ANOTHER VICTIM

At last, ninety-three days after her departure from St. Martin de Re,
the Loire cast anchor in the Bay of Noumea. The town, perched on the
slope of a hill, is quite picturesque with its flat-roofed white houses
that are shaded by gigantic cocoanut trees, and half hidden by huge
bushes of a kind of scarlet rhododendron of a singular luxuriance and
beauty. Owing to the frequence of cyclones and tornadoes no building is
more than one-story high, even the church tower having been razed to
the ground by a storm which took place a short time before Frederick
reached the colony.

The young man, however, had no opportunity of examining the town more
closely. For shortly before midday the convicts were placed on barges
rowed by naked savages, and conveyed to the barren and desolate Island
of Nou, distant about an hour from the city. On landing the convicts
were taken to a shed where they were ordered to strip. Their bodies
were then plentifully besprinkled with the most nauseating kind of
insect powder, after which they were furnished with their new kit,
consisting of coarse canvas trousers, jackets and shirts, straw hats,
wooden shoes, hammocks and dingy-colored blankets. They were then
locked up by batches of sixty in long, low buildings, the small windows
of which were heavily barred.

There they were left without either food or water until the following
morning. The night was horrible. The most impenetrable darkness
prevailed, no lantern or any kind of light having been provided to
dispel the gloom. The heat and foul odors due to the want of proper
ventilation were indescribable, and the men, driven almost frantic by
thirst and hunger, rendered the long, weary hours of the night still
more hideous with their yells, oaths, and execrations. At about 2
o’clock in the morning a fearful cry of agony rang through the building:

“Help! Help! They are killing me! Let me go, cowards! Help for the love
of God!”

A great silence followed this heart-rending appeal, which was only
broken by the sound of a few shuddering gasps. A few minutes later the
pandemonium broke loose again with increased violence and continued
until morning. When day began to pierce through the grated windows the
cause of the awful cries for help which had made the blood of even some
of the most hardened criminals run cold became apparent. Stretched on
the ground, with his open eyes distended by pain and terror, lay the
dead body of the convict who during the voyage out had volunteered to
act as the “corrector” on the occasion of the flogging of Frederick
and of the three men who attempted to escape with him in the harbor
of Santa Cruz. Death had evidently been caused by strangulation, for
purple finger-marks were plainly visible on the victim’s throat.

At 6 o’clock the doors were thrown open, and the warders ordered the
prisoners to file out into the open air. After having been ranged in
line, the roll was called. The several numerals by which the respective
convicts were known were called forth and responded to by their owners.
Suddenly there was a pause caused by the failure of No. 21,265, to
answer the summons.

“Where the devil is No. 21,265?” shouted the head warder, in an angry
tone of voice.

The convicts remained silent.

Fearing that the missing man had escaped, several of the
“gardes-chiourmes” (sub-warders) rushed into the building where the
prisoners had spent the night, and reappeared a few moments later
bearing the body of the murdered man.

Of course the convicts one and all denied any knowledge as to how their
comrade had come to his death, and as it was impossible to discover
which of the sixty prisoners had been the perpetrator or perpetrators
of the deed, a report was made to the governor stating that a fight
had taken place among the newly arrived convicts during the night, in
the course of which one of their number had met his death. To tell the
truth, the affair attracted but little attention on the part of the
authorities. After all, it was but a convict the less. As, however,
it was deemed necessary to take some notice of the matter, the ten
prisoners who had the largest number of black marks against their name,
and among whom was Frederick, were sentenced to undergo the following
punishment. Their hands were tightly secured behind their backs and
fastened to a chain attached to iron rings in the exterior wall of
the building in which the murder had been committed. The chains were
sufficiently loose to enable them either to squat on the ground or to
stand upright. But being unable to use their hands to convey their
miserable pittance of bread and water to their mouths, they were forced
to bend their faces down to the ground in order to seize the bread with
their teeth and to lap up the water like dogs.

[Illustration: FREDERICK UNDERGOING PUNISHMENT.]

In defiance of all notions of humanity or decency they were left bound
in this cruel manner for seven days and seven nights, exposed to the
weather and unable to defend themselves from the bites of the myriads
of musquitoes and other aggressive insects.

When, at the end of this week of indescribable torture, they were
released, five of their number, including Frederick, were in such a
state as to necessitate their being sent to the hospital. Frederick,
who possessed a wonderfully strong constitution and powerful physique,
soon recovered. Two of his companions, however, had their arms
paralyzed for the remainder of their lives from the effects of this
appalling treatment.

For two long years Frederick remained on the Island of Nou, subject to
the never-ending tyranny and brutality of the jailers and overseers,
who are recruited from the very lowest ranks of society. The slightest
appearance of hesitation or failure on the part of the convict to
submit to every caprice of the “chiourme” was immediately interpreted
as an act of insubordination, and formed the subject of daily reports
to the superintendent, who responded thereto by sending vouchers either
for a flogging or for an imprisonment during a certain number of days
in the dark punishment cell.

One day matters came to a climax. Frederick, with a gang of about
twelve others, was engaged on the main landing in breaking stones for
the construction of a new road. Two warders with loaded rifles kept
watch over them. One of the two, however, seeing the men quietly at
work withdrew after a while to a neighboring farm-house, which belonged
to an ex-convict who was still under the supervision of the police.

The fate of these liberated convicts is scarcely a happy one. For
although they are permitted to summon to their side the wife, sisters,
or children whom they may have left behind them in France, or, if they
prefer it, to marry some female ex-convict, yet their womankind are
entirely subject to the caprices and passions of the various prison
functionaries. Even the very lowest sub-warder has it in his power to
force these unfortunate people to submit to his demands, no matter how
outrageous their nature may be, since any refusal would inevitably
entail a denunciation, accusing either the husband or wife, or possibly
both, of acts of insubordination. Needless to add that the word of
persons who are under police supervision and who are deprived of their
civil rights has no weight whatsoever when opposed by that of a prison
official.

One of the warders having, as has been stated above, retired to a
neighboring farm-house, his companion sat down under the shade of some
bushes which grew at the top of a small mound, whence he could exercise
a careful watch over the men intrusted to his charge. The heat was
overpowering, and from time to time he refreshed himself with long
pulls from a suspicious-looking flask which he had hidden away in an
inside pocket. The liquor, whatever it was, instead of rendering him
more good-humored and tractable, seemed to call forth all the latent
savagery of his nature. Every time one of the unfortunate convicts
attempted to rest from his work for a few brief moments the brute
would force him, by means of taunts and threats, to resume his task.
Not a moment’s respite would he permit them for the purpose of slaking
their intense thirst with a drink of water; and for six long hours,
in the very hottest part of the day, he kept them exposed without
interruption to the scorching rays of the tropical sun.

At length, overcome by the sultriness of the atmosphere and by the
frequency of his potations, he sank off into a deep and drunken sleep,
his rifle still loosely lying across his knees. Frederick’s attention
having been attracted thereto by one of his comrades, he immediately
perceived that the moment had arrived for carrying into effect his
long-cherished project of escape. Quick as lightning he communicated
his intention to his fellow-prisoners. A few sturdy blows with the
hammers which they had been using until then for breaking the stones
were sufficient to relieve them of their waist and ankle chains, and
in a moment they had overpowered and tightly bound and gagged their
still sleeping warder. Frederick seized his rifle, and accompanied by
the others made a bolt for the woods, which they were able to reach
unobserved. It was not until an hour after nightfall, when they were
already several miles distant from the spot where they had regained
their liberty, that the booming of the big guns of the fort at stated
intervals proclaimed the fact to them that their escape had become
known and that a general alarm had been given.

On becoming aware of this they held a kind of council of war, and it
was determined that they should scatter in groups of two and three,
which they considered would be more likely to enable them to avoid
being recaptured.

The notes left by “Prado” do not mention the fate of those from whom
he parted company at the time. It is probable that they either were
caught by the posses of warders sent in their pursuit or else that they
fell into the hands of the “Canaks,” as the ferocious natives of New
Caledonia are called. The “Canaks” before deciding as to what to do
with their prisoners would probably hesitate, influenced on the one
hand by their appetite for human flesh and on the other by their greed
for the handsome reward offered by the Government for the capture,
either alive or dead, of runaway convicts.

For many days Frederick and his two companions wandered through almost
impenetrable forests. They were frightened by every sound, by every
rustle of a leaf, and were dependent for food on the berries, fruits,
and roots, which they devoured with some apprehension, afraid lest
they should contain some unknown and deadly poison. Everywhere around
them they felt that death was hovering. The dense foliage of the trees
completely hid the sky and surrounded them with deep shadows, which
appeared full of horror and mystery. Large birds flew off as they
advanced, with a startling flutter of their heavy wings, and their
only resting-place at night was among the branches of some lofty tree.
Frequently they had to wade through pestilential swamps, in which
masses of poisonous snakes and other loathsome reptiles squirmed and
raised their hissing heads against the intruders. Once they were almost
drowned in a deep lake of liquid mud which was so overgrown with
luxuriant grasses and mosses that they had mistaken it for terra firma.

At length, on the twelfth day after their escape, they reached, shortly
after nightfall, a small coast-guard station. The night was very dark
and a heavy tropical rain was falling. A little after midnight the
three men, who had remained hidden until then among the rocks, made
their way down the little creek, where the open boat used by the coast
guards lay at anchor. Gliding noiselessly into the water, they swam out
to where the tiny craft was rising and falling under the influence of
a heavy ground swell. In a few moments they were safely on board.

The tide was going out, and, unwilling to attract the attention of the
coast guards by the noise which would attend the raising of the anchor,
they quietly slipped the cable and allowed the boat to drift silently
out to sea.

It was a terrible voyage on which they had embarked and must have been
regarded as fool-hardy and insane to the last degree were it not that
to remain on the island meant life-long captivity and sufferings so
intolerable that death would be but a happy release. As soon as they
had drifted far enough they spread the boat’s single sail to the wind,
and by daylight were well-nigh out of sight of land. On searching the
craft they discovered, to their unspeakable delight, that a locker in
the bow contained a sack of ship’s biscuits, while in the stern was a
small cask of water, both of which had evidently been kept on board
by the coast-guards for use in case of their being becalmed at any
distance from their station. It was little enough, in all conscience,
but to Frederick and to his starving companions it seemed the most
delicious fare which they had ever tasted.

Frederick’s two fellow-fugitives were men of the lowest class. The one
was a thorough type of the Paris criminal, with a pale face, bleary
eyes, and an outrageously flat, turned-up nose. His breast was adorned
with a tattooed caricature of himself, of which he was inordinately
proud. The other was a miner who had been condemned to penal servitude
for life for killing his chief in response to some violent reproaches
which had been addressed to him by the latter.

Without compass, without even a sailor’s knowledge of the
constellations, they sailed aimlessly before the wind, intent only
on increasing the distance which already lay between them and their
abhorred prison. Their only hope was that they would be picked up
by some passing vessel which, as long as it did not fly the French
colors, would certainly not deliver them back into the hands of their
tormentors.

They had been sailing along for some four or five days when the water
began to give out. Only a little drop remained. Moreover, there
was no protection to be obtained from the burning rays of the sun,
the reflection of which on the blue waters of the Pacific seemed
to increase the heat tenfold. The three men had agreed to keep the
remaining drops of water until the very last extremity, and then only
to divide it up into equal shares before preparing to undergo the
terrible death by thirst which stared them in the face. Suddenly the
ex-miner was seized with convulsions, brought on, no doubt, by the
terrific heat of the midday sun on his unprotected head. When these
ceased he started to his feet, and, with the yell of a maniac, for
such he had now become, made a rush for the water cask. Divining his
intention, Frederick and the Parisian “_voyou_” threw themselves
before him, and a desperate hand-to-hand struggle ensued, which was,
however, brought to a quick end by the madman breaking loose from them
and, with a cry of “Water, water!” jumping head foremost into the sea,
almost capsizing the boat as he did so.

A moment afterward, and before he had time to come to the surface
again, the spot where he had disappeared became tinged with blood, and
the fins of several huge sharks appeared between the waves. Raising
his eyes to the horizon from this terrible scene, Frederick suddenly
exclaimed:

“A sail, a sail!”