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III.

The Overseer, having no choice, obeyed. When the door or valve of the chamber had been opened some hours, he lowered into it a lighted candle. The flame flickered feebly as the candle touched the floor, but did not go out. The fact eased Cook's


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conscience somewhat. After all, men could not be suffocated there.

Then carefully, rope-held, he dropped through the aperture and examined the vault. Obviously it had been used as a grain-store. The floor was strewn with maize and wheat-grains. And with equal certainty it had never been appropriated to the purposes of a prison. Cook, as he gasped painfully in the heavy humidity of the atmosphere, reflected that the fact was surprising, for he thought the System was ingeniously eager to introduce into Norfolk Island the most approved methods of the Bastille. And here surely was a chamber that would not have been unfit lodging for the most dangerous State criminal ever honoured by a lettre de cachet. The wonder was not that it was now to be used for a prison, but that it had not been so appropriated before.

Eight feet long, six in width, ten feet from the middle of the floor to the edges of the opening in the roof, and nine feet high walls curving slightly to their centre. And when the valve was closed, though outside the magnificent sun shone from the dome of a cloudless sky, darkness palpable and terrifying. Cook cried out to the men above to open the valve; it was but a second before the plate


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revolved on the pivot; but in that instant the Overseer felt himself blanching. It was a tomb.

He could not hold in his emotion. Withdrawn by the rope, he threw himself upon the ground in an attitude of prayer. “Christ!” he prayed, “Christ! let no men be imprisoned there!”

And he sent the smith, who had come up with ring-bolts and chisels, back to his forge. “Not to-day, George—not, at least, till I have seen the Commandant again.”

The smith returned to his workshop to relate “Cook's prayer” as a good joke, and the two prisoner-police, who formed the Overseer's personal staff, told of the matter in their enlightened circle, and at dinner at Government House, Captain Wright delighted the surgeon, and the subaltern, and the commissary with his version of the incident.

“And what have you done with the canting cove, Captain?” questioned the Deputy-Assistant-Commissary-General.

“Done! Well, he's packing up by this time, I don't doubt. He's resigned, and returns to the city by the brig next week.”

“Phew!” exclaimed the D.A.C.G. “That's hot, Wright! Is he going to make a fuss about it?”

“Gad! I don't know nor care. Why should I


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care what a psalm-singing lag of a constable should say about me? My word will be taken by the authorities, I should hope, before his!” His Honour the Commandant displayed a dignified aspect, and spoke in a confident tone, as though he could safely anticipate in advance an honourable acquittal from any charge that might be preferred against him.

“Yes, but,” delicately hinted the D.A.C.G., “'tis not the Chiefs. 'Tis that wretched Australian and Monitor. There would be the rub if the fellow took particulars to them.”

“Sir,” replied the Commandant, superbly conscious of his power, “if Wardell or Hayes or Hall dare impugn my conduct, I'll challenge the first and indict the others for criminal libel.”note

“But,” persisted the Commissariat, who was, for sundry reasons connected with contracts, not at all desirous that the light of publicity should beat upon the Gehenna of the waters, “suppose—er—what—er—they say is true!”

“True, sir!” The Captain was nearly forgetting his courtesy as a host, so heated did he become. “I'd have you know that every action of mine I'm prepared to justify in any court of the Empire. But,


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pass the wine—we've had more than enough talk about two common pris'ners! Let's forget 'em!”

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