For the Term of His Natural Life

by Marcus Clarke

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Chapter XV: The Coracle

In the morning, however, Rufus Dawes was first at work, and made no allusion to the scene of the previous evening. He had already skinned one of the goats, and he directed Frere to set to work upon another. "Cut down the rump to the hock, and down the brisket to the knee," he said. "I want the hides as square as possible." By dint of hard work they got the four goats skinned, and the entrails cleaned ready for twisting, by breakfast time; and having broiled some of the flesh, made a hearty meal. Mrs. Vickers being no better, Dawes went to see her, and seemed to have made friends again with Sylvia, for he came out of the hut with the child's hand in his. Frere, who was cutting the meat in long strips to dry in the sun, saw this, and it added fresh fuel to the fire in his unreasonable envy and jealousy. However, he said nothing, for his enemy had not yet shown him how the boat was to be made. Before midday, however, he was a partner in the secret, which, after all, was a very simple one.

Rufus Dawes took two of the straightest and most tapered of the celery-top pines which Frere had cut on the previous day, and lashed them tightly together, with the butts outwards. He thus produced a spliced stick about twelve feet long. About two feet from either end he notched the young tree until he could bend the extremities upwards; and having so bent them, he secured the bent portions in their places by means of lashings of raw hide. The spliced trees now presented a rude outline of the section of a boat, having the stem, keel, and stern all in one piece. This having been placed lengthwise between the stakes, four other poles, notched in two places, were lashed from stake to stake, running crosswise to the keel, and forming the knees. Four saplings were now bent from end to end of the upturned portions of the keel that represented stem and stern. Two of these four were placed above, as gunwales; two below as bottom rails. At each intersection the sticks were lashed firmly with fishing line. The whole framework being complete, the stakes were drawn out, and there lay upon the ground the skeleton of a boat eight feet long by three broad.

Frere, whose hands were blistered and sore, would fain have rested; but the convict would not hear of it. "Let us finish," he said regardless of his own fatigue; "the skins will be dry if we stop."

"I can work no more," says Frere sulkily; "I can't stand. You've got muscles of iron, I suppose. I haven't."

"They made me work when I couldn't stand, Maurice Frere. It is wonderful what spirit the cat gives a man. There's nothing like work to get rid of aching muscles--so they used to tell me."

"Well, what's to be done now?"

"Cover the boat. There, you can set the fat to melt, and sew these hides together. Two and two, do you see? and then sew the pair at the necks. There is plenty of catgut yonder."

"Don't talk to me as if I was a dog!" says Frere suddenly. "Be civil, can't you."

But the other, busily trimming and cutting at the projecting pieces of sapling, made no reply. It is possible that he thought the fatigued lieutenant beneath his notice. About an hour before sundown the hides were ready, and Rufus Dawes, having in the meantime interlaced the ribs of the skeleton with wattles, stretched the skins over it, with the hairy side inwards. Along the edges of this covering he bored holes at intervals, and passing through these holes thongs of twisted skin, he drew the whole to the top rail of the boat. One last precaution remained. Dipping the pannikin into the melted tallow, he plentifully anointed the seams of the sewn skins. The boat, thus turned topsy-turvy, looked like a huge walnut shell covered with red and reeking hide, or the skull of some Titan who had been scalped. "There!" cried Rufus Dawes, triumphant. "Twelve hours in the sun to tighten the hides, and she'll swim like a duck."

The next day was spent in minor preparations. The jerked goat-meat was packed securely into as small a compass as possible. The rum barrel was filled with water, and water bags were improvised out of portions of the intestines of the goats. Rufus Dawes, having filled these last with water, ran a wooden skewer through their mouths, and twisted it tight, tourniquet fashion. He also stripped cylindrical pieces of bark, and having sewn each cylinder at the side, fitted to it a bottom of the same material, and caulked the seams with gum and pine-tree resin. Thus four tolerable buckets were obtained. One goatskin yet remained, and out of that it was determined to make a sail. "The currents are strong," said Rufus Dawes, "and we shall not be able to row far with such oars as we have got. If we get a breeze it may save our lives." It was impossible to "step" a mast in the frail basket structure, but this difficulty was overcome by a simple contrivance. From thwart to thwart two poles were bound, and the mast, lashed between these poles with thongs of raw hide, was secured by shrouds of twisted fishing line running fore and aft. Sheets of bark were placed at the bottom of the craft, and made a safe flooring. It was late in the afternoon on the fourth day when these preparations were completed, and it was decided that on the morrow they should adventure the journey. "We will coast down to the Bar," said Rufus Dawes, "and wait for the slack of the tide. I can do no more now."

Sylvia, who had seated herself on a rock at a little distance, called to them. Her strength was restored by the fresh meat, and her childish spirits had risen with the hope of safety. The mercurial little creature had wreathed seaweed about her head, and holding in her hand a long twig decorated with a tuft of leaves to represent a wand, she personified one of the heroines of her books.

"I am the Queen of the Island," she said merrily, "and you are my obedient subjects. Pray, Sir Eglamour, is the boat ready?"

"It is, your Majesty," said poor Dawes.

"Then we will see it. Come, walk in front of me. I won't ask you to rub your nose upon the ground, like Man Friday, because that would be uncomfortable. Mr. Frere, you don't play?"

"Oh, yes!" says Frere, unable to withstand the charming pout that accompanied the words. "I'll play. What am I to do?"

"You must walk on this side, and be respectful. Of course it is only Pretend, you know," she added, with a quick consciousness of Frere's conceit. "Now then, the Queen goes down to the Seashore surrounded by her Nymphs! There is no occasion to laugh, Mr. Frere. Of course, Nymphs are very different from you, but then we can't help that."

Marching in this pathetically ridiculous fashion across the sand, they halted at the coracle. "So that is the boat!" says the Queen, fairly surprised out of her assumption of dignity. "You are a Wonderful Man, Mr. Dawes!"

Rufus Dawes smiled sadly. "It is very simple."

"Do you call this simple?" says Frere, who in the general joy had shaken off a portion of his sulkiness. "By George, I don't! This is ship-building with a vengeance, this is. There's no scheming about this--it's all sheer hard work."

"Yes!" echoed Sylvia, "sheer hard work--sheer hard work by good Mr. Dawes!" And she began to sing a childish chant of triumph, drawing lines and letters in the sand the while, with the sceptre of the Queen.

"Good Mr. Dawes! Good Mr. Dawes! This is the work of Good Mr. Dawes!"

Maurice could not resist a sneer.

"See-saw, Margery Daw, Sold her bed, and lay upon straw!"

said he.

"Good Mr. Dawes!" repeated Sylvia. "Good Mr. Dawes! Why shouldn't I say it? You are disagreeable, sir. I won't play with you any more," and she went off along the sand.

"Poor little child," said Rufus Dawes. "You speak too harshly to her."

Frere--now that the boat was made--had regained his self-confidence. Civilization seemed now brought sufficiently close to him to warrant his assuming the position of authority to which his social position entitled him. "One would think that a boat had never been built before to hear her talk," he said. "If this washing-basket had been one of my old uncle's three-deckers, she couldn't have said much more. By the Lord!" he added, with a coarse laugh, "I ought to have a natural talent for ship-building; for if the old villain hadn't died when he did, I should have been a ship-builder myself."

Rufus Dawes turned his back at the word "died", and busied himself with the fastenings of the hides. Could the other have seen his face, he would have been struck by its sudden pallor.

"Ah!" continued Frere, half to himself, and half to his companion, "that's a sum of money to lose, isn't it?"

"What do you mean?" asked the convict, without turning his face.

"Mean! Why, my good fellow, I should have been left a quarter of a million of money, but the old hunks who was going to give it to me died before he could alter his will, and every shilling went to a scapegrace son, who hadn't been near the old man for years. That's the way of the world, isn't it?"

Rufus Dawes, still keeping his face away, caught his breath as if in astonishment, and then, recovering himself, he said in a harsh voice, "A fortunate fellow--that son!"

"Fortunate!" cries Frere, with another oath. "Oh yes, he was fortunate! He was burnt to death in the Hydaspes, and never heard of his luck. His mother has got the money, though. I never saw a shilling of it." And then, seemingly displeased with himself for having allowed his tongue to get the better of his dignity, he walked away to the fire, musing, doubtless, on the difference between Maurice Frere, with a quarter of a million, disporting himself in the best society that could be procured, with command of dog-carts, prize-fighters, and gamecocks galore; and Maurice Frere, a penniless lieutenant, marooned on the barren coast of Macquarie Harbour, and acting as boat-builder to a runaway convict.

Rufus Dawes was also lost in reverie. He leant upon the gunwale of the much-vaunted boat, and his eyes were fixed upon the sea, weltering golden in the sunset, but it was evident that he saw nothing of the scene before him. Struck dumb by the sudden intelligence of his fortune, his imagination escaped from his control, and fled away to those scenes which he had striven so vainly to forget. He was looking far away--across the glittering harbour and the wide sea beyond it--looking at the old house at Hampstead, with its well-remembered gloomy garden. He pictured himself escaped from this present peril, and freed from the sordid thraldom which so long had held him. He saw himself returning, with some plausible story of his wanderings, to take possession of the wealth which was his--saw himself living once more, rich, free, and respected, in the world from which he had been so long an exile. He saw his mother's sweet pale face, the light of a happy home circle. He saw himself--received with tears of joy and marvelling affection--entering into this home circle as one risen from the dead. A new life opened radiant before him, and he was lost in the contemplation of his own happiness.

So absorbed was he that he did not hear the light footstep of the child across the sand. Mrs. Vickers, having been told of the success which had crowned the convict's efforts, had overcome her weakness so far as to hobble down the beach to the boat, and now, heralded by Sylvia, approached, leaning on the arm of Maurice Frere.

"Mamma has come to see the boat, Mr. Dawes!" cries Sylvia, but Dawes did not hear.

The child reiterated her words, but still the silent figure did not reply.

"Mr. Dawes!" she cried again, and pulled him by the coat-sleeve.

The touch aroused him, and looking down, he saw the pretty, thin face upturned to his. Scarcely conscious of what he did, and still following out the imagining which made him free, wealthy, and respected, he caught the little creature in his arms--as he might have caught his own daughter--and kissed her. Sylvia said nothing; but Mr. Frere--arrived, by his chain of reasoning, at quite another conclusion as to the state of affairs--was astonished at the presumption of the man. The lieutenant regarded himself as already reinstated in his old position, and with Mrs. Vickers on his arm, reproved the apparent insolence of the convict as freely as he would have done had they both been at his own little kingdom of Maria Island. "You insolent beggar!" he cried. "Do you dare! Keep your place, sir!"

The sentence recalled Rufus Dawes to reality. His place was that of a convict. What business had he with tenderness for the daughter of his master? Yet, after all he had done, and proposed to do, this harsh judgment upon him seemed cruel. He saw the two looking at the boat he had built. He marked the flush of hope on the cheek of the poor lady, and the full-blown authority that already hardened the eye of Maurice Frere, and all at once he understood the result of what he had done. He had, by his own act, given himself again to bondage. As long as escape was impracticable, he had been useful, and even powerful. Now he had pointed out the way of escape, he had sunk into the beast of burden once again. In the desert he was "Mr." Dawes, the saviour; in civilized life he would become once more Rufus Dawes, the ruffian, the prisoner, the absconder. He stood mute, and let Frere point out the excellences of the craft in silence; and then, feeling that the few words of thanks uttered by the lady were chilled by her consciousness of the ill-advised freedom he had taken with the child, he turned on his heel, and strode up into the bush.

"A queer fellow," said Frere, as Mrs. Vickers followed the retreating figure with her eyes. "Always in an ill temper." "Poor man! He has behaved very kindly to us," said Mrs. Vickers. Yet even she felt the change of circumstance, and knew that, without any reason she could name, her blind trust and hope in the convict who had saved their lives had been transformed into a patronizing kindliness which was quite foreign to esteem or affection.

"Come, let us have some supper," says Frere. "The last we shall eat here, I hope. He will come back when his fit of sulks is over."

But he did not come back, and, after a few expressions of wonder at his absence, Mrs. Vickers and her daughter, rapt in the hopes and fears of the morrow, almost forgot that he had left them. With marvellous credulity they looked upon the terrible stake they were about to play for as already won. The possession of the boat seemed to them so wonderful, that the perils of the voyage they were to make in it were altogether lost sight of. As for Maurice Frere, he was rejoiced that the convict was out of the way. He wished that he was out of the way altogether.


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