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  ― 110 ―

IV.

Foiled by Johnson in his attempt to discover the fate in store for Reynell, Maconochie met with no more success when he interrogated the members of the farm sub-gang to which Reynell and Felix belonged. Peake, Osborne, and “Barrington” each frankly enough declared he knew quite well about the order of doom, but as for telling his Honour—well, the Ring wouldn't allow him.

“If anything happens to Reynell, I shall charge you as an accessory,” said the Commandant to each. And the threat was laughed at. Better the vengeance of the System than the vengeance of the Ring. The former could only hang them—the latter could do more: it could kill them after a ceremony of execration. They were frightened of the last.

From Felix the Commandant received his one fragment of consolation. “I be 'Arry Reynell's sworn man, y'r Honour! An' no harm 'ud 'appen unto him if Bill Felix can stop ut wi' life nor limb.” And, somewhat reassured, Captain Maconochie went then to Reynell himself.

The man was hoeing. He had stopped for a moment to rest, and stood gazing towards the sea and over the township, which was semi-veiled in a lustrous


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mist, as though Nature would hide from the eye of Heaven the halls where the devil and the System held their joint revels. On the soft earth the Commandant's steps were inaudible, and the transport did not know of the official's approach till he was addressed.

“Reynell!”

The convict started, and turned round. He “capped” instantly, and, in the same gesture, Maconochie saw that he had dashed away a tear from his eyes.

“Good-morning, Reynell! The gang making satisfactory work?”

“Yes, sir. I think so! With a fair crop, the Com'sariat 'll have to pay them a good many marks.”note

Them—why not “us”? Maconochie was quick to notice the substitution of the word.

“Why ‘them,’ Reynell? Why don't you, who are the leader and director of the gang, join yourself with the others?”

“Oh,” with a marked hesitation, and a quivering


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of the lips that told of an inward agitation, “'twas a slip, sir!”

Maconochie stepped forward and laid a hand, with kindly pressure, on the transport's shoulder.

“No, Reynell, it was no slip! It meant that already you are separating yourself in thought from your fellow-gangers—it meant that you are under doom of death from the Ring!”

The condemned flamed out into sudden anger. Such strange tricks does the fancy play with a certain order of superstitious minds, that he was jealous that the secret of the Society he thought so much of as to submit himself quietly to its fatal will, should be thus known to an outsider, and that outsider one of the accursed Establishment. “Who told you that?”

“No one. I inferred it—partly from what passed last Sunday—you heard I was present?—and partly from what you say was a ‘slip.’ Come, Reynell—Harry——”

All the patience, all the forbearance, all the tenderness that it was possible for one man—a superior—to extend to his inferior, Maconochie caused to vibrate in his voice. The prisoner, bringing himself in the sudden impulse of surprise to face the Commandant, showed in the workings of his features how the “Harry” had stirred him.




  ― 113 ―

“Tell me,” Maconochie went on, “if not the doom, how I can help you to escape it. Remember, my friend, that I brought this on you!

“No!” In a low, choking guttural.

“Oh, but yes! I cannot forget that it was because you swore to be a true man to me, and thereby helped me nobly in what I regard as my mission here, that you are under the ban of the Ring. Therefore, as through me you broke, it would appear, the Society's law, it is only right that through me aid shall come to you.”

“There can—be no—aid, sir! All's up!” Reynell let his head fall on his chest. The action was that of a tired man, of an over-wearied bearer of a burden; there was nothing abject in it.

“No. I pledge you my word, Reynell, that I will get you out of this trouble.”

“'Tis no trouble, sir!”

“Listen, sir! I brought you into this quarrel with the Ring because I wanted—well, I wished to count you as one of the trophies of my new methods——”

“Beggin' your pardon for interruptin' y'r Honour, an' it's good of you to put it that way, but it's not true—an' it's no use! I'm doomed—doomed!” And then, with something of that saucy contempt for life which had made him before Maconochie's advent a


  ― 114 ―
centre of insubordination, he went on: “It's not that I'm afraid of death—not a bit of it! No Ringer is—few of us are!” He waved his hand so as to embrace in its sweep the whole group of Kingston buildings—the dormitories, the gaol, and the exercise and work yards. “None of us are! But no one likes death at the hands of the Ring, for it's disgrace—and besides——”

“What?”

“Yer won't think me a softy, sir, will yer, for saying it? but I've of'n thought of late—” Again he paused, stumbling for an expression. Maconochie waited.

“I've thought that, p'r'aps, life wouldn't be such a bad thing—if one only had—a chance to keep square!”

Maconochie's heart leapt within him. Here was proof that he was in the right! Bring a creature, however hardened to all seeming, within the circle of human interests and brotherly charities; re-clothe him with manhood and individuality; refuse to treat him longer as a mere Number, as a Thing to occupy a line in returns, as an Object of offence to the Law, and, therefore, to have his badness whipped out of him by the Law's agents; let the unforced music of a kind word sound in his ears; do these, and the


  ― 115 ―
fountains of a vigorous life would burst impetuously and imperiously from the core of his nature. This was his theory—here was the successful application of it!

He clasped the transport's hand. “You're right, Reynell—you're right, Harry! Life is worth living—the struggle to make yourself a better man will make it so to you! I'll help you all I can, by removing you out of the reach of pressure from the Ring——”

“You're very good, sir,” muttered the convict, “but it's too late!”

“It's never too late to repair the past, Harry!”

“Yes, 'tis—in my case. For—look here, sir—can I trust yer Honour—yer Honour's honour to keep this secret what I'm about to tell ye?”

“If you insist upon it—yes!”

“I do—I do! Why 'tis too late is this—if I don't die, the chap who's to settle me will. That's Ring law!”

“Reynell!”

“'Tis gospel true, sir! An' that's why I've got to bear the doom!”

“I will send you up to Phillip Island yonder till the brig arrives, and then I will despatch you to Sydney,” Maconochie said, confronted with this new revelation of the Ring's potency.




  ― 116 ―

“No use, sir. If I don't die, the chap 'll who's to settle me. An' besides, they'd reach me there!”

“I will take you into my household and give you a special guard!”

“The cooks'd poison my rations!”

“I'll send you food from my own table!”

“To reach me they'd poison you and your family.”

“Are they devils?” burst out the Commandant, losing self-restraint for the moment.

“Aye, they are that! But who made'em so—who made us so?—for I'm one o' them, sir. The System!” And then, after a pause, while Maconochie rocked himself on his heels in acute distress at these ever-recurring assaults upon the administration of which he was the head, he resumed:

“No, y'r Honour; I joined the Ring wi' my eyes open. I was eager to make a break in my life—it was all work an' punishment, an' sleep, an'devilry, an' then devilry, an' sleep, an' punishment an' work over again—an' the Ring makes a change. An' I'm not goin' beyond Ring custom, especially as my breakin' away would let another chap in for the doom.”

“Tell me who he is, and I'll send him away too!”

Reynell laughed. “You don't know the Ring, Captain Maconochie! Twenty years off, if that


  ― 117 ―
chap's a true Ringer an' met me, he'd do for me then! No, sir, let it be. P'r'aps I'm better dead than alive. I can't do any more harm dead!”

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