It was not until they had scrambled up the beach to safety that the absconders became fully aware of the loss of another of their companions. As they stood on the break of the beach, wringing the water from their clothes, Gabbett's small eye, counting their number, missed the stroke oar.
"The fool fell overboard," said Jemmy Vetch shortly. "He never had as much sense in that skull of his as would keep it sound on his shoulders."
Gabbett scowled. "That's three of us gone," he said, in the tones of a man suffering some personal injury.
They summed up their means of defence against attack. Sanders and Greenhill had knives. Gabbett still retained the axe in his belt. Vetch had dropped his musket at the Neck, and Bodenham and Cornelius were unarmed.
"Let's have a look at the tucker," said Vetch.
There was but one bag of provisions. It contained a piece of salt pork, two loaves, and some uncooked potatoes. Signal Hill station was not rich in edibles.
"That ain't much," said the Crow, with rueful face. "Is it, Gabbett?"
"It must do, any way," returned the giant carelessly.
The inspection over, the six proceeded up the shore, and encamped under the lee of a rock. Bodenham was for lighting a fire, but Vetch, who, by tacit consent, had been chosen leader of the expedition, forbade it, saying that the light might betray them. "They'll think we're drowned, and won't pursue us," he said. So all that night the miserable wretches crouched fireless together.
Morning breaks clear and bright, and--free for the first time in ten years-- they comprehend that their terrible journey has begun. "Where are we to go? How are we to live?" asked Bodenham, scanning the barren bush that stretches to the barren sea. "Gabbett, you've been out before--how's it done?"
"We'll make the shepherds' huts, and live on their tucker till we get a change o' clothes," said Gabbett evading the main question. "We can follow the coast-line."
"Steady, lads," said prudent Vetch; "we must sneak round yon sandhills, and so creep into the scrub. If they've a good glass at the Neck, they can see us."
"It does seem close," said Bodenham; "I could pitch a stone on to the guard-house. Good-bye, you Bloody Spot!" he adds, with sudden rage, shaking his fist vindictively at the Penitentiary; "I don't want to see you no more till the Day o' Judgment."
Vetch divides the provisions, and they travel all that day until dark night. The scrub is prickly and dense. Their clothes are torn, their hands and feet bleeding. Already they feel out-wearied. No one pursuing, they light a fire, and sleep. The second day they come to a sandy spit that runs out into the sea, and find that they have got too far to the eastward, and must follow the shore line to East Bay Neck. Back through the scrub they drag their heavy feet. That night they eat the last crumb of the loaf. The third day at high noon--after some toilsome walking--they reach a big hill, now called Collins' Mount, and see the upper link of the earring, the isthmus of East Bay Neck, at their feet. A few rocks are on their right hand, and blue in the lovely distance lies hated Maria Island. "We must keep well to the eastward," said Greenhill, "or we shall fall in with the settlers and get taken." So, passing the isthmus, they strike into the bush along the shore, and tightening their belts over their gnawing bellies, camp under some low-lying hills.
The fourth day is notable for the indisposition of Bodenham, who is a bad walker, and, falling behind, delays the party by frequent cooees. Gabbett threatens him with a worse fate than sore feet if he lingers. Luckily, that evening Greenhill espies a hut, but, not trusting to the friendship of the occupant, they wait until he quits it in the morning, and then send Vetch to forage. Vetch, secretly congratulating himself on having by his counsel prevented violence, returns bending under half a bag of flour. "You'd better carry the flour," said he to Gabbett, "and give me the axe." Gabbett eyes him for a while, as if struck by his puny form, but finally gives the axe to his mate Sanders. That day they creep along cautiously between the sea and the hills, camping at a creek. Vetch, after much search, finds a handful of berries, and adds them to the main stock. Half of this handful is eaten at once, the other half reserved for "to-morrow". The next day they come to an arm of the sea, and as they struggle northward, Maria Island disappears, and with it all danger from telescopes. That evening they reach the camping ground by twos and threes; and each wonders between the paroxysms of hunger if his face is as haggard, and his eyes as bloodshot, as those of his neighbour.
On the seventh day, Bodenham says his feet are so bad he can't walk, and Greenhill, with a greedy look at the berries, bids him stay behind. Being in a very weak condition, he takes his companion at his word, and drops off about noon the next day. Gabbett, discovering this defection, however, goes back, and in an hour or so appears, driving the wretched creature before him with blows, as a sheep is driven to the shambles. Greenhill remonstrates at another mouth being thus forced upon the party, but the giant silences him with a hideous glance. Jemmy Vetch remembers that Greenhill accompanied Gabbett once before, and feels uncomfortable. He gives hint of his suspicions to Sanders, but Sanders only laughs. It is horribly evident that there is an understanding among the three.
The ninth sun of their freedom, rising upon sandy and barren hillocks, bristling thick with cruel scrub, sees the six famine-stricken wretches cursing their God, and yet afraid to die. All around is the fruitless, shadeless, shelterless bush. Above, the pitiless heaven. In the distance, the remorseless sea. Something terrible must happen. That grey wilderness, arched by grey heaven stooping to grey sea, is a fitting keeper of hideous secrets. Vetch suggests that Oyster Bay cannot be far to the eastward--the line of ocean is deceitfully close--and though such a proceeding will take them out of their course, they resolve to make for it. After hobbling five miles, they seem no nearer than before, and, nigh dead with fatigue and starvation, sink despairingly upon the ground. Vetch thinks Gabbett's eyes have a wolfish glare in them, and instinctively draws off from him. Said Greenhill, in the course of a dismal conversation, "I am so weak that I could eat a piece of a man."
On the tenth day Bodenham refuses to stir, and the others, being scarce able to drag along their limbs, sit on the ground about him. Greenhill, eyeing the prostrate man, said slowly, "I have seen the same done before, boys, and it tasted like pork."
Vetch, hearing his savage comrade give utterance to a thought all had secretly cherished, speaks out, crying, "It would be murder to do it, and then, perhaps we couldn't eat it."
"Oh," said Gabbett, with a grin, "I'll warrant you that, but you must all have a hand in it."
Gabbett, Sanders and Greenhill then go aside, and presently Sanders, coming to the Crow, said, "He consented to act as flogger. He deserves it."
"So did Gabbett, for that matter," shudders Vetch.
"Ay, but Bodenham's feet are sore," said Sanders, "and 'tis a pity to leave him."
Having no fire, they make a little breakwind; and Vetch, half-dozing behind this at about three in the morning, hears someone cry out "Christ!" and awakes, sweating ice.
No one but Gabbett and Greenhill would eat that night. That savage pair, however, make a fire, fling ghastly fragments on the embers, and eat the broil before it is right warm. In the morning the frightful carcase is divided. That day's march takes place in silence, and at midday halt Cornelius volunteers to carry the billy, affecting great restoration from the food. Vetch gives it to him, and in half an hour afterwards Cornelius is missing. Gabbett and Greenhill pursue him in vain, and return with curses. "He'll die like a dog," said Greenhill, "alone in the bush." Jemmy Vetch, with his intellect acute as ever, thinks that Cornelius may prefer such a death, but says nothing.
The twelfth morning dawns wet and misty, but Vetch, seeing the provision running short, strives to be cheerful, telling stories of men who have escaped greater peril. Vetch feels with dismay that he is the weakest of the party, but has some sort of ludicro-horrible consolation in remembering that he is also the leanest. They come to a creek that afternoon, and look, until nightfall, in vain for a crossing-place. The next day Gabbett and Vetch swim across, and Vetch directs Gabbett to cut a long sapling, which, being stretched across the water, is seized by Greenhill and the Moocher, who are dragged over.
"What would you do without me?" said the Crow with a ghastly grin.
They cannot kindle a fire, for Greenhill, who carries the tinder, has allowed it to get wet. The giant swings his axe in savage anger at enforced cold, and Vetch takes an opportunity to remark privately to him what a big man Greenhill is.
On the fourteenth day they can scarcely crawl, and their limbs pain them. Greenhill, who is the weakest, sees Gabbett and the Moocher go aside to consult, and crawling to the Crow, whimpers: "For God's sake, Jemmy, don't let 'em murder me!"
"I can't help you," says Vetch, looking about in terror. "Think of poor Tom Bodenham."
"But he was no murderer. If they kill me, I shall go to hell with Tom's blood on my soul." He writhes on the ground in sickening terror, and Gabbett arriving, bids Vetch bring wood for the fire. Vetch, going, sees Greenhill clinging to wolfish Gabbett's knees, and Sanders calls after him, "You will hear it presently, Jem."
The nervous Crow puts his hand to his ears, but is conscious of a dull crash and a groan. When he comes back, Gabbett is putting on the dead man's shoes, which are better than his own.
"We'll stop here a day or so and rest," said he, "now we've got provisions."
Two more days pass, and the three, eyeing each other suspiciously, resume their march. The third day--the sixteenth of their awful journey-- such portions of the carcase as they have with them prove unfit to eat. They look into each other's famine-sharpened faces, and wonder "who's next?"
"We must all die together," said Sanders quickly, "before anything else must happen."
Vetch marks the terror concealed in the words, and when the dreaded giant is out of earshot, says, "For God's sake, let's go on alone, Alick. You see what sort of a cove that Gabbett is--he'd kill his father before he'd fast one day."
They made for the bush, but the giant turned and strode towards them. Vetch skipped nimbly on one side, but Gabbett struck the Moocher on the forehead with the axe. "Help! Jem, help!" cried the victim, cut, but not fatally, and in the strength of his desperation tore the axe from the monster who bore it, and flung it to Vetch. "Keep it, Jemmy," he cried; "let's have no more murder done!"
They fare again through the horrible bush until nightfall, when Vetch, in a strange voice, called the giant to him.
"He must die."
"Either you or he," laughs Gabbett. "Give me the axe."
"No, no," said the Crow, his thin, malignant face distorted by a horrible resolution. "I'll keep the axe. Stand back! You shall hold him, and I'll do the job."
Sanders, seeing them approach, knew his end was come, and submitted, crying, "Give me half an hour to pray for myself." They consent, and the bewildered wretch knelt down and folded his hands like a child. His big, stupid face worked with emotion. His great cracked lips moved in desperate agony. He wagged his head from side to side, in pitiful confusion of his brutalized senses. "I can't think o' the words, Jem!"
"Pah," snarled the cripple, swinging the axe, "we can't starve here all night."
Four days had passed, and the two survivors of this awful journey sat watching each other. The gaunt giant, his eyes gleaming with hate and hunger, sat sentinel over the dwarf. The dwarf, chuckling at his superior sagacity, clutched the fatal axe. For two days they had not spoken to each other. For two days each had promised himself that on the next his companion must sleep--and die. Vetch comprehended the devilish scheme of the monster who had entrapped five of his fellow-beings to aid him by their deaths to his own safety, and held aloof. Gabbett watched to snatch the weapon from his companion, and make the odds even once and for ever. In the day-time they travelled on, seeking each a pretext to creep behind the other. In the night-time when they feigned slumber, each stealthily raising a head caught the wakeful glance of his companion. Vetch felt his strength deserting him, and his brain overpowered by fatigue. Surely the giant, muttering, gesticulating, and slavering at the mouth, was on the road to madness. Would the monster find opportunity to rush at him, and, braving the blood-stained axe, kill him by main force? or would he sleep, and be himself a victim? Unhappy Vetch! It is the terrible privilege of insanity to be sleepless.
On the fifth day, Vetch, creeping behind a tree, takes off his belt, and makes a noose. He will hang himself. He gets one end of the belt over a bough, and then his cowardice bids him pause. Gabbett approaches; he tries to evade him, and steal away into the bush. In vain. The insatiable giant, ravenous with famine, and sustained by madness, is not to be shaken off. Vetch tries to run, but his legs bend under him. The axe that has tried to drink so much blood feels heavy as lead. He will fling it away. No--he dares not. Night falls again. He must rest, or go mad. His limbs are powerless. His eyelids are glued together. He sleeps as he stands. This horrible thing must be a dream. He is at Port Arthur, or will wake on his pallet in the penny lodging-house he slept at when a boy. Is that the Deputy come to wake him to the torment of living? It is not time--surely not time yet. He sleeps--and the giant, grinning with ferocious joy, approaches on clumsy tiptoe and seizes the coveted axe.
On the north coast of Van Diemen's Land is a place called St Helen's Point, and a certain skipper, being in want of fresh water; landing there with a boat's crew, found on the banks of the creek a gaunt and blood-stained man, clad in tattered yellow, who carried on his back an axe and a bundle. When the sailors came within sight of him, he made signs to them to approach, and, opening his bundle with much ceremony, offered them some of its contents. Filled with horror at what the maniac displayed, they seized and bound him. At Hobart Town he was recognized as the only survivor of the nine desperadoes who had escaped from Colonel Arthur's "Natural Penitentiary".