For the Term of His Natural Life

by Marcus Clarke

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Chapter II: The Solitary of "Hell's Gates"

"Hell's Gates," formed by a rocky point, which runs abruptly northward, almost touches, on its eastern side, a projecting arm of land which guards the entrance to King's River. In the middle of the gates is a natural bolt--that is to say, an island-which, lying on a sandy bar in the very jaws of the current, creates a double whirlpool, impossible to pass in the smoothest weather. Once through the gates, the convict, chained on the deck of the inward-bound vessel, sees in front of him the bald cone of the Frenchman's Cap, piercing the moist air at a height of five thousand feet; while, gloomed by overhanging rocks, and shadowed by gigantic forests, the black sides of the basin narrow to the mouth of the Gordon. The turbulent stream is the colour of indigo, and, being fed by numerous rivulets, which ooze through masses of decaying vegetable matter, is of so poisonous a nature that it is not only undrinkable, but absolutely kills the fish, which in stormy weather are driven in from the sea. As may be imagined, the furious tempests which beat upon this exposed coast create a strong surf-line. After a few days of north-west wind the waters of the Gordon will be found salt for twelve miles up from the bar. The head-quarters of the settlement were placed on an island not far from the mouth of this inhospitable river, called Sarah Island.

Though now the whole place is desolate, and a few rotting posts and logs alone remain-mute witnesses of scenes of agony never to be revived--in the year 1833 the buildings were numerous and extensive. On Philip's Island, on the north side of the harbour, was a small farm, where vegetables were grown for the use of the officers of the establishment; and, on Sarah Island, were sawpits, forges, dockyards, gaol, guard-house, barracks, and jetty. The military force numbered about sixty men, who, with convict-warders and constables, took charge of more than three hundred and fifty prisoners. These miserable wretches, deprived of every hope, were employed in the most degrading labour. No beast of burden was allowed on the settlement; all the pulling and dragging was done by human beings. About one hundred "good-conduct" men were allowed the lighter toil of dragging timber to the wharf, to assist in shipbuilding; the others cut down the trees that fringed the mainland, and carried them on their shoulders to the water's edge. The denseness of the scrub and bush rendered it necessary for a "roadway," perhaps a quarter of a mile in length, to be first constructed; and the trunks of trees, stripped of their branches, were rolled together in this roadway, until a "slide" was made, down which the heavier logs could be shunted towards the harbour. The timber thus obtained was made into rafts, and floated to the sheds, or arranged for transportation to Hobart Town. The convicts were lodged on Sarah Island, in barracks flanked by a two-storied prison, whose "cells" were the terror of the most hardened. Each morning they received their breakfast of porridge, water, and salt, and then rowed, under the protection of their guard, to the wood-cutting stations, where they worked without food, until night. The launching and hewing of the timber compelled them to work up to their waists in water. Many of them were heavily ironed. Those who died were buried on a little plot of ground, called Halliday's Island (from the name of the first man buried there), and a plank stuck into the earth, and carved with the initials of the deceased, was the only monument vouchsafed him.

Sarah Island, situated at the south-east corner of the harbour, is long and low. The commandant's house was built in the centre, having the chaplain's house and barracks between it and the gaol. The hospital was on the west shore, and in a line with it lay the two penitentiaries. Lines of lofty palisades ran round the settlement, giving it the appearance of a fortified town. These palisades were built for the purpose of warding off the terrific blasts of wind, which, shrieking through the long and narrow bay as through the keyhole of a door, had in former times tore off roofs and levelled boat-sheds. The little town was set, as it were, in defiance of Nature, at the very extreme of civilization, and its inhabitants maintained perpetual warfare with the winds and waves.

But the gaol of Sarah Island was not the only prison in this desolate region.

At a little distance from the mainland is a rock, over the rude side of which the waves dash in rough weather. On the evening of the 3rd December, 1833, as the sun was sinking behind the tree-tops on the left side of the harbour, the figure of a man appeared on the top of this rock. He was clad in the coarse garb of a convict, and wore round his ankles two iron rings, connected by a short and heavy chain. To the middle of this chain a leathern strap was attached, which, splitting in the form of a T, buckled round his waist, and pulled the chain high enough to prevent him from stumbling over it as he walked. His head was bare, and his coarse, blue-striped shirt, open at the throat, displayed an embrowned and muscular neck. Emerging from out a sort of cell, or den, contrived by nature or art in the side of the cliff, he threw on a scanty fire, which burned between two hollowed rocks, a small log of pine wood, and then returning to his cave, and bringing from it an iron pot, which contained water, he scooped with his toil-hardened hands a resting-place for it in the ashes, and placed it on the embers. It was evident that the cave was at once his storehouse and larder, and that the two hollowed rocks formed his kitchen.

Having thus made preparations for supper, he ascended a pathway which led to the highest point of the rock. His fetters compelled him to take short steps, and, as he walked, he winced as though the iron bit him. A handkerchief or strip of cloth was twisted round his left ankle; on which the circlet had chafed a sore. Painfully and slowly, he gained his destination, and flinging himself on the ground, gazed around him. The afternoon had been stormy, and the rays of the setting sun shone redly on the turbid and rushing waters of the bay. On the right lay Sarah Island; on the left the bleak shore of the opposite and the tall peak of the Frenchman's Cap; while the storm hung sullenly over the barren hills to the eastward. Below him appeared the only sign of life. A brig was being towed up the harbour by two convict-manned boats.

The sight of this brig seemed to rouse in the mind of the solitary of the rock a strain of reflection, for, sinking his chin upon his hand, he fixed his eyes on the incoming vessel, and immersed himself in moody thought. More than an hour had passed, yet he did not move. The ship anchored, the boats detached themselves from her sides, the sun sank, and the bay was plunged in gloom. Lights began to twinkle along the shore of the settlement. The little fire died, and the water in the iron pot grew cold; yet the watcher on the rock did not stir. With his eyes staring into the gloom, and fixed steadily on the vessel, he lay along the barren cliff of his lonely prison as motionless as the rock on which he had stretched himself.

This solitary man was Rufus Dawes.


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