Within the next few months the governor's new proclamation—known to many as "Denison's Damned Circular"—set the country in an uproar and shredded friendships out upon the wind, where, it seemed, that of the Captain and Councillor Sorley was already blowing. The Captain raged into the office in the New Wing where William was filing bills.
"Listen to this, will you?" He read aloud: "'First: Do you consider it desirable that transportation of convicts to this country should cease altogether?' Good God! I should think I did, and so does every right-feeling man! 'Second: If you consider it page 93desirable that convicts should still be transported to this country … what number would you consider adequate?' There you are! That's Sorley. I recognize his hand in that. Always steering a middle course and inviting the public to sit on the fence."
"Has he said so? Really, sir, I wouldn't be too ready to quarrel."
"Quarrel? Who wants to quarrel? I just tell a man what I think of him, and is it my fault if he resents the truth? Of course he hasn't said it is his policy; and that is his policy. Always yea-nay."
The Captain's policy was never yea-nay, and always dangerous. He took up William's remonstrance in a hurry:
"No sir. You're wrong. England had no right to grant land to gentlemen if she meant the colony to continue penal once those gentlemen were established. It's a personal insult to us. Until we get an influx of free settlers, who'll put money into the country?—who'll buy and sell and manufacture with us?—how the unnamable deuce d'you imagine it's possible for us to go ahead? And we'll never get free settlers until the convict element is scotched. They're afraid, and, gad! I don't blame 'em."
"Many convicts are very decent fellows, sir. And they make good servants."
"Servants? How long d'you think they'll be content to remain servants? Have you the foggiest notion of their number in the colony now?"
"No, sir. But——"
"Of course you haven't," triumphed the Captain, who happened to have heard that morning in Trienna. "Well, I have. Our present population is about forty-four thousand free people and twenty-four thousand convicts. And about thirteen thousand out of the forty-four are time-expired, which makes the criminal quantum outnumber us. To control them in a country almost as large as Scotland—twice the size of Belgium, anyway, and that was big enough to give Napoleon his Waterloo—what troops have we? About two thousand military and constabulary all told. The thing's a farce! Why, sir, if England directs upon us the whole of her convict importations, as she is always page 94threatening to do, are you so utterly imbecile that you can't see what will happen? They'll take charge. One bloody day we'll all be murdered in our beds and our women outraged. Don't talk to me!"
"But," said William, continuing to talk, "granted that the country would be better without them, I can still see that it might not be politic to get rid of them all at once."
"If you had a boil on your neck, wouldn't you consider it politic to get rid of that all at once? You never could argue, Bill. No, I've put my last penny into the country, and it's going bankrupt. I hear that the Government will soon be flying paper kites, and even you must see what that means. With no credit and no specie to foot our bills, we're done. Finished."
He felt his hand shake as he took the circular out to the veranda, crushed it, and dropped into one of his brown barrels. He felt his eyelids twitching as he looked through the glass on his hardly won paddocks where his sheep fed. Finished, by God! He was finished, he who had given to England his young manhood and to England's colony the young manhood of his sons. And she was repudiating the gift. This kind of thing (he sat on the edge of a barrel, his little legs just touching the floor) made a man old. The smart of this was worse than any he'd felt when the blacks speared whole teams of his bullocks, when bush-rangers carried off his sheep and horses and threatened his life, when privations and bad harvests and scab in the sheep and other damnations of colonization had dogged him. Those were understandable. But this, damme! this … They must get together, that was it. The country must get together. He would call a meeting at Trienna to-morrow and Mab should ride round the country at once. He'd give old Sorley some medicine to swallow!
Oliver, of course, read all about it in the local Trienna paper (a consumptive young Oxonian with a need for self-expression ground it out on a hand-press for nearly six months before Governor Denison squashed them both). The paper extolled the Captain's gallant stand against tyranny, hinted that "one Major——, to give him a title which honours him far beyond his merits," was indulging in personal rancours which would presently deluge the country in blood; became plaintive over page 95exquisite young females and gallant but discarded lovers, became portentous in its invitations to "a gentleman who shall be nameless" to bring "one of his so-called skilful and reasoned speeches on the subject of Transportation" to Trienna Town Hall and see what would happen to it. Oliver (but one must never let men see themselves for the puppets they were) for long prevented Sorley from answering the challenge. But answer it at last he would, the old fool, and Oliver (just by the skin of his teeth) got him packed off home in Henry's charge as the Captain leapt upon the platform. "Tell him he has pulverized the opposition. It's all over, bar shouting," he whispered. Henry nodded (he never wanted open warfare, either) and took the tandem through the grazing cows on Comyn Street at a gallop, while Oliver settled down in a back seat, supporting his chin with the gold knob of his stick and wondering what the deuce would be the outcome.
The hall was full of station-owners (mostly lazy-minded sporting fellows very much with the Captain) and tradesmen and cockatoo-farmers rather afraid to lift their voices as yet. The Captain, chipper as a tomtit, was bawling:
"Gentlemen, I do not intend to bore you more than you have been already bored, although I may regret that the limits of courtesy have been so far overstepped. I wish to say that I will fight for Cessation while breath is in my body. No friend of Transportation is any longer a friend of mine; and regarding the speech which we have just been forced to listen to, I think the last word is with the immortal Punch, which has just summed up the situation with:
'Then shout for the troupe of sublime Thimble-rigs.
Hurrah for the jolly old Downing Street pack!'"
Good God, thought Oliver (the old chap had delivered it like a slogan), the fat was in the fire right enough now. And here was everyone laughing, streaming out into the sunlight, patting the Captain on the back; the young Fremps, sons of the blacksmith, skylarking, shouting, 'Hurrah!' Going back to their bellows with more windy notions. Of course their class wanted page 96Cessation, though it would put prices up. The Captain was flinging a shilling to the grinning vagabond in the stocks by that little stone box Trienna police station.
"See him, Lascelles?" cried the Captain. "Keepin' the place warm for our friend, eh?"
Lascelles of Leigh, a very nice holding twenty miles down-river, was a comfortable old gentleman who let anyone do his thinking for him. You could see him ruminating, puzzled. He grunted, "Why … why, thought Sorley made a dashed good speech, didn't he?"
"Claptrap! claptrap! "(Heavens! would nothing teach his parent to hold his tongue? What was he saying?) Sorley could only line his pockets by keeping in with officialdom … knew which side his bread was buttered. Old Merrick, rolling up under the line of gums for his horse, got hold of that, looked pleased, "Ur … 'pon my soul … ur, bloody near libel that, ain't it?" he wheezed. And now he would drive about the country everywhere with his fat pony and gig, asking everyone if they didn't agree with him. "Are you ready to come home now, Father? You made 'em laugh, didn't you?"…"Ride si sapis," said the Captain, climbing into the dogcart.
Back in town, Oliver (with Mrs. Sorley's help) repressed that copy of The Trienna Clarion describing the meeting. Better temper the wind to the shorn lamb (for certainly the country appeared to be plumping strong for Cessation (you could taste it in the air), and Oliver, with Madam's earrings barely paying his gambling debts and a salary that did not pay for his clothes (certainly it was never asked to), had no mind to leave old Sorley. When one seasons one's meat too early, it is the deuce and all to have to return to plain fare; and now the battle was joined in Council and Governor Denison taking firm hold on a hundred thorny questions (a great fighter, this hard-faced Denison), surely there would be pickings for Oliver, even legitimate pickings. Few, he felt, could turn a neater compliment or pas in the dance than himself. And if many young ladies treasured in velvet-bound albums his elegant verses and acrostics, it was a fact that he never treasured one of the flowers, glossy curls, poems, and other bibelots which came his way. No page 97marriage for him, though Berry, grimacing with sentiment, urged him all the time.
Berry, who with that foreign air which a moustache gave among black whiskers and loose black locks was not nearly such a devil as he looked, spent whole nights smoking cheroots with Oliver. Pleasurable emotions, those experienced on the verge of matrimony, apparently. Oliver, lounging at the open summer window, hearing a woman singing on the pavement below, let him talk himself out. Rich in all but intellect, this Berry. A useful friend.
"I will wear no red sarafan,
So, mother, cease your sewing,"
sang the woman, with a vile twang. Julia would presently wear bridal satin, and lovely she'd look in it. Berry said in his soft hesitating voice:
"All the foolishness … that's done with. Candles, boot-jacks, and warming-pans … and presently pap-spoons and syrup of squills." He grinned; looked idiotic. "That's the way your old friend's headed, Noll, and I swear I don't care. She's as sweet, pretty a creature as ever was."
She is. But not the stuff to hold you, my buck. Oliver fancied himself saying it, fancied Berry's angry dismay. This youthful Julia cozened and flattered and excited by fine clothes; this gossamer Julia, pliant and pretty and palpitatingly nervous about the future … Lord, what a mess they'd make of it! But since marriage is the refuge of the poor and the escape of the rich and Love all my eye and Betty Martin, Julia might get some fun out of it, Oliver thought, reasonably. Berry, rising to go to his bedroom, said sheepishly:
"'Pon my soul, I wish I'd been a better fellow, Noll." Poor devil. And Julia … Julia blushing pink under her pink Pamela bonnet …