James Murphy.

Convict No. 25; or, the clearances of Westmeath : a story of the Whitefeet online

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was afterwards sworn."

Sir Hardinge bowed again. The cigar was too enjoyable
and the subject of too trifling and frivolous a character to be
worth interrupting his smoke by making even a remark
about it.

" And where we did not find them — though we surrounded
the place at midnight, precisely at the time they should be
there. Well, as I was coming out that night, I found this
penknife under my feet at the door. I put it into my pocket,
and, as I did not wear the same uniform since, it remained
forgotten there."

There was so little worth noticing, or even hearing in this
incident, that Sir Hardinge gknced at his lady with a smile
in which quiet contempt was strongly marked, and even the
younger officers of the group felt that feeling known to the
country people as " sharousse," coming over them, as the
Colonel's pointless anecdote ended.

" You are not in a vein, ray dear Colonel Montfort, for
story-telling this evening, I fear," said her ladyship, making
a motion to rise.

" Nay, Lady Hargrave," said the Colonel, " I had not
quite finished. What made me think it remarkable was : that,
written with some sharp instrument, such as another penknife,


on the haft were the letters ' K. M'M.,' very curiously and
peculiarly made too. It might have been of some account
at the trial."

" The only account it could have been of, I should think,"
said Sir Hardinge carelessly, " would have been to prove
more conclusively his guilt for the initials were his — Kevin
Moore. But as he was found guilty without it, its absence did
not make much matter. He has nearly touched Botany Bay
by this time. ' The Ocean Conqueror ' is a good sailer."

" What name did you say ? " asked the Colonel with
renewed interest.

" ' The Ocean Conqueror ' ; she sailed from Plymouth
some four months ago with a cargo of convicts on board
for Van Diemen's Land. Moore was amongst them. They
must be nearly there now."

" 'The Ocean Conqueror,'" said Colonel Montfort thought-
fully. "You cannot possibly mean the vessel that was
wrecked in the Bay of Biscay some two months since."

" Wrecked ! " said Sir Hardinge with some surprise.

" Wrecked ! " said Lady Hargrave in very great surprise.

''Wrecked. Yes, certainly," said the Colonel. "Avery
old friend of mine commanded her, and escaped with his
life by a mere chance. Rather not by chance, but by the
signal bravery and herosim of one of the convicts. Yes,
that was what he stated in his letter."

" And what became of the convicts ? " inquired her lady-
ship anxiously.

" My lady, I believe the greater portion of them were

This distressing information, however, did not appal her
ladyship nearly so much as the Colonel had a right to —

46 ''CONVICT No. 25."

and did — expect from her anxiety in putting the question.
" You see, my lady — so my friend wrote to me at least — a
storm came on, such as comes, even in the stormiest seas,
but once in a man's lifetime ; and the drowning vessel was
driven ashore on the rocks. Before being driven ashore on
the rocks, all the convicts were liberated — they could not
be allowed to drown, you know, cooped up — and got a
chance to save their lives. Some did save their lives ; some
faced for shore and were drowned swimming ; some, again
— and a great many indeed they were — broke open the
ship's lockers, even when she was drifting on to the rocks
rushing into the arms of death, and staving in the casks of
spirits that were on board, drank themselves drunk and mad.
It was an awful time ; at least it was an awful description
the captain gave me."

" And what became of those who escaped ? "
"Why, my dear Lady Hargrave, it would be difficult to
say. They were not likely to report themselves to head-
quarters I should think."

" Could they not be secured on landing ? " she asked with
ill-concealed interest.

" Hardly, my lady. Foreign Governments would scarcely
allow us to seize them, after being once landed on their
soil, except by the regular routine of the Extradition Act.
And that only in the case of those who had been found
guilty of offences under it."

" And I suppose there is no account of any of them ? "

''No; I should think not. They were very unlikely to

give an account of themselves — if they escaped. And of

course it would be quite impossible to say who did.

Hundreds of bodies were washed ashore from the wreck for


several days after. I should have taken more interest in
the matter if I had known Moore was on board,"

" Because of his sister ? " asked her ladyship with a move-
ment of shoulders, which might indicate ennui, or contempt,
or dislike.

" Because of his sister. I felt very sorry for her. And
that so singularly good-looking a girl should have been cast
adrift on the world by the imprudence of her brother."

" Imprudence is hardly the word — don't you think,

" Well, perhaps, I should have said crimes, though, it is, I
dare say, imprudence in the beginning that leads up to crime
in the end," said he. " And now, as the evening is growing
late, I think we had better be bidding good-bye. We shall
have the pleasure of seeing you again in the morning. We
shall ride over and see how your young patient is doing."

" Do you think he is much better ? " asked the young
lady, for the first time entering into the conversation.

"Well, yes; I think he is," said the Colonel. "The
operation of trepanning, which could not be dispensed with,
has been skilfully performed, and I have no doubt he will
be able to converse with us in the morning."

The Coi«»iel and his brother officers mounted their
horses, and after a cordial leave-taking rode down the
avenue, out to the high road, and on their way to Athlone.

Sir Hardinge and his son and daughter retired within the
drawing-room ; but her ladyship went round to the stables
to see her favourite hunter.

Inside the door she met her steward.

"Do you know the news I have for you, Keilif?" her
ladyship asked in a half whisper.

48 ''CONVICT No. 25."

" No, my lady," said the steward.

" The vessel that was carrying Moore and the other con-
victs out to transportation, was wrecked at sea."

" And he was drowned, my lady, was he ? "

" Of that I am not sure. Some escaped. These people
always have some luck of that kind on their side."

"I hope not, my lady," said the other, with a look of
alarm in his face. " If he escaped, where would he escape

" France or Spain. In either of which cases he would be
a free man."

" If he gets free, my lady, he won't be long free. You'll
find he'll face for home as soon as ever he can. If your
ladyship and Sir Hardinge will have the country carefully
watched, you will soon tell if he has escaped."

*' You think he would come to "

" I'm sure he would. Even before a week was over his

" He might go to his sister."

" No ; he'd come to see her first."

"You think so."

" Sure ®f it."

It was very noticeable that the steward, after the first few
words of conversation, censed addressing her ladyship with
his usual deference.

" I am very much struck with this matter, unaccount-
ably so."

" I don't see any need for alarm," said the steward ; "if
he comes back he can be arrested again. And if he's
drowned so much the better."

" I am troubled over it. It was most unfortunate this


wrecking," said her ladyship as she turned to go back,
without looking once at her favourite hunter. " It leaves
me in such a state of uncertainty."

"It was very lucky, I think, for he was most likely
drowned," said the steward, as, without lifting his hat or
taking the trouble to make her any other salute, he turned
on his heel and entered the stables.



It is a cold, foggy, raw morning in the month of March.
A grey mist, clammy with rain and exudations from the
marshes and fens around, hangs over the dreary court-
yard. The black stone walls of the prison, made more
bare and miserable-looking by the white mortar that fills up
the interstices between the stones, can scarcely be seen at
their furthest distance. The little heavily barred windows,
so black and forbidding — they seem like blind eyes in a
pockmarked face — are entirely hidden and blent with the
fog, where the prison overlooks the boundary wall. But
nearer, where from the black bars, painted and glistening
with the pitch-like appearance of the silicate, adown which
the rain of the drooping mist sootily drips, they stand out
in all their forbidding barrenness and massiveness.

The courtyard is paved with square "sets" of stones
which, from much walking on by prisoners' feet, have in some
cases been worn to the smoothness of flags. It is not very
large, but looks even much smaller than it really is by


50 CONVICT JSTo, 25."

reason of the great height of the walls. Surrounding the
walls are little sheds, high enough for a man to sit but not
to stand in, with stone seats in them. Here, at odd times
in the day, and on odd days, the prisoners sit and pick
oakum. Not regularly and as a rule, but on such days as
the necessary works of cleaning and scouring have to be
performed in the interior, and when they therefore cannot
remain in their cells. In the courtyard itself they some-
times, at regular hours in the day, and everyday, exercise.
The exercise consists in marching around and round in a
circle, under the keen and scrutinizing eyes of half a dozen
warders. No word is spoken as they march in this mono-
tonous manner ; no word is allowed to be spoken, for the
vigilant warders are quick to detect any attempt of that
kind, or even a motion or nod of the head, as the opposing
ranks pass each other.

It is a dreary place for us, standing within the gate —
which latter, made of strong sheet-iron, is loop-holed to
allow of warders, in case of a tumult or an emeute, firing
upon the outbreakers — to look upon for the first time. But
how dismal its sight must be to those eyes that have looked
on nothing else for the past two or three or four months —
if we except the whitewashed walls of their bare cells !

How bright must the fair world outside look to their wearj
hearts ! How beautiful the vast expanse of blue skies — o't
which they can see but a little part — spreading to the horizon,
with their piled up masses of white and golden clouds ! How
green the grass ! how exquisite the flowers ! how bright the
streams and rivers, gleaming with the sun-rays ! What
sense of sorrow and sickening deprivation, to know that
hours, and days, and weeks, and months, if not years, must


roll their slow monotonous course around, before the " time
is up," and they walk forth free !

Its power is telling, indeed, if we may judge by its effect
upon that young fellow who emerges from the doorway,
and stands in the mist in the courtyard. His face is youth-
ful, possibly made to look more so by the closely cropped
hair. His form is well-built, lithe, and muscular ; but in
the nerveless manner in which his eyes seek the ground,
and his head bends down, there is ample evidence how fast
the spirit and life are wearing out of him ! how fast the
chilling effects of the monotony of the prison is engraving
itself into his nature.

He has not long, however, to stand in his lonely abject-
ness and depression, for a warder in blue uniform, with
a cap around which is a red band, steps out into the court-
way, note-book in hand.

" Number ? " he laconically but sharply asks of the

" No. 25," the latter answers with a start. He has
evidently been thinking of something far removed from
the prison walls ; and the quick query of the warder has
broken in upon some deep train of painful thought.

" Which division ? "

"No. 2."

" How long here ? "

" Four months, I think."


" No ; it may be more, may be less. I have lost note of


" Twenty-three."

52 ''CONVICT No. 25.

"Where from?''

" Ireland."

" Time of sentence ? "

" Seven years."

The convict gave utterance to this last answer with a gulp
that showed at once the pain and the dread it occasioned

The warder checked the answers, after he had noted
them down, with a large book which lay on a small white
wooden table outside the door — evidently placed there
recently, it looked so incongruous with the black surround-
ings of the courtyard.

" Right in all but the time," he said. " You're here but
two months."

" Two months !" said the youth. " It seemed four, or
even six. It has been a long two months," he said, with
an expression of something like weariness and something
like fear.

Perhaps it was fear ; fear of the seven long years to follow,
seven years, which would be seven years of eternity if
measured by the length of the past two months.

"Take that bag."

The convict had seen no bag ; but, looking in the direction
indicated by a nod of the warder's head, he saw that on the
little wooden table, besides the open book, there was piled
up a great heap of little black bags. Obeying the injunc
tion, he took up one of them.

" Take four rations and put them into it."

He had seen no rations, and looked inquiringly at the
warder. Again looking in the direction of the nod, he was
surprised to see — surprised in that he had not noticed it


before — a large basket at the further side of the table, filled
up with pieces of black bread. It was brown originally, but
each loaf having been cut into four pieces, and having been
a long time cut, had grown hard, and mouldy, and almost

Doing as he was desired, he took up four of the black
squares and placed them in it.

" Now hang it over your right shoulder and under your

While he was in the act of following this order, two men
came through the door bearing a something that looked
very like a carpenter's bass, but much larger and apparently
very heavy.

He was not long left in doubt as to what this was ; for,
following the two men, came another with a workman's
cloth cap on his head, and leathern apron before him.

He appeared to be a blacksmith ; and almost instan-
taneously the convict's mind went back to a forge by the
roadside in a pleasant county in Ireland. How rapidly it
had outlined itself on his mind !

How plainly he saw the low door, the strong vice outside
it, the thatched roof, the circular flat stone with water in
the centre, >^hich boiled and hissed and seethed when the
red-hot irons were thrown therein to cool ! How often had
he, when a little boy going to school, peeped in timidly,
seen the great bellows, the glowing fire, and watched with
delight the myriad sparks fly about, as the brawny arms of
the smith beat with his big hammer the red-hot iron on the
anvil ! And what a perpetual surprise it was to him that
these flying red-hot sparks never fell on the smith's bare
arms and burned them !

54 ''CONVICT No, 25."

He was disturbed from these reflections by a peremptory
order from the warder.

" Hold out your arm ! Don't have me to tell you again."

He had been already told to do so, but in his rapt
imaginings had failed to hear the first order. As non-
attention to, and non-obeyance of, an order on the moment
was a serious, prison offence, he now held out his arm

" Not the right arm— the left ! "

He withdrew his right arm which he had put forward,
and presented the left. The smith quickly clasped a hinged
ring from which depended an iron chain, on his wrist,
locked it, and placing a similar one around his ankle,
outside his trousers, fastened the depending chain to it;
and with a blow of the hammer turned in the link and
secured the connection.

Having thus securely fastened his arm and leg, the smith
stood up and, without speaking, entered the prison again.

Very much surprised at these proceeding's, which were so
rapidly done and over that he was unable to form an opinion
as to the reason thereof during the process, the prisoner
ventured to ask the warder. He knew very well that that
also was contrary to the regulations ; but his surprise and
astonishment overcame all else.

"What have I done?"

The warder looked up from his note-book wherein he
was making some remark — probably certifying opposite his
name that the work had been properly performed — with a
look of inquiry on his face.

" These !" the convict said in explanation, pointing to
the fastenings.


"Oh ! oh ! " said the warder, now understanding; "con-
vict ship."

As he said the words another convict, whom he knew
well, appeared at the door.

"Stand at the end of the shotyard. No. 25!" said the
warder. "You're finished."

Convict No. 25, being finished, however, did not move,
and, not moving, the warder raised his eyes in astonishment.

"I beg your pardon," said No. 25, in response to his
look, " I don't mean to be insubordinate ; but I think — I'm
sure — there's some mistake here."


" I mean," said the convict submissively, "in sending me
to the convict ship. I'm sure I'll soon be released. I'm
sure as soon as they'd see — and they were sure to see it
before long — that I was innocent, I'd be released."

He spoke very fast, not to give the warder time to inter-
rupt or stop him. But the warder did not interrupt him.
He only smiled a curious smile. He had probably heard
the same entreaty hundreds of times from hundreds of con-
victs, and knew what it was worth.

Convict No. 25, taking his smile for friendliness, hastened
to seize the advantage.

" Look in the book, and see if there is not some mistake
in it. Do, please ! I'm sure they don't intend to send me
away until they see if I am really guilty. Maybe it's some
mistake in the number, and that it isn't 25 that's down.
Do, and you'll oblige me. Do, please."

There was sufficient of agony and torture in his trembling
tones that might have evoked sympathy from the most
callous to human torture.

56 ''CONVICT No. 25.'

But the warder was accustomed to this. He had seen it,
in one shape or another, every month, every week, every
day of his life.

Possibly he could not do his work if he allowed humanity
to interfere with him. At any rate he did not.

" Take your place in the shotyard, No. 25."

One more despairing effort from the convict.

" Will you look in the book, and see if there is not some
mistake ? Do ! I am sure there is. It's somebody else's
number that is down for me. Look ! It's so far to come
back when they find me innocent, and I am released.
Maybe they'd never look for me or think of me if I'm sent

Thus, in trembling agony.

" If you don't obey orders and take your place at once,
I'll report you for bread and water and irons during the
voyage," said the warder, rising.

There was no ignoring this command ; and Convict No. 25
slowly and downcastly moved off, and somewhat cramped
with his fetters, took his place as directed.

He leant against the wall at the further end of the shot-
yard in hopeless despair.

He was going to go, then, away ! During all his time in
the prison a hope — a slight one, no doubt — had never left
him, that, by some fortunate chance, his innocence would
be discovered and his release ordered. Every morning
when the warder entered his cell, or when at noon he came
to measure the quantity of oakum he had picked, he looked
up at his face, hoping against hope that he might hear the
message of deliverance.

But that little shred of comfort — the weak reed of sus-


taining hope — was now swept from him. The horrors of the
convict ship — in nothing so horrible as in that it bore him
away for ever from the dear ones in Ireland — were before
him. What chance was there, in that horrible land to which
he was going, at the uttermost extremity of the earth, that
he should ever revisit his own land again ? Or, if he did,
how should he find those he had left behind ? Dead, or gone
out of the place — perhaps leaving no trace behind them !

Seven years ! What a gap in a man's life ! How long
to look forward to under the happiest and pleasantest cir-
cumstances ! But oh ! what an eternity it seemed, to spend
seven coming years of the brightest years of manhood —
when all that is happy and bright twines itself around a
young man's heart — in a foreign convict settlement,
associated with the dregs of mankind, without the smile of
mother or sister or sweetheart to shed a blessing and a halo
ground him. Seven years !

How strongly every familiar scene in that dear land,
between which and himself the broad ocean should soon
roll, stood out in his memory ! How little of that bleak
prison-yard and clinging fog that met his eyes he saw with
his mind !

Green valleys, wherethrough the streamlets rolled ; gentle
hills, whereon the meadow-flowers grew and waved ; woods,
where the broken sunlight fell in golden patches ; hedges,
wherein the trailing woodbine sheltered and shaded, and
almost strangled in its embrace the wild moss rose ; and

Oh ! there indeed the sorrow lay. There was what made
the heartstrings rend and crack. There was what filled the
bursting heart with fire, and that parched the throat dry.

58 ''CONVICT No. 25."

Oh ! faces loved and cherished ! Dearer than aught else
in the world, dearer than life itself, how you filled with your
airy grace and heavenly sweetness the bleak surrounding
of that barren prison-yard — blotting its hateful sight away,
that foggy, dreary, March morning !

He was awoke from his happy reflections — and brought
back to his agony again — suddenly.

And he was surprised to find that a loii.^ row of convicts,
similarly " finished " as himself, stood in a line with him.
How could the time have slipped by during which all these
men had been so equipped, without his noticing it ? Alas !
so pleasant were these dreams and .remembrances, that
nightfall could have come on him without his awakening
from them.

But there was one thing calculated to rudely awaken him
from these day-dreams.

And that was the coupling of him to his neighbour, the
right hand of one to the left hand of the other. Which
process effectually banished them !

Then, down the stony yard of the prison square, filing
through the fog, like weird phantoms crossing that gloomy
and darkened border-land that old mythologists told us led
into Hades. And with perhaps but as little left of hope or

Out through the opened gates, and along the miry roads \
their chains clanking dully beside them ! Tramp, tramp,
tramp through mud and water j for their peculiar mode of
travelling prevented their being able to step over any rut,
or trench, or obstacle on the way.

It is hard to beat down hope in the breast of the young
for any length of time. Blessed be the hand of God ; that


has instilled its revivifying spirit in the breast of mankind
that sheds a brightness over the darkest hours of human
sorrow !

So Convict No. 25 found it, any rate. The sight of the
open country, shrouded in mist and fog though it was, raised
his spirits; and the unceasing march forward, chained
though he was, sent the blood rushing in healthy flow
through his veins.

Conversation was forbidden ; and the four warders, two
before and two behind, that walked with shotted guns,
guarding them on their way, had strict orders to prevent it.

But in the splash, splash of the men's feet through mud
and pools, and the accompanying clank, clank of their fetters,
it was difficult to detect a whispered conversation. The
men could talk and whisper, not turning to speak to one
another, but walking with their eyes looking straight before
them, over the shoulders of their preceding neighbours.

Convict No. 25, therefore, walking forward and finding
his spirits rise with the unwonted exercise, felt a strong dis-
position to talk to his companion. He had for the first
hour of their dreary march not even looked at him, so
occupied was he with home reminiscences, and his gloomy
downheartedness. But, now that the exercise had driven
these feelings away, he felt disposed to open a conversation
with his neighbour. It was so long since he had conversed
with any one, the silent system being in vogue in his late
residence, that the desire grew on him with crushing force.

Glancing around sharply and quickly at his companion,
therefore, he noticed that he was an old, careworn man of
middle height, with a face of such ghastly whiteness that it
seemed to No. 25 to be the most extraordinary coloui^ he

Online LibraryJames MurphyConvict No. 25; or, the clearances of Westmeath : a story of the Whitefeet → online text (page 4 of 28)