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Authors: Thomas Keneally

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BOOK: The Playmaker
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“I cannot speak good of you, Goose!” Harry protested.

“Then don't speak bad.” She stared levelly at him. “If you speak bad of me, I'll take your little Duck.”

The pattern of society was now clear to Harry. George Johnston must have felt he kept Esther Abrahams at home and in his arms only by grace of Goose. That Mother Goose, if she chose to, could provoke unimagined havoc. And, watching her, Harry too had a sense above all of her power to reclaim Duckling. Part of his pride in being Provost Marshal, servant of order, bled away now. He felt foolish. He had often enough said to Ralph that the same arrangements which prevailed in St. Giles and other criminal covens must have been transported in the convict holds of the
Lady Penrhyn
, the
Charlotte
, the
Friendship
, and the others. From his mad youth, he believed, he had learned to be certain of this. Yet he had not really believed it, in the chambers of his blood, and now Goose was proving it to him. And in the chambers of his blood too he rejoiced that Duckling was now secured to him.

What was left of his pride as Provost Marshal, however, required him to make a hard contract.

“All right,” he had murmured. “When others say you're evil, I'll call you mischievous. When others say you're vile, I'll say you're merely self-interested. If that's all you want, I'm your man. I shall never mention you unless someone else does, and if they do, and speak too highly, I shall moderate what they say down to a medium level, and if they speak of you poorly I shall improve your reputation in a small way. That is all.”

She laughed at that and put out her creamy hand, which no tropic nor convict deck nor intemperate downpour had marred or made less immaculate. “Good for you, Harry Brewer.” She squeezed his nose with her ivory fingers. Harry had the impression she was growing affectionate, and for the first time in his life chose not to take an erotic chance. When she saw that he intended to keep his reserve, she began talking business again. “And, Harry Brewer, above all you must guarantee this! If ever friends of mine come into your hands, you must promise to treat them swiftly, that's our contract too. Swift treatment without any rope tricks to string them out.”

“I know no such tricks,” he told her. “Neither does Ketch Freeman.” Both Ketch and Harry were tyrannised in their sleep by the idea that some silly ineptitude of the knot could cause a terrible grievous drop.

“There are further mercies than mere hangman's mercy,” Goose argued, patting her cheek and running a forefinger around her lips.

Ralph had heard the story thus far at least four times in the past year, and as the stricken Harry came to the point where his bargain with Goose was sealed, Ralph began to congratulate himself that the tale was just about ended and that now Harry could rest, Duckling could be called in again, and he, Ralph, could go home. He felt petulant, therefore, when Harry continued the history, hinting at further and later arrangements with Goose. Harry's weakness was that he could narrate nothing in its short form.

Besides, there was a rankling concept which had arisen in Ralph, which he wanted to take away with him and look at in private. It was this: if he wanted Mary Brenham, did he have to bargain with Goose himself? Would he be bound to visit Goose the way a hopeful lover visits a woman's mother?

Yet now Harry's recital took a direction Ralph had not heard of before. After mentioning further mercies, Goose took something from the pocket of her jacket and kept it hidden in the palm of her hand. She took his hand by the wrist and dumped in his palm a little flute of glass with a blue fluid in it. Now that Handy Baker had been condemned she wanted him to enjoy a small mercy. Close to the execution, Harry would pass the phial to Baker, who would hold it in his mouth before the drop. When the ladder went from beneath him, his teeth would break the glass and he would feel—in Goose's words—“no more anguish.”

Harry asked about the other Marines who were to drop. About Askey and Dukes, Luke Haines, and the others.

Goose told him they were not her concern to the same degree. Besides, it was likely they would be pardoned on the gallows. But there would be no pardon for Handy Baker, since he had been the chief actor in killing the Marine Bullmore.

“You have supplies of this?” Harry had asked her, impressed once again at the range of her governance. A regime which could place such a kindly substance on the tongue of a condemned creature could call itself merciful.

“I have some,” said Goose.

Somehow she had transported it, a cache of maternal kindness, in the hold of the
Lady Penrhyn
.

“One for yourself?” asked Harry.

“Aye. And one for you, Harry Brewer, if you need it. It is an ancient trick. Without it the world would be too savage. When the surgeons see the bloodied lips of Handy Baker, they'll think he's bit his tongue.”

Harry would have liked greatly to be able to put a name to the poison or opiate Goose had given him. Therefore he went to see Johnny White that night, asking for a small glass phial suitable for storing an abnormal and robust ant which he had captured.

“It had never occurred to me,” Johnny White had said, “that you were a naturalist, Harry.”

“Only when nature is poised to bite me,” Harry told him.

Johnny White suspected Harry's story. “Your compassion is well known,” said the surgeon.

“I was not aware of that,” said Harry. “I thought everyone considered me a peevish old bastard.”

It was not uncommon for surgeons examining the body of the hanged, said Johnny White, to find broken glass in the mouth of the corpse. Merciful people—perhaps an officer, perhaps a minister of religion—attempted to limit the victim's agony by handing him a phial filled with some swift poison or another.

“Hydrocyanic acid,” said Johnny, “was distilled a mere ten years ago from Prussian Blue by some German chemist and is now commonly used by the higher classes of criminals, especially in Holland, where they hang like us, or in Spain, where they garotte. I would never make any fuss if I discovered splinters of glass between the teeth of a hanged felon. But I warn you as a friend, Harry, that the sharp, fast poisons must be handled with some care.”

By now Harry was emboldened by the sight of Johnny White going for one of his medical cupboards and withdrawing a flute of glass stoppered at both ends.

“This ant of mine,” he improvised, “reaches a length of at least two inches.”

“I'm sure the Royal Society would be very interested in it, Harry.”

Harry took the phial, and in crossing the stream uncorked one end of it, knelt, filled it with water, and sealed it again.

“I felt like a god and a criminal at the one time,” Harry confessed to Ralph.

The next morning Harry went with Ketch Freeman to the civil prison, which had begun as canvas and was now brick, and put the nooses round the heads of the six condemned soldiers, and the tail of the rope in their chained hands. While this was proceeding, Harry handed Handy Baker the phial of clear water tinctured with draughtsman's ink. This mixture had been made late at night, after Duckling was asleep, the phial of acid lying before him in candlelight to serve as an exemplar of how much ink should be added. Handy took the thing from Harry, as of right, and placed it in his jaw. The drop would break it in his teeth and give him release, or so he believed. He winked at Harry. “Winking back,” Harry would tell Ralph, “I understood at last what a treacherous and vengeful son of hell I was.”

The six men made their way then to the exemplary scaffold constructed by John Arscott, Ralph's Sergeant Kite.

“I was serene,” the palsied Harry told Ralph. “I had withheld all mercy from Handy Baker and was saving it, you see, for some future and more deserving victim.”

At the drop he always turned his head away, but this time he waited until he had seen awareness and alarm in Handy Baker's eyes. Handy's Dimber Damber, Handy's pontiff, the Goose, had failed him at the worst minutes of his life.

“It was not to be wondered,” said Harry, using his new face, which only half worked as a face should, “that Handy Baker would subject me to visitations, should haunt me when I arose at dawn. But now you see, I am delivered of Baker. He has taken his measure of my flesh. I shall be, Ralph, a laughable hobbler. I am left with a mouth which cannot frame a kiss. Think of it. But at least Baker is gone. And now there is Duckling and Harry. Harry and Duckling.”

Harry closed his eyes in contentment, and—watching him—Ralph felt homeless and willing to give up a fair proportion of his own powers just to find the equability, the freedom from ghosts that maimed Harry now apparently enjoyed.

PART FIVE

CHAPTER 26

Tattoo

Of all the most exquisite reaches of Farquhar's play, the one which gave Ralph most delight as the date of the performance neared and his desire for Mary Brenham grew absurdly and without rest, was when Brenham/Silvia and Rose/Mrs. Bryant appear at the beginning of Act 5. On the night of the performance and during the last rehearsals, Mary Brenham would be wearing a white gentleman's suit and Rose would be dishevelled and wear a mob cap, her hair escaping from beneath it. Neither woman was as yet fully acquainted with her costume—the seamstress Frances Hart was still working at Silvia's suit.

This segment of the play was oddly delicious, particularly because of what both women had suffered, though Ralph assured himself he did not relish directly the recent travails of either of them. But since her recovery from her bruises there was a new liveliness in Mary Brenham—she did her Silvia with gusto. And in Dabby a sort of smarting grief was apparent since the native had died, since she had seen him buried with his secret and glistening rope intact within him and heard Dick Johnson's play-hating God, instead of that celestial Mother and Son, invoked on Arabanoo's behalf.

Act 5 commences in an anteroom adjoining Silvia's bedchamber. Silvia enters wearing a man's nightcap. The nightcap was available—Frances Hart had run it up—and Mary Brenham looked very handsome and boyish in it.

Silvia had accepted the lusty Rose's invitation to share her bed as a means of avoiding sharing one fraternally with Plume, and since Silvia has had to stay buttoned up all night to maintain her disguise, Rose is not at the start of Act 5 very pleased with her night's rest. Her responses are in the characteristic Farquhar style.

Rose: How am I? Just as I was last night. Neither better nor worse for you.

Silvia: What's the matter? Did you not like your bedfellow?

Rose: I don't know whether I had a bedfellow or not.

Silvia ends up standing trial before her own father, Justice Balance, for ravishing Rose. Mary Brenham played the rakehell soldier beautifully in front of Ketch Freeman's Balance. It made Ralph wonder whether—if Brenham desired him at all—the suggestion of an alliance might not in the end come from her.

When Balance asks her what brought her to Shropshire, Silvia through Mary Brenham replies with male authority that she always knew country gentlemen wanted wit, and that town gentlemen needed money and therefore the two were made for each other.

And so, for a sweet joke, she aggrieves even her liberal father.

In Act 5 too, in what Ralph saw as the sublime way of plays, everything begins to coalesce. Worthy arrives at Melinda's place and indicates he is about to travel Europe for a year. As you would predict, Melinda/Nancy Turner at last begins to show an aggrieved humanity. “A year! Oh, Mr. Worthy, what you owe to me is not to be paid under a seven years' servitude.” Worthy knows he has her, kisses her hand ardently (at least as Sideway played it), and replies, “And if I don't use you as a gentlewoman should be, may this be my poison.”

And so as Ralph's version of
The Recruiting Officer
neared its end, as all characters grew not only redeemable but worthy of congratulation, the players and the playmaker Ralph himself were left with the sense that life
could
be easily amended, that love was an easy ploy, and that everyone really intended the best.

Ralph considered that in the real world it might also be the case except that there was always too much hidden, and too much to take into account. It was only within the circumference of a play, and particularly of a comedy, that all characters could be so deftly delivered from their meanness. Only in a play could Melinda, the Nancy Turner who sat by campfires with Joe Hunt, become so ennobled as to say, “I am going to Mr. Balance's country house to see my cousin Silvia. I have done her an injury, and can't be easy till I have asked her pardon.”

As Ralph would soon have it proved again, though art perpetually improved itself, society went its reckless and complicated way.

Soon after Harry's awakening, Ralph took John Wisehammer aside to ask him for his epilogue. His reason was not only that Mary Brenham had asked him to, to deliver her of the burden of Wisehammer's anxiety. It was also that Wisehammer's rendering of Captain Brazen was now less certain than it had been two weeks before. These days, in the midst of the scene where Brazen fires his pistol, or that other stage of sweet nonsense where Justice Balance tells Brazen he is laconic, and Brazen says, “Had not you an uncle Laconic that was Governor of the Leeward Islands?”—in the midst of such comic fervours, Ralph would find Wisehammer stealing glances at him. The reason was apparent to Ralph now. Because he had coveted Mary Brenham and believed her to be Wisehammer's girl, he had wilfully suppressed any laughter which Wisehammer's performance would normally and justly have evoked. He had praised Plume and Kite, the overseer Kable and the carpenter Arscott, and had choked back any praise of Wisehammer. And Wisehammer had probably thought it a matter of the ancient hatred of the Semite which he had seen surface frequently enough among the Marines, privates and officers both. Whatever cause Wisehammer had allotted to Ralph's coolness, Ralph now had no doubt it had unbalanced Wisehammer's playing.

BOOK: The Playmaker
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