For the Term of His Natural Life, by Marcus Clarke

Chapter XII.

The Strange Behaviour of Mr. North.

On or about the 8th of December, Mrs. Frere noticed a sudden and unaccountable change in the manner of the chaplain. He came to her one afternoon, and, after talking for some time, in a vague and unconnected manner, about the miseries of the prison and the wretched condition of some of the prisoners, began to question her abruptly concerning Rufus Dawes.

“I do not wish to think of him,” said she, with a shudder. “I have the strangest, the most horrible dreams about him. He is a bad man. He tried to murder me when a child, and had it not been for my husband, he would have done so. I have only seen him once since then — at Hobart Town, when he was taken.” “He sometimes speaks to me of you,” said North, eyeing her. “He asked me once to give him a rose plucked in your garden.”

Sylvia turned pale. “And you gave it him?”

“Yes, I gave it him. Why not?”

“It was valueless, of course, but still — to a convict?”

“You are not angry?”

“Oh, no! Why should I be angry?” she laughed constrainedly. “It was a strange fancy for the man to have, that’s all.”

“I suppose you would not give me another rose, if I asked you.”

“Why not?” said she, turning away uneasily. “You? You are a gentleman.”

“Not I— you don’t know me.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean that it would be better for you if you had never seen me.”

“Mr. North!” Terrified at the wild gleam in his eyes, she had risen hastily. “You are talking very strangely.”

“Oh, don’t be alarmed, madam. I am not drunk!"— he pronounced the word with a fierce energy. “I had better leave you. Indeed, I think the less we see of each other the better.”

Deeply wounded and astonished at this extraordinary outburst, Sylvia allowed him to stride away without a word. She saw him pass through the garden and slam the little gate, but she did not see the agony on his face, or the passionate gesture with which — when out of eyeshot — he lamented the voluntary abasement of himself before her. She thought over his conduct with growing fear. It was not possible that he was intoxicated — such a vice was the last one of which she could have believed him guilty. It was more probable that some effects of the fever, which had recently confined him to his house, yet lingered. So she thought; and, thinking, was alarmed to realize of how much importance the well-being of this man was to her.

The next day he met her, and, bowing, passed swiftly. This pained her. Could she have offended him by some unlucky word? She made Maurice ask him to dinner, and, to her astonishment, he pleaded illness as an excuse for not coming. Her pride was hurt, and she sent him back his books and music. A curiosity that was unworthy of her compelled her to ask the servant who carried the parcel what the clergyman had said. “He said nothing — only laughed.” Laughed! In scorn of her foolishness! His conduct was ungentlemanly and intemperate. She would forget, as speedily as possible, that such a being had ever existed. This resolution taken, she was unusually patient with her husband.

So a week passed, and Mr. North did not return. Unluckily for the poor wretch, the very self-sacrifice he had made brought about the precise condition of things which he was desirous to avoid. It is possible that, had the acquaintance between them continued on the same staid footing, it would have followed the lot of most acquaintanceships of the kind — other circumstances and other scenes might have wiped out the memory of all but common civilities between them, and Sylvia might never have discovered that she had for the chaplain any other feeling but that of esteem. But the very fact of the sudden wrenching away of her soul-companion, showed her how barren was the solitary life to which she had been fated. Her husband, she had long ago admitted, with bitter self-communings, was utterly unsuited to her. She could find in his society no enjoyment, and for the sympathy which she needed was compelled to turn elsewhere. She understood that his love for her had burnt itself out — she confessed, with intensity of self-degradation, that his apparent affection had been born of sensuality, and had perished in the fires it had itself kindled. Many women have, unhappily, made some such discovery as this, but for most women there is some distracting occupation. Had it been Sylvia’s fate to live in the midst of fashion and society, she would have found relief in the conversation of the witty, or the homage of the distinguished. Had fortune cast her lot in a city, Mrs. Frere might have become one of those charming women who collect around their supper-tables whatever of male intellect is obtainable, and who find the husband admirably useful to open his own champagne bottles. The celebrated women who have stepped out of their domestic circles to enchant or astonish the world, have almost invariably been cursed with unhappy homes. But poor Sylvia was not destined to this fortune. Cast back upon herself, she found no surcease of pain in her own imaginings, and meeting with a man sufficiently her elder to encourage her to talk, and sufficiently clever to induce her to seek his society and his advice, she learnt, for the first time, to forget her own griefs; for the first time she suffered her nature to expand under the sun of a congenial influence. This sun, suddenly withdrawn, her soul, grown accustomed to the warmth and light, shivered at the gloom, and she looked about her in dismay at the dull and barren prospect of life which lay before her. In a word, she found that the society of North had become so far necessary to her that to be deprived of it was a grief — notwithstanding that her husband remained to console her.

After a week of such reflections, the barrenness of life grew insupportable to her, and one day she came to Maurice and begged to be sent back to Hobart Town. “I cannot live in this horrible island,” she said. “I am getting ill. Let me go to my father for a few months, Maurice.” Maurice consented. His wife was looking ill, and Major Vickers was an old man — a rich old man — who loved his only daughter. It was not undesirable that Mrs. Frere should visit her father; indeed, so little sympathy was there between the pair that, the first astonishment over, Maurice felt rather glad to get rid of her for a while. “You can go back in the Lady Franklin if you like, my dear,” he said. “I expect her every day.” At this decision — much to his surprise — she kissed him with more show of affection than she had manifested since the death of her child.

The news of the approaching departure became known, but still North did not make his appearance. Had it not been a step beneath the dignity of a woman, Mrs. Frere would have gone herself and asked him the meaning of his unaccountable rudeness, but there was just sufficient morbidity in the sympathy she had for him to restrain her from an act which a young girl — though not more innocent– would have dared without hesitation. Calling one day upon the wife of the surgeon, however, she met the chaplain face to face, and with the consummate art of acting which most women possess, rallied him upon his absence from her house. The behaviour of the poor devil, thus stabbed to the heart, was curious. He forgot gentlemanly behaviour and the respect due to a woman, flung one despairingly angry glance at her and abruptly retired. Sylvia flushed crimson, and endeavoured to excuse North on account of his recent illness. The surgeon’s wife looked askance, and turned the conversation. The next time Sylvia bowed to this lady, she got a chilling salute in return that made her blood boil. “I wonder how I have offended Mrs. Field?” she asked Maurice. “She almost cut me to-day.” “Oh, the old cat!” returned Maurice. “What does it matter if she did?” However, a few days afterwards, it seemed that it did matter, for Maurice called upon Field and conversed seriously with him. The issue of the conversation being reported to Mrs. Frere, the lady wept indignant tears of wounded pride and shame. It appeared that North had watched her out of the house, returned, and related — in a “stumbling, hesitating way”, Mrs. Field said — how he disliked Mrs. Frere, how he did not want to visit her, and how flighty and reprehensible such conduct was in a married woman of her rank and station. This act of baseness — or profound nobleness — achieved its purpose. Sylvia noticed the unhappy priest no more. Between the Commandant and the chaplain now arose a coolness, and Frere set himself, by various petty tyrannies, to disgust North, and compel him to a resignation of his office. The convict-gaolers speedily marked the difference in the treatment of the chaplain, and their demeanour changed. For respect was substituted insolence; for alacrity, sullenness; for prompt obedience, impertinent intrusion. The men whom North favoured were selected as special subjects for harshness, and for a prisoner to be seen talking to the clergyman was sufficient to ensure for him a series of tyrannies. The result of this was that North saw the souls he laboured to save slipping back into the gulf; beheld the men he had half won to love him meet him with averted faces; discovered that to show interest in a prisoner was to injure him, not to serve him. The unhappy man grew thinner and paler under this ingenious torment. He had deprived himself of that love which, guilty though it might be, was, nevertheless, the only true love he had known; and he found that, having won this victory, he had gained the hatred of all living creatures with whom he came in contact. The authority of the Commandant was so supreme that men lived but by the breath of his nostrils. To offend him was to perish and the man whom the Commandant hated must be hated also by all those who wished to exist in peace. There was but one being who was not to be turned from his allegiance — the convict murderer, Rufus Dawes, who awaited death. For many days he had remained mute, broken down beneath his weight of sorrow or of sullenness; but North, bereft of other love and sympathy, strove with that fighting soul, if haply he might win it back to peace. It seemed to the fancy of the priest — a fancy distempered, perhaps, by excess, or superhumanly exalted by mental agony — that this convict, over whom he had wept, was given to him as a hostage for his own salvation. “I must save him or perish,” he said. “I must save him, though I redeem him with my own blood.”

Frere, unable to comprehend the reason of the calmness with which the doomed felon met his taunts and torments, thought that he was shamming piety to gain some indulgence of meat and drink, and redoubled his severity. He ordered Dawes to be taken out to work just before the hour at which the chaplain was accustomed to visit him. He pretended that the man was “dangerous”, and directed a gaoler to be present at all interviews, “lest the chaplain might be murdered”. He issued an order that all civil officers should obey the challenges of convicts acting as watchmen; and North, coming to pray with his penitent, would be stopped ten times by grinning felons, who, putting their faces within a foot of his, would roar out, “Who goes there?” and burst out laughing at the reply. Under pretence of watching more carefully over the property of the chaplain, he directed that any convict, acting as constable, might at any time “search everywhere and anywhere” for property supposed to be in the possession of a prisoner. The chaplain’s servant was a prisoner, of course; and North’s drawers were ransacked twice in one week by Troke. North met these impertinences with unruffled brow, and Frere could in no way account for his obstinacy, until the arrival of the Lady Franklin explained the chaplain’s apparent coolness. He had sent in his resignation two months before, and the saintly Meekin had been appointed in his stead. Frere, unable to attack the clergyman, and indignant at the manner in which he had been defeated, revenged himself upon Rufus Dawes.

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