Authors: Penelope Fitzgerald
The Means of Escape
t George’s Church, Hobart, stands high above Battery Point and the harbour. Inside, it looks strange and must always have done so, although (at the time I’m speaking of) it didn’t have the blue, pink and yellow-patterned stained glass that you see there now. That was ordered from a German firm in 1875. But St George’s has always had the sarcophagus-shaped windows which the architect had thought Egyptian and therefore appropriate (St George is said to have been an Egyptian saint). They give you the curious impression, as you cross the threshold, of entering a tomb.
In 1852, before the organ was installed, the church used to face east, and music was provided by a seraphine. The seraphine was built, and indeed invented, by a Mr Ellard, formerly of Dublin, now a resident of Hobart. He intended it to suggest the angelic choir, although the singing voices at his disposal – the surveyor general, the naval chaplain, the harbourmaster and their staffs – were for the most part male. Who was able to play the seraphine? Only, at
first, Mr Ellard’s daughter, Mrs Logan, who seems to have got £20 a year for doing so, the same fee as the clerk and the sexton. When Mrs Logan began to feel the task was too much for her – the seraphine needs continuous pumping – she instructed Alice Godley, the Rector’s daughter.
Hobart stands ‘south of no north’, between snowy Mount Wellington and the River Derwent, running down over steps and promontories to the harbour’s bitterly cold water. You get all the winds that blow. The next stop to the south is the limit of the Antarctic drift ice. When Alice came up to practise the hymns she had to unlock the outer storm door, made of Huon pine, and the inner door, also a storm door, and drag them shut again.
The seraphine stood on its own square of Axminster carpet in the transept. Outside (at the time I’m speaking of) it was a bright afternoon, but inside St George’s there was that mixture of light and inky darkness which suggests that from the darkness something may be about to move. It was difficult, for instance, to distinguish whether among the black-painted pews, at some distance away, there was or wasn’t some person or object rising above the level of the seats. Alice liked to read mystery stories, when she could get hold of them, and the thought struck her now, ‘The form of a man is advancing from the shadows.’
If it had been ten years ago, when she was still a school-girl, she might have shrieked out, because at that time there were said to be bolters and escaped convicts from
Port Arthur on the loose everywhere. The Constabulary hadn’t been put on to them. Now there were only a few names of runaways, perhaps twenty, posted up on the notice boards outside Government House.
‘I did not know that anyone was in the church,’ she said. ‘It is kept locked. I am the organist. Perhaps I can assist you?’
A rancid stench, not likely from someone who wanted to be shown round the church, came towards her up the aisle. The shape, too, seemed wrong. But that, she saw, was because the head was hidden in some kind of sack like a butchered animal, or, since it had eyeholes, more like a man about to be hung.
‘Yes,’ he said, ‘you can be of assistance to me.’
‘I think now that I can’t be,’ she said, picking up her music case. ‘No nearer,’ she added distinctly.
He stood still, but said, ‘We shall have to get to know one another better.’ And then, ‘I am an educated man. You may try me out if you like, in Latin and some Greek. I have come from Port Arthur. I was a poisoner.’
‘I should not have thought you were old enough to be married.’
‘I never said I poisoned my wife!’ he cried.
‘Were you innocent, then?’
‘You women think that everyone in gaol is innocent. No, I’m not innocent, but I was wrongly incriminated. I never lifted a hand. They criminated me on false witness.’
‘I don’t know about lifting a hand,’ she said. ‘You mentioned that you were a poisoner.’
‘My aim in saying that was to frighten you,’ he said. ‘But that is no longer my aim at the moment.’
It had been her intention to walk straight out of the church, managing the doors as quickly as she could, and on no account looking back at him, since she believed that with a man of bad character, as with a horse, the best thing was to show no emotion whatever. He, however, moved round through the pews in such a manner as to block her way.
He told her that the name he went by, which was not his given name, was Savage. He had escaped from the Model Penitentiary. He had a knife with him, and had thought at first to cut her throat, but had seen almost at once that the young lady was not on the cross. He had got into the church tower (which was half finished, but no assigned labour could be found to work on it at the moment) through the gaps left in the brickwork. Before he could ask for food she told him firmly that she herself could get him none. Her father was the incumbent, and the most generous of men, but at the Rectory they had to keep very careful count of everything, because charity was given out at the door every Tuesday and Thursday evening. She might be able to bring him the spent tea-leaves, which were always kept, and he could mash them again if he could find warm water.
‘That’s a sweet touch!’ he said. ‘Spent tea-leaves!’
‘It is all I can do now, but I have a friend – I may perhaps be able to do more later. However, you can’t stay here beyond tomorrow.’
‘I don’t know what day it is now.’
‘It is Wednesday, the twelfth of November.’
is still in harbour.’
‘How do you know that?’
It was all they did know, for certain, in the penitentiary. There was a rule of absolute silence, but the sailing lists were passed secretly between those who could read, and memorized from them by those who could not.
is a converted collier, carrying cargo and a hundred and fifty passengers, laying at Franklin Wharf. I am entrusting you with my secret intention, which is to stow on her to Portsmouth, or as far at least as Cape Town.’
He was wearing grey felon’s slops. At this point he took off his hood, and stood wringing it round and round in his hands, as though he was trying to wash it.
Alice looked at him directly for the first time.
‘I shall need a change of clothing, ma’am.’
‘You may call me “Miss Alice”,’ she said.
At the prompting of some sound, or imaginary sound, he retreated and vanished up the dark gap, partly boarded up, of the staircase to the tower. That which had been on his head was left in a heap on the pew. Alice took it up and put it into her music case, pulling the strap tight.
She was lucky in having a friend very much to her own mind, Aggie, the daughter of the people who ran Shuckburgh’s Hotel; Aggie Shuckburgh, in fact.
‘He might have cut your throat, did you think of that?’
‘He thought better of it,’ said Alice.
‘What I should like to know is this: why didn’t you go straight to your father, or to Colonel Johnson at the Constabulary? I don’t wish you to answer me at once, because it mightn’t be the truth. But tell me this: would you have acted in the same manner, if it had been a woman hiding in the church?’ Alice was silent, and Aggie said, ‘Did a sudden strong warmth spring up between the two of you?’
‘I think that it did.’
No help for it, then, Aggie thought. ‘He’ll be hard put to it, I’m afraid. There’s no water in the tower, unless the last lot of builders left a pailful, and there’s certainly no dunny.’ But Alice thought he might slip out by night. ‘That is what I should do myself, in his place.’ She explained that Savage was an intelligent man, and that he intended to stow away on
‘My dear, you’re not thinking of following him?’
‘I’m not thinking at all,’ said Alice.
They were in the hotel, checking the clean linen. So many tablecloths, so many aprons, kitchen, so many aprons, dining-room, so many pillow shams. They hardly ever talked without working. They knew their duties to both their families.
Shuckburgh’s had its own warehouse and bond store on the harbour front. Aggie would find an opportunity to draw out, not any of the imported goods, but at least
a ration of tea and bacon. Then they could see about getting it up to the church.
‘As long as you didn’t imagine it, Alice!’
Alice took her arm. ‘Forty-five!’
They had settled on the age of forty-five to go irredeemably cranky. They might start imagining anything they liked then. The whole parish, indeed the whole neighbourhood, thought that they were cranky already, in any case, not to get settled, Aggie in particular, with all the opportunities that came her way in the hotel trade.
‘He left this behind,’ said Alice, opening her music case, which let fly a feral odour. She pulled out the sacking mask, with its slits, like a mourning pierrot’s, for eyes.
‘Do they make them wear those?’
‘I’ve heard Father speak about them often. They wear them every time they go out of their cells. They’re part of the new system, they have to prove their worth. With the masks on, none of the other prisoners can tell who a man is, and he can’t tell who they are. He mustn’t speak either, and that drives a man into himself, so that he’s alone with the Lord, and can’t help but think over his wrongdoing and repent. I never saw one of them before today, though.’
‘It’s got a number on it,’ said Aggie, not going so far as to touch it. ‘I dare say they put them to do their own laundry.’
At the Rectory there were five people sitting down already to the four o’clock dinner. Next to her father was a guest, the visiting preacher; next to him was Mrs Watson, the housekeeper. She had come to Van Diemen’s Land with a seven-year sentence, and now had her ticket to leave. Assigned servants usually ate in the backhouse, but in the Rector’s household all were part of the same family. Then, the Lukes. They were penniless immigrants (his papers had Mr Luke down as a scene-painter, but there was no theatre in Hobart). He had been staying, with his wife, for a considerable time.
Alice asked them all to excuse her for a moment while she went up to her room. Once there, she lit a piece of candle and burned the lice off the seams of the mask. She put it over her head. It did not disarrange her hair, the neat smooth hair of a minister’s daughter, always presentable on any occasion. But the eyeholes came too low down, so that she could see nothing and stood there in stifling darkness. She asked herself, ‘Wherein have I sinned?’
Her father, who never raised his voice, called from downstairs, ‘My dear, we are waiting.’ She took off the mask, folded it, and put it in the hamper where she kept her woollen stockings.
After grace they ate red snapper, boiled mutton and bread pudding, no vegetables. In England the Reverend Alfred Godley had kept a good kitchen garden, but so far he had not been able to get either leeks or cabbages going in the thin earth round Battery Point.
Mr Luke hoped that Miss Alice had found her time at the instrument well spent.
‘I could not get much done,’ she answered. ‘I was interrupted.’
‘Ah, it’s a sad thing for a performer to be interrupted. The concentration of the mind is gone. “When the lamp is shattered …”’
‘That is not what I felt at all,’ said Alice.
‘You are too modest to admit it.’
‘I have been thinking, Father,’ said Alice, ‘that since Mr Luke cares so much for music, it would be a good thing for him to try the seraphine himself. Then if by any chance I had to go away, you would be sure of a replacement.’
‘You speak as if my wife and I should be here always,’ cried Mr Luke.
Nobody made any comment on this – certainly not Mrs Luke, who passed her days in a kind of incredulous stupor. How could it be that she was sitting here eating bread pudding some twelve thousand miles from Clerkenwell, where she had spent all the rest of her life? The Rector’s attention had been drawn away by the visiting preacher, who had taken out a copy of the
Hobart Town Daily Courier
, and was reading aloud a paragraph which announced his arrival from Melbourne. ‘Bringing your welcome with you,’ the Rector exclaimed. ‘I am glad the
noted it.’ – ‘Oh, they would not have done,’ said the preacher, ‘but I make it my practice to call in at the principal newspaper offices wherever I go, and make myself known with a few friendly words. In that way, if
the editor has nothing of great moment to fill up his sheet, which is frequently the case, it is more than likely that he will include something about my witness.’ He had come on a not very successful mission to pray that gold would never be discovered in Van Diemen’s Land, as it had been on the mainland, bringing with it the occasion of new temptations.
After the dishes were cleared Alice said she was going back for a while to Aggie’s, but would, of course, be home before dark. Mr Luke, while his wife sat on with half-closed eyes, came out to the back kitchen and asked Mrs Watson, who was at the sink, whether he could make himself useful by pumping up some more water.
‘No,’ said Mrs Watson.
Mr Luke persevered. ‘I believe you to have had considerable experience of life. Now, I find Miss Alice charming, but somewhat difficult to understand. Will you tell me something about her?’
Mrs Watson was, at the best of times, a very silent woman, whose life had been an unfortunate one. She had lost three children before being transported, and could not now remember what they had been called. Alice, however, did not altogether believe this, as she had met other women who thought it unlucky to name their dead children. Mrs Watson had certainly been out of luck with her third, a baby, who had been left in the charge of a
little girl of ten, a neighbour’s daughter, who acted as nursemaid for fourpence a week. How the house came to catch fire was not known. It was a flash fire. Mrs Watson was out at work. The man she lived with was in the house, but he was very drunk, and doing – she supposed – the best he could under the circumstances, he pitched both the neighbour’s girl and the baby out of the window. The coroner had said that it might just as well have been a Punch and Judy show. ‘Try to think no more about it,’ Alice advised her. As chance would have it, Mrs Watson had been taken up only a week later for thieving. She had tried to throw herself in the river, but the traps had pulled her out again.