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Annie Saint Felix by John Lang

 

"SHE was not handsome; but she was very, very pretty--the prettiest little Irish girl that I ever beheld!" said the old lady. "She had golden hair and dark--blue eyes, a compact and elastic figure, and the tiniest feet and hands. She was not more than eighteen when she landed in Sydney as a convict, under sentence of transportation for life. She did not arrive till 1827 or 1828; and during the administration of Sir Ralph Darling. The Special system was now utterly defunct, and all convicts were to be treated alike, without the least reference to what had been their former condition.

"In point of strictness, this was, no doubt, very proper and very just; but to those who remembered the lenient administration of General Macquarie and Sir Thomas Brisbane, it appeared harsh in the extreme.

"The major and myself left Sydney shortly after the departure of General Macquarie from the colony, and went to live on an estate, which had been granted to us, in the vicinity of Campbell Town. The major sold his commission, and had now nothing further to do with public life. He was still in the commission of the peace; but that was all.

"The girl, Annie Saint Felix, whom I have mentioned, was assigned to some neighbours of ours (our nearest neighbours, for they lived only six miles off), the Prestons, and very nice people they were. Captain Preston early in life had held a commission in the Foot Guards, and inherited a considerable fortune; but having run through his money, he sold his commission, and retired with the proceeds to the wilds of Australia, and became a settler. Mrs. Preston, who was a lady of aristocratic birth and breeding, was one of the kindest--hearted beings in existence, and their sons and daughters, a goodly number of each, ranging from fourteen to three years of age, were, without any exception, remarkably fine and well--behaved children. The eldest was a daughter.

"One morning I had a visit from Mrs. Preston. She wanted to ask my advice, she said, on a very delicate matter, that she scarcely liked to act upon her own judgment, and Captain Preston had declared himself incompetent to assist her. On asking her what was her difficulty, the following dialogue took place between us:--

"'You are aware,' she began, 'that I applied for a needlewoman?'

"'Yes,' I replied. 'Have you got one?'

"'No; but a young girl has been assigned to us who can do needlework.'

"'Then, that is all you require of her?'

"'True. But she happens to be a young lady by birth, and is, moreover, a highly--educated girl.'

"'Well, she is none the worse for those qualities, as you only want her for needlework. What was her crime? Did you ask her?'

"'Yes,' and she replied, 'Murder, madam! My brother was hanged; but I am sorry to say they spared my life!'"

"'Murder! Dear me. Did you question her further?'

"'No,' said Mrs. Preston. 'When she pronounced the word murder, my blood ran cold, and I trembled from head to foot. Now, what I wish to ask you is, Wouldyoukeep a girl under your roof who had been guilty of such a crime?'

"'What sort of a disposition has she?'

"'She is as gentle, seemingly, as she is pretty and graceful. It was, indeed, her kind and gentle manner towards the children, and her well--selected language, that induced me to say to her, on the third day she had been with us yesterday, in fact--when we were alone in the nursery, 'Dear me! Annie, what could have brought a girl of your stamp and education to this colony?' Of course, as soon as she pronounced the word 'Murder!' I lost all power of speech, and have scarcely spoken to her since. To tell you the truth, I feel rather afraid of her.'

"'Pretty girls have often a wicked expression of countenance. Has she one?'

"'On the contrary, and she has a voice like that of a bird. I wish you would come over, see her, talk to her, and tell me what you think of her. You can stay the night, you know.'

"Mrs. Preston had aroused my curiosity. When I was one of the lady visiting matrons of the factory at Paramatta, I had discoursed with several women who had committed murder in England, Ireland, or Scotland; but they were all women of a very inferior station in life. I agreed to accompany my friend, and as soon as the major had completed his (unpaid) magisterial duties on the bench, and had returned home, we all three set out together; Mrs. Preston driving me in her gig, and the major riding on the right--hand side, on horseback.

"When I first saw the girl, I was very much struck with her appearance. Her hair was brushed back off her forehead, and arranged as plainly as possible. On her head was a little white three--cornered cap, such as all maidservants wore in those days; her dress was of common drugget, of a dark chocolate colour, and around her slender waist was tied a gingham apron, which Mrs. Preston had given to her. She was then sewing and talking to the little children, who were playing around her knees. When we left the nursery, I exclaimed to Mrs. Preston--

"'That a murderess! I do not believe her.'

"'But,' urged Mrs. Preston, 'she says she is; and why should she confess to having committed so diabolical a crime if it be untrue?'

"While Captain Preston and the major were drinking their claret after dinner, and were talking about their crops and their cattle, Mrs. Preston and myself paid another visit to the nursery. By the light of the woodfire and the candle, the girl looked even prettier than by daylight. After Mrs. Preston had put several questions to her, concerning the children and the work she had in hand, and had received the girl's replies, I said--

"'Your mistress has told me that which I can scarcely credit. She tells me you were convicted of murder.'

"'It is quite true, madam,' said the girl, blushing almost crimson.

"'What could have prompted a girl like you,' I said, 'to think, even, of taking the life of a fellow--creature?'

"'I will tell you, madam,' she sighed.

"'Sit down, Annie; you must be tired after your day's labours,' said Mrs. Preston, taking a chair near the fire (an example which I followed).

"The girl obeyed--sat down opposite to us, and gazing steadfastly at the blazing logs on the hearth, in the following words told her story:--

"'My brother (who was five years my senior) and myself were orphans, and were living under the roof of an uncle (my father's eldest brother), on an island in the north of Ireland. We had a cousin, one of the loveliest and most amiable girls that ever lived, and she was engaged to be married to a Mr. Kennedy, a gentleman of large property, who lived on the same island, and within a few miles of my uncle's house. When all was prepared for the wedding, this gentleman--if he deserves the title of gentleman--broke off the match. That was cruel enough, seeing that our cousin loved him devotedly; but he had the wickedness to express, as a reason for his baseness, a suspicion which, if true, would have blasted not only, my cousin's character, but that also of my brother. The horrible nature of this accusation, and its utter falsity, added to her disappointment, so preyed upon the girl's mind, that, after pining in hopeless grief for a month, she sank into her grave: dying of a broken heart. On the night of her burial, my brother, frantic with rage and grief, vowed that on the first opportunity that presented itself, he would take Mr. Kennedy's life. I knelt beside him, and vowed that I would share in his revenge.'

"'For weeks and months Mr. Kennedy, who knew the determined character of my brother, and of the vow that he had made, kept within the boundaries of his own estate. This, however, did not calm our passionate feelings. On the contrary, it exasperated them, and our purpose had become the more settled. Often and often would my brother say to me, and I to him, 'Are you steadfast in Your vow?' And the answer we invariably gave each other was 'Yes.' One afternoon--about four months after the death of our cousin--one of the servants informed my brother that Mr. Kennedy had been seen riding in the direction of a little fishing--town. He immediately orderedhis own horse and mine to be saddled; and arming him--self with a brace of pistols, we both galloped in pursuit of Mr. Kennedy. We had not ridden more than three miles when we saw him. As we galloped on the turf, and not on the hard road, he did not hear the sound of our horses' hoofs until we were close upon him. As soon as he recognized us, he put spurs to his horse; but his steed was not so swift of foot as were ours, and, just as we were entering the town, we overtook him. He then became deadly pale, and begged for mercy. But in vain. I seized his horse's bridle, and said, 'Now, Francis,' whereupon my brother put his pistol to Mr. Kennedy's left breast, and drew the trigger. Mr. Kennedy fell from his horse--a dead man! Such was the crime for which my brother lost his life on the scaffold, and for which I was sent to this colony for the term of my natural life. I wished to die with my brother; but it was willed otherwise.'

"'And do you not repent?' I asked.

"'Yes,' the girl sighed. 'I try to think of my cousin's sufferings, and of her death, and of the pain, the agony of mind which my uncle and every member of our family endured, when Mr. Kennedy falsely branded us with dishonour; but the deep dye of my crime weakens oven those recollections, and my life is a life of remorse and mental expiation.' Here she paused; and, hiding her face with her hands, she shed tears.

"At this moment Mrs. Preston's eldest son, a boy of twelve years of age, came into the nursery, and said, 'Papa wants some more wine, mamma. Will you send him the keys of the cellarette?' On observing the girl shedding tears, he approached her; and, placing his hand gently on her shoulder, he said, in a very gentle tone of voice, which touched both his mother and myself--What is the matter, Annie? I hope mamma has not been scolding you?'

"'No, Master Charles,' she replied. 'Your mamma has been very kind to me.'

"'Then why do you cry?' the boy demanded.

"Mrs. Preston and myself rejoined our husbands, leaving Master Charles with the girl, to whom, in common with all his brothers and sisters, he was already very much attached. Even before we left the room, he patted her upon the head, and begged her to dry her eyes.

"Captain Preston and the major were both much moved, when we recounted to them what we had just heard. Had it been previous to 1820, which was about the date of General Macquarie's departure from Sydney, we should have had very little difficulty in doing for Annie St. Felix what had been done for Kate Crawford; or, at all events, we could have obtained for her a conditional pardon, which would have rendered her a free woman in the colony and its dependencies. But with the then Governor, so far from having any interest, the major and Captain Preston were such objects of dislike that they were never invited to the Government House. This was in consequence of the opinions they had openly expressed of the Governor's conduct, in having two private soldiers flogged in the barrack--square, and drummed out of the regiment, after they had been sentenced to be transported by the civil tribunal. The fact was that the men died of the severe flogging they had received--the one in the jail, and the other in the general hospital, to which institution he was removed in his last moments. The names of these men were Sadds and Thompson.

"So far as my husband was concerned, an order was secretly passed that no more convict--servants were to be assigned to him; but to Captain Preston this order bad not yet been extended, inasmuch as he had been less emphatic in his denunciations. Into the merits of this question I have no wish to enter. No doubt too much leniency had been shown during the two preceding administrations; but I am, nevertheless, disposed to think that Sir Ralph Darling rushed into the opposite extreme, and by the adoption of so severe a code led to those dissensions between the governed and the governing which convulsed the colony till the arrival of his successor, Sir Richard Bourke."

"But what became of Annie St. Felix?" I asked.

"She remained with the Prestons for five years. She was to them a perfect treasure--acting, as she did, as housekeeper, nurse, and governess. Go whenever you would into the house, you found Annie always busily engaged, and yet always in demand. From morning till night, from one quarter or the other, there was a call for Annie! So patiently, and so quietly, too, did she perform her multifarious duties, that it was really a pleasure to watch her movements. Captain and Mrs. Preston respected her; their children loved her tenderly; the male convicts on the estate obeyed her orders with cheerfulness, and the female convicts (this was, perhaps, the highest testimonial in her favour) abstained from reminding her that she was only their equal. As for the guests who were entertained by the Prestons, they not only admired Annie's pretty person and most decorous demeanour, but they envied the lady of the house and her extraordinary good fortunes. I need scarcely say that she was treated as a gentlewoman, who, when a young girl, had assisted in the commission of the greatest of all crimes under very peculiar if not extenuating circumstances, and whose conduct, apart from her crime, was entirely blameless. She did not, of course, sit at the same table with her employers [I cannot speak of them as master and mistress], but she had a room to herself, and seemingly comprehended her position so completely, that she was never guilty of the slightest encroachment.

"After the birth of her eleventh child, Mrs. Preston had a very serious and painful illness. Annie tended her with all that care and affection of which her gentle nature was so capable; and at the same time, kept the house quiet, the establishment in order, and Captain Preston's wants [he was selfish and exacting, though a well--bred man, and a perfect gentleman] ministered unto in every respect. But Mrs. Preston sank under her grievous malady--and died, to the great sorrow of every one who had enjoyed her acquaintance.

"For a year after his wife's death, Captain Preston never left his home--never went beyond the precincts of his new domain. But at the expiration of that period, he paid us a visit, and as it was near our dinner--hour, six o'clock, we invited him to stay and partake of the meal with us. He assented. We offered to send over a groom to his house to make known that he might not be expected until after ten or eleven. He replied that we need not do so, as he had intimated to Annie that he intended to stay the night at Macquarie Dale [such was the name of our estate]. We were rejoiced to hear this, albeit there was something in Captain Preston's manner and discourse which betokened that he was very unquiet and unsettled in his mind.

"During dinner, and for some time afterwards, the captain was not only absent, silent, or incoherent when he spoke but he glared occasionally at the major and myself after a very odd and suspicious fashion. The dinner over, the cloth removed, and the dessert placed upon the table, our guest said that his object in paying us a visit that day was to impart some information, and that he hoped all (I trusted the course he was about to pursue would not involve the forfeiture of our friendship). 'You are aware,' proceeded Captain Preston, 'of the situation in which I was placed, when I had the misfortune to lose my wife, notwithstanding I could command the services of one on whom such implicit confidence could be placed. I allude, of course, to Annie St. Felix. To all of my children, from my daughter, who is now verging into womanhood, down to the little one, which can scarcely walk alone, her behaviour has been such that my esteem and regard for her has at length resolved itself into an ardent affection. I love Annie St. Felix, and if she will accept the offer I am about to make her, she shall become my wife. Yes, I will marry my bondswoman, for in strictness that is her title. Whatever may be the opinion of the world, I will brave it.'

"'She is a worthy creature,' said the major, heartily; and with such a partner there would be no particular valour in braving the opinion of the world. In the presence of my own wife, I desire to tell you, Preston, that if I were in your position, my own feelings should be my sole counsellor.'

"'You are silent,' said the captain, addressing me, and placing his elbow on the table, he rested his head on the palm of his hand, his long brown hair standing out between his white and tapered fingers. He gazed at me very intently when he uttered those three words--'You are silent.'

"'I was thinking,' I replied to him, in a solemn tone of voice, and meeting his gaze with one of equal intensity, 'of a scene which I should never have mentioned, or alluded to, had it not been for what you have just stated.'

"'What scene?' he demanded, rather abruptly.

"'A scene that occurred on the night which preceded that of your wife's death. I was with her, if you remember. Annie St. Felix, worn out and exhausted by continual watching, had fallen asleep in the arm--chair. Your wife motioned me to place my ear to her lips. I did so. With an effort she raised her head from the pillow, fixed her eyes on the sleeping girl, and whispered to me, 'If my husband should ever think of marrying again, I hope that she will be his choice.'

"Captain Preston rose passionately from his chair, and grasped my hand. 'You have plucked from my mind the most anxious doubt that for several weeks past has literally haunted it. I have asked myself over and over again--What would she have said?'

"'Have you put the question to Miss Saint Felix?' the major inquired.

"'No,' said Captain Preston; 'but I will do so to--morrow.'

"Annie at first objected to become the wife of Captain Preston, although she was very much attached to him. She was afraid that his union with her would prejudice his position in the colony, and eventually make him unhappy. But at last her scruples were overcome, and on one lovely winter's morning in the month of June, Captain Preston led Annie to the altar, where their hands were joined. The major and myself, as well as those neighbours with whom we associated, were present; and, albeit the church in point of structure bore a very strong resemblance to an English barn, and there were no merry peals of bells, still there were joyous faces to greet the newly--wedded pair when the ceremony concluded. They lived very happily together, and Annie became the mother of a little boy.

"About eighteen months after this event Captain Preston unexpectedly inherited a large property in England. The amount of income may have been exaggerated; but rumour put it down at fifteen thousand pounds a year. The captain's presence was required in England, but he would not leave the colony until he could be accompanied by his wife. Remember that she was still a convict under sentence of transportation for the term of her natural life, though the most debased and brutal person in existence would never have dreamt of reminding her of that frightful fact.

"It must have been a bitterly painful interview that which Captain Preston had with the Governor of the colony; but it resulted in the removal of the obstacle which lay in the way of Annie's returning to Europe, and they left New South Wales, to the very great regret of my husband and myself, and of many others.

"The last time I saw Annie before she left the colony was in the streets of Sydney. She was leaning on the arm of her step--son, Charles Preston, who was then a tall youth of twenty years of age, and an ensign in a regiment of foot. He regarded his mother (as he always spoke of her) with a look so replete with filial affection--spoke to her so kindly and so gently--seemed so proud of her (for she was still a very pretty woman), that my liking for him was far in excess of what it had been when he was only a boy."

End.

 
 
 
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