Read A Ring Through Time Online

Authors: Felicity Pulman

A Ring Through Time (6 page)

She shivered as she read her name again. Why hadn’t Alice Bennett taken the diary with her when she left the island? Why had she hidden it so carefully? She turned the pages and found what looked like a small black ring. Intrigued, she picked it up. Her lips curled into an expression of disgust as she realised that it was made out of hair. Yuk! Who would want to plait their hair into a ring? And why would anyone keep such a thing? Maybe the diary would tell her.

There was a small china bowl on Allie’s dressing table, painted with pink roses and with a lid. She’d found it at the back of the old dresser in her room and taken a fancy to it.
Now it held her hairbands and other bits and pieces. She nestled the hair ring deep among them. It would be safe there, hidden from view.

She put on her pyjamas and climbed into bed. Then she switched on her reading light, turned to the start of the diary and began to read.

FIVE

Norfolk Island, Wednesday, 29th July, 1846

I hate it here! I feel so restless, so trapped, that I sometimes think that living here will turn my wits to madness. I have felt this way almost since we first arrived on the island, but this is the first time I’ve had the courage to act, to break out of the house for an hour of freedom.

I cautiously open the cellar door and peep out at the world beyond. To my relief, there’s no sign of the sentry. Mostly he stands guard at the front of the house, beside the two cannons that are meant to protect us in times of trouble. I sidle outside and sneak a glance over my shoulder at the barred windows behind me, hoping that no-one can see me. I know I’ll be chased after and brought back if I’m observed. But I’m desperate to get away, just for a little while. I need to walk, to expend energy and tire myself in the process. Another hour spent stitching and embroidering with my mother and sister and I shall start shrieking like a fish wife. I clench my fists
together, fighting the urge to shout my frustration aloud. I don’t know how much longer I can stand living like this, imprisoned in the house, watched and guarded at all times in case the convicts run amok again and this time kill us all.

I shudder as I recall the last time I was in the cellar. The mutiny happened shortly after our arrival and it was terrifying while it lasted. A shot rang out first, to warn us that trouble was afoot. We heard shouts as the guards chased after the convicts. It sounded as if they were running directly from the lumberyard towards our house. I was sure they were coming to hack us to death. Father was not home, but Mother immediately ordered that all the doors should be barred, and shooed my sister, brother and me downstairs to the cellar where we locked ourselves in. The door to the world outside is wooden, with one-way hinges, and sturdy enough that it cannot be forced inwards from outside, but I knew it would not withstand spades or axes if the convicts had managed to arm themselves.

There are almost a thousand men housed in the prison and the barracks, and I knew they would show no mercy if once they got their hands on us. But Mother said we should stay where we were rather than make a run for it, in case the convicts had our house surrounded. William howled with terror as we huddled together. We tried to shush him lest he give our location away, but he was too young to understand and his howls continued.

Father was choleric with rage when he finally came home to tell us that the garrison had been called out and the mutiny contained. The danger was over. He sent us out of the room so that he could
speak freely to our mother, but Susannah and I listened at the door after sending William off to play with his wooden train.

‘Four men dead,’ Father fumed, ‘and all because of that blackguard Westwood.’

I had heard Father complain before about the bushranger Jacky Jacky Westwood. He is the leader of the Ring, a group of long-term desperadoes who hold power over the other convicts in the lumberyard, and who are always in trouble. Father says Jacky Jacky doesn’t seem to care if he’s sentenced to a hundred lashes with the cat-o’-nine-tails, but calls out, ‘Is that the best you can do?’ I thought at first how brave he was, but changed my opinion to ‘foolish’ when Father added that his insults always earned him an extra fifty lashes.

‘This is all down to that idiot Maconochie,’ Father raged. ‘He encouraged the prisoners to do their own cooking; he even allowed them knives. The prisoners stole tin dishes and mess kits from the stores to make cooking pots for themselves, and when I confiscated them, they rioted. Westwood was behind it all, and he will hang for it. He was the one who incited the convicts to rise. But there are others to blame for what happened next, and by God, I shall make them all pay for their deeds this day.’ He smashed his fist onto the table. Mother jumped like a frightened rabbit.

‘Who was killed?’ I could hear the fear in my mother’s voice.

‘The overseer, Smith, along with John Morris and two other constables. But we are quite safe now, Mary. Most of the prisoners were quickly subdued. Some managed to escape, but they have all been recaptured. The military have the convict barracks locked up tight now, and those responsible for this outrage are in prison.’

In spite of Father’s reassuring words, I have noticed he always wears loaded pistols in his belt when he is not in the house. And we have been closely watched and guarded since that day. Now I feel like a prisoner on the loose myself as I hurry away from the cellar, taking deep breaths of fresh air as I go. I am free at last!

The front of our house has a commanding view across to the new prison and the convict barracks, with the sea beyond and to the left. I realise I’ll be seen if I go that way and so I change course. A gang of convicts is working in the field towards the back of our house, laboriously clearing new ground close to the stockyard where we keep the pigs, cows and poultry that provide meat, milk and eggs for our table. I know the convicts must have come from the barracks and not the gaol, for those hardened criminals are never sent out into the community to help with agricultural or household chores. I remember Father telling us that he plans to replant and extend a vegetable garden that was once located there. The ground looks rough and is covered with grass and weeds, although a few leathery cabbages and green spikes of onions are still visible. Some of the convicts have been set to weeding and rooting out those plants that are beyond saving. Others are digging over the soil with hoes and spades, and nourishing it with vegetable matter and animal droppings, judging by the smell. A couple of convicts have already started to plant out small seedlings.

I stop a moment to watch them. One man in particular catches my eye. Taller than the others, he gives every appearance of working hard yet he moves with an easy grace. He looks up at me, removes his straw hat and wipes the perspiration from his face. I grow hot and
uncomfortable under his searching gaze, but he seems indifferent to my presence as he bends again to his work.

I keep on walking. I am curious to know what the men are planting, but mostly I am intrigued by these poor wretches whose very existence both fascinates and repels me. As I move downwards, my view is blocked by a thick hedge that marks part of the boundary of the commandant’s land. It grows alongside a wooden fence that was perhaps erected to protect the vegetables from grazing animals. I hear muted voices from behind the fence. It seems the convicts are complaining about their treatment; most particularly, the treatment of those incarcerated within the gaol. I wriggle into the thicket of bushy shrubs, which I hope will screen me from view, to listen.

‘… flogged ‘til he lost consciousness, and even then that bastard wouldn’t let the guard stop. There was blood all over the ground, and bits of flesh too by the time it was over.’ The voice is savage with condemnation. ‘You should’ve seen his back afterwards! Flayed raw it was, but Bennett wouldn’t let anyone near to clean him up, not even the doctor. So now his back’s infected, crawling with maggots. The poor bugger stinks. He’s in agony. But still no doctor. As for the dumb cells …’ The speaker breaks off; clears his throat and spits. ‘Have you seen Alfred since he got out? He’s gone raving mad. Three weeks he had on his own down there. It’s enough to break anyone.’

I am appalled by what I am hearing. This is my father they are talking about, my kind-hearted, loving father who always has time for my mother and for us, his children. How can this be? Surely they must be mistaken!

‘… so what else would you expect when you’ve got almost a thousand men crammed into the barracks from sunset to sunrise. If you don’t want the bully boys having their way with you, you have to fight them off.’

Horrified, I clap my hands over my ears so that I won’t have to listen any more, although my unwilling imagination conjures up the hell of the convict barracks at night. Shock keeps me motionless. At last, I cautiously remove my hands from my ears. The conversation has now moved on to fierce mutters about the lack of food and its poor quality.

‘We have to tear at our meat like dogs since he confiscated our knives,’ another man says.

‘If you even get your fair portion now that it’s all cooked together in the one pot. Christ! He treats us worse than animals.’ There is both rage and pain in the speaker’s voice.

There is a small gap in the wooden slats of the fence. Giving way to curiosity, I bend and put my eye to it, interested to see the man who seems to be doing most of the complaining. He is of middle height, with long black hair and a lilting Irish brogue.

He has moved on now to grumbling about the magistrate, Samuel Barrow.

‘Jacky Jacky should have gone after the Christ Killer rather than the constables and overseer. He’d have done us all a favour if he’d got rid of Barrow for good,’ another convict observes.

‘Sure, I heard that the Christ Killer was the main target. Sadistic bastard. He was bloody lucky to escape with his life.’

The tall convict I noticed earlier mutters a warning to the Irish
man, whom he calls ‘Padraic’. He receives a friendly push in response, which results in a shouted oath and an order to get back to work from the guard, who is sitting some distance apart, idling in the sun.

I decide that the man who first caught my eye and who uttered the warning must be Padraic’s brother. The family resemblance is striking. He has the same black hair, although his is tied back into a neat tail. The same blue eyes. Where they differ is in expression, for Padraic is sullen and scowling, while his brother has a smile on his face.

He leans on his spade a moment and looks up, straight at the hole in the fence. And then the blackguard gives me a cheeky wink! Startled, I draw back. Impudent devil, I think, as I rub the back of my hand against my burning cheeks.

Now safely out of sight, I stay on, hoping to hear him speak again.

‘I’m damn near dying of starvation,’ another man complains. ‘I don’t know how we’re expected to do a day’s work on a stingy helping of maize porridge and salt meat fit only for making boots.’

‘I hear big Mark Jeffrey’s knocking on death’s door after a month in solitary on starvation rations.’

‘No wonder the old hands rose up against Bennett. It’s his fault there was a mutiny. What was he thinking? That everyone would just sit quietly and put up with the loss of our gardens and our property? Those few comforts are all that make our life bearable here.’

Padraic’s voice is full of rage and complaint.

‘We’ve put up with everything else, Paddy. We don’t have a choice.’ It’s Padraic’s cheeky brother speaking. I recognise his accent.

‘It was one damn thing too many.’

‘Maybe, but the old hands should’ve stopped at reclaiming our knives and cooking pots. And our rations. They shouldn’t have gone on a killing spree at the same time.’

Someone blows a raspberry through his lips, indicating what he thinks of that idea.

‘They’ll hang for it, for sure,’ Padraic says, and there’s a moment’s silence.

Padraic speaks again. ‘Wouldn’t mind betting that bastard will use it as an excuse to get rid of as many other troublemakers as he can, guilty or not.’

‘Just make sure you’re not one of them.’ His brother sounds a note of caution.

‘Damn that bastard to hell. At least with Maconochie you could shorten your sentence through your own efforts. Not like now. Did you hear about Dougie? He just got an extra six months for not saluting a sentry box — and there was no-one even in it at the time!’

‘Better that than the tube gag. It’s impossible to bloody breathe when they strap that thing on. I swear it was invented by that devil just to torment us.’

I am so distressed by Padraic’s complaints about my father’s cruelty towards the prisoners, I cannot bear to hear any more. I extricate myself from the hedge and walk on. At the time of the mutiny, I was reassured by my father’s actions, but after listening to the convicts I am no longer so sure. Is my father unnecessarily brutal, or are his punishments justified to protect the safety of the colony?

Anxious to distract myself from questions I can’t answer, I turn my thoughts to the dark Irishman. That he’s Irish is beyond doubt,
if his brother is called Padraic. Most of the convicts look grey and emaciated. The brothers look just as gaunt, but their resilience shines through, both in Padraic’s litany of complaints and his brother’s cheerful demeanour. It takes courage as well as cheek to wink at the commandant’s daughter! I try to feel indignation, but cannot. The Irishman intrigues me; I am drawn to him, attracted by his boldness and his handsome face. I would so like to know his name. Even with his dirty hands and mud-stained rags, he has touched my imagination. I tell myself that it would be folly to dwell on this attraction, folly to try to see him again. But I know that I may well fall into that temptation, if only to test my unexpected reaction to him.

I walk on in the direction of Emily Bay, named after the wife of Colonel Morisset, one of the earlier commandants of the prison camp. It seems Emily Morisset liked to sea-bathe there. It is my hope that, in time, my father will relax his surveillance on his children and we will be allowed to bathe there too. It was always too cold to go in the sea in Van Diemen’s Land, but it is warmer here, even though summer is still some months away.

My heart becomes heavy as I think of the life I left in Hobart Town, all the things that I miss. Music, most of all. And being able to walk freely about the town, and look at the shops, and go on outings and visit friends. Hoping to find consolation in music, I start to sing softly to myself.

‘Oh! Not when other eyes may read

My heart upon my cheek
…’

Too late, I realise I’m singing my favourite song, one I often used to sing in Van Diemen’s Land. My anger and resentment return in a rush, along with a feeling of desolation at this reminder of all I’ve left behind. Music is my joy, as necessary to me as the breath in my body, but I no longer have the opportunity either to listen to it or to play the violin with my friends. When we lived in Hobart Town, my father found a free settler able and willing to tutor me. I practised and practised, until at last my teacher invited me to play with him and two other musicians. Although I was not quite up to their standard, we formed a quartet and played for our own pleasure, as well as performing popular tunes at dances and parties.

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