The "little gathering" of which Major Vickers had spoken to Mr. Meekin, had grown into something larger than he had anticipated. Instead of a quiet dinner at which his own household, his daughter's betrothed, and the stranger clergyman only should be present, the Major found himself entangled with Mesdames Protherick and Jellicoe, Mr. McNab of the garrison, and Mr. Pounce of the civil list. His quiet Christmas dinner had grown into an evening party.
The conversation was on the usual topic.
"Heard anything about that fellow Dawes?" asked Mr. Pounce.
"Not yet," says Frere, sulkily, "but he won't be out long. I've got a dozen men up the mountain."
"I suppose it is not easy for a prisoner to make good his escape?" says Meekin.
"Oh, he needn't be caught," says Frere, "if that's what you mean; but he'll starve instead. The bushranging days are over now, and it's a precious poor look-out for any man to live upon luck in the bush."
"Indeed, yes," says Mr. Pounce, lapping his soup. "This island seems specially adapted by Providence for a convict settlement; for with an admirable climate, it carries little indigenous vegetation which will support human life."
"Wull," said McNab to Sylvia, "I don't think Prauvidence had any thocht o' caunveect deesiplin whun He created the cauleny o' Van Deemen's Lan'."
"Neither do I," said Sylvia.
"I don't know," says Mrs. Protherick. "Poor Protherick used often to say that it seemed as if some Almighty Hand had planned the Penal Settlements round the coast, the country is so delightfully barren."
"Ay, Port Arthur couldn't have been better if it had been made on purpose," says Frere; "and all up the coast from Tenby to St. Helen's there isn't a scrap for human being to make a meal on. The West Coast is worse. By George, sir, in the old days, I remember--"
"By the way," says Meekin, "I've got something to show you. Rex's confession. I brought it down on purpose."
"His account of his adventures after he left Macquarie Harbour. I am going to send it to the Bishop."
"Oh, I should like to see it," said Sylvia, with heightened colour. "The story of these unhappy men has a personal interest for me."
"A forbidden subject, Poppet."
"No, papa, not altogether forbidden; for it does not affect me now as it used to do. You must let me read it, Mr. Meekin."
"A pack of lies, I expect," said Frere, with a scowl. "That scoundrel Rex couldn't tell the truth to save his life."
"You misjudge him, Captain Frere," said Meekin. "All the prisoners are not hardened in iniquity like Rufus Dawes. Rex is, I believe, truly penitent, and has written a most touching letter to his father."
"A letter!" said Vickers. "You know that, by the King's--no, the Queen's Regulations, no letters are allowed to be sent to the friends of prisoners without first passing through the hands of the authorities."
"I am aware of that, Major, and for that reason have brought it with me, that you may read it for yourself. It seems to me to breathe a spirit of true piety."
"Let's have a look at it," said Frere.
"Here it is," returned Meekin, producing a packet; "and when the cloth is removed, I will ask permission of the ladies to read it aloud. It is most interesting."
A glance of surprise passed between the ladies Protherick and Jellicoe. The idea of a convict's letter proving interesting! Mr. Meekin was new to the ways of the place.
Frere, turning the packet between his finger, read the address:-
John Rex, sen.,
Care of Mr. Blicks,
38, Bishopsgate Street Within,
"Why can't he write to his father direct?" said he. "Who's Blick?"
"A worthy merchant, I am told, in whose counting-house the fortunate Rex passed his younger days. He had a tolerable education, as you are aware."
"Educated prisoners are always the worst," said Vickers. "James, some more wine. We don't drink toasts here, but as this is Christmas Eve, 'Her Majesty the Queen'!"
"Hear, hear, hear!" says Maurice. "'Her Majesty the Queen'!"
Having drunk this loyal toast with due fervour, Vickers proposed, "His Excellency Sir John Franklin", which toast was likewise duly honoured.
"Here's a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to you, sir," said Frere, with the letter still in his hand. "God bless us all."
"Amen!" says Meekin piously. "Let us hope He will; and now, leddies, the letter. I will read you the Confession afterwards." Opening the packet with the satisfaction of a Gospel vineyard labourer who sees his first vine sprouting, the good creature began to read aloud:
"'Hobart Town, "'December 27, 1838. "'My Dear Father,--Through all the chances, changes, and vicissitudes of my chequered life, I never had a task so painful to my mangled feelings as the present one, of addressing you from this doleful spot--my sea-girt prison, on the beach of which I stand a monument of destruction, driven by the adverse winds of fate to the confines of black despair, and into the vortex of galling misery.'"
"Poetical!" said Frere.
"'I am just like a gigantic tree of the forest which has stood many a wintry blast, and stormy tempest, but now, alas! I am become a withered trunk, with all my greenest and tenderest branches lopped off. Though fast attaining middle age, I am not filling an envied and honoured post with credit and respect. No--I shall be soon wearing the garb of degradation, and the badge and brand of infamy at P.A., which is, being interpreted, Port Arthur, the 'Villain's Home'."
"Poor fellow!" said Sylvia.
"Touching, is it not?" assented Meekin, continuing--
"'I am, with heartrending sorrow and anguish of soul, ranged and mingled with the Outcasts of Society. My present circumstances and pictures you will find well and truly drawn in the 102nd Psalm, commencing with the 4th verse to the 12th inclusive, which, my dear father, I request you will read attentively before you proceed any further.'"
"Hullo!" said Frere, pulling out his pocket-book, "what's that? Read those numbers again." Mr. Meekin complied, and Frere grinned. "Go on," he said. "I'll show you something in that letter directly."
"'Oh, my dear father, avoid, I beg of you, the reading of profane books. Let your mind dwell upon holy things, and assiduously study to grow in grace. Psalm lxxiii 2. Yet I have hope even in this, my desolate condition. Psalm xxxv 18. "For the Lord our God is merciful, and inclineth His ear unto pity".'"
"Blasphemous dog!" said Vickers. "You don't believe all that, Meekin, do you?" The parson reproved him gently. "Wait a moment, sir, until I have finished."
"'Party spirit runs very high, even in prison in Van Diemen's Land. I am sorry to say that a licentious press invariably evinces a very great degree of contumely, while the authorities are held in respect by all well-disposed persons, though it is often endeavoured by some to bring on them the hatred and contempt of prisoners. But I am glad to tell you that all their efforts are without avail; but, nevertheless, do not read in any colonial newspaper. There is so much scurrility and vituperation in their productions.'"
"That's for your benefit, Frere," said Vickers, with a smile. "You remember what was said about your presence at the race meetings?"
"Of course," said Frere. "Artful scoundrel! Go on, Mr. Meekin, pray."
"'I am aware that you will hear accounts of cruelty and tyranny, said, by the malicious and the evil-minded haters of the Government and Government officials, to have been inflicted by gaolers on convicts. To be candid, this is not the dreadful place it has been represented to be by vindictive writers. Severe flogging and heavy chaining is sometimes used, no doubt, but only in rare cases; and nominal punishments are marked out by law for slight breaches of discipline. So far as I have an opportunity of judging, the lash is never bestowed unless merited.'"
"As far as he is concerned, I don't doubt it!" said Frere, cracking a walnut.
"'The texts of Scripture quoted by our chaplain have comforted me much, and I have much to be grateful for; for after the rash attempt I made to secure my freedom, I have reason to be thankful for the mercy shown to me. Death--dreadful death of soul and body--would have been my portion; but, by the mercy of Omnipotence, I have been spared to repentance--John iii. I have now come to bitterness. The chaplain, a pious gentleman, says it never really pays to steal. "Lay up for yourselves treasures in Heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt." Honesty is the best policy, I am convinced, and I would not for £1,000 repeat my evil courses-- Psalm xxxviii 14. When I think of the happy days I once passed with good Mr. Blicks, in the old house in Blue Anchor Yard, and reflect that since that happy time I have recklessly plunged in sin, and stolen goods and watches, studs, rings, and jewellery, become, indeed, a common thief, I tremble with remorse, and fly to prayer--Psalm v. Oh what sinners we are! Let me hope that now I, by God's blessing placed beyond temptation, will live safely, and that some day I even may, by the will of the Lord Jesus, find mercy for my sins. Some kind of madness has method in it, but madness of sin holds us without escape. Such is, dear father, then, my hope and trust for my remaining life here--Psalm c 74. I owe my bodily well-being to Captain Maurice Frere, who was good enough to speak of my conduct in reference to the Osprey, when, with Shiers, Barker, and others, we captured that vessel. Pray for Captain Frere, my dear father. He is a good man, and though his public duty is painful and trying to his feelings, yet, as a public functionary, he could not allow his private feelings, whether of mercy or revenge, to step between him and his duty.'"
"Confound the rascal!" said Frere, growing crimson.
"'Remember me most affectionately to Sarah and little William, and all friends who yet cherish the recollection of me, and bid them take warning by my fate, and keep from evil courses. A good conscience is better than gold, and no amount can compensate for the misery incident to a return to crime. Whether I shall ever see you again, dear father, is more than uncertain; for my doom is life, unless the Government alter their plans concerning me, and allow me an opportunity to earn my freedom by hard work.
"'The blessing of God rest with you, my dear father, and that you may be washed white in the blood of the Lamb is the prayer of your
"'Unfortunate Son, "'John Rex "'P.S.---Though your sins be as scarlet they shall be whiter than snow.""
"Is that all?" said Frere.
"That is all, sir, and a very touching letter it is."
"So it is," said Frere. "Now let me have it a moment, Mr. Meekin."
He took the paper, and referring to the numbers of the texts which he had written in his pocket-book, began to knit his brows over Mr. John Rex's impious and hypocritical production. "I thought so," he said, at length. "Those texts were never written for nothing. It's an old trick, but cleverly done."
"What do you mean?" said Meekin. "Mean!" cries Frere, with a smile at his own acuteness. "This precious composition contains a very gratifying piece of intelligence for Mr. Blicks, whoever he is. Some receiver, I've no doubt. Look here, Mr. Meekin. Take the letter and this pencil, and begin at the first text. The 102nd Psalm, from the 4th verse to the 12th inclusive, doesn't he say? Very good; that's nine verses, isn't it? Well, now, underscore nine consecutive words from the second word immediately following the next text quoted, 'I have hope,' etc. Have you got it?"
"Yes," says Meekin, astonished, while all heads bent over the table.
"Well, now, his text is the eighteenth verse of the thirty-fifth Psalm, isn't it? Count eighteen words on, then underscore five consecutive ones. You've done that?"
"A moment--sixteen--seventeen--eighteen, 'authorities'."
"Count and score in the same way until you come to the word 'Texts' somewhere. Vickers, I'll trouble you for the claret."
"Yes," said Meekin, after a pause. "Here it is--'the texts of Scripture quoted by our chaplain'. But surely Mr. Frere--"
"Hold on a bit now," cries Frere. "What's the next quotation?--John iii. That's every third word. Score every third word beginning with 'I' immediately following the text, now, until you come to a quotation. Got it? How many words in it?"
"'Lay up for yourselves treasures in Heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt'," said Meekin, a little scandalized. "Fourteen words."
"Count fourteen words on, then, and score the fourteenth. I'm up to this text-quoting business."
"The word '£1000'," said Meekin. "Yes."
"Then there's another text. Thirty-eighth--isn't it?--Psalm and the fourteenth verse. Do that the same way as the other-- count fourteen words, and then score eight in succession. Where does that bring you?"
"The fifth Psalm."
"Every fifth word then. Go on, my dear sir--go on. 'Method' of 'escape', yes. The hundredth Psalm means a full stop. What verse? Seventy-four. Count seventy-four words and score."
There was a pause for a few minutes while Mr. Meekin counted. The letter had really turned out interesting.
"Read out your marked words now, Meekin. Let's see if I'm right." Mr. Meekin read with gradually crimsoning face:--
"'I have hope even in this my desolate condition...in prison Van Diemen's Land...the authorities are held in...hatred and contempt of prisoners...read in any colonial newspaper...accounts of cruelty and tyranny...inflicted by gaolers on convicts...severe flogging and heavy chaining...for slight breaches of discipline...I...come...the pious...it...pays...£1,000...in the old house in Blue Anchor Yard... stolen goods and watches studs rings and jewellery...are...now...placed... safely...I... will...find...some...method of escape...then...for revenge.'"
"Well," said Maurice, looking round with a grin, "what do you think of that?"
"Most remarkable!" said Mr. Pounce.
"How did you find it out, Frere?"
"Oh, it's nothing," says Frere; meaning that it was a great deal. "I've studied a good many of these things, and this one is clumsy to some I've seen. But it's pious, isn't it, Meekin?"
Mr. Meekin arose in wrath.
"It's very ungracious on your part, Captain Frere. A capital joke, I have no doubt; but permit me to say I do not like jesting on such matters. This poor fellow's letter to his aged father to be made the subject of heartless merriment, I confess I do not understand. It was confided to me in my sacred character as a Christian pastor."
"That's just it. The fellows play upon the parsons, don't you know, and under cover of your 'sacred character' play all kinds of pranks. How the dog must have chuckled when he gave you that!"
"Captain Frere," said Mr. Meekin, changing colour like a chameleon with indignation and rage, "your interpretation is, I am convinced, an incorrect one. How could the poor man compose such an ingenious piece of cryptography?"
"If you mean, fake up that paper," returned Frere, unconsciously dropping into prison slang, "I'll tell you. He had a Bible, I suppose, while he was writing?"
"I certainly permitted him the use of the Sacred Volume, Captain Frere. I should have judged it inconsistent with the character of my Office to have refused it to him."
"Of course. And that's just where you parsons are always putting your foot into it. If you'd put your 'Office' into your pocket and open your eyes a bit--"
"Maurice! My dear Maurice!"
"I beg your pardon, Meekin," says Maurice, with clumsy apology; "but I know these fellows. I've lived among 'em, I came out in a ship with 'em, I've talked with 'em, and drank with 'em, and I'm down to all their moves, don't you see. The Bible is the only book they get hold of, and texts are the only bits of learning ever taught 'm, and being chockfull of villainy and plots and conspiracies, what other book should they make use of to aid their infernal schemes but the one that the chaplain has made a text book for 'em?" And Maurice rose in disgust, not unmixed with self-laudation.
"Dear me, it is really very terrible," says Meekin, who was not ill-meaning, but only self-complacent--"very terrible indeed."
"But unhappily true," said Mr. Pounce. "An olive? Thanks."
"Upon me soul!" burst out honest McNab, "the hail seestem seems to be maist ill-calculated tae advance the wark o' reeformation."
"Mr. McNab, I'll trouble you for the port," said equally honest Vickers, bound hand and foot in the chains of the rules of the services. And so, what seemed likely to become a dangerous discussion upon convict discipline, was stifled judiciously at the birth. But Sylvia, prompted, perhaps, by curiosity, perhaps by a desire to modify the parson's chagrin, in passing Mr. Meekin, took up the "confession," that lay unopened beside his wine glass, and bore it off.
"Come, Mr. Meekin," said Vickers, when the door closed behind the ladies, "help yourself. I am sorry the letter turned out so strangely, but you may rely on Frere, I assure you. He knows more about convicts than any man on the island."
"I see, Captain Frere, that you have studied the criminal classes."
"So I have, my dear sir, and know every turn and twist among 'em. I tell you my maxim. It's some French fellow's, too, I believe, but that don't matter--divide to conquer. Set all the dogs spying on each other."
"Oh!" said Meekin. "It's the only way. Why, my dear sir, if the prisoners were as faithful to each other as we are, we couldn't hold the island a week. It's just because no man can trust his neighbour that every mutiny falls to the ground."
"I suppose it must be so," said poor Meekin.
"It is so; and, by George, sir, if I had my way, I'd have it so that no prisoner should say a word to his right hand man, but his left hand man should tell me of it. I'd promote the men that peached, and make the beggars their own warders. Ha, ha!"
"But such a course, Captain Frere, though perhaps useful in a certain way, would surely produce harm. It would excite the worst passions of our fallen nature, and lead to endless lying and tyranny. I'm sure it would."
"Wait a bit," cries Frere. "Perhaps one of these days I'll get a chance, and then I'll try it. Convicts! By the Lord Harry, sir, there's only one way to treat 'em; give 'em tobacco when they behave 'emselves, and flog 'em when they don't."
"Terrible!" says the clergyman with a shudder. "You speak of them as if they were wild beasts."
"So they are," said Maurice Frere, calmly.