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Chapter XII Nearing the End

SIR WILLIAM, in a graceful variant of that over-clawhammer known as a spencer, and a tall straight-brimmed hat, arrived in a drizzle at the pier-head. To the right, running out of sight along the stone shore-wall, was a line of massive brick buildings, closely alike, many-windowed, low and shingle-roofed. At a door in the blind wall of the nearest—over which hung an oil lamp—stood a triangular sentry-box, and by it a soldier, with a waterproof covering on his shako (from which his long neck-hair draggled in the wet) and a cape half-covering the white bandoliers and double breast of his coat. On the glass of the lamp were the printed letters: “Sub-inspector.” To his left, and behind him, rose an abrupt knoll of small-dwellinged streets. There were few people about. A squad of constables in clawhammers and leather top-hats (and carrying short, heavy guns) tramped sullenly up into the town. Two stiff-linened old men clad in frock-coats, very high-waisted and full-shouldered, walked across with their hands stuck in their breasts and their old precise heads nodding together. A few carts, with names of river stations upon them, were drawing or drawn up at a bar behind the offices watched by convicts in grey, with black straw hats, and grim mouths cropped of hair. Over the water to the left, piles were being driven to support a new pier, and an army of prisoners-for-life, in yellow uniforms, with flaps of their leather caps drawn down over their ears, were raising, by a pulley, on wooden shears, a great mass of iron, which fell every few minutes on the iron-capped pile with varying notes.

The Erebus lay against the side of the pier, a red-coat pacing her quarter-deck, her masts moving solitary against the hills. Nearer the shore-end, two ship's officers and a gentleman in a short soldier's cloak stood waiting above a boat which swung a little on the waves, its whiskered, black-hatted crew sitting with vertical oars. Some ships were lying out, pulling heavily at their chains, while, splashing the water like a lame duck, one heavy steamboat with a machicolated funnel was paddling slowly into the channel, while another, with a tarred body, was dwindling slowly out of the opposite trees.

As Heans dismounted on the wet flags, a gipsy-like convict,

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incongruously devil-may-care with his felt jacket and shaven face, approached, brilliantly smiling, and made proffers for his horse. The man professed to admire the animal: qualifying his praise, however, with the wager that “the beautiful gentleman's honourable legs had straddled a neater barrel.” Behind his volatile flattery, he was significantly, if half-sneeringly hostile: a form of approach familiar to Heans from the prisoners. It was as if the convict—unable to help forcing the fact that he knew him, as did many in the town—would have given this man his championing as a fellow prisoner, and one, moreover, who carried it off so cleverly, could he only have resisted the chance Heans' situation gave him of making one of the “swell-mob” feel his position. The temptation seemed tragically irresistible.

Pale Sir William, who had gained in confidence after his unmolested ride, tossed the man his bridle, asking his name with an admirable kindness. The man's eyes returned him a black look, answering abruptly:

“Jack Marback.”

“Indeed—well, Jack, keep him walking,” he directed, “while I take my honourable legs into yonder door. I shall be gone but a few minutes.”

“The Honourable John Franklin himself has just arrived,” said the man, with a covert enthusiasm, as he took the horse. “He went in that very door like a hadmiral. There's the gig there, with the jacks in her, holding up their oars to dry 'em.”

“They'll wet their brave laps,” said Sir William, as he hopped off.

The door of the office was now open, and in it stood a colossal constable in a top-hat, muttering and flipping his fingers at Heans. Sir William was engaged in avoiding the puddles between the flags. The sentry was grinning from his box. Heans glanced a polite glass at the warder as the latter said, vibrant with cold anger, “Late, No. 2749. Pass in—pass in!”

“Ah—ah!” said Heans; “most sorry, most sorry.”

The door gave on a great bare hall, the size of the entire front of the building. It was full of waiting police with guns: some like him at the door; others with black blouses, belted, and heavy peaked caps strapped about their whiskered cheeks; others yet, in the grey uniform of the prisoner, with muskets and single shoulder-belts, the latter divided into two compartments, or canvass bottles, with nozzles hanging in finger-reach on right hip. Sir William, as he strode through them at the order and beckoning of a second constable of a horse-power integrity, endeavoured to forget the smiles and slights—the herding of dissipated, wondering-eyed men—the lining up—the silencing—in that very room on the day of landing.

A Heep-like man who was taking down names at a table at a far window ostentatiously leant back in his chair and contemplated the new-comer with the tips of his long fingers

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touching. Further down the room, two officers, in full uniform, stood in the channel windows, talking with their cloaks on their arms. As Heans was led towards a great stair in the wall at the right end, one of these gentlemen turned and put his hand to his cocked hat. It was Daunt. But he did not come forward—the other did not turn his head. Sir William's glass whipped out as he ascended the boards of the deadly shoe beaten stair. With him this was evidence of a brain very heavily taxed.

“Some inspection?” he inquired, as he turned the corner and ascended towards two great doors that opened against the walls.

“Inspection—country-wards,” smacked that brisk and weary self-sufficient in a steam-power voice somewhat restrained.

“I did not see His Excellency?”

“H'Excellency in the ward-room.” He pointed up.

“By whose orders am I here?”

“Order last night through Government Offices for No. 2078, No. 160, No. 2749, No. 270, and No. 1350 to attend guard-room before ten. No. 160 and 2078 prompt to time—now attending His Excellency in ward-room. No. 2749 late. Message from Excellency wishing Sir William Heans to honour him with attendance on arrival.”

A stern old man at the stair-head called out: “Pass up—pass up.” He was all covert keenness and discipline, like a knife in a sheath. It was as if he had drawn himself just so much as to give a glint of the steel.

Sir William put up his eyeglass as he came into the upper room. “How d——d unkind!” he muttered, apropos of some inward thought. Near the door stood a little group of civilian gentlemen: one of which—a stout, little, short-necked man with whiskers and a tortoise-shell glass—glinted up at Heans and then quickly away. They were at the moment silent. None spoke. The room was long, bare, and narrow, with two windows on the street. A line of seven policemen, claw-hammered, white breeched, and top-hatted, armed with cutlasses and guns, stood at attention by a closed door in a wooden wall across the upper end; behind them a corporal's guard of red-coats. Two young constables held a prisoner in yellow in the first window. His face had been made grim by cropped hair and shaven lip, but his eyes were wild, angry, heroic, nothing-contenting, entirely-unappeasable eyes of those unfortunates of life born without the seventh sense of values. At Heans' entrance, this man pulled his guards round towards the window, with a deep, hysterical protest. They permitted him to stay in that position.

“Ruddy's got Port Arthur, I see, sir,” said Heans' conductor to an old, fine man, very hook-nosed and high-stocked, in white breeches and police buttons.

“Ah,” said the other, “Ruddy says ‘he'll get himself hung!’”

The speaker strode over to the door in the partition, knocked

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upon it, and presently entered and closed it. A shy murmur—three quarters rattle, one quarter boom—had been filtering through the wood. Again the door opened, and a sergeant in a red coat with a white breast came out followed by two soldiers. Behind them lurched out two chained prisoners in black and yellow: one a giant figure of a man, with a covert, cunning countenance; the other a little, gay old fellow, with a keen malignant face, and the erect athletic body of a child—indeed, it was difficult to judge if he were old or a mere boy. They were marched away to the window, and after them came a couple of constables. Reached there, the sergeant in a loud voice halted them, and began to look about him, pulling at his whiskers; his eyes then falling tentatively on Heans' guide, he shouldered his weapon and made over to him.

Sir William could not prevent himself from looking exceedingly pale. Many apprehensions must have occurred to him, as, some way inward from the gentlemen at the door, he stood looking through his glass about him; one immaculate, plaid leg a little in advance of the other on the coarse boards; his cane swinging gently from his canary fingers. On the one side he saw the chained “second-sentencer” condemned to Port Arthur; on the other, the little band of gentlemen; in the midst, himself, a convict, summoned seemingly on a matter of “literature.” While a certain benevolence of acceptance, since he had passed into the upper room, might have assured him of safety—nay, even of support—yet there was something in the manner in which he had been summoned to the Governor's presence, in company with a man sentenced to Port Arthur, which may well have sent a shudder of apprehension through him. Again, all this display of ordered force: what an unkind turn of fate which had thrown into it a secret absconder! “How d——d unkind,” he said, as he rose into the room. Last, Daunt's show of friendliness! What did the forgiveness of a man like Daunt mean?. He might well have asked: “Did Daunt credit him with the weakness of being confused by compliment? Was Daunt at the old game of stripping a foe's heart of armour for the next man's sword to play upon? Had Daunt, at sight of him forcing his way through that sea of police, been startled into one of his half-friendly moments? Or, more likely, had the man's mistrust been allayed by the sight of his (Heans') reply to Lady Franklin?”

(Devil or philanthropist, which was Daunt?)

The sergeant approached Heans. “His Excellency will receive 2749,” he said in a loud voice. Sir William stepped forward, and followed the man across the room to the partition door. There, while they waited an answer to their knock, he examined, with some curiosity, the side-arms of the sardonic line of police.

The Government Surgeon, a brisk, white-whiskered gentleman

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opened the door, and the sergeant, stepping aside, sharply beckoned Heans to enter. The old, fine man in the top-hat and police buttons, made way for Sir William as he came in, and departed with the doctor, who shut the door behind them. The small room was barish, with a window hung with heavy red curtains looking on the street. A dark, athletic-looking man, in a captain's uniform, was sitting back against a table, with his fine hairy hands resting on the edge. The sensitive lips gave the bald head and bull-dog face a half-sardonic air, belied somewhat by the quick and saddened concern of the wide bold eyes. There was no one else in the room.

It was an age of stiff and laudable pedantry; when Adolphus and Achilles were christian names of the vulgar; when man, in a fine endeavour to ornament his speech, to elevate his person, to “exalt his Maker,” often dropped to mere, cold precisionism—even hypocrisy; when common women read Scott, and spread his poems by the heart. We can afford to laugh—we who, in our own time, with our wild equalizing of human temperaments, are threatened with a drab end of formlessness! Franklin was one of these men, his precisionist air softened by a great and feeling heart; his religious, Dominie-Sampson face in strange contrast to the free, athletic grace of his person; the whole softened by that slightly sardonic, sensitive, dangertautened mouth. These were lips, whose love of man was such that they were incapable of forming the word “beast.”

Sir William remained just inside the door. He had removed his hat and stood fiddling at the buttons of his black spencer, somewhat constrained, his grey head bent. Franklin sat there a full minute, staring at him; then he said, softly and quickly, “Do me the honour to listen to me, Sir William Heans. I want to beg you to earnestly—to earnestly” (his voice was hoarse and he cleared it) “reconsider your position. A lady has interceded with me for you—a gentlewoman—and I am inclined to grant her request. You have had some visible token of what—with help from you and God's help—we may endeavour to bring about. Your refusal was a formal one. Tell me—is it your actual wish to” (hoarsely)—“to refuse to make this effort?”

Sir William took his eyeglass out, and fingering it a little pedantically, looked gravely into the street, where the carters stood staring up under their black hats.

“It was my regret, sir,” he said, pushing forth his words one by one, “it was my regret to answer the letter received in the negative. I could wish to accept the position perhaps, had I the power to—the power to keep my patience.” He flushed slowly as he fingered his glass and stared out of the window.

“I think—courage is all that is necessary,” said Sir John, with a compunction almost familiar in his voice, “courage and forbearance. … Wait! perhaps you had better think a little before you decide. I, at least, have felt it my duty to tell you so.”

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“I cannot think so,” said Sir William Heans, after a little.

The Governor was now very moved, and spoke quickly in his hoarse, quiet voice.

“Sir William Heans, I have seen men in the North-West sink to degradation and death under too adverse circumstances. The slow degradation of a gentleman is a torturing sight, for his very pride and heroism. I have seen a man's hands tied to prevent him injuring himself, and yet he would crawl about on his knees sooner than trouble a weaker brother with his wants. I have seen pride and I know its value, and how trivial is the worth of life when it is gone, but I do not care—like that good young lady, your friend, and I cannot stand—if an effort can prevent it—that we shall have to think of you with utter ruin upon you. This is a stern place; man's inconstant heart cannot manage man without iron laws. If once you stoop beneath a certain level, we are powerless; the law is written in iron that will deal with you. When the ship's loose of her anchor she must sail or drift. They tell me, Sir William Heans, you stand in a serious risk of drifting—aye, drifting deeper and deeper into the pack, till your sails rag on the mast. These are men who think they know my charge better than me.”

The Governor's daunted face; the firm, small, trembling mouth; the feeling, danger-deadened, care-nothing eyes, waited on the prisoner's—it seemed almost world-indifferent—for an answer.

Heans stood looking out of the window, but he said nothing.

“You will not move your proud foot thus far,” said the Governor, “in pursuit of an honoured life!”

“Your Excellency said ‘honoured life,’” said Heans, dropping his glass, with a wild, little bow. “Is there such a thing? And will you find it, sir—great traveller as you are—for a convict in this town? I put little value on existence. My dignity and honour none of your laws can touch. If I lose them, I shall cry out to no one. When they are gone, the more vulgar officials can use no more worse methods against me than have been used hitherto. Do not fear for me, kind sir. I am grown too old and grim” (with a bow) “with the grey side of difficulty to play with the young ladies. The worth of a man's life—what is it? I pray you credit me with a certain happiness in my own way of it.”

The Governor had risen, and was looking at him, one arm akimbo on the lace of his clawhammer, the other fingering the hilt-tassel of his grounded sword. Utter dismay, sadly withheld, was in his face. He spoke after a little—at first with difficulty. “Possibly I do not value life, sir,” he said, “any more than do you. But I believe in an honoured life, or a life deserving of it. We have to fight for our very sacrifices in this world. Not only that, but, when sacrificed, they may be written down as errors. That is what many a prisoner here runs foul of. He thinks his quarrel is against man. It is Life he is in engagement with. It is of Life he is asking justice. And Life often reserves its

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justice. …” (He stopped suddenly, as though conscious that his feelings had bolted with him.) “You talk of honour. Hush!” he went on, deeply moved; “I will give you my idea of it in a man. It is that he should not wound his friends by his falling. If a man have bravery and not compunction, he is no gentleman. What to him becomes mere life, must be to his friends a perpetual tragedy. If you must go your own way, Sir William Heans, see that you wound as little as need be that gentle woman who has tended you in your distress—by some unthinking bravery.”

Something of the sternness of Heans' position was echoed in Franklin's face. He stood looking at the other with a sort of mute invitation. Sir William Heans took up his glass, as he stood staring out (at the grey-clad prisoners in their black hats, at the wet town, and vastly above, the splendid frown of Old Storm Mountain, from whose forested bosom had come the shingles of the snuggling roofs), and put it carefully in his eye. Then he turned and bowed quickly and gravely.

Franklin swung round to the table, and, fingering for a second among some papers, lifted his hand towards a brass touch-bell. “I am waiting for your word to ring, sir,” he said.

Sir William Heans said, after a moment's hesitation, “Pray be good enough to ring, your Excellency.”

The bell clanged, and the door opened. The doctor entered, and saluting the Governor with a bright inquiry, stood quietly upon one side. The sergeant put his kepi round the door and nodded. Through the opening, the chimney-pots of the line of police bobbed oddly, as the men lowered bronzed or pallid faces.

Heans made a bow, which the Governor answered with a nod jerked sadly out of his high cravat. Then Sir William went again into the outer room, across which he followed the sergeant, not to the window where the other convicts were standing with their warders, but towards the incurious gentlemen at the stair-head (old Mr. Magruder, the magistrate; Mr. Duterreau, the famous artist of the Blacks; Dr. Jeanerret, the new Governor of Flinders Island; the volatile Mr. O'Crone, the travelling savant, a small, handsome, fair-whiskered, excited, intellectual personage, young, if rather old-fashioned as to costume, with a stoop, a shirt-frill (of all things!) and tasselled Wellingtons, just arrived in his pleasure yacht, the Quenosabia, from England, and very interested in prison-life; Major Leete, of the Women's Prison, stiff, handsome, grey, but somewhat falling to pieces; the famous Mr. Robinson, short, red-haired, wearing trousers without straps and a balloon crowned travelling cap, whose freckled face, so peculiarly gentle and commanding, had faced, with incredible courage, tribe after tribe of murdering Blacks, and, unarmed, brought in 450 in one year to lay down their arms in Hobarton; dangerous Mr. Montague, the Colonial Secretary, deep in conversation with old Mr. Gellibrande, the attorney)—through these

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incurious gentlemen at the outer door went Sir William, down those abominable stairs into the thronged hall, where Daunt, in animated conversation with his brother-officer, looked up, laughing very heartily, till his eye touched Heans, when it lost something of its jollity.

The Heep-like man at the table again relinquished his work, leaned back, and stared rigidly at Heans as he passed across the room. The door was crowded, and the sergeant had to push a path through surly shoulders. A prisoner was being brought in. He was a little, grey-bearded man, dreadfully quick-glancing and amiable, but deadly pale. His irons and his black and yellow dress were covered with wet sand. The constables were carrying him in with a kind of cynical compunction.

Heans passed close beside them, and reached the door as pale as he. Had the man's pride-stripped face troubled him?

Outside, the sun was shining on the wet flags, and the place echoed with the “splash—splash” of the paddle-skiff rounding into the pier. Sir William Heans paused beside the sentry and beckoned for his horse, which was brought up at a sort of prancing run.

Along the shining pier, the officers, above the swinging boat, watched him rise upon his horse.

“Has the beautiful gentleman caught a wigging?” asked the carter, peering up at him as he buttoned his spencer and straightened his hat.

“I should think I had,” said Sir William. “Here's your shilling, Jack Marback.”

“Lag's luck to your honour! I'll wet it with a mug of bull.”note

Heans smacked his whip down suddenly, and caracoled off towards the rise, his graceful tails slapping the back of his saddle.