MoboReader> Literature > Rodman The Boatsteerer And Other Stories / 1898

   Chapter 6 No.6

Rodman The Boatsteerer And Other Stories / 1898 By Louis Becke Characters: 20104

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


As the sun set blood red, a thick white fog crept westward, and the miserable fever-stricken wretches that lay gasping and dying on the decks of the transport Breckenbridge knew that another day of calm-and horror-waited them with the coming of the dawn on the morrow.

Twenty miles away the dark outline of the Australian shore shone out green and purple with the dying sunshafts, and then quickly dulled again to the sombre shades of the coming night and the white mantle of fog.

On the starboard side of the high quarterdeck of the transport the master stood gazing seaward with a worn and troubled face, and as he viewed the gathering fog a heavy sigh broke from him.

"God help us!" he muttered, "ninety-six dead already, and as many more likely to die in another week if this calm keeos up."

A hand was laid on his shoulder, and turning he met the pale face of the surviving surgeon of the fever-stricken ship.

"Seven more cases, Belton-five prisoners and two marines."

The master of the Breckenbridge buried his face in his hands and groaned aloud.

"Can nothing be done, doctor? My God! it is terrible to see people perishing like this before our eyes when help is so near. Look! over there, only twenty miles away, is Twofold Bay, where there is a settlement, but I dare not send a boat ashore. There are not ten sound men in the ship, and if an easterly wind springs up I could not keep my ship from going ashore."

The young surgeon made no answer for awhile. Ever since the Breckenbridge had left Rio, one or more of the convicts, seamen, or military guard had died day after day; and he had striven hard since the outbreak of the fever to stay its deadly progress. The cause he knew well: the foul, overcrowded 'tween decks, where four hundred human beings were confined in a space not fit to hold a hundred, the vile drinking-water and viler provisions, the want of even a simple disinfectant to clear the horrible, vitiated atmosphere, and the passage, protracted long beyond even the usual time in those days, had been the main causes of their present awful condition.

Presently the surgeon spoke-

"Nothing can be done, Belton."

"How is Lieutenant Clinton, sir?" asked the master, as the surgeon turned to leave him.

"Dying fast. Another hour or so will see the end."

"And his wife and baby?"

"She bears up well, but her infant cannot possibly live another day in such weather as this. God help her, poor little woman! Better for her if she follows husband and child."

"Who is with Mr. Clinton, doctor?" asked the master presently.

"Adair-No. 267. I brought him into the cabin. Indeed, Clinton asked me to do so. He thinks much of the young fellow, and his conduct ever since the outbreak occurred deserves recognition. He has rendered me invaluable assistance with Clinton and the other sick in the main cabin."

"He's a fine young fellow," said Belton, "and his good example has done much to keep the others quiet. Do you know, doctor, that at any time during the last three weeks the ship could have been captured by a dozen even unarmed men."

"I do know it; but the poor wretches seem never to have thought of rising."

"What was Adair sent out for?" asked Belton.

"Lunacy; otherwise, patriotism. He's one of a batch of five-the five best conducted men on the ship-sentenced to end their days in Botany Bay for participating in an attack on a party of yeomanry at Bally-somewhere or other in Ireland. There was a band of about fifty, but these five were the only ones captured-the other forty-five were most likely informers and led them into the mess."

A hurried footstep sounded near them, and a big man, in a semi-military costume, presented himself abruptly before them. His dark, coarse race was flushed with anger, and his manner insolent and aggressive. Not deigning to notice the presence of the surgeon, he addressed himself to the master of the transport.

"Mr. Belton, I protest against the presence in the main cabin of a ruffianly convict. The scoundrel refuses to let me have access to Lieutenant Clinton. Both on my own account and on that of Mr. Clinton, who needs my services, I desire that this man be removed immediately."

"What right, sir, have you, a passenger, to protest?" answered Belton surlily. "Mr. Clinton is dying and Prisoner Adair is nursing him."

"That does not matter to me, I--"

The surgeon stepped in front of the newcomer.

"But it shall matter to you, Mr. Jacob Bolger, Government storekeeper, jailer, overseer, or commissary's runner, or whatever your position is. And I shall see that No. 267 suffers no molestation from you."

"Who are you, sir, to threaten me? The Governor shall hear of this when we arrive at the settlement. A pretty thing that I should be talked to like this by the ship's doctor!"

"By God, sir, I'll give you something to talk about," and the surgeon's Welsh blood leapt to his face. Advancing to the break of the poop, he called-

"Sergeant Matthews!"

The one remaining non-commissioned officer of the diminished convict-guard at once appeared and saluted.

He was a solemn-faced, taciturn man, devoted to Clinton.

"Mr. Belton," said the doctor, "in the serious illness of Lieutenant Clinton I now assume charge of the military guard and convicts on this ship, and as a first step to maintain proper discipline at such a critical time, I shall confine Mr. Bolger to his cabin. Sergeant, take him below and lock him in."

Bolger collapsed at once. "I beg your pardon, doctor, for my hastiness. I did not know.... I was--"

The surgeon cut his apologies short. "Go to your cabin, sir. I shall not have you locked in, but, by heavens! if you attempt to go into Mr. Clinton's cabin I'll put you in irons, Government official though you are. I am well aware that your presence is particularly objectionable to Mrs. Clinton."

With an evil look Bolger left them, and the surgeon, turning to Belton, said: "That settles him, anyway, for a time. He's a thorough scoundrel, I believe. Mrs. Clinton has a positive horror of the man; yet the brute is continually pestering her with offers of his services. Now I must go below again to poor Clinton."

In the dimly lighted cabin the young officer lay breathing heavily, and as the doctor softly entered he saw that the time was now very near. By her husband's side sat Marion Clinton, her loosened wavy brown hair hiding from view her own face and the dying hand which she held pressed to her quivering lips. At her feet, on a soft cushion on the floor, lay her infant, with one thin waxen hand showing out from the light shawl that covered it; at the further end of the cabin stood a young, broad-shouldered man in grey convict garb. As the doctor entered he stood up and saluted.

The sound of the opening door made Clinton turn his face. "Is that you, Williams?" he said, in slow, laboured tones. "Marion, my girl, bear up. I know I am going, old fellow. Do what you can for her, Williams. The Governor will see to her returning to England, but it may be long before a ship leaves.... Marion!"

"Yes," she answered brokenly.

"Is baby no better?"

"No," she answered with a sob, as she raised her tear-stained face to Surgeon Williams, who shook his head. "There is no hope for her, Harry."

His hand pressed hers gently. "God help you, dear! Only for that it would not be so hard to die now; and now I leave you quite alone."

She stooped down and lifted the fragile infant, and Williams and No. 267 turned their faces away for awhile. Presently Clinton called the surgeon.

"Williams," and his eyes looked wistfully into the doctor's, "do what you can for her. There is something like a hundred guineas among my effects-that will help. Thank God, though, she will be a rich woman when my poor old father dies. I am the only son."

The surgeon bent down and took his hand. "She shall never want a friend while I live, Clinton, never."

A light of thankfulness flickered in Clinton's eyes, and the pallid lips moved; and then as wife and friend, each holding a hand, waited for him to speak, there came the sound of a heavy sob. Convict 267 was kneeling and praying for the departing soul.

Slowly the minutes passed, the silence broken but by the creaking and straining of the ship as she rose and fell to the sea, and now and again the strange, mournful cry of some night-fishing penguin.

"Marion," Clinton said at last, "I would like to speak to Adair before I die. He has been good to you and to me."

Walking softly in his stockinged feet, Adair advanced close to the bed.

"Give me your hand, Adair. God bless you," he whispered.

"And God bless you, sir, and all here," answered the young Irishman in a husky, broken voice.

"Hush," said the surgeon warningly, and his eyes sought those of the watching wife, with a meaning in them that needed no words. Quickly she passed her arm around Clinton, and let his head lie upon her shoulder. He sighed heavily and then lay still.

The surgeon touched the kneeling figure of Convict Adair on the arm, and together they walked softly out of the cabin.

"Come again in an hour, Adair," said Dr. Williams; "you can help me best. We must bury him by daylight. Meanwhile you can get a little sleep."

No. 267 clasped his hands tightly together as he looked at the doctor, and his lips worked and twitched convulsively. Then a wild beseeching look overspread his face. "For God's sake don't ask me!" he burst out. "I implore you as man to man to have pity on me. I cannot be here at daylight!"

"As you please," answered Williams, with a surprised expression; and then as he went on deck he said to himself, "Some cursed, degrading Irish superstition, I suppose, about a death at sea."

* * *

Slowly the hours crept on. No noise disturbed the watcher by her dead save the low voices of the watch on deck and the unknown sounds that one hears at night alone. Prisoner Adair was sitting in the main cabin within near call of Mrs. Clinton, and, with

head upon his knees, seemed to slumber. Suddenly the loud clamour of five bells as the hour was struck made him start to his feet and look quickly about him with nervous apprehension. From the dead officer's state-room a narrow line of light from beneath the door sent an oblique ray aslant the cabin floor and crossed the convict's stockinged feet.

For a moment he hesitated; then tapped softly at the door. It opened, and the pale face of Marion Clinton met his as he stood before her cap in hand.

"Have you come to take"-the words died away in her throat with a sob.

"No," he answered, "I have but come to ask you to let me say goodbye, and God keep and prosper you, madam. My time here is short, and you and your husband have made my bitter lot endurable."

She gave him her hand. He clasped it reverently in his for a moment, and his face flushed a dusky red. Then he knelt and kissed her child's little hand.

"Are you leaving the ship? Are we then in port or near it?" she asked.

He looked steadfastly at her for a moment, and then, pushing the door to behind him, lowered his voice to a whisper.

"Mrs. Clinton, your husband one day told me that he would aid me to regain my freedom. Will you do as much?"

"Yes," she answered, trembling; "I will. I shall tell the Governor how you--"

He shook his head. "Not in that way, but now, now."

"How can I help you now?" she asked wonder-ingly.

"Give me Mr. Clinton's pistols. Before daylight four others and myself mean to escape from the ship. The guard are all too sick to prevent us even if we are discovered. There is a boat towing astern, lowered with the intention of sending it ashore to seek assistance. Water and provisions are in it. But we have no firearms, and if we land on the coast may meet with savages."

Without a word she put her husband's pistols in his hands, and then gave him all the ammunition she could find.

"Do not shed blood," she began, when the convict clutched her arm. A sound as of some one moving came from the next cabin-the one occupied by Jacob Bolger-and a savage light came into Adair's eyes as he stood and listened.

"He would give the alarm in a moment if he knew," he muttered.

"Yes," she answered; "he hates you, and I am terrified even to meet his glance."

But Mr. Jacob Bolger made no further noise; he had heard quite enough, and at that moment was lying back in his bunk with an exultant smile, waiting for Adair to leave the cabin.

Then the convict, still crouching on the floor, held out his hand.

"Will you touch my hand once more, Mrs. Clinton?" he said huskily.

She gave it to him unhesitatingly.

"Goodbye, Adair. I pray God all will go well with you."

He bent his face over it and whispered "Goodbye," and then went up on deck.

* * *

As No. 267 stumbled along the main deck he saw that all discipline was abandoned, and even the for'ard sentry, that for the past week had been stationed to guard the prisoners when on deck, had left his post.

At the fore-hatch four shadowy forms approached him, and then the five men whispered together.

"Good," said Adair at last. Then they quickly separated.

* * *

Six bells had struck when Jacob Bolger opened his cabin door, peered cautiously about, and then, stepping quickly to Mrs. Clinton's door, turned the handle without knocking, and entered.

"Why do you come here, Mr. Bolger?" said Marion Clinton, with a terrified look in her dark eyes. "Do you not know that my husband is dead and my child dying?" And, holding the infant in her arms, she barred a nearer approach.

"I am sorry to disturb you, Mrs. Clinton; but I come as a friend, first to offer you my poor services in your great affliction, and secondly-but as a friend still-to warn you of the dangerous step you have taken in assisting a party of convicts to escape from the ship."

"For Heaven's sake, Mr. Bolger, have some pity on me! My dear husband is dead, my child has but a few hours-perhaps minutes-to live. Do not add to my misery."

"I shall not betray you!" and he advanced a step nearer to her; "but it is my duty," and his cunning eyes watched her shrinking figure keenly, "to prevent these men from escaping." And then he turned as if to go.

Her courage came back. "Mr. Bolger"-and she placed her hand on his cuff, shuddering as she did so-"you are not a rich man. Will you-can I-will a hundred guineas buy your silence? It is all I have. Forget that which you know. Let these wretched men escape. What harm can it do you?"

His savage, brutal nature came out, and he laughed coarsely.

"None, but-but you would like to see them get away, would you not?"

"Yes," she answered, looking at him with dulled eyes, "Adair has been very good to us."

"Well, look here; money cannot buy my silence, but you can. Now do you know what I mean?"

"No," she answered despairingly. "How should I? What is it you wish me to do?"

"This"-and he bent his evil-eyed face close to hers-"promise to marry me three months from now."

She gave a gasping cry, and sank back upon her seat. He followed and stood over her, and then spoke quickly-

"Ever since I first saw you I have loved you. You are a free woman now, and I shall have a good position at the settlement."

She made a gesture of horror, and his voice grew savage and threatening. "And unless you make me that promise I'll give the alarm now, and Adair and his confederates shall hang together. Come, think, and decide quickly-their life or death rests in your hands."

For some moments she bent her gaze upon the pinched and sunken features of her dying child; then she raised her head, and a swift gleam of fire came into her eyes.

"I will do as you wish. Now go."

Without a word Bolger turned and left the cabin.

As he walked quickly through the main cabin he did not see the tall figure of Sergeant Matthews standing a few feet aft from Mrs. Clinton's cabin-door. The moment Bolger disappeared the sergeant tapped and called-

"Mrs. Clinton!"

A new terror beset her as she recognised the sergeant's voice; but she bravely stifled it and bade him come in.

The solemn, wooden-faced soldier looked at her steadily for a second or so, and then, being a man of few words, got through with them as quickly as possible.

"Beg pardon, madam, doctor sent me with a message to Mr. Bolger, telling him he was at liberty to leave his cabin; found he was gone; heard his voice in here; waited to see if could be of any assistance to you, madam."

There was a kindly ring in his voice which encouraged her.

"Matthews, did you hear what Mr. Bolger was saying?"

The sergeant looked stolidly before him. "I did, madam-part of it."

"Part?" she repeated agitatedly.

"Yes, madam-about Adair and some other men."

She pressed her hand to her throat. Matthews was an old, tried servant of her husband's in former years. "Close the door!" she said suddenly.

Opening a locker, she took out a leathern-bound writing-desk, unlocked it, and in a moment or two more turned to the sergeant with a small but heavy purse in her hand.

"Sergeant," she said quietly; "this money, nearly a hundred guineas, is for you. I may not live to reach the settlement at Port Jackson. And I would like to reward you for-for--" The rest died away.

Matthews understood. He took the money, saluted, and with softened tread left the cabin. He was not a hard man, and had meant to do his duty when he heard Bolger speak of Adair's intended escape; but a hundred guineas was a large sum to him.

As the door closed after the sergeant, Marion Clinton, holding the infant close to her bosom, saw the grey shadow deepen on the pallid race, as with a gentle tremor of the frail body the child's head fell back upon her arm.

* * *

No one on board heard a soft splashing of the Water as Adair swam to the boat towing astern and cut the painter where it touched the water-line; the dense fog hid everything from view. Holding the line in his left hand he swam silently along, drawing the boat after him, till he reached the fore-chains. Then four figures clambered noiselessly over the bulwarks and got into the boat, which was at once pushed off.

Wrapped in the white mantle of fog, they drifted slowly away, watching with bated breath the misty outlines of the towering spars grow feinter and fainter, and then vanish altogether, till, although they were but forty yards away, the position of the Brekenbridge was discernible only by a dull blurr of sickly light that came from her stern ports. Then suddenly there came the sound of a splash, followed by tramping of feet and Captain Belton's hoarse voice.

"Hands to the boat, here! Mrs. Clinton and her baby have fallen overboard."

Lights appeared on the deck, and then a voice called out, "The boat is gone, sir!"

"Clear away the starboard-quarter boat, then!" roared Belton; "quick!"

But before the quarter-boat could be lowered, the sound of oars was heard, a boat dashed up, and a man, leaning over the side, grasped the drowning woman and lifted her in, her dead baby still clasped tightly in her arms.

"Have you got her?" called out Williams and Belton together.

"No," came the answer, and those in the boat began rowing again, but instead of approaching the ship, she seemed to be swallowed up in the fog, and the click clack of the oars momentarily sounded feinter.

"By heavens, the scoundrels are pulling away!" shouted Belton. "After them, you fellows in the quarter-boat!"

But the dense, impenetrable mantle of fog made pursuit useless, and the quarter-boat returned an hour later with an exhausted crew.

At ten o'clock next morning a keen, cold air came from the south-east, and two days later the Breckenbridge brought her load of misery into Sydney Cove, and her master reported the escape of Edward Adair, Michael Terry, William O'Day, Patrick O'Day, and Daniel McCoy, and the death by drowning of Mrs. Clinton, who, with her baby in her arms, had jumped overboard on the same night.

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