For the Term of His Natural Life, by Marcus Clarke

Chapter XVIII.

In the Hospital.

The hospital of Port Arthur was not a cheerful place, but to the tortured and unnerved Rufus Dawes it seemed a paradise. There at least — despite the roughness and contempt with which his gaolers ministered to him — he felt that he was considered. There at least he was free from the enforced companionship of the men whom he loathed, and to whose level he felt, with mental agony unspeakable, that he was daily sinking. Throughout his long term of degradation he had, as yet, aided by the memory of his sacrifice and his love, preserved something of his self-respect, but he felt that he could not preserve it long. Little by little he had come to regard himself as one out of the pale of love and mercy, as one tormented of fortune, plunged into a deep into which the eye of Heaven did not penetrate. Since his capture in the garden of Hobart Town, he had given loose rein to his rage and his despair. “I am forgotten or despised; I have no name in the world; what matter if I become like one of these?” It was under the influence of this feeling that he had picked up the cat at the command of Captain Burgess. As the unhappy Kirkland had said, “As well you as another”; and truly, what was he that he should cherish sentiments of honour or humanity? But he had miscalculated his own capacity for evil. As he flogged, he blushed; and when he flung down the cat and stripped his own back for punishment, he felt a fierce joy in the thought that his baseness would be atoned for in his own blood. Even when, unnerved and faint from the hideous ordeal, he flung himself upon his knees in the cell, he regretted only the impotent ravings that the torture had forced from him. He could have bitten out his tongue for his blasphemous utterings — not because they were blasphemous, but because their utterance, by revealing his agony, gave their triumph to his tormentors. When North found him, he was in the very depth of this abasement, and he repulsed his comforter — not so much because he had seen him flogged, as because he had heard him cry. The self-reliance and force of will which had hitherto sustained him through his self-imposed trial had failed him — he felt — at the moment when he needed it most; and the man who had with unflinched front faced the gallows, the desert, and the sea, confessed his debased humanity beneath the physical torture of the lash. He had been flogged before, and had wept in secret at his degradation, but he now for the first time comprehended how terrible that degradation might be made, for he realized how the agony of the wretched body can force the soul to quit its last poor refuge of assumed indifference, and confess itself conquered.

Not many months before, one of the companions of the chain, suffering under Burgess’s tender mercies, had killed his mate when at work with him, and, carrying the body on his back to the nearest gang, had surrendered himself — going to his death thanking God he had at last found a way of escape from his miseries, which no one would envy him — save his comrades. The heart of Dawes had been filled with horror at a deed so bloody, and he had, with others, commented on the cowardice of the man that would thus shirk the responsibility of that state of life in which it had pleased man and the devil to place him. Now he understood how and why the crime had been committed, and felt only pity. Lying awake with back that burned beneath its lotioned rags, when lights were low, in the breathful silence of the hospital, he registered in his heart a terrible oath that he would die ere he would again be made such hideous sport for his enemies. In this frame of mind, with such shreds of honour and worth as had formerly clung to him blown away in the whirlwind of his passion, he bethought him of the strange man who had deigned to clasp his hand and call him “brother”. He had wept no unmanly tears at this sudden flow of tenderness in one whom he had thought as callous as the rest. He had been touched with wondrous sympathy at the confession of weakness made to him, in a moment when his own weakness had overcome him to his shame. Soothed by the brief rest that his fortnight of hospital seclusion had afforded him, he had begun, in a languid and speculative way, to turn his thoughts to religion. He had read of martyrs who had borne agonies unspeakable, upheld by their confidence in Heaven and God. In his old wild youth he had scoffed at prayers and priests; in the hate to his kind that had grown upon him with his later years he had despised a creed that told men to love one another. “God is love, my brethren,” said the chaplain on Sundays, and all the week the thongs of the overseer cracked, and the cat hissed and swung. Of what practical value was a piety that preached but did not practise? It was admirable for the “religious instructor” to tell a prisoner that he must not give way to evil passions, but must bear his punishment with meekness. It was only right that he should advise him to “put his trust in God”. But as a hardened prisoner, convicted of getting drunk in an unlicensed house of entertainment, had said, “God’s terrible far from Port Arthur.”

Rufus Dawes had smiled at the spectacle of priests admonishing men, who knew what he knew and had seen what he had seen, for the trivialities of lying and stealing. He had believed all priests impostors or fools, all religion a mockery and a lie. But now, finding how utterly his own strength had failed him when tried by the rude test of physical pain, he began to think that this Religion which was talked of so largely was not a mere bundle of legend and formulae, but must have in it something vital and sustaining. Broken in spirit and weakened in body, with faith in his own will shaken, he longed for something to lean upon, and turned — as all men turn when in such case — to the Unknown. Had now there been at hand some Christian priest, some Christian-spirited man even, no matter of what faith, to pour into the ears of this poor wretch words of comfort and grace; to rend away from him the garment of sullenness and despair in which he had wrapped himself; to drag from him a confession of his unworthiness, his obstinacy, and his hasty judgment, and to cheer his fainting soul with promise of immortality and justice, he might have been saved from his after fate; but there was no such man. He asked for the chaplain. North was fighting the Convict Department, seeking vengeance for Kirkland, and (victim of “clerks with the cold spurt of the pen”) was pushed hither and thither, referred here, snubbed there, bowed out in another place. Rufus Dawes, half ashamed of himself for his request, waited a long morning, and then saw, respectfully ushered into his cell as his soul’s physician — Meekin.

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