Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Forgiving Michael Chapter Twenty-Four

Chapter Twenty-four

Wiseman's Creek, March, 1872

Tom and Elizabeth arrived home resolute. The thought of Tom going away from her, even for a few days, was distressing for Elizabeth but she accepted that he was determined to right the wrong his father had done to hers so many years before. Her heart lifted as they approached the gate of their home. Tom had planted honeysuckle against the eastern wall and it was now climbing over the verandah and still laden with sweet smelling blooms. There were native buttercups and daisies in the front yard and hydrangeas which had displayed a rainbow of colour all through the summer. Elizabeth sighed with delight. She was very proud of her husband, who constantly went out of his way to make life better for her. She hated seeing him worrying about this business of his father's ravings. But now they knew what it was about, she was sure that Tom would sort it out. 
     ‘Do you think your Ma knows about the safe deposit box?’ she said as they pulled up out front.
     ‘No. Ma never knew what Pa was up to. She didn't want to. It disturbed her too much. You saw how she was about me using the gold from Pa's coat. I doubt your mother has ever mentioned to her that Pa stole from them. I won't tell her what I'm going to do just yet. She'll only worry.’
     ‘I'm beginning to see just how much you are like your mother, Tom.’
     ‘You both want to make the world right for everyone.’
     ‘At least we can make it a little better, Lizzie. This brooch means a great deal to your father. And he wants to see you have it…and it would be for our Catherine later on.  That's worth trying to bring about, isn't it?’
     ‘I love you for that, Tom, but we don't know for sure if that's what's in the safe deposit box. Let's not get too carried away.’ She took his hand as they walked into the house.

 Over the next few weeks Elizabeth began to feel the weight of her pregnancy. She was folding clothes in the parlour late one afternoon, when there was a knock on the door.  When she opened it, she was shocked and her arm instinctively went around her stomach protectively. 
     ‘Joseph! My goodness. Your Ma will be glad to see you.’
     She stopped short as Mick came up behind his brother. She wondered for a panicky moment if their father might also be hiding out of view. Her relief was palpable when the two boys stepped inside the door and she could see there was no one behind them. 
She was aghast at how dirty they were and she wondered how she would get the smell out of the parlour when they had gone.
     ‘So what have you been up to?’ she asked, her suspicion hardly veiled. 
     They accepted her offer of a glass of lemonade, but she could see by the scowls on their faces, that they were in no mood for hospitality. As she poured them a drink, she was hoping they wouldn't sit in the large soft armchairs that Tom had bought so she and he could sink into them in the evening and read the papers. She had covered them with new cloth and had been careful that William and Theresa didn't climb into them with sticky hands. The thought of Joseph and Mick dropping into them, made her shudder. 
     ‘Not much,’ Joseph mumbled in answer to her question. 
     Norah came into the room, clearly beside herself with the joy of seeing her boys. She hadn't seen Mick since the night of the fire over three years before and she looked him up and down, her eyes wide with shock. He was thirteen now and as tall as her. 
     ‘How are you?’ she asked, her lip trembling as she spoke. 
     Elizabeth excused herself to check on Catherine, knowing the boys would more easily talk to their mother. 
     ‘Are you eating well enough?’ she heard Norah ask as she left the room.

Norah could see that her boys were not looking after themselves well at all. Their general appearance was unkempt. They were heavily tanned and the skin on their faces looked leathery and creased with grime. She couldn't imagine what might be living in their hair and she would have dearly loved to boil and mend their clothes. But she knew they would have none of it. They seemed to be visiting reluctantly, especially Mick, who kept casting his eyes about the room, as if scanning for some opponent who might jump out at him. She wondered what was really going on behind their uncomfortable attempts at conversation, their veiled questions about Tom. She was well aware of the hostility they had developed towards him over the years as he had tried to make them conform to his idea of productive young men. But she rather hoped that now they were doing what they wanted, they might be less contemptuous of their brother. 
     ‘He's working on the railway,’ she told them. ‘Working very hard to look after us all,’ she added, and then realised that it probably sounded more like a criticism of them than praise of their brother. 
     Mick did little more than grunt and Joseph nodded nervously after all her remarks, until he eventually asked what time Tom usually came home. Having established that he might be there within the hour the boys left hastily, as if they were afraid they might run into him. Joseph let his mother hug him and he awkwardly patted her shoulder. Mick stayed back from her and nodded his goodbyes without a sign of warmth. Neither of them had said very much at all in the twenty minutes they had been there and Norah was left with an uneasy feeling. She sensed they were in a hurry and wondered if their father was waiting somewhere for them, ready to get up to no good. Please God, she prayed silently, please look after them, for I don't know who else can.
     ‘What did they want?’ Elizabeth asked, coming back into the parlour, carrying Catherine in her arms.  
     ‘I'm not sure,’ Norah said. ‘They obviously don't want me to know what they're doing. The only thing I found out is that they've been out Sofala way for much of the time since I last saw Joseph. They say the diggings are still all right out there. Now they're back at Sunny Corner it seems. I'd like to think they're making their own living, even if it is digging for gold. Tis better than other things they might be up to, sure it is.’
     Elizabeth nodded, her face creased with concern.   

The track from the campsite where the rail line to Bathurst was being constructed was heavily wooded. It was nearly dark by the time Tom started for home. The days on the line were long and hard and he was always pleased to be heading home, ready for a quiet evening with his family. He loved to help Lizzie get Catherine settled for the night and now that she was so far along in her pregnancy, he had been watching her carefully, anxious that she wasn't making herself too tired. 
     The sudden explosion from the bushes took him completely by surprise. His horse reared up, shaken by the commotion. Tom came off the back of the animal with a thud and his head swirled in semi darkness. He was only vaguely aware of arms pulling and pushing him, rolling him over, grabbing at his clothes. As he faded in and out of consciousness, he looked up into the dark, hairy faces of three men, all with hats pulled low over their foreheads and rag masks drawn over their mouths and noses. They were shadowy, bulky, their voices more grunts than words. He was rolled so that he was face down, his head pushed into the dirt. For a moment, he thought he was going to suffocate. Then he heard a distressed whinny from his horse and realised the hands on him had gone.
     There was the muffled sound of retreating thumps as the men ran off into the surrounding bushland. He pulled himself slowly to his feet, pushing his hair back from his face. His hat, which had flown off as he had fallen, was a few feet away. Reaching out in the fading light he grabbed it and jammed it onto his head. He brushed down his clothes and looked about. His horse stood about twelve feet away, under the spreading branches of a gum tree. As he walked slowly towards her, his voice soothing her, lest she got spooked again and took off, he saw that his saddle bags were gone. Blasted thieves probably assumed he was on his way into Bathurst from the gold fields, he thought. They would be disappointed when they searched the saddle bags, for there was little in them but his tin lunch box, a tin cup for the tea that the workers boiled each day by the side of the rail, and the scarf he pulled around his face to keep the dust from his mouth when they were driving picks into the sandstone. As he climbed back onto the horse, his left hip smarted, probably bruised from the fall or the pummelling that he had received.  He rode quickly toward home in case the thieves decided they would have another go at him.
     His mother opened the door and gasped. She reached up to his grazed face and then looked down at his dishevelled clothes. Even though he worked in rocky, harsh conditions, he always straightened himself up and washed his face before he came home, so he could not blame his work. Nor could he hide his limp as he made his way into the parlour.   
     ‘What on earth happened to you?’ Norah cried.
     ‘Don't worry. I had a fall. My horse got spooked along the track and threw me. I'm fine, Ma.’ He saw no need to worry his family with the details.
     Elizabeth brought him a bowl of soap and warm water, looking him up and down with a deep frown. As she gently bathed his face, Norah left them to continue with the dinner preparations.
     ‘Your brothers were here,’ Elizabeth said quietly.
     ‘Both of them?’ Tom’s stomach lurched.
     ‘Yes. They didn't stay long, and they didn't say much but apparently indicated to your mother that they've been up north around Sofala…gold mining is what she'd like to believe.’
     ‘I don't like them coming here. I don't trust Pa. Do you think he was lurking about?’
     ‘Who knows? I doubt he'd risk being seen. I reckon a lot of people would like to get hold of him. But I think it's time you went to Sydney and got the safe deposit box sorted out. I know it's playing on your mind and I’ll be relieved when it’s done. It'll be hard to tell your Ma but...’
     She stopped speaking abruptly as Tom began to pat down his coat and trouser pockets, gently at first and then more roughly.
     ‘What is it?’ she asked. ‘Are you hurt somewhere else? I noticed you limping – ’
     ‘No, I'm not hurt. A bit of a bruise to the hip I think. It's not that.’ He sat back, shaking his head. ‘My wallet’s gone. It was in my pocket, this one inside my vest. I keep it there because it's well hidden. It had my rail workers card in it and …the key. I thought it would be safest to keep it with me, in case Pa came looking for it. It's gone.  Those thieves must have grabbed it when they rolled me – ’
     ‘What thieves?’ Elizabeth dropped the wash cloth into the bowl. ‘You didn't fall, did you? I knew it was something else. Why did you not say? Did they hurt you badly?’
     ‘Honestly, they didn't. It was just a shock when the horse reared up and I fell. It took my breath away for a bit. I felt them rolling me about but I didn't think they'd got at my pockets. Dear God, Lizzie, they'll probably not be interested in that key, might even throw it away. They'd have been looking for money or gold. They took the saddlebags, but there was little in them. Dear God, what now?’ He pushed his hands through his hair, his frustration tearing at his stomach.
     ‘You two ready for your dinner?’ Norah called. 
     Elizabeth patted his face softly, encouraging him to find a weak smile and they joined the family at the table.
     Later that night they lay, unsleeping, squeezing each other's hands, offering words of consolation in short bursts before lapsing into a restless quiet. 
     ‘Tom, I've been wondering. Do you think it's possible that those men who robbed you were…your brothers and your father?’
     ‘What? Oh, no, why would you say that?’  
     ‘They didn't seem to have a purpose for the visit and it's unlikely they just dropped in to be sociable. I kept feeling they were up to something. They left here about an hour before you came home. It's possible that they waited for you, isn't it?’
     ‘Looking for the key, you mean?’
     ‘Why not? They may have figured you'd keep it on you and just wanted to find out when you'd be coming home so they could get you alone. It’s not a pleasant thought, but possible.’
     Tom didn't answer for a long time. His mind was reeling. ‘I'll go past the spot they jumped me in the morning and see if there's anything about. Maybe they just dumped the wallet and bag when there was nothing they wanted…if it were thieves looking for gold, I mean.’ He prayed that's what they were but it wasn't hard to believe Lizzie was right. His own brothers! It was almost too awful to consider. 

The following evening, Tom came home dispirited. He told his mother he’d a hard day at work. She picked Catherine up from the rug on the floor and called the other children outside in the fading light, leaving him to talk with his wife.
     ‘I found the saddle bags and the wallet,’ he said. ‘Not fifty feet from the spot, in some bushes.’
     ‘Everything still in them…except for the key.’
     ‘Then it was them?’
     ‘I found this neckchief close to the track. It could have come off one of them in the tussle.’ He held out a deep blue rag, soiled and torn. 
     Norah nodded silently. She had seen it on Mick's neck the day before. Tom shook his head and gritted his teeth.
     ‘It was stupid of me to keep it in my pocket,’ he hissed.
     ‘Well, if they hadn't found it they might have come back here. Or your father might have come, and goodness knows what might have happened. It seems to me he's desperate to get it back.’
     Tom said silently, nodding and trying to gather his thoughts.
     ‘Now they'll likely go to Sydney and claim the box,’ Elizabeth went on. ‘Perhaps we have to let it go, Tom. I don't want you or our family in danger over this. It's just a brooch after all. The money's likely long gone and you have to be prepared that what's in that box is not what you and my father are hoping for.’
     ‘It means a lot to your father. And it meant a lot to him that I was going to get it back.  Now what'll he think? I don't want that hostility between us again.’
     ‘Pa won't blame you for this. It'll be fine, you'll see.’

The next visit with Kathryn and Hamlet was for the most part a happy affair. Hamlet spent much of the day enjoying his grandchildren. Apart from the few times he was spotted in the afternoon sitting alone in a corner with a far away look on his face, he was definitely more like his old self, easygoing and helpful. He had taken in what Tom had to report with a solemn face, his hands alternatively fisting and flexing. 
     ‘I'm not giving up, Hamlet,’ Tom assured him. ‘I'll find out what Pa intends to do with the key, one way or another.’
     ‘I think your Pa derives some sick glee out of holding onto something that's mine just to cause me sorrow. Though God knows what I ever did to arouse his anger towards me.’
     ‘Initially he probably stole from you just because he can't help himself, like you've always said,’ Tom said. ‘But I suspect he became angry with you for the same reason that he turned away from me. Because I disapproved of him…disagreed with him. He can't bear that. He hates to see that others think themselves better than him.’
     ‘It's not better than him that I felt, Tom. I just know that a man makes choices in his life and having made a few bad ones, I woke up to myself. Your father's gone on making bad decisions all his life. Any fool can see that.’
     ‘I know. It makes me sick to my stomach that he's my father. And what he's doing to my brothers make me angry every time I think about it. Sooner or later, we'll bring him to account. I do swear that.’
     ‘I know you're trying to do the right thing, Tom. I see that now. I'm sorry I doubted you. But I don't want you in danger, for your sake and for my daughter's sake. I'm guessing that your father is happy enough to have the key back in his possession. He'd have no need to have the contents of the box with him, as long as it's not back in my hands. I'm sure that's how his mind would work. So you just be careful, right?’

Thankfully, in the last week of June, Elizabeth's baby was born without the trauma which had accompanied her first experience of birth. With great relief and pleasure, Tom presented his second daughter, Marianne, to his young brother and sister. Norah helped the midwife bath and resettle Elizabeth, who was exhausted, and a little disappointed that she had not given Tom a son this time. Late that evening, Tom sat with his mother in the parlour, contented and thankful. 
     ‘You can relax now, Ma. It's all over and it wasn't nearly as bad as I was thinking it might be, thank the Lord. Why are you looking so worried?’
     ‘I was thinking of Rebecca, actually. Praying for her. Wondering if she's been through this…had a baby, I mean. I do believe I'll find her one day, son. I just wish I could be there for her now. Whatever's going on in her life, I'm sure there'll have been some hard times.’
     ‘Hopefully, she's growing up. That's what being out on her own will do, I'm sure of it.’
     ‘I doubt she's on her own. She was determined to find someone…to pay her a lot of attention, if not to love her. I feel I let her down so badly.’
     ‘No, Ma, you didn't. I know you won't give up on her, but I do hate to see you so sad.’
     ‘I'm not sad, Tom. Really I'm not. I keep trusting, and I've your beautiful wee girls to keep my hopes up. I must be strong for William and Theresa as well. They need a happy home. A better home than you and the boys had growing up.’
     ‘Oh, Ma, it wasn't your fault.’ His heart went out to her.
     ‘I'm not giving up on Joseph and Mick, either, so I'm not,’ she went on quickly.
     ‘No one could ever accuse you of giving up, Ma.’ He crossed the room and hugged her warmly.
     In spite of her worries, he thought that she looked so much better these days. There was a lightness about her step and her face was relaxed and rounded. Her coppery hair was streaked with grey, but soft around her cheeks. His memories of her struggling in the tiny hut of his youth, so often looking strained and tired, working her fingers to the bone, still pierced his heart. She would live out her days in comfort, he determined, for he would see to it himself. He had two wonderful women in his life to care for now, as well as his beautiful daughters. He had much to be thankful for and he was.
     But the unfinished business that he had with his brothers and his father had given him many sleepless nights as he’d pondered how he could bring about the resolution that he wanted so badly. As if reading his thoughts, his mother interrupted them.
     ‘Do you think you're father's all right, Tom? I mean, the way Joseph talked that day in Kelso, it really did sound like he's losing his mind.’
     ‘I've no doubt he's crazy. But that's likely to make little difference to how he behaves.  He's been like that for years. Believe me, if it gets too hard to be with him, Mick and Joseph will come back. They know you'd welcome them…not that I'd have them here as they were before. They'd have to settle down and work hard. I'll not encourage them in the life Pa's led.’
     ‘I know, son, and you're right, sure you are. Tis a mother's heart that forgives the unforgivable…and God's. But I know they must change their ways. I pray for them every day, I do. And I trust that in time we'll be proud of them. I just have to live to see it.’
     ‘You've a lot of life left in you yet, Ma.’ He laughed, loving her deeply and wishing she didn't have the heartache her husband and sons had brought her. 

To be continued...

Carol Preston

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