Authors: Felicity Pulman
I nod. What she is telling me makes sense of the complaints I overheard.
‘Later, the men were encouraged to work in groups of six. If one man earned points, they all did; likewise if a man lost points, so did they all. It meant that each convict took responsibility for his companions’ actions and good conduct as well as his own,’ Elizabeth continued. ‘It taught them to be responsible, to think of others as well as themselves, you see. And the marks they earned went towards a remission of their sentences, so their good conduct was ultimately in their own best interests.’
‘It sounds like an excellent way to treat convicts.’ I believe what I am saying, but I feel like a traitor to my family admitting it.
‘I think so too.’ Elizabeth produces a couple of lumps of sugar that she must have taken from the tea tray and holds them out in her open palm. The horse eagerly snuffles them up, and she scratches its ears. ‘Maconochie brought a group of prisoners from England with him — the “new hands” they were called. They were the subject of his experiment. They were housed here, at Longridge, and also at Cascade. But he quickly discovered that it was impossible not to involve the old hands down at the Settlement as well, and so he did. And that was his downfall.’
‘What do you mean?’
Elizabeth’s expression reveals a mix of annoyance and amusement. ‘We celebrated Queen Victoria’s birthday shortly after Maconochie arrived; that was the start of it. As a mark of faith, he allowed the men to roam free all day and provided a concert and plays and a display of fireworks for their entertainment. He gave them extra rations of pork and wheaten bread, and, worse, each man was allowed a tot of rum to drink our Queen’s health.’
I stare at Elizabeth, mouth open in amazement.
She laughs. ‘The drink was well diluted with water and lemon juice, and some sugar to sweeten it. It was a token, no more. But from the row it caused among the authorities in New South Wales when they heard about it, you would have thought he had led all the men down the rocky road to depravity and perdition. In reality, the day was quite peaceful and every convict returned to his barracks in time for lockup. The same thing happened
here at Longridge. Once the celebrations finished down at the Settlement, the men came up here to provide us with the same entertainment. It really was a most enjoyable day. And it did wonders for the men’s morale.’
In the silence that follows Elizabeth’s description, I suspect we are both thinking the same thing: never in a thousand years would my father permit such leniency.
‘How do you like living on the island?’ I ask, wanting to change the subject.
‘I like Longridge well enough. But I hate visiting the Settlement now that …’
Elizabeth stops, but I can fill in the gap easily enough.
Now that your father has taken over
‘I really miss my sister, Fanny,’ she says, hurrying to fill the awkward moment. ‘We have always been close, but she is married now and still living in Hobart Town. I write to her constantly, but her letters come so infrequently it is not the same as having her here with us. Sometimes I despair of ever seeing her again.’
‘Surely you will. Being on the island isn’t a life sentence for us as it is for the convicts!’ I am trying to cheer myself as well as Elizabeth.
She makes no comment, instead picking up her skirt to avoid the mud and puddles as she walks on to the next stall. I steal a glance at her, noticing for the first time how pale and thin she is, and how drawn her face. I am worried that her remark reflects a concern about her health, but I do not like to ask. Nor may I ask if she is glad to have escaped the gossiping tongues in Van Diemen’s Land, not after my mother’s warning. It seems to me that our conversation is
hedged around with things we cannot say to each other, and so we are forced to stick to banal pleasantries.
‘My father has done wonders to increase production since he came to Longridge.’ Elizabeth’s tone is deliberately cheerful as she produces more sugar for the next stall’s occupant. ‘The convicts work well for him and the crops are flourishing, although the yield has decreased since your father forbade the use of the plough.’
‘But why? Surely a plough would be quicker and more effective?’
‘Your father won’t allow it. After the mutiny he forbade the use of any agricultural machinery, or axes or knives — anything that might be used as a weapon.’
We are back to something we cannot discuss. I begin to despair of this conversation.
Perhaps Elizabeth does too. She gives the second horse a final pat and picks up her long skirts once more. ‘The day is unseasonally warm. Let me show you our garden. It really is delightful at this time of year.’
She leads me back towards the house and around to the garden at the front. She has not exaggerated its charms: it is bedecked in all the colours of early spring. Myriad flowers have opened their petals to the sun, their sweet nectar plundered by bees that flicker and shimmer in the sunlight. At the centre of the garden is a small summerhouse covered over with a passionfruit vine. Elizabeth leads me up the steps onto the verandah, where we find two seats in the shade. An uncomfortable silence settles between us. Before I can think of a safe topic, Elizabeth speaks first.
‘Are you looking forward to the soiree on Saturday night?’
‘Indeed I am!’ It occurs to me that Elizabeth might know the answer to my question. ‘I love to play the violin and I am looking forward to meeting the musicians. Do you think I may be able to persuade them to invite me to make music with them, as I used to do with a small group in Hobart Town?’
Elizabeth gives a wry smile. ‘There is no-one with any musical ability to speak of other than the convicts. It is a convict band of musicians you will hear at the soiree, but there are a couple of gifted players among them.’
‘Oh.’ All my expectations are expelled in that single breath.
‘You will enjoy the music,’ Elizabeth says, ‘but you should know that these occasions are really an excuse for us young ladies to dress up and parade ourselves in front of the officers and free settlers.’
In spite of my disappointment, I can’t help laughing at her observation.
‘But you have probably already worked that out for yourself, given my sisters’ obsession with what gowns they plan to wear.’ Elizabeth surveys me with a twinkle in her eyes. ‘I hear you have already made a conquest. Apparently, Lieutenant Cartwright is quite smitten with you.’
‘I hardly know him, I have only met him a couple of times!’ A vision of a tall man with blue eyes and black hair dances into my mind and I hastily dismiss it. In its place I summon a picture of Jack Cartwright. Stocky. Sandy hair. A cheerful demeanour. But nothing outstanding.
‘… you will find that relationships blossom quickly on the island.’ Elizabeth is still talking and I concentrate on her words.
‘Jack seems a good sort, Alice. I have no doubt he will dance attendance on you at the soiree.’
I would far rather see the convict than Jack, but I cannot say so. Instead, I summon a smile for my new friend and, together, we leave the garden and go in search of our sisters.
The room is already crowded when we arrive at the officers’ mess. Although my hopes have been dashed, I look about for the musicians who will be entertaining us. A sole violin begins to play, and I stand still and close my eyes. The clear notes sing to my heart. I recognise the music: it is the Chaconne, the last movement of Bach’s Partita in D minor; too difficult for me, although I have tried and tried to learn the notes.
Susannah’s sharp elbow in my ribs jerks me back to our surroundings, and I follow her as she pushes her way towards some empty seats. Once seated, I have an uninterrupted view of the violinist. His head is bent in fierce concentration over his instrument, but even so I would have known him anywhere. I draw a ragged breath and grip my hands together to contain my excitement.
The mud and grime have been washed away. His hair is tied in the same tidy tail and he is wearing a clean grey shirt and trousers. He looks older than I first thought: in his mid to late twenties perhaps. Beside him is his brother, Padraic. He holds a hornpipe but is not playing it, obviously waiting for his brother to finish. The Chaconne draws to its solemn and stirring close, and everyone except me claps. I am too stunned to move, but I marvel at the convict’s talent.
Now he starts on a merry jig, and Padraic joins in with his reedy pipe; a jolly tune that speaks of the sea and freedom. As he plays, the violinist raises his head and looks straight at me. Has he recognised me? I blush.
I sneak another glance at him, noticing how deftly he fingers the strings and how sweetly the violin responds to his touch. He is a far better musician than my tutor in Van Diemen’s Land. There is so much I could learn from him, if only he could teach me.
Reluctantly, I cast that idea aside, recognising its futility. My father will never allow me to take lessons from a convict on an island that houses only the most desperate and depraved. And yet, watching the Irishman making music, I find it impossible to believe ill of him. Perhaps he has been unfairly condemned? I am convinced that, whatever his conviction records, his crime must be a trivial one if crime it was at all.
He is playing a solo again, something I have never heard before: wild gypsy music that swoops and soars, carrying me to a crescendo of emotion. Excitement zings through my blood like lightning. I am filled with elation, with the sudden sense that anything and everything is possible.
All too soon the tune comes to an end. As he bows the last notes, the Irishman looks at me again. Our eyes meet and I silently try to convey my appreciation, my gratitude for this gift, but his gaze has already moved on. I understand the danger and tear my attention away from him with difficulty.
Now it is Padraic’s turn. He waits for the applause to end before moving towards the pianoforte standing to one side of the room.
His brother moves to his side and they play a sonata for pianoforte and violin. Padraic provides a competent accompaniment, but his brother is by far the superior musician. I close my eyes and give myself over to enjoying the sonata.
As the program continues I come to believe that it has been chosen especially for me for it contains all my favourites. After a muttered conversation between the brothers, Padraic moves back to the pianoforte and his brother begins to sing. Immediately I am spellbound, captivated by his voice.
‘Oh! Not when other eyes may read
My heart upon my cheek
Oh, not when other ears can hear
Dare I of love to speak
But when the stars rise from the sea
Oh, then I think of thee, dear love
Oh then I think of thee
He is not looking at me, he is not looking at anyone as he sings, and yet it seems that his words are sung to me alone. How can he know that I love this song above all others?
It’s Padraic’s turn now, and everyone laughs as he embarks on a cheeky ditty about how all the girls love ‘Paddy from Cork’, accompanied by his brother on the violin. Padraic moves on to ‘Farewell to olde England forever’ and we all join in the rousing chorus. But the mood changes abruptly with the next song, the last before supper is served. This time there is no musical
accompaniment, only the voices of the two brothers in harmony together.
‘In Derry Vale, beside the singing river
So oft I strayed, ah, many years ago
And culled at morn the golden daffodillies
That came with spring to set the world aglow
I understand how greatly this song is known and loved as the quiet chatter that has continued throughout most of the recital instantly ceases.
I know this song, but I have never heard it sung before as it is tonight. The words take on a new poignancy as I recall that these brothers are Irish and this is their homeland they are mourning.
‘I long to see that vale beloved so well
I long to know that I am not forgotten
And there at home in peace to dwell
Their voices die away. My cheeks are wet with tears and I dry my eyes surreptitiously, noticing that others around me are also drawing out handkerchiefs. I wonder if they realise how much this song must mean to the brothers. Or are they weeping for themselves, for we are all exiles here?
I clap and clap as the brothers bow. One of the officers steps up to formally thank them, and I hear the violinist’s name for the very first time. Cormac O’Brien. And his brother, Padraic.
‘Cormac,’ I whisper to myself as the room stirs into busyness once more.
There is an invitation to stay on for refreshments. I stand by silently as the officers’ families greet my parents. There is always a certain reserve between my family and others on the island, whether from the military or civilians. Here, my father is king, and he lets no-one forget it. I look at him, trying to see beyond the indulgent and affectionate father I know to the tyrant who terrorises the convicts. I wonder if the officers on the island have also seen that side of him.
I am pleased to see Elizabeth among the crowd, and greet her warmly. ‘You didn’t tell me how talented these convict musicians are.’
I look around for Cormac and Padraic, but they have vanished, no doubt sent back to the hellhole of the prison barracks.
‘We do our best to enjoy cultural activities here, even though we are so far from home,’ Elizabeth replies.
‘It is such a shame they are convicts, not free settlers.’
Elizabeth frowns. ‘Do you object to being entertained by convicts?’
‘No! No, not at all. I have never heard the violin played so beautifully.’ In my fervour, I clasp my hands to my heart.
Elizabeth smiles at me. ‘You shall hear more from the O’Brien brothers, I am sure. They are the mainstay of our entertainment here on the island.’