For the Term of His Natural Life/Book III/Chapter I
Chapter I: A Labourer in the Vineyard
"Society in Hobart Town, in this year of grace 1838, is, my dear lord, composed of very curious elements." So ran a passage in the sparkling letter which the Rev. Mr. Meekin, newly-appointed chaplain, and seven-days' resident in Van Diemen's Land, was carrying to the post office, for the delectation of his patron in England. As the reverend gentleman tripped daintily down the summer street that lay between the blue river and the purple mountain, he cast his mild eyes hither and thither upon human nature, and the sentence he had just penned recurred to him with pleasurable appositeness. Elbowed by well-dressed officers of garrison, bowing sweetly to well-dressed ladies, shrinking from ill-dressed, ill-odoured ticket-of-leave men, or hastening across a street to avoid being run down by the hand-carts that, driven by little gangs of grey-clothed convicts, rattled and jangled at him unexpectedly from behind corners, he certainly felt that the society through which he moved was composed of curious elements. Now passed, with haughty nose in the air, a newly-imported government official, relaxing for an instant his rigidity of demeanour to smile languidly at the chaplain whom Governor Sir John Franklin delighted to honour; now swaggered, with coarse defiance of gentility and patronage, a wealthy ex-prisoner, grown fat on the profits of rum. The population that was abroad on that sunny December afternoon had certainly an incongruous appearance to a dapper clergyman lately arrived from London, and missing, for the first time in his sleek, easy-going life, those social screens which in London civilization decorously conceal the frailties and vices of human nature. Clad in glossy black, of the most fashionable clerical cut, with dandy boots, and gloves of lightest lavender—a white silk overcoat hinting that its wearer was not wholly free from sensitiveness to sun and heat—the Reverend Meekin tripped daintily to the post office, and deposited his letter. Two ladies met him as he turned.
Mr. Meekin's elegant hat was raised from his intellectual brow and hovered in the air, like some courteous black bird, for an instant. "Mrs. Jellicoe! Mrs. Protherick! My dear leddies, this is an unexpected pleasure! And where, pray, are you going on this lovely afternoon? To stay in the house is positively sinful. Ah! what a climate—but the Trail of the Serpent, my dear Mrs. Protherick—the Trail of the Serpent—" and he sighed.
"It must be a great trial to you to come to the colony," said Mrs. Jellicoe, sympathizing with the sigh.
Meekin smiled, as a gentlemanly martyr might have smiled. "The Lord's work, dear leddies—the Lord's work. I am but a poor labourer in the vineyard, toiling through the heat and burden of the day." The aspect of him, with his faultless tie, his airy coat, his natty boots, and his self-satisfied Christian smile, was so unlike a poor labourer toiling through the heat and burden of the day, that good Mrs. Jellicoe, the wife of an orthodox Comptroller of Convicts' Stores, felt a horrible thrill of momentary heresy. "I would rather have remained in England," continued Mr. Meekin, smoothing one lavender finger with the tip of another, and arching his elegant eyebrows in mild deprecation of any praise of his self-denial, "but I felt it my duty not to refuse the offer made me through the kindness of his lordship. Here is a field, leddies—a field for the Christian pastor. They appeal to me, leddies, these lambs of our Church—these lost and outcast lambs of our Church."
Mrs. Jellicoe shook her gay bonnet ribbons at Mr. Meekin, with a hearty smile. "You don't know our convicts," she said (from the tone of her jolly voice it might have been "our cattle"). "They are horrible creatures. And as for servants—my goodness, I have a fresh one every week. When you have been here a little longer, you will know them better, Mr. Meekin."
"They are quite unbearable at times." said Mrs. Protherick, the widow of a Superintendent of Convicts' Barracks, with a stately indignation mantling in her sallow cheeks. "I am ordinarily the most patient creature breathing, but I do confess that the stupid vicious wretches that one gets are enough to put a saint out of temper."
"We have all our crosses, dear leddies—all our crosses," said the Rev. Mr. Meekin piously. "Heaven send us strength to bear them! Good-morning."
"Why, you are going our way," said Mrs. Jellicoe. "We can walk together."
"Delighted! I am going to call on Major Vickers."
"And I live within a stone's throw," returned Mrs. Protherick.
"What a charming little creature she is, isn't she?"
"Who?" asked Mr. Meekin, as they walked.
"Sylvia. You don't know her! Oh, a dear little thing."
"I have only met Major Vickers at Government House," said Meekin. "I haven't yet had the pleasure of seeing his daughter."
"A sad thing," said Mrs. Jellicoe. "Quite a romance, if it was not so sad, you know. His wife, poor Mrs. Vickers."
"Indeed! What of her?" asked Meekin, bestowing a condescending bow on a passer-by. "Is she an invalid?"
"She is dead, poor soul," returned jolly Mrs. Jellicoe, with a fat sigh. "You don't mean to say you haven't heard the story, Mr. Meekin?"
"My dear leddies, I have only been in Hobart Town a week, and I have not heard the story."
"It's about the mutiny, you know, the mutiny at Macquarie Harbour. The prisoners took the ship, and put Mrs. Vickers and Sylvia ashore somewhere. Captain Frere was with them, too. The poor things had a dreadful time, and nearly died. Captain Frere made a boat at last, and they were picked up by a ship. Poor Mrs. Vickers only lived a few hours, and little Sylvia—she was only twelve years old then—was quite light-headed. They thought she wouldn't recover."
"How dreadful! And has she recovered?"
"Oh, yes, she's quite strong now, but her memory's gone."
"Yes," struck in Mrs. Protherick, eager to have a share in the storytelling. "She doesn't remember anything about the three or four weeks they were ashore—at least, not distinctly."
"It's a great mercy!" interrupted Mrs. Jellicoe, determined to keep the post of honour. "Who wants her to remember these horrors? From Captain Frere's account, it was positively awful!"
"You don't say so!" said Mr. Meekin, dabbing his nose with a dainty handkerchief.
"A 'bolter'—that's what we call an escaped prisoner, Mr. Meekin—happened to be left behind, and he found them out, and insisted on sharing the provisions—the wretch! Captain Frere was obliged to watch him constantly for fear he should murder them. Even in the boat he tried to run them out to sea and escape. He was one of the worst men in the Harbour, they say; but you should hear Captain Frere tell the story."
"And where is he now?" asked Mr. Meekin, with interest.
"No, the prisoner."
"Oh, goodness, I don't know—at Port Arthur, I think. I know that he was tried for bolting, and would have been hanged but for Captain Frere's exertions."
"Dear, dear! a strange story, indeed," said Mr. Meekin. "And so the young lady doesn't know anything about it?"
"Only what she has been told, of course, poor dear. She's engaged to Captain Frere."
"Really! To the man who saved her. How charming—quite a romance!"
"Isn't it? Everybody says so. And Captain Frere's so much older than she is."
"But her girlish love clings to her heroic protector," said Meekin, mildly poetical. "Remarkable and beautiful. Quite the—hem!—the ivy and the oak, dear leddies. Ah, in our fallen nature, what sweet spots—I think this is the gate."
A smart convict servant—he had been a pickpocket of note in days gone by—left the clergyman to repose in a handsomely furnished drawing-room, whose sun blinds revealed a wealth of bright garden flecked with shadows, while he went in search of Miss Vickers. The Major was out, it seemed, his duties as Superintendent of Convicts rendering such absences necessary; but Miss Vickers was in the garden, and could be called in at once. The Reverend Meekin, wiping his heated brow, and pulling down his spotless wristbands, laid himself back on the soft sofa, soothed by the elegant surroundings no less than by the coolness of the atmosphere. Having no better comparison at hand, he compared this luxurious room, with its soft couches, brilliant flowers, and opened piano, to the chamber in the house of a West India planter, where all was glare and heat and barbarism without, and all soft and cool and luxurious within. He was so charmed with this comparison—he had a knack of being easily pleased with his own thoughts—that he commenced to turn a fresh sentence for the Bishop, and to sketch out an elegant description of the oasis in his desert of a vineyard. While at this occupation, he was disturbed by the sound of voices in the garden, and it appeared to him that someone near at hand was sobbing and crying. Softly stepping on the broad verandah, he saw, on the grass-plot, two persons, an old man and a young girl. The sobbing proceeded from the old man.
"'Deed, miss, it's the truth, on my soul. I've but jest come back to yez this morning. O my! but it's a cruel trick to play an ould man."
He was a white-haired old fellow, in a grey suit of convict frieze, and stood leaning with one veiny hand upon the pedestal of a vase of roses.
"But it is your own fault, Danny; we all warned you against her," said the young girl softly.
"Sure ye did. But oh! how did I think it, miss? 'Tis the second time she served me so."
"How long was it this time, Danny?"
"Six months, miss. She said I was a drunkard, and beat her. Beat her, God help me!" stretching forth two trembling hands. "And they believed her, o' course. Now, when I kem back, there's me little place all thrampled by the boys, and she's away wid a ship's captain, saving your presence, miss, dhrinking in the 'George the Fourth'. O my, but it's hard on an old man!" and he fell to sobbing again.
The girl sighed. "I can do nothing for you, Danny. I dare say you can work about the garden as you did before. I'll speak to the Major when he comes home."
Danny, lifting his bleared eyes to thank her, caught sight of Mr. Meekin, and saluted abruptly. Miss Vickers turned, and Mr. Meekin, bowing his apologies, became conscious that the young lady was about seventeen years of age, that her eyes were large and soft, her hair plentiful and bright, and that the hand which held the little book she had been reading was white and small.
"Miss Vickers, I think. My name is Meekin—the Reverend Arthur Meekin."
"How do you do, Mr. Meekin?" said Sylvia, putting out one of her small hands, and looking straight at him. "Papa will be in directly."
"His daughter more than compensates for his absence, my dear Miss Vickers."
"I don't like flattery, Mr. Meekin, so don't use it. At least," she added, with a delicious frankness, that seemed born of her very brightness and beauty, "not that sort of flattery. Young girls do like flattery, of course. Don't you think so?"
This rapid attack quite disconcerted Mr. Meekin, and he could only bow and smile at the self-possessed young lady. "Go into the kitchen, Danny, and tell them to give you some tobacco. Say I sent you. Mr. Meekin, won't you come in?"
"A strange old gentleman, that, Miss Vickers. A faithful retainer, I presume?"
"An old convict servant of ours," said Sylvia. "He was with papa many years ago. He has got into trouble lately, though, poor old man."
"Into trouble?" asked Mr. Meekin, as Sylvia took off her hat.
"On the roads, you know. That's what they call it here. He married a free woman much younger than himself, and she makes him drink, and then gives him in charge for insubordination."
"For insubordination! Pardon me, my dear young lady, did I understand you rightly?"
"Yes, insubordination. He is her assigned servant, you know," said Sylvia, as if such a condition of things was the most ordinary in the world, "and if he misbehaves himself, she sends him back to the road-gang."
The Reverend Mr. Meekin opened his mild eyes very wide indeed. "What an extraordinary anomaly! I am beginning, my dear Miss Vickers, to find myself indeed at the antipodes."
"Society here is different from society in England, I believe. Most new arrivals say so," returned Sylvia quietly.
"But for a wife to imprison her husband, my dear young lady!"
"She can have him flogged if she likes. Danny has been flogged. But then his wife is a bad woman. He was very silly to marry her; but you can't reason with an old man in love, Mr. Meekin."
Mr. Meekin's Christian brow had grown crimson, and his decorous blood tingled to his finger-tips. To hear a young lady talk in such an open way was terrible. Why, in reading the Decalogue from the altar, Mr. Meekin was accustomed to soften one indecent prohibition, lest its uncompromising plainness of speech might offend the delicate sensibilities of his female souls! He turned from the dangerous theme without an instant's pause, for wonder at the strange power accorded to Hobart Town "free" wives.
"You have been reading?"
"'Paul et Virginie'. I have read it before in English."
"Ah, you read French, then, my dear young lady?"
"Not very well. I had a master for some months, but papa had to send him back to the gaol again. He stole a silver tankard out of the dining-room."
"A French master! Stole——"
"He was a prisoner, you know. A clever man. He wrote for the London Magazine. I have read his writings. Some of them are quite above the average."
"And how did he come to be transported?" asked Mr. Meekin, feeling that his vineyard was getting larger than he had anticipated.
"Poisoning his niece, I think, but I forget the particulars. He was a gentlemanly man, but, oh, such a drunkard!"
Mr. Meekin, more astonished than ever at this strange country, where beautiful young ladies talked of poisoning and flogging as matters of little moment, where wives imprisoned their husbands, and murderers taught French, perfumed the air with his cambric handkerchief in silence.
"You have not been here long, Mr. Meekin," said Sylvia, after a pause.
"No, only a week; and I confess I am surprised. A lovely climate, but, as I said just now to Mrs. Jellicoe, the Trail of the Serpent—the Trail of the Serpent—my dear young lady."
"If you send all the wretches in England here, you must expect the Trail of the Serpent," said Sylvia. "It isn't the fault of the colony."
"Oh, no; certainly not," returned Meekin, hastening to apologize. "But it is very shocking."
"Well, you gentlemen should make it better. I don't know what the penal settlements are like, but the prisoners in the town have not much inducement to become good men."
"They have the beautiful Liturgy of our Holy Church read to them twice every week, my dear young lady," said Mr. Meekin, as though he should solemnly say, "if that doesn't reform them, what will?"
"Oh, yes," returned Sylvia, "they have that, certainly; but that is only on Sundays. But don't let us talk about this, Mr. Meekin," she added, pushing back a stray curl of golden hair. "Papa says that I am not to talk about these things, because they are all done according to the Rules of the Service, as he calls it."
"An admirable notion of papa's," said Meekin, much relieved as the door opened, and Vickers and Frere entered.
Vickers's hair had grown white, but Frere carried his thirty years as easily as some men carry two-and-twenty.
"My dear Sylvia," began Vickers, "here's an extraordinary thing!" and then, becoming conscious of the presence of the agitated Meekin, he paused.
"You know Mr. Meekin, papa?" said Sylvia. "Mr. Meekin, Captain Frere."
"I have that pleasure," said Vickers. "Glad to see you, sir. Pray sit down." Upon which, Mr. Meekin beheld Sylvia unaffectedly kiss both gentlemen; but became strangely aware that the kiss bestowed upon her father was warmer than that which greeted her affianced husband.
"Warm weather, Mr. Meekin," said Frere. "Sylvia, my darling, I hope you have not been out in the heat. You have! My dear, I've begged you——"
"It's not hot at all," said Sylvia pettishly. "Nonsense! I'm not made of butter—I sha'n't melt. Thank you, dear, you needn't pull the blind down." And then, as though angry with herself for her anger, she added, "You are always thinking of me, Maurice," and gave him her hand affectionately.
"It's very oppressive, Captain Frere," said Meekin; "and to a stranger, quite enervating."
"Have a glass of wine," said Frere, as if the house was his own. "One wants bucking up a bit on a day like this."
"Ay, to be sure," repeated Vickers. "A glass of wine. Sylvia, dear, some sherry. I hope she has not been attacking you with her strange theories, Mr. Meekin."
"Oh, dear, no; not at all," returned Meekin, feeling that this charming young lady was regarded as a creature who was not to be judged by ordinary rules. "We got on famously, my dear Major—quite famously."
"That's right," said Vickers. "She is very plain-spoken, is my little girl, and strangers can't understand her sometimes. Can they, Poppet?"
Poppet tossed her head saucily. "I don't know," she said. "Why shouldn't they? But you were going to say something extraordinary when you came in. What is it, dear?"
"Ah," said Vickers with grave face. "Yes, a most extraordinary thing. They've caught those villains."
"What, you don't mean——? No, papa!" said Sylvia, turning round with alarmed face.
In that little family there were, for conversational purposes, but one set of villains in the world—the mutineers of the Osprey.
"They've got four of them in the bay at this moment—Rex, Barker, Shiers, and Lesly. They are on board the Lady Jane. The most extraordinary story I ever heard in my life. The fellows got to China and passed themselves off as shipwrecked sailors. The merchants in Canton got up a subscription, and sent them to London. They were recognized there by old Pine, who had been surgeon on board the ship they came out in."
Sylvia sat down on the nearest chair, with heightened colour. "And where are the others?"
"Two were executed in England; the other six have not been taken. These fellows have been sent out for trial."
"To what are you alluding, dear sir?" asked Meekin, eyeing the sherry with the gaze of a fasting saint.
"The piracy of a convict brig five years ago," replied Vickers. "The scoundrels put my poor wife and child ashore, and left them to starve. If it hadn't been for Frere—God bless him!—they would have died. They shot the pilot and a soldier—and—but it's a long story."
"I have heard of it already," said Meekin, sipping the sherry, which another convict servant had brought for him; "and of your gallant conduct, Captain Frere."
"Oh, that's nothing," said Frere, reddening. "We were all in the same boat. Poppet, have a glass of wine?"
"No," said Sylvia, "I don't want any."
She was staring at the strip of sunshine between the verandah and the blind, as though the bright light might enable her to remember something. "What's the matter?" asked Frere, bending over her. "I was trying to recollect, but I can't, Maurice. It is all confused. I only remember a great shore and a great sea, and two men, one of whom—that's you, dear— carried me in his arms."
"Dear, dear," said Mr. Meekin.
"She was quite a baby," said Vickers, hastily, as though unwilling to admit that her illness had been the cause of her forgetfulness.
"Oh, no; I was twelve years old," said Sylvia; "that's not a baby, you know. But I think the fever made me stupid."
Frere, looking at her uneasily, shifted in his seat. "There, don't think about it now," he said.
"Maurice," asked she suddenly, "what became of the other man?"
"Which other man?"
"The man who was with us; the other one, you know."
"No, not Bates. The prisoner. What was his name?"
"Oh, ah—the prisoner," said Frere, as if he, too, had forgotten. "Why, you know, darling, he was sent to Port Arthur."
"Ah!" said Sylvia, with a shudder. "And is he there still?"
"I believe so," said Frere, with a frown.
"By the by," said Vickers, "I suppose we shall have to get that fellow up for the trial. We have to identify the villains."
"Can't you and I do that?" asked Frere uneasily.
"I am afraid not. I wouldn't like to swear to a man after five years."
"By George," said Frere, "I'd swear to him! When once I see a man's face—that's enough for me."
"We had better get up a few prisoners who were at the Harbour at the time," said Vickers, as if wishing to terminate the discussion. "I wouldn't let the villains slip through my fingers for anything."
"And are the men at Port Arthur old men?" asked Meekin.
"Old convicts," returned Vickers. "It's our place for 'colonial sentence' men. The worst we have are there. It has taken the place of Macquarie Harbour. What excitement there will be among them when the schooner goes down on Monday!"
"Excitement! Indeed? How charming! Why?" asked Meekin.
"To bring up the witnesses, my dear sir. Most of the prisoners are Lifers, you see, and a trip to Hobart Town is like a holiday for them."
"And do they never leave the place when sentenced for life?" said Meekin, nibbling a biscuit. "How distressing!"
"Never, except when they die," answered Frere, with a laugh; "and then they are buried on an island. Oh, it's a fine place! You should come down with me and have a look at it, Mr. Meekin. Picturesque, I can assure you."
"My dear Maurice," says Sylvia, going to the piano, as if in protest to the turn the conversation was taking, "how can you talk like that?"
"I should much like to see it," said Meekin, still nibbling, "for Sir John was saying something about a chaplaincy there, and I understand that the climate is quite endurable."
The convict servant, who had entered with some official papers for the Major, stared at the dainty clergyman, and rough Maurice laughed again.
"Oh, it's a stunning climate," he said; "and nothing to do. Just the place for you. There's a regular little colony there. All the scandals in Van Diemen's Land are hatched at Port Arthur."
This agreeable chatter about scandal and climate seemed a strange contrast to the grave-yard island and the men who were prisoners for life. Perhaps Sylvia thought so, for she struck a few chords, which, compelling the party, out of sheer politeness, to cease talking for the moment, caused the conversation to flag, and hinted to Mr. Meekin that it was time for him to depart.
"Good afternoon, dear Miss Vickers," he said, rising with his sweetest smile. "Thank you for your delightful music. That piece is an old, old favourite of mine. It was quite a favourite of dear Lady Jane's, and the Bishop's. Pray excuse me, my dear Captain Frere, but this strange occurrence—of the capture of the wreckers, you know— must be my apology for touching on a delicate subject. How charming to contemplate! Yourself and your dear young lady! The preserved and preserver, dear Major. 'None but the brave, you know, none but the brave, none but the brave, deserve the fair!' You remember glorious John, of course. Well, good afternoon."
"It's rather a long invitation," said Vickers, always well disposed to anyone who praised his daughter, "but if you've nothing better to do, come and dine with us on Christmas Day, Mr. Meekin. We usually have a little gathering then."
"Charmed," said Meekin—"charmed, I am sure. It is so refreshing to meet with persons of one's own tastes in this delightful colony. 'Kindred souls together knit,' you know, dear Miss Vickers. Indeed yes. Once more—good afternoon."
Sylvia burst into laughter as the door closed. "What a ridiculous creature!" said she. "Bless the man, with his gloves and his umbrella, and his hair and his scent! Fancy that mincing noodle showing me the way to Heaven! I'd rather have old Mr. Bowes, papa, though he is as blind as a beetle, and makes you so angry by bottling up his trumps as you call it."
"My dear Sylvia," said Vickers, seriously, "Mr. Meekin is a clergyman, you know."
"Oh, I know," said Sylvia, "but then, a clergyman can talk like a man, can't he? Why do they send such people here? I am sure they could do much better at home. Oh, by the way, papa dear, poor old Danny's come back again. I told him he might go into the kitchen. May he, dear?"
"You'll have the house full of these vagabonds, you little puss," said Vickers, kissing her. "I suppose I must let him stay. What has he been doing now?"
"His wife," said Sylvia, "locked him up, you know, for being drunk. Wife! What do people want with wives, I wonder?"
"Ask Maurice," said her father, smiling.
Sylvia moved away, and tossed her head.
"What does he know about it? Maurice, you are a great bear; and if you hadn't saved my life, you know, I shouldn't love you a bit. There, you may kiss me" (her voice grew softer). "This convict business has brought it all back; and I should be ungrateful if I didn't love you, dear."
Maurice Frere, with suddenly crimsoned face, accepted the proffered caress, and then turned to the window. A grey-clothed man was working in the garden, and whistling as he worked. "They're not so badly off," said Frere, under his breath.
"What's that, sir?" asked Sylvia.
"That I am not half good enough for you," cried Frere, with sudden vehemence. "I—I——"
"It's my happiness you've got to think of, Captain Bruin," said the girl. "You've saved my life, haven't you, and I should be wicked if I didn't love you! No, no more kisses," she added, putting out her hand. "Come, papa, it's cool now; let's walk in the garden, and leave Maurice to think of his own unworthiness."
Maurice watched the retreating pair with a puzzled expression. "She always leaves me for her father," he said to himself. "I wonder if she really loves me, or if it's only gratitude, after all?"
He had often asked himself the same question during the five years of his wooing, but he had never satisfactorily answered it.