For the Term of His Natural Life

by Marcus Clarke

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Chapter XIX: The Consolations of Religion

"Well, my good man," said Meekin, soothingly, "so you wanted to see me."

"I asked for the chaplain," said Rufus Dawes, his anger with himself growing apace. "I am the chaplain," returned Meekin, with dignity, as who should say--"none of your brandy-drinking, pea-jacketed Norths, but a Respectable chaplain who is the friend of a Bishop!"

"I thought that Mr. North was--"

"Mr. North has left, sir," said Meekin, dryly, "but I will hear what you have to say. There is no occasion to go, constable; wait outside the door."

Rufus Dawes shifted himself on the wooden bench, and resting his scarcely-healed back against the wall, smiled bitterly. "Don't be afraid, sir; I am not going to harm you," he said. "I only wanted to talk a little."

"Do you read your Bible, Dawes?" asked Meekin, by way of reply. "It would be better to read your Bible than to talk, I think. You must humble yourself in prayer, Dawes."

"I have read it," said Dawes, still lying back and watching him.

"But is your mind softened by its teachings? Do you realize the Infinite Mercy of God, Who has compassion, Dawes, upon the greatest sinners?" The convict made a move of impatience. The old, sickening, barren cant of piety was to be recommenced then. He came asking for bread, and they gave him the usual stone.

"Do you believe that there is a God, Mr. Meekin?"

"Abandoned sinner! Do you insult a clergyman by such a question?"

"Because I think sometimes that if there is, He must often be dissatisfied at the way things are done here," said Dawes, half to himself.

"I can listen to no mutinous observations, prisoner," said Meekin. "Do not add blasphemy to your other crimes. I fear that all conversation with you, in your present frame of mind, would be worse than useless. I will mark a few passages in your Bible, that seem to me appropriate to your condition, and beg you to commit them to memory. Hailes, the door, if you please."

So, with a bow, the "consoler" departed.

Rufus Dawes felt his heart grow sick. North had gone, then. The only man who had seemed to have a heart in his bosom had gone. The only man who had dared to clasp his horny and blood-stained hand, and call him "brother", had gone. Turning his head, he saw through the window--wide open and unbarred, for Nature, at Port Arthur, had no need of bars--the lovely bay, smooth as glass, glittering in the afternoon sun, the long quay, spotted with groups of parti-coloured chain-gangs, and heard, mingling with the soft murmur of the waves, and the gentle rustling of the trees, the never-ceasing clashing of irons, and the eternal click of hammer. Was he to be for ever buried in this whitened sepulchre, shut out from the face of Heaven and mankind!

The appearance of Hailes broke his reverie. "Here's a book for you," said he, with a grin. "Parson sent it."

Rufus Dawes took the Bible, and, placing it on his knees, turned to the places indicated by slips of paper, embracing some twenty marked texts.

"Parson says he'll come and hear you to-morrer, and you're to keep the book clean."

"Keep the book clean!" and "hear him!" Did Meekin think that he was a charity school boy? The utter incapacity of the chaplain to understand his wants was so sublime that it was nearly ridiculous enough to make him laugh. He turned his eyes downwards to the texts. Good Meekin, in the fullness of his stupidity, had selected the fiercest denunciations of bard and priest. The most notable of the Psalmist's curses upon his enemies, the most furious of Isaiah's ravings anent the forgetfulness of the national worship, the most terrible thunderings of apostle and evangelist against idolatry and unbelief, were grouped together and presented to Dawes to soothe him. All the material horrors of Meekin's faith--stripped, by force of dissociation from the context, of all poetic feeling and local colouring--were launched at the suffering sinner by Meekin's ignorant hand. The miserable man, seeking for consolation and peace, turned over the leaves of the Bible only to find himself threatened with "the pains of Hell", "the never-dying worm", "the unquenchable fire", "the bubbling brimstone", the "bottomless pit", from out of which the "smoke of his torment" should ascend for ever and ever. Before his eyes was held no image of a tender Saviour (with hands soft to soothe, and eyes brimming with ineffable pity) dying crucified that he and other malefactors might have hope, by thinking on such marvellous humanity. The worthy Pharisee who was sent to him to teach him how mankind is to be redeemed with Love, preached only that harsh Law whose barbarous power died with the gentle Nazarene on Calvary.

Repelled by this unlooked-for ending to his hopes, he let the book fall to the ground. "Is there, then, nothing but torment for me in this world or the next?" he groaned, shuddering. Presently his eyes sought his right hand, resting upon it as though it were not his own, or had some secret virtue which made it different from the other. "He would not have done this? He would not have thrust upon me these savage judgments, these dreadful threats of Hell and Death. He called me 'Brother'!" And filled with a strange wild pity for himself, and yearning love towards the man who befriended him, he fell to nursing the hand on which North's tears had fallen, moaning and rocking himself to and fro.

Meekin, in the morning, found his pupil more sullen than ever.

"Have you learned these texts, my man?" said he, cheerfully, willing not to be angered with his uncouth and unpromising convert.

Rufus Dawes pointed with his foot to the Bible, which still lay on the floor as he had left it the night before. "No!"

"No! Why not?"

"I would learn no such words as those. I would rather forget them."

"Forget them! My good man, I--"

Rufus Dawes sprang up in sudden wrath, and pointing to his cell door with a gesture that--chained and degraded as he was--had something of dignity in it, cried, "What do you know about the feelings of such as I? Take your book and yourself away. When I asked for a priest, I had no thought of you. Begone!"

Meekin, despite the halo of sanctity which he felt should surround him, found his gentility melt all of a sudden. Adventitious distinctions had disappeared for the instant. The pair had become simply man and man, and the sleek priest-master quailing before the outraged manhood of the convict-penitent, picked up his Bible and backed out.

"That man Dawes is very insolent," said the insulted chaplain to Burgess. "He was brutal to me to-day--quite brutal."

"Was he?" said Burgess. "Had too long a spell, I expect. I'll send him back to work to-morrow."

"It would be well," said Meekin, "if he had some employment."


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