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  ― 74 ―

III.—The Conclave of Doom.

I.

NIGHT in the Iron Room. The majority of the men we saw in the Ironed Yard on last Sunday, when at the “Session of Denunciation,” are lodged here. Perhaps a hundred seek the phantasm of repose on the low platforms of its floors; the rest, some forty or fifty, are privileged to slumber in a smaller dormitory adjacent. And, save by the utterly reckless (ever, alas! all too numerous among the ironed men) the privilege of sleeping in the smaller room was highly valued for several reasons, only a few of which, however, dare be stated. The transports there accommodated were the first to be let out in the morning—that was one reason; consequently they enjoyed the earliest use of the towels—this was a second reason. And a third, and even more important one, was that they were not liable to be disturbed after midnight by a Ring conclave. It was one thing to enjoy the solemnity of the Society's


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proceedings in the daytime; a lodge broke the tedium of the monotony; but it was quite another to lose the superior distraction that came in the shape of sleep, simply because the “One” and the “Three” desired to pursue with adequate rite and ceremony their machinations against the System. Sleep, so precious to all, was trebly precious to the “Black Norfolker.” To the felon denizens of the Iron Room sleep was almost as welcome as his “twin-brother,” death.

And so, when it became known in the Iron Room the Wednesday evening after the Sunday of Denunciation, that in all likelihood a Ring conclave would be held that midnight, the members of the outer circles and the novices of the Ring, no less than the miscellaneous criminals who were not associated with the Society, were somewhat troubled. The day had been marked by one of those hurricanes which, springing with suddenness from the surface of the Pacific, die as suddenly after spending their tropical rage disastrously upon every object within their scope; and most of the men, having been exposed to its violence, were suffering from bodily exhaustion. Maconochie had excelled himself and desecrated the sacred traditions of the Island by ordering warm tea to be supplied to every man engaged in outdoor


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employment, and in some cases, indeed, he had granted hot rum, and had, further, shortened the evening muster by withholding “prayers,” so that the prisoners might seek their blankets the earlier. And now the Commandant's solicitude was to be partially neutralized by the mandate of the “One.” Yet remonstrance, audible and overt, was never once thought of. Had the cases been reversed and it had been the authorities who had with apparent wantonness interfered with the transports' poor comfort, a disturbance would have arisen that would not have been readily quelled. Almost the solitary remark uttered with reference to the Ring's action was that of a wretch, Sam Ward, who from a certain eccentricity of habit—he was for ever speaking to himself—had been refused the greatly coveted honour of admission to the Circles. When the signal went round that a Conclave was to be held and that their rest would be disturbed, he said—“Ah, well—'tis a pity, Sammy! You're always free when you're asleep, and you're so tired to-night, Sammy, freedom'd be all the sweeter!” Beyond these words, the mandate of the Ring met no impediment.




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II.

At six o'clock, when the last padlock clinched its hold on the doors, and the bolts shot in the iron shutters of the two windows, the hundred men ceased communication with the outer world till twelve hours later. So the System judged and ordered.

But at twelve o'clock the Secret Society intervened. A careful grinding of a key in a padlock was followed by an almost noiseless drawing of bolts and the dropping of chains. And then the door the System had closed and virtually sealed was opened by the authority of the Ring. The “One” entered— followed by Peake, the accuser of Convict Henry Reynell per Coquette, the prisoner lying under condemnation of the Ring.

The night's conclave was to pronounce Reynell's doom. You may remember that Reynell had been appointed by Captain Maconochie leader of the “mutual responsibility” sub-gang attached to 5 B farm, and that Peake had been one of the four hardened, reckless criminals whom Reynell had selected to accompany him. “Barrington,” an ex-forger; Osborne, a gentleman who, to his brother felons' surprise, judges resolutely refused to hang—


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all rules have exceptions—and Bill Felix, a stubborn, country-bred half-brute, were the others of the gang. And you may remember further that Peake had denounced Reynell to the Ring because the latter, an ex-soldier, had been so impressed by Captain Maconochie's unforced kindliness of heart as to defy the Ring and promise “to be true man” to the Commandant. According to the canons of the Society, Reynell had thereby grievously offended, and at his resulting trial had been condemned, Peake and Osborne alone of his colleagues of the farm voting to remit him to the “Conclave of Doom.”

On this Wednesday night, then, Reynell's fate was to be decided, and Peake, being a member of the dread innermost circle of the “Three,” had resolved to be present. There was no difficulty in the way of his attendance. The “mutual responsibility” gangs were free within limits. By eight o'clock (instead of six as in the dormitories and cells) they turned in. To be out of their hut after that hour was an offence against the Regulations, and a violation of the conditions on which they held the farms. But Mr. Peake reflected that no one would be likely to know of his breach of good faith except those who would not “peach.” The essence of Maconochie's mutual responsibility plan was that for an offence


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of one member of a gang all the other members suffered, the idea being that while a man would not be deterred from wrong action by fear of his own punishment, he would be restrained by regard for his fellows. Even over rascals of Peake's stamp this idea held sway, and that lump of moral and physical deformity, under ordinary circumstances, would have gone to the death rather than have brought Reynell under the whip of the authorities. A defiance of the Ring was, however, another matter, the wretch reasoned, and notwithstanding his personal debt to the man he denounced, who had obtained for him freedom from irons and comparative immunity from supervision, his stunted intellect perceived but the one duty of denouncing the fellow who had insulted their noble Society, and of pursuing him, if the “One” permitted, to the doom. It was for this he was present.

And if you ask how the “One,” and Peake the Three, obtained access to the Iron Room when the keys were under lock and key in the Superintendent's office, all we can tell you is that there were but few prison-locks the “One” could not open.

The great chamber, as the chief rulers of the Ring entered it, was curtained in darkness that


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might be felt. In some of the other dormitories a light was permitted after lock-up, but by virtue of their superior distinction the gentry and nobility of the Iron Room were left without a glimmer.

Undeterred by the darkness, the One and his companion passed from the doorway down the middle of the room, as though they were familiar with every inch of the planking. Nor was it till some moments later that a strong, vivid flash from a bull's-eye lantern shot, meteor-like, from the end furthest from the door. The brilliant beam projected its penetrating stroke through the massy blackness, to the distant corners and along the walls that were decorated only with “Abstracts of Regulations,” and Forms of Prayer. For a full minute it played on the occupants of the room, and then, apparently satisfying the person who held it that all was right, the light was closed again by the lantern-slide. The mysterious business of the Four might be proceeded with, for there were no eavesdroppers or unauthorized persons near enough to hear.

The bulk of the transports were crowded together in the corners nearest to the doors, with their faces turned to the walls, and between them and the upper end of the room the members of the circles


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of “Five,” “Seven,” and “Nine” patrolled noiselessly in stockinged feet and “blanketed irons.”note These guards, sentries of a very hell, crossed the room from bed-place to bed-place. Not a soul was asleep; and, save the guards, not a body was in motion.

A short space of twelve paces separated the nearest line of guards—the “Fives”—from the group of four men who supplied the infernal motive-power to the machinery of the Ring. Thus, as the “One” and the “Three” communicated only in their “cant” or “flash” dialect, excepting in the rare cases when the subject matter of their deliberation passed beyond its far from narrow vocabulary, the Conclave was held practically in private. Shut in the Four were, by the conditions which exalted them to their “bad eminence.” The “One” was masked. It would have been the easiest thing for the transports generally to have discovered his identity. They had but to rush in a body from the lower end of the room, and, overpowering the guards, seize the man who exercised over them an authority less questioned than that of the System. An inclination to such an act, indeed, had more than once been


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expressed by a more than ordinarily defiant spirit among the outsiders, but it had never found general favour. The mass of convicts felt that the Ring, though occasionally a hard taskmaster, gave them ample compensation for the tribute of obedience it exacted. It furnished material for their cramped imaginations and ambitions to work upon—it supplied an outlet for their sense of natural justice so consistently outraged by the authorities—it checked and thwarted the System—it had revenged many of the System's wrongful acts. Nothing to weaken or endanger the rule of the Ring would ever spring from the transports generally: of that the “One” and the “Three” felt quite sure. And so they did not hesitate to exact penances and institute forms which the legally-constituted authorities dare not have imitated save at the risk of rebellion. Had the System sent a masked man into the muster-yard of the ironed men and declared that death should be the lot of the bold villain who tore the mask from the face, a score of hands would have clutched at it. What odds the yard had been turned into an Aceldama, if the System had been defied? Yet the Ring sent its masked leader, whom nobody but the “Three” knew, and for the secret of whose identity the System was prepared to pay the price of an


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absolute pardon, kept all ready signed and sealed in the Commandant's desk: no paltry ticket-of-leave— not even the desirable conditional pardon which conferred liberty within Australian boundaries; but an absolute gift of freedom and a present of money besides to carry the informer “home” and to start him in a new life—the Ring sent this man into the midst of vassals, and they, burning to know who he was, and tacitly demurring oftentimes to his rule, yet crushed their curiosity and obeyed him. “The Ring is wonderful!” exclaimed Dr. Ullathorne to Major Anderson, who had just described the Ring (from less information than we have) to the young priest. “Wonderful, sir!” ejaculated the choleric but conscientious Commandant. “It's damnably annoying besides being wonderful!”

III.

The masked man knew the “Three”—Johnson and Gooch, inmates of the Iron Room, and Peake, of 5 B farm gang. Nevertheless, from each he demanded the password of his circle and the sign of his membership of the supreme rank but one. At the word being given in a low murmur that stirred the darkness like a witch's spell, he began the brief Liturgy of the Conclave.




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“For whose service do we meet?” asked the “One.”

In the service of the Devil—the Devil our Lord!” responded the “Three.”

“But the Devil our Lord is Invisible!”

Aye, as invisible as death!

“Yet is death visible?”

Aye, to those who can see!

“Then, is our Lord visible?”

Aye, to those who can see!

“Then how appeareth he?”

In thee, O One! O Mighty One! O Thrice Mighty One!

“Turn thou then, O men of the Circles, men of the mighty Ring, whose meaning is Unity in Infinity, and do homage to thy chief, to the vicegerent of thy Lord! Turn thou! Turn thou!”

The men of the Circles, the noiseless patrol, faced the Conclave, and in the next instant cried as with one voice:

To thee our Lord Satan do we homage!

As they cried their hands were upraised. That much could have been observed, for in that same moment a lurid illumination blazed suddenly upon the scene and hung a garland of flame upon the brows of these human demons.




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Through the eye-orbits of a human skull apparently suspended in mid-air, through the opened jaws, through the nasal cavities, and from every fragment of the bony box that had once held the secrets of a human brain, grinned a phosphorescent glare. A mere bit of theatrical mummery, it had a diabolic effect upon weakened nerves already prepared by an incantation muttered in the solemn hush of midnight to be sympathetically impressed. It stamped the seal of supernaturalism upon the ceremonial, and in the perversion of moral sense which characterized the “Black Norfolkers” as it has marked no other community these hundreds of years, it was welcomed with a thrill that had more in keeping with a sensual pleasure than a retributary terror.

IV.

With the fading of the light the Conclave passed into its most secret stage.

The formal report of the voting in the “Session of Denunciation” was delivered to the “One” by Johnson, the leader who had presided. And the “One” required of the “Three” by their oath to him and the Ring, whether the condemned Henry Reynell had had a fair trial according to the Society's usage?




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And two of the “Three” affirmed that he had. Peake, the third man of the “Three,” as the accuser, was silent.

“Had the accused been notified that he had been condemned after the trial and in due form?”

Peake affirmed he had borne the message of condemnation “with truth, without prejudice, without fear, and without favour.” The message had been of necessity sent through Peake, although he was Reynell's prosecutor, because Peake was the “Threer” having earliest access to the condemned.

“And the condemned! Does he appeal?”

“No. By his oath to the Society, admits he forfeited allegiance by promising to be true man to an Establishment officer, but craves, if the doom be death, one favour.”

“What?”

“That he may not be drowned or strangled, but that having been a soldier, he may be shot or stabbed.”

Then, after a pause, which held possession of this temple of damned souls as does the tragic interval before the anathema claim the vast spaces of a cathedral of the Church in the hour of excommunication, the “One” pronounced the Doom.

“By the power that is mine, by the authority


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conferred upon one by our dread Society of the Ring, do I issue my fiat to and make order of doom upon Brother Henry Reynell under bond to the Crown, upon the Crown's register No. 37-889 per colonial ship Coquette, and upon the roll of the Society for this year current, No. 12 of our Circle of ‘Seven.’

“And the Doom is, That he shall die the death!

So be it, O One! So be thy fiat obeyed, O Mighty One! So be thy order of Doom completed, O Thrice Mighty One!” Thus, in their argôt, responded the “Three”; and when their murmur had been swallowed by the silence, the “One” went on:

“Who, of his brethren of the Ring, stands nearest to the condemned Henry Reynell in brotherly affection—to whom is he most dear?”

Quaking, shiveringly, Peake made answer: “William Felix, under bond to the Crown, and on the Crown's register No. 39-204, on our roll No. 20 of Circle of ‘Nine,’ stands nearest to the condemned.”

“Speaketh the deponent truly?”

“The deponent brother speaketh truly within our knowledge,” confirmed the others of the “Three.”

“Then let the warrant of doom go forth to Brother William Felix, No. 20 of our Circle of ‘Nine,’ that he shall do the deed of death within the circling of


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a moon's orbit upon his brother the condemned by act of shooting or by act of stabbing, though the testimony be true that the condemned is near to him and dear to him—aye, though the condemned be bone of his bone, blood of his blood, flesh of his flesh, let him do the deed, on peril of his suffering like doom. And from this fiat shall there be no appeal, because ——”

The “One” waited for the antiphon. It came solemnly from the “Three”:

Our Society has been wounded, and it heals its hurt by blood.”

“So cut we off all traitors! So doom we all that ally themselves to the Law which persecuteth us —the Law which hath given us over to the living death!”

So cut we off all traitors! So doom we all that ally themselves to our persecutors!

V.

Then proceeded to its conclusion this mummery. Its rites and ceremonies—the devices of ingenious and fertile minds compelled by Fate to that most Sisyphian of all tortures, the working upon themselves for want of an outlet for their inventive and imaginative faculties; or of souls capable of forging


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thunderbolts and of venting forked lightnings, but condemned by society to the unrelieved, hopeless misery of petty taskwork—were, as yet, incomplete.

The “One” had to travesty in blasphemous syllables the prayer commonly used at Norfolk Island executions when a Protestant was to be hanged. The original prayer was this—

“Oh, Almighty God, who according to the magnitude of Thy mercies dost so truly put away the sins of those which truly repent, that Thou rememberest them no more, open Thine eyes upon this Thy servant who most earnestly desireth pardon and forgiveness. Remember him, most Loving Father; whatsoever hath been declared in him by the fraud and malice of the Devil or by his own carnal wilfulness, do Thou forgive.”…

The infamous parody of that pathetic appeal as recited by the “One” dare not be quoted. Invert every petition of the original; substitute the name of the Adversary for that of the Deity; invoke as the cause of the victim's ruin and death the loving-kindness of God and the benignity of British Justice, and you will have a faint idea of the prayer he used. The parody was the richest fruit of the System. Were you to clothe with literary form the mouthings of the creatures led by Hébert, as they danced round Lais and Phryne enthroned as Goddesses of Reason on the desecrated Church altars of Revolutionary


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Paris, you would scarcely parallel it in point of blasphemous horror.

The recitation ended, the “One” and “Three” commended themselves and the Ring to the care of the Lord of Evil, and finally—the Circles being once more bade to do homage—the Convict Oath was chanted in chorus. With foot against foot and palm meeting in palm, the Bond of Obligation was renewed.

Only, there was no drinking of blood from one another's pin-pricked veins. Was it because of the darkness that the libation was omitted? Was it because time was passing?

No; the blood was not drunk because, in the presence of a superior infamy, an inferior shame is superfluous.

A “Conclave of Doom,” at which was marked the period of some Ringer's life, fulfilled yet another awful function. It at once elected some one to the newly-created vacancy. There were always waiting aspirants for admission to each circle from the grade below it. The man eligible for promotion from the novices or uninitiates was almost invariably in attendance, but if his presence could not be secured— say, because he was in gaol, in Longridge Barracks,


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or at the Cascades—he was admitted by proxy, the proxy, one of the initiates, being compelled to administer the rite to the newly-elected at the earliest opportunity.

Now, Reynell being a “Sevener,” the vacancy in “Seven” Circle had to be filled by the appointment of a “Niner.”

Felix, the nominated executioner, was chosen. This step followed the usage. The executioner, having at supreme risk obeyed the Ring, was worthy of promotion if the deed of death created a vacancy.

To fill Felix's place and thus complete “Nine” Circle, a novice was called up by name from the silent, wearied, but docile throng by the door. As the wretch stumbled in the darkness up the length of the uneven boards towards the first line of patrols, his movements were followed by a plaintive wail from Sammy Ward.

“Ain't you going to elect me? It's my turn!” And he was hardly stopped by the smothered exclamations which burst from those equally unprivileged with himself. “Hush, you fool! hush!”

The newly-honoured convict reached the first patrol. There he was stripped—and passed on.

When he came within arm's reach of the “Three,” the flash of the bull's-eye blazed into his face, and,


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for an instant, blinded him. This was done to identify him. Once, two years before, when a man had been called from the outsiders to be graced with his new honours he grew, at the last moment, craven. The man next him whispered that he would go in his stead. He did so, and—up to that night the lantern had not been used for that last flash of identification—was initiated beneath the cloak of darkness. The next day he claimed, as he was entitled to do by his rights of admission, instruction in the “cant” language from an elder member of the Ring. Then he stood revealed as one who had fraudulently obtained admission to their mysteries. The morning following he was found dead in his bed-place; obviously strangled. “But what was the use of an inquiry?” questioned the Acting-Commandant Bunbury. “To hang the murderer we should have had to hang one hundred and twenty men!” So the flash of identification became necessary.

The man passed the scrutiny—he was the right one, the one who had been called and chosen, and he was initiated.

Gagged in the moment when the light blazed in his face, he could but writhe in the grasp of two “Fivers,” and utter throat noises as the “One”


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thrust a hand against his chest, and punctured its skin with, it seemed, a hundred needle-points. In the shock of pain the neophyte scarcely knew what followed. Into the hundreds of minute wounds, as soon as the needles had been withdrawn, was rubbed a handful of gunpowder. When healed, the scar would describe a solitary circle. Thus was the symbol of the “Niners” impressed upon its new member.

The impression of the symbol was, however, only the first part of the ceremony of initiation. What completed it may not be described, nor even hinted.

Suffice it to say that if by any lucky chance—it was all a business of pure chance—the neophyte had not to the moment of his initiation into the Ring committed any capital offence, the completion of the ceremony placed the rope round his neck. Every member of the Ring was, by virtue of his membership, liable to be hanged. It was really an organization of the condemned. And so absolute was the moral ruin of “Black Norfolkers,” that that terrible fact was considered the most brilliant trophy wrested by the Secret Society from the Law.




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VI.

It was three in the morning before Peake reached the hut on 5 B farm. His hut-mates—Reynell, Osborne, “Barrington,” and Felix—were waiting for him in a weird, Rembrandtesque half-light—waiting for the news of the doom. In his walk from the Iron Room to the farm he had passed three sentry-posts; but the “One” had given the countersign at each, and the quiver of trepidation with which Peake had come within range of each soldier's musket had proved quite unnecessary.

Not so, perhaps, the spasm which shook him when he re-entered the hut. The exhilaration of the ceremony had evaporated, and his sense of duty to the Ring was overlain by his awakened remorse that he had betrayed to the death the man who had become surety for his good conduct, and had thereby obtained for him comparative freedom. From the remorse sprang the dread that Reynell—already on his way to the grave—might avenge his betrayal on the betrayer. What would Reynell do?

For some moments after Peake entered no one spoke. Then the condemned broke silence.

“Is it—doom, Peake?” he asked.

Peake nodded.




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“Who,” stammeringly questioned Osborne, “who is the Ketch?”

Peake, with a trembling forefinger, pointed to Felix.

Felix, great hulking lout, bent himself in the shadows, and covered his face with his gnarled hands.

“An' I 'ad promised to be true man for ever an' a day, 'Arry! Yo brought me here, 'Arry, an' rid me o' the domned clinks, an' it's me that's to kill tho. I 'udn't do it!” He half said, half groaned these words.

“Then, if yer don't, it's yer doom too, yer know!” breathed Osborne.

“An' I'd take it 'fore I'd break my oath to 'Arry yonder. I'm his sworn man.”

“Yer the Ring's man first!” insisted Osborne.

“Ay, that war I; but there's a way to obey th' Ring an' keep my oath to 'Arry too!”

VII.

On the morrow—rather, at a late hour the same day—while the sub-gang were absent at maize-hoeing, an Establishment officer visited the hut. Save him, no man entered the hut between the time of the gangers leaving it and their return. Yet when they came back for their noon-tide food, one and all


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of them—fellows who would have laughed at death had it come from Law and the authorities—changed colour as they saw on the stone table a scrap of folded paper.

On the outside of the paper was inscribed a single circle, with the figures “20” in its centre.

On the inside there was no word; only there were inscribed two circles, so—

image
Image on page 96: Concentric circles

In the common centre of these was the roll-number of Henry Reynell—“No. 12.”

And below this symbol of the personality of the condemned was, stamped in candle-smoke, this—

image
Image on page 96: Concentric circles with six-pointed star in the middle

It was the “One's” signature to his order of doom upon Henry Reynell, “No. 12” of Circle “Seven,” and the warrant was addressed to “No. 20” of Circle “Nine”—William Felix. It was his roll-symbol which was marked on the outside of the paper.note




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How Felix obeyed the warrant, and yet kept faithful to his vow to be sworn man to Reynell, will be told presently.

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