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  ― 248 ―

II.—The Completion Of The Deed.

I.

OVERSEER FRANKE, of the Outer Domain Gang, working on the heights of Woolloomooloo, and engaged in clearing (by means of convicts' agony) the wooded ranges of hills and network of gullies, so as to make room for the perfume-breathing plants of civilization, had been rudely interrupted in his slumbers. One of the gang, Convict Cummings, being half-starved, sun-smitten, and overworked, had become delirious in the mid-hours of the night, and another transport—Mann—had set the Regulations at defiance by imploring the sentry's aid for the sick wretch, his tent-mate. Thereupon, Mr. Overseer Franke had awoke from his beauty-sleep and had ordered the sentry to still Mann's rebellious tongue with a bullet. The sentry fired in Mann's direction, but the bullet had found its destined billet in Convict Cummings' body—and Convict Cummings


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had ceased from troubling. Unfortunately, the wicked Mann, having evaded the shot, did not rest. He upbraided Overseer Franke for having murdered Cummings. He became positively insulting—and was flogged.

At two o'clock in the morning, at a spot somewhere, we take it, about where Liverpool Street of Modern Sydney dips into Womerah Avenue, Darlinghurst, Convict Edgar Allison Mann received thirty-nine lashes.

And Mann was “gently born”; and when the back of a gently-born transport had once been stained with the infamous stigma of the lash-point, only two things, if he were not to become utterly bestial, remained for him to do: to kill his tyrant, and—to die.

And Convict Mann, being at heart a really fine fellow—being, moreover, a firm believer in Shandy's doctrine that a man's name influenced his character; being, in a word, manly, lost not a minute in coming to the resolve to do both things.

“Peel!” had ordered Overseer Franke.

Mann had obeyed, making a remark as he did so:

“Flog me, and by God who looks from the heaven above, you're a dead man, Mr. Franke!” And then correcting himself, as though before he were subjected


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to the degrading ordeal he would assert his manhood, he repeated the words, but dropped the title. “You're a dead man, Franke!

“Scourger—thirty-nine!” laughed Franke. He might have made the penalty forty lashes—beyond forty an overseer could not go—but he read his Bible, did Franke—also the Regulations. “Thirty-nine” was Scriptural. And it was one on the safe side of the Regulation allowance.

All through the next day when the only living occupants of the camp were the sentry (the one who had shot Cummings) and himself—Cummings was, of course, also there, but though he was a present horror and outrage, he was in the past tense—Convict Mann nourished himself upon the lees of his cup of shame. And the draught turned to the acid of revenge in his mouth. By the time the gang returned to work after the nooning repast, he had forgotten, however, for a brief space, his physical pangs in the pleasure of anticipation.

He had formed a scheme by which to obtain the freedom of the gang and his revenge upon Overseer Franke.

The one recreation permitted to the gangers was a rare plunge into the waters of the inlet since


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known as Rushcutter's Bay, which was granted to them whenever they visited the Bay for the purpose of renewing the stock of rushes which composed their beds. The sedge at that time not only covered densely the low-lying areas between the arms of the Bay, but ran out in the inlet itself, and to gain a clear plunge the convicts were obliged to advance some hundreds of yards from the proper beach-line. More than one poor devil, having got so far, thought he would go farther, and had sought to dive and swim beyond the military guards' range. If the soldiers missed, however, there were other and still more vigilant guards (the sharks), and these never, so the Authorities believed, missed their man.

On the last occasion, six weeks before, on which Overseer Franke had thought it desirable to refresh his “labour” with a bath and with new bedding, Mann, with another ganger, going out a little further than the others, found that a derelict ship's boat had been tide-borne into the Bay, and had nosed a short way into the spiky sea-growths. Their hearts had laboured mightily at the discovery, for the fates would be cruel indeed if, with such a tool to their hands, they could not win freedom somehow. They had kept the knowledge of the boat to themselves. They had driven the craft with all their might


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farther into the sedge, and then had diverted the attention of their fellow-gangers from the vicinity by raising the cry of “A shark! a shark!” and by retreating hurriedly from the spot. And all the time that had intervened, the knowledge of the boat hidden in the rushes had soothed the ache of the hearts and hands of the two men. The boat was oarless, that was one disadvantage, but they did not always think of the deficiency. They dwelt upon what they had, not upon that which they had not.

This day—a Tuesday—which Convict Mann spent in camp, brooding over his shame and his revenge, he thought less, perhaps, of the boat than he had on other days—till the afternoon. Then, the recollection flashed upon him, and, all gashed and pain-stricken as he was, he strove to act upon it. He called the sentry.

“Sentry! Can I speak to you?”

The soldier paused in his wearisome walk by the tent-mouth.

“Yes, Mann.”

“Will you do me a favour?”

“Ef it ben't agen Reg'lashuns.”

There was a moment's silence. Then—

“It's against the letter of the Regulations, but not against their spirit.”




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“I don't know wot yer mean.”

“Well, the Regulation is that flogged prisoners should be turned out to work as soon as possible after the flogging, isn't it?”

“Yes.”

“Then I wish to get better soon—to get about the quicker. And a dip in the bay'll heal—the—back—quickly. The salt is good for it!”

“No-a! I'll not let yez go. Yez 'ud drounded yesself!”

“Sentry, what do they call me in the gang?”

“Gen'elman Ned.”

“Yes, Gentleman Ned! And though I'm lying here flogged”—then, for a second, the restraint to which he was subjecting himself gave way, and he shivered and sobbed—the wrung agony of a strong man's sob!—in the impotency of his wrath. “Though I'm here under punishment, I hope—I hope—I'm still a gentleman in that I won't lie. I'll come back, sentry, if you'll allow me to go!”

“Yez u'd not get there ef I let yez go. Yez too sick.”

“By Heaven, I would, sentry. My will will carry me, and back, if I had no other power.”

The soldier—a pock-marked, skimpy-eyebrowed-and-haired fellow, with the irresoluteness expressed


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in his features of the creature who has always been subject to rule—grew dubious.

“Ef it be th' salt as yez wants, th' Overseer 'ud 'a issued some 'a yez spoken for it. I might give yez some now.”

“The Overseer would place you under arrest for stealing the salt, if you did. No; I would not ask you to do that, but the salt of the sea-bath would cure me quickly. On the word of a man who never lied, sentry, I'll come back.”

The sentry hesitated. If Mann did not keep his word, or became too ill to return before the Overseer and the gangers came back to camp at six o'clock, then he would be ruined. Mann read his thought.

“On my word of honour, sentry, I will be back before five o'clock. It is now about two. Weak as I am, I can do the distance in the time.”

“Strike your breast, an' swear be God that yez 'ud not ruin me.”

The crude, childish oath was taken. Mann struggled to his feet, swinging involuntarily round on his heel from weakness as he did so, and then invoking what strength he could, set out. Under some scrubby gums, offending the day with the rigidity of its contorted nakedness, lay the murdered thing. Feeble as he was and blood-exhausted, Mann spent


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a little of his poor force in breaking off the feathery crest of a young wattle; and threw it on the corpse. There had been no opportunity to bury Cummings before the gang went to labour in the morning, and the interment would have to be performed by the men in their own time at night.

The sound of the breaking sapling directed the sentinel's notice to Mann. He ran up. “Yez mustn't do that, Mann; Overseer left no orders,” he said, as he pulled the branch off the dead man.

At no era in its history did the System inculcate respect for the convict dead. The convict alive was carrion; dead, was carrion still.

II.

Mann dragged himself to the waterside through the scrub and timber. It was awful work—heroic in the endurance of suffering of the acutest kind. But he was whipped onwards by the shadow of the cat. Again and again he fell; and once when he fell he burst out in a wild spasm of anger, and swore by the heaven that smiled upon him and upon the System that he would not move from the spot. He grew delirious for a few minutes and fancied that Franke was chasing him with the sentries. “Come


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on! Come on, ye devils!” he shouted, but they did not come, for they were not there. And then the rustle of the breeze in the wattles and the gums, while it cooled his brain for the moment, and momentarily banished the fever of madness, played, too, its tricks with his fancy. The interlacing shadows caused by the movement of the branches seemed to him a horrid play of floggers' whips. The air was full of “cat-tails”—they whistled, they were falling upon him, they would lacerate him yet again! In his dread he rose and turned to flee, and in the turning dashed his head against the jagged end of a limb that had been ruptured by a southerly squall. The wood ripped into his cheek, but the gashing of the flesh was his salvation. The inflamed blood was eased through the wound, and he became rational again.

He cursed his fate that he had become clearer in head, though his weakness of body had increased with the outflow of blood. And he cried against the God that would not let him die in a blessed unconsciousness of dying. But again his mood changed. He remembered his promise to the sentry and addressed Heaven once more. This time it was in prayer. He bent his head, and craved strength to keep his word. “Let it not be said that Gentleman


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Ned had proved false to the trust placed in him by the miserable wretch of a soldier-guard!” A poor prayer, indeed, and if wholly sane he would have spurned the paltry vanity that prompted it. Perhaps, however, all unknowing to himself the Power whom he approached had Himself framed the pleading. The only evidence the lower-class creature, free or convict, had in those days of the existence of a Power that was true and righteous and just, was a brother-man's word. A broken vow, a violated promise—and away went the betrayed one's faith in God, truth, honour, justice, everything.

Stumbling, staggering, now leaning against a tree for rest, now pressing his lips against the exuding gum on eucalyptus boles, he went on to the rushes, crying aloud sometimes for help and sometimes hoarsely whispering to himself in pity of his own plight—moving while two voices echoed in his ears: “The boat! The sentry!” If he could only find the boat safe! If he could only return to the sentry in time to prevent the man being punished for the breach of good discipline caused by his permitting him to leave the camp! Onward to the boat, back to the tents! Once—he gave up and moved in his return path! And then, the thought of the boat spurred him forward again.




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III.

At last, he reached the Bay. Then his strength come back to him impetuously. He crashed through the reed-beds out to the circle of blue water, and plunged into the shallows. The brine stung him, pricked him—it punctured him in a thousand pores, but it renewed his vigour, and supposing there had been human eye to see, he had been cheered for the boldness with which he parted the waves as he swam towards the point in the sedgy arc where the boat had been driven in by himself and the other convict. With the boat was freedom, perhaps happiness, for the gang; and though the rush-edges cut his back and thighs, he was reckless of the smarts in the exhilaration of the conquest over himself, his weakness, Franke, the System—a victory symbolized by that swim through the cool, foam-flecked billows. He laughed in his sense of triumph as he recognized where his brother-ganger, in forcing his way out again from the dense growths, had broken off short the dagger-points of a cluster of reeds. He laughed again when the outer line of sedges closed behind his own path, as, treading water, he drove himself into the springy mass, and saw the plants which he and his mate had bent and bruised as they had


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pushed the boat before them. It was a note of mighty exultation that laugh—which changed in its last accents to the dry cackle of a parching mouth.

The boat was gone!

Had freedom, and wealth, and home, and woman's love, and the prattle of one's child, and all other things that make life glorious, been offered to Convict Mann the next hour as a condition of his telling, he could not have related how he reached the camp again. But at five o'clock, just when the clod's brain of the guard was dimly pondering the question as to whether it was not time for Gen'elman Ned to be showing up, he flung himself gaspingly on his rush-bed. He could have told to an interrogator nothing but the one thing—that the recollection of the sentry waiting for the fulfilment of his vow had alone kept him from there and then throwing away the life so ridiculed of fate. To march through an Inferno to reach the boat—and then to find it gone! God!

Now, the sentry could not know of this disappointment, of course. All that the stupid fellow saw was that Mann had returned, and, diverging a yard from his “go,” he strove to make himself as pleasant as it was right for Authority to condescend to when the person to be patronized was only a transport.




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“Yez a-got back then, Mann? 'Ope as yez 'ad a raal noice swim, now!”

“Oh, blast you, blast you! Go away!” the tortured wretch exclaimed, and turning his head upon the rushes, recked nothing of the anger of the insulted soldier. Which, nevertheless, was not to be despised, for was he not the representative of the military power, and the civil power, and every other power on that hill-side, pending Overseer Franke's return.

IV.

At five minutes past six that personage came back to camp, closing with his two soldiers the procession of ironed labourers. He was affable, and, as the sentry saluted, asked him how the “gen'elman” had passed the day.

“'E war inserlent to me, y'r Honour—blarsted me!” reported the soldier.

“Mann!”

In his tent, the transport heard the command, and dragged himself to his feet to obey it.

“Mann!”

Haggard with his shame and with the horrible recoil from his hope that had acted as a new blister


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upon his hurts, Mann went out, and saluting, faced his tyrant.

“Yer've bin inserlent, Mann?”

The transport looked towards the sentry. And the sentry then remembered that, after all, it was Gentleman Ned who had cursed him—and Gentleman Ned had kept his word—and once upon a time Gentleman Ned had doubtless enjoyed the right to swear at common people like himself; and so—

“Mister Franke, I don't wish to press th' charge!”

“Oh, very well! Then we'll let yer orf this time lightly. An' so yer'll jest dig that stiff 'un's grave for punishment! I won't flog yer agen—yet!”

Mann's first impulse was to refuse—the next to strike Franke, and he had actually stepped a pace nearer to the latter when another and wiser thought occurred to him. He would dig the grave, for by so doing he would obtain a shovel which would serve the fell purpose he had in his mind. The hand he had raised to strike Franke he carried to his forehead in salute. Franke noticed the transition and laughed.

“That's right, Mann! Yer a-gettin' broken in, I see! There's nothin' like the cat for gentles arter all—it breaks the spirit so purtily.”

At 6.30—the gang had returned from labour at


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six o'clock—the evening muster was held. “Tea”—12 ounces of maize meal (reduced by the Overseer's peculation to 10) mixed with cold water—was rationed out, and then two men were told off to dig Cummings' grave.

“No. 20” (Mann).

“No. 7.” This was a feeble old fellow, one of the “passengers” by the fatal “second fleet”—“built in the eclipse and rigged with curses dark”—whose constitution had never regained vigour after the terrible privations of a voyage that had been one long feast for the sharks which followed the vessels' wake.

“Nos. 20 an' 7—no, we don't give no precedunse to gentles in this 'ere neighb'rood. Nos. 7 and 20 'll dig th' late Mister Cummin's' grave—an' make a tidy job of it—an' sink four foot!”

Mann and his co-sexton limped towards the scrub where the dead body lay. The Overseer followed them to mark out the grave. He ordered Mann to take from the heap of tools thrown down by the labourers a pick, and No. 7, a shovel. “Ye're the younger man, No. 14-736”—when Franke was unusually genial he would address the convicts by their register numbers, and not merely by those of the gang-roll (and when Mr. Franke was genial the


  ― 263 ―
scourger was busy and happy)—“Ye're the younger man, an' jest yer take the pick, an' begin 'ere. Oh, it's the pick—an' the cat—as is good fer yer gentles. Oh”—the jeer changed dreadfully—“oh, help! Mutiny ——”

The crashing of the pick closed the sentence. Well was it for Overseer Franke that the torture of the forenoon had drawn the strength from Mann's limbs and the oil from his sinews. The smooth handle of the tool slipped round in the transport's hands as he lifted it, and the pick struck the official's head with the side instead of the point. It was well, we say, for Franke; for the blow did not kill but only stunned him. Perhaps, though, it was ill that he survived.

The Overseer's cry had roused the guard. The few minutes that they could call their own of the whole twenty-four hours were those immediately following the muster for “tea,” and before the night-guard was set. It had been always a thought of Franke's that at that time of the day the convict-mind was less disposed to study the whys and wherefores of a “bolt” than at any other period, because the gangers would then be suffering from the lassitude of the day's severe labour, and the inertia which comes from stomachs filled—such filling!—after


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long fast. Consequently, he had never objected to a brief relaxation of military discipline. For a few minutes their muskets would be laid down by the three sentinels—their pipes would be lit—and they could feel themselves a trifle freer than the transports they guarded.

Now, by this circumstance—this illustration of his own magnanimity—was Overseer Franke undone. Had he permitted no relaxation of sentry-duty then, his cry would no sooner have reached the guards' ears than it would have elicited the speedy aid of a bullet—and it is quite unlikely that Convict Mann would have been missed a second time that day. As it was, though the three soldiers heard the sharp appeal for aid, they were some yards away from their muskets, and before they could reach the weapons, several of the convicts had rushed between them and the guard-tent. In the passing of the eye-gleam in which they saw Mann's deed, some of the wretches apprehended the consequences of the act, and, on the instant, became—men. Sottish they were one moment with the debased cravings of the creature that exists only to work, and be fed, and to sleep sleep that gives no rest; but they were men the next, under the influence of that blow for mastery. It wooed their manhood back to them.




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And the guard were powerless to help the Overseer.

V.

Mann, having struck Franke to the earth, threw the pick down and strode towards the startled but pleased transports. One or two of the more adventurous of them, in that rebound towards mental independence, abandoned all caution, and cheered him. “Well done, Gen'elman!” “Well done, Mr. Mann!”

“I don't think I've killed him, coves,” said Mann, hardened into a vulgar familiarity of speech by the very deed which had strengthened the others' respect for him, “he'll come to, presently. But I'll kill him then.”

A soldier—one of the two that had formed the gang-guard—at this, thought to withdraw himself quietly from the group. Instantly the action was noticed, and a ganger stopped him. “No,” said the fellow, “you don't get to the town. We've got a chance to bolt now, and we'd be —— fools not to use it. What d'ye say, pals?”

Then Mann knew his task was easy—even without the boat. Unless he could tell them of the boat, he had not thought to win the assent of every


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member of the gang to an attempt to escape. Now, he understood that they had responded to his rebellious act as tinder to the spark.

“Yes,” he exclaimed, “hold the lobsters.”

“You won't murder me, Mann?” entreated the soldier.

“No—but we will bind you till we have made our run.”

“'Ear, 'ear,” was gasped by some of the transports.

“We'll tie 'em up!” And, in a second, two tents were on the ground, and the lines were being cut for the pinion-cords for the military guard, who, once assured of their lives, made but slight resistance.

The whole camp of transports was now seized with semi-madness. They were a long way from being out of the wood, for, as yet, none (not even Mann himself) had the least idea of how they were to effect their escape. Inland, or over sea? None knew. All they cared to understand for the moment was that their oppressor, who was to them the only Visible Authority, lay senseless—destitute of life apparently as he was of power. In their wild burst of licence some rushed on the store-tent, others sat down to “oval” their own or their comrades' irons. Nearly all whistled or sang. The soldiers—two tied


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to tree-trunks, the third supine on the grass—were amazed at the antics; Overseer Franke did not remonstrate; and was it fancy altogether that suggested there was a grin on Cummings' face?

Mann, as befitted the leadership which he had assumed without dispute, was the first to recover himself. His back was torturing him. The pain reminded him of his vow.

“Coves—mates!” he cried. “Silence! we have business to do!”

Instantly they stopped their clamour. Two or three, however, went on “ovalling,” and the ring of the hammer as they forced the anklet-bands out of their true shape so that the feet could be withdrawn, disturbed, with a singular sharpness, the suddenly-created silence. Disturbed also Mr. Overseer Franke. He came to himself.

The gang heard the rustle as he turned on the gum-leaves where he had fallen; they heard him moan and his cry for a drink; they heard—and for answer looked at Mann.

And Mann made due reply.

He walked up to the prostrate official and asked him did he know him—him, Mann. He put the question courteously—oh, so courteously—“May I


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have the pleasure of this valse?” was the style of it. And Franke nodded a “yes,” and prayed for a drink.

“Cummings craved for a drink—and you gave him a bullet!” said Mann.

Did Franke respond to that retort? Not that Mann knew, for with that insight with which the gang, inspired by sudden liberty, had been endowed, the transports who had handled the sentries' muskets seized the weapons once more and rushed simultaneously to tender to Overseer Franke the cooling draught he had proffered Convict Cummings.

“Don't kill him, boys!” said Mann; “only wound him!” Then—

“Stay!” he continued. And motioning for help he erected the still half-dazed Overseer against a tree, and called for more cord. They bound him to the bole, but at Mann's order left the wretch's right hand free.

Free—for a second it was. Then Mann himself took it (as limp and nerveless as Cummings' own) and stretched it outwards by a piece of line, the other end of which was fastened to another tree. The cord was tautened, and thus the hand of the Overseer was between two trees.

Mann went to the camp fire-place and, lifting a


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charred bit of fuel, returned with it and inscribed a circle, and, within the circle, “a bull's-eye,” on the palm of the suspended hand.

“There!” he exclaimed, as he threw away the charcoal. “There's a target. Fire away!”

The second shot riddled the hand, and the third smashed the wrist.

Then the leader stopped the musketry practice.

“That's enough for the present,” he said. “We may want these bullets for living men. And this one is as good as dead!”

VI.

Thereupon Mr. Franke—whose portrait may be seen in Government House, Sydney—realized vividly his fate; and banishing all weakness—even a tyrant may be strong when pleading for his life—cried out for mercy.

“Yes!” replied Mann, “the mercy you showed Cummings and myself and all of us!”

“Wot d'yer fight fer Cummin's fer?” moaned the Overseer. “He peached on yer!”

“Yes?” Mann could not restrain the note of curiosity in his voice.

“Yes, 'e did. 'E tol' me 'bout yer findin' the


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boat. An' I gave 'im two figs of chaw-stuff fur a-tellin' me!”

Mann turned, as though he would have spit upon the dead body. But his better self was not yet dead. He thought that, after all, the System had made Cummings a traitor—and to a meanly-endowed creature such as he was, two figs of tobacco in the hand were worth a dozen boats in the sedge.

“Where is the boat?” he demanded.

Between the groans and the tears his wounds were wringing from him, Overseer Franke tried to effect a bargain.

“Will yer give me my life if I tells yer, 'an 'ow yer can get orf?”

The gang waited breathlessly for the reply of their leader. When it came, after a moment's deliberation, it was “Yes!”

“On yer word as a gen'elman?” bartered the infamy.

A lump rose in Mann's throat. Still, he confirmed his previous answer.

“Yes!”

And the gang breathed freely. And so did Overseer Franke.




  ― 271 ―

Then the Overseer told Mann and the others how he and Cummings and a soldier had gone to the Bay, upon Cummings' betrayal of the boat, after dark one night, and had removed the boat to another part of the inlet. And Cummings had kept that new secret, because he was to have a fig weekly till the boat was sold. For, needless to say, being a representative Government official, though the boat was properly Government's, Mr. Franke intended selling it for his own profit.

“And how will we get off?” questioned Mann.

“Ter-day's Tuesday. Ter-morrer the coaly-town (Newcastle) schooner's due, an' the night arter she comes in, skipper an' crew go 'shore. There ain't a soul on board. Thursday night—yer can go—an' I'll not report yer till Friday.”

“'Ear, 'ear!” applauded the gang. But Mann remained silent.

“Yer won't break yer promise, Mister Mann?” pleaded the prisoner.

How the gang enjoyed the “Mister!” But Mann's face clouded the deeper.

“What promise?” he exclaimed, at last.

“Yer promise to give me my life.”

“I made you no such promise!”

The gang shrank into stupid silence.




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“Oh, yer a gen'elman—an' break yer word!” The misery of that expostulation from the Overseer!

“Blast you—yes! You cut the gentleman out of me with the cat. You die!”

And in the late-fallen dusk there mingled, curiously, the rapturous applause of the transports, and the alternate prayers and imprecations of the doomed officer.

VII.

That was on the Tuesday evening. On the Wednesday the gang had a merry day. They found the boat in the morning, and stored her with provisions from the store-tent. And in the afternoon, they pegged-out Overseer Franke. On an ant-hill, on a wooded gully-rise, they fastened him down with tent-lines. His right hand was stretched out with tightened cord again—this time to a special peg. A track of sugar was made from the orifice of the ant-bed to the hole in the hand, in case the industrious little creatures should not otherwise perceive so appetizing a banquet as that shattered fragment of official humanity.

Before they pegged him out they flogged Overseer Franke.




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After they pegged him out, they placed some victuals and water—just outside of his reach. It was Mann who suggested that last refinement. In fact, it was the gentleman whom the cat had robbed of his gentle-hood that devised the means for keeping the latter-day Tantalus busy while he lived. And it was not Mann's fault that he did not make Franke immortal.

The soldiers threw in their lot with the convicts. Such a thing happened as a matter of course, when there was no superior officer of the System to say nay.

And on the Thursday they seized the schooner, and, after a successful trip, reached a South Sea island.

Sydney heard of them later—when the missionary, William Ellis, complained to the British authorities that they were playing havoc with his mission-field.

But Mann was not with them then. Mann, in fact, never left Port Jackson. He committed suicide just as the vessel was stealing out of the Heads in the midnight darkness of Thursday night. His last words were: “I've done all I can for you, coves! Good-bye!” And then he pulled the trigger.




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He was privileged to receive an oration over his grave in the sea.

“Damn him! W'y didn't he drown hisself? That shot might be 'erd at South 'Ead Signal Stashun.”

Absalom West found Franke's skeleton in 1824.

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