For the Term of His Natural Life/Book IV/Chapter XVII
Chapter XVII: The RedemptionEdit
——"That is my story. Let it plead with you to turn you from your purpose, and to save her. The punishment of sin falls not upon the sinner only. A deed once done lives in its consequence for ever, and this tragedy of shame and crime to which my felon's death is a fitting end, is but the outcome of a selfish sin like yours!"
It had grown dark in the prison, and as he ceased speaking, Rufus Dawes felt a trembling hand seize his own. It was that of the chaplain.
"Let me hold your hand!—Sir Richard Devine did not murder your father. He was murdered by a horseman who, riding with him, struck him and fled."
"Merciful God! How do you know this?"
"Because I saw the murder committed, because—don't let go my hand—I robbed the body."
"In my youth I was a gambler. Lord Bellasis won money from me, and to pay him I forged two bills of exchange. Unscrupulous and cruel, he threatened to expose me if I did not give him double the sum. Forgery was death in those days, and I strained every nerve to buy back the proofs of my folly. I succeeded. I was to meet Lord Bellasis near his own house at Hampstead on the night of which you speak, to pay the money and receive the bills. When I saw him fall I galloped up, but instead of pursuing his murderer I rifled his pocket-book of my forgeries. I was afraid to give evidence at the trial, or I might have saved you.—Ah! you have let go my hand!"
"God forgive you!" said Rufus Dawes, and then was silent.
"Speak!" cried North. "Speak, or you will make me mad. Reproach me! Spurn me! Spit upon me! You cannot think worse of me than I do myself."
But the other, his head buried in his hands, did not answer, and with a wild gesture North staggered out of the cell.
Nearly an hour had passed since the chaplain had placed the rum flask in his hand, and Gimblett observed, with semi-drunken astonishment, that it was not yet empty. He had intended, in the first instance, to have taken but one sup in payment of his courtesy—for Gimblett was conscious of his own weakness in the matter of strong waters—but as he waited and waited, the one sup became two, and two three, and at length more than half the contents of the bottle had moistened his gullet, and maddened him for more. Gimblett was in a quandary. If he didn't finish the flask, he would be oppressed with an everlasting regret. If he did finish it he would be drunk; and to be drunk on duty was the one unpardonable sin. He looked across the darkness of the sea, to where the rising and falling light marked the schooner. The Commandant was a long way off! A faint breeze, which had—according to Blunt's prophecy—arisen with the night, brought up to him the voices of the boat's crew from the jetty below him. His friend Jack Mannix was coxswain of her. He would give Jack a drink. Leaving the gate, he advanced unsteadily to the edge of the embankment, and, putting his head over, called out to his friend. The breeze, however, which was momentarily freshening, carried his voice away; and Jack Mannix, hearing nothing, continued his conversation. Gimblett was just drunk enough to be virtuously indignant at this incivility, and seating himself on the edge of the bank, swallowed the remainder of the rum at a draught. The effect upon his enforcedly temperate stomach was very touching. He made one feeble attempt to get upon his legs, cast a reproachful glance at the rum bottle, essayed to drink out of its spirituous emptiness, and then, with a smile of reckless contentment, cursed the island and all its contents, and fell asleep.
North, coming out of the prison, did not notice the absence of the gaoler; indeed, he was not in a condition to notice anything. Bare-headed, without his cloak, with staring eyes and clenched hands, he rushed through the gates into the night as one who flies headlong from some fearful vision. It seemed that, absorbed in his own thoughts, he took no heed of his steps, for instead of taking the path which led to the sea, he kept along the more familiar one that led to his own cottage on the hill. "This man a convict!" he cried. "He is a hero—a martyr! What a life! Love! Yes, that is love indeed! Oh, James North, how base art thou in the eyes of God beside this despised outcast!" And so muttering, tearing his grey hair, and beating his throbbing temples with clenched hands, he reached his own room, and saw, by the light of the new-born moon, the dressing-bag and candle standing on the table as he had left them. They brought again to his mind the recollection of the task that was before him. He lighted the candle, and, taking the bag in his hand, cast one last look round the chamber which had witnessed his futile struggles against that baser part of himself which had at last triumphed. It was so. Fate had condemned him to sin, and he must now fulfil the doom he might once have averted. Already he fancied he could see the dim speck that was the schooner move slowly away from the prison shore. He must not linger; they would be waiting for him at the jetty. As he turned, the moonbeams—as yet unobscured by the rapidly gathering clouds—flung a silver streak across the sea, and across that streak North saw a boat pass. Was his distracted brain playing him false?—in the stern sat, wrapped in a cloak, the figure of a man! A fierce gust of wind drove the sea-rack over the moon, and the boat disappeared, as though swallowed up by the gathering storm. North staggered back as the truth struck him.
He remembered how he had said, "I will redeem him with my own blood!" Was it possible that a just Heaven had thus decided to allow the man whom a coward had condemned, to escape, and to punish the coward who remained? Oh, this man deserved freedom; he was honest, noble, truthful! How different from himself—a hateful self-lover, an unchaste priest, a drunkard. The looking-glass, in which the saintly face of Meekin was soon to be reflected, stood upon the table, and North, peering into it, with one hand mechanically thrust into the bag, started in insane rage at the pale face and bloodshot eyes he saw there. What a hateful wretch he had become! The last fatal impulse of insanity which seeks relief from its own hideous self came upon him, and his fingers closed convulsively upon the object they had been seeking.
"It is better so," he muttered, addressing, with fixed eyes, his own detested image. "I have examined you long enough. I have read your heart, and written out your secrets! You are but a shell—the shell that holds a corrupted and sinful heart. He shall live; you shall die!" The rapid motion of his arm overturned the candle, and all was dark.
Rufus Dawes, overpowered by the revelation so suddenly made to him, had remained for a few moments motionless in his cell, expecting to hear the heavy clang of the outer door, which should announce to him the departure of the chaplain. But he did not hear it, and it seemed to him that the air in the cell had grown suddenly cooler. He went to the door, and looked into the narrow corridor, expecting to see the scowling countenance of Gimblett. To his astonishment the door of the prison was wide open, and not a soul in sight. His first thought was of North. Had the story he had told, coupled with the entreaties he had lavished, sufficed to turn him from his purpose?
He looked around. The night was falling suddenly; the wind was mounting; from beyond the bar came the hoarse murmur of an angry sea. If the schooner was to sail that night, she had best get out into deep waters. Where was the chaplain? Pray Heaven the delay had been sufficient, and they had sailed without him. Yet they would be sure to meet. He advanced a few steps nearer, and looked about him. Was it possible that, in his madness, the chaplain had been about to commit some violence which had drawn the trusty Gimblett from his post? "Gr-r-r-r! Ouph!" The trusty Gimblett was lying at his feet—dead drunk!
"Hi! Hiho! Hillo there!" roared somebody from the jetty below. "Be that you, Muster Noarth? We ain't too much tiam, sur!"
From the uncurtained windows of the chaplain's house on the hill beamed the newly-lighted candle. They in the boat did not see it, but it brought to the prisoner a wild hope that made his heart bound. He ran back to the cell, clapped on North's wide-awake, and flinging the cloak hastily about him, came quickly down the steps. If the moon should shine out now!
"Jump in, sir," said unsuspecting Mannix, thinking only of the flogging he had been threatened with. "It'll be a dirty night, this night! Put this over your knees, sir. Shove her off! Give way!" And they were afloat. But one glimpse of moonlight fell upon the slouched hat and cloaked figure, and the boat's crew, engaged in the dangerous task of navigating the reef in the teeth of the rising gale, paid no attention to the chaplain.
"By George, lads, we're but just in time!" cried Mannix; and they laid alongside the schooner, black in blackness. "Up ye go, yer honour, quick!" The wind had shifted, and was now off the shore. Blunt, who had begun to repent of his obstinacy, but would not confess it, thought the next best thing to riding out the gale was to get out to open sea. "Damn the parson," he had said, in all heartiness; "we can't wait all night for him. Heave ahead, Mr. Johnson!" And so the anchor was atrip as Rufus Dawes ran up the side.
The Commandant, already pulling off in his own boat, roared a coarse farewell. "Good-bye, North! It was touch and go with ye!" adding, "Curse the fellow, he's too proud to answer!"
The chaplain indeed spoke to no one, and plunging down the hatchway, made for the stern cabins. "Close shave, your reverence!" said a respectful somebody, opening a door. It was; but the clergyman did not say so. He double-locked the door, and hardly realizing the danger he had escaped, flung himself on the bunk, panting. Over his head he heard the rapid tramp of feet and the cheery
Yo hi-oh! and a rumbelow!
of the men at the capstan. He could smell the sea, and through the open window of the cabin could distinguish the light in the chaplain's house on the hill. The trampling ceased, the vessel began to move slowly—the Commandant's boat appeared below him for an instant, making her way back— the Lady Franklin had set sail. With his eyes fixed on the tiny light, he strove to think what was best to be done. It was hopeless to think that he could maintain the imposture which, favoured by the darkness and confusion, he had hitherto successfully attempted. He was certain to be detected at Hobart Town, even if he could lie concealed during his long and tedious voyage. That mattered little, however. He had saved Sylvia, for North had been left behind. Poor North! As the thought of pity came to him, the light he looked at was suddenly extinguished, and Rufus Dawes, compelled thereto as by an irresistible power, fell upon his knees and prayed for the pardon and happiness of the man who had redeemed him.
"That's a gun from the shore," said Partridge the mate, "and they're burning a red light. There's a prisoner escaped. Shall we lie-to?"
"Lie-to!" cried old Blunt, with a tremendous oath. "We'll have suthin' else to do. Look there!"
The sky to the northward was streaked with a belt of livid green colour, above which rose a mighty black cloud, whose shape was ever changing.