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  ― 104 ―

III.

Maconochie sent for Johnson, leader at the “Session of Denunciation.”

“Have you any objection, sir, to relate the precise significance of the condemnation which you understand the Ring has passed on prisoner Reynell?”

“'Eaps!” was the laconic rejoinder.

“I beg your pardon! What did you say?”

“'Eaps! I sed I 'av 'eaps of objecshuns.”

“Oh!” Then, after a pause, “I believe, Johnson, you have been a prisoner under the Crown for many years?”

“More'n can count!”

“Yes? Then you must have heard read many times the regulation as to answering truly and explicitly, and without prevarication or evasion or denial, all questions put by persons in properly-constituted authority?”

“Can't say as I 'av, yer Honour!”

“Johnson!”

“Yes, yer Honour?”

“I mean to deal fairly and kindly with every man on the Island—but I will have truth-speaking. I never forgive a lie, except it is uttered under the influence of terror!”




  ― 105 ―

“In wot 'av I lied, yer Honour?”

“You said you had never heard the regulation enforcing—”

“Savin' yer Honour's presence, I said nothink o' the kind! Yer arsked me 'ad I 'erd it read. Well, I never did! I've 'erd it mumbled ev'ry Sunday since I was a kinchin—but never 'erd it read wunst. There ain't no 'Stablishment orf'cer as can read—unless it's yerself.” The rascal grinned in enjoyment of his own satire.

“You know the meaning of the regulation—what it enforces—however?”

“O' course: to answer th' truth, th' 'ole truth, an' nothink but th' truth w'en 'terrogated by 'Stablishment orf'cer.”

“Then answer me, sir.” (Not imperatively, but with a studied politeness, did Maconochie now speak.) “What judgment—what ‘doom’ as you call it—has your Society ordered upon Reynell?”

Johnson gazed reflectively at the ceiling. He passed his right hand over the corrugations of his forehead, and drew it down the scarred and weather-blighted cheeks to the stern, square jowl that had gripped numberless groans of agony in their utterance, and bid them be dumb. Then he said:

“Mr. Com'dant, Pa'son Taylor tells us that w'en


  ― 106 ―
th' higher law conflicts wi' th' lower, we must allus obey th' higher—allus th' higher. Do th' pa'son's views meet wi' yer approval, sir?”

The Commandant, already once trapped by Johnson, was dubious of the fair seeming of the interrogation, and declined to answer directly.

“Answer my question!”

“Wi' orl respecks, y'r Honour, I can't till I know wot to obey—that as is th' higher law or that as is th' lower!”

“There is no question of higher or lower law here, my man—none. It is merely a matter of answering my question. What is Reynell's doom?”

“That's w'ere yer an' me jest differ, y'r Honour. 'Tis orl a matter o' higher an' lower law. If I answer th' question, I obey th' law o' th' System. If I don't answer it, then I obey th' law o' th' Ring, an' I'd 'av y'r Honour know as fur me an' sech as me 'tis th' Ring's law as is highest law.”

Again the fellow's lips parted and his cheeks wrinkled in a gleeful defiance of authority.

“You're talking foolishly,” rejoined the Commandant, bearing the implied taunt with a patience of tone and manner that, if he had only known it, was more likely to penetrate to Johnson's better nature than any number of authority-phrased words; “you're


  ― 107 ―
twisting Mr. Taylor's sayings to suit your own purpose. Mr. Taylor meant, no doubt, that when human law conflicts with the moral law of conscience or revealed law, then the latter, as the higher law, must be obeyed.”

No more unfortunate admission could have been made by a System's officer; and the ingenious Johnson, whose naturally sharp wits the attrition of adversity had ground to remarkable keenness, while wearing away the moral part of him, eagerly seized the opportunity thus offered of making an embarrassing criticism on the System.

“That's jest it, y'r Honour—that's th' very identical thing as I mean. Now, th' System's laws an' reg'lashuns is th' lower law, an' our laws an' reg'lashuns—th' Ring's laws, that is—they're th' higher, 'cos— But will yer 'ear th' reason, yer Honour?”

“Go on—though you are talking insubordinate nonsense. I will hear what you have to say!”

“This is th' reason. Th' Ring's law is th' moral law 'cos it's founded on justice!” He stooped, and, placing his hands on his knees, crooked his head so as to glare impishly into the Commandant's face to watch the effect of his words, or rather of those he left unsaid.

For not what the wretch said but what he left


  ― 108 ―
unsaid stung the Commandant. The implication was clear. The System was not founded upon justice. And in his heart of hearts Maconochie knew the accusation was true. Penalties British law justly provided for those who offended against it, but then British law proposed only to punish, and not to give over the offenders to “unusual punishment” and utter corruption. The System did this, however—and the taunt went home. But, what could Maconochie do? Argument imperilled his authority, and, after all, he did not invent the System. So—

“You decline to answer what is Reynell's doom?”

“Aye, y'r Honour, 'cos th' Ring forbids me!”

“You know I can inflict penalties upon you for refusing to answer my plain interrogatory?”

“Short o' puttin' me into an 'oss' necklace, yer can, sir. But yer won't punish me!”

“Why?” Against his judgment, the Commandant put the inquiry. Similar remarks had been made to him before by men up for punishment, but invariably they had been uttered in suppliant or cringing tones. This fellow, however, spoke with the confidence of knowledge.

“W'y? 'Cos yer know wot I ses is true. An' 'cos, although yer an orf'cer o' th' Systum, yer 'art ain't in the Systum's way o' doin' things. That's


  ― 109 ―
w'y, sir. Yer ain't been long 'nuff 'ere to 'a changed th' 'art o' a man fur th' 'art o' a beast. Yer know who said that, y'r Honour?”

Maconochie nodded.

“Yes, o' course yer do. It struck th' 'ol man, 'im as was jest a-chuckin' o' us into Jack Ketch's mouth like so many sweeties—lor, 'e did love to keep th' carpenters an' gravediggers a-goin', did Billy Burton! —it struck even him orl o' a 'eap! But 'e was wrong 'bout it—an' so is Taylor, an' so are yer, an' everybody else as 'erd o' wot poor Kavenagh said!”

“Wrong—how do you mean?”

“Wot did Kavenagh say? ‘When I landed 'ere I 'ad th' 'art o' a man, but yer 'av plucked it out an' planted a brute's 'art instead!’ That's wot he ses, an' th' jedge an' everybody thinks it's true o' th' pris'ners only. But, man”—he gathered breath to hurl at Maconochie, with greater emphasis, a bitter conclusion—“them words war truer o' th' 'Stablishment orf'cers. Th' System finds orl its orf'cers men, an' leaves 'em orl brutes! Orl o' we don't get 'ardened, but there ain't one o' yer wot doesn't!”

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