For the Term of His Natural Life, by Marcus Clarke

Chapter XVII.

Captain and Mrs. Frere.

Sylvia had become the wife of Maurice Frere. The wedding created excitement in the convict settlement, for Maurice Frere, though oppressed by the secret shame at open matrimony which affects men of his character, could not in decency — seeing how “good a thing for him” was this wealthy alliance — demand unceremonious nuptials. So, after the fashion of the town — there being no “continent” or “Scotland” adjacent as a hiding place for bridal blushes — the alliance was entered into with due pomp of ball and supper; bride and bridegroom departing through the golden afternoon to the nearest of Major Vickers’s stations. Thence it had been arranged they should return after a fortnight, and take ship for Sydney.

Major Vickers, affectionate though he was to the man whom he believed to be the saviour of his child, had no notion of allowing him to live on Sylvia’s fortune. He had settled his daughter’s portion — ten thousand pounds — upon herself and children, and had informed Frere that he expected him to live upon an income of his own earning. After many consultations between the pair, it had been arranged that a civil appointment in Sydney would best suit the bridegroom, who was to sell out of the service. This notion was Frere’s own. He never cared for military duty, and had, moreover, private debts to no inconsiderable amount. By selling his commission he would be enabled at once to pay these debts, and render himself eligible for any well-paid post under the Colonial Government that the interest of his father-in-law, and his own reputation as a convict disciplinarian, might procure. Vickers would fain have kept his daughter with him, but he unselfishly acquiesced in the scheme, admitting that Frere’s plea as to the comforts she would derive from the society to be found in Sydney was a valid one.

“You can come over and see us when we get settled, papa,” said Sylvia, with a young matron’s pride of place, “and we can come and see you. Hobart Town is very pretty, but I want to see the world.”

“You should go to London, Poppet,” said Maurice, “that’s the place. Isn’t it, sir?”

“Oh, London!” cries Sylvia, clapping her hands. “And Westminster Abbey, and the Tower, and St. James’s Palace, and Hyde Park, and Fleet-street!” ‘Sir,’ said Dr. Johnson, ‘let us take a walk down Fleet-street.’ Do you remember, in Mr. Croker’s book, Maurice? No, you don’t I know, because you only looked at the pictures, and then read Pierce Egan’s account of the Topping Fight between Bob Gaynor and Ned Neal, or some such person.”

“Little girls should be seen and not heard,” said Maurice, between a laugh and a blush. “You have no business to read my books.”

“Why not?” she asked, with a gaiety which already seemed a little strained; “husband and wife should have no secrets from each other, sir. Besides, I want you to read my books. I am going to read Shelley to you.”

“Don’t, my dear,” said Maurice simply. “I can’t understand him.”

This little scene took place at the dinner-table of Frere’s cottage, in New Town, to which Major Vickers had been invited, in order that future plans might be discussed.

“I don’t want to go to Port Arthur,” said the bride, later in the evening. “Maurice, there can be no necessity to go there.”

“Well,” said Maurice. “I want to have a look at the place. I ought to be familiar with all phases of convict discipline, you know.”

“There is likely to be a report ordered upon the death of a prisoner,” said Vickers. “The chaplain, a fussy but well-meaning person, has been memorializing about it. You may as well do it as anybody else, Maurice.”

“Ay. And save the expenses of the trip,” said Maurice.

“But it is so melancholy,” cried Sylvia.

“The most delightful place in the island, my dear. I was there for a few days once, and I really was charmed.”

It was remarkable — so Vickers thought — how each of these newly-mated ones had caught something of the other’s manner of speech. Sylvia was less choice in her mode of utterance; Frere more so. He caught himself wondering which of the two methods both would finally adopt.

“But those dogs, and sharks, and things. Oh, Maurice, haven’t we had enough of convicts?”

“Enough! Why, I’m going to make my living out of ’em,” said Maurice, with his most natural manner.

Sylvia sighed.

“Play something, darling,” said her father; and so the girl, sitting down to the piano, trilled and warbled in her pure young voice, until the Port Arthur question floated itself away upon waves of melody, and was heard of no more for that time. But upon pursuing the subject, Sylvia found her husband firm. He wanted to go, and he would go. Having once assured himself that it was advantageous to him to do a certain thing, the native obstinacy of the animal urged him to do it despite all opposition from others, and Sylvia, having had her first “cry” over the question of the visit, gave up the point. This was the first difference of their short married life, and she hastened to condone it. In the sunshine of Love and Marriage — for Maurice at first really loved her; and love, curbing the worst part of him, brought to him, as it brings to all of us, that gentleness and abnegation of self which is the only token and assurance of a love aught but animal — Sylvia’s fears and doubts melted away, as the mists melt in the beams of morning. A young girl, with passionate fancy, with honest and noble aspiration, but with the dark shadow of her early mental sickness brooding upon her childlike nature, Marriage made her a woman, by developing in her a woman’s trust and pride in the man to whom she had voluntarily given herself. Yet by-and-by out of this sentiment arose a new and strange source of anxiety. Having accepted her position as a wife, and put away from her all doubts as to her own capacity for loving the man to whom she had allied herself, she began to be haunted by a dread lest he might do something which would lessen the affection she bore him. On one or two occasions she had been forced to confess that her husband was more of an egotist than she cared to think. He demanded of her no great sacrifices — had he done so she would have found, in making them, the pleasure that women of her nature always find in such self-mortification — but he now and then intruded on her that disregard for the feeling of others which was part of his character. He was fond of her — almost too passionately fond, for her staider liking — but he was unused to thwart his own will in anything, least of all in those seeming trifles, for the consideration of which true selfishness bethinks itself. Did she want to read when he wanted to walk, he good-humouredly put aside her book, with an assumption that a walk with him must, of necessity, be the most pleasing thing in the world. Did she want to walk when he wanted to rest, he laughingly set up his laziness as an all-sufficient plea for her remaining within doors. He was at no pains to conceal his weariness when she read her favourite books to him. If he felt sleepy when she sang or played, he slept without apology. If she talked about a subject in which he took no interest, he turned the conversation remorselessly. He would not have wittingly offended her, but it seemed to him natural to yawn when he was weary, to sleep when he was fatigued, and to talk only about those subjects which interested him. Had anybody told him that he was selfish, he would have been astonished. Thus it came about that Sylvia one day discovered that she led two lives — one in the body, and one in the spirit — and that with her spiritual existence her husband had no share. This discovery alarmed her, but then she smiled at it. “As if Maurice could be expected to take interest in all my silly fancies,” said she; and, despite a harassing thought that these same fancies were not foolish, but were the best and brightest portion of her, she succeeded in overcoming her uneasiness. “A man’s thoughts are different from a woman’s,” she said; “he has his business and his worldly cares, of which a woman knows nothing. I must comfort him, and not worry him with my follies.”

As for Maurice, he grew sometimes rather troubled in his mind. He could not understand his wife. Her nature was an enigma to him; her mind was a puzzle which would not be pieced together with the rectangular correctness of ordinary life. He had known her from a child, had loved her from a child, and had committed a mean and cruel crime to obtain her; but having got her, he was no nearer to the mystery of her than before. She was all his own, he thought. Her golden hair was for his fingers, her lips were for his caress, her eyes looked love upon him alone. Yet there were times when her lips were cold to his kisses, and her eyes looked disdainfully upon his coarser passion. He would catch her musing when he spoke to her, much as she would catch him sleeping when she read to him — but she awoke with a start and a blush at her forgetfulness, which he never did. He was not a man to brood over these things; and, after some reflective pipes and ineffectual rubbings of his head, he “gave it up”. How was it possible, indeed, for him to solve the mental enigma when the woman herself was to him a physical riddle? It was extraordinary that the child he had seen growing up by his side day by day should be a young woman with little secrets, now to be revealed to him for the first time. He found that she had a mole on her neck, and remembered that he had noticed it when she was a child. Then it was a thing of no moment, now it was a marvellous discovery. He was in daily wonderment at the treasure he had obtained. He marvelled at her feminine devices of dress and adornment. Her dainty garments seemed to him perfumed with the odour of sanctity.

The fact was that the patron of Sarah Purfoy had not met with many virtuous women, and had but just discovered what a dainty morsel Modesty was.

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