In Hobart Town, James Sorley was gathering up all kinds of information through Oliver and applying it where he thought it would do him the most good. On the morning Mab rode in with Robert Snow on the tired young 'un behind him—they had pushed the pace—and met Oliver at the foot of Hunter Street, Oliver had been abroad quite early for him. James had sent him out to the convict hulk, Neptune, which had just come up the bright blue waters of the Derwent, and Oliver, very much disgusted, was hastening home to change his clothes.
The Neptune, he told Mab as they walked up together, had no right to be furling her tired sails out there. Apparently she had no right to be anywhere. Much as one sympathized with the dear old Motherland's problems, said Noll, one must rejoice that she was at last lending an ear to that volume of protest which had been coming for so long from Van Diemen's Land. Actually she had served out circulars around the Empire, begging any kindly disposed country to take her criminal overflow, and to South Africa she had sent the Neptune along with the circular. But South Africa had refused them both with no uncertain sound; and so here she was, storm-battered and rusty with nearly a year's travelling, come up past low wooded shores steeped in sunshine, to deposit her burden in a deeply resentful land. And here without doubt, said Noll, all other convict ships would follow her.
The colony, said Noll, was now receiving convicts at the rate of two shipments a month, and for himself he could see no end to it. Earl Grey, in the House of Lords, was asking why not send them. He had made a great speech, telling how millions had been expended in preparing the country for them, asserting that "the free inhabitants cannot expect that simply because they choose to call for Cessation the imperial policy will be altered at their demand!"
"In short, the country is in a damned muddle," said Noll, tapping his cane in his finicky way, "and this League of Remembrance which some parson—West, isn't it?—has started in Launceston will stir up more muddle. For it will spread. Beverley page 124spoke at the first meeting, I hear, saying that England must use her common sense and cease transporting for peccadilloes."
"How do we know they are peccadilloes?" said Mab, fiercely.
"All these brutes are as bad as can be, I'll dare wager; and given time they prove it."
They considered Robert Snow riding behind with the horses no more than if he had been an animal, and he knew it, watching with his brooding eyes the two young dandies. They were merely the product of their times, he told himself, and rarely brutal. But they had not learned to look with the inner eye as Conrad Beverley and other great souls were doing. He dreamed of getting Beverley and this Parson West on his side, and there was a big chance for him now in the many little taverns up side streets where, Henny and others had said, one might find many sympathizers, and even a few with money. When Ellen got over her present hysterical fear and married him … then, thought the man, with the long ache in him throbbing into hope, something might … would be done.
At the street corner they stood aside while the draft off the Neptune passed. "Egad!" said Oliver, whipping out his scented handkerchief, "if you could have smelled 'em down in the hold!" Mab looked at them with an eye too hostile for pity. The man behind him had dried pity up for the time, and Mab was glad that Snow should hear these clanking chains and the barked-out commands of the guards while the draft, bleared, blinking, and barely human in the gay sunlight, were right-about-faced and marched off up Macquarie Street to the prison.
Refresh his memory a bit, since he's forgotten what he is, thought Mab, and was in haste to send Snow off to the stables while Oliver unlocked the door to his fastidiously furnished rooms and indicated decanters and long cigars.
"Must send this coat to be fumigated," said Oliver, pulling off yellow dogskin gloves. But with Mab's burst of confidence he forgot about it. "Ellen?" he echoed, with arched brows. "Ellen? Egad!"
There was much of Madam's wicked humour in Oliver, and he began to laugh. The more Mab raved through the room the more he laughed, lying spread in the saddleback chair with his elegant page 125legs outstretched. "Curse me," he said, wiping his eyes, "if the fair Ellen isn't deeper than I guessed. Oh, la, la! Ellen!"
"Can't you see that it's iniquitous?" cried Mab.
"Oh, assuredly, I see that. But it's deuced funny. And so you have brought the fellow to me? What d'you expect me to do with him?"
"Can't you have him sent to Port Arthur?"
"Well … I don't know. That's only for the trebly condemned now. It's full up. But," he leaned forward, pouring out two whiskies, "we must put our prospective relation away somewhere, eh?"
"It makes me sick," said Mab, who had never a large command of words. Oliver sipped reflectively. Man's organism is a complex thing, he thought. Always heights in it somewhere. He said:
"Snow has blood, y'know. Possibly as well born as we are, and certainly better born than old Sorley. A hundred years hence his progeny—though, perhaps unfortunately, not Ellen's—may be members of the Executive as Sorley is now. A damned select little parlour party that, Mab, all holding one another's hands and ruling the roost."
"You talk as though it didn't matter."
"Oh, it matters. Don't mistake me. It matters infernally under present conditions. In the future … We'll have Cessation and general pardons before long, Mab, and then it will be each for himself and the devil take the hindmost. And the hindmost are likely to be you and me, my boy. We have never learned to use our wits."
"What are you going to with Snow?"
"Oh, we'll send him to Port Arthur somehow. I'll ask Julia. She will want some frescoes painted on her walls immediately, I dare swear. And once he's there, Berry will keep him. Berry owes me something."
"Is Julia … in town?"
"Until to-morrow. The fellow can go down on the boat with her. You've timed it nicely, Mab. And now go away, there's a good lad, and let me make out my report for Sorley."
He wrote it in the jargon required by the councillor, who, in page 126common with the governor, was actively engaged in whitewashing the whole affair:
The shipment by the Neptune appears in excellent shape, and will undoubtedly be of vast value to the colony. The Irish State prisoner, John Mitchell, is said to be anxious to receive his T. of L., when he will be at once removed to Bothwell, there to occupy his own cottage. Other prisoners will go to the very vital work of pushing roads into the outlying districts, thereby opening up not only agricultural land but also the large coal concessions which only await their opportunity.
He pushed away the paper and sat thinking. Ellen and her convict. Mab and Julia. That way went the world. Always a greediness, a lusting, a sense of denials, of incomprehension of the whole damned business. Julia and Berry were cat-and-dog already, and Berry, that dull soul, would never know why, but Noll knew. Poor mortals that we are, we must still have concourse with the good, still seek the quality of beauty, the forbidden raptures…. Though deuce knows if they satisfied the gods, thought Noll, and went out, the perfect secretary, to find James Sorley, who was beginning to believe himself a second Earl of Chatham, just like every other rising politician of the day.