Authors: Felicity Pulman
I have not picked up my violin since coming to Norfolk Island. I no longer have the heart for it. And yet I ache to hear music, and to play it. My breath catches as I recall the thrill of the violin singing to my touch, the gift of music at my fingertips. I make a vow that, as soon as I return to the house, I shall pick up my violin and practise diligently. For my own pleasure — and in the hope that I may meet a like-minded musician here on the island. But who, if they had music in their souls, would come to this hell on earth by choice?
‘Alice! Wait for me!’
I stop at the sound of my sister’s voice and sigh. The last thing I need at this moment is Susannah’s chatter in my ears.
She pants to a stop beside me. ‘Why didn’t you tell me you were going out? You know we’re not supposed to leave home without a guard.’
‘I wanted to be alone.’ I hope she’ll take the hint and go back to the house.
‘Why?’ She looks genuinely puzzled.
Susannah is lucky. She isn’t oppressed by these surroundings; she thinks coming here is all a huge adventure. I shake my head at her lack of understanding.
‘Don’t you ever think that we are prisoners on this island just as much as they are?’ I say, waving a hand in the direction of the convict barracks and the gaol.
‘Of course not!’ Susannah beams at me. ‘There’s always something to look forward to — like Saturday night. I came to tell you that Mama has received an invitation for us to attend a soiree at the officers’ quarters. You will enjoy that, won’t you?’
‘A soiree? With music?’
This is so unexpected, I am unsure how to reply.
Susannah chatters on. ‘I expect all the officers will attend, including Jack Cartwright. He seems quite taken with you, Alice. There could be a match there if you wish it — and if Father agrees.’ She pulls a face and adds wistfully, ‘I wish I was old enough to have a beau.’
I smile at my sister. ‘That doesn’t stop you from flirting with every man who comes your way,’ I tease. ‘No doubt you will give us a repeat performance on Saturday night?’
Susannah twinkles merrily. ‘There are so many to choose from,’ she confesses. ‘But I know I should pick one of Father’s favourites so he won’t object if we wish to keep company together in a few years’ time.’
‘A few years?’ The thought fills me with horror. ‘How long do you think we shall be trapped in this God-forsaken place?’
Susannah looks momentarily troubled. ‘I don’t know. Father is determined to bring the prisoners into line after the last commandant’s laxness. That is why he is so strict with them now. He wishes to lead them to better ways.’
‘But he caused a mutiny instead.’
Susannah shrugs. ‘Father says they must learn who is in charge.’
I shiver. The words of the convicts ring in my ears: a litany of misery that seems more than any man should have to bear.
‘Father believes his work here has only just begun,’ Susannah continues. ‘I heard him say as much to Mama this morning. I am afraid we shall be here a long while, Alice.’ She squeezes my hand. ‘So you may as well cheer up and get used to it.’
Together we walk on towards the lime kilns and the salt house on the high green crest beside Emily Bay. I avert my eyes from the kilns as we pass and try not to think about the story I overheard of the two prisoners who were hanged after they were caught trying to dispose of the body of a prison overseer by burning it in one of the kilns.
Susannah suddenly erupts in a fit of giggles. I look around for their cause, and notice the heads of several men bobbing in the sea. I grab her and swing her around, steering her away from the beach. ‘I think we’d better go this way instead.’
I feel a blush suffusing my face as I wonder if the men are wearing proper bathing attire or if, thinking themselves unobserved, they are swimming naked. The laughing face of the Irish convict comes into my mind and my face grows hot as fire. We walk on, cutting across rough turf towards the far end of Military Road and the cemetery.
A dense screen of bushes and manchineel trees shrouds the graves and their headstones from our view. We continue uphill towards Bloody Bridge. It gained its grisly name, so we have heard, after several convicts working on its construction beat a brutal overseer to death and hid his body in the bridge’s masonry. They told everyone that he had gone sea-bathing and had not returned, but the man’s blood leaked through the mortar and so their crime was discovered. The convicts were subsequently hanged.
This is a hateful place. I can feel its oppressive atmosphere wrapping around me like a dark miasma, poisoning my soul. The thought of all the men trapped here on the island with us, all of them hating us and, no doubt, wishing us dead, shrivels my heart. I stop walking. The stories about the murders at the lime kiln and on the bridge have awoken me to the danger we face if we stray too far; the danger we all face on a daily basis. A warning shot, another uprising, and we would be stranded here, utterly vulnerable. Admittedly, those responsible for the last mutiny are in prison. After hearing Padraic’s complaints, I can imagine well enough how they are being treated. Nevertheless, I know we are taking a stupid risk to be out walking so far from our house without a guard.
‘We’d better go back,’ I say reluctantly.
Susannah nods, and we turn our steps towards home.
Remembering my promise to myself, I go straight to the small bedroom I have commandeered for my own, although Susannah took quite some persuading before she would agree to sharing the larger bedroom with William instead of with me. I argued that I
was of an age to need privacy from my siblings, and eventually my parents agreed with me. Having my own private place is the only good thing about being on this bleak island. I take my violin from its case and set myself to practice. But the music awakens such an ache in my heart that tears begin to fall, blinding me so that I can no longer see to position my fingers on the strings. I cast my violin aside and weep for all that I have lost.
‘Alice, whatever is the matter?’
My mother comes into my room and sits down beside me on the bed. She puts her arms around me and draws me close.
Her presence is comforting, but I cannot speak. My tears fall faster, although I no longer know if I am mourning my own loss or weeping over the desperate plight of the convicts, made so blindingly clear to me this afternoon.
‘You miss your music, and your friends in Hobart Town?’ my mother says.
I nod. I pull my handkerchief from my pocket and give my nose a loud and unladylike blow.
‘Perhaps we might find some musicians here with whom you can play? You know we are to attend a soiree on Saturday night?’
I dare not get my hopes up and so I say nothing. I am convinced that I shall never find a company of musicians such as I enjoyed in Hobart Town.
My mother gives me a comforting pat. ‘We have to make the best of our time here,’ she says. ‘Your father is on a mission, and there is so much to do that I fear we may be here for several years yet.’
My heart sinks further. My tears begin anew.
‘Let us wait and see who provides the music at the soiree.’ My mother’s voice is bright, encouraging. ‘It might be possible for you to join a group here, as you did in Van Diemen’s Land.’
Her enthusiasm is infectious. I nod, feeling a small spark of desperate hope ignite in my heart. Conscious of my mother’s concern, I attempt a watery smile.
‘That’s better.’ My mother stands. ‘Now, dry your tears, bathe your face in cold water and look forward to all that tomorrow will bring. I thought we might take a drive in the morning. Some fresh air and good company will lift our spirits. We shall call on Mrs Robertson and her daughters over at Longridge.’
I am surprised, but try not to show it. There was some scandal attached to Gilbert Robertson while they lived in Van Diemen’s Land and as a result we did not socialise with his family. I had not thought anything of it at the time, being busy with my own life and my own friends, but it seems that living here on the island, in isolation, alters the situation.
Evidently my mother thinks so too, for she says briskly, ‘Gilbert Robertson holds a responsible position here as superintendent of agriculture at Longridge. As the commandant’s wife, it behoves me to treat his family with respect. So there will be no reference to the unfortunate incident in Hobart Town, do you understand me, Alice? It is best, I think, to pretend it never happened.’
‘Yes, Mama. Of course.’ What unfortunate incident? Perhaps the Robertson girls will enlighten me. I am looking forward to meeting them.
We set out for Longridge in our carriage, accompanied by an armed guard and a convict driver. The agricultural station is something over a mile from the Settlement, a steep drive inland through folding hills. As we come closer, I notice a large flock of sheep grazing peacefully on lush green grass under the watchful gaze of a shepherd. He is alone but is obviously a convict judging by the loose grey shirt he wears. Other convicts are visible in the fields, some laboriously tilling the dark earth with hoes and spades, others planting the maize that makes up the bulk of the convicts’ diet.
The walls of the prison barracks rise beyond a scatter of barns and sheds to our left. On our right, the house of the superintendent is set within a wide sea of green garden beds, where convicts are hard at work tending the rows of burgeoning vegetables that will augment the diets of the officers, their families and other civilians in our community. The men raise their straw hats and bob their heads as we drive by. I note that they look more robust and far more cheerful than the poor wretches who work down in the Settlement.
We are warmly welcomed by Mrs Robertson, and if there is any awkwardness between her and my mother, it is soon smoothed over. She introduces us to her daughters, although we already know each other by sight. The eldest is Elizabeth, whom I surmise to be about four and twenty, some six years older than I. She has three sisters: Meg, Aggie and Ann. Their brother, George, is the youngest. He is some years older than William, which is a pity for I am sure my little brother would welcome a playmate. It is probably as well we have left him behind with Billy, one of the convict servants who look after us.
Tea is brought in by a young man; an older convict carefully sets down a tray of dainty sandwiches and little cakes. I wonder how they can bear to see this food when their own diet is so poor. And yet they look well-fed and seem reasonably content.
It is not long before my mother and Mrs Robertson are huddled together swapping confidences. I notice that there is fresh colour in my mother’s cheeks and a new brightness in her eyes. It seems I am not the only one who finds our confinement oppressive.
After tea, the younger girls whisk Susannah off to inspect their gowns and plan what to wear at the soiree. ‘For there will be lots of officers in attendance,’ says Meg.
Being not in the least interested, I stay seated.
‘It’s far too nice a day to stay inside. Would you like me to show you around Longridge?’ Elizabeth offers.
I am glad to have the freedom to walk outdoors in apparent safety without an escort. I am also curious to question Elizabeth about the convicts under her father’s care now that I am aware of the difference between them and the cowed, emaciated men down at the Settlement.
‘Over the road are the barns and other storehouses, along with the prison, the bakehouse, the officers’ quarters and so on,’ Elizabeth tells me as we start walking. ‘The officers’ gardens are next in line, and the overseers’ huts. Behind are the gardens of the prisoners — but I don’t know how much longer they will be allowed to keep them.’
‘Why?’ I ask.
Elizabeth shrugs. ‘Your father does not approve.’
I remember the conversation I overheard, and am filled with dismay.
‘It is a pity,’ Elizabeth continues. ‘The convicts benefit from an addition of vegetables to their diet, while the work itself calms them and gives them a sense of purpose.’
I agree, but it seems disloyal to say so and I remain silent as we walk on.
‘They were also allowed to grow a little tobacco to put in their pipes, but your father has denied them even that small pleasure.’ She indicates the wide sweep of green I had noticed before. ‘The government gardens are on this side of the road. Would you like to visit the stockyard and stables?’
Without waiting for a reply, Elizabeth turns to walk back the way we came. I am conscious of the smell from the pig yard before we cut down the side of the house. A horse pokes its head out as we approach its stall, and I cautiously rub its nose.
‘It all seems very peaceful here,’ I say.
‘Yes, indeed. My father still follows Captain Maconochie’s system, insofar as he is allowed.’ Elizabeth’s tone is somewhat tart.
‘What exactly do you mean by Maconochie’s system?’ I am curious to know what she thinks of the man my father was sent to replace.
‘He was here before your father. I expect you know that?’
‘I have heard about him, yes.’ Mostly to his detriment, but I do not say that to Elizabeth.
‘Maconochie believed that cruelty brutalises and debases men, whereas giving them hope leads to rehabilitation and redemption.
His aim was to give them the ways and means to attain salvation and regain their self-respect.’
‘How? What did he do?’
‘He established a school for convicts to learn trades that would sustain them when once they were free to find work. He was also concerned for their souls so he built the two chapels down at the Settlement, one for Catholics and one for Protestants and Anglicans. Even Jewish prisoners were given space to worship.’
Elizabeth pauses, perhaps to gauge my reaction, but I remain silent. In spite of my father’s condemnation of Maconochie’s methods, I am impressed by what she is telling me.
‘To give the convicts hope that they might eventually leave this Ocean Hell, as they call it, Maconochie devised a system based on marks or merit points awarded for things such as hard work, taking on extra tasks or being helpful — for good behaviour, in other words. If the convicts did wrong, they weren’t flogged but lost points and privileges instead.’