previous
next



  ― 13 ―

IV.

As he walked in, Tracey had, obeying the mechanical instinct which, in spite of himself, the System had implanted in his nature, took his cap off. Then he recalled the act. He was not going to submit as “a softy” to the new Super. Not he. He replaced the cap defiantly as he faced the Captain. However, the Superintendent gave no indication that he was aware of the insult. Bunbury would have chained Tracey down for the same deed.

“My man!” said Maconochie, “I wish to have a talk with you!”

“I don't want to talk to yer! Come on an' flog me—or p'r'aps ye'd like to do th' nubbling cheatnote trick at once? Better now than later. I'm boun' to come to it!” responded the callous wretch.

“Look, sir—” Maconochie paused. Till harassed by the incessant opposition of the old-time officials, Maconochie measured almost every word he uttered in a transport's presence. “Constant dropping of water wears away a stone. The habitual use of forms of respect to any—even the most hardened— prisoner will insensibly, by wearing away the indurated surface, give his better nature room for play.” That was what he used to say.




  ― 14 ―

“Look, sir——”

What!” Lifer Tracey could not believe his ears. “Sir! Wot a joke! Me with an ‘incorrigible’ record—sir!”

“Look, sir—” Maconochie began again.

“None o' that foolin'. Yer not a-goin' to make a softy o' me, I tell yer!” Tracey raised his hand threateningly, as though in defence of that precious possession, his reputation for eminence in evil. “I be'n't no parson's or Super.'s pet!”

“I am sure of it,” rejoined the Captain. “But you are a man, and not a devil—I am sure of that as well!”

A second of wits-gathering silence. Then—

“No, I be'n't no man—a devil I am, or th' —— Systum hasn't done its work!” He laughed, with the reckless, sardonic laughter of the hopeless.

“No, you are a man, and no devil! And because you are a man, obey one of the first instincts of manhood, and that is to behave with respect to your just and legal superiors.”

“Just—legal!” Again the laugh—and then a storm of mad, tumultuous speech. “Just is them wot justice do—legal is as legal act! Be'n't truth 'bove all things? Can a man be a man if he's a liar? Be'n't a liar allus a coward? An' no coward's a


  ― 15 ―
man? An' 'udn't I lie ef I paid respec' w'ere respec' be'n't doo? An' is respec' doo to unybody unner th' Systum, for wot cove is there unner th' Systum as acts justly, as acts legally? Answer me that, Ol' King-o'-th'-lags!”

“Poor man, poor man!” exclaimed Maconochie, and, pacing forward, he held out his hand. Tracey struck it aside passionately.

“Yer've left me nothin' but—oh, nothin', nothin' but hate—an' now yer give me your pity. To the devil who made yer an' th' Systum!” He leapt tigerishly on the Superintendent—and was felled by a blow. There was nothing effeminate about Maconochie's muscles or his nerves, if there was just a suspicion of that quality attached to his judgment. No. 33-149 went down, and for a minute stayed down, dazed.

No word was spoken till Tracey, with eyeballs glaring redly instead of whitely, drew himself up to a sitting posture.

“Didn't I—say as the nubblin' cheat 'ud end it soon? By th' Lord, sir, I thank yer!”

Maconochie had faced a mutiny from a quarter-deck; had, as a lad, confronted, with only a toy-dirk in hand, a howling circle of barbaric mountain tribesmen thirsty for his blood; and yet, he was wont to


  ― 16 ―
say, never did human look appal him as that transport's glare of—gratitude.

“It's death—this—you know, my man?”

“Death—'tis—an' welcome!” It was a hyena shriek made articulate.

“My friend, let me help you up!” Again Captain Maconochie stretched forth his hand.

Tracey looked up. “D'yer mean it?” The softening of the words passed in the next instant from his face and tone. “Mean it!” he continued, “o' course yer mean it! Be'n't it yer dooty to 'and me to th' gallows!”

Maconochie pressed down his hand—lower—lower still—till it touched Tracey's shoulder.

“Tracey!” he whispered, “Tracey! it is my duty to save you from—the gallows. That is why I am here. Tracey—let us be friends!”

No. 33-149—his agony wried his mouth as he spoke—simply repeated “Friends!” and then bent his head upon his scarred hands. The upheaval of his universe had come, for, from the vortex of hell had sprung a voice—an official voice—that had uttered a kindly word. Kind words he had sometimes had before, but they were from clergymen; and the gospellers were bound to say something kind sometimes to earn their stipends.




  ― 17 ―

While a man might draw twenty breaths he sat so, challenging his consciousness whether or no his world was altered. And then, from the core of the beast-nature with which the System had superseded that granted unto him by his Creator—John Price said once “there were doubts as to the Creator, but there were none as to the System”—he spumed once more a torrent of volcanic hatred and suspicion.

“It's all a—trap; yer think I be a double softy to be taken in so? Yer playin' the forgivin' to get time to call the guards, 'cos yer afraid I was a-goin' to kill yer! Oh, yer devil!”

He stood with parching lips and clenched hands, and the knots bulged on his temples as when a gymnast braces himself for a feat that will cause the heavens to resound either with Homeric plaudits or with his death-scream. Had he sprung, the help of soldier-guard would have come too late for the Super. But—

“Stay!” cried Maconochie. “What proof do you demand that I am not the monster you fancy me? How can I show you my truth—that I mean to be as true a friend to every man here who will allow me as I can with God's help be—how can I do this?”

The appeal held Tracey in spite of himself. Scarcely knowing what he did, he gazed through the


  ― 18 ―
one window-space (unglazed) of the hut. Crossing the parade-ground leisurely were a lady and a maid-servant. A soldier followed them ten paces away. He pointed to them, and cried, hoarsely—

“Is that your wife?”

Maconochie's look followed the pointing-finger. “Yes!” he replied.

“Then, I'll believe yer if—you—trust—her—your wife, I mean—in this room alone wi' me for five minutes by your watch.”

The Superintendent's face grew haggard in the tremendousness of the ordeal. But his soul answered to the test.

He went out—and said a few words to his wife. She went into the room, all unknowing, but believing utterly in her husband's wisdom.

previous
next