Chapter I A Vignette in an Old “Keepsake”

ON December 2nd, 1842, a sad feeling was caused in Hobarton by the news that the prisoner Heans had either escaped or been lost in the forests about Port Arthur.note The news was semaphored from mountain to mountain over that extraordinary sea of trees in the way of particular tidings from and to the prison, whether you were to be informed of a death, or, being a guest of the Commandant, summoned the tramway. A feeling almost of shock hung over many who remembered his mounted figure or in whose minds the death at his hands and the comparative clemency which had been accorded him were still a matter of interest. “Shock”—because the words “lost in the forests” indicated that the search had been abandoned, leaving awash the poor word “escaped” with too heavy a cargo of grey chance for it to float upon the fingers even of romantic hope. Nay, it was there but to stigmatise the poor attempt. There was something infinitely pathetic in a man of his station and gallant bearing, his once elevated position in society, his refined care of his person to the last, lost, wandering, exposed, caught, dead, in that scarce penetrable ring of mighty and extraordinary growths.

We believe there are still to be read some moving regrets and decent moralizing in and out of print upon his “melancholy fate.”

Some five years after, it was reported in Hobarton that he was living in the French seaport town of Dieppe. This strange story was generally discredited. Again a few years later the story was repeated; it was stated he was alive and living in France. But it was not until his demise in the year of the Franco-Prussian War that the rumour of his survival was privately confirmed.

The manner of his escape from that notorious and romantic prison has remained for many reasons a mystery. How comes a man of his physique and gentle nurture to be numbered among the few who succeeded? Hobarton did not know. We believe there were stories. We believe there was one whisper of collusion

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among the authorities, at which those of the authorities who were still living laughed heartily.

How did he penetrate the wooded mountains which rampart it and its lake-like port? How did he feed himself in the forests without gun or arms? How did he find his way where not a few had tried? … where even the Commandant of the Settlement once lost himself and was recovered on his back?

Sir William Heans has left a brief record of his arrival at the Settlement; of his rough passage in the cutter with some fellow-prisoners; of his feeling of despondency—of fear—at the thought that he was approaching the forbidding prison upon which he had heard so many animadversions; of the foreboding he felt as they beat in among the goblin mountains; of his agreeable surprise as they rounded Dead Island at its pretty red stones; and of his amazement as they sailed into the bay at the “haven-like village out of Goldsmith, backed by a tall English spire.”

The place had been laid out for a Naval Arsenal, and had not a few beautiful buildings in the Renaissance Roman, strictly pure, and formed from freestone cut in blocks from a quarry behind the village. The church, an Abbey in size, was a sort of pinnacled Gothic, crowned with a towering Gothic spire. Following a general gentleness of colouring, even the Penitentiary, if of plainer pattern, was built of a beautiful pink brick, and placed low on the lawn of the cove, the jetties along its front lapped by the still arm of a ramparted and foliaged sea much resembling the landscape of Loch Lomond. Perhaps the mountains were a trace too weird and goblin in shape, too close and darkly massed with trees. Perhaps there were three blow-flies for every common house-fly found elsewhere. Perhaps the beautiful harbour was too full of a strangling seaweed. Standing by the church, you saw the Roman town, reared and staircased five houses up on the south hillock, terminating in the Commandant's French villa poised in its hanging garden over the sea (into which sprang a staircase of stone like that we read of in The Mermaid), with below in front, the pink Penitentiary, just seen down by the little water and the isles, through thirteen years' growth of English and Australian trees.

The prison of Port Arthur was like a vignette in an old “Keepsake.” … Looking thus eastward out of the cove fair over the bay or loch—over Dead Man's Isle, which lies in the middle like Ellen's Isle on Loch Katrine—looking out across the bay and up over the towering mountains beyond, you will see where Sir William Heans made his escape, and its direction from the prison. We have now to tell how he broke new ground, and how it occurred.

The peninsula on which Port Arthur is situated may be roughly likened to a pear, its flower being Port Arthur, its stalk the Neck at Eaglehawk, which alone connects it with the mainland.

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A few celebrated escapes were accomplished along the Hobarton Road from the flower to the stalk, the prisoner swimming over, braving the dogs, soldiers, and sharks which watched it. Except by the stalk, how could any one escape from the pear? This road was the one accredited chance of a private pardon—the one opening to good health and practical despair—the others (the pitiful rafts and the roamings in the bush) were but the circlings of the disordered about the bower of the Belle Dame sans Merci. Heans, however, ignoring the stalk, penetrated from the flower at an acute angle from the road fair through the forests eight miles across to the Eastern coast—seeking that rugged indent known as Waterfall Bay. Looking out from Port Arthur, we see that to reach the hills he must have somehow crossed the water or rounded the arm to the north. Which did he do? How did he outwit the Commandant's sleuth-hounds? How, when he had crossed, did he reach the bay without food, water, or a guide?

As the reader may have guessed, it could hardly have been accomplished but in one way, with the help of the guide of Pacificator Robinson, Conapanny, the native woman.

Only a few days before, the Commandant (the famous Captain Booth) had made the remark to Heans, as they were standing on the wharves, that he would do much better to take his parole. He (Heans) had taken sensibly to the work and life; but the oath would open something better to him. The grim man sententiously recommended it. You cannot manage a town of grim clever men without being a grim clever man. This was a grim clever man. Heans, before he descended into the whale-boat which was to row him to his clerking at Point Puer, had received the advice very favourably, requesting only a few days to think it over. While it would seemingly bind himself against himself; turn the prison key a final irrevocable turn; he knew as he raised his face in the cup of the hills, this was a mere impression of his mind, and it would mean, as the Commandant hinted, another kind of turn in a door or two of the walled town above.

He was momently a little shocked when one evening he heard from the boatswain of the whale-boat that a Captain Shaxton was in the place, and had lodgings in the Governor of Tasmania's Cottage over past the church. Government Cottage was a little carven house on which much pains had been lavished, even to biblical bas-relief. It lay secluded beyond the avenue, with its garden and its fountain. It was known Shaxton was the author of the new form of “silent treatment,” and had come to superintend the laying of the lower courses of his prison. It was supposed he was a stern fellow. Heans heard and saw nothing more of him till one evening about six o'clock, when he received

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a summons from Captain Booth saying that Captain Shaxton would be very glad to see him, and asking him to step over to the Commandant's villa.

Captain Booth had given a favourable account of Heans, said he was very civil, and had kept his address; and Shaxton said he would like just to see how he was—he didn't care about speech—before he went back. He would be glad to give a decent account of him to his cousin. It was a pleasant night and they were walking on the green point beyond the garden. The Commandant said—with some deprecations from Shaxton—he would ask Sergeant Dores, in whose cottage Heans now had a chamber, to bring him to the gate, and they could take a turn above the water.

Booth seemed to consider Shaxton a seasoned enough old fellow, not to be frightened by much, while Shaxton was hardening himself up that he might not be shocked by the sight of Heans. When they heard the sentry clattering at the gate (a pretty carriage-gate with stone pillars) and a tall figure walked through, he was glad to see it was Heans himself, in a second-class suit of smooth cords, a sort of collar, and that sort of clever cravat which tries to hide a linenless shirt. No cane. No glass. No gloves. A black peaked cap a little rain-loosed.

The Commandant went up into the veranda, taking the sergeant with him; while Heans, with a look or two about him as if he were rather blind, walked slowly through the garden to the place where Shaxton was standing with his grinning face towards him.

Shaxton remained in that curious position, looking at him hard and doubting, till he came quite close, reminding him of his way of going for Daunt in his room. He seemed half-moved, half-inimical. When they shook hands, he made a great noise, laughing too much. He was strange. He turned gropingly away and put out his hand, however, indicating the sward and inviting Heans to a turn. Not a word did they say for a while, Shaxton stooping a great deal and once only appraising, with a chuckle and a beckon of his arm, the Island of the Dead, and the island-like spit of Point Puer with its lights in the water.

Shaxton asked what sort of life he had of it here. Heans told him, “not so bad: a great deal of clerking work, some choir singing, a little fishing with the commissary-general, a hand at cards with a few of the military—a system sharp, energetic, clever, chilly—distinctly chilly to two old club-men like yourself and me, Shaxton!”

Captain Shaxton concealed great agitation. He was much hipped at seeing how little he was really altered. He thought to himself, “The old seemly reserve; the eye just a little duller, just a bit more fixed; the man might do it, he could do it.” In the quiet evening, in this twilight place miscalled a prison, amid the night noises of little birds, he and poor imprisoned Heans walked

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quietly, his throat sore yet with its old wrong the while he sought words by which he might give way to the persuasions of his wife. Twice had Heans endeavoured to abscond, the first time with the secret aid of Matilda. Again she would join with others in getting Heans away, and he (Shaxton) was actually here with the discretion of the thing and the very message in his mouth.

He wore a cloak over his evening dress and a low castor hat. His lips, as he eyed the bay, had an underhung and fateful smile.

“What a scene, Heans,” says he, with an awed sort of chuckling, “for a duel in the play, an affair between gentlemen, interrupted by the lady-heroine?”

“Would you interrupt it, Shaxton?” says Heans.

“Heans, I am not the tragedy man,” said Shaxton. “I'm the old fellow who does the kind heart.”

“Well, you can't fight me, sir,” said Heans.

“Ho-ho, no,” said Shaxton, “not you and me, Heans.”

How difficult to do! How difficult to decide! It was with him entirely whether he should give or keep his monstrous message. It was for him to judge if these remnants of Sir William were to be trusted with it, whether they were equal to making use of it when heard. It would never be done if he shut his mouth; his faithless, dishonourable mouth. It was with him to withhold a treachery or give. With him to muddle, mar, miscommit, destroy the man's steadiness, give him great news, uncover a strange chance, fling back the lock to a shocking and remarkable opening—or leave him to this (him, poor ceremonious fellow!)—this kind of a collar, this unseemly self-attention, these malformed clothes, these shoes, this cravat from which a fellow peeped aside!

The sea lifted without wave and swept inward about the garden—inward to the wharves. He had not committed himself to anything. He had not given any promise that he would disclose anything to Heans. “Life's brief,” he thought. “Like the great sea-weed down there, we surge or bob up for our gasp of indifferent air, and sway secretly away!” Poor Heans might play out his comical piece here as well as otherwhere; and be buried perhaps in yonder Island Cemetery; and leave the Shaxton mouth to a few “civil enquiries”: to the pleasant thing here in the garden from him to a prisoner of the prison.

His wife's voice touched him.

Booth stood on the high steps of the veranda in conversation with Sergeant Dores. They could hear his sharp, roused protests. As little did he (Booth) think there was a chance of skedaddling for the poor old beau as he dreamed of his swimming the Neck itself, or the architect of the Model Prison being tampered with or tampering with him. No, Hyde-Shaxton that night was the last man to help a prisoner to abscond. The very last man in the prison.

The same air, so self-contained, so pathetically bon ton!

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What a fate—what a fate!

His God, no. … not the cravat; not the Government shoes; not this erection of gentility in burlesque; not these hills, Hyde-Shaxton, for the old fellow who gave it up for the blind young girl! We suppose Shaxton called himself a humane man, though he did design a prison. We suppose he excused himself as a humane man. It is the more uncomfortable, uncommon form of being weak—except with ourselves. Presently, half-chuckling it out—nay, begging him to do it—he communicated there almost without warning the planning that was offered for his escape.

“Is there any way by which you could find yourself outside these walls, besides this kind of thing?” says he.

Heans asked what he meant.

Says he: “Would the Emerald eight miles over those mountains be any use to you, Heans? Could you make use of her—could you reach her?”

“I take it you are in earnest; you do not lightly say it?” Heans said.

“No, I don't. Be sharp!”

In the first dark flush, Heans “believed he could—it was germane to his feelings—he thought so.”

“Could you do it with the old guide, Conapanny, to meet you, feed you, and take you across?”

In the first pale flash, “Yes, sir, but how would Conapanny pass the gut at Eaglehawk?”

“She is prepared for that. Indeed, of what could they suspect the black if they caught her?”

“My Heaven, that is so!” said Heans.

After some talk Sir William Heans satisfied Captain Shaxton his part in it was feasible. They came to an agreement while yet quietly at their paces. Shaxton swore it would be the end of them all if he saw Heans again, and asked how he had best communicate with him, when, by lack of report, Conapanny might be safely said to have passed the Neck. Both he and Heans agreed that the church was the best medium, and Shaxton volunteered the suggestion that his wife would shortly visit the prison in his company and that her presence in the church (and hers alone) would be the warning that the black had gone out upon her journey, and had had time to arrive at a point on the hill opposite the settlement. Her actual arrival at that point would be made known to Heans by a forest fire started on a hot day on the summit of the hills towards the Neck.note Shaxton,

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moreover, asked for some distinct place at which Conapanny could await Heans' escape from the town, and Heans bade him inform her to take the line between Dead Island and the Signal Station on Mount Arthur, and to keep well up from the water in case by some accident he failed to hide his track. He believed there was no danger of their searching any way but to the Neck.

He promised to obey the old native's directions how to hide his path.

The plan put forward had originated with poor, dilatory Stifft, being financed by somebody who was nameless (sentiment will say the Earl of Daisley), and been communicated through Mr. Six to the Oughtryn household—I fear from certain signs Oughtryn himself was not quite unaware of it—and from blind Abelia on her sick-chair to Mrs. Shaxton, who was in the habit of sitting beside her. The surprise and disgust occasioned by the absconding of Madam Ruth with a clerk of the Cascades Prison—a mere prisoner like herself—Oh woman! woman! you are all alike! what a prosaic end to the strange romance!—while it lost Leete his appointment at Port Arthur, was nothing to the disgust of Captain Stifft when the phantom schooner at the mouth of the Tamar took off only Mr. Jarvis Carnt and the half-fainting figure of the artist of the Cascades. True, the fog, or the weeds on his hull, or his indifferent seamanship, had delayed Stifft till the rowers in the boat had all but mutinied and threatened to pull home or land and leave their besodden and despairing cargo in the sun under the beacon. True, Mr. Carnt had made them understand “never” for any other man was “vulgarly early” for the captain of this schooner, and he would prefer some other way of getting dry. True, the ship got the two poor wraiths it did only by a chance of mistiness and calm which kept the day in its bed and winged a late hail to reach a woman's ears. Stifft would neither accept admonishment nor be pleased with his success. On this matter we dare to state nothing more than the fact that he either borrowed or moved some one of means sufficiently (perhaps by his very despondency) to allow him funds with which to procure stores and a new sail, and attended to another matter connected with his two years' agreement with Sir William Heans. Though shocked by the news conveyed by his boy that Heans was now a prisoner at Port Arthur, this did not deter him from offering his services. The details of the affair which led to that segregation spurred him to a fresh effort of patience, while the mild form of Sir William's sentence strengthened him in the belief that the liberation of that gentleman was not outside the power of the contracting party.

He would never have brought his ship so close to Hobarton, perhaps, if Mr. Daunt had been alive. He had had a great respect for what Mr. Daunt might possibly know. But Mr. Daunt, as we know, had died suddenly during an entertainment in

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Hobarton at the house of the old farmer-prisoner. There, also, during the identical day, Sir William Heans had attacked and killed a soldier, though he saved, with his undoubted dislike, the daughter from worse than death. He was always a man for the ladies! We curtail the story as Stifft considered it. On general evidence, especially that of a native, the soldier had been proved to be a dangerous, threatening man, though through an unlucky question by the police magistrate, just when the black seemed inclined to be communicative, she had been reduced to a weeping and impenetrable silence. She seemed to admit knowledge of the man in her childhood, that he had always been a ‘bad wite,’ and that she had had a lover who was a prisoner in the caves in the days of Governor Collins, whom the man had hated if he had not actually brought him to his death; but when asked if she was willing to commit the hand of her lover as being in any way connected with the death of Governor Collins, she grew indignant, laughed, cried, contradicted all her previous evidence and at once reduced herself, or was reduced, to a babbling incoherency from which nothing was able to arouse her. Nay, if she had admitted she was in the caves on the night of that Wednesday, she laughed when asked if Spafield removed the remnants of a body from the stable, and was a hewn statue of silence when they asked if she knew where the body was buried. For the rest, the old farmer had already warned the authorities of ill-will between the servant and the soldier, requesting the latter's removal from his house. The suspicion lay on the soldier and the blame on the authorities (as they admitted), if Heans' excuse for his concealment in the stable as hiding from the man in the hope that he would presently go out was not accepted in some quarters. Oughtryn's sick daughter, herself, seemed doubtful why Heans was in hiding in the caves, unless he wished to avoid the man—or unless he was, as he rather unconnectedly implied, “examining the cracks.” It was Stifft himself who communicated to the Oughtryn household the fact that Heans had been endeavouring to escape, and so it was made plain what he had resigned (so we have it) to these few.

How far Oughtryn was involved we hesitate to say. How far, or by what inducement, he was moved out of his caution towards so grim an enterprise—who shall decide? Possibly he had an inkling from the first what his ‘gentleman’ had been about in the crack; possibly he had had much thought upon the point and his not immediately crying out for help—which were explained when he heard of the near presence of the escapees in the carriage. Heans had struggled with death itself to hide his interrupted enterprise and save a hubbub for a half an hour. If he had succeeded in breaking out of the stable, Spafield would scarcely have summoned the police to confront the story on the girl's chill lips. Poor, precise young miss! did she manage, lying so pale there in her chair, with about her curious pots of

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Wandering Jew and Ragged Betty, cherry pie, Macquarie Harbour vine, love, bay—was it she who worked these wonders upon her Conapanny and her puzzled, scolding parent; did she produce a prudent argument; was it she, “poor chit,” who among these frightened counsellors, these “fair-weather friends,” voiced the final appeal; was it she who (though addressing one who had no “liking for such proceedings”) fluttered about the quiet room the most “obscure” yet the most speaking reason?

Thus Captain Shaxton's was the mouth which chose and uttered the words which showed Heans that mysterious path; which, considering his stern business there, and considering what these gentlemen had known of one another, was a strange weapon to be put at his will, and used in a way as becoming to his warmth of heart, as it was unseemly to his cloth. It cannot be said that he owed Heans this debt. On the contrary, from all we can hear, things between them were hardly even yet—never quite even—sir or madam! There was something even forbearing and showing quite a kind and philosophical outlook in this old fellow. There he went, chuckling and shrugging at the powerful smooth-belted tide in his black cloak and spotless breeches. As for Sir William Heans, he had great difficulty in mastering his emotion. As he says in his description of the interview to Sir Charles, “what with the shock of it, what with the something touching in the old fellow's breaking in and saying it, and the oppression on his spirits, there in the private garden, the Commandant in his very veranda, he had a dismaying struggle to retain an appearance of uneasy resignation.”

The audacity of it—the unlikeliness of it!

When the conversation of Captain Shaxton and the prisoner began to flag a little, they forsook the water and began to return over the grass towards the villa. The garden was beautifully secluded by its fringing of trees above the Penitentiary and the wharves. Booth seemed to see suddenly that Shaxton wished to be relieved, for he advanced down the steps to meet them, sending the sergeant to the gate. Captain Booth, so they say, was a sharp, clever man. Shaxton met him with a rather rueful chuckling, as from one with whom a trying interview was nearly accomplished. “We two old fellows were glad of a word, Commandant. Many thanks. It makes me ashamed to find him a more resigned man than I am. Yes, I'm outgrowing it all, too, Heans. I declare I get befogged now sometimes. I feel—ho-ho—like the drunken gentleman who sought refuge in a theatre, and begged for a seat on the audience side!”

The Commandant made an “oh-ohing,” and said rather harshly: “he was happy to find Sir William Heans well enough—not complaining, he was sure?”

“Not a bit of it, sir,” said Captain Shaxton. “It was just like Heans to keep his head and busy himself with his work.” Of

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course, it was new for a man like Heans. He hoped he foresaw some more pleasant things in store for him. He believed that would come before long.

“Why, yes,” Captain Booth replied, “it has been recommended to Heans that he should take his parole. This we have put before him seriously, and Heans is giving it a few days' consideration. It will mean a considerable broadening of his life. There is a hint of some horseback exercise in the direction of the Model Farm, and Mr. Lempriere, the Commissary-General, requests his interest at the Tidal Observatory on Point Puer. Just so. Here we are, hourly looking for the brief assent.” He looked at Heans.

“Ah, well, I'll leave that to Heans and yourself, sir,” said Shaxton, calmly. And he turned about very slowly and deliberately and went close up to Heans (close to that comical article of apparel about the erect neck) and spoke in a low voice some confidential words to him, and said “Good-night,” shaking his hand warmly and chuckling ruefully. As for Heans, he made a rather sad little congé, raising his cap off his white hair, and moving off a little reserved, putting his hand up against the bars of the gate as he went out in that rather blind way. Shaxton never thought of that moment without a shudder, as Heans strode off with the soldier down the umbrageous lane, with behind them the beautiful tower of the Powder Magazine, so classic in the gloom-light it might have come stone for stone from the Capitol or the Appian Way.