Arrived in London, he proceeded at once to the Colonial Office, and left his letters for the Secretary, and with them his address in the metropolis. He went through the same routine with the dispatches for the Prison Directors. Then, though his heart craved instant action, he was forced to exercise his patience, to wait until these high and perhaps heedless officials were pleased to recognize his presence.
The great city was a wonder to him; but, in his intense preoccupation, he passed through it as if it had been familiar from childhood. On the day after his arrival, not expecting an answer from the officials, one of whom—the Colonial Secretary—was a cabinet minister, he tried to interest himself in the myriad strangeness of London. He visited Westminster Abbey and the British Museum. But, everywhere, his heart beat the same dolorous key; he saw the white face, the slight, crouching figure in the dock, the brown hair bowed in agony and disgrace. On the walls of the great picture gallery the gilded frames held only this pitiful scene. Among the tombs of the kings in Westminster, he thought of her ruined life and shattered hopes, and envied, for her sake, the peace of the sleeping marble knights and ladies.
All day, without rest or food, he wandered aimlessly and wretchedly through the sculptured magnificence of the galleries. When the night closed, he found himself—almost unconscious of how he had come to the place, or who had directed him thither—walking with bared and feverish brow beneath a high and gloomy wall—the massive outer guard of Millbank Prison. Hour sped after hour, yet round and round the shadowy, silent precipice of wall the afflicted heart wandered with tireless feet. It was woeful to think how near she was, and to touch the sullen granite—yet it was a thousand times more endurable than the torture and fear that were born of absence.
Surely, if there be any remote truth in the theory of psychic magnetism, the afflicted soul within those walls must have felt the presence of the loving and suffering heart without, which sent forth unceasingly silent cries of sympathy and comfort. Surely, if communion of living spirits be possible, the dream of the lonely prisoner within must have thrilled with tenderness when his fevered lips were pressed as lovingly to the icy stone of the prison wall as once they were pressed to her forehead in affectionate farewell.
Back to his hotel, when morning was beginning to break, the lonely watcher went, spiritless and almost despairing. The reaction had begun of his extreme excitement for the past four days. He passed along the lonesome river, that hurried through the city like a thief in the night, flashing under the yellow quay-lights, then diving suddenly beneath dark arches or among slimy keels, like a hunted murderer escaping to the sea. Wild and incoherent fancies flashed through Will's feverish mind. Again and again he was forced to steady himself by placing his hand on the parapet, or he should have fallen in the street, like a drunken man.
At last he reached his hotel, and flung himself on his bed, prayerless, friendless, and only saved from despair by the thought of an affliction that was deeper than his, which he, as a man and a faithful friend, should be strong to relieve and comfort.
It was past noon when he awoke. The fever had passed and much of the dejection. While dressing, he was surprised to find his mind actively at work forming plans and surmises: for the day's enterprise.
At breakfast, a large official letter was brought him. It was; a brief but unofficially-cordial message from the Colonial Secretary, Lord George Somers, appointing an hour—two o'clock on that day—when he should be happy to receive Mr. Sheridan at the Colonial Office.
Under other circumstances, such an appointment would have thrown off his balance a man so unused to social or formal, ways as this stranger from Australia, whose only previous training had been on a merchant ship. But now, Will Sheridan prepared for the visit, without thinking of its details. His mind was fastened on a point beyond this meeting.
Even the formal solemnity of the powdered servant who received him had no disturbing effect. Will Sheridan quite forgot the surroundings, and at length, when ushered into the presence of the Colonial Secretary, his native dignity and intelligence were in full sway, and the impression he made on the observant nobleman was instantaneous and deep.
He was received with more than courtesy. Those letters, Lord Somers said, from Australia, had filled him with interest and desire to see a man who bad achieved so much and who had so rapidly and solidly enriched and benefited the colony.
The Colonial Secretary was a young man for his high position—certainly not over forty, while he might be still younger. He had a keen eye, a mobile face, that could turn to stony rigidity, but withal a genial and even frank countenance when conversing cordially with this stranger, whom he knew to be influential, and who certainly was highly entertaining.
Will Sheridan was soon talking fluently and well. He knew all about the penal colony, the working of the old penal system and the need of a new one, the value of land, the resources of the country, the capabilities for commerce and all this the Secretary was most anxious to learn.
After a long interview, Sheridan rose to take leave, and the Secretary said he hoped to see a great deal of him before his return to Australia, and told him plainly that the opinions of a settler of wealth and intelligence on colonial matters in West Australia were just then of special importance to the Government. He also wished it were in his power to give Mr. Sheridan pleasure while he remained in England.
There was only one thought in Sheridan's mind all this time, and now was the moment to let it work. He said he desired very much to visit the convict prisons in England, and compare the home system with that of the penal colony.
The minister was gratified by the request, and, smiling, asked which prison he would visit first. Will mentioned Millbank; and the minister With his own hand wrote a few lines to the governor, and handed the paper to his visitor.
Will Sheridan took his departure, with a tremulous hope at his heart, and drove straight to Millbank Prison.
There is something strange, almost unaccountable, and yet terrible,in the change that appears, in half a century, in the building of prisons. Few people have thought of this perhaps; but it contains a suggestion of a hardening of hearts and a lessening of sentiment. The old prisons were dark and horrible, even in aspect; while the new ones are light and airy. In the latter, the bar takes the place of a wall—and the box is often ornamented with cast-iron flowers and other slightly but sardonic mockery. Better the old dungeon, with its gloom; better for the sake of humanity. The new prison is a cage—a hideous hive of order and commonplace severity, where the flooding sunlight is a derision, and the barred door only a securer means of confinement. For the sake of sentiment, at least, let us have the dismal old keep, that proclaims its mission on its dreadful brow, rather than the grinning bar-gate that covers its teeth-like mils with vulgar metal efflorescence.
The great penitentiary of Millbank, is, or rather was, an old fashioned prison, its vast arched gateway sombre and awful as a tomb. It has disappeared now, having been pulled down in 1875; but those who visited it once, or who even passed it will never forget the oppression caused by its grated and frowning portal. In the early part of this century, the Government of Great Britain determined to build an immense penitentiary, on the plan laid down by Jeremy Bentham in his celebrated "Panopticon, or the Inspection House."
Bentham's scheme proposed colossal prison, which should contain all England's convicts, and dispense entirely with transportation. The Government, acting on his plan, purchased a large and unhealthy tract of flat land, lying beside the Thames, and on this the unique structure was raised. The workmen were ten years in completing it; but, when it was finished, Englishmen said that it was the model prison of the world.
And it certainly was a great improvement on the older prisons, where those confined were often herded, many in a room, like cattle—the innocent with the guilty, the young and pure with the aged and the foul. In Millbank every prisoner had his or her own cell—a room of stone (walls, ceiling, and floor), with a large and heavily-barred window. Each cell was eight feet square. The prison was built in six vast pentagons, radiating from a central hexagon, from which every cell was visible.
The entrance to the prison, from the street, was a wonder of architectural gloom. First there was a dark archway of solid masonry, from the roof of which, about six feet from the portal, sprang a heavy grate or portcullis, with spear-points apparently—ready to fall and cut the unfortunate off for ever from the world. Far within the arch appeared a mighty iron gate, ponderously barred, with an iron wicket, through which an armed warder could be seen on sentry within the yard.
These details were not noticed by Will Sheridan as he entered the echoing archway; but he was chilled. Nevertheless, by the cold shadow of the surroundings. The warder within came to the wicket, and took the letter, leaving Will outside. In a few minutes he found that his introduction was an "open sesame." The governor of Millbank himself, an important gentleman in a black uniform with heavy gold facings, came speedily to the wicket, the ponderous bars were flung back, the awful door rolled aside, and Will Sheridan entered.
The governor was very gracious to his distinguished visitor. On learning of his desire to see the arrangements of the prison, he himself became the guide.
An hour was spent in the male side of the establishment, which was an age to Will Sheridan. While the governor thought his attention was engaged in observing the features or motions of some caged malefactor, the mind and fancy of the visitor were far or otherwise engaged. He did not see the wretched, crime-stained countenances in the cells he passed; but in every one he saw the white face, the brown hair, and the crouching figure that filled his mind.
At last the governor asked him to visit the female prison, in which the discipline was necessarily different. They passed through a long passage built in the wall, and entered the corridors of the female prison.
Sheridan's heart beat, and the blood fled from his face, leaving him ghastly pale, as he passed the first iron door. He feared that the governor might notice his agitation; and he wondered how he should learn whether Alice were there or not.
As he walked down the corridor he noticed that on every door was hung a white card, and, approaching, he read the name, crime, and sentence of the prisoner printed thereon. This was a relief to him. As he walked he read the name on every card, and on and on they went, up stairs and down, and round and round the pentagons, until he thought she surely was not in the prison, and the governor concluded that his visitor evidently meant to see all that was to be seen.
When the last corridor on the ground floor was entered, Will read every name on the doors with a despairing persistence, and his heart sank within him as he came to the last.
The governor opened the door at the end of the passage, and they entered a light, short corridor, with large and pleasantly lighted cells. Here, the governor said, were confined those prisoners who, by extreme good conduct, had merited less severe treatment than the others.
Will Sheridan's heart leaped within him, for he knew that this was the place where he should see her.
On the doors were simply printed the names and sentences of the occupants; and at the fourth door Will stopped and read the card.—
Seeing him pause and intently examine the card, the governor beckoned to the female warder, who was in the passage, to come and open the door.
The woman approached, the key in her hand, and stood aside until the gentlemen withdrew from the door. Will turned and read her intention, and with a shudder he put her back with his hand.
"No, no—not her," he said hurriedly. Then recollecting himself "No, no; the prisoners do not like to be stared at."
Next moment, before he could think of the consequences, he turned again, and, speaking rapidly, said—
"I am wrong. I should like to see the interior of this cell."
The lock clicked back, the heavy iron door swung open, and William Sheridan saw Alice Walmsley before him.
She had been sewing on something coarse and white, and a heap of the articles lay at her feet. As the door opened, she stood up from the low seat on which she had sat in the centre of the stone-floored cell, and, with her eyes on the ground, awaited the scrutiny of the visitors, according to prison discipline.
Will Sheridan took in the whole cell at once, although his eyes only rested on her face. She never looked on him, but stood in perfect calmness, with her eyes cast down.
She was greatly changed, but so differently changed to Will's expectations, that he stood amazed, stunned. He had pictured her fragile, broken, spiritless, wretched. There she stood before him, grown stronger than when he had known her, quiet as a statue, with a face—not of happiness, but of intensified peace, and with all that was beautiful in her as a girl increased a thousand fold, but subdued by suffering. Her rich brown hair had formerly been cut close, but now it had grown so long that it fell to her shoulders. Her face was colourless, for want of open air and sunshine. A casual observer would have said she was happy.
Something of her peace fell upon William Sheridan as he looked upon her. Suddenly he was recalled to consciousness by a simple movement of hers, as if averse to inspection. His heart quickened with fear and: sorrow for his impulsive action in entering the cell, for now he would give all he possessed that she should not look upon his face. He turned from her quickly and walked out of the cell, and he did not look round until he heard the heavy door swing into its place.
When he had walked so far from the cell that she could not hear his voice, he asked the governor what work these privileged prisoners were engaged in, and was almost startled into an exclamation of astonishment when the governor answered
"They are just now engaged on a pleasant task for themselves. They are making their outfit for the penal colony."
"Is she—is that prisoner going to the penal colony?" asked Will Sheridan, scarcely able to control his emotion.
"Yes, sir; she and all those in this pentagon will sail for West Australia in the next convict ship," said the governor.
"We shall send three hundred men and fifty Women in this lot."
"When does the ship sail?" asked the visitor, still apparently examining the door-cards.
"On the 10th of April—just three months hence," answered the governor.
With his eyes fixed on a ponderous door, which he did not see, Will Sheridan made a sudden and imperative resolution.
"I shall return to Australia on that convict ship," were the words that no one heard but his own soul.
"I thank you, Sir, for your courtesy and attention," he said, next moment, to the governor; "and as I wish to examine more closely the working of your system, I shall probably trouble you again."
The governor assured him that his visits to the prison would be at all times considered as complimentary; and Will Sheridan walked from Millbank with a firmer step and a more restful spirit than he had known for ten years.