The Means of Escape
St. george’s church, Hobart, stands high above Battery Point and the harbor. 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 harbormaster 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 L20 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 harbor’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 went up to practice 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 schoolgirl, 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 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 eye holes, more like a man about to be hanged.
"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 jail 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 chuurch tower (which was half finished, but no assigned labor could be found to work on it at the moment) through the gaps left in the brickwork. Before he coullllld 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." "Then Constancy is still in harbor." "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 among those who could read, and memorized from them by those who could not.
"Constancy 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 were 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, be- cause 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 asked, "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 ...