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Chapter III The Brave Fellows

FOR the first two months of his acquaintance with the Shaxtons, Heans had seen very little of Matilda. Once and again he had taken tea with her—when the weekly meeting in the study had finished late—but more than once he had himself been responsible for a curtailment of the discussion between himself, Shaxton, and two or three “silent-treatment” enthusiasts, that he might, as he said, “get the alterations worked in that evening.”

He had not much to which to return.

At that time he was allowed a phantom salary from “the Crown,” and rented a “registered lodging,” under the shingles, from an old prisoner-landlady in a two-storied brick tenement in —— Street. Several causes (one of which we shall soon learn) had reduced him to this room. It was a long, low attic, but quite sumptuous in its way.

Dotted about a ripped and faded amber carpet were some little chairs of sun-blistered marquetry, roughly mended with pine, and against the walls, quite a sumptuosity of stowed-away, old-time furniture—heavy, fan-backed arm-chairs, bursten and threadbare, their legs straight and uncompromising; Grecian sofas, black, with faded terra-cotta cushions, such as we see in David's portraits, and since become so universal an object in our Colonial huts and homesteads; also dolphin-armed and even gilt chairs, and others yet with corkscrew legs and remnants of tasselled cushions. There they were along the walls: little but the patched wood left of their travelled pride: the seats of some of them mere webs or nests of cloth, whose ends hung to the floor in curious and amazing festoons. His landlady, Mrs. Quaid, after a week of sordid, sulky exteriors, had solemnly apologised for the torn cushions and rickety legs, but Sir William had politely admired the wood-work.

Against the left-hand wall was a tall, red rosewood bookcase, with bars instead of glass, inhabited by a drunken row of casuals in one shelf:—a tattered novel called Lochandu, a tome entitled Literary Gems, described as “from grave to gay, from lively to severe,” The Wolf of Badenoch, some odd remnants of Gibbon's Decline and Fall, a stray from The Hobart Town Magazine, and six green-marbled volumes of Langhorne's Plutarch, the last named having been purchased in Mrs. Quaid's past from “a


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distressed soldier—a bad un'—who'd never read them”; the others during Sir William's tenure for some dark reason connected with “cultured manners,” and carried up with some kindling wood (like so many cabbages or roses) for the “cheerfuller appearance” of the prison. At the moment, Sir William had omitted to examine the titles, but had passed the “Ancients” through his fingers, remarking how pleasantly their key-patterned backs reminded him of his schooldays.

On the other side of the room, near the chimney, was a row of brown samplers in frames, to the verses of which Sir William gave, through his eyeglass, some pondering contemplation. We may suppose that he gained, like the cynical ladies who worked them in with their cotton, some consolation from that dry passage from Aurelius:—

Thou seest how few the things are the which if a man lays hold of, he is able to live a life which flows in quiet.

Of a tonic sadness from this little poem:—

SIC PASSIM.

The world's a stage; and players know full well
That they must part, when rings the caller's bell.
Yea, they must part and mourn their faithful loves;
The cote is silent; sundered all the doves!

To the right of the samplers, in the dark corner, was a large, dim painting in a gilt frame, with indistinct boats and a muddy blue sky punctured by three holes, such as might have been made by a musket bullet. The landlady, with a sort of mourning air, for something which was peculiar, and couldn't help it, said she had been told by a certain Mr. Six, a prisoner, and “a gentleman with learning,” that it had been painted by “a mad artist,” with a “kind of gambler's name” like “Totem.” There was yet another picture to the left of the chimney, hardly decipherable under a covering of soot and age. An ash-coloured sea spread back to a gleam of cliffs. A little to the right, a jumble of old vessels fought in mist and smoke. Yet further to the right, gummed, as it were, upon the sea, as from a child's transfer-paper, stood line upon line of stiff regiments of soldiers—mitres and cornered hats spreading back to giant pennants and heads of barred steel. It was not very well done. The artist's name had been obliterated; nor was there any title to the old piece; but Sir William, in a homesick moment, had christened it “England—and the English!”

It was Sir William's habit to sit at the fire in a low, walnut-wood chair, having a seat of vari-coloured patterns, while he took his meals off a tiny gilt-legged table, propped for security in the corner of the whitewashed chimney. It was here that he,


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subsequently, made his study of the jailed volumes, having, in a jaundiced mood, freed one of the Plutarchs of its bars, and been spurred to further reading by this highly interesting discursion: “Speaking of the power of women, he said, ‘All men naturally govern the women, we govern all men, and our wives govern us.’ But this might be taken from the Apophthegms of Themistocles. For his son directing in most things through his mother, he said, ‘The Athenians govern the Greeks, I govern the Athenians, you, wife, govern me, and your son governs you; let him then use that power with moderation, which, child as he is, sets him above all the Greeks.’ ”

What more he found in these remarkable volumes we have presently to tell.

For writing or drawing out his plans, Heans used the desk of a little travelling escritoire, yellow, brass-handled, and covered with voyage-marks. Near this, for the convenience of writing, he had drawn up a great armless, 'cello-backed chair, having in its back a carved Greek vase, and from which the green brocade had rotted and the gimp hung in shreds.

His landlady, a little, old, pinched woman with long grey ringlets and large, passionate black eyes, gradually changed the expression of tragic hostility, with which she had received him into her house, to one of tragic anxiety. She would watch him go from her door, up the street, with her seamed hand on the post. (She was very fond of opening doors and looking out.) Thence she would ascend to his room, and desultorily dust. Afterwards she would go down to her kitchen and cook for him. To Heans, she was a funny, passionate, asperse, tragic, kindly, uncordial, evasive, cheerful, smiling, grim old womam; and if he had been asked, he would doubtless have said that he had “conceived quite an attachment for her.”

The first floor was rented by a Mr. Boxley, grocer, retired, who paled when he met “the notorious Sir William Heans” in the passage. The front ground room was haunted by a young man named Pelican, with whom, for some reason mysterious to his landlady, Sir William was at pains to perpetuate a precarious bowing acquaintance.

On his arrival at Pitt's Villa, by appointment, one afternoon at the end of January, Heans was told of the Captain's wild departure an hour previous, and taken by a distressed Matilda to the hanging garden, from which she was shown the bomb-ships Erebus and Terror, motionless upon the mountain sea, their pennons flying in honour of Governor Franklin.

They stood listening to the “o-o-m” of distant guns, and talking—Matilda a trace hectically—of the grim men who were to force those blunt-bowed ships, past roaring beaches, into the unhumaned ice. “How inspiring,” she cried, pointing down among the cots and buildings of the slopes, “to all these humdrum people, steadily living and dying, that a man should


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attempt this—this outrageous thing in his life!” Sir William, in his beautiful shepherd's-plaid trousers, towering stock, and short nankeen riding-coat — Sir William, sad of face to day for something that he had missed—agreed, and spoke of “the seasoned look of the hulls—brown like a good cheroot and of the flat bow like a scutcheon.” The leading vessel would be the Erebus—James Ross's ship. How would Sir John let them go out without him!

“How fast they fold the sails against the varnished yards!” said Matilda breathlessly. “It is just as if they vanish!”

“Line of battle style,” said Sir William. He struggled up his eyeglass and put it into a grey, excited eye. “Good God, Mrs. Shaxton,” he said, “do you think they'd give a fellow a berth in them?”

He was staring out in his fine way, and if his grey face chimed with his tragic question, he did not move, even when Matilda turned to him her fearful and shy face.

“You have been suffering, Sir William Heans,” she said, breathless, yet eager. “I am afraid you are finding—finding the life difficult.” Sir William did not answer for a moment. He dropped his head and tapped his cane upon the wooden rail.

“These men are voracious against misfortune—against a sentence—in one of my standing,” he said, in a quiet voice. He went on to tell how Head-warder Rowkes or Captain Jones, who have raised themselves, and from whom temper and selfishness have barred the goal of their ambition, oppressed him with a secret and careful resentment. In the strangest way did the most successful, commanding-looking men disclose some private disappointment by a severity or a grim snub which they knew he was powerless to return. “The resentment of the prisoners in the Hulk, when I go to report myself, against my clothes” (he looked upon his gauds with a sighing laugh) “is kinder than the hate of these deluded men.”

Sir William stopped, drew himself up, and tapped his expanding chest with his riding-cane. He had surprised himself in an honest moment, and—like most of us when we let ourselves fall for a moment into the honest—growing tragic and selfish. He simpered a little as he withdrew his eyeglass. “Don't let my cause interfere, Mrs. Shaxton.” he said, “with these inspiring vessels. I am one of your humdrum people now. I must be content to grow excited from the shore. I must try, Mrs. Shaxton” (removing his grey top-hat to her with a hoarse if merry laugh), “to imitate your wonderful feminine enthusiasm for other people's honour.”

“This is national honour,” she said in her strained voice, but when she stopped quickly with her eyes on the ships, her lips twisted with sympathy and bitterness still unspoken. She trembled suddenly and spoke. “I am so sorry, Sir William Heans, to hear of your terrible difficulties, but so very glad and


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so proud that you have spoken openly to me about them. I knew—from what my husband has told me—and—and from what I know of the world—that presently wicked men would make you feel your position. But we were hoping that you would find in our house, and in the faces of some of our friends at least, a refuge of private acquaintance. Will you come up oftener, sir? This will always be a friendly garden. If I am down in town, will you not come down to this seat and take tea—but I am here nearly always, and—and—I want you to think—always steadfast for you and for your good.”

Heans had kept his hat in his hand. His handsome face, with its full hair and French moustaches, was flushed, stern, and moved. He had dropped his grey head a little.

“I spoke foolishly, Mrs. Shaxton,” he said, jerking out the words with nervousness and difficulty. “It was the English fog in those old sails creeping about a fellow's heart. I knew John Ross's second officer. He may be there with his ardent face—in one of those ships. I can't comprehend readily that I have no share in all the bravery and heartiness of their coming in—that I'm—pardon—pardon” (he tried to simper again and put his eyeglass heavily up). “How Englishly the flowers grow in your garden, here, Mrs. Shaxton—those hollyhocks with their stakes.”

She looked about and nodded wildly. Her grey cashmere shawl had fallen down her heavy sleeves till it reached her hands. Sir William gazed at her. A libertine onlooker might have asked: “What did this earnestness with so much beauty! What did this flower with a stern and feeling soul!” The soft white of her dress brought out her faint colour and bright gold hair. But that struggling earnestness, with its hint of a strain, that serious concern, peered striving through her star-like face like the head of some angelic soldier.

Above them the sun was dipping behind Old Storm Hill, and below the shadows of late afternoon were creeping over the ships towards the opposite mountains. It was dark down the great channel, and sea-horses were leaping in on a rising wind. Mrs. Shaxton's hair fluttered and she put her hand upon it. One end of her shawl flew out and hit Heans on the mouth, and he caught it in a flurry and gave it to her quietly. They both stood looking at the approaching storm, and the thoughts of each fled slowly to the same thing: the coming winter.

Matilda looked pale and frightened.

“You will find the winter hard, Sir William Heans,” she said, hurriedly. “You must come up often—often—and never forget how anxious we all are about you. It is such a—such a stern place. I am so frightened of your being worn down—as some have been.” (She turned to him, staring earnestly at him.) “You will want to be so careful—especially as you are not very happy. Perhaps some of them are wicked, and will watch for discontent. It is unbelievable, but I have been told how some


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have played upon it, when they were jealous of a prisoner; and one false step and they all must harden. I am afraid you are one who will create jealousy. I am afraid of your pride, sir, and that you will bring some annoyance upon yourself. You will need all your tact, and all your good temper, and patience—do, sir, try and be patient. I know—it is the disappointed man you will have to fear—no gentleman will harm you. But some are highly placed and very powerful. Indeed, if they once begin to hate, their good impulses seem to go.”

“Steady for a year, they say,” said Heans, smiling a little through his eyeglass. “Then a fellow has a chance. 'Pon my word, you're goodness itself, Mrs. Shaxton! I'll come up as often as you will allow me.”

“We feel very responsible for you,” said Matilda, “after Miss Gairdener's letter.” And she turned and led the way across the terrace into the drawing-room. “The storm is coming,” she said, looking back out of the window; “will you get down in time?”

“What a good thing the ships are in!” said Heans, with a glance down the black harbour.

“Be very careful, Sir William Heans,” she repeated, as she said good-bye. “I have heard my husband speaking.” She seemed almost frightened to let him go.

He kissed her hand. The rain pattered on the shingle roof.

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