For the Term of His Natural Life, by Marcus Clarke

Chapter XIV.

Mr. North’s Disposition.

“You will find this a terrible place, Mr. Meekin,” said North to his supplanter, as they walked across to the Commandant’s to dinner. “It has made me heartsick.”

“I thought it was a little paradise,” said Meekin. “Captain Frere says that the scenery is delightful.” “So it is,” returned North, looking askance, “but the prisoners are not delightful.”

“Poor, abandoned wretches,” says Meekin, “I suppose not. How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon that bank! Eh!”

“Abandoned, indeed, by God and man — almost.”

“Mr. North, Providence never abandons the most unworthy of His servants. Never have I seen the righteous forsaken, nor His seed begging their bread. In the valley of the shadow of death He is with us. His staff, you know, Mr. North. Really, the Commandant’s house is charmingly situated!”

Mr. North sighed again. “You have not been long in the colony, Mr. Meekin. I doubt — forgive me for expressing myself so freely — if you quite know of our convict system.”

“An admirable one! A most admirable one!” said Meekin. “There were a few matters I noticed in Hobart Town that did not quite please me — the frequent use of profane language for instance — but on the whole I was delighted with the scheme. It is so complete.”

North pursed up his lips. “Yes, it is very complete,” he said; “almost too complete. But I am always in a minority when I discuss the question, so we will drop it, if you please.”

“If you please,” said Meekin gravely. He had heard from the Bishop that Mr. North was an ill-conditioned sort of person, who smoked clay pipes, had been detected in drinking beer out of a pewter pot, and had been heard to state that white neck-cloths were of no consequence. The dinner went off successfully. Burgess — desirous, perhaps, of favourably impressing the chaplain whom the Bishop delighted to honour — shut off his blasphemy for a while, and was urbane enough. “You’ll find us rough, Mr. Meekin,” he said, “but you’ll find us ‘all there’ when we’re wanted. This is a little kingdom in itself.”

“Like Béranger’s?” asked Meekin, with a smile. Captain Burgess had never heard of Béranger, but he smiled as if he had learnt his words by heart.

“Or like Sancho Panza’s island,” said North. “You remember how justice was administered there?”

“Not at this moment, sir,” said Burgess, with dignity. He had been often oppressed by the notion that the Reverend Mr. North “chaffed” him. “Pray help yourself to wine.”

“Thank you, none,” said North, filling a tumbler with water. “I have a headache.” His manner of speech and action was so awkward that a silence fell upon the party, caused by each one wondering why Mr. North should grow confused, and drum his fingers on the table, and stare everywhere but at the decanter. Meekin — ever softly at his ease — was the first to speak. “Have you many visitors, Captain Burgess?”

“Very few. Sometimes a party comes over with a recommendation from the Governor, and I show them over the place; but, as a rule, we see no one but ourselves.”

“I asked,” said Meekin, “because some friends of mine were thinking of coming.”

“And who may they be?”

“Do you know Captain Frere?”

“Frere! I should say so!” returned Burgess, with a laugh, modelled upon Maurice Frere’s own. “I was quartered with him at Sarah Island. So he’s a friend of yours, eh?”

“I had the pleasure of meeting him in society. He is just married, you know.”

“Is he?” said Burgess. “The devil he is! I heard something about it, too.”

“Miss Vickers, a charming young person. They are going to Sydney, where Captain Frere has some interest, and Frere thinks of taking Port Arthur on his way down.”

“A strange fancy for a honeymoon trip,” said North.

“Captain Frere takes a deep interest in all relating to convict discipline,” went on Meekin, unheeding the interruption, “and is anxious that Mrs. Frere should see this place.”

“Yes, one oughtn’t to leave the colony without seeing it,” says Burgess; “it’s worth seeing.”

“So Captain Frere thinks. A romantic story, Captain Burgess. He saved her life, you know.”

“Ah! that was a queer thing, that mutiny,” said Burgess. “We’ve got the fellows here, you know.”

“I saw them tried at Hobart Town,” said Meekin. “In fact, the ringleader, John Rex, gave me his confession, and I sent it to the Bishop.”

“A great rascal,” put in North. “A dangerous, scheming, cold — blooded villain.”

“Well now!” said Meekin, with asperity, “I don’t agree with you. Everybody seems to be against that poor fellow — Captain Frere tried to make me think that his letters contained a hidden meaning, but I don’t believe they did. He seems to me to be truly penitent for his offences — a misguided, but not a hypocritical man, if my knowledge of human nature goes for anything.”

“I hope he is,” said North. “I wouldn’t trust him.”

“Oh! there’s no fear of him,” said Burgess cheerily; “if he grows uproarious, we’ll soon give him a touch of the cat.”

“I suppose severity is necessary,” returned Meekin; “though to my ears a flogging sounds a little distasteful. It is a brutal punishment.”

“It’s a punishment for brutes,” said Burgess, and laughed, pleased with the nearest approach to an epigram he ever made in his life.

Here attention was called by the strange behaviour of Mr. North. He had risen, and, without apology, flung wide the window, as though he gasped for air. “Hullo, North! what’s the matter?”

“Nothing,” said North, recovering himself with an effort. “A spasm. I have these attacks at times.” “Have some brandy,” said Burgess.

“No, no, it will pass. No, I say. Well, if you insist.” And seizing the tumbler offered to him, he half-filled it with raw spirit, and swallowed the fiery draught at a gulp.

The Reverend Meekin eyed his clerical brother with horror. The Reverend Meekin was not accustomed to clergymen who wore black neckties, smoked clay pipes, chewed tobacco, and drank neat brandy out of tumblers.

“Ha!” said North, looking wildly round upon them. “That’s better.”

“Let us go on to the verandah,” said Burgess. “It’s cooler than in the house.”

So they went on to the verandah, and looked down upon the lights of the prison, and listened to the sea lapping the shore. The Reverend Mr. North, in this cool atmosphere, seemed to recover himself, and conversation progressed with some sprightliness.

By and by, a short figure, smoking a cheroot, came up out of the dark, and proved to be Dr. Macklewain, who had been prevented from attending the dinner by reason of an accident to a constable at Norfolk Bay, which had claimed his professional attention.

“Well, how’s Forrest?” cried Burgess. “Mr. Meekin — Dr. Macklewain.”

“Dead,” said Dr. Macklewain. “Delighted to see you, Mr. Meekin.”

“Confound it — another of my best men,” grumbled Burgess. “Macklewain, have a glass of wine.” But Macklewain was tired, and wanted to get home.

“I must also be thinking of repose,” said Meekin; “the journey — though most enjoyable — has fatigued me.”

“Come on, then,” said North. “Our roads lie together, doctor.”

“You won’t have a nip of brandy before you start?” asked Burgess.

“No? Then I shall send round for you in the morning, Mr. Meekin. Good night. Macklewain, I want to speak with you a moment.”

Before the two clergymen had got half-way down the steep path that led from the Commandant’s house to the flat on which the cottages of the doctor and chaplain were built, Macklewain rejoined them. “Another flogging to-morrow,” said he grumblingly. “Up at daylight, I suppose, again.”

“Whom is he going to flog now?”

“That young butler-fellow of his.” “What, Kirkland?” cried North. “You don’t mean to say he’s going to flog Kirkland?”

“Insubordination,” says Macklewain. “Fifty lashes.”

“Oh, this must be stopped,” cried North, in great alarm. “He can’t stand it. I tell you, he’ll die, Macklewain.”

“Perhaps you’ll have the goodness to allow me to be the best judge of that,” returned Macklewain, drawing up his little body to its least insignificant stature.

“My dear sir,” replied North, alive to the importance of conciliating the surgeon, “you haven’t seen him lately. He tried to drown himself this morning.”

Mr. Meekin expressed some alarm; but Dr. Macklewain re-assured him. “That sort of nonsense must be stopped,” said he. “A nice example to set. I wonder Burgess didn’t give him a hundred.”

“He was put into the long dormitory,” said North; “you know what sort of a place that is. I declare to Heaven his agony and shame terrified me.”

“Well, he’ll be put into the hospital for a week or so to-morrow,” said Macklewain, “and that’ll give him a spell.”

“If Burgess flogs him I’ll report it to the Governor,” cries North, in great heat. “The condition of those dormitories is infamous.”

“If the boy has anything to complain of, why don’t he complain? We can’t do anything without evidence.”

“Complain! Would his life be safe if he did? Besides, he’s not the sort of creature to complain. He’d rather kill himself.”

“That’s all nonsense,” says Macklewain. “We can’t flog a whole dormitory on suspicion. I can’t help it. The boy’s made his bed, and he must lie on it.”

“I’ll go back and see Burgess,” said North. “Mr. Meekin, here’s the gate, and your room is on the right hand. I’ll be back shortly.”

“Pray, don’t hurry,” said Meekin politely. “You are on an errand of mercy, you know. Everything must give way to that. I shall find my portmanteau in my room, you said.”

“Yes, yes. Call the servant if you want anything. He sleeps at the back,” and North hurried off.

“An impulsive gentleman,” said Meekin to Macklewain, as the sound of Mr. North’s footsteps died away in the distance. Macklewain shook his head seriously.

“There is something wrong about him, but I can’t make out what it is. He has the strangest fits at times. Unless it’s a cancer in the stomach, I don’t know what it can be.”

“Cancer in the stomach! dear me, how dreadful!” says Meekin. “Ah! Doctor, we all have our crosses, have we not? How delightful the grass smells! This seems a very pleasant place, and I think I shall enjoy myself very much. Good-night.”

“Good-night, sir. I hope you will be comfortable.”

“And let us hope poor Mr. North will succeed in his labour of love,” said Meekin, shutting the little gate, “and save the unfortunate Kirkland. Good-night, once more.”

Captain Burgess was shutting his verandah-window when North hurried up.

“Captain Burgess, Macklewain tells me you are going to flog Kirkland.”

“Well, sir, what of that?” said Burgess.

“I have come to beg you not to do so, sir. The lad has been cruelly punished already. He attempted suicide to-day — unhappy creature.”

“Well, that’s just what I’m flogging him for. I’ll teach my prisoners to attempt suicide!”

“But he can’t stand it, sir. He’s too weak.”

“That’s Macklewain’s business.”

“Captain Burgess,” protested North, “I assure you that he does not deserve punishment. I have seen him, and his condition of mind is pitiable.”

“Look here, Mr. North, I don’t interfere with what you do to the prisoner’s souls; don’t you interfere with what I do to their bodies.”

“Captain Burgess, you have no right to mock at my office.”

“Then don’t you interfere with me, sir.”

“Do you persist in having this boy flogged?”

“I’ve given my orders, sir.”

“Then, Captain Burgess,” cried North, his pale face flushing, “I tell you the boy’s blood will be on your head. I am a minister of God, sir, and I forbid you to commit this crime.”

“Damn your impertinence, sir!” burst out Burgess. “You’re a dismissed officer of the Government, sir. You’ve no authority here in any way; and, by God, sir, if you interfere with my discipline, sir, I’ll have you put in irons until you’re shipped out of the island.”

This, of course, was mere bravado on the part of the Commandant. North knew well that he would never dare to attempt any such act of violence, but the insult stung him like the cut of a whip. He made a stride towards the Commandant, as though to seize him by the throat, but, checking himself in time, stood still, with clenched hands, flashing eyes, and beard that bristled.

The two men looked at each other, and presently Burgess’s eyes fell before those of the chaplain.

“Miserable blasphemer,” says North, “I tell you that you shall not flog the boy.”

Burgess, white with rage, rang the bell that summoned his convict servant.

“Show Mr. North out,” he said, “and go down to the Barracks, and tell Troke that Kirkland is to have a hundred lashes to-morrow. I’ll show you who’s master here, my good sir.”

“I’ll report this to the Government,” said North, aghast. “This is murderous.”

“The Government may go to — — and you, too!” roared Burgess. “Get out!” And God’s viceregent at Port Arthur slammed the door.

North returned home in great agitation. “They shall not flog that boy,” he said. “I’ll shield him with my own body if necessary. I’ll report this to the Government. I’ll see Sir John Franklin myself. I’ll have the light of day let into this den of horrors.” He reached his cottage, and lighted the lamp in the little sitting-room. All was silent, save that from the adjoining chamber came the sound of Meekin’s gentlemanly snore. North took down a book from the shelf and tried to read, but the letters ran together. “I wish I hadn’t taken that brandy,” he said. “Fool that I am.”

Then he began to walk up and down, to fling himself on the sofa, to read, to pray. “Oh, God, give me strength! Aid me! Help me! I struggle, but I am weak. O, Lord, look down upon me!”

To see him rolling on the sofa in agony, to see his white face, his parched lips, and his contracted brow, to hear his moans and muttered prayers, one would have thought him suffering from the pangs of some terrible disease. He opened the book again, and forced himself to read, but his eyes wandered to the cupboard. There lurked something that fascinated him. He got up at length, went into the kitchen, and found a packet of red pepper. He mixed a teaspoonful of this in a pannikin of water and drank it. It relieved him for a while.

“I must keep my wits for to-morrow. The life of that lad depends upon it. Meekin, too, will suspect. I will lie down.”

He went into his bedroom and flung himself on the bed, but only to toss from side to side. In vain he repeated texts of Scripture and scraps of verse; in vain counted imaginary sheep, or listened to imaginary clock-tickings. Sleep would not come to him. It was as though he had reached the crisis of a disease which had been for days gathering force. “I must have a teaspoonful,” he said, “to allay the craving.”

Twice he paused on the way to the sitting-room, and twice was he driven on by a power stronger than his will. He reached it at length, and opening the cupboard, pulled out what he sought. A bottle of brandy. With this in his hand, all moderation vanished. He raised it to his lips and eagerly drank. Then, ashamed of what he had done, he thrust the bottle back, and made for his room. Still he could not sleep. The taste of the liquor maddened him for more. He saw in the darkness the brandy bottle — vulgar and terrible apparition! He saw its amber fluid sparkle. He heard it gurgle as he poured it out. He smelt the nutty aroma of the spirit. He pictured it standing in the corner of the cupboard, and imagined himself seizing it and quenching the fire that burned within him. He wept, he prayed, he fought with his desire as with a madness. He told himself that another’s life depended on his exertions, that to give way to his fatal passion was unworthy of an educated man and a reasoning being, that it was degrading, disgusting, and bestial. That, at all times debasing, at this particular time it was infamous; that a vice, unworthy of any man, was doubly sinful in a man of education and a minister of God. In vain. In the midst of his arguments he found himself at the cupboard, with the bottle at his lips, in an attitude that was at once ludicrous and horrible.

He had no cancer. His disease was a more terrible one. The Reverend James North — gentleman, scholar, and Christian priest — was what the world calls “a confirmed drunkard”.

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