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V.

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


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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.




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“Barrington?”

“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!”

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