Read A Ring Through Time Online

Authors: Felicity Pulman

A Ring Through Time (9 page)

‘Are there really no other musicians?’

‘Not among the
gentry
.’ She pulls a face. ‘If you enjoyed the music, you can thank Captain Maconochie. Not only did he bring over with him a library of books, he also bought up the entire contents
of a music shop, both the instruments and all the sheet music, for the use of the convicts. The O’Briens came on the
Nautilus
with Maconochie and his family — they were among the “new hands” I was telling you about. Because of their musical ability, Maconochie sent them down to Kings Town so they could teach the old hands how to read music and play an instrument. I suspect he thought music might help to calm and civilise the worst of the recalcitrants. The brothers have certainly repaid Maconochie’s faith in them. The convict musicians are really quite good. You will hear them play at the dance in a few weeks’ time.’

I know there is to be a dance, but now the occasion acquires a new significance. Trying to hide my excitement, I say, ‘Will the O’Briens be playing at the dance?’

‘Of course.’ Elizabeth pulls a face. ‘Unless your father confiscates their instruments as he confiscated the convicts’ cooking pots.’

‘But they were government property. They didn’t belong to the convicts.’ I feel I have to stand up for my father.

‘Nevertheless, it has caused great ill will among the men.’

‘I know.’ I hesitate, wondering if I can take Elizabeth into my confidence. ‘I overheard some of them talking a few days ago. They said vile things about my father, about how cruel he is and how badly he treats them.’

I am hoping she will contradict me, but instead she looks grave.

‘I am sorry, but I expect most of what they said is true. It is common now for men to be flogged, or sentenced to solitary confinement on a diet of bread and water, or have their sentence extended by several months, for the most trivial of misdemeanours,
such as possessing a few shreds of tobacco, or being late for muster, or — God forbid — laughing. And all on the word of an ex-convict, a constable or overseer trying to curry favour with your father, or with an old score to settle.’

Horrified, I stare at Elizabeth. ‘But … how can you be sure?’ I stammer.

‘I have spoken to James Sievwright, my father’s clerk; and also to my brother’s tutor, a man named John Mortlock. He is a convict but he lives in a hut at the back of our house. He seems to know most of what is going on around the island. I have also overheard my father sounding off on the subject on several occasions. He talks quite freely to my mother about his concerns. He says your father has reintroduced the cat-o’-nine-tails and the triangle, as well as the tube gag and the dumb cells — all instruments of torture to show the prisoners he means business.’

‘What are these things?’ I ask.

‘The cat-o’-nine-tails is a knotted lash. The prisoners are bound, spread-eagled, to the triangle, and flogged with it.’

I feel sick as I recall the convicts’ discussion of the man whose back had festered after a flogging, but still I want to understand.

‘As for the tube gag,’ Elizabeth’s face twists in disgust, ‘that is for the terrible crime of talking. The convict’s hands are bound and a small wooden tube is pushed into his mouth and strapped into place. I have heard it becomes almost impossible to breathe.’

Involuntarily I close my eyes, trying to shut out the thought. ‘What about the dumb cells?’ I whisper.

‘They are holes underground, and perhaps the most feared of all
the punishments. The prisoner is lowered into a tiny cell through a trapdoor and left alone in the dark until he has seen the error of his ways — or loses his wits. I suspect there will be no more mutinies now the prisoners know what punishments await them.’

‘You could say, then, that my father’s treatment of the prisoners is having the desired effect?’

I am trying to be fair. Elizabeth just looks at me. I try again.

‘Father says several policemen were killed during the mutiny. Surely he must do all he can to prevent the deaths of innocent people.’

Elizabeth mutters something under her breath. I can see she is annoyed with me, but still I am curious. ‘Do you know how they died?’

‘Do you really want me to tell you?’

I draw in a breath. I want to know all I can about Cormac O’Brien, and that includes the details of his life here on the island and the people with whom he is incarcerated. ‘Yes,’ I say firmly.

‘The prisoners stole bludgeons, cudgels and axes from the stores when they escaped. The overseer, Smith, was killed, and so was John Morris, a constable. Two other constables were murdered at the police hut near the lime kilns. One man’s head was cleaved open, the other’s face was battered.’ Elizabeth shudders. ‘Their leader was Jacky Jacky Westwood, and he is in prison now, along with a number of other men. You can be sure they have experienced the punishments I described. You may approve of your father’s methods, Alice, but there are many on the island who disagree with him. And that includes my father — unfortunately for him. Your father does not tolerate opposition, and they are already at war over the changes since Maconochie’s time here.’

There is a bitter note in her voice and I realise she is truly upset. I am sorry for it, but before I can apologise we are interrupted.

‘My pardon, ladies.’

It is Jack Cartwright. I have noticed him hovering and have kept my back turned in the hope of discouraging him, but it seems he has run out of patience.

‘Forgive me for interrupting your conversation. I wonder if I might bring you some refreshments? Some fruit cup, perhaps?’

‘I am sure Miss Bennett would like some. You must excuse me, I’m afraid.’

Before I can stop her, Elizabeth turns away and hastens over to her mother and sisters. I am left alone with Jack Cartwright.

‘Thank you, Lieutenant Cartwright.’ I bob my head in belated acknowledgment.

‘Please, call me Jack.’

He proffers his arm. I take it and together we walk into a side room where bottles and glasses are set out, along with a large glass bowl of fruit punch. Platters of sandwiches sit on a nearby table; there are also several iced cakes. I wish the O’Brien brothers were also able to enjoy this feast as a reward for providing the entertainment for the evening. But I know better than to suggest such a thing. It seems that semi-starvation is another of my father’s punishments to bring the prisoners to heel.

I catch my mother’s eye, and she smiles and nods her approbation as she notices my companion. But I am unsure just what to say to Liutenant Cartwright for I do not want to encourage his attention. Fortunately, Susannah comes to my aid. I suspect, from the way she
looks at him, that she has quite a crush on him, and I hope that in time he might notice her instead of me.

‘What is your opinion of the concert we have just heard, Lieutenant Cartwright?’ she asks.

‘Please, call me Jack,’ he says again, but he is not looking at her as he replies.

I feel deeply uncomfortable under his steady gaze and draw my sister into the conversation. ‘Did you enjoy the music, Susannah?’

‘Oh, yes!’ She clasps her hands together. ‘And those brothers are so handsome! Did you not think so, Alice?’

I feel a telltale flush creeping over my face. ‘I hardly noticed them.’ I gulp down the fruit cup and hold out my glass. ‘It is so hot in here,’ I say. ‘Please, could you refill my glass for me, Lieutenant … Jack?’

He takes my glass and hurries away. Susannah turns her cool gaze on me. ‘What is wrong with you?’ she asks. ‘You are as red as fire!’ Suddenly she laughs, and claps a hand to her mouth. ‘You are blushing!’ she crows. ‘Did I interrupt something? Was Lieutenant Cartwright telling you he is in love with you?’

‘Don’t be so silly.’ All the same, I am glad she has not guessed the truth.

‘Because if you will not have him, I shall. I think he is lovely.’

‘You are just a child, far too young to think of such things.’

‘I am fourteen! And there is no harm in looking around for a potential husband. If I start young, I shall have a good idea of whom to choose by the time I am your age.’

‘I shall never marry,’ I say, as thoughts of the Irish musician come into my mind and are hastily dismissed.

‘Never?’

I had not noticed Jack Cartwright’s return. I take the glass from him and mutter my thanks.

‘She is jesting,’ Susannah says hastily.

I look at the lieutenant’s downcast expression, and struggle to find something to say that will not give him false hope. ‘Who is to know what is around the next corner?’ It is the best I can manage.

‘Who indeed.’

He clinks his glass against mine, looking slightly happier.

Sunday

‘You seem to have made a conquest in Lieutenant Cartwright,’ my mother observes over breakfast.

It is the chance I have been waiting for. ‘He seems likeable enough,’ I agree, then turn to my father. ‘I really enjoyed the recital last night. I have never heard the violin played so beautifully. Would you agree, Father?’

He grunts, and continues to spread butter over his toast.

‘That convict — what is his name?’ I pretend to think. ‘Cormac O’Brien.’ It gives me a thrill to say it aloud. ‘Elizabeth Robertson says he is the most gifted musician on the island. And so I was wondering, Father, if —’

‘No.’ My father bites into his toast.

‘No?’

‘No, you may not have lessons with him, Alice, if that is what you were going to ask. It would not do at all.’

He is only saying what I expected to hear; nevertheless, it is a blow to have my dreams so abruptly shattered. Then I remember my conversation with Elizabeth.

‘The Robertson boy has a convict for a tutor, so why can’t I?’

‘We already have a convict servant looking after William. And no-one thinks anything of it,’ my mother says. Her support is unexpected, and I am truly grateful for it.

‘That is quite different,’ my father growls.

‘How so? If you are concerned about appearances, Susannah may take lessons at the same time. And I shall make sure to be in the room with them at all times. There is nothing in that arrangement that could possibly set tongues wagging.’

I have never heard my mother defy my father quite so openly. I nod my thanks to her.

‘Please, Father. It would mean so much to me to be able to play music again.’

I wait, holding my breath, for his judgment. He slowly crunches his way through the slice of toast; each bite seems to take forever.

Finally, he says, ‘Very well. I shall consider it.’

I release my breath and unclench my hands; my nails have dug deep half-moons into my palms. ‘Thank you, Father.’ And I smile at him in heartfelt joy.

‘But I don’t want to learn the violin. I don’t even own an instrument,’ Susannah protests.

Alarmed, I kick her under the table. ‘You may borrow mine. You will enjoy the lessons, once you begin.’

Thursday

I have been watching out for the convicts for several weeks, hoping to see Cormac O’Brien again. I am not able to escape the house as often as I would like, and when I have succeeded there has been a different gang of convicts working in the garden each time. I cannot help wondering where Cormac is. I hope he is not in trouble. I cannot bear to think of him suffering any of the punishments Elizabeth described. I am counting down the days to the dance, for surely I shall see him there. Every day drags intolerably, but Saturday is nearly here at last.

Meanwhile, I have tried to pursue the possibility of violin lessons, but my father is too irritable to consider it. The judge who was to try the prisoners involved in the riot has taken ill, and we are now waiting for someone to come in his place. It takes weeks for messages to travel from the island to the mainland and back again, and everyone is on edge. Even the convicts buzz like bees when they are assembled in the lumberyard.

‘I have said I will consider it, Alice, and so I shall, but in my own good time,’ Father snapped on the last occasion I raised the subject.

I dare not ask again, but I have an idea that I hope might help to persuade him.

Dance-day Saturday!

Preparations for the dance are now under way, the first being the question of what to wear. Gowns are laid out for consideration. The green or the blue? Or the lemon? What about the pale pink?

The blue is quite new, and very becoming, my mother tells me. ‘But the neckline is a little daring, don’t you think?’ she adds doubtfully.

At her instruction, I hold the dress up against me and she cocks her head to one side to consider it.

‘A piece of lace, carefully draped, might suffice. We will decide once you put it on, Alice.’

I lay the dress aside, and watch Susannah pirouette around the room wearing the pink gown, the soft fabric floating about her in a cloud. In truth, I do not care what I wear. I am preoccupied with hatching my plan. But I help Susannah curl her hair in rags, and give my opinion on the various gowns she tries on. Finally, after we have tried on every gown we each possess, one of the convict servants is ordered to iron out the creases — the blue for me, and the pale green for Susannah.

‘You are already wearing a cloak. Surely you don’t need a wrap as well,’ Susannah protests as we leave the house in the evening. She pokes the woollen roll under my arm, and must feel the hard shape beneath for her mouth opens in a silent ‘oh’.

‘Sshh.’

To my relief, she nods and says no more, and cradles the bundle for me while I climb into the open carriage.

The officers’ mess is already crowded with officers and civilians and their wives and families. Space has been cleared for dancing and there is a swirl of colourful gowns and starched uniforms, but I have eyes only for the musicians. I carefully stow my wrap under my chair, out of harm’s way, and gaze upon them. There are five convicts
playing for us tonight: Cormac, with his violin; Padraic seated at the pianoforte; and a clarinetist, a cellist and a drummer, who seems determined to beat the very devil out of his set of drums.

Now that we are here, my courage is dwindling. Jack Cartwright rushes up and bows to me, giving me an excuse to defer my plan.

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