For the Term of His Natural Life

by Marcus Clarke

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Chapter IX: Woman's Weapons

The two discoverers of this awkward secret held a council of war. Vickers was for at once calling the guard, and announcing to the prisoners that the plot--whatever it might be--had been discovered; but Pine, accustomed to convict ships, overruled this decision.

"You don't know these fellows as well as I do," said he. "In the first place there may be no mutiny at all. The whole thing is, perhaps, some absurdity of that fellow Dawes--and should we once put the notion of attacking us into the prisoners' heads, there is no telling what they might do."

"But the man seemed certain," said the other. "He mentioned my wife's maid, too!"

"Suppose he did?--and, begad, I dare say he's right--I never liked the look of the girl. To tell them that we have found them out this time won't prevent 'em trying it again. We don't know what their scheme is either. If it is a mutiny, half the ship's company may be in it. No, Captain Vickers, allow me, as surgeon-superintendent, to settle our course of action. You are aware that--"

"--That, by the King's Regulations, you are invested with full powers," interrupted Vickers, mindful of discipline in any extremity. "Of course, I merely suggested--and I know nothing about the girl, except that she brought a good character from her last mistress--a Mrs. Crofton I think the name was. We were glad to get anybody to make a voyage like this."

"Well," says Pine, "look here. Suppose we tell these scoundrels that their design, whatever it may be, is known. Very good. They will profess absolute ignorance, and try again on the next opportunity, when, perhaps, we may not know anything about it. At all events, we are completely ignorant of the nature of the plot and the names of the ringleaders. Let us double the sentries, and quietly get the men under arms. Let Miss Sarah do what she pleases, and when the mutiny breaks out, we will nip it in the bud; clap all the villains we get in irons, and hand them over to the authorities in Hobart Town. I am not a cruel man, sir, but we have got a cargo of wild beasts aboard, and we must be careful."

"But surely, Mr. Pine, have you considered the probable loss of life? I--really--some more humane course perhaps? Prevention, you know--"

Pine turned round upon him with that grim practicality which was a part of his nature. "Have you considered the safety of the ship, Captain Vickers? You know, or have heard of, the sort of things that take place in these mutinies. Have you considered what will befall those half-dozen women in the soldiers' berths? Have you thought of the fate of your own wife and child?"

Vickers shuddered.

"Have it your way, Mr. Pine; you know best perhaps. But don't risk more lives than you can help."

"Be easy, sir," says old Pine; "I am acting for the best; upon my soul I am. You don't know what convicts are, or rather what the law has made 'em--yet--"

"Poor wretches!" says Vickers, who, like many martinets, was in reality tender-hearted. "Kindness might do much for them. After all, they are our fellow-creatures."

"Yes," returned the other, "they are. But if you use that argument to them when they have taken the vessel, it won't avail you much. Let me manage, sir; and for God's sake, say nothing to anybody. Our lives may hang upon a word."

Vickers promised, and kept his promise so far as to chat cheerily with Blunt and Frere at dinner, only writing a brief note to his wife to tell her that, whatever she heard, she was not to stir from her cabin until he came to her; he knew that, with all his wife's folly, she would obey unhesitatingly, when he couched an order in such terms.

According to the usual custom on board convict ships, the guards relieved each other every two hours, and at six p.m. the poop guard was removed to the quarter-deck, and the arms which, in the daytime, were disposed on the top of the arm-chest, were placed in an arm-rack constructed on the quarter-deck for that purpose. Trusting nothing to Frere--who, indeed, by Pine's advice, was, as we have seen, kept in ignorance of the whole matter--Vickers ordered all the men, save those who had been on guard during the day, to be under arms in the barrack, forbade communication with the upper deck, and placed as sentry at the barrack door his own servant, an old soldier, on whose fidelity he could thoroughly rely. He then doubled the guards, took the keys of the prison himself from the non-commissioned officer whose duty it was to keep them, and saw that the howitzer on the lower deck was loaded with grape. It was a quarter to seven when Pine and he took their station at the main hatchway, determined to watch until morning.

At a quarter past seven, any curious person looking through the window of Captain Blunt's cabin would have seen an unusual sight. That gallant commander was sitting on the bed-place, with a glass of rum and water in his hand, and the handsome waiting-maid of Mrs. Vickers was seated on a stool by his side. At a first glance it was perceptible that the captain was very drunk. His grey hair was matted all ways about his reddened face, and he was winking and blinking like an owl in the sunshine. He had drunk a larger quantity of wine than usual at dinner, in sheer delight at the approaching assignation, and having got out the rum bottle for a quiet "settler" just as the victim of his fascinations glided through the carefully-adjusted door, he had been persuaded to go on drinking.

"Cuc-come, Sarah," he hiccuped. "It's all very fine, my lass, but you needn't be so--hic--proud, you know. I'm a plain sailor--plain s'lor, Srr'h. Ph'n'as Bub--blunt, commander of the Mal-Mal- Malabar. Wors' 'sh good talkin'?"

Sarah allowed a laugh to escape her, and artfully protruded an ankle at the same time. The amorous Phineas lurched over, and made shift to take her hand.

"You lovsh me, and I--hic--lovsh you, Sarah. And a preshus tight little craft you--hic--are. Giv'sh--kiss, Sarah."

Sarah got up and went to the door.

"Wotsh this? Goin'! Sarah, don't go," and he staggered up; and with the grog swaying fearfully in one hand, made at her.

The ship's bell struck the half-hour. Now or never was the time. Blunt caught her round the waist with one arm, and hiccuping with love and rum, approached to take the kiss he coveted. She seized the moment, surrendered herself to his embrace, drew from her pocket the laudanum bottle, and passing her hand over his shoulder, poured half its contents into the glass

"Think I'm--hic--drunk, do yer? Nun--not I, my wench."

"You will be if you drink much more. Come, finish that and be quiet, or I'll go away."

But she threw a provocation into her glance as she spoke, which belied her words, and which penetrated even the sodden intellect of poor Blunt. He balanced himself on his heels for a moment, and holding by the moulding of the cabin, stared at her with a fatuous smile of drunken admiration, then looked at the glass in his hand, hiccuped with much solemnity thrice, and, as though struck with a sudden sense of duty unfulfilled, swallowed the contents at a gulp. The effect was almost instantaneous. He dropped the tumbler, lurched towards the woman at the door, and then making a half-turn in accordance with the motion of the vessel, fell into his bunk, and snored like a grampus.

Sarah Purfoy watched him for a few minutes, and then having blown out the light, stepped out of the cabin, and closed the door behind her. The dusky gloom which had held the deck on the previous night enveloped all forward of the main-mast. A lantern swung in the forecastle, and swayed with the motion of the ship. The light at the prison door threw a glow through the open hatch, and in the cuddy, at her right hand, the usual row of oil-lamps burned. She looked mechanically for Vickers, who was ordinarily there at that hour, but the cuddy was empty. So much the better, she thought, as she drew her dark cloak around her, and tapped at Frere's door. As she did so, a strange pain shot through her temples, and her knees trembled. With a strong effort she dispelled the dizziness that had almost overpowered her, and held herself erect. It would never do to break down now.

The door opened, and Maurice Frere drew her into the cabin. "So you have come?" said he.

"You see I have. But, oh! if I should be seen!"

"Seen? Nonsense! Who is to see you?"

"Captain Vickers, Doctor Pine, anybody."

"Not they. Besides, they've gone off down to Pine's cabin since dinner. They're all right."

Gone off to Pine's cabin! The intelligence struck her with dismay. What was the cause of such an unusual proceeding? Surely they did not suspect! "What do they want there?" she asked.

Maurice Frere was not in the humour to argue questions of probability. "Who knows? I don't. Confound 'em," he added, "what does it matter to us? We don't want them, do we, Sarah?"

She seemed to be listening for something, and did not reply. Her nervous system was wound up to the highest pitch of excitement. The success of the plot depended on the next five minutes.

"What are you staring at? Look at me, can't you? What eyes you have! And what hair!"

At that instant the report of a musket-shot broke the silence. The mutiny had begun!

The sound awoke the soldier to a sense of his duty. He sprang to his feet, and disengaging the arms that clung about his neck, made for the door. The moment for which the convict's accomplice had waited approached. She hung upon him with all her weight. Her long hair swept across his face, her warm breath was on his cheek, her dress exposed her round, smooth shoulder. He, intoxicated, conquered, had half-turned back, when suddenly the rich crimson died away from her lips, leaving them an ashen grey colour. Her eyes closed in agony; loosing her hold of him, she staggered to her feet, pressed her hands upon her bosom, and uttered a sharp cry of pain.

The fever which had been on her two days, and which, by a strong exercise of will, she had struggled against--encouraged by the violent excitement of the occasion--had attacked her at this supreme moment. Deathly pale and sick, she reeled to the side of the cabin. There was another shot, and a violent clashing of arms; and Frere, leaving the miserable woman to her fate, leapt out on to the deck.


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