Sunday, 12 August 2012

Forgiving Michael Chapter Five

Chapter Five

     Forgiving those who trespass against us
     is an unnatural act. Philip Yancy 


Campbelltown, February, 1848

Kathryn wrapped baby Francis Hamlet tightly and held him close to her breast as he drifted off to sleep. His father was pacing from one end of the bedroom to the other, nursing another small bundle, rocking gently.
     ‘What a wonderful gift you've given me, Kathryn’, he kept murmuring, as if he had nothing to do with the birth of their twins. ‘Elizabeth…Mother, we have a little Elizabeth. And she's a beauty…just as you were. You'd love her so.’ He looked down at his sleeping daughter, overcome with thankfulness.
     ‘And wouldn't she be just as happy about this one too?’ Kathryn drew his attention to their son. She smiled indulgently, bemused by Hamlet's expression of wonder as he watched his new daughter sleep. 
     ‘Of course she would.’ He dragged his gaze from one baby's face to the other. ‘I still can't believe it, that's all. I wish my father could see this little one.’ He reached down and stroked Francis's cheek. ‘Perhaps he can,’ he said quietly. ‘He's long gone now.  Always said he'd not make old bones. Always said it like he saw it. His given name was Hamlet Francis but everyone called him Frank. Frank by name, frank by nature. I hope wherever he is, he knows...’ Hamlet's eyes filled and he turned away.
     Kathryn caught his hand and pulled him gently back. ‘If he's anything like you, he's safe in heaven and looking down on his grandsons…both of them. And both his granddaughters. He'll be proud of you, sure he will.’
     ‘I'd like to think so, Kathryn, for I gave him grief in my early years. He was a forgiving man for all his straightforwardness. I'd like to think our little Francis here will grow up to be like him.’
     ‘We'll call him Frank then, so we will.’
     ‘Perhaps when he's older, eh?  It doesn't seem to suit a tiny thing like he is now.’
     Their reverie was disrupted by the chatter of small voices as James scuttled through the front door, his eighteen-month-old sister tottering behind him.
     ‘Horsies coming, Pa.
     Hamlet laid Elizabeth down in the small cot by the bed and tousled his young son's thick brown hair. ‘Can't imagine who that'd be.’ He strode into the parlour, the two children scampering after him. 
     Kathryn smiled as she watched through the open bedroom door. James was almost three now and adored his father. She hoped he wouldn't be jealous of his new little brother. She chided herself for the thought, for Hamlet had more than enough love to satisfy his sons and his daughters, no matter how many. She flushed as she thought how often her husband made her feel she was royalty itself. They had not long returned from church that morning and so many people had commented on their beautiful new babies and their apparent happiness. She was still smiling to herself when Hamlet stuck his head in the door.
     ‘We have visitors. A man and his wife, it seems, and a little girl, and it seems they’re lifting a baby from the back. Perhaps you'd best come and see. The woman has a great shock of red hair. It might be – ’
     ‘It'll be Norah, surely it will.’ Kathryn laid Francis carefully beside his sister and hurried to the door. Her excitement grew as she watched Norah take an infant from the man's arms and head up the path. ‘t is Norah. Oh, Hamlet, how wonderful.’
     ‘Have we something to feed them? It's almost lunchtime?’
     ‘I'll find something.’
     Kathryn ran to meet Norah, arms outstretched. The younger woman beamed as she went into Kathryn's embrace, baby Thomas engulfed between them. 

It was only later, as the four adults sat on the small porch watching the children play, that Kathryn realised how quiet Hamlet had been for much of the visit. It seemed Michael had done most of the talking, waxing lyrical about the political situation in Sydney, the inequality of Irish and English families, the lavish buildings which were being erected in the city as monuments to the English government to the detriment of hard working citizens who were suffering miseries beyond mentioning. 
     ‘And what kind of work do you do, Michael?’ Hamlet ventured at one point. ‘I hear it's difficult to find work in the city.’
     ‘It is, to be sure, but we manage. I do a bit of this and that, whatever I can pick up.’
Michael chuckled as he spoke and Norah hung her head, as if embarrassed by her husband’s bragging.
     Kathryn changed the subject, commenting on the delightful antics of the children.
     ‘Rebecca's quite the little beauty, sure she is, Norah. Those dark curls and big green eyes! She'll need to be guarded when she grows up, sure she will.’
     ‘Yes, she will,’ Norah agreed, shaking her head. ‘She does now, for she's very strong willed and too old in the head for her own good, I'm sure. Three and a half, going on ten, so she is.’
     ‘Tosh, me luv,’ Michael cut in. ‘Sure, doesn't she need to 'ave her wits about 'er in the city?’
     ‘Yes, tis different here in the country,’ Kathryn continued. ‘Wonderful fresh air and plenty of room to run and play. I imagine it's still very cramped in Sydney. I can't tell you how much healthier I feel up here.’ She looked at Michael. ‘Would you consider coming out to the farmlands? Tis such a grand place to raise children. And there are opportunities to work around here, sure there are. Many of the farmers are doing well enough to need farm hands.’
     ‘Not for me, missus. No, I'm a city man, always 'ave been. I'd not know me way roun' the country, not on a farm, anyways. I saw a few big 'ouses on the way up, though.  Looks like some are doin' well for 'emselves…got people like you to do the 'ard work, while they pull in the rewards, eh?’
     ‘The owners work hard too,’ Hamlet said quietly. ‘It's not an easy life here but it's a good one, an honest one. One day Kathryn and I hope to have a place of our own that we can pass onto our children.’
     ‘Admirable, sure it is, a true Englishman's dream.’ Michael's voice was lightly mocking. He jiggled young Thomas on his knee. ‘We'll 'ave to see what the future 'olds for this wee one, won't we, Norah, me luv? We'll not be turnin' 'im into an Englishman though, eh?’
     Kathryn caught Hamlet's eye, warning him against any comment he might be going to make for she could see that Michael had made an impression on her husband and it was not a positive one.
     ‘We should think about getting back home soon.’ Norah stood and brushed down her skirt nervously. ‘It's been wonderful to see you, Kathryn, and to be here…tis lovely, sure it is. We don't get out in the sunshine much. Home is, well, tis a way to the seashore and I've no means to get there…except to walk…and with Thomas it's hard to…’ She followed Hamlet’s eyes as they glanced at the cart. ‘Oh, we don't usually have the cart.  Michael… borrowed it to come today.’
     Norah fidgeted as she spoke and Kathryn wondered what her friend's life was really like. ‘I'd love to come again some time…if we can. Thank you for lunch. Michael, if you'll just give me Thomas, I'll feed him before we go…if that's all right, Kathryn?’
     ‘Of course it is, Norah. You make yourself comfortable in the parlour. We'll watch Rebecca and our two here for a bit. Our babies are asleep in the bedroom. Don't mind them. They sleep like tops, sure they do. I'll make a cup of tea before you leave. You don't want to be heading off hungry for it'll be well and truly dark when you get back.’
     ‘Sure will, missus, an' thanks a lot. It's been a real pleasure.’ Michael stood and followed Norah inside, nodding politely at Kathryn.

‘He's a rogue.’ Hamlet said as soon as the visitors had left. ‘I'd be worried what will become of that girl if I were you.’
     ‘I was worried about her, Hamlet. She looked so thin and pale, not at all bonny and bright like she used to be. But we mustn't be too hard. Perhaps he tries harder than it seems. She does appear to love him and he's very caring of the children.’
     ‘You can see the good all you want, Kathryn, but I saw plenty like him when I was young. I tell you he's nothing but a thief. He's been on the streets all his life, taking whatever he can and he's not likely to change now. For God's sake, the man would be close to forty and he's not the slightest bit interested in being responsible. Why, he's not even clean. I swear I can still smell him. He'll be in the pub the minute they get home, …if he's not caught for stealing that horse and cart. Borrowed it, my foot. A man like Michael Kearns doesn't borrow anything. He just takes it, and laughs at the idea that anything he does might be wrong. He's bad, Kathryn, bad through. I feel sorry for that girl and for her children. They'll have a hell of life, you mark my words.’
     ‘Not that we're likely to see them again in hurry, I'm thinking.’ Kathryn sighed. ‘I'm sure Norah was embarrassed about him. She had such high hopes, Hamlet. She believed that she was coming to a better life. I wish there was something we could do. She was so good to me – ’
     ‘There's nothing anyone can do while she's with that man, Kathryn. Believe me, she'd be best rid of him.’
     ‘Now, that's not likely, is it?  How would a woman survive on her own, tell me that?  And her with two little ones already.’
     ‘And that little Rebecca's already running her a merry dance. Taking after her father, if you ask me.’

It was the following day before Hamlet realised the full truth of his fears about Michael Kearns.
     He found Kathryn in the parlour feeding the twins. He could barely breath for the constriction in his chest.  
     ‘Hamlet, what is it?’ Kathryn looked up and her eyes flew open at the sight of him.
     ‘He's taken our savings,’ he muttered, still hardly able to speak.
     ‘What? Hamlet, what are you saying? Who…oh, no, no. It couldn't be…you mean Michael, don't you? But he couldn't have. Are you sure?’
     ‘It's gone, Kathryn. Every penny. The box is gone.’
     ‘But it was under our bed. How could he know it was there? Why would he have gone into our room? Perhaps someone went through the house while we were at church yesterday. Maybe – ’
     ‘It was him, Kathryn. I checked the box yesterday before we went to church. I took a shilling to put in the collection and I put the box under the mattress like I always do when we're out. Nothing else has been touched. He'd know exactly where to look. It's what he does, Kathryn. He came in with Norah when she fed the baby. He was minutes inside without us. It's all he needed. He's taken our life savings, he has. All I saved since I got my….oh, dear God, my Ticket of Leave, that was in there as well, along with your Certificate of Freedom.’ Hamlet slumped into a chair and dropped his head into his hands.
     ‘But surely we'd have seen – ’
     ‘He had that long coat on. Never took it off, did he? Despite the heat. It's where he hides his takings. I've seen the likes of it before in the city streets.’
     ‘Dear God, help us,’ Kathryn cried. ‘I don't even know where they live, sure I don't. I send my letters to the post office and Norah’s never mentioned what street they're in.’
     ‘It would do no good.’ Hamlet leaned back, rubbing his face. ‘It would be my word against his and he'd never admit what he's done. He's a scoundrel. Stealing from his wife's friend! He has no scruples at all.’
     ‘Hamlet, I'm so sorry. I wish I'd not invited them here, sure I do.’ Kathryn wiped tears from her eyes. ‘I'll put these two down and then I'll make us a cup of tea. I can't think straight, sure I can't.’
     Hamlet sat, stone like, on the couch, his mind racing, oblivious to the giggling of James and Mary Ann in the corner of the room. A few moments later, he became aware of Kathryn sinking slowly onto the couch beside him. Her face was creased in shock.  He reached for her hand.
     ‘I'll think of something.’ He tried to soothe her. ‘I don't want you to be fretting.’
     ‘Tis worse, Hamlet,’ she whispered.
     ‘Worse?’ He watched her struggle to speak.
     ‘The brooch…your mother's brooch. It's gone too.’
     ‘What?’ Hamlet's voice was so sharp that James and Mary Ann were frightened into silence.
     ‘I wore it to church yesterday.’ Kathryn spoke almost in a whisper. ‘I took it off when I got home and put in on the table beside the bed. Tis where I always put it. Oh, Hamlet...' She burst into tears. 
     Hamlet felt his face turn red and his eyes bulge. He wrung his hands together in his lap. There was a scream of anger and pain in his throat but he held it back, fearful of what it might turn into if released. 
     ‘Then I have to go after him,’ he said quietly after a long moment in which he struggled to gain control. ‘The post office may have some listing of addresses. Or I'll find him in one of the pubs. I'm sure it's where he spends most of his time…when he's not thieving.’
     There was a long silence as Kathryn struggled to speak. ‘Hamlet, you can't. Sure, it would be your word against his, as you said, and what if there was a scuffle? What if he has others on his side? You could end up in trouble and you can't… you've your Ticket of Leave to consider. Any trouble and you could end up back in chains. I couldn't bear it, sure I couldn't.’
     Hamlet put his arm around her and drew her close to him. He hugged her softly but his heart had turned cold and hard. ‘I'll be careful, luv, but I must try.’ He swallowed the bile that had risen in his throat. ‘I'll go in the morning. I'll explain to George. He'll give me the day off. I'll go early and be back by nightfall. I'll not get into trouble…I promise.’ 

It was the longest day Kathryn could ever remember. She saw Hamlet off before dawn and busied herself with the children. In between, she scrubbed the floors and the stove and cooked enough stew for the whole week. Her hands were red and chaffed by the time she heard Hamlet's horse pulling up outside that evening. The children were all asleep. She made herself stay seated on the couch, waiting for him to come to her, praying that he would be unhurt, that his face would reflect good news. 
     When he came through the front door, she waited for him to speak but she knew already that his heart was broken. 
     ‘He laughed at me.’ Hamlet's voice crackled. ‘I found him in the pub. Not even midday and he was there…bragging. He could be heard all over the room. When I confronted him he laughed…said I was sorely mistaken…that I'd come all that way for nothing. When I got angry, he just stood his ground like a little fighting cock…said I had no proof…that I ought to be ashamed to accuse a man of such a thing in his wife's friend's home.’
     Kathryn’s eyes filled with tears and she reached for his hand.
     ‘Everyone heard. There was silence in the whole place. I swear they were waiting to see a fight break out. Just a bit of entertainment, we were. If I'd thought it would do any good I'd have taken him apart with my bare hands. I wanted to rip that coat right off him, but he'd have stashed our money and the brooch somewhere else. I knew it would do no good. I was a fool to think differently.' Hamlet's weary face fell into his hands.  He pushed his fingers roughly through his hair before he spoke again. 
     ‘I went to the police. They weren't even surprised, said they'd known about him for years but could never catch him with anything on his person. He's like a shadow, they said, just disappears into alleyways and doorways like a rat in a hole in the wall. They knew where he lived but said there was no point. They’d find nothing there, and if I didn't have any proof then there was nothing they could do. There are dozens like him in the city, they said – a scourge – but they'd not the manpower nor the wits to catch them with anything.’
     ‘Hamlet, I'm so sorry. And Norah?’
     ‘I didn't see her. She'd know little of what he gets up to, I’d guess. Probably doesn't want to know. There'd be no point in going to her. She'd not be able to do a thing about him.’
     ‘I'm afraid for her, sure I am, but what about the brooch, Hamlet? I can't bear to think what he'll do – ’
     ‘Sell it, most likely. Perhaps he has already, and probably drunk the money away.  That's the sadness of it. His wife and children will see little for it.’ He dropped back in the couch, closing his eyes, weary to the bone, beaten and sad. 
     Kathryn laid her head against his shoulder, words failing her. They sat for a long time, holding hands in silent grief before Hamlet spoke.
     ‘We'll start again. It'll take longer now, our dream, but my job here is secure and we'll save again. I just pray I never lay eyes on that man again, for I couldn't say what I'd do to him…and I don't want anything to spoil our life together.’ He rose and walked toward the bedroom, his gait resigned.  

February's scorching heat persisted and accounted for some of the listlessness which Kathryn and Hamlet felt as they dragged themselves through the next week. 
     ‘We mustn't let this get us down, Hamlet. We must pull ourselves out of the doldrums. I've tried to console myself thinking that he might have at least bought Norah a horse and cart so she could get out with the little ones.’
     ‘Unlikely.’ Hamlet shook his head, his face twisting. ‘He'll not have bought a thing that would take away the need to steal, you mark my words. Maybe a piece of sausage or a pie for their dinner but nothing sensible, nothing that would change his lifestyle. It's a disease, that kind of stealing, believe me. I saw enough of it when I was on the streets.  They steal because they love it. It's a way of lashing out at the world, making a mark.  He'll have shouted others at the pub to drinks and whittled the rest of the money away on bits and pieces. No, nothing will change for Norah.’ Hamlet sighed and pushed himself away from the table. 
     ‘It's so unfair.’ Kathryn looked down at the baby on her knee. ‘Even little Francis is getting grumpy. He's been such a happy baby. I think he's catching our mood, sure I do.’
     ‘I'm trying not to think about it too much, Kathryn. The money's one thing, but the brooch…it's too hard to bear. I hate to think of Mother's face…goodness knows where..." A tear welled in the corner of his eye and Kathryn reached for him. He held up his hand, determined not to buckle with the pain of it. ‘It's the heat too. I don't think a person ever gets used to these temperatures.’
     ‘I know. Francis is very hot as well. I can't keep him cool at all. I'm beginning to wonder if he has a fever.’
     ‘Well, let's get him to the doctor quickly.’ Hamlet put his hand to the forehead of the baby. ‘We’ll take him right away.’

‘It could be the fever, I'm afraid,’ the doctor confirmed that afternoon. ‘Hopefully not, but I don't like the look of these spots on his chest,’ he murmured, leaning close to the baby's body.
     ‘Spots?’ Kathryn questioned. ‘I've not noticed…oh, yes, I see. What does that mean, doctor?’
     ‘I don't want to alarm you but there's a nasty fever about…colonial fever, they call it.  Mostly in the city, though. Some say it comes from the rats that are prevalent there. We don’t have them so much out here and I'm sure there's none in your place. I've seen how clean you keep it. No one's really sure but it seems to spread quickly in the most squalid parts of the city. You haven't been in contact with anyone from there lately, have you?’ 
     The doctor continued his examination of the baby, seemingly unaware of the deathly silence that had fallen between Kathryn and Hamlet. When he looked up, he was surprised by the expressions on their faces.
     ‘I had to go to the city three days ago,’ Hamlet mumbled.
     ‘A bit too soon for the fever to have taken hold,’ the doctor reassured.
     ‘We had visitors from the city a week ago,’ Kathryn added, her face creasing. ‘But they weren't sick. All quite well, weren't they, Hamlet?’
     ‘It doesn't seem to work like that, I'm afraid,’ the doctor continued. ‘Some seem to carry the fever but not have it themselves. It can take one or two in a family and leave the rest untouched. They're a mystery, these fevers, a dangerous mystery.’ He shook his head and his face crinkled with worry lines. ‘You need to keep the baby away from the other children, though, especially little Elizabeth for she'll be very vulnerable. Do what you can to keep the fever down…and pray. I'm sorry, but there's nothing else we can do.’

For three days, Kathryn hardly left the baby's side, cooling his fever, changing his clothes after each episode of the increasing diarrhea that ravaged his tiny body. She spoke very little, touching Hamlet's hand softly when he came frequently to the small back room into which she and the baby had moved. He would search woodenly for any signs of change, and seeing none, would silently hug her shoulders. Then she would wash her hands as thoroughly as she could and go to baby Elizabeth in the next room to feed her.
     She checked as often as she could on James and Mary Ann who were more and more distressed by the silent heaviness in their previously bright and happy home. After trying to reassure them Kathryn she would return to her baby boy's side and prayerfully tend to him.
     On the fourth day they awoke from snatches of sleep to find that little Elizabeth's temperature had soared. Hamlet laid her on Kathryn's lap and quietly left the house. She could hear his screams of pain and rage from deep in the back paddock.
     Late that night she waited in the darkness for him to come to her as she sat by the cot,  the still body of his son lying limply in her arms. 

They buried Francis and Elizabeth in a tiny plot under their favourite tree in the corner of their yard. Hamlet made two small crosses and carved his babies' names into the wood. He and Kathryn sat for a long time together after friends had moved away from the small group who had gathered to say goodbye to the tiny children. They hugged each other fervently, both shedding a river of tears.
     ‘This should never have happened, Kathryn. Our babies should never have been exposed to the filth that man brought into our lives. He has stolen not only our money and my mother's keepsake, but our children.’ Hamlet's tone was dull and lifeless.     
     Kathryn knew behind the words was a deep rage, and it terrified her.

‘Little Francis and Elizabeth are safe in heaven with their grandpas and grandmas now,’ Kathryn tearfully told James, desperately trying to give the three-year-old some comfort and an explanation as to why his world had collapsed around him. 
     ‘This is how we must think of it, sure we must.’ She turned to Hamlet, who'd hardly said a word for days. ‘Or there'll be no peace for us. Please, Hamlet, we must try.’  
      Kathryn leant into her husband, her arms gripping his strong chest. She let her tears roll down her face for a long time, then determinedly pulled herself upright. ‘We must not allow this to destroy our lives. We have James and Mary Ann to think of.’
     ‘I swear to you, Kathryn, I'll keep you and these little ones safe from here on in. Whatever it takes, I will do it.’
     ‘I know you will…as much as is possible. But some things are out of our control.  We must trust that God will see us through this.’
     Hamlet nodded as they rose but Kathryn was not sure he heard anything but his own promise to her and she knew in her heart that he could not keep such a promise.

In the Autumn of 1849, John Francis Pollard was born, bursting into the world after a short, untroubled birth. From his first crooked grin he began to help Kathryn and Hamlet slowly rediscover their own capacity to smile and their belief that there was a future to look forward to. 

                                                        To be continued.....

Carol Preston can be found at                                                                                      

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