For the Term of His Natural Life/Book II/Chapter XVI
Chapter XVI: The Writing on the SandEdit
Having got out of eye-shot of the ungrateful creatures he had befriended, Rufus Dawes threw himself upon the ground in an agony of mingled rage and regret. For the first time for six years he had tasted the happiness of doing good, the delight of self-abnegation. For the first time for six years he had broken through the selfish misanthropy he had taught himself. And this was his reward! He had held his temper in check, in order that it might not offend others. He had banished the galling memory of his degradation, lest haply some shadow of it might seem to fall upon the fair child whose lot had been so strangely cast with his. He had stifled the agony he suffered, lest its expression should give pain to those who seemed to feel for him. He had forborne retaliation, when retaliation would have been most sweet. Having all these years waited and watched for a chance to strike his persecutors, he had held his hand now that an unlooked-for accident had placed the weapon of destruction in his grasp. He had risked his life, forgone his enmities, almost changed his nature—and his reward was cold looks and harsh words, so soon as his skill had paved the way to freedom. This knowledge coming upon him while the thrill of exultation at the astounding news of his riches yet vibrated in his brain, made him grind his teeth with rage at his own hard fate. Bound by the purest and holiest of ties—the affection of a son to his mother—he had condemned himself to social death, rather than buy his liberty and life by a revelation which would shame the gentle creature whom he loved. By a strange series of accidents, fortune had assisted him to maintain the deception he had practised. His cousin had not recognized him. The very ship in which he was believed to have sailed had been lost with every soul on board. His identity had been completely destroyed—no link remained which could connect Rufus Dawes, the convict, with Richard Devine, the vanished heir to the wealth of the dead ship-builder.
Oh, if he had only known! If, while in the gloomy prison, distracted by a thousand fears, and weighed down by crushing evidence of circumstance, he had but guessed that death had stepped between Sir Richard and his vengeance, he might have spared himself the sacrifice he had made. He had been tried and condemned as a nameless sailor, who could call no witnesses in his defence, and give no particulars as to his previous history. It was clear to him now that he might have adhered to his statement of ignorance concerning the murder, locked in his breast the name of the murderer, and have yet been free. Judges are just, but popular opinion is powerful, and it was not impossible that Richard Devine, the millionaire, would have escaped the fate which had overtaken Rufus Dawes, the sailor. Into his calculations in the prison—when, half-crazed with love, with terror, and despair, he had counted up his chances of life—the wild supposition that he had even then inherited the wealth of the father who had disowned him, had never entered. The knowledge of that fact would have altered the whole current of his life, and he learnt it for the first time now—too late.
Now, lying prone upon the sand; now, wandering aimlessly up and down among the stunted trees that bristled white beneath the mist-barred moon; now, sitting—as he had sat in the prison long ago— with the head gripped hard between his hands, swaying his body to and fro, he thought out the frightful problem of his bitter life. Of little use was the heritage that he had gained. A convict-absconder, whose hands were hard with menial service, and whose back was scarred with the lash, could never be received among the gently nurtured. Let him lay claim to his name and rights, what then? He was a convicted felon, and his name and rights had been taken from him by the law. Let him go and tell Maurice Frere that he was his lost cousin. He would be laughed at. Let him proclaim aloud his birth and innocence, and the convict-sheds would grin, and the convict overseer set him to harder labour. Let him even, by dint of reiteration, get his wild story believed, what would happen? If it was heard in England— after the lapse of years, perhaps—that a convict in the chain-gang in Macquarie Harbour—a man held to be a murderer, and whose convict career was one long record of mutiny and punishment—claimed to be the heir to an English fortune, and to own the right to dispossess staid and worthy English folk of their rank and station, with what feeling would the announcement be received? Certainly not with a desire to redeem this ruffian from his bonds and place him in the honoured seat of his dead father. Such intelligence would be regarded as a calamity, an unhappy blot upon a fair reputation, a disgrace to an honoured and unsullied name. Let him succeed, let him return again to the mother who had by this time become reconciled, in a measure, to his loss; he would, at the best, be to her a living shame, scarcely less degrading than that which she had dreaded.
But success was almost impossible. He did not dare to retrace his steps through the hideous labyrinth into which he had plunged. Was he to show his scarred shoulders as a proof that he was a gentleman and an innocent man? Was he to relate the nameless infamies of Macquarie Harbour as a proof that he was entitled to receive the hospitalities of the generous, and to sit, a respected guest, at the tables of men of refinement? Was he to quote the horrible slang of the prison-ship, and retail the filthy jests of the chain-gang and the hulks, as a proof that he was a fit companion for pure-minded women and innocent children? Suppose even that he could conceal the name of the real criminal, and show himself guiltless of the crime for which he had been condemned, all the wealth in the world could not buy back that blissful ignorance of evil which had once been his. All the wealth in the world could not purchase the self-respect which had been cut out of him by the lash, or banish from his brain the memory of his degradation.
For hours this agony of thought racked him. He cried out as though with physical pain, and then lay in a stupor, exhausted with actual physical suffering. It was hopeless to think of freedom and of honour. Let him keep silence, and pursue the life fate had marked out for him. He would return to bondage. The law would claim him as an absconder, and would mete out to him such punishment as was fitting. Perhaps he might escape severest punishment, as a reward for his exertions in saving the child. He might consider himself fortunate if such was permitted to him. Fortunate! Suppose he did not go back at all, but wandered away into the wilderness and died? Better death than such a doom as his. Yet need he die? He had caught goats, he could catch fish. He could build a hut. In here was, perchance, at the deserted settlement some remnant of seed corn that, planted, would give him bread. He had built a boat, he had made an oven, he had fenced in a hut. Surely he could contrive to live alone savage and free. Alone! He had contrived all these marvels alone! Was not the boat he himself had built below upon the shore? Why not escape in her, and leave to their fate the miserable creatures who had treated him with such ingratitude?
The idea flashed into his brain, as though someone had spoken the words into his ear. Twenty strides would place him in possession of the boat, and half an hour's drifting with the current would take him beyond pursuit. Once outside the Bar, he would make for the westward, in the hopes of falling in with some whaler. He would doubtless meet with one before many days, and he was well supplied with provision and water in the meantime. A tale of shipwreck would satisfy the sailors, and—he paused—he had forgotten that the rags which he wore would betray him. With an exclamation of despair, he started from the posture in which he was lying. He thrust out his hands to raise himself, and his fingers came in contact with something soft. He had been lying at the foot of some loose stones that were piled cairnwise beside a low-growing bush; and the object that he had touched was protruding from beneath these stones. He caught it and dragged it forth. It was the shirt of poor Bates. With trembling hands he tore away the stones, and pulled forth the rest of the garments. They seemed as though they had been left purposely for him. Heaven had sent him the very disguise he needed.
The night had passed during his reverie, and the first faint streaks of dawn began to lighten in the sky. Haggard and pale, he rose to his feet, and scarcely daring to think about what he proposed to do, ran towards the boat. As he ran, however, the voice that he had heard encouraged him. "Your life is of more importance than theirs. They will die, but they have been ungrateful and deserve death. You will escape out of this Hell, and return to the loving heart who mourns you. You can do more good to mankind than by saving the lives of these people who despise you. Moreover, they may not die. They are sure to be sent for. Think of what awaits you when you return— an absconded convict!"
He was within three feet of the boat, when he suddenly checked himself, and stood motionless, staring at the sand with as much horror as though he saw there the Writing which foretold the doom of Belshazzar. He had come upon the sentence traced by Sylvia the evening before, and glittering in the low light of the red sun suddenly risen from out the sea, it seemed to him that the letters had shaped themselves at his very feet,
GOOD MR. DAWES.
"Good Mr. Dawes"! What a frightful reproach there was to him in that simple sentence! What a world of cowardice, baseness, and cruelty, had not those eleven letters opened to him! He heard the voice of the child who had nursed him, calling on him to save her. He saw her at that instant standing between him and the boat, as she had stood when she held out to him the loaf, on the night of his return to the settlement.
He staggered to the cavern, and, seizing the sleeping Frere by the arm, shook him violently. "Awake! awake!" he cried, "and let us leave this place!"
Frere, starting to his feet, looked at the white face and bloodshot eyes of the wretched man before him with blunt astonishment. "What's the matter with you, man?" he said. "You look as if you'd seen a ghost!"
At the sound of his voice Rufus Dawes gave a long sigh, and drew his hand across his eyes.
"Come, Sylvia!" shouted Frere. "It's time to get up. I am ready to go!"
The sacrifice was complete. The convict turned away, and two great glistening tears rolled down his rugged face, and fell upon the sand.