It takes a lot of emotional
and psychological energy to keep a wound
open, to keep a grudge alive. The longer
I allow a wound to fester, the more
bitterness, anger and self pity poison my
blood and eat at my heart. Albert Haase
Wiseman's Creek, March, 1854.
‘Have you told Pa about the dance, Ma?’ Rebecca spoke with her mouth full of cabbage soup. She leaned across the table and dropped her chin into her hands as she swallowed, as if to keep her question between her mother and herself.
‘Not yet, sweet.’ Norah answered quietly and immediately realised that the endearment she had used hardly suited her daughter. Not that the ten-year-old couldn't turn on sweetness when she wanted something, but for the most part Rebecca was a surly child. She had grown more demanding over the past few years, more ready to screech if she didn't get her way and she was capable of creating a tension in the hut that Norah found difficult to deal with. She was still able to toss her black unruly curls into a pretty frame around her face and have her father eating out of her hand. Norah was surprised that she hadn't already wooed Michael into the idea of the local dance.
‘Why don't you tell him about it yourself?’
Rebecca took a deep breath and sat up, seeming to prepare herself before she spoke. Norah was somewhat bemused by how important this dance seemed to be to Rebecca. Again, it seemed out of character for her daughter to be so interested in a social event.
‘Pa?’ Rebecca ventured, her voice syrupy. ‘We're to go to a dance at the Quinns, over at Browns Creek at the end of the week. You will take us, won't you?’
‘What's this, me luv? I never 'eard of any dance at Quinns.’ Michael was only partly paying attention, apparently deep in thought about something else.
Rebecca looked beseechingly at her mother.
Norah smiled and nodded. ‘It seems they've got a huge barn and they've asked all the local families to join them for a dance on Saturday night. The women are cooking some sweets for supper, scones and such, and there are some locals who play fiddles, so…well, I think this is the Quinns' way of helping the locals to get to know each other better. The children are looking forward to it – ’
‘An' when were you goin' to tell me about it then?’ Michael's face turned sour.
‘Tonight, actually,’ Norah continued. ‘I'd almost forgotten about it until Tom read the notice they posted in the general store in O'Connell. Kathryn mentioned it a week ago and suggested we go.’
‘Kathryn…Kathryn. Does that woman 'ave a say about everythin' then?’ he growled.
‘Michael, she's my friend and we talk about things together. She just thought it would be nice.’
‘I'm sick of 'earin' her name. She 'as too much to say about everythin' if you ask me.’
‘Well, I'm not asking you. Now, what do you think about the dance? Sure, it'll do us all good to have a bit of fun, won't it?’
Michael’s eyes glazed over and Norah realised they had lost him to his own thought.
Michael was wondering if there might be a good drop of good liquor available at this party. He was reminded of the dances on the gold fields with the pretty young singers and actresses who came from town to entertain. They were a sight to see and were available for more than a song for the men who were interested. Not that he cared for that sort of thing. It was after the dancing when he found better ways to amuse himself, when men with a belly full of grog had showered the entertainers with small nuggets, many of which ended up in corners of the dance hall. He had made quite a killing from those nights. He amused himself even now with the memory of it, until something his wife had said suddenly came into focus.
‘Since when can Tom read?’ He snapped to attention and turned to glare at his son, who sunk into his seat.
‘Since I've been teaching him.’ Norah smiled proudly at Tom. ‘He's a natural, too, sure he is. Picks things up really quick.’
Michael slapped his spoon onto the table. ‘Well, he can put it down right quick, too, for I'll not 'ave no son o' mine tryin' to be a toff. Bad enough he's a mamma's boy, without turnin' 'im into some smart assed toff.’
‘That's ridiculous, Michael,’ Norah said firmly. ‘
won't turn him into anything but an educated man and that's no burden for anyone. I'm grateful my Mam taught me to read. She and Aunt Agnes both knew what was going on in the world. It's a good thing, Michael, and you'll not be denying Tom the privilege. It'll stand him in good stead when he's looking for work in a few years, so it will.’ Reading
Michael was incensed. ‘Lookin' for work! An' what work do you think an Irish Catholic boy is likely to get in this God forsaken place? You dream big, girl, but tell me what readin' ever did to get you anywhere but to a colony of thieves an' toffy Brits?’
‘If all I can use it for is to teach my children to read then it will be well worth while. I'll not have them without the opportunities that a bit of education can bring them. Would you prefer your son to follow in your footsteps? Finding his living in the pockets and under the beds of others? Not if I can help it, sure enough.’
Norah stood abruptly and gathered up the empty plates, patting Tom on the head as she passed him. ‘Right now Tom wants to be a farmer, don't you, son? And knowing how to read the prices of stock and equipment, how farmers are best managing the land…all the information that the educated take for granted…all that will be to his advantage, sure it will.’
‘She dropped the plates into a bowl of water loudly, then spun around to face the table again. ‘And if, in time he wants to do something else with his life, then he'll have the knowledge to do that, too. He'll not be deprived of it, Michael Kearns, and if you were as clever as you think you are, you'd be proud of him, so you would.’
‘I read about the bushrangers,
’ Tom spoke quietly. ‘In the Pa. Times. It tells about where they've been and what they're up to. It could help you find them, you know, to get the reward,’ he said, looking at Michael hopefully. Bathurst
Times, eh?’ Michael sneered, not at all impressed by his son’s pursuit of education. ‘Already sounds like a bloody toff. And 'ow do you come by the Bathurst Times, then?’ Bathurst
‘Mrs Pollard gives it to me…when she and Mr Pollard are through with it.’
‘Mrs bloody Pollard again.’ Michael stood and thumped his fist onto the table, causing Tom to jump in his seat and nearly topple off the back of it. ‘An' what about you, miss?’ He whirled around and loomed over Rebecca who was seated beside him. ‘Are you into this readin' as well, then? Is everyone in this family sneakin' around behind me back.’
’ Rebecca shrugged her shoulders. ‘I've no interest in readin'. Can't see the point.’ Pa.
‘Well at least someone 'as some sense, it seems. The Bathurst Times is good for lightin' the fire, if you ask me, an' that's what it'll be used for if I see one 'ere.’ He stormed out of the hut and slammed the door.
‘Now, look what you did, Tom.’ Rebecca snarled. ‘Now he's not likely to take us to the dance, is he? Stupid newspapers an' readin'. I hate you, so I do.’ She flung her arms in the air and started after her father.
‘Don't worry, Rebecca,’ Norah managed before she got to the back door. ‘We'll be going to the dance, for I'm well able to drive the cart. It's not as if I don't have to manage without your father for most of the time.’
Rebecca had slammed the door and launched herself into the night before the last of Norah's words were out. She sighed deeply, shook her head at Tom, and turned to the corner of the room where Mary lay whimpering.
‘There, there, my wee pet,’ she soothed. ‘Your Pa and your sister do get themselves in a tizz, sure they do, but you're quite safe.’ She picked up the infant and rocked her gently until the whimpering stopped.
‘I wish he'd go away again, Ma. He's mean, and I don't believe he's a policeman at all.’ Tom’s eyes filled and he shook his head sadly.
‘He tries, Tom. Really he does, but he's had a hard life and he doesn't know how to be different. We must be patient with him, sure we must.’ Norah sighed and wished that she felt as benevolent as she sounded.
By the time Saturday came, Michael had forgotten his harsh words and got the cart ready to take the family to the dance, as if it had all been his own idea. The Quinns were a large family with a sprawling homestead. Norah guessed that their own little hut could have fitted ten times into the barn, which was decked out with bales of hay around the edges for seating and a long table with enough drinks and eats to feed an army. She laid her small plate of damper and jam at one end and herded the children to a hay bale, watching out for Kathryn and Hamlet. Michael wandered into a group of men, apparently feeling quite at home and soon Norah could hear his loud laugh. She prayed he wasn't telling them stories that would cause their neighbours to think too poorly of them. She wished that she was hearing him share farming stories with the other men but she had given up that dream. She would have to accept him as he was and pray that God would help her to raise her family without disgrace.
Kathryn and Hamlet arrived soon after and Norah waved to them, indicating that she had saved a seat. Kathryn was largely pregnant and walked awkwardly. She would certainly not be dancing tonight, Norah thought, as the families greeted each other. The children were soon jumping about to the music of the two fiddlers who stood at one end of the barn, calling for everyone to kick up their feet and enjoy themselves. Norah was pleased to see Rebecca skipping amongst the dancers happily. She couldn't remember seeing her daughter in such a light mood.
‘Oh, Kathryn, tis good to see the children having such fun. Music is good for the soul, so it is. But you must be careful not to be jiggling your wee one around too much. Your feet haven't stopped bobbing up and down since you came in, sure they haven't.’
‘It'll do us all good to enjoy ourselves, for there's not much time for anything but work, is there?’ Kathryn grinned. ‘Not that I'm complaining. Hamlet and I do love it. It's very satisfying to see things growing and to be eating our own vegetables and fruit. I brought some fruit pies tonight. I've such a lot of peaches and plums. How's your garden going?’
‘As well as can be expected, I think, for we've only a few trees and they're still young. We had to start from scratch with them but we're learning, sure we are. The children are a great help…well Tom is, at least. He's keen to learn. Rebecca is...’ She paused and looked around. ‘I've lost track of Rebecca, actually. She was just there with James and Johnny and Mary Ann but they've all disappeared. I best go and see what they're up to.’
Norah made her way across the barn to where the children had been dancing in a circle a few minutes before. When she couldn't see them anywhere inside, she headed for the large doors and walked slowly outside, listening for their voices. All was quiet and she was just about to go back inside when she heard a soft giggle. She followed the sound until she saw the backs of the four youngsters crowded around the corner of the barn, their heads popping back and forth as they snuck peeks at something that was obviously amusing them behind the back wall.
She approached quietly, wondering what could have them so intrigued. As she came closer, she could hear the soft moans and grunts of a man and woman and immediately realised what the children were watching and giggling about.
‘Rebecca,’ she hissed. Four faces turned suddenly towards her. ‘Whatever's going on behind there is none of your business, sure it's not. Now get yourselves inside this instant or the party will be over for the lot of you.’
James, Mary Ann and Johnny looked at each other in dismay and rushed towards the doors of the barn, anxious to escape Norah's stern gaze. Rebecca's shoulders went back, her chin jutted out and she began to walk slowly and defiantly in front of her mother. Norah grabbed her by the shoulder when they were close to the door and turned her about.
‘You're the eldest, Rebecca. You should be setting a good example for your friends. Whatever are you thinking? There's plenty of enjoyment to be had inside, surely.’ She couldn't hide her disappointment in her daughter.
‘I'm hurtin' no one, Ma. We was just lookin', an' isn't it only what the animals do? People are just funny about it, is all…all that gruntin' and sighin'. James says he's not heard his parents but I've heard you and Pa – ’
‘That's enough.’ Norah cut her off. ‘You get yourself inside now and we'll talk about this later. And you're not to be talking to James about such things at all. He's just a boy and tis not up to you to educate him about the ways of men and women. Now move.’
‘I thought you was all for education, Ma. Isn't that what you said to Pa about Tom's readin'?’ With that Rebecca ducked through the door and headed for a group of young people, leaving Norah all but spluttering as she walked slowly back to where Kathryn was seated.
‘Are they all right, Norah?’
‘Well, they're safe enough…but I'm not sure what we'll be facing with them in the future, sure I'm not. God help us.’
‘They're bound to go a bit wild when they get out like this.’ Kathryn patted Norah's knee as she handed the still sleeping Mary back to her mother. ‘Look over there.’ She nodded and smiled. ‘I wonder what the future might be for those two?’
Norah cast her eyes in the direction of Kathryn's gaze and saw Tom with young
amongst the dancers on the floor. Tom had hold of the two-and-a-half year old's hands and was spinning her around, whooping to the beat of the music. Both were giggling loudly and it was clear by Elizabeth 's trust in the older boy and the glee on her face, that she adored Tom. Elizabeth
‘He's only seven, Kathryn. It's a bit soon to be anticipating anything there, don't you think?’ Norah laughed lightly.
‘Perhaps, but tis very sweet. He's a good boy, is your Tom. He'll grow up to be a fine man. I can see that already. And a smart one, too. Any mother would be proud to have him interested in her daughter.’
They both chuckled, enjoying the innocent play of their children. Norah relaxed and hugged Mary to her breast. She determined to keep looking on the bright side of her life. Michael was a trial, to be sure, and so was Rebecca but she had her dear friend, Kathryn, to help her through the tough times and she did have high hopes for Tom. And now there was Mary, and perhaps more children to come. In time, she was sure they could make a good life on their small farm. She would never have anything like the Quinn's place, for it was grand indeed, but she was grateful to be able to come to such a place occasionally and enjoy it with her friends. She hoped Michael didn't do anything to change that.
‘Did you enjoy yourself tonight?’ Norah asked him tentatively, as they rode home. ‘You seem distracted.’
‘Just summin' it all up, me luv. There were some interestin' people there tonight, so there was…a bit unexpected, really.’
‘Oh, in what way unexpected?’
‘Quite a few Irish for a start.’
‘Well the Quinns came from
so that's hardly surprising really.’ Ireland
‘Yeah, but the Quinns came free. He's a big landowner, so 'e is. Some of the others 'ave a more colourful 'istory, shall we say? Take ol' Pat Hanrahan. Nearly seventy now, I'd wager. You know 'e was on the convict gang that built the road over the mountain. An' in an' out of jail a few times since. Hardly the most upright citizen.’ Michael laughed softly and cast a quick glance at their sleeping children in the back of the cart.
‘Sure there's many who've come out here as convicts,’ Norah said, ‘but we're all trying to put that behind us now, and make a new life. You don't want to be raising such things with the men.’
‘No, well what about the Foleys then? Old
was sent out for stealin' a cow an' you mark my words, some o' 'is boys are going to make 'is crime look like child's play, sure they are. I've seen young John at it already…rides with some nasty types…bushrangers. An' John won't be the only one.’ Michael seemed to find his news amusing. Lawrence
‘That's enough, Michael. These are people we want to befriend…not gossip about.’
‘An' Paddy Foran, ‘e was there too.’ Michael ignored Norah's plea. ‘He was sent out for 'ighway robbery…a life sentence, so I 'eard. I was talkin' to 'is son, Joe, an' 'e'll be up to 'is ears in trouble as well. Not to mention Mickey Kitt…oh, there's a wild one, sure enough…an’ Danny Nightingale. Wouldn't be surprised if I'm to be arrestin' some of 'em one o' these days.’
Norah shuddered at Michael's devious chuckling. She was very afraid Michael would one day get himself into trouble that he couldn't escape from.
‘I noticed you stayed well away from Michael Kearns all night, Hamlet.’ Kathryn held her belly as they rattled over the rough track home.
‘For the most part,’ he answered somberly. ‘Though it didn't stop me hearing him blowing his horn with the other men. Anyone would think he was a hero. He made it sound like he'd personally captured half a dozen bushrangers, that the troupers depended on him to do their job. He's a fraud, Kathryn, and it's hard to listen to him without wanting to give him a good thrashing. I'd have stayed home if I'd known he was going.’
‘He did work for a while with the troupers, according to Norah. Perhaps he's at least trying to do the right thing? I'd like to think so, for her sake.’
‘If he was trying to do the right thing, he'd be paying back what he stole from us, wouldn't he? And I don't think she should believe a word he tells her. One of the other fellows has been out on the gold fields recently and he said there's been some terrible skirmishes with the Chinese. The miners get drinking and next thing they're storming into the Chinese settlement, driving them all out of their tents, chasing them into the bushes, where the poor sods end up murdered or hide in the cold, frightened for their lives till the troupers come in and find them. Trouble is the troupers are reluctant to go look for them, because they don't like the Chinese any more then the miners. So they leave them there until they're frozen or dead from the wounds the rioting miners inflict on them.’
‘That’s terrible, but what’s it got to do with Michael?’
‘Alex Woods said he saw a group of local policemen and some trackers come back to camp laughing with the miners who'd chased some Chinese off, calling them evil devils. And not only that, they knocked down their tents and took what they wanted from their supplies. Joe said tonight that he was sure Michael Kearns was amongst that group. Now that I can believe of him! He takes because he can…whatever chance he has. I wouldn't trust him as far as I could throw him. He wasn't there to socialise tonight, believe you me.’
Hamlet spoke softly, conscious that James, Mary Ann and Johnny were still awake in the back of the cart. Kathryn glanced behind her and saw them with their heads together, giggling.
‘They've had a good time tonight, dear, even if they did get a bit mischievous. I think they're telling their own stories.’
‘Well, I'm still not happy about them mixing with the
Kearns mob. That Rebecca is trouble, you mark my words.’
‘Hamlet, she's just a girl, and perhaps ours can have a good influence on her. Usually she doesn't mix with them at all. I was glad to see her being more friendly tonight. She's only ten. She'll grow up soon enough.’
‘I don't want Mary Ann influenced by her. I know you want to be friends with Norah and God knows she needs all the help she can get. But we must be careful because our trouble with Michael Kearns is not over.’
Kathryn could hear the tension in her husband's voice. ‘What do you mean, Hamlet? You’re frightening me.’
‘There was something else tonight. I didn't want to tell you but you should know.’
‘What? What happened?’
‘At one point I saw him go outside and I followed him. I found him leaning against the wall having a smoke. He'd obviously had a bit to drink. I was going to confront him about the past…about the brooch. I thought I might be able to at least find out what he did with it.’
‘Oh, Hamlet, you do torture yourself.’
‘I can't just forget about it, Kathryn. Not with him living so close, and seeing Norah all the time. It eats at me.’
‘I'm sorry. I don't want my friendship with Norah to cause you such pain. Did you find out anything? What did he say?’
‘I didn't even have to ask him. As soon as he saw me approaching he started to laugh…this hideous cackle. He's mad, Kathryn. There's no doubt of that. He asked me right off if I'd ever found that silly trinket I'd lost years ago. He said it with such malice, such…I don't know how to describe the evil I felt in him.’
‘What did you do?’ Kathryn moved closer and took his arm, trying to keep her husband calm.
‘I couldn't help myself. I grabbed him by the collar and rammed him against the wall. I felt I could kill him, Kathryn. I swear I might have if someone hadn't come out of the barn just at that moment.’
‘He just sneered at me as I backed off…and said something I'll never forget.’
Kathryn waited silently, aware that Hamlet was trying to control his emotions.
‘He said, “She's in the black hole where all mothers should be.” That's what he said…with such venom, Kathryn. It took all my strength to walk away. I know he's not worth getting hanged for but I'm not sure I could walk away from him again if I caught him alone.’
‘Dear God in heaven. We must guard against that, Hamlet.’ Kathryn was shaking. ‘So, do you think he still has the brooch?’ she whispered.
‘I think he knows where it is…yes.’
A deep fear for her husband clutched at Kathryn's heart. And not only fear for him, but for her dear friend as well.
On the first day of June, Hamlet sat proudly by his wife, flushed with joy and relief as she rested peacefully, a healthy baby girl snuggled under her arm.
‘You were very brave through it all…and now look at this beautiful daughter we have. Harriet Marie Pollard. I'm so proud.’
‘I'm very proud too," Kathryn sighed. And very glad that right now any thought of Michael Kearns is far from Hamlet's mind.
To be continued.....