For the Term of His Natural Life, by Marcus Clarke

Chapter VII.

Rufus Dawes’s Idyll.

That afternoon, while Mr. Meekin was digesting his lunch, and chatting airily with Sylvia, Rufus Dawes began to brood over a desperate scheme. The intelligence that the investigation he had hoped for was not to be granted to him had rendered doubly bitter those galling fetters of self restraint which he had laid upon himself. For five years of desolation he had waited and hoped for a chance which might bring him to Hobart Town, and enable him to denounce the treachery of Maurice Frere. He had, by an almost miraculous accident, obtained that chance of open speech, and, having obtained it, he found that he was not allowed to speak. All the hopes he had formed were dashed to earth. All the calmness with which he had forced himself to bear his fate was now turned into bitterest rage and fury. Instead of one enemy he had twenty. All — judge, jury, gaoler, and parson — were banded together to work him evil and deny him right. The whole world was his foe: there was no honesty or truth in any living creature — save one.

During the dull misery of his convict life at Port Arthur one bright memory shone upon him like a star. In the depth of his degradation, at the height of his despair, he cherished one pure and ennobling thought — the thought of the child whom he had saved, and who loved him. When, on board the whaler that had rescued him from the burning boat, he had felt that the sailors, believing in Frere’s bluff lies, shrunk from the moody felon, he had gained strength to be silent by thinking of the suffering child. When poor Mrs. Vickers died, making no sign, and thus the chief witness to his heroism perished before his eyes, the thought that the child was left had restrained his selfish regrets. When Frere, handing him over to the authorities as an absconder, ingeniously twisted the details of the boat-building to his own glorification, the knowledge that Sylvia would assign to these pretensions their true value had given him courage to keep silence. So strong was his belief in her gratitude, that he scorned to beg for the pardon he had taught himself to believe that she would ask for him. So utter was his contempt for the coward and boaster who, dressed in brief authority, bore insidious false witness against him, that, when he heard his sentence of life banishment, he disdained to make known the true part he had played in the matter, preferring to wait for the more exquisite revenge, the more complete justification which would follow upon the recovery of the child from her illness. But when, at Port Arthur, day after day passed over, and brought no word of pity or justification, he began, with a sickening feeling of despair, to comprehend that something strange had happened. He was told by newcomers that the child of the Commandant lay still and near to death. Then he heard that she and her father had left the colony, and that all prospect of her righting him by her evidence was at an end. This news gave him a terrible pang; and at first he was inclined to break out into upbraidings of her selfishness. But, with that depth of love which was in him, albeit crusted over and concealed by the sullenness of speech and manner which his sufferings had produced, he found excuses for her even then. She was ill. She was in the hands of friends who loved her, and disregarded him; perhaps, even her entreaties and explanations were put aside as childish babblings. She would free him if she had the power. Then he wrote “Statements”, agonized to see the Commandant, pestered the gaolers and warders with the story of his wrongs, and inundated the Government with letters, which, containing, as they did always, denunciations of Maurice Frere, were never suffered to reach their destination. The authorities, willing at the first to look kindly upon him in consideration of his strange experience, grew weary of this perpetual iteration of what they believed to be malicious falsehoods, and ordered him heavier tasks and more continuous labour. They mistook his gloom for treachery, his impatient outbursts of passion at his fate for ferocity, his silent endurance for dangerous cunning. As he had been at Macquarie Harbour, so did he become at Port Arthur — a marked man. Despairing of winning his coveted liberty by fair means, and horrified at the hideous prospect of a life in chains, he twice attempted to escape, but escape was even more hopeless than it had been at Hell’s Gates. The peninsula of Port Arthur was admirably guarded, signal stations drew a chain round the prison, an armed boat’s crew watched each bay, and across the narrow isthmus which connected it with the mainland was a cordon of watch-dogs, in addition to the soldier guard. He was retaken, of course, flogged, and weighted with heavier irons. The second time, they sent him to the Coal Mines, where the prisoners lived underground, worked half-naked, and dragged their inspecting gaolers in wagons upon iron tramways, when such great people condescended to visit them. The day on which he started for this place he heard that Sylvia was dead, and his last hope went from him.

Then began with him a new religion. He worshipped the dead. For the living, he had but hatred and evil words; for the dead, he had love and tender thoughts. Instead of the phantoms of his vanished youth which were wont to visit him, he saw now but one vision — the vision of the child who had loved him. Instead of conjuring up for himself pictures of that home circle in which he had once moved, and those creatures who in the past years had thought him worthy of esteem and affection, he placed before himself but one idea, one embodiment of happiness, one being who was without sin and without stain, among all the monsters of that pit into which he had fallen. Around the figure of the innocent child who had lain in his breast, and laughed at him with her red young mouth, he grouped every image of happiness and love. Having banished from his thoughts all hope of resuming his name and place, he pictured to himself some quiet nook at the world’s end — a deep-gardened house in a German country town, or remote cottage by the English seashore, where he and his dream-child might have lived together, happier in a purer affection than the love of man for woman. He bethought him how he could have taught her out of the strange store of learning which his roving life had won for him, how he could have confided to her his real name, and perhaps purchased for her wealth and honour by reason of it. Yet, he thought, she would not care for wealth and honour; she would prefer a quiet life — a life of unassuming usefulness, a life devoted to good deeds, to charity and love. He could see her — in his visions — reading by a cheery fireside, wandering in summer woods, or lingering by the marge of the slumbering mid-day sea. He could feel — in his dreams — her soft arms about his neck, her innocent kisses on his lips; he could hear her light laugh, and see her sunny ringlets float, back-blown, as she ran to meet him. Conscious that she was dead, and that he did to her gentle memory no disrespect by linking her fortunes to those of a wretch who had seen so much of evil as himself, he loved to think of her as still living, and to plot out for her and for himself impossible plans for future happiness. In the noisome darkness of the mine, in the glaring light of the noonday — dragging at his loaded wagon, he could see her ever with him, her calm eyes gazing lovingly on his, as they had gazed in the boat so long ago. She never seemed to grow older, she never seemed to wish to leave him. It was only when his misery became too great for him to bear, and he cursed and blasphemed, mingling for a time in the hideous mirth of his companions, that the little figure fled away. Thus dreaming, he had shaped out for himself a sorrowful comfort, and in his dream-world found a compensation for the terrible affliction of living. Indifference to his present sufferings took possession of him; only at the bottom of this indifference lurked a fixed hatred of the man who had brought these sufferings upon him, and a determination to demand at the first opportunity a reconsideration of that man’s claims to be esteemed a hero. It was in this mood that he had intended to make the revelation which he had made in Court, but the intelligence that Sylvia lived unmanned him, and his prepared speech had been usurped by a passionate torrent of complaint and invective, which convinced no one, and gave Frere the very argument he needed. It was decided that the prisoner Dawes was a malicious and artful scoundrel, whose only object was to gain a brief respite of the punishment which he had so justly earned. Against this injustice he had resolved to rebel. It was monstrous, he thought, that they should refuse to hear the witness who was so ready to speak in his favour, infamous that they should send him back to his doom without allowing her to say a word in his defence. But he would defeat that scheme. He had planned a method of escape, and he would break from his bonds, fling himself at her feet, and pray her to speak the truth for him, and so save him. Strong in his faith in her, and with his love for her brightened by the love he had borne to her dream-image, he felt sure of her power to rescue him now, as he had rescued her before. “If she knew I was alive, she would come to me,” he said. “I am sure she would. Perhaps they told her that I was dead.”

Meditating that night in the solitude of his cell — his evil character had gained him the poor luxury of loneliness — he almost wept to think of the cruel deception that had doubtless been practised on her. “They have told her that I was dead, in order that she might learn to forget me; but she could not do that. I have thought of her so often during these weary years that she must sometimes have thought of me. Five years! She must be a woman now. My little child a woman! Yet she is sure to be childlike, sweet, and gentle. How she will grieve when she hears of my sufferings. Oh! my darling, my darling, you are not dead!” And then, looking hastily about him in the darkness, as though fearful even there of being seen, he pulled from out his breast a little packet, and felt it lovingly with his coarse, toil-worn fingers, reverently raising it to his lips, and dreaming over it, with a smile on his face, as though it were a sacred talisman that should open to him the doors of freedom.

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