For the Term of His Natural Life

by Marcus Clarke

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Chapter XI: Extracted from the Diary of the Rev. James North

December 7th.--I have made up my mind to leave this place, to bury myself again in the bush, I suppose, and await extinction. I try to think that the reason for this determination is the frightful condition of misery existing among the prisoners; that because I am daily horrified and sickened by scenes of torture and infamy, I decide to go away; that, feeling myself powerless to save others, I wish to spare myself. But in this journal, in which I bind myself to write nothing but truth, I am forced to confess that these are not the reasons. I will write the reason plainly: "I covet my neighbour's wife." It does not look well thus written. It looks hideous. In my own breast I find numberless excuses for my passion. I said to myself, "My neighbour does not love his wife, and her unloved life is misery. She is forced to live in the frightful seclusion of this accursed island, and she is dying for want of companionship. She feels that I understand and appreciate her, that I could love her as she deserves, that I could render her happy. I feel that I have met the only woman who has power to touch my heart, to hold me back from the ruin into which I am about to plunge, to make me useful to my fellows--a man, and not a drunkard." Whispering these conclusions to myself, I am urged to brave public opinion, and make two lives happy. I say to myself, or rather my desires say to me--"What sin is there in this? Adultery? No; for a marriage without love is the coarsest of all adulteries. What tie binds a man and woman together--that formula of license pronounced by the priest, which the law has recognized as a 'legal bond'? Surely not this only, for marriage is but a partnership--a contract of mutual fidelity--and in all contracts the violation of the terms of the agreement by one of the contracting persons absolves the other. Mrs. Frere is then absolved, by her husband's act. I cannot but think so. But is she willing to risk the shame of divorce or legal offence? Perhaps. Is she fitted by temperament to bear such a burden of contumely as must needs fall upon her? Will she not feel disgust at the man who entrapped her into shame? Do not the comforts which surround her compensate for the lack of affections?" And so the torturing catechism continues, until I am driven mad with doubt, love, and despair.

Of course I am wrong; of course I outrage my character as a priest; of course I endanger--according to the creed I teach--my soul and hers. But priests, unluckily, have hearts and passions as well as other men. Thank God, as yet, I have never expressed my madness in words. What a fate is mine! When I am in her presence I am in torment; when I am absent from her my imagination pictures her surrounded by a thousand graces that are not hers, but belong to all the women of my dreams--to Helen, to Juliet, to Rosalind. Fools that we are of our own senses! When I think of her I blush; when I hear her name my heart leaps, and I grow pale. Love! What is the love of two pure souls, scarce conscious of the Paradise into which they have fallen, to this maddening delirium? I can understand the poison of Circe's cup; it is the sweet-torment of a forbidden love like mine! Away gross materialism, in which I have so long schooled myself! I, who laughed at passion as the outcome of temperament and easy living--I, who thought in my intellect, to sound all the depths and shoals of human feeling--I, who analysed my own soul--scoffed at my own yearnings for an immortality--am forced to deify the senseless power of my creed, and believe in God, that I may pray to Him. I know now why men reject the cold impersonality that reason tells us rules the world--it is because they love. To die, and be no more; to die, and rendered into dust, be blown about the earth; to die and leave our love defenceless and forlorn, till the bright soul that smiled to ours is smothered in the earth that made it! No! To love is life eternal. God, I believe in Thee! Aid me! Pity me! Sinful wretch that I am, to have denied Thee! See me on my knees before Thee! Pity me, or let me die!

December 9th.--I have been visiting the two condemned prisoners, Dawes and Bland, and praying with them. O Lord, let me save one soul that may plead with Thee for mine! Let me draw one being alive out of this pit! I weep--I weary Thee with my prayers, O Lord! Look down upon me. Grant me a sign. Thou didst it in old times to men who were not more fervent in their supplications than am I. So says Thy Book. Thy Book which I believe--which I believe. Grant me a sign--one little sign, O Lord!--I will not see her. I have sworn it. Thou knowest my grief-- my agony--my despair. Thou knowest why I love her. Thou knowest how I strive to make her hate me. Is that not a sacrifice? I am so lonely-- a lonely man, with but one creature that he loves--yet, what is mortal love to Thee? Cruel and implacable, Thou sittest in the heavens men have built for Thee, and scornest them! Will not all the burnings and slaughters of the saints appease Thee? Art Thou not sated with blood and tears, O God of vengeance, of wrath, and of despair! Kind Christ, pity me. Thou wilt--for Thou wast human! Blessed Saviour, at whose feet knelt the Magdalen! Divinity, who, most divine in Thy despair, called on Thy cruel God to save Thee--by the memory of that moment when Thou didst deem Thyself forsaken--forsake not me! Sweet Christ, have mercy on Thy sinful servant.

I can write no more. I will pray to Thee with my lips. I will shriek my supplications to Thee. I will call upon Thee so loud that all the world shall hear me, and wonder at Thy silence--unjust and unmerciful God!

December 14th.--What blasphemies are these which I have uttered in my despair? Horrible madness that has left me prostrate, to what heights of frenzy didst thou not drive my soul! Like him of old time, who wandered among the tombs, shrieking and tearing himself, I have been possessed by a devil. For a week I have been unconscious of aught save torture. I have gone about my daily duties as one who in his dreams repeats the accustomed action of the day, and knows it not. Men have looked at me strangely. They look at me strangely now. Can it be that my disease of drunkenness has become the disease of insanity? Am I mad, or do I but verge on madness? O Lord, whom in my agonies I have confessed, leave me my intellect--let me not become a drivelling spectacle for the curious to point at or to pity! At least, in mercy, spare me a little. Let not my punishment overtake me here. Let her memories of me be clouded with a sense of my rudeness or my brutality; let me for ever seem to her the ungrateful ruffian I strive to show myself--but let her not behold me--that!


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