For the Term of His Natural Life, by Marcus Clarke

Book IV. — Norfolk Island. 1846.

Chapter I.

Extracted from the Diary of the Rev. James North.

Bathurst, February 11th, 1846.

In turning over the pages of my journal, to note the good fortune that has just happened to me, I am struck by the utter desolation of my life for the last seven years.

Can it be possible that I, James North, the college-hero, the poet, the prizeman, the Heaven knows what else, have been content to live on at this dreary spot — an animal, eating and drinking, for tomorrow I die? Yet it has been so. My world, that world of which I once dreamt so much, has been — here. My fame — which was to reach the ends of the earth — has penetrated to the neighbouring stations. I am considered a “good preacher” by my sheep-feeding friends. It is kind of them.

Yet, on the eve of leaving it, I confess that this solitary life has not been without its charms. I have had my books and my thoughts — though at times the latter were but grim companions. I have striven with my familiar sin, and have not always been worsted. Melancholy reflection. “Not always!” “But yet” is as a gaoler to bring forth some monstrous malefactor. I vowed, however, that I would not cheat myself in this diary of mine, and I will not. No evasions, no glossings over of my own sins. This journal is my confessor, and I bare my heart to it.

It is curious the pleasure I feel in setting down here in black and white these agonies and secret cravings of which I dare not speak. It is for the same reason, I suppose, that murderers make confession to dogs and cats, that people with something “on their mind” are given to thinking aloud, that the queen of Midas must needs whisper to the sedges the secret of her husband’s infirmity. Outwardly I am a man of God, pious and grave and softly spoken. Inwardly — what? The mean, cowardly, weak sinner that this book knows me . . . Imp! I could tear you in pieces! . . . One of these days I will. In the meantime, I will keep you under lock and key, and you shall hug my secrets close. No, old friend, with whom I have communed so long, forgive me, forgive me. You are to me instead of wife or priest. I tell to your cold blue pages — how much was it I bought you for in Parramatta, rascal? — these stories, longings, remorses, which I would fain tell to human ear could I find a human being as discreet as thou. It has been said that a man dare not write all his thoughts and deeds; the words would blister the paper. Yet your sheets are smooth enough, you fat rogue! Our neighbours of Rome know human nature. A man must confess. One reads of wretches who have carried secrets in their bosoms for years, and blurted them forth at last. I, shut up here without companionship, without sympathy, without letters, cannot lock up my soul, and feed on my own thoughts. They will out, and so I whisper them to thee.

What art thou, thou tremendous power

Who dost inhabit us without our leave,

And art, within ourselves, another self,

A master self that loves to domineer?

What? Conscience? That is a word to frighten children. The conscience of each man is of his own making. My friend the shark-toothed cannibal whom Staples brought in his whaler to Sydney would have found his conscience reproach him sorely did he refuse to partake of the feasts made sacred by the customs of his ancestors A spark of divinity? The divinity that, according to received doctrine; sits apart, enthroned amid sweet music, and leaves poor humanity to earn its condemnation as it may? I’ll have none of that — though I preach it. One must soothe the vulgar senses of the people Priesthood has its “pious frauds”. The Master spoke in parables. Wit? The wit that sees how ill-balanced are our actions and our aspirations? The devilish wit born of our own brain, that sneers at us for our own failings? Perhaps madness? More likely, for there are few men who are not mad one hour of the waking twelve. If differing from the judgment of the majority of mankind in regard to familiar things be madness, I suppose I am mad — or too wise. The speculation draws near to hair-splitting. James North, recall your early recklessness, your ruin, and your redemption; bring your mind back to earth. Circumstances have made you what you are, and will shape your destiny for you without your interference. That’s comfortably settled!

Now supposing — to take another canter on my night-mare — that man is the slave of circumstances (a doctrine which I am inclined to believe, though unwilling to confess); what circumstance can have brought about the sudden awakening of the powers that be to James North’s fitness for duty?

HOBART TOWN, Jan. 12th.

“DEAR NORTH — I have much pleasure in informing you that you can be appointed Protestant chaplain at Norfolk Island, if you like. It seems that they did not get on well with the last man, and when my advic was asked, I at once recommended you for the office. The pay is small, but you have a house and so on. It is certainly better than Bathurst, and indeed is considered rather a prize in the clerical lottery.

“There is to be an investigation into affairs down there. Poor old Pratt — who went down, as you know, at the earnest solicitation of the Government — seems to have become absurdly lenient with the prisoners, and it is reported that the island is in a frightful state. Sir Eardley is looking out for some disciplinarian to take the place in hand.

“In the meantime, the chaplaincy is vacant, and I thought of you.”

I must consider this seeming good fortune further.

February 19th. — I accept. There is work to be done among those unhappy men that may be my purgation. The authorities shall hear me yet — though inquiry was stifled at Port Arthur. By the way, a Pharaoh had arisen who knows not Joseph. It is evident that the meddlesome parson, who complained of men being flogged to death, is forgotten, as the men are! How many ghosts must haunt the dismal loneliness of that prison shore! Poor Burgess is gone the way of all flesh. I wonder if his spirit revisits the scenes of its violences? I have written “poor” Burgess.

It is strange how we pity a man gone out of this life. Enmity is extinguished when one can but remember injuries. If a man had injured me, the fact of his living at all would be sufficient grounds for me to hate him; if I had injured him, I should hate him still more. Is that the reason I hate myself at times — my greatest enemy, and one whom I have injured beyond forgiveness? There are offences against one’s own nature that are not to be forgiven. Isn’t it Tacitus who says “the hatred of those most nearly related is most inveterate”? But — I am taking flight again.

February 27th, 11.30 p.m. — Nine Creeks Station. I do like to be accurate in names, dates, etc. Accuracy is a virtue. To exercise it, then. Station ninety miles from Bathurst. I should say about 4,000 head of cattle. Luxury without refinement. Plenty to eat, drink, and read. Hostess’s name — Carr. She is a well-preserved creature, about thirty-four years of age, and a clever woman — not in a poetical sense, but in the widest worldly acceptation of the term. At the same time, I should be sorry to be her husband. Women have no business with a brain like hers — that is, if they wish to be women and not sexual monsters. Mrs. Carr is not a lady, though she might have been one. I don’t think she is a good woman either. It is possible, indeed, that she has known the factory before now. There is a mystery about her, for I was informed that she was a Mrs. Purfoy, the widow of a whaling captain, and had married one of her assigned servants, who had deserted her five years ago, as soon as he obtained his freedom. A word or two at dinner set me thinking. She had received some English papers, and, accounting for her pre-occupied manner, grimly said, “I think I have news of my husband.” I should not like to be in Carr’s shoes if she has news of him! I don’t think she would suffer indignity calmly. After all, what business is it of mine? I was beguiled into taking more wine at dinner than I needed. Confessor, do you hear me? But I will not allow myself to be carried away. You grin, you fat Familiar! So may I, but I shall be eaten with remorse tomorrow.

March 3rd. — A place called Jerrilang, where I have a head and heartache. “One that hath let go himself from the hold and stay of reason, and lies open to the mercy of all temptations.”

March 20th. — Sydney. At Captain Frere’s . — Seventeen days since I have opened you, beloved and detested companion of mine. I have more than half a mind to never open you again! To read you is to recall to myself all I would most willingly forget; yet not to read you would be to forget all that which I should for my sins remember.

The last week has made a new man of me. I am no longer morose, despairing, and bitter, but genial, and on good terms with fortune. It is strange that accident should have induced me to stay a week under the same roof with that vision of brightness which has haunted me so long. A meeting in the street, an introduction, an invitation — the thing is done.

The circumstances which form our fortunes are certainly curious things. I had thought never again to meet the bright young face to which I felt so strange an attraction — and lo! here it is smiling on me daily. Captain Frere should be a happy man. Yet there is a skeleton in this house also. That young wife, by nature so lovable and so mirthful, ought not to have the sadness on her face that twice to-day has clouded it. He seems a passionate and boorish creature, this wonderful convict disciplinarian. His convicts — poor devils — are doubtless disciplined enough. Charming little Sylvia, with your quaint wit and weird beauty, he is not good enough for you — and yet it was a love match.

March 21st. — I have read family prayers every night since I have been here — my black coat and white tie gave me the natural pre-eminence in such matters — and I feel guilty every time I read. I wonder what the little lady of the devotional eyes would say if she knew that I am a miserable hypocrite, preaching that which I do not practise, exhorting others to believe those marvels which I do not believe? I am a coward not to throw off the saintly mask, and appear as a Freethinker. Yet, am I a coward? I urge upon myself that it is for the glory of God I hold my peace. The scandal of a priest turned infidel would do more harm than the reign of reason would do good. Imagine this trustful woman for instance — she would suffer anguish at the thoughts of such a sin, though another were the sinner. “If anyone offend one of these little ones it were better for him that a millstone be hanged about his neck and that he be cast into the sea.” Yet truth is truth, and should be spoken — should it not, malignant monitor, who remindest me how often I fail to speak it? Surely among all his army of black-coats our worthy Bishop must have some men like me, who cannot bring their reason to believe in things contrary to the experience of mankind and the laws of nature.

March 22nd. — This unromantic Captain Frere had had some romantic incidents in his life, and he is fond of dilating upon them. It seems that in early life he expected to have been left a large fortune by an uncle who had quarrelled with his heir. But the uncle dies on the day fixed for the altering of the will, the son disappears, and is thought to be drowned. The widow, however, steadfastly refuses to believe in any report of the young man’s death, and having a life-interest in the property, holds it against all comers. My poor host in consequence comes out here on his pay, and, three years ago, just as he is hoping that the death of his aunt may give him opportunity to enforce a claim as next of kin to some portion of the property, the long-lost son returns, is recognized by his mother and the trustees, and installed in due heirship! The other romantic story is connected with Frere’s marriage. He told me after dinner to-night how his wife had been wrecked when a child, and how he had saved her life, and defended her from the rude hands of an escaped convict — one of the monsters our monstrous system breeds. “That was how we fell in love,” said he, tossing off his wine complacently.

“An auspicious opportunity,” said I. To which he nodded. He is not overburdened with brains, I fancy. Let me see if I can set down some account of this lovely place and its people.

A long low white house, surrounded by a blooming garden. Wide windows opening on a lawn. The ever glorious, ever changing sea beneath. It is evening. I am talking with Mrs. Frere, of theories of social reform, of picture galleries, of sunsets, and new books. There comes a sound of wheels on the gravel. It is the magistrate returned from his convict-discipline. We hear him come briskly up the steps, but we go on talking. (I fancy there was a time when the lady would have run to meet him.) He enters, coldly kisses his wife, and disturbs at once the current of our thoughts. “It has been hot to-day. What, still no letter from head-quarters, Mr. North! I saw Mrs. Golightly in town, Sylvia, and she asked for you. There is to be a ball at Government House. We must go.” Then he departs, and is heard in the distance indistinctly cursing because the water is not hot enough, or because Dawkins, his convict servant, has not brushed his trousers sufficiently. We resume our chat, but he returns all hungry, and bluff, and whisker-brushed. “Dinner. Ha-ha! I’m ready for it. North, take Mrs. Frere.” By and by it is, “North, some sherry? Sylvia, the soup is spoilt again. Did you go out to-day? No?” His eyebrows contract here, and I know he says inwardly, “Reading some trashy novel, I suppose.” However, he grins, and obligingly relates how the police have captured Cockatoo Bill, the noted bushranger.

After dinner the disciplinarian and I converse — of dogs and horses, gamecocks, convicts, and moving accidents by flood and field. I remember old college feats, and strive to keep pace with him in the relation of athletics. What hypocrites we are! — for all the time I am longing to get to the drawing-room, and finish my criticism of the new poet, Mr. Tennyson, to Mrs. Frere. Frere does not read Tennyson — nor anybody else. Adjourned to the drawing-room, we chat — Mrs. Frere and I— until supper. (He eats supper.) She is a charming companion, and when I talk my best — I can talk, you must admit, O Familiar — her face lightens up with an interest I rarely see upon it at other times. I feel cooled and soothed by this companionship. The quiet refinement of this house, after bullocks and Bathurst, is like the shadow of a great rock in a weary land.

Mrs. Frere is about five-and-twenty. She is rather beneath the middle height, with a slight, girlish figure. This girlish appearance is enhanced by the fact that she has bright fair hair and blue eyes. Upon conversation with her, however, one sees that her face has lost much of the delicate plumpness which it probably owned in youth. She has had one child, born only to die. Her cheeks are thin, and her eyes have a tinge of sadness, which speak of physical pain or mental grief. This thinness of face makes the eyes appear larger and the brow broader than they really are. Her hands are white and painfully thin. They must have been plump and pretty once. Her lips are red with perpetual fever.

Captain Frere seems to have absorbed all his wife’s vitality. (Who quotes the story of Lucius Claudius Hermippus, who lived to a great age by being constantly breathed on by young girls? I suppose Burton — who quotes everything.) In proportion as she has lost her vigour and youth, he has gained strength and heartiness. Though he is at least forty years of age, he does not look more than thirty. His face is ruddy, his eyes bright, his voice firm and ringing. He must be a man of considerable strength and — I should say — of more than ordinary animal courage and animal appetite. There is not a nerve in his body which does not twang like a piano wire. In appearance, he is tall, broad, and bluff, with red whiskers and reddish hair slightly touched with grey. His manner is loud, coarse, and imperious; his talk of dogs, horses, and convicts. What a strangely-mated pair!

March 30th. — A letter from Van Diemen’s Land. “There is a row in the pantry,” said Frere, with his accustomed slang. It seems that the Comptroller–General of Convicts has appointed a Mr. Pounce to go down and make a report on the state of Norfolk Island. I am to go down with him, and shall receive instructions to that effect from the Comptroller–General. I have informed Frere of this, and he has written to Pounce to come and stay on his way down. There has been nothing but convict discipline talked since. Frere is great upon this point, and wearies me with his explanations of convict tricks and wickedness. He is celebrated for his knowledge of such matters. Detestable wisdom! His servants hate him, but they obey him without a murmur. I have observed that habitual criminals — like all savage beasts — cower before the man who has once mastered them. I should not be surprised if the Van Diemen’s Land Government selected Frere as their “disciplinarian”. I hope they won’t and yet I hope they will.

April 4th. — Nothing worth recording until to-day. Eating, drinking, and sleeping. Despite my forty-seven years, I begin to feel almost like the James North who fought the bargee and took the gold medal. What a drink water is! The fons Bandusiae splendidior vitreo was better than all the Massic, Master Horace! I doubt if your celebrated liquor, bottled when Manlius was consul, could compare with it.

But to my notable facts. I have found out to-night two things which surprise me. One is that the convict who attempted the life of Mrs. Frere is none other than the unhappy man whom my fatal weakness caused to be flogged at Port Arthur, and whose face comes before me to reproach me even now. The other that Mrs. Carr is an old acquaintance of Frere’s . The latter piece of information I obtained in a curious way. One night, while Mrs. Frere was not there, we were talking of clever women. I broached my theory, that strong intellect in women went far to destroy their womanly nature.

“Desire in man,” said I, “should be Volition in women: Reason, Intuition; Reverence, Devotion; Passion, Love. The woman should strike a lower key-note, but a sharper sound. Man has vigour of reason, woman quickness of feeling. The woman who possesses masculine force of intellect is abnormal.” He did not half comprehend me, I could see, but he agreed with the broad view of the case. “I only knew one woman who was really ‘strong-minded’, as they call it,” he said, “and she was a regular bad one.”

“It does not follow that she should be bad,” said I.

“This one was, though — stock, lock, and barrel. But as sharp as a needle, sir, and as immovable as a rock. A fine woman, too.” I saw by the expression of the man’s face that he owned ugly memories, and pressed him further. “She’s up country somewhere,” he said. “Married her assigned servant, I was told, a fellow named Carr. I haven’t seen her for years, and don’t know what she may be like now, but in the days when I knew her she was just what you describe.” (Let it be noted that I had described nothing.) “She came out in the ship with me as maid to my wife’s mother.”

It was on the tip of my tongue to say that I had met her, but I don’t know what induced me to be silent. There are passages in the lives of men of Captain Frere’s complexion, which don’t bear descanting on. I expect there have been in this case, for he changed the subject abruptly, as his wife came in. Is it possible that these two creatures — the notable disciplinarian and the wife of the assigned servant — could have been more than friends in youth? Quite possible. He is the sort of man for gross amours. (A pretty way I am abusing my host!) And the supple woman with the dark eyes would have been just the creature to enthral him. Perhaps some such story as this may account in part for Mrs. Frere’s sad looks. Why do I speculate on such things? I seem to do violence to myself and to insult her by writing such suspicions. If I was a Flagellant now, I would don hairshirt and up flail. “For this sort cometh not out but by prayer and fasting.”

April 7th. — Mr. Pounce has arrived — full of the importance of his mission. He walks with the air of a minister of state on the eve of a vacant garter, hoping, wondering, fearing, and dignified even in his dubitancy. I am as flippant as a school-girl concerning this fatuous official, and yet — Heaven knows — I feel deeply enough the importance of the task he has before him. One relieves one’s brain by these whirlings of one’s mental limbs. I remember that a prisoner at Hobart Town, twice condemned and twice reprieved, jumped and shouted with frenzied vehemence when he heard his sentence of death was finally pronounced. He told me, if he had not so shouted, he believed he would have gone mad.

April 10th. — We had a state dinner last night. The conversation was about nothing in the world but convicts. I never saw Mrs. Frere to less advantage. Silent, distraite, and sad. She told me after dinner that she disliked the very name of “convict” from early associations. “I have lived among them all my life,” she said, “but that does not make it the better for me. I have terrible fancies at times, Mr. North, that seem half-memories. I dread to be brought in contact with prisoners again. I am sure that some evil awaits me at their hands.”

I laughed, of course, but it would not do. She holds to her own opinion, and looks at me with horror in her eyes. This terror in her face is perplexing.

“You are nervous,” I said. “You want rest.”

“I am nervous,” she replied, with that candour of voice and manner I have before remarked in her, “and I have presentiments of evil.”

We sat silent for a while, and then she suddenly turned her large eyes on me, and said calmly, “Mr. North, what death shall I die?” The question was an echo of my own thoughts — I have some foolish (?) fancies as to physiognomy — and it made me start. What death, indeed? What sort of death would one meet with widely-opened eyes, parted lips, and brows bent as though to rally fast-flying courage? Not a peaceful death surely. I brought my black coat to my aid. “My dear lady, you must not think of such things. Death is but a sleep, you know. Why anticipate a nightmare?”

She sighed, slowly awaking as though from some momentary trance. Checking herself on the verge of tears, she rallied, turned the conversation, and finding an excuse for going to the piano, dashed into a waltz. This unnatural gaiety ended, I fancy, in an hysterical fit. I heard her husband afterwards recommending sal volatile. He is the sort of man who would recommend sal volatile to the Pythoness if she consulted him.

April 26th. — All has been arranged, and we start to-morrow. Mr. Pounce is in a condition of painful dignity. He seems afraid to move lest motion should thaw his official ice. Having found out that I am the “chaplain”, he has refrained from familiarity. My self-love is wounded, but my patience relieved. Query: Would not the majority of mankind rather be bored by people in authority than not noticed by them? James North declines to answer for his part. I have made my farewells to my friends, and on looking back on the pleasant hours I have spent, felt saddened. It is not likely that I shall have many such pleasant hours. I feel like a vagabond who, having been allowed to sit by a cheerful fireside for a while, is turned out into the wet and windy streets, and finds them colder than ever. What were the lines I wrote in her album?

“As some poor tavern-haunter drenched in wine

With staggering footsteps through the streets returning,

Seeing through blinding rain a beacon shine

From household lamp in happy window burning —

“Pauses an instant at the reddened pane

To gaze on that sweet scene of love and duty,

Then turns into the wild wet night again,

Lest his sad presence mar its homely beauty.”

Yes, those were the lines. With more of truth in them than she expected; and yet what business have I sentimentalizing. My socius thinks “what a puling fool this North is!”

So, that’s over! Now for Norfolk Island and my purgation.

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