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Chapter I The Prison Artist

AT an upper window, in the first courtyard of the Cascades Prison, a convict known as Madam Ruth sat sewing. She was making night-shirts of the rough cloth made by the prisoners on the lovely Maria Island. Below, in a large courtyard, surrounded by low buildings of gold sandstone—black-barred and doored—some grey-gowned, check-aproned women were tending vegetables under a female. Among the plants, accident had dropped some hollyhock seed, and a red rosette fluttered on a yellow spear. The afternoon sun hung on the transverse bars of the opposite windows and on the shoulder of a great forest towering over the shingles to the left.

Madam Ruth was in black, and wore a black shawl over her dark red hair. She seemed hard. In appearance she was long-faced, young, and intellectually noble, but looked anæmic and melancholy. The room in which she sat was long and narrow—with the barred window at one end, and was freshly papered in gold on a faint blue ground. Two beds of unpainted wood touched one the north and one the west wall, and both were adorned with coverlets of elaborate embroidery. There was a fire-place and small fire in the corner between the beds. The rest of the appointments were rough enough, if entirely neat. Over the window-bed, a strung shelf held some black and brown volumes: among which were Johnson's satires, Scott's poems, and some numbers of Blackwood's Magazine. In the corner opposite there were some tomes of French History piled by the wall, and, hung above a small table, some little flower-paintings in water-colours on cardboard, and the sketch of a ruined chapel, faultily done, with a knight in stone lying within among the weeds, on which a little fawn was cropping—the subject taken, perhaps, from the “White Doe of Rylstone” by Mr. Wordsworth, a volume of whose verses, under that title, was hanging in the shelf. On the table were some loose water-colours in a cedar box, and a sketch, on a band-box lid, of an ancient, rough-cast house surrounded by decrepit trees.

The woman's head was bowed over her sewing. On the near bed lay some lint, bandages, and a pile of coarse night-dresses. Just beneath the window—which was open—projected the mouth


  ― 114 ―
of the massive gate-house. Flagged with huge flags, it plunged heavily into the court like the port of some old hold: the houses of the end wall clinging upon it like “Phrygian Bonnets” upon a scallop.

The wheels of the outer gates creaked upon the flags, and Madam Ruth looked up. She was listening. The great gate was opened only for women off the ships, occasionally helpless soldiers, visitors, and high officials, so that the sound held something of import. The vegetable gardeners up the court stooped over their rakes the better to look outward through the gate. A warder in à chimney-pot looked in, from the gatehouse, ordering some women, who were washing at a sink cut from a single stone, to go indoors.

All, with Madam Ruth, heard the boom of a carriage coming across the Cascades bridge upon the level before the walls. “The Governor, or visitors, then!” Madam knew that all were hoping for “visitors.” They were often fresh from home and freedom; and the factory seemed to strike each one so differently. She had risen. She now caught the bar of her window and peered down. She was crying. What hard, inscrutable lines for tears!

The chaise had stopped, and she could hear the boom of voices in the gatehouse. Somebody seemed to be speaking with too much enthusiasm, answered by the turnkey with a harsh, good-humoured bark. The visitors were often nervous. … Madam wiped the closed casement in front of her eyes with the night-shirt.

First Mr. Carnt, the prison writer, came out of the gate. She drew back a little, her face graver. His tall hat was on one side, and he tugged his dark bronze whiskers, staring consciously about in his light bored way. When he could not be making a joke, he seemed always wild and bored. He was a prisoner.

Slowly appeared Mr. Shaneson, the turnkey, tall, and harshly, yet courteously, laconic. He was followed by a small, fair-whiskered gentleman, very pale, in a tall hat, cape, and tasselled boots. He kept pushing on his cane with both hands, and staring about with both eyes that winced even as they stared. His face, aquiline, fine, and aspiring, was creased and strangely drawn. He stooped much as he came slowly into the courtyard.

Crying out, Madame Ruth ran and flung herself upon the inner bed. There she held her mouth, and laughed, and sobbed, until she slept.

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