For the Term of His Natural Life/Book II/Chapter V
Chapter V: Sylvia
"Well," said Frere, as they went in, "you'll be out of it soon. You can get all ready to start by the end of the month, and I'll bring on Mrs. Vickers afterwards."
"What is that you say about me?" asked the sprightly Mrs. Vickers from within. "You wicked men, leaving me alone all this time!"
"Mr. Frere has kindly offered to bring you and Sylvia after us in the Osprey. I shall, of course, have to take the Ladybird."
"You are most kind, Mr. Frere, really you are," says Mrs. Vickers, a recollection of her flirtation with a certain young lieutenant, six years before, tinging her cheeks. "It is really most considerate of you. Won't it be nice, Sylvia, to go with Mr. Frere and mamma to Hobart Town?"
"Mr. Frere," says Sylvia, coming from out a corner of the room, "I am very sorry for what I said just now. Will you forgive me?"
She asked the question in such a prim, old-fashioned way, standing in front of him, with her golden locks streaming over her shoulders, and her hands clasped on her black silk apron (Julia Vickers had her own notions about dressing her daughter), that Frere was again inclined to laugh.
"Of course I'll forgive you, my dear," he said. "You didn't mean it, I know."
"Oh, but I did mean it, and that's why I'm sorry. I am a very naughty girl sometimes, though you wouldn't think so" (this with a charming consciousness of her own beauty), "especially with Roman history. I don't think the Romans were half as brave as the Carthaginians; do you, Mr. Frere?"
Maurice, somewhat staggered by this question, could only ask, "Why not?"
"Well, I don't like them half so well myself," says Sylvia, with feminine disdain of reasons. "They always had so many soldiers, though the others were so cruel when they conquered."
"Were they?" says Frere.
"Were they! Goodness gracious, yes! Didn't they cut poor Regulus's eyelids off, and roll him down hill in a barrel full of nails? What do you call that, I should like to know?" and Mr. Frere, shaking his red head with vast assumption of classical learning, could not but concede that that was not kind on the part of the Carthaginians.
"You are a great scholar, Miss Sylvia," he remarked, with a consciousness that this self-possessed girl was rapidly taking him out of his depth. "Are you fond of reading?"
"And what books do you read?"
"Oh, lots! 'Paul and Virginia", and 'Paradise Lost', and 'Shakespeare's Plays', and 'Robinson Crusoe', and 'Blair's Sermons', and 'The Tasmanian Almanack', and 'The Book of Beauty', and 'Tom Jones'."
"A somewhat miscellaneous collection, I fear," said Mrs. Vickers, with a sickly smile—she, like Gallio, cared for none of these things— "but our little library is necessarily limited, and I am not a great reader. John, my dear, Mr. Frere would like another glass of brandy-and-water. Oh, don't apologize; I am a soldier's wife, you know. Sylvia, my love, say good-night to Mr. Frere, and retire."
"Good-night, Miss Sylvia. Will you give me a kiss?"
"Sylvia, don't be rude!"
"I'm not rude," cries Sylvia, indignant at the way in which her literary confidence had been received. "He's rude! I won't kiss you. Kiss you indeed! My goodness gracious!"
"Won't you, you little beauty?" cried Frere, suddenly leaning forward, and putting his arm round the child. "Then I must kiss you!"
To his astonishment, Sylvia, finding herself thus seized and kissed despite herself, flushed scarlet, and, lifting up her tiny fist, struck him on the cheek with all her force.
The blow was so sudden, and the momentary pain so sharp, that Maurice nearly slipped into his native coarseness, and rapped out an oath.
"My dear Sylvia!" cried Vickers, in tones of grave reproof.
But Frere laughed, caught both the child's hands in one of his own, and kissed her again and again, despite her struggles. "There!" he said, with a sort of triumph in his tone. "You got nothing by that, you see."
Vickers rose, with annoyance visible on his face, to draw the child away; and as he did so, she, gasping for breath, and sobbing with rage, wrenched her wrist free, and in a storm of childish passion struck her tormentor again and again. "Man!" she cried, with flaming eyes, "Let me go! I hate you! I hate you! I hate you!"
"I am very sorry for this, Frere," said Vickers, when the door was closed again. "I hope she did not hurt you."
"Not she! I like her spirit. Ha, ha! That's the way with women all the world over. Nothing like showing them that they've got a master."
Vickers hastened to turn the conversation, and, amid recollections of old days, and speculations as to future prospects, the little incident was forgotten. But when, an hour later, Mr. Frere traversed the passage that led to his bedroom, he found himself confronted by a little figure wrapped in a shawl. It was his childish enemy
"I've waited for you, Mr. Frere," said she, "to beg pardon. I ought not to have struck you; I am a wicked girl. Don't say no, because I am; and if I don't grow better I shall never go to Heaven."
Thus addressing him, the child produced a piece of paper, folded like a letter, from beneath the shawl, and handed it to him.
"What's this?" he asked. "Go back to bed, my dear; you'll catch cold."
"It's a written apology; and I sha'n't catch cold, because I've got my stockings on. If you don't accept it," she added, with an arching of the brows, "it is not my fault. I have struck you, but I apologize. Being a woman, I can't offer you satisfaction in the usual way."
Mr. Frere stifled the impulse to laugh, and made his courteous adversary a low bow.
"I accept your apology, Miss Sylvia," said he.
"Then," returned Miss Sylvia, in a lofty manner, "there is nothing more to be said, and I have the honour to bid you good-night, sir."
The little maiden drew her shawl close around her with immense dignity, and marched down the passage as calmly as though she had been Amadis of Gaul himself.
Frere, gaining his room choking with laughter, opened the folded paper by the light of the tallow candle, and read, in a quaint, childish hand:—
Sir,—I have struck you. I apologize in writing.
Your humble servant to command,
"I wonder what book she took that out of?" he said. "'Pon my word she must be a little cracked. 'Gad, it's a queer life for a child in this place, and no mistake."