For the Term of His Natural Life, by Marcus Clarke

Chapter II.

Sarah Purfoy’s Request.

The evening passed as it had passed a hundred times before; and having smoked a pipe at the barracks, Captain Frere returned home. His home was a cottage on the New Town Road — a cottage which he had occupied since his appointment as Assistant Police Magistrate, an appointment given to him as a reward for his exertions in connection with the Osprey mutiny. Captain Maurice Frere had risen in life. Quartered in Hobart Town, he had assumed a position in society, and had held several of those excellent appointments which in the year 1834 were bestowed upon officers of garrison. He had been Superintendent of Works at Bridgewater, and when he got his captaincy, Assistant Police Magistrate at Bothwell. The affair of the Osprey made a noise; and it was tacitly resolved that the first “good thing” that fell vacant should be given to the gallant preserver of Major Vickers’s child.

Major Vickers also prospered. He had always been a careful man, and having saved some money, had purchased land on favourable terms. The “assignment system” enabled him to cultivate portions of it at a small expense, and, following the usual custom, he stocked his run with cattle and sheep. He had sold his commission, and was now a comparatively wealthy man. He owned a fine estate; the house he lived in was purchased property. He was in good odour at Government House, and his office of Superintendent of Convicts caused him to take an active part in that local government which keeps a man constantly before the public. Major Vickers, a colonist against his will, had become, by force of circumstances, one of the leading men in Van Diemen’s Land. His daughter was a good match for any man; and many ensigns and lieutenants, cursing their hard lot in “country quarters”, many sons of settlers living on their father’s station among the mountains, and many dapper clerks on the civil establishment envied Maurice Frere his good fortune. Some went so far as to say that the beautiful daughter of “Regulation Vickers” was too good for the coarse red-faced Frere, who was noted for his fondness for low society, and overbearing, almost brutal demeanour. No one denied, however, that Captain Frere was a valuable officer. It was said that, in consequence of his tastes, he knew more about the tricks of convicts than any man on the island. It was said, even, that he was wont to disguise himself, and mix with the pass-holders and convict servants, in order to learn their signs and mysteries. When in charge at Bridgewater it had been his delight to rate the chain-gangs in their own hideous jargon, and to astound a new-comer by his knowledge of his previous history. The convict population hated and cringed to him, for, with his brutality, and violence, he mingled a ferocious good humour, that resulted sometimes in tacit permission to go without the letter of the law. Yet, as the convicts themselves said, “a man was never safe with the Captain”; for, after drinking and joking with them, as the Sir Oracle of some public-house whose hostess he delighted to honour, he would disappear through a side door just as the constables burst in at the back, and show himself as remorseless, in his next morning’s sentence of the captured, as if he had never entered a tap-room in all his life. His superiors called this “zeal”; his inferiors “treachery”. For himself, he laughed. “Everything is fair to those wretches,” he was accustomed to say.

As the time for his marriage approached, however, he had in a measure given up these exploits, and strove, by his demeanour, to make his acquaintances forget several remarkable scandals concerning his private life, for the promulgation of which he once cared little. When Commandant at the Maria Island, and for the first two years after his return from the unlucky expedition to Macquarie Harbour, he had not suffered any fear of society’s opinion to restrain his vices, but, as the affection for the pure young girl, who looked upon him as her saviour from a dreadful death, increased in honest strength, he had resolved to shut up those dark pages in his colonial experience, and to read therein no more. He was not remorseful, he was not even disgusted. He merely came to the conclusion that, when a man married, he was to consider certain extravagances common to all bachelors as at an end. He had “had his fling, like all young men”, perhaps he had been foolish like most young men, but no reproachful ghost of past misdeeds haunted him. His nature was too prosaic to admit the existence of such phantoms. Sylvia, in her purity and excellence, was so far above him, that in raising his eyes to her, he lost sight of all the sordid creatures to whose level he had once debased himself, and had come in part to regard the sins he had committed, before his redemption by the love of this bright young creature, as evil done by him under a past condition of existence, and for the consequences of which he was not responsible. One of the consequences, however, was very close to him at this moment. His convict servant had, according to his instructions, sat up for him, and as he entered, the man handed him a letter, bearing a superscription in a female hand.

“Who brought this?” asked Frere, hastily tearing it open to read. “The groom, sir. He said that there was a gentleman at the ‘George the Fourth’ who wished to see you.”

Frere smiled, in admiration of the intelligence which had dictated such a message, and then frowned in anger at the contents of the letter. “You needn’t wait,” he said to the man. “I shall have to go back again, I suppose.”

Changing his forage cap for a soft hat, and selecting a stick from a miscellaneous collection in a corner, he prepared to retrace his steps. “What does she want now?” he asked himself fiercely, as he strode down the moonlit road; but beneath the fierceness there was an under-current of petulance, which implied that, whatever “she” did want, she had a right to expect.

The “George the Fourth” was a long low house, situated in Elizabeth Street. Its front was painted a dull red, and the narrow panes of glass in its windows, and the ostentatious affectation of red curtains and homely comfort, gave to it a spurious appearance of old English jollity. A knot of men round the door melted into air as Captain Frere approached, for it was now past eleven o’clock, and all persons found in the streets after eight could be compelled to “show their pass” or explain their business. The convict constables were not scrupulous in the exercise of their duty, and the bluff figure of Frere, clad in the blue serge which he affected as a summer costume, looked not unlike that of a convict constable.

Pushing open the side door with the confident manner of one well acquainted with the house, Frere entered, and made his way along a narrow passage to a glass door at the further end. A tap upon this door brought a white-faced, pock-pitted Irish girl, who curtsied with servile recognition of the visitor, and ushered him upstairs. The room into which he was shown was a large one. It had three windows looking into the street, and was handsomely furnished. The carpet was soft, the candles were bright, and the supper tray gleamed invitingly from a table between the windows. As Frere entered, a little terrier ran barking to his feet. It was evident that he was not a constant visitor. The rustle of a silk dress behind the terrier betrayed the presence of a woman; and Frere, rounding the promontory of an ottoman, found himself face to face with Sarah Purfoy.

“Thank you for coming,” she said. “Pray, sit down.”

This was the only greeting that passed between them, and Frere sat down, in obedience to a motion of a plump hand that twinkled with rings.

The eleven years that had passed since we last saw this woman had dealt gently with her. Her foot was as small and her hand as white as of yore. Her hair, bound close about her head, was plentiful and glossy, and her eyes had lost none of their dangerous brightness. Her figure was coarser, and the white arm that gleamed through a muslin sleeve showed an outline that a fastidious artist might wish to modify. The most noticeable change was in her face. The cheeks owned no longer that delicate purity which they once boasted, but had become thicker, while here and there showed those faint red streaks — as though the rich blood throbbed too painfully in the veins — which are the first signs of the decay of “fine” women. With middle age and the fullness of figure to which most women of her temperament are prone, had come also that indescribable vulgarity of speech and manner which habitual absence of moral restraint never fails to produce.

Maurice Frere spoke first; he was anxious to bring his visit to as speedy a termination as possible. “What do you want of me?” he asked.

Sarah Purfoy laughed; a forced laugh, that sounded so unnatural, that Frere turned to look at her. “I want you to do me a favour — a very great favour; that is if it will not put you out of the way.”

“What do you mean?” asked Frere roughly, pursing his lips with a sullen air. “Favour! What do you call this?” striking the sofa on which he sat. “Isn’t this a favour? What do you call your precious house and all that’s in it? Isn’t that a favour? What do you mean?”

To his utter astonishment the woman replied by shedding tears. For some time he regarded her in silence, as if unwilling to be softened by such shallow device, but eventually felt constrained to say something. “Have you been drinking again?” he asked, “or what’s the matter with you? Tell me what it is you want, and have done with it. I don’t know what possessed me to come here at all.”

Sarah sat upright, and dashed away her tears with one passionate hand.

“I am ill, can’t you see, you fool!” said she. “The news has unnerved me. If I have been drinking, what then? It’s nothing to you, is it?”

“Oh, no,” returned the other, “it’s nothing to me. You are the principal party concerned. If you choose to bloat yourself with brandy, do it by all means.”

“You don’t pay for it, at any rate!” said she, with quickness of retaliation which showed that this was not the only occasion on which they had quarrelled.

“Come,” said Frere, impatiently brutal, “get on. I can’t stop here all night.”

She suddenly rose, and crossed to where he was standing.

“Maurice, you were very fond of me once.”

“Once,” said Maurice.

“Not so very many years ago.”

“Hang it!” said he, shifting his arm from beneath her hand, “don’t let us have all that stuff over again. It was before you took to drinking and swearing, and going raving mad with passion, any way.”

“Well, dear,” said she, with her great glittering eyes belying the soft tones of her voice, “I suffered for it, didn’t I? Didn’t you turn me out into the streets? Didn’t you lash me with your whip like a dog? Didn’t you put me in gaol for it, eh? It’s hard to struggle against you, Maurice.”

The compliment to his obstinacy seemed to please him — perhaps the crafty woman intended that it should — and he smiled.

“Well, there; let old times be old times, Sarah. You haven’t done badly, after all,” and he looked round the well-furnished room. “What do you want?”

“There was a transport came in this morning.”

“Well?”

“You know who was on board her, Maurice!”

Maurice brought one hand into the palm of the other with a rough laugh.

“Oh, that’s it, is it! ’Gad, what a flat I was not to think of it before! You want to see him, I suppose?” She came close to him, and, in her earnestness, took his hand. “I want to save his life!”

“Oh, that be hanged, you know! Save his life! It can’t be done.”

“You can do it, Maurice.”

“I save John Rex’s life?” cried Frere. “Why, you must be mad!”

“He is the only creature that loves me, Maurice — the only man who cares for me. He has done no harm. He only wanted to be free — was it not natural? You can save him if you like. I only ask for his life. What does it matter to you? A miserable prisoner — his death would be of no use. Let him live, Maurice.”

Maurice laughed. “What have I to do with it?”

“You are the principal witness against him. If you say that he behaved well — and he did behave well, you know: many men would have left you to starve — they won’t hang him.”

“Oh, won’t they! That won’t make much difference.”

“Ah, Maurice, be merciful!” She bent towards him, and tried to retain his hand, but he withdrew it.

“You’re a nice sort of woman to ask me to help your lover — a man who left me on that cursed coast to die, for all he cared,” he said, with a galling recollection of his humiliation of five years back. “Save him! Confound him, not I!”

“Ah, Maurice, you will.” She spoke with a suppressed sob in her voice. “What is it to you? You don’t care for me now. You beat me, and turned me out of doors, though I never did you wrong. This man was a husband to me — long, long before I met you. He never did you any harm; he never will. He will bless you if you save him, Maurice.”

Frere jerked his head impatiently. “Bless me!” he said. “I don’t want his blessings. Let him swing. Who cares?”

Still she persisted, with tears streaming from her eyes, with white arms upraised, on her knees even, catching at his coat, and beseeching him in broken accents. In her wild, fierce beauty and passionate abandonment she might have been a deserted Ariadne — a suppliant Medea. Anything rather than what she was — a dissolute, half-maddened woman, praying for the pardon of her convict husband.

Maurice Frere flung her off with an oath. “Get up!” he cried brutally, “and stop that nonsense. I tell you the man’s as good as dead for all I shall do to save him.”

At this repulse, her pent-up passion broke forth. She sprang to her feet, and, pushing back the hair that in her frenzied pleading had fallen about her face, poured out upon him a torrent of abuse. “You! Who are you, that you dare to speak to me like that? His little finger is worth your whole body. He is a man, a brave man, not a coward, like you. A coward! Yes, a coward! a coward! A coward! You are very brave with defenceless men and weak women. You have beaten me until I was bruised black, you cur; but who ever saw you attack a man unless he was chained or bound? Do not I know you? I have seen you taunt a man at the triangles, until I wished the screaming wretch could get loose, and murder you as you deserve! You will be murdered one of these days, Maurice Frere — take my word for it. Men are flesh and blood, and flesh and blood won’t endure the torments you lay on it!”

“There, that’ll do,” says Frere, growing paler. “Don’t excite yourself.”

“I know you, you brutal coward. I have not been your mistress — God forgive me! — without learning you by heart. I’ve seen your ignorance and your conceit. I’ve seen the men who ate your food and drank your wine laugh at you. I’ve heard what your friends say; I’ve heard the comparisons they make. One of your dogs has more brains than you, and twice as much heart. And these are the men they send to rule us! Oh, Heaven! And such an animal as this has life and death in his hand! He may hang, may he? I’ll hang with him, then, and God will forgive me for murder, for I will kill you!”

Frere had cowered before this frightful torrent of rage, but, at the scream which accompanied the last words, he stepped forward as though to seize her. In her desperate courage, she flung herself before him. “Strike me! You daren’t! I defy you! Bring up the wretched creatures who learn the way to Hell in this cursed house, and let them see you do it. Call them! They are old friends of yours. They all know Captain Maurice Frere.”

“Sarah!”

“You remember Lucy Barnes — poor little Lucy Barnes that stole sixpennyworth of calico. She is downstairs now. Would you know her if you saw her? She isn’t the bright-faced baby she was when they sent her here to ‘reform’, and when Lieutenant Frere wanted a new housemaid from the Factory! Call for her! — call! do you hear? Ask any one of those beasts whom you lash and chain for Lucy Barnes. He’ll tell you all about her — ay, and about many more — many more poor souls that are at the bidding of any drunken brute that has stolen a pound note to fee the Devil with! Oh, you good God in Heaven, will You not judge this man?”

Frere trembled. He had often witnessed this creature’s whirlwinds of passion, but never had he seen her so violent as this. Her frenzy frightened him. “For Heaven’s sake, Sarah, be quiet. What is it you want? What would you do?”

“I’ll go to this girl you want to marry, and tell her all I know of you. I have seen her in the streets — have seen her look the other way when I passed her — have seen her gather up her muslin skirts when my silks touched her — I that nursed her, that heard her say her baby-prayers (O Jesus, pity me!)— and I know what she thinks of women like me. She is good — and virtuous — and cold. She would shudder at you if she knew what I know. Shudder! She would hate you! And I will tell her! Ay, I will! You will be respectable, will you? A model husband! Wait till I tell her my story — till I send some of these poor women to tell theirs. You kill my love; I’ll blight and ruin yours!”

Frere caught her by both wrists, and with all his strength forced her to her knees. “Don’t speak her name,” he said in a hoarse voice, “or I’ll do you a mischief. I know all you mean to do. I’m not such a fool as not to see that. Be quiet! Men have murdered women like you, and now I know how they came to do it.”

For a few minutes a silence fell upon the pair, and at last Frere, releasing her hands, fell back from her.

“I’ll do what you want, on one condition.”

“What?”

“That you leave this place.”

“Where for?”

“Anywhere — the farther the better. I’ll pay your passage to Sydney, and you go or stay there as you please.”

She had grown calmer, hearing him thus relenting. “But this house, Maurice?”

“You are not in debt?”

“No.”

“Well, leave it. It’s your own affair, not mine. If I help you, you must go.”

“May I see him?”

“No.”

“Ah, Maurice!”

“You can see him in the dock if you like,” says Frere, with a laugh, cut short by a flash of her eyes. “There, I didn’t mean to offend you.”

“Offend me! Go on.”

“Listen here,” said he doggedly. “If you will go away, and promise never to interfere with me by word or deed, I’ll do what you want.”

“What will you do?” she asked, unable to suppress a smile at the victory she had won.

“I will not say all I know about this man. I will say he befriended me. I will do my best to save his life.”

“You can save it if you like.”

“Well, I will try. On my honour, I will try.”

“I must believe you, I suppose?” said she doubtfully; and then, with a sudden pitiful pleading, in strange contrast to her former violence, “You are not deceiving me, Maurice?”

“No. Why should I? You keep your promise, and I’ll keep mine. Is it a bargain?”

“Yes.”

He eyed her steadfastly for some seconds, and then turned on his heel. As he reached the door she called him back. Knowing him as she did, she felt that he would keep his word, and her feminine nature could not resist a parting sneer.

“There is nothing in the bargain to prevent me helping him to escape!” she said with a smile.

“Escape! He won’t escape again, I’ll go bail. Once get him in double irons at Port Arthur, and he’s safe enough.”

The smile on her face seemed infectious, for his own sullen features relaxed. “Good night, Sarah,” he said.

She put out her hand, as if nothing had happened. “Good night, Captain Frere. It’s a bargain, then?”

“A bargain.”

“You have a long walk home. Will you have some brandy?”

“I don’t care if I do,” he said, advancing to the table, and filling his glass. “Here’s a good voyage to you!”

Sarah Purfoy, watching him, burst into a laugh. “Human beings are queer creatures,” she said. “Who would have thought that we had been calling each other names just now? I say, I’m a vixen when I’m roused, ain’t I, Maurice?”

“Remember what you’ve promised,” said he, with a threat in his voice, as he moved to the door. “You must be out of this by the next ship that leaves.”

“Never fear, I’ll go.”

Getting into the cool street directly, and seeing the calm stars shining, and the placid water sleeping with a peace in which he had no share, he strove to cast off the nervous fear that was on him. That interview had frightened him, for it had made him think. It was hard that, just as he had turned over a new leaf, this old blot should come through to the clean page. It was cruel that, having comfortably forgotten the past, he should be thus rudely reminded of it.

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:37