Moondyne/Dead Sea Fruit
From the moment that Will Sheridan had recognized Draper in the captain of the Houguemont, his mind was filled with an acute fear that Alice Walmsley might suddenly come face to face with the wretch who had blighted her existence. Such a meeting might be fatal—it certainly would be grievous.
It was the sudden touch of this fear that made Sheridan walk so quickly to his room on the night of the recognition. It came like a flash; and he deemed it best to consider his course of action calmly.
Sailor as he was, he knew that the commander of a ship, usually had absolute power over all on board. He had observed, however, that Mr. Wyville, on one or two occasions, had assumed an authority in certain matters relating to the prisoners. This gave him comfort. In case Draper recognized Alice Walmsley on the ship, that instant, Sheridan resolved, he would make known the whole terrible story to Mr. Wyville, and avert intended evil, if possible by fear, if necessary by force.
Meanwhile, Sheridan saw Sister Cecilia, who knew that he was an old friend of the innocent and much-wronged girl, and requested her to keep Alice at all times off the main deck. He gave no reason for the request.
But, Mr. Sheridan," said the nun, thinking of Alice's health, "she must come into the open air some time."
"It were better not—better not," answered Sheridan, in a troubled mind; "it were better that she should remain all day in the hospital."
"In the hospital," repeated the wise little nun, with a pitying smile. She evidently saw, more clearly than anyone on board, the strange complications around her. The hearts of at least four of the principal actors in the sorrowful drama were open to her eyes; she saw the relations of Sheridan, Alice, the miserable Harriet Draper, and her guilty husband.
But even Sister Cecilia, wise as she was, did not know that there was a fifth heart deeply concerned in the play. As she repeated Sheridan's words, her pitying smile died away into lines of sorrow, seeing how blindly he would turn Alice's steps from one danger to a deeper one. She recalled, too, at the word, the supreme desolation and misery of that one who now spent her days in the hospital.
"Do not fear, Mr. Sheridan," she said, as she went on her way of mercy, "Alice will be safe. She will remain in my hospital."
Taking this as an agreement with his request, Mr. Sheridan resolved that his conduct towards the captain should be absolutely reserved, until the vessel reached port. Then, what to do was beset with difficulties. That dire punishment should overtake the villain was clear; but what if his public arraignment would disturb the peace of Alice, whose slowly healing wounds would thus be torn open?"
Instead of coming to a decision, Sheridan resolved that on the first opportunity he would lay the whole matter before Mr. Wyville, and follow his advice.
Soon after entering the tropics, the Houguemont had caught the tradewinds, and sailed swiftly down the level seas. Her tall masts dwindled pigmy-like as she passed beneath the awful shadow of Teneriffe. Her sky-sails cut a line on the cliff a finger's breadth from the sea; while above her towered into the air the twelve thousand feet of tremendous pinnacle. She coasted the great North-western bulge of Africa; and here, for the first time since leaving England, her speed was checked, the trade winds faded and died, the sea lost its ripples, but kept its waves, that rose and fell slowly, with long monotonous rolls, like an ocean of molten glass. The sails of the Houguemont slapped backwards and forwards, the ropes hung useless, the pennant clung down the mast. The convict ship was becalmed, off the coast of Africa, seven degrees above the Line.
The faces of the ship's officers grew serious when the wind died. They did not welcome a calm in such a latitude, and at that season. The heat was intense and continuous, scarcely lowering by ten degrees at night.
"I wish we were five degrees to the westward," said Sheridan to Mr. Wyville, his old marine lore recurring to him; "I hate this Gulf of Guinea."
"Why?" asked Mr. Wyville, standing in the shade of a sail, while the young military officer sat beside Sheridan on the rail.
"I hate it first for its sharks—you can't dip your hand in this water, for a thousand miles south and east, without having it snapped off. I hate it for its low coast, where so many splendid ships have sailed straight to destruction. I hate it for its siroccos, whirlwinds, and, above all, I hate it for its fevers. I don't think there's anything good about the coast of Guinea."
"That is a bad showing, certainly," said the military officer.
"Yes; and it's quite true," continued Sheridan. "No one can say a good word about this coast."
"Not so fast, not so fast," said Mr. Wyville, smiling at Sheridan's earnestness. "On this very coast, within two hundred miles of us, is being solved one of the most interesting political problems in human history. Yonder lies a settlement with a national story unequalled for dignity and pathos."
Sheridan and the young soldier looked up, astonished.
"What is it?" asked Sheridan.
"The Republic of Liberia," said Mr. Wyville.
Sheridan looked at the soldier, who, at the same moment, looked at him. They both smiled broadly, confessing their ignorance.
"I was too busy with sandalwood —" began Sheridan.
"And I with tactics," said the soldier, "But what is this Republic, sir?"
"A new country, honestly acquired," said Mr. Wyville; the only country on earth not torn by force from its rightful owners. A country where slaves have peacefully founded a nation of elevated freedom; where black men have faced God in manly dignity, and declared their right to wipe out the scriptural curse; whose citizenship is an honour to the holder, and whose citizens are an honour to mankind."
"Who are the citizens?" asked the surprised officer.
"Slaves from America!" said Wyville, with an earnestness that made them forget the heat; "men who bear on their bodies the marks of the lash, and on their minds the rust of accursed laws; men who might be pardoned for hating their kind. God bless them and," as he spoke, he looked away in the direction of the land; "the kindest and most amiable race on earth. They have carried with them from the great Republic of the West only that which was good—its first principles. Its unrepublican practices they have left behind."
"Will they not become corrupt?" asked Sheridan. "When?" "When they become rich," said the officer innocently. "It is to be feared," answered Mr. Wyville. "But they have one safeguard." "What is that?" "Their climate is deadly to white men," said Mr. Wyville.
The appearance of Captain Draper, coming from his stateroom, interrupted the conversation. The young officer stopped to chat with him, while Mr. Wyville and Sheridan walked to the other side of the poop.
"There are two powers of government represented on this ship," said Sheridan, determined to bring the conversation to the point he wished to speak about: "which is in command —the civil or military? The captain of the vessel, or the military officer?"
"I do not understand."
"When convicts sail from England, they are assumed to be at once in the penal colony. As soon as the convict ship leaves land, she becomes subject to the penal law of West Australia."
"Who administers the law on board?"
"The representative of the Comptroller-General of Convicts, the actual authority over the criminals in West Australia."
"Then we have a representative of the Comptroller-General on board?"
"Pardon me, Mr. Wyville; you speak riddles to-day. You said a moment ago that every convict ship had such a representative."
"Yes; unless it have the Comptroller himself."
"Then we have—Are you the Comptroller-General?"
Yes. The office was vacant, and, at the request of the Prime Minister, I accepted a temporary appointment. I am glad it was offered; for it will enable me to see our new law fairly started."
The evening had closed in as they convened, and now the shade became somewhat tolerable. Mr. Wyville and Sheridan had drawn their deck chairs towards the wheel-house."
"I am glad there is a power on board above that of the scoundrel who commands the ship," said Sheridan, sternly, after a long pause. Then he continued rapidly: "Mr. Wyville, I have feared every day that I should have to strangle the wretch; I should have told you before, but something always prevented. By some strange fatality there is on board this ship a woman whom I have loved all my life, and who has been mortally wronged by this man. I have come on this ship only to protect her."
Sheridan's lowered voice was husky with deep emotion. Having said so much, he remained silent.
Mr. Wyville had been looking out on the glassy and slow roll of the waves. As Sheridan spoke, his lips and mouth closed with a gradual compression, and a light almost of alarm came into his eyes. He was thinking of Alice Walmsley.
"You have loved her all your life," he repeated slowly, still looking, at the sea.
"Since I was a boy—and she loved me once."
Mr. Wyville was about to speak; but it seemed as if he changed his mind. Still his lips moved, but he said nothing.
"Who is she, and where?" he said, after a pause, and in his usual calm voice.
"She is a prisoner," answered Sheridan; "and she is confined in the hospital."
"In the hospital!" cried Wyville, starting to his feet, with almost a cry of joy then, seeing Sheridan's face, he controlled himself.
"That unhappy one?
"Yes," said Sheridan, sadly, thinking, that so he described Alice Walmsley.
"God help you, my friend! yours is a terrible grief."
"I have feared that he would see her, or that she might see him."
"Fear no more," said Wyville, tenderly; "I have taken measures to prevent such a meeting."
"You knew, then?" asked Sheridan, surprised.
"I knew his guilt—but not your sorrow. I knew that he and she were on this ship. It was I who brought him here; and I had beforehand secured her confinement during the voyage in the hospital."
Sheridan was surprised at this, having so lately spoken to Sister Cecilia on the subject. But he set it down to the customary thoughtfulness of Mr. Wyville.
"I cannot speak my gratitude to you," continued Sheridan; "your visit to her prison awakened in her the life that wrong and grief had crushed. I know the whole story, and I have longed to speak my gratitude."
Mr. Wyville deemed that Sheridan referred to his visit to Harriet Draper in Walton-le-Dale. But how could Sheridan have discovered it? He had certainly never communicated with Harriet Draper.
"How did you learn of my visit to her?" asked Mr. Wyville.
"From the governor of Millbank."
"Ah-yes; I told him."
Sheridan felt a great relief from this confidence. He asked Mr. Wyville's advice as to his conduct towards Draper during the voyage, and was glad to find that it coincided with his own view; to treat him with cold neutrality until the Houguemont had landed her passengers and had ceased to be a government ship.
When Sheridan had gone to his room, Mr. Wyville remained on deck alone. His heart was strangely happy that night, though he was oppressed by the grief of his friend. For one moment he had feared that the next would crush to death something that had grown within him like a new and sweeter life. As he recalled the scene, his heart stood still with the fear, even in fantasy.
"Thank God!" he murmured, as he watched the moon rise, red and large, on the sultry horizon. One blow has been spared!"