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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!”




  ― 30 ―

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.

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