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Secret Society of the Ring.

I.—The Convening Of The Ring.

I.

CAPTAIN MACONOCHIE, who, with Major Anderson, supplied the non-demoniac element in the reigns of Norfolk Island Commandants, in pursuance of his theory that the convict should be encouraged to hope not alone for an alleviation of his physical condition, but also for “a new moral nature,” hit upon an expedient for developing, even in hardened souls, those softening and refining tendencies which flow from a heart-felt solicitude for the welfare of others. By detaching transports into groups, or “sub-gangs,” of three or five members, and holding each man of the three or five responsible for the good behaviour of his comrades, an irresistible appeal was at once made to the curiously-confused notions that swayed the average convict mind. An argument which had regard only to their own comfort or freedom from


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punishment would, in the case of nine out of ten “old hands”—the doubly-convicted convicts transported from the mainland or Van Diemen's Land— be welcomed by an oath or a ribald jest. When callousness in infamy was deemed to be an honour— when irons were thought the insignia of chivalry— and “connoisseurs in murder” felt it a privilege to take the hand of a “locked-boot” victim—it was an insult to suggest an immunity from penalties as a reason for right action. Take another course, however, and appeal to the sense of fraternity, which seldom died out even in the “best” men, and that caution in conduct and that eternal obedience to the regulations which a “good” man would never think of exerting in his own interests, would be at once exercised for the benefit of his group-mates. Most of Maconochie's attempts at penal reform sprang from his heart, and were seldom based on a hard, logical apprehension of facts as they were. But, in respect to his grouping system, his heart and his head acted together. His judgment and his experience of the “old hands” taught him that it was literally and absolutely a point of honour with them never to procure punishment for another transport who manifested “spunk.” And his heart showed him how to take advantage of this characteristic.


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What “old hands” would not do for themselves they should do for others. They should respect regulations and official practices, because violation of them would cause the infliction of punishment upon their colleagues of the group.

Between the principal settlement (which was supposed to change its name according to the sex of the reigning sovereign, and, therefore, should have been called Queenstown in the present reign, but which, notwithstanding, was more often spoken of as Kingstown than Queenstown) and the outlying barracks at Longridge, the Commandant laid out, in March and April, 184–, a number of farms of six to ten acres each. On each farm a hut or cottage was erected, and a company of from three to five men was assigned to each hut and farm. For the first year, no rental was demanded by the Commandant. For succeeding years each group of tenants had to contribute a rental of twelve bushels of maize for each cleared acre, this quota being estimated to equal one-third of the average crop per acre raised by labour under direct taxation. And every group was constituted a “mutual responsibility” sub-gang. That is to say, for the misdeeds of any one member of a group, the other members would suffer.

The group tenanting the hut on Section 5 B was


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constituted by some “old hands” whose records were of the very “best.”note Tested by the official standards of the elder System, they would have been welcomed by Lucifer with a “Hail, fellows, well met!” And thereupon the soft-hearted Commandant resolved they should have a chance to reform. Very much to the amusement of the Commissariat and other officials did he announce this determination.

The sub-gangers were five in number. Osborne, of whom we dare say no more than that it was a daily wonder to his comrades how he escaped hanging; Peake, a small-skulled, thirty-year-old lump of a physical deformity that rivalled his moral nature; a gentlemanly ex-forger who was popularly known as “Barrington” from the circumstance that he knew off by heart the account of that immortal scoundrel's career; a “Swinger”note—Felix—less sullen than brutish in feature, and of gigantic physical strength; and Reynell, a former soldier of the “Fighting Half-Hundred,” who had been transported to Norfolk


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Island by a V.D.L. military court for desertion to Maori-land in a whaler.

A tall, strapping fellow, who carried himself with military erectness, was Reynell, and it was his boast that his parchment record was as long as himself. Of course, the assertion was a slight exaggeration, but Reynell was given to little whimsicalities. A devil when roused, he was, as a rule, a merry soul, who was pleasantly cynical. He entered into crime with the same zest as into a battle-square. “It was but putting the bayonet into the law instead of the enemy,” he said to Mr. Pery, Superintendent of Agriculture, one day when Pery asked him why he would persist in setting the authorities at defiance. “I have to let the devil out of me somehow, sir, and as her gracious Majesty—God bless her!—won't employ me against her enemies, I have to make enemies of my own. And the law's a grand enemy to fight, sir! It'll take such a lot of beating!”

Against a criminal of this temper the Law had used everything in its dread armoury, except “the spread-eagle,” the gallows, and—a kind word and good faith. These last two instruments of unusual punishment Captain Maconochie now determined to supply. He appointed Reynell leader of 5 B


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sub-gang at a Sunday morning “after chapel” muster at the Iron Room.

“Henry Reynell, per Coquette, colonial transport,” called the mustering-overseer.

“Reynell, how do you come to be included among ‘old hands’ when you're a ‘colonial’?” questioned the Commandant, with his pleasant resonance of voice, as soon as the man had replied with his “Here!”

“The honourable Court gave me fourteen years, y'r Honour, and as I didn't think it enough I got 'em to make it life.” There was a ripple of laughter in the ranks.

“How?” asked the Captain, who took no notice of the demonstration.

“I struck the corporal of the Court guard—and so the honourable Court gave me what I wanted.”

“Not the same Court? It could not act at once and without being formally convened by the Colonel-Commanding?”

“As to that, sir, I can't say. All I know is that same Court convicted me—and I came here with a double sentence. Therefore, Major Ryan thought me entitled, sir, to all the emoluments, rights, and privileges of an old hand. I've been in irons all the time I've been here.”




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“Will you take a word of advice from me, Reynell?” said the Commandant.

“Will—I—what, y'r Honour?” asked Reynell, with a choking breath in his voice that might have been amusement, or might have been sheer amazement at the autocrat of a penal settlement assuming so extraordinary a tone.

“Take my advice, my good fellow, just to drop that sneering manner of speech.” There was a genuine kindness in the words. Reynell drew himself up to his full height and clenched his fist. Those who stood by thought he was about to transform recklessness of tongue into madness of action. The line between a murderer and a hero is often but a hair's-breadth, and this man, who might easily become a hero, might as easily pass the line.

However, other answer than this he did not make. He flung out his closed hand and said—“So easy to preach, y'r Honour! With the iron in the soul, and the cat on the back, and the bayonet-point in the body, what wonder the sneer's on the lip? So easy for you gentlemen to deal with heartless numbers. You say, Numbers 37-189—that's me—and 39-204 —that's Felix—don't feel. God above—don't we! And what weapon ha' we to fight the System with


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if you won't allow us to use our tongues? Even at our peril we must use 'em!”

He stopped and gathered strength for a last phrase which quivered with the under-thrill of his bitterness. “It's fighting that's our last hope of keeping something of manhood to ourselves, sir! Fight!—I'd die if I did not fight—die or go mad!”

Outbursts of this sort were common enough among the more intelligent convicts, but Maconochie never ceased to be impressed by them. The receptive sympathy of the man—which proved his ruin as an administrator—was always stirred when the note of strength and sincerity ran through the transport's utterances. He listened now to Reynell with a patience that to his under-strappers and to the felons at muster seemed at once wonderful and childish.

With mutual nods and winks (in hearty enjoyment of the joke) the gentlemen of the Commissariat who accompanied him listened to his ludicrously feeble reception of Convict Reynell's attack on the System's amenities.

“Reynell,” he said, stepping a pace nearer to the ranks as he spoke, “I am going to trust you—I will give you a farm—you and any four others you may choose to pick out of the old hands!”

“You—are—not jollying—me, your Honour?”




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“No—you will find by and by that I never ‘jolly!’”

“Then, by G—, sir, I'll be true man to you!”

From the rank of men from which Reynell had been called out came in two or three distinct voices a shout of—

“The Ring'll see 'bout that! The Oath! The Oath!”

II.

Reynell, instantly flushed with the strenuous hope that had been created by Maconochie's words, paled as instantly. Then—

“I'll take it back, y'r Honour. I'll remain as I am—a ‘good’ man!”

“That's right, that's right, my man!” rejoined the Commandant, genially. Again, a sibilant chorus from the ranks. The transports were tickled agreeably at what they thought his misapprehension. They had understood Reynell. Reynell, they knew, was simply adopting the vocabulary of the damned, in which “darkness was light and light darkness.” But the laughter stopped instantly as Maconochie raised his hand—and did the fatallest thing of his commandancy.

“Men!” he exclaimed, “no more of that! And now listen!”




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A rubbing and clinking of irons and a shuffling of feet rose on the calm air as the men settled themselves into position. They had heard they had got a “bad” preaching Commandant—and now Fate was about to confirm the report by cursing them with a second sermon on the one day.

“Men, listen! A threat has been used about the Ring. Now, I tell you—Ring members and non-members of the Ring—that I am resolved to crush that society out of existence.”

From among the massed men a confused clamour arose. “So other Com'dants have said—and they failed!” “Better not try!” “Ye'll ha' to croak first!” A chorus of defiance in which rumbled an accent of triumph. The System for three generations of Islanders had been trying to kill the Ring, and the Ring was still immutable and impregnable. The men who were of the Ring feared its despotism, but gloried in its traditions and its power. The men whose names were not scored in its mysteriously-kept roll, respected it and admired it, for was it not a rock that withstood the shocks of the Authorities?—an empire supreme over an empire otherwise omnipotent?

Now, Maconochie had meant to say that the only uprooting force he intended to apply to the Ring


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was that of kindness and justice. His wish was to render the Secret Society innocuous by depriving it of any occasion for the exercise of its undoubtedly enormous capacity for desperate action. But he was given no chance of explaining himself. Though they thought that the loss of their Sunday dinner—deeply cherished treat!—was involved in the uproar, the one hundred and fifty men, moved by a common impulse of passion, which, like a tornado-wave, swept all before it, continued and increased their clamour. They shouted, whistled, clanked their irons. Every sound was an inflection of evil. To the officials inured by years of familiarity with the Island life to such demonstrations, there was nothing particularly alarming—certainly nothing distressing in the storm. To the Commandant, however, sensitive in feeling, exalted in imagination, and subject to a curious persistence of reasoning which convinced him every transport was less an offender against society than a victim of society's errors and stupidities, the noise was a literal shock.

He held his hand up to command silence. A strong hiss from the centre greeted the gesture.

He folded his arms, as though to wait patiently for the cessation of the tumult. The challenge was responded to by shrieks of laughter.




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He lifted his cap and passed his handkerchief across his forehead. Fifty hands derisively copied the action. It was an admission that he was beaten, and they delighted in it as their nostrils would have done in the scent of roast meat.

He turned his back upon the ironed men, and motioned to a gaol-warder. Assistant-Deputy-Commissary-General Shanks thought he purposed to order up the main-guard, and for the first time was prepared to confess to himself that the Commandant was something more than a dreamer. And—Mr. Shanks was to be disappointed.

Instead of bringing up at the “double” a file of twelve men—instead of issuing in bloody sequence, incisive commands: “Ready! Present! Fire!” Captain Maconochie had sent to his own stores for—tobacco! The imbecility of that act!—how it started Mr. Shanks! How it spoilt his Sunday's dinner and compelled him to sacrifice his afternoon nap so that he might write to Governor Gipps and Mr. E. Deas-Thomson!

“Tobacco for rebels! The establishment is going to the devil!” he groaned later to Mrs. Shanks. “Tobacco!—when they should have had lead. If he had made requisition upon me, and not have drawn from his own store, I'd have refused there


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and then!” For Mr. Shanks' heart was sore within him.

As for the gentry of the Iron Room, their turbulence held till the box of tobacco was placed at the Commandant's feet. And then it faded, with a final hiss and splatter as a breaking wave dies against the shingle. They were stupefied at this unique form of punishment.

“'E's a-goin' to 'eap coals o' fire on our 'eads!” exclaimed some one, but the remark passed unheeded. The mass were too surprised even for ribald comments.

III.

“Reynell!” Maconochie called.

Reynell looked round before answering. Did the Ring raise objection? If it did, there was no visible or audible sign of its refusal. And he stepped forward; and, to the Commandant's pleasure, saluted.

“Reynell, call out four men to assist you!”

“What for, sir?”

“To distribute that tobacco—half a fig to a man.”

Reynell stared at the Captain—then gazed back at the massed men. For guidance—for a hint as to whether he dare take the bribe on their behalf? Most likely so. And so near is weak kindness to


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refined cruelty, there was not one man there in those ranks of ironed, yellow, brown-and-grey garbed felons with the symbols of shame on their bodies and the glare of the human beast in their eyes, but hated Maconochie in that moment of ordeal. Not a man there but would have risked severe penalties to obtain a fraction of a fig; scarcely a score of the one hundred and fifty but what had already gone through the mire of humiliation for a “bit.” Therefore their hearts beat with a venomous strength—because he tempted them sorely. For why did they not answer to Reynell's unspoken inquiry?

Those who were not of the Ring dare not speak. In collective action the Ring led the “private” convicts.

And those who were of the Society grew weak with the temptation. But then—to accept it was to acknowledge Maconochie's supremacy, and to confess a defeat.

For half a minute the two parties stood silent. The surf, half a mile away, drove its monotone over the still air. From the wooded sides of Mount Pitt, on the other hand, travelled, not unmelodiously, the screech of parrots. A wedge-tailed eagle poised majestically over the square, and hoarsely flung a taunt to the imprisoned creatures. Save for these


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sounds, the parade was as silent as is the lull before the revolt of thunder against its confines.

Then—first one sharp “No!”—next, two or three were joined in the repetition—and finally, in impetuous volume, the fierce negatives rolled from the ranks. Never did monk of the desert make so great a renunciation! In that volleyed monosyllable those outcasts of civilization refused a pleasure for which, under other circumstances, they would have gleefully bartered their souls.

“No!” A brazen, defiant “No!” which epitomized the curses of Tophet.

Reynell marched back to his place; and Maconochie knew, as the storm of curses and cheers burst out again, that the Ring was triumphant.

IV.

Unless ——

Commissariat-Officer Shanks suggested, with a semi-sneer, the application of old methods. “Try, Captain Maconochie, a platoon! There's pretty considerable of a quietening influence in a volley, sir! That is mutiny, and if you don't get the better of them now, they'll have every iron off their ankles in an hour, and then you'll have to shoot the lot, unless you want us all killed.”




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“No!” replied the Commandant. “Ball-cartridge is the last thing I propose to use on society's wrecks. Mr. Gaoler—this thing has gone far enough. Finish the muster and give 'em their dinners!”

“What, sir! Their dinners!” Really, the gaoler was to be excused for his patent astonishment.

“Ay,—the poor fellows shan't suffer for my blunder in tactics. The mistake was mine—I've taken 'em the wrong way to-day.”

And with this remark, so subversive of all the conventions and principles of the System—for whenever before did a penal commandant admit he was in error?—Captain Maconochie touched his cap, in graceful acknowledgement of the salute of his subordinates, and left the muster-yard.

The whole of the Iron Room transports enjoyed their dinners the more for the sauce of triumph. For dessert they were gratified by another delicious morsel.

The Commandant sent an order to the gaoler to despatch by 6.30 a.m. on Monday, Henry Reynell, per Coquette (Colonial), and “four other men that the said prisoner should nominate,” to Farm 5 B, therein to be installed as “sub-gang in charge.” The proceeding was, it is needless to say, altogether


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exceptional. But then the Island owned an altogether exceptional commander, and it had proved a day of exceptional occurrences. And it was, doubtless, in accordance with the spirit of the joke that the gaoler, as he communicated the decision to Reynell, mocked him by doffing his cabbage-tree, and addressed him with a scoffing irony.

“Would it please Mr. Reynell to nominate the gentlemen who were to accompany him?”

Reynell took the jest admirably. He craved five minutes to make his selection, and within that time had informed the officer that Osborne, Peake, Barrington, and “Swinger” Felix would form his comradeship. For the committee of the Ring had raised no objection. “'Twarn't going out to the farmsteads, Reynell,” said a high ruler of the league—a Three—“that we complain of, but your promise to be a true man! No chap in the fellowship shall go ‘bad’ without permission. It's breaking oath!”

And consent being thus obtained—we translate the “flash” language habitually employed in Ring business—the choice was, as we have said, made, and 5 B group constituted.

On Monday, when the dormitories turned out at 5.30, the first thing done by the new sub-gang was


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to present themselves at the “blacksmith's shop” and have the rivets driven from the bazils.

Felix was last at the low anvil. As the bazil of his left leg fell to the ground he expanded the massive brawniness of his chest with long draughts of tonic morning air; and then clutched Reynell with a wrestler's grasp.

“Why, lad, I be tha' man for ever an' a day. I never 'ud ha' got rid o' them damned clinks but for thee until the day I wed the worms. Felix is tha' man for ever an' a day!”

V.

And now let us gather up the links of the story.

Monday was formal court-day, and, therefore, none of the group saw the Commandant till the evening. Muster had passed over—the mutual responsibility farms were mustered only by their leader, he answering for his group—and the men were busy preparing their “tea,” and rejoicing in the novel sensation of what was virtual freedom, when the Captain walked up to the hut.

They ceased their preparations and saluted. The spontaneity of the movement was plain, and it thrilled the “old man's” heart to notice it. Something, he thought, of that voluntary respect for just


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authority, which is an accompaniment of manhood, had been generated in the men by that one day's liberty, and surely his experiment was about to be justified? He smiled gaily as he returned the salute.

“Now, men,” he said, “don't mind me! Get on with your tea—I am sure you must need it after all this day in the fields!”

In forty years of the System never had Osborne heard the like. He bent his eyes to the block of stone which did duty as a temporary table, and fumbled with his tin maize-meal dish. The others, with the exception of Peake, were also affected; Reynell to the point of turning his head away so that neither the Captain nor his group-mates should discern the tear that scalded his cheek.

“Men!” continued the Commandant, ever deeper touched by evidences of gratitude than by testimonies of insult, “I wish you would trust me! I want to be a friend to you—to every man of the 1600 souls in prison here! Come, sirs, forget I'm the Commandant—the ‘old man.’ Think of me, for the time being at all events, as a man—one who deeply sympathizes with your sufferings, and who will only be too glad to alleviate them in every way he can without violating his duty to those who sent him here! Come, what do you say?”




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Peake was the first to speak. “Reynell, y'r Honour, is our leader!” A dogged resistance to any softening influence was easily to be understood from his manner.

“Then, Reynell, speak for yourself at least—for the others if you can.”

The ex-soldier drew his under-lip in, and bit it till blood came, in the severity of the struggle between the Past and the Future that might be. Then he gulped rather than uttered his answer.

“I take back—the insult—of—yesterday, sir. I'll be true man to you—so help me God! And the —— Ring may do its worst.”

Maconochie knew that, come what might—disdain from Privy Councillors and Secretaries of State, cold water from Governors, and sneers and insubordination from smaller officials—yet still he had plucked one soul from the pit. After a few more words of friendly tenor he returned to Government House.

Upon his going, Peake dropped his thin mask of hypocrisy and looked what he was—the child of the devil his father, and the System his mother. Other parentage had he known none. When, as a hunch-backed boy of eight, he first understood a little of the meaning of life, the System was already nourishing


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him at her breasts. And because of this must we excuse him somewhat.

Peake, when the Captain's steps could not be longer heard, pulled off his waist-strap.

“Hold!” He threw out an end to “Penman Barrington.” “Barrington” paled—but grasped the leather.

“Reynell, you sneakin' cull—come here!”

And Reynell, too, obeyed the strange command. He took the other end. The strap was pulled taut. Then Osborne and Felix each laid hold upon it in the centre, standing on either side of it. The four thus formed a cross. Sometimes in the cross of the Ring the hands touched and clasped; but never in the cross of denunciation—as this was.

Three—five—seven times Peake walked round the group, and as he moved he recited the Convict Oath.

At last, he stopped suddenly—at the end of the third repetition.

“Osborne, you're a ‘Sevener’?”

Osborne, hoarse with suppressed fear, muttered “Yes.”

“And you're a Sevener, accused?” Reynell was thus addressed. He nodded assent.

“What are you, Bill?”

“A Niner!” answered Felix.




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“Barrington?”

“A Fiver!”

“And I'm a Three. We're all denominations. All denominations necessary to convene when it's a Sevener as is to go up before —— Do any object?”

Silence. Only Reynell shuddered.

“Then, the Niner shall bid the Niners, and the Sevener the Seveners, and the Fiver the Fivers, and the Three the Threes to Ring lodge on Sabbath next if the One ratifies, and the business shall be to try Sevener Henry Reynell, for that he played our noble Society false, and promised to be true man to an Establishment officer, and defies the Society! So the Devil help you all!”

And some trembling lips muttered a low “So the Devil help us!”




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II.—The Session of Denunciation.

I.

The Ring had been convened. A “session of denunciation” had been called in the manner provided by the traditional statutes of the Society, and Convict Henry Reynell, “Colonial” transport per Coquette, had been duly apprised that on the Sunday following, at three in the afternoon, he was to be charged with having violated the “laws.” He, an initiate, had defied the Ring; he had told Captain Maconochie that “he would prove a true man to him”; and this after the Ring had ordered that in season and out of season the new Commandant was to be thwarted—not so much disobeyed as thwarted.

When, within a month of Maconochie's arrival, it had become plain what sort of a man he was, the “One,” on requisition from the “Three,” had convened a “Council of Order,” at which it was enacted that the new Commandant was an “enemy.”




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The business of a “Council of Order” was to enact “laws” and adopt “regulations.” It was the least potential of the three descriptions of Ring gatherings.

The second was that known as the “Session of Denunciation.” It was convened only when a formal charge was to be laid against some member (“initiate” or “uninitiate”) of the Society, or when some person not of the Society was to be denounced for his treatment of a member.

The third was the “Conclave of Doom.” At this meeting the fiat went forth for punishment, the executioner was appointed, and—if the doom was a capital one and the victim a member of the Society —the vacancy would be filled up.

The “Council of Order” could be attended by any member of the Ring—whether he belonged to the initiated twenty-five, or to the uninitiated, “the novices,” whose number was practically unlimited. It was invariably held during a meal-hour, for then only could a large muster be depended upon.

The “Session of Denunciation” was attended by the “circles” only, or as many of them as could be present. It was usually held on the nights of Sundays or holy-days, in the Iron Room. The “circles” were, as a rule, in irons. “Clinks” and “Trumpeters” were rather regarded as Ring insignia.


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Occasionally it was held in the day-time; Reynell's was to be a day-session.

As for the “Conclave of Doom,” it was constituted only by the “One” and the “Three.” If the “One” was in gaol, or in such other position that his attendance was impossible, then a majority of the members comprising the circles of “Three” and “Five” could proceed with the business. The convening of this culminating assemblage, however, rested absolutely with the “One.” The “Three” could not constitute the Doom-session without his consent; and in this circumstance consisted the “One's” power of veto. The twenty-four men constituting the “circles” might pass a unanimous vote of “Death!” or other penalty, and by his simple refusal to convene a Doom-session within the period indicated by the law and custom of the Society—which period, in Maconochie's time, was three months—the presumed victim would go free.

At the Doom-session, the proceedings were, of course, controlled by the “One”—the Centre.

At the other sessions, the president was one of “Three” circle, who acted as leader. The “One” might be present, or he might not, at a “Council of Order,” or a “Denunciation”; but, if present, he would not take charge of the assemblage. Such a


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step would have been tantamount to revealing his identity to the “Ringers” generally, and would have been a violation of the fundamental law of the Society, which ordered that none but the members of the “Three” should know who was the “One.” To have torn away the veil of secrecy which shrouded his personality would have deprived him of his power. The Unknown is always terrible.note

From the circle of “Nine” to the circle of “Seven”; from the circle of “Seven” to the “Five”; from the “Five” to the “Three”; from the “Three”; to the “One”: so ran the grooves of communication.

What, pertaining to the business or the safety of the Ring, a member of “Nine” circle heard, it was demanded from him, by his sworn duty to the Society, that he should communicate to his colleagues of his “circle.” And the circle, or a majority, should decide whether the facts or the suspicions should be passed on to “Seven” circle.

Reaching the circle of “Seven,” the intelligence,


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if the circle by majority so decided, would pass to the “Five.” In like manner, the “Fivers” would transmit it to the “Three”; and so the “Centre”— the “One”—would hear of it only after long process of filtration and examination.

At any stage of the routine a “circle” might send back a “report” for further evidence and information; or, by refusing to pass it on, veto and quash it. The complaint could not be again made by the lower circle till after the lapse of so many weeks.

Should a matter be first set in motion by an intermediate circle, that circle would communicate the essence of the business to the lower rank, but the latter had no voice in referring it to the final judgment of the “Centre.” All vetoes were similarly communicated, so that the effect was this: Every initiate member knew the nature of all business which by ultimate transmission to “One” became the concern of the Ring; but every member had not a voice in its determination. No initiate could aid in the settlement of a matter originating in a higher circle than his own.

The exceptions to this general law were two. For the denunciation of an initiate member, the consent of the circle lower than his own was necessary, as


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well as that of his own and the higher ranks. Such cases were considered urgent, and the vote of one member of the lower circle or circles was regarded as sufficing for the whole of that denomination. And a “Three,” invested with scarcely less awfulness than the “One,” could act independently of his co-“Threes” by “One's” authority. It was this latter circumstance which originated the belief amongst many uninitiate Ringers that there was no “One.” They did not necessarily believe that because the “Centre” was invisible, therefore he did not exist, but they doubted his existence when they saw that attributes they supposed to attach only to the dreaded “One” belonged also to the “Three.”

Doubts, however, of this kind belonged to the uninitiates—or novices. The men of the lesser circles—the Nines and the Sevens and the Fives—knew of the “One,” and the Three knew him.

They were sufficient, these degrees of knowledge, for they sustained during long years of maleficent working a dreadful society within an accursed community—an empire of evil within an empire of horror. The character of the System alone did not explain the System. You had to take into account also the Ring, which constantly battled with the


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System, and frequently defeated though it could not subjugate it.

It could not subjugate the System, but then neither could the System destroy it.

The battle was a drawn one: the Ring ceased to exist as the animating soul of all evil things on the Island, only when the System acknowledged itself defeated by the “paralysing stroke of circumstance,”note and abandoned the spot which, designed by Heaven as an earthly paradise, the Englishman had made into a hell. Yet, one thinks, the result should have been different. There was the might of England behind the System—the majesty of her law, the sanctity of her State religion, the wisdom of her administrators. On the other side, there were—what? Twenty-four felons, and the “One”! A feeble handful of yellow-and-grey-garbed prisoners, most of them habitually in irons, scarcely one that had not shivered as the curling “cat” kissed him! Why, the System could have hanged them all any morning and not been put to the slightest inconvenience other than doubling the number of coffin-makers for a week!




  ― 50 ―

Notwithstanding, for fifty years the Ring held its own. Its heads or “Centres”—the “Ones”—must have been changed four times at least; the “circles” were re-organized again and again as death came along, and touched some “Niner” or “Sevener,” or “Fiver” or “Threer,” on the shoulder, and gave him his passport of freedom; the “uninitiates” were decimated by shootings and the Battle of the Bloody Bridge, by escapes and hangings. Still, the Ring lived on. And it would have been living to-day had the System survived.

II.

The ceremony of convening had been gone through, as we say, and the “Centre” had approved of the conclave. So the Threes told the Fives, and the Fives passed the notice on to the Sevens, and Sevens to the Nines. Each “Niner” controlled a body of “novices,” and to such of these as, in all likelihood, would be in the exercise-yards on Sunday afternoon, he “passed the word” for picket and guard duty.

And to one other person was the intimation conveyed that a Ring session was to be assembled. The Commandant was so informed—by a note pushed under his office-door! Young though he was in


  ― 51 ―
supreme authority, he was at no loss to understand the significance of the pen-printed letter:

“WE MEET ON SABBATH NEXT, THREE IN THE AFTERNOON, IN THE IRON YARD. YOU ARE INVITED TO BE PRESENT TO CARRY OUT YOUR THREAT OF BREAKING US UP.”

It was the boldest challenge to his rule, and that he should not doubt its authenticity, at the foot of the missive was stamped (in candle-smoke) the symbol which formed the official signature of the “One”—the four concentric circles surrounding the double-triangle over the broad arrow.

Over the broad arrow—that stung Maconochie as it had stung Wright, Fyans, Anderson, Ryan, and every other Commandant who had been similarly challenged. For, interpreted, the signature meant that the Ring was supreme over the System. Let the System order, it would be for the Ring to say whether it should be obeyed.

The Commandant consulted the gaoler and such of the overseers as he had divined were not quite enamoured of the old methods of brute force which he was seeking to supersede with kindness, and showed them the message. None could enlighten him as to what would eventuate at the meeting.




  ― 52 ―

“A Riot?” No; that was unlikely. The Ring had other methods of working than to precipitate an outbreak unless it was thoroughly prepared, and the chances were now against anything of the kind being contemplated.

“Shall I stop it?” Well, his Honour might try, but it would be useless. It would take the whole military force of the Island, and the armed civil guard as well, to break up a Ring meeting; and even then ——

“What?” They would communicate their business all the same, and rob everybody of a night's rest.

“How?” Because the signalling would go on the whole night through. The night-guards could hear the signals distinctly from cell to cell; every Ringer keeps awake and passes on the signal to his right or left as the case may be, though he might not himself understand the significance of the signal.

“But how could the Ring, some members of which were in the gaol-cells, others in the dormitories, others in the Iron Room, communicate, seeing that the three classes of buildings were separated by yards?” Heaven knows!—and the principal Ringers; nobody else!

“It surprises me!” So it did everybody else, the gaoler said.




  ― 53 ―

“Do you think, Mr. Gaoler, the Ring would consent to my making an experiment?” Perhaps so; how?

“If I wished for an illustration of their facility of communicating, would they grant it?” No doubt; and laugh in his Honour's face while communicating. “Would his Honour like to see a Ringer?” Every officer nearly knew most of the outside Ringers (the uninitiates)—no secrecy was maintained as to that class of membership—but really those fellows knew next to nothing of the Ring proper. The men who formed the outer circles were known also; but the actual participation of each in the working of the Society, why, that could never be proved.

“Were there many regulations in force against the Ring?” Dozens!

“Any definite attempt at suppression?” Yes; and the Battle of Bloody Bridge was the result.

The Commandant sickened at the reflection that here was a force never taken into account by Right Honourable Secretaries of State and honourable members of the House of Commons, or by Judges and Governors. The System might rule by terror in one direction, and by coarse and licentious favouritism in another, but here was a power that defied the tremendous penal organization created by


  ― 54 ―
British justice and British apathy. Buoyed though he was by his intense belief in the truth of his theory, and inspired by his faith in the essential goodness of human nature, he could not, for the moment, resist the awful doubt which now assailed him as to whether it would not be better to let the System proceed on its old lines. A power that continued its machinations under the eye and in the teeth of Authority, surely the only way to deal with it was to crush it by force! These were his thoughts.

Fortunately, however, for his fame, Maconochie resisted the reaction. When the Lady of Despair, whose breath fanned him for that instant, had passed him, he felt it would be at least wise to wait and see what Sunday would bring forth. He intended to accept the challenge,

III.

“O Day most calm, most bright,
The week were dark but for thy light—
  Thy torch doth show the way!”

Thus had quoted the Rev. Thomas Taylor in his sermon at morning chapel to the Protestant prisoners. His words had been in praise of Sunday as a day which relieved for them no less than for their more fortunate fellows in other places the labour of the week. Their irons might still clank, but they did


  ― 55 ―
not fret and jar so painfully, for the movements were those of rest and change, and were not demanded by task-work. Their hands might still require to describe the salute, but the obligation would be less frequent. And the freedom from labour meant opportunity for reading and thought—for recollection of dear ones far away—for indulgence of bright hopes for the future—and for something of that intercourse with their brother-man which, in its unrestricted and unreprieved fulness, would be the principal delight to be conferred by freedom. Something after this manner spoke the tender-natured chaplain, whose spirits had been greatly invigorated since the advent of the new Commandant.

The chaplain's words had touched not a few hearts and had moistened many eyes. Unlike his predecessor, A——, who was for ever throwing “The Prodigal Son” at their heads; or Parson Ford, of Hobart-town, who was chiefly solicitous that his hearers should prove the value of his teachings by making a decent ending at the gallows rather than in reformation of their lives, Chaplain Taylor invariably impressed the prisoners by dwelling upon the few bright things of the present, and the brighter things their earthly future might still have in store for them. His tribute to the Sabbath was consequently


  ― 56 ―
highly appreciated, and more than one out of the six hundred transports in his congregation determined to spend the rest of the day peacefully— if the Ring would let them. That contingency had to be faced, for the knowledge was now general that it was a “Lodge Sunday.”

The morning muster after chapel passed off without incident—unlike the previous week's, when Convict Henry Reynell—the same who was now accused by the Ring—had, at the bidding of that body, refused to accept, for his comrades of the Iron Room, Maconochie's bribe of tobacco. And the mid-day meal, of 16 oz. roast-meat, 12 oz. baked potatoes, and the extra Sunday relish—to them who had not been under punishment for the week—of 4 oz. of wheat and barley bread, was unmarked by a quarrel. When the final “grace” was said, and the Almighty thanked in mumbling, parroted parodies for the mercies so amply showered upon them, the mass of the men in the yards felt they were, indeed, deserving of the pleasure which was to be theirs that afternoon. Not a single prisoner had been felled to the cobbled floors, and not one had rushed to the warders with a complaint that his cheek had been gashed open because he had been indiscreet enough to object to the theft of his ration. The peace of


  ― 57 ―
the beautiful Sabbath-day brooded, dove-like, on the resting throngs.

There were five yards, but we are concerned only with the one on which the Iron Room opened, and the adjacent enclosure. These were the pleasure-grounds of the aristocracy of crime; and the Ring membership was most largely represented in them. A doorway, sometimes closed, but on Sundays usually left open, furnished a means of communication between No. 3 yard and the space devoted to the fettered fraternity. From the elevated sentry-boxes—the “perches”—at the corners, armed guards watched or patrolled the broad-“leafed” walls. Within the radius of a biscuit-throw, two sentries of the military main-guard moved, this one this way, that one the opposite way, from their post at the entrance of a passage leading to the gaol.

At two o'clock the sentries were relieved, and a careful observer might then have seen that a new interest was taking possession of the throngs in both yards. Those who were reading closed their books, talkers became less in earnest, laughers and jesters —these were not wanting, for some men will laugh in hell—abated their merriment, and others who had been nursing their thoughts in abject solitude, shook off their taciturnity and joined one or other of


  ― 58 ―
the many knots. All, seemingly, began to count the time.

At a quarter-past two the sentries changed beats. The movement was noticed by the prisoners.

Fifteen minutes later, the soldiers rechanged. The prisoners knew the half-hour had expired. Without any apparent concord of movement, the men in either yard formed themselves into larger groups.

By the next change of “Go,” talk had nearly ceased in the two yards. Such laughter and sound of chat as were borne on the breeze were from the other enclosures. And the careful observer aforesaid would perceive that now the movements of the men were taking something of the character of marching and counter-marching. He would have heard no word of command; and yet he should have understood that some supreme will was giving directions, for, in the two yards, though no more than a few men in each could see what was going on in the other, there was a simultaneity of movement and likeness of manœuvring.

And by three o'clock, as the guards were re-adjusting themselves to their original path, the 140 men in the ironed yard, and the 200 in No. 3, were disposed something in this order.

Close to the north wall in the former enclosure


  ― 59 ―
stood two men. At three paces distance from them, so placed that, had a cord been passed through the hands of each to the others, a circle would have been described, of which the first two men would have formed the centre, stood three more transports. At five paces from these last were another five prisoners. Connect these by a cord, and these five would have surrounded the three. At seven paces, again, from the five transports were a second five, likewise ranged in an imaginary circle order. Nine paces away from this latter five was gathered a group of twenty-two or twenty-three—an outer envelope, as it were, of the inner rings. The mass of the ironed men stood by the south wall—and their faces towards it; but a weak line of communication was kept up by a string of pickets extending to this numerous group from the outer circle.

Thus was arranged the Ring in day conclave. The central two men represented the circle of “Three”; the three, the circle of “Five”; the first five, the circle of “Seven”; and the second five, that of “Nine.” Each circle was separated from its next lower one by as many paces as there were members in the lower circle. And the twenty-two or twenty-three “uninitiates” were divided by nine paces distance from the “Nines.” The pickets were recently


  ― 60 ―
admitted “uninitiates.” If the Ring had a message for the convicts in general or for the “uninitiates” who, for purposes of intimidation, were thrust amongst the transports who had refused or not been permitted to join the Society, it was transmitted by the pickets.

The circles of the Ring, it will be seen, were short of their proper number. It was seldom possible, indeed, to constitute a full Ring at a day conclave. Of the twenty-four men making up the circles, fifteen only were in the ironed yard. Of the rest, five were at the “mutual responsibility” farm, and four were in the next—No. 3—yard.

In the latter yard, allowing for the smaller number of the Ringers, the arrangement was the same. No Threer was included in this enclosure, but a Five, three Nines, and a dozen uninitiates were ranged at the proper gradations of distance. The convicts unassociated with the Ring were crowded under the south wall, with their faces turned from the Society group. Between the twelve uninitiates and the mass stretched, as in the other yard, a line of pickets.

On the stroke of three o'clock, then, this was the order of array in both enclosures. Save for a cough, a clearing of the throat, a friction in the “irons,” there was no sound among the transports. The sentries walked to and fro—and looked to their primings.


  ― 61 ―
The armed civil guards on the perches quickened their senses, but yet refrained from directly scrutinizing the proceedings. They could see every face, and yet no guard had ever been found who could, on a formal demand, identify any leader of the Ring. That is to say, none since Major Anderson's time. A warder then had declared to the Commandant he would swear to a score of the inner circles. And within a week he lay on his bed, a shattered lump of carrion. A thirst for information is not always judicious.

IV.

The soldiers by the gaol-passage exchanged. And at that instant a sharp, curiously-modulated whistle shrilled from the Threes in the ironed yard, and was instantly answered by another whistle from the next yard. “Lodge” was opened.

A Five broke from his circle, and passed to the group of uininitiates. He paused a second before each man, who stooped and whispered something into his ear. Then, from the uninitiates, he passed successively to the Nines, the Sevens, to his comrades of the Five, and finally, to the Threes. From all he gathered the password save from the representatives of the innermost circles. To them he gave it.


  ― 62 ―
During his progress there had been countless slightly noisy movements among the massed transports, yet the tension of feeling was so extreme, that many would have sworn there had occurred no sound except that caused by the clink-clank of the irons.

When the Threes received the approving signal, one—Johnson—began to recite the Ritual; the other—Gooch—to lead off the antiphonal responses. Sometimes both the words of the reciter and the response were in vigorous, resonant English; other passages were partly English and partly in the Ring's own variety of the “flash” language; sometimes both were in the argôt. It is unnecessary to say the secrets of the Ring were conveyed in the last form of speech.

Very solemn the liturgy sounded. If the words were sometimes ribald, there was nothing ribald in the manner of their utterance. Except in a Catholic service, no such respectfulness of tone and decency of demeanour were ever voluntarily exhibited by the transports as in a Ring meeting. Any unseemliness was visited with a punishment the more to be feared that its precise measure was unknown to the culprit till the moment of its infliction, but the solemnity of its proceedings was at once the cause and the effect of the Society's influence. The portions of the Ritual


  ― 63 ―
which were recited in the vernacular were resonantly worded specifically for the purpose of impressing such of the convicts not enlisted in the strange companionship who might be in hearing. Singular though the statement may appear, it was the religious character given to its ceremonies that made it the weapon it was in the service of the devil. Appeals to occult powers, the element of mystery in gesture and language, the measured intonation, the employment of symbolism, the frequent invocation of dread punishment upon men who violated their oath—all were calculated to inspire awe of and devotion to the Society that used it.

The temporary leader of the Ring, who was reciting, reached that passage in the blasphemous liturgy:

Is God an officer of the establishment?

And the response came solemnly clear, thrice repeated:

No, God is not an officer of the establishment.

He passed to the next question:

Is the Devil an officer of the establishment?

And received the answer—thrice:

Yes, the Devil is an officer of the establishment.

He continued:

Then do we obey God?

With clear-cut resonance came the negative—

No, we do not obey God!




  ― 64 ―

He propounded the problem framed by souls that are not necessarily corrupt:

Then whom do we obey?

And, thrice over, he received for reply the damning perjury which yet was so true an answer:

The Devil—we obey our Lord the Devil!

In a corner, by the south wall, a youth of twenty, in irons for a freak, dropped his face on his hands and stifled a sob. He had been trying since sermon-time to fix indelibly on his memory the sweet melody of George Herbert's hymn:

“O Day most calm, most bright,
The week were dark but for thy light—
  Thy torch doth show the way!”

and now that music was jostled from his mind by the demons' Litany.

Johnson had arrived at the “prayer”:

Render us, O Satan, always flourishing in thy work, always happy in obeying thy law, thou who art eternal, who art always young, who never lackest worshippers and servants to do thy will, who art always rich, and never forgettest those who place their offerings at thy altar—

when from No. 3 yard came a long, involved whistle: and in the instant following a murmur ran along the line of pickets.

Captain Maconochie had accepted the challenge.




  ― 65 ―

V.

He walked through No. 3 yard unattended. His predecessor had never entered it on a Sunday afternoon without an escort of two soldiers. As he passed he acknowledged pleasantly the few salutes he received, and gave no sign that he noticed the majority of the enclosure's occupants declined to recognize his presence. They were waiting to see what the Ring would do.

And the Ring? Save for that murmur of the pickets the session expressed no consciousness of the visitor. The reciter finished the prayer in an even tone:

“Render unto us the rewards of them who obey thee always and God never.”

And then suddenly changing his tone from the key of religious solemnity to a simple announcement, said, “The Com'dant!”

In the same instant he saluted and smiled—smiled derisively in Captain Maconochie's face, as the latter, appalled at the abominable import of the Ritual's words, stood still, showing his distress very plainly.

“Good heavens, men! Did I hear aright? Did I hear you blaspheming your Maker so dreadfully?”

“Wot, sir?” asked Johnson. “This is the first


  ― 66 ―
degree of a Ring meetin', y'r know! We but say wot we're tol' to say. It's all in the Ritooal, sir!”

“You are in Ring Lodge now?”

“Yessir! First degree!”

“And you blaspheme like this in all your degrees?” Maconochie stammered and stuttered in his horror.

“Wud yer like to know, sir?”

“Yes.”

“Then that's jest wot yer won't get to know from me, y'r Honour!” replied Johnson, and the retort provoked a roar of laughter, half-timid, half-defiant, from the circle. Sunday or no Sunday the laughers would have been tied to the triangles by any other Commandant for that outrage, but Maconochie, albeit severely tempted, overlooked the insult.

“When do you hold your other degrees?”

“In present session, at wunst—unless yer a-goin' to break us up!” Again the fellow laughed.

“I am not going to break you up to-day——”

“Nor any other time!” exclaimed the leader.

“'Ear, 'ear!” seconded some “Fives” and “Sevens.”

VI.

“Go on with your Ritual!” said the Commandant, after a pause.




  ― 67 ―

“That's wot we intend to do, yer Honour,” Johnson, with measured insolence, responded. “An' d'yer mean to stop and 'ear us?”

“I do!”

“I 'opes as yer Honour'll be vastly interested!” And once more the Commandant was compelled to listen to a laugh that was a jibe. He let it go by, like the others.

Then the leader resumed his devil's business, and gave, in the next half-hour, the Captain a lesson as to the ingenuity of felonry that he never forgot. Better versed than any Penal Commandant, before or since (save Price), in the “flash” slang or thieves' language, he yet scarcely comprehended a word of the many concluding parts of the ceremony brought to his ears.

For, as there were grades in the Ring, there were varieties in its speech. There was the variety understood by all novices as well as initiates—the variety known to “Nines” and all above—another familiar to “Sevens” and “Fives” and “Threes”—one in which only the “Fives” and “Threes” were educated. All these forms of argôt were used that afternoon, accordingly as the “Three” in charge addressed himself to a higher circle or a lower.

And, not content with that patent offence to the


  ― 68 ―
Spirit of the System, the Ring perpetrated yet another. It held communication with its gesture-language—when a movement of the limbs or head expressed a number, and the number indicated a word or phrase in its “initiate” code—and in its dumb-talk and its whistling vocabulary. These two last were provisions for use when the legs were ironed and the hands in “bracelets.” And of all the “talk” and signalling, the Commandant understood next to nothing. All he knew was that the proceedings shaped themselves something like those in a court of justice.

There were addresses from the leader “Three” and his colleagues—slowly and impressively delivered; there were steppings forth from the outer rings of men who evidently gave testimony of some sort with right hand uplifted; and there was a brief and apparently impassioned speech from a “Seven”—the prisoner's feelings prompted him in his excitement to drop into a phrase of plain English, which he corrected instantly upon being checked by Johnson. And, finally, there was the pronouncement of a verdict. Amidst a grim silence, broken only by the shuffling and rubbing of the second “Three's” irons as he moved from rank to rank of the Circles to gather the judgment, the decision was come to. The


  ― 69 ―
whole mass by the north wall heaved a sigh of relief as Johnson lowered his head to receive the announcement.

By the laws, to condemn a “Nine” a bare majority of all present sufficed; to “settle” a Seven, an absolute majority of the Circles present or absent was necessary; for a “Five” or “Three” was required a majority of his own circle as well as the majority of the lower ranks. Proxies were used for absentees, if the latter knew of the business. Reynell was represented by proxy.

Now, of the fifteen chief Ringers present in this Iron Yard but seven voted for Reynell's condemnation. On that vote he would have been discharged of the accusation, for it required thirteen to convict him. But, as we have said, five (including the accused) were at the “mutual responsibility” farm, and four were in Yard No. 3 adjacent to the Iron Yard. Two out of the five voted, by proxy, “guilty,” making nine! Would the other four go the same way?

There was a lull in the “talk” and dumb show, while “Threer” Johnson pondered an ingenious— but quite satanic—notion that came into his head. He guessed Maconochie would wish for some indication of the Ring's mysterious power to communicate


  ― 70 ―
at long distances. That singular capacity had irritated and defeated his predecessors, and naturally he would think with them on that point, however he might disagree on others. Johnson communicated his notion to his brother “Three” in a whisper, and the other applauded it. Whereupon, “Wud yer like to see, y'r Honour,” Johnson questioned very respectfully, “'ow we send messages?”

“Yes!” cried Maconochie. If he could but gain some insight into the Ring's methods he would defeat them, he thought. “Yes—yes!”

“Then y'r Honour'll give us yer word as a gen'elman that yer won't use the knowledge yer gain wi'out formal information on oath from other parties?”

The Commandant felt he was justified in saying he would not.

“Then, sir, there are four Ringers in nex' yard— standin' by this 'ere north wall. I'll send 'em a message so you can see 'ow it goes, an' if yer like, sir, yer can bring the answer!”

Should he do it? Was it a trap for his dignity? The Captain reflected, and decided to take the risk.

“I will bring the answer!”

“Then, sir, I'm going to send this message!” Johnson clanked to a foot's distance from the Commandant,


  ― 71 ―
and lowered his voice: “Do yer vote as the majority 'ere? The reply, sir, as yer'll get 'll convince yer jest that question and no other's gone through. Now, sir, watch!”

The pickets, we have mentioned, stretched from the cluster of the novices to the south wall. At a sharp word from Johnson, they moved, as quickly as their irons would permit, to continue the line to the gate opening into No. 3.

“Now, sir,” went on Johnson, “that there message is a-goin' to the end of that line. Yer follow it from man to man. Then, sir, do you, please, join this line to the picket inside No. 3. They will pass the message on, an' yer'll get the reply!”

Anxiously Maconochie watched the procedure. Johnson, in dumb-talk, “spoke” to a Nine; the fellow passed the message to a novice or “uninitiate” by a gesture; he, turning, repeated it in their slang to a picket. So it went to the line's end. Each man, as he received it, revolved on his heel, and transmitted it to the next, the Commandant pacing by their side down to the last picket. Some of these novices trembled because of his proximity; others simply grinned; the sentries and armed civil guards, in their amazement, grew more positive than ever that the Commandant was “looney.”




  ― 72 ―

The Commandant—and the message—entered the next yard. The pickets took it up. Man by man, with repetitions of slang, passed it to the group of uninitiates, and then to the three “Nines.” Then the solitary “Five” in that yard received it. Maconochie would have sworn that nothing passed from man to man save a few syllables of gibberish. And yet, within a minute, he had been given the reply.

“Yes, sir!” said the “Five,” saluting, “we four here votes with the majority!”

Grieving deeply over this misapplication of ingenuity, and wondering how he should meet it and defeat it, Maconochie walked back to where the leader of the Ring awaited him in silence at his proper station.

“Well, sir?” questioned, as deferentially as one could wish, Johnson.

“The prisoner said the four would vote—”

“How—how?” came in hard-breathed exclamations from among the circles.

“With the majority!” The Commandant finished the sentence.

Some laughed at the news; some laughed at the exquisitely humorous notion of making the Commandant the bearer of the fatal decision; and one


  ― 73 ―
man—a “Niner,” a friend of Reynell—said snarlingly (to his own hurt at a later time), “Yer've given Reynell over to his doom!”

Indeed he had done so, though in all ignorance. How the doom fell we shall tell you later.




  ― 74 ―

III.—The Conclave of Doom.

I.

NIGHT in the Iron Room. The majority of the men we saw in the Ironed Yard on last Sunday, when at the “Session of Denunciation,” are lodged here. Perhaps a hundred seek the phantasm of repose on the low platforms of its floors; the rest, some forty or fifty, are privileged to slumber in a smaller dormitory adjacent. And, save by the utterly reckless (ever, alas! all too numerous among the ironed men) the privilege of sleeping in the smaller room was highly valued for several reasons, only a few of which, however, dare be stated. The transports there accommodated were the first to be let out in the morning—that was one reason; consequently they enjoyed the earliest use of the towels—this was a second reason. And a third, and even more important one, was that they were not liable to be disturbed after midnight by a Ring conclave. It was one thing to enjoy the solemnity of the Society's


  ― 75 ―
proceedings in the daytime; a lodge broke the tedium of the monotony; but it was quite another to lose the superior distraction that came in the shape of sleep, simply because the “One” and the “Three” desired to pursue with adequate rite and ceremony their machinations against the System. Sleep, so precious to all, was trebly precious to the “Black Norfolker.” To the felon denizens of the Iron Room sleep was almost as welcome as his “twin-brother,” death.

And so, when it became known in the Iron Room the Wednesday evening after the Sunday of Denunciation, that in all likelihood a Ring conclave would be held that midnight, the members of the outer circles and the novices of the Ring, no less than the miscellaneous criminals who were not associated with the Society, were somewhat troubled. The day had been marked by one of those hurricanes which, springing with suddenness from the surface of the Pacific, die as suddenly after spending their tropical rage disastrously upon every object within their scope; and most of the men, having been exposed to its violence, were suffering from bodily exhaustion. Maconochie had excelled himself and desecrated the sacred traditions of the Island by ordering warm tea to be supplied to every man engaged in outdoor


  ― 76 ―
employment, and in some cases, indeed, he had granted hot rum, and had, further, shortened the evening muster by withholding “prayers,” so that the prisoners might seek their blankets the earlier. And now the Commandant's solicitude was to be partially neutralized by the mandate of the “One.” Yet remonstrance, audible and overt, was never once thought of. Had the cases been reversed and it had been the authorities who had with apparent wantonness interfered with the transports' poor comfort, a disturbance would have arisen that would not have been readily quelled. Almost the solitary remark uttered with reference to the Ring's action was that of a wretch, Sam Ward, who from a certain eccentricity of habit—he was for ever speaking to himself—had been refused the greatly coveted honour of admission to the Circles. When the signal went round that a Conclave was to be held and that their rest would be disturbed, he said—“Ah, well—'tis a pity, Sammy! You're always free when you're asleep, and you're so tired to-night, Sammy, freedom'd be all the sweeter!” Beyond these words, the mandate of the Ring met no impediment.




  ― 77 ―

II.

At six o'clock, when the last padlock clinched its hold on the doors, and the bolts shot in the iron shutters of the two windows, the hundred men ceased communication with the outer world till twelve hours later. So the System judged and ordered.

But at twelve o'clock the Secret Society intervened. A careful grinding of a key in a padlock was followed by an almost noiseless drawing of bolts and the dropping of chains. And then the door the System had closed and virtually sealed was opened by the authority of the Ring. The “One” entered— followed by Peake, the accuser of Convict Henry Reynell per Coquette, the prisoner lying under condemnation of the Ring.

The night's conclave was to pronounce Reynell's doom. You may remember that Reynell had been appointed by Captain Maconochie leader of the “mutual responsibility” sub-gang attached to 5 B farm, and that Peake had been one of the four hardened, reckless criminals whom Reynell had selected to accompany him. “Barrington,” an ex-forger; Osborne, a gentleman who, to his brother felons' surprise, judges resolutely refused to hang—


  ― 78 ―
all rules have exceptions—and Bill Felix, a stubborn, country-bred half-brute, were the others of the gang. And you may remember further that Peake had denounced Reynell to the Ring because the latter, an ex-soldier, had been so impressed by Captain Maconochie's unforced kindliness of heart as to defy the Ring and promise “to be true man” to the Commandant. According to the canons of the Society, Reynell had thereby grievously offended, and at his resulting trial had been condemned, Peake and Osborne alone of his colleagues of the farm voting to remit him to the “Conclave of Doom.”

On this Wednesday night, then, Reynell's fate was to be decided, and Peake, being a member of the dread innermost circle of the “Three,” had resolved to be present. There was no difficulty in the way of his attendance. The “mutual responsibility” gangs were free within limits. By eight o'clock (instead of six as in the dormitories and cells) they turned in. To be out of their hut after that hour was an offence against the Regulations, and a violation of the conditions on which they held the farms. But Mr. Peake reflected that no one would be likely to know of his breach of good faith except those who would not “peach.” The essence of Maconochie's mutual responsibility plan was that for an offence


  ― 79 ―
of one member of a gang all the other members suffered, the idea being that while a man would not be deterred from wrong action by fear of his own punishment, he would be restrained by regard for his fellows. Even over rascals of Peake's stamp this idea held sway, and that lump of moral and physical deformity, under ordinary circumstances, would have gone to the death rather than have brought Reynell under the whip of the authorities. A defiance of the Ring was, however, another matter, the wretch reasoned, and notwithstanding his personal debt to the man he denounced, who had obtained for him freedom from irons and comparative immunity from supervision, his stunted intellect perceived but the one duty of denouncing the fellow who had insulted their noble Society, and of pursuing him, if the “One” permitted, to the doom. It was for this he was present.

And if you ask how the “One,” and Peake the Three, obtained access to the Iron Room when the keys were under lock and key in the Superintendent's office, all we can tell you is that there were but few prison-locks the “One” could not open.

The great chamber, as the chief rulers of the Ring entered it, was curtained in darkness that


  ― 80 ―
might be felt. In some of the other dormitories a light was permitted after lock-up, but by virtue of their superior distinction the gentry and nobility of the Iron Room were left without a glimmer.

Undeterred by the darkness, the One and his companion passed from the doorway down the middle of the room, as though they were familiar with every inch of the planking. Nor was it till some moments later that a strong, vivid flash from a bull's-eye lantern shot, meteor-like, from the end furthest from the door. The brilliant beam projected its penetrating stroke through the massy blackness, to the distant corners and along the walls that were decorated only with “Abstracts of Regulations,” and Forms of Prayer. For a full minute it played on the occupants of the room, and then, apparently satisfying the person who held it that all was right, the light was closed again by the lantern-slide. The mysterious business of the Four might be proceeded with, for there were no eavesdroppers or unauthorized persons near enough to hear.

The bulk of the transports were crowded together in the corners nearest to the doors, with their faces turned to the walls, and between them and the upper end of the room the members of the circles


  ― 81 ―
of “Five,” “Seven,” and “Nine” patrolled noiselessly in stockinged feet and “blanketed irons.”note These guards, sentries of a very hell, crossed the room from bed-place to bed-place. Not a soul was asleep; and, save the guards, not a body was in motion.

A short space of twelve paces separated the nearest line of guards—the “Fives”—from the group of four men who supplied the infernal motive-power to the machinery of the Ring. Thus, as the “One” and the “Three” communicated only in their “cant” or “flash” dialect, excepting in the rare cases when the subject matter of their deliberation passed beyond its far from narrow vocabulary, the Conclave was held practically in private. Shut in the Four were, by the conditions which exalted them to their “bad eminence.” The “One” was masked. It would have been the easiest thing for the transports generally to have discovered his identity. They had but to rush in a body from the lower end of the room, and, overpowering the guards, seize the man who exercised over them an authority less questioned than that of the System. An inclination to such an act, indeed, had more than once been


  ― 82 ―
expressed by a more than ordinarily defiant spirit among the outsiders, but it had never found general favour. The mass of convicts felt that the Ring, though occasionally a hard taskmaster, gave them ample compensation for the tribute of obedience it exacted. It furnished material for their cramped imaginations and ambitions to work upon—it supplied an outlet for their sense of natural justice so consistently outraged by the authorities—it checked and thwarted the System—it had revenged many of the System's wrongful acts. Nothing to weaken or endanger the rule of the Ring would ever spring from the transports generally: of that the “One” and the “Three” felt quite sure. And so they did not hesitate to exact penances and institute forms which the legally-constituted authorities dare not have imitated save at the risk of rebellion. Had the System sent a masked man into the muster-yard of the ironed men and declared that death should be the lot of the bold villain who tore the mask from the face, a score of hands would have clutched at it. What odds the yard had been turned into an Aceldama, if the System had been defied? Yet the Ring sent its masked leader, whom nobody but the “Three” knew, and for the secret of whose identity the System was prepared to pay the price of an


  ― 83 ―
absolute pardon, kept all ready signed and sealed in the Commandant's desk: no paltry ticket-of-leave— not even the desirable conditional pardon which conferred liberty within Australian boundaries; but an absolute gift of freedom and a present of money besides to carry the informer “home” and to start him in a new life—the Ring sent this man into the midst of vassals, and they, burning to know who he was, and tacitly demurring oftentimes to his rule, yet crushed their curiosity and obeyed him. “The Ring is wonderful!” exclaimed Dr. Ullathorne to Major Anderson, who had just described the Ring (from less information than we have) to the young priest. “Wonderful, sir!” ejaculated the choleric but conscientious Commandant. “It's damnably annoying besides being wonderful!”

III.

The masked man knew the “Three”—Johnson and Gooch, inmates of the Iron Room, and Peake, of 5 B farm gang. Nevertheless, from each he demanded the password of his circle and the sign of his membership of the supreme rank but one. At the word being given in a low murmur that stirred the darkness like a witch's spell, he began the brief Liturgy of the Conclave.




  ― 84 ―

“For whose service do we meet?” asked the “One.”

In the service of the Devil—the Devil our Lord!” responded the “Three.”

“But the Devil our Lord is Invisible!”

Aye, as invisible as death!

“Yet is death visible?”

Aye, to those who can see!

“Then, is our Lord visible?”

Aye, to those who can see!

“Then how appeareth he?”

In thee, O One! O Mighty One! O Thrice Mighty One!

“Turn thou then, O men of the Circles, men of the mighty Ring, whose meaning is Unity in Infinity, and do homage to thy chief, to the vicegerent of thy Lord! Turn thou! Turn thou!”

The men of the Circles, the noiseless patrol, faced the Conclave, and in the next instant cried as with one voice:

To thee our Lord Satan do we homage!

As they cried their hands were upraised. That much could have been observed, for in that same moment a lurid illumination blazed suddenly upon the scene and hung a garland of flame upon the brows of these human demons.




  ― 85 ―

Through the eye-orbits of a human skull apparently suspended in mid-air, through the opened jaws, through the nasal cavities, and from every fragment of the bony box that had once held the secrets of a human brain, grinned a phosphorescent glare. A mere bit of theatrical mummery, it had a diabolic effect upon weakened nerves already prepared by an incantation muttered in the solemn hush of midnight to be sympathetically impressed. It stamped the seal of supernaturalism upon the ceremonial, and in the perversion of moral sense which characterized the “Black Norfolkers” as it has marked no other community these hundreds of years, it was welcomed with a thrill that had more in keeping with a sensual pleasure than a retributary terror.

IV.

With the fading of the light the Conclave passed into its most secret stage.

The formal report of the voting in the “Session of Denunciation” was delivered to the “One” by Johnson, the leader who had presided. And the “One” required of the “Three” by their oath to him and the Ring, whether the condemned Henry Reynell had had a fair trial according to the Society's usage?




  ― 86 ―

And two of the “Three” affirmed that he had. Peake, the third man of the “Three,” as the accuser, was silent.

“Had the accused been notified that he had been condemned after the trial and in due form?”

Peake affirmed he had borne the message of condemnation “with truth, without prejudice, without fear, and without favour.” The message had been of necessity sent through Peake, although he was Reynell's prosecutor, because Peake was the “Threer” having earliest access to the condemned.

“And the condemned! Does he appeal?”

“No. By his oath to the Society, admits he forfeited allegiance by promising to be true man to an Establishment officer, but craves, if the doom be death, one favour.”

“What?”

“That he may not be drowned or strangled, but that having been a soldier, he may be shot or stabbed.”

Then, after a pause, which held possession of this temple of damned souls as does the tragic interval before the anathema claim the vast spaces of a cathedral of the Church in the hour of excommunication, the “One” pronounced the Doom.

“By the power that is mine, by the authority


  ― 87 ―
conferred upon one by our dread Society of the Ring, do I issue my fiat to and make order of doom upon Brother Henry Reynell under bond to the Crown, upon the Crown's register No. 37-889 per colonial ship Coquette, and upon the roll of the Society for this year current, No. 12 of our Circle of ‘Seven.’

“And the Doom is, That he shall die the death!

So be it, O One! So be thy fiat obeyed, O Mighty One! So be thy order of Doom completed, O Thrice Mighty One!” Thus, in their argôt, responded the “Three”; and when their murmur had been swallowed by the silence, the “One” went on:

“Who, of his brethren of the Ring, stands nearest to the condemned Henry Reynell in brotherly affection—to whom is he most dear?”

Quaking, shiveringly, Peake made answer: “William Felix, under bond to the Crown, and on the Crown's register No. 39-204, on our roll No. 20 of Circle of ‘Nine,’ stands nearest to the condemned.”

“Speaketh the deponent truly?”

“The deponent brother speaketh truly within our knowledge,” confirmed the others of the “Three.”

“Then let the warrant of doom go forth to Brother William Felix, No. 20 of our Circle of ‘Nine,’ that he shall do the deed of death within the circling of


  ― 88 ―
a moon's orbit upon his brother the condemned by act of shooting or by act of stabbing, though the testimony be true that the condemned is near to him and dear to him—aye, though the condemned be bone of his bone, blood of his blood, flesh of his flesh, let him do the deed, on peril of his suffering like doom. And from this fiat shall there be no appeal, because ——”

The “One” waited for the antiphon. It came solemnly from the “Three”:

Our Society has been wounded, and it heals its hurt by blood.”

“So cut we off all traitors! So doom we all that ally themselves to the Law which persecuteth us —the Law which hath given us over to the living death!”

So cut we off all traitors! So doom we all that ally themselves to our persecutors!

V.

Then proceeded to its conclusion this mummery. Its rites and ceremonies—the devices of ingenious and fertile minds compelled by Fate to that most Sisyphian of all tortures, the working upon themselves for want of an outlet for their inventive and imaginative faculties; or of souls capable of forging


  ― 89 ―
thunderbolts and of venting forked lightnings, but condemned by society to the unrelieved, hopeless misery of petty taskwork—were, as yet, incomplete.

The “One” had to travesty in blasphemous syllables the prayer commonly used at Norfolk Island executions when a Protestant was to be hanged. The original prayer was this—

“Oh, Almighty God, who according to the magnitude of Thy mercies dost so truly put away the sins of those which truly repent, that Thou rememberest them no more, open Thine eyes upon this Thy servant who most earnestly desireth pardon and forgiveness. Remember him, most Loving Father; whatsoever hath been declared in him by the fraud and malice of the Devil or by his own carnal wilfulness, do Thou forgive.”…

The infamous parody of that pathetic appeal as recited by the “One” dare not be quoted. Invert every petition of the original; substitute the name of the Adversary for that of the Deity; invoke as the cause of the victim's ruin and death the loving-kindness of God and the benignity of British Justice, and you will have a faint idea of the prayer he used. The parody was the richest fruit of the System. Were you to clothe with literary form the mouthings of the creatures led by Hébert, as they danced round Lais and Phryne enthroned as Goddesses of Reason on the desecrated Church altars of Revolutionary


  ― 90 ―
Paris, you would scarcely parallel it in point of blasphemous horror.

The recitation ended, the “One” and “Three” commended themselves and the Ring to the care of the Lord of Evil, and finally—the Circles being once more bade to do homage—the Convict Oath was chanted in chorus. With foot against foot and palm meeting in palm, the Bond of Obligation was renewed.

Only, there was no drinking of blood from one another's pin-pricked veins. Was it because of the darkness that the libation was omitted? Was it because time was passing?

No; the blood was not drunk because, in the presence of a superior infamy, an inferior shame is superfluous.

A “Conclave of Doom,” at which was marked the period of some Ringer's life, fulfilled yet another awful function. It at once elected some one to the newly-created vacancy. There were always waiting aspirants for admission to each circle from the grade below it. The man eligible for promotion from the novices or uninitiates was almost invariably in attendance, but if his presence could not be secured— say, because he was in gaol, in Longridge Barracks,


  ― 91 ―
or at the Cascades—he was admitted by proxy, the proxy, one of the initiates, being compelled to administer the rite to the newly-elected at the earliest opportunity.

Now, Reynell being a “Sevener,” the vacancy in “Seven” Circle had to be filled by the appointment of a “Niner.”

Felix, the nominated executioner, was chosen. This step followed the usage. The executioner, having at supreme risk obeyed the Ring, was worthy of promotion if the deed of death created a vacancy.

To fill Felix's place and thus complete “Nine” Circle, a novice was called up by name from the silent, wearied, but docile throng by the door. As the wretch stumbled in the darkness up the length of the uneven boards towards the first line of patrols, his movements were followed by a plaintive wail from Sammy Ward.

“Ain't you going to elect me? It's my turn!” And he was hardly stopped by the smothered exclamations which burst from those equally unprivileged with himself. “Hush, you fool! hush!”

The newly-honoured convict reached the first patrol. There he was stripped—and passed on.

When he came within arm's reach of the “Three,” the flash of the bull's-eye blazed into his face, and,


  ― 92 ―
for an instant, blinded him. This was done to identify him. Once, two years before, when a man had been called from the outsiders to be graced with his new honours he grew, at the last moment, craven. The man next him whispered that he would go in his stead. He did so, and—up to that night the lantern had not been used for that last flash of identification—was initiated beneath the cloak of darkness. The next day he claimed, as he was entitled to do by his rights of admission, instruction in the “cant” language from an elder member of the Ring. Then he stood revealed as one who had fraudulently obtained admission to their mysteries. The morning following he was found dead in his bed-place; obviously strangled. “But what was the use of an inquiry?” questioned the Acting-Commandant Bunbury. “To hang the murderer we should have had to hang one hundred and twenty men!” So the flash of identification became necessary.

The man passed the scrutiny—he was the right one, the one who had been called and chosen, and he was initiated.

Gagged in the moment when the light blazed in his face, he could but writhe in the grasp of two “Fivers,” and utter throat noises as the “One”


  ― 93 ―
thrust a hand against his chest, and punctured its skin with, it seemed, a hundred needle-points. In the shock of pain the neophyte scarcely knew what followed. Into the hundreds of minute wounds, as soon as the needles had been withdrawn, was rubbed a handful of gunpowder. When healed, the scar would describe a solitary circle. Thus was the symbol of the “Niners” impressed upon its new member.

The impression of the symbol was, however, only the first part of the ceremony of initiation. What completed it may not be described, nor even hinted.

Suffice it to say that if by any lucky chance—it was all a business of pure chance—the neophyte had not to the moment of his initiation into the Ring committed any capital offence, the completion of the ceremony placed the rope round his neck. Every member of the Ring was, by virtue of his membership, liable to be hanged. It was really an organization of the condemned. And so absolute was the moral ruin of “Black Norfolkers,” that that terrible fact was considered the most brilliant trophy wrested by the Secret Society from the Law.




  ― 94 ―

VI.

It was three in the morning before Peake reached the hut on 5 B farm. His hut-mates—Reynell, Osborne, “Barrington,” and Felix—were waiting for him in a weird, Rembrandtesque half-light—waiting for the news of the doom. In his walk from the Iron Room to the farm he had passed three sentry-posts; but the “One” had given the countersign at each, and the quiver of trepidation with which Peake had come within range of each soldier's musket had proved quite unnecessary.

Not so, perhaps, the spasm which shook him when he re-entered the hut. The exhilaration of the ceremony had evaporated, and his sense of duty to the Ring was overlain by his awakened remorse that he had betrayed to the death the man who had become surety for his good conduct, and had thereby obtained for him comparative freedom. From the remorse sprang the dread that Reynell—already on his way to the grave—might avenge his betrayal on the betrayer. What would Reynell do?

For some moments after Peake entered no one spoke. Then the condemned broke silence.

“Is it—doom, Peake?” he asked.

Peake nodded.




  ― 95 ―

“Who,” stammeringly questioned Osborne, “who is the Ketch?”

Peake, with a trembling forefinger, pointed to Felix.

Felix, great hulking lout, bent himself in the shadows, and covered his face with his gnarled hands.

“An' I 'ad promised to be true man for ever an' a day, 'Arry! Yo brought me here, 'Arry, an' rid me o' the domned clinks, an' it's me that's to kill tho. I 'udn't do it!” He half said, half groaned these words.

“Then, if yer don't, it's yer doom too, yer know!” breathed Osborne.

“An' I'd take it 'fore I'd break my oath to 'Arry yonder. I'm his sworn man.”

“Yer the Ring's man first!” insisted Osborne.

“Ay, that war I; but there's a way to obey th' Ring an' keep my oath to 'Arry too!”

VII.

On the morrow—rather, at a late hour the same day—while the sub-gang were absent at maize-hoeing, an Establishment officer visited the hut. Save him, no man entered the hut between the time of the gangers leaving it and their return. Yet when they came back for their noon-tide food, one and all


  ― 96 ―
of them—fellows who would have laughed at death had it come from Law and the authorities—changed colour as they saw on the stone table a scrap of folded paper.

On the outside of the paper was inscribed a single circle, with the figures “20” in its centre.

On the inside there was no word; only there were inscribed two circles, so—

image
Image on page 96: Concentric circles

In the common centre of these was the roll-number of Henry Reynell—“No. 12.”

And below this symbol of the personality of the condemned was, stamped in candle-smoke, this—

image
Image on page 96: Concentric circles with six-pointed star in the middle

It was the “One's” signature to his order of doom upon Henry Reynell, “No. 12” of Circle “Seven,” and the warrant was addressed to “No. 20” of Circle “Nine”—William Felix. It was his roll-symbol which was marked on the outside of the paper.note




  ― 97 ―

How Felix obeyed the warrant, and yet kept faithful to his vow to be sworn man to Reynell, will be told presently.




  ― 98 ―

IV.—The Falling Of The Doom.

I.

THE Secret Society of the Ring had, in regular conclave, ordered that Brother William Felix, No. 20, of “Nine” Circle, should, within one lunar month, stab or shoot to the death Brother Henry Reynell, No. 12, of “Seven” Circle. Reynell's offence was (as already related) the promising “to be true man” to Civil Commandant Maconochie. Convict Bill Felix was a member of the sub-gang of which Convict Henry Reynell was the leader; and, inasmuch as Reynell had chosen Felix to be a member of 5 B farm sub-gang, thus freeing him from the constant wearing of fetters and conferring upon him a desirable degree of freedom, Felix had sworn to be his (Reynell's) man “for ever and a day.” The tie of fraternity which linked Reynell and Felix thus was sadly complicated with the obligation of obedience which bound the latter to the Ring. Let Felix obey the Ring, and he would have to enact the doom upon


  ― 99 ―
the one soul for whom he cared. Let him refuse to execute the death-warrant issued under the seal of the “One”—the dread head or “Centre” of the Society—and the doom he refused to Reynell would be his own. The Ring having given over some one to the doom, would demand the life of the appointed executioner if he failed within the specified time to complete his task. In rare instances a regulation or law of the Society might be modified or altered in effect. But never in its history had there been known a case where a death-warrant had been left unfulfilled and the stated executioner had continued to live. The idol would demand appeasement for its lust, if not in the person of one victim, in another's.

There is an impressive story as to the working of this Medean law. Before the existing “One” it is believed three men had filled the awful office. The second in the administration had been ordered to murder the then Commandant, Captain Wright. He had acquiesced in the need for the crime—otherwise the order would not have been ratified. And, as the “One,” it was his duty to perform the doom on the Commandant. It was a minor but still immutable law of the Ring that the “old man” should only die by the “One's” hands. The honour was accorded to him as a privilege of his dignity. Yet Captain


  ― 100 ―
Wright lived to be Major and to give evidence before the Select Committee on Transportation of the House of Commons. How was that?

Wright had been suddenly recalled to Sydney. The vessel which brought the summons of recall could not lie off the harbourless island in the storm-season for longer than a week, and instant preparations for his departure were set on foot by the Commandant. The news spread—and twice within the week was his life attempted in vain. He got on board the vessel safe; thus unknowingly he committed the “One” to the wrath and vengeance of the Ring; and the Ring demanded its vicarious sacrifice.

Three days after Wright's sailing the body of one of the most intelligent of the “free” constables was found suspended from a tall pine. The dead man was supposed to have been in pretty general favour with the transports and his fellow-officers; hence it was not believed that he had been murdered, and his death was attributed to suicide. The military surgeon, who made an examination of the corpse, drew the attention of the subaltern of the guard to a curious symbol burnt or tattooed into the flesh of the chest and freshly cut across with a knife. The scarification was, however, only skin-deep, and had


  ― 101 ―
been done after death. The officers did not recognize at the moment the significance of the scar.note

It was the symbol of the “One.”

Not even the dreaded Head of the Society was free of its penalties.

image
Image on page 101: Star within concentric circles

II.

Civil Commandant Maconochie, it will be remembered, had, in his anxiety to acquire a knowledge of the Ring's methods of communication, been trapped into conveying the report of how certain Ringers had voted at the trial of Reynell. “Condemnation


  ― 102 ―
or Acquittal?” —the question hung thus in the balance when Maconochie had appeared in the yard where the Ring Lodge was in “Session of Denunciation.” Nine were for condemnation—for sending on the accused to the “Conclave of Doom”; but thirteen votes were required by the law of the Secret Society before the condemnation could be passed. And four votes Maconochie had been trapped into conveying.

Without knowing the precise bearings of his action, he had learnt enough to understand that he had given Reynell over to the doom. An interjection by a Ringer who was a loyal friend to Reynell—strange, how in this accursed community of felonry, which a noble member of the House of Lords stated to be deficient in every human attribute, feelings of affection refused to absolutely die out, and thus prove his lordship right!—had informed Maconochie of so much. What was the doom: death, mutilation, or a simple “sending to Coventry”? Maconochie asked several of the officers of the Establishment, but could gain no satisfactory answer. “Most likely death!” he was told by the gaoler. “The Ring didn't think much o' death!”

Herein the gaoler was subject to that tendency to error which infected all thoughts and beliefs, of whatever


  ― 103 ―
nature, held in the University of Depravity.note The Ring thought a good deal of death when that Mighty Leveller was enlisted on their behalf. It was only when Death acted for the authorities that they snapped their fingers in his face and jested pleasantly with him. When the Ring used him, he was to its members an instrument of terror, and they surrounded him in their imaginations with every ghastly, every agonizing, every horrific attribute of which the distorted culture of the Society's founders, or the dark fancies of the most ignorant Ringers—such as those who ever trembled at the verge of madness—could invent and adapt. But, so momentous is the alteration in human feeling, which can be effected by changing the point of view, Death had but to draw his fees from the Establishment to be sneered at, ridiculed, and derisively welcomed. Black Norfolkers went sardonically to the grave at the Establishment's orders, just because the Establishment wished them to do differently.




  ― 104 ―

III.

Maconochie sent for Johnson, leader at the “Session of Denunciation.”

“Have you any objection, sir, to relate the precise significance of the condemnation which you understand the Ring has passed on prisoner Reynell?”

“'Eaps!” was the laconic rejoinder.

“I beg your pardon! What did you say?”

“'Eaps! I sed I 'av 'eaps of objecshuns.”

“Oh!” Then, after a pause, “I believe, Johnson, you have been a prisoner under the Crown for many years?”

“More'n can count!”

“Yes? Then you must have heard read many times the regulation as to answering truly and explicitly, and without prevarication or evasion or denial, all questions put by persons in properly-constituted authority?”

“Can't say as I 'av, yer Honour!”

“Johnson!”

“Yes, yer Honour?”

“I mean to deal fairly and kindly with every man on the Island—but I will have truth-speaking. I never forgive a lie, except it is uttered under the influence of terror!”




  ― 105 ―

“In wot 'av I lied, yer Honour?”

“You said you had never heard the regulation enforcing—”

“Savin' yer Honour's presence, I said nothink o' the kind! Yer arsked me 'ad I 'erd it read. Well, I never did! I've 'erd it mumbled ev'ry Sunday since I was a kinchin—but never 'erd it read wunst. There ain't no 'Stablishment orf'cer as can read—unless it's yerself.” The rascal grinned in enjoyment of his own satire.

“You know the meaning of the regulation—what it enforces—however?”

“O' course: to answer th' truth, th' 'ole truth, an' nothink but th' truth w'en 'terrogated by 'Stablishment orf'cer.”

“Then answer me, sir.” (Not imperatively, but with a studied politeness, did Maconochie now speak.) “What judgment—what ‘doom’ as you call it—has your Society ordered upon Reynell?”

Johnson gazed reflectively at the ceiling. He passed his right hand over the corrugations of his forehead, and drew it down the scarred and weather-blighted cheeks to the stern, square jowl that had gripped numberless groans of agony in their utterance, and bid them be dumb. Then he said:

“Mr. Com'dant, Pa'son Taylor tells us that w'en


  ― 106 ―
th' higher law conflicts wi' th' lower, we must allus obey th' higher—allus th' higher. Do th' pa'son's views meet wi' yer approval, sir?”

The Commandant, already once trapped by Johnson, was dubious of the fair seeming of the interrogation, and declined to answer directly.

“Answer my question!”

“Wi' orl respecks, y'r Honour, I can't till I know wot to obey—that as is th' higher law or that as is th' lower!”

“There is no question of higher or lower law here, my man—none. It is merely a matter of answering my question. What is Reynell's doom?”

“That's w'ere yer an' me jest differ, y'r Honour. 'Tis orl a matter o' higher an' lower law. If I answer th' question, I obey th' law o' th' System. If I don't answer it, then I obey th' law o' th' Ring, an' I'd 'av y'r Honour know as fur me an' sech as me 'tis th' Ring's law as is highest law.”

Again the fellow's lips parted and his cheeks wrinkled in a gleeful defiance of authority.

“You're talking foolishly,” rejoined the Commandant, bearing the implied taunt with a patience of tone and manner that, if he had only known it, was more likely to penetrate to Johnson's better nature than any number of authority-phrased words; “you're


  ― 107 ―
twisting Mr. Taylor's sayings to suit your own purpose. Mr. Taylor meant, no doubt, that when human law conflicts with the moral law of conscience or revealed law, then the latter, as the higher law, must be obeyed.”

No more unfortunate admission could have been made by a System's officer; and the ingenious Johnson, whose naturally sharp wits the attrition of adversity had ground to remarkable keenness, while wearing away the moral part of him, eagerly seized the opportunity thus offered of making an embarrassing criticism on the System.

“That's jest it, y'r Honour—that's th' very identical thing as I mean. Now, th' System's laws an' reg'lashuns is th' lower law, an' our laws an' reg'lashuns—th' Ring's laws, that is—they're th' higher, 'cos— But will yer 'ear th' reason, yer Honour?”

“Go on—though you are talking insubordinate nonsense. I will hear what you have to say!”

“This is th' reason. Th' Ring's law is th' moral law 'cos it's founded on justice!” He stooped, and, placing his hands on his knees, crooked his head so as to glare impishly into the Commandant's face to watch the effect of his words, or rather of those he left unsaid.

For not what the wretch said but what he left


  ― 108 ―
unsaid stung the Commandant. The implication was clear. The System was not founded upon justice. And in his heart of hearts Maconochie knew the accusation was true. Penalties British law justly provided for those who offended against it, but then British law proposed only to punish, and not to give over the offenders to “unusual punishment” and utter corruption. The System did this, however—and the taunt went home. But, what could Maconochie do? Argument imperilled his authority, and, after all, he did not invent the System. So—

“You decline to answer what is Reynell's doom?”

“Aye, y'r Honour, 'cos th' Ring forbids me!”

“You know I can inflict penalties upon you for refusing to answer my plain interrogatory?”

“Short o' puttin' me into an 'oss' necklace, yer can, sir. But yer won't punish me!”

“Why?” Against his judgment, the Commandant put the inquiry. Similar remarks had been made to him before by men up for punishment, but invariably they had been uttered in suppliant or cringing tones. This fellow, however, spoke with the confidence of knowledge.

“W'y? 'Cos yer know wot I ses is true. An' 'cos, although yer an orf'cer o' th' Systum, yer 'art ain't in the Systum's way o' doin' things. That's


  ― 109 ―
w'y, sir. Yer ain't been long 'nuff 'ere to 'a changed th' 'art o' a man fur th' 'art o' a beast. Yer know who said that, y'r Honour?”

Maconochie nodded.

“Yes, o' course yer do. It struck th' 'ol man, 'im as was jest a-chuckin' o' us into Jack Ketch's mouth like so many sweeties—lor, 'e did love to keep th' carpenters an' gravediggers a-goin', did Billy Burton! —it struck even him orl o' a 'eap! But 'e was wrong 'bout it—an' so is Taylor, an' so are yer, an' everybody else as 'erd o' wot poor Kavenagh said!”

“Wrong—how do you mean?”

“Wot did Kavenagh say? ‘When I landed 'ere I 'ad th' 'art o' a man, but yer 'av plucked it out an' planted a brute's 'art instead!’ That's wot he ses, an' th' jedge an' everybody thinks it's true o' th' pris'ners only. But, man”—he gathered breath to hurl at Maconochie, with greater emphasis, a bitter conclusion—“them words war truer o' th' 'Stablishment orf'cers. Th' System finds orl its orf'cers men, an' leaves 'em orl brutes! Orl o' we don't get 'ardened, but there ain't one o' yer wot doesn't!”




  ― 110 ―

IV.

Foiled by Johnson in his attempt to discover the fate in store for Reynell, Maconochie met with no more success when he interrogated the members of the farm sub-gang to which Reynell and Felix belonged. Peake, Osborne, and “Barrington” each frankly enough declared he knew quite well about the order of doom, but as for telling his Honour—well, the Ring wouldn't allow him.

“If anything happens to Reynell, I shall charge you as an accessory,” said the Commandant to each. And the threat was laughed at. Better the vengeance of the System than the vengeance of the Ring. The former could only hang them—the latter could do more: it could kill them after a ceremony of execration. They were frightened of the last.

From Felix the Commandant received his one fragment of consolation. “I be 'Arry Reynell's sworn man, y'r Honour! An' no harm 'ud 'appen unto him if Bill Felix can stop ut wi' life nor limb.” And, somewhat reassured, Captain Maconochie went then to Reynell himself.

The man was hoeing. He had stopped for a moment to rest, and stood gazing towards the sea and over the township, which was semi-veiled in a lustrous


  ― 111 ―
mist, as though Nature would hide from the eye of Heaven the halls where the devil and the System held their joint revels. On the soft earth the Commandant's steps were inaudible, and the transport did not know of the official's approach till he was addressed.

“Reynell!”

The convict started, and turned round. He “capped” instantly, and, in the same gesture, Maconochie saw that he had dashed away a tear from his eyes.

“Good-morning, Reynell! The gang making satisfactory work?”

“Yes, sir. I think so! With a fair crop, the Com'sariat 'll have to pay them a good many marks.”note

Them—why not “us”? Maconochie was quick to notice the substitution of the word.

“Why ‘them,’ Reynell? Why don't you, who are the leader and director of the gang, join yourself with the others?”

“Oh,” with a marked hesitation, and a quivering


  ― 112 ―
of the lips that told of an inward agitation, “'twas a slip, sir!”

Maconochie stepped forward and laid a hand, with kindly pressure, on the transport's shoulder.

“No, Reynell, it was no slip! It meant that already you are separating yourself in thought from your fellow-gangers—it meant that you are under doom of death from the Ring!”

The condemned flamed out into sudden anger. Such strange tricks does the fancy play with a certain order of superstitious minds, that he was jealous that the secret of the Society he thought so much of as to submit himself quietly to its fatal will, should be thus known to an outsider, and that outsider one of the accursed Establishment. “Who told you that?”

“No one. I inferred it—partly from what passed last Sunday—you heard I was present?—and partly from what you say was a ‘slip.’ Come, Reynell—Harry——”

All the patience, all the forbearance, all the tenderness that it was possible for one man—a superior—to extend to his inferior, Maconochie caused to vibrate in his voice. The prisoner, bringing himself in the sudden impulse of surprise to face the Commandant, showed in the workings of his features how the “Harry” had stirred him.




  ― 113 ―

“Tell me,” Maconochie went on, “if not the doom, how I can help you to escape it. Remember, my friend, that I brought this on you!

“No!” In a low, choking guttural.

“Oh, but yes! I cannot forget that it was because you swore to be a true man to me, and thereby helped me nobly in what I regard as my mission here, that you are under the ban of the Ring. Therefore, as through me you broke, it would appear, the Society's law, it is only right that through me aid shall come to you.”

“There can—be no—aid, sir! All's up!” Reynell let his head fall on his chest. The action was that of a tired man, of an over-wearied bearer of a burden; there was nothing abject in it.

“No. I pledge you my word, Reynell, that I will get you out of this trouble.”

“'Tis no trouble, sir!”

“Listen, sir! I brought you into this quarrel with the Ring because I wanted—well, I wished to count you as one of the trophies of my new methods——”

“Beggin' your pardon for interruptin' y'r Honour, an' it's good of you to put it that way, but it's not true—an' it's no use! I'm doomed—doomed!” And then, with something of that saucy contempt for life which had made him before Maconochie's advent a


  ― 114 ―
centre of insubordination, he went on: “It's not that I'm afraid of death—not a bit of it! No Ringer is—few of us are!” He waved his hand so as to embrace in its sweep the whole group of Kingston buildings—the dormitories, the gaol, and the exercise and work yards. “None of us are! But no one likes death at the hands of the Ring, for it's disgrace—and besides——”

“What?”

“Yer won't think me a softy, sir, will yer, for saying it? but I've of'n thought of late—” Again he paused, stumbling for an expression. Maconochie waited.

“I've thought that, p'r'aps, life wouldn't be such a bad thing—if one only had—a chance to keep square!”

Maconochie's heart leapt within him. Here was proof that he was in the right! Bring a creature, however hardened to all seeming, within the circle of human interests and brotherly charities; re-clothe him with manhood and individuality; refuse to treat him longer as a mere Number, as a Thing to occupy a line in returns, as an Object of offence to the Law, and, therefore, to have his badness whipped out of him by the Law's agents; let the unforced music of a kind word sound in his ears; do these, and the


  ― 115 ―
fountains of a vigorous life would burst impetuously and imperiously from the core of his nature. This was his theory—here was the successful application of it!

He clasped the transport's hand. “You're right, Reynell—you're right, Harry! Life is worth living—the struggle to make yourself a better man will make it so to you! I'll help you all I can, by removing you out of the reach of pressure from the Ring——”

“You're very good, sir,” muttered the convict, “but it's too late!”

“It's never too late to repair the past, Harry!”

“Yes, 'tis—in my case. For—look here, sir—can I trust yer Honour—yer Honour's honour to keep this secret what I'm about to tell ye?”

“If you insist upon it—yes!”

“I do—I do! Why 'tis too late is this—if I don't die, the chap who's to settle me will. That's Ring law!”

“Reynell!”

“'Tis gospel true, sir! An' that's why I've got to bear the doom!”

“I will send you up to Phillip Island yonder till the brig arrives, and then I will despatch you to Sydney,” Maconochie said, confronted with this new revelation of the Ring's potency.




  ― 116 ―

“No use, sir. If I don't die, the chap 'll who's to settle me. An' besides, they'd reach me there!”

“I will take you into my household and give you a special guard!”

“The cooks'd poison my rations!”

“I'll send you food from my own table!”

“To reach me they'd poison you and your family.”

“Are they devils?” burst out the Commandant, losing self-restraint for the moment.

“Aye, they are that! But who made'em so—who made us so?—for I'm one o' them, sir. The System!” And then, after a pause, while Maconochie rocked himself on his heels in acute distress at these ever-recurring assaults upon the administration of which he was the head, he resumed:

“No, y'r Honour; I joined the Ring wi' my eyes open. I was eager to make a break in my life—it was all work an' punishment, an' sleep, an'devilry, an' then devilry, an' sleep, an' punishment an' work over again—an' the Ring makes a change. An' I'm not goin' beyond Ring custom, especially as my breakin' away would let another chap in for the doom.”

“Tell me who he is, and I'll send him away too!”

Reynell laughed. “You don't know the Ring, Captain Maconochie! Twenty years off, if that


  ― 117 ―
chap's a true Ringer an' met me, he'd do for me then! No, sir, let it be. P'r'aps I'm better dead than alive. I can't do any more harm dead!”

V.

Maconochie, with the taste of ashes in his mouth, left the farm, but instantly despatched an overseer with an escort of a sergeant and four men, and had Reynell locked in a cell, pending his despatch to Phillip Island, where it was his intention to send him. As the escort passed into Pine-lane—a pine-framed avenue leading from the Settlement to Long-ridge—Bill Felix met them as he was on his way to the hut. As he stood aside and saluted the overseer, he glanced inquiringly at the prisoner. Reynell read the glance, and in the Ring language assured Felix to be under no alarm. “If Felix could not execute the order of doom before the twenty-eighth day (a fortnight had still to elapse), he, the condemned, would perform the ‘cross-road trick.”’ Which was— suicide. The Ring should be obeyed; the idol should not be disappointed of its victim.

A week passed. Under the supervision of two soldiers—one for day and the other for night duty— Reynell was lodged in the solitary hut on Phillip


  ― 118 ―
Island. And Bill Felix, appointed executioner, knew that his own—or Reynell's—time was drawing near. Peake, Osborne, and “Barrington”—none had spoken to him of the imminent event; to have done so would have violated a regulation of the Society; and yet he knew it was an hourly question with them as to the manner in which he would perform the doom. He smiled to himself at the way he would obey the Ring while disappointing it.

Several more days passed. Maconochie himself was on the alert with his telescope at seven o'clock in the morning and five in the afternoon when the sentry on Phillip Island would fire off his musket and thus give the “all's well” signal. Although the distance between Norfolk and Phillip was but two miles and a furlong, the surf fringing either island made the boat-passage dangerous, and as the Commandant did not feel justified in despatching a boat to the rock save on every third day, he had arranged the gun-fire signal. The report could not be heard, but with a spy-glass the flash could be seen. Flag signals from Phillip's had been discontinued since they had been worked by convicts to destroy a boat's crew.

For seven days the report-speaking musket was fired morning and evening, and Maconochie felt


  ― 119 ―
hopeful. He had got it into his head, in spite of what he had learnt, that if the month would pass without the violent death of either Reynell or some other prominent villain being reported, the doom would pass also. And to-morrow would end his suspense. He would send a boat over in the morning.

But on the morrow he himself missed the observation of the musket-fire. He was busy investigating the cause of death of William Felix, No.39-204 per Coromandel, shot dead by the sentry at the outer gaol-tower.

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


  ― 120 ―
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


  ― 121 ―
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.




  ― 122 ―

VII.

Along the pine-bordered lane—a tunnel to hold in the bleak blasts—passed Bill Felix. Gibbering shapes walked with him, “t'owd squoire an' pa'son, an' mither an' feyther from th' whoam village,” and dead and gone brother Ringers, and at least one of the three constables to whose death he had been an accessory. They shrieked at him in the gusts that shook the branches of the tall pyramidal pines, and he heard their sobs plainly in the sound of the sullen surf. He could have sworn some of them laid hold upon him; and great drops of perspiration beaded his forehead and soaked his peakless cap. The wonder was that he did not turn back in sheer affright. But the blind mute impulse which not rarely wins men to heroism when their wills bid them act the coward, held him to his path.

By Government House, the sentinel's shadow silhouetted by the door-lamp on the white garden-wall as he stood in front of the thirty-two-pound gun on the slope, startled him afresh. “O Gord!” he gasped. He had forgotten that by his oath to the Ring he should have called on Satan.

Past the Deputy-Assistant-Commissariat-General's cottage he stumbled, the scents of rose-tree, spice-plant,


  ― 123 ―
and magnolia from the carefully-tended garden banishing for a second some of his dread. He would have liked to have plucked a banana to refresh his parched lips, but dare not jump the fence. He did not want a bullet before his time.

Over the culvert by the Commissariat offices, creeping down by the low wall fearful that the soldier posted there might see him cross the fanshaped beam of light from the one unblinded window, he reached the Grass-plot. He paused then, leaning against the palisade that surrounded the flag-staff. He heard, rather than saw, the balled flag rustle softly as it hung suspended against the foot of the mast. He would have spat upon it could he have reached it. But he could curse it. To-morrow— nay, this very morning—the ball of bunting would run up quickly to the truck and would reveal itself magnificently as the Union Jack at the precise hour, perhaps, the requisition went in for his coffin. So he cursed it, beneath his breath.

At last he stood within a yard's length of his goal. See that narrow stream of light, shooting outwards from midway up that great rim of massy blackness? It projects from the loophole of the guard-tower at the north-eastern angle of the gaol. Six feet above the loophole stands, as Bill knows well, a soldier, with


  ― 124 ―
firelock ever ready; mute himself, save at half-hour intervals when he hurls into the night a grim, ironical “All's well!” or, more rarely, when he issues a challenge; and his old Brown Bess is mute too—till there is occasion for her to speak. A pace and a half, and Bill would be visible in the flash of light. Thirty-six inches this side of Eternity! And he had always calculated that it would take a drop of ten feet to dislocate his neck. Decidedly death was nearer this way than from the scaffold—by six feet or thereabouts!

Would Reynell do him justice? Would the Ring? Would the Ring, after all, think he was shot by mischance, instead of from his own purpose? “God!”—again! He had never thought of that! Would his sacrifice be all in vain, then? Suppose that the Ring still held Reynell to his doom? “God!”

In the agony of doubt he must have exclaimed aloud. Suddenly the challenge parted the darkness.

“Who goes there?”

He did not give himself time for another thought; he stepped boldly into the light.

“Who goes there? Answer, or I fire!”

“Fire, an' be domned t' tha!”

He challenged Fate as well as the soldier. And both answered.




  ― 125 ―

When they bore him into the guard-room he was still alive. He gasped two sentences. “Yo'll tell—Pe–ake—this be th' doom. An' give my lo–ave t' 'Arry Reynell, 'ull yo?” and in a little while passed out of the ken of an aggrieved System.

Maconochie, bending to view the wound, saw that the ball had entered between the rims of two circles described on the man's chest. One—the larger—was an old scar; the other—the inner circle—was still of a festering newness. The latter was the symbol of Bill's recently gained membership of No. 7 Circle.

“Bony” Anderson,note from the signal-station on Mount Pitt, came down to report that there had been no gun-fire from Phillip's at seven o'clock. A boat was despatched, and returned with the body of a suicide. Bill Felix's sacrifice was in vain, after all. Harry Reynell had anticipated the doom.

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