Read The Playmaker Online

Authors: Thomas Keneally

The Playmaker (12 page)

BOOK: The Playmaker
6.01Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Ralph could see, as Harry talked, that this wilder region of London—if it was a region of London and not its own governance—was still potent in Harry's imagination. During a year or so's service in London, he himself had never found the place so engrossing as Harry had, but then he had not had access to the cashbox of Cuxbridge and Breton.

Meanwhile, said Harry, Cuxbridge and Breton had got quite old and were dependent on him, as he was on them. They thought his way of life and pallor after liquor represented a human enough moral fallibility which might one day mar his career. They did not understand
were paying for all his excess.

So Harry worked for them twelve, no,
years, years of total rakishness, except that he
a good draftsman and good at bookkeeping, and the old men certainly had no sense they were missing money.

Then one sodden midnight he found himself in an infamous public house in Monmouth Street, the Bear and Dog, in the company of a girl called Flora. Both of them were drunk and in the company of three or four stylish young gentlemen-thieves. To his bemusement, Harry heard himself boasting to the young men about his years of embezzlement at Cuxbridge and Breton. There was a smile on his face as he bragged away, and a freezing terror in his guts. He wanted them to know that, like them, he was a serious practitioner. He thought he'd cheated Cuxbridge and Breton merely to pay for his mad life, but now he knew he had developed a criminal pride. He knew at once that he was now not a visitor and a dabbler, but rather a member, a limb of the criminal commonwealth. He woke up next morning with the knowledge that he had laid himself open to the most dangerous people in London.

One of the stylish young thieves came to his rooms one night and ordered him to present himself back at the Bear and Dog the following Friday. Harry should realise, said the young man, that there were benefits in joining a canting crew, a criminal mob, and swearing allegiance to a Dimber Damber, a chieftain of the crooked way, who could look after you if you were arrested and send you comforts in gaol.

So he had put himself in the hands of a canting crew, a gang, a mob, colourful social oddities when you read of them in the
or made quick, polite, drinking visits to their public houses, but fierce in their grasp. Harry knew that if he did not come to the Bear and Dog and take the oath to the Dimber Damber, Cuxbridge and Breton would be alerted to his fourteen years of what the canting crews called tickling the peter.

So he went back to Monmouth Street on a Friday night, to enlist in the mesh of allegiances centred on the Dimber Damber of the canting crew of the Bear and Dog.

The Dimber Damber was a small man who wore an earring in his left ear and laughed like a hound harrying a rabbit. His wife stood two inches taller and wore an old-fashioned wig to hide baldness brought on by ringworm. Such were the king and queen to whom Harry was to take the first oath of his lifetime. Everything that passed through the Bear and Dog, the Dimber Damber took a tax from—from jewel theft, from the income of the whores of the so-called pushing academies, from the haul of pickpockets and tricksters. In the Bear and Dog, Harry told Ralph, there was always a child of eight or nine sprinting through the place, running with loot in his shirt, going to ground, and a permanent traffic of pals and other pickpockets' associates. Little ratty runners with a good turn of pace would appear from nowhere and disappear into holes in the floor. And from all their speed, the Dimber Damber and his unhealthy wife took a percentage.

The stylish young thief who had come to his rooms recommended him heartily, like a brother, to the Dimber Damber. Harry was, said the young thief, definitely on the cross, a practitioner of the crooked way. He had tickled the peter of a West End company. As Harry listened to the young thief, he felt a terrible pride overtake him, and feeling the Dimber Damber's eyes upon him, he felt like saying, Here I am, as fit a candidate for hanging, for twisting, for the hemp disease, the gallows quinsey, as you're likely ever to see.

The Dimber Damber, with all the reasonableness of a lawyer, hit on the sum of ten shillings a week as Harry's offering to what he called the “Fund.” Harry now had a new employer, and he knew he could not support or, strangely, could not give loyalty to more than one. In that hour in the Bear and Dog, he felt a terrible filial love for poor old Breton and doddery Cuxbridge.

It was all a ridiculous scene, said Harry. He spoke his oath at midnight, standing on sawdust, surrounded by the solemn and wavering crew of felons, who took the affair with all the seriousness appropriate to the installation of an Anglican bishop. And a sort of criminal lunacy overcame Harry. He found himself strangely touched and affected by the oath, and was so drunk by then that he promised himself he would, on waking the following morning, somehow give up being a surreptitious villain and a sneak and become an honest professional.

In the glade of paperbark trees at the end of the universe, Harry repeated to Ralph the oath he had taken at the Bear and Dog on a Friday night in '73.

“I do swear to be a true brother, and that I will in all things obey the commands of the great Tawny Prince and keep his counsel and not divulge the secrets of my brethren. I will not teach anyone to speak the cant language, nor will I disclose any of our mysteries to them. I will take my Prince's part against all that shall oppose him, or any of us, according to the utmost of my ability. Nor will I suffer him or anyone belonging to us to be abused by any strange villains whether abrams, rufflers, hookers, pailliards, swaddlers, Irish toyles, swigmen, whipjacks, jarkmen, bawdy baskets, dommerars, clapper dodgeons, patricos or kertles. I will defend him, or them, as much as I can, against all other outliers whatever. I will not conceal aught I win out of libkins or from the ruffmans, but will preserve it for the use of the canting crew. Lastly I will cleave to my moll wap stiffly, and will bring her duds, marjery praters, gobblers, grunting cheats or tibs of the buttery or anything else I can come at, as winnings for her weppings.”

What Harry had been swearing to was to protect the Dimber Damber from any strange confidence tricksters, pretending to be madmen to put even the cunning off their guard; from pilferers and jewellery thieves; from professional beggars; from those who robbed with violence; from Irish tinkers notorious throughout the counties of England; from thieves who travelled the country pretending to buy old shoes and clothes, or selling brooms or mops; from those who got money out of people by pretending to be shipwrecked sailors; from forgers; from sellers of pornographic songs and books who might be unwilling to pay a cut; from those who pretended their tongues had been cut out by the Turks and so extorted charity; from fake ministers of religion; from thieves of cloth.

Harry had further sworn that if he took to male prostitution he would pay over whatever he earned either inside the walls of a house or from rolling in the open. Lastly, he would make love to his girl, Flora, or whomsoever, on a regular basis and would give her gifts of clothing, hens, turkey cocks, pigs, or geese, or anything else he could lay his hand to, as plunder in return for any pleasure she gave.

“Poor damn Flora,” said Harry. “I knew her for a month and then lost her for life. I wonder what winnings she has for her weppings these days.”

“I kept paying that damn Dimber Damber for four years,” Harry confessed.

Then all at once old Breton had a stroke and it stoked up that part of his brain which dealt in suspicion. He had a man in to look at Harry's bookkeeping. That was when Harry, at the age of thirty-nine years, joined the Navy, straight into the crew of the
, a twenty-four gunner under the command of a post-captain named Arthur Phillip, who would later become H.E.

It was in those years though, between taking the oath to the Dimber Damber and his joining the
, that the dreams of hanging had become entrenched. One day he had confronted the beast and attended a morning execution in front of the Newgate gatehouse. There was one criminal in particular in whom he was interested. A Henry Berthand had feloniously impersonated one Mark Groves, the proprietor of one hundred pounds' worth of three-percent annuities, and had transferred the same as if he were their real owner. Harry attended because he was aware that Berthand was, in terms of money stolen, less of a criminal than he himself had managed to be.

Harry's dreams had become more intense after seeing Berthand turned off.

For in the four minutes it took between the drop and the final beat of Berthand's heart, said Harry, the poor fellow became a public fool. He danced, he urinated, his body went to every effort to prove its humanity. And the more his body beat the air and showed off its last humble tricks, the better the terrible crowd liked it. There was a man, too, called Charlie Woollet, hanged that day for stealing a watch. “Have you noticed that in every batch of condemned you find watch thieves? Stealing time seems a heavy crime with the judges. As a friend of mine once said, Those who steal time get removed from it. But Charlie Woollet, he didn't measure up to Harry Brewer. Not as a thief. Not as hangable matter.

“It is clear now that there will be a hanging,” murmured Harry to Ralph after a somnolent pause. “The idea of it does not worry anyone. Dear God, Duckling … Duckling in Newgate, with a day and a half to live, was calm. Twisting is part of the landscape to these people. It honours the Tawny Prince. It's the highest honour.”

“Who is the Tawny Prince?” asked Ralph, though he felt he might have glimpsed him in his dreams.

“The Tawny Prince … he's the god of the cross. When I say cross, I don't mean the cross of Jesus. He's the god of Disorder, and is heavily worshipped by lagkind, Ralph, for twenty mad years by Harry Brewer himself. The Tawny Prince sponsors all twisting—it's the Tawny Prince's Mass, his evensong. His folk down in the men's and women's camp are getting ready for it without knowing they are, for they are his unwitting servants in this matter. And as for the others, Davy Collins, the Captain, even you … you know it must happen and you take it equably. I am the only one who cannot. I dream of it every night without fail and I have such loathing, Ralph, that it is beyond my power to put the rope on another being's neck. My constables are full of the same dread, and I cannot depend on them to do it either. Ambition has me in a corner, Ralph, the way the bitch always has us. Right, Harry, says ambition, do you wish to be Provost Marshal? Then you must be a sedate hanger. You say you cannot turn people off? Then you cannot be Provost Marshal. But you cannot live without wages and rank and the esteem of men like Ralph Clark? Then you must use the rope!”

Ralph had to admit there were stages in Harry Brewer's confession when he wondered how much of the Provost Marshal's recital was still accountable to criminal pride. Yet at this point in the tale, you could not doubt Harry's anguish.

Beneath their tree Private Ellis and Jack Williams had dropped off to sleep, lying together innocently in the paperbark shade.

“Even the Captain knows the state I am in,” murmured Harry.

Harry explained how H.E. had called him to the four-room government house built of lathes and canvas, and H.E. had been sitting on a chair in the bedroom and had asked Harry to feel his heart, which had seemed thin and febrile and as if it might beat itself out at any second, depriving Sydney Cove, the new world, of the organ on which it depended for sanity and hope. Then H.E. told Harry that when he appointed him Provost Marshal, it was in the belief the post would not be too onerous. There had never been a world like this one, said H.E., where to be a person under sentence was the normal thing and to be a free man abnormal. H.E. had fancied that this very fact would make the convicts act in terms of reasonable self-interest, as a few were already doing, but not enough. H.E. had expected that landing on this shore would alter the convicts, make their condition apparent to them. As well as the demands of the strangeness of the country, they had something to look forward to at the end of their sentences, more than expulsion into the mere streets. They had the prospect of becoming landholders, of having the labour to their land provided for them out of future shipments of felons.

These novel conditions, H.E. had thought, could mean there would have to be little further discipline apart from that offered by their isolation eight moons out in the earth's space. But this was already promising to be a withered hope.

So, H.E. had asked Harry, still clamping Harry's hand up against the rib cage where the heart uncertainly beat, could Harry stop a heart if it were necessary?

Harry had been a little aggrieved and had let H.E. know it. But H.E. was not deluded. Could Harry do it without too much torment? All the normal business of society, free and bond, had been carried out on the shore in the first three weeks. There had been weddings, and the christenings of bastards begotten by seamen, Marines, and convicts during the voyage. The Reverend Dick Johnson had preached on the grass from the 116th Psalm. “What shall I render unto the Lord, for all His benefits toward me?” And now it was likely that
ceremony would occur. It was in fact H.E. who had raised that picture in Harry's mind of an execution waiting to happen.

“If I were dismissed,” harry confessed to Ralph, “or replaced for being slow, there is nowhere I could go. I am already at the end of things.”

And suddenly, careless of being seen by Ellis and Williams, he began to weep in a way that made the crooked pegs of his remaining teeth jut forth until they dominated Ralph's view. Ralph checked on the Marine and the lag, and saw that the Jamaican had stirred, taken one lustrous-eyed look at Harry, and then, with the wisdom that said you should never catch an official at a disadvantage, clamped his eyes shut again.

It was a case of Harry's confessions and the intimacy they had forced on Ralph now being compounded by a series of astounding events. Feeling that Harry had to be quickly distracted from his morbid expectancy of a coming hanging, Ralph pointed off to the south. “Look,” he said. “That's the Prince of them all.” Harry blinked, and Williams and Private Ellis woke up.

BOOK: The Playmaker
6.01Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Other books

Jude Stephens by Touch of a VAmpire
Fortune's Rocks by Anita Shreve
Desire - Erotic Short Story by Blu, Jenna, Von Wild, Kat
The Oath by Jeffrey Toobin
Nightmare Child by Ed Gorman
Deadly Dreams by Kylie Brant