The war has ended as wars sometimes do, unexpectedly. A man no one much cared for, a rather pumped-up little Presbyterian carpenter cum preacher, had travelled unarmed and in the company of tame blacks through the great wild lands of the island, and had returned with a motley cluster of savages. They were called wild blacks, though wild they most certainly were not, but rather scabby, miserable and often consumptive. They were, he said—and remarkably it did now seem—all that remained of the once feared Van Diemonian tribes that for so long had waged relentless and terrible war.
Those who saw them said it was hard to believe that such a small and wretched bunch could have defied the might of the Empire for so long, that they could have survived the pitiless extermination, that they could have been the instruments of such fear and terror.
It wasn’t clear what the preacher had said to the blacks, or what the blacks thought he was going to do with them, but they seemed amenable, if somewhat sad, as broken party after broken party were embarked on boat after boat and taken to a distant island that lay in the hundreds of miles of sea that separated Van Diemen’s Land from the Australian mainland. Here the preacher took on the official title of Protector and a salary of £500 a year, along with a small garrison of soldiers and a Catechist, and set about raising his sable charges to the level of English civilisation.
He met with some successes, and, though these were small, it was on such he tried to concentrate. And were they not worthy? Were his people not knowledgeable of God and Jesus, as was evidenced by their ready and keen answers to the Catechist’s questions, and evinced in their enthusiastic hymn-singing? Did they not take keenly to the weekly market, where they traded skins and shell necklaces for beads and tobacco and the like? Other than that his black brethren kept dying almost daily, it had to be admitted the settlement was satisfactory in every way.
Some things, however, were frankly perplexing. Though he was weaning them off their native diet of berries and plants and shellfish and game, and onto flour and sugar and tea, their health seemed in no way comparable to what it had been. And the more they took to English blankets and heavy English clothes, abandoning their licentious nakedness, the more they coughed and spluttered and died. And the more they died, the more they wanted to cast off their English clothes and stop eating their English food and move out of their English homes, which they said were filled with the Devil, and return to the pleasures of the hunt of a day and the open fire of a night.
It was 1839. The first photograph of a man was taken, Abd al-Qadir declared a jihad against the French, and Charles Dickens was rising to greater fame with a novel called Oliver Twist. It was, thought the Protector as he closed the ledger after another post mortem report and returned to preparing notes for his pneumatics lecture, inexplicable.
On hearing the news of the child’s death from a servant who had rushed from Charles Dickens’ home, John Forster had not hesitated—hesitation was a sign of a failure of character, and his own character did not permit failure. Mastiff-faced, full-bodied and goose-bellied, heavy in all things—opinion, sensibility, morality and conversation—Forster was to Dickens as gravity to a balloonist. Though not above mimicking him in private, Dickens was immensely fond of his unofficial secretary, on whom he relied for all manner of work and advice.
And Forster, inordinately proud of being so relied on, decided he would wait until Dickens had given his speech. In spite of Forster’s ongoing arguments that recent events excused Dickens from the necessity of addressing the General Theatrical Fund, he had been unwavering that he would. Why, even that very day Forster had called on Dickens at Devonshire Terrace to urge him one last time to cancel the engagement.
“But I’ve promised,” said Dickens, whom Forster had found in the garden playing with his younger children. He had in his arms his ninth child, the baby Dora, and he’d lifted her above his head, smiling up at her and blowing through his lips as she beat her arms up and down, fierce and solemn as a regimental drummer. “No, no; I could not let us down like that.”
Forster had swelled, but said nothing. Us! He knew Dickens sometimes thought of himself more as an actor than a writer. It was a nonsense, but it was him. Dickens loved theatre. He loved everything to do with that world of make-believe, where the moon might be summoned down with a flourish of a finger, and Forster knew Dickens felt a strange solidarity with the actor members of the troupers’ charity, which he was to address that evening. This attraction to the more disreputable both slightly troubled and slightly thrilled Forster.
“She looks well, don’t you think?” Dickens had said, lowering the baby to his chest. “She’s had a slight fever today, haven’t you, Dora?” He kissed her forehead. “But I think she’s picking up now.”
And now, only a few short hours later, how splendidly Dickens’ speech was going, thought Forster. The crowd was extensive, its attention rapt, and Dickens, once started, as brilliant and moving as ever.
“In our Fund,” Dickens was saying to the crowded hall of actors, “the word exclusiveness is not known. We include every actor, whether he is Hamlet or Benedict: this ghost, that bandit, or, in his one person, the whole King’s army. And to play their parts before us, these actors come from scenes of sickness, of suffering, aye, even of death itself. Yet—”
There was a stuttering of applause that stopped almost before it started, perhaps because it was felt bad taste to draw attention to Dickens’ being there just two weeks after his own father’s death. A failed operation for bladder stones had left the old man, Dickens had told Forster, lying in a slaughterhouse of blood.
“Yet how often it is,” continued Dickens, “that we have to do violence to our feelings, and hide our hearts in carrying on this fight of life, so we can bravely discharge our duties and responsibilities.”
After, Forster took Dickens aside.
“I am afraid . . .” Forster began. “In a word,” said Forster, who always used too many, but now realised there was one he did not wish to utter.
“Yes?” said Dickens, eyeing somebody or something over Forster’s shoulder, then looking back, eyes twinkling. “Yes, my dear Mammoth?”
His casual use of Forster’s nickname, his presumption all this was just banter, the pleasure of the performer at the success of a performance—none of it helped make poor Forster’s task any easier.
“Little Dora . . .” said Forster. His lips twitched as he tried to finish the sentence.
“I am,” mumbled Forster, wishing at that moment to say so many things, but unable to say any of them. “I am, so, so sorry, Charles,” he said in a rush, regretting every word, wanting something so much better to say, his hand rising to emphasise with its customary flourish some point never made, then falling back to the side of his body, his big body that felt so bloated and useless. “She was taken with convulsions,” he said finally.
Dickens’ face showed no emotion, and Forster thought what a splendid man he was.
“When?” asked Dickens.
“Three hours ago,” said Forster. “Just after we left.”
It was 1851. London’s Great Exhibition celebrated the triumph of reason in a glass pavilion mocked by the writer Douglas Jerrold as a crystal palace; a novel about finding a fabled white whale was published in New York to failure; while in the iron-grey port of Stromness, Orkney, Lady Jane Franklin farewelled into whiteness the second of what were to be numerous failed expeditions in search of a fable that had once been her husband.
A small girl ran fit to burst through wallaby grass almost as high as her. How she loved the sensation of the soft threads of fine grass feathering beads of water onto her calves, and the feel of the earth beneath her bare feet, wet and mushy in winter, dry and dusty in summer. She was seven years old, the earth was still new and extraordinary in its delights, the earth still ran up through her feet to her head into the sun, and it was as possible to be exhilarated by running as it was to be terrified by the reason she had to run and not stop running. She knew stories of spirits who could fly and wondered whether, if she ran that little bit faster, she might also fly and reach her destination quicker. Then she remembered that only the dead flew and put all thought of flying out of her mind.
She ran past the homes in which the blackfellas lived, she ran through chooks clacking and dogs barking, past the chapel, and she kept running, up the slope of the hill to the most important building in the settlement of Wybalenna. She climbed its three steps and, as she had been shown again and again, hit the door in the whitefella way with a bunched hand.
The Protector looked up from his pneumatics lecture notes to see a small native girl enter the house. She was barefoot in a filthy pinafore and a red woollen stocking hat, and a candledrip of snot leapt in and out of her right nostril like a living thing. She looked up at the ceiling and she looked around the walls. Mostly she looked at the floor.
“Yes?” said the Protector. In the irritating way of her people, she looked everywhere but in his eyes. Her real name was the one he had christened her with, Leda, but for some reason everyone else called her by her native name. He was annoyed to find himself now doing the same. “Yes, Mathinna?”
Mathinna looked at her feet, scratched under an arm. But she didn’t say anything.
“Well, what is it? What, child?”
And suddenly realising why she was there, Mathinna said, “Rowra,” using the native word for the Devil, then quickly, like it was a spear rushing at her, “Rowra,” and then “ROWRA!”
The Protector jumped off his stool, grabbed a folding knife from an open drawer and ran outside, the child making haste before him. They ran to a row of conjoined brick terraces he had built for the natives, to accustom them to English domesticity and to break them away from their own rude windbreaks. It ever pleased the Protector, who had been a carpenter before he became a saviour, how—if one didn’t think of the white beach behind, red-bouldered and leathery kelp-rimed, or the woodlands beyond, strange and twisted; if one just ignored this wretched wild island on which they sat at the edge of the world and instead concentrated on these buildings—it was possible to see that the two rows of tenements looked for all the world like some newly built street in a great modern town like Manchester.
As they approached house number 17, Mathinna halted for a moment, stared at the sky above, and seemed transfixed by some nameless terror. The Protector was about to rush past her when he saw the omen the natives feared the most, the bird that stole souls, a black swan swooping down towards the brick terraces.
Even before he was inside, the Protector was beset by a strong odour of muttonbird grease, unwashed bodies and a fear—wordless, nameless—that somehow this rotting stench related to him, to his actions, his beliefs. Sometimes the idea would come into his mind that these people he loved so much, whom he had protected from the depredations of the cruellest white settlers—who hunted them down and shot them with as much glee as they hunted kangaroo, and with as little care—that these people whom he had brought to God’s light were yet dying in some strange way, in consequence of him. He knew it was an irrational idea. A perverse, impossible idea. He knew that it came from weariness. But he could not stop the idea returning again and again. At such times he often felt headaches come on, intense pains at the front of his head so wretched he had to take to his bed.
In the post mortems he searched their split oesophagi, their disembowelled bellies, their pus-raddled intestines and shrivelled lungs for some evidence of his guilt or innocence, but he could find none. He tried to embrace as penance the stench of the pints of pus that sometimes seemed the only life force in their wretched guts. He tried to understand their suffering as his, and the day he vomited from the sight of bright mould an inch thick rising like a crop around a crater-like ulcer that ran from Black Ajax’s armpit almost to his hip, he tried to see it as some necessary reckoning of a spiritual ledger. But puking was no reckoning, and in his heart the Protector feared there could be none. In his heart he feared that this ferocious suffering, these monstrous deaths, were all in consequence of him.
He did all he could do to save them in such circumstances—God knew he could not have done more—carefully cutting up each body to try to find the cause of death, getting up in the middle of the night and cupping and leeching and blistering and, as he was about to do now to Mathinna’s father, bleeding.
The Protector opened his folding knife, wet his index finger and thumb, and ran them along the blade to clean it of the blood crust that was now all that remained above this earth of Wheezy Tom. He cut the shuddering man’s wrist carefully, scientifically, shallowly, at the point where maximum blood could be released with minimum damage.
When by candlelight each night before bed he made up his journal entry, the Protector searched for words that might be made to fit, as in another life he had made timber bend and warp to fit. He searched for a length of words that, like a batten, might act as a covering strip for some inexplicable yet shameful error. But words only amplified the darkness he felt; covered it but could not explain it. At such times he reached for prayer, hymn, familiar patterns, reassuring rhythms. And sometimes these holy words held it all at bay, and he knew why he was grateful to God, and also why he feared Him.
Blood spurted up in a small geyser, hitting the Protector in the eye then running down his face. He pulled the knife away, then stepped back, wiped his eye and looked down. The emaciated black man was groaning only intermittently now. The Protector admired his stoicism: he took to bleeding like a white man.
It was King Romeo, a man once vital and friendly, a man—the man—who had swum into the Fury River and rescued him, the Protector, when he had lost his footing trying to ford the rising waters. Yet in the wretched, sunken features, in the unnaturally large eyes, the lank hair, he could recognise nothing of that man.
He let the blood pump for a good minute, catching it as best he could in a large pannikin. As it surged, King Romeo made a low moaning noise. The black women seated on the floor in a crescent around his cot made a similar dirge at the back of their throats and the Protector knew they were much affected.
As he bound King Romeo’s wound to stem the flow, the Protector sensed the inevitability of death and the futility of his treatment, and he felt a panic take hold of him. He realised King Romeo was breathing heavily, that the bleeding was pointless, that he had wished to hurt the black man for his incurable illness, for all their incurable illnesses, for all their failures to allow him to cure them, to civilise them, to give them the chance no one else cared to give them.
Muttering something about the necessity of equalising pneumatic forces within and without—to reassure himself as much as to impress upon his audience that his actions were, as ever, guided by a correct mix of rational science and Christian compassion—the Protector roughly seized King Romeo’s other arm. The black man cried out in pain as, this time, he more stabbed than cut his arm.
He let King Romeo bleed till his patient’s skin was clammy and the Protector once more felt calm. Then he staunched the flow and handed the brimming pannikin of blood to one of the crescent of black women, indicating she was to dispose of it outside.
The Protector straightened up, bowed his head and began to sing.
“Lead, kindly Light, amid the encircling gloom; lead Thou me on!”
His voice was quavering and shrill. He swallowed, then with a deeper, louder and more determined baritone continued.
“The night is dark, and I am far from home; lead Thou me on!”
The black women seemed to be joining in—badly, it was true—but then he realised that they had merely altered their dirge-like keening to meld with his hymn.
“Remember not past years!” he sang, now at the top of his voice, but sometimes even he could not erase the past years. He halted mid-verse but they did not. He rolled his sleeves back down, turned around and was surprised to see Mathinna looking intently at him, as though at once believing he had magical powers and seeking to divine what they were, and yet beginning to doubt the sorcerer’s potency. Unsettled, he searched for a new rhythm of words to soothe his nerves.
“Now is the period in which King Romeo’s pulmonary system will find its equilibrium,” the Protector began. “Whereby well-being . . . such that blood . . .”
Mathinna looked down at her naked feet, and so too for a moment did the Protector; then, feeling an embarrassment verging on inexplicable shame, he looked back up and away, and walked out of the hut into the relief of the cold sea air.
He felt angry, but his anger perplexed him. This was the surgeon’s work, but the surgeon had himself died miserably a month before, and his replacement was promised but could yet be months away. And as angry as he was with the old surgeon for succumbing to dysentery, furious as he was with the Governor for not replacing him more speedily, he was proud of his own ability as a man of medicine, a man who knew how to bleed and blister, who could prepare enemas and dissect corpses and write competent reports—he, a layman, a carpenter, self-reliant and self-made and self-taught, the very triumph of self.
In the afternoon the Protector spent his time to achieve what he felt was good profit, preparing plans for a new, larger cemetery to cope with the mortality that was afflicting the settlement. Near dusk he went to the old burial ground with the natives and asked them to tell him the names of the buried. They seemed very apprehensive to name any of the dead, and, disgruntled at such ingratitude, he dismissed them.
The Protector was determined his new burial ground be complete for the imminent visit of the Van Diemonian Governor, Sir John Franklin, and his wife, Lady Jane, expected a week hence. The wind was gusting up from the south: with such favourable weather it could well be earlier. Sir John was a man of science, one of the age’s greatest explorers and a man of many projects, whether they be exploring the vast Transylvanian wilds of the island’s west or founding scientific societies or collecting shells and flowers for Kew Gardens.
Yes, thought the Protector as he paced out the exact dimensions of the graveyard, a new cemetery and a raising of the standards of the natives’ hymn-singing were real and reasonable goals that he could achieve before the vice-regal visit. Above all else, the Protector prided himself on his realism.
That evening the Protector gave his lecture on pneumatics to an audience that combined the officers and their families and the natives. His final text ran to one hundred and forty-four pages. He felt he had well advanced his argument with logic and occasional practical example, such as when he heated a bottle over a steaming kettle he had hanging over the fire. By holding the bottle over a peeled boiled egg, the egg was slowly sucked up into the bottle.
Troilus laughed at this point and said loudly, “Wybalenna bottle, blackfella egg,” drawing entirely the wrong principle from the demonstration.
After, the Protector shared a glass of hock and some ham sandwiches with the officers, and to show he would tolerate no distinction between black and white, also partook of a pannikin of tea that was served to the natives, which he felt they relished.
King Romeo was found dead the following morning. In truth, his passing was neither unexpected nor unfamiliar, and when the Protector went to examine the body, he felt boredom possessing him in the way pity once had. A woman with whom King Romeo had taken up after the death of his wife a few years earlier was in the normal state of native overexcitement, wailing like a belfry being rung by a madman, her face so many trails of blood from where she had purposely cut herself with a piece of broken bottle.
King Romeo’s daughter, however, seemed possessed of a more Christian sensibility and in her demure grief afforded the Protector some hope that his work was something more than the most colossal vanity. The child was so quiet he wondered if perhaps she might be more amenable to a civilising influence than he had previously thought.
In consequence of attending to King Romeo’s corpse, he was late for the school of which he was master, a failure of punctuality that made the Protector angry with the dead man: example, after all, was everything. If his own example was in any way lacking, how could he expect the natives to change their ways?
His lateness was misread by those in attendance as a loosening of discipline; they continued talking and laughing even while he spoke to them. He found himself furious with them, and rather than beginning the day with the catechism, he berated his class. Had he ever deceived them? Had he not provided good, warm and substantial new brick dwellings? Good raiment? Food in abundance? Moreover, had he not determined to reorganise their dead and put marks above each grave so they might know who was buried where?
After a light lunch of several muttonbirds and bread, he went to the hut that was kept for surgery and post mortems. On a long pine table within lay the body of King Romeo. Later he entered the results of his work as follows:
Died of a general decay of nature: lung adhered to the chest so firmly that it required force to separate it; chest contained large amount of fluid: morbid lung and the spleen and the urethra and appendages were taken out and are to be conveyed to Hobarton for the inspection of dr arthur: he were an interesting man.
At the autopsy’s end, the Protector took out of a wooden case a meat saw he kept specially sharpened and reserved for one purpose only. He favoured it because its ebony handle was heavily crosshatched, allowing him to maintain a firm grip even once his hand was wet, thereby ensuring the neatest job.
He was about to begin when there was a knock on the door, and he opened it to see the native woman Aphrodite begging him to come to her house: her husband, Troilus, was having fits. The Protector spoke to her in his gentlest voice. A voice of pity, he felt. He told her to return to her husband, that he would come soon to minister to him. He closed the door. He returned to the corpse. He placed the saw’s edge precisely in the nape of the neck.
Had he become God? He no longer knew. They kept dying. He was surrounded by corpses, skulls, autopsy reports, plans for the chapel and cemetery. His dreams were full of their dances and songs, the beauty of their villages, the sound of their rivers, the memory of their tendernesses, yet still they kept dying and nothing he did altered it. They kept dying and dying, and he—who had lived in their old world, who continued to work to make this new world perfect in its civilisation, its Christianity, its Englishness—he was their Protector, but still they kept dying. If he was God, what god was he?
He drew the saw carefully across the skin to score a red guiding line. Then, good tradesman that he was, he completed the job with long, firm strokes, counting them as he went. It took just six to saw off King Romeo’s head. Careful as the Protector was, he was annoyed to feel his hands greasy with blood.