For the Term of His Natural Life/Book IV/Chapter XIII
Chapter XIII: Mr. North Speaks
The method and manner of Frere's revenge became a subject of whispered conversation on the island. It was reported that North had been forbidden to visit the convict, but that he had refused to accept the prohibition, and by a threat of what he would do when the returning vessel had landed him in Hobart Town, had compelled the Commandant to withdraw his order. The Commandant, however, speedily discovered in Rufus Dawes signs of insubordination, and set to work again to reduce still further the "spirit" he had so ingeniously "broken". The unhappy convict was deprived of food, was kept awake at nights, was put to the hardest labour, was loaded with the heaviest irons. Troke, with devilish malice, suggested that, if the tortured wretch would decline to see the chaplain, some amelioration of his condition might be effected; but his suggestions were in vain. Fully believing that his death was certain, Dawes clung to North as the saviour of his agonized soul, and rejected all such insidious overtures. Enraged at this obstinacy, Frere sentenced his victim to the "spread eagle" and the "stretcher".
Now the rumour of the obduracy of this undaunted convict who had been recalled to her by the clergyman at their strange interview, had reached Sylvia's ears. She had heard gloomy hints of the punishments inflicted on him by her husband's order, and as—constantly revolving in her mind was that last conversation with the chaplain—she wondered at the prisoner's strange fancy for a flower, her brain began to thrill with those undefined and dreadful memories which had haunted her childhood. What was the link between her and this murderous villain? How came it that she felt at times so strange a sympathy for his fate, and that he—who had attempted her life—cherished so tender a remembrance of her as to beg for a flower which her hand had touched?
She questioned her husband concerning the convict's misdoings, but with the petulant brutality which he invariably displayed when the name of Rufus Dawes intruded itself into their conversation, Maurice Frere harshly refused to satisfy her. This but raised her curiosity higher. She reflected how bitter he had always seemed against this man—she remembered how, in the garden at Hobart Town, the hunted wretch had caught her dress with words of assured confidence—she recollected the fragment of cloth he passionately flung from him, and which her affianced lover had contemptuously tossed into the stream. The name of "Dawes", detested as it had become to her, bore yet some strange association of comfort and hope. What secret lurked behind the twilight that had fallen upon her childish memories? Deprived of the advice of North—to whom, a few weeks back, she would have confided her misgivings—she resolved upon a project that, for her, was most distasteful. She would herself visit the gaol and judge how far the rumours of her husband's cruelty were worthy of credit.
One sultry afternoon, when the Commandant had gone on a visit of inspection, Troke, lounging at the door of the New Prison, beheld, with surprise, the figure of the Commandant's lady.
"What is it, mam?" he asked, scarcely able to believe his eyes.
"I want to see the prisoner Dawes."
Troke's jaw fell.
"See Dawes?" he repeated.
"Yes. Where is he?"
Troke was preparing a lie. The imperious voice, and the clear, steady gaze, confused him.
"Let me see him."
"He's—he's under punishment, mam."
"What do you mean? Are they flogging him?"
"No; but he's dangerous, mam. The Commandant——"
"Do you mean to open the door or not, Mr. Troke?"
Troke grew more confused. It was evident that he was most unwilling to open the door. "The Commandant has given strict orders——"
"Do you wish me to complain to the Commandant?" cries Sylvia, with a touch of her old spirit, and jumped hastily at the conclusion that the gaolers were, perhaps, torturing the convict for their own entertainment. "Open the door at once!—at once!"
Thus commanded, Troke, with a hasty growl of its "being no affair of his, and he hoped Mrs. Frere would tell the captain how it happened" flung open the door of a cell on the right hand of the doorway. It was so dark that, at first, Sylvia could distinguish nothing but the outline of a framework, with something stretched upon it that resembled a human body. Her first thought was that the man was dead, but this was not so—he groaned. Her eyes, accustoming themselves to the gloom, began to see what the "punishment" was. Upon the floor was placed an iron frame about six feet long, and two and a half feet wide, with round iron bars, placed transversely, about twelve inches apart. The man she came to seek was bound in a horizontal position upon this frame, with his neck projecting over the end of it. If he allowed his head to hang, the blood rushed to his brain, and suffocated him, while the effort to keep it raised strained every muscle to agony pitch. His face was purple, and he foamed at the mouth. Sylvia uttered a cry. "This is no punishment; it's murder! Who ordered this?"
"The Commandant," said Troke sullenly.
"I don't believe it. Loose him!"
"I daren't mam," said Troke.
"Loose him, I say! Hailey!—you, sir, there!" The noise had brought several warders to the spot. "Do you hear me? Do you know who I am? Loose him, I say!" In her eagerness and compassion she was on her knees by the side of the infernal machine, plucking at the ropes with her delicate fingers. "Wretches, you have cut his flesh! He is dying! Help! You have killed him!"
The prisoner, in fact, seeing this angel of mercy stooping over him, and hearing close to him the tones of a voice that for seven years he had heard but in his dreams, had fainted. Troke and Hailey, alarmed by her vehemence, dragged the stretcher out into the light, and hastily cut the lashings. Dawes rolled off like a log, and his head fell against Mrs. Frere. Troke roughly pulled him aside, and called for water. Sylvia, trembling with sympathy and pale with passion, turned upon the crew. "How long has he been like this?"
"An hour," said Troke.
"A lie!" said a stern voice at the door. "He has been there nine hours!"
"Wretches!" cried Sylvia, "you shall hear more of this. Oh, oh! I am sick!"—she felt for the wall—"I—I——" North watched her with agony on his face, but did not move. "I faint. I——"—she uttered a despairing cry that was not without a touch of anger. "Mr. North! do you not see? Oh! Take me home—take me home!" and she would have fallen across the body of the tortured prisoner had not North caught her in his arms.
Rufus Dawes, awaking from his stupor, saw, in the midst of a sunbeam which penetrated a window in the corridor, the woman who came to save his body supported by the priest who came to save his soul; and staggering to his knees, he stretched out his hands with a hoarse cry. Perhaps something in the action brought back to the dimmed remembrance of the Commandant's wife the image of a similar figure stretching forth its hands to a frightened child in the mysterious far-off time. She started, and pushing back her hair, bent a wistful, terrified gaze upon the face of the kneeling man, as though she would fain read there an explanation of the shadowy memory which haunted her. It is possible that she would have spoken, but North—thinking the excitement had produced one of those hysterical crises which were common to her—gently drew her, still gazing, back towards the gate. The convict's arms fell, and an undefinable presentiment of evil chilled him as he beheld the priest—emotion pallid in his cheeks—slowly draw the fair young creature from out the sunlight into the grim shadow of the heavy archway. For an instant the gloom swallowed them, and it seemed to Dawes that the strange wild man of God had in that instant become a man of Evil—blighting the brightness and the beauty of the innocence that clung to him. For an instant—and then they passed out of the prison archway into the free air of heaven—and the sunlight glowed golden on their faces.
"You are ill," said North. "You will faint. Why do you look so wildly?"
"What is it?" she whispered, more in answer to her own thoughts than to his question—"what is it that links me to that man? What deed—what terror— what memory? I tremble with crowding thoughts, that die ere they can whisper to me. Oh, that prison!"
"Look up; we are in the sunshine."
She passed her hand across her brow, sighing heavily, as one awaking from a disturbed slumber—shuddered, and withdrew her arm from his. North interpreted the action correctly, and the blood rushed to his face. "Pardon me, you cannot walk alone; you will fall. I will leave you at the gate."
In truth she would have fallen had he not again assisted her. She turned upon him eyes whose reproachful sorrow had almost forced him to a confession, but he bowed his head and held silence. They reached the house, and he placed her tenderly in a chair. "Now you are safe, madam, I will leave you."
She burst into tears. "Why do you treat me thus, Mr. North? What have I done to make you hate me?"
"Hate you!" said North, with trembling lips. "Oh, no, I do not—do not hate you. I am rude in my speech, abrupt in my manner. You must forget it, and—and me."
A horse's feet crashed upon the gravel, and an instant after Maurice Frere burst into the room. Returning from the Cascades, he had met Troke, and learned the release of the prisoner. Furious at this usurpation of authority by his wife, his self-esteem wounded by the thought that she had witnessed his mean revenge upon the man he had so infamously wronged, and his natural brutality enhanced by brandy, he had made for the house at full gallop, determined to assert his authority. Blind with rage, he saw no one but his wife. "What the devil's this I hear? You have been meddling in my business! You release prisoners! You——"
"Captain Frere!" said North, stepping forward to assert the restraining presence of a stranger. Frere started, astonished at the intrusion of the chaplain. Here was another outrage of his dignity, another insult to his supreme authority. In its passion, his gross mind leapt to the worst conclusion.
"You here, too! What do you want here—with my wife! This is your quarrel, is it?" His eyes glanced wrathfully from one to the other; and he strode towards North. "You infernal hypocritical lying scoundrel, if it wasn't for your black coat, I'd——"
"Maurice!" cried Sylvia, in an agony of shame and terror, striving to place a restraining hand upon his arm. He turned upon her with so fiercely infamous a curse that North, pale with righteous rage, seemed prompted to strike the burly ruffian to the earth. For a moment, the two men faced each other, and then Frere, muttering threats of vengeance against each and all—convicts, gaolers, wife, and priest—flung the suppliant woman violently from him, and rushed from the room. She fell heavily against the wall, and as the chaplain raised her, he heard the hoof-strokes of the departing horse.
"Oh," cried Sylvia, covering her face with trembling hands, "let me leave this place!"
North, enfolding her in his arms, strove to soothe her with incoherent words of comfort. Dizzy with the blow she had received, she clung to him sobbing. Twice he tried to tear himself away, but had he loosed his hold she would have fallen. He could not hold her—bruised, suffering, and in tears—thus against his heart, and keep silence. In a torrent of agonized eloquence the story of his love burst from his lips. "Why should you be thus tortured?" he cried. "Heaven never willed you to be mated to that boor—you, whose life should be all sunshine. Leave him—leave him. He has cast you off. We have both suffered. Let us leave this dreadful place—this isthmus between earth and hell! I will give you happiness."
"I am going," she said faintly. "I have already arranged to go."
North trembled. "It was not of my seeking. Fate has willed it. We go together!"
They looked at each other—she felt the fever of his blood, she read his passion in his eyes, she comprehended the "hatred" he had affected for her, and, deadly pale, drew back the cold hand he held.
"Go!" she murmured. "If you love me, leave me—leave me! Do not see me or speak to me again—" her silence added the words she could not utter, "till then."