever an' a day!”


And now let us gather up the links of the story.

Monday was formal court-day, and, therefore, none of the group saw the Commandant till the evening. Muster had passed over—the mutual responsibility farms were mustered only by their leader, he answering for his group—and the men were busy preparing their “tea,” and rejoicing in the novel sensation of what was virtual freedom, when the Captain walked up to the hut.

They ceased their preparations and saluted. The spontaneity of the movement was plain, and it thrilled the “old man's” heart to notice it. Something, he thought, of that voluntary respect for just

  ― 39 ―
authority, which is an accompaniment of manhood, had been generated in the men by that one day's liberty, and surely his experiment was about to be justified? He smiled gaily as he returned the salute.

“Now, men,” he said, “don't mind me! Get on with your tea—I am sure you must need it after all this day in the fields!”

In forty years of the System never had Osborne heard the like. He bent his eyes to the block of stone which did duty as a temporary table, and fumbled with his tin maize-meal dish. The others, with the exception of Peake, were also affected; Reynell to the point of turning his head away so that neither the Captain nor his group-mates should discern the tear that scalded his cheek.

“Men!” continued the Commandant, ever deeper touched by evidences of gratitude than by testimonies of insult, “I wish you would trust me! I want to be a friend to you—to every man of the 1600 souls in prison here! Come, sirs, forget I'm the Commandant—the ‘old man.’ Think of me, for the time being at all events, as a man—one who deeply sympathizes with your sufferings, and who will only be too glad to alleviate them in every way he can without violating his duty to those who sent him here! Come, what do you say?”

  ― 40 ―

Peake was the first to speak. “Reynell, y'r Honour, is our leader!” A dogged resistance to any softening influence was easily to be understood from his manner.

“Then, Reynell, speak for yourself at least—for the others if you can.”

The ex-soldier drew his under-lip in, and bit it till blood came, in the severity of the struggle between the Past and the Future that might be. Then he gulped rather than uttered his answer.

“I take back—the insult—of—yesterday, sir. I'll be true man to you—so help me God! And the —— Ring may do its worst.”

Maconochie knew that, come what might—disdain from Privy Councillors and Secretaries of State, cold water from Governors, and sneers and insubordination from smaller officials—yet still he had plucked one soul from the pit. After a few more words of friendly tenor he returned to Government House.

Upon his going, Peake dropped his thin mask of hypocrisy and looked what he was—the child of the devil his father, and the System his mother. Other parentage had he known none. When, as a hunch-backed boy of eight, he first understood a little of the meaning of life, the System was already nourishing

  ― 41 ―
him at her breasts. And because of this must we excuse him somewhat.

Peake, when the Captain's steps could not be longer heard, pulled off his waist-strap.

“Hold!” He threw out an end to “Penman Barrington.” “Barrington” paled—but grasped the leather.

“Reynell, you sneakin' cull—come here!”

And Reynell, too, obeyed the strange command. He took the other end. The strap was pulled taut. Then Osborne and Felix each laid hold upon it in the centre, standing on either side of it. The four thus formed a cross. Sometimes in the cross of the Ring the hands touched and clasped; but never in the cross of denunciation—as this was.

Three—five—seven times Peake walked round the group, and as he moved he recited the Convict Oath.

At last, he stopped suddenly—at the end of the third repetition.

“Osborne, you're a ‘Sevener’?”

Osborne, hoarse with suppressed fear, muttered “Yes.”

“And you're a Sevener, accused?” Reynell was thus addressed. He nodded assent.

“What are you, Bill?”

“A Niner!” answered Felix.

  ― 42 ―


“A Fiver!”

“And I'm a Three. We're all denominations. All denominations necessary to convene when it's a Sevener as is to go up before —— Do any object?”

Silence. Only Reynell shuddered.

“Then, the Niner shall bid the Niners, and the Sevener the Seveners, and the Fiver the Fivers, and the Three the Threes to Ring lodge on Sabbath next if the One ratifies, and the business shall be to try Sevener Henry Reynell, for that he played our noble Society false, and promised to be true man to an Establishment officer, and defies the Society! So the Devil help you all!”

And some trembling lips muttered a low “So the Devil help us!”