previous
next



  ― 379 ―

Chapter II The Abbey in that Far Cove

BOOTH'S importunity apart, the thing, when he came to consider it move by move, was not so easy. It was comforting to be able to say: the appearance of Matilda Shaxton at church one afternoon—a glow of fire on the mountains—then eight miles (or double that) across the forests—and his part at Port Arthur was played; there yet remained the breakage from the prison, which, though not dangerous, was not pleasing to dwell upon. As he thought it over it became less and less so. Out of three or four outlets which he had outlined to Shaxton, he had chosen with Shaxton's approval the safest—perhaps the only certain way. At the weekly choir practice, it had been a habit of kindness in the Chaplain to invite him to take a stroll without the north door of the church. They would walk past the Governor's Cottage, up the north knoll (where goes the road), and return. It was only a few paces, and nearly all that time they were in sight and hearing of the sentries … but not all. The lane inclined among the bushes to the left and to the right. Of late days, as Spring came, if the conversation became interesting, the clergyman and he would take a constitutional nearly to the top.

The Chaplain was an elderly man, with coarse grey hair and a curious sturdy, wistful smile. He did quite a lot of good in the prison, and indeed with every one. He had the wonderful gift of approaching men differently: one familiarly, another with reserve. He was something of a scholar, but his aim was otherwhere. He had no visible fault, but some were invented for him. He was good and kind, and often withheld his opinion, while listening sturdily to those which could not have been anything but painful to him. Heans' task was the one of throwing the Chaplain off his feet, gagging him, and binding his limbs. He did not look upon this as an undertaking of grave difficulty, but he could not approach it without considerable anguish of mind.

Once over the Knoll, he would be in the forests, until three miles on he rounded the north arm of the Bay, and made east along the water. His plan was to make immediately for the beach and make speed along the sands; then as he neared the


  ― 380 ―
north arm, or Long Bay, he would approach the Eaglehawk road and walk warily, on the qui vive for a late passenger-boat from the tramway, or the tramwaynote itself, which here had a terminus, and if running late would have to be circuited. He would be much aided by dark. Once round the arm and he would have nothing to watch but the central observation-house on Signal Hill, and in this lay his peculiar safety, for the direction in which he was bound was completely bare of the mountain watch-houses which dominated every other part of the Peninsula.

(He relates how by Conapanny's request he was directed how to use the road to confuse his pursuers, and also how to descend into the sea on fragments of tree bark.)

Heans, though his singing voice has been described as passable, if inconsistent, was still vain of it, and was eventually persuaded by the Chaplain to make one of the singers in the Port Arthur choir. To enable him to attend practice, he was granted the countersign every Wednesday, and walked in the evening down Punishment Steps, out of the gate, along the wharves, through the Doric gateway of the avenue (you can see, even now, the pillars lying in the grass), and up the avenue to the church. This beautiful building was of unusual form, having two immense wings running north and south in which sat the prisoners, and between, a shorter nave, entered from the tower, having at the west end a chancel and large window. It was of hewn stone. In the nave were high wooden pews for prison-officers and guests, some of them curtained, while on transverse seats before the chancel was the choir, and on the right a wooden pulpit of the kind called “three-decker.” The seats of the prisoners slanted upward to the rear. During the service there was a sentry without the tower, and one outside both the doors in the wings, and the church was locked.

The Wednesday practice was attended by four determined constables, three high-singing privates in the military, seven good-conduct men in grey, two ancient fellows with cultivated voices and moulting airs, as steely, forgotten, and proud as two old ravens, a chanting Stipendiary, no less a person than the Deputy-Assistant-Commissary-General, and a quiet fellow, fellow-baritone to Heans, whom he understood to be one of the officers' servants. The choir was unsurpliced, those with uniforms appearing in them, the two old fellows in their grey prison smocks, for they were Imperial Paupers, or invalids. There was no organ. The service was Wesleyan. The Psalms were pleasantly and finely chanted.

A fortnight after Shaxton's visit, the weather again moderated, and the clergyman stopping Heans after “practice,” they had a few words and afterwards took a turn up the knoll. The old


  ― 381 ―
man's monosyllabic talk, and his after-work air, sturdy and polite, if somewhat lost in private anxiety, touched Sir William Heans sufficiently to render him silenter than usual, drawing from the other a tentative enquiry after his affairs and spirits, which he choked off with cackles and shrugs about the weather. They continued to talk concerning the climate, comparing the vanished winter with that of Westmorland. They had some words also on the writings of S. Paul and the craft and cunning of his arguments, by which he must have appealed to the crafty cunning man of many ages. The knoll up which they paced had been once cleared of scrub, but it was once more thinly overgrown, and there were places in the road (as Sir William looking back, perceived) where they walked a few paces completely hidden from the Settlement. The ground was soft and sandy. Heath was budding among the coral fern by the wayside. It was difficult to believe, as he walked spasmodically talking in the grey evening, that after that wonderful and terrible experience on a coming Sunday, that last sight of the beautiful face he yet loved, he must come to interfere with the person of this old man; that through a violent action from him, the seamed and wistful countenance at his shoulder must change to amazement, alarm, dislike, upbraiding, reproach. How would he bring himself to it? After what fairness of argument, unselfish sturdiness of interest, or wistful silence of disagreement, would he turn upon and grapple with him? Better here near the top, not far from the fringe of bracken. He supposed the Chaplain would struggle and bravely wrestle him off, elderly as he was, and sedentary as was his habit. It must be done sharp; the mouth, now anxious, gagged; the arms, now persuasively raised in gesticulation, bound! “Shall you, sir, revenge yourself as you sometimes do, with a wilful stare as you lie in the sand; and I, sir, with a salute upon your upbraiding face?”

So Sir William thought as he went out and returned into the prison. In the ensuing weeks he often looked across the cove, sharply examining the church and knoll. Portions of the road were visible from Dores' cottage and he saw that every precaution must be exercised, and every outing with the Chaplain utilized for strict measurement, precaution, and observation. From the same window, Dores' house being high, he could see part of Dead Island and the hills behind which Stifft would soon be hanging. He often stared long and narrowly at these extraordinary forests, and those swathing the northern heights of Signal Hill, placing in anticipation on this bosom or that a sudden flash and jet of flames, and too experienced in the accidents of life to be able to credit, without moments of despondency and scepticism, the extraordinary promise of a few friends.

(“Ah, Scarning,” says he, in writing to that gentleman, “it seems now a matter for the elegant fireside; for a smile over


  ― 382 ―
Plutarch in my smoking cabinet or abroad in the coverts of our dear French pleasance; but place yourself with however good a friend in that valley of athletic sceptics, whose attitude of life it was to suspect the fingers of a closed hand, and something of my suspense and cynicism will be yours.”)

October had gone and November had just begun, and Heans had heard nothing more of Shaxton, though indeed along outside the walls below the Hospital, the foundations of the Model Prison were rising out of the ground. For all he knew Shaxton might be in the town or out. Each Sunday, during the two services (at eleven and three), he snatched, through a pair of spectacles he had of late procured, a secret survey of the pews in the nave. He knew with strict accuracy what persons inhabited the nearer seats, and was aware instinctively, and a few moments after the service had begun, if there was a change, and what. Shaxton, if he ever appeared, if he were not so placed, would endeavour to place himself in a conspicuous position. There was a gap of a few feet between the choir and congregation, while the first three pews on either side—that the prisoners in the wings might view the chancel—were uncurtained. In the third of these on the north of the aisle sat the Commandant and one of the military officers, while in the pew behind, half of which was curtained at back and side, Mrs. Booth and an ancient lady sat with three young children. The three pews behind and the four opposite these across the aisle were curtained in a similar manner; moreover, the persons of the few worshippers in the rearmost of these were visible to Heans only when they were on their feet. Here was a black wig, there a beflowered, there a beaver bonnet. He knew them all well enough.

Sir William had begun to look about him in the broadening summer, and doubt both his courage and craft against the pressing of the parole. He had not again been personally approached by Booth, but in three or four situations he caught upon himself that sharp, uneasy gaze. Also it had been conveyed to him by Sergeant Dores that Sir John Franklin on his late visit to the prison had made enquiries about him and had been relieved to hear how “good were his prospects.” Despite of this he had made every preparation and taken every precaution to meet his friends' communication; he had fixed upon a spot where he could come to grimmer hand-grips with the clergyman; he had snatched a view of the beach from the top of the knoll; he was even now secreting large supplies of Mrs. Dores' broad beans. And here it was—a dream seemingly—an insincere civility—the warm-hearted and exaggerated offer of too kind enthusiasm!

One Sunday afternoon, a week after the visit of the Governor of Tasmania to Government Cottage, when both Church services had been distinguished by the presence of Franklin in the pew


  ― 383 ―
beside the Commandant, and that of her Ladyship beside the Commandant's wife, when the Settlement was suffering something of a reaction after the fine comings and goings, and Heans himself regaining courage after the sinking of spirits occasioned by the sight of the great explorer who had again benevolently touched his life—on this, a fine warm day, he noted, as the congregation assembled, that the officer seated by Captain Booth had an unwonted broadness in his build, and raising his face, he saw that it was Captain Shaxton, For a second or two he dropped his eyes, endeavouring to collect his perturbed senses. When he had quieted his distress, in a sideways flutter of the eyelids, he saw seated in her Ladyship's place against the red curtain behind, a figure in a brown bonnet with averted head.

The service had not yet begun. The chimes were yet pealing over the harbour. The army of prisoners had filed two and two up the avenue, split at the tower, and wound in single file into each door of the wings, which it now filled. There they sat, to the front the men in grey, and sloping higher that all might see and be seen, they with one black and one yellow sleeve, and highest and furthest back those in Lifer's yellow. On the chest of each a great P. A. The prison officers and their women filled the body of the church. The keys had been shot in the doors. Within, thirty soldiers stood to their guns against the tower. The Chaplain sat in the pulpit, looking thoughtfully before him, waiting yet to rise and pray.

Minute after minute—yet it seemed as if nothing would turn the brown bonnet in the curtained pew. There was a long prayer softly but penetratingly spoken. A loud, deep psalm was chanted—psalm of scaffolds and arenas, the Twenty-fifth Psalm: ‘Unto thee, O Lord, do I lift up my soul. O my God, I trust in thee: let me not be ashamed.’ The Bible was read. Another long prayer. Still the lady in brown in the chocolate bonnet had not turned her head. She had arisen, seated herself, and bowed herself in prayer, but only one gleam of a cheek as pale as the feather of that straw poke showed above the high wooden pew. It seemed as though she were trying to lose herself in the reading and the prayer. Sir William Heans, as he sang in his stiff way under the great window, his book elevated, glanced at her again and yet again out of the corner of his spectacles.

He could not be certain. Nay, he did not think that it was. He believed no woman would do so strange a thing! He did not expect it of that lady. But if—if possibly it was Mrs. Shaxton sitting there—what joy, what inexpressible relief and gratitude! Think—the black somewhere up upon those hills outside; the schooner and poor Captain Stifft actually beating in under the cliffs beyond! Before God—to whom this sanctuary belonged—let them have prudence! Nay, it was not she. This person's form was slighter.




  ― 384 ―

Perhaps the poor young lady was oppressed with the distracting differences of this place of worship? But she must look about her soon. She would not go through the whole service in that still spirit. What is her face like? Is it old or young, sour or soft with pretty hope? Is she perhaps a very beautiful young woman? Has she dark hair—fair hair? What a pity she is so reserved!

A lady exposed to such a thing! Well, well, in these days we may wonder at it! It is a most singular story. In cold narrative it sounds rather an audacious feat of cool endurance. To be locked in that church with such a secret! As we walk now through the roofless ruin, and endeavour to reseat the wild-hearted lady in her pew, with only the book-rest between herself and Commandant Booth: her husband's back before her: as we endeavour to repicture the slim figure of Matilda Shaxton, stooping forward as she sits, a brown mantle about her shoulders, the renowned Commandant just in front, and beside him that humane and guilty inconsistent, Captain Shaxton, somewhat drooping-mouthed, depressed, and singing glumly—to rehear the rustle of massed humanity, to think the thought of this and that, to think the precarious hope in the brains of the three whose story we have followed, to listen to the remote determined reader in the pulpit: “And the God of peace shall bruise Satan under your feet shortly”—attempting to picture it, we are not altogether comfortable with the knowledge of how little the most clever, most omniscient officer present had any reason to connect the presence of Captain Shaxton's lady in the church with the accident that happened afterwards to the once-fashionable, now pathetic figure at the back of the choir. It was probably thought that Captain Shaxton did not know she would be confronted by Sir William Heans in the chancel when he brought his wife to the afternoon service. Then people alter so, and perhaps she did not remember him. But, if it was not known if she knew her old beau or not (for she made no effort to speak with him), it was supposed by some, who perhaps were observing him too closely, that he recognised both Captain Shaxton and his wife, and even that the sight of the lady, with its reminder of the brilliant circles in which he had moved, was partially responsible for his melancholy fate.

Sir William Heans' book quivered in his hand as he sang or sat at prayer. If it was she, what unbelievable joy! But was it she? As often as he looked aside, the face of the lady was lost in her great feathered bonnet. She sat behind Commandant Booth, her head seen just past his head, Mrs. Booth and the children being on her right and the old woman on her left. She seemed instinctively to seat herself towards the pulpit. She sat erect and a little forward, her face just so slightly bowed and so averted, she did not show hair or cheek. Her neck was long and very white, and sprang


  ― 385 ―
frailly from her white collar. She wore a heavy necklace of amber. During the prayers she sat very bowed—sadly or abstractedly, so the prisoner thought—and when she stood up, he could see but the top of her bonnet over the Commandant's shoulder. Sir William Heans felt a little oppressed and sceptical of the woman. Two psalms had been chanted. The Chaplain had prayed for this assemblage, and read. A hymn was sung, a stern old hymn by Sir Walter Scott. This woman still sat forward in her pew with her bonnet fallen and averted. But see, has she not a sad, wild air? Is it fancy there is something sorrowful in that cramped posture? Why is then the lady so oppressed as that impression Heans had of her in that last look? Heans—Heans—something frightens you—something has begun to beat at your heart in yearning—something pitiful and mournful tries your spirit in the look of that poor woman! O freedom, where is then your prize! O life, where is thy victory! What is there in that bowed figure against the curtain that brings persuasion who it is? Not its determination, not a visible fine high spirit of help, not a natural shrinking and fear, nay not that joyous message of gain and personal power—nay, Heans, a little ripple and tender eddy of loss.

It happened that during the following lesson the Chaplain “commended unto them” one “Phœbe,” “for she hath been a succourer of many.…” and Heans, as he sat with his arms folded, cast round his eyes with a sort of affright and yearning. As he did so, the bonnet seemed to turn a fraction towards him, giving a faint gleam of fairish hair, and as if she knew that he was looking at her, her head fell, and then lifted with a heavy effort, sank again, lifted, and gave him the grave anguish of the face he longed for.

Captain Shaxton wrote privately he was much hit by the sight of Heans singing away in the choir. He never forgot the old fellow standing under the window with his proud short-sighted airs, and the (ahem!) cravat. There he was among those deep-voiced, broad-arrowed choristers, piping away like the best of them. He didn't know whether to chuckle or be indignant. Perhaps the strangest jest of all was the old parson-man in the pulpit who'd befriended Heans, and had to be attacked. Captain Shaxton “never attended to a sermon so closely,” he said, “nor gave such strict attention to any other clergyman.” He looked at Heans, he wrote, and then he looked up at the old fellow in the pulpit, and was never so glad to find a brave little sentimental old gentleman droning out talk about “loving your neighbour as yourself,” and “those who have loved another having fulfilled the law.” His stature was comforting, and his text—“Oho, he liked to hear the kind old fellow saying these things.”

At the close, when the doors were unlocked, prisoners and warders had filed out, the congregation gone, the soldiers tramped


  ― 386 ―
away, and the choir had sole possession of the church, Sir William crept slowly out under the tower. The Chaplain, himself, was just behind him, and struck perhaps with his heavy air, he said, with that wistful smile of his: “What a beautiful eventide!” Heans, walking shakily from his abstraction and looking up, perceived that the light was heavy on the buildings and cove trees. A sudden excitement caught him as he saw a new wanderer in those extraordinary forests.…

previous
next