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Chapter II High and Dry

HEANS and Shaxton became rather thick on architecture during this and the next month. The “Silent Prison” was still a castle-in-the-air, however; though two sites—one near the Cascades Women's Prison and another on the opposite side of the Derwent at Kangaroo Point—had been discussed and gone over. Suddenly the whole matter had been shelved—and art and Sir William with it into obscurity—for one more important in the eyes of the officers, the gallant explorer Governor, Hobarton society, and even of Hyde-Shaxton himself: the arrival of the bombships Erebus and Terror in the Derwent, under the intrepid captains James Ross and Crozier, to refit for a hair-raising thrust into the ice of the pole. The Captain and his wife had been summoned by Sir John Franklin to an explorers' dinner at Government House, and all the winter months the former was on and off the Erebus, or chuckling among the prisons and waterfalls with her officers.

The Captain would come home and chuckle over the day with his wife—and Daunt and Sir William Heans, who were sometimes with her—over Sir John Franklin's “family prayers” before the quail-shoot, or “old-lady” sermons to the prisoners. “How those men listen to him without exploding,” he would say, “I don't know! I give you my word, I can't! Yesterday he was up with the women in the Cascades. There they were ranged up in one of the yards in their aprons and white bonnets, lounging and smirking and bobbing at the sailor-boys as gay as paroquets. Says he, taking off his hat to them and stepping forward in his uniform, with his funny old black tragedy eyes blazing with good intentions, ‘Now, women,’ says he, ‘any little goodness or kindness will do for your Governor. Just take that to heart. God Almighty's looking down on you in His mercy. He sees your troubles. Take a reef in, there's good girls; and see and shape a kinder course.’ All the while there was young Willie Bannister nudging my arm, and asking who the woman was in the black shawl, with the brown hair: ‘A stunning girl, Shaxton,’ says he. Entre nous, Daunt,” cries the Captain, turning on that officer, who, with Sir William Heans, was calling that afternoon on Mrs. Shaxton, “who is the convict in black?

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Everybody's asking about her. If she's a common prisoner, why don't they clothe her like the others?”

“That would be the woman known as ‘Madame Ruth’,” pondered Daunt; “a long, thin, lofty face, had she?”

“You couldn't see her eyes,” said Shaxton; “she held them down, much to Bannister's annoyance. She stood with another woman at the back near a wall, a bit apart from the line, with a black shawl on her hair. A regular Juno! I heard old Franklin ask Leete, the Governor, about her. Leete starts nodding in his short, angry way … such stunning, beautiful hair! My heaven, what hair!”

“That was who it was,” said Daunt, as one speaks who is about to thrust aside the subject. “You must ask Leete about her. She's of good birth, or pretends to be. I suppress the details.”

“Go along with you!” laughed Shaxton. “I knew you wouldn't be open … I'd like to hear that woman's story—if only for Franklin's stare of amazement.”

“He is not made for this work,” said Daunt, whose subsequent quarrel with Sir John is history. “Whensoever he is brought into touch with the prisoners—which is as little as convenient—he asks for plain dealing and bother the elaborations of experience. He thinks he can ye-ho-heave-ho at them as if they are unruly sailors. After he's gone, they're off their balance and quite unmanageable.”

“Mr. Daunt,” said Matilda, who looked soft pink and white to-day, and whose eyes blazed almost eerily, “I don't think you understand Sir John Franklin, any more than he does your convicts. He is always trying to put heart into them, when they are all too full of spirit already. And you are always expecting him to understand that these men he condemns you for condemning are untiring and would wear down an angel. Surely it is better to have somebody like this here for a few years. It is giving you a lot of trouble, but it is making us all better. You say yourself they're all—oh so tired of cold, level-headed punishment.” (She shook her serious head with a frown and a shiver.)

“Come, Mrs. Shaxton,” said Daunt, grimly, “what would you do with a prisoner with the energy and temper of a fiend, who won't control either of them—turn Sir John on him with that passionate note of his and a little scripture?”

The three men laughed. Matilda, though daunted, glared on in her blazing way through the French-windows.

“Give him a week's ‘solitary’ and silence,” cried Hyde-Shaxton, “and let him try his energy and temper on our three-foot walls. Eh, Heans—they'll come crawling to me for my snuff-box yet? Some man'll drive 'em mad with his talking and ‘For Heaven's sake, Shaxton,’ they'll say, ‘put it up and give us some peace.’ ”

“Yes?” said Sir William, leaning on his knees, and swinging

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the ribbon of his glass with veiled eyes. (He looked very pale, gentle, and handsome that day.) “And what shall it be called—a motto for your lintel, Captain Shaxton: Dulce Domum—Hotel Dieu—Væ Victis?

He gave a quiet look at Matilda Shaxton, and her eyes dropped.

The Captain put up his hand for peace, and with his head down, racked his brains. “Ut prosim,”note he presently hauled forth, with a somewhat laboured solemnity.

Lex talionis,”note hissed Daunt, in his dark way.

Mrs. Shaxton had risen-with a jerk and taken her Souvenir from the what-not behind her chair.

“I have my motto too,” she said. “Paul knows it well enough.” Before her husband could speak, she read out, as she stood, with her sweet face pale and half-turned from the window: “Homo sum, et nihil humani a me alienum puto.note