For the Term of His Natural Life/Book III/Chapter V
Chapter V: Maurice Frere's Good Angel
At this happy conclusion to his labours, Frere went down to comfort the girl for whose sake he had suffered Rex to escape the gallows. On his way he was met by a man who touched his hat, and asked to speak with him an instant. This man was past middle age, owned a red brandy-beaten face, and had in his gait and manner that nameless something that denotes the seaman.
"Well, Blunt," says Frere, pausing with the impatient air of a man who expects to hear bad news, "what is it now?"
"Only to tell you that it is all right, sir," says Blunt. "She's come aboard again this morning."
"Come aboard again!" ejaculated Frere. "Why, I didn't know that she had been ashore. Where did she go?" He spoke with an air of confident authority, and Blunt—no longer the bluff tyrant of old—seemed to quail before him. The trial of the mutineers of the Malabar had ruined Phineas Blunt. Make what excuses he might, there was no concealing the fact that Pine found him drunk in his cabin when he ought to have been attending to his duties on deck, and the "authorities" could not, or would not, pass over such a heinous breach of discipline. Captain Blunt—who, of course, had his own version of the story—thus deprived of the honour of bringing His Majesty's prisoners to His Majesty's colonies of New South Wales and Van Diemen's Land, went on a whaling cruise to the South Seas. The influence which Sarah Purfoy had acquired over him had, however, irretrievably injured him. It was as though she had poisoned his moral nature by the influence of a clever and wicked woman over a sensual and dull-witted man. Blunt gradually sank lower and lower. He became a drunkard, and was known as a man with a "grievance against the Government". Captain Frere, having had occasion for him in some capacity, had become in a manner his patron, and had got him the command of a schooner trading from Sydney. On getting this command—not without some wry faces on the part of the owner resident in Hobart Town—Blunt had taken the temperance pledge for the space of twelve months, and was a miserable dog in consequence. He was, however, a faithful henchman, for he hoped by Frere's means to get some "Government billet"—the grand object of all colonial sea captains of that epoch.
"Well, sir, she went ashore to see a friend," says Blunt, looking at the sky and then at the earth.
"The—the prisoner, sir."
"And she saw him, I suppose?"
"Yes, but I thought I'd better tell you, sir," says Blunt.
"Of course; quite right," returned the other; "you had better start at once. It's no use waiting."
"As you wish, sir. I can sail to-morrow morning—or this evening, if you like."
"This evening," says Frere, turning away; "as soon as possible."
"There's a situation in Sydney I've been looking after," said the other, uneasily, "if you could help me to it."
"What is it?"
"The command of one of the Government vessels, sir."
"Well, keep sober, then," says Frere, "and I'll see what I can do. And keep that woman's tongue still if you can."
The pair looked at each other, and Blunt grinned slavishly.
"I'll do my best."
"Take care you do," returned his patron, leaving him without further ceremony.
Frere found Vickers in the garden, and at once begged him not to talk about the "business" to his daughter.
"You saw how bad she was to-day, Vickers. For goodness sake don't make her ill again."
"My dear sir," says poor Vickers, "I won't refer to the subject. She's been very unwell ever since. Nervous and unstrung. Go in and see her."
So Frere went in and soothed the excited girl, with real sorrow at her suffering.
"It's all right now, Poppet," he said to her. "Don't think of it any more. Put it out of your mind, dear."
"It was foolish of me, Maurice, I know, but I could not help it. The sound of—of—that man's voice seemed to bring back to me some great pity for something or someone. I don't explain what I mean, I know, but I felt that I was on the verge of remembering a story of some great wrong, just about to hear some dreadful revelation that should make me turn from all the people whom I ought most to love. Do you understand?"
"I think I know what you mean," says Frere, with averted face. "But that's all nonsense, you know."
"Of course," returned she, with a touch of her old childish manner of disposing of questions out of hand. "Everybody knows it's all nonsense. But then we do think such things. It seems to me that I am double, that I have lived somewhere before, and have had another life—a dream-life."
"What a romantic girl you are," said the other, dimly comprehending her meaning. "How could you have a dream-life?"
"Of course, not really, stupid! But in thought, you know. I dream such strange things now and then. I am always falling down precipices and into cataracts, and being pushed into great caverns in enormous rocks. Horrible dreams!"
"Indigestion," returned Frere. "You don't take exercise enough. You shouldn't read so much. Have a good five-mile walk."
"And in these dreams," continued Sylvia, not heeding his interruption, "there is one strange thing. You are always there, Maurice."
"Come, that's all right," says Maurice.
"Ah, but not kind and good as you are, Captain Bruin, but scowling, and threatening, and angry, so that I am afraid of you."
"But that is only a dream, darling."
"Yes, but——" playing with the button of his coat.
"But you looked just so to-day in the Court, Maurice, and I think that's what made me so silly."
"My darling! There; hush—don't cry!"
But she had burst into a passion of sobs and tears, that shook her slight figure in his arms.
"Oh, Maurice, I am a wicked girl! I don't know my own mind. I think sometimes I don't love you as I ought—you who have saved me and nursed me."
"There, never mind about that," muttered Maurice Frere, with a sort of choking in his throat.
She grew more composed presently, and said, after a while, lifting her face, "Tell me, Maurice, did you ever, in those days of which you have spoken to me—when you nursed me as a little child in your arms, and fed me, and starved for me—did you ever think we should be married?"
"I don't know," says Maurice. "Why?"
"I think you must have thought so, because—it's not vanity, dear— you would not else have been so kind, and gentle, and devoted."
"Nonsense, Poppet," he said, with his eyes resolutely averted.
"No, but you have been, and I am very pettish, sometimes. Papa has spoiled me. You are always affectionate, and those worrying ways of yours, which I get angry at, all come from love for me, don't they?"
"I hope so," said Maurice, with an unwonted moisture in his eyes.
"Well, you see, that is the reason why I am angry with myself for not loving you as I ought. I want you to like the things I like, and to love the books and the music and the pictures and the—the World I love; and I forget that you are a man, you know, and I am only a girl; and I forget how nobly you behaved, Maurice, and how unselfishly you risked your life for mine. Why, what is the matter, dear?"
He had put her away from him suddenly, and gone to the window, gazing across the sloping garden at the bay below, sleeping in the soft evening light. The schooner which had brought the witnesses from Port Arthur lay off the shore, and the yellow flag at her mast fluttered gently in the cool evening breeze. The sight of this flag appeared to anger him, for, as his eyes fell on it, he uttered an impatient exclamation, and turned round again.
"Maurice!" she cried, "I have wounded you!"
"No, no. It is nothing," said he, with the air of a man surprised in a moment of weakness. "I—I did not like to hear you talk in this way—about not loving me."
"Oh, forgive me, dear; I did not mean to hurt you. It is my silly way of saying more than I mean. How could I do otherwise than love you—after all you have done?"
Some sudden desperate whim caused him to exclaim, "But suppose I had not done all you think, would you not love me still?"
Her eyes, raised to his face with anxious tenderness for the pain she had believed herself to have inflicted, fell at this speech.
"What a question! I don't know. I suppose I should; yet—but what is the use, Maurice, of supposing? I know you have done it, and that is enough. How can I say what I might have done if something else had happened? Why, you might not have loved me."
If there had been for a moment any sentiment of remorse in his selfish heart, the hesitation of her answer went far to dispel it.
"To be sure, that's true," and he placed his arm round her.
She lifted her face again with a bright laugh.
"We are a pair of geese—supposing! How can we help what has past? We have the Future, darling—the Future, in which I am to be your little wife, and we are to love each other all our lives, like the people in the story-books."
Temptation to evil had often come to Maurice Frere, and his selfish nature had succumbed to it when in far less witching shape than this fair and innocent child luring him with wistful eyes to win her. What hopes had he not built upon her love; what good resolutions had he not made by reason of the purity and goodness she was to bring to him? As she said, the past was beyond recall; the future—in which she was to love him all her life—was before them. With the hypocrisy of selfishness which deceives even itself, he laid the little head upon his heart with a sensible glow of virtue.
"God bless you, darling! You are my Good Angel."
The girl sighed. "I will be your Good Angel, dear, if you will let me."