Authors: Felicity Pulman
‘Will you do me the honour of dancing with me, Miss Bennett?’
It seems there are no cards to fill in and the men must take their chances on finding a partner. I put my hand on his arm and he leads me out to join in a quadrille. We form a square; the ladies curtsy, the men bow. As the leading couple steps out, I sneak a glance at the convicts. Does Cormac O’Brien know who I am? Will he remember that he winked at me? How would it feel to be held in his arms, to be dancing with him? My body stirs at the thought. My face burns and I lower my head to hide my confusion.
During the course of the evening, I dance with numerous officers and civilians, but every hand that takes mine, every voice that pays me a compliment, belongs to an Irishman with a cheeky grin and music at his fingertips.
With an effort, I turn my attention to my current partner. He is comely enough, but he isn’t tall and dark and he does not have laughing blue eyes. This officer obviously hopes to become one of Father’s favourites for he pours flattering words into my ear, some about me, but mostly he talks about himself and Father.
‘Commandant Bennett is exactly what this settlement needs,’ the man gushes. ‘He has certainly brought the convicts into line with his new punishments. He won’t let them get away with anything.’
‘What do you mean?’
The officer grins. ‘Just this morning, your father ordered three hundred lashes for a hardened criminal. The man passed out after only a hundred, so your father has ordered that the rest of his sentence be carried out tomorrow. It will show the prisoners that they cannot escape punishment by pretending to faint.’
‘Oh!’ In my distress, I misstep and stumble slightly. ‘Not everyone seems to agree with such …’ I am about to say ‘cruel’ but change my mind at the last moment, ‘… such rigorous punishments for the convicts.’
‘Only those who were corrupted by Maconochie,’ the officer says scornfully.
As we part to progress down the line of dancers, I feel his hand stray to my waist for a quick squeeze. I twist out of his grasp, and find myself looking at Cormac O’Brien. Our eyes meet for a brief instant, and he winks at me again. I smile at him, pleased that he has recognised me. When I return to my partner, he shows no remorse for his action but immediately resumes our conversation, apparently encouraged by my interest.
‘The settlement here at Norfolk Island was known far and wide as an Ocean Hell until Maconochie came and changed everything,’ he informs me. ‘The convicts took every advantage of his laxity. That is why your father was sent here to restore order. His brief was to bring the incorrigibles into line and make them fear the island as a place of no return. He needs to be harsh; it is the only way the convicts will learn their lesson. Your father understands that, and so do I. In fact, I commended him on his treatment of the prisoners only this morning.’
The music is still playing but I have heard enough. ‘Thank you for the dance,’ I say, and walk away, leaving my partner alone on the dance floor.
This, then, is my father’s purpose here on the island: to torture and beat these men into submission; to break their hearts and their spirits in every possible way. I look across the room to where my father and mother sit surrounded by a covey of fawning officers, and feel a deep disquiet. My father is red-faced and laughing, a hand on one man’s shoulder, a glass of rum in the other. I look at him as if seeing him for the first time. How is it I have never noticed the streak of cruelty that must run beneath his bluff exterior?
My mother looks quite frail and subdued alongside my father. I begin to wonder what she really thinks about her life here, so far from her home in England and with no choice but to pack up her belongings and her family and follow her husband from Van Diemen’s Land to this hellhole. She must miss Hobart Town just as I do, I realise.
I look about for Elizabeth among the throng. I’m longing for a friendly face. I especially want to see Elizabeth, to clear up the misunderstanding that seems to have arisen between us. She’s the one true friend I have here and I don’t want to jeopardise that friendship. I can’t see her, although other members of her family are present. I’m alarmed that she may be seriously unwell. Entertainments are few and greatly prized when they do occur. She would surely have come if she could.
I’m about to go over to her sisters to ask after her when I hear Jack Cartwright’s voice again, asking for another dance. I stifle a
groan, rise to my feet and hold out my hand. The music starts once more: a lively gavotte. I stop, transfixed. The tune is so familiar from my time in Hobart Town I can almost play it with my eyes closed. Surely this is a sign?
Giving way to an overwhelming temptation, I snatch my hand from Jack’s, peel off my gloves and bend to find the package stored in safety under my chair. I carefully unwrap the fleecy shawl to reveal my violin.
Cormac’s eyes widen as he watches me approach the musicians. He stops playing, and the others follow his cue. I am aware that a great silence has fallen over the room, but I am committed now to showing my father how much I need music in my life and how appropriate it is that Cormac should teach me. Hiding my fear, I nod to the men, tuck my violin under my chin and bow an experimental note. I tuned my instrument before leaving home, and I pray now that it will suit. Cormac repeats the note, as do the others, and so I set the lead, beginning once again with the opening refrain of the gavotte.
The dancers begin to move once more, weaving complicated threads in a swirl of colour and movement. At first I am the focus of their curiosity, but as they get caught up in the dance, they switch their attention to their partners and I am forgotten. I relax and continue to play, enjoying the music and the fact that I am contributing to the evening’s entertainment.
I steal a glance at my father. As I catch his eye, he beckons urgently for me to come away. I blink and look elsewhere. Not for anything will I stop what I have started. My joy does not last. Furious at having his summons ignored, my father strides up and snatches my violin from my hands.
‘I will not have you up here making a spectacle of yourself,’ he grates, and, with his hand in the small of my back, he shoves me away from the musicians. At Cormac’s signal, they continue to play; I am grateful for his presence of mind.
My father grabs my hand and drags me through the dancers, who are slowing to a stop as they become aware of the disturbance. They stare at us with great curiosity as we pass. Conversation ceases, the silence broken only by the valiant efforts of the band.
I follow after my father, knowing that to resist would cause a worse scene, but I am furious with him and deeply resentful. I bow my head to avoid looking anyone in the face, but still I hear the whispers and titters that follow our passage. I am too angry to feel ashamed of my behaviour, yet I know that eventually I shall have to apologise to my father. Not to do so will inflame his anger and set him more firmly against the possibility of my playing in public. But I am determined not to give up.
The dance comes to an end and the musicians immediately start on another quadrille. My father beckons my mother and sister and they make their hasty farewells. There will be no more dancing for us this night, and no more music either. Just before we exit the room, I cannot resist turning for one last glance at Cormac. Our eyes meet; he gives a slight nod.
The music follows us outside. My father stalks on ahead, while I strain to hear the last notes.
‘Leave talking to your father until tomorrow,’ my mother cautions, drawing me aside before we climb into the carriage. I nod. Inside the carriage, I say nothing, but sit looking suitably chastened.
Inwardly, I am seething. My father glowers at me until we reach our home, making no effort to hide his displeasure. To my infinite relief, he hands my violin back to me before he stamps off to his study.
My mind is wholly taken up with images of the Irish convict and the joy of making music with him; my heart aches with longing, with wanting. Until now, my musings in this diary have been innocent enough. But as I record all that has happened this day and how I feel about Cormac, finding comfort in putting my thoughts into words, I blush as I recall what I’ve written, yet it is the truth. If I cannot record the truth, then there is no point to keeping a diary at all. I realise that I must find a hiding place for my book.
‘Allie! Why are you still awake? Is anything wrong?’
My mother stood in the doorway of my bedroom. I’d been so engrossed in Alice’s diary that I hadn’t even heard her open the door. Without a second’s thought, I shoved the book out of sight under the blankets.
‘I’m fine. I just got up to go to the toilet, that’s all.’ I lay back and tried to look sleepy.
‘What were you reading?’
‘Just something I remembered we were supposed to do for homework. Why are you still awake?’ I sneaked a quick glance at my watch. It was after one in the morning.
‘I fetched a glass of water from the kitchen and noticed that your light was still on.’ My mother came closer, looking worried. ‘Did everything go all right with the babysitting tonight? The children didn’t give you any problems?’
‘No, they were fast asleep. Everything’s fine, truly.’
I waved my hand in a gesture of farewell, hoping she’d go
back to bed. I was desperate to get back to Alice’s story, to find out what happened after the dance. Fortunately Mum took the hint.
‘Leave your homework for tomorrow,’ she said, adding unnecessarily, ‘It’s a school night and you need your sleep.’
I switched off my light and began to count off the minutes until it was safe to put it on again. My mind buzzed with questions while I waited. Alice’s recounting of events was so real, so vivid, I felt as if I was right there with her, experiencing what she was going through. I understood so much about her life now. Like her love of music, her love of playing the violin. I was quite sure that this must be the same violin that I’d brought with me to the island. I made a mental note to ask my father how we’d come to inherit it.
I could also understand Alice’s growing attraction to Cormac. I pulled a face as I thought about the similarities between her situation and mine. Now I knew why I’d felt so attracted to Noah, although it was creepy to think that history was repeating itself in some weird way, and that I’d somehow tapped into it.
Poor Alice. What a brute of a father! There was no way he was going to allow her to have anything to do with a convict. That relationship was definitely going nowhere. It shamed me to think that I had defended John Bennett in front of the whole history class.
Surely it was safe to put on my light once more? I clicked it on, checked my watch, and then kept on reading.
As soon as I wake, I rise from my bed and hurry down the hallway to the front of the house to peer through the window. I am relieved to see that it is a fine, clear morning. And then I remember that it is Sunday, which means there will be no work in the garden today. I try to quiet my troubled mind as we sit through our devotions. Reverend Rogers conducts the service in the Protestant chapel in the convict barracks and preaches rather a lengthy sermon. I look for Cormac until I realise that of course he will be worshipping with the Catholics on the other side of the compound. Mother wants to invite Reverend Rogers to tea after the service, but Father forbids it. He seems to have taken against the man, so it is fortunate that the cleric is based at the settlement at Cascade, which means that we don’t often see him.
The rest of the day passes somehow, but I do achieve one important task. After some thought, I purloin a sharp knife from the kitchen and take it to my bedroom. I bolt the door and set to work on the floorboards, hardly knowing what to expect. I am delighted when I discover a space underneath where I may conceal my diary. Now no-one but me will ever know my secrets.
As always, I am startled from sleep by the bell that clangs at daybreak in the convicts’ barracks, wakening the poor wretches from their dreams — or nightmares. And, as always, I hurry to the front of the house to assess the day. The sun is shining, which means that the convicts may come back to work in the garden. I hope, I pray, that Cormac will be with them, for it is several weeks since I last saw him.
I plan to go exploring just as soon as I can free myself from my household duties and also from my sister and little brother. Only three years old, William usually stays with mother or Billy, the convict assigned to take care of him, but today he must sense my restless excitement for he follows me around for most of the morning. Finally, seething with impatience, I send him to find Susannah and our mother. As soon as he leaves the room, I snatch up my sketchbook and escape from the house.
I am taking a risk, I know, particularly after the dance and its aftermath. For the first time, I have felt the lash of my father’s tongue. He scolded me all through breakfast the morning after the dance, ignoring my apology and attempted explanation and berating me for what he called my ‘shameless behaviour’. Since then I have tried to keep out of his way. Today, he is away from the house and, I hope, will never learn of this excursion.
To my joy, I see the convicts hard at work in the vegetable garden and Cormac is among them! My spirits soar with excitement and relief. As I walk down the hill, my thoughts are full of the Irishman. I picture him coaxing music from his violin, music that speaks to my heart and to my soul. I long to talk to him. I want to compliment him on his playing and find out more about him.
Cormac is dressed in his ragged convict garb once more, but he is here and that is all that matters. Has he noticed my approach? I push my way through the bushes to the fence, just as I did before, and stoop to peer through the small space between the planks. Cormac smiles at me and my heart leaps.
The convicts are quiet today, working under the eye of a different guard who seems far more alert than their previous dozy keeper. Several extra convicts have joined their ranks. I know my father is determined to increase food production on the island and I wonder if he intends to augment the prisoners’ diet now that he has taken away their gardening privileges. I hope they will think more kindly of him if this is so.
I become aware that Cormac has stopped digging and is talking to the overseer. He picks up a crate of small plants and brings them close to where I am crouching. He kneels, and begins to press the seedlings into the soft, damp earth.
‘Good morning, miss,’ he says quietly.
‘Good morning,’ I reply, wondering at his daring — and my own in responding so readily. ‘How did you know I was here?’
‘I saw you coming towards us, miss. And I can see that hole in the fence. Usually a faint light shines through. When it went dark, I knew someone was there. And as you did not walk on past, I knew that it must be you.’
‘You winked at me!’ I try to sound outraged, but fail.
‘And you played the violin with me — just for a little while.’ He gives a low chuckle. ‘My name is Cormac O’Brien. What is your name, miss?’
‘Alice Bennett.’ I shiver as he looks directly at me through the peephole, as our eyes lock and hold.
‘It is a pleasure to meet you, Miss Bennett.’
‘Please, call me Alice,’ I say.
‘I wish we could have had more time to play music together, Alice.’ His tone is wistful.
‘And I wish so too, Cormac, more than you can know. You play the violin so beautifully.’
‘I was a professional musician back in the old country. Sure, and it’s the only pleasure I have in this hellhole, the chance to make music. It reminds me of home.’
The sadness in his voice touches my heart. I want to ask him about giving me lessons, thinking the prospect might cheer him, but how can I give him hope when I hardly dare hope myself? My father is so very angry; I need to give him time to calm down before I dare broach the subject again.
‘How do you like living on Norfolk Island, Alice?’
Cormac’s voice breaks into my reverie. I flinch at the bitterness in his tone.
‘I hate it here.’
‘Where did you live before you came to this Ocean Hell?’ he asks.
‘Van Diemen’s Land. My father was a magistrate in Hobart Town. It was so much nicer there,’ I add.
Cormac makes no comment. Reflecting on what I’ve just said, I feel deeply ashamed.
‘I’m sorry, that was a really stupid thing to say. But it is a different system there,’ I hasten to explain. ‘The only convicts I ever saw in Van Diemen’s Land were ticket-of-leave convicts who worked as servants or as labourers on the farms. Others built roads or worked in public institutions like the hospital. It was only the worst, the most dangerous, convicts who were kept locked up, and those prisons are not in Hobart Town but some distance away.’
And so I was able to ignore the prisoners and enjoy what the town had to offer in the way of music and concerts, shopping and other entertainment. But I cannot explain that to Cormac. For an instant, I wonder what he and his brother did that caused them to be transported.
‘I am sure it is as hard for the convicts at Port Arthur as it is for you here,’ I say.
‘I doubt it. Your father is a cruel taskmaster, Alice.’ Cormac’s fingers tighten around the small plant he is holding, so tight he’s in danger of crushing it. ‘Why do you watch us? Is it to mock our misfortune?’
‘No!’ I cry the word aloud, forgetting the need for caution. Cormac hastily puts a finger to his lips.
‘No,’ I say more quietly. ‘When I heard you all talking last time, about the floggings and the dumb cell, I was really distressed. I thought that if I knew more about how you live, I may perhaps intercede with my father, beg him to be more lenient in his dealings with all of you.’
‘Ask John Bennett to be lenient?’ Cormac splutters with disbelieving laughter. ‘I’ll see angels walking on water before that happens!’
The overseer has been squatting on his haunches, watching the convicts go about their work, but now he leaps up and strides towards the fence. ‘Who are you talking to?’
‘No-one, sir. Talking to meself, I was,’ Cormac says easily, but the guard keeps coming towards us.
I am about to flee when I realise my movement will be noticed.
I quickly step to one side, away from the small hole and out of the guard’s sight. I stand quietly against the fence, holding my breath.
‘The rules are that you work in silence!’ There’s the sound of a heavy blow.
I wince on Cormac’s behalf, but can say nothing. My presence would only confirm the guard’s suspicions and make things worse. I am filled with alarm as a new thought enters my mind. I have heard the prisoners talk of my father’s vindictiveness. How much worse would he treat a prisoner who dared to converse with his own daughter?
Cormac, too, remains silent. I wait, until I hear the tread of footsteps walking off. At last, deeming it safe, I am about to step away when I hear a whisper.
‘Are you still there? It’s safe to talk again. He’s gone.’
‘I am so sorry I got you into trouble,’ I murmur. I stay out of sight, not daring to put my eye to the spyhole once more.
‘It was worth it. It’s been a long time since I had the opportunity to talk to a beautiful colleen.’
I smile, amused by his flattery. ‘I expect you knew many beautiful women in Ireland, Cormac O’Brien.’
‘Only my mother.’
I can hear from his voice that he is teasing me. A thought chills me. Did he once have a sweetheart? Or even a wife? I do not ask, too afraid to hear his answer.
‘It must be a great grief to her that you and Padraic are now on the other side of the world,’ I say instead.
‘Sure and I know that it is.’ The sadness in his voice touches me.
‘Perhaps I could write a letter to her on your behalf? Or you could write it, and I will find some way of sending it.’
‘My mother knows where we are, and anything I write to her would only add to her burden,’ he says. ‘But it is kind of you to offer.’ The sadness is still there as he adds, ‘You shouldn’t come here to spy on us, Alice Bennett. Your father wouldn’t like it at all.’
‘I know.’ Greatly daring, I add, ‘But I like talking to you, Cormac. And I love the way you play the violin. Your music sings to my heart. I wish I could listen to you all day long.’
He is silent. I think he has moved away and I press my eye to the spyhole to check. His head is bent; as I watch, I see him knuckle away a tear.
Appalled, I whisper, ‘I am so sorry the guard hurt you.’
He looks at me, then turns quickly away. ‘It isn’t that.’ He picks up a plant, shoves it into the ground and presses down the soil around it. ‘It’s been a long time since I heard a kind word from a woman, or indeed from anyone,’ he mutters.
My heart almost cracks with pity. Somehow I must try to reassure him of his worth, for it seems clear to me that this is not a man steeped in sin; not like those hardened criminals, the ‘old hands’, that Father complains about.
Nevertheless, I am curious. ‘Why are you here?’ I ask. ‘Why were you sent to Norfolk Island?’
I wait, somewhat apprehensively, for his answer. What if, after all, he turns out to be a cold-blooded murderer, a thug of the first degree? No! I can’t believe it. And yet he remains silent. Is he ashamed? What is he hiding from me?
‘I’m one of the Irish rebels who believe that England has no place in Ireland,’ he says at last, without looking at me. He is busy scooping soil into place around the small plants, giving every appearance of great industry. ‘There was an uprising quite some time ago and a number of Irishmen were seized and sent to New South Wales and to Van Diemen’s Land as punishment. The English are ever watchful now for signs of unrest. My brother and I were working in England, minding our own business and bothering no-one, when we were taken one night and thrown into prison. Yes, we sympathise with the Irish rebels, but we were not part of that band that goes around committing murder and mayhem in Ireland’s cause.’ He pauses a moment. ‘Paddy and I are innocent of the charges they brought against us at the trial, but they found us guilty and sent us here anyway. And here we’ll probably die, unless your father is replaced as commandant. So you should walk away now, and forget you ever talked to me.’
‘No!’ This time I remember to keep my voice low, although I want to shout the word so that all can hear it. ‘No, I believe in you, Cormac. Perhaps I can put your case to my father, make him see the injustice of it?’