In the Road-Gang

SOMEHOW the Governor’s intentions were temporarily upset, and Loveless was sent to work on the roads with the chain-gang. His companions had been shipped to Australia and were working in various farms. Brine was having a very unhappy time with a bully of a master. James Loveless, the Standfields, and James Hammett were at different farms, and showing themselves the splendid workers they were, it is not surprising that they found life more tolerable. But what happened in James Hammett’s case nobody ever discovered afterwards. He was a silent man, who kept his troubles to himself. The terror of road-gang work, the chaining of his feet when he was at work on the farm, the feeling of misery at the fate of his wife and children in a far land, uncared for and all alone, must have entered into his very soul. But not one word has he said about it.

George Loveless, on the other hand, with his quick indignation at injustice, told all. He wrote a diary there in Tasmania in some red substance—some say in his own blood—though it is more likely that he used some vegetable coloration. He was a man of great resource and would not bleed himself for ink if he could help it.

He went on the roads. There he was chained to his fellow-convicts, with an overseer to every few men, armed with a whip, which came down on them with deadly effect, if their attention lagged for a moment. They worked there for long hours at a stretch in the hot sun, daring not to cease even to wipe their heated brows. A man near to Loveless was faint and weary, and looked up just for an instant, letting the tool he was using fail to the ground. In an instant the lash was on his back. With a sickening feeling Loveless saw in a few minutes’ time that the blood had come. Then after a half-hour or so the man stretched himself, and it was evident from the stiffness of the shirt that the blood had congealed and stuck the garment to his skin. He was to see many more in like case. So bad were the lashings indeed in some cases that the flesh folded over in rolls, leaving the bare spot with no covering of either skin or shirt.

One man who was really a strong healthy man, inclined to malingering, got some very heavy strokes from the whip. It made him wince and swear under his breath, but he went on working. He was cowed for the time being. There was no possibility for revolt. Chained together as they were, they could not hit back, or that overseer would have been killed on more than one occasion. This man who had had these heavy strokes doggedly worked on, and Loveless like the others was much troubled by the flies buzzing round. He saw that it was the raw flesh that had attracted them, and one or two of them settled on this man. One of them laid its eggs in the wound and flew away. Loveless was near and saw it and then forgot about it, until he saw the wound swelling one day. The man was really feeling very ill now, and under the strain nearly fainted. His wound must have been intensely painful. The overseer, judging that another fit of malingering must have come upon the man, lashed out with his whip again and caught the same wound. This time, hardened as the man had been, he cried out with the pain of it, and then sank down on the road in a swoon. They Unchained him and turned him over to examine the wound that had been the cause of the trouble, and saw there the opening up which the lash had caused, and the maggots crawling about in the wound. It was a hospital case, and what happened to the man Loveless never knew. But the sight of these maggots crawling over the wound of that man, whom he didn’t know, and who was perhaps a guilty felon, whose deeds he would abominate, was to remain a lifelong memory. Innocent or guilty, he thought, no man should have to suffer such wicked punishment.

Whilst engaged in this road-gang work, another trial was to occur, of a very different character. A Wesleyan minister, a really zealous man and anxious for the conversion of the world, seeing in these Convicts the most abandoned men on God’s earth, decided to redeem the time and make an appeal to their hardened consciences to repent of their sins and receive the mercy of Almighty God, who was ever ready to forgive even such vile and worthless men as they were. He called them to repentance, spoke of their many wickednesses, how that they had been happy in the land which had brought them up, but in their ingratitude had disobeyed its laws, consorting with harlots, given to revellings, taking property that belonged to other people, not even stopping in their terrible covetousness at violence and risking the awful sin of murder. He recounted their many imaginary crimes. He spoke of the thieves on the Cross with Christ, and how that one still reviled Him, but the other repented and God had mercy on him. That mercy was theirs if they would but repent of their sins. God was ready to forgive, and after they had expiated their vile crimes, they would be able to live a life full of happiness and in joy in the love of the Lord.

George Loveless, as he listened to this tirade, thought of his companions in misfortune, and that they might be enduring the same sort of harangue. He thought of his dear brother James, so loyal and true and good-hearted, and Thomas Standfield, thoughtful and faithful, and dear James Hammett, silent but confident in the indwelling presence of Christ his King. And he thought of young Standfield and Brine, not so positively with them as the others. Perhaps they made no professions of religion, though young Standfield did go to the chapel every Sunday. But how fine had been their help in the time of stress. Religion might not have been their motive as it had been that of the other four, but their steadfastness had been all the more notable because they had no unseen Helper to guide them.

As Loveless thought of these men, and heard them by implication described as thieves and whoremongers, robbers with violence, and all the rest of it, his brave heart gave way. He burst into tears—bitter scalding tears—such as he had never known before. It was a strong man’s one outbreak of a lifetime. His own sufferings and distresses, the bitter injustices he himself had had to undergo could never move him to such extremes, but to think of these men suffering with him, and having the horrible judgement put upon them of a man like this parson–evidently a good and kindly man—was too much for him. He broke down under it. Men around him were infected with his weeping. Perhaps they had things to repent of, perhaps it was only the misery of it all, against which they had fought, whether innocent or guilty, just as he had fought. Whatever caused it one could not tell, but the tears were now welling out of the eyes of many of these men. The minister saw it and praised God for what he saw. For it showed to him that his preaching was true. Even these, the most abandoned of men, would respond to the appeal of the gospel. He thought of those tears as tears of penitence. He saw the man on whom his words seemed to have most effect, recognized a certain proud bearing and wondered what crime had brought him to such a pass. Little did he know that it was a local preacher of his own Church who was there in that gang, and that he was there through the same impulses which had brought the preacher out on to the Mission Field. Zeal for Christ and love for his fellows had been the motive power in both cases—one to call the convicts to repentance and conviction of sin—the other to stand with those convicts, because he had preached the gospel as he had known it, and had lived for the faith that was in him. The minister went away convinced that through his words, the stony hearts of many a hardened sinner had that day been broken, that they had seen the error of their ways, and after they had endured their well-deserved punishment, some of them would show the fruits of his message in a reformed life.