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Chapter III Sir William Joins the Wanderer

THE weather culminated on that Friday after the Shaxtons signal in a fierce hot day, and Sir William Heans in his room in the evening kept a vigilant eye on the hills, though hardly expecting the native to be yet across, and only half looking for her flaring summons so close upon Matilda's visit. He could not, however, refrain from a little despondency when the serried tiers of the forests sank unillumined into the darkness, vanishing without a spark, nor could he altogether restrain his mind from picturing the many accidents which might have befallen the woman in those cathedralled fastnesses, or in and about the necks of East Bay and Eaglehawk. A change of weather blowing up in the night, the following day was cold, so for that occasion the precious chance of communication had gone.

On the back of this disappointment came the fellow-trouble bordering on the keen and grim. He had been set one morning some rather distasteful writing in the Punishment Offices, when along came Captain. Booth's servant with a message summoning him to the Commandant's villa. With his heart in his mouth, Heans left his pen and followed the man through the archway and along the street to the gate. All the way up, and while he waited in the garden till Booth was at leisure to join him, his mind fluttered in agitation about the trouble of the parole. Week after week had passed, and here he was, without doubt, to be asked what was the result of his rather dubious deliberations for and against. How might he best again put it aside? How delay yet a few days? There was this parry, that riposte, lame enough against that keen weapon. And supposing he was unable to parry it, and Booth stripped him sudden of his play, with no defence left him—only refusal? If he found he could not give them his word? Ah, Mr. Heans, what now? What would they do with the loose string allowed, the little extraordinary freedoms, those shreds and tatters of suddenly so priceless latitude?

It was a serious moment for Sir William as he squared his shoulders and slowly paced the drive-way before the veranda. It was as beautiful a sunlit morning as you could have wished to see, the shrubs and trees lying golden and green on the sunny air, backed by grey tower, wall, and statue-crowned peak, and

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the low waters making a little sound by the wharves. He does not say, in contemplating this scene, if his mind entertained, in that grave extremity, the ease which would have opened about his plot had he greeted Captain Booth with an affirmative and taken the oath there in his garden. Perhaps it is improper in us even to chronicle the temptation.

When Commandant Booth came out upon the porch and descended the steps, Heans, who had arranged his mind in some sort, came enquiringly towards him. He was by that time ready for the troublesome eventuality, and did what he could to hide his apprehensions under a calm reserve. The Commandant looked up from a paper he was reading, and wished him “Good morning” with his determined, uneasy eyes. He immediately brought the other's heart to a standstill by asking him, “how he found the place in the summer?” On Heans politely replying that it had many attractions on a morning like “this morning,” the Commandant, balancing on the bottom step with the paper stretched in his two hands, and his eyes grimly hanging on Heans, made the horrible remark, that “given sufficient liberty of action, a man might find in Port Arthur as much contentment as a short life deserved.” The last thing that occurred to Sir William at that instant was that the grim gentleman was himself somewhat lost in the graces of his own creation, was himself lost in personal feelings, and momently startled from his caution, he said, “Yes—yes—indeed, it was like a village out of Goldsmith” (had he seen it in these later days, he might with romantic accuracy have compared it to the “Deserted Village”), “and a man only needed sufficient privacy of decision to see poetry itself behind the prison.” Such, however, was the case. Heans' luck seemed actually swinging over in his favour. The Commandant was himself only enjoying the sun a little, and thinking aloud. With a flash, and a shrug of his shoulders, he summond Heans to corroborate some items in the “register” of the Boys' Penitentiary, and grimly and thoughtfully ascended to the veranda.

Imagine Sir William Heans' relief that it didn't go any further. As he opened the gate, he whistled one of Miss Abelia's songs in the red-coat's face.

As we have said, luck seemed to be turning, for heat fell again in the following week, and Sunday broke in a suffocating sun, though with little wind. That day and night Heans' anxious eyes were constantly on the hills, but again they were unbroken by any flame or light that he could discern. Then in the morning of Monday, when rowing over to Point Puer in the whale-boat, the boatswain pointed out a small column of smoke rising from a shoulder behind Signal Hill, and expressed the opinion it was early in the year for bush fires. The day was very warm, and there was a slight breeze west and north. So remote seemed the smoke and so natural the sight, that Heans, as he sat in the stern-sheets of the six-oared vehicle, was amazed at himself,

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at the quiet manner in which he observed and discussed the phenomenon. There it was faintly ballooning into the yellow-blue sky. How shocking, how difficult, in the hot and drowsy morning, to think that that dim wraith was speaking to himself. He heard the boatswain say he must hasten to the wharf, as men would be sent to aid the soldiers from Eaglehawk. He tried to see the old woman near the smoke, or climbing away from it, in this or that high cobweb of a thousand trees. No, she would not be near it; she would be remote from it before her smoke could be seen. No (and his eyes were grim with thankfulness), more than likely she was here and now watching them from the opposite shore, behind the veiling trees of the Island of the Dead, towards which they were swinging under the prisoners' oars.

That evening the whale-boat was late in calling for him at Point Puer, and he had leisure to watch from the boat-stage the far point of the fire smarting and sinking on the gloom like a damp fuse. He learned that the blaze had been signalled as making towards Port Bunche, and that a force of prisoners and soldiers had been taken off to protect the constables' houses. We fain would have presented to the reader a picture of Sir William returning to the wharves in the stern-sheets of the boat with the forests about the harbour ablaze about his head; yet as he ascended those graceful jetties which the same element has reduced to a few odd sticks, and stepped his way, past the various guarded arches, up among the towers and battlemented houses of the peopled town, he felt the very remoteness of her signal spark was the best medicine for his confidence in the guide of Augustus Robinson, and assured him the small live light at his back was the message of human hands.

This was on Monday. On Tuesday the fire was still burning in the settled heat, and on Wednesday, though the smoke ascended only at intervals, it was still engaging the men from the Settlement. Though, in view of their comings and goings by tramway, road, and boat, Heans attended the church on Wednesday without intention of making his hazard after practice that day, yet as he strolled out of the north door with the Chaplain, he experienced all the tenseness and pathos of an invitation. They paced rather exhausted up the hot road, the clergyman sturdily brushing the flies from a somewhat red yet patient countenance. Heans walked with his arms folded, and as they passed calmly gossiping from bush to bush, covert to covert, further and further up the hill, further and further from the Settlement, lost to view to this, and then to that, and then to the other pair of eyes stationed on the terraces of the town, the impatience of Sir William with all he was dropping behind, and the tug of yearning and fine, immediate offer from that which every step of his feet marshalled further about them—the impulse to seize the ghastly changes and chances for the first time possible now and on the instant, was peculiar and overwhelming.

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He found his prudence thin. He found it but serviceable to remind himself that next Wednesday would see it done, and himself bursting out through all these straitened chains of chance and honour. The smell of ferns in the cooler places of the road, the spy-holes to the forest, the very subject on the lips of his companion pedestrian—the fire—constantly pulled him back to the fact that the blackwoman was here—had kindled her lurking signal in the hills. In the minds of these two gentlemen upon their evening stroll, the fire indeed was a pleasing subject of interest, but for very different reasons!

The Chaplain was reminded of a great conflagration which had swept the region of the Clyde, and the “race for life of a certain esteemed family, the ladies gently nurtured, on whom fortune had till then smiled propitiously. Long years of exemption from their enemy had made them contemptuous of it, and the breaks cut in the forests had been allowed to overgrow. Only a day or so before they had been speaking lightly of fire. They were taken at a single hour's notice: a sad, a solemn warning.”

“Indeed!” ejaculated Sir William Heans, glancing pensively about him that he might observe how much of the Settlement could be seen across a thicket of banksia; “just, upon my word, as the shrubs here are being allowed to reclaim this hill-side!”

“Puff,” panted the old fellow, waving the flies from his eyes, “it is like the old enemy, I think! So quickly does it take advantage of supine dealing that it almost has you unawares. Yet I would not call our fine scenery anything but a friend, a clumsy friend perhaps, but not a wicked or a violent one.”

“A friend one would prefer to retain,” said Sir William, staring vaguely before him. “Alas, how many do we meet in existence with a fault somewhat similar!”

“True,” answered the Chaplain, in half-tentative agreement, “but I presume it arises oftentimes out of the difficulties of life. There are many roads that cross, and suddenly, hardly seeing what we do, we find we are pressing, perhaps, in the path of another.”

“It is a pity, my dear sir, that that is sometimes true,” said Sir William, pausing with his hands behind him, and testing again how much he could observe of the town through the thicker weaving of foliage.

“It seems a pity,” agreed the other, waiting and smiling up at him gravely; “but, if you will pardon my freedom, I have observed that the Almighty for His reasons sometimes cramps the boundaries of life.”

“Our forbearance is to be tested, you would say, on one another?” Sir William asked.

“Well—well!” the Chaplain laughed, mildly.

“It is indeed never happy work,” said Sir William, strolling on and speaking with a saddened calm, “to endeavour to explain

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such a situation to any one. How difficult—I may say, how prononcé are many situations!”

“Some persons will not believe until they feel,” said the old fellow with his wistful smile, “and even then the surprise is too trying to them.”

“True, ill-feeling is too often so created,” said Heans, as they approached the top of the knoll. “It is, sir, I suppose, the shock upon a fellow's trust in himself and you!”

“You put it excellently, my good friend,” the intendant answered, and as he spoke he seemed to hesitate a little, as if they would go no further that evening than this secluded portion of the road. “Indeed, sir, I have known of what you hint. Our faith in mankind is not the better for things like these. Eh well—eh well, I presume, sir, we may scatter in our path a little forgiveness here—there a little forgetfulness!”

Both the Chaplain and Sir William here stopped. The latter looked about him in the hot covert—stood a moment staring at the gentleman with a calm abstraction. “Pardon me for my familiarity,” he said at last, “but you look fatigued. Shall we not curtail our promenade for this evening?” Though the old fellow would not confess to fatigue, they turned about. In the cove below was the soft labouring of evening waves.

But, as we have said, Sir William's luck was with him, and by a curious accident he was spared the keen distress of an encounter with the clergyman. This singular occurrence happened as follows.

We have already mentioned Heans' business at the Boys' Penitentiary of Point Puer, where he acted as copyist and accountant in the commissariat and workshop departments. Point Puer is a narrow neck of land which spreads across parallel with the town to a few yards from the Island of the Dead, with which at low tide it is almost connected. It is treed and formed of the same pinkish stone as the island. Upon it stood the extensive Penitentiary Buildings and Workshops, in which almost every trade was in full working order, from boat-building to book-binding, coopering to baking bread.

On the flat of rocks below the Point, where several boats were secured to a wooden slip-way, Heans was in the habit of awaiting the whale-boat after the day's business. He was sometimes accompanied by the Settlement physician, or another, like himself, returning home, but often he was alone. At times the boat was early and at times it was late. If it was likely to be late, he was generally informed so by the boatswain on his way to his work, and given the time at which it would be likely to arrive. It would vary in punctuality from half-past six to seven, and now and then considerably after. Owing to the bush fire, and previous to that, to the arrival of the Government yacht Eliza to “heave down,” when the boat was required to

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attend the tram, Heans' patience had been considerably tried by long periods of tedious waiting.

It was now the Saturday subsequent to the fire, and during the morning journey he had been informed by the boatswain that he would be later than usual in taking him off, owing to the arrival of Lieutenant-Colonel Elliot and the officers of the 51st Regiment on a visit of inspection. In the evening he came down to the landing about 6.30; wandered for a while about the low flat of rocks; and when the tide drove him back, returned to the slip and took a seat, as was his habit, in one of the boats. Two new official whale-boats had just been completed by the boat-builders, and one of these—an elaborate affair in different coloured woods—lay with others below the slip. It was a beautiful craft, light and graceful of line, part of its glowing timbers almost black, the rest of a golden wood so luminous it might almost have been a metal. She had only been launched that morning, and was the pride of her designers. She lay, half on the slip and half on the rock, the innermost of three large whale-boats, and Heans, as the tide drove him in, went and examined her, and afterwards entered and “possessed his soul in patience” in one of her seats. Sir William Heans was seen to go down to the slip to examine, and afterwards seat himself in the bow of the new boat. After that glimpse of him waiting at the landing he was never seen again.

From Sir William's account the night seems to have been sultry, with a fitful breeze “howing” over the Point from the harbour heads. As twilight fell, finding himself yawning and heavy with the atmosphere, he rose and reseated himself in the bottom of the boat, his back and head propped against a seat. In this position he remained, half napping, half reflecting, till presently he actually fell asleep. He awoke with a start, oppressed with the smell of new varnish, with his head on the bottom. He had been jerked from his first position. Everything had changed: it was dark, a strong wind was blowing, and the boat rose bodily and fell on the water. He sat up. The tossing sea without was fuming up a haze between him and the Port Arthur lamps. All was silent except water, wind, and a slight scraping as the boats were swung together. The boat-swain was late—no sound of him beneath the scurry of leaves. Heans became alarmed at the free movement of the bow in which he lay, and though there was a light visible on the cliffs above, and he knew where he was, he scrambled to his knees, and felt for the gunwale of the boat on his right. His hand at first found nothing, but further out, he struck clumsily not on the side but on the round stern of the old whale-boat, his hand slipping into the corner. He at once reflected that for her bow to take such a position, the new boat must have been working outward along the old craft, and something had given way under the tease of wind and wave. He pushed up hastily into the bow, and felt for the

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rope, by which he might draw her back to safety. There was no rope in the ringbolt, nor did it seem from the smoothness of the paint as if there had ever yet been one there. He then felt about over her bow-decking with no success, but afterwards groping underneath, he found a great pin had been driven into the wood (to save doubtless the paint upon her bow-works) and this was now bent outward—probably by the vanished rope.

Whether the tide was an out-of-the-way high one; whether the new craft had some fault or trait which made her uncommon gamblesome upon her mooring; whether the very lightness of her timbers made her jerk the more disastrous upon her stay; here she was, loose, and scraping away.

The wind was now blowing wildly over the Point, and if the boat had got out, Heans reflected, he alone could hardly have poled her back. There was an earth-grey sky over the warm and pitchy dark, with a flare of invisible stars. In the wind a few tepid rain-drops. It is an ill wind that blows no one any good!

He says he was about to stretch across and grope for the stern of the old boat, when, quick as a flash, a way out of his difficulties occurred to him. He sank in the wind and rattle upon the bottom planking, and for a few rapid heart-beats considered the singular chance thrown in his way. Cautiously he rose on his arm. He could not consult his watch, but considered it was not much after 7.30. The gale which was delaying the commandant's guests, the noise, and black, were a romantic chance. He had waited for the whale-boat in all weathers, and his ears were accustomed to seek the jolt of her sweeps. He was rapidly convinced she was not approaching, even if she had left the wharves. Even as he lay under the gunwale, straining his hearing, the bow with a loud “creak” swung out, and he knew if he was to get her back he had no time to lose. He saw he could no longer haul her in by the gunwale of the old boat. He remained clinging breathless as he was to the bottom. By his side were four great sweeps, and as the boat dived and nodded further into the wash of the sea, he lifted and tried the weight of one of these. Again by the puff over the gunwale, and a sudden list, he felt the wind had found her. He felt the beautiful craft shudder uneasily into freedom.

He found courage to lie perdu, however, till she seemed to be swung like a cradle; then, staggering up, he clumsily fitted the two sweeps upon their pins. Before he fell upon the seat between, he threw a wild “help” towards the slip, and another into the rattling grey curtain of the bay. He might with little suspicion have even now turned her head and tugged her back towards the Point, but when there was no voice (nothing but the wash and wind) on either side, he worked her about only till she faced Long Bay, and settling down in some real difficulty with the oars, began to help her away with the wind. The wuther of

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the night was with him. Upon his right he held the smudgy flicker of Port Arthur, and high in the swinging trees behind, the windows of the Point Puer Buildings, dimming as they rose and fell. The elaborate craft, all grandeur as she was, was light and manageable for her length, and he could feel immediately a fine answer of her heavy bow to the fall of his sweeps. He confesses that he pulled wild and ragged enough, but presently slowed, using his strength more calmly. Quickly after, he rose a glimmer on his left, which he knew must be the cottage of the sexton who lived beside the dead on Cemetery Island, and pulling her out for fear of the shallows, he gasped a wild prayer as it ran by him like a shuddering mast.

In this romantic way Sir William found and took his chance. Thus he began his race in good earnest from the prison and prisoning hills of that Port Arthur whose fluttering bracket-lamps flecked the nether wuther of dark and wind.

Under the Isle of the Dead, he turned her round, and pointed for his hills. The gale swept him away; but when he had got the shelter of the trees of the island between him and Point Puer, and thrust her out across the wind, still her ladyship preferred to make Long Bay upon her broadside. This would never do. Changing his mind, he got her head again to the wind and her will, and having had enough of the experience, and the breakers of the channel, and fearful of losing his bearings with the Port Arthur lights, he set a course as much east as he dared of Long Bay, aiming with his utmost strength to force her as far as possible along between Conapanny and the arm.

But for her unruly head, he might have cast away his left oar, so intent was all his skill and handling on his right, which alone constrained her from Long Bay and the likely course of the pursuing boat. Every fibre of his elderly powers was thus engaged in conquering so much of the wind, and he was aided in many an unthought way by the distinguished make of boat and sweeps, the latter, though made each for a double pair of arms, being fashioned in a mysterious and knowledgeable harmony with the picturesque vehicle and the romantic personages they had been meant to propel. He rowed as he had never rowed, rising up and tugging her in against the sea; now labouring her round as she played half-wilful into danger or swung haughty and contemptuous over the very yawn of tide and wind, and feeling only a passing peace of mind when he most felt the strain of her tossing and mettlesome displeasure. Thus he frantic tugged till he felt he had won a margin of easting from the drift and the barge's inclinations, and so began to hope for the end. For the sea was dark and wide, and the indented, forest-skirted beach meandered its ragged miles and miles, and who was to know to what spot upon it he was gone? Thus, I say, he ran her on till—breathless and exhausted—he began to hope for the sound of a white shore upon the unpeopled darks. Several times he

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thought he heard the pæan of a beach, and had much steady pulling and mastering of my lady before he was punished back to the empty crying of endless water. He fancied he heard at this more heavy-hearted time (and lost with a gasp of chilly horror) one fearful rapid jolting of oars. Again there were two long hails or shouts in some dim corner in the west. Yet again he heard a sudden, mighty sound like the wind in the cordage of a ship, and was in doubt and distress, thinking that pale glimmer of the Commandant's windows had got changed for Point Puer and he was out in the channel. After that blind obstinacy growing blinder. And so on, in a sort of stupor of mechanical agony (no more liking the black places where he was) till he was waked sharp right on top of a hand's-breadth of gnarled beach, and pulled in the boat amid a pleasant and mighty blowing of enormous trees.

Heans did not sit long in the wave-beaten boat, but preparing his nether garments in the best manner for the service, and with his shoes in his hand, he left her ladyship to her own quarrel and hurried off east in the water. He did not know yet with any certainly where he was. He might be perilously close to the head of Long Bay, or miles east of where he hoped to land, though, as he says, he had always had a faculty for places, and was inwardly persuaded he had hit near his mark. The thing was to run from the boat. From her bottom planking he took a small boat-hook to serve him as a staff, throwing overboard all the other fittings he could lay a hasty hand upon, to give what appearance he could of disaster. And away he went, feeling his way by the waves about his steps.

And here we bid good-bye (with the absconder) “to the bedecked and beautiful craft which was afterwards to carry so many distinguished persons back and forwards over these waters, upon whose dark wavelets she was thus wildly born.”

And what of Sir William Heans in these disreputable ways? How would you and I, O Reader, have felt pushing along those wastes of blowing beach, up to our knees in water, in search of a wraith of help—an old native woman? What prudent, pleasant thing would we have had to say about it afterwards? Yet when he had left the galley in the safe distance, perhaps, the worst was in that doubt that hung in these mysterious deeps of trees, whose song was great with emptiness. Could the woman be here? Yet as he buffeted his way about a rocky point, or splashed into the shelter of a sandy inlet; as he found a path here about a fallen giant, there an obstructing headland; as one long, swinging reach gave place to another, and he felt by the rain upon the left side of his face that he must have turned at last into the coast opposite the prison—nay was now, indeed, under his own mountains—as steadier and steadier grew his confidence in the veranda of the woods and died his starting mistrust of the lashing and ebbing sea: who will say that hope

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was not born in his uncrediting breast, who will say that his spirit sank and never fluttered again into a species of elderly elation?

These reverberating ways, the warm rain beating upon the wild wind, each heaving, water-logged step, would have been an increasing happiness with a touch less anxiety about the old guide and the morrow. “The tragic distresses of portions of our lives,” he writes philosophically to his friend Sir Charles, “make at worst a pleasant interest for the young of future ages. Such is life! And the thought ought to uphold us in moments of grave and perhaps bewildered effort.”

In a gap where the goblin-range from the sea-heads ends, and the one from up harbour passes in behind like a wall (as may be seen from the ruins), there was good shelter for the fugitive, and to win as near to this as he could before morning was his struggle, He had narrowly examined the shoulder from the settlement. It was his best landmark to the place of appointment given to the woman—a spot in line with Dead Island and the Signal Station on Mount Arthur over behind the prison.

When Sir William Heans judged, by the witch-lights of Port Arthur, and by instinct, he was in measurable distance of this point, he elected to rest himself and pass the time till light arrived in a tree, by a great fragment of whose boughs, washed by the tide, he ascended to the lower part of the trunk. Being afraid of falling, he did not permit himself to more than rest (indeed, he was too fevered for sleep), and at the first gaze of dawn he returned immediately into the water. As the fog swept by, he found right outside him, like a forest in the sea, the great shoulder of trees, and advancing for some forty minutes, he climbed again from water to scrub, ascending in the bracken and “brambly wilderness” to a point of vantage where he lay down to await a glimpse of Dead Island and Mount Arthur. There had been one heavy shower of rain after two o'clock, but it was now fine. The wind was from the north. The day broke grey and warm. He fell into a short nap. When he awoke the sun had dispersed the gloom of night from the lake, and in the centre lay Dead Island, with a couple of boats pulling round in the heaving channel-way, while to the south-west behind the spire of the village lifted the peak of Mount Arthur, mantled with mossy forests. A few minutes later he was retracing his steps along the hills, ascending higher as he went. Towards nine o'clock he brought mountain and island into line. He stood looking about him in a glen of fern and heath, so wild and empty with wind his soul despaired of such a guest as another human figure. With the two boats swaying now between himself and Dead Island, he hardly dared to raise a halloo. He, however, gave a low call. The wuther of the foliage answered him. He called again with a certain importunity. A bird scattered away, an insect clipped from the

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ferns. He ascended some distance further, along and upward. Shortly after he heard a tapping noise, very slightly, as might have been made by the beak of a woodpecker. In deep despondency he descended towards the sound, for he thought it likely to be the natural noise of an animal. Twice in so many minutes he caught it again. He climbed down till he came above a glade of great gnarled gums. Oh Heaven—in the stem of one of these some one had recently cut a gash with an instrument! It was fresh and red. A little higher, towards a horizontal limb, there was a second cut in the bark. On the limb itself, there sat a sort of bundle of old clothes very still, and presently, out of this, an arm projected, and began deftly to hack at the lurking place of some marsupial!