It was nearly the hour of closing at the Gallows and Glockenspiel. "Thirteenth of May, seventeen eighty-seven. Nearly closing time," announced Hooligan Motts; but the small and noisy gathering of fashionable ladies and gentlemen at the better end of the bar paid little or no attention. They had been there some considerable time, the men in pastel cutaways and luminous knee-socks, the ladies in frilled chemises and pouty drapings. Among the ladies, some had shawls and some had parasols, and some of the men carried walking-sticks; but despite the heat of debate nobody resorted to weapons, though Granny Forbus would happily have told them how.
"Bit of a barney there," said Melon Head Myrtle to one of the gentlemen, who had detached himself in order to visit the bar for a final tankard of Wobley's Thurrock.
"Barney?" said the gentleman, whose waistcoat and matching complexion resembled a massacre at a beetroot emporium. "I think we left Barney at the docks. He was in a most melancholy state."
"The docks?" said Melon Head Myrtle. "Did he miss his boat, then?"
"Not at all, not at all," said the gentleman in the massacre waistcoat. "We all went there to watch the fleet leave. Rather a stirring sight, though not quite so salutary as a good public hanging. That's what disappointed Barney, I think."
"The fleet?" said Melon Head Myrtle. "Is there a war on?"
"Not at all, not at all," said the gentleman in the massacre waistcoat. "It was the convict fleet, transporting eight hundred felons to New Holland."
"New Holland?" said Melon Head Myrtle.
"A most dreadful business," said one of the ladies, who had approached in time to catch the last few words and clearly did not care for the haul. "Do you know," the lady continued, looking down her nose at Melon Head Myrtle, "it's taken them nearly a whole year to prepare these ships, and not so much as the paltry spectacle of a flogging to offer at the end of it. It makes you wonder what entertainment in this country is coming to."
"You speak of entertainment," said the gentleman in the massacre waistcoat; "what of the country's morals, its society, its fabric of law and order?"
"New Holland?" said Melon Head Myrtle.
"'Tis a land far to the south," said the lady; "so far to the south, apparently, that it is on the other side of the world; which makes it all the more incomprehensible that the British taxpayer should be put to the expense of transporting criminals there."
"To say nothing," said the gentleman in the massacre waistcoat, "of the country's morals, its society, its fabric of law and order. Do you know," he confided to the lady, "methinks that may be the reason why Barney stayed behind. He's always had a thing for law and order, ever since he stabbed that washer-woman."
"Stayed behind?" Pointing her nose elsewhere, the lady rested a lorgnette upon it and scanned the gathering for sign or spoor of Barney. "More likely he was left
behind. His litter is so slow, what with his being such a substantial gent these days; it needs a lick of paint and a change of lackeys."
"This lady was asking after him," said the gentleman in the massacre waistcoat, indicating Melon Head Myrtle. "Were you not, madam?"
"Not at all, dearie," said Melon Head Myrtle. "I was just wondering what you were all arguing about."
"We were discussing the country's morals," said the gentleman in the massacre waistcoat, "and its society and its fabric of law and order, and the question as to whether the said fabric has now suffered an irreparable rent."
"I shouldn't think so, myself," Melon Head Myrtle reassured him; "not if you're sending all your criminals off to live on the other side of the world."
"That is precisely the point," said the gentleman in the massacre waistcoat. "What possible deterrent value can there be in a luxury cruise? Time was when a man could be hanged for cutting down a tree or raiding a rabbit warren; now it appears that such derelictions are to be punished by turning the malefactors into immigrants. It is even said that so much food and clothing has been packed onto those ships that the voyage may be survived by almost the entire cargo. Now where, I ask you, is the justice in that? Where is the morality? Where is the all-important punitive element?"
"It sounds to me, dearie," said Melon Head Myrtle, "like it's the natives of New Holland who'll be getting the punitive element, what with all those woodcutters and rabbit-raiders being foisted on them. There won't be a tree or a bunny safe in the place."
"Indeed, the felons will be immigrants, with all the cultural and economic advancement that implies," agreed the lady with the lorgnette; "though why the natives of New Holland should be permitted to benefit from the largesse of the British taxpayer I cannot in conscience imagine."
"Indeed, for the British taxpayer 'tis always a cruel, hard world," agreed the gentleman in the massacre waistcoat.
"Closing time," agreed Hooligan Motts.