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Authors: Thomas Keneally

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Ralph noticed Dick Johnson had his chin tucked down against his clerical bib and seemed embarrassed. He had broad and generous features, and his lips were wide and sensual, and all of that was at variance with his evangelical fury, which Ralph could sense simmering away in him as Private Ellis boiled up the water for the tea.

Ralph asked him about the health of Mrs. Johnson and of the native girl, Booron, a child of perhaps ten or eleven whom Dick and Mary had just taken into their home. A horrifying form of smallpox had erupted among the
ab origine
Indians of the place—a mystifying plague, since no one in the city of lags, in Sydney Cove itself or at the outstation called Rosehill, had been stricken with the illness. Bodies of natives, swollen and thickly covered with pustules, were found unburied in various bays around the harbour, sitting propped against sandstone ledges or lying in caves. It was known that the strange unearthly beings of this region favoured some sort of burial, but the bursting out of these terrible rashes and tumours must have sent the healthy ones fleeing farther into the forests, leaving their stricken relatives to putrify in the open air. Watkin Tench, who always inquired into such things, said that the abandonment of the bodies of the wretched victims meant that the natives had never seen the disease before. But Johnny White and Davy Collins argued against that, since they had discovered through taking H.E.'s native Arabanoo to the hospital, where four stricken Indians had been placed, that the natives had a name for it.
Gal-gal-la
.

H.E. had enquired at one time whether glass flasks containing variolous matter which Surgeon Johnny White had brought with him for some scientific purpose, could have somehow spread the malignancy among the natives. But Johnny mocked the idea.

At the height of summer then, Johnny had gathered a party of convicts and Marines who had been marked by the disease in their earlier lives. He ordered them to carry to the hospital four Indians discovered stricken in an abandoned encampment. At the hospital the two grown male natives died, but the two children were nursed through. Johnny White wished to adopt the boy, whose name was Nanbaree but whom the surgeon had already christened Andrew Snape Hammond Douglas White. The less assertive Johnsons had adopted the girl, and surprisingly saw no urgency to lay the weight of a Christian name upon her. So she was still Booron.

The mention of this new and fascinating member of his family did not, however, cause any generous rising of Dick's chin this afternoon. Reverend Johnson was for some reason in torment, and Ralph guessed what it was. It was the use of Nancy Turner as Melinda.

Private Ellis left at last, perhaps to see
his
convict paramour, Liz Cole, another of those shoplifting London milliners. Liz Cole was already married to a quarrelsome lag called Marshall, whom she had jilted for Ellis. Once or twice, Ralph had warned him of the danger of this sort of affair, and Ellis had nodded away for the sake of politeness. What Ralph couldn't understand was how anyone would leave anyone for Ellis's sake. It was one of those mysteries of passion.

With Ellis gone from the hut, Ralph turned to the priest. “Please. You must feel unconstrained, Dick, speaking with me. I beg you.”

Dick hid his full upper lip behind his full lower one and stared miserably at Ralph. At last he unclenched his mouth and spoke. “I must ask you to use any pretext to abandon this play which you are managing. I ask you to do this both in my capacity as a friend and as Christ's priest in the vastest and most decadent parish in all Creation. I know certain people like to see me as a Methodist lunatic and an enemy of decent joy. You know I am not that, Ralph, and I beg you to go on believing I am not. My motives for asking you are based on the most serious considerations of both private and social morality.”

And he closed his eyes, put his hand to his brow, and began to explain himself.

“Mrs. Johnson,” he said, “has the convict Mary Brenham in a few times weekly to wash and iron. Brenham brought with her when she came to us yesterday a written copy of Act One of the play you propose to present. Mary—Mrs. Johnson—began turning the pages idly, and was astounded to find enshrined in the lines some of the principles of behaviour which have brought the prisoners to their present unhappy condition and led to their being located at the end of the earth like this.”

“Dick, it is a
comedy
,” Ralph pleaded, astounded. He was as good a member of the Established Church as anyone, and he could not understand why Mary Johnson had not been consumed with enthusiasm for Farquhar's work. That she had been in any way appalled looked to him like a wilful misreading.

“In an ordered society”—Dick sighed—“one might be able to consider it a comedy, though I have to say there are some lines at which civilised people should not laugh. Here, however, in this society, where violations of property and person are the standard of behaviour, the play cannot be considered as anything but a dangerous incitement.” Dick made an appeasing motion with his left hand. “I hate talking like this to a friend, Ralph. I sound like a sermon.”

And indeed the uneven white of an embarrassed friend was showing through Dick's tanned face.

“This girl Mary Brenham,” he continued. “She has a child by some sailor. She begot it while she was coming here aboard the
Lady Penrhyn
.”

“So I believe,” said Ralph.

“She tells me this. You remember that the
Lady Penrhyn
was the only ship in all the fleet which carried a convict shipment entirely of females. Aboard the
Lady Penrhyn
then, you had to align yourself with a sailor. If you did not—if you were not known to be the property of one of the seamen—then you stood the chance of being violated by the entire pack of sailors. So Brenham aligned herself with the sailor Crudis, one of the few who were better than beasts. But even so he forced her favours from her.”

“Perhaps she did not give them entirely without wishing to,” argued Ralph, moved by an obscure fraternal defensiveness for Crudis.

“Brenham was raised decently—you can tell from the way she carries herself. Consider that there is nowhere aboard a convict ship, neither in the hold nor in the sailors' quarters, where bodily commerce could be carried out in the sort of privacy you and I, and for that matter Mary Brenham, would consider essential for the purpose. It was different for the officers, since they had cabins of their own, and indeed in some cases made use of them!

“Let me assure you, therefore, that Mary Brenham's sensibilities were outraged by the voyage and yet, even here, they still exist. So there is Brenham at one pole of our convict community, and she is encouraged—positively urged—by the arts of comedy to abandon her delicacies. And at the other pole we have the Perjurer Nancy Turner and others of that kind. Lacking in any moral sense, they will now see in
The Recruiting Officer
all their amorality exalted and laughed at by the members of this penal civilisation. This was always the peril of the theatre! The events even of Act One, which I have read and made a copy of, will serve as an exemplum for events which will no doubt occur later in the evening of the performance. No, no, Ralph, let me specify. First we begin with Sergeant Kite, who enumerates five women he is already married to simultaneously. Then we have Captain Plume asking whether Melinda is as great a whore as she is a jilt, and when Worthy denies it, Plume exclaiming, ‘'Tis ten thousand pities.' Next, Plume's advice on how Worthy should go about assuring Melinda's affections. ‘The very first thing that I should do, should be to lie with her chambermaid, and hire three or four wenches in the neighbourhood to report that I had got them with child.'”

“But,” Ralph pleaded, “the play makes it clear that Captain Plume is in fact a virtuous man, and that all his racy talk
is
merely talk.”

The Reverend Dick thrust his head back now, looking at the ceiling. Ralph could see nothing but his chin. “Ralph, Ralph, talk is
everything
in a play. What does he say of Silvia—that she would have the wedding before consummation, and he was for consummation before the wedding, and so as far as he was concerned she could go and lose her maidenhead her own way!

“And it all continues in the second scene,” Dick went on, sitting upright now and hunting among his notes. “There you have Melinda, who will—as I say—be the Perjurer Turner, talking to Silvia, who will be that better type of convict, Mary Brenham. Oh, yes. Here. ‘You are tired of an appendix to our sex that you can't so handsomely get rid of in petticoats as if you were in breeches.' That, I tell you, Ralph, is an inflammatory sentence to utter before the combined felonry of this place.”

Dick let his notes fall to the floor. He blinked at Ralph. “Is there further need to quote, my friend?”

Ralph felt calmly enraged. In his new zeal for theatrical management he felt an almost brotherly urge to defend the words of George Farquhar, who—ill and poor—had written
The Recruiting Officer
and
The Beaux' Stratagem
, the latter from his deathbed, dying on the evening of its third performance. Oh what a lusciousness there was in George Farquhar's words, and what a valour in the way Farquhar's own tragedy was excluded from the scenes, so that the play had all the body and lustiness of a tall masculine presence in fierce health. And Dick, in his Eclectic Society sternness, could not see, sense, or appreciate that valour. He was worried merely that Liz Barber might have a belly laugh and that this might in turn vitiate the moral universe.

“If you are convinced this play is a scandal,” Ralph asked with deliberate emphasis, “why do you not appeal to H.E., who authorised it?”

Reverend Dick Johnson stamped a foot and rose, clenching his fists.

“You know why, Ralph. He's cross-grained when it comes to me. He will not order a church to be built for me. If I show any concern for the personal redemption of a convict, he advises me to preach on moral subjects and leave redemption. If I show any concern over the play, he will become convinced it is above all the work best designed to be the comedy first seen in this place. No.
You
must quash the play using any excuse—lack of actors, or even by voicing the same concern as I have voiced to you: that the words will have a poisonous influence.”

“But I do not
believe
it, Dick.”

“You do not believe in the impropriety of what I have read?”

“It is there only to get a laugh.”

“And that fact justifies it?”

Dick no longer spoke as a friendly counsellor but with the sort of dissenting rectitude Ralph found most irksome. That was the trouble with evangelicals. They were always increasing the demand on your behaviour.
You do not have a convict mistress? Good. Now renounce the theatre forever! Expunge the comedy! Geld the tragedy for the sake of the convict population!

“Am I not an honest Protestant?” Ralph asked in exasperation.

“That is not an achieved and permanent state. It is a state you possess only by grace of your Saviour, Jesus Christ. You do not stay there by your own merit but by favour of the blood of Christ. Officers in this garrison speak of being a Protestant as if it were something political, like deciding to be a Tory. I did not expect to hear this nonsense from you, Ralph. You have been an honest Protestant, yes. Though there is the text which instructs us to call no man honest, let us say
you
are honest. But even so, you are mistaken in this matter.”

A dangerous impulse to theological debate entered Ralph. He welcomed it heartily.

“Are you dictating to my conscience, the way a Pope would?” He knew that a mention of the Whore of Babylon would half rout Dick.

“My God, I am
not
!” roared Dick. “I argue what is self-evident to any properly informed Christian conscience.”

“The very woman whose virtue you wish to protect—Mary Brenham herself—is brought to life by this play. Brought to life! I do not exaggerate. It is the only urbane thing which has happened to her since she stole as a servant and was caught and sentenced. The highest civil authority in this place has not only permitted the thing but encouraged it. I will
not
pretend I am squeamish about it and opposed to doing it. For I too have a difficulty with H.E. and cannot pretend that I am as well-liked by him as are the more obviously cultivated officers like Davy Collins and Watkin. If I felt a real moral concern, then I would go to him. But I do
not
. I disagree with you absolutely, Dick. I will not abandon the play!”

“Then it means you cannot expect to enjoy Communion in your own household in the future.”

“Do not bully me with the sacraments of Christ, Dick. I have not taken a whore yet. Be kind enough to wait until I do.”

“I have to tell you that this matter is important enough to Mrs. Johnson and myself as to preclude any further intimacy with you, Lieutenant Clark. In a felon colony which is entirely against us we have always counted you an ally. It is with grief that I realise we no longer can.”

And indeed poor silly Dick was suffering so much he had torn his cravat and clerical collar away from his throat.

“Then,” said Ralph, with a heady feeling of heresy, “I must choose to be theatrical.”

“God save you, my brother.” The Reverend Dick Johnson said it like a curse, and his lips contended with each other for a few more seconds before he rose and left.

Though Dick Johnson might be a somewhat extreme, Wesley-leaning priest of the Established Church, as darkness fell Ralph began to grow wary about his condemnation. The truth was that in his deepest being Ralph believed in the same God Dick Johnson did—and this was a God of Lightnings. In all the universe, this penal harbour was the home of lightnings, the sounding box, the focussing glass. Extravagant coruscations continued all summer and half the autumn.

To the primitive Ralph Clark, then, who quavered at this sound and light, the withdrawal of the blessing of the one representative of the Established Church in millions of square miles of space seemed by darkness a powerful invitation to the God of Thunders to send a bolt. Ralph was pleased, therefore, that the summer was ending as the playmaking began and Dick's excommunication was uttered. The season of lightnings was all but over now.

BOOK: The Playmaker
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