Moondyne/The New Penal Law
There being no female passengers in the cabin of the Houguemont, it was decided that Alice Walmsley should remain in her room with Sister Cecilia till the end of the voyage. The only change made was in her dress, and this, by some strange foresight on the part of the little Sister, as it seemed, was quite extensively and fittingly provided for.
Alice selected the quietest possible dress, and when she stood arrayed in it, after so many weary years in prison gray, she could not help glancing at her face in the glass, and blushing as she looked; and at this very pretty and womanly moment, Sister Cecilia came upon her and gave a pleasant little laugh. Upon this, Alice blushed deeper, and turned her confused face away, while Sister Cecilia reached after it, and drawing it to the light kissed her affectionately.
"Why, Alice," she said, with a provoking smile, "you are quite a beauty."
Unquestionably, even a few days without the burden of bondage had worked wonders in Alice's life. She was no longer moody; she instantly and naturally began to take fresh interest in everything she saw and heard around her.
The ship cleared the Tropics and raced down towards the Cape in the vigorous Southern trades. The blustering winds and the rough sea brought refreshment even to the feeble, and to Alice renewed strength. Her face lost the pallor of confinement, and her step became elastic. The years of her imprisonment had kept dormant the energies that waste with exertion. She began to feel as youthful and as cheerful as when she was a girl.
One day she was standing beside her open window, looking out on the sea, when she plainly heard above her, on the poop deck, a voice that held her rooted to the spot.
"I cannot forsee the result"—she heard these words—"but I shall go on to the end. I have loved her clearly always; and I shall, at least, prove it to her before the dream is dispelled."
Alice held herself to the window, not meaning to listen to the words so much as to obey the strong prompting of her heart to hear the honest ring of the voice.
It was Will Sheridan who spoke—he stood on the poop with Mr. Wyville—and Alice knew the voice. After so many years, it came to her like a message from her girlhood, and bridged over the chasm in her life.
No other words reached her; but the conversation continued for a long time; and still she stood beside the window, her cheek laid on her hands, while she allowed the familiar tones to transport her back to happy scenes.
Sister Cecilia found her so, and playfully coaxed her to tell her thoughts; but Alice's diffidence was so evident that the little nun sat down and laughed heartily.
The voyage round the Cape had no special interest; and a few weeks later the officers began their preparations for disembarkation. The air grew balmy once more, and the sky cloudless.
"We are just three hundred miles from the mouth of the Swan River," said Sheridan one day to Mr. Wyville, when he had taken his observations. "Have you ever landed at Fremantle?"
"Yes, once—many years ago," said Mr. Wyville, and he crossed the deck to observe something in the sea.
Throughout the voyage, neither Sheridan nor Wyville had seen Alice Walmsley. Each in his own mind deemed it best to leave her undisturbed with Sister Cecilia. Mr. Wyville was still impressed with the conviction of Sheridan's unhappy and hopeless affection for Harriet; but he was much perplexed by her forgetfulness of his name. However, when they reached Australia, one day ashore would clear up matters without the pain of preliminary explanation.
Day after day, in the mild southern air, the ship glided slowly on, and still the watchers on the crowded deck saw no Sign of land. From morning light they leant on the rail, looking away over the smooth sea to where the air was yellow with heat above the unseen continent. There was a warmth and pleasure in the promise it gave.
The straining eyes were saved the long pain of watching the indistinct line. The shore of West Australia is quite low, and the first sign of land are tall mahogany trees in the bush. The ship passed this first sight-line early in the night; and next morning, when the convicts were allowed on deck, they saw, only a few miles distant, the white sand and dark woods of their land of bondage and promise.
The sea was as smooth as a lake, and the light air impelled the ship slowly. At noon they passed within a stone's throw of the island of Rottenest, and every eye witnessed the strange sight of gangs of naked black men working like beavers in the sand, the island being used as a place of punishment for refractory natives.
An hour later, the ship had approached within a mile of the pier at Fremantle. The surrounding sea and land were very strange and beautiful. The green shoal-water, the soft air, with a yellowish warmth, the pure white sand of the beach, and the dark green of the unbroken forest beyond, made a scene almost like fairyland.
But there was a stern reminder of reality in the little town of Fremantle that lay between the forest and the sea. It was built of wooden houses, running down a gentle hill; and in the centre of the houses, spread out like a gigantic star-fish, was a vast stone prison.
There was a moment of bustle and noise on the deck, through which rang the clear commanding voice of Sheridan, and next moment the anchor plunged into the sea and the cable roared through the hawse-hole. Every soul on board took a long breath of relief at the end of the voyage.
A tug was seen coming from the wharf, the deck of which was crowded. At its mast-head floated the Governor's flag. On the deck was the Governor of the colony with his staff, and a host of convict officers from the prison.
The tug steamed alongside, and the Governor came on board the convict ship. He wore a blue tunic, with epaulettes like a naval officer, white trousers, and a cocked hat. He greeted Mr. Wyville with official welcome on account of his position, and warmly expressed his admiration of his philanthropy.
"I understand you bring us a new penal system," said the Governor. "I hope it is a stronger one than that we have."
"It certainly is stronger," said Mr. Wyville, "for it is milder and juster."
"Well, well," said the Governor, who was a testy old general, "I hope you won't spoil them. They need a stiff hand. Now, I suppose you want those warders from the prison to get your crowd into order for landing. Shall I order them on board?"
Mr. Wyville had been looking down on the tug, observing the officers, who were a rough crew, each one carrying, a heavy cane or whip, as well as a pistol in the belt, and a sword. He turned with a grave face to the Governor.
"Your Excellency, I am sure, will see the wisdom of beginning with our new code at once. We have here the best opportunity to emphasize its first principles. Shall I proceed?"
"By all means, Sir; you have absolute control of your department. I shall watch your method with interest."
At his order, the warders boarded the ship, formed in line, and saluted. Mr. Wyville descended from the poop, and carefully inspected them as they stood in rank.
"Go to the steward," be said to the chief warder, as he came to the end of the line, "and get from him a large basket."
The man was astonished, but he promptly obeyed. In a minute he returned with a capacious hamper.
"Begin on the right," said Mr. Wyville, in curt tones, "and place in that hamper your pistols, swords, canes, and whips."
The warders scarcely believed their ears; but they obeyed.
"Now listen!" said Mr. Wyville, and his voice thrilled the warders with its depth and earnestness. "I am going to read for you the new law of this colony, of which you are the officers. Its first word is, that if any of you strike or maltreat a prisoner, you shall be arrested, discharged, and imprisoned."
The warders fairly gasped with astonishment. The old Governor, who had listened attentively at first, opened his eyes wide, then nodded his head in decided approval.
Mr. Wyville read the heads of the new law, emphasizing the mild points. As he proceeded, the faces of the warders lost all expression but one of blank amazement. The entire meaning of the law was that convicts were expected to rise from bad to good, rather than descend from bad to worse. In other words, it was a law meant for reformation, not for vengeance.
In passing along the line, Mr. Wyville's eye rested on a silver medal worn by one of the warders. He looked at it keenly.
"What is that medal for?" he asked.
"For the mutiny of two years ago," said the chief warder; "this officer killed three mutineers."
"Take that medal off," said Mr. Wyville to the warder, "and never put it on again. We are to have no more mutiny."
The warders were then dismissed from the rank, and instructed to go below and get the convicts in order for disembarkation. As they departed, Mr. Wyville gave them one word more.
"Remember, you are dealing with men, not with brutes— with men who have rights and the protection of law."
When they had disappeared into the bold, the old Governor shook Mr. Wyville warmly by the hand.
"By the lord Harry, sir, this is excellent," he said, heartily.
"This d—d colony has been a menagerie long enough. If you succeed with your system, we'll make it a civilized country at last."