For the Term of His Natural Life

by Marcus Clarke

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Chapter X: John Rex's Revenge

Mrs Vickers, pale and sick with terror, yet sustained by that strange courage of which we have before spoken, passed rapidly under the open skylight, and prepared to ascend. Sylvia--her romance crushed by too dreadful reality-- clung to her mother with one hand, and with the other pressed close to her little bosom the "English History". In her all-absorbing fear she had forgotten to lay it down.

"Get a shawl, ma'am, or something," says Bates, "and a hat for missy."

Mrs. Vickers looked back across the space beneath the open skylight, and shuddering, shook her head. The men above swore impatiently at the delay, and the three hastened on deck.

"Who's to command the brig now?" asked undaunted Bates, as they came up.

"I am," says John Rex, "and, with these brave fellows, I'll take her round the world."

The touch of bombast was not out of place. It jumped so far with the humour of the convicts that they set up a feeble cheer, at which Sylvia frowned. Frightened as she was, the prison-bred child was as much astonished at hearing convicts cheer as a fashionable lady would be to hear her footman quote poetry. Bates, however--practical and calm-- took quite another view of the case. The bold project, so boldly avowed, seemed to him a sheer absurdity. The "Dandy" and a crew of nine convicts navigate a brig round the world! Preposterous; why, not a man aboard could work a reckoning! His nautical fancy pictured the Osprey helplessly rolling on the swell of the Southern Ocean, or hopelessly locked in the ice of the Antarctic Seas, and he dimly guessed at the fate of the deluded ten. Even if they got safe to port, the chances of final escape were all against them, for what account could they give of themselves? Overpowered by these reflections, the honest fellow made one last effort to charm his captors back to their pristine bondage.

"Fools!" he cried, "do you know what you are about to do? You will never escape. Give up the brig, and I will declare, before my God, upon the Bible, that I will say nothing, but give all good characters."

Lesly and another burst into a laugh at this wild proposition, but Rex, who had weighed his chances well beforehand, felt the force of the pilot's speech, and answered seriously.

"It's no use talking," he said, shaking his still handsome head. "We have got the brig, and we mean to keep her. I can navigate her, though I am no seaman, so you needn't talk further about it, Mr. Bates. It's liberty we require."

"What are you going to do with us?" asked Bates.

"Leave you behind."

Bates's face blanched. "What, here?"

"Yes. It don't look a picturesque spot, does it? And yet I've lived here for some years"; and he grinned.

Bates was silent. The logic of that grin was unanswerable.

"Come!" cried the Dandy, shaking off his momentary melancholy, "look alive there! Lower away the jolly-boat. Mrs. Vickers, go down to your cabin and get anything you want. I am compelled to put you ashore, but I have no wish to leave you without clothes." Bates listened, in a sort of dismal admiration, at this courtly convict. He could not have spoken like that had life depended on it. "Now, my little lady," continued Rex, "run down with your mamma, and don't be frightened."

Sylvia flashed burning red at this indignity. "Frightened! If there had been anybody else here but women, you never would have taken the brig. Frightened! Let me pass, prisoner!"

The whole deck burst into a great laugh at this, and poor Mrs. Vickers paused, trembling for the consequences of the child's temerity. To thus taunt the desperate convict who held their lives in his hands seemed sheer madness. In the boldness of the speech however, lay its safeguard. Rex--whose politeness was mere bravado--was stung to the quick by the reflection upon his courage, and the bitter accent with which the child had pronounced the word prisoner (the generic name of convicts) made him bite his lips with rage. Had he had his will, he would have struck the little creature to the deck, but the hoarse laugh of his companions warned him to forbear. There is "public opinion" even among convicts, and Rex dared not vent his passion on so helpless an object. As men do in such cases, he veiled his anger beneath an affectation of amusement. In order to show that he was not moved by the taunt, he smiled upon the taunter more graciously than ever.

"Your daughter has her father's spirit, madam," said he to Mrs. Vickers, with a bow.

Bates opened his mouth to listen. His ears were not large enough to take in the words of this complimentary convict. He began to think that he was the victim of a nightmare. He absolutely felt that John Rex was a greater man at that moment than John Bates.

As Mrs. Vickers descended the hatchway, the boat with Frere and the soldiers came within musket range, and Lesly, according to orders, fired his musket over their heads, shouting to them to lay to But Frere, boiling with rage at the manner in which the tables had been turned on him, had determined not to resign his lost authority without a struggle. Disregarding the summons, he came straight on, with his eyes fixed on the vessel. It was now nearly dark, and the figures on the deck were indistinguishable. The indignant lieutenant could but guess at the condition of affairs. Suddenly, from out of the darkness a voice hailed him--

"Hold water! back water!" it cried, and was then seemingly choked in its owner's throat.

The voice was the property of Mr. Bates. Standing near the side, he had observed Rex and Fair bring up a great pig of iron, erst used as part of the ballast of the brig, and poise it on the rail. Their intention was but too evident; and honest Bates, like a faithful watch-dog, barked to warn his master. Bloodthirsty Cheshire caught him by the throat, and Frere, unheeding, ran the boat alongside, under the very nose of the revengeful Rex.

The mass of iron fell half in-board upon the now stayed boat, and gave her sternway, with a splintered plank.

"Villains!" cried Frere, "would you swamp us?"

"Aye," laughed Rex, "and a dozen such as ye! The brig's ours, can't ye see, and we're your masters now!"

Frere, stifling an exclamation of rage, cried to the bow to hook on, but the bow had driven the boat backward, and she was already beyond arm's length of the brig. Looking up, he saw Cheshire's savage face, and heard the click of the lock as he cocked his piece. The two soldiers, exhausted by their long pull, made no effort to stay the progress of the boat, and almost before the swell caused by the plunge of the mass of iron had ceased to agitate the water, the deck of the Osprey had become invisible in the darkness.

Frere struck his fist upon the thwart in sheer impotence of rage. "The scoundrels!" he said, between his teeth, "they've mastered us. What do they mean to do next?"

The answer came pat to the question. From the dark hull of the brig broke a flash and a report, and a musket ball cut the water beside them with a chirping noise. Between the black indistinct mass which represented the brig, and the glimmering water, was visible a white speck, which gradually neared them.

"Come alongside with ye!" hailed a voice, "or it will be the worse for ye!"

"They want to murder us," says Frere. "Give way, men!"

But the two soldiers, exchanging glances one with the other, pulled the boat's head round, and made for the vessel. "It's no use, Mr. Frere," said the man nearest him; "we can do no good now, and they won't hurt us, I dare say."

"You dogs, you are in league with them," bursts out Frere, purple with indignation. "Do you mutiny?"

"Come, come, sir," returned the soldier, sulkily, "this ain't the time to bully; and, as for mutiny, why, one man's about as good as another just now."

This speech from the lips of a man who, but a few minutes before, would have risked his life to obey orders of his officer, did more than an hour's reasoning to convince Maurice Frere of the hopelessness of resistance. His authority--born of circumstance, and supported by adventitious aid--had left him. The musket shot had reduced him to the ranks. He was now no more than anyone else; indeed, he was less than many, for those who held the firearms were the ruling powers. With a groan he resigned himself to his fate, and looking at the sleeve of the undress uniform he wore, it seemed to him that virtue had gone out of it. When they reached the brig, they found that the jolly-boat had been lowered and laid alongside. In her were eleven persons; Bates with forehead gashed, and hands bound, the stunned Grimes, Russen and Fair pulling, Lyon, Riley, Cheshire, and Lesly with muskets, and John Rex in the stern sheets, with Bates's pistols in his trousers' belt, and a loaded musket across his knees. The white object which had been seen by the men in the whale-boat was a large white shawl which wrapped Mrs. Vickers and Sylvia.

Frere muttered an oath of relief when he saw this white bundle. He had feared that the child was injured. By the direction of Rex the whale-boat was brought alongside the jolly-boat, and Cheshire and Lesly boarded her. Lesly then gave his musket to Rex, and bound Frere's hands behind him, in the same manner as had been done for Bates. Frere attempted to resist this indignity, but Cheshire, clapping his musket to his ear, swore he would blow out his brains if he uttered another syllable; Frere, catching the malignant eye of John Rex, remembered how easily a twitch of the finger would pay off old scores, and was silent. "Step in here, sir, if you please," said Rex, with polite irony. "I am sorry to be compelled to tie you, but I must consult my own safety as well as your convenience." Frere scowled, and, stepping awkwardly into the jolly-boat, fell. Pinioned as he was, he could not rise without assistance, and Russen pulled him roughly to his feet with a coarse laugh. In his present frame of mind, that laugh galled him worse than his bonds.

Poor Mrs. Vickers, with a woman's quick instinct, saw this, and, even amid her own trouble, found leisure to console him. "The wretches!" she said, under her breath, as Frere was flung down beside her, "to subject you to such indignity!" Sylvia said nothing, and seemed to shrink from the lieutenant. Perhaps in her childish fancy she had pictured him as coming to her rescue, armed cap-a-pie, and clad in dazzling mail, or, at the very least, as a muscular hero, who would settle affairs out of hand by sheer personal prowess. If she had entertained any such notion, the reality must have struck coldly upon her senses. Mr. Frere, purple, clumsy, and bound, was not at all heroic.

"Now, my lads," says Rex--who seemed to have endured the cast-off authority of Frere--"we give you your choice. Stay at Hell's Gates, or come with us!"

The soldiers paused, irresolute. To join the mutineers meant a certainty of hard work, with a chance of ultimate hanging. Yet to stay with the prisoners was--as far as they could see-- to incur the inevitable fate of starvation on a barren coast. As is often the case on such occasions, a trifle sufficed to turn the scale. The wounded Grimes, who was slowly recovering from his stupor, dimly caught the meaning of the sentence, and in his obfuscated condition of intellect must needs make comment upon it. "Go with him, ye beggars!;" said he, "and leave us honest men! Oh, ye'll get a tying-up for this."

The phrase "tying-up" brought with it recollection of the worst portion of military discipline, the cat, and revived in the minds of the pair already disposed to break the yoke that sat so heavily upon them, a train of dismal memories. The life of a soldier on a convict station was at that time a hard one. He was often stinted in rations, and of necessity deprived of all rational recreation, while punishment for offences was prompt and severe. The companies drafted to the penal settlements were not composed of the best material, and the pair had good precedent for the course they were about to take.

"Come," says Rex, "I can't wait here all night. The wind is freshening, and we must make the Bar. Which is it to be?"

"We'll go with you!" says the man who had pulled the stroke in the whale-boat, spitting into the water with averted face. Upon which utterance the convicts burst into joyous oaths, and the pair were received with much hand-shaking.

Then Rex, with Lyon and Riley as a guard, got into the whale boat, and having loosed the two prisoners from their bonds, ordered them to take the place of Russen and Fair. The whale-boat was manned by the seven mutineers, Rex steering, Fair, Russen, and the two recruits pulling, and the other four standing up, with their muskets levelled at the jolly-boat. Their long slavery had begotten such a dread of authority in these men that they feared it even when it was bound and menaced by four muskets. "Keep your distance!" shouted Cheshire, as Frere and Bates, in obedience to orders, began to pull the jolly-boat towards the shore; and in this fashion was the dismal little party conveyed to the mainland.

It was night when they reached it, but the clear sky began to thrill with a late moon as yet unrisen, and the waves, breaking gently upon the beach, glimmered with a radiance born of their own motion. Frere and Bates, jumping ashore, helped out Mrs. Vickers, Sylvia, and the wounded Grimes. This being done under the muzzles of the muskets, Rex commanded that Bates and Frere should push the jolly-boat as far as they could from the shore, and Riley catching her by a boat-hook as she came towards them, she was taken in tow.

"Now, boys," says Cheshire, with a savage delight, "three cheers for old England and Liberty!"

Upon which a great shout went up, echoed by the grim hills which had witnessed so many miseries.

To the wretched five, this exultant mirth sounded like a knell of death. "Great God!" cried Bates, running up to his knees in water after the departing boats, "would you leave us here to starve?"

The only answer was the jerk and dip of the retreating oars.


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