Though the house of the Commandant of Norfolk Island was comfortable and well furnished, and though, of necessity, all that was most hideous in the "discipline" of the place was hidden, the loathing with which Sylvia had approached the last and most dreaded abiding place of the elaborate convict system, under which it had been her misfortune to live, had not decreased. The sights and sounds of pain and punishment surrounded her. She could not look out of her windows without a shudder. She dreaded each evening when her husband returned, lest he should blurt out some new atrocity. She feared to ask him in the morning whither he was going, lest he should thrill her with the announcement of some fresh punishment.
"I wish, Maurice, we had never come here," said she, piteously, when he recounted to her the scene of the gaol-gang. "These unhappy men will do you some frightful injury one of these days."
"Stuff!" said her husband. "They've not the courage. I'd take the best man among them, and dare him to touch me."
"I cannot think how you like to witness so much misery and villainy. It is horrible to think of."
"Our tastes differ, my dear.--Jenkins! Confound you! Jenkins, I say." The convict-servant entered. "Where is the charge-book? I've told you always to have it ready for me. Why don't you do as you are told? You idle, lazy scoundrel! I suppose you were yarning in the cookhouse, or--"
"If you please, sir."
"Don't answer me, sir. Give me the book." Taking it and running his finger down the leaves, he commented on the list of offences to which he would be called upon in the morning to mete out judgment.
"Meer-a-seek, having a pipe--the rascally Hindoo scoundrel!--Benjamin Pellett, having fat in his possession. Miles Byrne, not walking fast enough.-- We must enliven Mr. Byrne. Thomas Twist, having a pipe and striking a light. W. Barnes, not in place at muster; says he was 'washing himself'-- I'll wash him! John Richards, missing muster and insolence. John Gateby, insolence and insubordination. James Hopkins, insolence and foul language. Rufus Dawes, gross insolence, refusing to work.--Ah! we must look after you. You are a parson's man now, are you? I'll break your spirit, my man, or I'll--Sylvia!"
"Your friend Dawes is doing credit to his bringing up."
"What do you mean?"
"That infernal villain and reprobate, Dawes. He is fitting himself faster for--" She interrupted him. "Maurice, I wish you would not use such language. You know I dislike it." She spoke coldly and sadly, as one who knows that remonstrance is vain, and is yet constrained to remonstrate.
"Oh, dear! My Lady Proper! can't bear to hear her husband swear. How refined we're getting!"
"There, I did not mean to annoy you," said she, wearily. "Don't let us quarrel, for goodness' sake."
He went away noisily, and she sat looking at the carpet wearily. A noise roused her. She looked up and saw North. Her face beamed instantly. "Ah! Mr. North, I did not expect you. What brings you here? You'll stay to dinner, of course." (She rang the bell without waiting for a reply.) "Mr. North dines here; place a chair for him. And have you brought me the book? I have been looking for it."
"Here it is," said North, producing a volume of 'Monte Cristo'. She seized the book with avidity, and, after running her eyes over the pages, turned inquiringly to the fly-leaf.
"It belongs to my predecessor," said North, as though in answer to her thought. "He seems to have been a great reader of French. I have found many French novels of his."
"I thought clergymen never read French novels," said Sylvia, with a smile.
"There are French novels and French novels," said North. "Stupid people confound the good with the bad. I remember a worthy friend of mine in Sydney who soundly abused me for reading 'Rabelais', and when I asked him if he had read it, he said that he would sooner cut his hand off than open it. Admirable judge of its merits!"
"But is this really good? Papa told me it was rubbish."
"It is a romance, but, in my opinion, a very fine one. The notion of the sailor being taught in prison by the priest, and sent back into the world an accomplished gentleman, to work out his vengeance, is superb."
"No, now--you are telling me," laughed she; and then, with feminine perversity, "Go on, what is the story?"
"Only that of an unjustly imprisoned man, who, escaping by a marvel, and becoming rich--as Dr. Johnson says, 'beyond the dreams of avarice'-- devotes his life and fortune to revenge himself."
"And does he?"
"He does, upon all his enemies save one."
"And he--?" "She--was the wife of his greatest enemy, and Dantès spared her because he loved her."
Sylvia turned away her head. "It seems interesting enough," said she, coldly.
There was an awkward silence for a moment, which each seemed afraid to break. North bit his lips, as though regretting what he had said. Mrs. Frere beat her foot on the floor, and at length, raising her eyes, and meeting those of the clergyman fixed upon her face, rose hurriedly, and went to meet her returning husband.
"Come to dinner, of course!" said Frere, who, though he disliked the clergyman, yet was glad of anybody who would help him to pass a cheerful evening.
"I came to bring Mrs. Frere a book."
"Ah! She reads too many books; she's always reading books. It is not a good thing to be always poring over print, is it, North? You have some influence with her; tell her so. Come, I am hungry."
He spoke with that affectation of jollity with which husbands of his calibre veil their bad temper.
Sylvia had her defensive armour on in a twinkling. "Of course, you two men will be against me. When did two men ever disagree upon the subject of wifely duties? However, I shall read in spite of you. Do you know, Mr. North, that when I married I made a special agreement with Captain Frere that I was not to be asked to sew on buttons for him?"
"Indeed!" said North, not understanding this change of humour.
"And she never has from that hour," said Frere, recovering his suavity at the sight of food. "I never have a shirt fit to put on. Upon my word, there are a dozen in the drawer now."
North perused his plate uncomfortably. A saying of omniscient Balzac occurred to him. "Le grand écueil est le ridicule," and his mind began to sound all sorts of philosophical depths, not of the most clerical character.
After dinner Maurice launched out into his usual topic--convict discipline. It was pleasant for him to get a listener; for his wife, cold and unsympathetic, tacitly declined to enter into his schemes for the subduing of the refractory villains. "You insisted on coming here," she would say. "I did not wish to come. I don't like to talk of these things. Let us talk of something else." When she adopted this method of procedure, he had no alternative but to submit, for he was afraid of her, after a fashion. In this ill-assorted match he was only apparently the master. He was a physical tyrant. For him, a creature had but to be weak to be an object of contempt; and his gross nature triumphed over the finer one of his wife. Love had long since died out of their life. The young, impulsive, delicate girl, who had given herself to him seven years before, had been changed into a weary, suffering woman. The wife is what her husband makes her, and his rude animalism had made her the nervous invalid she was. Instead of love, he had awakened in her a distaste which at times amounted to disgust. We have neither the skill nor the boldness of that profound philosopher whose autopsy of the human heart awoke North's contemplation, and we will not presume to set forth in bare English the story of this marriage of the Minotaur. Let it suffice to say that Sylvia liked her husband least when he loved her most. In this repulsion lay her power over him. When the animal and spiritual natures cross each other, the nobler triumphs in fact if not in appearance. Maurice Frere, though his wife obeyed him, knew that he was inferior to her, and was afraid of the statue he had created. She was ice, but it was the artificial ice that chemists make in the midst of a furnace. Her coldness was at once her strength and her weakness. When she chilled him, she commanded him.
Unwitting of the thoughts that possessed his guest, Frere chatted amicably. North said little, but drank a good deal. The wine, however, rendered him silent, instead of talkative. He drank that he might forget unpleasant memories, and drank without accomplishing his object. When the pair proceeded to the room where Mrs. Frere awaited them, Frere was boisterously good-humoured, North silently misanthropic.
"Sing something, Sylvia!" said Frere, with the ease of possession, as one who should say to a living musical-box, "Play something."
"Oh, Mr. North doesn't care for music, and I'm not inclined to sing. Singing seems out of place here."
"Nonsense," said Frere. "Why should it be more out of place here than anywhere else?"
"Mrs. Frere means that mirth is in a manner unsuited to these melancholy surroundings," said North, out of his keener sense.
"Melancholy surroundings!" cried Frere, staring in turn at the piano, the ottomans, and the looking-glass. "Well, the house isn't as good as the one in Sydney, but it's comfortable enough."
"You don't understand me, Maurice," said Sylvia. "This place is very gloomy to me. The thought of the unhappy men who are ironed and chained all about us makes me miserable."
"What stuff!" said Frere, now thoroughly roused. "The ruffians deserve all they get and more. Why should you make yourself wretched about them?"
"Poor men! How do we know the strength of their temptation, the bitterness of their repentance?"
"Evil-doers earn their punishment," says North, in a hard voice, and taking up a book suddenly. "They must learn to bear it. No repentance can undo their sin."
"But surely there is mercy for the worst of evil-doers," urged Sylvia, gently.
North seemed disinclined or unable to reply, and nodded only.
"Mercy!" cried Frere. "I am not here to be merciful; I am here to keep these scoundrels in order, and by the Lord that made me, I'll do it!"
"Maurice, do not talk like that. Think how slight an accident might have made any one of us like one of these men. What is the matter, Mr. North?"
Mr. North has suddenly turned pale.
"Nothing," returned the clergyman, gasping--"a sudden faintness!" The windows were thrown open, and the chaplain gradually recovered, as he did in Burgess's parlour, at Port Arthur, seven years ago. "I am liable to these attacks. A touch of heart disease, I think. I shall have to rest for a day or so." "Ah, take a spell," said Frere; "you overwork yourself."
North, sitting, gasping and pale, smiles in a ghastly manner. "I--I will. If I do not appear for a week, Mrs. Frere, you will know the reason."
"A week! Surely it will not last so long as that!" exclaims Sylvia.
The ambiguous "it" appears to annoy him, for he flushes painfully, replying, "Sometimes longer. It is, a--um--uncertain," in a confused and shame-faced manner, and is luckily relieved by the entry of Jenkins.
"A message from Mr. Troke, sir."
"Troke! What's the matter now?"
"Dawes, sir, 's been violent and assaulted Mr. Troke. Mr. Troke said you'd left orders to be told at onst of the insubordination of prisoners."
"Quite right. Where is he?" "In the cells, I think, sir. They had a hard fight to get him there, I am told, your honour."
"Had they? Give my compliments to Mr. Troke, and tell him that I shall have the pleasure of breaking Mr. Dawes's spirit to-morrow morning at nine sharp."
"Maurice," said Sylvia, who had been listening to the conversation in undisguised alarm, "do me a favour? Do not torment this man."
"What makes you take a fancy to him?" asks her husband, with sudden unnecessary fierceness.
"Because his is one of the names which have been from my childhood synonymous with suffering and torture, because whatever wrong he may have done, his life-long punishment must have in some degree atoned for it."
She spoke with an eager pity in her face that transfigured it. North, devouring her with his glance, saw tears in her eyes. "Does this look as if he had made atonement?" said Frere coarsely, slapping the letter.
"He is a bad man, I know, but--" she passed her hand over her forehead with the old troubled gesture--"he cannot have been always bad. I think I have heard some good of him somewhere."
"Nonsense," said Frere, rising decisively. "Your fancies mislead you. Let me hear you no more. The man is rebellious, and must be lashed back again to his duty. Come, North, we'll have a nip before you start."
"Mr. North, will not you plead for me?" suddenly cried poor Sylvia, her self-possession overthrown. "You have a heart to pity these suffering creatures."
But North, who seemed to have suddenly recalled his soul from some place where it had been wandering, draws himself aside, and with dry lips makes shift to say, "I cannot interfere with your husband, madam," and goes out almost rudely.
"You've made old North quite ill," said Frere, when he by-and-by returns, hoping by bluff ignoring of roughness on his own part to avoid reproach from his wife. "He drank half a bottle of brandy to steady his nerves before he went home, and swung out of the house like one possessed."
But Sylvia, occupied with her own thoughts, did not reply.