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VI.

Bill Felix, with no room in his head for two ideas at one and the same time, had been at first strangely confused by the conflict of the obligations to which he had subjected himself. The Ring held by grips of steel which would not relax, and yet his vow to Reynell tugged at his heart. Reynell had chosen him, Felix, from among seven score of men in irons, and had freed him from “them domned clinks,” which, encircling his ankles, bit with their subtle corrosion also into his vitals. Most prisoners chafed physically under the compression of the irons; but others—and curiously enough these were not exclusively the naturally refined class—fretted savagely


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under it both in body and soul. Men who, before exile, had spent their existence for the most part out of doors, in the delicious enfranchisement of wild nature—men who had been shepherds and farm labourers, poachers and gamekeepers, gipsies of the land, or those gipsies of the sea, the merchant-sailors —were fettered doubly. And ex-farm hand Felix— “an incendiary monster,” Sir William Follett called him at Manchester Assizes—who had been one of a crowd which burnt a farmer's ricks, and who had as much evil in his nature before transportation as he had intellect, refused to love his chains. They tortured and burnt him. “Oh, Mister,” he had said to Major Ryan, Maconochie's predecessor, “tak' th' domned clinks off, an' yo can flog me week in an' week out, an' yo 'ud!” What Commandant Ryan had refused to do, Transport Reynell had virtually done. Therefore, with the best elements of him, he thanked Reynell—adored him—was prepared to sacrifice himself for him. And in his case, as in most others, affection cleared the wits, and enabled him to perceive the paramount duty.

To the Ring he was bound by respect, fear, terror. To the condemned, he, the executioner of the Ring, was linked by love and gratitude. During that four weeks' reprieve, the debate went on between his


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poor, dulled brain and his quickened heart. And as the day of doom drew near, so did his apprehension of how he should satisfy the doom become the more distinct. At last he saw his course of action.

It was midnight on the last night but one. Within twenty-four hours must the doom fall, or he himself be condemned and for ever accursed in the annals of the Ring. As he rose from his bunk in the hut on 5 B farmstead he quivered superstitiously in the ghostly darkness. The moon was not yet up; and he had a long—oh, so long a way to go in the myriad-shaped blackness of the night. “An' he war terr'ble afeard o' th' neet!”

“Be you sleepin', Peake?” he whispered to the hut-mate who slept on the same side as himself.

“No!”

“I be—off—t' do ut, Peake!”

“That's a good cove, Bill, an' ye shall come up higher in the Ring quicker for it!”

Was it fancy alone that thrilled Peake's ears with the words, “Gord forbid!” or did Felix really breathe them? The scoundrel fell asleep again while trying to solve the problem as to whether his hearing had deceived him.

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