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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


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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.

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