Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Forgiving Michael Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Sixteen

Stoney Creek, June, 1862

Hamlet rose from the table as Norah entered the room. His face was dark with anger.  He barely nodded to Norah as he walked quickly towards the back door. 
     ‘Don't mind him,’ Kathryn said quietly. ‘He's had words with James. They'll work it out. Now, tell me about your trip to Bathurst and let me see this wee pet. How's he going?’
     Norah pulled back the rug from the tiny face of her baby son. ‘He's bonny…William George…two months old now and all registered. He's doing just fine. Oh, Kathryn, I still feel so badly for you, so I do…two more precious...’ Tears welled in Norah's eyes.  ‘Every time I think of it, I feel sick to my stomach. I was so frightened for you.’
     ‘I'm fine now, really I am,’ Kathryn said. ‘We're sad, but Hamlet and I are grateful. I saw the doctor again just a few days ago and he said it's a miracle I survived the pregnancy. If Hamlet hadn't got me into the hospital in Bathurst when he did, I'd probably not be here so we're thankful for that. He had warned us it was unlikely I'd be able to carry two babies to term and it was just way too early, so it was. Two little boys...’ Her eyes overflowed, tears glistening on her eyelashes and she sat for moments before she was able to speak again.
     ‘That's it for us now. The doctor said we must resign ourselves to no more. It would be too dangerous for me. Hamlet’s been very worried, but he's well into his fifties now and content to raise the ones we've got. And I'm over forty. I've not the strength I had when I was young. I count our blessings and I trust that God knows best. The little ones are with Him and I must be satisfied with that. Now, tell me about Bathurst.’
     ‘It was such a bustle,’ Norah started. ‘Lots of carriages, shops and pubs and people everywhere. So noisy, especially when the Cobb & Co coaches came in. Such a procession, it seemed like miles of them. With Bathurst being their headquarters now, the whole town turned out to give them a fanfare I'm sure. Some of the buildings are grand too. We saw St Michael and St John's Cathedral. It was just opened last year. They use the old church building for a school now. Imagine children being able to go to a real school. That would be so wonderful.’ She paused and looked down at baby William, wondering if her children would ever get to attend school. 
     ‘Some of the houses are very fancy,’ she continued. ‘Red brick and lots of wrought iron, all very lacy and pretty. Tis quite the city, so it is. But there's a stench there, Kathryn. Hard to describe, it is. A mixture of food smells along with horse droppings and smoke from the fires and the smell of so many people breathing whisky and sweating. Quite awful, really. I'm a country girl at heart now.’
     She sighed deeply and smiled at Kathryn. ‘I'd forgotten how bad it was living in Sydney, and they say it's gotten worse there. A cesspool, I heard one man say, with many of the buildings fit only to be burnt…not the grand ones, you know, but the houses around the Rocks area. They say there's so much fighting and debauchery going on that even the police are afraid to go in there alone. People being robbed all the time…and murdered. Tom read about that in the papers just recently. Surely it would be much the same in parts of Bathurst. There's so many making money from the gold fields. Tis just not safe. I love it out here in the quiet where we can grow our vegetables and fruit. But Michael…well, it's just not for him.’
     ‘He's not taken off again, has he?’ Kathryn looked annoyed.
     ‘He wants to move into Bathurst for good. He loves all that bustle and noise, the shops and of course, the pubs. He's got money. He exchanged a nugget, a pretty big one, it seemed to me. I think he's had it since he was away last. He waits, you know, before he gets them exchanged because…oh, Kathryn, some poor miner out there, struggling to live in the squalor of the gold field camps, and along comes Michael and...’ Norah hugged the baby to her breast and rocked, the tears flowing down her cheeks. 
     Kathryn reached out and patted her on the shoulder.
     ‘And then I feel bad,’ Norah continued, ‘for he bought me bolts of cloth to make new skirts and shirts for me and the children. He knows I struggle to keep us in things that are patched a dozen times. But I do hate to think where the money comes from.’
     ‘He's a rogue, to be sure, Norah. Some day he'll be caught, and who knows how bad that will be for you and the children. You won't move into town, will you?’
     ‘No.’ Norah shook her head, sniffing back tears. ‘I told him I'd not go. I don't know if God thinks I'm being disobedient but I just can't. I'd be so afraid.’ Her words faded as Hamlet returned to the room. 
     He took a deep breath and stood before Norah. Before he could speak Kathryn addressed him.
     ‘Norah's telling me that Michael wants to move into Bathurst but she doesn't want to go.’
     ‘I was just saying how afraid I'd be of what he might get up to if we lived there,’ Norah added.
     ‘Well there's no doubt what he'd be up to,’ Hamlet said. ‘Wandering the streets at night, looking for what he could lay his hands on, that's what he'd be up to. We all know it.’
     ‘Hamlet!’ Kathryn seemed shocked at his bluntness.
     ‘It's alright, Kathryn.’ Norah shook her head. ‘Tis true, sure enough. I've given up hoping Michael will change. I think he's damaged…in his mind. I've tried to understand and can only think that it's because he's had to fend for himself since he was a child. No one ever looked after him, or believed in him. I've tried to bring the best out in him all these years, but I've not been able to…not for more than a few months at a time. Do you think some people are damaged beyond repair?’
     ‘His past is no excuse for his present behaviour,’ Hamlet said firmly. ‘He's had years as a grown man to make different choices. Many of us had to do that.’
     ‘Well, Hamlet, remember you did have your mother who believed in you,’ Kathryn said tentatively. ‘Haven't you often said she was the reason you decided to change your life?’
     Hamlet's face went a darker shade at the mention of his mother.
     ‘And, I think the first person who really believed in me was Norah,’ Kathryn continued, reaching across the table to touch Norah’s arm.
     ‘Well, I've done no good for Michael, have I?’ Norah said sadly. ‘And I worry about the children. What if they're like him and I can do nothing to help them?’ Her eyes welled and she drew baby William close to her breast.
     ‘Now don't be thinking like that,’ Kathryn chided.   
     ‘I don't know which is worse even now,’ Norah said. ‘Him being here with the children, telling them stories that turn their heads, or being away for months at a time when I've no idea what he's up to.’
     ‘Whatever he's up to, tis certain that you're better here…and the children too.’ Kathryn was quick to answer. ‘Here's where you need to be, where you've friends to help you.’
     ‘I think so, too, sure I do. Do you think tis right for me to refuse him?’
     ‘He's not earned the right to have your compliance…nor respect,’ Hamlet interjected.
‘You should do what's right for you and your children…and speaking of the children, I feel I must say something to you. I'm sorry I ignored you when you arrived but I needed to think before I spoke.’
     ‘Hamlet.’ There was a caution in Kathryn’s tone.
      ‘What is it?’ Norah felt disturbed by his comment. ‘Were the children a problem while I was away? I was concerned leaving them with you, sure I was, what with Kathryn still not well, and –’
     ‘They were fine,’ Hamlet cut in. ‘For the most part. It's just Rebecca. We had an incident I think you should know about.’
     Kathryn squirmed in her seat and coughed. 
     ‘No, Kathryn,’ Hamlet persisted. ‘This is just the sort of thing that needs to be addressed early in the girl's life. And if we're to remain friends, then some things need to be said.’
     ‘I know Rebecca can be difficult.’ Norah sighed deeply. ‘Please tell me.’
     ‘I found her and James…in the bushes…carrying on.’ Hamlet lowered himself into a chair as he spoke.
     ‘Carrying on? What do you mean?’
     ‘They were, you know, half undressed and all over each other. I've had strong words to James. He's seventeen and I know what boys are like but he should have known better. It's not how I've taught him to be with girls. He says Rebecca was urging him on, flaunting herself and has been for some time now. I don't want to be hard on Rebecca but I believe him. I've seen her do as much, quite openly.’
     Hamlet took a breath and looked to Kathryn, whose eyes were lowered to her lap. He shook his head and continued.
     ‘The last time she came with us to the Quinns' dance, well, she was quite shameless, not with James but with other young boys, a couple of the Foley boys in particular. And that's a dangerous thing in itself. I've warned James but he says it got the better of him. Anyway, I don't want there to be any such goings on between them. She's eighteen, Norah. It's time she was doing something constructive with her life. She's going to end up in trouble, she is, and I don't want it to be with my son.’
     Norah listened, aghast. ‘I'm so sorry. I've tried to get Rebecca to take up some work.  Michael even pushed her into going to the Quinns and doing some domestic duties but she only lasted a week. They said she wasn't working out. Oh, dear, I feel I've failed her so. I've just not been able to help her be happy.’
     ‘It's not your fault, Norah,’ Hamlet assured her. ‘You've done your best, but she's part Michael, too, isn't she? And she is very like him, I hate to say. I'm not sure what you can do about it. I just wanted you to know what happened with James. I don't want them together again.’
     ‘I understand. Truly I do. I'm really sorry.’

‘He was happy enough about it at the time.’ Rebecca huffed at Norah when confronted with her behaviour. ‘I'm not interested in him anyway. It was just a lark. He's a baby.  I'm just bored, is all.’
     ‘Well, tis time you had useful things for your hands to do. We've found two domestic positions for you and you've not stuck at either of them. I've asked you over and over, Rebecca. Now I'm telling you. There'll be no more lazing about. You'll work here if nowhere else. God knows, I need the help. But we could use some extra money for food and clothes so you really must try and find a position.’
     ‘And who's going to employ me then? Everyone has a low opinion of me…and if not me, then Pa. The Quinns looked down on me like I was dirt under their feet. I'll not stand for that. And I'm not a slave to be bringin' money home for feedin' and clothin' all you. Let Tom do it. He's always been the good boy, hasn't he? Anyway, what clothes do we need? For we're always gettin' things given to us from people at church…and they just feel sorry for us…sorry for you for havin' a husband who doesn't provide. They all look down on us…everybody.’
     Rebecca ran from the hut, across the yard and into the scrub, ignoring Norah's calls to come back.
     Norah turned to Michael. ‘And what good were you to me, then, tell me that? You didn't open your mouth, not even to defend yourself, which surprises me. What are you going to do about that girl? She's your daughter in more ways than one. I don't know what else to do with her.’
     ‘Ah, she's a young woman, so she is.’ Michael sat back in his chair and grinned. ‘She needs to spread her wings, an’ find a good man. An' that won't 'appen 'ere, will it now?  She needs to be in town where there's young men around. Someone better for her than that upstart Pollard. I don't want her settlin' for someone like that. Not that she would, for she 'as better taste and as she said, it were just a lark. Let's not over react now. Best you reconsider my offer to look for somethin' in town. I've the money, you know. We could rent a little place and be real cosy. You think about it, eh?’
     Norah sat heavily onto a stool and put her head into her hands, shutting out a world that was out of control. ‘Show me what to do, God,’ she whispered to herself. ‘Please show me what to do.’

‘It all happened so quickly, Kathryn,’ Norah told her friend a month later. ‘I pray it lasts this time. But she was different about it. We were in Kelso doing some shopping and we tried the inn on the spur of the moment and it so happened that their room maid had just left, apparently got herself pregnant. Rebecca actually jumped at the chance. It's live in, which she's happy about. It's only a couple of miles out of Bathurst proper and there's a lot of people passing. New people, she says, more interesting than farmers. She'll be working hard, sure enough, for she's to change the beds and help in the laundry, washing the sheets, and then serve in the dining room in the evening. I pray she puts her mind to it.’
     ‘Well, this is her chance, isn't it?’ Kathryn nodded hopefully. ‘Let's hope she makes the most of it. We've just settled our Mary Ann at the Quinns in service. She's sixteen now and quite ready to be out of home. She'll make a few shilling for herself and get some good experience and she's very happy about it as well. She'll come home on Mondays for the day.’ Kathryn sighed and shook her head. ‘It seems like yesterday she was just a tiny baby but it's their time now, so it is.’
     ‘That's grand for Mary Ann and you know she'll be safe at the Quinns. Rebecca can come home once a fortnight on a Tuesday, but she didn't seem keen to do that. She thinks life will be more exciting there than here in the bush. So she’ll have to find out for herself that it's not going to be so easy. I'm praying God looks after her, Kathryn, for she'll meet all types in there.’
     ‘I know tis hard to let go but think of yourself at that age, Norah. You were travelling across the world and had to take care of yourself.’
     ‘Sure enough…and the choices I made were not always the best, were they now?’
     ‘Perhaps not but Rebecca must make her own choices and she must learn from them just as you've had to do. We must see this as an answer to prayer, sure we must.’

Tom opened one of the newspapers spread in front of him and cleared his throat. He had been preparing for this for three days. It was now April of 1863 and he had been following the stories of the explorers for the past couple of years, tearing out articles and saving them. He was so keen that his mother use them for her reading classes with the Pollard children, that she had given him the task of presenting the idea to the others.  She had agreed that it would be a great way for them to learn more about what was happening around the country as well as improving their reading skills.
     ‘This one here,’ he started, holding up the article, ‘is from December of 1860, and it tells of Robert Burke and his party setting out from Melbourne in August of that year, to explore all the way to the Gulf of Carpentaria, which is way up at the top of Australia.  There were fourteen men, twenty five camels, horses, and twenty ton of supplies and baggage. Fifteen thousand people cheered them off from Melbourne's Royal Park. The camels went in one line and the horses in another because the horses couldn't stand the smell of the camels. Burke rode in the middle, between the two lines.’
     ‘I'd love to be in an expedition like that,’ fourteen-year-old Johnny exclaimed, seemingly glad now that his mother had insisted he stay with the class today rather than going out with his father and James to move their sheep to another paddock. 
     Tom's young brothers, Joseph and Mickey, now six and five, were not yet interested in learning to read but also sat wide-eyed as Tom talked about the explorers. 
     Norah smiled proudly. ‘Right, Johnny,’ she said, handing him the page. ‘How about you read this article before we see what happened to the explorers.’
     ‘Now,’ Tom continued when Johnny had read all he could. ‘When they got to Cooper's Creek, in northern New South Wales, some of the men made camp to wait while Burke went on with three men; William John Wills, Charles Gray and John King.  The Victorian government wanted to know if there really was a great desert between the north of this state and the northern coast of the country, or perhaps great lakes, where cattle could be raised.’
     ‘So what did they find?’ Elizabeth's eyes glistened with admiration.
     ‘Here, Johnny, you read this,’ Tom invited.
     Johnny took the article and read loudly. ‘The journey to the Gulf took until February 11 – nearly two months.  The bright departure had become a scarcely endurable slog through desert country and arid scrub, punctuated by occasional waterholes and sparse pasture.  The last fifty mile dash for the Gulf had been through soft, sandy country and did not even offer the triumph of reaching the sea.  They noted only a tidal channel amid the mangrove swamps.’
     ‘So what happened to them when they got back to Cooper's Creek?’ Mary asked, clearly wanting to hear a happy ending to the story.
      Johnny began to read again. ‘Cooper's Creek, April 21. Robert O'Hara Burke, William John Wills and John King staggered into their base camp to find it had been abandoned that very morning.  After four months and five days of immense effort, of suffering from hunger, heat and exhaustion, they now had to continue their struggle for survival in the wilderness.’
     But that's only three men’, Mary interrupted. ‘What happened to the other man?’
     ‘Very good, Mary.’ Norah commended her daughter. ‘You're listening well.’
     ‘It seems that Charles Gray got so hungry on the way back that he took some food without sharing it with the others and Burke thrashed him,’ Tom said dramatically.  ‘They were all starving and they had to kill and eat one of their camels and then Burke's horse but Gray got so weak that he died and they buried him out there.’
     The girls gasped in horror but young Joseph and Mickey were completely captivated with the adventure of it.
     ‘But the others came home, didn't they?’ Harriet asked.
     ‘It seems they struck some very bad storms on the way back,’ Tom said patiently.    ‘And then very hot and humid weather so it was hard to walk in the bog and the heat and that's when their supplies started running out and they got so hungry. After Gray died they were still seventy miles from Cooper's Creek and it took all their strength to dig a grave and bury him. They only just made it back to Cooper's Creek and then found the rest of the party had already left. Fortunately they left quite a bit of food at the base camp so they were able to rest and eat.’
     ‘So they were able to come home then?’
     ‘No, Harriet, I'm afraid not. Not all of them. Only King survived.’
     ‘Could I read the next bit?’ Elizabeth smiled coyly at Tom.
     ‘Sure, you can,’ he answered. ‘It's about the rescue party that was sent out. It's pretty scary. Are you sure you want to?’
     In answer Elizabeth took the page he was holding and breathed deeply before she started. 
     Howitt's party discovered John King on September 15. A member of the party came across a group of Aborigines who scattered at his approach. Left behind, a solitary figure, apparently covered with some scarecrow rags, tottered, threw up his hands in the attitude of prayer and fell to the ground.  King led them to Will's shallow grave and Burke's partly eaten body, which they placed in a Union Jack and buried under a box tree.’
     ‘Did the Aborigines eat him?’ gasped Mickey.
     ‘No. Listen to what happened. Go on Elizabeth,’ Norah urged.
     After resting and eating for two days, Burke and his men had set out for home. All went well for a while, but one of their two remaining camels became bogged in quicksand, while the other died of exhaustion. They were befriended by a tribe of Aborigines, who traded fish, some fat rats and a kind of bread made from the seeds of the nardoo plant. They realised they would have to live like the Aborigines for a few months until help came or the season changed.  But the Aborigines disappeared and the three could not gather enough to eat. King was holding out the best but could no longer gather enough seeds for all three men. Burke decided that the only hope was to find the Aborigines. He and King left Wills and began to walk back along the creek but Burke collapsed on the second day and died the next morning. When King got back to Wills he too, was dead. But King finally found the tribe, who gave him plenty to eat and allowed him to live with them.’
     ‘You read that very well, Elizabeth,’ Kathryn said proudly.
     ‘But it's a very sad story, Ma.’
     ‘Yes, it is. The explorers have been very brave men and very determined.’
     ‘I can't imagine wanting to do anything that badly,’ Johnny admitted. ‘Not something so dangerous.’
     ‘We all have to decide what price we're prepared to pay to follow our dreams, son,’ his mother continued. ‘We have to be willing to sacrifice for what's important.’
     ‘I'm hungry.’ Mickey had been enthralled by the story but was less interested in the lesson.
     ‘Yes, I think it's time to finish up now,’ Norah agreed. You've all done very well and you've learned some important things. We can read some more next time.’
     ‘Perhaps we can read about Stuart's trip, Ma,’ Tom pleaded. ‘In December last year he was a hero in Adelaide. He was awarded a government prize of two thousand pounds for being the first person to cross Australia from south to north.’
     ‘Oh, yes,’ said Mary excitedly. ‘I'd like to read about that.’
     ‘And also about the funeral that was held for Burke and Wills in Melbourne in January. They were heroes and they'll be remembered forever for what they did.’ Tom was full of admiration for the explorers and loved to read about everything they’d achieved.
     ‘I'd rather do something grand but stay alive,’ retorted Johnny.
     ‘We would certainly all prefer that, son,’ his mother agreed, smiling.
     ‘And I'm going to die right now if I don't have something to eat,’Mickey whined.
     They all laughed but Tom was sure the thought of the explorers starving to death in the desert would be engraved on their minds for quite some time, and they’d all be ready to hear about another adventure at their next lesson.   

To be continued...

Carol Preston

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