For the Term of His Natural Life, by Marcus Clarke

Chapter XVI.

Kicking Against the Pricks.

The morning after this, the Rev. Mr. North departed in the schooner for Hobart Town. Between the officious chaplain and the Commandant the events of the previous day had fixed a great gulf. Burgess knew that North meant to report the death of Kirkland, and guessed that he would not be backward in relating the story to such persons in Hobart Town as would most readily repeat it. “Blank awkward the fellow’s dying,” he confessed to himself. “If he hadn’t died, nobody would have bothered about him.” A sinister truth. North, on the other hand, comforted himself with the belief that the fact of the convict’s death under the lash would cause indignation and subsequent inquiry. “The truth must come out if they only ask,” thought he. Self-deceiving North! Four years a Government chaplain, and not yet attained to a knowledge of a Government’s method of “asking” about such matters! Kirkland’s mangled flesh would have fed the worms before the ink on the last “minute” from deliberating Authority was dry.

Burgess, however, touched with selfish regrets, determined to baulk the parson at the outset. He would send down an official “return” of the unfortunate occurrence by the same vessel that carried his enemy, and thus get the ear of the Office. Meekin, walking on the evening of the flogging past the wooden shed where the body lay, saw Troke bearing buckets filled with dark-coloured water, and heard a great splashing and sluicing going on inside the hut. “What is the matter?” he asked.

“Doctor’s bin post-morticing the prisoner what was flogged this morning, sir,” said Troke, “and we’re cleanin’ up.”

Meekin sickened, and walked on. He had heard that unhappy Kirkland possessed unknown disease of the heart, and had unhappily died before receiving his allotted punishment. His duty was to comfort Kirkland’s soul; he had nothing to do with Kirkland’s slovenly unhandsome body, and so he went for a walk on the pier, that the breeze might blow his momentary sickness away from him. On the pier he saw North talking to Father Flaherty, the Roman Catholic chaplain. Meekin had been taught to look upon a priest as a shepherd might look upon a wolf, and passed with a distant bow. The pair were apparently talking on the occurrence of the morning, for he heard Father Flaherty say, with a shrug of his round shoulders, “He woas not one of moi people, Mr. North, and the Govermint would not suffer me to interfere with matters relating to Prhotestint prisoners.” “The wretched creature was a Protestant,” thought Meekin. “At least then his immortal soul was not endangered by belief in the damnable heresies of the Church of Rome.” So he passed on, giving good-humoured Denis Flaherty, the son of the butter-merchant of Kildrum, a wide berth and sea-room, lest he should pounce down upon him unawares, and with Jesuitical argument and silken softness of speech, convert him by force to his own state of error — as was the well-known custom of those intellectual gladiators, the Priests of the Catholic Faith. North, on his side, left Flaherty with regret. He had spent many a pleasant hour with him, and knew him for a narrow-minded, conscientious, yet laughter-loving creature, whose God was neither his belly nor his breviary, but sometimes in one place and sometimes in the other, according to the hour of the day, and the fasts appointed for due mortification of the flesh. “A man who would do Christian work in a jog-trot parish, or where men lived too easily to sin harshly, but utterly unfit to cope with Satan, as the British Government had transported him,” was North’s sadly satirical reflection upon Father Flaherty, as Port Arthur faded into indistinct beauty behind the swift-sailing schooner. “God help those poor villains, for neither parson nor priest can.”

He was right. North, the drunkard and self-tormented, had a power for good, of which Meekin and the other knew nothing. Not merely were the men incompetent and self-indulgent, but they understood nothing of that frightful capacity for agony which is deep in the soul of every evil-doer. They might strike the rock as they chose with sharpest-pointed machine-made pick of warranted Gospel manufacture, stamped with the approval of eminent divines of all ages, but the water of repentance and remorse would not gush for them. They possessed not the frail rod which alone was powerful to charm. They had no sympathy, no knowledge, no experience. He who would touch the hearts of men must have had his own heart seared. The missionaries of mankind have ever been great sinners before they earned the divine right to heal and bless. Their weakness was made their strength, and out of their own agony of repentance came the knowledge which made them masters and saviours of their kind. It was the agony of the Garden and the Cross that gave to the world’s Preacher His kingdom in the hearts of men. The crown of divinity is a crown of thorns.

North, on his arrival, went straight to the house of Major Vickers. “I have a complaint to make, sir,” he said. “I wish to lodge it formally with you. A prisoner has been flogged to death at Port Arthur. I saw it done.”

Vickers bent his brow. “A serious accusation, Mr. North. I must, of course, receive it with respect, coming from you, but I trust that you have fully considered the circumstances of the case. I always understood Captain Burgess was a most humane man.”

North shook his head. He would not accuse Burgess. He would let the events speak for themselves. “I only ask for an inquiry,” said he.

“Yes, my dear sir, I know. Very proper indeed on your part, if you think any injustice has been done; but have you considered the expense, the delay, the immense trouble and dissatisfaction all this will give?”

“No trouble, no expense, no dissatisfaction, should stand in the way of humanity and justice,” cried North.

“Of course not. But will justice be done? Are you sure you can prove your case? Mind, I admit nothing against Captain Burgess, whom I have always considered a most worthy and zealous officer; but, supposing your charge to be true, can you prove it?”

“Yes. If the witnesses speak the truth.”

“Who are they?” “Myself, Dr. Macklewain, the constable, and two prisoners, one of whom was flogged himself. He will speak the truth, I believe. The other man I have not much faith in.”

“Very well; then there is only a prisoner and Dr. Macklewain; for if there has been foul play the convict-constable will not accuse the authorities. Moreover, the doctor does not agree with you.”

“No?” cried North, amazed.

“No. You see, then, my dear sir, how necessary it is not to be hasty in matters of this kind. I really think — pardon me for my plainness — that your goodness of heart has misled you. Captain Burgess sends a report of the case. He says the man was sentenced to a hundred lashes for gross insolence and disobedience of orders, that the doctor was present during the punishment, and that the man was thrown off by his directions after he had received fifty-six lashes. That, after a short interval, he was found to be dead, and that the doctor made a post-mortem examination and found disease of the heart.”

North started. “A post-mortem? I never knew there had been one held.”

“Here is the medical certificate,” said Vickers, holding it out, “accompanied by the copies of the evidence of the constable and a letter from the Commandant.”

Poor North took the papers and read them slowly. They were apparently straightforward enough. Aneurism of the ascending aorta was given as the cause of death; and the doctor frankly admitted that had he known the deceased to be suffering from that complaint he would not have permitted him to receive more than twenty-five lashes. “I think Macklewain is an honest man,” said North, doubtfully. “He would not dare to return a false certificate. Yet the circumstances of the case — the horrible condition of the prisoners — the frightful story of that boy —”

“I cannot enter into these questions, Mr. North. My position here is to administer the law to the best of my ability, not to question it.”

North bowed his head to the reproof. In some sort of justly unjust way, he felt that he deserved it. “I can say no more, sir. I am afraid I am helpless in this matter — as I have been in others. I see that the evidence is against me; but it is my duty to carry my efforts as far as I can, and I will do so.” Vickers bowed stiffly and wished him good morning. Authority, however well-meaning in private life, has in its official capacity a natural dislike to those dissatisfied persons who persist in pushing inquiries to extremities.

North, going out with saddened spirits, met in the passage a beautiful young girl. It was Sylvia, coming to visit her father. He lifted his hat and looked after her. He guessed that she was the daughter of the man he had left — the wife of the Captain Frere concerning whom he had heard so much. North was a man whose morbidly excited brain was prone to strange fancies; and it seemed to him that beneath the clear blue eyes that flashed upon him for a moment, lay a hint of future sadness, in which, in some strange way, he himself was to bear part. He stared after her figure until it disappeared; and long after the dainty presence of the young bride — trimly booted, tight-waisted, and neatly-gloved — had faded, with all its sunshine of gaiety and health, from out of his mental vision, he still saw those blue eyes and that cloud of golden hair.

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