Read The Playmaker Online

Authors: Thomas Keneally

The Playmaker (4 page)

BOOK: The Playmaker
10.77Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

As Ralph stepped ashore on the island with Harry Brewer, he heard Amstead's little dog ranting. It was a strange dog from Africa which Lieutenant Maxwell had picked up at the Cape before he had gone mad. When poor Maxwell had begun wandering around the penal colony with his pants off, trying energetically to find any reach of water into which to throw himself, and having to be soothed out of Johnny White's small stock of laudanum, the wise dog had switched its affections to old Amstead.

Amstead farmed a sunny slope on the north side of the little island—he had beans growing there, potatoes, and three orange trees from Brazil. Turnips and carrots grew on the flatter south side. Amstead's little hut and campfire sat between the two. “I be as good as a lord here,” the old lag had said exultantly to Ralph one afternoon. Private Ellis brought out Amstead's weekly rations, and he was happy, after four years in a prison hulk in Plymouth and on the packed convict decks of a transport travelling farther than prisoners had ever travelled, to live an eremitic life here, separate from the younger, sharper, more turbulent lags.

Amstead appeared now on a shelf of rock above Harry and Ralph and Private Ellis. “Zur,” he called to Ralph and Harry, taking off his convict cap. “I did not see you yesterday, Mr. Clark.” Amstead had lately got a little imperious about Ralph's irregular visits to the place.

“I couldn't come,” said Ralph. “There was a hanging.”

“Ah,” said Amstead, shaking his head sagely. Hanging was the sort of thing they got up to in that other world two bays away. “Come then, zur. I have just dug up a turnip I swear to weigh close to three pounds.”

On the far slopes of the island, where the best ground was, Amstead had filled a number of straw baskets and jute bags with potatoes and turnips. Ralph and Harry exclaimed at the robust quality of this produce. There was no landing place this side, so Ralph ordered the old convict and Private Ellis to carry the stuff over the ridge to the dinghy.

Freed now of Amstead's tyranny, Lieutenant Clark and Harry Brewer sat in the sun on the edge of the tilled earth and Harry began to smoke his pipe.

“Old Ketch Freeman,” murmured Harry, thinking of the hangman who wanted to be an actor. “Is it a part with any laughs in it?”

“Many laughs. Many comic exchanges between Justice Balance and Captain Brazen.”

“You ought to ask the Captain whether he wants Ketch to act in a play. I mean to say, Ralph, hangings are a sort of theatre, and maybe the Captain wants Ketch to give his all talents to the business of execution.”

And, Ralph decided, if H.E. says yes about Freeman, I'll then ask him for definite approval of Nancy Turner as Melinda.



April 4th, 1789

Concerning the play
The Recruiting Officer:

For the Information of His Excellency.


Among those I have audited for the forthcoming presentation of
The Recruiting Officer
is the public hangman, the convict James Freeman, popularly referred to as Ketch. Since he shows every capacity and willingness to take the role of Justice Balance, a role for which he is suited—though he is so young—by the ageless quality of his features, I have spoken to the Provost Marshal, Mr. Henry Brewer, concerning the propriety of engaging him in such a happy event as the presentation of the play promises to be. Mr. Brewer believes that, subject to your approval, there would be nothing inappropriate in Ketch Freeman's being given the part of Justice Balance. If you in your turn have no objections, then I shall engage Freeman.

Your obedient servant,

Ralph Clark,

Lieutenant, Marines.

Ralph had also seen some small theatrical gift in Duckling. But he did not mention it to Harry Brewer until the next morning, at the end of the convicts' church muster.

There was no cathedral in this new penal commonwealth. Dick Johnson, the priest, had to preach to the lines of convicts in the open—as was the case that morning—or, during the colder season, in a large marquee or somebody's borrowed hut. H.E. kept delaying the building of a visible church for Dick to occupy. That was because H.E.'s vision of God was very different from Dick's.

For H.E. saw God not as a father, loving or stern, but as a sort of quintessence of British order who didn't need any particular architecture to enable Him, or more likely It, to be invoked. It was murmured by H.E.'s enemies, including Dick, that this was a result of H.E.'s Jewish parentage. “He'll build a synagogue before he builds a church,” Dick had once murmured to Ralph, who was one of Dick's most prized parishioners.

Dick called himself a Moravian Methodist and an Eclectic, terms Ralph understood very inexactly. He didn't want to offend Dick, however, by asking for an explanation. The Reverend Johnson and his wife, Mary, had always been very interested in the state of prisons, so it was appropriate that they had been sent to serve in this ultimate one.

Among the tracts Dick and Mary had handed out to the convicts in the transports at Portsmouth, before the journey even began, was
Advice against Swearing
, and Dick seemed a little unhinged by the idea that if he could only convince the convicts to stop profaning the name of God, all else would fall into place. Their clean tongues would spread a Divine reform to all their limbs. The lags had from the first treated this proposition with contempt. When Dick had first visited the hold of the
Lady Penrhyn
, which held over one hundred women prisoners, the girls put him to flight by pulling their skirts up over their heads. “Convincing him of their trade,” as the surgeon, Johnny White, said.

H.E. had once offended Dick by telling him to preach on straight moral matters—the main issues of stealing, deceiving, and whoring; the secular virtues of reasonableness, obedience, and industry. He'd also insisted that Dick be not too particular about marrying couples here, whether they were rumoured to have partners in the old world or not. For this was a new state of being. The eight-moon passage to this place had been nearly as absolute a change as death, he argued, and therefore altered morality.

The Reverend Johnson then was a florid young man about Ralph's age. He had been permitted to bring his wife with him all this way. Dick was kindly: he had concerned himself with the terrible brand of smallpox which was afflicting the natives. But even a devout parishioner like Ralph could not help but feel that Mary Johnson, who was capable and pious but more worldly, might have made a better pastor.

For Dick's sermons were dreadful—a mixture of plain moral advice as H.E. had requested, but also warnings to the convicts about falling into the Papist heresy of Pelagianism and Justification by Works. When it came down to it, Dick considered that a whore or a pickpocket could always reform and be redeemed, but a heretic was beyond help. So, even in a criminal community where doctrine and orthodoxy were not common subjects of conversation, he was determined to save the minds of the lags from every nuance of Papist heterodoxy. His sermons, therefore, were capable of making your average sheep thief's eyes cross.

As Harry, leaving the small hillock where God had been praised that morning, told Ralph now, “Jesus, Ralph, what a cracked sermon that man preaches!”

Ralph made some moderate answer. Then he sprang it on Harry. “Duckling has some capacity,” he murmured.

“Christ! Who hasn't come forward to claim a part in this bloody play? But she can't read.”

“I have had to lower that high standard in favour of those who cannot read but have good memories. I had the lag Mary Brenham rehearse her in some of the lines, and she spoke them back well to me. She didn't tell you she would audition for the play?”

“She didn't. I shall beat her for it.” But Harry wouldn't. He was a pitiably indulgent lover. His face was bunched like a fist now, yet it held no vengeance in it at all. “I would not like it to turn her head.”

He feared too much success would draw younger men to her.

“It is a lesser role,” Ralph reassured him. “Lucy. Melinda's servant. She would be quite overshadowed by the other performers.”

Harry chuckled. “So she has some stagecraft, does she? My girl?”

“She is a different person if you let her act.”

“I hope she does not have many risqué lines.”

“Not really. She wears a mask at one stage and pretends to be her mistress. But all the risqué lines belong to the part of Rose, who is a girl from the countryside. A Salopian shrew.”

“I would not like it to go to her head,” said Harry again.

“At the end of the play she will hardly be remembered by the audience,” said Ralph, arguing—to his own amazement and delight—like a theatrical manager. “Yet she will have a justifiable sense of personal success nonetheless.”

Ralph watched Harry weighing the matter, pressing first one eyebrow, then the other, blowing speculative air first into his left cheek, then into his right.

Ralph knew it was fashionable for gentlemen to take an interest in girl whores they had known who might suddenly be on trial for theft. It was counted elegance for a man to go over to Newgate prison to help out some young tart, whether she sat in the remand section waiting to appear before the Middlesex jury, or in the condemned hold waiting to be hanged or reprieved. But there had been none of that mere modishness in Harry's attendance on Duckling which had begun at the Old Bailey one dim autumn afternoon nearly three years ago, and had even earlier causes. Harry had had no choice. He had therefore gone to see Duckling's trial not out of idle kindness but out of a compulsion he could not control.

Duckling's crime had had no distinction. She had stolen some silverware from a client, a young jeweller's clerk who had been to a sale, got drunk, and employed her for an hour's joy. She had, a little later, been making off down Dean Street with the sack of candlesticks and salvers when her client, awakened from his brief post-coital stupor, dressed, descended the stairs of the tenement to which Duckling had taken him, and came running after her.

Harry Brewer was in Dean Street that evening, his last visit to the streets where he had paid out his youth. It was an evening when England seemed to lie under a fug, a cloud of felonies great and minor. A young curate had just confessed that he had married the Prince of Wales secretly and illegally to the Catholic widow Mrs. Fitzherbert for a bribe of five hundred pounds. The Whigs in the House of Commons were claiming that the aging governor general of India, Warren Hastings, had bullied the Nawab of Oudh into handing him jewellery worth a million pounds. The Whigs wanted Hastings impeached, but there would never be an execution for His Excellency Hastings.

Humbler servitors of crime than Hastings sat hip to hip in London's dozen prisons and in many county gaols, all of them much condemned by reformers, by Messrs. Wilberforce and Howard and members of the Eclectic Society. An over-spillage of prisoners was chained up in aged warships whose hulks rode at moorage in every harbour. Once a portion of all these felons would have been shipped off as farm labourers to Virginia and Georgia and the Carolinas. But now Virginia, Georgia, the Carolinas, and nine other unfilial American colonies had violently ended that penal connection.

As the children of that criminal deity, the Tawny Prince, accumulated in the streets and prisons, H.E., who had been farming in Hampshire since the war with the Americans came to an end, was commissioned to bear some of England's lags away to the limits of space and time. Harry had been his secretary at sea, and remained so on land. H.E., that is, was the only officer on the Navy lists in whose company Harry had a standing and something like a rank. So there was no question that Harry would go with H.E., who provided him with the only breathable air in the universe.

First H.E. moved into an office at the Admiralty to plan the enterprise. Harry was placed in a small closet next door, where he kept accounts, wrote letters, and contemplated the gulf before which he and his Captain stood. H.E. himself did not understand quite why he had been selected. He was one of a number of competent officers. He had, before his appointment, shown no particular fervour on the question of prisons and prisoners. But he was captivated by the idea now. Could a new Virginia made of utterly sullied beings be perfected by distance? It was clear to Harry the Captain would spend some years testing that question.

In Dean Street for a farewell, therefore, Harry had seen two young culls, as the felonry of Britain liked to call themselves—both of them members of the same criminal mob as Duckling—emerge from a public house in answer to Duckling's cries, jump on the jeweller's clerk, and rake him with punches. Both of them vanished, however, when two constables appeared. The jeweller's clerk now grabbed Duckling, who had waited too long in the hope of seeing him brained, and pushed her into the arms of the constables.

Not wanting his employer to know he had been foolish enough to bring items of jewellery up into the Parish of St. Giles, the young man—Harry watching—swore to the constables that she and the two culls had held him up with threats right in the road, that he had never seen any of them before. Harry intruded—his profligate youth had given him a sympathy for whores. He reminded the young jeweller that he should swallow his embarrassment and avoid both perjury on his own part and a death sentence for the girl.

The legal point was, as Harry would often in later days explain to Ralph, that if she stole the silverware from the boy while he was still sleeping in the room they had rented, she would be condemned to death only if the goods were valued by the jury at more than forty shillings. And even then she might have a good chance of a reprieve. But if she had attacked him in the open road, with her two companions, then she was technically a highway robber and was all the more likely, by statute, to take the jump.

BOOK: The Playmaker
10.77Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Other books

The Russian Seduction by Nikki Navarre
The 4 Phase Man by Richard Steinberg
Code Breakers: Alpha by Colin F. Barnes
A Teeny Bit of Trouble by Michael Lee West
The Magician by Sol Stein