The Convict Laundress

Mary Theresa Vidal

Preview: Issue 1 of 2

It was a bright, clear day--how bright, how blue, and how clear, none but those who have been out of the British isles can understand. It was Christmas day; but instead of frost and snow, and cold, and leafless trees, and blazing fires, there was intense heat, and the trees looked, as they always do in Australia, a dingy blueish tint, but still full of leaf and blossom: and here and there, where marks of cultivation peeped through the interminable forest or bush, there were strips of the brightest green maize, refreshing indeed to the eye, and contrasting pleasantly with the brown grass, and the tall white trunks of the gums. The house, or rather weather-boarded cottage, was four or five miles from the settlement, where there was a wooden church. Thither the family had repaired on this morning. There was but one service, for the clergyman proceeded to another congregatation eight miles beyond. There had been beef and plum pudding for dinner, the government men, or convicts, partaking in the Christmas fare; and there were thoughts of those far away, and many a lingering regret for the old associations of the season. Yet as the evening breeze sprung up, and stirred the gums and acacias, and breathing through the cottage refreshingly cool, the spirits of all rose, and with one accord they went out into the forest at the back of the house. The merry voices were echoed round and round, and I could see the farm-servants and working men as they strolled under the trees. Every one being out, I went to the back, to see that all was safe. There was a large waste piece of ground with the men's huts, the stables and barn, and nearer the house stood the kitchens and store. Two or three dogs lay about, the poultry were busy picking up their food, and a pet cockatoo came jumping up to my side, begging for a bone in its peculiarly unharmonious voice. As I stood, feeling rather lonely, I heard a dull, melancholy noise; it came from the kitchen. I thought every one had been out: I listened again. Yes, it was from the kitchen, and it was certainly some one in grief: heavy sobs and a low moaning formed a strange contrast to the distant sounds of mirth and merriment!

On approaching the kitchen I found one of the servants, a convict, leaning on the table--a solitary, heart-broken creature! Hour after hour, day after day, did that woman work, and often till late at night, and never was there more faithful or more devoted service than hers. Was there a trouble, or an ailment, or an extra job, it was, 'Go to Grace Allen.' Did the children want a string, or a stick, or a cake, or a kind word--Grace was there. Early and late she was at her washing-tub, or bestowing dainty care on all the old clothes that came from England, because she said she knew 'the Missis set more value on them than on any thing new.' There was the poultry which throve doubly after they were given into her charge. Early in the morning, with light and gentle step, did she stand with a cup of coffee, made with the utmost care, because she knew 'the Missis was used to it at home.' Late at night she was there to see if all was right; and after an absence from home, Grace was sure to be the first to spy the horses, and to fly to the slip-rail with 'You're kindly welcome back, your reverence; you're kindly welcome home, ma'am, and the children are well, the jewels!'

Slight of figure and of graceful form was Grace, and there was every mark to show how pretty she once had been. There was a refined and graceful turn in every feature and limb; but she was no longer young, her hair was growing grey, her eyes were hollow, and her cheeks sunken; and now, as she raised her pale face on hearing steps, what a withered, crushed expression was there! She had been glad to let them all go out, and leave her to weep alone. Nor was it only the thoughts of her kindred, her children, her old home, which oppressed her heart; Grace was under a deadly bondage, worse than that of being a convict; there was sin as well as sorrow, and the bright blossoms of her love, her faithful clinging heart, were weighed down, crushed, soiled! From time to time I heard all her history, and for three years tried to save her, but in vain. The following sketch will not, I think, be without interest to others; and it is a pleasure, mingled as it is with deep pain, to recall her words and vivid descriptions, though they must lose their freshness from inability to give them in her own Irish phraseology: and while I do not hide her faults, I cannot help lingering awhile on that devoted, unselfish love which battled to the last with her infirmities, which survived the wreck of her happiness, and was permitted to comfort and interest those to whom she was assigned in that far-off land, Australia.

One evening, just before sunset, a young woman was seen leaning on a stile; she was dressed after the manner of an Irish household servant, and there was a certain air of coquettish pleasure as she glanced at her well-turned fair arm, and neat foot and ancle, then looked anxiously over the fields, or timidly back towards the house--a handsome building, standing on beautiful ground, surrounded with every thing that denotes the residence of a wealthy squire. The substantial chimneys sent up their columns of smoke, while lights might be seen glancing in the long row of windows in front. General Montgomery had company that day; and full of fear lest she should be wanted, had Grace M'Lean stolen out, after giving a final polish to the spare beds and tables, in the hope of meeting her English lover. A long sigh escaped her as the moments flew by and he did not appear. At last there was a whistle, which made her blush and smile, and in another moment he was at her side; and passing his arm round her waist, he led her on by the hedgerow, for a stroll, as he said, in the lovely evening.

"Well then, Grace, when I return you'll consent to the marriage, I suppose? I've spoken for the cottage, and I have some planks seasoning, to knock up as neat a table as I'll answer for it will please even your particular fancy."

Grace smiled, then said, "No, William I am only come to say good bye and it can't be. You must just forget me, for it can't be."

"Did you speak to your lady?"

"And that I did, ashamed as I was about it; and you know I told you what she would say, good lady as she is. She says I have no right to marry a heretic; and I should work on, as my mother did before me, and not give up to fancies, young as I am. That's what she said, William; and you know my brother Michael is all against it; so indeed, William, I just came to tell you so, and I'm waiting at the house, so I can only have a word or so with you."

"That's what she said, is it? Then you may tell her, Grace, my darling, that you have no occasion to work on till you're old, for that I have enough to marry decently upon, and can work as well as any one; and as for your religion, can't you be a Catholic, and go to mass and confession all the same? Never a word will I say against it, though I see no sense in it at all. For that matter, I hope I'm honest, and never did any thing to be ashamed of, and I go to church sometimes, because my parents, good souls, did so before me. But I'll never hinder you from doing what you like. And the priest, Grace, Father Donaghan, sure he didn't forbid it?"

"Ah, no, William! because he had the hope I should be the means of bringing you round; and that's why he let Katie marry a Protestant: but you know, William, there's small chance of that with you and me. I'm not the one to lead you, and you're not the one to be led."

"Led, Grace! I'll promise to go to your chapel two or three times a year. As to being a Catholic, that I shouldn't like; because, as I said before, my father was Protestant, and his father and his father's father; but I can't see the great difference not I! and if you were to pray to all the saints in the calendar, I wouldn't complain. So give up your arguments, Grace, which you will never get me to agree to. Ah, Grace! think of the nice little cottage and the regular work I've got, and the old mother nigh at hand."

Grace did think of it; and she thought too of him, the handsome English carpenter, about whom every girl in the village was talking; and as she thought, as she listened, her mistress's warning and advice fell away, like snow in sunshine. Grace had left the house, undecided what answer to give him; wishing to do right, but willing to be reasoned out of it; so after a few turns up and down, with drooping head and blushing face, she gave her promise to be William's wife, and it was settled that when "the family" went over to Bath for the lady's health, then should be the wedding. William was going to Dublin on business, and was to be absent some weeks, so this was a farewell meeting. They lingered on, till the large clock at the Hall made Grace start, and then they parted. She ran swiftly to the shrubbery, hoping she had not been called for--and from that hour the balance was struck.

Heavily it weighed downwards, and its weight was the world. From that time Grace thought more of pleasing William Allen than her mistress whom she had served from a child, more than God!

She loved him with a fond, proud, devoted love, and she sacrificed all for him. Her mistress's displeasure--her mother's sorrow--her brother's anger--it failed to touch her; her heart was shielded from all and every thing; there was but one thing in the world for her. Her eye was bright, her steps firm, her voice clear and merry.

Grace made an excellent managing wife. No cottage was cleaner or more tasty, no meals so well cooked. No man turned out so neat and well dressed as William. The rent was always paid, and all things prospered. Grace worked hard; but as evening came, she never failed to be at the garden paling to catch the first look, and if it was fine, they had their evening stroll.

No woman, as she afterwards said, was ever half so happy; alas for the blossom which had no root, and which the first wintry storm crushed to the ground for ever!

The M'Leans were a proud family. The mother had been in General Montgomery's service from childhood, and to the last day of her life considered their word as law to her and hers. Her family turned out well, and all were prosperously settled--the eldest, Michael, was established as a pork butcher, and had a large business, chiefly in salting pork down for shipping. M'Lean's mark on a cask was considered sure warrant that the meat was good. Many a sailor drank his health on the broad seas, while enjoying the well-cured pork which was branded in Michael's name. Michael was "well to do" in the world, and looked up to as the head of the family. He was wont to boast, with a satisfied smile, that none of their stock had ever been known to darken a jail door for generations back, and they were one and all a thriving, "rent-paying family." When his youngest sister, Grace, bestowed her heart and hand on "handsome Willie," as he was often called, Michael frowned. He did not like her marrying an Englishman or a Protestant; he knew nothing of William, except that once, on some rejoicing, he had been the worse for liquor and got into an Orange row; and this was a bad prospect, as Michael sagely observed, for whiskey was the curse of Ireland, and as his family had always held up their heads and kept out of this bad habit, he did not like the match.

It was with no little pride that Grace, as years passed on, could tell her brother that they were still above the world; that the pig and the garden paid the rent, and that William's earnings were counted into her own hand every week; and even Michael could not forbear smiling at the curly-headed, pretty boy, whom Grace always brought with her. Her eldest child, "her jewel," who, as she in after years said, with quivering lips and tearful eyes, "had something above common in his airs, and any one would have taken him for a real gentleman." The old mother's cottage was very near Grace; she was skilful in growing and drying herbs for the use of chemists and doctors, she lived to a great age, and on her death-bed she solemnly warned her daughter not to give up her religion, or be slack in her prayers: she said God had prospered her, and she hoped this would bind her the more to Him in gratitude. Grace trembled, for something whispered at her heart that she had forgotten the Giver in the gifts bestowed. She shed a few tears of sorrow by her mother's side, but they were hastily wiped away, and all her best attention was devoted to smoothing her mother's last hours; and never was there a gentler nurse than Grace! But alas! her mother's instructions in the best way of plaiting frills, and in the use of herbs for medicinal purposes, were more remembered and practised than all her other advice. Perhaps old Mrs. M'Lean's own example had tended to this. Of what avail are good words, unless we practise what we advise? However it was, Grace went on her way, making a devoted wife and mother. She set up her household gods and worshipped them, and they fell at last, and then there was none to help, none to answer!

Several years of bright prosperity had Grace; her wedded life was as little marred by clouds as is possible in a world of trial. One of her girls was taken into a respectable family, to be brought up as a servant; the other was apprenticed to a dressmaker; her son was still at home, and it was her pride and delight to give him "learning;" he was quick and clever, and wrote as "fair a hand as any one in all Ireland."

There was the comfortable, pretty little cottage, furnished by William's own handy work, its clean sanded floor, white window curtain, its bright kitchen utensils, and its cheerful old clock; there was the cow, and the pigs, and the poultry all thriving. Roses, and honeysuckles, and jasmine covered the walls, the garden beds had no weeds, and furnished many a dish of vegetables for their own eating, besides bringing in many a penny from market. "Vanity of vanities! all is vanity!"

Grace had gone to market, and had brought home a good round sum, which she smiled over as she thought of showing it off to William when he came home. She looked at the clock, and almost wondered he had not returned, then she prepared supper, and strolled about the garden, and found her seeds had made a great spring: there was something else to show William! Why does he tarry?

Grace is laughing and joking with her boy in the garden, little dreaming of what goes on a mile away.

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