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Authors: Thomas Keneally

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Harry, with his terror of hanging and his plague of dreams and ghosts, argued with the boy and the constables while Duckling struggled in their arms. But the jeweller's assistant kept stubbornly to his story and at last the constables ordered Harry away.

Harry had attended her trial before the second Middlesex jury, who doubted the jeweller's clerk but still placed the value of the stolen goods at a hanging level. Harry had seen her accept the fatal sentence with a nightmarish composure. It was that—her terrible equability at the prospect of noose and lime pit—which had drawn him in.

He had told Ralph the story of her reprieve every time they had drunk together, whether in Rio, the Atlantic, Capetown, the Indian Ocean, or here in Sydney, this new extreme of space. He was fatally drawn by her strangeness, her incapacity to utter a tender word. He bore, by his own confession, the fear that she might one day say aloud that she might as well have been hanged in front of Newgate Arch—that a mouthful of lime meant about as much to her as a mouthful of air.

He was equally terrified that she might find a younger man. He did not want her to do it by Thespian success in the role of Lucy the servant.

“I have had great problems finding convicts who can act,” Ralph pleaded. “Mainly the mad and the stupid and the relentless villains have presented themselves, sniffing an advantage.”

Harry reached out his knotty hand and slung it around Ralph's shoulder, hugging him. The Provost Marshal gave off a not unpleasant musk, sweat, an excess of the bottle, a strain of brotherly bemusement.

“I have no rank, and to some I am laughable. Many of your brother officers are very careful not to be too genial to me when they are being watched. You are genial at all times. You are welcome to her, my friend.”

Ralph felt a flush of shame. He was himself sometimes careful not to be overwarm with Harry when too many of his brother Marine officers were near. For Harry had been, until an accident had made him Provost Marshal on this distant sidereal shore, the oldest midshipman in the Royal Navy, and the unspoken fear was that he would pass on to others an inability to achieve promotion.

To prepare the costuming, Ralph got the convict Frances Hart, who had once, aboard the
, made him some shirts. She dipped canvas in dye and began cutting layered skirts for the two ladies of the play, a suit of grey burlap for Mr. Worthy, a suit of white for the scenes where Silvia disguised herself as a man.

But who were the two ladies to be? “Don't fret, sir,” said Frances Hart, who had once taken possession of morocco leather pumps, knowing them to be stolen. “I can hem it and tuck it to fit the player. But since I must make men's clothes for the figure of Silvia too, I must make a beginning now.”

For the dark, erotic malice of the character Melinda—a malice which (Farquhar indicated) would repay Mr. Worthy with high times in the marriage bed when by the end of the play he had won her—no one still had come near Nancy Turner the Perjurer. But aging Captain Jemmy Campbell of the Marines, who was querulous and could cause a lot of dissent during the play's one night, wanted Nancy Turner hanged for her perjury. What a fog of bile he would give off if he saw her queening it on the stage.

Ralph had already chosen his Silvia, however, the true heroine, the girl who would promise herself to Captain Plume at the end of Act Five when Melinda was doing the same service for Mr. Worthy.

His Silvia was Mary Brenham. She was about eighteen years old, Ralph guessed, though she had the presence and the calm of a much older woman. You kept forgetting that she could have been no more than fourteen years when sentenced. She showed a strange mixture of diffidence and honesty, as did Silvia herself. She had a fine unpocked face and brown hair—again, brown was Silvia, and black was Melinda, at least in Ralph's mind and, Ralph was sure, in Farquhar's. Her nose turned up sweetly at the end and the nostrils had a most uncriminal delicacy. All together, she showed the sort of well-formed English features that could make the sentimental reflect on the ruggedness of the basic English stock, even as it manifested itself among felons, and on other more sensual mysteries as well. She was tall too, or at least as tall as Ralph, who was not considered a particularly small man. She could read, and by special dispensation she lived on the eastern side of the cove. She was, as far as Ralph knew, no officer's concubine; her habitation of that eastern shore was entirely a case of merit. Possibly her lack of visible lovers was explained by the interest Reverend Dick and Mary Johnson took in her. She seemed to be—as Ralph himself feared he was as well—one of their special concerns. Though she seemed a little shy, she expanded when you gave her something to read, whether it was Silvia or Melinda. At the auditions she had a small child with her, about twelve or thirteen months, who tottered about the marquee contentedly. The child's name was William, but she called him Small Willy on the rare occasions when, during the audition, she had to call out to him.

“Refresh my memory as to why you are here?” Ralph asked. For there were some crimes which would disqualify you from belonging to Lieutenant Clark's Theatrical Company, even though he doubted Mary Brenham had committed any of them.

“I stole clothing from my employer, sir,” she told him. There was no shamed hanging of the head. Convicts were used to answering such questions.

“Who is the child's father?” Ralph had asked her.

“A sailor,” she said, looking away now yet still with the accustomed convict frankness. “I was on the
Lady Penrhyn
. The child's father is Bill Crudis, a sailor a long time gone away from here. But a decent fellow.”

Ralph wondered for an unfaithful second if his Betsey Alicia could have lived through the eight-month journey on the
Lady Penrhyn
without taking on a protector, someone who would be a source of oranges and chickens in such places as Rio and Capetown.

“You say you stole clothes?” Ralph asked, filled with a genuine curiosity. She was one of those instances where the stated purpose of this penal enterprise had surely not applied. What had brought such a young woman—an unhabitual felon who carried, artificially or naturally, a lack of taint in her face and bearing—to the limit of things, the place meant for ultimate punishment?

She told him she had been sent at the age of thirteen years and eleven months to act as a maid in a house belonging to a Mr. Kennedy in Little Queen's Street. She had put Mrs. Kennedy's baby to bed and had then wandered into the parents' bedroom and discovered there clothes of a richness she had never seen so close before. She took two petticoats, a pair of stays, and four and a half yards of fine cloth from Mrs. Kennedy's wardrobe, and various items of male clothing from Mr. John Kennedy's. She had never stolen—or so she said—anything before or since. She had been sentenced to seven years at the Old Bailey. The length of the sentence meant nothing now, however. She inhabited a shore which was a fair model for eternity. Lord Sydney had chosen it for that quality: the unlikelihood of her or any of the others ever making a return.

Ralph sat her at the desk in the marquee and asked her to copy out and read Act One, Scene Two, the meeting between Silvia and her cousin Melinda. Outside, in the town, the work detachments straggled off to the sawpits and to H.E.'s farm, the fishing boat put off into the great harbour, the she-lags and the Marine wives fed wood into the fires beneath the great boiling coppers down by the shore and threw in their soiled clothing. Behind the hospital Reverend Dick Johnson was burying a forty-year-old she-lag from Manchester who had been destroyed by flux. It seemed that all the cove was engaged in tedium and the remembrance of mortality, except Mary Brenham, who gave herself to the copying of the living words of George Farquhar. It took her most of the morning to complete the task—she was occasionally distracted by her little son. Then Ralph read it with her, himself taking the lines of Melinda and pronouncing them in a monotone, since a few of them embarrassed him by their raciness.

Silvia asserts, for example, that she doesn't care that Captain Plume is not constant in his affections.

“I should not like a man with confined thoughts. It shows a narrowness of soul. Constancy is but a dull sleepy quality at best, they will hardly admit it among the manly virtues; nor do I think it deserves a place with bravery, knowledge, policy, justice, and some other qualities that are proper to that noble sex. In short, Melinda, I think a petticoat is a mighty simple thing, and I am heartily tired of my own sex.”

To which Melinda—in this case Ralph—has to reply without blushes, “That is, 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. On my conscience, Silvia, hadst thou been a man, thou hadst been the greatest rake in Christendom.”

Ralph liked the way Mary Brenham, ravager of the Kennedys' wardrobe, read. She was very careful not to commit herself to too much ardour, but there was a promise of great liveliness at some future date when she and Silvia would be one creature. She listened to the earthier lines of Melinda as if they were readings from Isaiah. There was no arch smile or lifting of eyebrows. This demonstrated to Ralph not that she was somehow unworldly—no one had ever been in the
Lady Penrhyn
's convict hold and emerged unworldly, except maybe Dick Johnson—but that she was weighing the part, circling its edges, her eye fixed on its centre.

He commented that she read well, and she told him that in the convict hold of the
Lady Penrhyn
she had read to the she-lags on the bed platforms around her stories from
The Gentleman's Magazine
, bound copies of which had been loaned to her by Lieutenant Johnston, a young officer with a like-sounding name to Reverend Dick's but of very different disposition.

“You used to read to Esther Abrahams?” Ralph found himself asking. He was delighted and disarmed by the image of Mary Brenham, leaning forward over a bound copy of The
Gentleman's Magazine
to catch the light from the charcoal brazier in the aisle between the two convict platforms, and all the other women hushed; Esther Abrahams, the Jewish convict, hushed, her baby daughter, conceived in Newgate gaol, swaddled in a blanket beside her. Lieutenant Johnston, who travelled on the
Lady Penrhyn
, had admitted and celebrated his love for Abrahams early on in the voyage, and one token of it had been this gift of bound magazines to the women's hold.

Ralph was so seduced by this image of Brenham, perhaps already plump with Small Willy, reading aloud deep among the thwarts of the
Lady Penrhyn
, that afterwards he would hardly remember having uttered the words “Do your duties, Brenham, permit you to take the part of Silvia?”


Recruiting the Perjurer

Ralph wrote for his own instruction:

For the role of Mr. Balance, Ketch Freeman the public hangman, who has H.E.'s approval and is overjoyed, since he believes that as an actor he might not be disdained by the young she-lags, as he is in his role of executioner.

For the role of Captain Plume, the recruiting officer, Henry Kable, the convict overseer.

For the role of Silvia, daughter to Balance, in love with Plume, Mary Brenham, who is as well as a competent player a good copyist.

For the role of Lucy, Melinda's maid … the girl Duckling.

For the role of Melinda, a Lady of Fortune … Nancy Turner, if we can do so without seeming to condone perjury and bringing down Major Ross and Captain Campbell on our heads.

Davy Collins, Captain of Marines and Judge Advocate, spent Sundays writing his journal. It was a journal intended for publication, since fantastical voyages such as Davy, Ralph, and all the convicts had undertaken would be considered remarkable in England and even in Europe at large. Ralph had no literary ambitions of his own and was unrancourously certain that Davy's book would be a journal of great quality and popular appeal, since Davy was a natural scholar. That did not mean he had ever been to Oxford or Cambridge; he had entered the Marines at the age of fourteen. But he had a scholar's nose—he was interested in everything to do with this strange reach of the universe. In the wild sweet tea with which Johnny White treated scurvy, in the more extraordinary species of fish Will Bryant found in the harbour, and in the language H. E.'s savage, Arabanoo, spoke: its terms for uncle, turtle, death, and God. Many of the gentlemen had been taken in by the repute the very first visitors, James Cook, his artists, and his scientists, had—some eighteen years before—given the place. Through them it had acquired a name for being a miraculous reach of earth. So that ordinary commissioned oafs like Lieutenant Faddy and Captain Meredith had expected it would pamper and entertain them all the time. But it did not do that. It was not concerned with entertaining people. Its dun forests affronted them, its vivid birds shrieked and were inedible, its beasts mocked the Ark. Its Indians lived by rules further removed than the stars from the normal rules of humankind. Cook had named the country New South Wales, as if it were an echo of a British corner. But it was no echo. It was a denial of all that. It was the anti-Europe. You needed a subtle mind if you were to find wonders here once a month let alone daily. Davy Collins had such a mind. Where others were bored or appalled, he was diverted frequently and grew excited. His journal therefore multiplied and was now the size of a three-volume life.

As well as working on his history of the new planet and its novel society, for the past thirteen months Davy had administered and been the embodiment of the law in a latitude which had not previously been acquainted with statutes. To help him in this exercise he employed a few inviolable texts: the Letters Patent, Clode's
Armed Forces of the Crown
, and Hayward's
Principles of Civil and Criminal Law
. Davy was no fierce judge but extended to the criminal something more terrible than ferocity—a calm and generous curiosity.

BOOK: The Playmaker
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