Governor Gipps was a slim, dark-looking man with thick dark eye-brows underneath a receding fore-head. This made him look as though he possessed a brain larger than the norm. He leaned back in his chair and scrutinised Jack. His gaze was a mixture of the far-away and the penetrating, as if he were a poet who had been brought a choice piece of fruit and was contemplating whether it would be best to eat it or compose an ode in its honour.
Jack squirmed beneath the gaze. He could sense danger better than most and Gipps exuded danger with a silky intensity.
At that moment a door to the side of the office opened and a genial looking man walked in. He plucked up a chair and leant it against the wall, as if he were a member of an audience who had come late to the performance of a play and did not wish to draw attention to himself.
Dr Fowler bowed his head to him but the Governor gave no sign of recognition.
‘I’ve read the paper-work,’ Gipps said to Fowler. ‘It seems accurate enough. Stone, the boy’s master, was found dead in his own well. The Bathurst police believe that Stone toppled into the well when he was drunk, a not unusual state for him.’
He paused and took a sniff of snuff before continuing. ‘But they were unable to account for the fact that the rope in the well had been severed.’
He glanced at Jack; his eyes brimming with accusation.
‘I didn’t do nothing,’ Jack said.
‘Be quiet, boy,’ Fowler said quickly. ‘Speak when you’re spoken to, and only then.’
Gipps noticed the intervention. He clasped his hands together and leaned back in his seat.
The silence in the room grew heavy. Jack’s mind raced, trying out an array of explanations and falsehoods, measuring them against the Governor’s stare to see which stood the best chance of satisfying him.
‘Nobody accused you of anything, Dawkins,’ the Governor said. ‘Yet you were quick to deny any wrong-doing. This makes me suspicious. It may be that you will have to stand trial for Stone’s murder.’
‘I didn’t kill him,’ cried Jack.
‘Speak when you’re spoken to,’ said Gipps in a voice more harsh than any he had used hitherto.
He turned his attention to Fowler. ‘Do you know anything of the history of this boy?’ he asked.
‘A little, Sir George. Only what Surgeon Wills told me.’
Gipps held up a sheet of paper and shook his head as if weary.
‘He may be a boy,’ he said, ‘but Dawkins is one of the most seasoned criminals in the Empire. He was the principal associate of an old Jew who was responsible for a vast amount of crime. According to the police Dawkins was the most accomplished pick-pocket in the capital. His sobriquet was the Artful Dodger.’
Jack sat up, beaming with pride. Gipps’ eyes caught those of Fowler, compelling him to turn to gaze upon the boy.
‘Do you see the vain look upon Dawkins’ face, Fowler?’ Gipps asked. ‘He is actually proud of his criminality. Is this the sort of boy you wish to have roaming the streets of Sydney? More to the point, is this the sort of boy you wish to have running around your own home?’
‘He’s not a bad boy,’ said Beatrice. ‘He’s just had a bad life.’
‘I applaud your gentle thoughts, Miss Beatrice,’ Gipps said. ‘But matters such as this must be decided by head and not by heart.’
‘He is, I agree, like a savage,’ Fowler said. ‘In some ways he is very like the savages who roam the interior of the continent. Theirs is a savagery born of ignorance and a hard, cruel life. I believe that the same holds true for Jack Dawkins.
‘Sir George, Dawkins was born of an illicit liaison between a doctor and his scullery-maid. When the mother died he was left in the care of a young girl, little more than a child herself. In order to support her young charge she took to a life of crime and prostitution. He ended up in the nest of vipers presided over by the Jew. It was none of Jack’s doing.’
‘And who told you this tale, Dr Fowler, if I may so enquire?’
‘Jack told me himself.’
Gipps smiled. ‘Dr Fowler, you see many people who are ill in the course of your practice. I am sure that you also see many people who claim they are ill but who are not. I would assume that sometimes it is difficult to sift the honest from the false.’
Fowler did not answer. After a moment he nodded in agreement.
‘My contention is that this boy is a hardened criminal,’ the Governor continued. ‘It matters not whether he is a victim of circumstances or a willing embracer of crime. The only fact that matters is that he is a criminal. Not just a casual one but one who defeated the police of London for year upon year.
‘I have no doubt, Fowler, that Dawkins will take the first opportunity to rob you and your household of everything. And if my suspicions about the death of Stone are correct, then theft may be the least you fear.’
‘That’s not true, Sir Gipps,’ Jack cried. ‘Dr Fowler and his folk have treated me most handsome and I wouldn’t harm then for anything.
‘And as for Stone, he was an out and out villain who beat poor old Mother and raped Charlotte the Aborigine girl. I didn’t kill him but I’m not sorry he’s dead. In fact, I’d spit on his corpse if it were spread out on your table.’
Gipps stared at him in astonishment.
‘Artful is available from all good e-book retailers for $2.95 or equivalent local price. You can check out a longer sample for free before you buy.
- Dodger and the Transportation Ship. #SampleSunday #HistNov (martinlakewriting.wordpress.com)