Sunday, October 18, 2015
The Matter of Sir Henry Hayes and the Snakes
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"Sir Henry Hates," said the old lady, one day to me, "was what was called in Sydney 'a Special.' Specials were gentlemen by birth and education, who had been convicted of offences which, however heinous in a legal point of view, did not involve any particular degree of baseness. For instance, Major B., who, in a violent fit of passion, stabbed his footman for accidentally spilling some soup and soiling the king's livery, which the major was then wearing—was a Special: so was the old German baron, whose history I gave you on another occasion: and so were those Irish gentlemen who took a prominent part in the rebellion, and escaped the fate that awaited Mr. Emmett—Specials. All those kinds of criminals, up to the departure of General Macquarrie, and the arrival of Sir Thomas Brisbane, were not treated like common thieves and receivers of stolen property, but with great consideration. If they were not emancipated immediately on their arrival, they were suffered to be at large without the formality of a ticket-of-leave. They were, in short, treated rather as prisoners of war on their parole than as prisoners of the Crown in a penal settlement. Grants of land were not given to them while they were in actual bondage, but they were permitted to locate themselves on any unoccupied piece of land in the vicinity of Sydney. The greater number of them were well supplied with funds by their relations in England, Ireland, or Scotland, and erected very comfortable, if not particularly handsome, abodes, and laid out gardens and grounds. General Macquarrie went a little too far, perhaps. He not only admitted them to his
table as soon as they were emancipated, but he elevated some of them to the magisterial bench.
"Sir Henry built a very pretty little cottage on the estate known as Vaucluse, and upon which the house of Mr. William Charles Wentworth now stands. There is not a lovelier site in the known world. Beautifully wooded with evergreens, the land covered with every description of heath, which is in bloom nearly all the year round; a lovely bay of semicircular shape, and forming one of the inlets of the magnificent harbour of Port Jackson, spread out before the lawn, its dark-blue waters laving the milk-white sand, some black rocks in the distance (known as 'the Bottle and Glass'), standing out sufficiently far to cause the spray to beat continually over them, the north shore plainly visible across the broad expanse of water,—travel where you will, the eye will not rest upon any spot more favoured by Nature than that exquisite valley which was called Vaucluse, in consequence of its resemblance in one or two respects to the Vallis Clausus, where Petrarch, in the words of Lord Byron,
"'With his melodious tears gave himself to fame."
To put his crime out of the question, Sir Henry was a man of very great taste, and an Irish gentleman of the old school."
"What was his crime?" I asked, in my then ignorance of this colonial celebrity.
"He carried off by force and violence a young lady with whom he was passionately in love, and who had several times refused his offers of marriage. The penalty of the offence was transportation for life. I am not quite sure that he was not, in the first instance, sentenced to be hanged. My husband, in common with many officers, was partial to Hayes, who could be very witty and amusing, and who, whatever may have been his habits in early life, led a most temperate and exemplary life in the colony of New South Wales. He was surrounded by every comfort that money could purchase, and he was always glad to see persons of whom he was in the habit of speaking as 'those of my own order.' The only defect in his manner was, that his air was too patronizing.
"That Hayes was perfectly mad on the crime that led to his banishment there could not be the slightest question; but upon all other points no one could be more rational. That his statements with reference to his case were untrue, no one who read the report of his trial could doubt for a single moment; but that Hayes himself believed his own version to be the correct one, was equally certain. I never saw Sir Henry but twice, and I must do him the justice to say, that on neither occasion did he speak of his case. He was by far too well bred to think of making the faintest allusion to it. By the way, he did once say in my presence, on the occasion of his killing a fly with the handle of a carving-fork, 'That's how I should like to crush John Philpot Curran;' but upon my husband remarking to him, 'My wife never heard of that person, Hayes,' Sir Henry made me a very low bow, begged me a million pardons, and instantly changed the theme."
"Why was he so inveterate with regard to Mr. Curran?" I inquired.
"It was Mr. Curran, my husband told me, who prosecuted Sir Henry Hayes," was the old lady's reply. "I told you that I only saw Sir Henry twice," she continued. "On the first occasion he called at our house, in a state of great nervous excitement. After being introduced to me, and speaking for a while on various subjects, he thus addressed my husband: 'My dear major, for the last eleven days I have suffered agonies of mind, and have been praying, from early dawn to dusky night, almost without intermission, to my favourite saint, Saint Patrick. But he seems to take no more notice of me, nor of my prayers, than if I were some wretched thief in a road-gang, with manacles on my leg, and a stone-breaking hammer in my hand.'
"'What is the matter, that you require the aid of Saint Patrick?' said my husband.
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"'The matter!' replied Sir Henry. 'You are aware, perhaps, that that part of the country where I live literally swarms with venomous serpents; there are black snakes, brown snakes, gray snakes, yellow snakes, diamond snakes, carpet snakes—in short, every species of snake in the known world. Now, so long as they confined themselves to the lawn and the garden, I did not so much mind. It was bad enough to have them there, but, with caution, I could avoid them. The brutes, however, have lately taken to invade the house. We have killed them in the verandah, and in every room, including the kitchen. Now, it was in consequence of this that I addressed my prayers to Saint Patrick, and suggested that he might whisper to them to go into other people's houses, and not mine, in order to gratify their curiosity concerning the habits of civilized man; but to no purpose. Last night I found a gentleman, six feet long, and as black as a coal, coiled up on my white counterpane; and another of the same dimensions underneath the bed. However, I am determined they shall not banish me from that abode, but that I will banish them; or, at all events, keep them at a proper distance—say a distance of at least fifty yards from any part of the house. And what I want you to do, my dear major, is to render me some assistance in the matter.'
"'What do you propose doing?' my husband inquired.
"'You know perfectly well, my excellent friend,' continued Sir Henry, 'that Saint Patrick so managed matters that no snake could ever live on or near Irish soil. The very smell of it is more than enough for them. It will be a matter of time and of money; but to carry out my project I am most firmly resolved.'
"'What do you propose doing ? and how can I aid you?' said the major.
"'Hark ye! 'returned Sir Henry. 'I intend to import to this country about five hundred tons of genuine Irish bog, which shall be dug from the estate of a friend of mine. It shall come out in large biscuit barrels. I shall then have a trench dug round my premises, six feet wide and two feet deep; and this trench the Irish earth shall fill.'
"'And do you really believe that Australian snakes will be kept away by your Irish, soil, Sir Henry?' said the major.
"'Believe! Of course, I do. I am quite certain of it,' responded Hayes. 'This very day I have written to my friend in Ireland, and told him to employ an agent to carry out my wishes, and have the bog-earth taken down to Cork for shipment. Now, the favour I have to ask of you is this: to write, in your official capacity, a letter to my agent, which I will enclose to him—such a letter as will lead the captains and doctors of the ships that touch at Cork, to fill up the complement of convicts for these shores, to suppose that the soil is for Government, and required for botanical purposes; and further, I want you to allow it to be consigned to yourself or the Colonial Secretary. Each ship might remove a quantity of its stone ballast and put the casks of bog in its stead, By these means I should get it all the quicker.'
"My husband endeavoured to laugh Sir Henry out of his idea; but in vain. He was firm, and said: "'If you won't assist me, I must instruct them to charter a ship for the especial purpose, and that would cost a very serious sum of money.'
"My husband, of course, could not think of acting in the matter without previously obtaining the consent of the Governor, who was so amused at the superstitious character of Hayes's enterprise, that his excellency caused the required letter to be written, and handed to him.
"About a year afterwards, the first instalment of the soil arrived—some forty barrels—and was conveyed from Sydney to Vaucluse (a distance of six miles) by water; and within the next year the entire quantity had reached its destination. The trench, in the mean time, had been dug, and all was now ready for 'circumventing,' as Sir Henry expressed it, 'the premises and the vipers at one blow.'
"My husband and myself and a large party of ladies and gentlemen went down to Vaucluse in the Government barges to witness the operation of filling in the trench. The superintendent of convicts—a countryman of Hayes', and who believed as implicitly as Hayes himself did in the virtue of Irish soil with regard to vipers—lent Sir Henry barrows and shovels and a gang consisting of seventy-five men—all of them Irishmen—in order to complete the work as rapidly as possible. Sir Henry, in person, superintended, and was alternately pathetic and jocular. Some of his running commentaries on Saint Patrick and his wonderful
powers, and some snatches of song that he sang in honour of the saint, convulsed with laughter all who those stood around him. The work over, one or two of the men asked for a small quantity of the sacred earth, and Sir Henry said
"'Well, take it and welcome; but I would rather have given you its weight in gold.'
"Strange to say, from that time forward, Sir Henry Hayes was not visited by snakes. They did not vacate the grounds in the vicinity of Vaucluse, but none were ever seen within the magic circle formed of the Irish earth. Whether the charm is worn out, and whether the Wentworths are invaded as was Sir Henry, I know not. But this I know, that Captain Piper, who held the appointment of naval officer in the colony, to whom Vaucluse was subsequently granted, and from whom Mr. Wentworth purchased it, assured me that, during the many years he lived there with his family, no venomous reptile had ever been killed or observed within Hayes's enclosures, notwithstanding they were plentiful enough beyond it."
I wish the reader to understand that I have simply related the above story as it was told to me, and that I do not offer any opinion as to the efficacy or otherwise of Irish soil in keeping away Australian snakes from any spot upon which it may be placed.
After a pause, the old lady resumed:
"I ought to have mentioned that it was on the seventeenth of March, Saint Patrick's Day, that this curious ceremony was performed, and that at its conclusion, at half-past four in the afternoon, we dined with Sir Henry in a large tent formed of the old sails of a ship, which were lent to him for the occasion by the captain of the vessel then lying in the harbour. Sir Henry was in excellent spirits, and, when the evening closed in, he sang several Irish melodies with great sweetness and pathos. To every one present he made himself extremely agreeable, and, on the whole, I never spent a happier day in my life, albeit I was the guest of a Special convict."
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