For the Term of His Natural Life, by Marcus Clarke

Chapter XIV.

Getting Ready for Sea.

Maurice Frere’s passion had spent itself in that last act of violence. He did not return to the prison, as he promised himself, but turned into the road that led to the Cascades. He repented him of his suspicions. There was nothing strange in the presence of the chaplain. Sylvia had always liked the man, and an apology for his conduct had doubtless removed her anger. To make a mountain out of a molehill was the act of an idiot. It was natural that she should release Dawes — women were so tender-hearted. A few well-chosen, calmly-uttered platitudes anent the necessity for the treatment that, to those unaccustomed to the desperate wickedness of convicts, must appear harsh, would have served his turn far better than bluster and abuse. Moreover, North was to sail in the Lady Franklin, and might put in execution his threats of official complaint, unless he was carefully dealt with. To put Dawes again to the torture would be to show to Troke and his friends that the “Commandant’s wife” had acted without the “Commandant’s authority”, and that must not be shown. He would now return and patch up a peace. His wife would sail in the same vessel with North, and he would in a few days be left alone on the island to pursue his “discipline” unchecked. With this intent he returned to the prison, and gravely informed poor Troke that he was astonished at his barbarity. “Mrs. Frere, who most luckily had appointed to meet me this evening at the prison, tells me that the poor devil Dawes had been on the stretcher since seven o’clock this morning.”

“You ordered it fust thing, yer honour,” said Troke.

“Yes, you fool, but I didn’t order you to keep the man there for nine hours, did I? Why, you scoundrel, you might have killed him!” Troke scratched his head in bewilderment. “Take his irons off, and put him in a separate cell in the old gaol. If a man is a murderer, that is no reason you should take the law into your own hands, is it? You’d better take care, Mr. Troke.” On the way back he met the chaplain, who, seeing him, made for a by-path in curious haste. “Halloo!” roared Frere. “Hi! Mr. North!” Mr. North paused, and the Commandant made at him abruptly. “Look here, sir, I was rude to you just now — devilish rude. Most ungentlemanly of me. I must apologize.” North bowed, without speaking, and tried to pass.

“You must excuse my violence,” Frere went on. “I’m bad-tempered, and I didn’t like my wife interfering. Women, don’t you know, don’t see these things — don’t understand these scoundrels.” North again bowed. “Why, d — n it, how savage you look! Quite ghastly, bigod! I must have said most outrageous things. Forget and forgive, you know. Come home and have some dinner.”

“I cannot enter your house again, sir,” said North, in tones more agitated than the occasion would seem to warrant.

Frere shrugged his great shoulders with a clumsy affectation of good humour, and held out his hand. “Well, shake hands, parson. You’ll have to take care of Mrs. Frere on the voyage, and we may as well make up our differences before you start. Shake hands.”

“Let me pass, sir!” cried North, with heightened colour; and ignoring the proffered hand, strode savagely on.

“You’ve a d — d fine temper for a parson,” said Frere to himself. “However, if you won’t, you won’t. Hang me if I’ll ask you again.” Nor, when he reached home, did he fare better in his efforts at reconciliation with his wife. Sylvia met him with the icy front of a woman whose pride has been wounded too deeply for tears.

“Say no more about it,” she said. “I am going to my father. If you want to explain your conduct, explain it to him.”

“Come, Sylvia,” he urged; “I was a brute, I know. Forgive me.”

“It is useless to ask me,” she said; “I cannot. I have forgiven you so much during the last seven years.”

He attempted to embrace her, but she withdrew herself loathingly from his arms. He swore a great oath at her, and, too obstinate to argue farther, sulked. Blunt, coming in about some ship matters, the pair drank rum. Sylvia went to her room and occupied herself with some minor details of clothes-packing (it is wonderful how women find relief from thoughts in household care), while North, poor fool, seeing from his window the light in hers, sat staring at it, alternately cursing and praying. In the meantime, the unconscious cause of all of this — Rufus Dawes — sat in his new cell, wondering at the chance which had procured him comfort, and blessing the fair hands that had brought it to him. He doubted not but that Sylvia had interceded with his tormentor, and by gentle pleading brought him ease. “God bless her,” he murmured. “I have wronged her all these years. She did not know that I suffered.” He waited anxiously for North to visit him, that he might have his belief confirmed. “I will get him to thank her for me,” he thought. But North did not come for two whole days. No one came but his gaolers; and, gazing from his prison window upon the sea that almost washed its walls, he saw the schooner at anchor, mocking him with a liberty he could not achieve. On the third day, however, North came. His manner was constrained and abrupt. His eyes wandered uneasily, and he seemed burdened with thoughts which he dared not utter.

“I want you to thank her for me, Mr. North,” said Dawes.

“Thank whom?”

“Mrs. Frere.”

The unhappy priest shuddered at hearing the name.

“I do not think you owe any thanks to her. Your irons were removed by the Commandant’s order.”

“But by her persuasion. I feel sure of it. Ah, I was wrong to think she had forgotten me. Ask her for her forgiveness.”

“Forgiveness!” said North, recalling the scene in the prison. “What have you done to need her forgiveness?”

“I doubted her,” said Rufus Dawes. “I thought her ungrateful and treacherous. I thought she delivered me again into the bondage from whence I had escaped. I thought she had betrayed me — betrayed me to the villain whose base life I saved for her sweet sake.”

“What do you mean?” asked North. “You never spoke to me of this.”

“No, I had vowed to bury the knowledge of it in my own breast — it was too bitter to speak.”

“Saved his life!”

“Ay, and hers! I made the boat that carried her to freedom. I held her in my arms, and took the bread from my own lips to feed her!”

“She cannot know this,” said North in an undertone.

“She has forgotten it, perhaps, for she was but a child. But you will remind her, will you not? You will do me justice in her eyes before I die? You will get her forgiveness for me?”

North could not explain why such an interview as the convict desired was impossible, and so he promised.

“She is going away in the schooner,” said he, concealing the fact of his own departure. “I will see her before she goes, and tell her.”

“God bless you, sir,” said poor Dawes. “Now pray with me”; and the wretched priest mechanically repeated one of the formulae his Church prescribes.

The next day he told his penitent that Mrs. Frere had forgiven him. This was a lie. He had not seen her; but what should a lie be to him now? Lies were needful in the tortuous path he had undertaken to tread. Yet the deceit he was forced to practise cost him many a pang. He had succumbed to his passion, and to win the love for which he yearned had voluntarily abandoned truth and honour; but standing thus alone with his sin, he despised and hated himself. To deaden remorse and drown reflection, he had recourse to brandy, and though the fierce excitement of his hopes and fears steeled him against the stupefying action of the liquor, he was rendered by it incapable of calm reflection. In certain nervous conditions our mere physical powers are proof against the action of alcohol, and though ten times more drunk than the toper, who, incoherently stammering, reels into the gutter, we can walk erect and talk with fluency. Indeed, in this artificial exaltation of the sensibilities, men often display a brilliant wit, and an acuteness of comprehension, calculated to delight their friends, and terrify their physicians. North had reached this condition of brain-drunkenness. In plain terms, he was trembling on the verge of madness.

The days passed swiftly, and Blunt’s preparations for sea were completed. There were two stern cabins in the schooner, one of which was appropriated to Mrs. Frere, while the other was set apart for North. Maurice had not attempted to renew his overtures of friendship, and the chaplain had not spoken. Mindful of Sylvia’s last words, he had resolved not to meet her until fairly embarked upon the voyage which he intended should link their fortunes together. On the morning of the 19th December, Blunt declared himself ready to set sail, and in the afternoon the two passengers came on board.

Rufus Dawes, gazing from his window upon the schooner that lay outside the reef, thought nothing of the fact that, after the Commandant’s boat had taken away the Commandant’s wife another boat should put off with the chaplain. It was quite natural that Mr. North should desire to bid his friends farewell, and through the hot, still afternoon he watched for the returning boat, hoping that the chaplain would bring him some message from the woman whom he was never to see more on earth. The hours wore on, however, and no breath of wind ruffled the surface of the sea. The day was exceedingly close and sultry, heavy dun clouds hung on the horizon, and it seemed probable that unless a thunder-storm should clear the air before night, the calm would continue. Blunt, however, with a true sailor’s obstinacy in regard to weather, swore there would be a breeze, and held to his purpose of sailing. The hot afternoon passed away in a sultry sunset, and it was not until the shades of evening had begun to fall that Rufus Dawes distinguished a boat detach itself from the sides of the schooner, and glide through the oily water to the jetty. The chaplain was returning, and in a few hours perhaps would be with him, to bring him the message of comfort for which his soul thirsted. He stretched out his unshackled limbs, and throwing himself upon his stretcher, fell to recalling the past — his boat-building, the news of his fortune, his love, and his self-sacrifice.

North, however, was not returning to bring to the prisoner a message of comfort, but he was returning on purpose to see him, nevertheless. The unhappy man, torn by remorse and passion, had resolved upon a course of action which seemed to him a penance for his crime of deceit. He determined to confess to Dawes that the message he had brought was wholly fictitious, that he himself loved the wife of the Commandant, and that with her he was about to leave the island for ever. “I am no hypocrite,” he thought, in his exaltation. “If I choose to sin, I will sin boldly; and this poor wretch, who looks up to me as an angel, shall know me for my true self.”

The notion of thus destroying his own fame in the eyes of the man whom he had taught to love him, was pleasant to his diseased imagination. It was the natural outcome of the morbid condition of mind into which he had drifted, and he provided for the complete execution of his scheme with cunning born of the mischief working in his brain. It was desirable that the fatal stroke should be dealt at the last possible instant; that he should suddenly unveil his own infamy, and then depart, never to be seen again. To this end he had invented an excuse for returning to the shore at the latest possible moment. He had purposely left in his room a dressing-bag — the sort of article one is likely to forget in the hurry of departure from one’s house, and so certain to remember when the time comes to finally prepare for settling in another. He had ingeniously extracted from Blunt the fact that “he didn’t expect a wind before dark, but wanted all ship-shape and aboard”, and then, just as darkness fell, discovered that it was imperative for him to go ashore. Blunt cursed, but, if the chaplain insisted upon going, there was no help for it.

“There’ll be a breeze in less than two hours,” said he. “You’ve plenty of time, but if you’re not back before the first puff, I’ll sail without you, as sure as you’re born.” North assured him of his punctuality. “Don’t wait for me, Captain, if I’m not here,” said he with the lightness of tone which men use to mask anxiety. “I’d take him at his word, Blunt,” said the Commandant, who was affably waiting to take final farewell of his wife. “Give way there, men,” he shouted to the crew, “and wait at the jetty. If Mr. North misses his ship through your laziness, you’ll pay for it.” So the boat set off, North laughing uproariously at the thought of being late. Frere observed with some astonishment that the chaplain wrapped himself in a boat cloak that lay in the stern sheets. “Does the fellow want to smother himself in a night like this!” was his remark. The truth was that, though his hands and head were burning, North’s teeth chattered with cold. Perhaps this was the reason why, when landed and out of eyeshot of the crew, he produced a pocket-flask of rum and eagerly drank. The spirit gave him courage for the ordeal to which he had condemned himself; and with steadied step, he reached the door of the old prison. To his surprise, Gimblett refused him admission!

“But I have come direct from the Commandant,” said North.

“Got any order, sir?”

“Order! No.”

“I can’t let you in, your reverence,” said Gimblett.

“I want to see the prisoner Dawes. I have a special message for him. I have come ashore on purpose.”

“I am very sorry, sir —”

“The ship will sail in two hours, man, and I shall miss her,” said North, indignant at being frustrated in his design. “Let me pass.”

“Upon my honour, sir, I daren’t,” said Gimblett, who was not without his good points. “You know what authority is, sir.”

North was in despair, but a bright thought struck him — a thought that, in his soberer moments, would never have entered his head — he would buy admission. He produced the rum flask from beneath the sheltering cloak. “Come, don’t talk nonsense to me, Gimblett. You don’t suppose I would come here without authority. Here, take a pull at this, and let me through.” Gimblett’s features relaxed into a smile. “Well, sir, I suppose it’s all right, if you say so,” said he. And clutching the rum bottle with one hand, he opened the door of Dawes’s cell with the other.

North entered, and as the door closed behind him, the prisoner, who had been lying apparently asleep upon his bed, leapt up, and made as though to catch him by the throat.

Rufus Dawes had dreamt a dream. Alone, amid the gathering glooms, his fancy had recalled the past, and had peopled it with memories. He thought that he was once more upon the barren strand where he had first met with the sweet child he loved. He lived again his life of usefulness and honour. He saw himself working at the boat, embarking, and putting out to sea. The fair head of the innocent girl was again pillowed on his breast; her young lips again murmured words of affection in his greedy ear. Frere was beside him, watching him, as he had watched before. Once again the grey sea spread around him, barren of succour. Once again, in the wild, wet morning, he beheld the American brig bearing down upon them, and saw the bearded faces of the astonished crew. He saw Frere take the child in his arms and mount upon the deck; he heard the shout of delight that went up, and pressed again the welcoming hands which greeted the rescued castaways. The deck was crowded. All the folk he had ever known were there. He saw the white hair and stern features of Sir Richard Devine, and beside him stood, wringing her thin hands, his weeping mother. Then Frere strode forward, and after him John Rex, the convict, who, roughly elbowing through the crowd of prisoners and gaolers, would have reached the spot where stood Sir Richard Devine, but that the corpse of the murdered Lord Bellasis arose and thrust him back. How the hammers clattered in the shipbuilder’s yard! Was it a coffin they were making? Not for Sylvia — surely not for her! The air grows heavy, lurid with flame, and black with smoke. The Hydaspes is on fire! Sylvia clings to her husband. Base wretch, would you shake her off! Look up; the midnight heaven is glittering with stars; above the smoke the air breathes delicately! One step — another! Fix your eyes on mine — so — to my heart! Alas! she turns; he catches at her dress. What! It is a priest — a priest — who, smiling with infernal joy, would drag her to the flaming gulf that yawns for him. The dreamer leaps at the wretch’s throat, and crying, “Villain, was it for this fate I saved her?"— and awakes to find himself struggling with the monster of his dream, the idol of his waking senses —“Mr. North.”

North, paralysed no less by the suddenness of the attack than by the words with which it was accompanied, let fall his cloak, and stood trembling before the prophetic accusation of the man whose curses he had come to earn.

“I was dreaming,” said Rufus Dawes. “A terrible dream! But it has passed now. The message — you have brought me a message, have you not? Why — what ails you? You are pale — your knees tremble. Did my violence ——?”

North recovered himself with a great effort. “It is nothing. Let us talk, for my time is short. You have thought me a good man — one blessed of God, one consecrated to a holy service; a man honest, pure, and truthful. I have returned to tell you the truth. I am none of these things.” Rufus Dawes sat staring, unable to comprehend this madness. “I told you that the woman you loved — for you do love her — sent you a message of forgiveness. I lied.”

“What!”

“I never told her of your confession. I never mentioned your name to her.”

“And she will go without knowing — Oh, Mr. North, what have you done?”

“Wrecked my own soul!” cried North, wildly, stung by the reproachful agony of the tone. “Do not cling to me. My task is done. You will hate me now. That is my wish — I merit it. Let me go, I say. I shall be too late.”

“Too late! For what?” He looked at the cloak — through the open window came the voices of the men in the boat — the memory of the rose, of the scene in the prison, flashed across him, and he understood it all.

“Great Heaven, you go together!”

“Let me go,” repeated North, in a hoarse voice.

Rufus Dawes stepped between him and the door. “No, madman, I will not let you go, to do this great wrong, to kill this innocent young soul, who — God help her — loves you!” North, confounded at this sudden reversal of their position towards each other, crouched bewildered against the wall. “I say you shall not go! You shall not destroy your own soul and hers! You love her! So do I! and my love is mightier than yours, for it shall save her!”

“In God’s name —” cried the unhappy priest, striving to stop his ears.

“Ay, in God’s name! In the name of that God whom in my torments I had forgotten! In the name of that God whom you taught me to remember! That God who sent you to save me from despair, gives me strength to save you in my turn! Oh, Mr. North — my teacher — my friend — my brother — by the sweet hope of mercy which you preached to me, be merciful to this erring woman!”

North lifted agonized eyes. “But I love her! Love her, do you hear? What do you know of love?”

“Love!” cried Rufus Dawes, his pale face radiant. “Love! Oh, it is you who do not know it. Love is the sacrifice of self, the death of all desire that is not for another’s good. Love is Godlike! You love? — no, no, your love is selfishness, and will end in shame! Listen, I will tell you the history of such a love as yours.”

North, enthralled by the other’s overmastering will, fell back trembling.

“I will tell you the secret of my life, the reason why I am here. Come closer.”

* * * * * *

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