Those who have crossed
With direct eyes, to Death's other Kingdom
Remember us - if at all - not as lost
Violent souls, but only
As the hollow men
It is a great and bitter irony that in this world of cruelty, kindness can kill.
Sarah Island, Van Diemen's Land, Australia.
Rowley blinked until his eyes had grown accustomed to the half-light. Outside it was midmorning, the sky an unending blue and the sun like a blazing gold sovereign. But here in the cell the air was dusty, cool and stagnant, the only light coming from a grille in the door. The place had been used as a munitions and powder store when the colony was first established; one of five stone huts at the edge of the yard. But after the main complex was built all stores were cellared there: the empty huts were mostly used as somewhere to throw a man after he'd been humbled at the post.
He looked down at the body in front of him, stretched out on the floor. Barker's left leg was fettered, held by cuff and chain to an iron spike in the wall.
It seemed a pointless precaution to the officer; he was an excellent judge of a flogging, having seen more than his fair share. By his eye the man wouldn't even be able to move into a corner to shit – not for at least three days. Poor sod...
Rowley didn't waste his time feeling sorry for the convicts on the island; an indulgence in mercy was too often mistaken for weakness. However he experienced an emotion akin to annoyance when he witnessed the world treat broken men with a heavy hand.
Convicts arrived at Macquarie Harbour in all different shapes and sizes: some vicious, some sick, some hopeless, some already hardened and many dead from the voyage. But in time amongst the living only two types were left: those who wanted to serve their sentence in the colony – because any life was better than no life at all - and those who did not. It was a pity that sometimes justice could not be dispensed amongst the rabble-rousers without falling hard upon the blameless also.
Rowley knew for a fact that Barker had not stolen the loaf of bread – couldn't have since he'd been up on the slopes cutting huon wood the morning of the theft. Ipswich had done it – he'd been working the ovens at the bake house; only then fearing discovery and hoping to escape punishment he'd hidden it in a fellow prisoner's bunk.
Rowley accepted Barker would never say who had actually stolen the bread – even though all the convicts knew. It was the first rule amongst the prisoners of the colony: shut your mouth.
So the lieutenant had spoken up for Barker's innocence. Without solid evidence however, Lieutenant-Governor Sorell was not to be swayed. He claimed precedent could not be set; if a man was caught with stolen goods he was flogged whether he was a thief, a willing accomplice, an innocent or a fool. (Macquarie, he added, looked with even more disfavour on the latter two than the former – best weed them out before they suffered too much.)
Both Ipswich and Barker had been flogged, one hundred counts each – the highest number allowed at the post in a single session. Ipswich, being both a taller and broader man had borne it better, but even he would be unlikely to walk before the week was out. Barker was a mess. Always slight, the manual labour had added muscle to his shoulders but the short rations had kept him thin; and now that thinness would very likely be the death of him as his body had nothing with which to mend its lacerated flesh.
The lieutenant had brought with him Barker's shirt, a cup and pitcher of water as well as rations of bread. The grain of the stuff was coarse rye shot through with veins of something mealy and red, making it look more like desiccated beef. That was another of Sorell's ideas that Rowley didn't see the point in. Ergot, a fungus that lived on rye and wheat was actively encouraged on the island's crops. Ground down with the grain it turned the flour a vivid rust and caused the fresh-baked bread to rot, stopping the convicts from hoarding their rations.
Knowing that it was probably a futile gesture, but compelled by a sense of justice none the less, Rowley broke the bread into pieces and set some of it to soak in a little water. "Barker?" Stooping, he tapped the semi-conscious man on the arm. "Come along. There's bread here. Let's see if you can eat."
The man on the floor lifted his head wearily. "Ipswich?" he rasped.
"Hm. Looking better than you," Rowley informed him. "If you're hoping for a little quid pro quo, you're going to have to be up and about first."
Barker gave him a guarded look; he expected a lieutenant to be more circumspect about a convict's wish to settle a score.
Rowley was a staunch Christian; although decades in His Britannic Majesty's army had inured him to life's more everyday cruelties, he was not in himself a vicious man. Be that as it may, neither was he stupid. He'd worked for his commission, not bought it, and knew very well the world was full of men who understood only that the strong ruled the weak. (After all, wasn't that what Empire meant?)
Had Ipswich been of a sort to respect Barker's silence then perhaps a camaraderie would have formed; but he was more likely to see it as proof Barker could be used as a scapegoat.
The lieutenant felt that giving Barker a better chance of recovering from the lash was his way of redressing the balance and ensuring that the greater bastard didn't always win...
It was therefore a supremely ill joke on fate's behalf that Barker became poisoned by the ergot in the bread.
It happened now and again amongst the convicts; just another aspect of life like lice, dysentery, hunger and hopelessness. It was called St Anthony's Fire. It began as nausea and headaches and then became a severe burning in the limbs as if they were being pricked with hot irons. Despite this sensation of heat the victim became pallid and chill to the touch as blood ceased to circulate correctly. Other effects included hallucinations, convulsions and unconsciousness. The sickness could lead to gangrene and also to death in those undernourished and unable to fight it off.
Two days later, Rowley stood in Barker's cell, his arm in front of his face as he tried to shield his nose from the stench of piss and vomit with his sleeve. Barker was grey with sweat and shivering fitfully. At some point he had struggled into his shirt; it clung wetly to his back, stained with blood and fluid. His closed eyes were bruised hollows and his skull was close beneath his skin.
Bitterly, Rowley wondered if God was trying to make a point – and if so what exactly was the point the Almighty was attempting to illustrate? That Barker deserved to die? That Rowley was wrong to aid him? That – as Darwin supposed – only those most fit to inherit God's green earth could do so and thus the meeker man was sacrificed?
All such thought left him feeling hollow and uncomfortable. It was more likely, he reasoned after some internal debate, that Lucifer had passed by this corner of the world and decided to leave no good deed unpunished. (Devils at least he could believe in – who could not, out here amidst such hate and sweat and pain? Angels would be an impossibility, but devils were as common as dirt.)
As he left, the lieutenant ordered Barker's fetter unlocked and the cell cleaned, hoping to give the man some small measure of dignity in his final days and to snub his nose at the devil while he was about it.