Moondyne/The Upas Tree

In a few days, as soon as he could do so without apparent haste, Will Sheridan visited Millbank again, and was escorted by a warder to the governor's office, where he was graciously received by that dignitary. Very soon, Sheridan adroitly turned the conversation on the transport service, and the class of prisoners to be transported in the next ship. The governor, who was a portly old army major, was willing enough to talk on this subject.

"The Government has no special ships for transport," said the governor; "we charter a large reliant vessel, and fit her up for the voyage. The Houguemont, which will sail in April, is now lying at Portland under preparation."

"The convicts to be transported you select from those who are best conducted, do you not?" asked Sheridan.

"No," said the governor, "only the women. These are the healthiest and best among their class; because they are soon released in Australia, and get married to liberated men, or go to service in settlers' houses. But the men who go to Australia are the opposite—they are the worst criminals in Great Britain. They are first selected for their sentence; men imprisoned for life, or for twenty years, are sure to go. Next we take them for re-conviction; we want to send away as many professional criminals as possible. Then we make up the number with strong young fellows, who have never been in prison before, but who are able to do a good deal of hard work."

"I presume the Australian authorities soon give this last class their liberty, and encourage them to become settlers?" said Sheridan, inquiringly.

"Quite the contrary," answered the governor, very gravely, as if he, subordinate though he was, could see the wrong of the system. "These men, who should be punished lightest, have the heaviest burden in Australia. The professionals escape hard tasks, by knowing how; but these poor fellows, being strong, and ignorant of the rules, are pushed into the quarry gangs. The chain-gang of Fremantle, of which you have heard, is filled with these men. Very rarely, indeed, does a really dangerous criminal get heavy punishment in prison. As a rule, the worst characters outside are the best in prison."

"It is a bad system," said Sheridan. "Does Mr. Wyville's plan propose a reform?"

"Mr. Wyville," said the old governor, walking towards the door, which he closed; then, sinking his voice almost to a whisper, "Mr. Wyville is a man and a Christian, sir. I have heard him say that the true penal law should be filled with the spirit of Christ, and that our present code had none of it. He is going to change the whole machinery. He knows more about humanity and reform than a regiment of your K.C.B.'s."

The bluff old Major mopped his face with his large handkerchief. He was excited.

"Pardon me, Mr. Sheridan," he continued. "I speak too quickly against my superiors, perhaps. But I don't do it often; and I think you Australian gentlemen may have a good deal of influence in making the new law."

"You know Mr. Wyville intimately, Major?" asked Sheridan. "I have known him for five years, sir," answered the governor; "since first he visited this prison with an order from Lord Palmerston. He has done more good to convicts in that time than all the men in Britain—I'm free to say that," added the Major, emphatically. "Four years ago I called his attention to an extraordinary case among our female convicts—the very prisoner you saw the other day. She had never prayed, and had hardly spoken a word for five years after she came here. Mr. Wyville took an interest in her, and he has changed the whole mariner of her life."

"By what means?" asked Sheridan, profoundly interested.

"Means?" repeated the governor, again resorting to his sail-like handkerchief; "it was done in his own way—unlike any other man's way. That poor girl's life was saved from insanity and despair, by what do you think? By a poor little flower—a little common flower he went and pulled in my garden down there."

Sheridan was about to hear the story of this strange event, when a low knock came to the door. The governor opened it, and there entered and stood near the threshold two ladies dressed in black, with snowy head-dresses. They were Sisters of Mercy, who attended the female school and hospital. They had come for their ward keys, without which it was impossible to pass through the pentagons, each ward or passage ending with a door.

The governor treated the ladies with respect and courtesy. He handed them their keys with a knightly bow, and, as they retired, he bowed again, and waited until they bad, reached the end of the passage before he closed the door. Sheridan who was a Catholic, was gratified and much surprised at seeing all this.

The governor turned to him with a radiant face. "God bless them!" he said, earnestly. "They may believe in the Pope of Rome, but it doesn't prevent them spending their lives for the love of God."

"Are they constant attendants in the prison?" asked Sheridan.

"Yes, they might as well be penal convicts, for all they see of the outside world. It was through these ladies, and the little flower I spoke of, that Mr. Wyville did so much for the poor girl. I'll tell you that story some day, Mr. Sheridan, if you care to hear it. Just now I have to make my rounds of inspection. Will you join me?"

"With pleasure," said Sheridan; and they passed into one of the male pentagons.

It was a monotonous and unpleasant routine, this visiting of the wards. Will Sheridan was glad when they entered the female pentagon, after half an hour's rapid walking. When at last they came to the short ward in which Alice was confined, Sheridan's heart was beating rapidly.

The door of Number Four was open, and one of the nuns was standing in the cell beside Alice, who sat with her work in her lap. Will Sheridan heard the low sound of her voice, as she spoke to her visitor, and it thrilled him like a strain of exquisite music. In after years, he never forgot the subtle pleasure and pain he experienced at the sound of her soft voice in that brief sentence.

The governor stood at the doorway, and greeted Sister Cecilia, respectfully, then passed on. Will Sheridan had only for one instant rested his eyes on Alice; but he went away happy, his heart filled with gratitude. The old governor wondered at the earnest warmth of his manner as he thanked him and took his leave.

When Will Sheridan emerged from Millbank Prison, he seemed impatient, and yet pleased. He hailed a cab, and drove straight to Mr. Wyville's. He was drawn there by a deep, pleasurable feeling of mingled respect, gratitude, and expectation. He felt unaccountably light-hearted and joyous. He had no actual thoughts, but only happy perceptions. The world was changed. He did not know in what the change consisted; but he certainly was a different man from the unhappy stranger who had wandered round Millbank a few weeks before.

He sprang from the cab in Grosvenor square, thinking he would quiet his excitement by walking the remainder of the way. As he turned into Grosvenor-street, his eye was attracted by a low and elegant brougham, driven by a coloured coachman who wore a peculiar oriental dress. This driver had caught Sheridan's eye at first, and he was rather surprised when he recognized Mr. Wyville's Australian servant, Ngarra-jil.

In the carriages, sat two young girls of extraordinary beauty and similarity of face and age. They were dark-skinned rather than "coloured," with intensely black hair and flashing eyes. Their faces were of a splendid, rich bronze, warmer than the Moorish brown of Spain, and darker than the red bronze of Syria. They were wrapped in soft furs, their faces only visible. They might have been twins; they were certainly sisters. They were talking and smiling as they spoke, as the brougham slowly passed Sheridan, and drew up at Mr. Wyville's door.

The ladies sprang lightly to the sidewalk, having thrown off their heavier wraps in the carriage. Their dress beneath was still of rich furs, of two or three colours. They walked lightly to the door, which was held open by a black servant, and entered the house.

The incident surprised Sheridan; but he was little given to curiosity. "Those ladies," he thought, "are certainly Australian natives, and yet it seems absurd to believe it. But, then, it is no stranger than everything, connected with this remarkable man."

At Mr. Wyville's he found Lord Somers, who had brought a copy of Sir Joshua Hobb's new Prison Bill, and Mr. Hamerton. The greeting of all was pleasant, but Sheridan was especially pleased with the almost silent cordiality of Mr. Wyville.

They had been conversing on criminal matters; and the conversation was renewed.

"Mr. Wyville," said the Secretary, "I wish to ask you a question I have put to many philanthropists, with varying results: Have you ever sought, or, rather, have you ever found the roots of the criminal upas tree?"

Mr. Wyville stood facing the window; he turned towards the Secretary, and his impressive face was in shade, as he answered, in a low tone—

"Yes, my lord, I have sought for it, and I have found it."

"Then, why not announce the discovery? Why not lay the axe to the root of this tree of evil, and let the world, or at least England, be freed from the criminal incubus?"

The question was earnestly put, and Hamerton and Sheridan, he with deep interest, watched the face of Mr. Wyville till the answer came.

Because, my lord, the tree of evil is a banian—its roots drop from above; its blood is not drawn directly from the soil, but pours from the heart of the main stem, which you think healthy. Its diseased branches ramify through admirable limbs, and cannot be separated with a knife."

"You are allegorical, Mr. Wyville, but I presume that you mean—

"That the criminal principle is rooted in the heart of society, underlies the throne—or let me say, that the throne cannot escape injury if the axe be laid to its base," said Mr. Wyville, speaking slowly. The nobleman glanced nervously at Hamerton, who was smiling broadly, as if intensely pleased.

The Secretary could not give up the point just then, having reached dangerous ground. And as Wyville remained silent, he was forced to continue.

"My dear Mr. Wyville," he said jocosely, "you speak today almost like a French Republican, and I fear Mr. Sheridan will conceive a violent prejudice against you. You mean, of course, that the law dare not attempt to suddenly suppress all rime for fear of exciting revolution?"

"No, my Lord, that was not my meaning," said Mr. Wyville.

"Well, then, I give it up," said the pleasant nobleman, laughing, and turning to Hamerton to change the conversation.

"Don't you think, Mr. Hamerton, that with all the public and private money spent in charity and religious work in England, the existence of a great criminal class is a vastly difficult problem, and a monstrous popular ingratitude?"

"I agree as to the problem," answered Hamerton, becoming grave; "but I do not quite see the ingratitude. But may I ask Mr. Wyville to read us the riddle of his allegory, or to continue it further?"

"Pray do, sir," said the Secretary, seeing no escape.

"My lord," said Mr. Wyville, slightly smiling, but yet very earnest in look, "my views are personal, as my researches have been. I have drawn no political dissatisfaction from foreign schools. I have merely sought among the poor and the tempted for the dangerous and the lawless; and I have found them, and lived among them, and have investigated the causes of their state. I have followed the main root of the criminal plant till I found it disappear beneath the throne; and its lateral issues run through and under the titled and heredity circles that ring the monarch."

Hamerton opened his eyes and locked his hands tightly, as he looked at the speaker; Lord Somers seemed puzzled, and rather dismayed; while Sheridan enjoyed the conversation keenly.

"Do the roots spring from the throne and the aristocracy, or enter their crevices from the outside?" asked Hamerton.

"They are boon of aristocracy," answered Wyville, impressively.

"They spring from the rotting luxuries that fall from the tables of kings and earls and hereditary gentry. They creep from the palaces, where custom and care are too strong for them, and they crawl to the cabins and seize on the hearts of the poor for their prey. The seed of crime is in the flower of aristocracy."

"You speak in paradoxes now, sir," said Lord Somers, interested in spite of himself.

"I take aristocracy as the efflorescence of the social and political evil," said Mr. Wyville, now deeply moved by his theme. "It presupposes the morality of hereditary classes. Men would not, in a justly ordered state, be born either to luxury, poverty, disease, or crime. I do not know where or how mankind began to do the social sum wrong; but I do know, for I see, that the result is appalling—that millions have evil for a heritage, as truly as you, my lord, have your entailed estate."

"But how can this be changed or bettered, my dear Mr. Wyville, except—by the spread of charity and religion among the wealthy?" asked the peer.

"Ah, pardon me; I consider these things from another standpoint. Charity among the rich simply means the propriety of the poor being miserable—that poverty is unfortunate, but not wrong. But God never meant to send the majority of mankind into existence to exercise the charity and religion of the minority. He sent them all into the world to be happy and virtuous, if not equal; and men have generated their evils by their own blind and selfish rules."

"Surely, Mr. Wyville," interrupted Mr. Hamerton, " you do not believe in the American absurdity that men are born equal?

"I do not think the Americans mean that in your sense, answered Wyville. "I do believe that every generation men should have a fair start, and let the best lives win."

But it never can be done," said Lord Somers.

"It has never been tried, I think, except by fanatics or philanthropic charity-mongers, who have done more harm than good. The good shall not come from the stooping of the rich, but from the raising of the poor; and the poor had better remain poor for another cycle than be raised by charity, and so pauperized and degraded."

"How would you begin the improvement, had you absolute power?" asked Mr. Hamerton.

Mr. Wyville checked himself with an effort, as he was about to speak.

"You have led me to utter latent thoughts rather than opinions," he said, smiling, and looking towards the nobleman.

I fear my upas roots have led me out of bounds."

Mr. Hamerton seemed annoyed at the check, and strode across the room impatiently.

"Confound it, Somers," he cried, "throw off your official airs, and take an interest in principles, as you used to do. Mr. Wyville, I beg of you to continue; you should not only talk freely here, but I wish to Heaven you could preach these things in Westminster Abbey—"

"Let me recall the question of this excitable person, Mr. Wyville," said his lordship; "he asked how you would begin the reform of society, had you absolute power?"

"By burning the law-books."

"Splendid!" cried Hamerton.

"And then?" asked Lord Somers.

"By burning the title-deeds."

"Magnificent!" ejaculated Hamerton.

"Could society exist without the law?" asked the nobleman.

"Not just yet; but it could have a better existence with better laws. At present the laws of civilization, especially in England, are based on and framed by property—a depraved and unjust foundation. Human law should be founded on God's law and human right, and not on the narrow interests of land and gold."

"What do you propose to effect by such law?" asked Lord Somers.

"To raise all men above insecurity, which is the hot-bed of lawlessness," answered Mr. Wyville.

"But by what means can law make poor men rich?" asked the nobleman.

"By allowing no one to hold unproductive land while a single man is hungry. By encouraging small farmers, till every acre of land in England is teeming with food."

"But men do not live by bread alone. Englishmen cannot all be farmers. What then?"

"By developing a system of technical education, that would enable the town and city populations to manufacture to advantage the produce of the fields and mines."

"Admirable!" cried Hamerton.

"But this is revolution," said the nobleman.

"I know not what it may be called, my lord," responded Mr. Wyville, impressively; "but it is lawful and right. This can all be achieved by legal reform, even under present laws."

"Let me not misunderstand you, Mr. Wyville," said the nobleman, seriously. "Would you propose that the estates of wealthy men be wrested from them by law?"

"Not without compensation, my lord; and not at all unless they refused to cultivate the soil or to pay the heavy tax necessary to insure cultivation. I would do no wrong to make a right. No inherited nor purchased land should be taken for the benefit of the people without giving a fair recompense to the aristocrat."

"Well, and having done all this, where should we be?" asked Lord Somers.

"At the starting-point," answered Mr. Wyville, with a sad smile; "only at the starting-point. At present, the level of society is insecurity, poverty, misery; from which spring fear, ignorance, disease, and crime. Under a better system, the lowest point would be at least sufficiency, enough for all the human beings in the country; and this, in time, would eradicate much of the evil, perhaps most of it."

"Do you think, if there were enough for all, there would not still be some who would steal?" asked Hamerton.

"For a time there would be," answered Wyville, gravely; "perhaps for a thousand years or more we should have remnants of common crime. Men have been thousands of years learning to steal, and cringe, and lie; at least give them one thousand to unlearn."

"But if it take so long," said Lord Somers, laughing, "we may as well go on as we are."

"Not so, my lord," answered Wyville, and as he spoke, his face was lighted with an exaltation of spirit that made it marvellously beautiful and powerful; "no man who sees the truth, however distant, can conscientiously go on as if it were not there. Thousands of years are vast periods; but the love of human liberty and happiness shall reach out and cling to the eternal. Let every man who believes, faithfully do his share, sow the seed that he has received, and in God's time the glorious harvest will come of a pure and truthful people, whose aristocrats shall be elevated by intelligence and virtue, and the love of humanity, and not by accident of birth and superiority in vice and pride."

The three who heard were deeply moved by the earnestness of the speaker, whose whole being seemed filled with the splendid prophecy. Lord Somers was the first to speak, returning to the subject of the Penal Reform Bill.

"And yet, Mr. Wyville, with all your enthusiasm for social reform, you have given us a bill which is filled with practical attention to existing institutions."

"Ah, it is too soon to begin; and the beginning will not be at that point," said Mr. Wyville. "The real evil is outside the prison, and at present our legal morality calls it good. Until society is changed by the new common sense of abstract justice, we must temporize with our criminal codes."

There was a pause: no one seemed willing to break the floating possibilities of the future.

"You are going to Australia with the next convict ship, are you not?" Mr. Hamerton at length asked Mr. Wyville.

"Yes; I wish to see the machinery of the new system put in motion. Besides, I have personal matters to attend to in the colony."

Sheridan had started so sudden at the question, that now all three turned their eyes on him.

"I have thought," he said, looking at Lord Somers, "that I also should like to return to Australia on that ship."

"Would you not prefer to go in my yacht, Mr. Sheridan?" asked Mr. Wyville. "She will sail for Australia about the same time, and you shall command her for the voyage."

"I should prefer the ship," said Sheridan. Then, thinking he had rudely refused, he added: "I desire very keenly to have this experience."

"You shall have your wish, Sir," said the Secretary; "and I envy you the companionship of your voyage."