― 77 ―


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

  ― 81 ―
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!”